If anything, for sentimental reasons, I've posted Frank's last post from the NY Times.
QUESTIONS upon questions upon questions: they’re a restaurant critic’s real diet, fed to him by friends and strangers, in phone calls and e-mail messages, at cocktail parties and the gym. Say the words, “I’m a restaurant critic,” and the floodgates open.
“Where should I take my 92-year-old grandmother for brunch in Midtown, keeping in mind that I’m a vegan and she’s not?”
“Is there a Sri Lankan restaurant on the North Shore that you particularly like?”
I don’t have answers to those two, which are of my own invention but not far afield from the norm.
I do, however, have answers to many actual questions that I never managed to address, lacking enough hours. To that end I’m using my last column as The Times’s restaurant critic to correct lapses, attend to unfinished business, rummage through a cupboard of leftover advice and opine on an array of matters that didn’t come up often, or at all, in other articles.
What follows are questions that I was often asked or that I wished I’d been asked, along with responses. More of each can be found on Diner’s Journal, a Dining section blog.
I have to give two answers, because the absolute best I encountered in New York over the last five years is Masa, but that’s a recommendation of limited usefulness. A meal there is upward of $400 a person. I haven’t been in a long time.
So I’d like to single out Sushi Yasuda as well. There you can have a wonderfully intimate, pampering omakase experience — a seat at the counter, a chef seemingly devoted to you and just a few other diners, sushi being prepared just moments before you eat it — for under $100 a person, not counting drinks. Still a major treat, but much, much more manageable.
WHAT ABOUT THE BEST STEAKHOUSE?
There’s no one answer to this, because steakhouse selection is so particularly dependent on a diner’s mood and sensibility.
If a certain corny, musky ambience is what you like, and a steakhouse need only have one great steak, then a place like Sparks — and its strip — will please you mightily.
But if you want a steakhouse with an array of strengths, and you’re after a more contemporary ambience, you’d do better at, say, Porter House New York or BLT Prime. Porter House has improved since my one-star review years ago; the porterhouse on my most recent visit was superb. And there’s a decent, accessible wine list, something many steakhouses, including Peter Luger, don’t have.
Peter Luger on its best night has an outstanding porterhouse, but the lights are always too bright and the service usually too gruff. That’s the thing with this city’s steakhouses: there’s almost always a drawback, a limitation.
Harry’s Steak down near Wall Street has a particular tucked-away charm. Strip House has great sides and an inimitably cheeky atmosphere. Keens has the most Old World charm; its mutton chop — a misnomer, but a glorious one at that — is worth the trip alone.
Minetta Tavern, while not billing itself as a steakhouse, might be my favorite, but is near-impenetrable by anyone without inside connections between 6:30 and 10:30 p.m.
IS THERE ANY BEST, SAFEST WAY TO NAVIGATE A MENU?
Scratch off the appetizers and entrees that are most like dishes you’ve seen in many other restaurants, because they represent this one at its most dutiful, conservative and profit-minded. The chef’s heart isn’t in them.
Scratch off the dishes that look the most aggressively fanciful. The chef’s vanity — possibly too much of it — spawned these.
Then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.
Choose among the remaining dishes.
WHAT DISHES FROM RECENT VISITS WOULD I BE SMART TO SEEK OUT?The fusilli with tomato, octopus and bone marrow at Marea is a revelation: original and so very, very right. At a different restaurant a few years back, a dining companion noted that marrow had a “druggy” taste and effect all its own, and I thought that adjective was perfect. This fusilli dish is indeed druggy — and an example of what makes Michael White such an inventive, intuitive master of pasta.
A few dishes at Locanda Verde linger in my thoughts (and desires), especially the blue crab and jalapeño crostini, the toasted almond semifreddo and the rice custard gelato. The restaurant’s pastry chef, Karen DeMasco, impresses me more and more all the time.
In a crazily porky city, the Red Wattle chop that the chef Jean Adamson serves at Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn got my attention, respect and love: it’s a big hunk of superior meat for $24, and comes with a generously portioned fingerling potato salad.
WHERE CAN I FIND GREAT VALUE?
At some of the more expensive, extravagant restaurants in New York, that’s where. Value doesn’t mean a low price: it means you’re getting a lot for what you’re paying.
At Eleven Madison Park, for example, the $88 prix fixe includes five one-bite amuse-bouches per person, terrific gougères, unlimited bread with both goat’s milk and cow’s milk butter, an appetizer, an entree, a dessert amuse-bouche, dessert and petit fours. Plus you’re sitting in comfort in one of the city’s most beautiful dining rooms, with many polished servers attending to you.
At Momofuku Ssam Bar, where you’re encouraged to build a meal from a sequence of small, medium and large plates, you’d probably need five selections, including dessert, to match that amount of food, and you could easily spend $68 in the process. And what you’ve given up, for a $20 savings, is the ability to make a reservation, a real chair (the restaurant is all backless stools), comparably pampering service, etc.
I’m not denigrating Ssam Bar: I love both of these restaurants. But you could argue that Eleven Madison is the better value — and there’s a larger point here to keep in mind before dismissing expensive restaurants.
WHERE DO YOU SPEND YOUR OWN MONEY TO GO OUT TO EAT?
I’ve spent my own money at Peasant, in NoLIta, which has a mood that often suits me, great rustic bread that comes with creamy ricotta, fun make-your-own panini in the wine cave, a wonderful stuffed poussin and a laudable liver fixation manifest in separate dishes of suckling pig liver, squab liver and rabbit liver. The Bar Room at the Modern is a stylish, easygoing place in a section of town — Midtown — where way too much feels staid and boring. The menu structure lets you tailor your own experience, and there’s a serious wine list. It can be low- or high-impact, as you wish.
FOR BREAKFAST OR BRUNCH, WHICH ARE THE KINDS OF MEALS YOU OFTEN STAY IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD FOR?
I’ve gone with some frequency to Cafe Luxembourg and to the Fairway Cafe above the supermarket on Broadway at 74th Street, both of which have terrific chicken salad sandwiches. Cafe Luxembourg is a Lynn Wagenknecht restaurant, an association I mention because I like most of her restaurants — the Odeon, Cafe Cluny — better at the start of the day than at the end. Each does breakfast foods and the breakfast atmosphere very well.
NAME SOME UNDERRATED RESTAURANTS
Underrated is a funny word; overlooked might better characterize some of the ones I’d like to draw fresh attention to.
Chatter about Perbacco, an Italian restaurant in the East Village, died down too quickly, and I still know too many food lovers who haven’t been. While much of its menu is ordinary, the dishes that blend the avant-garde and traditional Italian cooking make a trip here very, very worth it.
Many diners seem to have forgotten about Degustation, adjacent to Jewel Bako, in the East Village. It’s a particular experience: counter dining; limited menu. But the cooking is accomplished and adventurous.
Near Union Square, 15 East does first-rate sushi without top-tier prices, along with some other excellent Japanese dishes.
If you’re an uni lover and haven’t been to Soto, you must go. Just know that the sushi isn’t the restaurant’s strength, and is a waste of a visit here.
I think the chef Kevin Garcia’s restaurants, Accademia di Vino on the Upper East Side and ’Cesca, on the Upper West Side, have slipped off people’s radars more than they should. Accademia’s sprawl, though, means its menu must be navigated with special caution.
BLT Prime, 111 East 22nd Street (Park Avenue), (212) 995-8500
Cafe Cluny, 284 West 12th Street (West Fourth Street), (212) 255-6900
Cafe Luxembourg, 200 West 70th Street (Amsterdam Avenue), (212) 873-7411
‘Cesca, 164 West 75th Street (Amsterdam Avenue), (212) 787-6300
Degustation, 239 East Fifth Street (Second Avenue), (212) 979-1012
Eleven Madison Park, 11 Madison Avenue (24th Street), (212) 889-0905
15 East, 15 East 15th Street (Union Square West), (212) 647-0015
Harry’s Cafe & Steak, One Hanover Square (Stone Street), (212) 785-9200
Keens Steakhouse, 72 West 36th Street (Avenue of the Americas), (212) 947-3636
Locanda Verde, 377 Greenwich Street (North Moore Street), (212) 925-3797
Marea Restaurant, 240 Central Park South (Broadway), (212) 582-5100
Masa, 10 Columbus Circle, Time Warner Center, 4th floor (Broadway and 59th Street), (212) 823-9800
Minetta Tavern Restaurant, 113 MacDougal Street (Bleecker Street), (212) 475-3850
The Modern, 9 West 53rd Street (Fifth Avenue), (212) 333-1220
Momofuku Ssam Bar, 207 Second Avenue (13th Street), (212) 254-3500
The Odeon, 145 West Broadway (Thomas Street), (212) 233-0507
Peasant, 194 Elizabeth Street. (Spring Street), 212-965-9511
Perbacco, 234 East Fourth Street, (Avenue B), (212) 253-2038
Peter Luger Steakhouse, 178 Broadway (Driggs Avenue), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (718) 387-7400
Porter House New York, 10 Columbus Circle, Time Warner Center (59th Street and Broadway), (212) 823-9500
Soto, 357 Avenue of the Americas (Washington Place), (212) 414-3088
Sushi Yasuda, 204 East 43rd Street (Third Avenue), (212) 972-1001Vinegar Hill House, 72 Hudson Avenue (Water Street), Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, (718) 522-1018