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Posts from the ‘Top Chef’ Category

Riverpark: Very Colicchio, But Not Colicchio’s Best

Riverpark, Chef Tom Colicchio’s newest fine dining spot in Manhattan, is a strange sort of place. First off, it’s in a completely wacky location for a restaurant, tucked behind Bellevue Hospital and close to cantilevered over the FDR. If you’re not familiar with the neighborhood, it’s hard to find, especially in the dark. Second, although it seems to cater to the neighboring hospital crowd, it’s as sleek and slinky as a Meatpacking District restaurant frequented by models and their men. Third, despite the Colicchio pedigree and interesting menu, the food is not particularly far above mediocre. For all these reasons, Riverpark is a confusing place, with a whole lot of swagger and not a whole lot to back it up.

The restaurant looks oh-so-Colicchio. In fact, it’s a dead-ringer for Colicchio & Sons, with the same high ceilings, massive windows, sleek industrial-chic aesthetic, and a comfortable modernism. The spacious room is split into a bar/cafe area and a dining room. While I understand the conceptual difference between the two, the separation is so indistinct that it’s almost not worth thinking about. To it’s credit, Riverpark has a few visually stunning elements. The ceiling above the bar casts modern magic, emulating the twinkling luminosity of a rural night sky; giant window upon giant window in the dining room look at over the East River, and while the panorama of industrial Williamsburg may not be the most charming, a view of anything ‘nature’ in New York is appreciated; and the outdoor patio, opening during clement weather, is a slick and comfortable spot to lounge with cocktails on modern couches with the woosh of the FDR in the not-so-distant background.

The menu at Riverpark is similar to that at Craft and Colicchio & Sons, a Tom Colicchio standard blend of modern and innovative ‘American’ cuisine with seasonal and, when possible, local ingredients. The options are diverse, ranging from a brothy mushroom consomme to an Italian-inspired ramp & ricotta ravioli to the updated English favorite leg of lamb with potatoes, mint, and peas. Unfortunately, while each dish seems intricately constructed to strike the perfect balance between dressed-up comfort food and gourmet creativity, the actual execution is only average.

The cavatelli with braised lamb, sweet peas, mint and horseradish is muddy and confusing; it was almost delightful with perfectly cooked and toothsome cavatelli in a blend of tender lamb, peas and fresh mint, yet the overpowering horseradish threw in a wrench in the whole production. The diver sea scallops were over-cooked and rubbery, strangely fishy, and lacking in that silky texture and meaty flavor that make scallops dishes so wonderful – an overall failure, despite the very tasty bacon-ramp vinaigrette. The smoked flour gnocchetti sardi starter is one of the more unusual dishes I’ve tasted in while, with a crispy smoky gnocchi with nutty parmesan, lemon, and crisp spring asparagus. Unfortunately, all this ‘creativity’ backfires – once again, the flavors are muddy and confused; there is just too much going on.

Riverpark is not the best of Colicchio’s New York restaurants, despite it’s truly gorgeous decor and unusual location. The most important part of the restaurant, the food, is unimpressive. However, if you’re looking for elegant bar snacks, fancy cocktails, and a sleek atmosphere, Riverpark is an excellent pick, especially for after-work festivities, client events, and treating your visiting parents to a uniquely New York experience.

Perfect For: the east side hospital industry, after-work drinks, power lunches, Colicchio fans, dining with a view, outdoor cocktails in the summer

Riverpark on Urbanspoon

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Kin Shop: An American Chef Does Thai

Kin Shop opened quietly last fall, the second restaurant of Top Chef winner Harold Dieterle. It sits hardly noticed on 6th avenue, between and around delis and nail salons, specialty stores and pet grooming shops. Not until New York Times’ restaurant critic Sam Sifton’s glowing review did Kin Shop blow up into a foodie hotspot, visited by trendy young folk and big celebrity names, alike. On a frigid Friday night, wait times for tables at the bar were about 90 minutes and a wait list wasn’t even started for dining room tables.

The restaurant is small, announced only by a discrete blue awning amongst many blue awnings. Inside, the dining room features zen-like decor, cool colors and modern art. At the back is a small bar, mostly used for dining room overflow, and an open kitchen accompanied by a dining bar, prime spots for foodies interested in watching the kitchen work. Everything about Kin Shop is relaxed – unfussy design, casual crowd, family-style dining, well-priced bottles of wine.

Kin, in Thai, means “to eat” and that’s exactly what the diverse crowd has come to do at Kin Shop. The menu is contemporary Thai, modern riffs on traditional dishes. Though there are a few specials nightly, expect to see on a regular basis a succulent braised goat massaman curry, flat and wide wonton noodles with chicken, a jungle curry with bamboo shoots, soups, salads, and the house specialty grilled prawns. The garam masala and tomato soup is the perfect way to kick off a meal on a chilly night: smooth and creamy, intensely aromatic, and packing just enough to spice to warm you from the inside out. An equally delicious alternative is the steamed pork meatball soup, vaguely reminiscent of matzoh ball soup, done Thai. The small pork meatballs are succulent and juicy, salty in the toothsome and well-seasoned broth. The house grilled shrimp are served for $4/shrimp, heads-on, simply grilled; the taste is briny and fishy – not for those squeamish around overtly ‘seafood-y’ seafood.

The curries are the way to go – the braised goat massaman is sublime. Impossibly rich and silky, the curry tastes authentic and fresh; the meat is tender, falling off the bone with little resistance, and not too much oil is sitting around, pooling at the top as is too often seen in the curries of take-out containers. Not a curry person? Try the stir-fried wide wonton noodles, served with chicken sausage, broccoli rabe, and oyster sauce. Though just a touch too sticky, the dish is hearty and satisfying, packed with interesting flavors, and made fun by the knobby texture of delicious chicken sausage nuggets. For riskier eaters, the kitchen offers blazing spice with the Spicy Duck Laab Salad or offal with the roasted bone marrow and duck tongue specialties. Don’t hold your breath for a good dessert – with only one option on the menu besides ice creams and sorbets, it’s slim pickins and best to fill up with the savory starters and main courses.

Kin Shop is a great place to eat – warm and casual with interesting food and interesting people. Is it awe-inspiring? Worthy of top 10 lists? Deserving of the maddening hype? Probably not. There are better restaurants in New York. Kin Shop’s novelty is that it’s both Thai and gourmet, a surprising rarity in a city with so many ethnic eateries. If you succeed in getting a reservation, good for you and you’ll most likely very much enjoy your meal. If you don’t, try not worry, you haven’t missed the greatest new spot of 2010.

Perfect For: trendy eaters, hot spot trackers, B-list celebrity spotting, the adventurous type, Top Chef fanatics, haute hippies

Kin Shop on Urbanspoon

wd-50: Wylie Makes Mad Scientist Culinary Chic

In the past few years, Wylie Dufresne has made quite a name for himself through various Food Network appearances, cameos on Top Chef, and a role on Top Chef Masters; he is widely regarded as one of the leading American chefs that create their food using molecular gastronomy. wd-50, Dufresne’s restaurant on the Lower East Side, is his culinary playground, a gastrolab for his mad scientist creations.

Located on Clinton Street’s quirky restaurant row, down the street from Falai and across from The Clerkenwell, wd-50 is best described as modern and funky. Only a small red neon sign in the window betrays its presence; the inside is surprisingly cavernous, with soaring ceilings, from which hang brightly-colored teardrop lamps. The walls are a touch darker than royal blue and burnt orange, an admittedly strange color palette for an expensive gourmet restaurant. The tables and booths have a Brazilian steakhouse look, all pale wood and medium-brown leather; the cube booths along one wall are private, with the edge of the booth extending far enough up that you’re not staring into the meals of you’re neighbors. The tables are sleek and spartan, no table cloths, no flowers, just your plate and your cocktail.

wd-5o offers two menus, the $140 12-course tasting menu, which I personally avoided because of the hefty price-tag yet a surprising number of people ordered without blinking, and the a la carte menu. The food can be loosely considered American; however, as our waitress pointed out, the ingredients and flavors listed on the menu are merely a portion of what will eventually be on the plate and the form in which these ingredients come will be unexpected. For example, the eggs benedict starter is by no means your classic eggs benedict with perfectly poached eggs atop a biscuit; rather, the star of the dish is a trio of deep fried cubes of hollandaise sauce. Similarly, the veal brisket came cold and sliced like deli meat, with gelee cubes of honeydew melon, shaved olives, and deep-fried ricotta. The brisket is unexpected and disjointed, until you blend all of the ingredients together for each bite. With that synesthesia of elements, the dish makes sense and is wonderfully challenging, to the point of suddenly being delicious. On the more traditional side, the cheddar and broccoli soup is almost too in-your-face cheesy (if there is ever such a thing…) until you crinkle in the crunchy and spindly lattice of pork shoulder, somehow made to resemble edible lace.

The entrees are a further study in the complex pairing of unusual flavors. The Iberico pork neck is smoky, luxuriously rich, and guiltily salty; thick slices of perfectly-cooked meat is served in a bath of peach and pork jus with knots of texturally-interested smoked paprika spaetzle, slivers of Marcona almonds, and crispy flaky shards of Swiss char. The duck breast course is simultaneously sweet and tangy with the sharp bite of fresh cheddar cheese and the heady main note of savory kim chee couscous; bits of tart Granny Smith green apple are scattered atop the generous helping of sliced breast. The whole experience is an explosion of sometimes harmonious and sometimes difficult blends of tastes, textures, and aromas.

Surprisingly, the highlight of the whole meal was the hazelnut tart served for dessert, or perhaps it was just a welcome (and “normal”) relief from a challenging dinner. Thin and creamy with a buttery flaky crust, the tart was composed of smooth Nutella-like and coconut filling and accompanied by chicory foam. It was simple and delicious.

wd-5o isn’t for everyone; the vast majority of Dufresne’s food is perplexing and unusual; you have to work at it to find what he’s getting at, what his point is with the ingredients served. In this way, wd-50 is the thinking man’s restaurant; Dufresne intellectualizes American cuisine. That being said, it takes an adventurous will to follow Wylie blind-folded down his culinary path. Looking to take a risk? wd-50 has got to be your go-to.

Perfect For: adventurous eaters, those desperately needing something different, impressive first dates, foodies and food nerds, Top Chef fans,

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Colicchio & Sons: Worthy for Tom, Worthy for Me

Tom Colicchio’s major new flagship venture isn’t perfect, but it’s close to it. The subject of many foodie debates and critics’ reviews, Colicchio & Sons exceeds my tempered expectations not only in atmosphere and service but also in quality of food. Sure, Tom Colicchio of Top Chef fame has harped on and beaten to death, in all of his restaurants, the concept of locally-grown seasonal American cuisine; yet, though this style is no longer neither pioneering nor original, when done right, it produces some damn tasty food.

In the corner space of a massive highway-side building on 15th and 10th, Colicchio & Sons is designed with the industrial vibe of the Meatpacking District in mind. It is cavernous and airy, with window after paneled window, warehouse-height ceilings, and all sorts of both spindly and substantial pipes slithering across the ceiling. The restaurant is technically two separate dining areas with completely different menus. The front room, complete with lacquered wood tables for two, a sleek back-lit bar, an open kitchen, and a wood-burning oven, is called The Tap Room and is meant to be Colicchio & Sons more informal dining destination. The back room, separated off by a floor-to-ceiling semi-translucent wall, is formal dining with waist-coated staff and grand tables for parties small and large. The entire space is impressively sound-proofed with all sorts of acoustic trickery so that, despite the almost ballroom-like size, individual conversations can be heard and understood without much screaming and shouting.

The menu is extensive, the ingredients expensive, and the food complicated. Tom Colicchio, as he has made himself famous for, delivers multi-layered and occasionally over-wrought seasonal and local American cuisine. (You know it’s local by the obnoxious explanation of where each ingredient is from on the menu.) Aside from the precious little pretensions that pepper the menu, the food ranges in quality from very good to excellent to transcendent. The fresh pork belly, served thick, crusty on the outside, tender on the inside and with an unusual spiced caponata, is so luscious that it’s pushed me to reluctantly ignore pork belly’s trendy over-saturation of New York ‘haute local’ menus and indulge. The bi-color corn agnolotti is equally good, cooked perfectly soft and served in a generous pool of thick, creamy and satisfying sauce, arranged in a golden halo and accented by earthy summer truffles.

Perhaps one of the best dishes offered though is a simple dessert that riffs playfully on the classic PB&J; the caramelized banana cake is delivered warm, bathed in a gooey caramel sauce, topped with a fluffy peanut butter mousse, and accompanied by a punchy Concord grape sorbet. It’s nostalgic and comforting, a surprising reminder of home, despite its fancy pedigree. Other notable dishes include the highly unusual hearts of palm salad that challenges with crisp verdant notes and citrus highlights and the earthy lamb loin, served slightly bloody and on the bone with a delightful fennel gnocchi for brightness, tomato confit and baby zucchini. Both are studies in successful marriages of flavor and texture, color and creativity.

Colicchio & Sons deserves more credit. It’s unclear whether it’s inconsistent battering in the press is a result of Chef Colicchio’s ubiquitous TV personality or perhaps his insistent pretensions on local ingredients and returning to the kitchen. Regardless, Colicchio & Sons underlines why it’s namesake chef won the James Beard award for 2010 Outstanding Chef; the restaurant is elegant and chic, appropriate for its location, haute without a dress code; the staff deserves a 10 out of 10 for seamless service and attentiveness; the food is sophisticated yet familiar and original without being so funky as to alienate more conservative diners. Looking for an alternative to stuffy fancy dinners? Try Colicchio & Sons – it is refreshingly friendly while continuing to maintain a more formal sophistication.

Perfect For: birthday blowouts, impressing a first date, feasting with fancy friends, feasting in general, fancy foodies, stalking Tom Colicchio, client dinners and sell events

Colicchio & Sons on Urbanspoon

Barbuto: Waxman’s Allure Understood

After noshing at Barbuto, I now understand what all the fuss is about Jonathan Waxman. His restaurant is vibrant and relaxed – the ideal combination of Meatpacking hotspot mated with neighborhood hangout; and his rustic and simple Italian food is just plain dreamy.

Barbuto is situated on a hip corner of the far West Village, just where it kisses the edge of the Meatpacking District; it’s located in a converted garage, complete with sliding doors that rise in the warmer months, leaving the restaurant open to the street and allowing for a significant body of outdoor sidewalk tables. Inside, perhaps the most distinguishable feature of Barbuto is the noise, followed by the heat. Trendy singles and the after-work set at the bar up front send peals of laughter and high-octane chatter through the industrial-chic restaurant, while the open kitchen, complete with a wood-burning brick oven, makes sure that the temperature stays high and hot. Normally, a high noise level paired with borderline uncomfortable heat would be more than enough to send me into misery, yet there’s something charming, and appropriate, about the frenetic hum and pulsing heat of this vivacious hotspot.
The food is casual Italian soul food, and it tastes so loved, as though it were cooked with heart. The menu is short and edited with a few traditional appetizers spruced-up (butter lettuce salad, bruschetta with eggplant carbonara, mussels in white wine), three to four pastas dependent on market availability, and several hearty entrees ranging from a lamb loin to Waxman’s classic pollo al forno to crispy grilled sea bass. Each dish is bold and flavorful, simply presented, and just plain delicious. The potato gnocchi is served slightly seared so that the plump and petite dumplings have a caramelized exterior; a rich buttery sauce of bright cherry tomatoes, chanterelles and roasted corn brings a warm lusciousness to the already decadent dish. The mussels are classic – perfectly cooked in a white wine and butter sauce – simple and satisfying. Pasta dishes rotate regularly, yet you can count on a little spice, a lot of butter and oil, and complex layered sauces. Even the side dishes wow with salty and thick fried potato wedges or a large bowl of wilted escarole and kale, doused in a citrusy garlicky chili dressing.
Barbuto’s got it all. It’s a trendy hotspot with a casual neighborhood vibe; it’s got interesting beers, even more interesting wine, and classic cocktails; the food is rustic and seasonal, impeccably prepared, simple, and tastier than you could ever imagine. If you’re with a big group, give it some advance thought and book the chef’s table in the open kitchen – it’s guaranteed to give you an incredible experience. If you’re with a date, get there early and ask for one of the quieter sidewalk tables. Essentially, Barbuto is a slam-dunk for pretty much any occasion.

Perfect For: first dates, after-work drinks, al fresco dining, Jonathan Waxman fans, Top Chef trackers, ladies night out, a more civilized Meatpacking experience

Barbuto 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

Trestle on Tenth: Swiss Comfort Food for the Gayborhood

Although I’m not entirely sure how ‘trestles’ could ever apply to food or restaurants, Trestle on Tenth certainly knows how to spit out a good meal with few flaws. While the restaurant isn’t going to get a Michelin star anytime soon, it is uncomplicated and warm with delicious food. It is also enjoying a certain amount of press right now as its sous-chef Ash Fulk is the only New York-based chef on this season’s Top Chef TV show on Bravo (note: this is admittedly how I first heard about Trestle on Tenth).

Situated in the hot art gallery hub in West Chelsea at the current terminus of the High Line Park (near 24th St), Trestle on Tenth is modern and simple neighborhood joint, with a large exposed brick wall, soft lighting, the ubiquitous brasserie chalkboard, and a back garden. A ‘Swiss Brasserie’ by its own calling, T-o-T serves up comforting yet still sophisticated Swiss food with modern American and French twists.

The brunch menu offers classic brunch/lunch options such as a burger, a variety of omelettes, buttermilk waffles, crab cakes, and a Cobb salad. It also mixes it up with an elegant steak tartare, duck confit hash with poached eggs, and oysters on a half shell. My boyfriend ordered the burger, which was absolutely gigantic. A thick patty with crispy bacon and cheddar topped with lettuce, tomato and onion on a thick brioche bun, the burger was as tall as my water glass and remarkably difficult to eat. However, when served with salty and seasoned fries, it was scrumptious. My good friend Danielle went for the greenmarket omelette, which included a plethora of ingredients such as squash, chanterelle mushrooms, herbs, and goat cheese. While it was served beautifully, it was suspiciously missing the goat cheese and looked to have a bit too much going on flavor-wise. I opted for the steak tartare, which was served with 8 pieces of toasted baguette and a quail’s egg. Too heavy on the onions for my taste and served as a shapeless mound of meat, it was definitely not anywhere near the best steak tartare I’ve had in the city, but it was tasty nonetheless.

All in all, the food tasted fresh and healthy, like a dressed-up version of something you could make from home after meticulously picking out the best ingredients. It wasn’t a gastronomic delight nor was it a study in culinary mediocrity.

Best of all? Trestle on Tenth is amazingly affordable, for New York. Each dish at brunch averaged only $12 per person!

Trestle on Tenth seems to attract all sorts of patrons: couples, families, friends meeting for a good cup of coffee, lone diners with the weekend paper, and perhaps even a couple tourists straggling off the High Line. Bright and airy, the scene is refreshingly modern. It is warm without being old-fashioned and homey without being kitschy. Trestle on Tenth embodies the rejuvenation of its surrounding neighborhood – young, fresh, and simple.

Trestle on Tenth on Urbanspoon