Midtown West

Hunt & Fish Club

Main Dining Room 2, Hunt & Fish Club

There’s a glitzy newcomer in town on 44th Street, a midtown stretch that desperately needs more dining options. Hunt & Fish Club falls squarely into the expense account steakhouse category, but here the fish is just as good as the meat. Go for the macho name or the promise of wild boar on the menu, but if you end up ordering something gathered instead of hunted, you will be equally happy.  (more…)

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Quality Italian

Returning to New York after a long trip can be a shock to the system, like stepping out of a perfectly ordinary afternoon and into a Baz Luhrmann movie. It’s the world as you know it, but bigger, louder, shinier, like an advertisement come to life.

Quality Italian is not just an Italian restaurant, it’s a very New York Italian restaurant, with a brashness that can wow you in small amounts or turn you off in excess. It’s helmed by Michael Stillman of Quality Meats, who opened this Italian spin-off in a bi-level space smack dab in the land of big business: 57th and 6th, home base for many financial firms, talent agencies and luxury brand headquarters. Many of these banking and business power players are already in the house, probably drawn to an upstairs dining room that’s hidden to any tourists ambling by on the street, where only the small downstairs wine and espresso bar are visible.  (more…)

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The Rum House

In New York, when the going gets tough, the tough get drinking. Despite – or perhaps because of – the many obstacles posed by Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers have been flocking to bars and restaurants wherever they are open. Unlike restaurants, all a bar really needs to open is ice, drinks, candles and a working bathroom, so some bars have stayed open downtown, beacons of light and a promise of community in the eerily dark streets.  (more…)

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Don Antonio

Don Antonio was the first Italian restaurant I visited in New York after returning from Italy, so I wasn’t expecting much. But it has gotten a lot of buzz from pizza aficionados, and the owners are Italians Roberto Caporuscio of Kesté Pizza & Vino and Antonio Starita of Naples’ renowned Pizza Starita. It’s also located just north of Times Square – perfect for an after-theater dinner in a neighborhood that’s otherwise a culinary wasteland.  (more…)

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Totto Ramen

In a city full of ramen restaurants, Totto Ramen has become an essential stop on the NYC ramen tour. Opened just a couple of years ago by by the owner of Yakitori Totto, this Tokyo-style lunch spot on far West 52nd draws a crowd into the narrow space, where the din of the open kitchen spills over into a room full of diners hunched over bowls of steaming noodles. It’s a little crowded, it’s a little chaotic, and that’s just as it should be.

Interior, Totto Ramen

Noodles are what gave ramen soups their name, but for me the key element is the broth. The milky pork broth of Ippudo’s tonkotsu ramen was a revelation when it landed in New York on Fourth Avenue. The broth, with its super umami taste and velvety mouth feel, remains one of the big draws at this perennially popular restaurant.  (more…)

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The Lambs Club

A friend of ours once had a suitor we nicknamed “Dinner in Midtown.” That was what he asked her to do on their first date, and from then on, the prognosis for the relationship was not good. Could anything be less sexy, less likely to lead to a romantic liaison than dinner in Midtown? No.

Southside, the Lamb's Club

Little has happened in past ten years of the New York dining scene to change this. Midtown restaurants can be interesting, full of power brokers and good food, or they can be utterly lame, full of frat-guy brokers and Houston’s-esque steakhouse fare. But in either case Midtown restaurants have been consistently unsexy – until now. (more…)

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Ca Va

While the number of new restaurants opening this fall is exciting, it’s also a little worrisome. Can top chefs and restauranteurs still maintain a hands-on, personal approach while building out more and more new places? Unfortunately, one of the most notorious examples in the negative has been Todd English, the chef who had all of Boston swooning with his enchanting Mediterranean place Olives in the ’90s, then fell flat with the bland W hotel version of the same in 2000s New York.

Interior, Ca Va

The latest addition to his cadre of projects does little to rectify that situation. While the French-Mediterranean food at Ça Va is solid and the atmosphere an improvement on almost everything else in the theater district, as a whole the restaurant comes off as slick and corporate, like a fragrance that’s been focus-grouped into the generic. Even the name betrays a certain tone-deafness: “ça va” can be loosely translated as “it’s okay,” versus “ça va bien”: “it’s going well.” (more…)

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A Voce Columbus

You can’t really judge a restaurant from its opening night, because subsequent meals may vary wildly. But if the first night at A Voce Columbus, the uptown sister of A Voce on Madison Square, was any indication, this is an important debut for the New York restaurant scene. The old Cafe Gray space has been blown out so you can see the amazing view of Columbus Circle as soon as you walk in the door. While Cafe Gray had its plusses, the mushroom risotto among them, the glitzy, gold-toned Trump-esque decor started to feel very Dow-14,000 by the time of its demise. In its A Voce incarnation, this kitted out mall space feels much more expansive – even cool – due to the long, roomy bar and open dining room.

A Voce Columbus - Interior

Chef Missy Robbins, who came to New York from Chicago’s Spiaggia (one of the Obamas’ faves), focuses on fresh seasonal herbs and vegetables, specialty ingredients, excellent cheeses and salumi. A pictoral tour, after the jump. (more…)

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Sake Bar Hagi

Sake Bar Hagi - ExteriorThere’s a traditional red paper lantern at the door, stairs leading down off a random Midtown street, and the words “sake bar” inscribed on the wooden door jamb. Otherwise, there’s nothing that would alert you to this cult favorite izakaya place in Times Square. But look two doors left of the Hawaiian Tropic Zone and you’ll find Sake Bar Hagi, a draw for New Yorkers and Japanese tourists alike. The menu outside may not look particularly tempting, unless calves liver sashimi or broiled dried skate fin is your thing, but add your name and cell phone number to the list downstairs and in a half hour to an hour you will be inside, well on your way to figuring out the appeal of this place.  (more…)

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Benoît New York

It can be terrifying when someone decides to tinker with a place you know and love. Such was the case several years back in Paris when the Alain Ducasse group took over Benoit, a beloved institution in the local dining scene, and injected it with new blood in the kitchen and a face lift in the dining room. Purists in Paris quibble that it’s a little too slick and international now, but at least it’s still alive and serving excellent food, unlike so many other traditional bistros there.

So what would happen when the Ducasse group decided to airlift the Benoit concept over to the United States? It seemed like there was no way they couldn’t mess it up in this town, which, due to the McNallification of the dining scene, equates “bistro” with loud music, subway tiles, and unisex bathrooms–several things that would never fly at a traditional bistro in Paris.

What a relief, then, to walk into Benoit in New York and find a little slice of authentic French food and dining culture. There is no music; there are no candles on the table. The lighting is not quite as bright as it is in Benoit Paris, but it’s dully uniform, just as it is in bistros there. It’s the idea of restaurant-as-stage-set, where your only choice is to pay attention to the food on your plate or the scene, and what a scene it is. Former patrons of La Côte Basque, mainly well-to-do Upper East Siders, have returned to the old location. On a recent night, an elderly lady done up in an exquisite black and white dress (Chanel?) and her elderly husband both sat on the banquette, facing the crowd. A large party of young, glamorous couples stopped in for a late dinner at 9:30; one woman walked down the aisle in a pencil skirt done up with bows above the high-cut slit in the back. Trés chic. As Florent Morellet has said, arrange your seating just so and you’ll create a veritable catwalk, just like they do it in Paris.

The staff, which was polite and attentive, started us off with a round of gougeres that arrived at the table straight from the oven. These seemed to have the maximum cheese-to-non-cheese-ingredients ratio and were some of the best in the city. Marie Fromage, JP Morgan, and I started with the escargots, since there are very few places where you know you’ll get them fresh, not out of a can, and Benoit is one of them. Have them fresh and it’s like tasting real French fries after eating frozen Ore-Ida’s – what a huge difference in quality. Benoit’s escargots were just as buttery and garlicky as anyone could desire, and crusted on top with a thin crispy layer of breadcrumbs.

The lobster bisque was beautifully presented–a dollop of buttery, tender lobster meat and creme fraiche in the middle, which the waiter then surrounded with the bisque, poured from a pewter boat. The soup itself was a little too salty–the saltiness would be our main critique of the food here–but traditional French cuisine is generally much saltier than any nouvelle cuisine that has followed. Suck it up for tradition’s sake?

Lamb chops had a wonderfully smoky char, and the meat was lean, clean, and tasted of spring herbs. Quenelles, breaded flaked fish patties dressed up with sauce, aren’t something you often see on a menu–indeed, Marie Fromage remarked that she hadn’t seen them since culinary school. These were fluffy and light but decadently rich in flavor. The Spanish version of this dish, thought to be introduced by the Romans, is brandada de hacalao, found at Boqueria.

At my place arrived the true test of authenticity: the cassoulet. Benoit in Paris had the best cassoulet I’ve ever tasted–could the New York version compare? The perfectly tender white beans floated in a broth that was a little more watery than expected, but in the end this turned out to be a blessing, because the flavor was so intensely meaty (and admittedly salty) that a denser texture would have been overwhelming. Beans concealed a spicy lamb sausage and–surprise–an entire duck leg. This was over-the-top delicious, definitely on par with the Parisian version and almost certainly the best cassoulet in New York.

Wine aficionados will find a lot to like on the wine menu, which, like the food menu, includes many reasonably-priced, high-quality options. We really enjoyed our $10 glass of Bourgogne, a V. Girardin Cuvee Saint Vincent–and couldn’t believe it was just $10.

We managed to find about two cubic inches of stomach capacity left to tackle dessert, which we ordered because of its clever name, Mister Mystere. But there’s no mystery about it: this iced hazelnut mousse was refreshing yet rich, dressed up in melted chocolate, the perfect “light” ending to an excellent meal.

Benoit
66 West 55th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
New York, New York
646-943-7373

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Sushi of Gari 46

Omakase is the trust fall of dining. Not only are you taking whatever the chef dishes out, at traditional sushi restaurants, you’re taking it raw. Usually this should not be attempted on Restaurant Row in the theater district, where you’ll find shrimp scampi as half-baked as the latest 80’s-pop-culture musical adaptation. But the best thing in previews right now is a traveling show: Sushi of Gari 46.

If you haven’t been to Gari on either the Upper West Side or Upper East Side, it’s the kind of place where the chefs wince if you order a Coke or dunk the rice side of your sushi in a brimming dish of soy sauce. But so much artistry goes into the creation of Gari’s omakase that it’s no wonder they’re irked by neophytes.

The spirit of experimentation at Sushi of Gari 46 is evident by the first course. Black bean paste came in a chewy square, left, and yellowtail was ground up, seasoned with something even fishier, and fried into a fish ball. The staff is friendly, but it’s definitely English-as-a-second-language here, so it took a while to understand what exactly is the pleasantly chewy ingredient in the peanut noodle dish: burdock root, which was quite tasty.

The liquid-smoke flavor I noticed at Katsuya in L.A. reappeared here in the seared baby yellowtail, far left. It was barely cooked, but it was deliciously redolent with char. Continuing from left to right, next came salmon tonnato, red snapper decked with an Italian combo of spicy lettuce and pinenuts. (Do we need an Italian-Japanese place like Natsumi, or do we just need more creative sushi chefs like Masatoshi Gari Sugio?)

Sushi of Gari is known more for the things Sugio can do with sushi than the quality of fish he procures, and this held true for this newest branch of Gari too. Some of the plainer preparations, like the bluefin tuna with a tofu schmear, far right, were boring when not jazzed up by very flavorful extra ingredients or sauces. But these could be subtle, too, like the raw lobster, second from left, which tasted as if it had been infused with herbs backstage, though it arrived at the table unadorned.

One of the best things we sampled was the fatty tuna glazed in the chef’s oyster soy sauce, far right. This was a very high quality, melt-in-your-mouth piece of fish. Gari’s oyster sauce, like Momofuku’s hoisin sauce, is so
much more delectable because it’s made in-house.

Some of Gari’s creations pushed the envelope a little too far, like the Spanish mackerel decked with shiitakes, second from left above. The two flavors might have been excellent on their own, but the smoky taste of the mushrooms clashed with the mackerel’s fishy taste.

Then came the worst thing of all: Nothing! That was the last course, our waiter informed us when he came to clear our plates.

“You should have warned us!” my friend cried, only half kidding. The four course omakase had set us back $75 each, but it was filling.

The show at Sushi of Gari 46 was over. Onto the next: Love Musik, a great musical still in previews, starring Michael Cerveris and the brilliant Donna Murphy. Just when I was beginning to think the phrases “Restaurant Row” and “big-budget musical” might be synonymous with “mediocrity,” along came true creativity and intellectual stimulation in the unlikeliest of places.

Sushi of Gari 46
347 West 46th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues
212-957-0046

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Gordon Ramsay at the London

Everyone loves to hate Gordon Ramsay. I may actually be biased as a reviewer by not being biased: I have never seen his reality shows Hell’s Kitchen or The F Word, where his profanity-laden hissy fits earned him a lot of detractors. There’s the rub of food television: When viewers love you, you’re Molto Mario, when they don’t, you’re Rocco.

My chef friend and I entered the restaurant the day after Bruni’s two-star dis in the Times with a certain amount of trepidation. Was Gordon Ramsay really that bad? At first glance, the restaurant seemed worthy of three stars. The pearl gray dining room, ringed with frosted glass paneling, has a shrine-like feel, so much so that my friend mimicked angels singing as we sat down. As the meal progressed, we respectfully disagreed with reviewers Bruni, Platt, and Richman. Gordon Ramsay at the London isn’t boring. It’s just British.

If you’ve ever been to the Gordon Ramsay restaurant at Claridge’s in London, where I went many a year ago, you’ll recognize the muted palette of the room, the French-inspired service and food, the hush, the lack of anything that might distract from the food on your plate. These are all signature Ramsay-isms. Love him or hate him, he is a brand, and a very London one at that. Gordon Ramsay’s New York outpost is posh. All sorts of displays are wheeled about: a huge silver punch bowl filled with bottles of champagne offered as an apertif, a comprehensive cheese tray, a petit-four cart bedecked with cakes and candies in glass jars. In a quirk that also seemed particularly British, there is an almost fetishistic attention to the massive array of sterling silver steak knives, forks, fish knives, fish spoons, teaspoons, and demitasse spoons, all of which are rotated in and out in a constant blur of service.

A three-star place doesn’t make you pick and pay for amuse bouche, and neither does Gordon Ramsay. The meal began with toasts and spreads – a velvety chicken liver paté, sweet and savory in one bite, and a more sophisticated version of bacalao in which the cod was mixed with leeks. We asked for more toasts for the paté. “I couldn’t make this at home,” I said. My chef friend said, “Maybe. But it would take a week.” We were very pleased to be served the BLT-esque parfaits that even Bruni liked. A delicate tomato coulis made up the bottom layer, then a layer of celery root, then potently smoky bacon topped it off.

My chef friend, the more adventurous diner of the two of us, ordered the veal sweetbreads. They arrived lightly battered and fried, set on beets and stewed cabbage and dressed with a wonderful Cabernet reduction at the table. “Tastes like chicken. Really good chicken,” I said. “And it doesn’t look like a brain on a plate,” she said, which has not always been the case at other restaurants. Lobster ravioli was our one foray into the fish realm of the menu, which disappointed other reviewers at least in entree form. The lobster appetizer was anything but: The one large ravioli (doesn’t that make it a “raviolo”?) was stuffed to bursting with lobster sauteed in butter and served with a celery root cream. It hit just the right notes of decadence and lightness, and Gosset champagne complemented it perfectly.

A palate-cleansing, inventive amuse bouche of pineapple granache garnished with crystallized cilantro arrived, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Marcel Vigneron on Top Chef. Presumably it was his attitude, not his penchant for molecular gastronomy, that landed him in the hospital after an angry fan accosted him at a nightclub and smashed him in the forehead with a bottle. I have seen that reality food show, and if Marcel cooked me a meal, I would be inclined to dislike it. But Marcel didn’t prepare this crystallized cilantro garnish, so I didn’t mind it at all.

The main courses are served and dressed with a small amount of sauce tableside. For my chef friend, the venison in a chocolate sauce, for me, the lamb with marjoram sauce, since, as I’ve mentioned here before, lamb is the new short ribs. This was a cut I haven’t encountered before, a “cannon” of lamb,” which our waitress explains is the rack without the bones, the best part of the filet. (The filet of the filet?) It would be a perfectly delicious cut of meat on its own, but the Mediterranean and Indian touches of eggplant spiced with cumin and marjoram sauce take it out of the realm of the purely French. With it I had a glass of the excellent 2000 tempranillo from La Rioja Alta, Viña Alberdi. Unlike Bruni, we did not find the chocolate sauce on the venison overwhelming; it was smoky and spicy, a proper mole. But the Times review had landed more than 24 hours before. Had Ramsay already changed the recipe?

I went a little crazy with the cheese cart when it arrived, ordering five different sorts of cheeses, many of which I’d never heard of before. The Swiss Vacherin was so creamy it was nearly liquid and came served in a little bowl (with a little silver demitasse spoon, of course). This and a Corsican Brindamour (a.k.a. Fleur du Maquis) were fantastic. We also had a fabulous apricot souffle, whose sweetness was offset by the crunchy roasted pralines speckled throughout. Its fluffy top was permeated by a large dollop of ice cream, an act performed tableside with much aplomb, of course. Then, candy and cookies, and more candy and cookies. The restaurant’s unabashed sweet tooth also seemed to me quintessentially British; Nigella Lawson didn’t rise to fame licking foie gras off a spoon, after all.

So what’s the problem? We saw Gordon Ramsay’s glass as half full, not half empty. I would have given him three stars. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the only glowing review I read was also penned by a woman, Moira Hodgson of the New York Observer – Ramsay relies on charming the diner with subtlety and sophistication. Leaving the shrine, I was reminded of the Robert Parker quandary. Which came first: Parker’s taste for wines that punch you in the face, or the typical American gourmet’s taste for wines that punch you in the face? Will it ever be OK again to say you’d like a nice, light, crisp white without cringing with embarrassment? In cuisine, what’s wrong with tradition minus the over-the-top flourishes? It’s as if everyone, chefs and reviewers alike, wants to be contrarian by deviating from the expected, but it’s difficult to do so when the expected is itself contrarian.

But Gordon Ramsay could have told you that.

Gordon Ramsay at the London
151 West 54th Street
212-468-8888

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Angus McIndoe

As any humble (or seemingly humble) actor will tell you, so much of making it in the theater depends on being in the right place at the right time. So I felt especially fortunate when I happened to be at a restaurant on 44th Street when the entire cast of The History Boys stopped in for a pint after their last performance, the one I had just seen, with a television crew trailing behind. Angus McIndoe was exactly the right place to be.

An upscale Scottish pub, Angus McIndoe (pronounced MAC-indoo) was the subject of a Times story when Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane first starred in The Producers. They ate at Angus McIndoe nearly every night, and when Nathan Lane couldn’t make it to the restaurant itself, he ordered in. Whenever Angus McIndoe, the eponymous owner, called to see how Nathan Lane’s meal was, he replied, “Surprisingly good.”

The food is in fact surprisingly good for the theater district, where most restaurants have no qualms about keeping it mediocre, presumably thinking they won’t ever see these damn tourists again. But Angus McIndoe is the sort of place people come to once, then again, then over and over, not just because the food is good – though a little uneven – but because each night there is a frisson of behind-the-scenes excitement. You can almost imagine Eve Harrington stopping by for a drink – or poisoning Bette Davis’. After the shows, many of the stars arrive for a late dinner, and beforehand, the real producers fill the seats.

With all of this hullabaloo, it’s fortunate that wine is always served immediately and as a quartino, so pre-theater diners don’t have to suffer anxiety pangs wondering if they’ll be able to order a second glass of wine before they have to bolt. Upstairs and downstairs are equally entertaining places to sit, depending on the hour – upstairs is better later.

On a preliminary visit for this review, I find the food not as surprisingly good as I remembered, however, perhaps because the kitchen is serving a large private party on the top floor at the same time. The all-day breakfast plate, which has been reliable in the past, doesn’t thrill like the first time. The pork-apricot sausages that sound so good on the menu seem pre-cooked and warmed over, and the “potato scone” prompts my friend to say, “This isn’t a scone. This is fried mashed potatoes.” Overall she pronounces the dish “all right.” The tasting plate, part of the nightly special menu, manages to be uneven all on one plate. The country pork pat&#233 with cornichons could be my new favorite, but the smoked salmon is bland and the grilled shrimp smells fishy. The hamburger with Boursin cheese sounds intriguing. There is a little too much Boursin caked on top when it arrives, but it’s a nice combination, and the burger itself is great – ground sirloin with a little Worcestershire sauce thrown in, just to add a touch of Great Britain to the mix.

On another day at lunch with a friend who works for a certain newspaper whose Times Square offices are right above Angus McIndoe, the kitchen is running on an even keel. We have oysters similar to Kumamotos, with the same fluted shell and delicate, sweet taste. The presentation on a bed of chipped ice is very pleasing, though not so for the shrimp cocktail, which is served a plate of rather sad mesclun. Neither of us likes the chipotle dip that comes with the shrimp alongside the usual cocktail sauce, but then again, I am a traditionalist and don’t tend to encourage things like chipotle sauce with shrimp cocktail. We also order chili with our three seafood appetizers, and the waitress doesn’t blink an eye, perhaps assuming we are stoned.

The chili is good, fired under a broiler until the cheddar cheese melts on top, then sprinkled with crispy bits of bacon that really make the dish. It adds the same crunchy texture crackers would, but with the bonus of contributing flavor. The pork chop is not as exciting, and my friend calls it “a little dry.” I blame the matinee ladies. It is Wednesday, after all, and hordes of tourists have just eaten here, probably demanding pork chops cooked to at least 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This chop is a little pink but not alarmingly so. I don’t think it’s half bad, but it’s not as good as the pan-roasted free-range chicken, pounded thin like chicken paillard and seared on the outside, juicy within. The mashed potatoes that accompany it are so smooth and buttery I would almost accuse them of being fakes, if they were not Angus McIndoe’s, which, though it is not Irish, does know its potatoes. Any guilt from eating mounds of mashed potatoes can be assuaged by forking up the garlicky sauteed kale served alongside.

The phenomenal steamed mussels with bacon and peas are the pinnacle of the meal, the pinnacle of any of my meals at Angus McIndoe over the years. The mussels themselves are little and sweet, dunked in a creamy sauce flavored by the thin, limp folds of bacon and fresh peas. I devour nearly the entire thing myself and start dreaming of the next Copycat Chef recipe…

The History Boys don’t show up for this meal or for the one before. They come to Angus McIndoe when I’m there by chance, because we’re looking for a good place to have an after-theater drink in the neighborhood, and Angus McIndoe is a good place. It’s this kind of loyalty, almost reflexive at times, that can pay off in the theater district, where sometimes kismet is of your own making.

Angus McIndoe
258 West 44th Street
between Eighth Avenue and Broadway
212-221-9222

Corrections amended: A Mr. McIndoe wrote in to inform this geographically-challenged American that Angus McIndoe is in fact Scottish, not Irish, which I would have realized had I carefully reread the Times article cited. Therefore, some phrasing in this review has been changed from “Irish” to “Scottish,” “of or belonging to Great Britain,” or simply “not Irish.” Gastro Chic is horribly embarrassed by the error.

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