Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Food Lover's ABCs of NYC

Believe it or not, I began eating out in New York City years before I started blogging about my experiences.  Oh, how I wish I had commenced the writing sooner!  I fear so many of my former favorites may not take priority for blog postings, as I so dearly love trying new culinary experiences in this city of seemingly infinite offerings.

Luckily, I have submitted much briefer summaries of several restaurants as a surveyor for Zagat -- New York City's bible of dining guides.  Surveying for Zagat poses a unique challenge in that it demands not only that I numerically assess each restaurant on various criteria, but also compose brief, yet relevant written summaries of no more than 400 characters (an oftentimes quite stressful challenge for this particularly boisterous boy who loves to ramble about his epicurean excursions).

Since so many friends regularly ask for dining suggestions, and so many restaurants I've surveyed might not receive full features here, I am at least posting below my own Zagat summaries for over 50 restaurants I have experienced.  This is neither a comprehensive list of the restaurants I have tried, nor the canon of establishments you should try.  Hopefully, it's just a sampling that will give you a taste of my own critiques of a fraction of the places I have dined.  When available, I have also made each name a link to their website.  Enjoy!

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5 Napkin Burger (630 Ninth Ave.)

So much more than just a burger, but everything on the menu demands at least 5 napkins.  Not for those afraid to get their fingers messy.  How can you go wrong with a footlong kobe beef dog, pastrami/pickle wraps, & a fried onion tower?  The lobster roll sliders are a playful twist on a New England favorite.  The only drawback is a staff less than knowledgeable.  Know the menu before you go in.

Alice’s Tea Cup (102 W. 73rd St.)

Don your favorite pair of fairy wings (the staff will be wearing them, too), and step through the looking glass to this scrumptious cottage of tea & crumpets.  An exhaustive list of every brew imaginable, towers of tasty finger sandwiches, and jumbo eclectic scones make for the ideal conversation spot.  Whether with your favorite book or best friend, it's well worth a trip to Wonderland.

Arté Café (106 W. 73rd St.)

Go for brunch, but scramble out before dinner.  The frittatas and pastas are simply delicious, but I've been presented a frighteningly pink chicken parm on far too many occasions.  Delivery has taken significantly over an hour or more, as well.  But for a tasty brunch, add on the all-you-can-drink mimosas and bloody marys, and maybe you won't notice your chicken is still chirping.

Steak tips, crudite, kielbasa and fingerling potatoes plunging into a pool of bubbling blended cheeses makes for an absolutely fantastic feast of fromage fondue.  Begin with their incomparable steak tartare, and finish with a cheddar cheese crusted apple tart tatin.  Be sure to order a cone of gougeres... literally bite-sized clouds of cheese.  This bistro is certain to amuse your bouche.

Babbo (110 Waverly Pl.)

Come with a unified table and leave unanimously satisfied.  Though your expert server will try to steer you toward a personalized tasting, the deal here is the pre-set array of pastas, requiring the entire table's participation.  From pomodoro pyramids to poppyseed cake, the tasting tapestry will tempt every single taste bud.  Splurge for the wine pairing for an evening you will regale forever.

Bamboo 52 (344 W. 52nd St.)

Explosively fun drinks & a playful staff make up for a menu that, while adequate, is sometimes inconsistent.  The volcanoes are served in tiki glasses, and pack a powerful punch with flaming 151 floaters.  Clever spins on drink classics (a pomegranate mint julip) hit the mark far more than the fusion sushi (cold BBQ chicken wrapped in rice).  Go for the affordable cocktails, great DJ, & patio.

BareBurger (33-21 31st Ave. -- Astoria)

Organic never tasted so sinfully delicious.  The hot new burger spot on Astoria's ever-growing food strip.  Choose from a Mr. Potato Head array of options to dress your bison, ostrich, or beef burger.  Hand cut fries with an assortment of dipping sauces, thick banana chocolate milk shakes served with the extra in a frosty side tin, and a burger ready to duke it out with any of its competitors.

Bettola (412 Amsterdam Ave.)

The quintessential NY brunch: wood oven baked pizza topped with an egg as you dine al fresco on the UWS.  For dinner, the spinach lasagna with ragu and bechamel is quite possibly the city’s tastiest stacked dish.  For exceptional rustic Italian cuisine, bring your i-Translate, because the staff isn't particularly fluent in English, and they often seem off-put if you expect them to be.

An upper west side institution with a ridiculously epic menu, serving up diner food on steroids.  Try the sloppy joe pizza with sliced hot dogs or the sumo burger (the name says it all).  Where else can you get anything from a quesadilla to a gyro, from potato pancakes to pizza?  It's not gourmet, but for a place that's open 23 hours a day, it sure hits the spot for a late night craving.

Bistro Les Minots (47-16 30th Ave. -- Astoria)

Affectionately listed in my Rolodex as Bistro Les Miserables.  My friend's chicken roulade came still wrapped in plastic, and the escargot looked more like a fast food breakfast sandwich plated by a five-year-old set loose with condiment bottles of grape jelly and guacamole.  Save yourself the headache and a roll of Maalox.  If you love french cuisine, this most certainly is not it.

Blockheads Burritos (322 W. 50th St. at the Woldwide Plaza)

The summertime place to gather with friends.  With Tex Mex fare teetering on mediocre-at-best, the sangria & margaritas are cheap & tasty.  For an outdoor setting with friendly staff & tables of guests often eager to mingle, go with a group to fend off the birds.  If you feel a tickle on your ankle, it's probably not your co-worker playing footsie, but rather a pigeon pecking at tortilla crumbs.

Brasserie Ruhlmann (45 Rockefeller Plaza)

The perfect pre-Radio City Music Hall meal, just a hop away from the famed home of kicking legs.  Make sure someone at the table orders the beef short rib bourguignonne... the red wine braised dish is exquisite.  Pair it with a side of the truffled macaroni and cheese, and you'll spend the first hour at Radio City licking your lips, and wishing you'd smuggled in a doggy bag.

Peek behind the curtain at this upscale Midtown hotel to find out what makes the wizard really tick. A paradox of its surroundings, expect nothing more or less than one of the city's best burgers. Order 2 if the line is long, so you don't have to wait for the inevitable second helping. After devouring a brown sack of french fries & a pitcher of Sam Adams, you'll walk out texting all your friends.

Café Boulud (Surrey Hotel, 20 E. 76th)

The more accessible sister of Daniel, sitting in its renovated former location.  With a flawless menu built around four muses (the garden, world cuisine, classic french, and seasonal selections) you will melt over anything from short rib dumplings to artichoke agnolotti.  Disregard the somewhat sterile dining room; you won't be looking past the napkin of warm sugar dusted mini-madeleines anyway.

Café Mogador (101 St. Marks Pl.)

The city's best homemade hummus. Creamy, fresh, absolutely divine spread, endless baskets of warm pita, & a glass of red wine are reason enough to return again & again.  You almost forget that the entrees showcase Moroccan cuisine at its best (the tagines, oh my!), because if you never got past the hummus, that would be ok.  This unassuming, cozy subterranean restaurant delivers every single time.

Café Ronda (249-251 Columbus Ave.)

Tapas never tasted so bueno... Corn on the cob lathered in cream & cotija cheese with a dusting of chilies & lime zest.  A breath of fresh air on the UWS, from oven-baked eggs in cast iron skillets at brunch, to rose-petalled cocktails in the evening, it's the perfect date spot.  If your evening goes sour, stop after the empanadas.  If things look up, stay for the paella & a cocktail or two...

Cafeteria (119 Seventh Ave.)

The only restaurant with a bouncer and a line winding longer than the clubs next door.  What's all the fuss about?  Maybe the Mac Attack (an addictive trio of three variations on a theme), or the absolutely mouthwatering country fried steak and garlic smashed potatoes.  Hit up this joint during its off peak hours, but you'll miss half the hype of watching inebriated hipsters fumbling over sliders.

Calle Ocho (446 Columbus Ave.)

Holy FREE sangria buffet! Book a reservation for a Sunday, and make no post-meal plans beyond an extended siesta. Brunch is tasty, with a playful taco cart roaming the room, but dinner is where the chef shines (hands down, my favorite paella in the city). For both meals, enjoy a dangerous spread of 8 complimentary sangrias. Start at one end of the table and stagger your way down before passing out.

Casselula (401 W. 52nd St.)

Pig's ass never sounded more appealing. That's right, the pig's ass sandwich with fol epi, fiscalini cheddar, & chipotle aioli will keep you returning.  From tantalizing small plates, to a generous wine & cheese selection (try the fromage flights), you'll be hard-pressed to find a staff as eager to guide you through a palate-pleasing night. Though the wait can be lengthy, it's worth every minute.

Crispo (240 W. 14th St.)

Ask for a table in the back courtyard... it altars the experience entirely.  Northern Italian cuisine to die for... the arancini di riso (fried risotto balls) are the perfect amuse bouche, while the spaghetti carbonara crowned with a golden poached egg will ruin this classic dish for you anywhere else; it simply couldn't be done better.  Crispo tickles the senses from absolutely every angle.

Denino’s Pizzeria (524 Port Richmond Ave. -- Staten Island)

If a miraculously crunchy thin crust is your craving, hop on the ferry to try this Staten Island favorite.  Their motto is "In Crust We Trust." Pizza purists can tuck their virtues in the sock drawer, because the margarita here doesn't shine.  Go for the MOR pie, with meatballs, onions, and ricotta, plop a dime in the juke box, and crunch into a pizza that keeps the locals lined up for MOR.

DiFara (1424 Ave. J -- Midwood, Brooklyn)

A slice at $5 or a pie for $25 (you save 37% to get the pie, so bring a friend).  Well-worth the trek into Brooklyn to this no-frills street corner slice shop, Dom makes every pie himself, trimming fresh basil with scissors onto the bubbling three-cheese blend.  Is the cost a bit much? That's up for debate...  But what exactly is a fair price tag when you can literally taste the love?

Frying Pan (Pier 66 Maritime at 26th St.)

This formerly sunken, barnacle-clad lightship has who's-its-&-what's-its galore.  Grab a bucket of beer or a pitcher of sangria, a clam bake or a steamed lobster tail and a side of Old Bay garlic fries, and head to the pier for the ultimate summer evening with friends on the Hudson River.  Found your sea legs?  Snag a table anywhere on the rocking boat if the bustling pier-scene cramps your style.

Gotham Bar & Grill (12 E. 12th St.)

Picasso-worthy platings you'll be worried to poke.  Culinary artwork at its finest, you'll want to photograph every dish.  Unfortunately, the entrees don't always paint on your actual palate nearly all the flavors they suggest.  This upscale village hotspot delivers a tasty meal, nonetheless.  Withhold on an extra appetizer, and splurge on dessert... where the flavors finally do rival the canvas.

Grand Café (37-01 30th Ave. -- Astoria)

Don't show up in a hurry, because the menu will arrive just about the time you were hoping to settle the check. This greco-centric neighborhood staple is a place to relax with a frothy frappe, and dive into a great conversation or prime people watching along Astoria's Grand Ave.  Entrees are marginal (avoid the plasticky pizzas). Split various appetizer samplers for the tastiest stars of the menu.

Grimaldi’s (19 Old Fulton Street -- DUMBO, Brooklyn)

Under the Bklyn Bridge, it's the van Gogh of NY pizza.  The colors & flavors swirl together in glorious harmony, as the fresh mozzarella & tangy tomato sauce dance away from each other & then back together like little wisps of cirrus clouds.  The cannoli are filled to order with light, sweetened ricotta, dipped in chocolate sprinkles with a dusting of powdered sugar.  Walk back across the bridge.

Gus & Gabriel (222 W. 79th St.)

Gastropubs are all the rage, and this hidden gem won't disappoint.  Try the crisp-breaded fresh mozzarella balls, or the lamb shank with homemade fettucine & porcini demi-glaze.  Be ready for a call from the friends joining you, because it's tough to spot under an apartment stoop.  Pub is a bit misleading, as the bar only squeezes 4 stools.  Grab a table in the back room with the flatscreens.

Il Bambino (34-08 31st Ave. -- Astoria)

The best panini in five boroughs.  This star of Astoria has people traveling from all around for the sopressata & garlic butter panini or truffled egg crostini.  Anything but pretentious, a cartoon pig painted on the wall helps non-connoisseurs learn about the various cuts of pork.  Now with a bar selection, grab a table on the back patio and enjoy the blend of tapas and charcuterie.

Isabella’s (359 Columbus Ave.)

Classic New York brunch that consistently impresses.  From filet mignon benedict to caramelized banana stuffed french toast, to a bag literally made of chocolate stuffed with mousse & seasonal berries, this is a cornerstone of the UWS.  For dinner, try the chef's specials, from Mediterranean seafood grilled to perfection to ricotta-filled pasta pillows in bolognese.  You can't go wrong here.

Jean Georges’ Nougatine (Trump International Hotel, 1 Central Park West)

Why walk through Nougatine to Jean Georges (it shares the same kitchen), when here you can enjoy the city's most delicious prix-fixe lunch.  Combine any 2 plates plus dessert from a selection of almost 20.  Filet mignon drizzled with miso butter paired with slow-cooked salmon on a porcini poblano compote: a lunch in the Trump Hotel that has the right to tell its competition, "you're fired!"

John’s Pizzeria (260 W 44th St.)

Literally the midtown sanctuary of pizza, this former gospel church with stained-glass dome ceiling now boasts two coal-fired ovens as the culinary altar.  Perfect before or after a show on the Great White Way, share a large pie along with their fragrant pesto fettucine.  For value, location, and a proverbial New York pizza, why would you want to tithe anywhere else?

Keste Pizza e Vino (271 Bleecker St.)

It's about as close as you'll get to Naples in New York City.  These heavenly pillows of roma tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala take only 90 seconds to puff to perfection in the brick oven, and just about as long to devour.  Classic neapolitan pie at its finest, prepared by master pizzaioli, there's no mystery as to why the crowds amass outside this Bleecker Street porthole to the Roman gods.

Le Cirque (One Beacon Court, 151 E. 58th St.)

If French cuisine fused with a contemporary American approach is your piece de resistance, then you've hit a faux pas.  Boldly plating authentic, buttery, robust French fare is the plats du jour at this Manhattan establishment.  With a magnificent glass wine silo, monkey statues and playful circus decor reminiscent of a big top, at Le Cirque you will hear no evil, see no evil, taste no evil.

Lombardi’s (32 Spring St.)

If for no other reason alone, Lombardi's is worth experiencing first hand New York City's (actually America's) first licensed pizzeria.  Skip the trio of pizza dynasties that stemmed from this forefather, because the pies here are certainly as tasty as any of it's successors.  Be sure to take a detour back to the kitchen where you can witness the pies being juggled from the century-old brick oven.

Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar (207 Second Ave.)

Unwilling to break the bank at neighboring Ssam bar? Jump through the graffiti to this playfully decadent bakery. Savory light fare like the pork belly/cucumber buns are out-of-this-world. Grab a glass of berry milk to wash down the aptly named crack pie (gooey pecan pie sans the pesky pecans to pick off). You're fooling no one if you order to go. These goodies will be devoured within a block.

Momofuku Ssam Bar (207 Second Ave.)

Look up fusion in Merriam Webster, and you will surely find a photo of Momofuku Ssam Bar.  Where else can you sip on a Jamaican grapefruit soda while nibbling a playful spin on steamed chinese buns with Kentucky pork belly?  Outrageously delicious, stop by for the $25 prix-fixe lunch.  The rice cakes are like szechuan fried gnocchi.  This wooden den packs exquisite surprises in every bite.

Motorino (349 E. 12th St.)

Neapolitan pies are bringing in the dough around town, but Motorino delivers the best additions for a rounded out Naples feast.  Mortadella was never showcased so beautifully, and octopus tossed with red pepper flakes and lemon almost upstages the pie.  While the margherita pizza is nearly untouchable, experiment with toppings like brussels sprouts.  The no-joke tiramisu is worth the trip alone.

Ninja (25 Hudson St.)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon called... they want the cast and sets back for their amusement park theme show.  If exploding sashimi and appetizers on dry ice entice you, while samurai warriors drop from the ceiling at the most inopportune moments, then book yourself a table.  Mediocre cuisine and steep price tags are the real magic trick, because somehow people keep coming back for more.

Nonna (520 Columbus Ave.)

If grandma cooked like this, who'd ever leave the house? The star of this UWS gem is the 6-course A to Z Sunday feast for $20.  The croutons on the caesar salad are filled with warm molten parmesan, and the almond-honey dipped zeppoles sweetly hug the roof of your mouth as the perfect parting bite.  Ideal for any size group, once you try it, you'll never feast elsewhere on a Sunday night.

Ocean Grill (384 Columbus Ave.)

From Jonah crab claws to the lobster cocktail, the shellfish castle to the selection of 6 different oysters under $3 each... this cold bar is one of the best in the city. Graduate to the jalapeno lobster-hamachi sushi roll or the Chilean sea bass with shrimp-edamame wontons, and you'll see why seafood doesn't come fresher or more succulently-prepared anywhere else. Be sure to book a table ahead.
Patsy’s Pizzeria (2287-91 First Ave. -- East Harlem)

Perhaps this very first Patsy's in NYC shouldn't try so hard to remain exclusive from the others. If the server didn't tell you, you'd still be able to taste that it's the oldest... and not in terms of expertise.  Stray from the often soggy-crusted undercooked pies; go for the eggplant rollatini or a pasta dish, and you might walk out unscathed.  The cheesecake is more of a weeping brick of ricotta.

Pera (303 Madison Ave.)

Discard any prior notions of Mediterranean shish & falafel; Pera flawlessly exemplifies  what Turkish cuisine can, and should be.  Tempt yourself with a playful meze like the soujouk lollipops, and then savor a brilliant oregano pesto lamb tenderloin that has been fire-kissed on the 10-ft open flame grill.  A sophisticated dining experience, from expert staff to breathtaking platings.

Pinch & S’Mac (474 Colmbus Ave.)

A dreamy compromise for both the indecisive foodie and A.D.D. non-gourmet. Here, pizza is ordered by the inch (PINCH) where you can change toppings every 4 inches! Start with hot dogs & smoked mozzarella, then change to grilled shrimp with pesto & goat cheese. Grab a side of mac 'n cheese (S'Mac) with variations from cheeseburger toppings to tikka masala. Better yet, try the mac 'n cheese pizza.

Pomaire (371 W. 46th St.)

Splurge on NYC's oldest Chilean restaurant. From expertly grilled sea bass, clay pots of seafood gratin, to the traditional pisco sour -- you will be transported to South America's finest kitchens cooking with flown-in fresh ingredients. Doubtful, but If you have a run-in with a server, don't make a face at the bartender or host; it's more than likely they're related at this family-run business.

Rosa Mexicano (1063 First Ave.)

No other restaurant more deliciously juxtaposes traditional Mexican cuisine and a holistic fine dining experience.  Whether the amate gods welcoming you at the door, the table-side guacamole prepared in volcanic rock, the garlic & spice-rubbed lamb shank steamed in parchment paper, or the tangy frosted pomegranate margaritas, this east side location is the definitive Mexican culinary fiesta.

Sac’s Place (25-41 Broadway -- Astoria)

The king of Queens when it comes to coal-fired brick oven pizza, with handwritten daily specials & a selection of five deliciously different raviolis homemade by mama in the back. Don't be intimidated if the server probably knows everyone else in the dining room, or that the regulars catch up with one another across the tables.  They'll welcome you once they know you're a fan of the family.

Serendipity 3 (225 E. 60th St.)

If the wait time mortifies you, presume it most likely frightened away the 5 tables ahead of you, as well, and you are actually next on the list. These folks love to over quote, so don't drift too far. When you finally do sit down, don't fool yourself. Skip the savory, and head straight to the sweet. When a menu offers a $1,000 Golden Opulence Sundae, it's okay to have a dessert (or two) as your entree.

Shake Shack (Madison Square Park, 23rd St.)

Is a burger and prosecco in the park how you roll? Jump in line, because this mother of the 3 Shake Shacks draws a hefty crowd (and some bold NY squirrels, too). Have an aversion to anything that moos? You'll drool over the meunster/cheddar-stuffed fried portobello of cheesey deliciousness. Tip: send a friend to the B-line to grab a frosty beverage while you wait in the A-line to place an order.

Spitzer’s Corner (101 Rivington St.)

This LES gastropub is where it's at. Grab a group of friends or make some new ones as you squeeze into a communal table in this dim-lit den of deliciousness. Though the exotic array of specialty brews are the showcase here, how can you go wrong with a dutch oven of mussels steamed with herb spaetzle, or a homemade seafood sausage?  Truffle mac-n-cheese never tasted so good with hefeweizen before.

Tao (42 E. 58th St.)

You won't even realize you're raising your chopsticks in a former Vanderbilt carriage house. A 16-foot Buddha floating on a koi pond in this massive arena of pan-Asian cuisine illuminates the ultimate decor wow factor. If debating between an extra appetizer or a dessert, go for the previous. Though the sweet endings are lackluster, the miso-glazed sea bass skewers will be reason enough to return.

Toloache (251 W. 50th St.)

You may want to take full advantage of the nearly 100 varieties of tequila before crunching into a grasshopper taco.  If salted creepy-crawlies don't tempt your taste buds, fear not... the pomegranate-mango guacamole or the tilapia-jicama tortas are less fear factor and some of the tastiest Mexican plates in Midtown, served by a staff that creates the atmosphere of a dinner party with old friends.

The View Lounge (Marriott Marquis Hotel, 1535 Broadway, 48th floor)

While the dining room serves a prix fixe menu, the lounge buffet (1/2 the price) is the secret in NY's only revolving restaurant in the sky. Gaze at Manhattan from breathtaking vantage points, dip strawberries in a chocolate fondue fountain & sip some of the city's most playful cocktails (the Fizz blends champagne, vodka, mango, & fresh berries). Leave after sunset but before 9pm to avoid a cover.

Zero Otto Nove (2357 Arthur Ave. -- Bronx)

Artisan pies from a coal-fired oven in the heart of the Bronx's Little Italy have addicted loyal patrons from all over the city & beyond.  The reason to stay for an extra glass of vino, however, is the architecture.  Stroll down a replica of a Salerno alley to a glorious Italian courtyard.  After, jump across the street to the Italian Market, or snag a cannoli from one of the many superb bakeries.

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