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Posts from the ‘comfort food’ Category

Monument Lane: Where English Colonialism is Good

Maybe it was my personal elation from securing employment or maybe it was the wonderful crew of friends who showed up to help me celebrate or maybe it was just Monument Lane’s infectious warmth, but whatever it was, I freaking adore this place. Monument Lane, a West Village newcomer on the same stretch of Greenwich Avenue as Bennie’s Burritos, Tea & Sympathy, and Lyon, is a marvelous addition to a neighborhood seemingly saturated by cozy ‘neighborhood-y’ establishments. Sure, it’s not a brilliant new idea, a bastion of nouveau gourmet techniques, or a foodie’s fantasyland, but does that really matter when the Anglo-American comfort food is executed well, the cocktails are classic and strong, and the general mood seems to fluctuate between pleasantly satiated and truly convivial?

The new tenant in a long-vacated spot on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village, Monument Lane has settled itself nicely into a misshapen and quirky corner space. The result of much interior design work is an angular room with more than a few nooks and crannies. At the entrance is a bar, crowded with people waiting for the rest of their parties to arrive before sitting down to dinner; it’s a transient bar crowd, not the sort that sits around for the sheer pleasure of it. This is probably for the best, considering the bartender seems to suffer from forgetfulness and an inability to prepare a cocktail in under 5 minutes.  Several lucky diners get to reap an unsung benefit of a corner restaurant – plenty of window tables. Pressed up against the plate glass windows, these hot seats are ideal for watching the world go by, with a loved one, good friends, or perhaps just on your own. Further into the interior of the restaurant are tables for bigger groups – on a Saturday night, Monument Lane could accommodate at least two parties of eight and with those, the place is rollicking. Tucked mostly out of sight, away from the bar and away from the windows, is the best seat in the house – a wood-paneled booth surrounded by walls on three sides, over which towers a vintage Union Jack.

The kitchen delivers Anglo-American comfort food, dressed up to suit the palates of discerning New Yorkers. To begin, it’s hard to turn down the siren song of soft whole wheat pretzel bites and cheese dip, of fresh ricotta dusted with lemon, of hot and tart buttered radishes, and of a classic fisherman’s fried basket filled with greasy but not too greasy bits of fried clam bellies and fried fluke fingers. Each starter was lovely in it’s own right, but the string of them together had my group of eight friends remarking on what a great meal this was sure to be. Later in the meal, a stunning rendition of classic American meatloaf includes not just gravy, but bacon gravy – an unforgettable touch that transforms a pedestrian dish often overcooked, undercooked and slapped together into a sinfully rich carnivore’s delight. The lobster roll, while not the best in the city, tries hard to impress with a hot buttered ciabatta bun, not too much mayo, and a plentiful helping of sweet succulent lobster meat – although it’s not a Maine lobster roll, it’s still pretty difficult not to enjoy it. A New York strip steak is cooked tender and bloody pink, if you let the kitchen have it’s way, and paired with the sweet bite of cipollini onions. For vegetarians, the fried green tomatoes are a wonderfully light option – crispy and breaded on the outside yet cut open to expose the thick juicy bright green tomato slice within. Each of the entrees had that satisfying heartiness that makes comfort food so beloved and had my friends moaning in pleasure over their plates.

Yes, it’s true – I loved almost every bite of my Monument Lane meal and not because it was exquisite in the way that Gramercy Tavern or Gotham Bar & Grill or Eleven Madison Park are exquisite. Instead, I loved Monument Lane because it was so pleasantly plebian, so warm and so delicious. It was the food you want to eat when it’s cold outside, when you’re having a rough week, when you’re tired of oily delivery and, perhaps, the limitations of your own cooking. Sure, Monument Lane has it’s quirks – including a particularly surly waitress, the tortoise-slow bartender, a no-reservations for parties under 6 people policy, and an unwillingness to seat incomplete parties – yet, if you relax and enjoy what’s coming to you, the experience can be quite pleasant.

Perfect For: West Village natives, groups of 6 to 8 friends looking to celebrate, Anglophiles, comfort food fanatics, first dates, girls night out, a casual dinner with mom and dad

Monument Lane on Urbanspoon

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Peels: Down-South Americana with A Teaspoon of New York Glitz

Freeman’s, the beloved alleyway scenester spot just off Rivington, has a sexy little sister and her name is Peels. Situated on a hot strip of the Bowery, at the corner of Bond Street, Peels blends New York design sensibility with pure Southern American cooking dressed up a smidgeon to suit the Manhattan palette.

Though Peels has lost quite a bit of the je ne sais quoi that made Freeman’s so unusual and beloved by Manhattan’s trendiest, it still manages to charm in its simplicity. Where Freeman’s is stuffed to the gills with knick-knacks, photographs, and artfully-distressed kitsch, the bi-level space at Peels is stripped-down and spare. The first level looks like it operates sort of like a cafe – with a coffee bar, windowed counters populated with truly magnificent baked goods during the day, and small bistro tables awkwardly crowded together. In the back is a large and imposing communal table, wonderful for large groups, not so-wonderful for intimate dates. The second level looks more like a main dining room with white wooden booths, a long communal table down the center, and a small bar for people to mingle at. The whole look is squeaky clean and white-washed with white paneled walls, white wooden tables and chairs, and large bright white industrial light fixtures. In fact, it looks much like a simple Southern bakery all-spruced up for Manhattan’s scenesters.

The down-home American food served at Peels is generally good. It’s not mind-blowing, revolutionary, or particularly artful, but it tends to taste good in the way that well-executed comfort food always tastes good. Peels serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, unusual for a full-service non-hotel restaurant on the Bowery. Breakfast is traditional: buttermilk pancakes, eggs benedict, shrimp & grits, eggs on a biscuit with gravy, and so forth. The pastry basket is out of this world – stuffed with truly marvelous muffins and sticky buns and the like. Other than that, all is what you would expect a hearty breakfast to be – filling, flavorful, but not reinventing the wheel. Lunch or weekend brunch at Peels is a much more extensive dining experience. The kitchen offers everything from its signature Build-a-Biscuit program where you get to top a flaky buttermilk biscuit with choice goodies like avocado, red-eye gravy, and fried chicken to salami sandwiches, greasy beer-battered fried fish tacos, andouille corn dogs, and skillet eggs. In fact, you could argue that lunch and brunch, where the kitchen keeps things simple, fresh, and classic, are where Peels really shines.

Dinner at Peels can be a frustrating experience. On the few occasions I’ve been over the past 6 months, service is consistently bad. While the waiters can be friendly, not always a guarantee, it’s inevitably difficult to find one when you need one, to succeed in hailing one down when you find one, and to actually get what you need once you hail one. You get the sense that there just aren’t enough servers to adequately attend to the bi-level space; there’s an irritating disorganization. On my most recent visit, someone, whether the kitchen or the server, forgot our rather substantial order – and my friend and I had to wait close to an hour for our entree without almost no apology. That’s whack.

That being said, the food was pleasant. To start, the golden tomato gazpacho is a refreshing antidote to muggy New York summers; whereas, the creamy spicy salty spreadable pimento cheese dip, served with crusty bread, is pure sin. It’s heavy and truly luxurious. The fried chicken entree is delicious – the chicken is juicy, the breading is crispy, and the ranch dressing is the ideal coolant. The cheeseburger is similarly well-done – cooked appropriately, flavorful, and drenched in cheese. The shrimp & grits is … nice; the grits are just begging for some more texture and salt, but the shrimp is complemented beautifully by a fried egg and bacon (how do you say no to that?). None of the dishes are the best in New York by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re good, hearty, and satisfying.

Peels is good, and perhaps most importantly for the restaurant, it’s cool. It’s popular with those New Yorkers who ‘know where to go;’ it’s got a hoppin’ bar scene, great people-watching on the patio, and some wonderful cocktails to complement the down-home cuisine. It had enough buzz at open to generate a crowd of regulars and fans, and now it sustains itself on a pretty hip clientele. And to be sure, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Perfect For: coffee and pastries, large groups, singles ready to mingle, bourbon cocktails and biscuits, decadent Sunday brunch

Peels on Urbanspoon

Lyon: Mediocrity for Middle France

For a city with so many restaurants, ethnic cuisines of all varieties, and an often thrilling gourmet scene, New York is depressingly deprived of high-quality casual French bistros and brasseries. Sure, on occasion, you’re lucky enough to stumble across a gem like Cafe Cluny or Le Gigot, but the vast majority of options either sink into muddled mediocrity or hover loftily in the heavens with Daniel or Jean-Georges. The middle ground is vast and empty. Unfortunately, West Village newcomer Lyon does little to elevate the current state of French food in Manhattan.

The relatively new restaurant in the storied Cafe Bruxelles space on Greenwich Avenue is gorgeous. Wood-paneled and gleaming, it’s hard not to be enamored by the seductive golden glow, the rolling French accent of the host, the sparkle of lantern light reflecting off glass knick-knacks, the cheery red-and-white check of the tablecloths. Everything is so shiny and new, rosy with optimism, plucky, design-conscious, and comfortable without being shabby. The narrow railroad car space is bustling to the point of bursting at the seams with well-dressed West Villagers, happy to be inside from the cold. The atmosphere is frenetic at peak hours, buzzing with conversations in French and English that rise to a fever pitch as more and more bottles of wine fly off the shelves. As the night goes on, Lyon is like a train picking up speed, starting off slow and steady before roaring through the countryside.
Unfortunately, despite its seemingly endless charm, Lyon falls depressingly short on the food front. With such beauty all around you, it’s hard not to be disappointed by generally bland and uninspired cuisine, especially when French comfort food is supposed to be so rich and flavorful. In short, the appetizers were a relative success when compared to the mediocre entrees. The onion soup is a marvelous way to start; it is brothy and savory, filled to the brim with tender ropes of beef brisket, heightened with an only slightly discernible layer of rich marrow jam, and served with a crusty slice of baguette, topped with creamy fontina cheese. It’s safe to say that the onion soup was the highlight of the night. Other notable starters are the jumbo-sized Lyonnaise salad, topped with hearty chunks of bacon and a delicately placed poached egg, and the escargots, served mixed into a vibrant green watercress risotto with a pungent and authentic-tasting garlic sauce.
The entrees are a laundry list of traditional French dishes: steak tartare, lamb shank, steak au poivre, and so forth. The kitchen takes a few liberties with classic cuisine, offering the eponymous skate wing and a modern bacon-wrapped whole branzino. The executions on the heftier dishes leave something to be desired. The bacon-wrapped branzino is not as advertised; rather than serving a whole fish, it offers delicate rounds of the flaky white dish – a fairly anemic and pedestrian alternative. The lamb shank is absurd in a couple of ways: 1) it is served on the bone in a plate half as big as the table, evoking caveman-style dining 2) the portion size is inexplicably larger than anything else on the menu, and 3) there is absolutely no seasoning on the meat; it was begging for healthy doses of salt and pepper. For such a large and tender piece of lamb, it is upsetting to see it served with so little flavor or pizzazz.
Lyon is simultaneously the epitome of casual glamour and a culinary disappointment. While so beautiful and glossy on the exterior, its restaurant guts need a lot of work. Not only is the food just a hair above mediocre, but the service is frenzied and inattentive and the wine list is poorly curated for a restaurant rooted in such a vino-centric culture. The best way to enjoy Lyon is to waltz into the crammed and spiffy bar, order une bouteille de vin and some fromage from the bartender, and spend your evening languishing over the two of the best parts of French culinary culture. If you’re smart, don’t bother with the crowds in, the wait for, and the irritation of finding a table in the dining room.

Perfect For: a drink at the bar, a bottle of wine over chocolate cake and cheese, gatherings of friends, a venue for francophiles, escaping chilly nights

Lyon on Urbanspoon

Lowcountry: Sweet Southern Soul Food Glitzed Up

As a New Englander to the core, my reactions to Southern food range from fear to trepidation to exotic excitement to mild disgust. In my mind, it’s never been anything but fried food, barbecue, massive portions, and sickly sweet desserts. West Village newcomer Lowcountry changed all that for me, widening my horizons to Southern soul food done with sophistication (and no, for all you soul food fanatics, it hasn’t lost an oomph in the process).

Replacing Bar Blanc Bistro on West. 10th and Greenwich Avenue, Lowcountry’s shtick is warm, casual, and, well, Southern. The dimly lit space personifies the traditional Southern man all dressed up for the big city; there’s just enough glitz, just enough grunge, just enough soul. Stacks of tattered vinyl records line one wall with vintage mirrors nearby and the same long exposed brick wall from the restaurant’s predecessor. At the front is a hoppin’ bar, complete with bar height tables for groups, flat-screen TVs, and an extensive bourbon collection, backlit with soft golden light. The tables are made from recycled wood (ours seemed to be a repurposed window) and the walls are lined with deep burgundy leather banquettes. Young and stylish, the crowd comes after work and stays through the night, sipping house bourbon cocktails and noshing on trotter tots, fried green tomatoes, and deviled eggs.

The thing to do though is to reserve yourself a table and sit down to properly enjoy the truly wonderful food coming out of the kitchen. The menu is separated in snacks, salads, smalls, mains and desserts. The snacks are small and quick, perfect with a cold beer or a house ginger julep; the mac n’ cheese looked particularly decadent with a toasted golden brown top. For smalls, the obvious winner is the Fried Chicken Biscuit, served stacked and crispy atop a generous helping of creamy, rich and savory ham gravy. The cheddar biscuit is slightly dry, but packed with satisfying cheesy flavor and a delicious mess when sopped in the gravy; the chicken is not as melt in your mouth as you’d want, but the crust is spicy, peppery and playful; a generous helping of sweet and savory onion jam pulls the whole thing together. The pork belly is a marriage between down and dirty Southern flavors and Manhattan culinary sophistication. So tender that no knife is needed to cut it, the braising is done just perfectly. A bright and crunchy radish salad and a runny fried egg add interesting texture to an otherwise delightful dish.

For mains, try the BBQ baby back ribs, served with a savory Red Bliss potato salad and crunchy pickles. The ribs are showered in thick and spicy barbecue sauce so good that you want to drink it off the plate (yes, seriously). In the mood for something sweet? Try one of the delectable homestyle all-American desserts, ranging from bourbon-soaked bread pudding to brownie sundaes and apple cobbler. The pecan pie is my favorite, served as a personal-pie size with a dollop of salty caramel ice cream – nutty and delicious!

Lowcountry is quite the find – fun and fratty with an authentic Southern rock backbone yet still sophisticated enough food-wise to appeal to New York’s discerning downtown diners. There’s just enough grunge (the PBR + a shot of bourbon for $6 “recession special”) to transport you off of picturesque W.10th to where NASCAR is the preferred sport, yet it’s not so grimy that you couldn’t take co-workers, dates, and native New Yorkers here for a grand ole time.

Perfect For: UVA and Duke alums, after-work drinks with your younger colleagues, late-night bar snacks, bustin’ a gut

Lowcountry on Urbanspoon

Fatty Crab: Gettin’ Down and Dirty with Chilis

Fatty Crab has a lot of hype, especially with the wild and maddening success of her sister restaurant in Brooklyn Fatty ‘Cue. At dinner time, mostly towards the end of the week, it’s mobbed with hipsters, yuppies, and those rock n’roll older folk still firmly stuck in the ’70s. Good luck getting a table without a wait, for the teensy-eensy dining room takes no reservations and the service runs less than smoothly.

Fatty Crab sits on the border of the Meatpacking District and the West Village, almost in the shadow of the towering Gansevoort Hotel. On the same block as a few expensive clothing stores and the shiny new Corsino, the self-described “funky” Southeast Asian restaurant sticks out like a sore thumb with a flaming red awning, emblazoned with bright yellow Chinese characters and the depiction of a Dungeness crab. Inside, the small dining room is painted brick red and adorned with little besides small blinking christmas lights, mismatched chairs, and the requisite exposed brick wall. A tiny bar sits over by what looks like an open short-order kitchen, and a chalkboard nearby boasts a two-hour late-night happy hour between midnight and 2am. The atmosphere is dark and crowded, boisterous and a little bit sweaty. The crowd doesn’t seem to mind getting close and grimy, digging into their food with their hands while chatting vibrantly over beers and bloody marys.

While the decor isn’t necessarily something to write home about, the food is just fantastic. It’s uniformly packed with flavor and hot spice; it’s warm and soul-satisfying, unusual and unique. Start with the fatty sliders, surprisingly spicy bits of minced spiced pork and beef in soft and slightly-charred potato bun; they’re texturally perfect and pack a dynamite flavor punch. The charred squid salad is a little less impressive, falling flat after the thrilling sliders duo. For entrees, the house special, the chili crab, is a requirement, despite the often lofty market prices. Yet, despite the $43 price tag, the massive bowl of addictive tomato chili sauce in which sit two very large Dungeness crabs, rubbed in a thick and pungent chili rub, is an experience you’d be really unfortunate to miss. With just a shellfish cracking tool and what amounts to a small wooden toothpick, you tear apart the crabs, hunting and digging for the golden nuggets of sweet crab meat hidden beneath thin shells and between claw joints. Difficult and time-consuming, the process is frustrating yet worth the immense sense of accomplishment after finding every piece of meat you possibly can. If you’re not in the mood for such a high-intensity endeavor, another excellent option is the chicken claypot, an incredibly delicious stew-broth hybrid with green chili, succulent pieces of chicken, soft and mellow tofu, and the cool refreshing bite of ginger.

Fatty Crab’s food is really something special and good thing for it – the service is pretty much a disaster, despite being impossibly friendly for Manhattan. The restaurant is so clearly understaffed, and the kitchen delivered food at exceedingly strange times (the squid salad being served last? after the gigantic bowl of chili crab?). Our server seemed overwhelmed, confused, and stressed throughout our entire meal, which included long periods of being unable to get our server’s attention through any means shorting of waving our hands frenetically. As I said, luckily, the food is addictively delicious, so delicious that I can’t help recommend Fatty Crab to anyone who even vaguely likes Southeast Asian food.

Perfect For: late night noshing, funky boozy brunch, casual al fresco dining, happy hour, getting down and dirty with crabs, hobnobbing with hipsters, “i’ll have some food with my beer”

Fatty Crab 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

Bill’s Bar & Burger: Bill Just Said No to Meatpacking Glitz

The Meatpacking District isn’t exactly known for its food – models and bottles tend to reign supreme at this small crossroads in downtown Manhattan. Yet, with the opening of Bill’s Bar & Burger just across from The Gansevoort, new light for casual, unpretentious and damn good dining shines through brightly.

The burger joint is diminuitive in a neighborhood where bigger and bolder is better. Set up to evoke your classic neighborhood sports bar with checkered tablecloths, bar-height tables, many a flat-screen TV showing New York sports, and both beers on tap and beer by the pitcher, Bills Bar & Burger seems a little out of place when kitty-corner to Gaslight, Tanuki Tavern, and Pastis. Yet, the relaxed vibe is a welcome antidote to the Meatpacking District’s glitzy, clubby and overpriced alternate reality.

The food is dressed-up ballpark fare: hamburgers and hot-dogs. Riding the popularity wave of haute burgers, the kitchen at Bill’s Bar & Burger offers a variety of specialty burgers that range from the Fat Cat, a delicious and savory mess of beef burger, caramelized onions and American cheese in a crispy and slightly sweet English muffin, to the Bobcat, a mildly spicy bunch of Mexican green chiles and Jack cheese on a classic sesame bun. The Classic is there for those who just love their basic beef hamburger with lettuce and tomato on a toasted and not-too-bready sesame bun. If you’re health-conscious (ask yourself, why are you in a burger joint?), there is either the Tuscan Turkey Burger with aged provolone, lettuce and tomato on a whole wheat bun or the Market Veggie Burger with sharp Swiss cheese and a savory roasted red pepper sauce. No matter how you like your burger, Bill’s does a great job. The beef is flavorful and the patty not too thick; the bun is slim and soft, not too bready; the burger altogether is just greasy enough to give the illusion of indulging wickedly but not so hefty as to induce a slothful food coma.

Not in the mood for a burger? Bill’s also offers a few specialty items, such as Texas Brisket Chili and a Blackened Fish Sandwich, as well as hot dogs, which rival the best baseball franks out there. A series of fries and shakes options are available as well, for those looking to inflict maximum damage on your waistline. Fries range from classic potato fries (crispy, salty and just about perfect) to essentially flavorless sweet potato fries and unapologetically decadent disco fries, classic potato strips doused in thick gravy and melted cheese. Shakes range from your basic vanilla, chocolate and strawberry to more unusual offerings like the peach cobbler (vanilla ice cream, summer peaches, and streusel crunch), peanut butter banana, or Framboise flout (rich chocolate ice cream with Lindeman’s lambic framboise). Looking to start off or top off your night out? Every specialty shake can be make boozy with a shot of liquor.

Bill’s is chill and cheap, by New York standards. Naturally, it’s not quite as greasy and grimy as your classic burger joint in middle of anywhere America, yet Bill’s Bar & Burger evokes the comfort of a neighborhood favorite while still keeping in mind the discerning tastes of New York diners. Not to mention, it’s a totally acceptable sports bar with pitchers of beer for those looking to reincarnate their Greek life days.

Perfect For: burger fanatics, sports freak foodies, tight wallets, post-club milkshakes, a mellow Meatpacking experience, New York sports fans

Bill's Bar & Burger on Urbanspoon