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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.

Accademia di Vino on Urbanspoon

Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria: Another Mediocre Addition to McNally’s Middling Empire

Given what’s about to be said in this review, it may seem like I have some sort of personal vendetta against Keith McNally, the restauranteur behind Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, given my vocal irritation with some of his establishments, most notably Schiller’s Liquor Bar. To cut to the chase, Pulino’s is exactly like every other McNally restaurant: mediocre food, crap service, heavily fabricated atmosphere. In fact, it’s so freakishly similar to his other Lower East Side eatery, Schiller’s, that I’m convinced they’re really just one in the same, despite an Italian menu at one and a straightforward American one at the other.

Pulino’s is (depressingly) completely lacking in any originality. It is almost garish, evidenced by the obnoxious oversized red neon sign emblazoned on both exterior sides of the corner spot. The medium-to-large dining room on the corner of Bowery and Houston is merely a reincarnation of Schiller’s: exposed brick, tiled floors, bric-a-brac-y metal furniture, backlit bottles of booze on multiple walls, stacked high to the ceiling. A vast array of untouched international newspapers and magazines are stacked in racks near the door, an additional touch of so-called charm that just strikes me as pretentious. Perhaps the most beautiful element of the restaurant, the large paned industrial-style windows, is the design’s saving grace, distracting diners with lush sunlight during lunch and pretty satisfying people-watching at night. The look of the restaurant is meant to evoke an old Italian pizzeria and yet, instead, it is a case study in the new Manhattan-style ‘chain’ restaurant, developed and executed by professional restaurant creators who’ve lost all their inspiration.

The menu is classic Italian. Expect traditional antipasti: baked ricotta, prosciutto, a variety of cheeses, mozzarella burrata, roasted olives. The baked ricotta is one of the shining stars, served creamy and just salty enough in a rustic crockpot with juicy and sweet roasted grapes and crusty Italian bread. Salads are also on the menu, in both appetizer and entree portions. Expect seasonal ingredients, sometimes Italian and sometimes not: roasted pumpkin and cabbage salad with pecorino and pancetta, roasted broccoli and hen of the woods mushrooms with escarole and parmigiano, seafood salad with roasted peppers, and an Italian rendition of salad nicoise. They are hearty, fragrant, and just about average.

In my opinion, it’s silly to visit a pizzeria without trying the pizza. Pulino’s can’t hold a candle to Motorino or Donatella, but at the heart of it, the pizza has a pretty tasty crust, a victory over the certainly mediocre toppings. Chewy and crusty in all the right places, with a slight char and a few bubbles, the crust is multidimensional and satisfying. The toppings options are dizzying, offering 12 different varieties of pies + a plethora of additional toppings. There’s a traditional Bianca pie, a mozzarella, the quattro formaggi, the classic Margherita, salsiccia, funghi, meatball pie, and a few funkier choices like spinach and egg, black cabbage and salame, or potato and egg. The quattro formaggi is gooey and bland; somehow, with four different and bold cheeses (mozzarella, fontina, gorgonzola, and grana), the flavor falls flat into a muddled mess. The polpettine pie, with beef meatballs and pickled green chilis, is a disaster, despite being the recommended by the server. The meatballs are small and dry, utterly devoid of moisture, and the pickled green chilis are unspeakably wrong on this pizza. Ick, ugh, and meh.

On top of all of this, the service is just plain strange. My party had three servers over the course of lunch, who kept repeating each other. One server made the dastardly mistake of recommending the polpettine pizza and the other gave me a water glass with orange juice pulp floating in it. Furthermore, the kitchen is slow and bad with timing. With 15 minutes elapsed between the delivery of my meal and my friend’s meal, the meal pacing was awkward, to say the least.

In short, Pulino’s is a hot mess. Let me count the ways: 1) unoriginal and charmless decor, 2) chain restaurant feel, 3) bland pizza in the East Coast’s pizza capital, and 4) confused and confusing table service. It’s hard to recommend a place that clearly seems to be surviving only on McNally’s pedigree and unfathomably blogger hype. Just skip it and head a few blocks North to Motorino, or better yet, across town to Donatella.

Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Betel: Why I Hate Trendy Asian Fusion

Despite wonderful company (hi Katy), nothing could have possibly saved my dreadful experience at West Village newcomer Betel. When the sleek Grove Street Asian fusion spot first opened, I couldn’t wait to try it. I love Thai food; I love good cocktails; I love not having to trek miles for good food – Betel seemed like a potential new neighborhood favorite, a nice alternative to Yerba Buena Perry. However, Betel was ultimately a total disappointment with very few redeeming features.

The Southeast Asian fusion concept restaurant is settled in a rectangular space on Grove Street, just off 7th Avenue. It’s sleek and glossy with a whole lot of awkward seating situations. All seats seem unnecessarily cramped. The bar is long and broad, taking up just too much space in the otherwise modestly-sized restaurant. Through the middle of the room runs a long communal bar height table, which diners are unceremoniously seated at without any warning – if you’re short, a quiet talker, or perhaps just fond of seats with backs, your 50% shot of ending up at the communal bar renders Betel decidedly uncomfortable. My particular neighbors seemed outraged by the fact that my rice was steaming in their face. Yes, these are the type of people that frequent Betel (pronounced, fittingly, Beetle). The rest of the seating is marginally better, at too-close-for-comfort yet (praise the lord) separate tables of lacquered faux wood. The wonderful golden lighting mercifully disguises the room’s unfortunate seating flaws, casting everything in a warm and pleasant glow.

What I think is perhaps most amusing, or rather frustrating, about Betel is its claim of inspiration from Thai ‘hawker stalls.’ This is ridiculous not only because the food is so painfully over-priced that you have to sell your soul to afford a bowl of curry but also because whatever the kitchen delivers is so remote from Thai street food that the comparison seems unbelievably fanciful. The menu is bizarre, to say the least, with frighteningly priced ‘small plates’ ranging from salt & pepper cuttlefish for $15 to pork & scallop dumplings for $15 (dumplings? $15? really?). Entrees only go onwards and upwards with a bland and meatless massaman curry with eggplant and plantain for $22, a tasty stir-fry chicken dish for $24 (otherwise nabbed for $10 in Chinatown), a caramelized braised beef rib for a staggering $38, and a Southern chicken curry for $28. Prices such as these would perhaps be considered reasonable at an oh so haute restaurant with blow-your-mind cuisine, yet incontrovertibly, Betel is NOT that place. Considering the waitress recommends 2 small plates and 2 entrees for 2 people, you’re looking at a fantastically pricey and comparatively unsatisfying meal.

On top of its impossible prices, uncomfortable seating, and bland food, Betel also happens to have a number of irritating quirks, like it’s obtuse website where if you click ANYWHERE, it automatically opens an email to the management or the server’s inability to just take your drink order without pushing one of the $14 too-sweet-for-normal-people house cocktails. I ask myself, how can this place even think of building regulars? Anyone who eats here will either realize their money can be better spent elsewhere or go bankrupt.

Betel is inaccessible, unimpressive, and the type of place where trendy people go to pick at their food. Music bump bumps in the background, and stiletto-clad barbies fall all over their suited boyfriends at the bar. The weirdest part about all of this is that, yes, you are actually in a restaurant; in case you’re looking, the clubs are about 3 avenues over, 10 blocks up.

Perfect For: not much of anything. if you’re looking for a hotspot club thing, why don’t you head to Meatpacking – those type of places fight for business over there.

Betel on Urbanspoon

de Santos: Got More Scene Than A Broadway Show

de Santos, a modern Italian spot with more atmosphere than a Venetian piazza and more scene than a Broadway show, is the poster child for trendy restaurants that focus more on the look than on the food. It’s the type of place you want to go to for drinks with your lady friends (mostly to pick up the well-dressed Latin men often seen hovering), not to eat bland mediocre Italian food.

The restaurant itself is gorgeous – intimate, sexy, and rustic in a glossed over sort of way. Set in a brick townhouse on West 10th Street, de Santos is designed to evoke a secret garden. Up front is the bar, all dark wood and soft lighting, backlit bottles and a canopy of faux Monarch butterflies. A rich brown leather banquette along one side of the wall lets lovely ladies in stilettos rest their feet while sipping fancy cocktails and watching the night’s catch amble from one end of the bar to the other. In the back, a small interior dining room seats about 40. Exposed brick walls, industrial lamps, potted plants, dried herbs, teetering sprays of flowering plants, and even a regal exotic deer’s head transform a quirky space into someplace luscious and seductive. Beyond the dining room is a year-round back patio that’s perfect for relaxing and popping open a chilled bottle of wine during the summer months – just be careful its not too hot out, without AC or any real air flow, the garden gets super steamy.
de Santos is visually stunning, both in its verdant and sultry decor and in its uber-stylish Euro clientele. Yet, unfortunately, the modern Italian cuisine by way of Mexico tastes uninspired. The menu has the right idea with jumbo savory salads, a rich truffled beef carpaccio, a selection of pastas such as trofiette with spicy Italian sausage, and simple entrees like roasted chicken, filet mignon and roasted duck. Yet, everything from the cheap-tasting ingredients to the bland preparation disappoints. The delicate beef carpaccio is smothered in a too thick, too dense, and too creamy potato gnocchi, so much so that even the rich truffle flavor got lost in the melee. The spinach fettuccine with jumbo shrimp in a curry cream sauce was cooked well in the al dente style, yet the flavor combination was strange with spicy curry, heavy cream, briny shrimp, bright lemon zest, and earthy zucchini and spinach – just too much. The trofiette with spicy Italian sausage and mixed mushrooms was perhaps the best dish put out, surprisingly hot and feisty while maintaining a lovely earthiness.
de Santos isn’t a red-sauce Italian spot. It is modern and luxurious, trendy, glossy, and mega-sceney. Unfortunately, the kitchen doesn’t deliver food worthy of the frustratingly hefty price-tag; a full dinner for two can run at upwards of $60-$70 a head; bottles of wine slip under $40 in just one instance; cocktails go for $12-$15 a pop. At these prices, the food and the general experience better wow because there are so many places in the saturated Manhattan market that will knock your socks off for far less.
Perfect For: seeing and being seen, cocktail hour, ladies night out, staking out Latin Lovers, al fresco dining all year, blowing cashmoney

De Santos on Urbanspoon

Solo: A Restaurant With Split Personality Disorder

I’ve been to a lot of business lunches in Midtown East, and I’m starting to run out of viable options for the same client. There are only so many times they can be taken to Metrazur. Thus, when news hit that fiesty Top Chef alum Eli Kirshstein was taking the helm at Solo, a kosher new American spot in the Sony Atrium, it quickly became the next-up option for business lunching in ‘hood.

It quickly became clear that Solo is a strange sort of place. Its two very different restaurants in one: on the one hand, edgy contemporary American and on the other, rustic Kosher American comfort food. This bizarre attempt at blending these two personalities and vibes together manifests itself on the menu, in the decor, in the target clientele, and in the equally bizarre table service.

While the exterior to Solo is a slick multi-colored neon facade, the interior is beige and mellow with clay pots, stodgy white tablecloths, sparse greenery, and rich brown leather banquettes. The menu offers Asian-flecked American cuisine alongside hearty comfort food; for example, big eye tuna tartare with avocado, yuzu, citrus salt and mint sits alongside pine nut, raisin and cauliflower stuffed lamb meatballs in a thick tomato sauce. In the main dining room, sharp business men in suits sit alongside rabbis; groups of young banking analysts out for summer luncheons pepper a room otherwise full of Midtown workers seeking haute Kosher cuisine. The table service makes attempts at quality with all the right intentions and none of the execution. Our server got so frustrated with his inability to find the right time to take our order (with long-time clients, we had a length ‘catch-up’ as soon as we sat-down) that he gave up and passed us on to a much sharper and icey cold woman – unprofessional much?

The menu is compelling and the food is uneven. With a wide-ranging set of influences, Kirshstein offers up everything from a soy sauce-flecked salmon carpaccio, served bright pink and thinly cut in a discus shape, to a 16 oz cowboy steak sure to initiate food comas to a frisbee-sized ‘hand-chopped’ hamburger to a basic grilled herbed chicken panini and fries. In as ‘new American’ cuisine is rarely considered ‘new’ anymore, such dishes seem run-of-the-mill at this point, expected and even a bit tired.

The lamb meatballs, cut with too-large chips of onion and served as a group of 5, were flavorful but all-around too much for an appetizer. The awkward plating on an extremely-long pencil-shaped dish had everyone laughing as I poked around, hoping to avoid too much sauce on my suit jacket. The burger was outrageously large, almost as thick as the bun and spilling out the sides with abandon; it was just too much. I found myself asking, what is the point of this? Who really needs a burger this big? The table agreed, entering into a spirited discussion about Shake Shack and it’s perfectly-sized burgers. Both fish dishes (the halibut and the pan-seared salmon) were artfully plated and easily the best offered by Kirshtein; the halibut had a beautifully crusted exterior and white flaky interior, succulent, while the salmon brought American influences (crabmeat and Yukon potato) together successfully with East Asian, represented by a light wasabi aioli. Unfortunately, the Stuffed Baby Delmonico Filet was served under-cooked and was unappetizingly red – not the way you want a steak served at a business lunch & suits place. That dish should be perfect.

Solo is hit-or-miss and an acquired taste. Ideal for those seeking completely Kosher cuisine, it offers an oasis in an otherwise Kosher-barren part of Manhattan. Yet, as a straight-up suits-a-lunchin’ place, it falls short with bland and uninspired ‘new’ American cuisine. I had hoped for something more exciting from Kirshtein, who showed spirit and originality during his stint on Top Chef.

Perfect For: kosher cuisine, client lunches, Top Chef-spotting, group meals (there’s a little somethin’ for everyone), those desperately seeking good sit-down in Midtown East

Solo on Urbanspoon

Centro Vinoteca’s Slippery Slope

Centro Vinoteca perhaps receives the honor of being one of the West Village’s most over-rated restaurants. Well-publicized by Anne Burrell, who has since departed, and conveniently located on the central corner of 7th and Bleecker, this modern Italian eatery suffers not only from having some of the worst service south of 14th Street but also from being painfully over-priced for mediocre food.

Why, you ask, am I so unhappy with Centro Vinoteca? Well, to start with, they seem to not care about the concept of a reservation, despite taking them in person, over the phone, through their website (in multiple places), and through Opentable. Not only do they not honor reservations for a certain time (most parties in my general vicinity at the bar were waiting at least 20-30min for their reserved table, grumbling despite the pleasant bartender, and checking their watches) but they just don’t give two shakes about their patrons; the hostess was so unapologetically rude to my party of 4 that we were just packing up to leave when they told us (after a 35min wait) that our table was ready. With so many new, delicious, and beloved restaurants in the West Village, I can’t imagine why I would visit Centro Vinoteca again in order to be subjected to such behavior.
On top of the poor service, the food isn’t particularly mind-blowing either. The modern Italian food is a bit above average yet lacking in any real spark or interest. The pici pasta can’t hold a candle to Falai’s rendition; the grilled rack of lamb withered from over-cooking and truly paled in comparison to that offered at Maialino; the whole wheat pappardelle was virtuous and pretty tasty, but really only because it was thoroughly doused in truffle oil, an ingredient that could make liver sing like lamb loin. One dish after another seemed to fall short of what would be expected from an Italian restaurant with such insufferable snob factor.
Even the quirky yet stylish space has its irritations with tables stuffed into sharp angles, little to no sound proofing, and a nice round bar with not enough seating. It’s well-appointed with dark wood furniture, twinkling candlelight, black leather circular boothes, delicate and modern chandeliers, and large street-facing windows that open for an airy look during the summer. Yet, despite the chic look, the bizarrely-shaped space is almost distracting and far from the charming upscale eatery it aims to be.
Centro Vinoteca rides on a lot of Anne Burrell-related hype and just about only that. The food itself has either suffered terribly since her departure or was never really the main concern. Furthermore, the service is unacceptable for a restaurant charging $14 for appetizers and $32 for entrees + alcohol + New York taxes + the customary tip for staff. Want good food just a few blocks away? Forgo Centro Vinoteca for COMMERCE, Casa, Cafe Condesa, Havana Alma de Cuba, or Cafe Cluny.
Perfect For: blowing money unnecessarily, wine and appetizers at the bar, happy hour
Centro Vinoteca on Urbanspoon

Bryant Park Cafe: New York’s Worst Tourist Trap

There are some bad restaurants out there, and I’ve unfortunately eaten at many of them; however, the ‘B.P. Cafe’ in picturesque Bryant Park has got to serve some of the worst food in midtown, and that’s saying something. The expansive patio cafe off the back of the 5th Ave New York Public Library is blessed with an ideal location – a sort of quiet and lush oasis in the middle of bustling Manhattan. And yet, this lovely setting is squandered by virtually inedible cuisine and appallingly bad service.
Despite being just off 42nd Street, B.P. Cafe is eerily quiet – you can almost here the wind in the trees and the birds twittering. The large patio, complete with casual deck furniture, sun umbrellas, and a wraparound bar, faces out over Bryant Park, surprisingly green and serene on a warm Saturday afternoon. Such outdoor space is a precious commodity in Manhattan, and I’ve learned to appreciate it.
Yet, it’s hard to feel at peace when the food you’re eating tastes like sawdust, or perhaps worse, like it may not be 100% clean. The menu is American, pure and simple, with strange nods to continental European cuisine and even East Asia if you look closely. In essence though, it’s nothing but a disaster. Particularly unfortunate offerings include the Tuscan Platter, a total flop with supermarket ricotta, Oscar Meyer salami, and various ‘charcuterie’ cuts that taste like they came out of a Lunchable, and the burger, little more than an overcooked slice of beef that looked more like roadkill than anything (terrible image, I know). The food tastes like crappy fast food with Manhattan jacked-up lunch prices, like something you’d eat at Arby’s or Denny’s (not the Grand Slam breakfast, which is, incidentally, awesome).
The quality of the service is in line with the quality of the food. The servers ranged from completely bizarre to utterly incompetent. One ‘dude’ seemed only to walk from one end of the patio to the other, humming and muttering strange sweet nothings to himself. Another server, ours in fact, just couldn’t get our order right and came back to ask twice what we wanted before proceeding to just get it wrong. It’s a good thing the overall vibe is relaxed or you’d have some ornery pissed-off New Yorkers wondering why the Tuscan Platter looks strangely like over-battered coconut shrimp.
B.P. Cafe is the type of place you want to love yet just can’t possibly bring yourself to. The picture-perfect location lends itself to daytime drinking, patio lounging, sun-bathing, and so forth, yet the food is regrettable. My advice? Steer clear of the grub and stick with cheap (and watered down) drinks in the ideal happy hour spot.
Perfect For: after-work drinks with co-workers, group booze excursions, outdoor dining, daytime drinking

Le Bryant Park Cafe on Urbanspoon