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Posts from the ‘midtown’ Category

Keens Chophouse: A Truly New York Original

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

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

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

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

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

Keens Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

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Ardesia: Westside Winebar Gone Industrial Chic

Ardesia is a ‘modern’ winebar suited to the ‘modern’ up-and-coming area in which it’s situated, the far western reaches of Hell’s Kitchen, now called Clinton. It’s industrial chic vibe harkens back to the rough industrialized past of the now gentrified neighborhood, and large sidewalk patio allows diners and imbibers to enjoy the cool river breezes blowing off the Hudson.

Ardesia lacks the cozy charm of many of Manhattan’s wine bars, yet makes up for it in space, a highly valued luxury. The airy room has high ceilings and bright floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the patio and street; walls without windows are painted in blackboard paint on which the day’s specials are scrawled. Off to one side is a separate ‘lounge’ room with low plum-colored couches clustered around coffee tables. In warmer months, a 30-seat sidewalk patio is a lovely and quiet place to enjoy one of the bar’s many beverages. Everything from the furniture to the bar layout to the decor is simple, streamlined, and contemporary without cutesy flourishes or kitsch.

Ardesia’s wine list is, as expected, extensive. On any given day, there are about 30 wines by the glass offered from all over the world: France, Italy, Austria and Germany, Spain, the United States, Argentina, and so forth. They range from $8 a glass to as high as $15 a glass – at those rates, if you’re not careful, drinks can get pretty steep. The food on the other hand is not only reasonably priced but also pretty good for a wine-focused spot. The kitchen seems to take its inspiration from pretty much everywhere. There’s a Cuban sandwich, a duck banh mi, weisswurst (sauerkraut, bread and mustard), a South American-inspired flank steak with salsa verde, and New York Style pretzels with a gooey cheese sauce. While the options are diverse and yummy-sounding, the actual quality of the food is inconsistent. For example, whereas the Southeast Asian lemongrass shrimp skewers are excellent – succulent and aggressively-seasoned mini shrimps bursting with flavor, the burrata is less of a success. Tough and stringy, it lacks the creamy texture that makes burrata so alluring and enticing.

Ardesia has its flaws – it’s not exactly an immediately warm and welcoming environment, despite the friendly best efforts of the bartender, the food can be both wonderful and disappointing, and our server was acting so bizarrely he had to be on drugs. However, in a neighborhood lacking in many viable low-key and classy watering holes catering to the increasingly gentrified crowd, Ardesia nicely fills a void – and offers a wonderful patio in the summer months at the same time.

Perfect For: midtown west after-work drinks, Clinton locals, alfresco boozing, oenophiles

Ardesia on Urbanspoon

Stone Rose Lounge: Models and Mini-Bites

I will admit that I found myself at Stone Rose Lounge mostly through process of elimination. With tickets to the New York City ballet, I was looking for a swank pre-theater spot that my friends and I could nosh and imbibe at before the show. All my favorite pre-Lincoln Center options (Bar Boulud, A Voce Columbus, and Café Luxembourg) were unable to accommodate a large group last minute. And so, I gave Rande Gerber’s Time Warner Center ‘hotspot,’ Stone Rose, a chance.

The lounge itself is gorgeous, in a New York-Meets-Vegas sort of way. On the fourth floor, ‘the food floor,’ of the Time Warner Center, it has breathtaking views of Columbus Circle and Central Park. The large floor-to-ceiling windows seem to be just above the treetops, and you can almost imagine that the majesty of Central Park is in the palm of your hand. Stone Rose is 100% lounge with soaring ceilings, sleek contemporary couches, low cocktail tables, buttery leather benches and seating cubes. In the back are rounded banquette tables cut out of the wall, and a few traditional dining tables are scattered in the middle of the floor. Everything is slick and shiny, glittery at night, almost like a nightclub but without the DJ beats. If you’re only interested in drinks, a long and larger-than-life bar spans an entire wall – new age-y low lights make the entire thing glow in an almost cheesy sort of way.

In true lounge fashion, the service can best be described as shit. Although the scantily-clad waitresses are friendly, when you can manage to track them down, they regularly either disappear into “the kitchen” or spend a large chunk of time simply milling around the bar. At the end of the night, after waiting for 20 minutes for our waitress to swing by, I finally went up to the bar in hopes of settling my check – our waitress then magically appeared out of nowhere.

The food at Stone Rose Lounge is limited, though generally pretty tasty. All the dishes are eclectic American fusion small plates, with all the usual lounge options: hamburger sliders, beef skewers, artichoke dip, basic sushi rolls, cheese and charcuterie platters, and so forth. There’s nothing ground-breaking or particularly special about what the kitchen serves; however, as a complement to the fancy cocktails, the dishes do just fine. Perhaps the biggest gripe about the food at Stone Rose is how unbelievably over-priced it is for what amounts to little more than average cooking. And with irritating quirks, like how extra ‘naan’ (really, it’s just pita) for the artichoke dip is $3, Stone Rose is certainly not worth visiting if you’re only interested in eating.

The food certainly plays second fiddle to the cocktails. At Stone Rose, the complicated martinis and house specialty cocktails are the main event. Unfortunately, there are much better cocktails in Manhattan (Lambs Club, Little Branch, Yerba Buena Perry, Raine’s Law Room, Pegu Club, to name a few). Stone Rose’s ingredients and combinations are often inspired and unique; however, the execution is frequently off. Rarely can you actually taste the fun and unusual ingredients, for they are so dominated by whatever type of alcohol is included. I’m not paying $14 for a cocktail that tastes like a vodka shot. If I wanted a vodka shot, I’d go to the local dive in Hell’s Kitchen. You can tell that the menu was created by a master mixologist and that it is being executed by your typical bartender – what an error.

Stone Rose is all about atmosphere and glitz, a fact supported by its well-heeled, well-dressed and generally good-looking crowd. Other than the supremely convenient location and wondrous views though, Stone Rose falls to the level of mediocrity unfortunately shared by most of New York’s lounge clubs. The food is average, the cocktails only slightly above so. If you’re not tied to the Columbus Circle area, there are far better options for swank libations.

Perfect For: fashion week libations, blowing cash, expensive after-dinner drinks, large groups, models and bottles

Stone Rose Lounge on Urbanspoon

Lambs Club: Midtown’s Minetta, Without the Burger

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

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

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

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

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

The Lambs Club on Urbanspoon

A Voce Columbus: Harmonious Italian

There are a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, so few when compared to the endless number of dining options in Manhattan itself. A Voce Columbus, the second installment to Missy Robbins’ A Voce story (the original sits pretty in Flatiron), is one of those few restaurants raised to glory by Michelin, and for good reason. Though strangely situated in the Time Warner Center, between the men’s floor of J. Crew and a Montmartre women’s clothing store, A Voce Columbus is simple and sophisticated, sports a beautiful view of Central Park, has service that runs like a well-oiled very expensive machine, and delivers truly flavorful Italian cuisine.

The Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle is doing what it can to make itself the neighborhood’s fine dining mecca. The third floor of what essentially amounts to a high-end mall is home to Landmarc, Bouchon Bakery, and A Voce; sky-high Asiate and the Stone Rose bar are set in the attached Mandarin Oriental hotel; the fourth floor houses epicurean powerhouses Per Se, Masa and Bar Masa, as well as Porter House New York. That’s a lot of very good eating for a shopping mall. A Voce Columbus itself is sleek and clean, decorated entirely in soothing taupes, creamy browns, and vibrant burnt oranges. The bar is set for eating at both lunch and dinner and is a surprisingly sexy spot for dining with someone special; it is intimate and luxurious, refined, a spot for rendez-vous and late meals. The main dining room is airy and bright, with buttery cream leather chairs, dominating plate glass windows looking over Columbus Circle and the leafy expanse of Central Park, elegant and simple table settings. The staff is everywhere and yet not at all intrusive, dressed smartly and impressively well-spoken.

Missy Robbins’ soulful Italian food is simultaneously uncomplicated and beautifully layered. Pasta dishes are built from the bottom up: textured and perfectly cooked noodles, high-quality and well-seasoned produce, top-notch olive oil, seasonal vegetables. The tagliatelle is a rich and deceptively complicated dish; pleasantly torn and ridged noodles, cooked al dente, are topped with tender white-meat chicken, bits of smooth chicken liver, generous shavings of black truffle, and thin shreds of Parmesan reggiano. The result? An incredibly decadent pasta dish that just tastes expensive. Oh yeah, did I mention that a sizable portion costs only $15? The squid ink orecchiette is both refreshing and luxurious, with just a hint of salty ocean brine and the clean buttery taste of fresh lobster; miniaturized Italian chickpeas and flakes of hard cheese add texture and earthiness.

Even something so simple as a brussel sprout side dish shines brightly with lemon juice, chili flakes, a bath of olive oil, and yet more Parmesan reggiano. The buds are giant, crunchy, savory and earthy, with a swift kick in the face of chili flakes (trust me, it’s actually a quite nice kick in the face). The antipasti options are traditional: buttery carne crudo, sardines spruced up with eggplant caponata, tender grilled calamari treated lovingly with a chili vinaigrette, roasted mushrooms. It’s pretty much impossible to go wrong if you’re a fan of all things Italian; Chef Robbins will win you over with her skilled seasoning, creative riffs and twists on classics, and beautifully selected products and produce. There is a deftness and a wisdom in how she builds dishes so they seem simple and yet are anything but.

In short, A Voce Columbus is excellent. The location is off-putting for some, especially those enamored with cutesy and cozy spots in the West Village (a class in which I normally squarely put myself), however its easy to forget the chain stores nearby when you’re staring at the tops of Central Parks trees, being waited on hand and foot by a friendly staff, and noshing on soul-satisfying haute Italian fare. Besides, most everyone needs an eat-your-heart-out consolation meal after blowing all that money at Williams-Sonoma, Hugo Boss, and Tourneau, right?

Perfect For: michelin star-stalker foodies, power lunches, dining solo at the bar, splurging without really splurging, taking your parents out, pre- or post-Lincoln Center entertainment eats

A Voce Columbus on Urbanspoon

44 and X: New American Comfort Food in New York’s Hot New Neighborhood

10th Avenue is blowin’ up. Not literally, there is no dynamite involved here. Instead, the 10th avenue strip from Chelsea to Clinton is being rejuvenated and gentrified with the High Line, a plethora of brand new luxury condo and rental buildings, and a few culinary pioneers willing to set up shop west of 9th avenue. 44 and X, the sister restaurant to neighboring 44 1/2, is one of those pioneers, serving the growing neighborhood that’s not quite Hell’s Kitchen, not quite Chelsea, not quite what is generally considered Midtown West, and just south of Clinton.

The neighborhood is rather barren, with high-rise residential buildings, all shiny glass and steel, a brand spanking new Hess gas station, and a few divey bars ranging from a grungy-looking beer garden to your classic Irish sports bar offering options like ‘Pumpkin Bombs.’ Yet, on the corner of 44th and 10th, sits 44 and X, the surprisingly elegant and chic dining destination, presumably meant to serve the young professionals inhabiting all those shiny high-rises.

The restaurant’s shtick is ‘Heaven in Hell’ (boldly emblazoned on every server’s shirt), and the look is an all-white wonderland straight out of Pottery Barn’s winter shopping guide. With white walls, pearly white tile work, cream banquettes, modern plasticky white chairs, and soft ethereal white glow, 44 and X looks like a cross between a TV commercial’s visual representation of Heaven, the Nutcracker’s winter wonderland, and a luxury bathhouse in a Miami beach club. Perhaps what is most striking though is that the amount of outside sidewalk seating seems to greatly outweigh that of indoor seating, a rarity in Manhattan and especially in midtown.

44 and X’s food is new American, meaning it’s pretty much a hodge-podge of cuisines all put together into an eclectic menu. Whether it’s because it is one of the only proper dining establishments in the ‘hood or because the chef just has lofty ambitions, the menu at 44 and X is overwhelming and just generally massive for a restaurant in its price range. Appetizers range from a seasonal soup (squash and maple bisque in November) to goat cheese and pistachio souffle to a roast chicken quesadilla with pico de gallo, a spice-crusted ahi tuna, wild mushroom raviolo, a Maine lobster taco and a blue-corn crab fritter. The bisque is thick and heart-warming, yet severely under-salted to the point of being almost inedibly bland and sweet without some help. The crab fritter is just absolutely not a fritter; texturally challenging (and frankly, off-putting), the dish is essentially a large crab cake with absolutely no crunch; the substantial bits of blue crab appear to be stuffed into a pan-fried yet still soggy English muffin. Needless to say, it was a total flop.

The entrees improved upon the appetizers and offered a similarly overwhelming yet more cohesive range of options. The classic American influence shone through with buttermilk fried chicken, casserole of Maine lobster, lemon and sage roasted chicken, a traditional filet mignon, a grilled steak & fries, a hamburger, roasted rack of lamb, and braised short ribs. The filet mignon was the real superstar, cooked perfectly to a deep-pink medium rare at the middle and served with mashed potatoes in a port wine jus. Less successful was the salmon, plated severely under-cooked; even the coconut broth and the mix of seasonal vegetables couldn’t save the almost inedible filet of fish; if sushi were wanted, sushi would have been ordered, let’s leave it at that.

44 and X has a lot of work to do, but there are glimmers of potential. Despite it’s vaguely clubby South Florida vibe that seems misplaced, it is a gorgeous space with soaring ceilings and plenty of room for larger parties. The food has high points and some abysmal low points. The service is quick, friendly and efficient. 44 and X is on the front lines of restaurants moving into the 10th avenue corridor, joined by Chelsea favorites The Red Cat, Tia Pol and Trestle on Tenth as well as the neighboring sky-high Print in the Ink48 hotel; it gives me hopes that new and exciting dining destinations will follow suit and offer better options for the oft-forgotten neighborhood.

Perfect For: cocktails and cake, ladies night out, 10th avenue neighbors, a quiet date night, summer brunch outside, ladies who brunch

44 & X Hell's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sushi Yasuda: Great Sushi, But The Best?

Can someone please explain to me what the big deal is about Sushi Yasuda? I understand the fish is fresh; I understand the selection of fish is unique; I understand that very serious sushi-making takes place; however, I do not understand why this upscale and admittedly very good sushi spot garners rave reviews as one of the best in the city. To me, it seems like another expensive and focused sushi restaurant that produces quality fare – not exactly a novelty in Manhattan.
If you didn’t know the address, it’s easy enough to traipse right by the unmarked modern storefront smushed between corporate office towers and the back delivery areas of 3rd Avenue’s chain stores. Through sliding doors is a simple, dim, and spacious dining room, dominated by smooth and textural bamboo wood ceilings, floors, and paneling. The look is strictly minimalist, with no artwork and perhaps a plant, standing lonely in the corner.
The table service mimics the scene, sparse. Our waitress barked at us, coolly and robotically, never bothered to explain the rather complicated menu, and responded sharply when I asked her clarifying questions, or really, anything at all. She could barely hide her irritation when I tried to order a prix-fixe meal from the wrong menu, god forbid.
While the service is frosty, the sushi is good enough to land itself in the upper echelon of New York’s sushi dens. The focus is on simplicity. Each plate is served without garnishes and adornments in a plain bamboo box. If a fish is to be complemented by lightly seasoned rice, woven through with wasabi, it is served as sushi (though it can be offered in sashimi form). If it stands best on its own, it will be presented sashimi style. Maki rolls let the fish shine – there are no funky ‘special rolls’, just cuts of pure fresh fish wrapped in Sushi Yasuda’s unique rice blend and seaweed.
There is no question that the fish is beautiful – rich, luxurious, soft, flavorful. At it’s core, Sushi Yasuda is an homage to fresh market-driven fish, with astonishing variety and simplistic clean presentations. Yet, is Sushi Yasuda the best sushi you’ll find in Manhattan? No. It doesn’t sparkle or shine; it doesn’t take risks; there’s no innovation or surprise. For what it offers, it is lovely, but I had hoped for something more.
Sushi Yasuda has a league of rabid fans, including many a famous restaurant critic; it has pedigree; it has a recognizable name in a city with a sushi spot on every street corner; yet, it seems to lack soul. The space, the service, and, ultimately, the food is sterile. Sushi Yasuda is saved by its impeccable product, beautiful and diverse fish.
Perfect For: client lunches, sushi freaks, a quick meal alone, a subdued splurge

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