FORKPLAY December 15, 2014
My Most Excellent Finds of 2014
Dear Friends and Family,
Gato: House Cat or Alley Cat?
There's not a single dish on the menu at Gato you'll come across in any of the olive oil-worshipping countries that ring the Mediterranean. It's all original Bobby Flay. From my first early visit to the soaring excavated arches of the striking Rockwell-designed space, I was surprised and totally smitten by Flay's flamboyant creativity. Unlike most chefs who can sometimes be found in the kitchen, standing up front calling the orders, he was visible in the back in his navy blue chef's coat, cooking on the line. On my last visit he was out. I didn't notice a difference.
There are so many dishes I love here. It's impossible to order them all so, I take turns. Sometimes I start with six tiny bar dishes to share, sometimes three. Occasionally I'm driven to taste the spicy spreads again with buckwheat pita. And if not, the lamb sausage pizza. The one dish I order every time: scrambled eggs with almond romesco and boucheron to pile on tomato confit toast. Charred carrots is another (though the thicker carrots are not always cooked through). My favorite entrée is the charred beef with blue cheese brown butter. (It comes in a trio of modest ovals, perfect for three to share.) When my friends protest at the end they can't eat another bite, I order fruit tarte tatin or the crostata for the table anyway. 324 Lafayette just south of Houston. 212 334 6400.
An Austrian at Bâtard
It took several weeks for chef-partner Markus Glocker to find himself at Bâtard. Then the bad buzz turned to raves. I fell for his mother's cooking -- homey beef stew and lamb two ways: elegant rare chops on the plate, rustic braised chunks with vegetables and potatoes to ladle from the big orange pot on the table. His brilliant thick turbot hid an egg yolk buried inside to splash on the spinach underneath. So I was shocked and disappointed to see my favorite dishes gone last Thursday. Only the remarkable octopus pastrami remained. And the special of the day (always) poussin schnitzel with his luscious (never refrigerated) potato salad.
Has a Michelin star gone to the chef's head? His plates seemed overly precious, too fussy. I thought my friend's strudel entrée scrawny and tight. My few slices of duck breast were wildly over-salted. "You should have ordered his venison with sweet and sour red cabbage," the house's long time proprietor Drew Nieporent said. My friends and I had a great evening, but I was embarrassed that all wasn't what I'd promised. The chocolate cake with a birthday candle was definitely an improvement on the chef's own Sacher torte. I comforted myself with the farewell almond cookie and the lush chocolate truffle with olive. Glocker strikes me as an obsessed perfectionist. I want to believe he's not on a permanent detour. 239 West Broadway between White and Walker Streets. 212 219 2777.
Dirty French, Dirty Fingers
It was love on first bite at Dirty French. A parade of carved heads with bloody noses, a series of roosters running riot, the sommelier dressed like Little Bo Peep, a bargain basement décor, a teeny two-top table. None of it annoyed me when balanced by the cocky brilliance of the kitchen. Starting with the pan sautéed-to-order house flatbread meant to tear with your fingers and drag through fromage blanc. The French menu has been "violated" if you will, with a ccents from France's colonies, like the fabulous spicy boudin, and the cumin rubbed saddle of lamb.
I am haunted even now by the daring $72 whole chicken for two in two services. Dollypartonesque breasts line up in a lush foie gras-mustardy cream and there are condiments and crepes to roll them in. Then coming after, in a black iron skillet are the thighs and legs all in one piece, including the bird's claws. Soaked in a pungent Vietnamese marinade, the hindquarters have been cooked in chicken fat until blistered and blackened. Pick it up and chew. That's why you came all the way to the Ludlow Hotel, isn't it? And I agree it's outrageous to require a credit card with a $50 a person cancellation fee for your hard-won seats. 180 Ludlow Street just south of Houston 212 254 3000.
Botequim: A Taste of Brazil
I wasn't expecting much at Botequim. Yes, I'd read that it was the Brazilian fantasy of the accomplished couple who own Tocqueville and 15 East. But even so, sitting there in almost total darkness in the cellar of the Union Square Hyatt, the bright open kitchen seemed almost too relaxed. Yes, the soft bossa nova was very sexy except I am bopping in my chair, all alone, at a most unBrazilian hour waiting for friends to check in. Quickly, as a parade of our choices arrives, we marvel how good it all is. The small cheese buns. The surprisingly delicate pastelzinhos, so unlike the usual clunky empanada. Complex house-cured cod croquettes. Suddenly the table is crowded with entrées: a rich, almost black, pot roast of country chicken. The classic feijoada in a casserole with the obligatory sides. Short ribs nuzzling a furrow of farofa. On a second visit, I discover the fiercely rich and buttery polenta fattened with cream, and the churrasco misto - a $76 smashup of meats, supposedly for two, that was more than enough for the three of us: flank steak, a chunk of Brazil's favorite top cap steak, a slab of fatty short rib, and hidden underneath, housemade chorizo sausage. We agreed to skip dessert, but it came anyway. My favorite: sweet coconut cake. 132 Fourth Avenue between 12 and 13th Streets. 212 432 1324.
Finding the Bar Bolonat Vibe
Cocktails from the full bar at Bar Bolonat take a while to materialize and the kitchen delivery can be dramatically staggered too. A warm Jerusalem bagel with a thimble of za'atar and olive oil to dip it in can sustain you in the pauses. Then vegetables arrive in seductive guises: "everyday cauliflower" with peanut tahini puffs, fatoush salad under lavash shards, a canoe of delicata squash carrying spicy brittle. We share the Hudson street kibbe -- bulgar teardrops filled with spiced beef on a preserved lemon sauce. My friend who doesn't eat chicken is beguiled by the intense forest essence of wild mushroom pasta, while the rest of us share the mahogany-coated poussin baked in a bed of rice and potatoes with walnuts and pomegranates on top - one of my favorite birds in town. It comes whole in its baking dish. Usually a layer of rice is stuck to the bottom and you have to scrape it out. Not tonight, I'm sad to say. 611 Hudson Street NW corner of West 12th Street. 212 390 1545
From the Blue Taboon at Bustan
It wasn't just me. It seems every savvy eater on the Upper West Side discovered Bustan the week it opened in a narrow space with a big bar -- quickly claimed by solo diners -- and all sorts of playful decorative elements: robot clocks and rocking zebras. Now it can be tough to score a table but when I do, I insist on starting with three ($16) or five tastes ($19) from the mazettim list - that's what they call meze in Israel. These classic spreads - exceptionally fine versions of hummus, mashed eggplant, tzatziki, spicy feta, taramasalata -- come with fabulous blowsy flatbread warm and oozing oil from the blue Taboon. Need seconds? No problem. Our agreeable waiter is ready to bring a third. I might follow with the big bowl of beet salad with chunks of fried halloumi cheese or small plates: lamb tartare with lettuce wraps, falafel in a basket, whole heirloom cauliflower with anise honey and labneh cheese. Recently I managed to leave room for an entrée I spotted at a nearby table: savory lamb kebabs baked in terra cotta under a roof of bread. 487 Amsterdam Avenue between 83rd and 84th Streets. 212 595 5050
Masa Plays Madison Avenue
Could there be another sushi bar with a big Cy Twombly behind the maître d' stand? I doubt it. But Kappo Masa is a hookup between Larry Gagosian and Masa Takayama. You expect some show of affluence: the great explosions of blossoms that Masa favors, embossed leather menu folders in pastel hues, and luxury ingredients with Japanese verve. Tables form an ell with glove leather banquettes - one side facing the sushi chefs, the other looking into the kappo kitchen where food is grilled, braised, stewed, steamed and fried. Choose something from each category or go for the dishes that knocked us out: shrimp kakiage, the thrillingly vibrant kanpachi rolls with chile burn and a crunch of potato slivers against the firm chill of the fish, so fresh and firm it is almost stiff. Be sure to try a surimi Masa pasta, perhaps with bottarga. And swoon over the compelling complexity of baby dancing shrimp, crusty with deep-fried parsley and lotus blossom crisps.
Give in to the inevitability of Peking duck tacos and the fun of spicy chicken wings. Maybe you want a maitake mushroom roll, better than most of the sushi. Of course, well-heeled Masa familiars will order his classics, creamy toro with caviar to spread on ethereal toast and white truffle risotto. Very expensive and, in my book, not nearly as moving as my new favorites above. Yes, it was disappointing not to see Masa that first week, but he did appear on my second visit, standing in the corner of the kitchen, conducting, pointing, swooping in when he couldn't help himself. I wouldn't count on regular sightings, but I suspect he's got his chef standins drilled to honor the dauntingly extensive offerings. Is Gagosian there? Do you care? 976 Madison Avenue near SW corner of 76th Street, below Gagosian Gallery. 646 647 2942
Cosme: A Mexican Master Takes on New York
Mexico's star chef Enrique Olvera moved into town months ago to do extensive research into what New Yorkers like. Then finally he opened Cosme, dark as night, with a pop of light over each table and a short, disciplined menu. Waiters leaned in low to hear over the din. Some of the portions would not fatten Barbie, but they were very good, like the ethereally tender octopus with red onion and the smoked raw cuttlefish in pico de gallo sauce under cuts of ripe avocado. Toasted crisps come with pumpkin butter as a gift, but word got around fast to ask for the delicate little white tortillas too. Yes, you want the voluptuous burrata smothered in "weeds." I found the cobia overwhelmed by pineapple salsa, but my friends disagreed. On a second visit, I discovered rustic tamal wrapped in Swiss chard. "Strip steak," as the menu has it, is actually just a few over salted slices with a lump of avocado purée and the lobster was no bigger than a fancy brooch. I'm a fool for the melt of chocolate billed as a mousse, but everyone else I dined with here was wild for the husk exploding with corn mousse. That's easy just order both. 35 East 21st Street between Broadway and Park Avenue. 212 913 9659
Rainbow Room: A Beatitude of Brunch
It might be enough that the legendary, landmarked Rainbow Room has been lovingly restored with crystal necklaces at every window that make rainbows on the carpet. Whether or not you long to commune with the city from on high again, even if, like me, you don't actually like brunch, treat yourself to the madness of this over-the-top buffet. Come earlyish before the full tourist crush, Sundays only from 11 am. Will you start with oysters? Or sashimi or dim sum? Should you save room for one of a dozen Indian dishes? Or Thai? There's something here for every taste, pickles, a salad bar, a buffet for children. I am focused first on breakfast, mini muffins and classic breads, marvelous French toast, wondrously soft scrambled eggs and pedigreed bacon. Still, I cannot resist Chinese barbecued pork stuffed into a white bun. Then I'm stopped by a chef waving his spoon over an odd collection of pots. I choose cheesy polenta, and wild mushroom stew for him to layer in my bowl. Carefully he peels a soft-boiled egg and nestles it on top, then shoots truffle foam over all. The combination is breathtaking. My tablemates run off to get some too, leaving behind a luscious little chicken potpie with foie gras and corned beef hash for me to taste.
On any other day, lunch could be just these mostly New York State cheeses, runny and ripe. I help myself to a few thousand calories worth. And then, since this is work and I am a critic, dessert in a must. In a far corner I find fruit, gelato sundaes, miniature custards, trifles and tarts. And most appealingly, classic apple pie with a latticework crust. A double espresso will get me sober enough for the trip home. Rainbow Room brunch isn't going to be your new Sunday religion, but maybe once a year. It's more than worth the $95 plus tip. 30 Rockefeller Center 65th Floor 212 632 5000
Of Thyme and The River Café
The romance of Buzzy O'Keeffe's loss of The River Café to Hurricane Sandy, and his long and tortured road to restore it, certainly won me. I couldn't wait for it to reopen. I can't say I came often or ever scored a marriage proposal while looking out the glass wall across the river to the diamond filigree of bridge and Manhattan skyline across the East River. But I consider it a local treasure. I was there the first weekend it opened, charmed again by twinkling strings of light outlining the garden on the edge of the water, admiring the exuberant flowers, a fortune in roses on the tables. Recalling a certain lame fussiness in the kitchen over the years, I was pleased to find returning chef Brad Steelman's more straight- forward offerings. The soft polenta agnolotti lined up on a generous mound of braised oxtail. The big caramelized steak. The breast of a Muscovy duck, grilled rich and rare in its lavender and spice crusted skin. A whole poached lobster lying on a rubble of sweet and sour butternut squash with celery root puree. The cheese course is presented with world-class style and enough to share with my tablemates who order the inevitable Brooklyn Bridge cast in chocolate. Even before Michelin dropped a star here, tables could be pressed so close even the waiters could barely slither by. Shame, shame. 1 Water Street, Brooklyn. 718 522 5200.
Next week I'll explain why the exciting also-rans are not on this list but worth a visit anyway.
Photographs of Gato's Beef, Bâtard's Octopus Pastrami, the first course of chicken at Dirty French, Botequim's Churrasco Misto, Bar Bolonats's Roasted Poussin, Bustan's savory spreads, Kappo Masa's thrilling Kanpachi, Cosme's burrata, The Rainbow Room's DIY soft boiled egg, and the view with a reflection at The River Cafe may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. All rights reserved.