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Restaurant Critic Roundup: New York Times Critic Pete Wells Travels to Houston

Restaurant Critic Roundup: New York Times Critic Pete Wells Travels to Houston

This week in restaurant reviews, Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold visits Chi Spacca, "the new meat-intensive restaurant room in Mozza's Italian-cuisine complex on Melrose." He does note that his visit did not go unnoticed (the restaurant is overseen by a close family friend), adding "so feel free to discount anything I have to say about this place."

Near Washington, D.C., The Bungalow Lakehouse in Sterling, Va., has "a ways to go," according to critic Candy Sagon. The "almost worth a drive" restaurant has potential, "depending on what you order," and "at the very least, it’s a terrific place to sip a glass of shiraz, munch a flatbread pizza topped with house-made spicy lamb sausage, and feel grateful to find a spot other than a big, bland national chain in this NoVa suburb."

The New York Daily News takes a visit to The Union Square Café on the eve of its 30th birthday, and leaves thoroughly unimpressed. Critic Michael Kaminer is turned off by the "uninspired menu, mediocre components and tepid flavors," and deems it's "more haggard than happening."

The New York Times critis Pete Wells hit the road this week, and wrote about two great new restaurants in Houston, "cosmopolitan" Oxheart and "parochial" Underbelly. He's particularly fond of Oxheart's turkey, and writes that the restaurant is "taking part in a worldwide conversation about cooking and fine dining." And at Underbelly, chef/owner Chris Shepherd "tells the story of Houston food," taking influence from both the deep South and Asia.

In San Francisco, Michael Bauer dropped in on Saison, the Bay Area's most expensive and exclusive restaurant. He loves the food, but is "perplexed" by the juxtaposition of high-end and casual.

The Boston Globe's Michael Andor Brodeur checks out a few burger joints in the city, and is particularly fond of Tasty Burger and its onion rings.

In Charleston, S.C., Erik Doksa loves Mex 1 Coastal Cantina in West Ashley, and writes that it "feels very SoCal and would be right at home in Baja."

And in Denver, William Porter drops into Old Major, a "contemporary farmhouse"-style restaurant, and was very impressed by chef/owner Justin Brunson's nose-to-tail offerings.

As always, the ratings range from stars to bells to beans, but every review offers specialized insight into the food, atmosphere, and service of eateries in each city’s dining scene and the critics eating at them.

Restaurant Critic Roundup: 4/10/2013

CriticPublicationRestaurantRating
Michael BrodeurBoston GlobeTasty Burger
Michael KaminerNew York Daily NewsUnion Square Café2 stars
Richard VinesBloombergMidsummer House3 stars
Pete WellsThe New York TimesOxheart, Underbelly
Jonathan GoldLos Angeles TimesChi Spacca
Brad A. JohnsonOrange County RegisterRamos House2.5 stars
Michael BauerSan Francisco ChronicleSaison
Candy SagonWashington PostThe Bungalow Lakehouse1 star
Erik DoksaCharleston City PaperMex 14 stars
William PorterDenver PostOld Major3.5 stars

Click here for The Daily Meal's "Top Chefs Review — and Rate — America's Food Critics."

Tyler Sullivan is The Daily Meal's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter at @atylersullivan.


Pete Wells Goes Nuts for the ‘Lusty, Full-Throated’ Indian Cooking at Adda

The critically acclaimed team behind innovative Indian restaurant Rahi has received more accolades, this time for the new Long Island City neighborhood restaurant Adda. The Times’ Pete Wells doled out two stars for the simple Indian restaurant from owner Roni Mazumdar and chef Chintan Pandya, celebrating the fact that it’s a rare newly opened Indian restaurant in NYC that makes no attempt at modernization.

Mazumdar and Pandya mine family recipes for the menu, Wells writes, yielding food made “with care but no pretense.” He highlights the restaurant’s various chaats, or street snacks, as well as the saag paneer, which he describes as “coltishly energetic” at Adda, made with “gorgeously soft” housemade paneer. On tandoor offerings, Wells writes:

Anything that passes through Adda’s tandoor is worth investigating. Seekh kebabs, made with lamb that’s coarsely ground by hand, come out of the tandoor juicier and pinker than the usual Mumbai-style tandoori macchi, a skewered pompano rubbed with ground mustard seeds and cilantro, is lightly charred and smoky after roasting, but still moist bhatti da murgh, a double-marinated chicken thigh and drumstick, is so thickly crusted with coriander and cumin that it crunches when you bite it.

It’s a place for spice lovers, Wells says, with Pandya preferring the more intense flavors of the cuisine as opposed to softer cream sauces. It’s for meat lovers, too: “And while Adda does serve some vegetables, it would not make my list of the 20 best local Indian restaurants for vegetarians,” Wells writes.

The restaurant opened at 31-31 Thomson Ave., near Van Dam Street in September. Two stars.


Oxheart, Underbelly Get Rave Reviews in the New York Times

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells (who recently captured lots of attention for his comical review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square eatery) featured Houston’s Underbelly and Oxheart in his dining column this week.

Calling Houston “one of the country’s most exciting places to eat,” Wells praised Justin Yu’s Oxheart and Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly.

Both restaurants have been conjuring up a lot of local, statewide, and national media praise in recent months. Texas Monthly‘s own Patricia Sharpe included Oxheart and Underbelly as two of her Pat’s Picks last year.

Below are a few of the notable quotes from the review. (To read the whole piece, visit the New York Times dining section.)

Oxheart

Oxheart is one of the growing number of places around the country that are rearranging our notions of what fine dining means. It is also an example of the growing ambition of the Houston dining scene, and one of two places that lured me here to kick off this occasional series of reviews of restaurants outside New York City.

Utility Research Garden supplies the carrots for an Oxheart dish that makes use of several varieties of them at different stages of life. Some are shaved and sprinkled with two kinds of coriander leaf others are roasted and set in a sauce made with coconut milk, Moroccan spices and even more carrots. From this one humble root, Mr. Yu had extracted fleet, herbaceous flavors deep, meaty ones and several others in between that I never knew carrots had in them.

Some things about Oxheart… reminded me of other new restaurants that emphasize the personal and the handmade. The naturalistic look of Mr. Yu’s dishes, too, is familiar. But every course of my meal showed an instinct for the delicious that is rare in any city. Encountering it, even in a restaurant as often praised as Oxheart, is always a discovery.

Underbelly “

Not all of Mr. Shepherd’s cooking coincides with how outsiders see Houston. He isn’t fixated on enchiladas and steaks. But his tributes to the city’s more recently arrived Asian populations were among the most memorable things I ate at Underbelly. He has an absolute winner in his Korean braised goat with dumplings. He must know it, too, because the dish has not gone off the menu since Underbelly opened a year ago…

I loved some of Underbelly’s ‘non-fancy desserts,’ like a tender half-moon fried strawberry pie and a wedge of vinegar pie, a relic of a recipe from an age when lemons weren’t sold year-round.

Most of all, I respected Underbelly’s confidence in deciding which native traditions to champion.


The 12 Best Lines from the NYT's Restaurant Critics' Table

The New York Times's five restaurant critics of the past 20 years talk shop in this fun series of videos that touches on everything from trade secrets to annoying food words to the lengths they went to remain anonymous. The panel of alums — Ruth Reichl, William Grimes, Frank Bruni, Sam Sifton, and current critic Pete Wells (who literally hides behind a newspaper) — fire off their share of one-liners. Wells is the most invasive — his disguises and note-taking techniques are still in play, after all — but watch the former critics reminisce about their fake-reservation systems and what happened when they were recognized. The best lines (and links to all the videos), right this way:

1) Says Sam Sifton of the difference between a star and half-star: "You spend a depressing amount of time thinking about these things."

2) William Grimes, on rating as a date of sorts: "If you went to see a movie with a friend or your partner, and went to a meal afterwards at a restaurant, if you're eating at a one-star restaurant, you're mostly talking about the movie you just saw. At a two-star restaurant, it's 50/50? three star restaurant, you don't even remember the movie, you're just talking about the food. And a four-star restaurant, you're almost in tears, you're ready to go on your knees and thank god."

3) Ruth Reichl, on different star systems: "A very expensive restaurant that gets two stars is pretty pejorative an inexpensive restaurant that gets two stars is kind of a rave."

4) Reichl's top disguise: "Without question, my most effective disguise was 'Betty the Bag Lady.' Nobody thinks that you're going to dress up like a fat old lady."

5) Says Frank Bruni of restaurant feuds: "I deployed a disguise for every visit to one restaurant, because the restaurateur had publicly stated that if he caught me in his restaurant, he would throw me out. And in fact the employee who spotted me would get a free trip to the Caribbean."

6) Bruni, on not being crazy: "I'm sure many a restaurateur grew accustomed to hearing me talk to myself in their bathroom. And I bet they figured out what was going on — either that, or they thought I had a mental disorder."

7) Reichl says that certain types of diners would sometimes receive different treatment: "A woman alone gets treated very differently I almost always went once alone. I think it's not so prevalent anymore, but in those days, a woman alone was often treated very badly."

8) Grimes, on his dining companions: "My guests are going to be insulted retrospectively, retroactively, because I attached no importance to their opinions whatsoever."

Annoying food words and overused adjectives:

9) Says Reichl: "'Yummy' is not a word that's respectful to food. It's like baby talk."

10) Sam Sifton's most-avoided word: "I never used 'crispy.' 'Crisp,' that's a word. 'Crispy?'"

11) Says Grimes: "Canned asparagus is just an awful, awful thing."

12) Pete Wells, on willingness to eat grasshoppers: "They're crunchy, if they're cooked right. Crunchy and salted is pretty hard to beat."


Times Critic Names His Top 10 Pizza Slices

Times critic Pete Wells has named his top ten old-school pizzerias to grab a standout slice — and it includes one with a “darkly caramelized” crust at UWS’ Mama’s Too and a salt-bottomed pie at New Park Pizza in Howard Beach. Wells digs Greenpoint’s Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop, where he describes “The Hellboy” with pepperoni with spicy honey “a show-stealing innovation.” And at Loring Place, the critic says to get the whole $17 grandma pie. (Check out Eater’s top 10 neighborhood slice joints here.) And in another piece, Wells points out NYC’s best new restaurants, including Frenchette, Adda, and Hunan Slurp.

Eating at Zauo is a ‘disaster,’ critic says

New Yorker critic Hannah Goldfield probably won’t be returning to Zauo any time soon — she describes the Japanese import where diners fish for their food as an “Instagrammers’ Atlantis” and writes that eating there is a “disaster.” Aside from the “endless dystopian cacophony” diners must endure each time a fish is caught, Zauo’s “greatest offense” is its food, she writes. Goldfield’s rainbow trout was simmered in soy sauce to a “bony mush,” and the salt-grilled fish was “chewy,” she writes. Meanwhile, the flounder sashimi was “muddy-tasting,” and the tempura lobster was “smothered” in batter, she adds. And the appetizers and sides were also a fail she writes that the edamame was “slimy” and seaweed salad was served atop “droopy” green lettuce.

Korean fusion lands in West Village

The space at 39 Downing St. in the West Village — where Mas (farmhouse) once lived — has a new restaurant from chef Sung Park, who put in time at Jean-Georges and Brasserie Seoul in Boerum Hill. Windrose, opening Friday, November 16, is a Korean fusion restaurant with dishes like beef tartare served with Asian pear, gnocchi made with rice in a béchamel sauce, and a chicken waffle sandwich with gochujang mayonnaise. The focus is Korean and American South home cooking, but the chef uses French techniques to pull everything together. The 70-seat restaurant is backed by managing partner Noel Shu, chef Cesar Jiminez, formerly of Jean-Georges COO James Park and Albert Lazo.

Red Rooster’s celebrity chef is opening a big, swanky restaurant in Montreal

Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson of Harlem’s Red Rooster is making his way to Montreal to open a new restaurant in an upcoming Four Seasons Hotel that’ll open in spring 2019. Named Marcus, it will be a big operation with hundreds of seats, and the menu will center on vegetables and fish, Eater reports. Samuelsson is reportedly already in Montreal working on his new venture and getting a sense for local produce.


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Cosme, New York City Krieger/Eater NY

The New York Times critic Pete Wells takes on the much-hyped Cosme in the Flatiron District, declaring it a standout amongst the pseudo-Mexican cuisine revival currently sweeping the city. It helps that chef Enrique Olvera is actually from Mexico: "Almost everything you taste at Cosme seems new without being forced or mannered. It isn't the kind of Mexican cooking that can be learned on a vacation," declares Wells. Three stars.

Chefs: Nick Kim & Jimmy Lau

Eater NY's Ryan Sutton says "Shuko isn't just one of New York's most exciting new Japanese restaurants - it's one of the most expensive ones as well." With dinner for two clocking in at nearly $600, the rice is sometimes less than superb, but "thought provoking preparations with pristine fish" make up for it. Three stars.

The Insatiable Critic Gael Greene hits up Danny Meyer's latest hot spot in NoMad. She's not too pleased with having to wait 20 minutes for a reservation, but shaved white truffles ("a $60 gift of apology") soothe any annoyance, as do the "unusually scorched, piggy, fatty, chewy and delicious" grilled pork ribs. "Marta's is now my favorite pizza," Greene declares.

Joshua David Stein of the New York Observer weighs in on the latest venture from the team behind heavy-hitters Carbone and Parm located underneath the High Line. "Seducing the daily diners, Mr. Carbone has leavened traditional classics in unexpected ways," says Stein, deeming Santina's coastal Italian fare with North African influences more approachable and affordable than the very pricey Carbone. Four stars.

SAN FRANCISCO: The Progress

Chefs: Stuart Brioza & Nicole Krasinski

The SF Weekly's Anna Roth checks out State Bird Provisions' "more mature sibling." Six courses are served family-style for $65 per person and although "the food here plays it safer than State Bird," there isn't a dud in the bunch. Fried pig ears and pork belly "tossed in a bright mixture of fish sauce, fresh herbs, and lime juice" are a standout, and "desserts are works of art."

SAN FRANCISCO: Huxley

San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer finds promising young talent and a "youthful vibe" at Huxley in the gritty Tenderloin. The oft-changing menu has a "natural, organic feel," though he wonders how some of the pricier dishes, like a $42 half-rabbit, will go over with the locals. Nonetheless, he thinks the restaurant might just "launch a neighborhood revival."

Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema reviews the D.C. offshoot of Daniel Boulud's NYC standby DBGB, located in the new CityCenterDC development. Sietsema admits that while at first he was lukewarm on the restaurant, more recent visits found an experience even "more seductive" than the NYC original. The critic was especially impressed by the chef's efforts with seafood and poultry, declaring that "there's no finer coq au vin in town right now."

Eater's roving critic Bill Addison weighs in on a whopping eight Miami restaurants. His finds include a standout riff on the classic Cubano sandwich loaded up with pork belly rillettes and pickled mustard seeds at Little Bread Sandwich Co., Puerto Rican fare with "cheffy finesse" at Jimmy'z Kitchen, classic Haitian cuisine at Tap Tap, and a "15-course tasting menu that recall[s] the sillier facets of U.S. molecular gastronomy madness from a decade ago" at the just-opened Cielo.

NEW ORLEANS: Johnny Sánchez

Chefs: Aáron Sánchez, John Besh, Miles Landrem

Critic Ian McNulty of The New Orleans Advocate checks out the Central Business District venture from chefs Sánchez and Besh, where they "[treat] Mexican flavors to the same mix of reverence and reinterpretation we've seen applied to Italian, French and even Vietnamese cuisines at other contemporary, chef-led restaurants." Tacos "tend to overreach" with too many ingredients, but other dishes like enchiladas and a beef tartare tostada impress. Bonus: grasshoppers (AKA chapulines) can be added to guacamole for just a buck.

DALLAS: Stephan Pyles

Photo: Courtesy of Stephan Pyles

Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner re-reviewed the downtown flagship restaurant of iconic Southwestern chef Stephan Pyles. Says Brenner: "After several years of ups and downs, Pyles' namesake restaurant is re-establishing itself as a culinary showplace" thanks in no small part to 34-year-old executive chef J Chastain, formerly of the Mansion on Turtle Creek. Four stars.


Restaurant Dining Is Back, if You Can Find a Table

With outdoor service allowed again, our chief restaurant critic, Pete Wells, goes in search of his first sit-down restaurant meal since March.

On Monday, I had lunch at Veselka in the East Village. Normally I wouldn’t bother you with this fact. I’ve done the same thing at least a hundred times before. But this lunch, I’m pretty sure, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was the first restaurant food I’ve had since March that didn’t come out of a paper bag.

When I say I had lunch at Veselka, I don’t mean that I sat inside, of course. I was seated at one of the eight tables spread out along the East Ninth Street sidewalk, the one just below the neon sign that says “Open 24 Hours.” Veselka’s dining room is still a dark, empty cavern. Like many others in New York City, it remains off limits to customers in an effort to tamp down the local Covid-19 outbreak. But on June 18, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that starting Monday, restaurants could start serving outdoors, where the risk of transmitting the virus is lower.

Restaurants had been waiting for this decision — calling for it with mounting desperation, in fact. The mayor’s announcement still caught them off guard, though. They had just three days to get special city authorizations to place tables, at least six feet apart, on sidewalks and in curbside street-parking spaces.

By Tuesday morning, more than 4,100 restaurants had been approved. But shortly after noon on Monday, when I began searching the streets of Chinatown, the Lower East Side and the East Village for a place to eat, not many had outdoor seating yet. Wu’s Wonton King was dark.

A few doors down East Broadway at Mission Chinese Food, Kate Bolster, a manager, was helping to put finishing touches on a new planter box, five feet tall and clementine-colored, that had been fabricated over the weekend. It was going to be installed at the edge of a triangle across the street called Straus Park. Along with five identical boxes, the planter would cordon off a small dining area where customers could bring kung pao pastrami, mapo tofu and other items from the Mission Chinese Food canon, all packed in takeout containers.

“It’s been 48 hours since the command came down the line,” Ms. Bolster said. “It’s been fun, but it’s been some late nights.”

But the first lunch service wouldn’t take place until Wednesday, and I was hungry now. I headed for Orchard Street, in ordinary times one of the most promising stretches on the Lower East Side for anyone prospecting for a good meal. Some restaurants were closed because it was Monday, others because they never serve lunch, but tape measures and power tools were out in front of Regina’s Grocery and Cheeky Sandwiches. It was takeout-only at Russ & Daughters Cafe. Contrair — the ad hoc merger of Contra and Wildair that takes online pickup and delivery orders for crab congee, chipotle-braised tripe and bottles of far-flung natural wines — was still empty. At the corner of Rivington, the Roman sandwich shop Trapizzino hid behind plywood.

Katz’s was doing a brisk takeout business, all things considered, but there were no tables out on Houston or Ludlow Streets. Ludlow Street is blocked to cars and trucks under a city program, called Open Streets, which has temporarily given 43 miles of pavement to walkers and cyclists. It would be a good spot to eat a knoblewurst or two, but outdoor dining won’t be expanded to the Open Streets blocks until July.

There was more plywood along Avenue A. Sheets of it were being unscrewed from the windows of TabeTomo, a tsukemen specialist across from Tompkins Square Park. There were tables outside — a two-top and a four-top, each with its own patio umbrella. The afternoon was warm and getting warmer, and the prospect of a plate of chilled noodles and cold dipping sauce in the shade held a powerful attraction. But TabeTomo, like a number of other restaurants around the city, had set up outdoor seating for its takeout customers earlier this month, before it was officially allowed. I admired the enterprise, but I wanted to eat at a table that was just seeing its first action of the season.

In the end, Veselka came through for me as I knew it would, as it had so often over the years for me and anybody else who needed a dose of Ukrainian hospitality. The East Village never feels more like a village than inside Veselka’s walls, where people reading Ferrante sit across from people reading Polish newspapers, where solitary types can hide and new couples can pretend to hide, where young men dress like roadies and old men dress like retired cardsharps, and all of them drink coffee.

That was more or less the scene yesterday, although it took place outside the walls. Veselka has had a sidewalk cafe for several years, and had been packing food for takeout and delivery for some time. So when Monday arrived, all it needed to do was to install the metal pen around its outdoor space and leave more room than usual between the tables.

What to Cook Right Now

Sam Sifton has menu suggestions for the coming days. There are thousands of ideas for what to cook waiting for you on New York Times Cooking.

    • Do not miss Yotam Ottolenghi’s incredible soba noodles with ginger broth and crunchy ginger. for fungi is a treat, and it pairs beautifully with fried snapper with Creole sauce.
    • Try Ali Slagle’s salad pizza with white beans, arugula and pickled peppers, inspired by a California Pizza Kitchen classic.
    • Alexa Weibel’s modern take on macaroni salad, enlivened by lemon and herbs, pairs really nicely with oven-fried chicken.
    • A dollop of burrata does the heavy lifting in Sarah Copeland’s simple recipe for spaghetti with garlic-chile oil.

    Restaurants in Midtown and the financial district that rely on office workers may not find the new outdoor dining rules very helpful. Places that used to attract a lot of out-of-towners are in a tough spot, too. But coffee shops, sandwich joints, pizzerias and other mainstays of residential areas are well positioned to take advantage of outdoor dining.

    “This is a time, in some cases, where if you’re a neighborhood restaurant and you rely on people who live in the community, you may fare a bit better,” said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. Mr. Rigie, whose group rarely sees eye to eye with bureaucrats, seemed a little astonished on Monday. Ordinarily, acquiring a sidewalk cafe permit takes around six months and costs roughly $5,000. In a single weekend, thousands of restaurants had been cleared with no application fee.

    “I’ve been fighting bureaucracy and red tape for a long time, and this program really cuts out the red tape and costs for restaurant owners,” he said. “It’s really remarkable.”

    Polly Trottenberg, who as commissioner of the Department of Transportation is overseeing the new approval process, was almost giddy at how quickly it was moving, as if she were the owner of a golf cart who’d just discovered it could reach highway speed.

    “It was quite clear that a process in which we would have to survey and certify everything — we would never be able to do that in real time,” she said. “So we leaned into a different model, which I’ll admit is unusual in New York City and is probably one of the most liberal in the country right now.”

    Transportation commissioners have not historically had much jurisdiction over restaurants, but the outdoor dining program happens to dovetail with the department’s wider effort to turn some of the city’s streets over to walkers, runners and skateboarders. That list now includes eaters and drinkers, which anybody who enjoys the spectacle of life played out in public will recognize as a promising move.

    There are even signals emanating from City Hall that some of this new street and sidewalk dining could, conceivably, possibly, outlast the pandemic. “This will be a great conversation to have towards the end of the summer,” Ms. Trottenberg said. “We’ll have lots of information then about how well it’s worked.”

    My own view is that change can’t come fast enough. Restaurants need to make money. New Yorkers need to get out of their apartments, even if it means wearing masks, carrying hand sanitizer and talking across longer-than-usual distances. None of this bothered me at Veselka, although I did learn quickly that it’s pretty hard to drink a cherry lime rickey when you have a patch of pleated cotton tied over your mouth. I took it off for about 15 minutes and then retied it again when I’d finished lunch: cold borscht and a mixed plate of boiled pierogies, half cheese and half blueberry.

    I liked it all, especially the slightly scouring tartness of the cherry lime rickey, but if there had been any problems I wouldn’t tell you about them. Now is not the time for criticizing. Any restaurant that is serving food now is a good restaurant.

    But it is a time for imagining. Once we don’t need to fear Covid-19, what would the city look like if more of our dining spaces spilled over into the sidewalks and streets? Would it look like the crazy, whirling, profane outdoor feast of “Fellini’s Roma,” with swaddled babies passed around in baskets and conversations that revolve almost entirely around sex, excrement and cacio e pepe shouted from table to table? New York is too fancy for that now. (By 1972, when Fellini conjured it up, Rome was probably too fancy for it.) But those of us who love restaurants have been unsettled lately by how many new ones have taken the form of whispery, darkened, expensive cloisters. A little spaghetti in the streets couldn’t hurt.

    There was one small glitch at Veselka. It took longer than usual for the check to arrive — long enough that my server apologized. She didn’t need to. I would have waited all day.


    Two Roads to the Philippines

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    The cry goes up around the restaurant.

    The word volleys from Jeepney’s kitchen to its dining room as a server carries the hard-boiled duck egg to a man at the bar.

    Grabbing the customer’s hand, she whacks the flesh between his thumb and forefinger with a tablespoon to demonstrate the force needed to crack the balut’s shell. Then she prepares him for what he’ll find inside.

    Right on top, she says, is “a really smoky chicken broth.” Under that is the white, hard-boiled, and the yolk. “And down at the bottom, there’s E.T.”

    The extraterrestrial is a two- or three-week-old duckling that will never hatch, a ball of spindly legs and tucked wings and fine threads of feathers. The unabashed embrace of a delicacy with major freakout potential is typical of the deep-end approach of Jeepney, a self-described “Filipino gastro pub” in the East Village.

    Another approach is on display about a mile south at Pig and Khao, which has a strong Filipino imprint, too. The two places have many things in common. Open since last fall, they are small, casual, fun and often loud — Jeepney with American and Filipino party rock, Pig and Khao with slow-rolling Southern hip-hop. Neither stocks hard liquor, but each still manages to shake up very entertaining cocktails. Recently, I’m glad to report, both dropped their no-reservations policies.

    In their styles of presenting Asian cuisine, though, they go their own ways. Before opening Pig and Khao, Leah Cohen, the chef, spent a year eating and cooking in countries like Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, where her mother was raised. Eating at her restaurant, I felt as if I were poring over an album of carefully edited postcards from her travels. Dinner at Jeepney, on the other hand, felt more like parachuting into Manila myself. I didn’t know all the vocabulary and didn’t always know what I was putting in my mouth, but I knew I had left home.

    I’ve grown fond of both places, but I would take different sets of friends to each.

    For Pig and Khao, I’d round up the ones who love Asian flavors, don’t have significant hearing loss yet, think it’s fun to get endless refills of beer from a keg in the back garden and won’t be heartbroken to learn that fertilized duck embryos are not an option.

    They’d be pork lovers who would go for the sugary chunks of Chinese sausage in a bowl of mussels first before dipping the so-so shellfish in a redeemingly aromatic, basil-scented broth of dashi, butter and yuzu.

    They would be delighted by a salad of watermelon cubes with strips of grilled pork jowl and golden puffs of fried pork rind. Like nearly every dish on the menu, it has enough crunch, salt and acidity to satisfy the most curmudgeonly judge on “Top Chef,” where Ms. Cohen came to national attention while she was cooking at Centro Vinoteca before taking over the kitchen there.


    An Impresario Shines His Light on the Customer

    Cherche Midi opened in June on the corner of East Houston Street and the Bowery.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    Cherche Midi opened in June on the corner of East Houston Street and the Bowery.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    Cocktails compete with French and Italian wines on the drinks menu.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    The dining room, which feels intimate, almost private, although of course every face is on display, bathed in light the color of apricot jam.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    Restaurateur Keith McNally opened Cherche Midi in June and it may be his most thorough repudiation of the downtown scene.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    The dining room isn’t blaring music, like some restaurants in the neighborhood, giving diners the feeling they might have traveled back in time to a Continental restaurant off Sutton Place in 1964.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    Shane McBride is one of two chefs sharing the work at Cherche Midi. Daniel Parilla is the other.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    Frogs’ legs served in a green garlic velouté.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    The prime rib, served with a side dish of pommes soufflées, has edges with the intensity of the bark on great barbecued brisket.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    Cherche Midi is so good with beef that even the best main courses may register as a half step down like this roasted chicken breast.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    Pot de fromage, an appetizer of Parmesan custard, which arrives with anchovy butter toast.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    The dessert menu is one argument after another for bringing back old-fashioned pleasures here, raspberry soufflé.

    Credit. Ben Russell for The New York Times

    We were halfway through appetizers at Cherche Midi, passing the steak tartare and spreading anchovy toasts with softly jiggly Parmesan custard, when one of my guests suddenly tilted his head and listened. He looked like the boy in a tornado movie who notices that the birds have stopped singing.

    “There’s no music,” he said. “They have speakers all over the dining room, but they’re not using them.”

    The restaurateur Keith McNally opened Cherche Midi in June on the corner of Houston Street and the Bowery, in a neighborhood where you don’t go out to dinner unless you are prepared to shout over some Pavement song the chef loved in college. But we were talking, with no recorded soundtrack, as if we were in some Continental restaurant off Sutton Place in 1964 eating veal Orloff by candlelight.

    This is the paradox of Mr. McNally. Food writers who were still eating applesauce through a straw when he opened his first restaurant (the Odeon, 1980) write about him with the same reverence that music writers have for Leonard Cohen. He’s “the king of cool,” the restaurateur who “owns NYC.” Yet when it comes to current dining trends, particularly those in favor downtown, Mr. McNally shows a healthy disregard, verging at times on hostility.

    Of the six restaurants he operates between 14th Street and Canal Street, Cherche Midi may be his most thorough repudiation of the downtown scene. It isn’t just music that’s missing. There’s almost no view of the street. Tapas, shared plates, tasting menus, wine pairings, “Chef recommends,” two-hour waits for a table the size of a chessboard — no, none of that. Nor did Cherche Midi’s servers try to tell me “how the menu works,” as if it were some complicated and expensive piece of machinery that I was likely to break.

    In Mr. McNally’s restaurants, chefs are rarely treated like stars. At Cherche Midi, two men, Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla, share the work and the credit. As a result, perhaps, their cooking is almost egoless it’s not about what they want. It’s about what you want, especially if that happens to be red meat and French wine.

    The prime rib may be the only dish at Cherche Midi that could be accused of trying to make an impression. The dark, roasted edges had the irresistible intensity of the bark on great barbecued brisket, even on the night they were aggressively salted. Lending this slab of dry-aged beef a bit of finesse is the side dish of pommes soufflées, like inflatable potato chips or, as one guest said, “gluten-free beignets.”

    The menu gives three more main-course slots to beef. Steak frites does a fine impersonation of a Parisian bistro steak, the kind you don’t mind chewing and chewing between glasses of the house Beaujolais Villages, served at Cherche Midi in an $18 carafe. Filet mignon au poivre is far more tender, of course, with less sacrifice in flavor than usual. The tall, compact, rather lean, drip-free and wholly excellent burger is made from dry-aged prime rib if you put your nose close enough, you can smell the meat locker right through the aroma of onion-bacon jam. All three dishes come with dark, skinny fries.

    Cherche Midi is so good with beef that even the best of the other main courses may register as a half step down: a pot of fat, clean mussels with bits of preserved lemon clinging to them a roast chicken done right a salade niçoise that pays attention to the last detail, including, in a wonderful departure from tradition, the pile of smashed potato salad at the bottom of the bowl.

    Here and there, the kitchen tends to overembellish. The decent roasted salmon comes with a lentil salad that tries to do too many things at once, and limp white stewed onions and fennel did not give skate Grenobloise (billed as meunière) anything that it really needed. It would be nice, too, to taste the meat under the aggressive seasoning in the steak tartare appetizer, given the chefs are clearly buying good beef. At least it made a strong impression, which is more than I can say for the $18 heirloom tomato salad. Heirlooms from where, exactly? Food Emporium?

    Still, unless you are coming to Cherche Midi to commune with the essence of summer, it is a good enough salad. The desserts are much better than that. The floating islands, the mocha pot de crème, the small pink raspberry soufflé hovering above a bed of warm berries — the lineup is one argument after another for bringing back old-fashioned pleasures.

    After a recent tour of all his restaurants, I think Mr. McNally’s great talent may be knowing which things are worth worrying about and which can get by with being just good enough. At Morandi, the main courses were almost impressive in their mediocrity, but the pasta was just swell, which may be all the place needs to keep its chairs full. The short-rib patty melt was the only good dish on a table full of disappointments at Schiller’s Liquor Bar, but I enjoyed myself more than I have at far better restaurants.

    There is a limit, though, and Balthazar is approaching it. The cooking, under Mr. McBride, has become utterly mundane, a pretty but flavorless imitation of French food of the kind found at any generic fake bistro. Cherche Midi’s salade niçoise is delicious from start to finish Balthazar’s is a bowl of ingredients that can’t remember what they’re supposed to taste like. How can the same chef and the same restaurateur be responsible for both?

    Mr. McNally does worry about service, which at Cherche Midi manages to be everywhere without crossing the line to helicopter waitering. And, of course, he worries about the interiors. Cherche Midi’s is lovely. Outside is a dystopian intersection. You’d never know it in the dining room, which feels intimate, almost private, although of course every face is on display, bathed in light the color of apricot jam.

    For three decades, Mr. McNally has been rooting around in the same Lego kit: distressed mirrors, chipped subway tiles, bottles backlighted to look like stained glass. In his hands, these well-worn tricks give restaurants the battered nobility of a vintage Saab. When anyone else tries, they end up with a 1986 Ford Escort. Sets and lighting will never be the whole show.


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