April 13, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Hungry for Bargains: Anthos Upstairs, Baoguette, Keste Pizzeria    

 Duxbury oysters with pomegranate dust and gel upstairs at Anthos. Photo: Steven Richter
Duxbury oysters with pomegranate dust and gel upstairs at Anthos. Photo: Steven Richter

        My obsessed quest for the next best down-market dinner had me climbing last week to Anthos Upstairs. I worried it might be claustrophobic or mimic tavern-style Kefi on pretty plates or just offer diminutive portions of Anthos favorites. Indeed, Architectural Digest will not be begging for an exclusive on the decor. It is, in fact, a bit aurally-challenging, but if we lean in we can hear each other think as we share mussels lushly tossed with orzo and lemony avgolemeno sauce – a dish I cannot imagine at Anthos.

Mussels get tossed with orzo and avgolemeno sauce.  Photo: Steven Richter

Duck gyro. Photo: Steven Richter

        Mostly I love these lively riffs on Greek cooking the chef and his second Costas Kalandranis have dreamed up to keep Anthos humming with new fans drawn by the deal. Duxbury oysters with pomegranate jelly and pomegranate dust are briny and elegant. Cunning little rounds of pork-and-duck sausage with figs and pita a la plancha make an amusing “duck gyro.” The Road Food Warrior could be happy anytime with the braised pork and calamari pasta – wide noodles called hilopates. And the three chunks of sensational lamb loin with pistachio are a steal two might share at just $15.  There’s even unusual passion in the perfection of intensely beety beets and feta.  And I suppose it’s not fair to dismiss perfectly cooked prawns because they’re a bit boring. Some diners are afraid not to be bored.

Smash the smoked egg to send molten yoke over oxtail on polenta-like trahana. Photo: Steven Richter.

        There are a couple of flubs.  I’m not seduced by lamb belly pancetta and grapefruit. The pork belly with less than thrilling tomatoes needs another think-through.  I forgave a little grease in the crisp batter-fried cod with beets and garlicky potato skordalia. Not everyone is as high as I am on chunks of oxtail over polenta-like trahana with a smoked egg sending a slush of yolk, or the fatty lamb ribs – well, lamb ribs are fatty – but we have to order seconds just for the salt and vinegar potato chips. Cheeses displayed in covered cake stands are a luxurious touch. But our six eaters decide to share an Upstairs sundae – tahini sorbet on a brownie with shocking sweet crumbs of halvah.  One bite is enough.

Melissa puts together an upstairs cheese selection.  Photo: Steven Richter

        The plan is to fill Anthos’ unused party room and fatten dwindling profits without compromising the starship Psilakis has navigated to superchef fame. Honors for the passionate Greek chauvinist who was discovered cooking Italian on Long Island have been heady. So many laurels must scratch his forehead I fear. Certainly the call to cook at the White House left him intoxicated. “This must be what it feels like to be on heroin,” he told Grub Street.

A simple feta and beet salad shows off the intensity of beet.  Photo: Steven Richter.

        The partners had been months ahead of the panic in 1998 casting Mia Donabare tables, moderate prices, generous portions as a value destination for the economic upheaval Donatella Arpaia sensed ahead. “New York was in a bubble then but I saw what was happening.” She’s always been haunted by the memory of the market collapse in the early 90s. “They called it ‘Black Monday.’ I saw my father’s business drop 60 per cent and it took a long time to come back. Coming from an immigrant background, you’re taught things come in waves. At any moment you can lose everything.”  Selling her partnership with David Burke was a way to get out of the high end “just in time” and focus on the challenge of feeding 400 to 500 a night at Kefi.
        And with small plates $9 to $15, mostly big enough for two to share and four to taste, Anthos one flight up lives up to its pinch penny promise.
36 West 52nd Street. 212 582 6900. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 12 to 2:30; dinner Monday to Thursday from 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11. Closed for lunch on Saturday and all day Sunday.


The Baoguette Empire Extends

BarBao chef Michael Huynh takes time off to expand his Baoguette empire. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our dinner Saturday night at Barra Cevicheria left the four of us desperately in need of sensual pleasure.  Not to mention we were still hungry. That’s how we ended up just after 10 p.m. on St. Mark’s Place at Michael Huynh’s brand new Baoguette Café. As I shouldered my way from Third Avenue I felt like Margaret Mead.  Is this strange tribe the upcoming generation?  Tokyo girls huffing like chimneys.  Hoodies hogging the pavement.  The sloshed, the smashed, the studded and pierced, the stunned nodding on stoops.  I worried we would never be able to get into the tiny cafe, but it was Easter Eve and early for infidels and the after-bar crowd. Could even be the young’uns parading their St. Mark’s Place entitlement have not yet discovered Vietnam’s fabulous Banh Mi sandwich as interpreted loosely here – spicy cat fish with honey mustard, grilled pork chop with fried egg and pickled kumquat, barbecued chicken with cucumber, scallion and soy.
        With only a couple at the counter and a few pho fans slurping on tall stools, the communal table was all ours. I split a freshly toasted Sloppy Bao ($7) with the Road Food Warrior – spicy curried beef with green mango and basil – and our friends divided a not-so-spicy namesake Baoguette ($5) – pork, pâté, pickled carrot and daikon julienne and cilantro, easy on the jalapeño. I found the beef pho rather boring but the Vietnamese crepe ($8) was marvelous. This lush and loose little omelet with pork, shrimp and vegetables to wrap with herbs in lettuce brought back memories of first tasting this eggy crisp cooked on a low brazier set up on the filthy steps of an abandoned house in Hoi An. That was a thrill with a frisson of risk. Tonight’s thrill is a safe bet.

         I hadn’t expected to see Huynh here on a Saturday night given the crowds uptown at BarBao, where he signed on as a partner not that long ago.  But then Huynh has never met a restaurateur who counted on him that he couldn’t reduce to tears or profanity when distracted by a new venture. The congenital wanderer sends out splendid house-made lemongrass sausage with spicy ginger sauce ($8) and insists we sample his Vietnamese soft serve, pandam vanilla and durian with dulce de leche dribble. 

Thao Nguyen puts together a pork sandwich at husband Michael’s new Baoquette. Photo: Steven Richter

        At that moment his wife Thao Nguyen arrivesher Lexington Avenue Baoguette branch closes at nine. Steven photographs her in the kitchen. Our friends who live across the street are ecstatic that they now have a place they can have dinner for $30.
37 St. Mark’s Place between Second and Third Avenues, 212 380 1487. Open Sunday through Wednesday 11 a.m. to midnight; Thursday through Sunday till 2.a.m.


Honor Thy Pizza

Roberto Caporuscio is a late and fanatic convert to Neopolitan pizza. Photo: Steven Richter

        I love everything about Keste Pizzaria but the pizza. It’s not easy to write this, I like the place so much. The fact is, Keste is a triumph. It’s probably the most authentic Neopolitan pizza in New York. Of course, I don’t like waiting in line either. Though I must admit, the staff serving pieces of artichoke-tuna pie to the queue is an opening week grace I hope will not disappear. And it doesn’t bother me that the shop is small and narrow and cramped because it’s a pizzeria for goodness sake. It’s cheap. It’s friendly.  Everyone talks to everyone else. Pizzas start at $9 and only hit $18 once, for the high-price layering of prosciutto di Parma and grand cru pecorino from Sardinia aged like parmigiana.  I love too that Roberto Caporuscio is clearly totally smitten with his mission. He didn’t stop smiling the hour we spent tasting a history of Neopolitan pizza – well, once, when he rushed off to toss out a singed pie.

Rustica salad is a splendid toss of prosciutto di parma, artichoke, olives and greens. Photo: Steven Richter

        As the pizza pundits and blognicks have written, Caporuscio studied with a famous master and teaches the gospel for the Association of Neopolitan Pizzamakers. He proposes to teach professional classes downstairs at $4,000 a pop. Needless to say the oven came from Naples “with three guys and bricks to install it,” Roberto tells me.  Nutella may have paid the bill since a giant effigy of a jar seems to be built into the dome.  I’ve never seen such an elegant crew in a pizzeria.  Rosario Procino, Roberto’s partner, and headwaiter Allesandro could easily charm the blue-haired ladies at Le Cirque.  It feels like Christmas and they’re delivering pizza from Santa to orphans.  Italians, Neopolitans and pizza snobs who truly prefer the authentic, regardless, will be lining up outside Keste.  And if you want to talk pizza talk, you’ll need to come by for research. 

        The passionate pizzaiola sends out a battilocchio of the day as our warm-up – tomato, mozzarella and prosciutto on a free-form rectangle.  It’s really good. He wants us to try his vegetable rosettes – dough rolled up like roses studded with zucchini and onion.  None of us have the heart to tell him the dough isn’t quite cooked.

It’s a 16th Century pizza before the tomato arrives in Naples. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Now you taste the first pizza in history,” Roberto announces, presenting the $9 mast’nicola – nothing but lardo, rather scattered pecorino romano and basil, a conceit from the 16th century, before the tomato came to Italy from the New World.  These are the famous dough bubbles, wonderfully uninhibited by too much topping spread too close the edge.  Greatness is in the dough.  Personally, I would give it just a touch more salt.  By the way, the salads are fabulous. We tried the fresca and the rustica, both aristocrats. 

The chef takes kudos behind as our friends eye the Regina Margherita. Photo: Steven Richter

Classic marinara. Photo: Steven Richter
        With the simplicity of the $9 marinara round – Marzano-style tomatoes, garlic and oregano – my problem is clear.  And with the $15 Regina Margarita – grape tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozzarella and basil – it cannot be denied. The middle is spongy. It’s wet. That last sprinkling with olive oil before serving is definitely a Naples touch. Now that I think of it, I didn’t love any of the pizzas we tried in Naples. I want my Neopolitan pizza crustier.  I want the bubbles, the scorch, the scantier toppings (although I’m keen on excessiveness too), but not the sog. 

        Cousin Mitch seems more ecumenical than I. As a trained cook, he’s impressed by the fanaticism here. Indeed, you can absolutely inhale it.

        “Of course when friends come from out of town and want great New York pizza, I can’t bring them here,” he admits.  “They won’t get it.”  He’ll take them to Arturo’s on Houston.
271 Bleecker Street near Cornelia. 212 243 1500. Open from 11:45 a.m. to 11 p.m.