Food & Travel / Words & Photos
I stretched my birthday a bit. Last Monday’s delightful diner à deux at Roberta’s is followed, a few days later, by dinner with friends.
For this, Prime Meats does not disappoint. Here, you get all the thick glasses, beards, vests and cocktails you need to know that you’re smack dab in the middle of Brooklyn. It’s a fantastic spot and with our big table for 11 at one end of wooden-paneled, high-ceiling-ed dining room, it felt like a tiny church in New England.
Tipplers in the pews, we finish our cocktails (old fashioned this time, applejack Sazerac next time), and I ask the wonderful Amy Zavatto to be in chargee of picking out a few bottles for the table. Among others, she steers us toward a fantastic 2009 Red Tail Ridge from New York State. New York reds – who knew?
Plates arrive – an order or two of bluefish rillettes, (a clever natural for that preparation) create quite a stir, but I’m almost too happy nibbling away at smoked sweetbreads to notice. I want to share and hoard.
The real sharing comes with the mains – I share bites of my steak frites – with just about everyone and reap the benefits. Friends return the favor with crispy and moist schnitzel, juicy, taut bratwurst, and tangy homemade sauerkraut. Elisabeth has an iceberg lettuce salad with Maytag blue and bacon.
“They do that as well as anyone these days,” she says.
I look over at Amy, who, after biting into her cod, takes on the look of a parishioner at prayer and Jonathan does the same when I offer him a second bite of my New York strip. It’s crispy on the outside, with a ribbon of tasty fat on one edge, and pink happiness within.
“You know,” he says, snapping out of his trance, “you can throw all the ingredients you want in a dish, dress it up however you’d like, but that? That’s hard to beat.”
A quibble - It took a little while to get to our seats; Two people in our group were running rather late and, in short, the staff didn’t want to sit us until every member of the party of eleven arrived. We offered to order right away, offered to wait to order until they arrived. The staff, some polite, some a little less so, declined, but it wasn’t quite full enough in there to put up that kind of a stink. I get it if half of a party of four is missing, but how rare is it that one couple in a much larger group gets held up? It puts a good dent in the pleasure of an evening.
465 Court Street
+1 (718) 254 0327
Cue the rock music, throw on a cool T-shirt and hop in the L train to Williamsburg – Roberta’s cures what ails you. While the possibility of a lamb dish worthy of a spot in Daniel next to a pizza might sound a bit schizophrenic, here it works just fine.
With its woodsy feel and merry, multicolored light garlands on the walls, Roberta’s, est. 2008, has a feeling of a saloon that sits not too far from the 49th parallel – one that hits full swing by 7 and stays that way till the last tippler is pushed into the Brooklyn night at closing time. I was invited by my sweetheart, Elisabeth, who’d picked up on some very strong hints on where I’d like to celebrate my birthday and we were not let down.
These guys, particularly chef Carlo Mirachi, have some serous friends in the food sourcing business. ‘Beef Carpaccio’ shows up with the marbling of something noteworthy and turns out to be Wagyu from a farm on a big, flat state out west. A drizzle of stellar olive oil creates a dreamy, one-two-three-four adagio progression between vegetal freshness, slick vegetable fat, beefy meatiness and Wagyu fat. I got as much pleasure nibbling away at it as watching Elisabeth enjoy it – something she readily encouraged.
One plate over, tiny bay scallops with crispy bits of trout skin, Meyer lemon and poppies snuggled in a bowl, reminding me of not one but two childhood favorites – Mom’s broiled scallops, and, thanks to the poppies and the almost bread-y flavor to the broth they waded in, the frozen Pepperidge Farm rolls she’d make in the oven when I was little.
The big gun, however, was the lamb breast main course, cooked sous-vide for a long time then sizzled for a short time to create a crispy/melting combination that recalls the textures of a savory crème brulée. Nearby, a comma of yogurt, dollops of a light mint aspic and gently-braised leaves of, I believe, radicchio and Swiss chard provided punctuation marks of acidity, bitterness and a faint sweetness. Any three-star restaurant would be proud to serve the dish at three times the price.
Next to the lamb, we’d ordered a pizza – this is a pizzeria, after all – and maybe because it was next to something so spectacular, our pie was the evening’s only relative whiff. The ‘Tracy Patty’ pie features tasty mozzarella, ricotta, lip-smacking boquerones (vinegar-drenched anchovies), garlic and savoy cabbage, but it lacked some juicy agent like tomatoes or more of that amazing olive oil to shuttle each slice it to its final home.
No matter. Next time we go, we’ll likely try another pie. Perhaps the ‘Voltron’ – it’s got sopressata.
While some crow that the bar-like atmosphere is an odd or uncomfortable place for food this sophisticated, we could have cared less. This is the kind of spot where you want to grab good friend or three on your birthday and have one of the best nights of the year, fussiness be damned. Mirachi’s created an American doppelganger of Sicilian chef Francesco Cassarino’s wonderful Pizzeria Caravanserraglio.
On the subway and once nibbling some of Elisabeth’s fantastic birthday cake at home, we got talking about the best dishes we’d ever had. Rare are the meals that engender that sort of conversation.
“What were the tens?” Elisabeth asked, a question that brought us around the world and back to the meal still in our bellies.
Our lamb, we agreed, was a 9 ½, the scallops a scarce point and a half behind.
“What about the Wagyu carpaccio?” I asked. “A solid eight?”
She responded without hesitation.
“That was a ten.”
261 Moore St.
(Editor’s note: No reservations at Roberta’s - go early or wait in line.)
The Txikito gang has been doing some early Christmas shopping. Alex Raij and Eder Montero, the couple who made Chelsea a better place by opening both Txikito and El Quinto Pino, signed a lease on Monday for a new Brooklyn restaurant, La Vara, slated to open in early 2012.
Located in the spot recently vacated by the ill-fated Breuckelen restaurant at 268 Clinton St. - next to the lovely Ted & Honey Café - Raij says the cuisine will be “Spanish food seen through its Moorish and Jewish roots.”
The food will be a mix of small plates and shareable larger dishes.
“The basis will be home cooking, not the traditional ‘meat, starch, veg,’” says Raij.
Who’ll be running the line? “We will, for now,” she says.
Somewhere in there, Raij will also be having a baby.
“We did our last opening like that,” she jokes.
Why change now?
NYC - The boss is in town, looking to dine and wants to know where we should go. I almost panic. Where do you take the most-feared food critic in France? I call friends and comb over the list of places I’ve been until I remember the place I really want to try: M. Wells in Queens.
Something of a media darling, M. Wells is/was also a gastronomic UFO housed in a diner: they do what they wanted to, which is pretty admirable in my book. It received incredible raves and, since I’ve been there, one blazing, bizarre review whose subject matter I’m not touching with a ten-foot pole.
Since then, the restaurant has apparently been forced out of their Long Island City location by their landlord and, at this point, there are only rumors about it resurfacing.
When we arrive, François promises to share some of his Caesar salad with smoked herring but it disappears before I point my fork in his direction. I try ‘Bacalao Magasin’ a veritable bath of olive oil that poaches, heats or finishes carrots, shrimp, beans, peas and salt cod in a great terracotta bowl.
For our ‘Big Dish’ – menu choices here are divided into ‘big’ and ‘small’ – we try the ‘BibiM Wells,’ a seafood riff on the Korean dish, which is something of a bunt that could have been a home run with more thought given to the play of texture that make the original so good.
The night we’re there, I wish we were with a much larger group to try the big dishes, where much of the creativity appears to lie – BBQ short ribs, lamb saddle with za’atar, tahini and pomegranate molasses, chicken wonton pot-au-feu – but get a sense of the bigger game the chefs seem to be after with an escargot and bone marrow pasta dish with shallots and a red wine ‘purée’ – the mollusk cousin to octopus and bone marrow pasta. M. Wells’ snails are served right in the bone, two forms of slippery goodness bathing in the wine sauce, covered with crunchy, garlicky breadcrumbs.
What is (“What was”?) most interesting at M. Wells is the idea factory the place became. Francois and I get talking about it - in Paris, you’d wonder about the chef’s motives, what they want to accomplish and, often, what their next step will be. Here, creation seems to be the whole point – there is no next step.
Brouhaha aside (please) it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.
On a recent trip to Richmond, B.C., the value of a good guide was reaffirmed when exploring Chinatown. (Anywhere, for that matter.) With thousands of options, how do you figure out where to go, let alone the two specialties on 100-item menu?
Craig Nelson figured out Manhattan’s Chinatown on his own. Not For Tourists guide editor by day, Nelson spent years worth of lunches trying every place he could walk to near their offices. Then he made his own app – Chinatown Chow Down. (Insert gong sound here).
We started with pork buns at Mei Li Wah Bakery – brown (baked) or white (steamed) – is about all you need to say at the counter. We scarfed them in the street - they’re packed with sweet, meaty flavor. Total cost for both? $1.60! Cheaper than a Snickers bar!!! Ha!
We had sit-down handmade noodles around the corner, fritters and a mustard green sandwich from a street-food vendor which we ate in the park under the West Side Highway. We capped the tour with my favorite – fresh sour plum juice at Yuen Yuen. It’s sweet, sour, funky and smoky. How did they make it smoky? No matter – just keep it coming. How much? $1.25! Fresh juice for less than a Coke! Where’s that gong?!?!
A bit out of sequence, but, this stuff isn’t getting any younger. Above, a shot from the scene at the ‘pop-up’ Fatty Johnson’s in the Village last night - barman/journalist/pal Toby Cecchini announced “sundry a selection of reviled cocktails from the 70s through the 90s” signing off on the invite saying “Join us
if you dare, and feel free to bring anyone you don’t particularly like.”
Jello shot and a Blue Hawaiian, anyone?
There’s a lot to notice when we arrive at WD-50. The most outstanding is a booth of guys who look like they could be fraternity brothers, yet they’re silent as monks, paying close attention to what they’re eating; the antennae are up, they love the challenge.
You have to be up for the ride. Chef Wylie Dufresne bristles at the thought of preparing anything leaning toward making standard bistro fare for his customers. He’s just not interested.
What would he rather do? Stuff like floating plump scallops and pine needle udon in a bowl of grapefruit dashi. He deconstructs eggs benedict. He chars avocado. (?!?!) Even if his family is in the business you have to wonder how he thinks of this stuff, but when you put bites in your mouth, the combinations and preparations will stand hairs on end and leave you wondering how no one thought of it before.
Daniel Boulud’s kitchen at Daniel has a beautiful wall of spices sourced from around the world while Dufrene’s wall has pectins, starches and syrups. Yet the adjectives Dufresne cuisine inspires are words like ‘clean’ and ‘clear’ – you leave feeling like you’ve eaten a healthy Japanese dinner. His parsnip tart somehow makes me rethink my understanding of the vegetable. Parsnips!
Some argue the validity of this type of experimental cuisine - they should eat here to join the converted.
Finally, all hail Dufresne for having the confidence to keep and highlight the work of pastry chef Alex Stupak. Instead of a clash of egos (that would usually lead to the latter getting dumped), you just sit there and say ‘wow’ all meal long.
Full disclosure: I ate at the restaurant while working on an upcoming story about Dufresne and his collaboration with chef Daniel Boulud. That said, Dufresne didn’t realize we were in the restaurant for dinner until dessert was over and the check was paid.
I lied. I said there was ‘one’ NYC restaurant I’d really like to go back to eat in and, well, like I said…
Even at brunch a short while back, you could tell the new Le Pescadeux is a spot to watch: there’s a perfect smoked trout omelette and a steak and eggs that might stop your heart for multiple reasons at prices that won’t. And that’s not even counting Champagne and chats with Chuck.
Dinner’s what I’d really like to try, preferably with a partner for footsie. The restaurant’s fish-focused Quebec cuisine (harking back to owner Charles Perelmutter’s origins) is on display – and he’s breaking his new chef’s back to please by offering dinner ‘duets’ - a pair of half-sized portions – a great way to showcase what you can do and get a good new restaurant’s good name out there. Perelmutter chalks it up to “culinary A.D.D.”
I checked in with Perelmutter to find out about a chef change – the impressive Matthew Ridgway left and has been replaced by Adriano Ricco (clever poaching on Chuck’s part as Ricco’s done stints at BLT Fish and Tabla) – here’s what Chuck had to say about the ‘duet’ concept.
Even if I am in a great Seafood restaurant I get bored with my fish halfway through, and look to see what I can ‘mooch’ from others, usually with no success (people don’t share anymore). I decided I would not be bored again and now I, and my guests, can enjoy 2 different half orders of fish prepared 2 different ways without getting their reaching fork slapped away.
Note the capitalization of Seafood.
Right now, I’d take the grilled octopus and Wild Rock bass with a little neck nage … kick the tires on a fun concept and see what the new chef can do.
Le Pescadeux - MAP
90 Thompson St
Now that I’m back home and typing up a bushel of NYC blogs, the one place I really want to go back to is Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance. Not only are the drinks top notch, chef Sam Filloramo wowed me while, thanks to some sort of new restaurant timing/shipping glitches, he was still working from a half-empty* kitchen.
His deviled eggs were so good, I went home and told my mom about them and if that wasn’t enough to get me to want to go back, the ever-changing menu they now post on their Web site does: rabbit and chorizo hash, oysters Rockefeller, pan-fried catfish … my word.
Apparently, they even do breakfast and all I can do is imagine the possibilities.
I’m interested to see how the combination of a serious drinks bar combined with chef who’s making his mark pans out. It can only be good.
*Apparently, in mid-September, after the equipment arrived, a health inspector stopped in to check the kitchen and found gas equipment without gas service - like a car with an empty gas tank - and decided the restaurant would be better off closed for the week until they got the pipes hooked up… go figure.
Click here to see my Boston Globe Travel story, “Small Wonders” - featuring an interview with Fort Defiance owner and drinks expert St. John Frizell.
They could serve Spam in the can here and I’d still come back. With a view this good, it really doesn’t matter what you eat. At Alma, it’s all about the view of southern Manhattan from the roof.
I joined friends of mine here - they were nibbling away on sturdy Mexican food - and accidentally figured out a peculiar system that allows you to bypass the restaurant’s Mexican-themed drink offerings, get a tasty microbrew at the b61 bar downstairs (try the Sixpoint Ale), then walk it topside and enjoy it with your guacamole and fish tacos.
“It’s almost winter!” you cry?
No worries - the roof deck is still open on the weekend and imagine it to be just as blissful watching an autumn sunset or when the snow flies.