Lalito

Lalito

Unless you’re looking for a late nite bail bond storefront or the defunct cult karaoke bar Winnie’s, little would lead you to this rather desolate street in Chinatown, just a stone’s throw away from windows alive with dead ducks and souvenir kiosks galore. But lo and very much behold – an entrance with old signage indicating food and fun appears with the address you’re seeking. It seems closed. But then you open the door.

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It’s a kind of cool 70’s vibe with a pop soundtrack to match. An arty, quasi romantic space with a very welcoming staff. Mustard colored banquettes hug the walls in curves around the room, formica tabletops offer a modern diner appeal and neon lights frame a seated bar – I like to think Jetsons. It’s got spunk. Until recently the restaurant was called Lalo but because of a conflict with an existing Cafe Lalo, it morphed into Lalito. Helmed by Chef Gerardo Gonzalez who was THE man at El Rey Luncheonette, specializing in a SoCal, healthful, Mexican ethos that caused a mini uproar on the lower east side when it first came to attention. Now we’ve arrived at his new Mexicali with-a-dollop-of-global+mediterranean tinged casual chic eatery. A few favorite dishes accompanied him but have been twisted and turned along the way with his Alice in Wonderland kind of hand.

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There’s a full bar complete with Mexican inspired designer cocktails. I tasted several belonging to dining companions and found them a bit on the sweet side. That can always be altered and the play on healthy but funky ingredients is worth exploration. I went with a French 75 before we moved on to an interesting wine list featuring a mix from California to European including natural wines. They’ve got bubbles and beer, a lovely pitcher of tequila sangria and for the non-alcoholic choices, many a flavorful agua fresca.

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Oh doubtfully shake your head if you must. Everyone will understand. But you’d be missing out on this incredibly good dish of Vegan Chicharrones with hot sauce, vinegar and yuh huh-spirulina. Kind of a subtle homage to Bugles. The table loved it and there were serious doubters. A soupçon of chagrin and then all were reaching for seconds…Puffed wheat dusted with chili powder and pepper, served with ready to squeeze pieces of lime over a piquant dipping sauce of pickled fruit that brought the whole dish and a cadre of new fans together.

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The Black Bean Squid Ink Dip is a mischevious take on classic black bean dip, but under the Mad Hatter’s watchful eyes, the kitchen uses cannellini beans colored with squid ink, tosses on pickled red onions, banana peppers, black garlic and cotija cheese resulting in a lively balance of flavors. It’s vibrant, fresh and fun.

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Shishito peppers are a favorite of mine. Usually a little char, a sprinkle of salt and we’re golden. But Lalito has their own plan and it’s a good one. Stuffed poblanos are officially on hiatus. The Shishitos En Nogada intertwine shaved walnuts in a pomegranate reduction with a generous splash of the arils and the result is buttery, tart, light, and zesty.

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Creamy with coconut milk – Coconut Rice

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Papas Bravas  were a crowd favorite, a nice edge of spice, creamy on the inside, crispy on the outside and practically preening with it’s shards of green herbs, dots of red paprika and a drizzle of crema. These were fabulous.

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The Brown Goddess Cucumber Salad was the only dish that had the ingredients to soar but just didn’t quite cut it for us. English cucumbers, mint, and candied pepitas in a brown mole vinaigrette were earthy but erratic. Maybe the narrative is just too complicated for one small bowl.

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I loved the Seared Sea Bass. Beautifully cooked and combined with curried masa, tomato powder, nigella, sumac yogurt, and chick peas. Sublime. But I have to add a big sigh, a kind of general complaint which extends to a few other plates – portions can be skimpy. The bass is so tasty but vanishes in a few small bites.

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Roasted half chicken demands it’s own table time swaddled in a shimmering spicy hot green pineapple sauce, rich with garlic and cilantro. A Pollo Asada that is uh…finger lickin’ bueno.

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Eggplant a la Plancha just might please your commonplace eggplant hater. Smattered with tahini and adorned with gomasio, a Japanese seasoning of roasted sesame seeds ground with sea salt plus the sweet, mild flavor of cubanelle, a Cuban frying pepper and an impeccable balance of lemon. Hits all the tastebuds.

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House-made, warm, fresh, wish-I-had-more tortillas are the best part of the Pork Carnitas. But followed by a close second on the meat. Offered as a single serving or for “lovers”. The tortillas may become your new paramour after this so I’d go whole hog. So to speak. Smoked, salted, stewed in pineapple juice and beer – tender, savory pork is festooned with rings of pickled red onions, red rimmed radishes, green herbs and lime. A swathe of crema and it’s another venture into wonderland.

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No tuxedo clad waiter with a cart full of anchovies here, this is the – we’re giving you big time umami but with a spirulina, capers, cashews, dulse bread crumbs and nutritional yeast version of a Vegan Caesar Salad. Not what you would have expected from a fantastic Caesar but definitely one you do not want to skip.

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A dip into the luscious rosy broth surrounding the Lamb Barbacoa is necessary. It’s an ingeniously soulful combination of flavors with velvet drops of masa gnocchi and flakes of cumin flavored meat that induces swooning but just ever so slightly.

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Goat Milk Flan with Pomelo, Tarragon and Olive Oil – and a birthday candle. Tangy creaminess with a hint of bittersweet and citrus. The right compliment to all that had come before. On the table and in life!

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The kitchen is an impressive alchemy of craft melding with screwball. Quirky combinations of fanciful ingredients and flavors give depth to Chef Gonzalez’s sly, smart, inventive menu. He takes the familiar, and then veers sharply into unexpected, keeping a diner on their toes. It’s fun, sometimes a little wicked and always oddly comforting.

Lalito

104 Bayard Street between Baxter/Mulberry St

646.998.3408

Open daily 11am-4pm and 6pm-midnight

Mother’s Milk

Madre Mezcaleria

Dinner. Mezcal. Because that’s our wheelhouse these days. But very luxe having it at the new & still evolving mezcal bar – Madre Mezcaleria. The younger sibling to the much venerated El Atoradero next door. Already over fifty selections with many more to come. Plus you sip & savor with your chapulines & orange slices grazed with sal du gusano. In lay person’s terms we’re talking dried grasshoppers & a little ground worm in the orange slice spice. Spare but warm, charming atmosphere, great music a la Mexico and a small list of nice bar snacks with a raw bar to come. If you need to flavor your mezcal further.

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The delightful Fior Silvestre, a sublime combination of mezcal, grapefruit and St Germain. Bet you can’t drink just one.

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Two of the many bottles offered. The one on the right is of the  Mezcal de pechuga (breast in Spanish) variety. These are made when a finished mezcal is again distilled with local fruits, grains, nuts and the surprise of surprises – a raw chicken or turkey breast hung over the still, soaking in the vapors while also adding to the end result of the mezcal’s flavor. My favorite bottle on the left is safe for the vegetarian mezcal fan!

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The aforementioned grasshoppers and spice. Let the sip of mezcal lay on your tongue for a moment, then a nip into the orange slice and a few bits of the ‘hoppers popped in your mouth. Don’t rinse. Just repeat.

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Toothsome, tasty chips with a great guacamole and a rich black bean dip. The food advantage here is that it’s from the awesome hand of chef Denisse Lina Chavez who again reigns supreme next door. She opened this together with partner Noah Arenstein completing their mini Prospect Hts Mexican empire.

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Excellent bites to accompany all that mezcal. Shredded chicken tostadas with chipotle above and tuna tostadas below. The bar is destination worthy on its own but also works for a drink or two while you wait for your table next door.

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An unassuming oasis along the avenue. Streamlined and uncomplicated inside. The bar seats a baker’s dozen and there’s one banquette with table seating in the back.

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There’s also tequila, wine and beer in case someone joining you is not a mezcal aficionado. I have a feeling they’ll spend a little time here though and experience a sea change.

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Tiles brought from Puebla by the chef give a soupçon of fiesta, of color but always leaving the focus on the glass in front of you.

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Parting shots. Our charming bartender offers and enjoys a shot with customers as you leave. A lovely gesture especially when you need to be armed for the cold. Or even just life.

Madre Mezcaleria

706 Washington Avenue by Prospect Place

718.399.0706

Open daily 5pm – 2am

 

 

Opalescent Dining

Mother of Pearl

There’s something glimmering in the distance, light casting itself off a small shiny trend it seems…what is this iridescence, this possible culinary treasure? Why it’s the vegan movement! Suddenly and without warning, vegan restaurants are a hot commodity. And even our favorite carnivores are having a good time. One of the grand promoters of this dining trend in NYC is Ravi DeRossi, a cult leader in speakeasy/cocktail bar world. Having opened one of the early and more revered hipster spots, Death & Co, as well as the tequila/mezcal themed Mayahuel and the intimate bitters bar Amar y Amargo, he’s definitely made a splash. With varying partners, he has over fifteen drinking and dining places in his anthology with onward and upward plans on the way. Cienfuegos, his rum focused passion project is right next door to Mother of Pearl, a half tiki bar and now half fantastical vegan restaurant. I say fantastical because it’s akin to being inside the pages of a winsome child’s fairy tale or maybe someone’s electric kool aid acid test. It’s a confection.

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Mr DeRossi’s semi recent spin to revamping virtually all of his restaurants as vegan seems to have born itself of a revelation he had when life events crossed with the realization that it was necessary to amend his personal habits. And then there’s the Earth to consider. A longtime vegetarian then ultimately vegan, Mr DeRossi spent weeks with his dying cat, Simon last Christmas and had the time and focus to consider the life-planet-future connection. His personal philosophy measures a myriad of reasons for all to consider a plant based diet though naturally there are the headliners – animal rights, the environment/global warming and health. As cited in Jeff Gordiner’s profile piece in the NYT, “he attributes his success to dumb luck and random impulses.”

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Mother of Pearl is just plain heavenly. After all, it’s really more about the food than the trend anyway. Dinner and brunch are equally delightful. Chef Daphne Cheng has created a Polynesian inspired menu that is disarming and intriguing. The cocktails and even the wines are made with only plant based ingredients. No fish scales, no cream. The beauty here is that vegan dishes are the star not the offhand we’ll throw you a (non)bone hastily fixed sub par version of some classic meat dish. In this particular tributary of his vegan empire, the savory dishes and drinks are fruit based. And they have decorative flowers. Food as beauty, healthy indulgence and fun. Plus so so good.

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There are whimsical, eclectic, tasty cocktails designed by Jane Danger. My extremely wonderful Tide Is High pictured above is a combination of mezcal, reposado tequila, cashew, pineapple and lime. Below is the almost infamous Shark Eye (and the glass is available for purchase) with passion fruit, lemon, tiki bitters, curaçao and bourbon.

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This is a get down-good time vegan menu. The food is bright and colorful and there are many fetching options to choose from, maybe because it feels kind of new. This menu is not your average bear. (No carnivore humor intended!)

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Fried guacamole. Yes, I said fried. And it works. It’s got crunch, it’s got fluffy, it has spicy avocado velvety happiness with house made caramelized crispy plantains.

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With black bean puree, sriracha and adobe aioli.

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Potstickers rule here. The Lychee version come with a black vinegar sauce and thai basil. Delicate crisp sour/sweet bite.

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Mushroom and Cabbage Potstickers with ancho chile bbq sauce have the right tooth to crispness pitch with a very flavorful loamy filling and then that saucy spicy zing.

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Kalua Jackfruit and Shitake Mushroom Buns with ginger aioli and five spice ketchup are layered with spice and earth, they’re golden and gratifying.

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Crispy Coconut Tofu with adobe aioli, chimichurri and pineapple relish, vegan island comfort food.

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Green Mango Poke with tomato, jicama, crispy rice and macadamia is not to be missed. The waiter said to get it, I hesitated, he was right. It’s mango, tomatoes, jicama, macadamia nuts and an array of sesame oil, lemon juice, rice wine and and and. It’s a wild composition of flavors but also civility.

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On another day, a great meal once again for brunch.

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The Indus Valley with pineapple, toasted sesame oil, lime, sugar cane syrup and gin. Plus green and red pepper flowers. I feared sweetness, nope, I feared too fruity, nope, I was surprised by toasted sesame oil – now I want it in every drink. This was divine.

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The non alcoholic Forbidden Fruit with orange, grapefruit, lemon, ginger, turmeric and oregano. Apparently as satisfying as a glass with liquor. So much flavor, the inebriation wasn’t missed.

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Panikeke Lapotopoto aka fried pancake balls are a find. The menu lists ambrosia fruit, coconut cream and a pineapple rum sauce. It doesn’t tell you that these are the giddy version of pancakes. Light, fanciful, fruity but with resonance.

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Avocado French Toast with ricotta, sriracha maple syrup and fruit. We thought okay avocado on French toast, yeah we can skip that for now. Yet another time when I succumbed to our waitress who said – the dish you’re missing is this one. The sum is way more than its parts. Sweet, savory, crispy, creamy. Fan-frigging-tastic.

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Jackfruit Hashbrowns sweet and spicy ketchup. Potatoes lightened up with much jackfruit so not only interesting and satisfying but guilt free fried potato eating.

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The panorama…

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Located in East Village central, it almost looks like we’re in some (albeit) urbanized Polynesian paradise.

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It’s important to note that DeRossi is a major player in the animal welfare universe and has a menagerie of rescue dogs and cats of his own. His non profit called BEAST, Benefits to End Animal Suffering Today focuses on altering perceptions of how being involved with animal rights is defined.

For all of the commitment and seriousness of his passion and animal politics, he’s created a whimsical, distinctive, exquisite Polynesian oasis to revel in. Dine, enjoy late night cocktails, you can find your own passion here.

Mother of Pearl

95 Avenue A at 6th street

212.614.6818

Daily hours 5pm-1am Sunday-Tuesday and until 2am Wednesday-Saturday.  Weekend brunch hours 11:30-3:30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  (with little notice…CLOSED)

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

 

La Contenta. And Yes I Am.

La Contenta

We’ve all heard the east vs west coast argument for decades. Sigh. LA claims best Mexican food north of the border and cites NYC as a re-fried bean wasteland. New Yorkers have long declared that our Mexican restaurants are getting better all the time. Really. Swear. Then everyone huffs and puffs, and slide chips into their guacamole in stony silence. But the sulky years are behind us! As it happens, New York City has crept up the ranks and is now sitting pretty on a few posher Mexican spots as well as more elevated neighborhood places. Maybe all the marauding criminals that Donald Trump eschews are actually cooks! Ha.

Gourmet focused restaurants like Empellon Cocina, Cosme, and Mission Cantina have changed the landscape for good. And of course Empellon also has the more casual Taqueria and Al Pastor, Black Ant is doing innovative fusion, Fonda is a good neighborhood destination, El Presidente/Tacombi have the low key well covered and Zaragoza has the always fab taco take-out counter. Of course I’m leaving out dozens of great choices, but my focus here is about one delightful lower east side coup de grace to the Mexican dining scene…La Contenta.

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Definitely cozy, originally the home of my all time favorite seafood restaurant Tides, it seats around 16 people at tables plus a few stools along the bar. The spirit of the place somehow makes it feel convivial not cramped.

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Luis Arce Mota, chef/owner and his partner, Alex Valencia, an artist of the cocktail world, have done a spin on classic Mexican highlighted by French techniques. And that’s evident. Poached lobster in a chile morita butter sauce, Confit of chicken legs in mole sauce, a Queso Fundido with goat cheese, black olive tapenade, chilies and a guacamole with pomegranate & pumpkin seeds. The drinks are infused with various chilies and the list includes off the path agaves that are just finding their way onto menus around town with favorites like the nutty tasting Sotol, and the lovely to sip smokey Bacanora. There’s a healthy list of mezcals/tequilas and creative twists on standbys like the Prietoni, his take on the Negroni made with raicilla, campari & sweet vermouth – fantastic. Or my very tasty hibiscus margarita. And custom made cocktails are always on offer.

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This isn’t the standard Puebla fare that infuses most mainstream joints around the city. Mota comes from Mazatlan and started his career here as a dishwasher at Carmines. He cooked under the tutelage of some top chefs at various NY restaurants like Bouley and then went to study at Le Cordon Bleu. Love that. He opened Cafe Condesa, then Ofrenda to success before selling his stake in both. Now he has the charmed and supremely good La Contenta. Alex Valencia holds an impressive mixology pedigree from a few cool places in town like Little Branch and also managed and designed the cocktails for both Yerba Buena’s, oh I had some truly inspired drinks there.

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Delicate but crispy Fish Tacos in a very spicy and oh so good chipotle aioli.

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Braised Short Ribs in a cascabel and chipotle BBQ sauce with mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts and crispy tortilla chips slid right off the bone. Juicy and fragrant.

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Tostade de Cangrejo, a fresh, light, spicy version of crab tostadas. Blue Crab meat with a celery root puree and of course, chilies.

No photo of the Shrimp Veracruz Enchiladas in poblano sauce but a definite highlight and a must order.

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Nachos with pickled vegetables, loaded with cheeses, crunchy, perfectly spiced plus gorgeously arranged chips, the sunflower of nachos.

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I really like it here. The food is on point, the staff is thoughtful and engaging and the baked chips are among the best I’ve ever eaten. Bad news for me as I can’t stop but good news for chip lovers. They’ve done a lovely job in the space of making it all fit. Like an oversized jigsaw puzzle surrounded by the faintest imitation of a Keith Haring mural.

Ended the evening with a shot of an extraordinary tequila that our very dear waiter thought I would love. I did love it. But damn if I can remember what it was. I’ll be sure to write it down next time. There will so be a next time.

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La Contenta
102 Norfolk Street between Irvington / Delancey
212.432.4180
Monday-Wednesday 5pm-12, Thursday-Saturday 5pm-2am, Sunday 5pm-11pm
Happy Hour daily 4pm-7pm