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.
Posts from the ‘upper east side’ Category
No restaurant has quite encapsulated the general Upper East Side vibe for me like Park Avenue Winter, executive chef Craig Koketsu’s swan song to seasonal American on 63rd and Park. The renovated Park Avenue Cafe multi-level multi-room space undergoes a 48-hour metamorphosis each season that completely changes the decor and the menu to reflect the approaching season.
Park Avenue Winter is warm and inviting, despite the wintry decor (think: ice baubles, crystal chandeliers, white leather, sprigs of evergreen and twiggy plants). Every element of the inspired space exudes restraint and refinement, a hallmark of UES dining (not to stereotype too severely or anything…). To be honest, it was a refreshing break from the oftentimes pretentiously ‘hipster’ downtown dining scene that refuses to use tableclothes, finds dishcloths suitable substitutes for napkins, and seems to fetishize over chalkboards and exposed brick. While not all these things are bad, they can get monotonous.
The food is meant to bring out the hearty and robust flavors of winter meats and fruits, focusing on venison, lamb, meatballs, creamy cheeses and chocolates, Scottish salmon, and root vegetables. I searched for unique flavors – focusing on the much-talked-about Carmellini Challenger (a toasted meatball slider), the crispy calamari and carrot salad, and the winter spice cake. The slider stole the show with a fat juicy and incredibly well-seasoned meatball perched on top of crispy crunchy toast, covered in cheese shreds, and paired with some sort of vegetable puree that added even more savory punch to the dish. I’d take this meatball over an ordinary burger slider any day. The crispy calamari salad married fresh and crisp vegetables with lightly breaded massive rounds of calamari, whole roasted peanuts, and a thai peanut dressing. It was refreshing and satisfying – a perfect light dining option or starter. The winter spice cake defined wintry desserts for me: creamy addictive brown butter ice cream dolloped over moist spice cake (that tasted like pumpkin bread plus every aromatic Christmas-time spice you could imagine) finished with homemade whipped cream in papery cannoli-like wrappings. Yes, it is as good as it sounds.
My oldest friend Diana, a willing and game dining companion, started with the citrusy cured lemon caesar salad, a dish that injected zing and zest into the popular classic. Her piece de resistance was the stout braised lamb shank with aged cheddar polenta and green apples. The lamb was so soft and so tender than no knife was needed to cut through the generous portion; the apples and cheddar polenta added savory and surprising notes to the lamb, spicing up an otherwise heavy and deeply flavorful dish. She finished off with the coconut caramel pannacotta, an almost tropical (and yes, slightly out of season) rendition of the traditional Italian dessert; it was good and correctly prepared, yet not particularly memorable.
All in all, the food at Park Avenue Winter was delicious (in a “wow, that really hit the spot” sort of way), sophisticated, and yet playful with flavor combinations. While it clearly strives mightily to reach the upper echelons of gastronomy, it falls just short in that the creative and tasty food impresses and inspires conversation yet doesn’t wow the way Brasserie, Perry St, and Del Posto do. Either way, Park Avenue Winter is classy and elegant, perfect for a business event, parents and grandparents visiting, or a pull-out-all-the-stops romantic date.
Fig & Olive’s got a groove that distinguishes it from the crowd of fairly over-priced and popular Mediterranean joints that pepper the island of Manhattan. Despite being a chainlet (with locations in midtown, the UES, and Meatpacking), it oozes intimacy and consistently churns out quality food. It has focus (figs and olives/olive oil, duh), which so many restaurants, no matter how good, do not.
I checked out the Upper East Side outpost, and what a surprise it ended up being. I expected a restaurant that felt fabricated (as many ‘chainlets’ do) and forced. Instead, I found a slinky subterranean space with a long wooden bar, a tall marble communal table, soft white light, and colorful photographs of fruits & vegetables. The long narrow space somehow felt almost airy, despite the cramped quarters.
The Mediterranean menu transports you to an olive grove on a Grecian island dappled with sunlight. It is refreshing and light, concentrated on cheeses, grains, fresh fish preparations, salads, vegetables, and nuts. Each dish is paired with a complimentary artisan olive oil, and upon sitting down, you are offered an olive oil flight with your bread basket. This is no off-the-shelf-at-Gristede’s olive oil – it is expensive, light, and amazingly diverse. Offering four carpaccio dishes (zucchini, ahi tuna, beef, and veal), crostinis, a charcuterie & cheese ballot, over-stuffed salads, pastas, a mixed grill, and various other entrees, Fig & Olive offers something for everyone from vegetarian to pescatarian to meat-lover.
My friend Dan and I split the ahi tuna carpaccio. Served with cilantro, arugula, toasted sesame oil, tomato, and an 18-year balsamic vinaigrette, it was immensely flavorful, meaty, and fresh. The crunchy nuts and smooth ultra-thin slices of fish were texturally wonderful, and the entire dish was just plain addictive. We then both opted for an entree from the grill menu. He went for the grilled branzino with fig and balsamic vinaigrette, and I couldn’t say no to the grilled lamb skewers with couscous, figs, Greek yogurt, honey, and scallion. Both were succulent and well-cooked with a hint of crispy char and lots of punch. The grilled branzino had a crispy skin that brought out the real flavor of the fish and a soft delicate ‘underbelly’ of fish meat. Doused in balsamic vinaigrette, the dish was just bursting of flavors. Similarly, my grilled lamb skewers, while unfortunately difficult to eat gracefully, were meaty and juicy with a slight smoky char. The couscous was the real winner though when mixed with the Greek yogurt and honey – marvelous!
Fig & Olive is soft and elegant. It by no means feels like either a bland chain restaurant or an uppity New York ‘chain.’ Instead, Fig & Olive keeps it simple with what it knows, figs and olives, and boy, do they know them well. Perfect for a family meal or long lingering dinner with friends, Fig & Olive offers a relaxed and sophisticated backdrop for a damn good Mediterranean meal.