Thursday, May 22, 2008


Akdeniz is a lovely, inexpensive, few-frilled Turkish restaurant at W. 46th between 5th and 6th. It came with a high recommendation from a Turkish acquaintance. It delivered on its promise.

I had an addictive loaf of Turkish bread, which is chewy and in its being served in long broad strips that have to be torn, reminded me somehow a little of focaccia. I ordered just two dishes: lebni, a yogurt, walnut, and dill dip, and falafel. The lebni was fantastic, combining the cooling power of fresh, thick fage-like yogurt with a subtle crunch of walnut and a hint of edgy sourness. I wanted to eat every drop of it off the plate. The falafel was good, but not as great as the lebni. Several thick falafels were served with a tahini sauce. Overall, the whole dish was a little too mild for my liking. It was still good, however. The bread and lebni alone made this restaurant return-worthy in my opinion, and merits it a recommendation.

Stars: 4/5


Avra was one of the first places I ate at in New York. I remember having a delightful Sunday brunch there a few years ago, a brunch filled with honey and vanilla wafting through the air on a bed of Greek french toast. I have dreams of oregano fries and Greek-spiced eggs and a lively atmosphere that introduced me to the everywhereness of great New York food.

So it was with some trepidation and some excitement that I went back to Avra for lunch and sampled their more workaday Greek cuisine. It turns out they haven't missed a beat.

Starting with their wholesome Greek bread served with a dipping sauce a little reminiscent of a thin hummus, just about everything was quite tasty. We started with cooked lima beans -- the weakest dish served, because to my taste they were somewhat overcooked -- and moved on to a wonderfully chewy Greek oven-baked cheese. We then tried immensely garlicky (in a good way) zucchini chips served with a cool yogurt dipping sauce. For my main course, I had a delicately-cooked Greek pasta in a fresh tomato sauce and feta cheese. Oregano fries were crisp and as attractive as I remembered them.

Perhaps my only hesitation (though it is one of Avra's charms) is that this food is not particularly fancy, and could easily have been served at a much humbler restaurant. But what you get here is good, well-seasoned and adeptly cooked food in a nice atmosphere and with solid service.

Portions were generous, and prices, if not cheap, are reasonable for a beautiful and lively place in midtown. It's filled with people doing business lunches on the weekdays, and would be the perfect place for a laidback yet elegant dining experience.

Stars: 4/5

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Fiamma is an Italian restaurant in Soho, on Spring St. between Sullivan and Sixth Ave. After you enter and your coats are taken, an elevator takes you to the elegant second floor of the restaurant, filled with curvaciously fluted vases and decanters and snazzy Italian artwork on the walls. A quiet atmosphere pervades the place.

Food was often pretty but unfortunately disappointing in taste. I had a vegetarian tasting. My first course was a white asparagus whose pecorino and mint foam accompaniments did not form a cohesive whole. My second course was a set of fried mozarella and squash blossoms with marinara. These were deep-fried in a batter. The marinara was rich and delicate, with onion accenting and giving texture. But the blossoms themselves did not have the crunchy shell they should have. They tasted like they had sat a little too long, and the oil had sogged up the batter. The third course was a tagliatelle with ricotta inside. The ricotta filling was dense and lemony, but it was just too heavy and simply did not taste that great. My final course was a simple "vegetable dish" that the chef had prepared, full of spring greens (I had called ahead and indicated that there would be vegetarians in the group). This was crunchy and tasted decent, but was hardly anything special. It felt a lot like the hot version of a salad. Dessert was a strange chocolate cake layered on pistachio shortbread and topped with a scoop of basil gelato. Again, not a combination that worked all that well. Though it was inventive.

My companions who ate meat-based dishes had similar reactions, though there were one or two dishes they liked.

Servers had a good attitude, but they also messed up twice, in delivering the wrong courses and in charging us for a bottle of wine they should not have (they corrected it when it was pointed out).

Overall, this is not a restaurant that I'd recommend, given the very high prices and the decidedly shrug-inducing (or worse, perplexing) flavor of the food.

Stars: 2/5

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Ilili is a new Lebanese spot on 5th between 27th and 28th. Sleek wooden lines forming boxes on the ceiling and dark red drapes in the front give Ilili a sleek modern feel. The menu is meant to be shared and structured that way, and has plenty of vegetarian options. Unfortunately, the food is only good, not spectacular.

I'll give quick summaries of the many dishes I tried:

Pita bread - a little too tough for my taste, but warm and otherwise reasonably tasty
Hummus - Good but slightly too sour, and I'd prefer it served warm ala Hummus Place
Baba Ghanouj - competent but somehow not compelling
Warm eggplant - a tasty, tangy take on eggplant, cross sections of eggplant are served with a tomato-based sauce. This dish had a nice texture, and again, shows this restaurant's tendency towards sourness. But overall it was tasty and had me going back to seconds.
Salad with palm - this was a very plain salad, and the palm was good.
Brussels sprouts -- Here Brussels sprouts were cooked with fig puree, walnut, and mint. Tasty, but not as good as the sprouts at Alta. The sauce detracted from the crispness of sprouts that can be so pleasing.
Duck egg with kashkashar cheese - The duck egg is not fertilized. This is an excellent dish, the standout of the table. It's listed under the "meat" section but is actually vegetarian. The dense texture of the egg and cheese meld together seamlessly and have a pleasingly bite and savor.
Falafel - These were a bit dry and did not come with nearly enough Tahini sauce.
Cheese rolls - These spring rolls with a blend of feta and kashkashal cheese was tender on the outside and had a pleasing saltiness on the inside. A moderate winner.

Overall, the service was elegant and the decor enjoyable, but the food only above-average. A qualified recommendation.

Stars: 3/5

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Yakitori Totto

Yakitori Totto is a snazzy Japanese restaurant on W. 55th between Broadway and 8th. On the 2nd floor of the building, Yakitori is of modest size, but has a cool private room with wooden door that does not reach the ceiling, an open kitchen that acts as a bar, and nice if not 100%-fluent service.

We ordered a few different vegetarian things. Wontons with cheese in them were like high-quality mozzarella sticks, except that they used some kind of cheese more akin to swiss. These were tender and tasty. A cold udon noodles with dipping sauce was clear and refreshing. Roasted eggplants were creamy; yams were crispy but seemed perhaps a little undercooked. Green peppers were slightly spicy and had a nice flavor. The sake we ordered with the meal was decent and cheap.

Overall, a very nice atmosphere, and good food. I look forward to trying more Japanese food and expanding my culinary outlook.

Stars: 4/5

Bocca Lupo

Tried Bocca Lupo on Henry St. t Warren in brooklyn Heights today for brunch. Absolutely delicious. This charming trattoria stands on a corner, its sides mostly windows, cheerfully facing the world. Delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice, excellent bruschetta (I tried two flavors: fava bean and asparagus), a clean and elegant sunnyside eggs dish with asparagus and pecorino, and two great desserts in the form of a nutella and banana panino with whipped cream and an amaretto bread pudding with raspberries and mascarpone made for a superb brunch. Every dish was well-conceived, well-cooked, and used top-notch ingredients. And the prices were not unreasonable. Highly recommended.

Stars: 5/5

Friday, May 9, 2008

Croissants at La Tropezienne and Samba in East Harlem

Surprisingly good croissants at La Tropezienne in East Harlem at 110th and 1st -- though it's bread, macarons, and eclairs all left something to be desired (the last the most -- it was kind of mushy). But the pain au chocolat was actually quite excellent: flaky, buttery, and delicious, with pretty decent chocolate.

Stars: 5/5 (for the chocolate croissants) and 3/5 for everything else

Bad croissants at La Tropezienne's E. Harlem neighbor, Samba Bakery. This French bakery's almond croissant was heavy and soggy from the almond filling, and the filling didn't taste that gret either. Bad stuff.

Stars: 1/5

Patsy's East Harlem

Patsy's East Harlem is the original Patsy's, and it exists a series of stores on a block of 1st Avenue between 117th and 118th. I firs twandered ionto the sit-down store, but when I wanted slices, I was directed to the slice pick-up place three doors down.

The slice joint is tiny, just large enough to stand in, basically. I ordered two plain slices -- that's all they had -- and got two slices with tender crusts, slightly runny cheese, and light, bright sauce. I liked the crust, and the cheese was decent, but the sauce was a a little too underspiced for my preference. Good pizza, but definitely not great, and not a destination pizza. Just another slice joint.

Stars: 3/5

Thursday, May 8, 2008


I'd heard a lot of great things about the baked goods at Almondine, a little bakery in Dumbo on Water St across from Jacques Torres chocolate. It can be annoyingly hard to find. I was glad when I finally stopped by, though. The pain au chocolat was excellent -- close to, but not quite as good as the excellent chocolate croissant at Petrossian's Cafe. Its main problem was that it yielded just a little too easily for my preference. The mini-baguette I sampled was similarly very high-quality, if just a little too tough for my pleasure. I also tried a creme brulee that was high on flavor but was a little too thick and heavy for my liking. Overall, though, this is no question an excellent French bakery and a star in its class.

Stars: 4/5


Luzzo's is a rough-hewn Italian pizza and pasta place at 14th and 1st ave. Craggy walls and craggy service reflect a rustic cuisine and a sensibility that takes pride in the humble roots of, for instance, pizza.

And pizza is what Luzzo's is known for. To prepare for it, I ordered a pinenut and greens salad, which came with a balsalmic vinegar dressing that was a touch too strong, though the cooked ricotta cheese ball on top was a nice touch. The pizza I ordered came with parmesan, mozarella, and cherry tomatoes. While the ingredients and crust were generally good, the crust was a bit too chewy. More problematically, there just wasn't enough spice or oomph in either the sauce or the cheese. The whole pizza was way too bland -- even on the salt I think they skimped. This is a pity, because I had high hopes for this place. And at the prices they charge -- $18 for a 12" pizza -- this cannot be justified. For pure Neapolitan pizza, Una Pizza Napoletana and L'Asso are better bets.

Nevertheless, it looks like Manhattan's best pizza overall remains square slices: at Lazzara's and Sullivan St. Bakery (with Adrienne's, Maffei's, Pizza Pala, and Adrienne's coming in as decent runners-up).

Stars: 3/5

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Trattoria L'Incontro

Trattoria L'Incontro is a giant Italian restaurant off of Ditmars Blvd. in Astoria, which, despite its bulk, maintains its gourmet chops. The atmosphere is light and airy, with high ceilings. Families and groups congregate at many of the tables. Room after room opens up as you walk through the place. Overall the atmosphere is fairly casual and inexpensive. The decor is not particularly inventive.

Food was tasty and an excellent value. The bread basket was a scrumptious beginning, and I especially liked the warm pieces of focaccio that looked and tasted a lot like Indian naan bread. The bread came with a tapenade made from sundried tomatoes. An appetizer of sauteed mushrooms was tender but a little underspiced, but my eggplant parmesan entree was well-cooked, simple, amply loaded with cheese, and satisfying. This is traditional red-sauce cooking, but it is done very well.

Stars: 4/5


Despana, on Broome just west of Cleveland Place in Soho, is a small Spanish gourmet grocer and deli which also sells sandwiches and Spanish pastries. I went there to try their vegetarian sandwich, sandwich -- a bocadillo on Sullivan St. bakery ciabatta, and filled with mixed greens, white asparagus, tomatoes, olives, aioli, and, for an extra $0.50 (the sandwich is normally $8.00), some manchego cheese.

Unfortunately, this sandwich did not do it for me. The ingredients were not bold enough or flavorful enough to make it go beyond the sum of its somewhat humdrum parts. The bread was good, but I already knew that.

I also had churros and hot chocolate for dessert. These are two small churros, each about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of a normal churro you might buy at a concession stand. They are also much denser and chewier. I found them good but not bursting with flavor. I liked the hot chocolate all right, but it is clearly not a ganache-based hot chocolate -- it used cocoa powder, and did not seem to have been completely mixed (I got a couple of "bits" of cocoa or something in it).

Nevertheless, the grocery part of Despana impresses me a lot more. They take the time to put in small samples of several of their products, including varieties of honey, vinegar, olive oil, and Spanish salsa, that you can taste on small tearings of bread they thoughtfully provide. These were without exception tasty products. That's where Despana has focused its attention, and it shows.

Stars: 3/5

Saturday, May 3, 2008


I went to the original outpost of the now three-chain franchise of this popular high-end Italian restaurant recently. My impressions of it were of a kind of high-end, casual with an glinting edge bistro that gave me an impression of Europe. Mostly middle-aged couples sat at tables and enjoyed the food. Somehow they struck me as the types of people who had heard Falai was "a good restaurant" and were going there for that reason than for the food per se. Though I could just be projecting.

Anyhow, the service was excellent, if slightly fawning. I ordered a buffalo ricotta flan, with pine nuts, cauliflower, and a candied apple to start. This was bland and unsatisfying, and the ingredients did not mesh into a coherent dish.

My second course, a papardelle with trumpet royale mushroom ragu, was considerably better. A nice, hearty, slightly nutty taste to that made me want to keep eating. A side of fig puree provided a touch of sweetness that cut the savor of the ragu and added a tasty complexity to the dish. The presentation of the dish was fairly plain, though, and I couldn't help but think that though I enjoyed this dish, it is not a dish that showed culinary magnificence.

Dessert, though, was something else. Falai's passionfruit souffle is ultralight, airty, subtly fruity, and has sugar coating the walls of the souffle that remind me of candyshops and childhood. This was a really topnotch souffle, no question about it.

Overall, except for that souffle, though, Falai strikes a note of indifference in me, and while it certainly isn't bad, it didn't win a place in my heart.

Rating: 3/5

Bar Veloce

Had a glass of wine and a panini at this cool-looking, narrow bar in the East Village. It's a great spot for crowd-watching, with a mirror at the bar so you can see everyone around you without looking around.The panini - an arugula and cheese sandwich I got -- was just average, but the wine was good and the atmosphere relatively fun, if not particularly comfortable.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, May 2, 2008

Cafe Sabarsky

Cafe Sabarsky is the Viennese cafe inside the Neue Gallery on the Upper East Side. The beautiful wood-paneled room is nearly as it was in 1914 when the mansion in which it was the dining room was constructed. A piano player taps softly in the background as you sip your Weiner Melange (cappucino, basically) on beautiful white porcelain and much on your Viennese pastry. I ordered apfelstrudel (an apple pastry with raisins in it) and sachertorte (gingerbread-tasting cake with apricot filling and a chocolate coating on top). The pastries tasted fresh and authentic -- not too sweet, but quite honest to their original cuisines. Cafe Sabarsky uses quality ingredients. This is a wonderful and relaxing place to spend an afternoon.

Rating: 4/5

Gujarati newsstand place

The Gujarati lunch counter located in the former newsstand is indeed excellent. I went there, and for $8 (not $6 anymore like the link reports), you get plenty of food: two generous helpings of curry, rice, several chapatis (tortillas, essentially), Indian pickle, and a small Gujarati sweet. The curries were a nicely spicy, crunchy where appropriate, oily in a good way, and basically homemade-tasting. The rice and chapatis also tasted simple and good and homemade. This is basically excellent Indian cafeteria food. It's not served prettily: everything's plastic and the surroundings are dingy. Nor is the food the height of elegance or cleanliness in presentation. Nor is this food super-complex or innovative. But the taste is there. And ultimately that's what matters.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Casa Mono

Casa Mono is Mario Batali's tapas bar at the corner of 17th and Irving Pl., in Gramercy. It's a dark and cozy little tavern with the kitchen at the bar, and the waitstaff bustling in the narrow isles to serve their patrons.

Strong, pungent (and tasty) flavors: that's what I took away from my Casa Mono experience. Admittedly, the ensalada mono combined bitter greens with chopped sweet pimiento almonds and slices of a mealy cheese and turned out to be refreshing and slightly sweet. However, ramps were a smooth bitter cut by romesco sauce, and had an addictive, tender-but-chewy texture. Pimiento peppers were oil-soaked and piquant, slightly bitter, addictive, and impressive. Dessert was crema catalan: a kind of slightly thinner creme brulee burnt properly on top, leaving the the cream itself served mostly cool -- as it should be served.

Service was polite and formal, but went out of its way to be accommodating. I sat at the bar, and got to watch the kitchen the whole time, which was a treat. Wine was tasty but expensive ($15 for a cuarto of a wine that goes for $13/bottle).

One caution for vegetarians: they smear the grill with some kind of chicken or duck fat. I have to shrug and just deal with it, because god knows what they do at most restaurants. But if you're particular, you should beware.

Stars: 4/5