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Posts from the ‘sunday brunch’ Category

The Fat Radish: A No Man’s Land Secret Garden

Despite it’s goofy name, The Fat Radish is magical. Tucked into a discrete space in the no man’s land between the Lower East Side and Chinatown, walking into The Fat Radish is like discovering a secret garden. Inspired by the original industrial Covent Garden market in London, the Fat Radish bills itself as a healthy and simple sort of place – with a veggie friendly menu, biodynamic and natural wines, and an emphasis on seasonal cooking. And yet, it is so much more than the “simple, airy and elegant room” it considers itself.

Before sitting down to dinner, first enjoy a cocktail at the tiny bar behind the hostess stand. Nina Simone and Nat King Cole croon softly in the background while a swarthy English bartender, clad in plaid, pleasantly whips up one of the fresh house cocktails; industrial Edison lights shed a golden glow on the stacks of artisan and mainstream liquors, causing the glass bottles to twinkle softly. Suddenly, waiting for your guest to arrive is a marvelous experience. When heading back into the main dining room, take in the illuminated sprays of fresh flowers nestled into archways carved into the distressed white brick, the large antique mirror in the back listing the day’s specials, the rough hewn wooden furniture, decorated simply with dishcloth napkins and a tealight candle. Unique design touches make the room pop – such as a retro scarlet “R” letter sign, illuminated like a Broadway marquee with small white light bulbs or the cool blue modern ceramic squares, arranged neatly into a rectangle on one wall.  The Fat Radish is a charming gastronomic sanctuary in a part of town better known for graffitied storefronts, massage parlors, and fresh produce stands; it is warm and welcoming and yet somehow effortlessly cool, frequented by an unpretentious yet fashionable crowd.

The food is seasonal American, focused on fresh flavors and simple preparations. At dinner, something as simple as a warm potato salad, an arrangement of roasted fingerling potatoes topped with a poached egg, is truly tasty when the rich yellow yolk covers the herbs and shards of potato; the celery root pot pie is vegetarian, yet rich and homey, reminiscent of Thanksgiving stuffing and the chicken pot pie we all know and love. Salads are well-dressed and just taste good, garnished with baby beets, crispy bacon, or a well-cooked egg. Entree dishes are traditional – Colorado lamb loin with miatake mushrooms, glistening with fat, green curried monkfish with wild rice, a heritage pork chop with tomato jam, and, of course, a thick bacon cheeseburger with perhaps the best side ever, duck fat fries. While dinner is wonderful, brunch is perhaps even better – warm banana bread, soaked with melted butter, is irresistible; rich thick slices of avocado 7-grain toast, with eggs in a spicy tomato broth, is unusual, innovative and ridiculously delicious; ‘eggs purgatory,’ swimming in a flavorful tomato sauce dusted with pecorino, is the ideal savory brunch dish; and the homemade cheddar biscuit, served with gravy and bacon, is just … sinful.

The Fat Radish is a marvelous find for people who just love food. The atmosphere is pleasingly low-key, just trendy enough to feel hip yet also approachable, warm, and immensely likeable. The service is friendly and unobtrusive, present and efficient yet not nagging. The food, by and large, really tastes delicious – it’s not fussy or over-thought; instead, it has the taste of being cooked from the soul, cooked with love. When the atmosphere, the service, and the food all work together so seamlessly, with such a unified front, it’s truly difficult not to love The Fat Radish.

Perfect For: trendy vegetarians, Lower East Side locals, fashionistas, laidback dates, boozy brunch, schmoozing with a friendly bartender, a cozy night out with good friends

The Fat Radish on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

44 & X Hell's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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

La Bonbonniere: A Diner, West Village-Style

Hudson Street hides a gem, an amazingly cheap, casual, cash-only gem. La Bonbonniere is the size of my bedroom, a long narrow strip of dressed-down Americana. The name gives it some French penache, but La Bonbonniere is really nothing but an American diner with a fancy zipcode.

One room with floor-to-ceiling windows staring off onto Hudson Street where it becomes 8th Avenue, La Bonbonniere seats no more than 34 inside with a few tables on the sidewalk. The plain beige walls are peppered with newspaper clippings, tacked-on American flags, postcards, hand-written letters, old movie posters, and other such random Refrigerator front knick-knacks. Delivery orders come through the old Verizon pay phone stuck to the far wall. Slowly-circling ceiling fans, blue vinyl bar stools under the off-kilter Formica counter, mis-matched faux-wood tables, and plastic flowers stuck to windows complete the diner dive vibe that makes La Bonbonniere so unique in the otherwise snazzy West Village neighborhood.

Short-order cooks prepare classic American comfort food lightening fast. Scrambled eggs, bacon, and white toast come out in less than 5 minutes, piping hot and well-seasoned; oatmeal is thick, heavy and mealy, served in a salad bowl, loaded with brown sugar; omelets, of which there are many offered, come fluffy and stuffed with whatever you want, from the unusual (potato chips, cottage cheese) to the typical (peppers, sausage, onions, tomatoes); burgers and sausages cook in fat on the sizzling griddle, open for all to see behind the counter. The food at La Bonbonniere is greasy and simple, the ideal comfort food for hungover mornings and guilty TV dinners.

Impossibly cheap, La Bonbonniere is wallet-friendly and gut-busting. It’s comfortable, nostalgic for simpler days. As an attitude and pretention-free haven in a neighborhood known for its haute restaurants, La Bonbonniere attracts not only those looking to save a few bucks but also those hiding from sight, most notably celebrities the likes of Kate Winslet, local Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Stiles.

Perfect For: greasy breakfast, cheap eats, quick bites solo at the counter, hangover cures

La Bonbonniere on Urbanspoon

Balthazar: A Socialite’s Brunch

Balthazar proves that brunch has become a blood sport in Manhattan. Getting a table there involves jostling baby strollers and 6-children families, holding on a reservation line for 20minutes, or just plain ole waiting for a good long while. If you’ve won out over the many others and nabbed yourself a table, you’re pushed into the Balthazar brunch machine, a well-oiled contraption that moves at an alarming speed, crams as many patrons as possible into a cavernous dining hall, and pushes out classic Parisian fare with impressive quality.

Despite the factory-like flavor of Balthazar’s manic brunch, the restaurant manages to maintain a certain urbane French charm revered and extolled by New York’s fashionable set. The sister restaurant to Pastis, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, Morandi, and the rest of Keith McNally’s rapidly expanding empire, Balthazar has the look, feel, and attitude typical of McNally. No expense is spared in painstakingly recreating the look of a classic Parisian bistro. Converted from a leather warehouse, the expansive and airy dining hall can seat up to 200 people at the long zinc bar, luxe red leather banquettes, and large circular tables, all arranged helter-skelter in the rollicking maze. Everything from the gigantic antique mirrors to the sunny distressed yellow ceilings to the polished dark wood finishes seems authentically Parisian. Slowly turning ceiling fans, bright golden light, and a beautifully tiled floor complete McNally’s masterpiece. It is clear that at Balthazar, as at his other thematic restaurants, restauranteur-extraordinaire Keith McNally is not selling food; he is selling an experience.

The food won’t blow your mind, but it’s certainly good enough to attract a rabid following. High points include the bakery’s baked goods, a best of compilation offered in the bread basket, and the wide range of beautifully-prepared egg dishes. The Eggs Norwiegan and Eggs Benedict offered perfectly poached eggs that when cut into oozed golden yellow yolk all over a crispy toasted English muffin and salty soft breakfast potatoes; the Eggs Florentine, served piping hot in a cast iron skillet, baked poached eggs in with fresh spinach and artichoke, seemingly healthy yet surely loaded with delicious butter and cream; the Eggs in a Puff Pastry was a spruced-up and fancy Egg McMuffin, impossible to eat like a sandwich yet composed decadently of flaky pastry, fluffy eggs, rich cream.

Other notable dishes include the Sour Cream and Hazelnut waffles, unusual yet also found on Schiller’s menu, and the Apple Cinnamon pancakes, made to the perfect consistency and somehow imbued with a savory rather than sweet quality. Fresh and generally well-prepared, the food at Balthazar is beyond decent yet seems to come second fiddle to the incredible bustling scene and distinct decor. Typical of McNally restaurants, atmosphere and experience reign supreme at this Soho brunch mecca.

Of course, the price of such a lovely spot in such a hoppin’ neighborhood is crowds, crazy, fashionable, pushy crowds. In order to eat in peace, you’ll first need to contend with the stressed-out hostess, bitchy Manhattan desperate housewives, too snobby for their own good gay mafia, baby strollers brigade, and bankers in tshirts used to getting what they want when they want. Once you get past such obstacles though and work up an appetite, the servers treat you like gold and the food will make you think, for at least the length of the meal, that it was all worth it.

Perfect For: feasting with the fashionable, family get-togethers, birthday celebrations, francophiles, a classic New York experience, boozy brunch, hosting out-of-towners



Balthazar on Urbanspoon

Prune: Sweet and Unusual

Prune is an unusual sort of place – as charming and comfortably aged as any Village restaurant yet with a completely unique and ambitious menu. To be honest, Prune will present a conundrum for many diners – chef Gabrielle Hamilton certainly delivers beautifully crafted quirky cuisine in a warm thoroughly unpretentious environment; yet, the food can hardly be described as accessible with offal comprising almost half the offerings. In order to fully enjoy Prune, you need to either a) truly appreciate the bizarre and unexpected or b) know beforehand what you’re getting yourself into.

Discreetly situated on the cusp of the East Village and the Lower East Side, Prune’s look is simple and unadorned, a look that belies the complicated cuisine. The vibe is slightly cutesy with a side of hipster attitude. Servers wear pink yet have a kindly sense of humor about it, and the music yoyos between Top 40 hits and underground beats. Just one room, the space is cramped with tables squished in small spaces and a ‘bar’ with no discernable seats (or real standing room, for that matter). Simple faded white walls, tables with paper as tablecloths, floor to ceiling windows opening to the quiet E.1st Street block, and small rustic knick knacks make Prune more homey and comfortable than the gourmet playground of Chef Hamilton.

The food is most simply described as seasonal American yet this by no means fully encompasses what Chef Hamilton has proposed to offer diners. The short menu is divided between bar snacks and full-service dinner and, between the two parts, has just 20 items total (including sides/vegetables). The ‘bar snacks’ portion offers perhaps more enticing options than the regular menu, including the famous radishes with sweet butter, grilled handmade lamb sausage, and Spanish goat cheese on buttered brown bread with salted red onion. The radishes were in fact very refreshing, uncooked and served plain with a bowl of sea salt and a sizeable dollop of sweet butter – a satisfying snack for radish lovers and those willing to experiment alike. The handmade lamb sausage was a savory salty snack with heft infrequently found on Prune’s menu. Served with fresh ground mustard and bread, the lumpy fatty sausages are sure to please.

The regular menu is eclectic, featuring funky starters like grilled and marinated veal heart with mint-yogurt dressing, fried sweetbreads with bacon and capers, a parmesan omelette, roasted marrow bones with sea salt, and marinted white anchovies. The five listed entrees include beef pot au feu, farmhouse chicken in vinegar sauce, seared duck breast in dandelion greens and raisin-caper dressing, steamed mussels in lobster broth, and, lastly, a whole grilled fish. Unable to stomach marrow bones and marinated veal heart, I went for the seared duck breast which was cooked perfectly through yet was just too big (this must have been a very large duck) and too sweet for my tastes.

If you’re looking for creamy soups, tartares, steak, potatoes, and marinated shrimp, you’ve come to the wrong place. At Prune, you certainly won’t find the typical ‘seasonal American’ menu featured at Hundred Acres, Commerce, Wall & Water or Dovetail. Chef Hamilton very clearly throws typical to the wind in order to not only set her restaurant apart from the pack but also to serve the food she wants to cook.

Perfect For: taking a walk on the offal side, an early in the game date with an adventurous eater, snacks and drinks under $15, mingling with East Village hipsters over quirky food, celebrity chef sightings

Prune on Urbanspoon

Hundred Acres: A Rustic-ish Faux Farmhouse in Manhattan

Hundred Acres, sister restaurant to shining stars Five Points and Cookshop, is a restaurant I’m just dying to like, and yet, after three visits, I can’t bring myself to really adore it. This simple seasonal spot with the on-trend farmhouse look fails to rise above average no matter how you spin it.

Although beautifully designed, Hundred Acres feels contrived. The rustic farmhouse vibe is made chic with slick furnishings, expensive faux-antique lighting, and contemporary twists on country kitchen kitsch. Instead of feeling even remotely authentic, the restaurant feels almost clubby and geared towards the trendy Soho set.

The front room is most appealing with a hoppin’ bar scene and large windows that open fully onto Macdougal Street – snag a table in the window and you’re guaranteed some fantastic people-watching. The middle room is billed as evoking a “farm’s welcoming kitchen” with a table burdened with fresh fruit and flowers (does this make it farm-like…?) – in reality, it’s a cramped, hot, and noisy. It is perhaps this element that most nearly mimics a country kitchen. The back is charming with a cloistered garden meant to seem like “your own backyard”- only if it’s shut-in and tiny! No matter how you look at it, Hundred Acres gussies up a rustic farmhouse look to suit the fashionable needs and tastes of Soho’s trendy locals.

The food at Hundred Acres is seasonal and spruced-up American comfort food (sound familiar? yes, another trendy spot boasting simple and comfortable fare). In general, the food ranges from good to very good, occasionally to inspired; however, it’s safe to say that both Five Points and Cookshop execute and present their similar cuisines better, faster, and prettier. At Hundred Acres, expect dishes like beer-battered squid with shaved fennel, ruby red grapefruit, black olives, and aioli (a fancy version of fried calamari), roasted parsnip and turnip soup with heirloom carrot salad, Amish chicken with sweet potatoes, dried fruit compote and walnut butter, a burger, and a semolina macaroni with butternut squash, currants, pine nuts, sage, and breadcrumbs (mac & cheese, all dressed up).

Through these barely recognizeable variations on American comfort food, complex and diverse flavors are brought together to produce new twists on classics. Unfortunately, such ‘innovation’ comes with mixed success as several flavors fall flat (who wants pine nuts in mac & cheese?) and oftentimes, all you want is the original.

My real gripe with Hundred Acres though is with the truly deplorable service. Right from the start, I was forced to wait 15-30 minutes for a reserved table all three times I visited. What is the point of taking reservations if they are rarely honored? The hostess merely brushed my party off to the already-swamped bar, where we all hovered hoping that the frantic bartender would notice us. Once seated, the speed of service varied from slow to lethargic to truly tortoise-like. On my first visit, it took so long for coffees and dessert to come out that we canceled our order, and on the second visit, our entrees took 45min to arrive (and they very nicely comp-ed our desserts on the house). On top of the long gaps in table service, the servers themselves are so harried and strung out that they don’t bother to seem in the least bit apologetic or friendly, for that matter.

Hundred Acres is unfortunately the ugly stepsister of Five Points and Cookshop. It has all the right trappings (yummy-looking menu, sleek on-trend design, good pedigree), yet none of the spark required to make it, well, worth your while. Skip Hundred Acres and get more bang for your buck at Cookshop, Cornelia Street Cafe, Kingswood, Little Giant, The Harrison, or Braeburn.

Hundred Acres on Urbanspoon