January 20, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Insatiable Critic’s Best of 2013

This over-loaded onion soup with marrow bone is so rich, you’ll want to share it.
This over-loaded onion soup with marrow bone is so rich, you’ll want to share it.

          Where do you really eat, friends and readers always ask. There is a suspicion that I might have a small secret spot I keep for myself. But no. In my 45 years as a restaurant critic, I’ve never thought any spot too tiny, too special to share. Here are eleven spots I’m going back to.

Stella 34 Trattoria

Two of us like to share this appetizer size salad and a sensuous pasta at Stella.

           If you read BITE most weeks and get my newsletter FORKPLAY, you can’t help but know that my favorite new restaurant is Stella at Macy’s. Officially, it’s Stella 34 Trattoria. If you’re serious about pleasure and what goes into your mouth, you’ve already been there. I go often. I get a kick out of surprising friends who automatically dismiss the notion of going to Macy’s for dinner. Millionaires and vegetarians have discovered it with me.

Stella’s view of the Empire State Building colors thrills me every time.

           Imagine a high-ceilinged room with tall windows looking out onto the city, a sixth floor view of the Empire State Building spire, tables reasonably spaced, three wood-burning ovens where Chef Jarett Appell does not just pizzas, but fine wood-oven roasts and sensuous baked pastas. Stella is where I celebrated my 40th Birthday Times Two with 150 friends who gave $62,000 to deliver meals to the homebound elderly in my name. (Confession: The bash was a gift from Citymeals-on-Wheels long-time activist board member Nick Valenti, chief of The Patina Group, an advertiser.)

This toss of cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts with raisins will thrill a vegetarian.

           I order the verdure every time, loving the multicolored cauliflower with raisins and pine nuts. Often we share grilled mushrooms, the Napoli salad with prosciutto and one of the decadent pastas -- an otherworldly lasagna or the penne-like tortiglioni with a seasonal vegetable and fontina cream. 

           Sometimes the chicken al forno is too salty, mostly it’s not. I take the leftovers home. We share the lemon dessert or sorbetti by Vivoli of Florence. At my birthday, Tim Zagat crowed that the chef made one more cauliflower pizza just for him when the pies ran out.

Dedicated elevators to Stella from Macy's Broadway and 35th Street entrance, anytime and after closing. 212 967 9251

Red Farm on Broadway

Dim sum master Joe Ng created this lamb dumpling shooter dish for the UWS Red Farm.

           It can be no secret that I am a certified groupie of dim sum master Joe Ng. I’ve been driven to hang out at Red Farm often since it opened downtown on Hudson, overdoing it predictably, yet saddened that the limits of the tiny kitchen mean we never taste more than two dozen of the chef’s 1000 or so sweet and savory dim sum repertoire. After the seemingly endless countdown to opening Red Farm Broadway just four blocks from my office, you can bet I managed to get to the first lunch.

           As partner Ed Schoenfeld has admitted, some friends are treated more equal than others. I’ve known him since, as a focused youth, he was the first Caucasian captain in a Chinese restaurant. I don’t wait long for a table as hundreds do each evening.

My newest addiction is this crispy shrimp-stuffed chicken with green beans.

           If you're willing to join the queue, you can eat what I love uptown: the bruschetta of smoked salmon on eggplant crisps, shrimp and snow pea leaf dumplings, lamb dumpling shooters, pork and crab soupy buns, crispy duck and litchi skewers, and the too-large, but irresistible, five-flavor chicken dumplings. Lately I have abandoned my must-have Chinese chicken salad for the must-absolutely-have shrimp-stuffed crispy chicken. If we’re four we might share the new lemongrass pork chops.

           Recently my favorite rice noodles with barbecued duck tasted like whoever wok’d it didn’t have a clue. That can happen. As for dessert, I want fresh fruit, but I notice a lot of chocolate pudding and key lime pie going down.

2170 Broadway between 76th and 77th Streets, 212 724 9700.

Eye-to-Eye with Pig

It was exciting to watch usually our timid eaters digging into the pig face at Khe-Yo.

           Where I go most often when I’m not reviewing is definitely affected by living uptown. But that hasn’t kept me from revisiting Khe-Yo with friends-on-wheels who love it too. Don’t tell me Marc Forgione’s Laotian outpost with his decade-long right-hand chef Soulayphet Schwader, aka Phet, is Laotian-light. I don’t care.

Forgione backs his long time chef de cuisine in cooking the Laos food of his childhood.

           The command to roll his sticky rice with my fingers is enough to start the seduction here. We come back again and again ready for wrapping: the pork spring rolls in Bibb lettuce before dipping, and crunchy coconut rice with spicy sausage in crisp lettuce before a peppery dunk. Lemongrass spare ribs are a must, leading up to the main event: chili prawns with ginger and Thai basil, banked by thick toast triangles to soak in the haunting orange sauce. On my last visit, even the normally cautious succumbed to a crunchy chunk of pig’s face.

157 Duane Street between West Broadway and Hudson Street 212 587 1089.

Catch of the Day

Is there another spot in New York City that serves trout au bleu? Not that I know.

           My gourmand co-conspirators with reliable GPS systems are invited to join me anytime for my latest obsession: the truite au bleu at M. Wells Steakhouse. By this reading, the fast route over Mayor Koch’s Queensboro Bridge to the newest Wells stand in a onetime auto body shop in Long Island City should be no challenge. It’s no tragedy if you’re not impressed by the steak – I wasn’t on two visits. That firm, exquisitely vibrant fish, seized from its two-ton pond, dispatched discreetly out-of-sight, cooked quickly in a salty court bouillon, then banked with cabbage, fingerlings and brown butter tartar sauce is reason enough to fight for a table.

M. Wells draws an eclectic crowd to its slicked up auto repair garage.

           I’ll be back for the wildly overloaded onion soup with marrow bone, an aggressively rich iceburg wedge, dill-strewn carrots, and stuffed delicata squash. The lamb tagine can be exciting too. Even if sanity suggests you shouldn’t, you must sample cakes from the pastry trolley. My favorites so far? The quarter cake and the buttery cinnamon cake with crumble. 

43-15 Crescent Street between 43rd Avenue and 44th Road. 718 786 9060.

Nakazawa Dreams of Jiro

Chef Nakazawa is happiest engaging with the freshest fish and the freshest customers.

           I was invited as a guest to the stark, minimalist Sushi Nakazawa, just opened on a quiet stretch of Commerce Street in the Village. They insisted. My friend Maurizio de Rosa and his friend, Alessandro Borgognone, third generation at Patricia’s in the Bronx, refused to let me pay. They were among the rotating men in black, lowering and then raising the cushy black leather seat at the bar for me to climb in, pouring the sake and red wine.

         Chef Daisuke Nakazawa’s manic laugh made me smile and I recognized his hand gestures and the small rice package with cold King salmon dangling over the edge as the signature of Jiro. The chef swabbed each fish with potions from a series of pots he had alongside, exquisite sea creatures, raw shrimp, uni – laughing. Never once did I consider a drop of soy. His tamagoyaki custard (mastered in the film that inspired Alessandro to go into sushi) is indeed an exultation. Pete Wells’ four stars in The Times will make it even more difficult to claim one of these ten counter seats, but I’ll try.

23 Commerce Street between Seventh Avenue and Bedford Street. 212 924 2213.

The Writing Room

I deliberately order The Writing Room’s whole rotisserie chicken for its leftovers.

           I was just an occasional hanger-on at Elaine’s, but I had a stake in her myth (Click here to read my 1971 piece, "It Must be Calf’s Foot Jelly, Cause Cannelon Don’t Shake Like That.") This leads up to my low expectations for The Writing Room in an aggressive expansion of her own space. What got me first were the top-notch Parker House rolls and the super flavorish rotisserie chicken – a whole bird, aggressively seasoned, with roasted root vegetables, enough for two or three or four for just $38. Not everything is equally impressive. The meatloaf is just ordinary and salads need work, as does the coleslaw.

           But the fried chicken with a biscuit stands out, as does the very rich New England chowder, the $5 side of root vegetable side and, of course, the roast chicken soup spiked with that excellent bird. Spare ribs could be a starter for two or more. Creamsicle pops are my dessert of choice. I’m hoping the house keeps the gentle prices.

1703 Second Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets. 212 335 0075.

Arlington Club Stakes

On my last visit, Arlington chef Tourondel sent a gift of vastly improved sushi rolls.

           I was practically a regular at Arlington Club in the first months it opened. It wasn’t the steaks. I only had one that lived up to expectation. But I was mesmerized by the madness, the senior citizen makeout artists at the bar, the handsome transformation of the space (as brutally noisy as it could be) and how I could make a meal to share of the chunky Lexington salad, the voluptuous blue fin toro with its jalapeño aftershock, and chef Laurent Tourondel’s cream-drenched, stand-up rigatoni mac’n’cheese. (Now with The Writing Room, Arlington, Rotisserie Georgette and Morini Uptown on Madison, plus the brand new Regency Bar and Grill, East Siders can’t say they are orphans at dinner-time.)

1032 Lexington Avenue between 73rd and 74th Street. 212 249 5700.

Quality Italian

I’m happy when not everyone likes uni so I can eat more of these lavishly decked-out oysters.

           It was decades ago that I saw the discovery of cholesterol threatening the surge of steakhouses. Instead we entered the new age of denial, the worship of pork belly and bacon, the steakhouse march. I’m as giddy as anyone. I giggled at the ridiculous show-biz tableside tricks of Pops Alan Stillman and his son Michael because I can be so happy eating at their Quality Italian.

           The butter-slick Parker House rolls set the meter running, quickly followed by oysters with crumble, sea urchin and grated jalapeño and the outrageous and delicious $58 chicken parmigiana layered in a crumb shell delivered looking like an overweight pizza on a metal stand with pizza condiments stashed below. That and a masterly Fiorentino, plus too many starters and sides was dinner for six of us. Later I discovered the spicy lamb chops in a smacking eggplant caponata dress and a perfectly cooked $45 bone-in sirloin that satisfied three of us. I planned to stop by after a movie for chopped salad and an $11 baked pasta dish – rigatoni with meatballs or crusty maccheroni with artichoke. I often fantasize about doing that one night soon, even though the house seemed to have lost its edge at a recent dinner.

57 West 57th. Entrance on Sixth Avenue between 57th and 58th Street. 212 390 1111.

Forgione’s American Cut

After serious overindulgence, my pals willingly attack American Cut’s crackerjack sundae.

           Most of my go-to’s are uptown. It’s easier for me to taxi to Arlington, Quality and The Writing Room. I walk to the UWS Red Farm. But I’m high on American Cut, Marc Forgione’s clone of his Atlantic City dazzler that seems so unlikely in laidback Tribeca. He goes for the giggle because he knows what you’re thinking about all that black and white drama. His “everything but” giant biscuits will shut you up.

           Give me a lift downtown and I’ll be back for the tableside Caesar, the first-rate, outsize crab cake (a tribute to Pop Larry Forgione and James Beard) and the side of latkes with chicken fat crisps. That would be dinner for me -- but not because the tomahawk isn’t perfect to feed four, or that I didn’t love the unusual zing of the chef’s New York 20 oz. bone-in ribeye with pastrami spicing. Desserts can be overly decorative, but you might be willing to delight your dentist by ordering the crackerjack sundae for your tribe to share.

363 Greenwich Street between Franklin and Harrison Streets. 212 226 4736.

Jean-Georges with Mariachis

I’m impressed to see Jean-Georges sautéing, plating and even serving at ABC Cocina.

           Lately Jean-Georges is on a roll. Would he take over a 250 seat Inn at Pound Ridge near his weekend retreat? Why not? “I’ve never done anything historic before,” J-G said. And how about moving into Pipa at ABC Home for his partner Phil Saurez, a twist and turn from their incandescent success at ABC Kitchen? The result, ABC Cocina was too dark, even with the charming twinkle toe touches of ABC Home’s Paulette Cole. And it is noisy, though not noisier than the clamorous ABC Kitchen. It was exciting to watch both the Kitchen’s talented Dan Kluger at the range and Jean-Georges himself sautéing, plating and actually serving that first week. But I thought dividing the emphasis between Mexican, Latino and Spanish diluted the impact.

Our threesome fell for the crispy shrimp with garlic bits on that first outing.

           Still, I found dishes I loved -- the pork taco, crispy shrimp with bits of garlic, grilled maitake mushroom with whipped goat cheese, the peas of spring: pea soup, pea guacamole and fiery pea empanadas. And the trio of popsicles, a clever finale. Still I kept going – friends insisted – and on my last visit, I found the food much improved. In my head I’d given it a six out of ten to ABC Kitchen’s 11. Now I’d say 7, maybe 8. I’ll be back.

38 East 19th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South. 212 677 2233

Retail Royalty Delivers the Bird

On my last Rotisserie Georgette visit, the luxurious chicken for two had a boost of flavor.

          Before she became Daniel Boulud’s right-hand woman for 17 years, Georgette Farkas was a retail princess (of the Alexander department store family) but in between she cooked on the line. So her star turn at Rotisserie Georgette might have been expected. She introduced an old fashioned elegance to the soaring space with custom built wooden armoires, Portuguese tile, pewter, tapestry and a wall of mirrors, both flea and real. The kitchen has taken a while to find its groove. Tending a rotisserie is no cinch.


Chef David Malbequi needed time to master the art of rotisserie cooking.

           Happily, on my last visit the $72 Poule de Luxe for two (enough for three or four) was crackling and lush, its flavor nicely revved up, arriving like an empress on its elevated throne, with room underneath for potatoes cooked in the drippings and Brussels sprouts. Have one of the excellent salads to start, or the leeks, or share the very good gnocchi. A picture perfect tarte tatin is big enough for the table to share. Georgette herself may ladle up the crowning crème fraîche. She’s everywhere, racing tirelessly on spike heels.

14 East 60th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. 212 390 8060.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. 


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