Estela review

Estela -

It’s relatively unlikely that you are familiar with the name Ignacio Mattos. But heed my prediction: this Uruguayan James Beard Foundation finalist is dangerously close to becoming the next big name in modern American food! Having served under slow-food legend Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and South American grilling sensation Francis Mallman along with stints at Isa and Il Buco, his unique style is rather tough to define. His recently debuted Soho boutique restaurant Estela showcases a healthy influence of Spanish, some Carribean, a dash or two of Japanese and just enough Italian to call it American!

Estela - Endive salad

Endive salad

While Mattos prides himself on presenting “approachable” food, I found his plating style quite the opposite – almost bashful. Instead of displaying an overt visual focus for the main ingredient, many of his dishes seem to conceal them beneath a forest of obscurities, creating a “surprise” as you wield your knife through the edible jungle.

 

Estela - Beef Tartare

Beef Tartare

His uncategorized menu of sharing plates grows in portion and price as you journey from north to south with snacks like Pickled Carrots and Salted Cod with Potato, to salads that include Kampachi with Apple or Celery with Mint, small plates such as Farro with Wax Beans, and then onto some hearty mains like Cod with Favas or Quail with Broccoli Rabe.

The Beef and Bison combined Tartare with sunchokes and capers is layered with dark flavors, and the crunch is an unsuspected bonus.   The circular display of Endive leaves obscures the wondrous anchovied walnuts with Ubriaco rosso (Italian cheese aged in crushed red grapes).

Estela - Burrata with Salsa Verde

Burrata with Salsa Verde

Everything I’d heard about the Burrata with Salsa Verde is true. The most luscious, earthy, dark green herb puree you’ve even come across slowly soaks into the toast supporting the white, velvety, creamy goodness above.   Hard to believe that I have never tried Mussels in Escabeche (vinegar marinade) before, but the unique and almost floral tang won me over instantly.

Estela - Mussels in Escabeche

Mussels in Escabeche

 

In the interest of time, forgive me as I gloss over the delectable Scallops with Peas, the unmissable Fried Arroz Negro (black rice) and the incomparable Pork with Potatoes and Borani (Persian eggplant and yoghurt) so that I can relive and re-salivate over the crystalized salt-crusted rib-eye of Beef with eggplant and leeks finished with the creamiest Taleggio cheese ever.   Oh, and don’t be surprised if someone gives him a big ol’ culinary award for the Panna Cotta finished with honey and vinegar. Yes, vinegar!

https://rez.opentable.com/reservation/start/6742?source=selfhost

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Aldea review

Aldea - Portuguese Baby Squid "a la Plancha"

Portuguese Baby Squid “a la Plancha”

Ever since I started traveling to the region, I have become a huge fan of Iberian cuisine. I love their confidence with the use of bold flavors and colors, and the way they embrace local favorites with just enough respect to allow them to break some of the rules without taking themselves (and their ingredients) too seriously. The snag is how to conjure up diner curiosity beyond the proverbial paella or typical tapas.

Enter George Mendes, whose hands have tickled the pots and pans at places like Basque maestro Martin Berasategui’s three-star Michelin restaurant in San Sebastian as well as Toqueville in Union Square, and who eventually opened his own restaurant Aldea in the Flatiron district.

The tranquil and alluring slither of a room grows outward and upward as you make your way past the various elements of nature: water, wind, earth, sky etc. that set the tone for a calm and relaxed adventure as the dishes start arriving.

Aldea - Big Eye Tuna Crudo

Big Eye Tuna Crudo

Ask any Lisbonite and you will learn that there are 365 ways to prepare Bacalao (Salted cod). Mendes offers four: with poached egg, in a curried bean stew, in an onion and potato casserole and as Croquetas, which are the size and weight of fried ping-pong balls. Light, fluffy, potato-ey and gone in sixty seconds! The faint saltiness of the West Coast Sea Urchin Toast loses the battle to the surprising but very welcome mustard seed as the dish’s main flavor driver. Similarly the deep-green cucumber broth gives the Big Eye Tuna Crudo a refreshing boost that cuts through the yuzu-olive oil. The Portuguese Baby Squid “a la Plancha” is layered with wonderful flavors and colors, from the black squid ink, to the red strips of smokey Chorizo, to the tender Calamari rings. (But I either missed or failed to notice any ginger butter.)

Aldea - Dayboat Diver Scallops

Dayboat Diver Scallops

While the Portuguese Sardines in escabeche (vinegar marinade) didn’t level up to much more than the sum of their parts, the Dayboat Diver Scallops were what it’s all about. Simple, simple preparation with beets for color, porcini’s for texture and a pop of tart from gooseberry halves – a tough dish to beat.  The Pastel de Nata (the famously celebrated, age-old pastries from Belém with their crispy shells that give way to freshly baked oven-warm custard, topped with cinnamon and sugar) more than delivered a sublime final act.

http://www.aldearestaurant.com/reservations/

Aldea -

Sauce review

Sauce Trattoria

Sauce Trattoria

From a restaurateur’s point of view, starting an Italian family-recipe business in this over-catered-to city filled with labels, names and fussy eaters is like trying to be a one-armed trapeze artiste in total darkness. Unless of course you happen to create a unique experience that sets you apart from all the others – like Sauce.

Frank Prisinzano’s Lower East Side neighborhood trattoria (with in-house slaughtery) boasts a number of idealistic principles which while not exclusive (farm-to-table, snout-to-tail, start-to-finish) they all contribute to delivering unpretentious and always satisfying favorite dishes with a just-like-Grandma-made-it authenticity.

Even before an Aperol Spritz, the oddly organized menu can be a bit of a challenge, but if you settle on any of the crowd-pleasers, you won’t be disappointed. The breaded and fried chicken Alla Milanese, the Steak Tagliata for two, the grass-fed Meatballs in tomato gravy are all perfectly, perfectly fine, but the prime spotlight is stolen by a game-changer simply known as “The Plank”!

"The Plank"

“The Plank”

The ceremonial ritual starts like the parting of the Red Sea. A 10-inch wide boulevard of crockery, cutlery and stemware is cleared from the center of the table. Next, a pale wooden shingle is lowered to occupy the space. From the first of several dispensers, a ladleful of soft polenta is shmeared over the plank, quickly followed by a thick, red squiggle of grass-fed bolognaise. And just as the sauce starts to sink into the white cloud, it gets a generous dusting of freshly ground Parmesan. And to complete the Tricolore, some very green Ligurian olive oil is drizzled from end to end.

By the time you have sectioned off a scoopful of this medley onto your plate, it doesn’t look like much. But as my partner so prophetically pointed out – it wasn’t going to remain on my plate for very long! Only after the fourth helping did it finally dawn on me that the polenta was merely the delivery mechanism (like a fluffy cheese-infested conveyor belt) that kept the rich, hearty and spectacularly authentic Bolognaise coming.

http://www.opentable.com/sauce

Pippali review

Pippali - There are two things I have to warn you about before you step foot into Peter Beck’s relatively new Indian bistro Pippali in Curry Hill: the one is the noise, and the other is the food! Chances are, you probably prefer the one over the other, but you will undoubtedly have to concern yourself with both. The combination of the understandable (yet unpredicted) popularity of this semi-subterranean dining room with woefully inadequate sound-absorption materials seems to recreate the chaos of the Bangalore railway station at rush hour.  But be that as it may, if your waiter can manage to hear your order above the infernal roar, then you are in for one of the most exotic Indian treats this side of London.

Beck has successfully impressed New Yorkers with his inventive elevation of Indian classics into ultra modern culinary delicacies since he opened the Michelin star winning Tamarind in 2002. This new venue further permits him to take bold risks and blend western ingredients with Indian spices. While you might recognize some of the dishes by name on the vegevore/carnivore menu, the resulting flavors will most definitely surprise you.

Pippali - Jaipuri Kofta

Jaipuri Kofta

The spinach Samosas are bursting with lentils and humming with heat – which is broadened and softened by the orange chutney. There’s hardly any need to wonder why the Jaipuri Kofta is one of the most frequently ordered dishes. These too-good-to-be-true green pumpkin and chickpea meatless meatballs are steeped in garam masala with ginger and spinach, and arrive submerged in a sauce made from precisely the same ingredients! The incredibly plump and flavorful Chorchori Chingri (marinated shrimp) are sautéed in mustard seeds and a thick coconut cream. I was tempted to try the Batak Uttapam (black pepper hand rubbed duck breast with portabella mushrooms) but ultimately chose the incomparable Tabak Maz (grilled rack of lamb).

Pippali - Grilled Rack of Lamb

Grilled Rack of Lamb

Three succulent chops grilled to perfection with roasted aromatics that create an immaculate balance between taste, tang and tart – finished in a creamy saffron and fennel sauce, (the kind that if no-one was looking, you would bury your head deep into the plate and lick up every last drop!)

So don’t let the noise deter you. Just light some candles, put on some cool jazz, call Pippali and order in!

http://www.pippalinyc.com/

Ma Peche review

Ma Peche - Scallop crudo

Scallop crudo

If New York City ever said its prayers before bedtime, it should include in its blessings that David Chang decided to move here from Vienna, Virgina, and that he didn’t choose any other US city to set up shop as one of the most celebrated and deservedly accoladed Korean-American gastronomic virtuosi of our time. His enormously popular East Village conclave of bars and restaurants, (which are all vertical adaptations and extensions of one another) are platforms for spotlighting his take on American influenced Southeast Asian street food. The philosophy behind serving fast-food that actually takes hours to prepare, is by no means taken for granted by his adoring fan-base, who would quite happily donate a tenth of their lives by standing in line in all sorts of inclement weather to sample his life-altering and award-winning cooking. At his midtown establishment Ma Peche, located within the rather hoity-toity Chambers hotel, Chang forces prospective diners to march right through his Momofuku Milk Bar (the ultimate willpower test to grab/not grab a slice of his now world-famous, butter-laden Crack-Pie) before descending into a windowless box-shaped room with colorless stretched fabric sails, covering identically colorless walls – more reminiscent of a pop-up med-evac tent on the front lines than a haven for impending culinary indulgence…but then the dim sum carts of international treats begin to arrive table side, and all is instantly forgiven.

Ma Peche - Lobster Rice

Lobster Rice

The ever-so-gently torched chunks of Scallop Crudo were resting in a refreshingly simple but delightful bath of yuzu lemon and olive oil when they pulled up beside me. The creamy risotto-like Lobster Rice accompanied by the robust, deeply layered and aromatic brown-sugary-cinnamony-clove flavored Jerk Chicken Wings could quite possibly jolt the earth off of its axis.

Ma Peche - Jerk Chicken WIngs

Jerk Chicken WIngs

 

 

The following cart delivered the delectable shredded Lamb Noodles, served over a thick lamb and onion roux with lemony cabbage and chili jam. And just when things couldn’t possibly get any better, the crispy, salty and impossibly delicious Roasted Rice Cakes with Spicy Pork (my all-time favorite item appreciatively borrowed from his Momofuku Ssam Bar menu) was on final approach.

Ma Peche - Roasted Rice Cakes

Roasted Rice Cakes

The biggest hit from the handful of á la Carte options was the addiction-inducing, shatter-crisp yet buttermilk-moist Fried Chicken, which easily steals the honors from anyone else brave enough (or silly enough) to enter the category.

This isn’t just a meal, people. It’s a sacred New York experience!

http://momofuku.com/new-york/ma-peche/reservations/

Ma Peche - Lamb Noodles

Lamb Noodles

 

 

 

El Presidente review

El Presidente -

El Presidente

Never underestimate the power of simplicity. When simple ideas have the power to mean volumes, like the New York expression “Meh!”  In a nutshell “meh” is used to describe that feeling of mild disappointment that follows tremendous hype, hysteria and anticipation. New Yorkers generally only use “meh” when they feel strongly about something – even if it diametrically contradicts how everyone else feels. The meaning of “meh” hovers somewhere on the sunny side of “dislike” or “disappointment”. Not quite as heavy as “awful”, and yet it has about 8 pounds more belly-fat than “just ok”.   My recent visit to the Tacombi team’s newest taquería in the Flatiron district El Presidente could suffice with this monosyllabic review, but here’s why it was a bit “meh” for me.

The concept is fine: an ultra-casual, all secrets exposed, street-vendor styled red-paint-and-white-tiled cantina, serving only 17 menu options, all for less than $15. The 3-sides-open kitchen is practically within spitting distance of every table, yet thanks to the sparse service, none of the food arrives hot. (Who in the world would want to corner the market for tepid tacos?)

El Presidente - Señorita Carnitas (Roasted Pork Tacos)

Señorita Carnitas (Roasted Pork tacos)

The Señorita Carnitas are the flavor winners. With their dark and sweet marinade topped with cheese and pickles, these two-bite-sized tacos need no additional salsas or peppers. And the tangy and toasty Esquites – a paper cup (not quite) filled with fire-grilled corn and chipotle mayo with melting Cotija cheese is spectacular.

El Presidente - Crispy Fish taco

Crispy Fish taco

Whereas the much ballyhoo’d Crispy Fish tacos need a little more time in the design studio. The too-large slice of batter-fried cod combined with the yummy (but soggy) Cilantro Crema proves a tad too taxing for the soft, homemade shells. And so unless you are blessed with more than thirteen fingers, a good majority of the dish won’t quite make it into your mouth.

El Presidente - Pollo Valladolid (Braised Chicken tacos)

Pollo Valladolid (Braised Chicken tacos)

The Pollo Valladolid’s braised Achiote Chili Chicken and Sour Orange was altogether too tame. I tried adding one of the grilled Jalapeño’s, which only succeeded in blowing the hubcaps off of every car parked on 24th street, but did nothing to give this taco any real taste.

Perhaps David Chang is correct in thinking that there might be other cities in the US that produce better Mexican food than NY. Is it the lack of access to authentic produce? Or could it be the lack of a truly discerning public who knows what the real deal should taste like?     Or maybe it’s just…meh!

http://cafeelpresidente.com/

Paiché – Los Angeles review

Paiche - If you’ve ever found yourself gastronomically disoriented by a cuisine that combines the best of Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Italian and African flavors into one, you are most likely sitting in a Peruvian restaurant. And while the global kitchen shrinks and international flavors merge, it’s no wonder that Peruvian cooking is quickly becoming the world’s “fusion central”.

Most exported Peruvian toques tend to stick to traditional and popular drinks and dishes like Pisco Sours and Loma Saltado. But once in a while someone like Ricardo Zarate dares to stick his head out of the window and share some of the truly inspired tastes from this colorful and fascinating culture.

Paiche - Fried Paiché

Fried Paiché

The concept behind Paiché (which is a really large Amazonian air-breathing fish) is Peruvian cooking with a very pronounced Japanese influence. It starts with a staggering menu of small plates that includes Sashimi’s and Ceviches, Tempuras and Tortillas and of course Wagyus and Quinoas.

The Pisco-heavy cocktail list is tremendous, cementing Zarate’s intent to create a Marina Del Rey based Izakaya bar. The Sea Bass Ceviche is as traditionally zesty as it gets, but is layered slightly above the Leche de Tigre (Tiger’s milk) so as not to overpower the delicate flavor of the fish. The signature Paiché comes fried to a sharp crisp and the accompanying Aji Amarillo (ubiquitous Yellow Chili) aioli is delightfully refreshing.

Paiche - Soltado de Camarones

Soltado de Camarones

The Soltado de Camarones is one of the many departures from convention, where gift-wrapping-wide homemade ribbon noodles accompany the sautéed shrimp in a familiar, yet creamier Lomo Saltado sauce.

The Niman Ranch Pork Belly is a wonderful kaleidoscope of extremes, from the soft squash puree to the crispy pork crackling – and just about every texture in between.

But the Uni Shrimp Toast is worth every hour of inching through Friday afternoon traffic on the 405. Starting with a butter and shrimp paste-soaked crust, layer upon layer of goodness and sweetness from pickles to honey is finally topped with fresh Sea Urchin and chili sauce. Its like a song that you just can’t (and don’t really want to) get out of your head.

http://paichela.com/

Paiche - Uni Shrimp Toast

Uni Shrimp Toast

All’Onda review

All'Onda - Lumache with Aged Duck Ragu

Lumache with Aged Duck Ragu

How did the word “interesting” become irrevocably altered from a compliment to an insult? Nowadays when you hear someone describing a restaurant or a meal as “interesting”, the automatic assumption is that it was a completely un-repeatable experience filled with questionable choices. Even more perplexing and inconvenient is that the opposite of interesting (uninteresting) enjoys the same flavor of insult as well! I therefore feel it absurdly necessary to disclaim right here and now that the concept behind Chris Jaeckle’s charming two-story, Greenwich Village Venetian bistro All’Onda is brilliantly interesting – in the original sense of the word.

Given his solid record at being able to deliver on traditional, high-end Italian during this tenure at Michael White’s Altamarea group, Jaeckle has produced his own gimmick-free kitchen that catapults Italian cooking into the 21st century while bringing many familiar Japanese nods and influences along for the ride – and what a fun ride it is. The rustic brick-and-wood interior feels comfortable, fresh and unimposing. The staircase separates the noisier bar area from the more romantic upper level. (In case you’re wondering, the two “it” tables are the ones right up against the window facing tree-lined 13th street.) The staff seem to have all graduated from the same tone school of upbeat, friendly, knowledgeable and not too serious, and their countless journeys up and down the stairs keep them well toned too.

All'Onda - Polenta Chips with Bacalá (Salted cod)

Polenta Chips with Bacalá (Salted cod)

Let’s talk about the Polenta Chips with Bacalá (salted cod) for a minute. I used to think that I was very familiar with Polenta and its various texture options. I’ve eaten it soft, hard, droopy, soupy and dry, but never before have I encountered it crispy. After normal preparation, it gets dehydrated and then fried to a pork-crackling crisp, but not without a little cooperation from Mother Nature herself. Just like frizzy hair, excessive humidity can ruin this delectable treat and banish it from the menu.

All'Onda - Hamachi

Hamachi

The Hamachi with Pepperoncino and Soy is transcendent. The best cut of Sashimi with a decidedly Mediterranean accent. And the cerignola green olive tapenade with wasabi (a little less flavor-forward than I had anticipated) gently transforms the Tuna into 3 little red blocks of sunshine.

There was a delightful yet invisible crunch and plenty of salty/citrusy flavors in the Garganelli, but it did appear as if the preparation might have been a bit too rigorous for the delicate Peekytoe crab.

All'Onda - Garganelli with Peaky-toe crab

Garganelli with Peekytoe crab

The Lumache with Aged Duck Ragu on the other hand had everything going for it – sweetness from chocolate, bitterness from treviso (a version of radicchio), richness from (many a cup of) red wine and a solid prediction that this might well become the darling of the menu. Thanks to the morel mushrooms for their meaty texture and the preserved plums for their rich saltiness, it was almost impossible to believe that the woundrous Spring Pea Shoots were entirely vegetarian.

And all I can say about the desert is that you had better pray that the Hazelnut Mousse with Chocolate Crème and Candied Hazelnuts wasn’t just a one-time replacement to the menu.

Did someone just push all my buttons?

http://allondanyc.com/reserve

All'Onda -