December 22, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Next Bests of 2014: My Also-Rans

Soft and mysterious galouti kebabgs – minced lamb patties – alert us to the kitchen’s ambition.
Soft and mysterious galouti kebabgs – minced lamb patties – alert us to the kitchen’s ambition.

          I am not billed as the Insatiable Critic on some idle whim. By my very nature, I’m not good at moderation. It wasn’t easy settling last week on my ten best restaurants of 2014. Ten could so easily become 12 or a baker’s dozen best. Last week I forced myself to buckle down. I actually ran out of time and that helped me narrow the field. (Click here to read last week’s BITE.)  And below find the Also-Rans among the restaurants I reviewed this year. Any one of these might have become the 11th best or the 12th.


Eating with the Nawabs

Lamb on the bone is hidden in the meticulously cooked rice of this biryani.

          In a stretch of zip code where rather ordinary Indian restaurants come and go and some even linger, Awadh was a big surprise. Not just in its ambition -- the handsome serving platters, the cushy leather chairs, a wine program designed by a credentialed sommelier -- but in the kitchen. So many dishes to love, starting with superior papadum, addictive crisps of okra, and an appetizer of small savory lamb chops. The slow and slightly disorganized service is the only surrender to Indian restaurant cliché.

          Soft and mysterious galouti kebabs -- minced lamb patties under rings of red onion on tiny tortillas -- are a must. Small triangular hills of paneer – “cottage cheese dumplings” on the condescending menu -- are filled with chopped cashews in a creamy sauce emerging from a thick tomato-fenugreek soup. The whole-wheat layered ulta tawa paratha might just be the best Indian bread I’ve ever eaten. By the time the Awadhi lamb biryani arrived sealed with bread in its pretty clay pot, I could only admire the remarkable rice and chew a bit of lamb from a bone. Kulfi, even as smooth as Awadh’s, is no stand-in for the sorbet one might like after such excess. And this measure in a tumbler is stingy for $8. 25. 88 Broadway between 97th and 98th Streets  646 861 3604


Retail Royalty

Georgette’s luxurious chicken with little tabs of foie gras for two is studded with wild mushrooms.

          I liked the look of the tiled open kitchen and the French manor house swashbuckle of Rotisserie Georgette, although chicken being the point, it was rather lackluster on an early first outing. On my second visit, I found the kitchen had mastered the crusty “Poule de Luxe” for two with wild mushroom stuffing and small blobs of foie gras. A salad to share, a vegetable choice, and potatoes drenched in juices flowing from the birds as they turn on the skewer left room for the tarte tatin to share. Georgette herself arrived to scoop out a generous plop of crème fraîche on top. But at that point she seemed rushed and tense. Months later, friends who go regularly tell me both Georgette and the kitchen are on beat now. I need to see it myself. So for now, a favored also-ran. 14 East 60th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. 212 390 8060


An Argentine Dance on Stanton

It’s rare to get sweetbreads cut and cooked as they should be. Imagine finding them here.

          Balvanera, a happy discovery on the lower east side, didn’t make the top dozen for exactly the same reason: I hadn’t been since two no expectation evenings of mounting pleasure. Memories of excellent housemade chorizo and blood sausage, the meaty and flavorsome skirt steak with two sauces and the constant flow of grilled country bread were vivid. Surely, the matinee idol stance of the chef-owner Fernando Navas would have counted for points even if I hadn’t been wild about his mushrooms (three kinds in an iron skillet) with a poached egg on top and the creamy al dente bucatini with fresh favas and homemade ricotta.

It’s nice that we’re four so we can share several grilled dishes and have this rich bucatini too.

          Looking at the photo here brings back the perfection of sweetbreads with orange, cooked as sweetbreads should be, but rarely are. I needed a more recent tasting. Just writing this makes me hungry to go tonight. 152 Stanton Street between Norfolk and Suffolk. 212 533 3348 (Click here to read the full review.)


Sit Already: It’s Russ and Daughters with Chairs.

If your heritage is herring and cured fishes, you might be inspired to create a café like this.

          I owe an apology to you and to Russ and Daughters Cafe. Not that you need me to send you to the new cafe if you and your family are familiars of the Houston Street shop inspired generations ago by a pickle pushcart. But if, like me, you roost uptown, immune to the lure of pickled herring, you deserve notice that after 100 years with no place to sit, the shop’s current owners, Niki Federman and her cousin Josh Russ Tupper, have opened a great looking café not far away, with small plates and undeniably ordinary bagels. But even so, it’s delicious fun. At the counter bar, you can get an egg cream or a cocktail. We share a new era potato knish and potato latkes. You’re supposed to specify applesauce and sour cream, or crème fraîche and salmon roe. We ask for both. I am eating with a very thin friend. Not wanting to challenge her discipline, I didn’t order seconds. She orders the herring tasting.

I discovered I liked sable when Nobu called it black cod. I’d prefer a serious bagel from Black Seed.

          The Mensch, a sable sandwich with tomatoes and onions to stuff in, is not big enough to share, but I managed. The in-house Yenta introduces herself. I think I tell her that the babka didn’t need confectioner’s sugar on top. The halvah ice cream sundae with salted caramel proves to be a brilliant assimilation. I planned to come back and taste more before writing. But then…time marched on. It seemed so far downtown. 127 Orchard Street between Stanton and Delancey. 212 475 4881


Mountain Bird Seeks New Nest

No more chicken schnitzel until Mountain Bird is reborn a few blocks away in a new bigger space.

          Mountain Bird could have made the BESTS. I loved the avian-eccentric menu of this cozy cottage with just a chef and his wife doing everything. The lace curtains, the doilies under everything, the chicken schnitzel, the turkey thigh goulash, the creative cassoulet and the luscious macaroni-and-cheese. But when I googled, I was shocked to find Mountain Bird fallen from the nest. Keiko and Kenichi Tajima had been forced to vacate their dollhouse when the landlord demanded more rent. She was surprised to get my call yesterday, but seemed energized by good news. “We’re about to sign a new lease,” she said, just blocks away, with space for double the seats. She predicted it would take them nine months to get it open.


A Tuscan Homage to Venice.

When you open before all the décor is installed, you might post a promise if you’re Shelly Fireman.

          I could have rocketed Shelly Fireman’s new Florian into the lineup based on the brilliant highs of a Friends and Family excursion. It’s a handsome space, with marble and tiles from Pietrasanta where the Fireman have a second home, and some typical Shelly touches, like his own sculpture and a chair to take selfies in. But no no no, of course, I wouldn’t. A week later when it opened, I could see it was still shaking out. The fabulous chicken for two on a platter with miraculous roasted potatoes and veggies has been eighty-sixed for now, as deemed too difficult to turn out in a busy kitchen. The stunning seafood farro soup has been downsized and down-priced and needed more seafood. But the made-to-order vanilla ice cream was still four or five scoops of exaggerated richness. By the way, that’s Florian as in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Fireman is an advertiser, yes, but he is also a notoriously obsessed and involved restaurateur and this is his first east side venture. I’ll be back to taste and write very soon. 225 Park Avenue South at 19th Street, 212 869 8800


Blue Trout in A Recycled Garage.

I’m eager to get back to M.Wells Steakhouse for another taste of blue trout, PETA permitting.  

                     True, M.Wells Steakhouse actually opened in an old auto body shop in 2013 when I ate my first meal there, loving many of the wildly over-wrought offerings. Two more meals followed and my 2014 review.  I knew I’d be back soon to Long Island City for the too rich onion soup with a marrow bone anchored in the middle, the lamb tagine, and old fashioned cakes on a trolley. Just live trout swimming in a tank was enough for me. I appreciated that someone zonked the fish discreetly out-of-sight in the open kitchen and then served it nearly rigid with freshness, firm and sweet, piled sloppily with root vegetables and sour cream in a salty court bouillon with trickles of brown butter tartar sauce. It didn’t matter that the burger with a bone was just a burger with a bone stuck in its side and the steak I tasted lacked flavor. But this was almost a year ago. Recently devoted Wells fans reported an unhappy outing. I needed to check that out before Besting it. 43-15 between 43rd Avenue and 44th Road. 718 786 9060


Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Thin Pizza

Marta is noisy and tables can turn slowly, but it’s worth a wait for crisp curling Roman potato pizza.

          Marta’s curling thin crust Roman pizzas could have been designed for me. I especially liked the white potato carbonara. I am not a fan of the puffy elastic pudginess in most Neapolitan style pies. The potato croquettes with salami, maccheroni-stuffed meatballs, and the seafood fritti misti were wonderful too. I’d been grumpy waiting 15 or 20 minutes for the table we’d reserved to vacate.

Fritto misto di mare with skate, shrimp sepia and barchetti comes with a caper mayonnaise dip.

          But I was already letting go of my anger when the chef de cuisine himself came out to shave white truffle on a gift pizza from the kitchen. Ten dollar cocktails are a soften-upper too in this Danny Meyer-Nick Anderer enterprise, and I don’t mind $14 at all for the so-called bottle-aged Negroni in its own little bottle. Clever marketing. But I’d only tasted one entrée – the properly fatty short ribs our table shared.  I needed another go, I thought. 29 East 29th street between Madison and Park 212 651 3800.

Exorcising Ghosts on Upper Second Avenue

The new pricier chicken for 2 looked meager this summer but intense corn soup was world class. 

          I liked that The Writing Room wasn’t trying to be Elaine’s with good food. It bowed to the writers Our Lady of Second avenue pampered with a wall of photographs and the backroom library. But the bottom line was good grub, gentle prices, starting with the Parker house rolls as an amuse, wonderful chowders, nicely priced spare ribs, and excellent fried chicken with a biscuit. I loved the $38 rotisserie chicken for two with roasted root vegetables, and pasta just $12 as an appetizer. Small chocolate covered popsicles, three to the plate, were a sweet bite at the end. When word got around and the front room filled, the din was so painful, friends got up in the middle of a meal and walked out. Soundproofing helped. I was practically a regular for a few months. I’ve watched prices creep up, and in summer, the chicken looked skimpy without roasted vegetables. I was naïve, I guess, to think gentle prices were an immutable commitment to us ink-stained wretches. Therefore, also-ran. 1703 Second Avenue between 88th and 89th Street. 212 335 0075


Upland: A Work in Progress.

At Upland, you’ll want chicken with white beans or the lamb with dates and wilted lettuce.

          Like all of Justin Smillie’s fans, I couldn’t wait till he started stirring pots at Upland, his Flatiron brasserie in a handsome space decked out by prolific Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr. At that first early dinner, my friends and I were cheered by the charming courtship of the sommelier and a devoted waiter. We liked the squash blossom flat bread pizza, the unusual chicken liver estrella pasta and whole baby artichokes bursting beatifically from a bath in hot fat. A big, deep-fried hen of the woods mushroom to drag through a swatch of melted goat cheese was a worthy replacement a few days later. At a second and third dinner I discovered the chef’s gorgeous still life with branzino, a slightly too-cooked pork chop with lightly pickled persimmon, and the roasted lamb in very rare chunks with braised carrots and dates. I watched Smillie’s iconic roasted short rib evolve a new look – with too many peppercorns. And by the fourth dinner, with crowds pressing in, the house more and more difficult to book, I sensed a certain insecurity, as if dishes were still evolving. Okay. I’ve decided, we’ll see. 345 Park Avenue South, entrance on 26th Street just east of Park. 212 686 1006



NoMad Bar Madness

Ask for a table on the balcony upstairs to avoid the mad crush below at NoMad Bar.

          I wasn’t rushing to the new NoMad Bar. I’m not much of a recreational tippler or an anthropologist of cocktail culture. I’m not good at standup, or small talk, or giggling, or shrieking. I am not cruising for a pick-up. Mostly these evenings I’m into dinner. But my friend Wilford is a big fan of the NoMad “Bar food by Daniel Humm, a three star Michelin chef,” he tempted me. On the balcony, I sip my “Classic” Philadelphia Fish House Punch, overlooking the crush but unable to escape the roar. 

Tap a bar fly as your date and brave the uproar at NoMad Bar to share the fortified pot pie.

          After rather boring baked clams and a slightly stale onion flatbread, the bay scallops in a pucker of yuzu are a relief. The pork schnitzel on focaccia with tomato could become a habit (if I were more of a bar fly). But the $36 chicken pot pie with foie gras and an injection of truffle butter – meant to evoke NoMad’s signature $84 chicken for two – could be worth risking your eardrums. 10 West 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway. 212 796 1500


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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