April 20, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Discount Dining: Roberta’s, EightyOne, Centolire, Le Cirque
Great pizzas and endearing style at Roberta’s in Bushwick. Photo: Steven Richter
Friends from Brooklyn have fallen in love with Roberta’s in Bushwick. And it’s cheap beyond imagining, they report. “We must go,” urges Ava, obsessed bargainista, offering to drive. Alas, Google Maps fails us. We are wheeling back and forth, around Williamsburg, aimlessly, it seems to me, driver and navigator conferring in fierce decibels trying to find the joint. The Road Food Warrior looks ready to bail out.
And then we’re there…heaven forbid. Is this bombed out street the new Williamsburg? Is this battered old garage the new chic? The ATM machine outside signals “cash only.” Well, maybe it isn’t the new chic but it is Roberta’s, designed around a real brick pizza oven with only a hot plate in the kitchen originally and now with ever increasing ambitions. House made duck prosciutto. Roasted marrow bones with citrus gremolata. Homemade tagliatelle in all this funk: strings of Christmas lights, cinder blocks, garbage finds hanging like treasures from the ceiling and outside, a shipping container cum radio station and soon, weather permitting, a kitchen garden.
The new Bohemians gather in their garage lair for pizzas and more. Photo: Steven Richter
The six of us settle at a very high round – “I feel like a kindergartner,” says Ava. Well, I feel like a visitor from another planet. Solo diners read and eat. Twosomes join a communal table. The waitress in her miniskirt and striped thigh-high stockings is beyond cute… very “Debbie Does Dallas.” Am I the only one old enough and naughty enough to remember Debbie?
“This is the hottest place in Brooklyn,” our chauvinist borough pal announces. “These are the new Bohemians, exiles from the gentrification of Williamsburg, forced to settle in Bushwick.”
I look around. They don’t have uniforms like the old Village Bohemians – Djuna Barnes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edmund Wilson. Bohemians wore hats.
“They look like middle-class young people,” I protest. “Okay… I’ll accept that they’re artists and revolutionaries.”
The guanciale and egg pizza has the prerequisite bubbles and scorch. Photo: Steven Richter
By that point, already fallen victim to the exceptionally fine house-baked bread, we are sharing a fabulous pizza with the requisite blisters and scorch – and in the center, an egg cooked just enough to run sensuously over mozzarella, tomato and guanciale. The intense garlic and jalapeño hit of the Axl Rosenberg pie is captivating too, with mushrooms and sopressata sausage on and under molten mozzarella. There are nine designated pizzas (I plan to try Specken Wolf next time), from $7 for the Rosso to $18 for the double High Hat (or design your own from a list of 19 $1 to $3 options), but monster calzones are in demand too.
Half of a huge bird both crusty and juicy is just $14 at Roberta’s. Photo: Steven Richter
Our coven has focused on fabulous wilted radicchio on homemade braesola with almonds, wood-roasted red wattle pork chop (savory and rarish) on wilted escarole, and the thrillingly juicy chicken special of the day with wilted endive. Not everyone I know would be so quick to devour chicken faintly pink at the bone, but everyone is not us. We are ripping it apart with unabashed grunts and murmurs of approval. Yes, wilted greens are on almost every plate. Actually, braised treviso holds a pile of slow-roasted lamb breast, very fatty, but that’s what lamb breast is all about, and just $10. “Dinner specials” start at $9, climbing to a modest $16 for that pork chop. Since the chef keeps sending out extras – delicately cooked sweetbreads, bresaola and dandelion greens on crostini and a sampling of house-cured meats with whipped lardo in an egg cup – we’ve landed on the wrong side of excess and can’t even think of sweets. But two of us agree to taste the evening’s dessert – chocolate espresso tart, made with crushed coffee beans. A big mistake. Ours and theirs.
261 Moore Street between Bogart and White. 718 417 1118. Open every day from noon to midnight. Saturday and Sunday brunch from
Eco(nomy)-Friendly Menu at Eighty One
A more generous portion of this spring risotto with peas and ramps wouldn’t hurt. Photo: Steven Richter
I’m not sure what guru or muse guides Ed Brown on his own at Eighty One after two decades with Restaurant Associates. All of his fans – me among them – have been rooting for him, hoping he would survive the bad timing of launching his dream restaurant in a big and expensive space just as the economy started sinking. I thought his $42 two-course bar menu and early-bird special was too feeble a bow to reality. I suggested he throw in a sorbet but he said it wasn’t possible because his sorbets were $10. “How about just one scoop?" I urged. I have tried not to be a restaurant consultant. But there, I’d done it. Offered $5,000 worth of scorned advice.
But the raves were flying so I came by anyway one night for the $42 menu. Not seeing anything on it that appealed, we ordered a la carte and rang up $132 for two without a drink. And I didn’t mind at all because what we ate was marvelous – a triumph of heirloom tomatoes, the calamari a la pancha, an inspired mating of foie gras and tenderest scallop chunks under a gossamer won ton noodle in a tang of straw wine sauce and barely seared wild hamachi.
Months later, reality has inspired Brown to rethink the two-course dinner. It’s now priced at $30.81 and coyly offers a second appetizer for $8.10. Fussy friends are raving again.
Four of us, Ed Brown fans all, are disappointed the chef’s taking Monday night off. But we’re in the hands of a remarkably hospitable captain. “Does the $30 dinner include the fabulous parmesan bread sticks at the bar?” we ask.
“Of course it does," he says. So we’re off in a haze of indulgence, pricked briefly by the amuse bouche – a shot glass of thin and listless potato soup. I almost choke as its sprinkle of chocolate dust hits the back of my throat. Ed’s night out, I decide.
How long has it been since double-stuffed baked potatoes? Great idea, Ed. Photo: Steven Richter
Happily, the menu is a roll call of what we like to eat and most of what follows lives up to our expectations. The surprise intensity of mint in rich salmon belly tartare with radish and dill. Pea and ramp risotto signaling spring. The earthy scent and pebbled texture of wild mushroom soup. The punctuation of spring herbs elevates even a simple salad of baby lettuces. Slow roasted chicken is crisp-skinned, full of flavor (too bad someone forgot to cook the chickpeas). Double-baked stuffed potato and barely wilted spinach are dividends with the hanger steak. There’s enough pungent straw wine flavor in an intrinsically annoying foam to dress up the fine scallop ravioli. Too bad the carefully cooked salmon seems abandoned, unadorned, unrubbed, unseasoned. Is risotto so expensive the house can’t afford to send out a reasonable portion in a bowl rather than a shallow coating on a dinner plate? The soup is shallow too, as if the accountant measured and not the chef. Sides at just $6 are tempting, but I don’t understand macaroni and cheese in stickum sauce without even an attempt at a crust.
Bosc pear on us, sorbets and cookies on the house. Photo: Steven Richter
“Is the caramel roasted Bosc pear really worth $12?” we ask.
“No,” says our agreeable captain, “I’d say $11.99.” With that, he brings sorbets too, cookies and chocolate truffles. Generous $30 evening or generous server? Splitting the bill – with two $6 sides, dessert and four glasses of most reasonably priced wine, tax and tip,we’re spending $125 for the two of us, definitely a deal at Eighty One. The $28 Sunday brunch has two courses and desserts are just $5. Hopefully bargain-seekers and Brown fans will fill the room and even be less pinch-penny than we. And breadsticks for all would be a gracious welcome.
45 West 81st Street. 212 873 8181. Open Monday through Thursday, 5:15 to 10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday from 5:15 to 11:30.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Le Cirque’s salmon tartare is elegant and delicious. Photo: Steven Richter
I carry a lot of baggage with me when I walk into Le Cirque. So does our host tonight, market guru and journalistic mix master Dan Dorfman. It’s about the golden youth we shared with Sirio in his charismatic ringmaster days at the original Le Cirque on 65th Street, the drama and whiplash of Le Cirque 2000 at the Palace, and now the denial and triumph in the graying of Le Cirque in the Bloomberg Building courtyard. A roller coaster of joy and angst over the years. I suspect many of Sirio’s pets and regulars feel that same bond of nostalgia, affection and regret. As for the critical me after 40 years of barbed pats and pans, tributes and lashings, the Insatiable Critic can’t help but feel empathy too. Human after all. (Click here to read a vintage review, “I Love Le Cirque, But Can I Be Trusted?”) Still, I haven’t been by since Frank Bruni tossed off three stars and the chef was forced to exit a few weeks later. I’d not yet tasted the food of the new Australian chef Craig Hopson.
This ladylike croque Monsieur is exactly what I want for dinner tonight. Photo: Steven Richter
Riding the economic surf as we all are, Dorfman is high on the $35 dinner in the Wine Lounge. No jacket required, although he’s wearing one and a major tie, sitting next to Harriet, his adoring third wife. You can’t say Sirio and the Maccioni boys aren’t trying with the “35th Anniversary Special ($35),” a chef’s tasting at $74 “to celebrate the 1974 opening” alongside the regular $98 tasting. Being practically kin, we get a glad hand from a long time Le Cirque familiar at the door. It’s Wednesday. The bar is crowded but we are alone in the lounge looking at coral umbrellas hanging upside down in the small and charming party room just opposite.
Is the hill of luscious lobster risotto heftier because it’s us? I can’t say. All I know is the lobster is exquisitely cooked. I’d be content any night with the Everest of salad panachée, and the sprightly curried salmon tartare inside its cucumber hedge has a welcome citrus edge that almost makes up for a lack of curry heat. I guess it’s not easy to put together discount entrees. If a dish is too exciting, you antagonize the timid diner. Most fish is expensive and pasta threatens the carbophobic, while an inoffensive trio like flounder, chicken breast and minute steak puts me to sleep. Minute steak? How about flank, flap or skirt, or… a lamb steak? Anything but this thin chewy strip of cow. I cheer myself up shopping the a la carte lounge menu by price, delighted with a $14 Caesar piled on a cheddar sable crust and a rather ladylike croque Monsieur with a toss of salad at $16.
Just like old times, the kitchen sends extra desserts on monkey plates. Photo: Steven Richter
Any disappointments are quickly forgotten as desserts arrive -- a thin frisbee of an apple tart, splendid chocolate soufflé and the essential crème brulée. This of course is the fragile custard under a crackle of glaze that launched the craze. It is supposed to be delicate. “Too thin,” writes a misguided complainant on Yelp, obviously accustomed to dense and clumsy imitations.
One Beacon Court 151 East 58th Street between Lexington and Third Avenue. 212 644 0202. Open Monday to Friday for lunch from 11:45 to 2:30 pm, dinner at 5:30 to 10:30 pm, Saturday just dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 pm; closed Sundays.
Pino Does It His Way
Oven-baked calamari is a Centolire classic. Photo: Steven Richter
If you live around the corner, you might come for the pastas. Pino Luongo’s cash-panicked Upper East Side fans are piling into the tiny cramped downstairs entry at Centolire that he has restyled as Centolire Café and Panini. Even those who Madoff rejected are here stretching out flattened retirement funds. They stuff themselves in their fine custom cut suits and Ralph Lauren waspiness into tiny scarred-top tables that don’t let you cross your legs under them, laughing, lingering, keeping a close eye on that Gucci satchel under the chair, the next table two inches away. The waiter hands you the upstairs menu. You have to ask for the new Café roster: soups and salads $7.50 to $8.50, pastas $10.50 or less, sandwiches $6 to $9.50.
The kitchen is shockingly slow…or is it the waiters, all two of them, constantly disappearing? At the next table, a woman slips on her jacket to exit and jabs my back.
“I’m glad that was you.” I respond. “I thought it was the waiter getting fresh.”
“What waiter? We haven’t seen him for a long time.”
Pino’s lazy bread salad is not the panzanella I know and love. Photo: Steven Richter
At last. Pasta and panini appear, not everyone’s dish at the same time, but it’s a sign of life. Lasagna and a cheesey toss of maccheroni are wonderful. For almost the same price the Road Food Warrior could order our favorite rigatoni Butera (with sausage and peas) from the regular menu, but he loves his pasta and he wants a whole $18.50 portion that he reluctantly shares with us. We have to have oven-baked calamari from upstairs too for the table to share. Am I imagining that thatch of watercress on top hides diminishing amounts of squid? Well, nevermind. It’s better than anything else tonight.
No one at our table but me likes the soft gnocchi Romana with its pleasant, fresh-tasting tomato sauce. Certainly perfectly cooked asparagus with soft egg and prosciutto on sliced bread would be a fine lunch. Unfortunately “porchetta” with fennel on ciabatta comes on sliced bread too. “Where is the ciabatta?” I ask. The waiter stares me down. And it’s ham, not porchetta, impossible to eat without a knife and fork to cut the fennel. The frisee salad tastes like someone forgot the olive oil. Or is that a deliberate economy? As for “Panzanella (bread salad), My Way” – barely dressed chopped vegetables on toast passed off as bread salad – it’s definitely not my way! Why is the $8 dessert of the day $12.50 on our bill? “You’re right,” says the waiter when we reel him in. “I’ll fix it.”
Is this dessert of the day $12.50 or $8? The waiter corrects the bill. Photo: Steven Richter
I am disappointed Luongo didn’t come downstairs to schmooze the crowd. Fans do like to glimpse the legend. Is he too embarrassed? Or would he weep to see so many fans below that he used to see upstairs?
1167 Madison Avenue on the southeast corner of 86th Street. 212 734 7711. Open Monday to Friday 11 to 11 in the cafe and upstairs from 12 to 3 pm for lunch and 5:30 to 10:30 at dinner; Saturday hours are the same as weekdays, but they stay open till 11 pm; Sundays close at 10 pm in the cafe and 9 pm upstairs (opening and lunch hours are the same).