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Posts from the ‘classic NY’ Category

Keens Chophouse: A Truly New York Original

I’ll readily admit that steakhouses generally don’t get me all-fired-up. Despite my love of red meat and creamed spinach, I find them over-the-top, stodgy, and generally uninspired. However, a recent dinner excursion to Keens Chophouse has me totally and completely enamored with the concept of the classic New York and only New York old-school steakhouse. Keens has been in business since 1885, and even longer if you count it’s prior affiliation with the Lambs Club, a theater and literary group. For those 125-ish years, it has remained in the pretty magical Herald Square location that it continues to occupy today. Sure, the surrounding neighborhood has transformed from a thriving theater and arts district into the grimy Fashion District a smidgeon too close to Penn Station no-mans-land, yet Keens Chophouse is a culinary beacon worth visiting.

The dining rooms, of which there are an astonishing number in the bi-level space, are dark, cozy, and charming. They have the creaky luxurious feel of beautifully-refurbished antiques and the palpable history of many many years of use. Despite the general buzz of large parties and the ability to walk on in without a reservation, the rooms  at Keens manage to exude the feeling of an exclusive private club. The ceilings are low and the walls paneled with rich dark wood; intricate brass lanterns hang from the ceiling, illuminating the rows of black-and-white photographs, framed yellowing documents, and gilt-framed oil paintings clustered together on every inch of wall space; banquettes of brilliant crimson and chocolate leather line the walls, pressed close against tables swathed with crisp white tablecloths. It’s all marvelous and intimate – no sign of cookie-cutter chain steakhouse decor here. Perhaps the most extraordinary design feature of Keens though, and what it is certainly famous for, are the rows upon rows of clay pipes that hang from the ceiling. In total, they number over 50,000 and are true relics (the story can be found here).

The food is what you would expect from a steakhouse – plenty of meat, plenty of seafood, and a few classic sides. It’s a USDA prime-only steakhouse, and the meat is just fantastic. Choice abounds – aged prime sirloin, king’s cut, t-bone, porterhouse cuts for two or three, short ribs, filet mignon, and, most wonderfully, chateaubriand. The chateaubriand, the most tender and flavorful cuts of tenderloin, serves two – and it’s a buttery, juicy, immensely rich marvel. Topped with the truffled creamy mushroom sauce, it’s a slice of heaven. The kitchen also offers its famous mutton chops, hulking and gargantuan, a slice of New York epicurean history, as well as pick-your-own lobsters, double lamb chops, buttermilk chicken, a classic preparation of the increasingly rare dover sole, and of course an array of traditional appetizers (crab cakes, oysters Rockefeller, iceberg lettuce with Stilton blue cheese dressing – which is just perfect – and shrimp cocktail). You know the drill – if you’ve ever been to a steakhouse, chain or not chain, the menu is familiar. At Keens though, the food tastes … homemade, authentic and loved; it doesn’t smack of assembly-line ‘production;’ there is real heartfelt cooking going on here.

Well, I’ll just come out and say it then: Keens is my favorite steakhouse in New York (of those that I’ve visited so far) and perhaps of all time. Dining at Keens is a pleasant, seamless, unique, and traditional experience – one worth trying at least once. The service is just perfect – present and attentive but not bothersome; and the combination of dim lighting, incredibly affordable wine, and truly wonderful food easily lulls you into a satiated state of happiness.

Perfect For: anniversary meals, showing your parents a slice of classic New York City, blowout client dinners, after-work scotches, a night out with the boys

Keens Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Lambs Club: Midtown’s Minetta, Without the Burger

Every now and then, a gourmet restaurant comes along that is equal parts old world New York and fresh trendy style. The Lambs Club, a ‘hotel restaurant,’ is one of the newer additions to the big bucks midtown west dining scene. Sumptuously designed to evoke the glamorous Art Deco days of the 80’s, the Lambs Club comes replete with modern touches such as a Sasha Petraske designed cocktail menu and an oh-so-New York power brunch. The brainchild of famous restauranteur Geoffrey Zakarian (formerly of Le Cirque and Patroon, recently of Town and Country), The Lambs Club bids a lavish and jubilant ‘adieu’ to the recession.

Situated in the lobby of the Chatwal Hotel, just off the bright lights of Times Square, The Lambs Club does a fairly good job of eschewing the boring and pedestrian ‘hotel restaurant’ stereotype. The space is strangely-shaped and cramped, as all hotel restaurants inexplicably seem to be. Yet, all is not lost, for the restaurant makes up for space deprivation in all its lacquered and leathered glory. The floors and the walls are inky jet black, lending a lush and mysterious darkness to the dining room. Hugging the walls are deep red leather banquettes, buttery to the touch, and on one side, a massive 18th-century stone fireplace, lit at night to a roaring blaze. Classic art-deco lamps and black-and-white photographs of celebrities long-gone cover the dark paneled walls. The crowd is older, wealthier, paunchier than those downtown, settled comfortably into the plush chairs, unaffected by the pricey cocktails and pricier dishes. Every now and then, a famous thespian will stop in for a bite to eat, sure not to be bothered by the elegant clientele.

The food is occasionally inconsistent, but generally very good. Expect traditional high-roller American fare: crispy veal sweetbreads, beef tartare, oysters, shrimp cocktail, heritage pork chop, roasted lamb, a prime steak, and so forth. The flavors are bold and perhaps best described as expensive; this food just tastes like it was made for rich people. The grilled octopus is excellent: tender, well-seasoned with just enough char on the outside, and well-balanced with a bed of earthy turnips and potatoes. The heritage pork ravioli is also marvelous, cooked perfectly with a bold ‘meatiness,’ a treat for kings as a $19 appetizer. Seared scallops seduce diners unbeknown: succulent and juicy, caramelized beautifully for sweetness, enveloped by a silky Vadouvan spice sauce and peppered with earthy bits of porcini mushrooms. For big spenders, it’s hard to ignore the $39 roasted lamb saddle, a wonderful piece of meat served tender with a creamy polenta you should want to slather all over it.

The Lambs Club is really a marvelous surprise for Midtown West, a minefield of 5-star gourmet spots like Le Bernandin mixed with mediocre red sauce Italian joints and your run-of-the-mill steakhouses. There’s a lot of to like about Zakarian’s new spot: superstar cocktails that will get you buttered up real nice (the Strawberry Gimlet is just plain addictive), gold star service, and a menu of generally excellent American classics. At The Lambs Club, you tend to get what you pay for: a gourmet dining experienced steeped in the trappings of both modern and old-world luxury.

Perfect For: dealmaking power lunches, celebrity spotting, going out on the town in style, pre/post theater meals and libations, spending your bonus $$$, recreating Mad Men

The Lambs Club 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

Raoul’s: A Soho Legend Keeps it Hot

Raoul’s got it going on. It’s the type of place with a certain special something that you only find on rare occasions. From the outside, it looks dark, like a sultry bar for those in the know. Inside, it’s a quirky French restaurant with stand-out food, risque decor, a poppin’ bar scene, and a resident psychic.
Soho has its fair share of hotspots, most of which fall sadly short on either the food front (Mercer Kitchen? Delicatessen? yikes) or in terms of atmosphere (Kittichai? Blue Ribbon Sushi?). Raoul’s hits the sweet spot; it’s got the whole package. Dark and buzzing, the restaurant is separated into three areas. At the front is the bar, and boy, is it your classic New York bar; banquette tables against the wall face out, affording some pretty fantastic people-watching; bar stools are grabbed by early revelers and as the night chugs onward, crowds begin to gather; a twisting and narrow set of stairs wind up to the bathroom, where, surprisingly, a psychic also sits, lurking, waiting.

Separated slightly from the bar is the front dining area with black-white leather boothes, complete with coathooks and hatracks, tables covered in white paper, a corner booth where groups can hold court. Raoul’s charming eccentricity is exemplified by the massive painting of an anonymous nude woman, hung front and center, and the neon blue glowing fish tank (yes, with a few lone fish) standing tall at the entrance. In the back, through the kitchen, is the patio and garden, secret to those not curious enough to inquire. Part-external and part-internal, the year-round garden area is quiet, almost idyllic, a spot protected from the spirited shenanigans of the front rooms. Raoul’s is a feast for the eyes, not only in terms of the incredibly attractive clientele, but also because of the endlessly interesting paintings, photographs, and postcards that cover the walls as a standing art collection.

Raoul’s food is classic French comfort food, and it’s amazingly good. We’re talking butter, butter, butter, fat, butter, and salt – how could you possibly go wrong? Steak abounds with a tender wagyu option, a luscious steak tartare, and a steak au poivre. All three options wow with an all-steak no-funny business tartare, topped with an oozing quail’s egg and served with crusty baguette. In my experience, this tartare is only surpassed by that at Quality Meats, a top-notch steakhouse. The steak au poivre came bloody pink, crusty with black and white pepper, hulking, and flanked by a mound of salty french fries; it was a steak-lover’s dream, a francophile’s bit of nostalgia. The wagyu, an American cut of Kobe beef, came more refined, slinky and tender, on a bed of thinly cut fingerling potatoes, chevrettine, and lemon: a modern steak for a modern woman.

Aside from the steak, Raoul’s just kept the good times coming with beautifully-seared sea scallops, sweet and juicy from the crusty caramelization and paired with flavorful wilted greens, with a generous disk of moist pate de maison atop walnuts and crisp baby spinach, with a quirky asparagus and leek starter made unusual by funky quinoa and a smooth English pea puree. Desserts were rich and uninhibited, ranging from a well-executed profiteroles, drenched in melted chocolate, to a wicked chocolate trio, made special for my mother’s birthday by an enormous sugar cage (pictured below). One dish after another showed not only the skill in the kitchen but also the range, the inspiration. The food at Raoul’s seems cooked with passion, with care – each offering came perfectly seasoned, decadent, borderline gluttonous.

Raoul’s is classic New York: a hidden garden, most popular at late seatings, a bar for locals, a shh-shh reputation. Despite it’s touristy location, it is notably devoid of lost-looking visitors. Most diners look like regulars, sons and daughters of regulars, those who heard by word-of-mouth. A true gem in the heart of Soho, Raoul’s shines brightly in a neighborhood known for cookie-cutter eateries.

Perfect For: hidden trysts, pre-gaming the game, the sport of people-watching, late night meals, being part of the in crowd

Raoul's on Urbanspoon

COMMERCE: Exacting Charm Far From Wall Street

Commerce is a charming little restaurant on a charming little street in a charming little neighborhood of Manhattan; it oozes history and sex appeal in a former speakeasy turned tavern turned gathering hall. Everything from the location to the service to the menu to the food to the general ambience just works to offer a special dining experience.

The setting is Commerce Street, a tiny curved tree-lined passage between 7th Ave and Hudson with beautiful brownstones, a small neighborhood theater, a few other top-notch restaurants, and a “we aren’t in Kansas anymore” look. Tucked into a corner spot is Commerce, a oddly-shaped bar-restaurant with soft flattering golden light, clustered black walnut tables, stately chestnut boothes, colorful painted murals, and a 1941 Brunswick Bar. The look is nostalgic yet still fresh and youthful.

The menu is contemporary American and so beautifully constructed that I spent a good 15 minutes trying to pick out exactly what I wanted from the long list of delicious-sounding options. Out of dishes such as a classic spaghetti carbonara, sliced rare beef tataki with ginger, braised lamb, red snapper with eggplant and bok choy, and duck and foie gras rillettes with black cherry shallot jam, my party of three ultimately selected the spring vegetable fricassee, the sea scallops, the sweet potato tortelloni, the steak tartare, the pappardelle, and the cookie platter for dessert.

The spring vegetable fricassee was refreshing with small fluffy potato gnocchi lurking beneath bright and colorful vegetables – a good starter for those seeking lighter fare. The sea scallops, served as a trio, were plump, juicy, and buttery – so rich they hardly needed the rich spaghetti squash underneath. The steak tartare was zesty and packed with flavor; while it is not the best steak tartare I’ve had in the city (that honor goes to Quality Meats), it is more than serviceable, especially when layered on top of the crispy salty toast provided.

Made in house, the pastas were tender and almost slippery (the mark of a good pasta); neither the tortelloni nor the pappardelle was too dense or floury. The sweet potato-stuffed tortelloni was unusual and challenging with an addictive tangy pomegranite beurre noisette sauce and a smattering of hazelnuts; while complex, the flavors were striking and ultimately very successful. The pappardelle was perhaps the most disappointing dish of the night but only because it wasn’t as original as the others; hearty and fresh with a spicy lamb ragu, the pasta was satisfying and tasty without being anything special.

Commerce is a sort of dark horse in the West Village dining scene – escaping too much hype (and thus rabid crowds) by flying under the radar; yet, it’s just as good, if not better than, Cafe Cluny, Perilla, mas (farmhouse), the little owl, Bistro de la Gare, and Sant Ambroeus. The food is tasty and accessible yet still inventive; the service is exemplary with friendly and accommodating staff; the atmosphere is cozy, unpretentious, and perhaps best described as ‘special.’ Best of all, the entrees rarely rise above $30, the wine list will boggle you, and you can usually nab a prime reservation without too much advance thought.

Perfect For: catching up with long-lost buddies, a romantic date, cocktail hour at the bar, a long wine-fueled dinner with loved ones, a family brunch

Commerce on Urbanspoon

Old Town: All Americana

In case you were at all confused by the name, Old Town evokes things that are, well, old and cherished. A true neighborhood bar that has weathered many changes, Old Town has been serving since 1892. Almost every aspect of the two-storied space is original – the dumbwaiters conveying food from the kitchen to the bar, the 55-ft mahogany and marble bar, the tin ceilings, urinals in the men’s bathrooms, and plate glass mirrors. Every detail from the crusty popcorn and dust bunnies to the tiny toilets to the creaking wood floors to the equally creaking waitstaff transports you back to a slower and more relaxed time.

Old Town is a easygoing beer and burger sort of place. The brew flows freely and the bar menu includes classic finger foods like hot wings, onion rings, calamari, mozzarella sticks, clam strips, and fries as well as a sandwiches hit list like B.L.Ts, tuna melts, clam rolls, chili dogs, grilled cheeses and of course, burgers. Hands down the star of the show, the burgers are juicy, tender, flavorful, and addictively meaty. They’re not flat or patted down, too oily or too greasy; they’re just right, a classic no-frills American burger. Old Town does bar food right – it’s not crappy or poorly made, it’s just fattening and immensely satisfiyng.
This charming relic with a red neon sign, lopsided stairs, and beautiful wooden fixtures keeps it simple and the mixed-bag crowd mirrors the spirit of simplicity. The people who flock here don’t wear stilettos (unless paired with suit, a pint, and lots of after-work grousing) or order mangopolitans; expect scruff and good old blue jeans, plaid shirts, sweaters, and a refreshing lack of trendiness. Old Town is the perfect escape from trendy with good down n’ dirty cheap eats, cold frothy beer, and back-to-basics everything.

Old Town Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

db bistro moderne: Midtown West’s Legacy Star

db bistro moderne, one of Daniel Boulud’s many attempts at casual dining in New York, was an instant classic – revered by locals and visiting tourists alike, well-received by critics, and made legendary by its burger. Whether or not it’s worth all the hubbub is up for debate, but there is no doubting Boulud’s ability to transform the concept of a bistro into a high-class celebrity favorite that makes burgers and fries culinary artwork and cassoulet fit for gourmands.

The bistro is long and narrow, situated discreetly on an ugly block in Midtown West, and ideally located for pre- and post-theater dining. The two dining rooms are dominated by rich wood paneling, bold colors, and contemporary floral artwork. The style is contemporary yet not trendy, modern but in a nostalgic European context. A small wine bar separates the front room from the back room.

The food is French-American, incorporating time-honored favorites from both culinary traditions. Perhaps most famous is the Original db Burger – a sirloin patty with braised short ribs and foie gras on a parmesan bun, served with salty and crispy pomme frites. This burger spurred much talk, transforming a trivialized American classic into something haute. DBGB’s burger menu (Boulud’s newest venture on Bowery) has grown out of this ‘original db’ version. Other highlights include the Tomato Tarte Tatin with goat cheese and black olives (zesty, savory, fresh…really remarkable), the Roasted Rack of Lamb served with artichokes, sunchokes, and tomato confit, the Black Truffle Raviole with organic chicken and baby spinach, and the indulgent foie gras torchon.

Service is spotty and food can take awhile to make it out of the kitchen, but db bistro moderne is generally a very reliable spot for some great comfort food all-dressed-up. A great place for family get-togethers, birthday celebrations (my own 21st with my parents was celebrated here many years ago…), and wanton gorges on burgers and fries, db bistro moderne has managed to stand the test of time and remain consistent. A word of warning for you of the younger generation, db bistro isn’t a party spot for the hip young thangs of Manhattan – expect an older crowd of polite and well-to-do Manhattanites indulging in Boulud’s famous brand of faux bistro fare. Looking for a more happening scene from the same guy? Check out DBGB.

db Bistro Moderne on Urbanspoon