My second trip to New York City this year was similar to the first one: plenty of ups, just a couple of downs and tons of great food. As with the first trip, I divided my choices between classics, hot brand new places and “best of 2012″. Of the latter category I tried fewer this time around, since I opted for going back to a few of my favorites from 2-3 years ago and check on them.
My favorite hole in the city
The following are my impressions, as always in order of preference.
1. Estela: I never got a chance to visit Isa in Williamsburg but always read nothing but great things, including a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant last year. This chef Ignacio Mattos always intrigued me given he was the only fellow Latinamerican I have memory of making positive noise in the tough and extremely competitive NYC (from restaurants I have been to anyway).
I was eager to try Estela upon arrival to the city since fellow food connoisseurs Jose Moran Moya from Spanish Hipster and Anna Polonsky from Le Fooding had been raving loudly about it after their first visits. Estela observes a no-reservation policy for the time being, so I decided to show up early on my first day right at their opening time of 6pm. They don’t do lunch, only serve dinner until 11pm and were closed on the 4th of July and on Sundays. That left very few windows for me to try it so I jumped and the first available one.
Everything on the menu looked so appealing and interesting that despite there not being a tasting menu, I asked chef Mattos to create one for us; “hit us with your best shots”. The dishes that followed and the meal itself was shy of culinary nirvana, taking us to far away places on the flavor scale and beyond.
I will go on record right here and right now and predict this is the place all or most food critics will place at the top of their 2013 lists when these come out early next year. And the rave reviews will begin hitting your inbox any week from now.
The meal at Estela reminded me a lot of one of the greatest restaurants I visited last year: Le Chateaubriand in Paris. I will probably fail miserably at providing a general description of what this means, but here goes my best attempt: it’s the freshest ingredients combined in the most peculiar of ways but hitting it out of the ballpark every, single, time.
The raw scallop dish was love at first bite. The sweetness of the scallop, elevated by the most perfectly measured touch of sea salt, a few drops of extra virgin olive oil and the acidity of the citric fruit became an instant candidate for my “dishes of the year” list when it comes out next year.
Each dish that followed had a similar impact, generating excitement, disbelief, amazement, at how great and unique everything tasted. Thinly sliced kohlrabi with hazelnuts and shaved soft goat-like cheese; powerfully rich “escabeche” mussels on perfect crostini with a decent amount of herbs to counterbalance it all; a melt in your mouth fatty sardine made even more decadent by a smear of creme fraiche that seems to have replaced the fish’s skeleton.
The place to eat at right now
The larger dishes that followed remained on the same wavelength of culinary greatness: a perfectly white chunk of cod on a pool of a potato preparation, not a puree, not a soup, but somewhere in between, all of it also aided by large leafs of herbs. Across from me, pillows of ricotta dumplings paired beautifully with crisp snap peas.
Our sweet endings included once more, two twists on classic desserts that aim to impress the most demanding of sweet teeth. Campari sorbet with sprinkles of Campari sugar blended nicely with a thick yogurt ice cream. The second dessert was a thin cold pannacotta, superb in flavor on its own yet enhanced by honey and bee pollen.
My only regret about Estela is that I couldn’t go back to try the rest of the menu or even repeat the same dishes, which I gladly would’ve. Just like I did this week, this place I intend to run to as soon as I get off the plane on my next visit, hopefully soon. I couldn’t get enough of Ignacio’s food and I won’t stop raving about it this year, and hopefully the experts will follow suit. Estela deserves it.
2. Bouley: Here we have a restaurant I have always wanted to go to but had never gotten round to it. One is always drawn towards Per Se, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin or Daniel when it comes to chosing a high end, french influenced dining experience in NYC. After finally making it there I’m sad I hadn’t been there before, because it means I could’ve gone back easily once or twice to try different dishes; but I look forward to doing so in the future. Bouley is one of the best restaurants in the city, and also has the much seeked by myself lunch option with a fix-prix priced at the steal of $55.
As with all fine dining establishments, the ritual sets you off with an amuse bouche, this one a decent chunk of lobster meat sitting on a watermelon based gazpacho. Inmediatly you are greeted by a “bread sommelier” who pushes a cart containing no less than 12 different loafs, of which you are given to chose 3 and which are sliced for you table-side. The fix prix menu has plenty of options for you to construct your 5-course meal, all of which look appetizing. We got started off with a truly impressive first course: Bouley’s take on smoked salmon and blinis, these are puffed into airy, melt in your mouth circles that hold the delicate salmon between them with a light brush of truffle honey. The softest tuna came with caviar and green apple mousse, a heavenly spoonful of decadence.
My “Treasure of Forager’s Wild Mushrooms” included lightly smoked slices of Toro, white garlic foam and black truffle dressing. When the main courses arrived, I was content with my “no knife required” slices of beef cheeks. Braised to perfection and packed with intense dark flavor. A large quenelle of creamy potato puree next to me reminded me of the decadent version served at L’Atelier d’ Joel Robuchon in Paris. The chicken breast was impossibly soft also and moist, consequence of the “en cocotte” method and served with roasted alfalfa and blue kale.
I’m great and I’m good for you
A strawberry and buckwheat gelato course between savory and sweet was a perfect gateway into the impressive desserts that followed. Caramelized pear on a biscuit next to lemon verbena and vanilla ice creams. What more could one ask for. A perfectly warm chocolate soufflé caused the ice cream next to it to slowly melt, generating spoons of one of the most perfect pairings in the sweets universe. The accustomed petit-four at the end, most of which are almost always left untouched by neighboring tables disappeared rather quickly, particularly the pistachio macaroon and the chocolate covered marzipan.
Another great, impressive, tasting menu meal for the record books, at a place where I will be going back to frequently.
On the way out I had the priviledge to meet and talk to none other than David Bouley himself. His firsthand account of how his personal health led him to transform his eating habits and his restaurant’s menus in tandem, most of which was detailed in Town & Country magazine last February, was fascinating. I could strongly identify with his speech, and I have personally coincidently recently started making important changes in my eating habits and like seeing restaurants that are raising their awareness level towards healthier menus.
I’m puzzled by why Michelin has warded Bouley only one star. My meal, the services, the decor, all screamed 3 star level. It’s irrelevant; Bouley has instantly becomes one of my favorite places in town and one I would highly recommend anyone who hasn’t been to go.
3. Neta. A big trend going on right now with new restaurants in NYC is the “ex’s”. Two ex-Per Se (Uncle Boons, read below), two ex-EMP (Betony), and in the case of Neta, two ex-Masa, the impossibly expensive, 3 Michelin Star Japanese temple at the Time Warner center. How could one resist? Until I develop the gut to pay north of $1,000 for an Omakase meal for two, this would have to be the best sneak peek into it.
And boy it was. The Omakase menu, made up of 5 small dishes from the menu plus a selection of 6 nigiri and 3 small rolls was the best sushi based Omakase meals I have memory of eating. The special nature of a tasting menu are those original dishes you haven’t tried before, and when you know and expect all you’re eating is sushi, the palate openers add tremendous value. Like the scallop grilled on it’s own red hot shell combined with uni, shitake mushrooms and garlic soy butter. Or the thinly sliced Akami with zest of wasabi. The tempura course included shoftshell shrimp, a potato leaf and squash, all benefiting from a creamy citrus based orange sauce at the bottom.
When it came to the sushi, a large board was presented, containing 12 pieces of Nigiri and 12 pieces of Hosomaki (thin rolls). “Neta” means the fresh ingredients of sushi (i.e. the fish), and it is here where you get the name. The Toro of course, was impossibly fatty and melted in your mouth upon contact. But let’s face it, a lot of places can offer great quality Toro nowadays. But how about grilled Toro Sinew? Now that is where things got interesting, and faces started making quasi orgasmic gestures. The yellowtail came with delicate crisps of an undisclosed ingredient that took it to another level, as so did the spanish mackerel. So the hybrid between “neta” speaking for itself with the creative takes on nigiri from the chef made the sushi course altogether an impressive one. The Hosomaki pieces, simple in nature included the same “neta” from above, so there was no loss in fluidity. Omakase perfection.
All start line-up
Since Neta was my last meal before heading to the airport, I chose Omakase A, the faster, shorter version. My neighbor at the table top went for the longer B version and as I was diving into my sushi he was getting his first plates, which included toro with caviar, scallops with truffles, and I’ll stop right there. A must for the next trip no doubt.
4. Torrisi: There are few restaurant around the world where I’ve fallen in love so hard at first visit. The minute I walked into this place back in 2010, after proudly standing in line for an hour to get my name on that tablet the 5pm lady carried, I knew it was my kind of place. I still remember like it was yesterday how I felt when I first placed a piece of that mozzarella in my mouth, followed by the crostini. Fewer chefs have I admired more than Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi after my many impressive, outstanding meals at Torrisi Italian Specialties over the past 3 years. I still cringe when I speak to New Yorkers about their dining scene and the haven’t been to it. Unbelievable.
To go back was special, and even more so given the the fact that my lunch there was equally impressive, if not more impressive! than the dinners I’ve had there (except for the incomparable tribute to New York City menu). Gladly they still start you off with a piece of their warm, decadent, perfectly salted and oiled mozzarella. The great memories started rolling right there and then. The second anti-pasti was a cold pea and mint soup, the perfect fresh appetizer for such a scorching summer. Their take on smoked salmon and blinis followed, blinis which are called “everything” blinis since they incorporate, amongst other things, various seeds into the batter. The presentation and texture of the smoked salmon, cream and roe makes sure you understand this is a one Michelin star establishment, despite the simplicity of the room. An impressively plated italian sausage pate made you feel as though with the anti-pasti alone, you had the meal of the year.
After the impressive anti-pasti, Torrisi takes you to a pasta course and then a main course; the true italian meal. The pasta courses have always been homemade, and better than the best pasta I had memory of eating. This time it was no exception, pillows of ricotta gnocci with corn and coriander plus orecchiette with Andouille sausage, crawfish and peas.
When the final protein course arrived, I was expecting the best, since this had been the case before. Whether it was duck breast, salmon, sea bream, or lamb, these final savory courses have also carried the same important message as the first parts of the menu; this is not your average italian, despite it sitting on the Northern border of Little Italy. I posted a comment on my Instagram that is was the beef course of the year. I wasn’t kidding. The section of flatiron steak was so juicy, so concentrated with beef flavor and with such a perfect marbling, that I doubt I will ever encounter such a magnificent beef dish. The equally impressive sea bass wrapped in thin potato slices was not left behind.
Still the favorite
Dessert was a simple yet succulent spongecake next to a white chocolate + espresso ice cream. Simply sublime.
I’m not surprised Mario and Rich carry themselves around with such an arrogant attitude. No social media, no diner interaction, and I bet they do not care what critics or bloggers say. They know they have in their hands one of the best restaurants in the city and they have the menu and consistency to back it up.
5. Brushstroke: Another restaurant from 2011 that has drawn my attention ever since it opened. David Bouley partners with the Japanese Tsuji Culinary Institute to create a Kaiseki based restaurant. Kaiseki is a progressive meal, that has its origins, amongst other things, the need monks had to feed themselves after long hours of meditation. Chef David’s approach to artistic and healthier eating, as mentioned above in my notes on Bouley, created the right platform for these spectacular meals to be born.
During this meal I couldn’t help remember Next Kyoto, another truly great Japanese meal progressive in nature. As soon as you arrive, you are greeted with a sip of sake, but it’s not your typical sake, it has been blended with cedar notes. A bloody mary is so silky, it fees as though the tomato was asked on purpose for it’s most delicate juice.
The first course has complexity of flavors and textures aimed to impress the most demanding of palates. A delicate sesame puree hosts various vegetables including okra, shitake and eggplant, carefully decorated with decadent uni and shaved dried bonito. The ever popular Chawanmushi egg custard follows, only this one nests dungeness crab and is topped by plate wide slices of black truffles.
The meal evolves into raw fish, which of course changes daily based on availability, and by availability I mean it’s flown in from Japan. My version included Toro, Olive Flounder, Skipjack tuna and sweet shrimp. No doubt some of the freshest, most perfectly cut sashimi one could ask for. Technique shines bright on the following course, composed of maine lobster tail meat, seared and covered by a family of unique preparings, including tomato water gelee, yuzu mustard, lobster roe powder and small pieces of vegetables like zuchini, okra and cherry tomatoes.
The equivalent of “intermission” followed in martini glasses as a squash and peach liquid puree with tiny drops of spices, herbs and a small grain, probably amaranth. For the meaty inclined, the next course satisfies since it includes chunks of duck breast with yam puree and mushrooms. Our server said the breast had been infused with Hojicha tea, which sounded OK but I wasn’t expecting every bite to release tea scented moisture which was one of the most amazing duck meat experiences I’ve ever had.
I’m the juiciest
Finally, the big prize. The one I guess the monks look forward to the most specially after large periods of fasting; a large rice based pot with plenty of crab and lobster meat on top to satisfy a tiny village. It is presented table side and mixed, then served into individual plates warm. It comfortably allows for many servings per person, which makes it impossible to leave unsatisfied.
Dessert and petit-four where simple yet delicious. A pudding made with roasted green tea leaves had sweet black beans on top, and rice paper crackers have been sweetened with matcha and shisho powder and included small pine nuts between them.
There are meals that you forget, and there are meals you don’t. Brushstroke’s Kaiseki’s originality, diversity of flavors and flow clearly aims at belonging to the second category and I can confirm it does. A must for any Japanophile in the Big Apple.
6. Uncle Boons: Another offspring of the “ex” phenomenon, this time from none other than Per Se. So yes, this is pretty much a “you had me at Per Se” kind of situation when it comes to deciding whether to visit this place or not. What could go wrong? A cook spends time at one of the most demanding, most perfect kitchens in the world and then decides to go independent and cook food from where he or she is originally from; sounds like a great formula to me.
It is indeed, in the case of Uncle Boons. Chef Ann Redding’s family is from Thailand together with her Uncle Boons, who we are told is a very lively character that likes to eat, drink and sing karaoke all the time. This is the spirit they were looking for at the Nolita joint.
There’s no doubt in my mind that years of experience at high end kitchen permeates towards any future endeavor a chef may decide to embark upon, in any type of cuisine. It is evident at Uncle Boons, where, at least for me, I was able to notably spot a finer level of ingredient cut and a prettier presentation. As far as flavor goes, everything we had was truly great, but as great perhaps as Brooklyn’s Pok Pok. The main highlight was a roast chicken, banana blossom, cashew and coconut milk dressing salad, which we could not stop eating as soon as we took a first bite. It was sweet, spicy, crunchy, fatty, all at the same time and one of the best thai dishes I’ve ever tried no doubt.
Having trained my palate and stomach to take as much heat as possible with our very own Chef Bee at Oishi Thai on Sundays during our thai basil curry feasts, I asked the waiter to bring me the hottest items on the menu. One of them was a minced lamb and cucumber salad that carried quiet a punch I must admit, and created a fantastic bite from the blend of the freshness of the mint & cucumber and the delicacy of the lamb mince. It’s an intriguing dish, it looks cute and innocent yet it bites at you hard. Betel leaf wraps also carried spice strength since their filling was minced chiles, ginger, coconut and dried shrimp. A peanut based sauced is provided to help balance it off.
Beef cheeks in massaman curry? Yes please; a brilliant creamy dish with added crunch from crispy shallots and tenderness on the cheeks to die for. Loved the added height from green peppercorns. An interesting red curry custard was a bit too set in places (maybe it’s supposed to be that way) but the shrimp were rich and tender to the bite.
Thai food lovers in New York City need not anymore make the pilgrimage to Brooklyn to stand in line for an hour in order to get your Northern Thai fix. Uncle Boons in Manhattan has come to the rescue.
7. ABC Kitchen: Along with Torrisi, this was my other favorite restaurant from back in 2010 and I’m happy to report it’s still in great shape. Despite everyone flocking to the new ABC Cocina next door, I suspect ABC Kitchen still manages impress both regulars and first timers with it’s “farm to table” offering, masterminded by Jean Georges Vongerichten and executed brilliantly by Dan Kluger. This place has triumphed unequivocally in carving a niche for a very specific clientele: the succesful midtown Manhattan based executive woman. I was almost the only male in the quasi packed large gorgeous dining room, together with a few other house-husbands.
I actually arrived pretty hungry so I asked them to skip the bread basket and bring me a mushroom and farm egg pizza. It was sublime, the runny egg making every bite better than the next. This ain’t your town’s best pizzeria but they do a darn fine job, let me tell you. Fatty sourdough toast served as the perfect platform for perfect smoked salmon and sour cream, and the pretzel crusted calamari are cleverly brought to you with a helping of not just marinara sauce, but also a mustard based aioli. My main course of sea bass is how I would eat sea bass for the rest of my life if I was obliged to pick. A bed of “On the verge of being wilted” spinach with the perfect amount of jalapeño slices scattered around.
Forever Sea Bass
Desserts have always been a highlight at ABC Kitchen and this time around was no exception. A great spongecake with vanilla frosting and chocolate shavings next to an orange sorbet. A gorgeous summer lunch.
8. Recette: Here’s a great little restaurant in the West Village who I still remember hearing loads about back in 2010 when it opened. It’s been on my to-do list since then, and since it was one of the few on my list that was open on July 4th, it gave me the perfect opportunity.
I had a very nice meal. Great service, nice little spot, all the food we had was delicious with nothing to complain. I did notice the dishes on the menu where the same as the ones some critics craved about back in 2010, so I wonder whether the lack of more recent buzz around Recette has to do with not making any changes to the offering since then. Yes it was July 4th, which justifies it but it was pretty empty around dinner time; I hope this isn’t always the case since a city like New York has enough people to merit small good food places like this being busy all the time (or at least that is what one would wish, rather than folks falling for horrible tourist traps). It’s in a nice neighborhood so they should be fine.
I was seriously impressed by the roasted cauliflower raviolo. It single-handedly made me like Recette instantly, and I would be glad to go back anytime. Pasta al dente, great flavor from the cauliflower, and the tomato based bisque around it provided the perfect complement. Nothing elevates octopus more than a good smoke scent from a grill, and this was the case for the “charred Pulpo” that followed with a sweet black bean puree.
Crispy chickpeas and spicy yoghurt turned tilefish into a middle-eastern sensation, and scallops were perfectly seared. The sweet endings played catchup, and I specially remember a small canele de bordeaux which had been made naughty with spice, maybe from cayenne. Magic.
Message to chefs: this is how you char
Recette probably shines less bright given the vast range of places that have opened over the last 3 years and which continue to do so, but it should not be underestimated. If Chef Jesse Schenker ever decides to pull a wd-50 on New York and take out the drawing board, people will start lining up outside.
9. Minetta Tavern: The mother of all classics with it’s standardized french bistro cuisine and inviting, amicable setting. Fewer places are more popular and one of the main reasons, and the single reason I decided to go back is The Black Label Burger. This tight, compact, juicy, one inch thick patty is made up of primarily dry aged beef, which explains the high concentration of flavor. The bun is brioche in style, soft to the touch and buttery in taste. The final touch is the smear of onion marmalade on top of the patty, made possible only after hours and hours of braising them I would suspect.
Je suis le meilleur
There are many better french bistros in town, specially after the wave of openings during the last 12 months (Lafayette, Montmatre, Little Prince, Le Philisophe, Calliope). But there is possibly no better burger, so if that is your thing, this is the place to be.
10. Roberta’s: I couldn’t help but feel during my brunch at Roberta’s that I was on the set of the HBO show Girls. Everyone there of course was real and genuine (I think), and if so then what a great job of portraying Brooklyn those producers have done. I almost felt out of place, like I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone around me about anything. Apart from the food there of course, which was, OK.
Let’s face it, there are better pizzas. This place is colorful, lively, unique. It merits the trip out to Brooklyn for a meal, but at the same time I feel like I’ve been there, done that. Unless I ever move to Brooklyn and Roberta’s happens to be my local joint, I doubt I’ll ever go back. Unless of course I score a seat at Blanca, which is extremely unlikely, but you never know (I may get help from a friend next time!).
Been there, done that
11. Louro: It’s extremely exciting to discover a new place you’ve never heard of, when it comes from a reliable source, and it has been passed on to you as a secret, as the next big thing. During our meal at Uncle Boons, we entered into a conversation with the diners next to us, and one of them happened to be a freelance writer for a very well known food magazine. The other one had been to art basel in Miami and seemed connected. After I spent 10 minutes describing my amazing meal at Estela, I thought I had struck gold when I was being paid back with a counter-tip: “Go to Louro”. It was described to me as a new-ish, still unknown place where a chef that used to serve private underground diners is putting out some impressive food.
I actually went online and the pictures did indeed seem aligned with the description from my advisors, and I even bumped upon a pretty generous review over at Immaculate Infatuation.
It was not what I was expecting. The dishes have a strong presence of the chef’s portuguese background which has not been refined or dialed down a bit, as has in the case of Aldea, for instance. Aioli, pork fat, potatoes, garlic, and more aioli came flying in every direction, even during the bread course. This sounds like a dream come true for many people, and maybe it could be, but it was just not what I was expecting. I left disappointed.
12. Empellon Cocina: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Throw stones at me, unfollow me on twitter, stop reading this, feel free to choose your punishment but I just do not understand New York food expert’s fascination with this place. I wrote after my first visit two months ago how I had not liked at all the tacos and the “dead on arrival” vermicelli and zucchini dish I had tried, but trust me, I was looking forward to my second visit. I was excited; I studied the menu; I asked around what I should get; I hit the reset button on my palate because I, like everyone else, wanted to love Empellon Cocina.
The food I had was perhaps worse than the one on my first visit. A shallow clay bowl of melted cheese had barely visible pieces of lobster and drips of unseasoned tomato sauce. A squid and mole dish had, once again, unseasoned, almost parboiled pieces of squid which were sort of made a little better by the chorizo mayonnaise at the bottom, but made worse by the mole. No further comments on the scotch egg, your honor.
Seriously? Two Stars?
Yes, the guacamole was great, but I would’ve expected breaking New York City’s dining scene would have taken more than squashing avocado and sprinkling it with garnishes.
It didn’t help that we were being rushed by the Maitre’D since he obviously had a better, more important place to be at, unfortunately.
Will I give Empellon Cocina a third try? I don’t think so. I’ve had enough terrible food there to rest my case, and I’m happy to move on and enjoy the many other great options New York has to offer.
Great cups of coffee at La Colombe, which has various locations. Obviously Saturdays Surf, my favorite hole in all the city. Il Laboratorio del Gelato on East Houston is probably the most amazing ice cream shop I’ve ever been to in my life. We went back three times! Also discovered down the road a gluten free sweets shop called babycakes which has some amazing doughnuts that are actually better for you! Also had a quick drink at Altamarea Group’s new bar The Butterfly, very cool spot.
That’s it for this week, write to you next week!