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 areas to your left. Sparkling chandeliers, an abundance of charm, and several hostesses decked in 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 plus two different breads from Roberta’s. It rarely gets better than these. We asked for seconds later in the meal, seemingly for sopping up fabulous sauce but really – because we fell under the yeast spell. The breads were offered with three delectable accompaniments,  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 all to myself but later shared a starter. I’m usually table generous but parting with a bite 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 un-shared 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 extended an 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 quenelles you need to know. 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 – don’t make the same mistake. 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, a warmth that reaches down to your toes. This fumet is meant for worship. Plus you get to dip in 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. It reminds us that old world is now world.

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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 real menu 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, no choice – 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, and 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 not unreasonably 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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Somehow the Chef knew what diners needed now. Classic traditional comfort turned on its head. Butters and sauces we’d forgotten we missed. But he allows for a quirky and modern take to assuage any guilt. This 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

 

 

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

Bar Goto A Go To Bar To Go To…

Bar Goto

Through a glass darkly could be the theme here in this glowy, seductive cocktail izakaya. With the surfeit of lovely places to drink around town, from speakeasies to any raucous downtown scene – you’d think there wouldn’t be need for more. But there’s always room for one more isn’t there? And Bar Goto is more than just another hip bar. It’s a pretty fabulous, intimate, innovative, interesting bar by treasured alum Kenta Goto from Pegu Club fame.

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A warm summer evening and the windows are open to a quiet part of Eldridge Street. The wooden door swings wide, there’s Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack, smoldering lighting, congenial, casually sophisticated crowd and a warm welcome. I’m in.

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You can grab a seat at the lovely walnut bar or stake out a table. It’s a small architecturally creative space and can easily get crowded but it’s generally very comfortable. If there’s a wait, it’s actually a civil wait. Respect and graciousness rule the roost.

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That’s the mise-en-scene, but the stars here are the Japanese tapas-esque plates ready for sharing and of course the signature cocktails that demand to be tasted one by one. Each one sounds fantastic. $15 per drink and you can go through several quite handily. No worries if you want something to be made for you from a favorite assemblage, or you prefer straight sake, wine, beer or your spirit of choice. But the signature cocktails are off the charts. They are exquisite, not meant to send you under the table but to settle on the palate, caress the taste buds, satisfy the soul.

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One of the much talked about cocktails. And for good reason. The Sakura Martini comprised of sake, gin, heightened by a maraschino musk and adorned with a beautiful dried cherry blossom. It’s delightfully velvety and the second one is even better than the first.

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Another favorite for me is The Far East Side (from early Pegu fame), a heady little combo of sake, tequila, shiso, elderflower, lemon and yuzu bitters. Oh, it may not get better than this. It’s not too much of any one thing, perfectly blended…nectar, heaven, divine – the holy trinity of cocktail description. But for real. And with a generously sized muddled shiso leaf.

Kenta along with great longtime bartender (and former cohort) Mat Resler, stand behind the bar liquifying magic. On a second visit sans camera, drank the Watermelon-Cucumber Cooler with gin, watermelon, cucumber, lime, lemon and wasabi salt tasting sublimely better then you’d imagine if the mix was in lesser hands. Summer at its best. The Matcha Milk Punch with matcha, sencha, vodka and half & half. I love that Goto described this drink as a concept bringing together tea ceremonies with the classic milk punch. It allows for the delicate green tea flavor to have prime focus. A relaxed finish to any deliciously alcohol infused evening here.

No perfect bar (or izakaya) could actually be such without food that complements intricately designed drinks…or maybe even dishes that hold their own. As it happens, Mr Goto, who clearly has taken great care and pride with every last facet of his lounge, also has the esteemed Chef Kiyo Shinoki (from semi-secret Bohemian fame) in the kitchen.

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Something as simple as celery becomes profound. The Kobu Celery is fresh celery with salted kobu seaweed, roasted sesame, sesame oil and red shiso flakes. Brilliant. Don’t smirk. This is celery at it’s absolute best. Would eat it every day.

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New York City loves a food phenomenon and currently the top banana, or top pancake is the Okonomi-Yaki, savory cabbage pancakes served with okonomi-sauce, drizzled kewpie mayo plus dried bonito flakes and picked red ginger on the side. That’s just the base. Served in cast iron pans, there are five choices on the menu and I’ve tried two so far. The Fisherman’s version with octopus, rock shrimp, and calamari and the Herbivore with shitake & shimeji mushrooms, nira-leek, carrot and scallions. Loved them both. There’s also a pork belly, seafood, cheese variation, an all grilled cheese with sun dried tomatoes kind, and the Carnivore with pork belly, chicken and bacon. Everybody can be happy.

Love the Pickle bar snack, vegetables done in house are great but it’s that yuzu pepper paste that will drag you back. Gobo French Fries – fried Japanese burdock roots, with shichimi-pepper & sea salt, another snap-them-up-while-you-imbibe-delicacies kind of treat.

Miso Chicken Wings have become a mini legend. Split in two so you nibble off one bone, getting more crunch and popping the flavor. The wings with roasted black sesame, scallions and a miso buffalo hot sauce are knocking socks off all the way around.

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Bar Goto is a cool customer. Chic but beautifully bound in the heritage of its owner. Kenta Goto was a favored bartender for seven years at Pegu. Now a charming and gracious host, his culture and ancestry are clearly ingrained in the man and the place. As a master in calligraphy, he’s included his last name in the bar logo as an homage to his family. His food remarks on a similar restaurant that his mother runs just outside of Tokyo and his grandmother’s 100 year old kimono has become part of the wall art.

In an early interview, Goto essentially said that his plan was to offer a new and evolving perspective about Asian themed cocktails, modernizing the classics and feature Japanese staples like yuzu, miso and shiso. In this smoky, sexy, chill spot – he’s doing just that. I am forever grateful.

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Bar Goto
245 Eldridge Street between Stanton & East Houston
212.475.4411
Tuesday-Thursday 5pm to midnight, Friday-Saturday until 2am, Sunday until midnight

Ho Ho Home…

Family Recipe

THIS RESTAURANT HAS SADLY CLOSED

It’s that time of year when home and hearth come into play once again. Rituals, memories, gathering and toasting one’s blessings…with all the local (as well as global tragedy), having a warm comfortable place to rest your bones takes on an even deeper ethos.

This whole home-is-where-the-heart-is concept is never more present than in the year-old lovely intimate spot called Family Recipe on the lower east side. Chef/owner Akiko Thurnhauer says she grew up with a food obsessed, well traveled family in Tokyo so her influence has been cast from a wide net and she neatly wraps her passion up in elegantly creative, non-traditional home cooking.

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The atmosphere is a twist on mid-century, it’s ultra modern and cozy with a jazz soundtrack and convivial staff. The curved ceiling, open kitchen surrounded by a sushi bar perfectly support a menu based on very seasonal food. It’s clearly high quality, has snap, taste, a foothold in yesteryear but oh so now.

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Her food is not about technical prowess or twee configurations of the latest undiscovered ingredient. (not that that’s a bad thing!) It’s more about cooking by inspiration and instinct. It’s the Japanese cooking version of Rosemary Clooney singing Come On-A My House only this time it’s Akiko and she offers up her home, her heart, her food.

We started with Shishito Peppers in 7 spices.

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Loved the Rock Shrimp and Squid Ink Okomonmiyaki, alive with dancing bonito flakes when it arrives at the table. Impossible to capture in my iphone but definitely added a bit of joie de vivre to the food. Not quite as great tho still tasty was the vegetarian version, a tempura crumble with chives, cauliflower and peanuts. On a special note, most any dish can be made as vegetarian or vegan.

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Crispy Organic Tofu in lemon grass dashi and a chunky hot shallot sauce, with ginger and an herb salad was a favorite for me, light and playfully seasoned, it melted on my tongue.

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Yeah, I liked it.

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I didn’t get photos of all the dishes but we had a small feast. Ingredients like shiso cream with a cauliflower steak, kale pesto over Japanese mackerel, or poached pear with double garlic chicken liver buns are surprising and delightful. And the chef’s hand with desserts is quite impressive. But tho it’s not about the precision and solemnity of most Japanese cooking it certainly captures the soul and imagination of the culture.

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Loved the beer selection too.

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Family Recipe
231 Eldridge Street between Houston/Stanton Street
212.529.3133
Amex or cash

Just A Good Cocktail

WD-50 (at the bar)

Having had dinner elsewhere in the neighborhood, no outrageous prix fixe dinner this time…but a warm hello for Jaferul (Jaffe) plus one of his beautiful manhattans will do in a pinch. Brown is usually my winter drink but for some reason he enticed me to cooler times and a warmer cocktail.

Whistle Pig rye and some Italian vermouth plus the simple magic of Jaffe.

It’s working…

Est arrivee.

A friend’s sake was also inviting and wish I could remember what it was. All in all, a perfect summer night respite whichever way you go.

Good to know that one can stop into a dining temple but just relax at the bar, be well taken care of and enjoy a lovely libation – making notes about which menu you’ll return for.

WD-50
50 Clinton Street
212.477.2900

* Header photo by Angela Carbonetti / http://www.angelacarbonetti.com

Yunnan Kitchen. Hunan? No! Yunnan.

Yunnan Kitchen

THIS RESTAURANT HAS SADLY CLOSED

Gourmet Chinese keeps on popping up all over Manhattan. San Francisco transfer Mission Chinese with it’s insatiable line down the block, the fancy English import Hakkasan in midtown and Yunnan Kitchen, featuring an area in China that borders Laos, Burma, Tibet and Vietnam. Move over Sichuan. Though they’re not exactly promoting authenticity here, the influence shows with super fresh salads and local ingredients being the key, not the sinus bending spice we’ve all gotten used to from treks to Flushing. And the influence extends to a kitchen staffed by locally sourced hipsters as well. This is more evocative-of-a-region Chinese food in the guise of bistro dining. No overhead fluorescent lighting and formica tables here – this is moodier, old brick-ier, with a great soundtrack, long wooden tables and a more than decent beer/wine list.

The chef and owner pedigrees include the renowned Italian boite Franny’s and Brooklyn Larder. Both considered among the best NYC has to offer though distinctly not Asian related. But they found their way to creating a lower east side hang that is delightfully different with a chinese menu full of flower blossoms, cumin, tamarind and taro.

The menu is broken into categories for Cold, Hot, Rice/Noodles and the best place to begin – Shao Kao, Chinese street bites. We started with the skewers of lamb meatballs, tofu and the fried potato with shishito peppers. Each was memorable. Zesty, juicy, blistered and creamy. Indulgent mini Asian kebabs.

But whoa! There’s a consistent heavy hand that flavors the skewers and as it turns out – most of the remaining meal. Cumin and crushed Sichuan peppercorns. Sure it’s good and I enjoyed the food but it’s almost tiring not to mention lip numbing to have that same burn covering every dish. More depth would be welcome.

The salads are how shall I say…fantastic. I won’t make a joke about Chinese health food lest you get the wrong idea. These are incredibly tasty, and flavorful for their simplicity and quality. The dishes here that are not so liberally dressed with the usual two punch powder. Chrysanthemum greens in a sesame vinaigrette sang out with a subtle bitterness complimented by the sweet sesame. Tofu ribbons aka yuba were delicate and chewy without being gummy, and infused with mint, cilantro and chilies. Could not stop eating either of them.

A special for the evening were crisp green tomatoes and they were divine. Though raw, they were incredibly crunchy with a cool and refreshing kick that balanced all the cumin/peppercorns.

Our young server kept bussing out our dishes one after the other until we begged for mercy and explained that we were there to dine. I get the rhythm of Chinatown and Flushing but if we’re declaring cool downtown scene, pace it girl. Other than what may be newbie waitress behavior, the service is generally gracious.

Ma La fried chicken was another special of the evening and who would have thought that southwestern Chinese trumps the American south. Numbing and succulent, an obvious word but both of these definitely describe the plate offered. Plus spicy (yes, that same combo), a bet you can’t eat just one wing game.

Crispy whole shrimp with fried kaffir lime leaves were as good as you might imagine. Perfectly cooked, heads and all – that light satisfying crunch as your tooth pierces through to the juicy, meaty shrimp. Yunnan Kitchen excels at the bits of fried green that adorn most of the plates. Herbs are front and center. They’re not greasy or overdone, an indulgent glimpse into the technique of having greens taste as themselves but preserved as flecks of floral crispiness.

Fried pork belly with mint, sourced from a local pork genius challenges any memories of morning bacon. It’s crispy but tender and aside from the now ubiquitous Yunnan spicing, the fatty pork taste still shines through and lingers into the next sip of wine. In our case it was the Kerner 2011 from Alto Adige, a lovely compliment to any heat and crackle.

We closed with the mushroom rice cakes or as I will now think of them – the Yunnan answer to mac n’ cheese. Comfort food of the highest Asian order. Small disks of toothsome gluten that sell the loam and musk like a big down comforter to your unsuspecting tongue. It wasn’t that this was the most flavorful dish, it’s very nice but it’s that I just really loved chewing it.

Instead of the fortune cookies from the ghost of Chinese restaurants past, our check came with lovely ginger cookies. Another bit of surprising elegance that we don’t come to expect with our cold noodles in Flushing.

What’s good here is just that – fresh, innovative, light and highly enjoyable. But I won’t forego my favorite Sichuan or Quingdao food for the lower east side. I’ll come back here for a hit of intriguing yet comfortable Chinese, off the beaten track greens, a wonderful selection of teas, nice background music and maybe a bowl of mushroom rice cakes.

The lamb meatballs ended up on my companion’s blue slashed plate just like this. Ha! It perfectly describes how you feel at the meal’s end.

Yunnan Kitchen
79 Clinton Street at Rivington Street
212.253.2527
closed Tuesday