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Posts from the ‘noho/nolita’ Category

Rubirosa: A Classic Pizzeria with Nolita Flair

Considering how difficult it is to get a reservation at Rubirosa and how much buzz the restaurant has had since opening, I had expected the Nolita pizzeria to be unattainably fashionable and perhaps even a little snotty. Thus, what a surprise it was to discover instead a warm, convivial and family-friendly neighborhood establishment that appears to be rabidly popular with trendy young things, neighborhood families, traveling foodies, singles, and couples alike.

A cheery blood orange and crimson facade with a retro painted sign announce Rubirosa’s presence. The pizzeria’s space on a Mulberry Street block shared by Balaboosta, Eight Mile Creek, and Torrisi Italian Specialties is narrow and quirky. The front area is primarily a bar, where diners without reservations nosh at high-top tables and tame groups of revelers enjoy reasonably-priced bottles of wine and artfully-concocted house cocktails. Towards the back of the front room and in the tiny back room, normal tables held for those parties with reservations wait. Rubirosa channels a homespun rusticity popular amongst casual eateries these days in New York – striped wallpaper covers the walls in one nook; tables are made from hefty hewn dark wood; pails of fresh Gerber daisies sit on the bar; mismatched framed black-and-white photographs of Italian neighborhoods hang neatly on the dark grey walls; hanging lanterns with soft scalloped edges shed a warm glow over patrons. Though not necessarily unique these days, the look is charming, comfortable, and a bit more upscale than your typical New York pizzeria.

Though Rubirosa bills itself as a classic pizzeria, it offers a full Italian menu with antipasti, pastas, pizza, and secondi. The bruschetta are a great way to start a meal – and a great value at $3 each. My favorite is the Meatball – a soft and savory traditional meatball atop a large piece of crusty fresh-baked Italian bread and coated in warm tomato sauce and melted Parmesan. Other options include the earthy and nutty Mushroom variety and the rich Caramelized Onion with pieces of braised duck. For a pizzeria, the salad options are quite sophisticated – beets with goat cheese, an iceberg wedge with bacon and vodka blue cheese dressing, a warm mozzarella caprese. Classic antipasti follows – delicately fried calamari, arancini stuffed with prosciutto and gooey fontina, roasted octopus with tomato and potato, and of course, an Italian-American homage to eggplant parmesan.

The pastas are all made in-house and range from a succulent lasagna with sausage AND meatballs for two to a decadent hand-rolled manicotti, ricotta ravioli and a refreshing whole wheat fettucini with asparagus and zucchini. The ‘black-and-white’ tagliatelle is an embarrassment of riches – a squid ink pasta accompanied by clams, mussels, scallops, and shrimp; it’s briny, silky, and perfect for seafood-lovers. Of course, despite this spectacular array of food, Rubirosa is best known for its wondrous ultra thin-crust pizzas. The crust is wafer-thin, crispy at the crust, and slightly chewy at the center. The toppings are layered on, but not too thickly. The vodka pizza, a house speciality, is light and airy, best with a sprinkle of crushed red pepper and a tossing of shredded Parmesan.

Rubirosa is a wonderful neighborhood establishment – a refreshingly laid-back restaurant in a neighborhood known for high prices, high fashion, and “high horses.” The service is efficient and friendly, the food accessible and reasonably-priced (for Manhattan), and the atmosphere congenial. Sure, the food isn’t haute gourmet or even perfectly-executed, but what does that matter when you can slurp it down with a $30 bottle of house wine (quite the bargain, if you ask me)?

Perfect For: post-shopping pigouts, lowkey date nights, weeknight quick dinners for Nolita locals, thin crust pizza fanatics, wining and dining, noshing at the bar

Rubirosa on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peels on Urbanspoon

Mulberry Project: Would You Like Some Food With Your Cocktail?

I will preface this review by saying that considering I had my “End of 1L” celebratory meal at The Mulberry Project, there was very little chance of me not liking this place. That being said, as objectively as possible, this place just kills it. On a Little Italy strip mostly known for it’s red-sauce Italian restaurants, knock-off sunglasses stands, and cannoli vendors, The Mulberry Project hides from sight, behind a recessed red door below street level.

The interior is small – long and narrow with a few choice black leather booths along one wall and bright red metal bar stools at the bar. A cartoon-y set of painted red lips frame the ordering window to the kitchen, and unintelligible scrawls of black graffiti cover the scarlet walls behind the bar. The dim lighting and color scheme almost give the sensation of being in an urban vampire den (read: that club from True Blood without the exotic dancers). Here, however, the focus is clearly on the booze, with “pick your poison” scribbled on the wall above the seating – the variety of specialty liqueurs and artisan liquors stacked and backlit behind the bar is staggering. In the summer, the back graffiti-decorated patio opens with room for 50.

The Mulberry Project is all about cocktails. They’re so about the cocktails that they don’t have an actual menu, and they custom-make ‘bespoke’ cocktails if you give them a few specifications (preferred liquor, any flavors you like, and so forth). The creations are nothing short of magical. A request for bourbon and slightly sweet returned a killer bourbon cocktail with maple and blackberries; when I said I liked pears, the most delicious drink I’ve ever had came back – all sparkly and tart and sweet; an elderflower junkie received a beautifully floral and tangy beverage in a vintage champagne coupe; a vague request for gin and citrus produced a muddled ginger, lemon, thyme and, of course, gin cocktail that was a serious upgrade from the gin & tonic. Drinks took awhile to come around and cost $15 each, but if you’re seriously into boozy beverages that taste fantastic, the bartenders at Mulberry Project know how to please.

Perhaps the most surprising thing though about The Mulberry Project wasn’t how delicious the cocktails were (that was expected), but instead how delicious the food was. Prepared by a former Boqueria chef, the upscale pub food is just plain good. A series of small plates meant for sharing, the menu is divided into “If By Land” and “If By Sea,” with meats dominating in the former and seafood options in the latter. In the “Land” category, the Braised Short-Rib Sliders shine – a soft roll stuffed with juicy and tender marinated beef, crunchy watercress, creamy sheep’s milk cheese, and a spicy chipotle mayo. All these flavors explode, resulting in a dish that is simultaneously savory, spicy, salty, and slightly sweet. The crispy porkbelly is also wonderful – more sophisticated than sliders, the bar food staple. Served with a crispy and bright apple ‘chip’ and fig compote, the porkbelly is succulent and addictive, a fresh, sweet and substantial bite that washes down with a pear cocktail very nicely.

The best “Sea” dish is hands-down the lobster sliders. These things avoid the pressure of being ‘lobster rolls’ by being ‘sliders’ and they’re just wonderful. The roll is soft and dripping in butter; the generous helping of lobster is pure and untainted by mayo or celery; the entire ‘lobster slider’ experience is pretty heavenly. Like any good ‘bar’ that also serves food, The Mulberry Project serves up three varieties of “fries,” all of which are delicious and must-orders. The truffle fries are the best – decadent, crispy, well-seasoned, and just about perfect. The sweet potato fries are also great – packed with flavor and a happy medium between floppy and crunchy. Last are the crispy baby artichokes, an unusual alternative to the true fries; shaped like lollipops and lightly fried, the earthy ‘fries’ are paired with an insanely good and contrasting almond romesco dipping sauce.

Yes, The Mulberry Project is small and the Rock n’ Roll-spinning DJ pumps some seriously loud music into the cramped space, but it’s hard to deny the quality of the cocktails and the tastiness of the food. The entire experience was like what I would expect from a modern-day opium den – dark and warm, the kind of place you could lose yourself in for hours, constantly plied by good food and good drink, the music getting louder as the night moves on. The only rough part of the night is when you finally decide to peel yourself off the black leather booths and to pay the bill, a more often than not staggeringly high price tag for the night.

Perfect For: celebratory drinks, faux hipsters, fat wallets, cocktail connoisseurs, fashionistas

The Mulberry Project on Urbanspoon

What Happens When: A Culinary Chameleon with Thrilling Bursts of Inspiration

Chances are, by the time you read this review and decide to try What Happens When, the menu will have radically changed or, even more drastically, the restaurant will have disappeared. No, I’m not just being wildly pessimistic about the state of restaurant ownership in New York; I’m just underlining the simultaneously frustrating and thrilling nature of ephemeral ‘pop-up’ restaurants, one of which is Nolita’s wildly popular What Happens When.

The brainchild of Dovetail chef John Fraser, a photographer, a composer, and two designers, What Happens When rides the currently red-hot trend of creative and funky pop-up restaurants in Manhattan. It is temporary, occupying the former Le Jardin space on Cleveland Place, and unique from other eateries of its kind in that every 30 days during its 9-month tenure, it completely reinvents itself. Each month, the menu changes; the decor changes; the inspiration changes.
The first ‘movement’ at What Happens When was a modern Scandinavian winter-scape with potato skins on the menu and a chilly black & white decor. Movement #2 was a riff on the magical world of Where The Wild Things Are and the wonders of an enchanted forest, with an earthy menu following suit. Just today, What Happens When metamorphosed into Movement #3, a lush new incarnation inspired by French impressionism, Paris in the 1880s and the quaint charm of a Renoir-esque garden party. Regardless though of how the look of the space changes, unfortunately nothing can hide the uncomfortably cramped nature of the dining room; low ceilings and too many tables in too little space can make claustrophobic folk turn green, and those who like to eat with their elbows are out of luck.
It’s safe to say that the food at What Happens When demonstrates Chef Fraser’s unrestrained joy and boundless inspiration in the kitchen. Though there a few execution foibles here and here, the new American fare is thrilling, inventive, and bold. The menu is a 3-course prix-fixe, and the delicious nuggets I ate are already ‘out of fashion.’ And so, I won’t wax poetic about what you absolutely have to order. However, you should know that the smoked hen egg tastes golden, with marigold-colored yolk dripping over rich smears of chicken liver on crusty toast; the braised short rib entree with cheddar cheese polenta is a case study on how to pack some of the boldest and brashest flavors into one dish while still exhibiting deftness and delicacy; the ‘pig’ entree, simply stated and lushly presented, thoughtfully wastes not with a big bowl of cooked pig parts; and the crispy chocolate dessert cake, a girl scout’s thin mint cookie punched up a few hundred notches, woos and seduces with more game than the most charming guy you’ve ever met.
What Happens When is fun. It’s something different from the typical New York eating-out grind. Not everything is perfect, but that’s OK because What Happens When isn’t looking for that 4-star review or a never-ending stream of regulars to keep it afloat for years to come. Instead, because of its ephemeral nature, What Happens When and its ambitious owners just ‘have fun with it.’ They offer the type of relentlessly creative product that is probably just too risky for more established restaurants. This is too bad – What Happens When is invigorating; I wish there were more restaurants like it; and I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Oh, and we saw Natalie Portman. A very pregnant Natalie Portman. That was cool.
Perfect For: trendsetters, adventurous eaters, impressing a first date, people-watching

What Happens When on Urbanspoon

Nolita House: A Very Un-New York Brunch Juggernaut

I ask you, how could a cheap boozy brunch set to the crooning and twanging of a live bluegrass band ever go wrong? The answer is that it just can’t. Nolita House, a down-home 2nd floor find on Houston and Mulberry, has created quite a niche for itself in the competitive New York brunch scene with it’s Boozy Bluegrass Brunch. This wondrous innovation consists of exactly three things: 1) delicious and hearty American comfort food, 2) a talented true blue Bluegrass band, and 3) plentiful mimosas and bloody marys. It is fun, unique, casual, and a welcome break from the often monotonous (and beloved) Manhattan brunch tradition.
The restaurant itself walks the line between shabby and comfortable. On the 2nd floor of a building on Houston, Nolita House seems meant to evoke a middle America schoolhouse with everything from slightly askew class pictures to chalkboard walls; however, nothing about this cult favorite is kid-friendly. Worn-in leather boothes line the walls and rickety tables fill in the middle, yet it’s the rectangular (and slightly sticky) bar that sits pretty front and center. Loud speakers blare Southern rock at unhealthy decibels, and the vast majority of patrons seem more focused on the plethora of booze options instead of the grub. Not to mention, Nolita House stays open far past acceptable hours on a school night. Nothing about Nolita House is sleek or elegant; and that’s perfectly OK for a place content on eschewing the uppity fashionista set that Nolita is famous for in favor of a grungier and, perhaps, more fun-loving crowd.
The most surprising thing about Nolita House is that the food is actually very good. It is solid and satisfying American comfort food, served hot and heaping. Brunch is your best bet here, and not only because it comes with a kickass Bluegrass band. Through such decadent options as Eggs, Biscuits & Gravy, New Orleans Shrimp & Grits and Vanilla Brandy-Soaked French Toast, the flavors and aromas the of the great American South come through loud and proud. The biscuits are buttery and flaky masterpieces, paired perfectly with soft and salty eggs, however you like them done; blackened shrimp & cheesy grits come packing bold and intense flavors that leave you craving more; the french toast is cut about 4 inches thick yet is somehow not overcooked or dry – it’s sweet, moist, and buttery with an addictive brown sugar crust. With Green Eggs & Ham, the kitchen turns an American kid-friendly classic into something any adult can crave with boursin cheese scrambled into three eggs, all served atop thick-cut slices of ham. Even the Mediterranean Baked Eggs are good, though obviously just outside the kitchen’s comfort zone – too oily for most yet right on the money flavor-wise, this dish can cure any hangover (and that’s a promise).
Nolita House offers a welcome breath of fresh air in the often cloying and overdone New York brunch scene. It’s unpretentious, inexpensive, and indisputably fun. The food strikes a tasty balance between too greasy diner food and too pricey ‘haute comfort food’, and the drinks come free at first, then easy and cheap. New to New York and the aggressive brunchers in stilettos? Nolita House is a nice and stress-free way to participate in a beloved tradition without harming your self-esteem. A New Yorker needing a break from the insufferable lines and faux-casual vibes at downtown favorites Pastis, Balthazar, Jane and 10 Downing? Nolita House can give you much-needed relief without hopping a jet.
Perfect For: boozy brunch, non-New York vibe in a a prime New York neighborhood, country music and whiskey binges, live music, hangover cures, doing something a little different

Nolita House on Urbanspoon

Balaboosta: Taim’s Sister Spot Needs a Boost

The tantalizing picture in NYMag’s teaser preview was enough to get me to check out Einat Admony’s new venture, Balaboosta or the perfect housewife in Yiddish. The first full-fledged restaurant of the falafal shack Taim’s owner opened just a few weeks ago and clearly has a few kinks still to sort out. While the restaurant is charmingly, if not awkwardly, designed with homey touches (think: portait photographs, cookbooks, antique clocks, fresh shoots of greenery), services falls dangerously short and the food lacks a certain spark.

The cramped space on Mulberry and Spring has tough competition from neighbors, including Cafe Gitane, Public, Balthazar, Barmarche, L’Esquina and Bread. Long and rectangular, the dining room is bizarrely set-up with a few large round tables for groups at the front, very closely squished tables for two running on a diagonal down the center, a bar with several seats near the door, and 3 tables for four at the back. The strange use of space makes for awkward moving about throughout and for uncomfortable seating all-around.

Besides the less-than-perfect set-up, Balaboosta has two main issues. First, the service is downright terrible. Not only is it slow to the point of having to shove our check in the face of the first person who scampered by, but it is also far too casual. The waiter told us to order red sangria over white because it’s far more alcoholic (do I want this? perhaps. do they know I want this? probably not.), ignored us 90% of the time, and when asked for advice, mumbled softly to himself about who knows what. Balaboosta suffers from a distinct lack of professionalism; the waitstaff didn’t seem to understand that you can be friendly and laidback without sacrificing speed and efficiency. Perhaps this will come with time, however fellow casual newcomers Recette and Bistro de la Gare haven’t appeared to struggle.

Second, the food is good but by no means revelatory. Chef Admony had a real opportunity here to fill a neglected niche of Israeli cooking in downtown Manhattan; with all of the ethnic restuarants, bistros, and falafal stands out there, very few restaurants offer up elegant and authentic Israeli food. However, consider the opportunity missed, for now. The multi-faceted ‘eclectic’ Israeli cuisine lacks a certain punch, a spark necessary to say ‘wow, this is something special.’ For example, the grilled pizza slathered in carrot puree and topped with caramelized onions and goat cheese is savory and crispy but it either needed more zing in the puree or more of the decadent flavorful goat cheese. Similarly, the falafal-wrapped meatballs with green tahini just needed more oomph in the meat – aside from the famous Taim falafal, this dish just lacked in definable flavor. Highlights? The $30 pitcher of sangria is the perfect antidote to too-hot summer in New York weather, and the fried olives with lanbe and harissa oil brought my part Israeli dining companion back to Jerusalem with its dead-on rendition of the sour sweet cheese.

The jury is still out on Balaboosta – the food is good enough and interesting enough to warrant a second visit further down the line. Perhaps by late summer, this Nolita establishment will work out the kinks service-wise and add some new dishes to punch up the menu. The setting makes it great for parties of 6, if you can grab one of the large oblong tables in the window, for non-claustrophic couples seeking a not-too-loud but still exuberant scene, or exhausted shoppers looking for a spot to rest bags, sip wine and nosh on cheap enough small plates.

Balaboosta on Urbanspoon

Peasant: Italian for the Literati

Peasant has a deceiving name. The uber-stylish Nolita eatery evokes quite the opposite of what you would expect from a restaurant named Peasant; it is slinky, golden, warm, impeccably designed, and geared towards the laidback elegance typical of the neighborhood. Chef-owner Frank deCarlo offers rustic with fashionable touches such as the ubiquitous exposed brick wall, a gorgeous glowing open kitchen, fluttering candlelight, and a sexy lounge-like bar area.
The focus of the long rectangular space is the hearth, glowing, crackling, and burning at the far end of the room. So unusual in New York restaurants, it captivates first-time diners. The dining area itself is sparse with wooden tables and booths, industrial aluminum chairs that are surprisingly comfortable, and boughs of twigs. The bar at the front is dark and quiet, an embers-like foil to the bright bustle of the kitchen.
The food offers up many dichotomies, the most notable being that it’s elegant Italian comfort food menu. The array of traditional rustic Italian dishes that deCarlo transforms into layered and elegant entrees is truly tantalizing – good luck picking just one plate to try. Expect pastas, pizzas, a diverse set of antipasti, seafood and meat main courses and nightly specials.
The meal starts off with a bowl of sweet ricotta cheese, a dollop of olive oil, and a basket of chewy and delicious Italian bread. I was sold on Peasant with the ricotta – decadent, creamy, totally on the house, and perfect when slathered thickly on every corner of the bread crust. My friend Sarah and I spent a good long while perusing the menu, vacillating between the many tasty-sounding options.
Ultimately, I opted for the sea urchin tagliolini (yet another step in my growing adoration of everything uni). A silky skinny pasta, the tagliolini is doused in a savory white-wine parsley sauce and loaded with manageable chunks of creamy fresh sea urchin. It was unusual, addictive, hearty, and yet still refined. Sarah stayed classic with the Margherita pizza, a true homage to thin-crust wood-burned pies. The personal sized pie was more tomato than mozzarella and more olive oil than anything else, but the slightly chewy and crispy crust elevated this Margherita far over the average pizza.
Peasant is at its best a gorgeous date spot and also great for a congenial wine-fueled dinner with friends. Stylish locals flock for good wine, good food, and good conversation – the triumvirate of successful Italian. Peasant shimmers with warmth and delivers super tasty food without any over-the-top preparations or presentations; it strikes the balance between simple home cookin’ and a laidback sophisticated vibe so beloved by downtown New Yorkers. Just be careful not to fill up on the ricotta…
Peasant on Urbanspoon