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Get Your Date On

Recently, a lot of my friends have been asking for recommendations for good ‘early in the game’ date spots – you know, the sorts of places where you can have a good conversation over great food without too much romance on the one hand and too much raucousness on the other. While each of the restaurants listed below has its own flavor and atmosphere, all of them are cool enough to take a new flame to, are not SO sceney as to be packed with distracting groups of hot men or women, and manage to hit the sweet spot between quiet enough to talk and buzzy enough to fill awkward silences.

Top 10 First/Second Date Spots:

1. The Harrison: It’s hard to say no to sharing duck fat fries in a place that’s in the business of making people happy.
2. Apizz: Downright sexy and known for top-notch meatballs. Double whammy.
3. Barbuto: A celebrity chef committed to cooking accessible food in a vivacious environment. Plus, if things get awkward, the bars and clubs of Meatpacking are just around the corner.
4. Peasant: In the winter, the heat from the glowing pizza oven almost simulates a roaring fire in the fireplace.
5. Rayuela: Some say chilis, a staple in Rayuela’s Latin American cuisine, are aphrodisiacs.
6. Alta: Not-your-typical-tapas make interactive small plates-style eating fun! And there’s kick-ass sangria!
7. Cafe Cluny: Cozy and charming, it’s hard to go wrong at this classic West Village French bistro.
8. Pipa: Perhaps the Flamenco band that’s around on certain nights will get you and your date out of your chairs and dancing towards each other.
9. Snack Taverna: Offers something a little different than your classic French or Italian, and discussing what to order ‘family style’ helps ease the awkward ‘just sat down’ conversation.
10. Raoul’s: Too-cool-for-school French spot with a rockin’ bar up front that’s perfect for having a beer to start the evening.

Check out my reviews and go get your date on!


Veritas: Refined ‘Ingredient-Driven’ American Without Too Much Snob Factor

Before its recent renovation, Veritas was the aging haute restaurant/wine bar oft forgotten, popular with well-heeled regulars enamored with its intimate exclusivity. However, after getting a major facelift in 2010 by Crème, the design firm responsible for Tribeca’s Marc Forgione, Veritas has re-opened as a modern, warm and approachable fine dining establishment. With the renovation, not only the restaurant’s look and atmosphere have been majorly upgraded; Veritas has also enlisted Chef Sam Hazen, formerly of Tao, to reboot the menu. Don’t you worry though, despite all the changes that have been afoot at Veritas over the past year, owner and founder Paul Smith’s personal and astonishing Rhone-heavy wine collection that made Veritas famous hasn’t changed a bit.

Situated on a restaurant-packed block in Flatiron, across from Gramercy Tavern, Veritas is small. Divided into two rooms, the restaurant features a long wine bar upfront and an intimate dining room with about 20 tables in the back. The design is modern, elegant, and inspired by the very same wine collection that makes Veritas unique. The dining room is book-ended by floor-to-ceiling shelves displaying bottles from the diverse wine collection; polished wooden tables, missing the crisp white tablecloths of the ‘old’ Veritas, line the white painted exposed-brick walls; pendant lights softly illuminate the haute cave-like space.

The bar at the front, populated by oenophiles, is a subdued and sophisticated affair. A man dressed in a three-piece suit, reading his propped-up iPad and drinking a glass of pale white wine, sits in the corner, conversing quietly with the bartender; two fashionable women in their 30s split a bottle of red, tasting the offering like wine tasters do in movies. The suited bartender is polite, efficient, and knowledgeable, and the glass of cabernet ordered is served at the ideal, slightly chilled, temperature.

The contemporary American food served at Veritas is memorable. While each dish is arguably a work of art in terms of the noticeably excellent techniques used to construct it, each dish is also immensely flavorful and comforting. Somehow, Chef Hazen has managed to hit the sweet spot between food that is sufficiently ‘fancy’ to warrant the sky-high prices and food that actually tastes good, food you want to eat.

The starters are excellent. A foie gras special offered recently was astonishing: delicate slices of seared-to-sweetness foie gras over firm whiskey-braised peaches; the dish was high impact yet uncomplicated. The market crudo is a refreshing and a lovely counter to the rich meat-heavy dishes offered as entrees – a combination of thinly-sliced raw salmon belly and tuna atop citrus, radishes and English peas recently, it was playful and light. The unique ‘Beef in Transition’ appetizer is a fun option for carnivores. Featuring three different constructions of beef ranging from tartare to short rib in a pastry, it is rich and inventive; the steak tartare was the best – juicy, flavorful, and high quality, the sliver of peppered sirloin steak was delightful – prepared to a deep pink in the middle, and the short rib wrapped up in flaky pastry got mixed reviews – the meat was tasty but not tender enough and the pastry was just unnecessary.

The entrees ranged from truly marvelous to very good. On the one hand, the prosciutto-wrapped halibut with shallots and asparagus didn’t inspire much and was, in the words of my father, ‘just a halibut.’ On the other, the pan-roasted veal chop, served on the bone, was extraordinary; perfectly seasoned so that you could really taste the tender flavor of the meat, it was served with delicious pillows of rich short rib ravioli that far surpassed the mediocre short rib pastry from the appetizer. In the middle was the classically-prepared filet mignon, served as a bigger cut than expected but perfectly-executed at medium rare, surrounded by addictively sweet red-wine braised cippollini onions, and showered with briny flakes of Roquefort cheese.

Veritas should be considered a bit over-the-top, a relic of a spend-freely age when dropping $300 on a bottle of wine and $40 on a filet was commonplace. However, as a result of the modern renovation that has transformed this late ‘90s den of oenophile exclusivity into a more accessible contemporary establishment, Veritas manages to feel if not fresh than at least appropriately ‘with it.’ Yes, the prices surely cause many average New Yorkers to laugh bitterly and choose another restaurant; however, for those lucky enough to have ‘deep pockets’ or happy enough to have something to celebrate, Veritas is a very much under-the-radar option.

Perfect For: big spenders, oenophiles, breaking the bank, a classic New York fine dining experience

Veritas on Urbanspoon

Tamarind Tribeca: Ethereal Indian, Moved 30 Blocks Downtown

‘Fancy’ Indian food isn’t for everyone – sometimes, a take-out tub of chicken tikka masala and a thick round of naan to dip messily into everything is just the best way to eat Indian – however, the second location of Flatiron favorite Tamarind does everything in its power to convince its diners that eating Indian in a fine dining environment instead of on your couch is a marvelous idea. And Tamarind-Tribeca resoundingly succeeds in transforming what could be an overly formal interpretation of soulful Indian cuisine into something delicious, elegant, and pleasant.

courtesy of Evan Sung for the New York Times

The new location, on Tribeca’s Hudson Street ‘restaurant row’, is, in one word, colossal. The corner space has soaring ceilings and more than 10,000 square feet of space. The front is glassy and sparkling new; the seamless floor-level ‘retail’ space of an office building. From the outside, it oozes corporate gloss; if you didn’t know a restaurant lay within, it could be a bank. Inside, dining room upon dining room unfolds as you wander further back into the cavern. The design is modern, sleek, and clean – almost impersonal and definitely suited for the slick business clientele that crowds this place after work hours. However, for non-corporate diners, despite the gargantuan size, it’s remarkably easy to fold into one of the comfortable booths and to forget, at least momentarily, the numbers of tables being turned around you. Warm neutral tones envelop the space and a combination of contemporary chandeliers and recessed lighting bathe patrons in an elegant amber glow; surfaces are swathed in smooth teak wood, cool marble, and luxurious fabrics. All in all, dining at Tamarind Tribeca is a well-oiled machine, a peaceful, and pleasant experience.

The food at Tamarind Tribeca is wonderful. Is there anything better than rich, fragrant, and perfectly-executed Indian food? The curries are flavorful, aromatic, textural, and not in the least bit greasy. Particularly marvelous is a ‘fiery’ hot lamb vindaloo that delights, despite inevitably causing sweats and scalding the tongue, and a mellow ‘murgh badami’ or almond-based chicken dish with saffron and sweet golden raisins. The classic chicken tikka masala is one of the best – thick, with a not unsubstantial kick, and fragrant of fenugreek and Indian spices – perfect for sopping up with the ideally crispy and chewy pockets of naan.

Where Tamarind Tribeca really shines though are in the traditional Tandoor dishes. The chicken tikka is moist, tender, and packed with complex flavor; the ‘peshwari boti kabab,’ essentially tandoori marinated lamb is just ridiculously good – spicy, juicy, so tender that you don’t need a knife to cut it apart, and packed with aromatic ginger, chili and garlic – it’s perfect. Other highlights include the special Manchurian cauliflower appetizer in a crusty slick ginger coating, the zesty and texturally-playful Aloo Papri, with crunchy wheat crisps, earthy chickpeas, and zingy tamarind sauce, and the ‘kolambi pola,’ tender cooked shrimp coated in a thick lemongrass and coconut sauce.

In a time when restaurants seem to be getting smaller, noisier, and more casual, Tamarind Tribeca is a wonder – a busy, massive, sophisticated, and expensive temple worshipping classic regional Indian cuisine. It seems to intentionally eschew the trend of kitschy rusticity that’s taking over Manhattan neighborhood-by-neighborhood; instead, it fully embraces the grand moneyed elegance characteristic of the Tribeca area in which it has set up shop. The ideal restaurant to make a splash with clients or to treat out-of-towners to a distinctly New York fine dining experience, Tamarind Tribeca wows with flavorful and not prissy Indian food, gold star service, and a serene sophisticated atmosphere.

Perfect For: taking clients out, fat wallets, Indian food lovers, big groups, showing out-of-towners ‘New York’-y ethnic food, graduation get-togethers

Tamarind Tribeca on Urbanspoon

Toloache: New York Mexican’s Happy Medium

There are a whole bunch of weird things about Toloache (it’s Times Square location and the chintzy neon sign are two), and yet, whether because of the excellent sangria or the crave-worthy guacamole, the laid-back environment or cheap prices, Toloache just works. The sister restaurant to the far more gentile Yerba Buena Perry in the West Village, Toloache is like the black sheep of the family – a little raunchy, a little dirty, flashier and commanding attention.

Just off Times Square, Toloache is a shining neon star in an otherwise epicurean wasteland too popular with T.G.I. Friday’s-seeking tourists. The space is quirky – bi-level, with a crowded bar, and tables crowded into corners, behind the hostess stand, next to the guac-making counter. Design-wise though, the look is spicy and thrilling with warm yellow walls, mustard-colored leather banquettes, traditional blue-and-white tilework embedded into smooth brown adobe bricks, quirky and ornate metal lanterns, and deep red candles flickering on each table. Toloache is elegant yet just raucous enough to entice the young after-work crowd and serious diners alike.

Toloache’s modern Mexican fare is remarkably cheap – especially in comparison to that offered by its sibling Yerba Buena Perry. Mostly everything except for the large entree-size dishes is under $15. And trust me, you can have quite the special meal without spending $27 on a ‘platos principales.’ The trio of guacamole is a must-have to kick off the meal. Each of the three has a completely unique flavor: the ‘mild’ is your guacamole tradicional, served chunky with plenty of thick avocaod, the ‘medium’ is stuffed with pomegranate, mango, peach, apple, and Thai basil and is possibly the most addictive dip ever, and the ‘hot’ is zesty with chipotle peppers and cooling queso fresco. Also wonderful are the tacos – served on perfectly cooked soft tacos and nicely stuffed with filling. The ‘Suadero’ option with Negro Modelo-braised brisket and a tangy horseradish cream is packed with bold and hearty flavors ; the ‘pescado’ with baja tilapia and thick guacamole is a house favorite, recommended by the server, and freshing; the ‘de pastor’ mixes together savory/sweet grilled pineapple (mmm mmm) and juicy pork – just marvelous.

If you’re not in the mood for tacos, the Mexican restaurant’s take on fondue ‘queso fundido’ is decadent and gooey, loaded with all sorts of earthy mushroom bits, and the braised short ribs quesadilla, glued together with creamy Chihuahua cheese, creme fraiche, and a dusting of pico de gallo, is perfect for carnivores looking for a not-too-heavy meal option. Lastly, its no secret that Central and South Americans know how to work with meat – and those in the kitchen at Toloache are no exception. For example, the carne asada skirt steak is tender and cooked to a bright magenta medium rare; served with Toloache’s addictive guacamole and a bonus mole cheese enchilada, it’s flavorful, zesty, and satisfyingly meaty.

Toloache is a breath of fresh air in a neighborhood known for Ruby Tuesday’s, Bubba Gump, and an altogether too large T.G.I. Friday’s. It has the suave and quirky style of a downtown restaurant, the cooking chops to rival the high-end Mexican spots cropping up all over town (it’s certainly better than the inexplicably raved-about Empellon), and the vibrant youthful energy of a tequila bar. Sounds like a winning combination to me!

Perfect For: midtown west after-work drinks, guac and margs, pre- and post- theater dinner

Toloache on Urbanspoon

Earl’s Beer & Cheese: A Refreshingly Unrefined UES Hole-in-the-Wall

The Upper East Side has a reputation. Depending on which side of Lexington Avenue you venture to, it’s either the hoity-toity home of New York’s blue bloods or the home away from home for the recently-graduated frat scene. Naturally, the sorts of restaurants and bars you find on the Upper East Side typically fit snugly into one of these two categories. Only rarely does an eating and drinking establishment come around that defies expectations, that is neither pretentious nor beer-soaked (in a dirty sort of way). Earl’s Beer & Cheese is one of these such establishments.

On the border (or perhaps just over) between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, Earl’s Beer & Cheese is hardly more than a sliver of space – devoted to marrying two beloved pleasures, beer and cheese. The seating is communal, limited to a few bar stools along one wall and a central table that appears to be a cousin of the standard picnic table. At Earl’s, you better get used to rubbing elbows with strangers, for the combination of rabid popularity and very little room creates a major jam from ‘after-work’ hours far into the night. But try not to worry, after a few of the weekly rotated brews and big bowl of beer cheese (see below), a few elbow jabs will seem just jovial.

courtesy of Danny Kim & New York Magazine

Earl’s menu is short, sweet and focused on cheese. Expect grilled cheese varieties, mac n’ cheese, tomato soup (best with the grilled cheese), a cheese plate (duh), a house-made concoction called beer cheese, and a decadent dish of waffles, foie gras, cheddar cheese, and bacon. In short, even if you only sort of like cheese (the horror!), it’s all deliciously over-the-top and marvelous, especially with a cold beer. The grilled cheese, of which there are three rather complicated types, is served on fluffy sourdough or a buttery brioche; regardless of whether you try the cheddar, brie, or mozzarella, cheese oozes out of the side. With oil andfatty meats and oozing melted cheese, it’s virtually impossible not to enjoy Earl’s grilled cheese sandwiches – and virtually impossible to enjoy them neatly. The mac n’ cheese is luxurious: rich, creamy, tangy from the goat cheese, and flecked with fragrant rosemary. After a long-day, it is the perfect comfort food dish to push worries out of sight and out of mind. Best of all though is the beer cheese. Does it even need explanation? or validation? Beer. Cheese. Together, in a savory, salty, creamy dip to be spread lavishly on crusty white bread. In one word: heaven.
Earl’s is a charming novelty spot that eschews that bipolar attitude that tends to define ‘the Upper East Side.’ Popular with local Mt. Sinai medical students just happy to be out of class, it’s a cheerful place with an immensely friendly staff and generally jovial crowd. When being plied with craft beers that rotate weekly and pots of bubbling cheese, it’s hard not to love every minute of your time stuffed into this hole in the wall.
Perfect For: after-work drinks, cheeseheads, beer aficionados, Mt. Sinai students and staff, unbuttoned Upper East Siders

Earl's Beer & Cheese on Urbanspoon

Happy Birthday America!


have a wonderful day of eating, drinking, bbq-ing, and so forth!

Casellula Cheese & Wine Bar: Where Cheese Comes First

Wine and cheese go together like peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots, steak and potatoes. And just off a busy Hell’s Kitchen corner, a charming little wine bar devotes itself to marrying ‘the holy duo’ through a long and worthy wine list and a cheese-centric menu. And thus, in a city with wine bars in every neighborhood, Casellula is no ordinary wine bar. With a name where cheese comes before wine, the focus at Casellula isn’t only on the nectar of Dionysus, but also on cheeses of all shapes, sizes, and stinks (yes, stinks), used in all sorts of different ways.

The tiny space just off 9th Avenue is cozy. Exposed brick covers two walls, and the one wall left free is bare white. Near the entrance is a crowded bar, simple wood, with bottles of wine clusted on shelves and quality beer on tap. The rest of the space is reserved for seated dining – the best tables are those pressed up against the windows, where you can watch all sorts of characters rush by on 52nd St. With soaring ceilings and an entire wall lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, Casellula creates an illusion of space, and so people crowd into corners and cluster at the bar. As the night goes on, the sound level rises to a pleasant roar – the sounds of happily satiated people reverberate, laughter ricochets, wine glasses clink and tinkle. It’s a charming and mellow sort of place, where it’s hard not to enjoy yourself.

At Casellula, the menu focuses on cheese (a no-brainer for a place opened by the guy who used to run the cheese program at the Modern) and showcases up to three dozen varieties at one time in all sorts of ways. There’s a gooey and decadent grilled cheese, served on buttery and crusty bread with thin wisps of bresaola and three varieties of cheese; it’s nutty, savory, salty, and everything you could want from an American classic all-dressed-up. There is a mac n’ cheese (of course) of comte and goat cheese with speckles of bacon and sweet caramelized onions. There is straight-up grilled camembert for the cheese purist, served hot and oozing with roasted tomatoes and bacon. For ‘lighter’ options, the kitchen offers a petite ricotta crostini; crispy slices of baguette topped with airy ricotta, floral orange blossom honey, and earthy bites of hazelnut, it’s so simple and yet so satisfying. If you’re not a cheese person, don’t despair – the chicken liver pate, served with a layer of creme fraiche in a little bowl, is rich and creamy without being over-powering; and the kitchen offers everything from hot n’spicy adobo chicken wings to fish taco ceviche, a goose breast reuben, endive salad, and a rabbit & mushroom pie.

Casellula is essentially an homage to cheese, and cheese is the star here. It’s in almost every dish, oozing out of grilled cheese, fluffed atop crostini, or just on its own. Yet, aside from the cheese, one of the greatest things about Casellula is how utterly un-snobby it is. Although it’s a cheese and wine cafe, beer is beloved here as well. The young and hip staff is laid back (almost too much so on occasion); the food is accessible without sacrificing an ounce of quality; and there’s no need to dress up to show up. Casellula is a refreshingly relaxed hitter on the New York wine bar that maintains it’s cool without sacrificing an iota of food or wine quality.

Perfect For: first dates, wine & dessert, cheese freaks, catching up with your girlfriends, mellow after-work drinks

Casellula Cheese and Wine Cafe on Urbanspoon