Archive for July, 2008

Java Jerks of the Upper East Side: A Sampling of Super Expensive if not always Super Premium Coffee

July 25, 2008

1) Via Quadronno (73rd and Madison) Proudly and prohibitively expensive, this super-authentic Italian place sets the price point at private club levels.  Namely, your annual dues are included with each cup.  That said, it’s a decent shot, pulled with enthusiasm and authority by a rotating cast of characters.  Pleasantly and commitedly bitter cup. 

 2) Sant Ambroeus (77th and Madison) Best looking counter for coffee drinking in town. Cappuccinos are beautiful and expensive.  Espressos are expensive and not particularly beautiful.  Good thick crema.  Balanced enough flavor to make sugar unnecessary.  N.B. Waiters have itchy fingers for rounding error tips and don’t seem inclined to return metal change.  Such habits are fine for a cabbie, but they’re uncool here at almost five dollars for a double.

 3) Café Sabarsky (86th and Fifth) Espresso was burnt popcorn flavored on one occasion, merely burned on another.  Stick to the delicious drip coffee or the Viennese concoctions and you’ll be much happier. Available papers to read–in English and German–gorgeous Vienna café space and no rush from staff make up for shortcomings in the cup.  If you’re looking for a dessert coffee, and the perfect counterweight to the Starbucks milkshake in a mug, get your coffee here Mitt Schlag.  Real whipped cream is a thing of beauty.  

 4) Lady M Cake Boutique (78th and Madison) Winner for highest price in a high rent district.  Coffee is adequate to excellent.  Cakes–all of them-are delicious.  Not a place that sees a lot of male foot traffic.  That’s okay.  Skip Ray’s Pizza for a week and save your pennies.  This is a far more enlightened slice.

5) Pain Quotidien (84th and Madison)  The bread is anything but quotidian and the coffee is surprisingly good.  Table service may be erratic but counter folks are great.  I was charged a single price for a double, keeping me under 3 dollars for once.  A light espresso, in the French/Belgian mode, but perfectly adequate and served with, yes, a smile.


Don’t Drink at the Tavern (Gramercy): Buzz Kill at the Bar

July 25, 2008

I’ve always walked out of Gramercy Tavern happier than when I went in.  Yesterday, unfortunately, turned into a glaring exception to the rule. I stopped by around eight for drinks in a moderately euphoric post-squash match/post porcine Ippudo Ramen glow.  My intention was simple: Enjoy a pair of different cocktails I’d had my eye on when last dining there, then head home lightly loaded. Who would have suspected my audacious plan would be greeted with such hostility?  

My mistake was declaring my non-dining intentions up front to the bartenders.  I was subsequently greeted with a stretch of silent treatment and then the first and only bad cocktail I’ve ever had at Gramercy; I doubt it was a coincidence. The Rickshaw (Plymouth gin, basil and lime juice) had more ice than a Sno-Cone, less gin than a ginger ale-too many rocks, not enough Plymouth–and an unbalanced citric taste.  Potentially redemptive basil was a wan afterthought, as was followup service. The bartenders are far too good at their jobs to make such a mistake: This was a kissoff cocktail.  And the only thing worse than the bad drink was not being able to get another one.  There’s no clearer signal that you’re not wanted in a bar than waiting twenty minutes with an empty glass.

Conclusions: Gramercy Tavern is many things to many people; a tavern isn’t one of them. The bar serves as a combination waiting area for those planning to dine in the front or back rooms and dinner counter for those wishing to eat in either but unable to secure a table.  It is absolutely not a bar at which one can, or is welcome to, have a drink during regular dinner hours.  At least that’s how I felt after my service experience last night.

GT is one of my all time favorites and has been for years. The cocktail, wine and beer lists are exceptional and the food has only gotten better since Michael Anthony took over. That said, the place can’t or won’t meet certain needs. A pleasant round of imbibing from the highest margin section of the menu seemed like a good deal for all involved, but apparently it’s not part of the plan at a place that’s only a tavern in name.   Sit down and enjoy enlightened hospitality.  Stand up and suffer unenlightened hostility.

5 Stars (Risen and Rising) of the New York Food World

July 23, 2008

1) Amanda Kludt:  As Editor of Eater, her snappy prose and relentlessly frequent updates have helped turn the young web site into the top food media compiler for the City.  In a little more than a year it’s become the web site, if not the paper, of record for New York’s food industry.   Everyone from Chang to Zakarian calls or writes in to comment when an issue hits the media.  The thriving DOH Chronicles and Deathwatch features have entered the lexicon and nightmares of an entire city’s worth of restaurant owners.

 2) Juliette Pope.  Proof Danny Meyer is the City’s topic talent scout.  I can’t find a bottle I don’t like on Gramercy Tavern’s casual or formal menus thanks to its genius beverage director, nor one that I can can forget having ordered. Her wine and cocktail lists are among the most influential in town and the only ones in a 3-star restauarant to list bottles under 30 dollars.  No stunt selections, no Le Cirque markups, no duds, and plenty of surprises.  See Belinda Chang at the Modern as well.  After hearing her talk and reading some interviews, I hope she puts up a blog soon.  She has a great voice which would translate well to the Web.

3) Kim Severson:  In the last year or so Severson has become the go-to writer for all New York Times food stories in dining, metro and the front page.  With food shopping turning from pleasure to problem in many households, her voice will be an important one as consumers balance an interest in local, fresh and flavorful with a sudden crisis in safety and cost. 

4) Mary Mraz:  Mary has brought Gramercy Tavern level service off the island, out of the boroughs and all the way to the North Fork Table and Inn.  Rather than make do with a shallow local talent pool, she trained and retrained a corps of servers from the ground up. It’s the best front of house outside the City, and that’s saying something.  Proves enlightened hospitality is far more exportable than seemed possible.           

5) Heather Belz and Mani Dawes: With the additions of El Quinto Pino and an all Iberian wine shop called Tinto Fino to their lineup, these women are on their way to building an empire of Spanish food and drink.  Well managed growth and deep commitment to modern and classic Spain—from Tia Pol’s pintxos to Quinto Pino’s more innovative uni sandwiches to Tinto Fino’s wonderful sherry selection–make them one of the few pairs of restaurateurs able to serve food and drink with equal commitment to innovative flavors and specific regional perspectives: No pan-Iberian pandering here!    

A New Stop on the Taco Trail: Patty’s Tacos at 86th and Lex

July 23, 2008

A promising  taco truck has recently set up shop on the northwest side of 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, and the neighborhood food scene will never be the same.  Patty’s (or Paty’s as the menus and truck read)* Tacos is delivering a taco revolution to a neighborhood so bereft of good  Mexican as to lack for even a Taco Bell. 

Yes, The Burger One is a step in the right direction for portable bargain bites of the Mexican variety, but other than its modest offerings, Lex Mex is an oxymoron until the upper nineties.  Crossing the economic border from the UES into Yorkville, foodies and those willing to talk to them have only the good willed but moderately bland Cinco de Mayo, the seriously bland Taco Taco, and the Zocalo priced ripoff shack–and Michelin favorite–Maz Mezcal to choose from.  It’s bad enough that there’s so much white brick over here.  It’s even worse when the food is as bland as the architecture.  None of these local restaurants merits the sweaty walk from the subway, so save your money and time and stick to The Burger One and Paty’s.

So on to the food.  The selection of meats for the tacos, burritos, sopes and tostadas is notably broad–chicken, beef, chorizo, pork al pastor and enchilado, tongue, cecina and shrimp are not just promised but delivered.  The salsa selection for now is limited to an avocado based number familiar to fans of Peruvian chicken fave Pio Pio, but perhaps more will be available as business picks up.   Crema and queso mexicano are as authentic as anything in Queens or Hamilton Heights and don’t need any embellishing.

N.B. Be ready to order and eat on Mexican time.  Everything is made to order, and everything takes a while to put together, from glasses of horchata, sorrel water and bottles of Mexican sodas, to the the sopes, huaraches, burritos, tacos and soups.  Be patient with the order but don’t wait too long to eat it once the food is ready.  This food has the shelf life of McDonald’s fries.  A trip to Best Cellars or Mr. Wright and on to Carl Schurz or Ruppert Park would make for quite a picnic!

This is just a preliminary post, so I’ll put up more info soon. I intend to keep on digging into the remainder of the menu this week on both the food and beverage ends.  I’m particularly keen to try the tostadas with fatty cow feet–“patas”–which I’m told will be back tomorrow.  “Habrá patas mañana, señor.”   Sweeter words have rarely been spoken atop the subway grate on Lexington.   

A final suggestion.  Avoid the canker-sore inducing Horchata.  It’s way past saccharine.  Get a Jarritos tamarind soda instead and toast the best news on the UES food front in quite a while.

*There’s no double tt in Spanish.  Of course, nor is there an apostrophe.

Best Mex on Lex: The Upper East Side’s New Top Taco

July 15, 2008

The Upper East Side has a new top taco, and it’s being served at The Burger One on Lexington between 79th and 80th. Hot, fresh and cheap carnitas, chicken and beef numbers are made to order with just the right blend of blistering green salsa, biting chopped onion and cooling cilantro.  Half-wrapped in foil, they are astoundingly portable:  I can eat two before I get to my stop at 77th and Lex and rarely spill more than a squirt’s worth of salsa on my Mountain Khakis.  That said, these tasty tacos are even better at the counter.  

When time permits and I can’t afford to Pollock another pair of pants, I grab a stool, watch a little Telemundo and listen to the cooks and countermen wrangle the exuberant stream of customers, most of whom are blue collar and almost all of whom are more comfortable conversing in Sunnyside Spanish than Quogue English.  Taking a seat also gives me time to enjoy the great selection of Mexican beverages recently added to the menu, including Cane Sugar Cokes—no ethanol corn syrup American variety here—Jarritos fruit sodas and various house made Aguas Frescas. 

After a year of steady visits, I can safely say this place isn’t going away any time soon. The once tentative and tiny taquería inside an old burger shop is now a full fledged Mexican lunch counter with a precise regional perspective.  It knows what it can do well and it does it.  Cooks happy to serve their own cuisine and clients happy to eat it have revitalized and repurposed a once stolid neighborhood restaurant and added a little pep to a still stolid neighborhood.  I can only hope that this transformation is the start of a major trend in the area.  Most every kitchen on the UES speaks Spanish; it’s about time some of the food did too.