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Posts from the ‘ladies night’ Category

The Fat Radish: A No Man’s Land Secret Garden

Despite it’s goofy name, The Fat Radish is magical. Tucked into a discrete space in the no man’s land between the Lower East Side and Chinatown, walking into The Fat Radish is like discovering a secret garden. Inspired by the original industrial Covent Garden market in London, the Fat Radish bills itself as a healthy and simple sort of place – with a veggie friendly menu, biodynamic and natural wines, and an emphasis on seasonal cooking. And yet, it is so much more than the “simple, airy and elegant room” it considers itself.

Before sitting down to dinner, first enjoy a cocktail at the tiny bar behind the hostess stand. Nina Simone and Nat King Cole croon softly in the background while a swarthy English bartender, clad in plaid, pleasantly whips up one of the fresh house cocktails; industrial Edison lights shed a golden glow on the stacks of artisan and mainstream liquors, causing the glass bottles to twinkle softly. Suddenly, waiting for your guest to arrive is a marvelous experience. When heading back into the main dining room, take in the illuminated sprays of fresh flowers nestled into archways carved into the distressed white brick, the large antique mirror in the back listing the day’s specials, the rough hewn wooden furniture, decorated simply with dishcloth napkins and a tealight candle. Unique design touches make the room pop – such as a retro scarlet “R” letter sign, illuminated like a Broadway marquee with small white light bulbs or the cool blue modern ceramic squares, arranged neatly into a rectangle on one wall.  The Fat Radish is a charming gastronomic sanctuary in a part of town better known for graffitied storefronts, massage parlors, and fresh produce stands; it is warm and welcoming and yet somehow effortlessly cool, frequented by an unpretentious yet fashionable crowd.

The food is seasonal American, focused on fresh flavors and simple preparations. At dinner, something as simple as a warm potato salad, an arrangement of roasted fingerling potatoes topped with a poached egg, is truly tasty when the rich yellow yolk covers the herbs and shards of potato; the celery root pot pie is vegetarian, yet rich and homey, reminiscent of Thanksgiving stuffing and the chicken pot pie we all know and love. Salads are well-dressed and just taste good, garnished with baby beets, crispy bacon, or a well-cooked egg. Entree dishes are traditional – Colorado lamb loin with miatake mushrooms, glistening with fat, green curried monkfish with wild rice, a heritage pork chop with tomato jam, and, of course, a thick bacon cheeseburger with perhaps the best side ever, duck fat fries. While dinner is wonderful, brunch is perhaps even better – warm banana bread, soaked with melted butter, is irresistible; rich thick slices of avocado 7-grain toast, with eggs in a spicy tomato broth, is unusual, innovative and ridiculously delicious; ‘eggs purgatory,’ swimming in a flavorful tomato sauce dusted with pecorino, is the ideal savory brunch dish; and the homemade cheddar biscuit, served with gravy and bacon, is just … sinful.

The Fat Radish is a marvelous find for people who just love food. The atmosphere is pleasingly low-key, just trendy enough to feel hip yet also approachable, warm, and immensely likeable. The service is friendly and unobtrusive, present and efficient yet not nagging. The food, by and large, really tastes delicious – it’s not fussy or over-thought; instead, it has the taste of being cooked from the soul, cooked with love. When the atmosphere, the service, and the food all work together so seamlessly, with such a unified front, it’s truly difficult not to love The Fat Radish.

Perfect For: trendy vegetarians, Lower East Side locals, fashionistas, laidback dates, boozy brunch, schmoozing with a friendly bartender, a cozy night out with good friends

The Fat Radish on Urbanspoon

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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

Casellula Cheese & Wine Bar: Where Cheese Comes First

Wine and cheese go together like peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots, steak and potatoes. And just off a busy Hell’s Kitchen corner, a charming little wine bar devotes itself to marrying ‘the holy duo’ through a long and worthy wine list and a cheese-centric menu. And thus, in a city with wine bars in every neighborhood, Casellula is no ordinary wine bar. With a name where cheese comes before wine, the focus at Casellula isn’t only on the nectar of Dionysus, but also on cheeses of all shapes, sizes, and stinks (yes, stinks), used in all sorts of different ways.

The tiny space just off 9th Avenue is cozy. Exposed brick covers two walls, and the one wall left free is bare white. Near the entrance is a crowded bar, simple wood, with bottles of wine clusted on shelves and quality beer on tap. The rest of the space is reserved for seated dining – the best tables are those pressed up against the windows, where you can watch all sorts of characters rush by on 52nd St. With soaring ceilings and an entire wall lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, Casellula creates an illusion of space, and so people crowd into corners and cluster at the bar. As the night goes on, the sound level rises to a pleasant roar – the sounds of happily satiated people reverberate, laughter ricochets, wine glasses clink and tinkle. It’s a charming and mellow sort of place, where it’s hard not to enjoy yourself.

At Casellula, the menu focuses on cheese (a no-brainer for a place opened by the guy who used to run the cheese program at the Modern) and showcases up to three dozen varieties at one time in all sorts of ways. There’s a gooey and decadent grilled cheese, served on buttery and crusty bread with thin wisps of bresaola and three varieties of cheese; it’s nutty, savory, salty, and everything you could want from an American classic all-dressed-up. There is a mac n’ cheese (of course) of comte and goat cheese with speckles of bacon and sweet caramelized onions. There is straight-up grilled camembert for the cheese purist, served hot and oozing with roasted tomatoes and bacon. For ‘lighter’ options, the kitchen offers a petite ricotta crostini; crispy slices of baguette topped with airy ricotta, floral orange blossom honey, and earthy bites of hazelnut, it’s so simple and yet so satisfying. If you’re not a cheese person, don’t despair – the chicken liver pate, served with a layer of creme fraiche in a little bowl, is rich and creamy without being over-powering; and the kitchen offers everything from hot n’spicy adobo chicken wings to fish taco ceviche, a goose breast reuben, endive salad, and a rabbit & mushroom pie.

Casellula is essentially an homage to cheese, and cheese is the star here. It’s in almost every dish, oozing out of grilled cheese, fluffed atop crostini, or just on its own. Yet, aside from the cheese, one of the greatest things about Casellula is how utterly un-snobby it is. Although it’s a cheese and wine cafe, beer is beloved here as well. The young and hip staff is laid back (almost too much so on occasion); the food is accessible without sacrificing an ounce of quality; and there’s no need to dress up to show up. Casellula is a refreshingly relaxed hitter on the New York wine bar that maintains it’s cool without sacrificing an iota of food or wine quality.

Perfect For: first dates, wine & dessert, cheese freaks, catching up with your girlfriends, mellow after-work drinks

Casellula Cheese and Wine Cafe on Urbanspoon

Empellon: Mostly Missing Lowbrow Mexican

‘Trendy’ Mexican food seems to be a thing in New York these days, as evidenced by former wd-50 pastry chef Alex Stupak’s new Empellon and its predecessors Cascabel Tacqueria, Toloache, Dos Toros, Hecho en Dumbo and so forth. Whether or not this thing, usually a blend of dressed-up Mexican street food, fancy cocktail menus, and a casually elegant vibe, is successful depends on the restaurant, and unfortunately, Empellon struggles where others have triumphed.

On the suddenly red hot corner of West 4th and West 10th in the West Village, Empellon is pretty much like every other hip ‘neighborhoody’ restaurant in the area. It has fresh white walls, unadorned dark wooden tables, a backlit bar stocked with all sorts of fancy alcohols (mostly artisan tequilas here), rounded leather booths for groups, and the requisite gilt-framed mirror, you know, to make the room look bigger or whatever. Sure, it’s comfortable and charming, but this look is starting to get a little bit redundant (see: 10 Downing, Bistro de la Gare, Casa, Recette, Kingswood, and so on and so forth). I ask myself: why should I come here if there are carbon copies with different menus littered throughout the surrounding blocks?

Perhaps my beef with Empellon rests in that not only was the atmosphere ‘same old same old,’ but the food was wildly inconsistent. Some of what the kitchen produced was truly delicious, while other dishes were just plain bad. The guacamole is wonderful – the type of stuff you could eat every night with one of the bar’s stiff tequila or mezcal-based house cocktails. And its made even better by the two ‘salsas’ its served with – a smoked cashew sauce and a smoky arbol chile variety; both are distinctive and addictive. Yet, the tacos were over-priced at $12 each and almost inedible. The lamb barbacoa tacos, by far the most tasty sounding, were pretty awful – underseasoned lamb meat, a tough tortilla, horrible bits of bitter green olives that overpowered every other meek flavor in there. The chicken variety were better, though not by much; like the lamb barbacoa, the chicken was egregiously under-seasoned, and unfortunately, not even the little nuggets of green chorizo could save this dish.

Other non-taco dishes are better – the octopus marisco with parsnip and a lovely dressing of chipotle, sweet spices, and an unrefined sugar called piloncillo is well-cooked and an unusual spin on an octopus starter. The queso fundido options sound ridiculously good. I mean, how could you not salivate over a bowl of melted cheese served with warm tortillas? However, the execution was not as good as it could have been. I was imagining some sort of decadent Mexican fondue, and yet what I was delivered was a disappointingly small bowl of extremely concentrated pseudo-melted cheese that had hardened a bit too much. Its hard not to like melted cheese, and so, of course, I ate every bit of what was served; yet, at the end of the day, I would rather just go get some fondue at The Bourgeois Pig. The best part of the meal was the end of the meal. The bunuelos, a bowl of churros-like fried doughnut holes, are utterly incredible. Served with two sauces, a warm honey and an absurdly-delicious caramel-ish cajeta, these are like Pringles on steroids (once you pop, you just can’t stop). I could eat them every night, if I didn’t mind risking heart failure.

Empellon is fine; it’s not great and its not dreadful. Mostly, it just makes me miss low-brow Mexican fare from such favorites as Benny’s Burritos and Maryann’s Mexican. Why pay $12 for a crappy taco if you can pay half that for a scrumptious burrito or decadent plate of nachos at a less chi-chi spot? or perhaps a better question is, in a neighborhood as jam-packed with quality restaurants as the West Village, why pay exorbitant prices for mediocre food when those same prices will get you something amazing just down the street? That being said, if you’re only looking for some guac and awesome cocktails with your lady friends, Empellon is undoubtedly your spot.

Perfect For: guacamole and margheritas at the bar, ladies night out, west village locals

Empellon on Urbanspoon

Riverpark: Very Colicchio, But Not Colicchio’s Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riverpark on Urbanspoon

Hearth: Italian Soul Food Priced for Manhattan’s Socialites

The word hearth evokes images of home, of warmth, of family clustering around the fire, of Grandma’s fantastic cooking. Chef Marco Canora’s East Village restaurant, Hearth, is about as cozy as you can get without making the trek home to your parents’ house and the perfect venue for Canora to showcase his scrumptious Italian-American soul food. Made famous by his recent appearance on the Food Network’s cooking competition show “The Next Iron Chef,” Canora is known for injecting his personal philosophy into his food and his restaurant: offer ‘enlightened hospitality’, cook with care, don’t waste, don’t spoil, save what you can. It all sounds basic for a gourmet restaurant, yet Hearth shows you the differences between ‘service’ and ‘hospitality,’ ‘cooking with care’ and ‘cooking with skill.’

Hearth is on the corner of 12th and 1st Avenue, in the heart of the East Village’s dining nerve center. You’ll find nearby the Momofuku restaurants, cult favorites like Veselka and Artichoke Pizza, foodie havens Motorino, Pomme Frites, and This Little Piggy, and neighborhood joints like Westville East, The Redhead, and Ost Cafe. The corner spot is just plain lovely, a charming blend of Italian rusticity and elegant modern dining. Along one side of the dining room is the requisite exposed brick wall, Canora’s is left unadorned; on the other side, warm burnt orange panels that lend a seductive and flattering amber glow over patrons. The entire dining room is designed with acoustics in mind – clever sound-absorbent ceiling paneling, a smooth floor that mysteriously seems to mute noise, heavy curtains – and because of this, the restaurant has a pleasant buzz that never seems to get out of control.
I cannot get over Hearth’s menu (in a really really good way). It features Canora’s distinctive soulful take on Italian comfort food through a long list of first courses, main courses, a few large portions to share, and a 7-course tasting menu. Although options do change seasonally, it seems like winter’s the best time to go when the flavors are bold and comforting and the food warms you from the inside out. For example, when the wind chill is down to 18 degrees, how can you possibly say no to Canora’s “chicken soup,” which is clearly not your average chicken noodle soup, served with tender chicken dumplings, nutty farro, and a wonderfully savory broth. The red-wine braised octopus is rich and decadent with a fistful of flavors, including an addictive lemon aioli, earthy potato, and black olive. For the more adventurous, there is the sweetbread piccata, silky with potato puree and mushrooms, or the festival of ingredients that accompany the grilled sardines (read: fig, pear, almonds, black radish, and spindles of frisee).

For main courses, just about everything seems to be good. The pastas are dreamy. The pumpkin gemelli is luscious – rich, smooth, and creamy with a classic brown butter sage sauce kicked up with crunchy bitter little bites of amaretti (Italian almond macarons). Equally wonderful is the ‘spaghetti and meatballs,’ made with perfectly-cooked homemade noodles and the most decadent veal and ricotta meatballs ever. They are so delicious that I could eat them every day, for as long as Canora would serve them, or at least until I make myself sick. If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, the roasted lola duck is lovely, juicy and tender with crunchy red quinoa, sweet pomegranate, and smooth earthy turnip confit – a festival of flavors!

Hearth is wonderful sort of place: warm, cozy, and elegant with hearty and delicious food and truly congenial service. It’s expensive and oddly suited for the East Village, yet regardless of its ill-selected neighborhood, Hearth is a restaurant any Italian food lover should try.
Perfect For: well-heeled East Villagers, showing your parents around downtown, special occasions for hip young things, Italian cuisine connoisseurs, impressing a first date, Valentine’s Day romance

Hearth on Urbanspoon

Accademia di Vino – Broadway: Another UWS Quasi-Olive Garden

I don’t know about you, but I’m still desperately seeking decent food on the Upper West Side. Accademia di Vino – Broadway, the sister restaurant to the Upper East Side Accademia di Vino and Cesca, is just another disappointment in a long string of supposedly wonderful yet ultimately boring neighborhood restaurants. Without mincing words, it’s cheesy, disorganized, and mediocre.

Deceptively far north on the Upper West Side, the space can at best be described as quirky and at worst as “how did you ever think of designing a restaurant like this.” There appear to be three ‘rooms,’ all set at angles to each other. The dominant area is the bar room, just in front of the door. It’s inevitably going to be packed with cougars talking to greying bankers talking to their colleagues. The best way to describe the decor is ‘up-scale’ Olive Garden with burgundy leather and obviously expensive yet hideously ugly contemporary ceiling lamps, glowing strangely blue in an otherwise refined old school environment. My first thought was how bizarrely UFO-like they were. There are people everywhere: 2 hosts, 1093523958 busboys and waiters, couples packed into small corner tables, groups of 40 year olds at long tables adjacent to the bar. It’s confused and confusing. If you’re lucky enough to be sat on the opposite side of the restaurant from the bar, there’s a bit of respite from the chaotic hum yet no escape from the cheap-looking wood-paneling and flimsy furniture.

Perhaps design faux-pas would have been forgiven if the food were as tasty as expected. Alas, no. Accademia di Vino-Broadway’s menu of Italian pizzas, pastas, and small plates is tantalizing from all angles. Classic antipasti offers charred brussels sprouts, fresh ricotta and honey, eggplant caponata, and so forth; a plethora of cheeses and meats, small plates, fresh fish crudo, and both seafood and meat carpaccios and tartares are like a siren song for lovers of Italian cuisine; individual grilled pizzas range from the classic tomato, basil and mozzarella to the house specialty of robiola, pecorino and black truffle; pastas abound, from traditional bolognese, cacio e pepe, and spaghetti carbonara to butternut squash ravioli and whole wheat pasta with eggplant, mozzarella and basil. The sheer array of both old school and new age Italian offerings dazzle and overwhelm, building excitement and high expectations.

Unfortunately, everything just seems to fall flat. The fresh ricotta antipasti was good, though sadly under-salted and not nearly as tasty as that at Locanda Verde, A Voce Columbus, or Peasant. The house speciality, robiola, black truffle & pecorino pizza, was bland; completely over-doused in cloying truffle oil, what should have been sharp and nutty Pecorino wilted and the fluffy Robiola cheese merely faded to the background. Aside from the virtually tasteless toppings, the pizza was little more than a flatbread, completely lacking in any texture or char. The pastas are a major improvement over the rest of the menu, particularly the basics, however they are by no means works of art. Instead, they’re more just like the quick dishes your mother would whip up, tasty and simple. Don’t expect any unusual ingredients, original cooking techniques or inspired presentations here!

With such an extraordinary selection of mid-price Italian restaurants in Manhattan, many of which are excellent (Peasant, Locanda Verde, Barbuto, Giorgione, Il Buco, Lavagna, Maialino, novita, and Sorella, to name a few), I can’t imagine why one would choose Accademia di Vino-Broadway. Granted, tasty eats in the neighborhood are disappointingly few and far between, but with such things as the New York City Subway and too many taxi cabs to count, not traveling for good Italian just doesn’t cut it.

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