Upper West Side
It was like watching a bomb explode in slow motion.
When the first piece of shrapnel flies by, you just think: that’s odd. In this case it was a mix-up with our cocktail order. Six of us sat down for dinner in the prettily decorated new French bistro Cafe Tallulah on the Upper West Side, but there were only four water glasses on the table. When I asked for water, our server said: Should I cancel your cocktail order then?
One of the things I miss most about Milan and Paris is not, as you might expect, fancy restaurants. What I do miss are the numerous coffee counters in Milan when you could just step in and get an excellent-quality espresso or macchiato for a couple of euros and down it in an instant. In Paris, I miss the gourmet take-out shops right near the Saint Paul metro stop: Aux Désirs de Manon for bread and quiche, Au Sanglier for beautiful terrines, and Pascal Trotté for cheese. There was never any reason to cook anything, even though I had a kitchen there, when there was so much tempting food to take home.
Finally New York is catching up to Europe with the introduction of Gastronomie 491 to the Upper West Side. This little shop has all kinds of salads, meat, fish and sides you might like for a home cooked meal – if you actually felt like cooking. But why bother when chef Steven Gutterman can do it for you, most likely with much better results?
The opening of a new Daniel Boulud restaurant is reason enough for a downtowner to head uptown, but there are two things about his new Boulud Sud that make it particularly exciting. When most American restaurants take on the genre of Mediterranean food, they stick to the usual suspects: Italy, Spain, France and Greece. But one of the first words on Boulud Sud’s menu is “harissa,” and the African and Middle Eastern influences take off from there.
This is a welcome change, because our American idea of what constitutes Mediterranean fare is behind the times. Despite New York chefs’ emphasis on food like one’s nonna would have made it, many restaurants in France and Italy have changed radically since the ’50s, with many more African and Middle Eastern techniques and ingredients making their way onto menus. (more…)
Sometimes it feels like there are two parallel New Yorks: the men’s New York, consisting of sports bars and barbecue joints, and the women’s New York, with its wine bars and California-light restaurants. Any guy walking into Fish Tag, the new Upper West Side seafood restaurant helmed by bad-boy chef Ryan Skeen, would find lots of single, attractive women with newly blown out hair, drinking white wine and sharing plates. But alas, all the guys seem to be next door at the grittier, meatier Sunburnt Cow. Boys: will they ever learn?
Which is too bad, because despite the inconsistencies at this new hot spot, there’s plenty to recommend Fish Tag to both genders. There are 10 craft beers on tap and even more by the bottle, rare bourbons and even more scotch. In addition to that smoked salmon, Fish Tag has a whole charcuterie board of meat, an impressive selection of cheese and a kick-ass burger.
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.
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…)
When Knucklehead was going to be too late to join us at a recent dinner at Bar Boulud, High Maintenance suggested he meet us afterwards at the bar.
“Oh no,” I said. “There’s not actually a bar there.”
Therein lies the conundrum of Bar Boulud – and many other new places about town. Dining at the bar, which started as a solution for the reservation-deprived at places like Babbo, has now superseded drinking at the bar. So much so that you can’t even get a damn drink. What is the world coming to?
For one thing, the bar-less bar makes waiting awkward. At Bar Boulud, you’re standing uselessly at the edge of the room, like the kid left out of the slow dance during a school mixer. Add to that the lack of alcohol, and you have the entire junior high feeling. Fortunately, there are plenty of cool people to ogle here, like Sandy Weill, Martha Stewart, and Thomas Keller, all of whom were under one roof on the night we visited.
After a brief scuffle between High Maintenance and a hostess, we were led away from the drafty tables up front and past the long bar, which is inlaid with a lit glass display of hunks of meat in a Damien Hirst-like effect. Definitely ask for a table in back. The front area shouldn’t even be a seating area in the winter – for one thing, that’s where everyone’s standing around waiting. Daniel Boulud, why not put a foosball table and a TV in your bar instead? They have foosball in France…
We were greeted by glorious gougeres. These were supersized to tennis ball dimensions, light and fluffy, with just the right tang of cheese.
Bar Boulud, where Gilles Verot is the chef de cuisine, has just opened and is one of the most anticipated new restaurants of 2008. The menu is extensive, impossible to cover in one visit. We couldn’t try many of the dishes, but many of the ones we did still needed some fine tuning.
High Maintenance ordered the mushroom salad without the mushrooms – don’t ask – so that one can’t be covered here. Gibson’s Mom went for the mesclun provencal salad, which was quite nice. The small tomatoes were carefully blanched and peeled to bring out a true tomato flavor in the middle of winter.
The St. Jacques au chou, grilled Maine scallops, were disappointing. They did not seem to be overcooked, yet they were rubbery and stringy. This was particularly strange since scallops are in season now. The accompanying Orleans mustard winter slaw is a sort of sauerkraut, but ironically, I liked the Guss’ Pickles sauerkraut at Fette Sau better.
At least the cuts of meat were excellent. Black Angus sirloin had just the right mix of char and juiciness, and it was accompanied by delicious frites, beautifully presented. Unfortunately, someone had forgotten to salt or pepper it before putting it on the grill. This cardinal sin of cooking shouldn’t be overlooked just because the chef is taking the high road. There is even a folklore tale or two about how much meat loves salt.
The roasted chicken breast suffered the same saltless fate, though it too was a juicy cut of meat. Garlic mashed potatoes were subtly garlicky and quite satisfying – we ate them right up. Cauliflower gratin was served in a little cast iron dish. All it needed was some salt. And there was none on the table.
There was one star among our entrees, though: one of the signature dishes of this high-end charcuterie, the boudin blanc. This was perfection. Meltingly tender, this white sausage was made with a subtle but effective seasoning of herbs. Bar Boulud definitely owes a debt to Kurt Gutenbrunner, who’s been doing sausage right for years now at places like Blaue Gans. But as Boulud points out in the menu preamble (yes, there’s a preamble), he’s the sausage king of Lyon. Bar Boulud is like a Gutenbrunner place pushed to a new level of culinary esoterics and flashy interior design.
The wine list bears mentioning – it’s extensive, resourceful, and gently priced, with classics balancing out sommelier Daniel Johnnes’ new finds. Service was quite good – our waiter seemed like just a charming young guy, a little scruffy, until he broke out in perfect French. While it’s famously hard to get a reservation here now, we noticed that a couple tables were no-shows, and there was availability after 9:30 (even at the bar!).
Would we go back? There’s a catch 22 here: by the time the kitchen finds the salt, the celebrities may be gone. If you’re after the scene, go now. If you’re going for the food, wait.
1900 Broadway between 63rd and 64th Streets
Normally I don’t even try to go to popular new restaurants on the Upper West Side, considering it an exercise in futility. I could never get a table at ‘Cesca when Tom Valenti was cooking, and by the time I got to Aix, it could have been called “eh.” It might be the Upper West Sider’s uncanny ability to plan ahead – all that booking of Met and Carnegie Hall tickets – but here’s another theory why, with apologies to Jessica Hagy of Indexed.
Dovetail aims to be a neighborhood place: the side street location on the ground floor of a limestone townhouse in the West 70’s makes that clear. But this new place by chef John Fraser shouldn’t be the property of neighborhood residents alone. Run, don’t walk, to Dovetail before the entire city is flocking to the Upper West Side for this fantastic new restaurant.
The only things keeping this from N.F.P. status may be the decor. Sleek to the point of moody minimalism, done in shades of gray, brown, and browngray, Dovetail reminded me of a starkly decorated residence of a lifelong bachelor, the kind who would rather unplug and move one lamp from bedroom to living room rather than buy an extra lamp, much less artwork (true story). Muted moss green chairs are as exciting as it gets.
Canada, the Master Orderer, Marie Fromage and I were greeted with amuse bouches of caviar, fried capers, sour cream, and vodka gelee. Very decadent, like something out of the Master and Margarita, and the vodka added an intriguing, slightly bitter element to the salty-creamy mix.
As expected, the Master Orderer triumphed with his choice of the gnocchi with veal short ribs, foie gras butter, and prunes. The gnocchi were light and retained just a hint of riced-potato texture inside. Veal short ribs turn out to be a very meaty but elegant cut, not as fatty as beef short ribs. The sauce was significantly richened by the foie gras butter. Though the food here could be called “New American,” Fraser’s use of French technique significantly deepens the experience.
As with the veal short rib sauce, he often takes a familiar recipe and turns it up a notch by refining the key ingredients in the mix. Terrine was made not with pork but with rabbit – again a leaner, lighter meat that takes this countrified dish up a notch. Perfectly seasoned and ground, the terrine was also at the right temperature – not too cold, just slightly cooler than room temperature either. A too-cold country pate reminds me of leftover meatloaf straight from the fridge – not good.
After the veal gnocchi, our other favorite appetizer was the pork belly, maitake mushrooms, kale, and egg, which the menu calls a “hen egg” (as opposed to a rooster egg?). I love a coddled egg, and here it was sandwiched next to kale that had been brought to the point of nori-like crispiness. Mixed with the succulent pork belly, the whole thing was a fabulous conflation of flavors.
Moving on, we managed to order all meat courses, though there are some excellent fish choices on the menu as well, including the requisite fish-n-bacon combo. The Master Orderer – we must always check in with this bellwether first – went for the roasted sirloin and beef cheek lasagna. Here’s another food trend I’m liking: serving up the animal in various incarnations (apologies to Buddhists). In this case, the nicely aged and grilled sirloin was better than the lasagna, which was actually just mushrooms and beef cheeks stacked to resemble lasagna – gyp.
Each of our entrees – the sirloin, the grilled venison, the pistachio crusted duck, and the rack and leg of lamb – was notable for the quality of the meat itself and the wonderful sauces, which seemed to have a demiglace base. That night we didn’t have the problem that Alan Richman had of the meat being dried out – quite the opposite. Too often now not enough attention is paid to the star player on the plate, and restaurants just hope you get swept up by the sides, as I sometimes do. But even without the chestnuts, tangy-sweet stewed cabbage, and cute little marshmallows that decorated the plate, the cut of slightly smoky, tender venison itself would have been a star.
“Now that’s how venison is supposed to t
aste,” Marie Fromage said.
“I don’t get the marshmallows,” Canada said. Indeed, they were cutesy.
But the Master Orderer said, “Marshmallows are always good.”
The menu description of “rack and leg of lamb” with “Indian spices, winter tabouleh, and yogurt” conjured up a very specific idea. A whiff of the exotic, plus the comfort of the known, with the enticement of tabouleh reinterpreted for a different season. One of the best things about Dovetail is that it delivers on your expectations and then some. The cut of lamb was so delicious and perfectly cooked to medium rare, the rub of spices so fragrant but unobtrusive, the hominy-like texture of the warm bulgur wheat tabouleh so good against the tang of yogurt. One bite and you’re transported away, maybe not as far as India, but at least as far as Morocco.
Fortunately the portion sizes are not overwhelming, because we still had room for dessert. The best was Canada’s order of the banana brioche with a bacon-flavored wafer. Don’t be afraid: there’s only a hint of bacon compared to the richness of the brioche. Delicious. Another good pick on that night’s dessert menu was the cheesecake ice cream.
The only downfall of the night was weird little beet jelly petits fours presented at the end. Even if you were a beet fan. As Marie Fromage put it, “They’re trying to challenge you, and at this point of the night you don’t want to be challenged.”
Prices were reasonable for this caliber of food, though the wine list does not feature enough bottles under $100. There’s a $125 tasting menu, including wine pairings, which I would do on a second visit. Service was very attentive and smooth, though we did have to wait forever for the check, and I think I terrified the waitress when I whipped out a camera to photograph the food. God knows why, since I am just a blogger, and they’ll probably have many more.
Afterwards we couldn’t say enough good things about this place. Canada and the Master Orderer are going back “with friends.” (What are we, chopped rabbit?!?) Let’s hope John Fraser will be considered for the 2008 Food & Wine Best New Chef awards. In the meantime, diners from all over the city should head to the Upper West while this great new restaurant is still in a very exciting stage – when the star chef is in the kitchen, cooking.