December 27, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Slightly Oliver, Slightly Elizabeth
Little Gem Salad indeed: Stilton, spiced pecans, poached Bartletts. Photo: Steven Richter
Oliver and Elizabeth. They could be ill-fated love birds in a Victorian novel, not very likely new imports to the Upper West Side. But the culinary migration inches north, along with the rogue towers of new real estate. Slightly Oliver, a Brit-leaning gastro pub, has settled on Amsterdam near 84th, just nine blocks from the organic ambition of Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table, on Columbus at 93rd. One sassy, one earnest, both have vegetable cocktails. Make what you will of that.
Green pepper cocktail inspires Steven to clown. Photo: Gael Greene
“In Cockney Slang Oliver Twist means drunk,” it notes on the drink menu, i.e. Slightly Oliver means Slightly Drunk. A lot of salad and fruit cake accents the drinks here, stirred up by consulting mixologists from Apotheke and Theater Bar. I go along with the drill, planning to order a $7 punch, maybe the Bolliwood (sic) - rum, brandy, orange, cardamom, rosemary and agave - but bow to the waiter’s suggestion for something less sweet.
Slightly Oliver gets a big bar crowd and late diners. Photo: Steven Richter
I’m content with the exotic tang of the clumsily named “NYC and the Orient” listed under “Food Cocktails,” though I expected soon to be slightly Oliver myself, given the tangy mix of Thai basil-infused gin with yellow tomato water, tangerine-peppercorn reduction and habanero bitters.
It looks cheesy but a Margherita flatbread pleases the pizza fussbudgets. Photo: Steven Richter
But we’re here to eat, settled in the cheerfully red back room – blissfully quiet and empty early on, noisier as a late crowd shuffles in. Fake books and fake bottles hanging on the wall could be a theme. Six kinds of oysters are listed on a blackboard at $2.50 each. Has the waiter forgotten us? We’re distracted briefly by a view into a neighbor’s bedroom beyond the terrace, but so far away we can’t be sure if the bodies are dressed.
The fried green tomatoes are layered with fresh mozzarella and peppers. Photo: Steven Richter
With aggressive arm-waving, we’ve finally connected. I don’t need to be half Oliver to judge the Margherita. Don’t need the grunt of satisfaction from my resident pizza-hound. It’s lush and cheesy. Smartly crumbed and deftly fried green tomato slices sit on a green goddess dressing, lapped with freshly tender mozzarella and grilled red peppers. Stilton crumbles, sliced pecans and tender cuts of Bartlett pear elevate the smartly dressed march of romaine and endive in “Little Gem Salad.”
Duck confit truffle’d macaroni is enough for everyone to share. Photo: Gael Greene
The “Wee Plates” - shrimp and grits, gigante bean cassoulet - aren’t wee at all. An iron pot of mac ‘n cheese, rubbled with garlic bread crumbs, might be more to my purist taste with less duck confit. But it’s enough for four as a side and not overwhelmed by truffle scent.
Nothing wee either about the proper portion of first-rate fish and chips with tartar sauce and malt vinegar. Consultant Jason Hicks from Jones Wood Foundry gets credit for coaching the kitchen on such classic pub grub, including the salt cod mash and the pies: chicken curry and steak and kidney. The resident chef, Luis Ulloa, doubling from executive chef duties at nearby Tolani, gets credit for the timing and discipline that produces tonight’s impressively moist haddock. The chips aren’t bad either.
Definitely recommended, lush and fatty short ribs on braised leeks. Photo: Steven Richter
And the Big Plate prices are friendly too, $16 to $26. Lush and fatty braised short ribs sitting on braised leeks and ringed with celery root purée is a lot of grub for just $18, and I take the puddle of apple gastrique (the classic French sweet and sour glaze) as a sign of ambition. But remember this warning. One chef has already disappeared.
I’ve recently fallen for deep fried pickles, so of course I had to try Oliver’s pickled fried beets. Too monolithic, don’t work at all. Kobe chili dogs listed under “Stacks” on the menu are a sloppy one-note and I’m sending back the “Drugstore” burger (“stacked from the bottom up, everything on it”) because it’s not rare as ordered. On second try, it’s perfect, though mostly left behind so we can do justice to dessert.
Sticky toffee, a gift from the kitchen, is a hit at our table. Photo: Gael Greene
Apple and berry crumble is our table’s choice and it’s a perfectly decent version, but definitely overshadowed by the surprise appeal of sticky toffee with ice cream, a gift of partner Stanton du Toit, making amends for the lame burger and erratic service.
511 Amsterdam Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets, 212 382 1098. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5 pm to midnight. Thursday till 1 am. Friday and Saturday till 2 am. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4 pm.
Slightly Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table.
In an era of over-sauced macaroni, Elizabeth's is plain; needs more crunch.
I admit I was annoyed that Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table was opening with a downright unneighborly decision not to take reservations. But I decided to brave it, and was instantly disarmed by the unimaginable sight of a white-washed country inn, complete with picket fence, parked on an Upper West Side corner under a 25-story high rise apartment building. I plead guilty to a few “how adorables” before bracing myself to take on the hostess. She studies her book. “It shouldn’t be too long.”
Blink your eyes. We could be in Kansas, or Georgia. Yes, yes, yes. Adorable.
It’s cute from inside too. Looking out through mullioned windows, I imagine we are in Georgia. “What about that empty table?” I point.
She exchanges whispers with a waitress. “Here’s your table,” she announces as if we’ve won it in the lottery.
“Thoughtful American Comfort Food,” it proclaims on the menu, with a vow to be “fresh, local, biodynamic and natural whenever possible.” I’m not one of those new age stalwarts determined to eat organic or sustainable or locavoresque, not that I mind. That’s owner Nat Milner indulging his wife Elizabeth, a practicing holistic health counselor.
Juicy chicken, bacon crisps, blue cheese chunks. An enthusiastic Cobb salad.
If I had tasted nothing but the Cobb salad – a hearty portion of a reasonably proper Cobb with chicken, bacon, “farm fresh hard boiled eggs,” romaine and a creamy dressing, I’d be entrusting you to Elizabeth’s hospitality. But my confidence wilted when our waitress confides, “We’re all out of everything that’s listed as ‘of the day.’ No ‘salad of the day,’ no ‘pasta of the day,’ no ‘grain of the day’ and no 'sweet potato fries'.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“We ran out of supplies.”
A thick corset of crumbs and a side of macaroni with the fried chicken.
On a Tuesday? I wondered. It’s not like we’re on the edge of the prairie. Well, never mind. The crab cakes are good enough, the slaw scattered around and about it is actually wonderful, but both the fried chicken and the Coney Island Lager beer-battered fish are dry inside their armor. As a macaroni and cheese fanatic, I find most are too cheesy. This is a first: not cheesy enough. I decide to give the Milners and their chef time to figure it out.
“Cute? Yes, it’s cute. Now get inside it’s cold,” says my guy.
Five weeks later, Elizabeth’s is ready to handle reservations. I recruit our next door neighbors. We’re always hoping to discover something new and good in our zip code. I don’t poison their taste buds with tales from our earlier visit. Our taxi pulls up and we dames oooh and aaah over the charm of the country house so adorable in its feisty urban setting. Guys are reserved. They don’t oooh. “Cute,” Gary agrees.
I want it to be good. (The restaurant my husband-to-be chose for our first dine-out was called Little Old Mansion. I fell in love with the black walnut lobster risotto, and a few minutes later, with him.)
“It would be fun to eat outside,” I say.
“If it weren’t 35 degrees,” says Steven.
The kitchen has reordered supplies. The salad of the day is beets – an expansive bouquet. The clutzy fried chicken isn’t really bad, but it isn’t good either and comes with a small side of pallid macaroni no one is driven to eat. The pork chop, farm-raised, all-natural, “no hormones or additives.,” is too embarrassed by over-cooking to blush pink as ordered.
Farm-raised Duroc pork chop comes with garlic mashers and braised red cabbage.
I’ll leave Elizabeth’s for the neighborhood. There’s not much distinguished eating this far north and many will appreciate being transported to another time and place by the fairytale. I’ll advise the locals to skip the trio of dips, white bean and rosemary, inedible whipped feta with pepper, watery eggplant-olive tapenade. Go for "The Whole Barn House Burger," a half-pound puck, full of flavor, rare and falling apart, with a fried egg on top. Share the Cobb. And the “Elizabeth Seasonal Cinnamon Crumble.” It’s apple with berries, in season somewhere tonight, guaranteed. Our foursome loves it. I promise my neighbors I’d take them somewhere better soon. I feel so guilty.
I invite Diane to join me on the porch swing. “Watch out you’ll smash the window,” Steven warns. Men never oooh and ahhh about anything. It enhances that masculine inscrutability.
680 Columbus Avenue NW corner of 93rd Street. 212 280 6500. Monday to Thursday 4 pm till midnight. Friday till 1 am. Saturday 11 am till 1 am. Sunday 11 am till midnight.
Photographs of Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.