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Posts from the ‘older crowd’ 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

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Ciano: Flatiron’s New Gold-Plated Italian

Ciano, a charming Italian restaurant, is a welcome addition to Flatiron’s extensive though tepid culinary scene, yet it lacks the finesse to make it a truly memorable dining experience. It must be tough to make it as an Italian restaurant in New York, given the vast amounts of competition in almost every discernible neighborhood. And while Ciano is well-run and serves good Italian cuisine, it can’t hold a candle to the truly soulful Italian fixins’ at Locanda Verde, the now defunct Convivio, Apizz, or even the far more casual West Village newbie Spasso. It just comes up a little bit short on personality.

The duplex space on East 22nd Street, just around the corner from the Flatiron building, is the epitome of faux rusticity. At first blush, it appears to be brimming with rustic charm; lush plants are just about everywhere you look, the furniture and floor are both made of warm wood, and remnants of countryside kitsch are found everywhere. However, when one looks a little closer, all this rusticity at Ciano is noticeably false; it doesn’t look real or believable with crisp white tablecloths, plants arranged into perfect neat bouquets, expensive modern light fixtures, and each design element so impeccably suited to another that it just comes off as matchy-matchy. Sure, it’s ‘elegant,’ but the half-way rustic vibe makes it seem like Ciano is trying to hard to be trendy. My advice? If you want to be a fine dining restaurant, don’t sell out to the rustic chic trend and confidently go hog-wild with formality.

The simple Italian food at Ciano is prepared by Chef Shea Gallante, the former chef at the much beloved and deceased Cru, and is generally very good. It’s technically excellent, based on fresh seasonal ingredients, and ‘the stuff you want to eat,’ but for whatever reason, it’s not so delicious or so exciting for it to be memorable. The menu is short, but not too short, with nine snacks and five or six each of appetizers, pastas, and entrees. Out of the snacks, the arancini are tasty – ideal little bites of fried cheesy rice. The chicken liver crostini is also good, though not remarkable. As starters go, the burrata di bufala is naturally scrumptious (it’s pretty difficult to mess up burrata), particularly when layered with the savory sweet onion jam and bitter and salty pesto on top of the charred thick slices of country bread. But, the burrata is $18, an astonishing number for a starter offered for less at the very pricey Hearth or Peasant.

The pastas are delicious – the best thing offered by Ciano as far as I can tell, both in terms of taste and of value. A ‘spring’ ravioli, stuffed with burrata and sweet peas, is earthy, bright, and buttery; for $15, it’s one of the best deals on the menu. The pappardelle is more substantial, heavier, and meatier with a duck bolognese dusted with hearty oregano; nutty pecorino shaved on top makes this dish fairly addictive. The saffron tagliatelle is luxurious with chunks of Dungeness crab, yet the strong flavor of saffron is a touch over-powering; a lighter hand would transform this dish into something marvelous. As entrees go, Ciano’s are fine. A steak is just a steak, and the lamb loin with lamb sausage is just a lamb loin. There is nothing so astonishing or memorable about either.

Everything at Ciano is neat, clean, refined, and ‘just so.’ Both the food and the atmosphere seem too precise for casual Italian dining, too sterile to incite exuberant passion. Dining at Ciano is ‘nice,’ but not wonderful or thrilling, not something to remember for weeks after or to leap at the chance to repeat. With such a respected pedigree (former Cru chef, former Cru sommelier, and former Per Se maitre’d), I had hoped Ciano would just be better than the ‘good’ it is. It’s just the place to take clients from out of town – the price point is right and the room is elegant enough to impress; but for those seeking romance or intimacy, something different, Ciano is not so special.

Perfect For: taking clients out, treating your parents, indulging in ricotta cheese, third or fourth dates, having a ‘mature’ dinner out

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Ed’s Chowder House: New York Does New England

I’m from Boston. I bleed New England. My mother’s family is from Cape Cod, and I grew up surrounded by quality seafood (even though I didn’t actually eat it until I entered adulthood). In short, lobster rolls and chowdah are their own food group and considered sacred where I’m from. And as a result, I have some pretty high expectations for all such things. Ed’s Chowder House, the brainchild of chef Ed Brown and restauranteur Jeffrey Chodorow, certainly takes its liberties with classic New England fare, ‘New York-ifying it,’ and the result is not half bad!

Up above street level and discreetly a part of Lincoln Square’s The Empire Hotel, Ed’s Chowder House is a visually appealing restaurant. The theme is nautical, and the sensation of being near the ocean is successfully achieved without over-doing it and while maintaining a certain Manhattan sheen. First, the restaurant is big. In fact, its so big that it just never seems full, for better or for worse. Up front is the bar area, followed by connecting dining rooms, and at the back, a private dining area. Second, the look is elegant beachy – more Hamptons than Cape Cod, more uptown luxury than sandy oceanfront casual. Expect: rich dark wood paneling, soaring windows, luxurious white leather banquettes, simple photographs of harbors and beachscapes, white chairs with little handles on the back reminiscent of those seen on swanky sailing yachts, touches of seersucker and pale nautical stripes, and plenty of bright white light. All of this is really quite lovely, more refined and restrained than some of Chodorow’s other creations (hello crazy Japanese pop art at Tanuki Tavern).

Perhaps the most surprising element of Ed’s Chowder House is how good the food is. It’s not classic New England fare, it’s not transcendent seafood, and it’s not even the best spot for good food in the neighborhood (I’m looking at you Time Warner Center). However, it’s satisfying, fresh-tasting, and the stuff you want to eat. The menu is extensive, featuring everything from a raw bar to a chowder ‘menu’ to sandwiches, ‘composed’ mains (read: fancy food) and ‘simple’ mains (read: straight-up uncomplicated food). And the kitchen executes everything from fluke crudo to seasoned crispy french fries, crispy clam rolls, fish n’ chips, risotto, and sea scallops well. Perhaps the best thing on the menu though is the lobster roll. While it’s not as wonderful as that served at Luke’s Lobster, it is pretty damn delicious for New York. The roll is buttery and soft; the lobster does have bits of celery and some mayo, but it’s so little that even a lobster roll fanatic like me wasn’t bothered; the roll is stuffed full with thick pieces of flavorful lobster. It’s just a good, rich, and hearty rendition of a New England favorite.

Frankly, I expected Ed’s Chowder House to be terrible – an over-wrought and poor interpretation of my beloved New England ‘cuisine.’ However, it pleasantly surprised with an accessible elegance and food good enough that you’d want to eat it again and again and then again. It’s not the best meal you’ll have in Manhattan, but it’s the type of food you could eat regularly (if you can afford it). With a please-all menu and a certain swankiness, Ed’s Chowder House is a bang-up option for business lunches and treating your out-of-town parents to a modern yet uncomplicated New York-y meal.

Perfect For: pre-Lincoln Center eats, lobster roll lunches, treating business clients

Ed's Chowder House 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

Lyon: Mediocrity for Middle France

For a city with so many restaurants, ethnic cuisines of all varieties, and an often thrilling gourmet scene, New York is depressingly deprived of high-quality casual French bistros and brasseries. Sure, on occasion, you’re lucky enough to stumble across a gem like Cafe Cluny or Le Gigot, but the vast majority of options either sink into muddled mediocrity or hover loftily in the heavens with Daniel or Jean-Georges. The middle ground is vast and empty. Unfortunately, West Village newcomer Lyon does little to elevate the current state of French food in Manhattan.

The relatively new restaurant in the storied Cafe Bruxelles space on Greenwich Avenue is gorgeous. Wood-paneled and gleaming, it’s hard not to be enamored by the seductive golden glow, the rolling French accent of the host, the sparkle of lantern light reflecting off glass knick-knacks, the cheery red-and-white check of the tablecloths. Everything is so shiny and new, rosy with optimism, plucky, design-conscious, and comfortable without being shabby. The narrow railroad car space is bustling to the point of bursting at the seams with well-dressed West Villagers, happy to be inside from the cold. The atmosphere is frenetic at peak hours, buzzing with conversations in French and English that rise to a fever pitch as more and more bottles of wine fly off the shelves. As the night goes on, Lyon is like a train picking up speed, starting off slow and steady before roaring through the countryside.
Unfortunately, despite its seemingly endless charm, Lyon falls depressingly short on the food front. With such beauty all around you, it’s hard not to be disappointed by generally bland and uninspired cuisine, especially when French comfort food is supposed to be so rich and flavorful. In short, the appetizers were a relative success when compared to the mediocre entrees. The onion soup is a marvelous way to start; it is brothy and savory, filled to the brim with tender ropes of beef brisket, heightened with an only slightly discernible layer of rich marrow jam, and served with a crusty slice of baguette, topped with creamy fontina cheese. It’s safe to say that the onion soup was the highlight of the night. Other notable starters are the jumbo-sized Lyonnaise salad, topped with hearty chunks of bacon and a delicately placed poached egg, and the escargots, served mixed into a vibrant green watercress risotto with a pungent and authentic-tasting garlic sauce.
The entrees are a laundry list of traditional French dishes: steak tartare, lamb shank, steak au poivre, and so forth. The kitchen takes a few liberties with classic cuisine, offering the eponymous skate wing and a modern bacon-wrapped whole branzino. The executions on the heftier dishes leave something to be desired. The bacon-wrapped branzino is not as advertised; rather than serving a whole fish, it offers delicate rounds of the flaky white dish – a fairly anemic and pedestrian alternative. The lamb shank is absurd in a couple of ways: 1) it is served on the bone in a plate half as big as the table, evoking caveman-style dining 2) the portion size is inexplicably larger than anything else on the menu, and 3) there is absolutely no seasoning on the meat; it was begging for healthy doses of salt and pepper. For such a large and tender piece of lamb, it is upsetting to see it served with so little flavor or pizzazz.
Lyon is simultaneously the epitome of casual glamour and a culinary disappointment. While so beautiful and glossy on the exterior, its restaurant guts need a lot of work. Not only is the food just a hair above mediocre, but the service is frenzied and inattentive and the wine list is poorly curated for a restaurant rooted in such a vino-centric culture. The best way to enjoy Lyon is to waltz into the crammed and spiffy bar, order une bouteille de vin and some fromage from the bartender, and spend your evening languishing over the two of the best parts of French culinary culture. If you’re smart, don’t bother with the crowds in, the wait for, and the irritation of finding a table in the dining room.

Perfect For: a drink at the bar, a bottle of wine over chocolate cake and cheese, gatherings of friends, a venue for francophiles, escaping chilly nights

Lyon 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.

Accademia di Vino 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