Soho

Charlie Bird

Olive Oli Cake, Charlie Bird NYC

Charlie Bird: the name is like a catchy tune that everyone is humming. You hear it on the streets, you see it in the papers, until you too are thinking Charlie Bird, Charlie Bird, I’ve got to get there. And once you’re inside the place, the song keeps going, this time as actual music, not Charlie “Bird” Parker’s bebop but hip hop with a beat. Even the Conde Nast editor sitting next to me was bobbing her head in time, as were the post-production guys at the next table. This is a place that brings together New Yorkers from all walks of life.  (more…)

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Estela

It’s hard to believe that Estela, the bright and airy new wine bar and seasonally-inspired tapas place on Houston Street, used to be the Knitting Factory, the alternative music space whose soundproofing consisted of sweaters stapled on the ceiling. All traces of grunge are gone, replaced with white marble countertops, globe lighting and brown leather banquettes more suited for a tête-à-tête than rocking out.  (more…)

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Back Forty West

Exterior, Back Forty West

When the beloved Savoy closed, there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the original chef and owner Peter Hoffman would be opening another restaurant in the same space. Before the phrase “farm-to-table” became ubiquitous, it was just this guy riding his bike to the Union Square Greenmarket every morning in the ’90s, picking out fresh local produce to serve that night at the restaurant. (more…)

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The Dutch

If you haven’t made it to Andrew Carmellini’s new place the Dutch yet, remain calm, take a deep breath and stop speed dialing the restaurant. It may be booked for the next month, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. In fact it could use some time to settle into itself, like a good bottle of wine that gets even better with more breathing room.

The Dutch Exterior

In the annals of the New York restaurant world, the Dutch represents an interesting play on Carmellini’s part. No longer just the chef with an award-winning Italian restaurant in Tribeca (Locanda Verde), he is stepping to center stage with this American place in Soho in the old Cub Room space. Like Blue Ribbon down the street, it’s open late, it serves fried chicken and it’s courting an industry crowd including Mario Batali, who sat placidly surveying the dining room the other night. It’s already shaping up to be the next late-night hang for chefs and food world insiders, who often tweet from the premises.  (more…)

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Burger and Barrel

There’s a common misconception that a restaurant has to focus on things like fish, tofu and radishes to attract a female clientele. But what New York women want is often defined by what they don’t want: multiple TVs over the bar, the smell of bleach masking the smell of stale beer, and guys in backwards white baseball caps. But red meat? Most of us are actually fine with that.

Burger and Barrel proves that a restaurant doesn’t have to go on a diet to appeal to women, since we appreciate a good burger just as much as the guys do. We just don’t want to eat one in a crap place. (more…)

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Osteria Morini

When chef Michael White said to the New York Times this past August that “if his surname had been Italian, the city’s food establishment would have rallied around him sooner,” he had a point. Names like “Batali” or “Donatella” inspire hoards to flock to their restaurants for Italian food, whereas “Michael White” sounds like an off-key version of “Marco Pierre White” of English fame.

Osteria Morini, Exterior

So if you did actually discover the ethereal, exquisite pasta at Michael White’s Alto, you felt as if you’d been let in on a wonderful secret. The city’s best pasta was not at a rustic rock and roll townhouse downtown but surprisingly in the center of Midtown, with a sleek backdrop of blue-lit walls and wine bottles. Go to any serious restaurant in Italy and you will find that they aspire to the same level of excellence and haute cuisine. When there’s a particularly deft hand like White’s involved in the pasta, you can taste the magic at the first bite.   (more…)

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Blue Ribbon Brasserie

I am the only person in New York who hasn’t been to Blue Ribbon.

No, not the sushi place. And not Blue Ribbon Bakery. That doesn’t count, my friends inform me. You have to eat at Blue Ribbon, the restaurant.

Lest you have trouble distinguishing between these various Blue Ribbons, as I did, it’s called Blue Ribbon Brasserie, est. 1992, during Soho’s waning glory days, and it’s on Sullivan Street. The whole world seems to think it’s the best thing since Sullivan Street Bakery bread, sliced or unsliced. People like to say they eat at Blue Ribbon because they like the food, but who really cares? They like Blue Ribbon because they think it’s cool, and for the most part, it is.

Sadly, there was no table free for Les Moonves and Julie Chen on the night I finally visited Blue Ribbon, so they left. Vincent Gallo lurked around the bar area (though fortunately he did not offer to sell us his sperm). The lighting was flattering and the room humming.But after years of hearing the hype, I was disappointed that the interior looks like any other ordinary restaurant. I thought it was supposed to be…drum roll…Blue Ribbon.

The brasserie, which serves an eclectic mix of food, from pu pu platters to hummus, is famous for the fact that they stay open until 4 in the morning, a nice perk, but one that would have been more useful to me when I actually stayed up until 4 in the morning. It’s also famous for the wait. On a Saturday night at 9pm, we were told it would be 2 1/2 hours until we could sit down. It turned out to be 1 1/2, which was fortunate because one of us was about to devour the maitre’d by then.

The first course was fantastic. A dozen oysters, half Kumamotos, half PEI Malpeques, were the best oysters I’ve had in New York in recent memory. They tasted as if they’d been plucked out of the sea just a minute before. Alongside this came a cucumber in the tiniest imaginable dice, tossed in a vinegary dressing as a gazpacho-like accompaniment. Very creative, and a perfect complement to the oysters. The sauteed calamari was so good we ordered it twice. A simple combination of extra-virgin olive oil, sauteed garlic, and thin ribbons of calamari, it came tossed together like bucatini in a bowl.

Why do they bother? I wondered. Blue Ribbon could coast by on reputation alone, but here they were turning out excellent starters. It may be the reason celebritrons have stuck around here but abandoned most of the other Soho places.

No wonder Blue Ribbon’s raw bar is fantastic; they presumably share their purveyors with Blue Ribbon Sushi up the street. Alas, the second course was not as impressive as the first. Salmon was good but ho-hum, and weird planko-like potato flakes adorned the top of the mashed potatoes. The waiter recommended the fried chicken as one of the best entrees, but when the plate was set in front of me, I realized with slowly growing horror that I had ordered the exact same TV-dinner-esque meal featured in this highly disturbing Wonder Showzen video a friend showed me earlier that day. It was as if I’d walked out of Super Size Me and my subconscious directed me straight to McDonald’s. That awful coincidence wasn’t Blue Ribbon’s fault. I did wish, however, that the fried chicken hadn’t been so dry.

Something I never would have ordered, the tofu ravioli, was the best entree of the bunch. Made with rice flour, they were more dumplings than ravioli and came with two dressings, one of which was spicy. “Who thinks to do this for vegetarians?” my vegetarian friend cried.

We couldn’t stay awake for dessert. It was 1 AM by then, and we had been at the restaurant for 4 hours. Goodnight, oysters. Goodnight, Vincent Gallo. Goodnight, Blue Ribbon.

Blue Ribbon Brasserie
97 Sullivan Street, between Prince and Spring
212-274-0404

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Papatzul

Just the idea of Mexican food can bring out the worst in New York diners and restaurant owners alike: the former tend to be more interested in a tequila-fueled good time than what’s on the plate, and the latter have been known to pack ’em in and overcharge ’em, unless, of course, they’re keeping out the hordes with an aggressive bouncer and a velvet rope.

Not so with the low-key Papatzul, just opened on Grand Street in SoHo, in the space that housed La Jumelle. The beautiful old oak bar is still there, and behind it is a bartender so friendly that we decide to have our entire meal perched in front of him. The dining room doesn’t seem very warm, somehow, and there we might be serenaded by the band, the members of which inform one of us, in Spanish, that they are decidedly not a mariachi band, but a serious group of performers. This distinction is one Papatzul itself faces, and at times, it teeters on the border: fun and slightly campy vs. serious Mexican.

People like to judge Mexican restaurants by their guacamole and margaritas. To be honest, I don’t think there’s that much difference, in such simple concoctions, between good guacamoles/margaritas made with fresh ingredients, except that each has its own style. Papatzul’s guacamole is bright and citrusy, flecked with dark green minced chili peppers when ordered medium spicy. The margaritas have the bite of fresh lime without too much sugar. The menu is limited, but many of the items on it are lighter, authentic Mexican fare. In the ensalada palmito, each element shines – the briny pickled hearts of palm hit just the right note against the sweet slices of pear. The chilapitas de camarones – tortilla cups of shrimp, mango and jicama – have the same bright citrus punch of the guacamole but are too simplistic to be particularly interesting. The thick tomato sopa de tortilla could use some more spice too. We allow ourselves a tortilla pie – guilty filler Mexican food, basically, but very satisfying and tasty all the same.

A friend who has spent a lot of time in Mexico steers us toward the chile poblano relleno de calabza alamendras, a poblano chili stuffed with butternut squash and served over a sauce of tomato, currants and almonds. It’s very authentic, she says, and perfect for November, when chilies are at their best. I don’t know much about the seasonality of chilies, but the combination of the smoky, spicy baked chili and sweet butternut squash has a certain mystery that seems quintessentially Mexican. Just as, with a good mole, you wonder how any one thing can be chocolately but not at all sweet, earthy yet burningly spicy all at the same time, the chile poblano tastes much more complex than it can possibly be without any added spices, and yet there don’t seem to be any spices added. The paradox strikes me at levels both sensual and cerebral, but if you asked anyone more familiar with the territory of Mexican cuisine, they would tell you that Papatzul’s food tastes decidedly homey.

Papatzul
55 Grand Street, between West Broadway and Wooster Street
212-274-8225

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