January 12, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Settling the West

This fabulous $14 “Cuban” panini is Tom Valenti’s gift to the neighbors. Photo: Steven Richter
This fabulous $14 “Cuban” panini is Tom Valenti’s gift to the neighbors. Photo: Steven Richter

        Tom Valenti has long been a hero of the Upper West Side, our Buffalo Bill. Braving the far outer steppes when Broadway was all retail and coffeeshops, he gave us Ouest, one of the city’s best casual restaurants. ‘Cesca has never been the same since he left. And now Valenti, doubling at his new West Branch, an American brasserie for the people, offers something for every appetite, an eclectic mix of sandwiches and pastas, entrées ($15 to $29) ranging from crispy fried quail and fish and chips to grilled strip at moderate prices.

Walk-ins get seated in the bar with the dreaded television. Photo: Steven Richter

        The neighbors have been piling in since the day it opened. Come without calling and it might be an hour wait.  Walk in with a reservation and you could stew half an hour because “people just aren’t leaving” and “It’s so difficult to time things.” Valenti himself has been in the kitchen, expediting orders, driving the team, popping out once in a while to shmooze the guests, many of them familiars from uptown and ‘Cesca, all of them, like me, indignant that they have to wait. And there is no space to loll and lurk and moan since the bar is full of walk-ins eating. I lean against a booth giving its occupants the evil eye as they sit chatting happily, coffee cups drained.

Chef Valenti stands at the pass conducting the kitchen crew. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’ve had trouble writing this. As a fan of Valenti’s since falling for his lamb shank at Alison’s on Dominick, I expected to love West Branch. And I’ll be back for the marvelous burger – big and beefy on a brioche bun with unfashionably fat fries or the fabulous West Branch “Cuban” panini. That’s if I can find a seat at the bar. Though I’m happy tonight tucked into a circle booth at last, it’s relentlessly noisy. I’m annoyed with the flash of TV at the bar and the space seems sadly plain. Actually, that TV saved our dinner election night since our companion didn’t think Obama could win unless he personally kept track of the returns.

I’ll be back for the big burger on brioche with unfashionably plump fries. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Though Tom has sent out a trio of starters to apologize for the delay – gourgères, mushroom arancini and smoked salmon blini, our guests love them all I keep thinking how luscious they could be. And I am the only one to notice that our waiter, cheerful, willing and not annoyingly intimate, has forgotten to bring the house’s warmed parmesan bread. I probably shouldn’t complain since it’s addictive and everyone I know says they're on the South Beach diet.

        But the country pâté is fine, all that it should be. All of us at our table are so pleased that the celeriac remoulade is surrounded by country ham with two toasted spears of baguette that they don’t seem to mind that the remoulade is not mustardy mayonnaise but something quite acetic. The vitello tonnato, a dish I almost never resist, tasted on an earlier visit, has no oomph. At just $13 seafood salad from the raw bar is a generous heap of mussels, scallops, shrimp and clams with slivers of red onion.


Valenti’s bucatini all’Amatriciana has sopresseta and chopped egg on top. Photo: Steven Richter

        This is not the best spaghetti alla chittarra I’ve had this week but I recommend the gnocchi with veal breast and the Road Food Warrior, an afficiando of bucatini all’Amatriciana, approves of this one with its sopressata, pancetta and the
Garlic with chicken. Photo: Steven Richter
unusual chopped hard boiled egg. I agree. The grilled strip is not remarkable but the roast half chicken is juicy and comes with roasted potatoes and enough soft cloves of garlic to counter a cluster of vampire films.

        My friend Bob will not forgive me for not insisting he order the cookie plate he discussed with the waiter. No one likes the bearer of bad news. I probably shouldn’t have pointed out that not many cookies are on the South Beach regimen. He’ll be back in February and resolutions will be long forgotten.

2178 Broadway at 77th Street. 212 777 6764, Open Monday to Friday for lunch from 11:30 to 2:30 and brunch on the weekends from 11 to 3. Dinner is served Monday to Thursday from 5 to 10:30. 5 to 11:30 on Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9:30 on Sundays.

Dovetail: With Wit and Marshmallow

The chef choreographs an elegant chorus line of amusements. Photo: Steven Richter

        You’ll think I’m getting lazy hanging out in my own zip code this past week: a quick juicy burger dinner at Fairway, tasting Cesare Casella’s new calamari in black rice with friends loving Salumeria Rosi, discovering that a trio of vegetable antipasti at Fiorello is all I need for supper after  Frost/Nixon. Then on Tuesday, primed to go anywhere, friends from east of Fifth feel it’s time they check out Dovetail, given its starry imprimatur and tales of bliss they have picked up from across the park. Matt has a skeptical expression as he settles into his seat, taking in a certain beige-ness interrupted by an exposed brick arch in the middle of the room. (My favorite design element, actually.) Gina is trying not to be overly glum about Bernie Madoff making off with her savings.

        The showy chorus line of amusements that arrives with the house’s fabulous cheddar cornbread is the perfect distraction: a square of panna cotta with horseradish cream on a spoon, a small deep-fried croquette of shrimp and grits, and a rectangle of daikon poached in dashi with chestnut cream and dehydrated jalapeno, “my version of a popper,” according to the chef. It’s a prologue that tells you what to expect. The food will be playful, pretty, original, occasionally precious, with skillful attention to texture and flavor.

The ubiquitous Brussels sprouts look very spiffy in this salad.  Photo: Steven Richter

        This is also to confess that we’re getting kid-glove care. I’m not sure, for example, if the sweet potato royale with rosemary marshmallow in the shot glass goes to everyone tonight. I’m constitutionally opposed to marshmallow in anything except S’mores, but with a topknot of pickled fennel and a hint of lemon to cut the sweetness, cuteness is forgiven. Brussels sprouts are everywhere now and especially good standing up with thins of Bosc pear, Serrano ham and Manchego cheese. Skimpy seems to go with Chef-owner John Fraser’s vision as in three crab ravioli smartly spiced up with chorizo for $18 (not four, like our group) and a shallow puddle of splendid clam chowder with pancetta. It’s like haute couture for skinny mannequins, although I’m sure most of us would be healthier eating less all the time.

        Suddenly the table is quivering with slices of black winter truffles, Fraser’s gift, “now that you’re not a critic anymore.” That wonderfully decadent wet dirt scent hits my nose from the thick coverlet of black crunch hiding a few potato gnocchi underneath on cauliflower puree.

        “No,” I protest. “I’m still a critic on my web site.” But you’ll notice I’m not kicking and screaming. The truth is I’ve been truffled everywhere in the last few weeks. Granted it violates my idea of critical integrity, but I do love being fussed over and who knows how long anyone will care. (How long before it’s “Gael who?”) 

Scottish farmed salmon gets an olive oil bath. Photo: Steven Richter

        Salmon poached in olive oil has a luscious other worldly texture, with chunks of butternut squash and turnip to say winter. No fault to find in braised short rib but after so much artistry and fat, I find rather bland venison a letdown. Aloe vera gelée with rose confit in a spoon is a guaranteed palate freshener. Especially for Gina. It smells like her nightly skin tonic. Points for originality but otherwise, pray give us citrus. When the four of us veto dessert, the chef sends out frozen Greek yogurt parfait with tangerine sorbet and rice pudding tuile. Rice pudding tuile? Definitely a three-star invention.

103 West 77th Street. 212 362 3800, Open for lunch Wednesday to Friday from 12 to 2:15, brunch Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 to 2:15, dinner Monday to Saturday from 5:30 to 10:45 and Sunday from 5:30 to 9:45.         


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