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Posts from the ‘notable wine menu’ Category

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

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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

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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

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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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Convivio: Flawless.

It’s rare that I have a virtually flawless dining experience, even at five-star caliber restaurants. However, Michael White’s ode to Southern Italian cuisine, Convivio, bucks the trend, delivering a truly exceptional meal. Convivio is a slam-dunk for fine dining foodies, offering a modern luxe environment fit for everything from a family dinner out to special occasions to client dinners.

In terms of design, simplicity reigns king here. The main dining room is spacious and sophisticated, devoid of distracting do-dads, large sculptures, and what I affectionately call seizure lighting. Brick-colored plush fabric banquettes line the walls of a slightly elevated platform, adding a shock of color to an otherwise cream-and-gray neutral palette. Cool white light brightly illuminates the contemporary minimalist space, and discrete acoustic fringe lines the walls, adding a sense of fluidity and movement to the room. The space is beautifully designed and quiet without being eerily silent; the tables are well-spaced to avoid awkward brush-bys with neighbors. Set in the refined Tudor City enclave, the crowd is predictably older, yet by no means stodgy. You’ll see more classic style here than the Upper East Side.

After tasting Convivio’s food, it becomes obvious that the muted colors and restrained decor are meant to focus attention on the fireworks coming out of the kitchen. The focus is Southern Italian cuisine and while there are hints of soulful home cookin’, Convivio’s interpretation is pure and skilled refinement. Start with a few Sfizi, tapas-style small plates to whet your table’s appetite. The Arancini, saffron risotto balls, were soft and gooey on the inside, crisp on the outside, and packed with satisfying cheesy flavor; the Patate were fresh and earthy, served boiled and cool with shavings of nutty ricotta salata. Careful not to fill up on these little bites, the Sfizi are universally addictive.

Next, classic Italian antipasti. The Fegatini, chicken liver crostini, offers three substantial slices of crusty baguette topped with a generous layer of impossibly creamy chicken liver mousse and shreds of tangy caramelized marsala onions. The Testa, an unusual rendition of pork terrine, wows with a perfectly fried egg sitting pretty atop the decadent terrine itself; a shower of Parmesan is the icing on the cake. Even a classic starter salad, the Misticanza, brings a fresh perspective to an obligatory appetizer option with fingers of salame, bright green olives, onions, and caciocavallo, a mellow if not slightly sharp sheep’s milk cheese.

The homemade pastas are an obligatory part of any meal at Convivio – if you don’t try at least one, you’re seriously missing out. The house specialty has a confounding name, the Malloreddus, and the dish itself, a Sardinian saffron gnocchetti with crab and sea urchin, is just as complex; it tastes like the ocean, with challenging flavors, while maintaining a decadent creaminess. The Fusilli is comforting and nostalgic of spaghetti bolognese with beautifully braised pork shoulder ragu and a generous dousing of caciocavallo fonduta; in the best way possible, its Chef Boyardee taken to an unexpectedly high level. The Maccheroni alla Carbonara was simple and satsifying with the classic carbonara components (pancetta, pecorino, scallion, egg, and black pepper) executed beautifully.

It’s hard to imagine that the entree courses could rival such wonderful pasta dishes, but, naturally, there were definable moments of brilliance in the secondi options as well. The New York strip steak was just about perfect; the discs of meat were just a touch off of bloody, buttery, and earthy; grilled eggplant and black olive added unexpected flavors to an otherwise spot-on Italian rendition of a New York strip. The grilled lamb chops are served a bright medium pink, on the bone, and with a set of unusual accompaniments like salsa verde and escarole; the result is meat-centric, with bright verdant notes highlighting the quality of the chops.

Convivio is exceptional – with 5 people, 3 courses each, 2 bottles of wine, and a few hours of good-time noshing, there was not one bobble in with food served or service. Each course was well-liked and raved about, from the tiny Sfizi to the substantial skirt steak. The bread kept coming, wine was poured at good intervals, the staff was present but neither overbearing nor incompetent. All in all, my party left Convivio mumbling various sports terms like “home run!” and “what a slam dunk!” and “what a win!” – there was a little something for everyone to love.

Perfect For: your parents’ birthdays, anniversary celebrations, fine dining foodies, diplomat stalking (in a totally legal way, of course), Tudor City residents, pasta lovers and Michael White fans

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L’Artusi: dell’anima’s Little Sister Shows Who’s On Top

I came to L’Artusi with low expectations and mixed reviews. Yeah, the menu looks great, but when one of your good friends and frequent dining companions says it’s way-overrated, that’s going to taint things. Well, L’Artusi showed up tonight big and in great style. Every element of my gluttonous multi-course meal exhibited skill, creativity, and immense talent.

On West 10th Street, just west of Bleecker, L’Artusi looks small and shabby from outside, with just a quirky navy and white awning announcing it’s presence. Magically though, L’Artusi expands into an elegant and spacious multi-level restaurant, just like Alice crawling through the shrunken door to find Wonderland. At the front is a plush bar room, all velvety blue and grey, with multiple stools at the marble bar and a long coral-and-white canvas banquette with tables for two and four. Towards the back is an expansive open kitchen with a 10-seat chef’s bar for those interested in watching Chef Gabriel Thompson’s staff work magic. Up a crisp white staircase is a private dining room cum wine cellar with room for 16 and a mezzanine seating area open for cocktail soirees and overflow tables during peak hours. Sophisticated and contemporary, L’Artusi’s look is vaguely nautical with navy, white, coral and yellow tones complementing each other throughout the space.
At this far superior sister restaurant to nearby dell’anima, contemporary Italian food shines brightly. The ricotta cheese special, served with sweet strawberries and crusty slices of baguette, is creamy and flavorful, salty and savory, the type of simple dish you want to lick your fingers after to get every morsel. Lantern Bay scallops crudo and fluke ceviche are raw magic, the scallops served diced with rich bits of uni, zesty lemon, and olio verde and the fluke cut like tangerine slices and coated in citrus juice whose acid enhanced the mild flavor of the fish.
L’Artusi’s grilled octopus and crispy veal sweetbreads prove that Italian food isn’t just about pasta and crostini. The octopus, charred and beautifully grilled through, came prepared with salted potatoes, crispy bits of pancetta and chilis – an artful blend of fresh clean ocean flavors and savory meat & potatoes simplicity; the crispy veal sweetbreads came perfectly-fried and crusty, so smooth and innocuous they tasted almost like chicken. The cavatelli pasta, showered in a spicy lamb sausage bolognese, was the meal’s zenith; cooked to the ideal al dente texture, the gnocchi-like pasta with rolled edges had the sweetness of lamb meat, the freshness of a well-made tomato sauce, and the savory notes of garlic and sausage.
Got a sweet tooth? L’Artusi’s dessert menu is sure to tantalize with everything from gelati to a bittersweet chocolate budino with chocolate-honey crisp to a classic poached pear dish with caramel sauce and a pecan streusel. While desserts like the brown butter raspberry tart pack bold and bright flavors into a flaky and heart attack-worthy crust, the olive oil cake is your best bet: light, airy, moist, slightly sweet, and served with a refreshing creme fraiche mousse.
L’Artusi is, surprisingly, a foodie’s wet dream. It is chic and sophisticated, contemporary, staffed by laidback yet professional servers, and the type of sleek spot you’d only find in New York. The soulful yet modern riffs on Italian food are cooked with passion and precision; the food has heart and you can taste it in the quality of the ingredients used, the precise preparation, and the generous seasoning of the dishes. The verdict’s out: L’Artusi more than shows up its older sister, dell’anima, on pretty much every count.
Perfect For: date night, ladies night out, wine-fueled catch-up sessions, dining at the bar, impressing clients, blowing your bonus, celebrating your anniversary, feasting with foodies

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Artisanal Cheese: Learning To Pair Your Cheese

Artisanal is a cheese empire. Recognize it. There’s a bistro, a 2-star Michelin restaurant, an online store, classes, and one of the only affinage centers in the United States (affinage is the process of nurturing and aging cheese received from farm producers). You probably think I’m here to review Artisanal Bistro or perhaps Picholine, but no, by happy chance, I was invited by my dear friend Alex to attend one of Artisanal Cheese’s regional wine & cheese pairings classes, held at their facility on 10th avenue.

Artisanal hosts weekly classes that range in content from Pairing Cheese & Wine As A Professional to Sexy Cheeses & Sumptuous Wines to regional focai such as The Great Iberian Peninsula and American Artisanal Cheese & Wine. Held in a civilized and contemporary space on 10th Avenue in Chelsea, complete with an instruction kitchen, long desk tables, and a reception room, the classes include a 30min champagne reception with treats (fondue!), a 90min class led by a trained professional, a tasting of 6-8 cheeses and 4 wines, and as much vino as you can stomach! Alex and I had the luck (well, my luck and her genius) of attending the French Wine & Cheese regional class. It was nothing short of spectacular.

The class was run by Candela Pol, an endearing instructor who set a fun and engaging tone right from the get-go. She struck the balance between truly teaching how to pair wine with cheese and maintaining a light camradery with the class; not in the least bit snobby, she managed to be accessible to the diverse crowd of around 30 participants. While her background seems more solidly-established in craft beers, she very clearly walked through the characteristics of the three classic French wines provided, a Muscadet, a Viognier, and a Beaujolais. While the wines were each wonderful in their own way, I won’t pretend to be a wine connoisseur and review them for their quality.

After savoring each wine individually and learning how to properly taste a wine, the class moved on to tasting each of the cheeses individually to get a feel for their unique flavors, textures, and aromas. We had 6 cheeses, each representative of a step on Artisanal Cheese’s trademark Cheese Circle. Pictured below, the circle shows, progressing from mild to strong cheese, what beers and wines would pair best with different levels of cheese. For our class, everything from raw milk cheese to blue cheese to a triple creme was provided for our savoring.

Once the group had a handle on how each wine and each cheese tasted individually, Candela walked us through an exercise of how to evaluate whether a particular wine and a particular cheese work together. We tried every permutation of the wines and the cheeses together, learning how to dab the roof of our mouthes with cheese before sipping wine, and then rated from -2 to +2 how symbiotic the combinations were. My personal favorites included the rich and tangy raw milk cheese with the Viognier, the luxurious triple creme with the Beaujolais, and the delicate goat cheese with the Muscadet.

Artisanal Cheese coins itself your culinary spa, and while you’re not getting massage with ricotta cheese or taking a milk bath, this moniker is right on point. In the world of wine & cheese instruction, Artisanal pampers and coddles. The facility is neat, clean, and modern; the staff attentive; the wine unlimited; and the cheese easily some of the best you’ll find on the Eastern Seaboard. When it comes to professionalism, class, and quality, Artisanal Cheese is king.

Word of warning: wine is unlimited. Take this as you will, and don’t wear stilettos you’re likely to topple over in.

Perfect For: mother/daughter excursions, date night with a foodie, those just looking to learn, oenophiles, something just a little different, ladies night, a classy pregame class

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