June 28, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
My Double Life: What I Love and Where I Eat
Jean-Georges exposes the secret joy of carrots at ABC Kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter
Actually I have three faces: What I love. What I liked. And where I eat. If you don’t have time or don’t feel skilled enough to read between the lines, among all the restaurants that got a BITE this year, I’m telling you where I’m eager to return. Actually, if you follow me on TwitterLINK, you may have noticed I can’t stay away long from ABC Kitchen by Jean-Georges. The charmingly fey spot attached to ABC Carpet and Home seems to have a special lure for Vongerichten too.
Jean-Georges reveals his joy in market lobster at ABC Kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter
I have a feeling he’s as emotionally involved here as anywhere in his fast-growing empire, infected by the primal market connection, Union Square, just a few blocks away. It’s more than just a pop-in for show, as I’m sure his chef de cuisine Dan Kluger can attest. Instinctively, any serious chef – and Jean-Georges is one of our city's towering masters -- responds to the seasons. No need to say “seasonal” on the menu or send out a press release announcing the first peas have arrived. It goes without saying. Some have chided Vongerichten for his tardy embrace of the timely, the local and the recycled. But then they taste. The awesome baby carrot salad with avocado and sour cream, a crunch of seeds and a citrus spritz. Beets on homemade yogurt. Raw mackerel transformed by a fresh ginger bath.
The Road Food Warrior must have his pizza – clams with mint is altogether fine, but for me, better the crab or chicken liver toasts. One of us orders bigoli with pork ragu although I’m just as thrilled by pappardelle with kasha and sour cream. The marvelous cod with hollandaise was not on the menu last time we went - seven of us, counting on me to score a table (I confess I have a “number” to call). I ordered the deep-fried chicken to see if earlier over-salting had been tamed. It was perfect. Of course we always order too much and the kitchen sends out extras but first-timers still want dessert. I complained there was not enough chocolate on the salted caramel-peanut ice cream sundae with candied popcorn in a deep bowl with whipped crème fraiche. Well, there is now. 35 East 18th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South. 212 475 5829
Shrimp, scallops and fish wrapped in delicious beer batter at Navy Beach. Photo: Steven Richter
I’ve already been back to Navy Beach. I wanted to see if chef Paul LaBue and a remarkably unsnooty front room crew could keep the cheerful welcome and precisions of the lunch we had on an almost deserted Memorial Day East Hampton weekend. A fiery red sun, like a giant duck egg, is slipping down into the water as we arrive two Fridays later. I don’t see the clams with chorizo in buttery broth that knocked me out on my first visit. And instead of the marvelous seafood and chips with fries I wrote about, I make a saner choice – salmon, rare, but not cool, as I always order it, full of flavor on garlicky noodles. 16 Navy Road. Montauk. 631 668 6868.
A tasting of exceptional tacos at Cascabel Taqueria. Photo: Steve Richter
One of these days I’m expecting Cascabel Tacqueria to clone itself on the Upper West Side. I’d be there more often if it were closer and took reservations. When they see me coming and I get a table too quickly I fear someone who’s waited longer will explode in taco rage and splash us with hot sauce. But thoughts of those splendid tacos and the pork belly tostada do haunt me on evenings I don’t feel like I must be reviewing. Back recently with cousin Mitch, I notice the guacamole has more texture than I remember but it’s still too smooth and bland. Again the tostada restores my faith: fatty pork belly refreshed with a cucumber disc. I love the fatty spare ribs, dotted with radish thins and parsley. Tonight the skirt steak tacos with fried onions are the best. My memory has me expecting moist little pork chunk carnitos. Instead, the filling is like pulled pork, shredded, crispy and dry. Co-owner David Choing is excited about the new ice-grinder for snow cones with exotic flavors. We try the vanilla, wishing the ice were finer. Delicious fried donut holes arrive in a little brown bag demanding attention. 1542 Second Avenue at 81st Street. 212 717 7800
I’ll be back at Bar Artisanal soon now that Terrance Brennan has taken it Spanish, though I’ll want to avoid live music. But I must have the paella again, the fried egg flatbread, the asparagus and the dense almond torta. This corner below Canal could mean a substantial investment in taxis but we live a block from the subway that brings us a short walk away. 268 West Broadway at 6th Avenue one block below Canal Street. 212 925 1600
Grilled ciabatta to dip in fonduta with soft cooked duck egg. Photo: Steven Richter
Faustina on the Bowery in the Copper Square Hotel is more geographically challenging. But in three visits, the Road Food Warrior and I liked it much more than the querulous print critics. Ideally a friend would send a driver to pick us up and I’d be a guide to the best options among the breads and crudos. Then we’ll have the cosmically tender octopus, lardo-wrapped prawns, spaghetti with octopus, the fried chicken and whatever Scott Conant has added for the summer. 25 Cooper Square at East 5th Street and Third Avenue. 212 475 3400
Our usual reviewing posse could not be persuaded to try Lugo Caffé near Madison Square Garden. But I’m sure it’ll be easy to find company now that I’ve documented the good-to-eat food at reasonable prices on a menu revamped by consulting chef Sam Hazen. We took out-of-town relatives who didn’t know they should be snobby about location as most New Yorkers are and they were thrilled. A pizza, the Caesar and the crusty pork shank would feed four easily. One Penn Plaza on 33rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. 212 760 2700. My recent ode to Pearl Oyster Bar was prompted by the need to go back at least once or twice a year. I have the Caesar. Steven has the New England chowder. And we both follow with a Vesuvius of a lobster roll, lashed with mayonnaise under a thatch of salty shoestring fries. An old fashioned fruit pie à la mode makes a classic finale on this trip to the “beach.” 18 Cornelia Street between Bleecker and West Fourth Streets. 212 691 8211
It’s worth the effort to book a table at The Breslin. Photo: Steven Richter.
I have longed to go back to The Breslin. I think about trying brunch or lunch or even the sandwiches in the bar. Surely I’ve given my arteries time to recover from the rash richness of everything on April Bloomfield’s menu. Show me a richer Caesar than her marvelous toss of romaine hearts, with fresh anchovy, anchovy-flavored croutons, fried parsley and parmesan shavings. Even the poussin is lethal, with clouds of crème fraîche smothering the bird, smartly vinegared for flavor oomph and served with pumpkin and mint. But if you only live once, you’ll have to have the pig trotter (actually a whole foreleg). I wonder what would happen if The Breslin, like the Hard Rock Café, were required to post calorie counts on the menu…would only the blind eat there? The illiterate? Or the deniers? 20 West 29th at Broadway. 212 679 1939
I’m in heaven when Jean Georges’ chef sends out caviar on molten egg. Photo: Steven Richter
Where do I really eat? I try to do all my business lunches and other seductions in the mysteriously cosmetic light of the back room at Jean Georges where the two course prix fixe is now $29.50 and you only get four macaroons instead of eight (recession fallout) but there is never less than one “oh-my-god” dish (and often two) that reminds me why I’m still thrilled to be a restaurant critic after forty two years. One Central Park West between 60th and 61st Streets. 212 299 3900
Usually Fairway Café’s burger is great; sometimes it’s not. Photo: Steven Richter
The magazine editor I lunched with at the Plaza Food Hall by Todd English in its first week was shocked when I said dinner with the Road Food Warrior a few nights later was really good. I got a kick out of being anonymous too. “Are you folks from out of town?” chef de cuisine Mike Suppa asks, propping his tattooed forearms on our counter in a lull about 10 pm. Lobster salad on brioche, the sweet sausage pizza, a mammoth spicy tuna roll, and the lamb gyro – I love all of it. Only the crab salad sliders strike out. One Central Park South. 212 986 926 [Disclosure: Todd English celebrates the opening of the Plaza Food Hall June 30 for the benefit of Citymeals-on-Wheels of which I am board chair.]
I’m adding the Plaza’s condensed little feedery to the fall-in places the two of us go before or after the movies, a list that obviously skews UpperWestSide-esque: Fairway Café, Brooklyn Diner, Salumeria Rosi, Ed’s Chowder House.
At Fairway (recently given a new lease on life after rumors it might close) we usually have burgers with bacon and grilled onions. Or I might have boneless dark meat chicken on the $21 menu. Sometimes the fries are great and the burger is perfect, sometimes not. It’s maddeningly uneven, but it’s always cheap. Occasionally we stay away till the memory of a bad night fades. Fruit pies are clearly made by human hands, warmed in the oven and served with ice cream. Upstairs at 2127 Broadway between 74th and 75th Streets, 212 595 1888.
A two pound lobster with sides is $29 if you mention my name at Ed’s Chowder House.
Chowder as a starter is non-negotiable for me at Ed’s. Steven likes the Manhattan crab or New England clam. I can’t resist the corn porridge. In winter I could never resist the spicy squash chowder, followed by the chopped salad with fried calamari. I tried the crab cake once and found it overwhelmed by too much too strong sauce. We might also share the Sunday seafood pasta. Our friends – and Insatiable followers - go for the $29 lobster deal only available through their ad here on my website -- it isn’t on the menu. 44 West 63rd Street at Broadway in the Empire Hotel, second floor. 212 956 1288.
At the Brooklyn Diner Steven has the burger with deep fried onions (which are not always hot) and I have the Chinese chicken salad with canned mandarin oranges, a junk food obsession that seizes me the minute I look at this wildly eclectic menu. Every few months we order strawberry cheesecake just to be reminded it’s as iconic and marvelous as remembered. 212 West 57th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. 212 977 2280
I don’t need an excuse to go to Salumeria Rosi. Friends from out-of-town, our turn to pay, got just 45 minutes before a movie, need a haven for a vegetarian niece. Similarly-afflicted friends have been known to ring our doorbell on Sunday without warning (how non-New York can you be?) and beg us to join them. In winter the grain soup split in two is the starter. Lasagna and the short rigatoni amatriciana, beans and ratatouille follow, maybe a spicy porchetta sandwich. 283 Amsterdam Avenue between 73rd and 74th Streets. 212 877 4800
If we’re due for an 8 o’clock curtain south of 44th Street, we reserve at Esca for some crudo – Steven invariably orders the 2 minute marinated razor clams with lemon and mint. Then we might share Rita’s bigoli with baby octopus or the pasta with crab and sea urchin. 402 West 43rd Street near 9th Avenue. 212 564 7272. If the theater is above 44th, we have sushi and whatever the chef is doing with salmon at Blue Fin. 1567 Broadway at 47th Street. 212 918 1400
Fiorello’s $35 prix fixe might start with seafood appetizers. Photo: Steven Richter
Café Fiorello used to be our number one after-movie hang but it’s priced itself out of easy temptation. Now we’re likely to go there for the $35 Restaurant Week dinner. 1900 Broadway between 64th and 63rd Streets. 212 595 5330 West Branch just got crossed off as a local go-to. Pastas too heavy-handed.
Compass is a once-every-month draw for the $35 prix fixe: I liked both Steven’s cioppino and my chicken last week. We usually get a cozy booth and our favorite waiter. Both the chef and the new pastry chef sent extras – “creations” - with at least three ingredients too many. Still I’m a fool for a little fuss, and love the muffins to carry home for breakfast. 208 West 70th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues. 212 875 7600
Celeste used to be a favorite resort for the first-rate pizza. I would have Carmine’s mythic cheese plate as an entrée. Fans loiter outside patiently waiting, young couples, eating one course, sharing the modest check. But I found the kitchen demoralized two weeks ago and wandered if owner Gian-Carlo Gualtieri of Teodora has been by to taste lately.
Even in its first week, I liked the food at The Lion and the old fashioned charm of its two-story atrium, but I haven’t been back because it’s too hot for me. I avoid Abe & Arthur’s for the same reason: Tall women swarming. Perversely, I brave the equally rarified air of the Standard Grill from time to time in a booth I get (confession) by calling a certain telephone number. Invariably I find someone to share the excellent chicken for two. 846 Washington Street between Little West 12th and 13th Streets. 212 645 4100.
Fiore’s deep fried zucchini and calamari is a must for my guy. Photo: Seven Richter.
I’m not driving to Brooklyn to wait forty minutes for a rickety card table in a garage so I won’t be back to Pies and Thighs. (Also, at a certain age you probably shouldn’t have that much fat too often anyway). It’s not difficult to find friends with a car to join us for the trip to Fiore in Williamsburg. Chef-owner Roberto Aita puts together a grilled pizza while we study the placemat menu. Shrimp guazzetto, bucatini amatriciana, whole fish stunningly fresh, unbelievably cheap. 284 Grand Street, near Roebling. 718 782 8222. I’d go to Roberta’s in Bushwick too – I’m wild for that pizza – and everything I tasted the one time we went promised more pleasures to come, but it’s another forbidding no-reservation zone. 261 Moore Street. 718- 417-1118
Something missing here? “What about the greats of New York?” you want to know. When I’m not reviewing, I tend to pinch pennies. But if a friend is coming to town and tells me to reserve for us anywhere I want to go, I’ll be eating at Le Bernardin. Add Gotham Bar & Grill and Nobu downtown if our friend is staying over. Maybe we’ll make the trek to DBGB since he has a car and driver. Then I’ll take him to Salumeria to say thank you and insist on paying.