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Keens Chophouse: A Truly New York Original

I’ll readily admit that steakhouses generally don’t get me all-fired-up. Despite my love of red meat and creamed spinach, I find them over-the-top, stodgy, and generally uninspired. However, a recent dinner excursion to Keens Chophouse has me totally and completely enamored with the concept of the classic New York and only New York old-school steakhouse. Keens has been in business since 1885, and even longer if you count it’s prior affiliation with the Lambs Club, a theater and literary group. For those 125-ish years, it has remained in the pretty magical Herald Square location that it continues to occupy today. Sure, the surrounding neighborhood has transformed from a thriving theater and arts district into the grimy Fashion District a smidgeon too close to Penn Station no-mans-land, yet Keens Chophouse is a culinary beacon worth visiting.

The dining rooms, of which there are an astonishing number in the bi-level space, are dark, cozy, and charming. They have the creaky luxurious feel of beautifully-refurbished antiques and the palpable history of many many years of use. Despite the general buzz of large parties and the ability to walk on in without a reservation, the rooms¬† at Keens manage to exude the feeling of an exclusive private club. The ceilings are low and the walls paneled with rich dark wood; intricate brass lanterns hang from the ceiling, illuminating the rows of black-and-white photographs, framed yellowing documents, and gilt-framed oil paintings clustered together on every inch of wall space; banquettes of brilliant crimson and chocolate leather line the walls, pressed close against tables swathed with crisp white tablecloths. It’s all marvelous and intimate – no sign of cookie-cutter chain steakhouse decor here. Perhaps the most extraordinary design feature of Keens though, and what it is certainly famous for, are the rows upon rows of clay pipes that hang from the ceiling. In total, they number over 50,000 and are true relics (the story can be found here).

The food is what you would expect from a steakhouse – plenty of meat, plenty of seafood, and a few classic sides. It’s a USDA prime-only steakhouse, and the meat is just fantastic. Choice abounds – aged prime sirloin, king’s cut, t-bone, porterhouse cuts for two or three, short ribs, filet mignon, and, most wonderfully, chateaubriand. The chateaubriand, the most tender and flavorful cuts of tenderloin, serves two – and it’s a buttery, juicy, immensely rich marvel. Topped with the truffled creamy mushroom sauce, it’s a slice of heaven. The kitchen also offers its famous mutton chops, hulking and gargantuan, a slice of New York epicurean history, as well as pick-your-own lobsters, double lamb chops, buttermilk chicken, a classic preparation of the increasingly rare dover sole, and of course an array of traditional appetizers (crab cakes, oysters Rockefeller, iceberg lettuce with Stilton blue cheese dressing – which is just perfect – and shrimp cocktail). You know the drill – if you’ve ever been to a steakhouse, chain or not chain, the menu is familiar. At Keens though, the food tastes … homemade, authentic and loved; it doesn’t smack of assembly-line ‘production;’ there is real heartfelt cooking going on here.

Well, I’ll just come out and say it then: Keens is my favorite steakhouse in New York (of those that I’ve visited so far) and perhaps of all time. Dining at Keens is a pleasant, seamless, unique, and traditional experience – one worth trying at least once. The service is just perfect – present and attentive but not bothersome; and the combination of dim lighting, incredibly affordable wine, and truly wonderful food easily lulls you into a satiated state of happiness.

Perfect For: anniversary meals, showing your parents a slice of classic New York City, blowout client dinners, after-work scotches, a night out with the boys

Keens Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

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Bento Burger: Where Anime, Americana, and Frat Bar Meet

There’s no way around it – Bento Burger, a new Japanese-American ‘pub’ in the Southern East Village, is a weird place. Part American fratty dive bar and part Japanese-inspired pub, this ‘restaurant’ suffers from multiple personality disorder, is punishingly loud, and appeals to the post-fraternity youth that troll the Lower East Side and East Village. That being said, Bento Burger has a quirky party-hard vibe ideal for setting the mood on a big night out and some seriously great food.

The narrow space on 2nd Street off First Avenue is not easily missed; its presence is announced by neon graffiti and tall brightly-colored banners covered in Japanese characters and anime cartoons. It’s a slice of technicolor Tokyo on an otherwise dark and moody block. Inside, Bento Burger is a futuristic and industrial space, a bit grimy, and unfortunately affected by the frat bar smell of spilled beer. At the front, along one wall, is a scarlet-hued bar with crimson sheets hanging over the bar stools. Along the opposite wall are red leather booths, each with it’s own tray of sauces, chopsticks, and menus (a la Friendly’s, for those who remember) and each surrounded by ‘artful’ graffiti murals. A jukebox is parked in the back, manipulated more often than not by perhaps too-inebriated chicks who just cannot live without Katy Perry for one more minute.

Despite the more bar than restaurant atmosphere, the ‘Japanese roadhouse’ fare is delicious. The menu features classic American bar-fare, dressed up with some fancy ingredients and inspired by Japanese flavors. Think: chicken wings, fried calamari, spring rolls, and an array of scrumptious burgers. The ‘Hambuguu’ burger, a sumptuous blend of beef and sirloin, is rich and flavorful, especially when topped with the spicy wasabi aioli. The Thai Chicken burger is remarkable; the patty is actually ground chicken, not a piece of grilled marinated chicken breast, and is incredibly juicy; the spicy papaya relish piled on top is sweet, spicy, and savory all at once. Perhaps the best food delivered by the kitchen though came in the form of side dishes. The wasabi mashed potatoes are creamy and fluffy with a strong but not overpowering hot wasabi flavor; the sweet potato fries are some of the best I’ve ever had – cut thick, the perfect blend of crispy and soft, and doused in salt, pepper and what had to have been truffle oil. Less successful yet still tasty were the tempura onion rings. While they lacked in that crisp crunch I long for in fried food, the thick onions were soft and sweet and the accompanying wasabi aioli made up for the lack of flavor in the tempura batter.

All in all, Bento Burger is ideal for a raging good time (for example: a big group celebrating the end of final exams) – the food is delicious, just greasy enough, and packed with intense flavors, there is a pretty impressive cocktail selection, and after knocking a few back, I could imagine how difficult it would be to ignore the jukebox’s siren song. If you know what you’re getting yourself into, the low prices and good food ensure that you’ll get a great bang for your buck. Keep in mind though, no matter how you spin it, the slightly grimy/party-hard atmosphere and friendly yet frankly incompetent table service is terrible for intimate gatherings or, god forbid, dates.

Bento Burger on Urbanspoon

Mole: Classic Mexican with West Village Flair

Since I moved to the West Village in 2009 and subsequently left it this past spring, I have wanted to try Mole, a classic Mexican restaurant on the corner of Hudson Avenue and Jane Street that seems consistently mobbed. Owned by the same team behind Yorkville’s beloved Taco Taco and a similar Mole Lower East Side Location, Mole focuses on presenting traditional Mexican fare like sopas, burritos, taquitos, fresh grilled corn, and empanadas in a casual, eclectic and friendly environment.

Situated on Hudson Avenue where the West Village begins to fade into the Meatpacking District, Mole is distinctly more West Village than Meatpacking in character. Instead of flashy, it is quirky and low-key; instead of chart-topping hip hop hits, Latin American tunes and old-school jazz floats from the speakers; instead of gaggles of girls in stilettos and skin-tight dresses, a more mellow hipster crowd comes a-callin’. Mole is to the West Village as Dos Caminos is to the Meatpacking District. The small space is colorful, with rust-colored exposed brick, burnt orange Mexican tile, artwork flecked with bright blues, reds and yellows, and sparkling silver pendant lanterns. Rough exposed ceiling beams, rustic wooden floorboards, and an open kitchen in the back lend a warm and homespun feel to the place. On cool summer nights, the sidewalk patio is a wonderful spot to sit and watch the world go by.

The food at Mole is a sort of greatest hits compilation of traditional Mexican cuisine. Expect tacos, burritos, empanadas, chips & gaucamole, all sorts of salsas, quesadillas, ceviches, taquitos, sopes, fajitas, and carne asada. The mostly simple dishes are well-executed, flavorful, and familiar – a far better version of the cheap takeout Mexican food that appears on virtually every Manhattan block. The queso fundido starter is decadent, consisting of an entirely over-the-top bowl of gooey melted cheese (best when topped with marinated crumbled chorizo), paired with jalapeno slices and a marvelous salsa verde, and big enough for a large group. Rich and delicious, it far surpasses that served as nearby Empellon. Burritos are almost comically large – served over-stuffed like your favorite couch, pillowy, and twice the size of a typical burrito. The grilled marinated chicken filling is light, tender, juicy, and especially marvelous with accompanied by the silky homemade guacamole.

Mole’s tacos come in a dizzying array of mix-and-match options. You can have two stuffed with everything from chorizo and carne asada to three different types of pork (carnitas, chipotle with cabbage, and adobo marinated) or a vegetarian blend of spinach, cabbage and mushrooms. Or, if you want something more than your classic tacos, you can opt for the taquitos borrachos, crispy and slender fried tacos lightly-stuffed with shredded beef and sprinkled with cotija cheese. Seafood tacos are also available, as either baja-style shrimp or fish (a raw seared tuna when I stopped by), and served on blue corn tortillas with light and zesty dipping sauces. The options continue with soft tacos filled with adobo marinated pork and succulent grilled pineapple, ‘american’ style tacos with ground beef, lettuce, tomato and onions, and shredded beef brisket tacos with guacamole.

Mole is a casual and uncomplicated spot – ideal for neighborhood dining, a mellow margarita happy hour amongst good friends, or a casual date spot for long-term lovers. It’s charming and relaxed with a menu that doesn’t attempt too much and pleases in its simplicity. The kitchen executes the classic Mexican fare well, with lots of spices, salt and seasoning – the product just tastes great. Service suits the mood; it’s warm, welcoming and friendly, where your waiter always says good-bye as you walk out and the bartender waves hello when new guests walk in. All in all, Mole is not a game-changing restaurant, a hotspot, or a ‘fine dining’ establishment, but it’s just marvelous for a late weekend lunch, happy hour or an informal dinner with colleagues, family or friends.

 

Mole on Urbanspoon

Jane’s Sweet Buns: Buns All Liquored Up

Jane’s Sweet Buns is a new bakery on the Eastern reaches of St. Marks Place. In a city replete with ‘cupcakeries,’ cookie shops and, of course, cheesecake purveyors, it has a unique perspective on baked goods – infusing a Southerner’s love of bourbon and cocktails with classic sweets like sticky buns, cinnamon rolls, and tarts. Jane’s Sweet Buns’ unusual boozy spin on baking certainly has something to do with the influence of owner Ravi DeRossi and his partner Jane Danger, the mixologist at nearby cocktail den Cienfuegos. And the bakery’s distinct quirkiness extends not only to its alcoholic confections but also to its bubblegum pink-mixed-with-gothic-decor interior.

The bakery is reminiscent of an old school sweets shop. Cake stands displaying treats and tarts perch atop glass cases lined with trays of sticky buns; gingham curtains hang in the windows and the walls are painted in bright cotton candy colors of pink, lime green, turquoise and sherbert orange; outside, a hot pink painted metal bench, of the sort found in English country gardens, beckons patrons to sit in clement weather. However, despite all this girly sweet decor, a twisted edge punks up this Southern-inspired spot; moaning and screeching alternative rock blares in the background and the tattooed ‘gal’ that served me was a refreshing mix of sugar and spice; gothic renditions of retro posters, paintings, and portraits hang on the walls; and of course, hidden beneath the sugary glaze of the delicately-displayed bun is the boozy bite of bourbon.

The goods at Jane’s are pretty tasty. They’re not orgasmic or the type of baked good I’d dream of for weeks on end, but they’re perfect for a late-night treat or to tote along to a house-party. My personal favorite is the Strawberry Fix, a sweet bun stuffed with strawberries, lemon and sugar, soaked with Aperol liqueur, and glazed with berry cream cheese frosting – it has got some serious zing and tastes genuinely fruity. Also great is the Rum Runner, a sticky bun with cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg and raisins that is positively doused in aged rum – it tastes like Rum Raisin ice cream transformed into a baked good. Unfortunately, the Old-Fashioned, the bourbon-based bun for which I had the highest expectations, was not so successful. Despite the generous topping of candied pecans and hints of vanilla, neither the advertised bourbon nor the angostura bitters came through enough to save this bun from blandness. On the non-alcoholic side of things (and yes, non-alcoholic goodies do exist at Jane’s Sweet Buns for those wishing to abstain), the savory tartlettes are delicious. It’s hard not to love thick slices of bacon and melted cheddar cheese stuffed inside a flaky buttery pastry crust – its the holy trinity of decadence (pork, cheese, bread) altogether. It get’s even better when you add apple butter,¬† blue cheese and pecans to the bacon.

Jane’s has 3 barstools in the window and a hot pink bench outside – it’s more for take-out or quick bursts of enjoyment than for sitting and leisurely noshing. But that arrangement seems just fine for the neighborhood, where inebriated youths regularly like to congregate after dinner hours. Though empty on a Friday afternoon, I can easily imagine a scenario where Jane’s becomes a late-night mecca for the quirky NYU students sure to stroll St. Marks after too many beers in the East Village.

Perfect For: NYU students, the drunk munchies, a different breakfast treat for the office, being indulgent

Jane's Sweet Buns on Urbanspoon

Ciano: Flatiron’s New Gold-Plated Italian

Ciano, a charming Italian restaurant, is a welcome addition to Flatiron’s extensive though tepid culinary scene, yet it lacks the finesse to make it a truly memorable dining experience. It must be tough to make it as an Italian restaurant in New York, given the vast amounts of competition in almost every discernible neighborhood. And while Ciano is well-run and serves good Italian cuisine, it can’t hold a candle to the truly soulful Italian fixins’ at Locanda Verde, the now defunct Convivio, Apizz, or even the far more casual West Village newbie Spasso. It just comes up a little bit short on personality.

The duplex space on East 22nd Street, just around the corner from the Flatiron building, is the epitome of faux rusticity. At first blush, it appears to be brimming with rustic charm; lush plants are just about everywhere you look, the furniture and floor are both made of warm wood, and remnants of countryside kitsch are found everywhere. However, when one looks a little closer, all this rusticity at Ciano is noticeably false; it doesn’t look real or believable with crisp white tablecloths, plants arranged into perfect neat bouquets, expensive modern light fixtures, and each design element so impeccably suited to another that it just comes off as matchy-matchy. Sure, it’s ‘elegant,’ but the half-way rustic vibe makes it seem like Ciano is trying to hard to be trendy. My advice? If you want to be a fine dining restaurant, don’t sell out to the rustic chic trend and confidently go hog-wild with formality.

The simple Italian food at Ciano is prepared by Chef Shea Gallante, the former chef at the much beloved and deceased Cru, and is generally very good. It’s technically excellent, based on fresh seasonal ingredients, and ‘the stuff you want to eat,’ but for whatever reason, it’s not so delicious or so exciting for it to be memorable. The menu is short, but not too short, with nine snacks and five or six each of appetizers, pastas, and entrees. Out of the snacks, the arancini are tasty – ideal little bites of fried cheesy rice. The chicken liver crostini is also good, though not remarkable. As starters go, the burrata di bufala is naturally scrumptious (it’s pretty difficult to mess up burrata), particularly when layered with the savory sweet onion jam and bitter and salty pesto on top of the charred thick slices of country bread. But, the burrata is $18, an astonishing number for a starter offered for less at the very pricey Hearth or Peasant.

The pastas are delicious – the best thing offered by Ciano as far as I can tell, both in terms of taste and of value. A ‘spring’ ravioli, stuffed with burrata and sweet peas, is earthy, bright, and buttery; for $15, it’s one of the best deals on the menu. The pappardelle is more substantial, heavier, and meatier with a duck bolognese dusted with hearty oregano; nutty pecorino shaved on top makes this dish fairly addictive. The saffron tagliatelle is luxurious with chunks of Dungeness crab, yet the strong flavor of saffron is a touch over-powering; a lighter hand would transform this dish into something marvelous. As entrees go, Ciano’s are fine. A steak is just a steak, and the lamb loin with lamb sausage is just a lamb loin. There is nothing so astonishing or memorable about either.

Everything at Ciano is neat, clean, refined, and ‘just so.’ Both the food and the atmosphere seem too precise for casual Italian dining, too sterile to incite exuberant passion. Dining at Ciano is ‘nice,’ but not wonderful or thrilling, not something to remember for weeks after or to leap at the chance to repeat. With such a respected pedigree (former Cru chef, former Cru sommelier, and former Per Se maitre’d), I had hoped Ciano would just be better than the ‘good’ it is. It’s just the place to take clients from out of town – the price point is right and the room is elegant enough to impress; but for those seeking romance or intimacy, something different, Ciano is not so special.

Perfect For: taking clients out, treating your parents, indulging in ricotta cheese, third or fourth dates, having a ‘mature’ dinner out

Ciano on Urbanspoon

Fried Dumpling: Home of the Ideal Grimy $1 Lunch

Sometimes, when mornings are tough or life seems low, the only satisfying cure is a steaming bowl of dumplings. Or, scenario #2, sometimes when living in New York seems to be close to bankrupting you, dollar lunches transform from cheap and perhaps a little grimy to heroic and verifiably wallet-saving. The $1 dumplings at Chinatown’s Fried Dumpling are the ideal antidote to an aching head or an aching wallet.

Fried Dumpling, a tiny storefront on a tiny street in the Southern reaches of Chinatown, doesn’t look like much. The paint outside is chipping; instead of an actual door, there are merely heavy plastic panels hanging in the doorway; seating inside is limited to four or five bar stools facing a crinkled stick-on mirror. Drinks are grabbed from a small refrigerator, and the food is prepared by two women, working in tandem, at a counter and a stove just feet from the door. It’s safe to say that Fried Dumpling is the sort of place you don’t want to examine too closely – I’m sure if I really inspected the interior, dirt would be piled in corners. However, that being said, the food’s good and there’s no reason to stick around.

The menu is short, consisting entirely of quick snacky bites such as dumplings and pork buns. The dumplings, served 5 for $1, are fried or steamed and stuffed with what looks like mystery meat but is most certainly pork and chives (unless you order the vegetable version). Slick and moist on the outside and stuffed with salty savory goodness on the inside, the dumplings are just plain delicious. They’re not over-stuffed, too greasy, or too doughy. If you’re into dough though, the pork buns are a great option at 4 for $1. Not your classic pork bun, they’re more like thicker and doughier fried dumplings stuffed with tender pork. Spherical and as big as golf balls, they’re a satisfying savory snack. If you’re feeling adventurous to venture beyond dumplings, Fried Dumpling also offers vegetable egg rolls, various pancakes, hot & sour soup, and wanton soup.

There is a time and place for the $1 dumplings served at Fried Dumpling in Chinatown; these times and places do not include when you’re dieting, looking for a sit-down lunch, or seeking to impress friends and family; they do however include curing brutal hangovers with grease and pork, vetoing the $12 chopped salad from the deli in favor of a perfectly satisfactory $1 lunch, and justifying taking 15 minutes to sit on a sunny park bench to enjoy your thriftiness. Fried Dumpling is a long shot from gourmet; it’s even far off from your neighborhood deli; however, when it comes to ridiculously cheap dumplings, you can do no better.

Fried Dumpling on Urbanspoon

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!