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Posts from the ‘celebrity chef’ Category

Beauty & Essex: A Clubby Party with Fine Dining Food

One word: obsessed. That’s pretty much how I feel about this place, where I can listen to my favorite Jay-Z and Big Punn hits from 2000, drink fancy cocktails, and nosh on a wide variety of excellent and creative dishes, all at the same time. Beauty & Essex, of Chris Santos’ fame, is not quite a nightclub, not quite a fine dining establishment. It’s managed to find the middle ground that actually works, without sacrificing fun on the one hand and quality of food on the other.

The entrance to Beauty & Essex is at the back of a vintage (read: pawn) shop. Enter through the front door, pass the glass display cases stuffed full with faux jewels, leather handbags, and miscellaneous trinkets, note the wall of vintage electric and acoustic guitars that are actually for sale, nod at the large bouncer/doorman manning a nondescript door at the back, and slip into the massive nightclub/restaurant hiding beyond. With two stories and multiple dining rooms, Beauty & Essex is ambitiously large. At the front, behind the small hostess table manned by three to four fashionable young women, is a curving grand staircase, at the center of which hangs an outrageous shimmering contemporary chandelier with glittering shards of crystal extending many feet down from the ceiling.

Up the staircase is the nightclub, separated into a bar room and a lounge. Both are, inevitably, packed most nights. The lounge is striking, with textured rust-colored walls and a truly remarkable chandelier that extends its silvery tendrils like a spider-web across the entire ceiling (see image below). Over-stuffed lounge chairs cluster around cocktail tables, though most people mingle standing up. Though thebar room has army green couches and set tables, it’s bound to devolve into standing room only – watch out for the fashionista furtively checking herself out in the wall of vintage mirrors.

courtesy of the Beauty & Essex official website

On the lower level, past the staircase, is another bar and two dining rooms. The dining rooms are dark, characterized by what seem to be impossibly high ceilings. Murky earth tones of grey, brown, black and burgundy dominate, with muted grey leather circular banquettes lining the walls and wooden tables with dark leather chairs running down the center of the room. Slinky chandeliers reminiscent of blooming flowers hang from slender cords and a massive curved ovular skylight hovers far above. The bar area is dominated by a cherry read Chesterfield couch packed with skinny girls in skinny heels chatting prettily.

Beauty & Essex is visually striking, and part of its allure is its inexplicable ‘cool factor.’ However, incredibly, this trend-setting hotspot also has ridiculously delicious food. The menu is extensive and made up of new American and often quite inspired small plates. The fried lobster tacos are a must-have: light and crispy in a not-too-heavy beer batter fry and served with jalapeno cream, these babys are luscious, juicy, addictive, and packed with fresh bold flavors. Also wonderful, despite the strange concept, are the grilled cheese and tomato soup dumplings. Shaped like shumai, these gooey, crispy, savory bites are baked in a rich tomato sauce, and while they look and feel nothing like the classic grilled cheese and tomato soup combo, they taste magically taste almost exactly like it. On the lighter side, the kale & apple salad is crisp and refreshing – with nuggets of tangy goat cheese, sweet and crunchy candied pecans, and salty bits of pancetta, all dribbled over heaps upon heaps of dark green kale, the salad is simultaneously light and immensely flavorful.

The more substantial ‘entree-style’ dishes are almost uniformly wonderful. The spaghettini is zesty, rich, and bright with long tendrils of zucchini mixed with nutty grated parmesan, bitter and garlicky parsley pesto, the acidic bite of fresh lemon, and the golden yellow runny yolk of a sunny-side-up egg. All at once, it is decadent and yet, somehow, almost virtuous. The pan-toasted mezze rigatoni, on the other hand, is all evil – spicy and salty merguez sausage with deep and luscious brown butter, fresh mint, and airy ricotta salata are baked with the rigatoni to form a gooey, heavy, and soul-satisfying pasta dish. The burger is top-notch – an astonishingly thick and juicy beef patty cooked to a crimson medium-rare atop an airy and buttery bun. The kick of spicy garlic aioli, the crunch of crispy herbed shoestring fries, and the tang of crumbed feta cheese make this ‘Beauty & Essex Burger’ a thing of beauty.

If all this flavor isn’t enough for you, there are also excellent ‘Accessories’ or side dishes to sample alongside the small plates. The roasted corn is delightful – hard and aromatic sweet corn kernals transformed into something haute when tossed with cilantro, chipotle, lime juice, and soft cotija cheese. The broccolini is spitfire side dish masqueraded as a wholesome veggie dish – the wilted broccolini is sauteed with powerful bits of garlic, soy sauce, and chilis. Most luxurious though is the creamy mascarpone polenta – so smooth and lush that it almost seems whipped, this polenta dish is punched up a few notches with earthy parmesan, tarragon, and just a hint of chile.

Beauty & Essex is a New York anomaly – a hotspot so hot that reservations are close to unattainable and the fashionable swarm it’s bars nightly and yet also a serious restaurant in it’s own right. It’s as though Chris Santos finally heard my pleas for a restaurant where I can really enjoy my food, have a rockin’ good time, and feel like I’m ‘making a night of it.’ And besides, how can any product of my generation not thoroughly adore a restaurant that shamelessly plays track after track of late ’90s hip-hop hits?

Perfect For: ladies night out, bachelorette parties, finally wearing those leopard print stilettos, singles looking to mingle, dance party dinners, blow-out birthdays or really any reason to celebrate

Beauty & Essex on Urbanspoon


Riverpark: Very Colicchio, But Not Colicchio’s Best

Riverpark, Chef Tom Colicchio’s newest fine dining spot in Manhattan, is a strange sort of place. First off, it’s in a completely wacky location for a restaurant, tucked behind Bellevue Hospital and close to cantilevered over the FDR. If you’re not familiar with the neighborhood, it’s hard to find, especially in the dark. Second, although it seems to cater to the neighboring hospital crowd, it’s as sleek and slinky as a Meatpacking District restaurant frequented by models and their men. Third, despite the Colicchio pedigree and interesting menu, the food is not particularly far above mediocre. For all these reasons, Riverpark is a confusing place, with a whole lot of swagger and not a whole lot to back it up.

The restaurant looks oh-so-Colicchio. In fact, it’s a dead-ringer for Colicchio & Sons, with the same high ceilings, massive windows, sleek industrial-chic aesthetic, and a comfortable modernism. The spacious room is split into a bar/cafe area and a dining room. While I understand the conceptual difference between the two, the separation is so indistinct that it’s almost not worth thinking about. To it’s credit, Riverpark has a few visually stunning elements. The ceiling above the bar casts modern magic, emulating the twinkling luminosity of a rural night sky; giant window upon giant window in the dining room look at over the East River, and while the panorama of industrial Williamsburg may not be the most charming, a view of anything ‘nature’ in New York is appreciated; and the outdoor patio, opening during clement weather, is a slick and comfortable spot to lounge with cocktails on modern couches with the woosh of the FDR in the not-so-distant background.

The menu at Riverpark is similar to that at Craft and Colicchio & Sons, a Tom Colicchio standard blend of modern and innovative ‘American’ cuisine with seasonal and, when possible, local ingredients. The options are diverse, ranging from a brothy mushroom consomme to an Italian-inspired ramp & ricotta ravioli to the updated English favorite leg of lamb with potatoes, mint, and peas. Unfortunately, while each dish seems intricately constructed to strike the perfect balance between dressed-up comfort food and gourmet creativity, the actual execution is only average.

The cavatelli with braised lamb, sweet peas, mint and horseradish is muddy and confusing; it was almost delightful with perfectly cooked and toothsome cavatelli in a blend of tender lamb, peas and fresh mint, yet the overpowering horseradish threw in a wrench in the whole production. The diver sea scallops were over-cooked and rubbery, strangely fishy, and lacking in that silky texture and meaty flavor that make scallops dishes so wonderful – an overall failure, despite the very tasty bacon-ramp vinaigrette. The smoked flour gnocchetti sardi starter is one of the more unusual dishes I’ve tasted in while, with a crispy smoky gnocchi with nutty parmesan, lemon, and crisp spring asparagus. Unfortunately, all this ‘creativity’ backfires – once again, the flavors are muddy and confused; there is just too much going on.

Riverpark is not the best of Colicchio’s New York restaurants, despite it’s truly gorgeous decor and unusual location. The most important part of the restaurant, the food, is unimpressive. However, if you’re looking for elegant bar snacks, fancy cocktails, and a sleek atmosphere, Riverpark is an excellent pick, especially for after-work festivities, client events, and treating your visiting parents to a uniquely New York experience.

Perfect For: the east side hospital industry, after-work drinks, power lunches, Colicchio fans, dining with a view, outdoor cocktails in the summer

Riverpark on Urbanspoon

David Burke Kitchen: Every Neighborhood Could Use a Little Burke-ian Whimsy

I haven’t been to a David Burke restaurant in a long time, and before last year, he seemed to have fallen off the ‘famous chef’ radar. Yet, with an appearance on Top Chef All-Stars recently and the opening of his new restaurant, David Burke Kitchen, it appears as though Burke has decided to re-enter the spotlight. And what a delight this is, for Burke’s whimsical and passionate approach to food, regardless of how successful his creations are, is truly a thrill for diners.

David Burke Kitchen is in the basement of the new James Hotel on Grand Street in Soho. Yes, it’s in the basement, of a hotel. To many, this would be a recipe for disaster. Hotel restaurants get a bad rep for uninspired cuisine and cookie-cutter atmospheres, yet David Burke is joining the ranks of famous chefs looking to change this image by opening their new culinary hotspots in hotels all over Manhattan (others: Michael White’s Ai Fiori in The Setai Fifth Avenue, Geoffrey Zakarian’s The Lambs Club in The Chatwal, Sam Talbot’s Imperial No. 9 in the Mondrian Soho, and April Bloomfield’s The Breslin in The Ace Hotel, and so forth). David Burke Kitchen is, well, nice. It’s certainly got a fabricated feel, with modern wooden furniture and a funky undulating wooden ceiling, all tried to be made up as ‘rustic’ with blue-and-white checkered napkins. Yet, all the same, despite a certain “been there, done that” decor, David Burke Kitchen is warm and welcoming, friendly to all, and, most importantly, comfortable.

David Burke’s quirky and whimsical interpretations of traditional American dishes are the real reason to visit David Burke Kitchen. And, in general, the kitchen executes Burke’s visions very well. A pork chop entree is hefty, enough to feed two, yet wonderfully complicated with a large bone-in chop cooked to the perfect temperature and marinated in something wasabi-like, tasty nuggets of tender braised cheek, and an addictive salty-sweet marmalade made from bacon and apple. It is completely in-your-face flavor. The appetizers are a treasure trove of inventive bites: ‘ants on a log’ are reinterpreted from a popular childhood snack to include sophisticated bits of bone marrow and snails soaked in garlic, crab cakes bound with pretzel and filled with green peppercorns and white beer, a succulent duo of juicy seared scallops perched on a tangled mess of ultra rich braised oxtail, all topped with a dainty quail’s egg. The menu virtually overflows with Burke’s imagination – nothing is left alone. Fries are not just fries, they’re ‘fancy fries’ cooked in smoked beef fat and topped with sliced jalapeno; a baked potato comes topped with classic English rarebit; jars of chicken liver with prunes and pistachios are offered for adventurous eaters as a tempting (and heart attack-inducing) bar snack. The options are endless and diverse, often thrilling, and always complicated.
For some, David Burke’s ebullient enthusiasm may be overwhelming or, even worse, tiresome. However, if you’re prepared for the sometimes unusual outpouring of creative flavor combinations, your meal at David Burke Kitchen can be exciting and adventurous, a break from ‘the norm.’ Burke sets customers at ease with a refreshingly friendly and competent staff; our waiter was exuberant and respectful, informative and clearly inspired by David Burke. All in all, though not perfect and with a few kitchen kinks to work out, David Burke Kitchen is a fun new addition to an otherwise barren corner in Soho.
Perfect For: fashionable foodies, first dates, adventurous eaters, non-hipster carnivores, giving visitors a thoroughly ‘New York’ dining experience, drinks and dessert

David Burke Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Donatella: This Glamazon Knows How to Cook

Donatella is the newest cog in celebrity chef Donatella Arpaia’s ever-expanding empire. With a starring role on the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef, frequent judging gigs on Iron Chef America, a shmancy new cookbook, a beloved meatball stand, and now Donatella, Arpaia and her PR team are busy people. Very busy people.

Glittering on an otherwise pedestrian block of 8th avenue in Chelsea, Donatella is sleek. Tucked into a deceptively small storefront, the trendy pizzeria seems to expand backwards, growing from a charming bar area to an almost cavernous and luminous back room. Soft golden light showers everything in a flattering glow, from the chic and youthful clientele to the pristine oversized black-and-white ‘vintage’ maps of Italy lining the walls to the good-looking and always smiling all-male staff, contemporary racks of wine bottles curving around the bar, and shiny honey-colored floor. Donatella blends charming rusticity with Arpaia’s now recognizably shimmering and fashionable New York aesthetic (undoubtedly artfully created by her publicity team).

With a menu completely developed and prepared by Donatella herself, the rustic and soulful Italian food is nothing lifechanging, but it is hearty, warm, and damn tasty. The neapolitan pizza is well-made with an addictive chewy, fluffy and slightly charred crust and fresh fillings (the spicy sausage and mozzarella Diavola is the best) that are gooey in the center of the pie. It is so good that even my pizza-averse boyfriend couldn’t stop eating the leftovers. The pasta is thick and satisfying, with big, bold and delicious flavors; the paccheri, a square hollow pasta topped with tender braised beef and stewing in a savory onion sauce, is a must-have, and the lasagna wows with thin layers of pasta topped with a hearty sausage tomato sauce. Don’t expect fireworks from Arpaia’s traditional Italian comfort food, but if you’re looking for something that’s just going to taste good, keep you warm inside, and satisfy, Donatella delivers.

Perhaps what’s most fun about Donatella is that Arpaia herself is invested heavily in this venture as the executive chef and part-time hostess. In towering gladiator heels, the glamazon herself manned the hostess stand, escorting diners to their tables and accepting recommendations for improvements. You’d think with such panache and celebrity, the restaurant would risk being overwrought and overrated, yet instead, it simply sparkles.

Perfect For: little fried bites and cocktails, pizza fanatics, date night, ladies night, celebrity sightings, Food Network fans, bar snacks, out and about in the gayborhood

Donatella on Urbanspoon

Bar Boulud: DB’s Masses-Friendly Spot

Bar Boulud is Daniel Boulud’s shot at attracting the masses. The food is accessible; the location is tourist-friendly; pre-theatre prix-fixe menus are all the rage; an outdoor patio attracts patrons like bees to honey; and the prices are acceptable, for a Boulud. In all of these ways, Bar Boulud is a successful establishment – a major moneymaker for Daniel Boulud and a crowd-pleaser.

On a bustling block just short of the intersection of Broadway and Amsterdam, Bar Boulud hides amongst cheesy family spots (Cafe Fiorello, I’m looking at you) and chain stores. In clement weather, the outdoor patio is the neighborhood place to be for people-watching and casual noshing; rows upon rows of tables and chairs give you a pretty good shot at nabbing a table before 8. The indoor space is quite striking with an elegant taupe and brown color scheme, a curvaceous tunnel-like main dining room, modern art inspired by the French countryside, and a spacious bar for eating, drinking, and socializing. Downstairs, private dining rooms amongst wine caves add intrigue to an otherwise sophisticated and sparse space.

The food is part simple brasserie-style cuisine and part fancy shmancy Boulud takes on French classics. What this means is that you’ll find steak tartare, steak frites, roast chicken, and frisee salads alongside Atlantic skate filet with endives, rainbow trout with fava beans, radish and lemon marmalade, and Maine peekytoe crab salad with citrus, almond praline, avocado and watercress. Trust me, and stick with the simple stuff – once the kitchen starts finagling with funky flavors and techniques, the quality of the food goes sharply downhill.

The steak tartare was decent; beautifully presented yet lacking in fresh flavors, the dish felt a little tired and lacking inspiration. Compared to some of the other more robust steak tartares I’ve had recently in Manhattan (most notably at Quality Meats), this rather sad version tasted good yet can’t compete. The steak frites were better, served a bloody pink with savory fatty sauce and crisp salted fries. The Boudin Blanc, a white truffle pork sausage, really plays to Boulud’s strengths – fatty fresh sausages (like those found at DBGB Kitchen & Bar) served on a bed of soft and well-seasoned mashed potatoes; if you’re a meat and potatoes kind of person, this is your nirvana.

While neither my father (my night’s dining companion) nor I are huge dessert fiends, we couldn’t say no to the complicated array of sweet treats available. Imagine concoctions such as the Limperatrice, consisting of poached Jasmine rice, champagne mango marmalade, and rice pudding-mango sorbet, or the Nopal, a convuleted tower of prickly pear poached pineapple, almond milk supreme, amaretto sponge cake, and pineapple-coriander ice cream. The real showstopper though was the visually gorgeous Diva Renee, a three-scoop ice cream bonanza with passion fruit and raspberry gelee, raspberry-exotic sorbet, and hazelnut dacquoise. Bar Boulud also offers not only an impressive selection of wines, cheeses and charcuterie, but also a 3-course pre-theatre dinner for those seeking a meal before a show.

Bar Boulud wasn’t spectacular, yet in its charming location (absolutely perfect for pre-Lincoln Center events), friendly and unobstrusive service, and generally relaxed UWS feel, Bar Boulud rises above its averge food to be something rather special. I wouldn’t call it gourmet, and it’s pretty over-priced, but Bar Boulud has a certain je ne sais quoi, particularly on the outdoor patio, that had me enraptured.

Perfect For: outdoor dinners on warm nights, pre-theater, family outings, wine and cheese shenanigans, ladies night out, and bar eats

Bar Boulud on Urbanspoon

Lupa: Not Batali’s Best…or Worst

In the past 6 months, I’ve been to my fair share of Batali establishments, ranging from the most expensive (Del Posto) to the least (Otto). Lupa, Batali and Bastianich’s Roman trattoria, sits in the middle of the Batali empire, in terms of quality and price. Located in the heart of NYU-dom, on crowded and restaurant-heavy Thompson Street, Lupa mimics the cozy yet boozy, busy and bustling vibe of the neighborhood with plenty of requisite exposed brick, packed-in tables, a buzzing bar, soft golden light, and rows upon rows of glinting wine bottles. The look is casual yet sophisticated – classic Batali with lots of style and pizzazz, warm Italian character, and little pretention.

The menu is also what you would expect from a Roman trattoria conceptualized by the Batali/Bastianich team; it features small antipasti bowls of vegetables, seafood, meat and cheese, classic pastas, traditional secondi dishes, and a plethora of special additions based on market availability. In all honesty, the food barely hovers around average – the pastas were acceptable, the secondi entrees were better than anything else on the table, and some of the antipasti options were close to inedible (and $10 each!). Steer clear of the broccoli rabe and ricotta vegetable option – it’s bitter, cold, and chalky in the mouth- and be prepared for an onslaught of pepper notes in the salumi (to be cherished by some and despised by others).

I had hopes that the pasta would be soul-satisfying with flavors that linger long afterwards. Unfortunately, while they were tasty, they certainly got nowhere near crave-worthy status. The Bavette Cacio e Pepe was delightfully peppery with the hot zingy aftertaste a shower of fresh black pepper offers, yet the pasta itself tasted as though it were out of a box and slightly overcooked; similarly, the Spaghetti Algio e Olio was something I could make at my place for half the price and all the flavor (in essence, nothing special). Surprisingly, the secondi dishes outshone the pastas (seemingly impossible, according to me, in Italian restaurants). The major highlight? The pork shoulder – well-spiced, savory and sweet, so soft it just melted in your mouth – was incredible; it was so good that we spliced it up and put it in our pasta to add a little oomph.

Lupa didn’t live up to expectations and it didn’t wow – did it serve its purpose as a comfortable and relaxed date night spot? Absolutely. Did it give me a meal to remember? No. Last question, is that ok? Yes. Lupa keeps it simple and good – I would never recommend it for those looking for mind-blowing Italian, but if you’re willing to settle for a comfortable, sophisticated and fun atmosphere sans top-notch food, Lupa’s your spot.

Perfect For: first dates, a dinner with hip parents, wine-fueled ladies night out, appetizers and vino, casual yet trendy dinner with friends

Lupa on Urbanspoon

Shake Shack: What Is It About This Burger?

Shake Shack has about as much hype as the 2010 World Cup, Rio de Janeiro, the iPad, and everything Google touches; it’s uber-restauranteur Danny Meyer’s money-maker; it’s been heralded as New York’s best burger on occasion and has so many fans that an entire page of their website is devoted to post-it note comments from them; the Shake Shack universe could really be considered a cult. Get the point? Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack rules Manhattan’s burger scene like the football quarterback rules high school.

Now, the obvious question is whether or not it’s actually that good, whether Danny Meyer’s machine has managed to whip up such a fuss that the hype alone carries the burger. Well, it’s good. Actually, it is very very good – while smaller than many burgers, it’s also far more satisfying than most. After every bite, I asked myself: what IS it about this burger? Is it the ‘special’ sauce (which, by the way, appears to be some sort of slightly spicy slightly sweet mayo)? The hot griddled potato bun that manages to be fluffy and soft without seeming mushy? The unique ShackBurger blend of meat from Pat LaFrieda? Most likely, all of above come together to transform what looks like your typical cheeseburger into something truly special.

Shake Shack itself is really a brilliant concept – something totally unique in Manhattan. Danny Meyer took the concept of a roadside burger stand, of the type you’d find along your local route, and modernized it into a trend-setting and beloved New York establishment. The plain contemporary grey building in a corner of Madison Square Park has an order window, a pick-up window, and is surrounded by a sprawling set of green park tables. The notion is simple, easy, and cheap – and wildly popular. As soon as the weather gets nice, the lines start. During peak hours, the line for a ShackBurger can wind around the park and down Madison, creating wait times of an hour. Locals, tourists, businessmen, students, yuppies, hippies, and burger fanatics alike line up for their fix.

Seeking a New York moment? A quintessentially New York experience that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else? Try Shake Shack. Not to overstate too much, but Danny Meyer, at this point one of New York’s most storied and successful restauranteurs (also responsible for Eleven Madison Park, Maialino, Tabla, Blue Smoke, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, and Union Square Cafe), has created New York cultural history with this simple park burger shack.
Perfect For: satisfying burger cravings, outdoor casual dining, indulging a New York moment, dining out with a group, enjoying the weather, eating your feelings

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon