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Posts from the ‘fusion/eclectic’ Category

Rouge et Blanc: A Modern Twist on Old Saigon

Considering the man in the kitchen is an alumnus of Eleven Madison Park and Degustation, the new Soho neighborhood eatery Rouge et Blanc opened with very little fanfare. Perhaps this has to do with its impressively laid-back and congenial atmosphere, its desire to appeal to a quieter and less trend-focused crowd, or even its own lack of comprehension of how good the product it’s offering really is. A Vietnamese-French fusion concept restaurant that harkens back to Saigon in the ’40s, Rouge et Blanc is a quirky sort of place that, without question, presents some of the best food I’ve had in the past few months.

The restaurant is small, located on a quiet stretch of MacDougal Street on the south side of Houston. It’s the sort of place you notice only by walking past it. In the summer, the wide windows open to the street, beckoning to passers-by; the siren song of vintage Parisian tunes and the crystal clink of wine glasses draw them in. At the front of the restaurant are a few round tables with plush antique upholstered chairs for the lucky few diners who get to watch the world go by over steaming plates of lamb ribs and duck confit. Then, a bar, congenially tended by a well-suited man and packed with couples enjoying a bottle of bordeaux or burgundy. In the back is an intimate and sultry dining room – a blend of French bistro and Vietnamese tavern with soft light filtering through paper lanterns, separate cubicles with dangling red light blubs shedding a crimson glow over dinner, scarlet wooden chairs pulled up to dark and rough hewn tables, and curated elements of Parisian nostalgia dotting the walls.

The menu, created and executed by chef Matt Rojas, nods to both classic French and Vietnamese dishes. It is divided into three parts: a lamely-titled ‘wee plates,’ ‘small plates’ and ‘large plates.’ The wee plates are snacks – a fresh watermelon salad with goat cheese, house cured salmon with basil oil and crunchy glazed almonds, or briny razor clams with smoky charred leek conft. The small plates are like appetizers – flavor-packed and tender skewers of Vietnamese sausage with sweet onions and rice noodles, fresh green papaya with whole-fried prawns, and luscious strips of bone marrow with baby octopus and pickled plum. The large plates are, you guessed it, entrees (note: why they can’t just call them snacks, appetizers and entrees is beyond me – a quirk of this quirky spot). The green curry with roasted and grilled summer vegetables is remarkable – the house ground green curry paste is simmered long and slow with coconut milk until it’s thick and silken – it’s so good that if given the opportunity, I would gladly take a bath in it. The vegetables (turnips, yams, potatoes, brussels sprouts, carrots and zucchini) are soft and flavorful, salty and cooked just right. Also wonderful are the lamb ribs – cooked until they’re falling off the bone and served in a pool of roasted red pepper puree. The hand-made roti offered alongside is hot and oily, an upgraded version of fried dough.

Rouge et Blanc is an excellent restaurant disguised as only a good one. It’s not often spoken about; it’s not swamped with foodies and trend-setters; it’s not pretentious or self-important. It’s just quietly marvelous – a pleasant surprise to all who dine there expecting a solid comfortable meal and receive instead a remarkable one. The food served is obviously beloved by those cooking it in the kitchen – it is cooked with care; the atmosphere is utterly devoid of irritations – it is relaxed, quiet but not somber, personal, and convivial; the service, though slow every now and then, is friendly and informative. Rouge et Blanc is a diamond in the rough, obscured by the flashier new arrivals nearby (I’m thinking of you, The Dutch) yet peacefully truckin’ along.

Perfect For: later in the game dates, Soho locals, a quiet dinner with friends, older new couples, non-ostentatious foodies, cool fall nights

Rouge et Blanc on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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

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

Bento Burger on Urbanspoon

Social Eatz: Angelo’s Asian-American "Bar"

Any restaurant that substitutes a ‘Z’ for an ‘S’ in its name and on its menu would normally have me very worried – images of painfully mediocre cuisine and trashtastic crowds flash immediately through my mind – however, Social Eatz, the new ‘Asian-American bar’ opened by Top Chef favorite Angelo Sosa seems to defy my admittedly low expectations. In fact, the ‘z’ on Eatz is almost endearing, knowing that it came from the irresistably bizarre mind of chef-owner Angelo. Nonetheless, as you would expect, Social Eatz is a strange place. It ventures half-way to kitschy Japanese anime karaoke lounge, yet stops just short and collides with a classic American sports bar.

Why Angelo is so into Midtown, I will always wonder (his last restaurant was in Hell’s Kitchen). The Social Eatz location is strange for a trendy restaurant. Situated half a block from the infamous Turtle Bay ‘frat row’ on 2nd Avenue in the 50s, the location speaks to the target audience: young people with modern multicultural tastes, a love of beer, and not too much cash in the wallet. More bar than restaurant, the narrow and cramped space is oddly designed. Orange lacquer-top tables with orange lacquer-top benches are crowded up against one wall, while the other wall is taken up with an orange lacquer-top bar, slightly raised above the tables. The bar is designed such that people may eat or drink there, in normal dining height swivel chairs. Apparently, there is also a downstairs dining area, which I neither saw nor heard any evidence of, despite the packed-in crowd on a Wednesday night. Everything at Social Eatz is brown and orange and kitschy, with a definite Japanese cartoon-y flair.

While the actual atmosphere may take some getting used to, the food is indisputably good. The menu is Asian-American fusion, featuring sports bar favorites like burgers and fries, tacos, hot dogs, wings, and ribs all-dressed-up in Asian flavors. The house specialty, ordered bravely by my friend Emily, is a ‘Bibimbap Burger.” The winner of some national burger award (alerted to us by our waitress), the Bibimbap Burger is one serious burger: a thick and bloody-red patty of ground beef, topped with a perfectly-executed sunny-side-up egg, and covered in a mess of pickled carrot and cucumber. It is simultaneously hefty and refreshing – if that’s conceivably possible. Other burgers impress as well. For the sake of variety, my friend Amanda ordered the Bulgolgi Burger, another Korean-inspired dish. The beef patty is heavily charred, then topped with cooling cucumber kimchee, kewpee and Japanese mayo, and then sauced with a blend of soy sauce, scallions, garlic, and sesame oil (my favorite!). It’s intensely flavorful, though disappointingly “thin” for a burger – every now and then you just want a big hunk of meat to bite into! Other than burgers, Social Eatz delivers an array of bold and flavorful dishes. I loved the chicken, corn & coconut tacos, served on warm soft tortillas, and the side of fries, offered crispy and thin with an addictive spicy cheese dip.
Although after much mulling I still do not understand in the least Angelo Sosa’s ‘vision’ for Social Eatz being “a social experience” both in the restaurant and out of it (huh?!), it is clear that the focus here is on interesting and well-executed flavors. The food is the kind of stuff you want to eat after a long day at work or while watching baseball or with a cold draft Pilsner – and it’s all presented with an interesting and delicious Asian twist. Bear in mind though, Social Eatz is a youthful spot and those of a more traditional generation could very easily feel like a fish out of water here, with the bordering on too loud buzz, cramped tables, Asian anime feel, and bar-restaurant hybrid concept.

Perfect For: Angelo sightings, burger fans, midtown east happy hours, catching the game with some serious eats
Social Eatz on Urbanspoon

wd-50: Wylie Makes Mad Scientist Culinary Chic

In the past few years, Wylie Dufresne has made quite a name for himself through various Food Network appearances, cameos on Top Chef, and a role on Top Chef Masters; he is widely regarded as one of the leading American chefs that create their food using molecular gastronomy. wd-50, Dufresne’s restaurant on the Lower East Side, is his culinary playground, a gastrolab for his mad scientist creations.

Located on Clinton Street’s quirky restaurant row, down the street from Falai and across from The Clerkenwell, wd-50 is best described as modern and funky. Only a small red neon sign in the window betrays its presence; the inside is surprisingly cavernous, with soaring ceilings, from which hang brightly-colored teardrop lamps. The walls are a touch darker than royal blue and burnt orange, an admittedly strange color palette for an expensive gourmet restaurant. The tables and booths have a Brazilian steakhouse look, all pale wood and medium-brown leather; the cube booths along one wall are private, with the edge of the booth extending far enough up that you’re not staring into the meals of you’re neighbors. The tables are sleek and spartan, no table cloths, no flowers, just your plate and your cocktail.

wd-5o offers two menus, the $140 12-course tasting menu, which I personally avoided because of the hefty price-tag yet a surprising number of people ordered without blinking, and the a la carte menu. The food can be loosely considered American; however, as our waitress pointed out, the ingredients and flavors listed on the menu are merely a portion of what will eventually be on the plate and the form in which these ingredients come will be unexpected. For example, the eggs benedict starter is by no means your classic eggs benedict with perfectly poached eggs atop a biscuit; rather, the star of the dish is a trio of deep fried cubes of hollandaise sauce. Similarly, the veal brisket came cold and sliced like deli meat, with gelee cubes of honeydew melon, shaved olives, and deep-fried ricotta. The brisket is unexpected and disjointed, until you blend all of the ingredients together for each bite. With that synesthesia of elements, the dish makes sense and is wonderfully challenging, to the point of suddenly being delicious. On the more traditional side, the cheddar and broccoli soup is almost too in-your-face cheesy (if there is ever such a thing…) until you crinkle in the crunchy and spindly lattice of pork shoulder, somehow made to resemble edible lace.

The entrees are a further study in the complex pairing of unusual flavors. The Iberico pork neck is smoky, luxuriously rich, and guiltily salty; thick slices of perfectly-cooked meat is served in a bath of peach and pork jus with knots of texturally-interested smoked paprika spaetzle, slivers of Marcona almonds, and crispy flaky shards of Swiss char. The duck breast course is simultaneously sweet and tangy with the sharp bite of fresh cheddar cheese and the heady main note of savory kim chee couscous; bits of tart Granny Smith green apple are scattered atop the generous helping of sliced breast. The whole experience is an explosion of sometimes harmonious and sometimes difficult blends of tastes, textures, and aromas.

Surprisingly, the highlight of the whole meal was the hazelnut tart served for dessert, or perhaps it was just a welcome (and “normal”) relief from a challenging dinner. Thin and creamy with a buttery flaky crust, the tart was composed of smooth Nutella-like and coconut filling and accompanied by chicory foam. It was simple and delicious.

wd-5o isn’t for everyone; the vast majority of Dufresne’s food is perplexing and unusual; you have to work at it to find what he’s getting at, what his point is with the ingredients served. In this way, wd-50 is the thinking man’s restaurant; Dufresne intellectualizes American cuisine. That being said, it takes an adventurous will to follow Wylie blind-folded down his culinary path. Looking to take a risk? wd-50 has got to be your go-to.

Perfect For: adventurous eaters, those desperately needing something different, impressive first dates, foodies and food nerds, Top Chef fans,

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

de Santos: Got More Scene Than A Broadway Show

de Santos, a modern Italian spot with more atmosphere than a Venetian piazza and more scene than a Broadway show, is the poster child for trendy restaurants that focus more on the look than on the food. It’s the type of place you want to go to for drinks with your lady friends (mostly to pick up the well-dressed Latin men often seen hovering), not to eat bland mediocre Italian food.

The restaurant itself is gorgeous – intimate, sexy, and rustic in a glossed over sort of way. Set in a brick townhouse on West 10th Street, de Santos is designed to evoke a secret garden. Up front is the bar, all dark wood and soft lighting, backlit bottles and a canopy of faux Monarch butterflies. A rich brown leather banquette along one side of the wall lets lovely ladies in stilettos rest their feet while sipping fancy cocktails and watching the night’s catch amble from one end of the bar to the other. In the back, a small interior dining room seats about 40. Exposed brick walls, industrial lamps, potted plants, dried herbs, teetering sprays of flowering plants, and even a regal exotic deer’s head transform a quirky space into someplace luscious and seductive. Beyond the dining room is a year-round back patio that’s perfect for relaxing and popping open a chilled bottle of wine during the summer months – just be careful its not too hot out, without AC or any real air flow, the garden gets super steamy.
de Santos is visually stunning, both in its verdant and sultry decor and in its uber-stylish Euro clientele. Yet, unfortunately, the modern Italian cuisine by way of Mexico tastes uninspired. The menu has the right idea with jumbo savory salads, a rich truffled beef carpaccio, a selection of pastas such as trofiette with spicy Italian sausage, and simple entrees like roasted chicken, filet mignon and roasted duck. Yet, everything from the cheap-tasting ingredients to the bland preparation disappoints. The delicate beef carpaccio is smothered in a too thick, too dense, and too creamy potato gnocchi, so much so that even the rich truffle flavor got lost in the melee. The spinach fettuccine with jumbo shrimp in a curry cream sauce was cooked well in the al dente style, yet the flavor combination was strange with spicy curry, heavy cream, briny shrimp, bright lemon zest, and earthy zucchini and spinach – just too much. The trofiette with spicy Italian sausage and mixed mushrooms was perhaps the best dish put out, surprisingly hot and feisty while maintaining a lovely earthiness.
de Santos isn’t a red-sauce Italian spot. It is modern and luxurious, trendy, glossy, and mega-sceney. Unfortunately, the kitchen doesn’t deliver food worthy of the frustratingly hefty price-tag; a full dinner for two can run at upwards of $60-$70 a head; bottles of wine slip under $40 in just one instance; cocktails go for $12-$15 a pop. At these prices, the food and the general experience better wow because there are so many places in the saturated Manhattan market that will knock your socks off for far less.
Perfect For: seeing and being seen, cocktail hour, ladies night out, staking out Latin Lovers, al fresco dining all year, blowing cashmoney

De Santos on Urbanspoon

Solo: A Restaurant With Split Personality Disorder

I’ve been to a lot of business lunches in Midtown East, and I’m starting to run out of viable options for the same client. There are only so many times they can be taken to Metrazur. Thus, when news hit that fiesty Top Chef alum Eli Kirshstein was taking the helm at Solo, a kosher new American spot in the Sony Atrium, it quickly became the next-up option for business lunching in ‘hood.

It quickly became clear that Solo is a strange sort of place. Its two very different restaurants in one: on the one hand, edgy contemporary American and on the other, rustic Kosher American comfort food. This bizarre attempt at blending these two personalities and vibes together manifests itself on the menu, in the decor, in the target clientele, and in the equally bizarre table service.

While the exterior to Solo is a slick multi-colored neon facade, the interior is beige and mellow with clay pots, stodgy white tablecloths, sparse greenery, and rich brown leather banquettes. The menu offers Asian-flecked American cuisine alongside hearty comfort food; for example, big eye tuna tartare with avocado, yuzu, citrus salt and mint sits alongside pine nut, raisin and cauliflower stuffed lamb meatballs in a thick tomato sauce. In the main dining room, sharp business men in suits sit alongside rabbis; groups of young banking analysts out for summer luncheons pepper a room otherwise full of Midtown workers seeking haute Kosher cuisine. The table service makes attempts at quality with all the right intentions and none of the execution. Our server got so frustrated with his inability to find the right time to take our order (with long-time clients, we had a length ‘catch-up’ as soon as we sat-down) that he gave up and passed us on to a much sharper and icey cold woman – unprofessional much?

The menu is compelling and the food is uneven. With a wide-ranging set of influences, Kirshstein offers up everything from a soy sauce-flecked salmon carpaccio, served bright pink and thinly cut in a discus shape, to a 16 oz cowboy steak sure to initiate food comas to a frisbee-sized ‘hand-chopped’ hamburger to a basic grilled herbed chicken panini and fries. In as ‘new American’ cuisine is rarely considered ‘new’ anymore, such dishes seem run-of-the-mill at this point, expected and even a bit tired.

The lamb meatballs, cut with too-large chips of onion and served as a group of 5, were flavorful but all-around too much for an appetizer. The awkward plating on an extremely-long pencil-shaped dish had everyone laughing as I poked around, hoping to avoid too much sauce on my suit jacket. The burger was outrageously large, almost as thick as the bun and spilling out the sides with abandon; it was just too much. I found myself asking, what is the point of this? Who really needs a burger this big? The table agreed, entering into a spirited discussion about Shake Shack and it’s perfectly-sized burgers. Both fish dishes (the halibut and the pan-seared salmon) were artfully plated and easily the best offered by Kirshtein; the halibut had a beautifully crusted exterior and white flaky interior, succulent, while the salmon brought American influences (crabmeat and Yukon potato) together successfully with East Asian, represented by a light wasabi aioli. Unfortunately, the Stuffed Baby Delmonico Filet was served under-cooked and was unappetizingly red – not the way you want a steak served at a business lunch & suits place. That dish should be perfect.

Solo is hit-or-miss and an acquired taste. Ideal for those seeking completely Kosher cuisine, it offers an oasis in an otherwise Kosher-barren part of Manhattan. Yet, as a straight-up suits-a-lunchin’ place, it falls short with bland and uninspired ‘new’ American cuisine. I had hoped for something more exciting from Kirshtein, who showed spirit and originality during his stint on Top Chef.

Perfect For: kosher cuisine, client lunches, Top Chef-spotting, group meals (there’s a little somethin’ for everyone), those desperately seeking good sit-down in Midtown East

Solo on Urbanspoon

Koi: Asian Fusion’s Fish Out of Water

In a city peppered with traditonal Japanese restaurants, sushi spots, and asian fusion powerhouses, Koi stands out like a fish out of water, and not in a good way. A ‘celebrity favorite’ in the Bryant Park Hotel, Koi shows the dark underbelly of big-box pre-fabricated fusion spots through its sub-par cuisine, Malibu barbie hostesses, and table service that’s worse than the sandwich counter at your neighborhood deli.

In the lobby of the Bryant Park Hotel, just off the park itself, Koi is at first sight impressive, in the way that these incredibly large over-designed hotspots are. How they get the ceilings so high is beyond me. The main dining room is large, lined with tan leather banquettes, and stuffed with dark minimalist furniture; it is designed to evoke an indoor zen garden with bamboo shoots curling around boothes, the backlit bar, and even encroaching on the Buddha. A large sculpture starting on the floor and arching up towards the ceiling mimics the scale pattern you’d find on a garden’s koi fish. Lush and unquestionably overdone, the look at Koi walks the fine line between Vegas-style expensive and totally tacky.

The cuisine is “Japanese-inspired” with California undertones – essentially, anything with a little sushi, a little miso, and a little rice flies. The trick with restaurants like Koi is that the food is meant to sound fantastic – how delicious does diver scallop tempura with asian pear salad sound? or lobster tail in sake truffle butter sauce, grilled tiger prawns with sweet potato and kumquat glaze, and kobe beef carpaccio with fried shitake mushrooms? Yeah, unilaterally, the food is just bad; rather than being bright and refreshing, the flavors come off as muddy; the meat and fish seemed unforgiveably over-cooked. All that fancy food couldn’t even be saved by an abundant use of truffles.

Koi is the type of place to go to if you’re looking to be seen and if you’re new to New York. As a young intern here years back, I thought a restaurant like Koi was the ultimate luxury, having never seen a place quite like it before. Yet, as restaurants go, Koi can’t hold a candle to other Asian fusion big boxes such as Nobu, Morimoto, and Buddakan. While all of these places may sport atmospheres worthy of the Vegas Strip and a scene meant for Meatpacking, a few select ones actually produce food worth paying for. Koi, you are not one of the select.

Perfect For: putting on stilettos and strutting your stuff, impressing out-of-towners with your wallet, a night of flirting with the hostess, after-work drinks if you work at Bank of America

Koi on Urbanspoon