Cafeteria

June 25, 2007

Open 24 hours, this chelsea restaurant is a step-up from a glorified diner. With outdoor seating, reasonable prices, and generous servings, a meal at Cafeteria offers a low-key but entertaining dining experience. In general, a better brunch spot than a dinner spot.

The Decor: Laid out in a simple rectangle with a brown & white color scheme, there’s not too much to crow about. On that note, there’s not too much to complain about either, although the tight space makes access to the restrooms difficult. The vibe is generally casual, ranging from brunchers accompanied by newspapers to families (with young kids and not) to groups of snazzy young diners sporting big sunglasses. On a nice day, the windows open up onto the street for some al fresca dining and the wide sidewalk offers a generous buffer zone to the street traffic.

The Chef: Unclear, although the NYTimes classified section lists an ad for the executive chef position: http://jobs.nytimes.com/texis/jobsearch/details.html?id=465d127657ca0&q=food%20drive&pp=25&view=2&page=1

The Food: Nothing’s fantastic, but nothing’s bad. It’s diner food, replete with choices and classics from pancakes to french toast to macaroni & cheese to burgers.

The Drinks: Good coffee. Standard drink menu for dinner.


Chikalicious

June 24, 2007

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As a harbinger of the NYC dessert bar scene, Chikalicious can revel in knowing that at least for now, the first remains the best. Cute, elegant, with friendly service makes this a repeat worthy spot despite the wait.

The Chef: Pastry chef Chika Tillman and her husband, Don Tillman, run this small east village spot. Born in Japan and trained at the CIA, Chika blends an Asian aesthetic and proportions with American flavors. Without fail, you can find Chika behind the dessert bar preparing each dish. Her husband, Don, can be found at the door greeting diners, taking orders, and managing the crowd. The pair plan on opening a take-out store across the street that will serve three different flavors of pudding. But for now, they don’t want to expand the original space because as Don says “Part of Chikalicious’ appeal is that it is small. Visitors know they can find Chika behind the bar, and expanding means losing that predictability and experience.”

The Decor: Designed by Studio Marz’s Hiromi Tsuruta, the white futuristic furniture fills up the small but efficiently utilized space. Seats at the bar are the most coveted because they offer a sight line to Chika Tillman’s dessert preparations. Prepared meticulously and aesthetically, the process adds to the whole dining experience. Because seating is so limited, Chikalicious will not seat parties greater than 4, and the wait after 8:30PM is at least 20 minutes – even on weekdays.

The Food: Chikalicious is a classic dessert bar. Rather than attempt to blend the sweet & savory like newcomers P*ong and Kyotofu, owners Chika & Don Tillman focus only on the sweet. For $12, diners enjoy a three course dessert that includes an amuse and petit fours. The menu changes daily, with only two mainstays – the chocolate tart with peppercorn ice cream and the cheesecake. Like all their desserts, the tart and cheesecake focus on freshness, detail, consistency, and lightness. One dessert course at Chikalicious is the equivalent of a medium-sized chocolate chip cookie. So if you’re looking for a heavy traditional dessert with ice cream, fudge, and brownie cake, this is not the spot for you. But if you’re looking to impress a date, impress an out-of-towner, or just want to enjoy what fine desserts should aspire to, this is the spot for you.

The Drinks: For an extra $5, your dessert experience is paired with a dessert wine. While the wine doesn’t add much to the experience, it is a nice touch. I personally prefer the french press coffee or one of the teas.

10th Street between 2nd & 1st Avenue: http://www.chikalicious.com/


Bouchon

June 20, 2007

Located on the third floor of the pristine modern Columbus Circle, Bouchon Bakery is worth its price in both food and decor.

2006_03_bouchon-thumbsm.jpgThe Decor: The simple glass aesthetics of Columbus Circle creates a respite from the hustle & bustle of NYC. Bouchon Bakery opens for restaurant service at 11:30AM, with tables looking directly over the expansive atrium and out toward Columbus Circle and the southwest corner of the park. Only three of the tables in the self-service bakery share the view of the park, but the rest enjoy a sumptuous view of the goodies in the display. The serene dining experience – whether for a pastry or sandwich at the to-go bakery¬† or at the full-service restaurant – is comfortably enjoyed solo, but it’s not unusual to catch breakfasters discussing business over coffee & pastries, mothers w/strollers taking a shopping break, and suits at the restaurant enjoying a quiet drink and meal post-work.

The Chef: Thomas Keller, the disciplined chef from California’s the French Laundry, opened Bouchon Bakery a few years ago post his Per Se opening on the top floor of Columbus Circle. Keller’s cooking focuses on fresh, seasonal ingredients as evidenced by the garden outside of his Yountville flagship. Though NYC does not allow for the same type of gardening, Keller still blends the slow food influences of California with his traditional French styles.

The Food: The pastries are remarkable, especially in the summer when fresh fruit makes an appearance in the breakfast goods. Year-round staples include the croissant, chocolate-almond croissant, cookies, and even treats for puppies.

dscf1596.jpgFor savory items, the vegetable sandwich is a favorite of even meat-loving diners. It comes slightly warmed, and the fresh vegetables and multigrain bread flavored with pesto makes for one of the best vegetarian sandwiches in the city. In general, the sandwiches and salads make up the bulk of the savory menu (at both the full-service and to-go counter). Both tend to be simple, with an emphasis on freshness.

It’s not surprising that the light but dense chocolate bouchons remain one of Keller’s best known treats, but the cookies & macaroons make for quite the treat as well.

The Drinks: Strong but not bitter coffee. Good wine by the glass selections.


Perilla

June 13, 2007

Unless all five dishes we ordered were the exception to the rule, Perilla lacks the finesse that’s a necessity at a restaurant that prices dishes in the $30 dollars range.

perilla.jpgThe Decor: The layout of the restaurant parallels its predecessor, Inside. However, the dark wood on dark wood varied only by the mix in patterns is simply dingy. The lack of lighting doesn’t help the cause. Snagging a seat at the bar, which is located by the restaurant’s only windows, may detract from the otherwise stuffy confines. The drab settings don’t seem to deter diners. On a rainy Tuesday evening the restaurant boasted full tables and patrons appeared to truly enjoy themselves.

The Chef: Harold Dieterle, formerly a sous chef at The Harrison, is also the famed winner of Top Chef. In 2006, he left The Harrison to open Perilla, an American inflected Asian restaurant named for an aromatic “minty” Asian herb. His penchant for Asian food comes across in the menu, with items like hamachi, okinawa yams, eggplant, and tatsoi dotting the page.

The Food: The flavors and ingredient combinations were interesting and creative, but the subpar execution and stale ingredients took away from what had the potential to be a fine dining experience.

The Hamachi, though accompanied by an inventive & complex cilantro-yuzu broth, tasted less than sushi grade and I wondered whether I’d fall ill a few hours later. Similarly, the Perilla Salad with its wilted leaves & mediocre feta looked like something I would receive at a diner.

The pattern repeated itself with the entrees. The Pan Roasted Langoustines, paired with crunchy rice and eggplant, tried to make up for the lack of freshness with overdoing the sauce. The eggplant was too oily and the rice albeit finely crisped was over doused with the sauce. My dining partner ordered the Halibut Special which was paired well with cucumber and lightly prepared, but without heavy sauces to dissemble flaws, the chewiness of the Halibut tipped off its second-grade quality.

Rare is the occasion that dessert simply “blows it.” The lemon donuts were so off they were inedible. And the amuse bouche cookies, while a nice touch, were so sugary and chewy they may as well have been straight out of the box.

The Drinks: The wine list was affordable price – with all the white wines offered at under $100 a bottle. Of noted interest was the lack of California wines. The beer selection was large, and included Japanese options as well.


The Odeon

June 12, 2007

Interesting enough for NYC historians, sceney enough for the hipsters, and edible enough for gastro-snobs, the Odeon rightfully holds itself out as a NYC classic. Only time will tell whether it will maintain its spot on the map or fall out of favor like the Tribeca Grill.

The Decor: With its leather booths and neon lights, The Odeon feels like an over-glorified diner. What saves it from feeling anachronistic is the masses of urbanites that look like they’re having the time of their lives. It’s not surprising that the space is so conducive to “a scene”; restaurateur Keith McNally of Pastis, Balthazar, & Morandi was once the owner. Opening in 1980, the revitalization The Odeon brought to Tribeca was a harbinger for what McNally’s future restaurants would bring to the meatpacking district, Soho and LES. Now, his ex-wife & former partner, Lynn Wagenknecht continues to own & run The Odeon with a new feather in her cap by the name of Cafe Cluny.

Follow-up Visit: Brunch at the Odeon is an enjoyable experience. With no crowds hanging over your table, you can enjoy al fresca dining in a relatively quiet part of Tribeca. And like dinner, the service is friendly although the food borders from good to mediocre.

The Chef: Vincent Nargi serves as executive chef, as well as menu consultant for Cafe Cluny. Nargi also created The Odeon’s no-frills brasserie menu, although staples like moules frittes were notably absent.

The Food: We started with the fried calamari, which had a little zest to the batter, was not soggy, and otherwise inoffensive. I was thankful for the lack of calamari with tentacles, as that can simply “gross me out.”

My dining companions all went with seafood, although the steak was tempting. The special for the evening – cod with lemon, butter, & capers was prepared with a light crisp to the skin but not overly excessive with the sauce. The Honjake Salmon was (by request) seared raw over asparagus. The simple preparation provided no means for dissembling poor quality, and despite my initial trepidation, I was delightfully surprised to taste an almost sushi grade salmon sans the characteristic strong “salmony” flavor so often paired with BBQ sauce. There was nothing outstanding nor offensive about the sea scallops.

The dessert menu offered a wide array of options, including a sundae and fudge. True to form, the desserts themselves were more like American comfort than French refined. Indeed, the best part of the desserts was the ice cream.

The Drinks: Good wine selections, with sufficient cocktail and beer offerings.


Mesa Grill

June 8, 2007

Though located on 15th and 5th, the number of suits present on a weekday night lend the restaurant a midtown vibe. But the food is good and despite its 15-year old age, the spot is energetic.

The Decor: At first glance, the cavernous space seems disjointed with no unifying theme. But on closer examination, the oversized industrial fans, pictures of a moon, and aerial photos come together to create a time-warp. Mesa Grill, dating back to 1991, is Flay’s first restaurant and its decor shows how far New York has come in prioritizing ambiance. Nonetheless, Mesa Grill’s industrial feel and multiple dining levels if not a little odd, stray far from garish.

The Chef: Bobby Flay opened Mesa Grill in 1991, focusing on traditional methods of preparation including grilling mixed with Southwestern spices. Flay retains the title “executive chef” at his flagship, despite opening Mesa Grill branches in Vegas and the Bahamas. His other New York ventures include Bar Americain and Bolo.

The Food: It’s not gourmet, but I can’t really imagine “haute” Southwestern. But the flavors are clean & fresh (albeit spicy!), and the dishes are skillfully prepared. The menu is more creative than a place like Agave, dishes requires more talent, and the ingredients are varied and more unique. To the restaurant’s advantage, like most Mexican & Southwestern influenced restaurants, the flavors appeal to a common sense of familiarity and comfort. In short, the food will not disappoint but it’s not something you’ll leave craving for again.

The tortilla-tomato soup was thicker than a French Tomato soup, and the burst of flavor left my fellow diners licking their bowls clean. The blue corn pancake with duck was very enjoyable to eat, although I doubt the intensity of the preparation. The duck appeared grilled and shredded almost like pork, the marinade was very good, and the concept as a whole was creative but I feel I could get close to preparing it in my own home.

The pork loin was probably the best dish at the table. It was evenly cooked, tender, and again, well-spiced – almost bordering on too spicy. The after-burn was anticipated by the chef, and the pork came paired with a sweet potato tamale. The cornmeal crusted chile relleno was obviously a step-up from the run-of-the-mill soggy relleno. While not delicately prepared, it was flavorful and bold.

Didn’t try the desserts. They’re apparently delicious, but didn’t look worthy enough to gorge on.

Drinks: The margaritas were not well presented, and the beer selection is limited to bottles with nothing on tap. For a cuisine that marries itself well with alcohol, I was surprised to find that the drink menu adhered mostly to hard alcohol than to cocktails or wines.


Agave

June 6, 2007

Great good, great atmosphere, and fantastic drinks. The downtown equivalent of Citrus, but better. It’s a timeless crowd-pleaser that never grows old.

The Decor: Outdoor seating is a plus. Agave also features a “tweener” space: glass-enclosed seating that provides the protection of indoor space but with the sensation of outdoor seating. Agave’s bar space is more comfortable for drinks than for a meal, although it does have a few two-seater bar tables for those wanting to eat. However, the foyer can get crowded and doesn’t make for the most relaxing dining experience. The indoor dining room is simply done and manages to be both casual and elegant. Agave is also very accommodating to large parties. In short, Agave is suitable for parents, dates, large parties, groups of friends, and drinking!

The Chef: As of 2003, Richard Pang from Malaysia served as chef de cuisine.

The Food: There’s no need to go into detail. The flavors are what you’d expect from Southwestern/Mexican food, but it’s not your run-of-the-mill gunky food. It’s masterfully (note, we’re not talking gourmet) prepared, super tasty, serves great munchies for drinking, reasonably priced, generous servings, assorted variety, vegetarian-friendly. But stay away from the desserts – it’s not their forte.

The Drinks: Loaded with fruit, Agave serves some of the best sangria in the city. And their margarita selection is fantastic, including cactus and a seasonal flavor.



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