Legacy Records – review

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Perpetually groovy Manhattan hotspots Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones have a new baby brother. Chef Ryan Hardy of the Delicious Hospitality Group birthed his newest Italo-Seafood supper club Legacy Records in early March. The restaurant is visionary in many respects. Not only did San Francisco designer Ken Fulk do an absolute number on the new space, with a high-end tribute to art deco and mid-century luxury using liberal helpings of emerald green, gold and mahogany, but the far west location somewhere between the Javitz Convention Center and DHL’s distribution hub at the base of a condo tower is definitely out there – that is until Hudson Yards becomes the city’s newest it neighborhood.

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Legacy Records

Being able to snag a table at one of New York’s newest establishments delivers more than just bragging rights. First month jitters, growing pains and teething troubles often yield their own uniquely entertaining take-out stories, and Legacy Records is not immune. As we tried to gain access via the very masculine brick-and-steel Henry Hall condo lobby, a sign directed us to a side entrance, 50 feet away. Once there, a contradictory sign directed us back to the condo lobby. Then just as we marveled at the magnificently clubby, yet airy crescent bar and the staggering array of multi-leveled brass trumpet flower arrangements decorating the all-day dining café, we were suddenly immobilized by the instantaneous ambience destruction of a smoke alarm with intermittent deafening sirens and a pulsating cascade of flashing lights. Not exactly the tribute I had in mind for a former recording studio.

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 6.26.00 PMAs you circumnavigate the bar, a series of bold and funky artworks by Mickalene Thomas adorn the walls that lead to a somewhat less formal dining area flanked by a row of windows looking out onto a concrete wall as high as a prison yard. My hunch, hope or suggestion might be for a vertical garden to slightly diminish the claustrophobia.

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Razor Clam Crudo, Legacy Records

The service has also not quite found its groove yet. After our waiter bragged that the butter was “especially imported”, a server seemed to think that it just came from “uptown”. (Turns out he clears tables at a different location for lunch and got his butter origins confused.) The only reason I’m making such a big deal about the butter is because it is indeed imported from France, and is accompanied by a cocoon-shaped dollop of rosemary-infused lard which collectively transforms the house-baked sprouted seed bread into a sublime and decadent feast. But the kicker came later in the meal when one of the bussers who was so intent on replacing our plates and flatware mid-course, that one of our table guests – who had 4 remaining mouthfuls to go – found himself at the defensive end of a tug-of-war.

“New plates,” the busser kept insisting.

“Not finished,” we kept replying.

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Diver Scallop Crudo, Legacy Records

But the kitchen is indisputably pitch-perfect. The highly recommended Crudo for the table arrives in a multi-level ceramic sculpture resembling an architectural model of a Santorini cliffside villa. It includes a Razor Clam in a wonderfully tart and tangy saffron espellette, a delectable lime-yogurt flavored Diver Scallop – diced but still in the shell, and sweet but heat-loaded, sashimi-smooth slithers of Fluke, thanks to some citrusy jalapeno. I felt a little sorry for the Japanese Sea Urchin that got drowned out by a blasting chorus of Dungeness crab under a shellfish-flavored aioli.

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Japanese Sea Urchin Crudo, Legacy Records

Some of the other small plates included San Daniele Prosciutto, hand-pulled Mozzarella and a charcoal grilled Pigeon, but we unanimously went for the seasonally appropriate and utterly rewarding Sunchokes. I cannot ever recall ever enjoying such dark and crispy lobes of sunchoke that gave way to soft and tender artichoke hearts and anchovies in a leafy, mushroomy salad.

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Sunchoke Salad, Legacy Records

The half dozen pasta options are also more intriguing than your Italian go-to staples. We had to skip the pea and leak Raviolo Doppio and the cuttlefish Spaghetti in favor of the wondrous chestnut Tagliatelle with shards of duck ragu in a rich rosemary and liver sauce. And I hereby commit to trying the über-popular shellfish Risotto next time.

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Honey lacquered Duck for Two, Legacy Records

The mains are the usual carousel of Italian RCB’s (Ribeye, Chicken, Branzino) with a Duck for Two as the absolute showstopper. The honey-lacquered roasted bird gets paraded around in her birthday suit featuring a dark mahogany crust with a rosemary plume before being whisked away for dissection and plating. “Our” duck made 2 separate appearances by 2 separate waiters, revealing that she was perhaps selected for objectification and exhibition purposes only. Regardless, I predict that the duo of super tender breast slices bordered by a nutty, spicy and delectably sweet skin are sure to elevate this dish to billboard status before the summer is over.

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Gelatos, Legacy Records

Desserts include a Rum cake and other equally odd bits and bobs, but the popular must-haves are the Gelatos served in cracker-crispy house-made cones. Right now, flavors like Bananas foster, Chocolate fudge and Yoghurt rhubarb were all she wrote, but I have a strong feeling that this repertoire will continue to grow as the temperature rises.

What better way to usher in the spring than a fresh new hit in a hip, new hood.

https://www.legacyrecordsnyc.com/

 

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Cote Korean Steakhouse – review

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If the definition of an enigma is a mysterious or puzzling riddle, chef Simon Kim has whipped the term up to a whole new frenzy at Cote, his dynamo of a Flatiron grill house. While it might be much more of a Korean barbecue than a regular steakhouse, the one thing this recently crowned Michelin hotspot is super-dooper serious about – is meat.

 

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The mysteriously dark and borderline somber interior (thanks to the dark walls, concrete floors and granite table-tops) feels less like the place you’d find wood-handled serrated knives, paper napkins and sticky bottles of dark-red sauce, and more like the set of a tragic opera titled “The Temple of Contrasts”. It’s way too mellow for a fine dining experience, and yet way too serious for a steakhouse. When you stand up it feels expensive, but when you sit down at the rows of shared tables, it’s not. Let’s call it a hybrid. Just like their American Wagyu steak – which is a byproduct of a mixed marriage from a Japanese Wagyu father and an American Black Angus mother. Is it the best of both? Absolutely. We’re talking unparalleled mecca of meat in Manhattan here.

 

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Dry aging room, Cote Korean Steakhouse

The wait staff are as delightful and helpful as kindergarten teachers, who just want you to enjoy yourselves as you wade your way through the 2-foot long laminated menu with built-in bovine anatomy lesson on the back. But no-one would dare upstage the real stars of the show who are all resting and aging quietly downstairs on a series of comfortable racks for about 2 to 20 weeks. Brief sightings are permitted via a window into their neon red chamber of patience as you pass by on your way to the sub-level lounge.

 

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Chef’s Feast, Cote Korean Steakhouse

The perfect way to dive into this heady list of options is via the Chef’s Feast, which serves as a primer for various Korean sides, salads and accoutrements plus a dealer’s choice of 4 different ages and cuts of marbled prime for $45.

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Korean Bacon, Cote Korean Steakhouse

We supplemented our order with a couple of appetizers, like the Korean Bacon – a wondrously crispy cumin and paprika rubbed, twice-smoked pork belly punctuated with pickled Jalapeno’s, and the hand-sliced (or rather – diced) top-round Steak Tartare flavored with chunks of pear and pickled mustard seeds. Uber-delectable in so many ways, even if the fluffy tendon crisps fell short in their duty of transporting every delicious scarlet morsel of flesh from plate to mouth.

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Kimchi Wagyu Paella, Cote Korean Steakhouse

And from the Savory dish section we ordered something deep and delicious called Kimchi Wagyu Paella. A rather curious name given that it didn’t much taste of Kimchi, nor did the mini-morsels of Wagyu beef get any spotlight, and I’d hardly describe it as a paella either. But who cares? The “chili-fried rice with nori flakes and a soft poached egg thing” got crispier and crispier and tastier and tastier as it waited patiently in a sizzling cast-iron pan, while the waitress sprinkled a trio of salts onto 8 bite-sized dominoes of wet-aged Hangar steak before lowering them onto the table-top grill.

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Hangar steak, Cote Korean Steakhouse

Various wait staff rotated in and out to turn the meat to ensure that it delivered the house-recommended medium-rare doneness. Meanwhile in the foreground, side dishes materialized from out of the darkness and transformed the table into a carousel of colors and flavors. Pickled cauliflower with jalapeno’s. Scallion salad with a tart dressing. Red leaf lettuces to wrap around the meat. A nice and crispy Radish kimchi. A soft and salty Savoy cabbage kimchi. A single leaf of Sesame kimchi (which despite many attempts proved un-tearable and therefore un-shareable.) Spicy kimchi stew with pork belly and rice. A rather pale and shy Savory egg soufflé, and an ochre-colored, spicy, fermented soy bean paste called Ssamjang that could transform anything – even the rear-end of a Hyundai Elantra – into something delectable.

Despite our trepidation about making a culinary faux pas, we were assured that there were no rules. You can group the steak bites together with a chorus of kimchi and paste inside a lettuce leaf for extra backup, or you can force each bite into its own solo act. Either way, the heavenly meat succumbed without resistance for a moist mouthful of umami, with hints of sear and salt in perfect unison. We certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.

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(Clockwise) 45-day aged Ribeye, Wet-aged Hangar steak, American Wagyu, Galbi Marinated Shortrib, Cote Korean Steakhouse

Next on the grill was the aforementioned American Wagyu. No other way to describe it than utterly conversation-stoppingly sensational. And climbing yet another notch in tenderness – the 45-day aged Ribeye. No funky mushroomy flavors here. Just the purest, moistest, most salivatingly wonderful bite of beef ever. And finally, the popular Galbi Marinated Shortrib rounded out the quartet. Finger-thin striplets of tender meat still barely attached after bathing in a marvelously sweet and salty soy, apple, pear and mandarin juice all day. Sheer heaven. We were offered a staggering 145-day aged T-bone as the Chef’s special but heeded the warning that it can taste a little like blue-cheese on a good day.

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Steak Tartare, Cote Korean Steakhouse

Eating a steak has never been an exercise in patience for me. Quite the opposite. But I do have to confess to a certain enjoyment as I watched each morsel slowly cook in front of me, and then thoughtfully masticated and savored each bite. But once the flavor serenade burst into my mouth, I would have given anything to gobble up every last bite in sight in under a minute.

https://www.cotenyc.com/

 

 

 

Olmsted – review

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Olmsted

Manhattanites (myself included) obediently acquiesce to the burden of trying every new dining hotspot the city offers up. And the mere thought of bridge-and-tunneling it across to any of the other boroughs seems troublesome, treacherous and traitorous. Why do I need to drag myself across to Brooklyn for a meal, when there are 10,000 options right here? Well, there are a handful of excellent reasons, and Greg Baxtrom’s Olmsted is one of them.

 

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Olmsted

The neighborhoody shotgun room crowded with regulars, was named for the designer of nearby Prospect Park. And given chef Baxtrom’s background for having worked under Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller and Dan Barber, it’s no surprise that he wanted somewhere to cultivate at least a few of his modern American, veg-forward, seasonal ingredients – even if it meant standing up to his frown-browed neighbors at the prospect of raising herbs, flowers, quail and crawfish on his suburban premises.

 

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Carrot Crepe, Olmsted

There are only 12 items on the neatly folded menu that range from $7 – $24. In my experience, there are two reasons for such limited options: it can either mean a cramped kitchen with no room to accommodate a broader selection, or that a fastidious chef has clipped, filtered and trimmed the variety of dishes down to only offering standout stars. Olmsted is combination of both. The three line chefs can practically reach every pot, pan and plate without taking a single step, and by cooking every item in batches of 4, many of the plates were prepared in anticipation of us ordering them. If I were to do it over, I would simply order one of everything ($194 total, which can easily feed 6) to solve the debate of what to order, and the food would arrive almost immediately.

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Crawfish Boil Crackers, Olmsted

Don’t let the super-attentive service fool you – it’s all about the food. I’ve never eaten hand-made shrimp chips before. Normally they come dehydrated in a cellophane-wrapped box before curling and stretching out in hot oil, tripling their original size and tasting a whole lot more like UPS packaging than actual shellfish. But these chicharone-like Crawfish boil crackers, poking out of a newspaper basket were a very tasty tribute to those lethargic crustaceans sharing a bathtub with some goldfish out on the patio outside.

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Non-Fjordic Oysters, Olmsted

Next to arrive were four Non-Fjordic oysters, flavored with tiny pickled beets, some horse-radish cream, a few salmon roe and a fluff of dill set atop a bowl of pink, diced ice. The briny, vinegary, salty, anisey combination is a solid hit.

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Beer battered Delicata Squash, Olmsted

A mere wipe of the napkin later, a wooden bowl of Beer battered Delicata squash replaced the empty oyster shells. The short stack of yummy donut-ringed vegies are wrapped in a light, ketchup-flavored batter and crusted in crunchy herbs, crispy rice and salty splinters of nori.

Probably the most requested dish (and therefore the only menu perennial) is a Carrot Crepe. Made from, with (and possibly by) carrots, it’s a wonderful example of transformative cooking. Adding to the heavenly combination of 3 different carrot textures, little neck clams provide some salty chewiness, roasted sunflower seeds (home-grown) yield some crunch, and a few daisy petals finish off a totally Instagrammable package.

 

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Rutabaga Tagliatelle, Olmsted

Whenever I think of rutabaga I imagine a thick, turnippy, cabbagy alternative to mashed potatoes. Never would I have expected this shy bulb to grab the spotlight as the most delicious ribbons of soft and crunchy Tagliatelle, flavored with Burgundy black truffle breadcrumbs, brown butter and melted Parmesan.

But that was hardly the end of the story. The street cart inspired Gai Tod Hat Yai (Deep fried Thai Chicken) is served two ways: as expected in tightly battered and fried strips before being dunked in the most delectable ginger glaze, and an unexpected confit, tossed in a cabbage, carrot and raw turnip slaw with crunchy fried shallots and a superb fish-sauce and lime dressing.

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Lavander honey Frozen Yogurt, Olmsted

But how can I ever look a plain yogurt in the eye again after knowing that it can be topped with a meringue-like foam made entirely from whipping honey and water? Despite the sub-freezing temperatures outside, this magical concoction found its way onto every table (sometimes twice) which fully deserves a slot in the next time capsule.

So, don’t feel intimidated to veer coyly away from the island in search of great food – run!

www.olmstednyc.com

 

 

Llama Inn – review

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Llama Inn

People often ask what’s my favorite food. It’s a very tough question given my proclivity to so many vastly different disciplines and flavors. I guess I’m always expected to gush over iconic Italian, flawless French or amazing Asian, but that’s only half the story. The other half has to be Peruvian. Few people realize how delicious, unique (and yet familiar) Peruvian cooking is. Having adopted tastes and flavors that are decidedly Creole, Spanish, West African, Chinese and Japanese, many of their dishes include garlic, ginger, soy, lime juice, a rainbow of colored chilies and heaps of rice. This little mountain nation has also produced some of the finest toques ever, like Vergilio Martinez – recently named “best chef on the planet” – not to mention getting the health-obsessed hooked on Quinoa, their staple grain.

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Llama Inn

Adding his American twist and a modern “Neuva Latina” take on classic Peruvian cooking, Eleven Madison alum Erik Ramirez’s Llama Inn adds to Brooklyn’s bounty of river-crossing-worthy restaurants in a big way. Despite its curious location sandwiched between the B.Q.E. overpass and Withers street, the striking three-sided glass box sports tables, counter tops, a roof-top lounge to go with the young, hip and decidedly Williamsburg-esque crowd. It’s also easy to get caught up in the electric energy of the kitchen and wait staff, who fall somewhere between a gracious host, a good friend and a lion tamer.

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Flame grilled Anticuchos – Llama Inn

The menu is broken up into plate sizes from bar bites to (large) family portions. Some of which are expected, like a Whole Branzino Patarashca in banana leaves or a Quinoa salad, while others were a bit more surprising like Whole grilled Lobster or Steamed Clams. The same goes for the robust list of Pisco’s and Peruvian Sherries.

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Chicken thigh and Pork Belly Anticuchos – Llama Inn

From our control-tower perch at the “chef’s counter”, it became instantly evident which dishes were the most popular. After watching several dozen Beef Tenderloin stir fry’s (that’s American for Loma Saltado’s) being assembled, and several hundred Anticuchos (Peruvian for kebabs) being fired up, I could quite easily replace any of the line chefs without missing a beat. The Chicken thigh kebabs were doused in a wonderfully flavorful fermented soybean and then spiked with a squiggle of wasabi-green chile, while  the Pork Belly char siu was punctuated with pickled chilis and a nub or two of spicy mayo. (Next time I have to try the single head-on Shrimp rubbed in adobo and lime – yet another crowd pleaser.)

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Tiradito – Llama Inn

I lapped up the Sea Bream Tiradito like a thirsty kitten. It arrives dotted with persimmons to offset the tartness, and a cluster of walnuts for extra crunch. Simple, bracing and utterly refreshing. And once the fish was gone, I almost bent the spoon on the remaining mouthfuls of sauce.

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Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry with scallion tacos – Llama Inn

But candles and cacti had to be relocated elsewhere to make room for the platter and trappings that accompanied the Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry. I’ve made and ordered many a Loma Saltado in my time, but this mound of joy before me was the epitome of loveliness. Large chunks of medium-rare marbled steak adrift in a deep, dark, rich, salty, vinegary Oyster sauce with seared onions and tomatoes, topped with a thatch of crispy fries. Our incredibly attentive waitress instructed us to eat it taco style on a wafer-thin scallion pancake, with a pinch of pickled peppers, some simple quac’ for color and a dollop of aioli for spice, and you are cleared for takeoff. With both hands engaged, guiding my first messy bite of an avalanche of flavors, I could practically see the Andes before me. And when all I had left was a swampy mess of sauce, a bowl of rice appeared from heaven to soak up every…last…scrumptious…drop! (Here I am just thinking about it, and I’m salivating at the keyboard.)

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Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry – Llama Inn

Not that I had any room or space or reason to quibble at this point, but I was a bit surprised not to see a few other traditional dishes that were on Chef Ramirez’s original menu, such as Skewered Beef Hearts and Braised Goat neck. It must be that sobering boundary somewhere between authentic and ambitious, or just how far Williamsburg palettes will dare to reach into the darkness of the unfamiliar, versus gravitating back to what they recognize. So instead of wolfing down a trio of Picarones (the donut’s Peruvian cousin), I settled on a slightly more American slice of Graham Cracker based Lime Pie with a freshly piped and torched snake of meringue which took the express lane straight to my happy place.

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Graham Cracker Lime Pie – Llama Inn

http://www.llamainnnyc.com/

 

 

 

 

Benoit – review

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Benoit

I remember trying (unsuccessfully) to explain to my Grandmother how a fax machine worked some 30 years ago. But these days, I seem to expend so much effort struggling to latch on to technology’s slippery tentacles myself – just to remain relevant enough to carry on a conversation with a millennial without sounding like a ripe idiot. But as many new industries seem to emerge out of convenience for the younger end of the population, could the most overlooked business arena be the nostalgia industry for baby boomers? If “experiences” are supposedly more coveted than “things”, then perhaps the biggest growth opportunities might actually be lurking in our rear-view mirrors. Here’s one: being able to enjoy classic Parisian gourmet dishes that taste exactly as they did a century ago. And if you happen to live in New York, you can skip the transatlantic hassle at Alain Ducasse’s import, Benoit, now in its third and most triumphant incarnation in midtown.

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Benoit

Remember those romantic trips to Paris, where unless you spoke flawless French, your waiters invariably rolled their eyes uttering: “Tête de noeud” (knucklehead) under their breaths? Well, your memories have been well preserved. The service team at Benoit have perfected the lost arts of snooty indifference and sheer disinterest for the fact that I might like to see a menu, or might need a little more time deciding between Pork Rillettes or Duck foie gras terrine, or that the fine family of four who followed us in, is paying the check while we’re still wondering if we’ll ever see our aperitifs.

But, as if by thematic apology for a series of Buster Keaton-like false-starts (let me be clear that no verbal apology was offered), a silver vessel filled with warm cheese puffs arrived to quickly shut us up. All it took were two or three of these fluffy little balls of greedy goodness to hit the “restart” button on my first impressions.

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Cheese puffs, Benoit

 

The all-time franco-favorite menu includes century-old hits that will (should) never die, such as Pâte en croute and Escargot. And Ducasse’s newest chef Laëtitia Rouabah, whose vertical resume stretches from the Plaza Athénée Hotel, to Air France’s first class lounge to the very top of the Eiffel Tower, is a stickler for honoring traditional French flavors and preparations while holding back on over-reinvention.

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Onion soup gratinée, Benoit

The much written about Onion soup gratinée is a mic-drop humdinger. Dark, caramelized sweet onion shreds in a rich, salty and umami broth with a decadent layer of so much Gruyere that it manages to keep every spoonful company until the very last drop. Speaking of cleaning the platter, the Tarte Flambée is another exercise in flavorful delight. Thin crusts of flatbread held together by an umbrella of cheese and onions, with just the right amount of bacon nibs to give every mouthful a salty, smoky aroma. Plate after plate left the kitchen with the same fastidious attention to detail, delivering the most tender and magnificent Sweet Spiced Rohan Duck or Bordelaise Skirt steak you’d expect.

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Quenelles de brochet, Benoit

But I swear I could hear the Marseillaise crescendo as I bit into my Quenelles de brochet. Two almond shaped pike dumplings luxuriating in the most staggeringly delicious lobster bisque as they prepared for their disappearing act. With a texture somewhere between an unbaked meringue and an ultra-smooth omelet, finished with a rich, crustacean flavor that ­­­could have ended the French revolution a full month earlier, I’m only now regaining the full complement of my faculties.

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Dessert trolley, Benoit

All I could say about the silver dessert trolley as it glided by to a table with more time on their hands than ours, was: “Aaaaah, next time.” A bientôt Benoit.

https://www.benoitny.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABCV – review

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Roasted Cauliflower, ABCV

In my mind, there’s a good reason why beige gets such a bad rap. As a color, it’s neither brown, nor cream, nor yellow, nor orange, nor white. It’s refusal to take a stand one way or the other locks it into the nethersphere of indifference. I also find it timid, inconsequential and perhaps even lazy. In fact, the only thing going for beige is its invisibility. After months of trying, I finally landed a spot at Jean Georges Vongerichten’s much-fussed-about 3rd act within the Flatiron district’s ABC Carpet & Home. After the inextinguishable farm-to-table success of ABC Kitchen, followed by his mostly-Iberian bistro ABC Cucina, he then tripled-down with ABCV, a robust commitment to vegetarianism that I can best describe as…beige.

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ABCV

The white-washed techy space is the brightest of his ABC’s with a few vague, non-comital splashes of pale colors here and there: pale pink, pale green and of course – pale beige. Even the wait staff seem to have been hand-picked for their pasty skin tones – which against their faded-pink T-shirts makes them all appear to be headed for a slumber party at the Langone Hospital emergency room at the end of their shift.

 

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Heirloom Tomatoes, ABCV

As expected, aside from a few cocktails and a limited wine selection, the non-alcoholic libations include an array of smoothies and veggie juices with a litany of promises, from a healthy heart to a clean spleen. But what did surprise me was the illustrated vegetable encyclopedia for idiots, which I found both startlingly unnecessary and oddly insulting. (I know what an eggplant is. It’s an emoji metaphor for a man’s endowment!)

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Avocado Lettuce Cups, ABCV

 

After the first few bites of the Avocado Lettuce Cups It became brutally evident why that darling little antique salt-boat containing vegan hot-sauce was waiting patiently in front of me. I figured that if the only discernable flavors were the total sum of the ingredients listed on the menu, I should still be in good shape flavor-wise with the cumin, serrano and lime, but all I got was a mouthful of fresh and crunchy beige.

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Wok Fried Ramen noodles, ABCV

I won’t bore you with repetitions, but suffice it to say that the next few dishes including Heirloom tomatoes with figs, Roasted Cauliflower with turmeric-tahini, Roasted baby Artichokes with green olives, Wok fried Ramen noodles with marinated cucumbers all left the kitchen fervidly vying for “dullest dish of the decade” – and frankly, it was a very close call. I’d happily argue that my vegetarian meal kit delivery service leans into its flavors with more conviction. Heck, even Langone Hospital offers more flavor off their heart-healthy iPad menu. And although I have yet to vouch for them, I’m told that Old Mother Hubbard Classic Country dog-bone shaped treats promises irresistible pumpkin flavor too. Let’ s just hope they’re any color other than…you know…

Tim Ho Wan – review

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Tim Ho Wan

Given my proclivity for impatience, I have always admired the concept of Dim Sum. No sooner have you sat down, than the food starts showing up via a Formula 1 rally of tin carts, dodging and weaving between the tables, where dripping steamer baskets are distributed and score cards are stamped. If you don’t recognize the dish being wheeled past, you might not like (or believe) what you hear under the infernal din and acute language barriers. I once inquired what was inside some odd-looking dumplings, only to be told, “a European!” Never mind, it’s all part of the experience. And if you’re very lucky, all of your small plate preferences might be the first to show up, and you can be napkins down inside of twenty minutes.

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Tim Ho Wan

Thing is, as efficient as the experience might be, just getting seated can feel a lot like day one of boot camp as a military recruit. Lots of high-pitched yelling into walkie-talkies; being shunted into different snaking lines; having one’s name horribly mis-pronounced, or being given a ticket with a number that stretches into the next millennium. Or worse yet, the food itself can show up in dire need of a pit-stop – the oil can do with a change, the driving crew can do with a break and some of the ingredients can do with a major disposal.

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Har Gow, Tim Ho Wan

So to learn that Mak Kwai Pui, one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated dim sum chefs, decided to open a local branch of his mega-successful chain Tim Ho Wan, I had to indulge. Their claim to fame as “the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world” is as bizarrely fascinating as it is annoyingly challenging due to their über-popularity yielding the longest wait times in the city. Curiously there are no actual lines outside the East Village corner establishment. That’s because after putting your name down, the hostess with smile and promise to text you in: “Two hours and forty-five minutes!” Zzzzzzzzz. So I set out for a vexingly early slot on a Monday morning and snagged a table in the middle of the cheerful room. The placemats are the menu, with familiar names, pictures and strictly single-digit price-points. Service is prompt, and before you know it, a steaming feast materializes magically before you.

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Siu Mai pork dumplings, Tim Ho Wan

It didn’t take the double order of Har Gow to realize that we weren’t in Manhattan anymore. Micro-thin rice wrappers bursting with plump, crisp, unexpectedly large prawns with a heavenly Shaoxing wine and ginger flavor. The Siu Mai pork dumplings with shrimp are a close second, but way fresher and meatier than any of their Chinatown cousins. And biting through the crispy, sugar-dusted surface of the Baked BBQ Pork buns revealed a dark, thick, smoky, silky sauce with mushrooms and pork bits within.

 

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Baked BBQ Pork Buns, Tim Ho Wan

Everyone loves Deep Fried Springrolls, but how many times have you bitten into an oil-drippy, doughy envelope of goo and old sprouts? Not these big boys. The wrappers disintegrate into dry, crispy flakes yielding steaming hot vegetables that won’t leave you with an oil-slicked chin.

 

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Deep Fried Springrolls, Tim Ho Wan

We didn’t have room or time to sample some of the other house specialties, like the Steamed Egg Cakes, and Beef Balls with Bean Curd, or the Pan Fried Turnip Cake. Have to wait for another free mid-morning mid-week, or perhaps another hurricane threat when no-one’s around, so we won’t have to be told: “Three days, six hours and eighty-five minutes!”

http://timhowanusa.com/

 

Catching two elusive Dragons

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Mission Chinese Food, New York

It is with the utmost relief to finally indulge in two of New York’s hoopla hotspots that have been stuck on my “to-try” list for an annoying eternity. Pok Pok NY, the (at one time) Michelin-starred northern Thai import from Oregon (of all places), and San Francisco native Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food.

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Pok Pok NY

Pok Pok NY is marooned in one of the most maddeningly inaccessible neighborhoods of Brooklyn requiring a car, a driver, nerves of steel and quite possibly two forms of government ID. When Andy Ricker opened Pok Pok Wings in Manhattan a few years back, I idiotically refused to trek all the way down to the Financial District to sample his über-celebrated chicken wings, only to have to settle for a 2+ hour waiting line instead. And just when I finally overcame my chronic impatience, he went and shut the place down. Karma.

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Thrice Cooked Bacon, Mission Chinese Food

And ever since Mission Chinese Food reopened to a tsunami of public gratitude in its current location (after an unmentionably embarrassing incident involving tenants of the rodent variety), tables have been as scarce as subtlety in Las Vegas. But to make matters worse, Mr. Bowien insisted on listing his Asian-fusion moneymaker on Reserve, the most infuriatingly eye-roll-worthy app of all time (who notoriously forget to remind you of your forgotten passwords!) And furthermore, 411 and Google still offer diners a “mystery” phone number that has yet to be plugged into an actual phone. So, if you have a few millennia to kill, I dare you to call (646) 707-0281 just so you can hear a ring tone that easily lasts longer than Cher’s multi-platinum career.

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Spicy Peanut Noodles, Mission Chinese Food

Despite the fact that Mission Chinese sits on the border of Chinatown’s glut of Asian dried fish stands and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops with inverted red ducks swinging in the windows amid incessant signs offering “Take-Out” (which smell as if they should have been “taken out” ages ago), it feels more like a Quentin Tarantino movie set. Not that a gunfight massacre wouldn’t be appropriate, but more so because of the funky red velvety booths under alien-star lamps with an unstoppable hip-hop soundtrack. You might find a dragon or two punctuating the raw brick walls, but you won’t find any standard fare on the atypically short un-Chinese menu. Most of the items carry one or more “fire” symbols that are by no means decorative. Take heed. These dishes might all be genuinely delicious, but they are certainly not for the faint of palate. We inhaled the Spicy Peanut Noodles with abandon, enjoying the many wonderful layers and flavors beyond the lemon-grass and garlic. Things elevated a notch with the Thrice cooked Bacon, which entirely deserves its own Instagram account. Smoky sections of soft, barbecue-y bacon strips clinging to sticky slivers of tender rice cake medallions, darkened by the most wondrous Szechuan pepper glaze.

 

 

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Mapo Tofu, Mission Chinese Food

I could go on and on, but by the time we drenched the bracingly spectacular Mapo Tofu over a puddle of rice, it was time to summon those brave gentlemen from the 15th fire truck precinct a few doors down. There was a moment when I began to worry about my teeth melting under the searing heat from my tongue, when I realized that “hot in” usually also means “hot out”, giving me something else to look forward to in a few hours time. Turns out that one of the reliable properties of Szechuan peppercorns is their numbing effect which thankfully – I’m delighted to report – lives up to its reputation for the duration of its lifecycle.

 

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Pok Pok NY

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge has always been a daunting challenge for New Yorkers ever since its inauguration in 1883. One leaves the calm orderliness of Manhattan’s grid structure behind, only to be faced by backyards, drivers, hipsters and families with children. Quite literally a war zone. Regardless, once you’re through the worst of it and you finally pull up at Pok Pok NY, it somehow seems a bit more “cafeteria” than you expected. I know looks can be deceiving, but the quirky paper-doyly festooned aluminum bar, and the sensibly laminated Hawaiian-print table cloths with unbreakable prison-ware dishes redefines casual – even for me. But when our disarmingly engaging waitress brought a far-too-small bowl of House-roasted Red Peanuts with chilies and lime leaves, my table manners deserted me. Was I breaking a hunger strike or something? Were these the first peanuts I’d ever eaten? Was I always this ambidextrous? It was all a bit of a scrumptious blur that ended far too quickly.

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House-roasted Red peanuts with chilies and lime leaves, Pok Pok NY

Then things shifted down to a lower gear when the rather unmemorable minced duck and mint salad (Laap Pet Isaan) showed up with a plate of freshly plucked Thai herbs. And my entire dining party unanimous classified the tender chunks of Burmese pork belly curry, (Kaeng Hang Leh) in a nondescript broth as “nothing special”.

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Laap Pet Isaan, Mission Chinese Food

The Kai Yaang Tuua, turned out to be a spectacularly ordinary roast chicken (with both feet attached, and stuffed with an irritatingly thorny lemongrass and garlic stuffing) which were it not for the two dipping sauces, might have been even less popular.

 

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Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, Pok Pok NY

But as expected, Ike’s Vietnamese Wings are still the smash hit that once turned a kitchen into a goldmine. This legendary chorus line of 6 auburn fish-sauce-marinated chicken shoulders, tossed in the most mouthwateringly sugary, smoky, sticky, garlicky, peanutty, peppery caramelized glaze with a subtle heat, came just inches from touching my soul. I’m talking about a finger-licking, mood-altering delight that makes the thought of another risk-to-life-and-limb journey to the far side of the East River entirely repeatable.

https://www.missionchinesefood.com/nyc/

https://pokpokny.com/

 

Ikinari – review

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Ikinari Steak

Nowadays gimmicks seem to come and go in less time than it takes to forget a login password. And no industry has a larger appetite for them than restaurants. And no country gets a bigger kick out of franchising them than Japan. While it might seem obvious for a mediocre chef to make eating more “fun” as a perfect distraction from inferior cooking, Ikinari – Japan’s popular standing steakhouse chain – is quite the opposite. So, what’s a standing steakhouse? An eccentric solution for über-impatient diners who are so obnoxiously busy that they just can’t spare the time to wait for a table, or wait for it to be cleared, or wait for menus, or water, or service… They don’t even have the luxury of time to bend their knees and SIT DOWN, for goodness sake!

 

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The first of 3 stateside Ikinari locations debuted in the East Village to a zoo of media and long lines of gimmick guzzlers. Here’s how it goes: You supervise the butcher who slices your preferred thickness of Japanese style (wet-aged) sirloin, rib-eye or filet mignon. If you can’t decide, you can try the mixed sampler of all 3.

 

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Your steak gets weighed, salted and flame grilled, and arrives at your table roaring, hissing and howling louder than a steam train slamming on the brakes to narrowly avoid hitting a well-fed country cow. While the swirl of roasted garlic butter gently melts over your perfectly seared rare cut, a “must-try” side order of Garlic-pepper rice gets tossed with a generous dollop of wasabi. Everything you need is at arm’s reach: steak knives and forks, mustards, Japanese dressings and sauces. There’s even a little rack to store your stuff and splash bibs to protect your clothing. Just no…um, chairs.

 

IMG_2134But you soon forget you are still standing as the tender meat succumbs easily to the bite, and the signature (warm) steak sauce mingles with a few drips of melted butter, collapsing your palate under a salty and umami sweetness you secretly pray will never end. No wonder there are only 5 or so items on the laminated menu. Quality over variety – in true Japanese fashion.

 

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Garlic-pepper Rice, Ikinari

For a city that emboldens impatience as table stakes, the concept of an 8-minute meal in a seat-free diner would be as obvious as odds that the M train will be delayed, but every gimmick has its Achilles heel. Despite being featured in the humor segment before the first break on practically every morning news show as yet another far-fetched oddity, New York’s first standing-only steakhouse buckled to public pressure and reluctantly snuck in a half-dozen chairs. But if you’re a gimmick devotee like me, try it standing up. It’s better for the digestion anyway.

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http://www.ikinaristeakusa.com/

 

 

Chefs Club – review

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I think the only thing more astonishing about former Ducasse chef Didier Elena’s idea of creating a menu based almost entirely out of career-defining signature dishes from some of the world’s leading chefs – is the fact that no-one else thought of it before. The concept is about as simple as a putting together a mix-tape of all your favorite songs. The hard part must have been trying to convince two dozen celebrated culinary masters to permit strange cooks in a foreign kitchen to loyally, faithfully and reliably deliver their coveted hits without the benefit of regular oversight, approval or rejection.

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In addition, the generously open kitchen at the NoLIta based Chefs Club had to be decked out with every conceivable kitchen appliance and gadget in order to facilitate the fastidious preparation of entirely dissimilar dishes. Whatever. What counts is that they actually pulled it off. But let me state quite categorically that anyone who thinks they can simply order something made famous by the likes of Eric Ripert (Le Bernadin), Daniel Boulud (Restaurant Daniel), Ori Menashe (Bestia), Margarita Manzke (Republique), David Kinch (Manresa), Curtis Stone (Maude) or Marcus Samuelsson (Red Rooster) without having to dine at any of their formidable establishments, is as unacceptable and unforgivable as spending a weekend on the Vegas strip satisfying the need to ever visit the real Paris, Monte Carlo, Venice, Egypt, the Bellagio or even New York for that matter. (Don’t get me started…)

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If you consider for a moment what a humungous asset it would be to open a restaurant knowing you already have 25 award-winning dishes by 25 highly accomplished chefs locked up, the rest should be easy, right? And by all means the gorgeously seductive Rockwell-designed room on the north side of the Puck building with its rustic brick ceilings, moody lighting, monochrome marble tops and a massive salt rock precariously suspended above the dining area, should pretty much seal the deal. I would also suggest that the meticulous crew do a masterful job of delivering on all the chefs’ expectations. How do I know? Only eight crumbs of our appetizers remained after a faster disappearing act than a litter of hungry puppies could have mustered. Can you blame us?

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Charred Octopus (Curtis Stone) – Chefs Club

Was it Curtis Stone’s heavenly saffron aioli that accompanied his tender and succulent Charred Octopus, or Diego Oka’s magnificent Lobster a la Piedra drowning in a scrumptiously spicy leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) that took top honors? And by how much did Alex Stupak’s innocent-enough-looking Vegetable Crudite with the most earth-shatteringly amazing smoked-cashew dip trounce Matthew Aita’s profoundly crispy and glorious Broccoli Pizzetta with just a hint of chili-walnut pesto? You’ll have to find out for yourself.

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Broccoli Pizzetta (Mathew Aita) – Chefs Club

But it’s the final stretch that gets in the way of this being a truly magical success story. I’m not referring to farm-to-table either. I’m talking about the final, final stretch. That last 50 feet: from kitchen-to-table!

As I pointed out several blogs ago, some of my pet restaurant peeves include when a waiter hasn’t yet mastered sufficient command of the English language to articulate and elaborate on the menu clearly enough for a guest’s comprehension – much less understand what it is they are trying to order. Or when a team of efficient bussers proudly delivers only 3 out of 4 entrees, leaving one of your guests with nothing but blank anticipation between knife and fork while everyone else is already harmonizing in a chorus of ooooh’s & aaaah’s.

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Paupiette of Sea Bass (Daniel Boulud) – Chefs Club

Or the biggest disappointment at trying to smile through chef Aita’s delectable Grilled Swordfish with tangy zucchini tapenade, or having to contend with a sublimely succulent and crispy Dry Aged Duck Breast over a lighter-than-air wheat porridge by Gavin Keysen, or enduring chef Boulud’s crispy wafer-thin potato-wrapped Paupiette of Sea Bass surrounded by a standing-ovation-worthy Syrah sauce, or gritting one’s teeth until the last bite of Ruby and Sather Duke’s wonderfully tender Smoked Pork Collar with pickled peaches for sweetness, grainy mustard for fire and toasted nuts for crunch – all regrettably served well below room temperature. And while genuine, heartfelt apologies (and comp’d desserts) are always appreciated in hindsight, one has to wonder what kind of magical talent it takes to make fifty degrees disappear – just like that!

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Blistered Shishito Peppers with Pesto butter – Chefs Club

http://www.chefsclub.com/