(My apologies for not including photos with these short reviews. My camera went missing for a week or so and it turned out one of my sons had it. To think that he wanted to take photos of jam bands rather than food. The nerve.)
Scarpetta - Can you imagine if an author kept writing the same book over and over again? I don't mean a rewrite of the same themes, I mean a near copy of the exact same words. Well that's the best way to describe Scott Conant's restaurant, Scarpetta, where he has decided to serve the same food that he was cooking at L'Impero five years ago. One wonders whether Conant ever heard of the concept known as progress? Making matters worse are small portions and lackluster execution. Take Conant's goat entree. He uses a culinary trick that chefs often use to save money by shredding the meat off of the bone and composing it on the plate. Though it looks like a large amount of food, it's actually a small amount of food that is piled up to look substantial. Even worse, the goat meat gets dried out in the process of being manipulated. I have to say I was shocked at the mediocrity of the experience after reading some positive reviews of the restaurant. But I am sure that Frank Bruni will give the place two, or even three stars. After all, if it's Italian Bruni usually genuflects unless the restaurant's owner is named Ago. Acceptable (Barely)
Benoit - On the plus side, the food was perfectly fine. On the minus side, the idea of repackaging a classic Parisian bistro and bringing it to NYC makes my skin crawl. Aside from that, I was intrigued by the low price point (entrees in the $25 range.) But then my food arrived (I ordered a chef's salad and then salmon with sauce Choron) and I needed a magnifying glass to see the food. Actually the salad wasn't as small a portion but that was pretty much lettuces and leftover scraps. But my salmon brought new meaning to the word skimpy. Same with the steaks that my sons ordered. They were tasty but it was as if the the meat was sourced from miniature cows. However the food tasted (and the various sauces that came with the food were superb,) I couldn't help feeling as if I was eating at a bistro that was run by a large corporation where everything was pre-measured and geared towards making sure $X dropped to the bottom line. It's a great way to run a business, but it puts a damper on the spirit of the dining experience. As usual Mrs. P out it best when she gave it her vaunted "there's no reason to go back" rating. Acceptable
Not that long ago, a new restaurant opening in New York City meant that investors had funded a seven figure installation as well as huge overhead for staffing the kitchen and the front of the house. But over the last few years, many young chefs and entrepreneurs have shunned large capital investments and instead have been opening smaller restaurants featuring cuisines that are based on top quality market ingredients combined with highly competent cooking. Restaurants like Prune, Tia Pol, Spotted Pig and Degustation are a few that come to mind, where the chef is talented enough to be running a kitchen that turns out 200 or more dinners a night, but who have chosen to work in a setting that is not much more than a bar or pub serving between 50-100 covers a night.
One of the best restaurants to open in the genre was Resto, which is sort of half bar/half restaurant, and which resides in the middle of E. 29th St, equi-distant from Park Avenue South and Curry Hill. Resto's chef is Ryan Skeen, who for some reason that has never been properly explained, decided to showcase his talent through the prism of Belgian cuisine. But for many of us who are familiar with the restaurant, the Belgian theme is almost an affect and the real draw at Resto is the superb ingredients that Skeen sources from various producers in the Northeast. For example, I have no hesitation to say that his 28-day aged Cote de Boeuf from Four Story Hill Farms is among the five best steaks one can get in New York City. That he serves it with a nice, bitter greeens, and some very good double cooked fries with mayonaisse (otherwise known as Belgian style,) only adds to the gustatory pleasure.
I had originally planned to write about Fiamma Osteria. Okay it wasn't much of a plan. I was looking for a last minute dinner reservation and I clicked onto Grub Street to see if I could find someplace interesting to eat in their Openings & Buzz section. It was there that I noticed an announcement that Fabio Trabocchi had begun his rein at Fiammia. I knew Fabio from his work at his prior restaurant, Maestro, which was located in the Northern Virginia suburbs of D.C. The guy is a serious chef, and snagging a reseravtion to the restaurant on short notice that would have been perfect.
So I pick up the phone and dial the restaurant. A reservationist answers the phone. She is female and from the way she sounded, she couldn't have been more than 23 years old. I introduce myself (a neat trick as it seems to help in getting a reservation) and I ask for a table for two at around 8:00ish. She responds by saying, "can you give me your phone number please?" Phone number I say to myself, what the hell does she want that for? So I I ask, "why do you need my phone number? That usually happens after you give me the reservation." She goes on to explain that she can't check to see if they have a table available at that time I requested until after she puts my phone number in the computer. Hearing this makes me a bit ticked off but that choice do I have?
If you asked people which recent restaurant openings have made the biggest impact on the Manhattan dining scene, their lists would likely be limited to places like Per Se, Masa and Hearth. But if you asked me for my list, I would include two lesser known restaurants, who, in spite of their not being temples of fine cuisine, have earned their place on the list because they have redefined the inexpensive dining experience . You ask how Tia Pol, a tapas bar in Chelsea, and Momofuku, an Asian noodle bar in the East Village, could make such an impact? Well that’s an easy one. Both restaurants have found a way to deliver the same market based cuisine you will find at the top restaurants in town. And all for a price that everyday diners can afford. I know you find that hard to believe, but at both restaurants you will find dishes that use the same ingredients they use at places like Daniel and Craft. But for a cost of between $8-$15 a dish. Take a walk over to your local Greek Coffee Shop and see what they give you in that price range. You are likely to find meat or fish that was frozen, and served with vegetables that come from a can. I know that by now you are saying to yourself, this sounds too good to be true. But I assure it it’s not.
Casa Mono- Batali does tapas. And not a half-bad job of it either, although there is much more cooking going on than there would be at a traditional tapas bar in Spain, and that's what puts this restaurant at the top of the category. The lomo with squash and pomegranate seed and the skirt steak on onion marmalade are really the size of small entrees. Makes for a good lunch or a casual dinner. The space is so cramped that I prefer eating at the bar. It's best to share plates between two people—that’s the easiest way to get to taste six or seven different dishes. The kitchen can be erratic and that is somewhat of a downside.B+
Lomo with Squash and Pomegranate Seeds at Casa Mono