August 31, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Bar Luna/Co. Pizzeria

 I challenge the waiter to deliver this chicken seriously juicy. Photo: Steven Richter

I challenge the waiter to deliver this chicken seriously juicy. Photo: Steven Richter

        Amsterdam, Columbus, even Broadway, form a vast minefield of eats.  At night, wandering home from dinner, we navigate on guard to avoid a sidewalk collision with the great masses of neighborhood seekers and dawdlers spilling out of sidewalk cafes. Remembering the 60s, when Columbus Avenue was a hostile no-man’s land and Amsterdam deserted, it’s cheering to see the boom.  Still, my personal dining map has limited stops - Oeust, Dovetail and Eighty One when I’m feeling flush, constants like Salumeria Rosi, Compass and Fiorello close by. Favorites like Fairway Café and Celeste betrayed us once but eventually I’ll go back. Gus and Gabriel will beckon when I’m feeling skinnier. And now executive chef Jacques Belanger has moved uptown from Tom Valenti’s West Branch to run the kitchen at the new Bar Luna.  And from this first tasting, it looks promising.

Architect’s Glen Coben’s design is sophisticated for upper Amsterdam.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Turgut Balikci, a 20-veteran in this neighborhood, sprung for an ambitious rehab of what was once Neptune by architect Glen Coben, with shocking pink frames on beveled mirrors, brushed white-washing of bare brick, small niches for votive candles. And we’re eating to the beat of Michael Jackson.

        Even our French guests are impressed with tonight’s special head cheese and rabbit that is moist and full of flavor in a tangy nest of green olive and preserved lemon. I’ve given up on rabbit myself, it’s so often like sodden cardboard. Our friends like our server’s recommended wine, a red Sancerre ($46), more than I do because it’s light and “goes with everything.”  I had my eye on a Côtes du Rhone for ten dollars less.


Chef Belanger turns out a wide-range of starters and tonight’s headcheese. Photo: Stevn Richter

        Wary after 40 years of overcooked chicken, I challenge the waiter to deliver tonight’s bird seriously juicy.

        “Some people send it back for more cooking,” he boasts.

        “That sounds like it might be just right for me,” I say.  The flesh is surprisingly moist, riding in on stalks of perfectly cooked asparagus. Even the dreaded white meat is juicy under crisped skin and splashes of smoked paprika vinaigrette.  Grilled asparagus makes a great starter too, with white anchovies and a poached egg on top decked out in herbed bread crumbs. Maybe the burrata I once swooned over is losing some wow factor. (Or freshness?) It seems lackluster tonight on roasted red peppers and four little deep-fried gizzards tumbling out of their coating taste faintly of old oil. For some reason all the bread tastes stale. Could it be that it is? The crisp thin white truffle “pizza” is actually flatbread and any truffle scent is elusive, but after all it’s cheese, fat and salt, good if you eat it hot.

A generous portion of Bar Luna’s tagliatelle Bolognese is just $16. Photo: Steven Richter

        The Road Food Warrior’s tagliatelle Bolognese is perfectly fine. But be warned, a single raviolo hiding an egg with sheep’s milk ricotta in a limp broth minus any oomph of the advertised truffle and parmesan is not a stand-in for an entrée.

        Prices seem high for starters, mostly $9 up to $13, but modest for entrees, $15 to $19.  With two desserts, a luscious buttermilk panna cotta with peach puree and very ordinary cheesecake with strawberries, an extra antipasto and that $46 wine, we are spending $55 a person.  Seems high to me for a casual dinner in the neighborhood. Apparently it pinches less when you carry Euros. Yet,I agree with Frank Bruni, the Avenue can use it.

511 Amsterdam Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets. 212 362 1098. Open Sunday to Wednesday from 5:30 to 10:30, Thursday to Saturday 5:30 to 11:30.


The Moon Hits Your Eye, Like a Big Pizza Pie

This sausage and fennel pie shows the bubbles and blisters of its Neopolitan idol. Photo: Steven Richter

        It looked like I would never get to taste the pizzas at Company or Co., as owner Jim Lahey insists on calling it.  I’m a fan of Lahey’s crusty bread at Sullivan Street Bakery, but I don’t go to places that don’t take reservations. Well, almost never. I certainly don’t take $20 cab rides from my home to stand half an hour waiting for a table.  But our friend Nastassia said she knew someone to call.

The invisible three at the head of this communal table is us.  Photo: Steven Richter

        We walk in the door and three seats at the communal table are waiting. I’m not a Girl Scout either and I would never choose the communal table, although I must admit sitting where tables are close, at Boqueria for instance, it might as well be kindergarten.  Anyway, we have the end of the bare wooden groaning board to breathe in so I decide to just have fun. All three of us are wild for our roasted fennel with garlicky sausage pie, a properly free form oval (“our pies are not always round,” the menu warns, or maybe, boasts.) Bubbly, blistered, wondrously savory - it’s only flaw to me, that classic Neapolitan sogginess in the middle.  The mushroom, tomato and pork sausage-topped Boscaiola is nearly as good. I’m drinking Langhe Nebbiolo by the glass and Steven has a lemonade (since there isn’t a non-alcoholic beer on a brief, distinguished beer list). 


A couple of “toasts” and the artichoke salad with parmesan at Co. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m tempted to order some of Lahey’s wonderful country bread and a side of ricotta, but even I am occasionally piqued by a tinge of carbohydrate regret.  Instead, the three of us share two smallish crostinis (cherry tomato and pinto bean) and a bowl of ribollita, Tuscan bread soup. You’ve got to love cabbage as I do to adore this thick ugly porridge. Co.’s is good enough, but no match for the great ribollitas in my life.

        A nightly special of strawberry shortcake sundae isn’t really worth $10 but the satiny chocolate bread crumb torte is as rich and seductive as a good truffle can be.  And enough for three at just $6.

        Our waiter’s constant dance and speedy clearing makes me feel that quick turnover is the theme here.  And I’m not counting, but how many times will he ask, “Is everything tasty?”  I want to answer: “If it isn’t tasty, why are you serving it?”  But all I say in response to his pesky query is “Thank you.” The Road Food Warrior and I would probably be back for the pies if we lived near enough to walk by, hoping for a lull in the crowd’s demand. At one time, maybe I’d have stood in line to meet Warren Beatty or John Updike. But I’m not ready to queue for pizza. 

230 Ninth Avenue at 24th Street. 212 243 1105. Lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 am to 3 pm, dinner 5:00 to 11:00 pm, Sunday 11:00 am to 10:00 pm. Closed Monday.

Cafe Fiorello