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Posts from the ‘flatiron’ Category

Ciano: Flatiron’s New Gold-Plated Italian

Ciano, a charming Italian restaurant, is a welcome addition to Flatiron’s extensive though tepid culinary scene, yet it lacks the finesse to make it a truly memorable dining experience. It must be tough to make it as an Italian restaurant in New York, given the vast amounts of competition in almost every discernible neighborhood. And while Ciano is well-run and serves good Italian cuisine, it can’t hold a candle to the truly soulful Italian fixins’ at Locanda Verde, the now defunct Convivio, Apizz, or even the far more casual West Village newbie Spasso. It just comes up a little bit short on personality.

The duplex space on East 22nd Street, just around the corner from the Flatiron building, is the epitome of faux rusticity. At first blush, it appears to be brimming with rustic charm; lush plants are just about everywhere you look, the furniture and floor are both made of warm wood, and remnants of countryside kitsch are found everywhere. However, when one looks a little closer, all this rusticity at Ciano is noticeably false; it doesn’t look real or believable with crisp white tablecloths, plants arranged into perfect neat bouquets, expensive modern light fixtures, and each design element so impeccably suited to another that it just comes off as matchy-matchy. Sure, it’s ‘elegant,’ but the half-way rustic vibe makes it seem like Ciano is trying to hard to be trendy. My advice? If you want to be a fine dining restaurant, don’t sell out to the rustic chic trend and confidently go hog-wild with formality.

The simple Italian food at Ciano is prepared by Chef Shea Gallante, the former chef at the much beloved and deceased Cru, and is generally very good. It’s technically excellent, based on fresh seasonal ingredients, and ‘the stuff you want to eat,’ but for whatever reason, it’s not so delicious or so exciting for it to be memorable. The menu is short, but not too short, with nine snacks and five or six each of appetizers, pastas, and entrees. Out of the snacks, the arancini are tasty – ideal little bites of fried cheesy rice. The chicken liver crostini is also good, though not remarkable. As starters go, the burrata di bufala is naturally scrumptious (it’s pretty difficult to mess up burrata), particularly when layered with the savory sweet onion jam and bitter and salty pesto on top of the charred thick slices of country bread. But, the burrata is $18, an astonishing number for a starter offered for less at the very pricey Hearth or Peasant.

The pastas are delicious – the best thing offered by Ciano as far as I can tell, both in terms of taste and of value. A ‘spring’ ravioli, stuffed with burrata and sweet peas, is earthy, bright, and buttery; for $15, it’s one of the best deals on the menu. The pappardelle is more substantial, heavier, and meatier with a duck bolognese dusted with hearty oregano; nutty pecorino shaved on top makes this dish fairly addictive. The saffron tagliatelle is luxurious with chunks of Dungeness crab, yet the strong flavor of saffron is a touch over-powering; a lighter hand would transform this dish into something marvelous. As entrees go, Ciano’s are fine. A steak is just a steak, and the lamb loin with lamb sausage is just a lamb loin. There is nothing so astonishing or memorable about either.

Everything at Ciano is neat, clean, refined, and ‘just so.’ Both the food and the atmosphere seem too precise for casual Italian dining, too sterile to incite exuberant passion. Dining at Ciano is ‘nice,’ but not wonderful or thrilling, not something to remember for weeks after or to leap at the chance to repeat. With such a respected pedigree (former Cru chef, former Cru sommelier, and former Per Se maitre’d), I had hoped Ciano would just be better than the ‘good’ it is. It’s just the place to take clients from out of town – the price point is right and the room is elegant enough to impress; but for those seeking romance or intimacy, something different, Ciano is not so special.

Perfect For: taking clients out, treating your parents, indulging in ricotta cheese, third or fourth dates, having a ‘mature’ dinner out

Ciano on Urbanspoon

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Rickshaw Dumpling Bar: Excellent Concept, Not So Excellent Execution

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar is probably one of the best concepts ever – a “fast casual” restaurant devoted to DUMPLINGS. I mean, really, who doesn’t love dumplings? From the get-go, Rickshaw was pretty much guaranteed to be a hit. And, in fact, a hit it has been with food truck off-shoots and a line of kitschy-charming t-shirts. However, regardless of how popular this Flatiron dumpling mecca is, there are some problems with execution and the actual quality of the dumplings.

The restaurant is a tall and narrow sort of thing, with soaring ceilings and a stark & modern Japanese look constructed out of what seems to be concrete. The first things you see are the cashiers, smiling all sorts of big goofy smiles. Above them towers a gargantuan menu board, listing every sort of tasty Asian drunk food you could imagine: pork dumplings, szechuan chicken dumplings, shrimp and wasabi dumplings, noodle soups, sesame noodles, pork buns, bubble tea, and so forth. The selection is dizzying, tantalizing, overwhelming for Rickshaw first-timers. So, in classic fashion, my boyfriend and I order enough food to feed the entire military, take our number and wait.
In less than 5 minutes, our order is sitting at the pick-up station – impressive! All in all, the dumplings are mediocre, and some are better than others. The fillings are better than the wrappers, and the addictive dipping sauces are better than the fillings. To maximize dumpling enjoyment, skip the szechuan chicken variety and head straight for the kimchi beef with a sekom sauce (reminiscent of the best sort of creamy spicy mayo) and the shrimp with a sweet jicama, scallion and creamy wasabi dip. These two options beat out the other middling dumpling choices with their smooth flavorful filling and utterly fantastic dipping sauces. Interested in pork dumplings? Rickshaw Dumpling’s rendition are just…OK. Other than the dumplings, Rickshaw’s food is just fine – noodle soups are brothy, salty, and toothsome, and the pork buns are satisfying without being anything amazing.
In sum, Rickshaw’s food is nothing to write home about; however, the ‘restaurant’ is exceedingly accessible for all the yuppies milling around Gramercy, Flatiron, and Chelsea. If you’re on your way home from work, Rickshaw Dumpling is a safe and quick option to consider (though by no means the best) without much thought. Not great, not horrible, just easy.
Perfect For: dumplings on the go, trendy Chinese takeout, being the fat kid

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar 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

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

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

Devi: New York Indian Food’s Holy Temple

I have always loved Indian food, from the authentic family-style dishes served in a basement-level restaurant during my childhood to the many varieties available on Campusfood.com in college to fancy schmany Indian fusion scenes in Manhattan. Thus, when I saw that Devi, a restaurant called “perhaps the city’s best Indian restaurant” by Frank Bruni, was participating in restaurant week, it was hard to say no.

Just across the street from Aldea (another favorite!) in Flatiron, this gem of a restaurant is inspired by an Indian family’s personal home and by Hindu temples. The multi-level space is visually stimulating and brightly colored with vibrant red fabrics, rainbow-hued hanging lamps, exotic patterned cushions, and delicate white lattice-work. The lower-level front room is long and narrow with a long row of white-tableclothed tables and tiny bar for serving beverages; the alove/loft dining room is more intimate with peekaboo windows to the room below.

The menu is extensive and overwhelming, stocked with every possible mouthwatering regional Indian and American Masala dish. Expect curries, breads, biryanis, Tandoori-grilled meats, and a plethora of savory vegetarian options. Although my friend Alex and I went there for restaurant week, we were so tantalized by the regular menu that we just ended up ordering from there.

We started out with one of the house specialties, the ‘Manchurian cauliflower.’ This overwhelmingly delicious dish coated plain old cauliflower in a type of sweet & sour sauce, resulting in savory crispy crunchy totally uncauliflower-like nuggets of joy (yes, nuggets of joy). I could have eaten an entire vat of these little marvels.

We then shared the chicken tikka masala, the saag paneer, naan, saffron rice, and an intriguing almost curry-like vegetarian dish. The chicken tikka masala (personally, my favorite Indian dish in spite of how cliche that might seem…) was divine – spicy, creamy, thick, fragrant, and with a generous portion of tender white meat chicken. It was, in short, an amazing break from the mediocre chicken tikka masala that dots Manhattan. The saag paneer, normally not a favorite of mine, added welcome rich and mellow flavors to an otherwise spice-tastic meal. The soft mild cheese and sharp spinach complimented the masala dish perfectly and tasted particularly good piled atop the soft and fluffy naan. Lastly, the vegetarian dish, a kofta, surprised me not only texturally but also in terms of how bold the flavors were. While avoiding vegetarian dishes is typically my MO (risking blandness and texturally-ambiguous faux meats is not my shtick), this play on vegetarian ‘meatballs’ was exciting, tasty, and aromatic. While not necessarily my cup of tea, I can see how it would be truly heavenly for vegetarians.

Devi is an ethnic food wonder: beautifully designed, immensely flavorful authentic food, top-notch white-glove service. Granted, none of this comes cheaply; however, if you’re searching for high-quality Indian in a refined yet relaxed environment, Devi is absolutely worth it. The interactive spicy food and personal environment makes Devi an obvious choice for romantic rendez-vous; and, the elegant peaceful atmosphere offers an ideal locale for an ‘exotic’ dinner with parents, friends, and colleagues.

Devi on Urbanspoon

SD26: San Domenico’s Ugly Half-Sister

Ignore the hype. Save yourself $200 and just ignore the hype. Tony and Marisa May’s follow-up to traditional Italian favorite San Domenico is a bloody disaster. Everything from the decor to the value to the service to the clientele to even the quality of the food is somehow totally disappointing. Let me enumerate the ways for you:

Decor: There is something bizarre about the look of SD26. It is cold, modern, and yet completely boring all at the same time. The front lounge area has far too much open space; it looks under-furnished and cheaply done. The back restaurant room is a sterile white cavern with bizarre massive dangling balls of thread. Are they trying to entice mice?
Service: Considering entrees range from $30-$50, the service at SD26 should be white-gloved and perfection. Quite to the contrary, both hostesses (yes, there are two to get through before you’re seated) were completely unhelpful and only seated us when 20min after our 9:30 reservation, we demanded to be led to our table immediately (or else.) Our waiter was fine (although sans personality) until he handed us a bill that was almost exactly double what we should pay and had none of the items we ordered. In a restaurant of this ilk, should it not be BASIC for patrons to at least get their own bill?
Food: The food was pretty good. Was it what I expected? Did it totally blow me away? Was it worth the exorbitant prices? No, absolutely not. But, all in all, the menu was both inspired and inspiring, and the food was mostly tasty. The chitarra pasta (featured on the website) was well-cooked, well-seasoned, and all-in-all a successful dish. Yes, the sauce was a bit ordinary, but I enjoyed the satisfying heartiness of the pasta. The lamb chops were the highlight of the meal, served at the right temperature with a truly delicious mint couscous (yum). My boyfriend opted for the pork belly salumeria, which was served in thin strips reminiscent of lard. The strips tasted pretty good but looked very unappetizing. The braised beef cheeks in red wine reduction sounded incredible, yet were dried out and really plain.
Scene: The wine bar & lounge in the front were crowded with what looked to be middle age singles and groups of after-work drinks taking advantage of the wine vending machine (admittedly, pretty freaking cool). The restaurant was packed with pseudo-outer borough could-be-mafia types flashing their bling bling and loudly ordering every and all expensive items on the menu. Needless to say, younger by 15 years than the average table and noticeably quieter, my boyfriend and I felt a bit out of place…
All in all, SD26 is over-the-top in all the wrong ways and falls short where it really needs to succeed. The bread and butter of a successful restaurant, good food and good service, were absent. The unbelievably high prices for such a lackluster experience have me betting that once the hype dies, SD26 will be hurting badly for business.

SD26 on Urbanspoon