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Posts from the ‘upper west side’ Category

Ed’s Chowder House: New York Does New England

I’m from Boston. I bleed New England. My mother’s family is from Cape Cod, and I grew up surrounded by quality seafood (even though I didn’t actually eat it until I entered adulthood). In short, lobster rolls and chowdah are their own food group and considered sacred where I’m from. And as a result, I have some pretty high expectations for all such things. Ed’s Chowder House, the brainchild of chef Ed Brown and restauranteur Jeffrey Chodorow, certainly takes its liberties with classic New England fare, ‘New York-ifying it,’ and the result is not half bad!

Up above street level and discreetly a part of Lincoln Square’s The Empire Hotel, Ed’s Chowder House is a visually appealing restaurant. The theme is nautical, and the sensation of being near the ocean is successfully achieved without over-doing it and while maintaining a certain Manhattan sheen. First, the restaurant is big. In fact, its so big that it just never seems full, for better or for worse. Up front is the bar area, followed by connecting dining rooms, and at the back, a private dining area. Second, the look is elegant beachy – more Hamptons than Cape Cod, more uptown luxury than sandy oceanfront casual. Expect: rich dark wood paneling, soaring windows, luxurious white leather banquettes, simple photographs of harbors and beachscapes, white chairs with little handles on the back reminiscent of those seen on swanky sailing yachts, touches of seersucker and pale nautical stripes, and plenty of bright white light. All of this is really quite lovely, more refined and restrained than some of Chodorow’s other creations (hello crazy Japanese pop art at Tanuki Tavern).

Perhaps the most surprising element of Ed’s Chowder House is how good the food is. It’s not classic New England fare, it’s not transcendent seafood, and it’s not even the best spot for good food in the neighborhood (I’m looking at you Time Warner Center). However, it’s satisfying, fresh-tasting, and the stuff you want to eat. The menu is extensive, featuring everything from a raw bar to a chowder ‘menu’ to sandwiches, ‘composed’ mains (read: fancy food) and ‘simple’ mains (read: straight-up uncomplicated food). And the kitchen executes everything from fluke crudo to seasoned crispy french fries, crispy clam rolls, fish n’ chips, risotto, and sea scallops well. Perhaps the best thing on the menu though is the lobster roll. While it’s not as wonderful as that served at Luke’s Lobster, it is pretty damn delicious for New York. The roll is buttery and soft; the lobster does have bits of celery and some mayo, but it’s so little that even a lobster roll fanatic like me wasn’t bothered; the roll is stuffed full with thick pieces of flavorful lobster. It’s just a good, rich, and hearty rendition of a New England favorite.

Frankly, I expected Ed’s Chowder House to be terrible – an over-wrought and poor interpretation of my beloved New England ‘cuisine.’ However, it pleasantly surprised with an accessible elegance and food good enough that you’d want to eat it again and again and then again. It’s not the best meal you’ll have in Manhattan, but it’s the type of food you could eat regularly (if you can afford it). With a please-all menu and a certain swankiness, Ed’s Chowder House is a bang-up option for business lunches and treating your out-of-town parents to a modern yet uncomplicated New York-y meal.

Perfect For: pre-Lincoln Center eats, lobster roll lunches, treating business clients

Ed's Chowder House on Urbanspoon

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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

Kefi: Gussied-up Greek Food for a Gussied-up Crowd

When it comes to Greek restaurants in which you can sit down, enjoy a glass of wine, and have a classy meal, the options in New York are surprisingly slim. A few options come to mind, including Snack Taverna, Pylos, Estiatorio Milos, and Kefi, the latter of which is reviewed here. Advertised as serving ‘rustic Greek’ cuisine, Kefi is a product of a partnership between celebrity chefs Donatella Arpaia and Michael Psilakis. It is meant to emulate a Greek taverna and to evoke the laidback je ne sais quoi of the Greek lifestyle.

The 200-seat restaurant just north of the Museum of Natural History offers a clean and prissy spin on a seaside Greek taverna. The cool blue and bright white color palette is immediately evocative of the Greek islands. Smooth stone floors, white stucco walls, neat arrangements of blue-and-white dinner plates, and textured beams work to give the illusion of rusticity, while a massive complicated wave mosaic reminds diners that they’re still in one of the more expensive zip codes in Manhattan. Periwinkle blue faux window shutters seem to ask patrons to imagine that if they were to be cracked open slightly the soft warm breeze of the Adriatic would waft through instead of the trash odors from the neighboring alleyway. The whole look is convincingly enough Mediterranean to be cool, calm and relaxed.

The food is traditionally Greek, consisting of ‘favorites from Chef Psilakis’ childhood.’ The menu offers a bewildering array of options, all at exceedingly reasonable prices, ranging from small plates to sandwiches to pastas to large entree plates. The quality of the food is uneven, ranging from very delicious to down-right disappointing. On the one hand, the meatballs, unfortunately pegged as the house specialty, were served lukewarm and under-salted; though the mildly spicy tomato and garlic sauce was flavorful, the actual meatballs lacked punch and were ultimately underwhelming. On the other, the simple warm fingerling potato starter with string beans, feta, and olives was balanced and delicious with well-cooked cuts of boiled potato and salty bits of fresh feta cheese. The entrees were similarly disparate with a scrumptious pork souvlaki and a almost inedible flat pasta dish with braised rabbit. The souvlaki sandwich was served in a fresh, warm, and doughy pita with juicy pork cuts and a plethora of crisp vegetables – refreshingly simple. The flat pasta with braised rabbit was peculiar with long, broad and overcooked noodles baked into crockware with moist braised rabbit and Graviera cheese; it had an off-putting sour aftertaste and an almost nauseating ‘cheese gone bad’ aroma.

Although I personally prefer my Greek food in styrofoam take-out containers and despite inconsistent cuisine, Kefi offers great value for the Upper West Side. If you know what to order, Kefi delivers top-notch grub in a lovely environment at surprisingly low prices for Manhattan. It’s the ideal neighborhood go-to for families and young couples or a must-try destination spot for Greek Freak foodies.

Perfect For: young professional couples seeking inexpensive yet tasty full-service restaurants, Greek Freaks, celebrity chef chasers, Upper West Side neighborhood foodies

Kefi on Urbanspoon

Bar Boulud: DB’s Masses-Friendly Spot

Bar Boulud is Daniel Boulud’s shot at attracting the masses. The food is accessible; the location is tourist-friendly; pre-theatre prix-fixe menus are all the rage; an outdoor patio attracts patrons like bees to honey; and the prices are acceptable, for a Boulud. In all of these ways, Bar Boulud is a successful establishment – a major moneymaker for Daniel Boulud and a crowd-pleaser.

On a bustling block just short of the intersection of Broadway and Amsterdam, Bar Boulud hides amongst cheesy family spots (Cafe Fiorello, I’m looking at you) and chain stores. In clement weather, the outdoor patio is the neighborhood place to be for people-watching and casual noshing; rows upon rows of tables and chairs give you a pretty good shot at nabbing a table before 8. The indoor space is quite striking with an elegant taupe and brown color scheme, a curvaceous tunnel-like main dining room, modern art inspired by the French countryside, and a spacious bar for eating, drinking, and socializing. Downstairs, private dining rooms amongst wine caves add intrigue to an otherwise sophisticated and sparse space.

The food is part simple brasserie-style cuisine and part fancy shmancy Boulud takes on French classics. What this means is that you’ll find steak tartare, steak frites, roast chicken, and frisee salads alongside Atlantic skate filet with endives, rainbow trout with fava beans, radish and lemon marmalade, and Maine peekytoe crab salad with citrus, almond praline, avocado and watercress. Trust me, and stick with the simple stuff – once the kitchen starts finagling with funky flavors and techniques, the quality of the food goes sharply downhill.

The steak tartare was decent; beautifully presented yet lacking in fresh flavors, the dish felt a little tired and lacking inspiration. Compared to some of the other more robust steak tartares I’ve had recently in Manhattan (most notably at Quality Meats), this rather sad version tasted good yet can’t compete. The steak frites were better, served a bloody pink with savory fatty sauce and crisp salted fries. The Boudin Blanc, a white truffle pork sausage, really plays to Boulud’s strengths – fatty fresh sausages (like those found at DBGB Kitchen & Bar) served on a bed of soft and well-seasoned mashed potatoes; if you’re a meat and potatoes kind of person, this is your nirvana.

While neither my father (my night’s dining companion) nor I are huge dessert fiends, we couldn’t say no to the complicated array of sweet treats available. Imagine concoctions such as the Limperatrice, consisting of poached Jasmine rice, champagne mango marmalade, and rice pudding-mango sorbet, or the Nopal, a convuleted tower of prickly pear poached pineapple, almond milk supreme, amaretto sponge cake, and pineapple-coriander ice cream. The real showstopper though was the visually gorgeous Diva Renee, a three-scoop ice cream bonanza with passion fruit and raspberry gelee, raspberry-exotic sorbet, and hazelnut dacquoise. Bar Boulud also offers not only an impressive selection of wines, cheeses and charcuterie, but also a 3-course pre-theatre dinner for those seeking a meal before a show.

Bar Boulud wasn’t spectacular, yet in its charming location (absolutely perfect for pre-Lincoln Center events), friendly and unobstrusive service, and generally relaxed UWS feel, Bar Boulud rises above its averge food to be something rather special. I wouldn’t call it gourmet, and it’s pretty over-priced, but Bar Boulud has a certain je ne sais quoi, particularly on the outdoor patio, that had me enraptured.

Perfect For: outdoor dinners on warm nights, pre-theater, family outings, wine and cheese shenanigans, ladies night out, and bar eats

Bar Boulud on Urbanspoon

Dovetail: Where’s the Harmony?

Dovetail is a strange place – extraordinary food in a dull and poorly designed environment. It forced me to constantly ask myself, what is such beautiful modern cuisine doing holed up in a stuffy uptown environment? This upper west side bastion of gastronomy (just outside the Natural History Museum) has gotten rave reviews for its tender seasonal America cuisine; yet, for some reason, no one has bothered to mention the ugly and drab interior renovation.

Imagine sitting in a cruise ship or a walk-in closet. That is what Dovetail looks like. One big rectangular room with rectangular wooden wall panels, rectangular white sheer curtains, and rectangular lamps. There is not a single piece of artwork in the entire space, save for a big plume of fancy flowers. The unfortunately dull design left an imprint – someone should tell these guys that atmosphere and experience are often just as impactful as the food itself.

Dovetail’s saving grace is the truly marvelous cuisine and the perfect table service. Chef & Proprietor John Fraser marries classic European technique with fresh local ingredients and bold flavors. His dishes showcase a mastery of making something unique and complex seem and look so simple. My starter salad was basic on the outside: frisee and bitter lettuce with squash, hazelnuts, and manchego. In reality, it was challenging, bursting with the flavors of sweet squash, nutty hazelnuts, and sharp savory manchego. My venison entree course was astonishing. I can safely say that it was hands-down the best venison I have ever had. The meat was a luscious medium-rare and so tender that it just melted away in my mouth. It was flawless. Honestly, it doesn’t even matter what it was served with, it was just that good.

My dining companions Sarah and Nicole both opted for the $35 prix-fixe Restaurant Week menu, which was pretty good, though clearly made from less expensive ingredients than the normal menu. The cauliflower soup was rich, savory, and topped with bacon (always a +). Unfortunately, it was also a bit oily. The rabbit mille-feuille was very unusual – sort of like a flaky rabbit tart. The rabbit meat itself tasted bizarrely similar to roast turkey. The hanger steak was well-prepared, not too stringy or tough, with a delicious and savory beef tongue lasagna (try it, seriously.); while the cod was light and citrusy – perfect for a refreshing meal, if that’s what you’re looking for. Lastly, the desserts were a disappointment. The black forest cake was too dry (despite the rich and high quality dark chocolate flavor), and the pannacotta was a total failure. A runny vanilla yogurt-tasting concoction, it was simply not a pannacotta.

The service was consistently top-notch, with a knowledgeable and friendly head waiter that seemed to read mysteriously when we needed something yet didn’t hover when we didn’t.

The message here is: do not try Dovetail for restaurant week, for while it was good, it was clear that the real magic of Fraser’s cuisine shines through on the regular menu. Unfortunately, it’s bland environment makes it a no-go for hip youngsters, those in search of a lively scene, or celebratory occasions; however, the refined (read: eerily subdued) vibe is ideal for business dinners, those who enjoy quiet dining experiences, and your grandparents.

Dovetail on Urbanspoon