Behind The Green (Blue) Door

Karasu

Door #1, 2 or 3…hmmm. Always a chance you’ll miss the prize if you choose wrong, but not here. First door takes you into Walter’s, an agreeably hip neighborhood pub. Could be a very pleasant evening. Views of Fort Greene Park, cocktails, raw bar, fried chicken, weekend brunches. You know the drill. And it’s good. But if you march yourself straight to the back of the dining room and push open door #2, you will tumble down a chic NYC rabbit hole and find yourself in a speakeasy of the Japanese persuasion.

A peek through the Walter’s window…

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Door # 1

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We pass through tables of people enjoying themselves, the Walter’s hostess nods as we stare ahead purposefully. We follow her lead to the way back, an unlit hall and a large blue door. #2. She opens it, gesturing for us to go inside. We’ve arrived into cozy sophistication, an alternate universe of dining, imbibing, charm. Jazz spinning on a turntable, good jazz. Nothing to do but live a little.

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Art deco lighting, flattering and indirect of course, with Japanese blonde screens, deep blue walls, all hand built by the owners out of a former doctor’s office.

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Gorgeous bar. Big beveled mirror. Congenial waitstaff in very cool jackets with large buttons and small pockets. It’s all sumptuous, lush, au courant but not precious.

Owners Dylan Dodd and Danny Minch along with Head Chef Yael Peet, chef Josh Goldstein,  and infamous barkeep Thomas Waugh have created something they refer to as Kyoto casual, a modern take on seriously seasonal Japanese dining. Peet’s offerings take strong influences from izakaya, robata and kaiseki cuisine with an ever changing menu. It’s all sensational. Mr Waugh hails from ZZ’s Clam Bar and the Major Food Group, and has devised a grand list of incredible Japanese whiskeys and sakes. Sometimes a classic drink is the thing, but should you be feeling frisky and devil may care, he has a coterie of cocktails re-imagined with timely Japanese ingredients, augmenting smoky, sweet, citrus, creatively inspired beauties guaranteed to tease and thrill. I’m talking about the cocktails.

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A friend had the Smoked Palomino with mezcal, sherry and grapefruit. August in a glass. Layers of smoky citrus and then a head spin as you hit notes of sherry.

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I had the Ginger Baker, partly because I’m a tequila fan but also because he is one of the greatest  drummers of all time. Reason enough to drink him. The reposado tequila, oolong tea, ginger and cassis were surprisingly complex and incredibly good. I had more than one.

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Hoyo “Sawayaka Junmai”. Soft and easy. One of many choices on a list of great sakes.

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It’s a 40 seat Japanese cocktail bar turning out a mean mix of spirits as well as divine food. As is the new normal, dishes are meant for sharing and are divided into snacks, raw bar, smaller plates and larger plates.

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Previous press tells the story of the name, Dylan Dodd was in a Seattle antiques shop and found a little carved figure that seemed very Japanese. Returning to Brooklyn with it in hand and without a name for the new spot, one of the Japanese chef’s suggested Karasu – loosely translated as little crow. Perfect.

Otsumami means bar snack of the day and we were lucky enough to be there for a favorite, uni wrapped in nori. It was sweet, briny, buttery. I can easily see sitting at the bar one day, nosing down one of the more rare whiskeys and indulging in several plates of these.

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Can potato salad be ambrosial? Yes Virginia. If it’s Japanese potato salad topped with miso and sesame seeds. Taking an American classic and flipping it upside-down. The Japanese way. Addictive is a word flung far and wide to cover almost anything lately but it seriously applies here.

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Karaage duck wings, four plump wing drums dressed with a kicky, spicy  sesame sauce and adorned with scallions.

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House made tagliatelle with uni in a smoky butter. I often feel that with uni pasta, there’s never enough of the prize ingredients to really be satisfying, but Chef Peet’s version is Japanese comfort at its best, a gratifying, impeccably composed dish that won’t let you go until the tears have stopped.

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Tonkatsu pork chop. With cabbage as it should be. Breading that’s light and crispy. Also as it should be. Because that’s how you do.

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Impeccable Donburi bowl, ocean trout sushi with ikura and rice. A tonic for these warm days.

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The whole fish is a meaty seafood parade of shiso pesto on a perfectly cooked daurade ordered with a side of seaweed flecked miso koshihikari rice. Superb. This is a dish to dive into, fingers, chopsticks, fork, whatever you can use quickly before a dining companion gets the better of you. Break apart the white filet, that lightly seasoned fatty skin, avoid the bones. You’re golden.

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Apparently one of the more revelatory reasons to get here pronto is for the aged prime rib steak rubbed with fermented koji rice then dipped into the accompanying vinegar sauce  – which seems to be akin to doing peyote in the Teachings of Don Juan. Mind blowing. We only had one steak eater at the table and it’s quite a substantial dish, so next time. It’s going to be the talk of the town if it isn’t already. Don’t miss out.

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Summer focused ice creams were offered for dessert – ginger, green tea matcha, and black sesame. I think flavors vary daily but these were sublime.

Sweet change.

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Karasu isn’t old world traditional but it’s also not hipster hell. It’s a gem. A grown up good time. Door #3 is the door to your heart, because you’ll like it here and will have found a new place to love. It’s a find. Especially when you push through the wardrobe door and…well…find it.

Karasu

166 DeKalb Avenue, Fort Greene *located in the back of Walter’s

347.223.4811

Closed Tuesdays / Kitchen open weeknights 5:30-11:30 and weekends till midnight. The bar is open later.

 

 

‘A Tapestry Of Rich & Royal Hue…’

Tapestry

Here’s the thing about Tapestry, it’s exactly that. A mosaic of flavors. It skews heavily towards Indian but don’t you call it Indian food. It’s a warp and weft of global cuisines – French, Mexican and even hints of Portuguese, threads twisting and pulling through old classics and fresh ideas. What do you have after all those strands are pulled together?  A smashing restaurant.

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Suvir Saran has had a long and revered career in food world. Devi, the restaurant that he shared with Hemant Mathur, was the first Michelin starred Indian restaurant in the United States and was divinely popular (as the name suggests) in its time, closing shortly after Saran left in 2012. He’s a chef, he’s written three cookbooks, he’s a teacher and of these last few years – a farmer. American Masala is his working farm in Hebron, NY named for his second cookbook and the fact that he has spent as much time living in the USA as he has in India. Masala Farm, his most recent work, chronicles how an urban chef kind of met his true calling, growing and raising his own food, which led to the natural progression of a restaurant that perfectly embodies the farm, the books, the philosophy. Here he reinvents the familiar with an unorthodox spin, mining every dish and idea for flavor, integrating Indian elements with American food, worldly American food.

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It’s so hard to characterize restaurants these days. They don’t sit patiently in a category waiting to be defined. Cuisines merge, marriages are made, definitions are deconstructed. Saran partnered with Roni Mazumdar of the lower east side’s Masala Wala to open Tapestry and brought on Joel Corona and Aarto Mehta as the chefs de cuisine. It’s win-win-win. Together they elevate tastes to create a new identity. The food is locally sourced, usually from Saran’s farm or his neighboring community and otherwise the prime offerings of locales elsewhere.

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Colorful, elegant Indian art adorns white brick walls setting off a white quartz bar, modern white seating and dark wood furnishings, flawlessly. The tiered rooms sparkle under  hanging amber globes of light, it’s stylish, pleasurable but not cherished.

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There’s an exemplary  cocktail program rather lovingly and very craftily designed by Jessy Peters. The Something Wicked with mezcal, habanero sangrita, pineapple and lime in a smoked salt-rimmed glass was a glass of beauty.

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I tasted my dining companion’s Smash the System with Peter’s own marinated espresso brandied cherries that are then combined with bourbon, brandy & orange. Definitely merits a return.

However on my next visit, I ordered the alluring and intriguing Sela, tequila with saffron, black pepper, lime, cayenne and of course – turmeric. So, it was healthy! Had two and was appreciative of the varied pansy selection.

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Divided into three family style sections, the menu offers shared grazing plates, vegetables and proteins and seems to evolve fairly often so not every dish will be there the next time you go. This is May’s version and had changed somewhat when I returned in July.

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Oh that goose that laid the golden egg…this deviled mixture of chicken and goose eggs, was offered back in May and tasted like…eggs. Egg 2.0. Real eggs. They were fantastic, stuffed with a curried mousse and decorated with a hint of gold leaf. Egg as art. These were special delivery from Saran’s farm, a spring egg fling and light years better than most of us are used to.

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Mango, Pineapple, Grapefruit Salad with honey-toasted sunflower seeds, lime and chile was refreshing and sassy on a warm spring evening.  It had bite, spice, a parmesan tuile and a funky elegance.

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Rick’s Cauliflower and Pappardelle covered in mouthfuls of luscious buttery crumbs, chile, garlic and sage. Spicy and oily. Rome meets Delhi.

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Hakka Spice Roasted Cauliflower in a very invigorating sweet and sour tomato jam was a favorite. I wouldn’t mind the pieces of cauliflower being just a little bigger so they play against the sauce instead of getting swallowed up in it. So to speak. But I still loved it and left nothing on my plate each time.

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Fritto Misto with calamari, shrimp, curry leaves accented with chile, black garlic and cilantro was spot on. Coated in rice flour and cornmeal, the batter was airy and light, greaseless, mega crispy on the outside, leaving you to savor the bits of crunch with the  delicate flavors of the seafood and fried lemon slices.

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Sticky, plush, tamarind glazed chicken wings with a basil mint yogurt sauce were meaty and rich. They rank right up there with the best of the Korean wings favored in this town.

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And last but very much not least, a hint of the old times from Devi, the house signature Masala Fried Chicken with peanut slaw, aloo bharta, (like a lemony Indian mashed potato) plus tomato chutney. It’s ultra crispy, a crust to sink your teeth into and comforting in that all American fashion but with a spicy Indian kick kind of way.

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Banana pudding trifle with layers of caramel and candied nuts was so inviting but just not my favorite. Maybe because I was expecting the thicker, creamier banana pudding I’m used to. This was interesting, more sophisticated but invariably too sweet.

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I didn’t want dessert the next time around, but it’s definitely worth sampling the efforts of pastry chef Crystal Hanks. The Sticky Toffee Pudding arrives in a caramel tulip with salted caramel ice cream and the straw that breaks the camel’s resolve, a smoked Maldon salt tuile. Blood was almost shed for the last bite.  It has the density of bread pudding, each component in harmony and with a bright, fresh flavor. As menu items change often, if there is a higher power with a shred of wisdom, this will always remain.

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A ceramic jewel box arrives with bite size desserts just before your check. A kind of 5 star dining homage and a lovely thank you for being at the table. These were each from my two visits.

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The best restroom door I’ve ever seen.

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Simple and stylish details are everywhere.

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Soon enough there will be a small private dining room downstairs, apparently with a tasting menu that will change daily. That seems to be the way of the future, with chefs exploring their talents and also catering to diners who want a little extra adventure, like Alex Stupak at Empellon Cocina with his 4 person chef’s table offered twice a night. I look forward to this one. And there’s a seated at the bar only menu. Many ways to experience the very sublime food here.

Again, it’s not an Indian restaurant. Clearly there are influences, hometown spices that mingle with counterparts from bordering countries and distant seas, flavors that are enhanced by an Indian ethos but also a farmer’s thinking, old world New York and new world Oaxaca. It’s a harmonic convergence of the food kind. ‘A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.’ *

 

Tapestry

60 Greenwich Avenue at Perry Street

212.373.8900

Dinner Sunday – Wednesday 5:30-10pm and Thursday – Saturday 5:30-11:30pm

* Title and closing sentence from what else – Carole King’s Tapestry.

 

Mimimimimimiiiii

Mimi

Everyone’s been talking about it. Me included. Just hadn’t put pen to paper (finger to key?) for months and finally another lovely dinner a few nights ago propelled me to a mention at last. Holy holy holy, this is the real deal. If the real deal is a group of under 30yr olds opening an intimate, classic but edgy, comfy but sexy, bold with a soupçon of bygone fare cloaked in a French boîte headed up by a 25yr old chef. Because that’s what this place is.

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Grab a table outdoors for some street life with your rosé or white negroni, then score one of 27 seats inside for the kind of meal you’re ever grateful to be in NYC for.

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Chef Liz Johnson and her kitchen co-horts including fiancé Will, are confidently cooking with dynamite. She weds the urbane with the odd and eccentric, often taking long forgotten dishes and warping them into innovative, considered creations. It’s ingredient driven, imaginative and definitely outside the lines. A little Japanese, a touch Scandinavian and you’ve got the most non-French yet still French bistro around.

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The menu is handwritten and changes at least weekly if not more often. Just because your best friend had a dish they loved doesn’t mean you’ll get to try it tomorrow. But you could get a differently realized version. Sourcing matters deeply to Chef Johnson so it all depends on what’s available. Add to that a hefty amount of creative spark and I swear no one will ever be bored dining here. The owners, all similarly aged compatriots are completely involved but have wisely let their chef…cook. Louis Levy, brothers Evan and Daniel Bennett, and Camilla Deterre oversee, design, serve, and make pretty great cocktails. Like my very pleasurable French 75.

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I was fortunate to have first dined here last winter, sans phone so sans photos. Kind of refreshing. And as it was soon after they’d opened, sans crowds too. The menu I had was epic. As the menus continue to be. Ms Johnson seems to enjoy the constants of clams, shishitos and renditions of citrus or smokiness in her oeuvre. There’s pork fat galore, veal stock, cod sperm and broths of blood & body parts. She’s gone way beyond the currently popular bone. The dishes smack of layers of something deeper, unidentifiable, intriguing. Her cooking is to food what Edward Scissorhands…um…scissors were to shape. Wildly artful. We do not bear witness to her agenda, it’s more like absorbing her calculated free fall.

The menu is divided into four sections, three of which are appetizers. Hmm, okay. There are appetizers, cold appetizers, and hot appetizers. Interesting. The choices are inviting, making selection a full time occupation. Tonight for us it was seafood focused but carnivores will be consumed with revelry here. We started with the Madai, part of the Japanese sea bream family and considered a luxury fish there. An absurdly good crudo, anointed with brown butter and a kind of lemon coulis & cream. That taste could linger in my mouth forever and that would be fine.

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But I did the proverbial ‘died and went to heaven’ homage for the Gnocchi Parisian with a brandade cream and yes, shishito peppers. If air could be eaten and satisfying, this is what it would taste like. A plate of silk velvet. I wish I had my own table at Mimi’s and the staff would bring me bowl after bowl in a never ending parade. I don’t think I’d ever tire of it.

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I missed the early spring version with Hokkaido sea urchin, white asparagus and sesame seeds several months ago – and may never forgive myself.

Not a drop of that luscious sauce was going back to the kitchen so the sudden arrival of bread was timely. Don’t know if it’s made in house but it’s as good as everything else here. A crust with bite, the bread’s heady liquor dissolving into soft yeasty pockets. The butter is sensational. I alternated slices with remains of the brandade cream and the butter. A sin worth living for.

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On an earlier winter menu, there was Surf clam with leek vinaigrette, almonds and brown butter, a favorite of mine. Others at the table flipped over the Blanquette de veau, Skate amandine with razor clams, and a classic, wildly gorgeous Pate en Croute. Hard to recall details now but I do know it was all superb.

Mediterranean Turbot with Manilla clams, grilled squash and saffron had an unexpected sweetness. The fish that is. Flaky and firm, perhaps with a bit too much of the citrus vinaigrette. Overall though, slamming.

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Beautifully cooked Golden Snapper with sweet Manilla clams, brandade stuffed in a cuttlefish sauce plus charred shishitos. Nutty, earthy, mild brine, lovely.

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Now when it comes to Bibb lettuce, one might think oh salad, not worth missing a more exciting dish but one would be wrong. So wrong. I don’t know what’s in this champagne vinaigrette – it’s fragrant, light but not trivial and the incredibly fresh greens with the acidic pops of picholine olives makes this a plate to go out of your way for.

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The almost mythical Chocolate Tart demands it’s well deserved reputation. Black cocoa infuses the creaminess, keeps it from being cloying and balanced with the chilled scoop of milk sorbet, it’s glorious. It’s not too much, it’s everything right.

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The design is visually subtle, but ultra sophisticated and arty. It’s a stainless steel cocktail bar, spun aluminum lights, there’s marble, velvet, hand drawn murals, and formica tables. It’s clever and unassuming. Good jazz on the sound system and we have Paris meets the Greenwich Village of The Beats and of now.

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The staff is winning and very passionate about the food they are offering. Gracious service combined with an interest in the diner’s take. It may be the first time I believe a server when they say, oh that’s really fantastic if asked a menu question. The wine list seems to be oddly half Bordeaux and they are focused on suggesting pairings for the food. I only had a glass of Pinot Noir after cocktails but will amend this on my next visit.

It’s a neighborhood spot for those lucky enough to live nearby but the rest of us are lucky too. There are subways and ubers so any neighborhood scene is fair game for claiming. Plus an enchanting destination restaurant such as this is always welcome in the dining sphere. Now you just have to snag a table.

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Mimi

185 Sullivan Street between Houston & Bleecker

212.418.1260

Open Monday-Saturday serving past midnight and Sunday for brunch

 

Soul Taming fromThe Wild Son

The Wild Son

Wild Son. Dun dun dun dun dun. You make my heart sing. Dun dun dun dun dun. You make everything…groovy. These are the early days of The Wild Son, just breakfast and lunch for the moment, dinner will be on deck by and by, along with some very cool cocktails. But these two meals will do for now and do quite nicely.

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Little in the way of restaurant world makes me happier than that rarity, a perfect neighborhood spot that’s gonna be a destination place as well. In case it’s not in my neighborhood. The pedigree here is strong. Owners aka the chef and the barkeep also own the fabulous and kinda under the radar Goodnight Sonny as well as The Wayland (with live music), two insanely worthy destinations in the east village. Now they’ve ventured west with a new idea. It’s wholesome food but edging the line of decadence. A philosophy of nutritionally dense debauchery.

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Though inventive cocktails have long been Jason Mendenhall’s bent, he’s using his wild imagination to concentrate on crafting a kind of revolutionary non-alcoholic drinks menu. An epic juice list, and a nitro cold brew coffee that he says leaves him up all night after tasting all afternoon. Note to self – when in need, get thee to The Wild Son.

My very refreshing carbonated watermelon fresca

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Followed by an Iced Coconut Latte that was deep.

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Crowd pleaser and all around fab dish, The Grain and Egg Bowl. I’d be hard pressed to not just return and order this again. Crispy fried grains with that crunch and pop lend more than just fiber to your bowl. It’s tiny bites of surprise, addictive and fun to eat. Add in the sunny side egg, greens warmed slightly from snuggling with their bowl mates, chopped seasonal vegetables and a spicy green sauce. You feel your strength coming back, your body making itself whole and it tastes heavenly.

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The Pernil Romero, slow cooked pork in garlic, fennel and rosemary with the crustiest of breads. And wrapped in paper. Like being in some Umbrian piazza by the porchetta truck.

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Divided into sandwiches, salads and plates, time of day matters not. Breakfast til 4pm or lunch at 10am. All good. Check out the Green Tartine description, they’re a humorous clan.

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Whimsy defines the interior. A beach cottage with a wry urban wit.

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So far what I’ve tasted has been beautifully spiced, the right balance for flavor and intrigue and clearly primo ingredients.

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It’s not a scene, but it will have its own cult I’m sure. They’re not trying to be cool casual, they’re just relaxed, curious, imaginative and having fun. And it’s catching.

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Plants, books, albums, art…and they do play really good music.

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Robert Ceraso and Jason Mendenhall. There’s a third partner that I never said hello to but will add his name later. I’m sure he’s wonderful too. Kindest people. Keenly interested in the diner’s happiness.

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I was there on day 2 and look forward to returning asap for their already infamous doughnuts. Baked not fried! Plus I want the buckwheat pancakes (gluten free fwiw), the new morning sandwich (sooo much), and the Mango & Turmeric Sparkling Shrub. Then I’ll work my way down the wish list.

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It’s everything you need to start your morning or end your afternoon.

Wild Son, I think I love you.

 

The Wild Son

53 Little West 12th Street between Tenth Avenue/West Street

212.727.7900

Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-4pm for now

Le Coucou est Arrivee

Le Coucou

If you were lucky enough to dine at the infamous restaurant Spring, in Paris, particularly during the early days in the 9Arr when Chef Daniel Rose made time to cook plus visit with diners – count your blessings. It still holds court in a more expanded version in the 1Arr or maybe you checked out his newer bistro digs, La Bourse et La Vie in the 2Arr. But if you haven’t yet made it to any of these, you can still count your blessings, as now you may dine domestically at his shiny new spot here on the continent of North America in New York City.

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It’s elegantly swank. Old world meets mod in an interior designed by the illustrious Roman and Williams. Inside the boutique Howard Hotel with its own entrance just off the corner of Lafayette and Howard Street, it’s an oasis of glamour in the last vestige of edgier Soho. Triple hung glass windows face the street and wide glass doors herald your arrival. It makes for a rather heady approach as you’re greeted by a whisper of an inviting lounge to your right and the smaller of two magnificent dining rooms to your left. Sparkling chandeliers, an abundance of charm and several hostesses wearing varied styles of pale blue clouds float over to welcome you. Your heart may skip a beat. Blondie’s The Tide Is High is playing in the background. It’s all so beautiful. This looks to be an exceptional evening.

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A Chicago native, a student philosopher, a chef with a deep love for classic French cuisine, Daniel Rose found himself in cooking and doing that in France. He may have fully immersed himself in the culture but he brought along midwest hospitality and a curiosity about people. He thinks about food. He thinks about what taste means. He wants you to love it. And his fervent passion for ingredients, for quality, allow him to embrace his dishes with tradition but lace them with his personality.

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White clothed tables, vaulted ceilings, brick walls, pewtered-steel chandeliers with hand-blown glass shades, bluish banquettes and vintage chairs give the ambience a wry sophistication.

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First a perfect summer cocktail, the #2 with Rosé, Aquavit & Elderflower, accompanied by some of New York’s finest bread. Olive rolls from Sullivan Street Bakery and two different samples from Roberta’s. We asked for seconds later in the meal, seemingly for the remains of fabulous sauce but really – just because. The breads were offered with whipped mangalitsa lardo combined with pepper and garlic, radishes in an anchoiade and a lively Vermont salted butter.

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The menu divides in three parts with tapas-esque plates to share (mais bien sur, this is NYC after all), hors d’oeuvres, starters and main courses. You can switch it up any which way you’d prefer. And I definitely have my eye on several dishes to return for.

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I kept my slightly warmed oysters with seaweed butter for myself but later shared a starter. I’m usually generous but sharing here is kind of an effort. I want it all.

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Huitres tiedes, beurre aux algues were lovely. Oysters and seaweed effect a perfectly arranged marriage and the heat plus butter lend an earthy richness to the shell’s liquor.

You might think tomatoes, peas etc would certainly be an enjoyable dish but maybe not the one you’d be consumed with discussing the next day and yeah, yeah – you’d be so wrong. Really wrong. Salade de tomatoes et mangetout rafraichis aux fraises is possibly one of the most delightful composed salads I’ve ever eaten. Divine little strawberries scattered with pistachios was almost surreal. The tomatoes were sweet even next to the fruit and all of it is bathed in a deeply flavored tomato sauce. A gorgeous combination of tastes that redefine fresh.

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A companion loved his unshared Salade de Haricots et Oreilles de Cochon, a white bean salad with crispy pig ear and anchovy, wonderfully light and brimming with subtle flavor.

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I caved on the Asperges au vinaigre de bois, mimolette. I grudgingly offered a table invitation. A delightful asparagus with smoked wood vinegar and mimolette. The honeyed deep carmelized flavor of the cheese with that fudgy finish is magic with the smokey vinegar and the green stalks.

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From the Gourmandises section,  we did share what will likely become the signature-don’t miss it-all the rage plate, but it deserves the glory should it be heralded. Oeuf Norvegien…egg, salmon and a cold artichoke heart with a surprise of chive cream. Bagels and lox – you’re on notice.

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Caille frite, buckwheat fried quail in herb butter and lemon confiture. No bone beyond the leg, as meaty as quail can be, juicy, crisp, greaseless, excellent.

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Quenelle de brochet, sauce américaine should live on an exalted list of best ever quenelles. Pike quenelle with lobster sauce, ethereal, barely tethered to this earth in a deep, rich stock of shells and dressed with a piece of perfectly cooked claw meat. There’s not a lot of zest here, like most of the dishes, it’s not loud but clearly redolent of lobster flavor. Its delicacy also seems to be its strength.

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My best of list lengthens with each arrival from the menu, to be fair, a combination of two visits. Fleurs de courgette farcies were new to me, or I had just missed them on an earlier menu perhaps – you don’t want to miss these. Lobster stuffed squash blossoms with yogurt, mint, dill and cucumber. I could just look at them and be satisfied, very much eating with the eyes…but then you make that delicate cut and the heavens pour forth.

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Canard et Cerises, served with cherries and olives, the duck breast was lovely, a gorgeous preparation accompanied by an excellent seared foie gras.

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The Bourride with halibut, Santa Barbara spot prawn, mussels, and clams in an ethereal fish fumet was mine all mine. Served in a glistening copper pot, ladled at table, it’s delicate yet rich, completely satisfying. And you dip the fabulous toast with aioli for that understated zing.

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Cotes d’agneau de colorado, aubergines, tomato farcies – lamb rack with eggplant and sensational lamb braised shoulder stuffed tomatoes. A classic dish that goes way beyond its origins.

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Dominique, a sommelier slyly recommended a Greek wine for our food choices and it was absolutely on point. From Santorini and a find priced below $60, it was cool and creamy, with a bright floral acidity balanced with a dark mineral complexity. Sensational with the food.

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Hedging dessert on the first visit, we went for the cheese course offered as one, three or five cheeses. Uh huh, we had the five. All made in the United States, another example of how the Chef takes advantage of more local ingredients. Defined by this country if not the farms of Chinatown. Missed the names on my first visit. There was a chèvre from Indiana and something fabulous from Oregon. Ha. But a great representation.

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Voila! On another visit, and going for the equally satisfying three cheeses, I scored names from the delightful Amandine, Chef Rose’s sommelier here from Paris. Some of the names apply to the big five plate from a previous visit. A Red Hawk from California, Savah Schaff from Pennsylvania and the Hooligan from Connecticut. Sublime.

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From day one, the kitchen was firing on all cylinders. Seasoning is spot on. Chef Rose doesn’t over do, he orchestrates the combined ingredients to sing in harmony and leaves a dish just at the precipice of transcendence.

A few of his cooks from Paris are here for the opening weeks, including his sous chef. Service is perfection. At the moment there seems to be three people on the floor for every diner but at no time is it precious, it’s professional but warm and charismatic.

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Dessert had been impossible on my first visit, after that cheese course but the post prandial sweets sent out by the kitchen were wonderful. On another visit I had less cheese and shared more desserts so I could enjoy more of pastry chef Daniel Skurnick’s wizardry.

This Chiboust à la vanille is like a dream. For me it had every component I love in a dessert…a toothsome and none too sweet pastry crust, a gossamer vanilla cream with a mix of sweet and sour cherries to further the flavors along.

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Riz au lait coucou, his take on classic rice pudding with pistachios and chartreuse was sumptuous, airy, delicate.

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Dishes are reasonably priced, appetizers are mostly less than $15 and mains fall between $20-45. With slim profit margins in today’s dining climate, this is rare given the artistry of the food, service and mise en scene. Le Coucou is a marriage of sorts between Chef Rose and Stephen Starr of Starr Restaurant Group. Usually a producer of high voltage money making restaurants, Mr Starr is finding a balance between those and something like this, a highly refined classic bistro, and a labor of love.

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The bohemian magnetism draws you in from the moment you call for a reservation and find yourself listening to the Grateful Dead as hold music. This is not your Grandmother’s Lutece. It’s the 21st century version.

Le Coucou

138 Lafayette Street at Howard Street

212.271.4252

Open daily 5pm-10pm

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hilife At Lowlife

THIS RESTAURANT HAS SADLY CLOSED

Lowlife

New frontiers in NYC are harder and harder to come by. Back in the old days, friends and I would go on epic walks about town. We were kind of penniless but looking to be entertained, so our disappearing days would involve strolling through neighborhoods still un-gentrified and discovering a random cafe, makeshift art gallery, something fun to do with the balance left from whatever small cache we had – once we’d bought a copy of the New Yorker. Often the ‘hood we found ourselves in was the lower east side, then full of worlds now defunct, filled with arty riffraff and jetsam. Luc Sante captures it beautifully in his powerful book, Low Life about the New York of the seventies and the city that replaced it.

And this brings me to the now, the lower east side and Lowlife 2.0. Named for the book as well as the New Order album, Lowlife is a charming, casually elegant restaurant on Stanton just off way east Attorney St. So for the densely dining populated LES, this is slightly off the beaten kitchen pass. I first went in November and followed with one additional visit soon after. I’m remiss in writing about it and slightly forgetful on a few details, but I still remember how good it is.

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It’s a knotty pine and brick walled world with romantically muted lighting, a soundtrack that allows for conversation, reclaimed wood tables, mid-century modern chairs by designer Jens Risom remade in nylon and the most important news – delightful food and a knock out wine list.

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Created by partners Hugh Crickmore, formerly of Mas and the Tarlow empire of Brooklyn restaurants and Chef Alex Leonard of Blanca, it’s a gratifying meld of industrial chic meets Scandinavian cool casual and a seasonal, ingredient driven menu divided into three sections. You can share, you can hog.

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Started at the bar with a glass of wine while our table was being prepared. 25 wines by the glass plus a variety of European and domestic beers to consider. Intriguing. But then there’s that pour. Huh? I appreciate that they’re hoping tiny tastes will allow the diner to explore the eclectic list with abandon, but then they might consider charging to allow for customer indulgence. It’s not an inexpensive glass.

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There’s a front room, a 10 seat chef’s counter for tasting menus and a raised back area that create the backdrop of lakehouse swank for the 70 seats now filling this old tenement factory.

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Artful plates adorn the rustic table and then there’s a warm sourdough pain d’epi fresh from Robertas in Bushwick. Complimented by an in-house made grassy butter, I could have stopped here and been thrilled. Chef also does his own in-house vinegars, pickles, kimchee, and cheese. And as it happens, much of the harvest comes from a farm owned by Mr. Crickmore’s brother in the Catskills. Local, familial, cozy.

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An amuse of radishes with gremolata sets the tone. Bright, simple, earthy. And then the borscht arrives. Not your bubba’s beet soup but an ingenious nod to – if these tenement walls could talk.

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A colorfield of three glorious quenelles shine brightly in a ceramic bowl. Icy beets were roasted in olive oil, herbs, then pureed with dashes of fish sauce and sherry vinegar. It would be stellar on its own but paired with sweet local cream and glistening lightly smoked trout roe, the combination of the mixed bite makes a brilliant pop of salt, sweet, cold, creamy…heaven.

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Celeriac Remoulade, a classic bistro dish done up with just a bit more interest than usual. How often do you get to say – sensational – when having an upscale slaw? It’s ultra fresh, crunchy and the combination includes apple, pear and cranberry beans. Come…on.

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Another small plate but very tasty share is the Fluke with Hackleback Caviar and Coriander. Gently aged fluke’s sweetness is enhanced by the briny caviar and a smoked dashi. Add in the aromatic of charcoal oil and these are the details that elevate simple dishes to something thoughtful and worth a return trip.

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Beautiful, considered plating of plump bay scallops, romanesco on a bed of nutty grains, tricked out by the pouring of a light lemongrass sauce table side.

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Piquant herring and sardines are lightly grazed with a roasted pine nut milk and chimichurri. One of my favorites of the evening. Tart and tangy.

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Cubes of tuna and salmon roe with crisps, pungent and sparkling.

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And then there’s that now famous Sasso Chicken Yakitori. An edge of char, crispy skin, it’s brined, it’s roasted and then grilled over fancy Japanese charcoal and served with smoked cabbage and green onions. It’s the talk of the town dish and served in half or a whole portion for $54. Eat it. You’ll talk about it longingly.

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Probably the dish you’ve bought your ticket for, Guinea Hen. Not on every menu these days. People have called it a sausage of sorts, a mousse stuffed inside a crispy casing, reconstituted hen, a ballotine – but however you see it, you don’t want to miss it. Served inside it’s own crispy skin, delicate, flavorful and cooly arranged on the plate with roasted baby carrots and bitter greens. The greens are the perfect antagonist to the rather acerbic bread sauce made from house made yogurt and day old sourdough bread. You can’t get enough.

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The wine list curated by the lovely Dhrubo Mazumdar is considerably longer than the menu. Small producers abound, interesting and sometimes affordable choices but all support the menu perfectly.

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One of the several wines we had, a white anjou from the Loire, truffly, creamy, minerally to compliment both the scallops and the guinea hen.

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Always a delight for the finish. And speaking of finishes…

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The apple galette is a poem. A surprisingly old world dessert with layers of crispy cloud like dough, loaded with butter, fruit and  a soupçon of ginger ice cream on the side.

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Panna Cotta is everywhere at the moment but this one was just frothy loveliness.

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Lowlife is a neighborhood spot in what still feels like an old world NYC neighborhood. Plus it has the added label of fine dining but definitely not the attitude. It’s very congenial and Chef Leonard’s way of presenting a creative take on time lauded pleasures we thought we were sure of, is distinctive as well as outstanding. Art from Mr Crickmore’s personal collection adorns the walls sparingly but it’s the choices in the bathroom you don’t want to miss. Ken Kesey? Neal Cassady? Seriously. With these wines, this food, you’re either on the bus or off it.

Lowlife

178 Stanton St between Attorney St/Clinton St

212.257.0509

Monday – Saturday 6pm-1030  Closed Sunday

 

 

The Truly Avant Garde Avant Garden

Avant Garden

It started with the olives bathed in herbs and warm oil. An enticing welcome. And a signpost for the enchanting meal to come.

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So, it seems that vegetarian is the new thirty…or some variation on that theme. Like dogs became the accessory du jour a few years ago, being vegan/vegetarian, at least having a BFF who is, or even honoring meatless mondays is pretty much on trend. A welcome trend (as are dogs!) but sometimes the fare that supports the philosophy is less than amiable. There were a scant handful of decent vegetarian restaurants in NYC for many years. Candle Cafe, Blossom, Souen led the pack and when Dirt Candy came along, carnivores and herbivores alike experienced a paradigm shift. And now, with the advent of Superior Burger, Chloe and the coup de grace – Avant Garden, we have definitely left late night tv’s Ronco Vegematic in the dust. We’ve gone beyond dicing.

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A shiny new jewel in the crown of restauranteur/bar owner and almost lifetime vegan, Ravi DeRossi, he also has the infamous Death & Co, lovely champagne and wine bar Riddling Widow, tiki bar Mother of Pearl, tequila bar Mayahuel, bitters bar Amor y Amargo and the fish focused restaurant Bergen Hill among others. He brought along his longtime and very notable executive chef Andrew D’Ambrosi, who has created an inventive and fabulous menu.

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It’s glowy and romantic. An exemplary staff, spirited and kind, not so easy when navigating a lightly cramped space. Love sitting at the petrified wood bar on a cozy chair stool, watching the alchemy take place. You can preview the goods as you watch them being made, each dish looking tastier than the last, desperately trying not to keep adding to your order. It’s easy to linger here as dishes arrive one at a time, meant to be shared and savored. A few glasses of the lovely dolcetto, good conversation and of course the food – that congenial dining atmosphere becomes a brilliant evening. Our server Ryan and Jack, the chef in front us, were very friendly and we appreciated their direction.

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The menu is in three sections, our first arrival was a Toast as the menu refers to them. The vegan term for bruschetta? There’s a bountiful selection making it hard to choose so I look forward to many return visits. Apparently the Tomato Jam IS the jam and voted Miss Congeniality by most patrons with its Pickled Peach, Tomato, Almond Ricotta & Basil. But we went for the toast coated with a smoky eggplant puree, dotted with calabrian chili, crushed black olives, nuggets of celery and the very perfect goose to the dish – pickled rings of shallots. Deep rich flavor balanced by that smokiness and heat on bread from Balthazar no less – and of course the snappy shallots. Ambrosial, autumnal, gratifying. And accompanied by that luscious Dolcetto – Marziano Ablona, Papa Celso 2013 from Piedmont – which we happily stuck with for the evening.

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So, from hot and smoky to cold, creamy and sublime. Cold, the Second Section. Beautifully designed plates of imagination and whimsy. Cubed red beets, delicate wisps of mango, on a perfectly whipped cloud of avocado, crunchy bits of rice cracker, swirls of black sesame, tamari, tobanjan, a spicy bean paste & lime. Fantastic. Gorgeous pops of colorful swizzles and flecks. This is the Peter Max of the Cold section.

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Then we shared three of the larger plates from the Hot column or aka, A Hug In A Bowl section. Started with a dazzlingly devised dish of King Oyster mushrooms, Maitake mushrooms, in a kind of Smoked Macadamia pesto with Crispy Leeks. Added snippets come from what’s in season at the market, we had the now very popular but still pleasing watermelon radishes. Definitely a contender for my favorite dish of the moment. Avant garde comfort.

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Farro Risotto with Butternut Squash, Baked Apple, & Sage Pesto was warm, seductive, wonderful, the crispy sage a pleasure. Toasting some of the faro added an unexpected texture that was ideal.

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And though I thought over indulging by adding the Spaghetti Pomodoro with capers, basil and bread crumbs seemed unnecessary in a non-Italian vegan eatery, our chef heard us discussing it and said – well, you won’t be disappointed. Right again. A delicious and homey dish – bread crumbs used in place of grated cheese was clever and the memorable right touch.

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Only one dessert is offered each evening and changes when it does. Ours was a lovely warm bamboo rice pudding with mango and sorbet. The blanket of heat against the cold tart sorbet was excellent, a simple but sanguine finale.

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Dining here is intimate, eclectic, inviting and it’s all in perfect harmony with nature being trumpeted on the plate and in the ambience. Plus, it’s just really fun.

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Avant Garden
130 east 7th street between Avenue A/1st street
646.922.7948
Sunday-Thursday 5pm-1045pm / Friday-Saturday 5pm-1145pm