December 27, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Pigging Out at Vareli 

Chef Amitzur Mor’s perfectly cooked scallops with market veggies. Photo: Steven Richter
Chef Amitzur Mor’s perfectly cooked scallops with market veggies. Photo: Steven Richter

        Vareli doesn’t really need you or me zooming uptown or wafting across the park to its rustic duplex in Morningside Heights for crispy pork belly or lush leeks carbonara. It is madly loved by the neighborhood as an oasis of bonhomie and good Mediterranean eats – something between grub and cuisine - in what is pretty much a food lovers wasteland. On a recent Friday Chef Amitzur Mor counted 400 covers between lunch and dinner. But it had lingered on my to-check-out list.

Candelight and a view of Broadway from upstairs at Vareli.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Then Michelin pinned its “good bib” rating on “this gorgeous little restaurant.” What the dining sleuth saw – barrel-shaped ceilings, polished copper bar, glassed-in fireplace and rock water wall – I might have missed, tumbling into a noisy, crowded narrow entry, collecting friends from the bar and muttering grumpily when directed to mount the steep stairs. Clusters of real candles in glass cylinders suspended from above pitch a golden glow on bare brick and sponged walls. I love how the street light and neon is reflected in a mirror. Big tables overlooking Broadway are packed with women celebrating a birthday. “Mommy’s night out,” our neighbor explains.

         The unusual little menu, the size of a quality paperback, has three pages devoted just to beer, stouts, ales and one of Steven’s favorite non-alcoholic brews, Clausthaler. He’s already in a good mood.

Octopus is twice as good on rich, house made labneh yogurt. Photo: Steven Richter

        Even if Michelin had not urged us to go for the grilled octopus, we would. We always do. I marvel that a creature unknown to my mouth before it first caught my eye at Periyali has become inevitable, a menu staple. Vareli’s version with chickpeas, Moroccan olives and Serrano peppers is tender and vibrant nested in rich labneh yogurt, house made from buttermilk. “Carbonara” always gets my attention too. Bacon, onion, egg (slow-poached in this case) make an inspired setting for braised leeks with croutons and shards of parmesan. A trio of elements: crisp pork belly, polenta, a fried egg, are straightforward and delicious. Sadly, another small plate from a list priced at $7 to $14, bits of cauliflower with tahini, chili and sage, is especially disappointing.

Fresh berries and dried fruit jewel this classic bread pudding. Photo: Steven Richter

        My roasted chicken is dry and boring even with its creamy polenta, rapini and lemon caper jus. Tonight’s lamb burger with harissa, tomato and pickled onions is not the best nor the worst of the month’s lamb burgers. But I’m taken by a generous collection of scallops, deliciously caramelized and gently just-cooked, surrounding a welcome gathering of pearl onions, breakfast radish, baby carrots and sugar snap peas…in a “preserved lemon barigoule,” the menu says.

It may seem like a long way from the chef’s years with David Bouley, but the occasional lemon barigoule shows the connection and he doesn’t feel exiled at all. His bosses leave him pretty much alone to shape the menu, and he has the pick of whatever he wants from their Westside Markets, the nearest a block away.

The Israeli chef fell in love with pig when he tasted his first pork chop at 8. Photo: Steven Richter

        “They’re the best people I ever worked with,” Mor says. “They give me the run of the market. I go every day and buy whatever I want: Humboldt fog, gorgonzola dolce, prosciutto di Parma.” If he runs out of rib eye as he did recently in the middle of service, “I call and have what I need 15 minutes later.” The letter from Michelin was sitting unopened in owner George Zoitas office. “What the hell is this?” Zoitas asked, handing it to the chef. “They probably want us to advertise.”

         “I opened it,” says Mor. “And I almost cried.” 
Tonight’s special suckling pig plate, the loin wrapped around ground porchetta sausage, with scattered batons of crispy skin and big fat gigante beans, hints of a cassoulet the chef plans to add this winter and it reflects the Israeli native’s passion for pig. “I’m getting more into pork sausages and charcuterie, just like any good Jewish cook from Israel,” he observes with a chuckle. “It started when I had my first pork chop at a Romanian restaurant, when I was eight years old” he remembers. “In Israel the Romanians are the raisers and cooks for pork.”

         Pig Tuesday at Vareli offers two courses of pork and dessert for $37 – sumac-rubbed pork chop or braised heritage pig cheeks perhaps. And it might very well finish with the fabulous warm brioche bread pudding the four of us are sharing tonight, studded with dried fruit and bacon on fresh berry compote.

         2869 Broadway between 111th and 112th Streets. 212 678 8585. Lunch 11:30 to 2:45 pm. Dinner 5 to 10:30 pm. Charcuterie and cheese at the bar till midnight weekdays, till 1:30 am. Friday and Saturday.

***

Lyon: Bouchon or Not to Bouchon

It looks like Lyon and I saw it on Greenwich Avenue. Photo Steven Richter

        Exiles from the shuttered La Goulue have managed to find its bon vivant host Francois Latapie in the wilds of the West Village at his new, cozy little Lyon, more formally, Lyon Bouchon Moderne. It remains to be seen whether the blow-dried Mesdames and their attendant merchants and hair-dressers will make the transformed 30-year-old Café Bruxelles space their new lair. But it probably doesn’t matter because the neighborhood has already discovered the new deal on this corner of Greenwich Avenue at 13th Street. There aren’t that many seats in the narrow back room, where the ceiling curves, giving it a railway dining car feel, and the bold red-and-white checked napkins match the waitresses’ shirts. It’s narrow. “I thought I would make it look like a train,” Latapie explains, “like the train you take from Paris to Lyon.” Got it.

If it’s a bouchon, there must be charcuterie. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our quartet shares the “butcher cut of the day” chalked on the blackboard – a Piemontese strip. Actually, cow was not in Latapie’s original dream. He traveled to Lyon to soak in the atmosphere of its unique bouchons, small, lively places dedicated to traditional Lyonnaise cooking. But early on he overheard a couple who had paused to read his menu posted outside, commenting, “Well, there is no steak so we won’t be going here.”

         “It’s not that a bouchon doesn’t do steak. Some do.” But he’d been thinking more about classic charcuterie, maybe even tripe. And of course, macaroni gratin with braised greens and Boursin cheese. Anyway, these days a restaurateur must be flexible. So now the steak of the day is listed on the blackboard.

Something between a tram and a train is what Latapie had in mind. Photo: Steven Richter

        The tram-like space by Roman and Williams is inviting, with a few booths, dark paneling, a candle melting inside a canning jar on each table, those big checked napkins, the men in navy aprons.

Pretzel dough makes a marvelous sling for Lyon hot dogs. Photo: Steven Richter

        We could have started with a Lyonnaise house aperitif: Montagnieu brut, “le Champagne Lyonnaise,” or a sparkling pink, Credon de Bugey, but our Gascon-born companion, reveling in the Frenchness of this place, has already chosen a $99 Cornas from the wine list and is having it decanted because of its youth. We’re sharing an $18 charcuterie board: country pâté, smoked beef, roulades of pig trotter and pickles, along with a side of “Lyon hot dogs” - truffled wieners with sauerkraut in a pretzel roll. I’m not getting even a hint of truffle but pretzel dough makes a marvelous sling. The lackluster country terrine could inspire one to cancel junior year abroad. “We should have ordered the terrine of foie gras and rabbit,” says another friend on a return visit. “It was much better.” He’s thrilled to have an outpost of France two blocks from his doorstep and leans toward forgiving.

The salad is unexpected frou frou for we boudin noir fans. Photo: Steven Richter

        The boudin noir fans at our table are surprised when the very good discs of blood sausage arrive buried in a toss of salad - spinach with pear and candied chestnuts in a big bowl, as if Lyon had gone a bit gaga. Alas, rubbery quenelles in a rich cream sauce with a tangle of trompette mushrooms disappoint too. Bay scallops have such a brief season, I can’t resist them, but these taste faintly of flour and I would like more elbows in my Boursin cheese. Still, I rarely encounter macaroni I can’t almost love. And the steak is meaty and marvelous, not too tender, not too tough.

The butcher cut of the day may be the best bet at Lyon. Photo: Steven Richter

        Though Latapie still plans one day soon to feed the La Goulue clan uptown where they can breathe the air, he is happy on Greenwich Avenue. He is sentimental about the Village. “I met my wife here. We used to go to the Bruxelles,” he recalls. He took chef Chris Leahy, a BLT Prime veteran, to Lyon for total immersion in the bouchon tradition. He will walk the line between bouchon and not too-bouchon while he sees what the neighborhood will swallow. “In Lyon they all do Lyonnaise food. They have to or they lose the stamp that they are an authentic bouchon, but each one is different,” he says. "Some toy with fashion," he reports. They might very well do the Szechuan pepper ice cream he serves with what is the saddest pear tart I’ve seen. And would the sorbets be quite so sweet? Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much. After all, it’s very early. It’s French. It’s charming. It’s the Village.

         118 Greenwich Avenue between 13th and Jane Street. 212 242 5966. Sunday noon to 10:30 pm. Friday and Saturday noon to 12:30 am.

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