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Posts from the ‘burger frenzy’ Category

Bento Burger: Where Anime, Americana, and Frat Bar Meet

There’s no way around it – Bento Burger, a new Japanese-American ‘pub’ in the Southern East Village, is a weird place. Part American fratty dive bar and part Japanese-inspired pub, this ‘restaurant’ suffers from multiple personality disorder, is punishingly loud, and appeals to the post-fraternity youth that troll the Lower East Side and East Village. That being said, Bento Burger has a quirky party-hard vibe ideal for setting the mood on a big night out and some seriously great food.

The narrow space on 2nd Street off First Avenue is not easily missed; its presence is announced by neon graffiti and tall brightly-colored banners covered in Japanese characters and anime cartoons. It’s a slice of technicolor Tokyo on an otherwise dark and moody block. Inside, Bento Burger is a futuristic and industrial space, a bit grimy, and unfortunately affected by the frat bar smell of spilled beer. At the front, along one wall, is a scarlet-hued bar with crimson sheets hanging over the bar stools. Along the opposite wall are red leather booths, each with it’s own tray of sauces, chopsticks, and menus (a la Friendly’s, for those who remember) and each surrounded by ‘artful’ graffiti murals. A jukebox is parked in the back, manipulated more often than not by perhaps too-inebriated chicks who just cannot live without Katy Perry for one more minute.

Despite the more bar than restaurant atmosphere, the ‘Japanese roadhouse’ fare is delicious. The menu features classic American bar-fare, dressed up with some fancy ingredients and inspired by Japanese flavors. Think: chicken wings, fried calamari, spring rolls, and an array of scrumptious burgers. The ‘Hambuguu’ burger, a sumptuous blend of beef and sirloin, is rich and flavorful, especially when topped with the spicy wasabi aioli. The Thai Chicken burger is remarkable; the patty is actually ground chicken, not a piece of grilled marinated chicken breast, and is incredibly juicy; the spicy papaya relish piled on top is sweet, spicy, and savory all at once. Perhaps the best food delivered by the kitchen though came in the form of side dishes. The wasabi mashed potatoes are creamy and fluffy with a strong but not overpowering hot wasabi flavor; the sweet potato fries are some of the best I’ve ever had – cut thick, the perfect blend of crispy and soft, and doused in salt, pepper and what had to have been truffle oil. Less successful yet still tasty were the tempura onion rings. While they lacked in that crisp crunch I long for in fried food, the thick onions were soft and sweet and the accompanying wasabi aioli made up for the lack of flavor in the tempura batter.

All in all, Bento Burger is ideal for a raging good time (for example: a big group celebrating the end of final exams) – the food is delicious, just greasy enough, and packed with intense flavors, there is a pretty impressive cocktail selection, and after knocking a few back, I could imagine how difficult it would be to ignore the jukebox’s siren song. If you know what you’re getting yourself into, the low prices and good food ensure that you’ll get a great bang for your buck. Keep in mind though, no matter how you spin it, the slightly grimy/party-hard atmosphere and friendly yet frankly incompetent table service is terrible for intimate gatherings or, god forbid, dates.

Bento Burger on Urbanspoon

5 & Diamond: A West Village Transplant Above 100th Street

5 & Diamond opened with a big splash under the direction of the city’s chef/bad-boy wunderkind Ryan Skeen. After a tumultuous few months and some very hush-hush dealings, Skeen is out. For many restaurants, the loss of a star chef is a surefire way to sink a restaurant. Yet, somehow, 5 & Diamond has not only managed to survive but to thrive with a new chef, a talented kitchen, and a mostly charming staff.

Nicely situated in a neighborhood I rarely visit, 5 & Diamond is a pioneer in the epicurean gentrification of Harlem. Regardless of how you feel about the new gourmet movement north of Central Park, it has produced a few interesting restaurants, including Marcus Samuelsson’s new spot Red Rooster. A slick and discrete storefront just 2 blocks off Central Park North, 5 & Diamond is an intimate affair. With under 40 seats, exposed bricks walls, soft lighting, and a neutral color palette, the upscale neighborhood eatery’s resulting ambience is cozy, warm, and easy-going; it’s a dead-ringer for just about any casually elegant restaurant south of 14th Street. With affordable prices, accessible food, and friendly service, it’s the type of place you could eat at any night of the week, whether with family, friends, or just by yourself at the petite bar.
The menu at 5 & Diamond is tantalizing; it’s the tasty and accessible new American stuff you want to eat. Expect a decadent gruyere mac & cheese, a hearty salad – perhaps with scrumptious goat cheese nuggets and shallots, the truly wonderful 5 & Diamond burger, and other comforting dishes like sliders, braised lamb shank with sweet corn, a thick pork tenderloin with smoked bacon and figs, and a hanger steak. The seared scallops starter is light and lovely, with a delicious caramelization and a pool of sweet and savory fuji apple & date puree. In the mood for a ‘salad’? The heirloom tomato salad is refreshing with tart bites of red, green and yellow tomatoes doused in basil oil and drizzled with creamy burrata. Where the appetizers are deft and airy, the entrees are hearty and satisfying. The 5 & Diamond burger is just plain delicious with a fluffy buttery bun that’s not too bready, a thick juicy 9 oz patty of premium beef, a thick slice of gruyere and plenty of delicious meaty flavor. Served with a mess of perfectly crispy skinny fries, it’s really hard to go wrong with this burger variation. Even the pasta is good at this distinctly un-Italian spot. Long strands of homemade pappardelle are smothered in a pleasantly salty and savory lamb ragout with rich melted fontina cheese. It’s everything a pasta dish should be: rich, comforting, and packed with flavor. The menu is simple and seasonal, accessible to all, and fancy enough to attract the growing yuppie neighborhood crowd.
5 & Diamond is a comforting and comfortable sort of place. It’s strangely reminiscent of the casual spots in the West Village, yet without the steep prices. The food is delicious and safe, just the stuff you want to eat without thinking too hard about it. It’s hard not to like this unassuming and cozy spot clearly geared towards the Harlem gentrification crowd, and if you’re willing to venture above 100th Street, it’s very pleasant pick!
Perfect For: village eats uptown, friend dates, Columbia students, cheap eats
The 5 and Diamond Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Hotel Griffou: A Fashionable Boarding House Reborn – Again

I’ve always been intrigued by Hotel Griffou, mostly because I can’t lie about my mildly embarrassing fascination with supper clubs and their spawn. Granted, the faux supper club on 9th Street and 5th Avenue has gotten slammed for its service, it’s pretensions, an obnoxious crowd, and so forth. However, not even this laundry list of bad reviews was going to keep me away. And good thing it didn’t, either all those reviewers were on crack and prejudiced for whatever reason or Hotel Griffou has really cleaned up its act.

The location is lovely, situated in the basement of a posh building, a former 1870s boarding house, on 9th Street, just off the famous Fifth Avenue ‘Golden Mile.’ The restaurant is dark and twisty, in a good sort of way, with dim sultry lighting and a collection of dining rooms modeled after townhouse parlors and living rooms. Up front is the bar, generally crowded with a fashionable group of after-work suits, writers, gallery owners, fashionistas, and so forth. Its remarkable how attractive every person I encountered appeared to be – perhaps it was the lighting. The dining rooms are cozy and stylish, with luxe dark wood dining tables, petite personal ‘gas’ lamps, fancy wallpaper that seems taken from the stairways of a Victorian home, and all sorts of vintage-y portraits and paintings. Yes, the look is now a little over-done in New York’s trendy dining scene, but it just looks so pretty that it’s hard to get tired of.
I had quite a bit of trepidation regarding the food, given the less than complimentary reviews from the NYTimes and NYMag. However, with the hiring of Chef David Santos in October of 2010, everything has changed: the menu is marvelous and the food even better – magic seems to have made its way to Griffou. The organic poached egg starter is near perfect: a beautifully poached egg sits atop rustic bits of gnocchi romani, which are swimming in a decadent truffled chestnut veloute. When you cut into the egg, the rich yolk explodes over the rest of the plate, coating the gnocchi in a golden yellow glaze. Also excellent is the housemade cavatelli, a perfectly-portioned bowl of well-made cavatelli, cooked to an addictive chewy texture and served with bitter and refreshing broccoli rabe, a dusting of chili flakes, and melted clothbound cheddar that hints at classic mac n’ cheese. Though I didn’t have a chance to sample them this time, I have plans to go back for the golden cod brandade fritters and the fois gras terrine, served with an unusual-sounding jasmine and kumquat marmalade.
The entrees are grand: roast suckling pig, a whole roasted chicken for two, lamb leg, peking style duck, tuna bolognese, and so forth. Of course, there is also the requisite ‘haute’ burger, and this one is pretty damn delicious. Served on a buttery toasted brioche bun, Santos keeps it simple with a perfectly cooked and impossibly juicy patty, a thick slice of sharp Vermont cheddar, and sweet dried tomatoes. On the side, an ‘artful’ mess of golden brown salty and crispy fries – parfait! My friend was lucky enough to find on the menu the branzino, served beautifully filet-ed with crispy skin and a bed of luscious gnudi. Its safe to say that with the arrival of Chef Santos, Hotel Griffou’s food woes are a thing of the past. There was not a single misstep all night for Santos and his kitchen – a rare thing in a restaurant known more for its scene than its cuisine.
Hotel Griffou was a wonderful surprise – you can’t help but feel chic in its sultry renovated ‘boarding house’ rooms, surrounded by beautiful people. The food was hearty and sophisticated, accessible, and packed with flavor; each dish was well-executed. Naturally though, whether because of its coveted location or its fashion-friendly image, the prices are steep. Appetizers rarely dip below $14 and entrees below $25 – glasses of wine or one of the house specialty cocktails add frighteningly quickly to the bill. However, if you’re looking for a quintessentially trendy downtown New York restaurant, where reservations are reasonably accessible and the food is good, Hotel Griffou offers up a pleasant and, at times, exciting experience.
Perfect For: showing off your new shoes, cocktails with friends, pretty people-watching, a night of indulgence, swanky eats before a night on the town, burning a hole in your wallet
Griffou on Urbanspoon

Accademia di Vino – Broadway: Another UWS Quasi-Olive Garden

I don’t know about you, but I’m still desperately seeking decent food on the Upper West Side. Accademia di Vino – Broadway, the sister restaurant to the Upper East Side Accademia di Vino and Cesca, is just another disappointment in a long string of supposedly wonderful yet ultimately boring neighborhood restaurants. Without mincing words, it’s cheesy, disorganized, and mediocre.

Deceptively far north on the Upper West Side, the space can at best be described as quirky and at worst as “how did you ever think of designing a restaurant like this.” There appear to be three ‘rooms,’ all set at angles to each other. The dominant area is the bar room, just in front of the door. It’s inevitably going to be packed with cougars talking to greying bankers talking to their colleagues. The best way to describe the decor is ‘up-scale’ Olive Garden with burgundy leather and obviously expensive yet hideously ugly contemporary ceiling lamps, glowing strangely blue in an otherwise refined old school environment. My first thought was how bizarrely UFO-like they were. There are people everywhere: 2 hosts, 1093523958 busboys and waiters, couples packed into small corner tables, groups of 40 year olds at long tables adjacent to the bar. It’s confused and confusing. If you’re lucky enough to be sat on the opposite side of the restaurant from the bar, there’s a bit of respite from the chaotic hum yet no escape from the cheap-looking wood-paneling and flimsy furniture.

Perhaps design faux-pas would have been forgiven if the food were as tasty as expected. Alas, no. Accademia di Vino-Broadway’s menu of Italian pizzas, pastas, and small plates is tantalizing from all angles. Classic antipasti offers charred brussels sprouts, fresh ricotta and honey, eggplant caponata, and so forth; a plethora of cheeses and meats, small plates, fresh fish crudo, and both seafood and meat carpaccios and tartares are like a siren song for lovers of Italian cuisine; individual grilled pizzas range from the classic tomato, basil and mozzarella to the house specialty of robiola, pecorino and black truffle; pastas abound, from traditional bolognese, cacio e pepe, and spaghetti carbonara to butternut squash ravioli and whole wheat pasta with eggplant, mozzarella and basil. The sheer array of both old school and new age Italian offerings dazzle and overwhelm, building excitement and high expectations.

Unfortunately, everything just seems to fall flat. The fresh ricotta antipasti was good, though sadly under-salted and not nearly as tasty as that at Locanda Verde, A Voce Columbus, or Peasant. The house speciality, robiola, black truffle & pecorino pizza, was bland; completely over-doused in cloying truffle oil, what should have been sharp and nutty Pecorino wilted and the fluffy Robiola cheese merely faded to the background. Aside from the virtually tasteless toppings, the pizza was little more than a flatbread, completely lacking in any texture or char. The pastas are a major improvement over the rest of the menu, particularly the basics, however they are by no means works of art. Instead, they’re more just like the quick dishes your mother would whip up, tasty and simple. Don’t expect any unusual ingredients, original cooking techniques or inspired presentations here!

With such an extraordinary selection of mid-price Italian restaurants in Manhattan, many of which are excellent (Peasant, Locanda Verde, Barbuto, Giorgione, Il Buco, Lavagna, Maialino, novita, and Sorella, to name a few), I can’t imagine why one would choose Accademia di Vino-Broadway. Granted, tasty eats in the neighborhood are disappointingly few and far between, but with such things as the New York City Subway and too many taxi cabs to count, not traveling for good Italian just doesn’t cut it.

Accademia di Vino on Urbanspoon

Rye House: A Medieval Beer Hall All Dressed Up

As a newly-minted law student, there have been times when all I’ve wanted is a great beer, an even better burger, and enough of a scene to satisfy my need to interact with society outside of the law library. Rye House was a slam-dunk, on all counts. In essence, Rye House is really a dude’s place; it’s dark and simple with an extensive list of artisan beers, the “largest whiskey selection in NYC”, and satisfying American-style comfort food – not to mention it’s packed with a whole lot of Manhattan brosephs.

Rye House has a whole lot of swagger. It’s dark and sultry without being feminine; it’s sleek without being irritatingly trendy; it’s balanced a nostalgic vintage feel with the typical swank feel of a Flatiron joint. The front bar room is dominated by a curved dark wood bar with a granite tabletop. Long pale wood tables line one wall for either large groups or communal seating. Modern teardrop lamps shed a dim glow over the strange blend of sharply-dressed bankers from Midtown East and pseudo beer hippies from the Lower East Side. The back room is simultaneously irritatingly small and strangely cavernous. High ceilings, rough plank tables, wooden chandeliers and gangs of well-dressed men evoke a Medieval mess hall, sans the grime and court jesters of course. The overall look is self-consciously relaxed-chic, a vibe appealing to men of all stripes.

Rye House serves well-dressed American comfort food. The menu is short and simple, stocked with all sorts of nostalgic favorites. The classic grilled cheese is given an haute twist with an onslaught of truffle flakes and truffle oil; mac & cheese is fried and crisped, decadently served gooey and piping hot in a little bowl; sloppy joe sliders, the favorite of summer camps all over New England, get a face-lift with rich kobe beef and pickled jalapenos; the Rye House burger rides the gourmet burger wave with specialty beef and a selection of cheeses to choose from; even the plebeian onion tart gets all tarted-up with luscious goat cheese and flavorful pickled shallots. The classic American cuisine is surprisingly good and well-prepared. You can taste the quality of the ingredients used in every bite.

Rye House is a welcome addition to the flourishing gastropub scene in Manhattan. Following the path blazed by Spitzer’s and the Spotted Pig, a fantastic beer and cocktail selection comes paired with top-notch classic American cuisine in a relaxed yet classy-enough-for-fun-parents scene.

Perfect For: beerfests, happy hour on the expense account, dinner with colleagues, fun foodies that don’t take themselves too seriously, adults who want kid-food dressed up like adult-food

Rye House on Urbanspoon

Minetta Tavern: Keith McNally’s Old New York Slam Dunk

Do you want to experience New York? the true essence of the city in one single restaurant? Minetta Tavern is your place. In 2009, when mega-restauranteur Keith McNally announced his plans to refurbish and reopen the venerable Minetta Tavern, there were worries that it would be turned into another one of McNally’s atmospheric culinary theme parks (in the mold of Balthazar, Pastis, Pravda, and so forth). Quite the opposite happened, and McNally brought instead a restaurant oozing classic New York charm with an exclusive cache on par with Manhattan’s ritziest.

Located on the seedy edge of the West Village where fratty NYU bars draw crowds of older men and younger girls, Minetta Tavern is dark. Only a chintzy illuminated red sign and a well-dressed doorman show the possibility of life within. Through two doors and a thick crimson velvet curtain, you’re hit with the noise of a true New York hotspot: peals of laughter, the clinking of martini glasses, the shake-shake of a bartender’s cocktail mixer, the chatter of businessmen and happy couples; no distracting house music to be heard – anywhere.
The quirky space is crowded, packed to the gills with those desperately seeking tables. Upfront is the bar, manned by master bartenders in white aprons. The oak bar is refinished, partnered with cherry red stools and the intact wood paneling, still adorned with the miniature carved silhouettes from the originals 1930s’ Minetta. Black-and-white tiled floors, polished crimson leather banquettes, antique brass lamps, white tablecloths, and caricature sketches of famous New Yorkers round out the saloon-era vibe. The back room, a misshapen pentagon still covered in the worn fresco of Greenwich Village in eras past, throbs with life and noise. A series of small tables line one wall while tables for 4 and 5 stand askew in the center of the floor. The best seats in house, curved leather boothes in a private back corner, are seemingly reserved for VIP parties (Jerry Seinfeld on this particular night).
As NYMag points out, Minetta Tavern plays on the ‘neo-Speakeasy’ vibe like Hotel Griffou, Waverly Inn, The Lion, East Side Social Club, yet while the others focus on ‘the scene’ and artisan cocktails worth the $15 and let the quality of their food slide, Minetta Tavern offers the whole package: delicious and hearty American brasserie cuisine, knock-your-socks-off cocktails, and a buzzy exclusive scene to compete with the best of ’em. The kitchen, run by former Balthazar chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, churns out top-notch brasserie dishes like oxtail and foie gras terrine, a tasting of three tartares, roasted marrow bones, crisp pig’s trotter, trout meuniere, and grilled dorade. Perhaps though, what they’re most famous for are the burgers.
The Minetta Burger, a classic cheeseburger with a load of caramelized onions, is thick, juicy, immensely flavorful, and served with a halo of perfectly-salted shoestring fries. The Black Label Burger, a unique blend of prime dry-aged beef made especially for Minetta by Pat LaFrieda’s outfit, is funky, extraordinary, and completely unusual for a burger. Both are a must-try, no matter how enticing the $104 cote de boeuf for two and pasta za za with pancetta, sage, parmesan, and fried egg look. Other recommended dishes include the diver sea scallops, a special prepared beautifully with a sweet caramelization and corn bacon ragout, and the ‘tartare goutez’, a trio if lamb, veal, and beef tartare.
Minetta Tavern is a special place. A year after re-opening, it remains difficult to get-into, a place where the celebrities hang. Yet, despite such exclusivity, it’s not in the least bit pretentious or snooty. Anyone willing to pay big bucks for a great meal will feel at home here from the hipsters to the yuppies to the suits, ladies who lunch, out-of-towners, and fashionistas. McNally hits the sweet spot with his nostalgic saloon: hoppin’ scene, memorable food, swoon-worthy cocktails, effective and efficient service, and enviable cache.
Perfect For: impressing clients, anniversary dates, celebrity sightings, late-night dining, the hamburglar, seeing and being seen, special occasions

Minetta Tavern on Urbanspoon

Fat Hippo: Phat Cocktails, Meager Food

Fat Hippo’s gotta get a new cook. The sleek and trendy spot on Clinton in the Lower East Side has got great service, a cool vibe, knock-you-out cocktails, and unfortunately, very subpar food. When you’ve got 80% of the equation right, why mess things up with tasteless dressed-up diner fare? The Three Guys on the UES and the Red Flame on university club row serve more delicious food than this place; heck, today’s street vendors season, salt and spice their food better.

The small space across from Falai is dark and sultry with white padded boothes, exposed brick, and little light but from twinkling tealight candles. A prominent bar, manned by cocktail-spinning mancandy, seats about 10, offering the full menu and a shortened bar bites menu. Prettily decorated with attractive and friendly waitresses, well made-up and in the latest fashions, Fat Hippo, at least in look, epitomizes the laidback and unapologetically fun character of its surrounding neighborhood.

The food is dressed-up riffs on classic American pub fare. Think: fish tacos, fried mozzarella balls, lobster pot pie, free-range turkey meatloaf, maryland crab cakes, pork chop, and bbq pulled pork sandwich. All of this sounds good – but trust me, it doesn’t taste particularly good. My party of three started with the hot & sour calamari and moved on to the house special burger fondue (both beef and veggie versions) and the duck cuban.

The hot & sour calamari was a surprise, as it didn’t come fried. Instead, it was marinated and sauteed in a tangy ginger, chili, garlic, lime and peanut sauce. While the sauce was great (with the calamari and for soaking bread), the calamari was rubbery to the point of being freaky. For a hot second, I reminisced about bouncing hotdogs in my high school cafeteria. The burger fondue was marginally better, served slider-style with a hot pot of cheese fondue, bacon bits, pickles, and cone fries. It’s hard to go wrong with burgers, cheese, bacon, and the novelty of dipping burgers in melted cheese, and that pure fact saved this dish from damnation. Yet, objectively, the cheese was low quality and frustratingly flavorless, the burgers were over-cooked, and the bacon bits were out of a shaker normally parked at the salad bar. The duck cuban looked better than the other offerings, yet had a cloying sweetness unbecoming of a should-be savory dinner dish.

While the food was a major bummer, the cocktails were unusual and fantastic – my personal favorite was the Spicy Margherita, featuring jalapeno-infused tequila, and my two male dinner mates happily threw back a fair few of the tangy bitters-laden Old-Fashioneds. Fat Hippo is not a food place – it’s there for straight-up boozy fun. Rockin’ tunes (I think I heard a Jay-Z mashup in there…) and stiff drinks get the party-started, and if you get a little hungry, salty fries and fatty food lies waiting.

Perfect for: after-work or after-anything drinks, ladies night out, birthday shenanigans, at-table dance parties, and group pregame outings

Fat Hippo on Urbanspoon