Tag Archive: NYC

World Eats – Brooklyn

Passport Magazine
Issue 19 – November 2003

worldeats – Brooklyn

In the late 1970s, the show Welcome Back Kotter used to open up with a sign that said “Welcome to Brooklyn, the 4th largest city in America”. In 1982, when I first moved to New York (and lived in Brooklyn) Mark-Linn Baker in My Favorite Year refers to Brooklyn as a far away country. More recently, rumors of worthwhile dining venues reached us on the isle of Manhattan, and we ventured back to explore.

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, Brooklyn is big. I mean it’s really big. At 72.5 square miles, with a population of 2.5 million, and divided into numerous neighborhoods, some large enough to be small towns themselves, there’s plenty of room for some good restaurants. Prior to the 1600s, virtually this entire city, a county in itself (Kings County), was marshland and woodland. Over three centuries it was gradually built up and populated, until becoming an official borough of New York City on January 1, 1898.

Since most visitors to New York City, and most Manhattan dwellers, have a somewhat dim view of “the outer boroughs”, I decided not to venture to far from those shores. Picking the neighborhoods that are close by might mean I could actually entice someone to cross the East River and sit down to dine.

The area known as Park Slope remained rural until the 1860s when adjacent Prospect Park was completed. In 1883, with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, building took off in this neighborhood, with beautiful brownstone row houses lining the streets. In the 1970s, this area became the new “hotspot” to move to, especially for the gay and lesbian community, a trend that continues to this day.

Our first venue of choice is a small French bistro, Moutarde. Frenchman Arnaud Giberszcajn noted that there was a severe lack of bistros in the neighborhood and opened up this now popular spot in early 2002. Located along the main stretch of Fifth Avenue, Moutarde is a beautifully appointed little bôite. Tile work and carved wood adorn the walls, a floor to ceiling stocked bar dominates the front, and the owners have added delightful touches – like a huge baker’s rack for bread service in the center and an antique cappucino machine in the rear. In fitting with the name, Moutarde specializes in the omnipresent condiment mustard. At Moutarde, however, you won’t find it on a hot dog. It shows up in many guises – in an adorable crudité set on an artist’s palette with each of the divots holding a different style – from sweet honey-mustard to fiery hot wasabi-mustard. Standout dishes include a layered tartare of salmon, tuna, salmon roe, caviar, and mustard infused crème fraîche; sautéed skate in balsamic and caper sauce; and pork chops with apples and cabbage. Our waiter described the tarte tatin as the best he’s ever had outside of France, and we had to agree. Moutarde, 239 Fifth Avenue. Tel: 718-623-3600. N or R train to Union Street/Fourth Avenue stop, walk one block east to Fifth Avenue and one block south along Fifth. Cash, Visa & Mastercard only.

Developed in the mid-1800s after ferry service was established from Manhattan, Boerum Hill is a neighborhood that is contiguous with the downtown Brooklyn area. Originally named after the colonial farm of a local Dutch family, over the last decade this area has become a trendy spot to open avant-garde restaurants. You can find an array of these at Smith Street’s multi-block restaurant row.

There we found Restaurant Saul, overseen by chef/owner Saul Bolton, formerly of the Le Bernardin kitchen. Brick walls, a backlit wooden bar, tasteful floral arrangements and comfortable seating are a big attraction in this fifty seat space. It is also obvious that attention to detail is appreciated here; every menu has a cover with individually drawn sketches, and diners are illumined by subtle, flattering lighting. More importantly, conscientiousness pours over into the dining experience. I was initially drawn here after being told that it had one of the better wine lists in Brooklyn. While not lengthy, it is well thought out and quite fairly priced, as is the menu. Starting with a beet tartare that was everything it should be, dinner proceeded through a range of tasty delights. Favorites were the duck confit with a refreshing bean and vegetable gordita on the side and an arctic char seared to perfection. The lemon tart for dessert was just lemony enough, the cheesecake was unusual but quite good. Restaurant Saul, 140 Smith Street. Tel: 718-935-9844. F train to Bergen Street/Smith Street stop, go out at the Bergen Street end, walk around the corner onto Smith and the restaurant is right there. Cash and major credit cards.

While it was founded in 1927, Williamsburg did not become a residential neighborhood until the opening of the eponymous bridge in 1903. Quickly becoming densely overpopulated by the “working class”, it has always been a somewhat “suspect” area, but the ease of access from Manhattan (first and second subway stops on the 14th street cross-town L), not to mention the bridge, made it one of the first expansion neighborhoods when the East Village became trendy enough to overprice itself. It has also established itself as home to some delightful casual restaurants, such as Fada, on Driggs Avenue.

Visiting on a Monday evening, we found the place packed to the rafters with diners and drinkers alike. With a limited menu, limited wine list, and limited service, one would think to dine here would require a mindset of willingness to accept mediocrity. Luckily, Fada rises above that, and despite those limitations, delivers quality food at a good price. To our surprise, Fada’s escargots in garlic sauce did not consist of half a dozen small specimens to be picked out of the shell, but more than two dozen deliciously garlicky sea dwellers already removed from the shell, ready to be quickly and eagerly devoured. A charcuterie platter was graced by a divine selection of meats. The coq au vin and cassoulet were exactly as the gods of French cuisine intended them. After an inexpensive, but perfectly drinkable bottle of wine, we left quite satisfied for less than only one of us would have spent on the other side of the river. Fada, 530 Driggs Avenue. Tel: 718-388-6607. L train to Bedford Avenue and get out at the Driggs Avenue end, walk north one block to North 8th Street. Cash and major credit cards.

We returned to another section of Park Slope to drop in on Darrin Siegfried’s hot new wine shop, Red, White & Bubbly – a must the next time you’re wandering the “strip” along 5th Avenue. He strongly recommended a visit to Bistro Saint Marks. The chef, Johannes Sanzin, is a David Bouley protégé who struck out on his own a few years ago and has had several semi-successful casual spots in Manhattan. It seems that here in Brooklyn he has found his niche.

Sanzin turns out some of the more creative French-based cuisine I’ve seen in the last few years, and dish after dish was beautifully presented, flavorful, and satisfying. Some favorites included a mushroom salad with herbs, asian pear and walnuts; red snapper with Roquefort sauce; caramelized scallops with tagliatelle and a tomato-coriander sauce; and for dessert a strawberry mascarpone genoise. Bistro Saint Marks also offers some great special evenings, including a four-course tasting menu for a mere $25 on Mondays, a seafood and raw bar on Tuesdays, and a selection of steaks on Wednesdays. Bistro Saint Marks, 76 St. Mark’s Avenue (at 6th Avenue). Tel: 718-857-8600. Q train to 7th Avenue/Flatbush Avenue stop, walk one block north along Flatbush to 6th Avenue, the restaurant is on the little triangle formed by all three streets.

The area known as Fort Greene was named after Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Greene. Home to beautiful brownstones and expansive parks, the neighborhood is probably best known as the home of Pratt Institute and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

passportbrooklyn1Billing itself as “New York’s only South African restaurant”, Madiba has food that is worthy of a trip across the Atlantic. The decor can only be described as “eclectic” – an odd, unmatched collection of art, bric-a-brac, and vibrant colors. Service is warm, friendly, efficient, and probably crosses a few personal boundaries – but that’s half the fun. Much like the decor, the menu seems to be an unexpected collection of oddities. A platter of bean salad, potato salad, and Greek salad, while delicious, seems strangely out of place among dishes like a “safari platter” of dried fruits, nuts and meats, but still worth a taste. Particularly good choices include an appetizer of chilled curried fish with pumpkin fritters, oxtail stew, and what may be the best barbecued ribs in all of New York City. Don’t mind the claim that they’re basted with “monkey gland” – it’s a traditional sauce for barbecuing that doesn’t involve primates. A butterscotchy Malva Pudding may not have quite brought on the orgasmic delight promised by our waitress, but it was a great finish to a fun meal. Madiba, 195 DeKalb Avenue. Tel: 718-855-9190, 2 or 3 train to Fulton Mall, or Q train to DeKalb/Flatbush, walk east along DeKalb to the restaurant, approximately 8-10 minutes. Cash and major credit cards. www.madibaweb.com


Passport magazine is a relatively new, ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay travel magazine. My friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who have owned and run QSF magazine for many years, launched this publication recently. It has received industry accolades. They asked me to come along and write the occasional article for this venture as well.

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After Theater Dining

Passport Magazine
Issue 11 – October 2002

After Theater Dining

Want to go to dinner and a show? I find that a difficult proposition. When I’ve worked all day, I want to go home, shower, relax for a little while, put on clean clothes, and then go out. Since I’m fond of having dinner be a leisurely affair, there’s just not enough time for dinner before theater. So, for me, it’s a show and then dinner. A little snack before curtain and then after the standing ovation, a chance to relax and discuss, toast, and nibble.

When considering what to recommend, I set out with some simple criteria. First, the restaurant has to be open late enough that I don’t feel like I have to rush to get there, nor do I feel like the staff are just hovering around waiting for me to leave. Second, the kitchen must be offering a regular dinner menu, not some sort of leftover “late night” dining selection. Third, I didn’t want to review places that are institutions in the late night dining scene.

That left out some old favorites like Raoul’s, the Odeon and Café Luxembourg. It also left out the theater district haunts like Sardi’s and Joe Allen’s. I sat down with a few friends in the business and we came up with our short list of favorites for late-night dining.

THEATER DISTRICT

Cinnabar is the hottest thing to happen this year to the Asian restaurant scene in New York. It has everything you could want in a restaurant of the genre: a gorgeous room with fantastic designer touches; a well-appointed, comfortable bar and lounge area; and an outdoor dining section that is set-up like a small secluded park.

Despite being decked out in sexy black shirts, the staff are knowledgeable and friendly, with no attitude. They know the food, they know the drinks, and they’re happy to offer advice. Consultant Geri Banks has put together a delicious selection of specialty cocktails, any of which provide the perfect way to begin relaxing post-show. She has also done a great job with an eclectic wine list, offering them by flavor categories that zero in on the qualities each brings to the glass.

passporttheatercinnabarThe food is Chinese, but not limited to any particular region. Szechuan and Hunan square off opposite Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. The food is beautifully presented and even better as you dig into it. Prepare to eat too much, it’s just that good. Don’t miss the Roasted Cashew Nut Chicken and the Spicy XO Lobster.

Cinnabar, 235 West 56th Street (8th Avenue), 212-399-1100. Open noon until midnight, Monday through Saturday, noon until 11 p.m. on Sundays.

Seppi’s is the theater district sibling of the classic late night bistro, Raoul’s. Unlike the latter, which serves classic, hearty, French bistro fare, Seppi’s puts a modern twist on a variety of French dishes. Chef Claude Alain Solliard has an affinity for Alsatian cuisine, but is no slouch when covering the rest of the countryside.

passporttheaterseppisThe room is classic old-style pub, and despite having only been open for four years, has the look of a venue that has graced the block for decades. Located in the Parker Meridien Hotel, this may be the neighborhood’s best bistro. The front area is a polished wooden bar with tables and booths, the rear area is a slightly more lavish dining room with an attractive stained glass ceiling.

The winelist is limited, but has some interesting and unusual country wines from lesser known regions of France. The food is simply presented and delightful. You cannot pass up the broiled escargot served on crispy rosemary flat bread. Dump them out of the shell onto the bread and just munch happily away. The Alsatian pizzas on the same flat bread are well worth sampling. Go with the classic dishes and enjoy the updated twists, they are where the chef shines.

Seppi’s, 118 West 56th Street (6th Avenue), 212-708-7444, www.seppis.com. Open 11:30 a.m. until 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 5:30 p.m. until 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

As I write this, it is early August and I’ve already decided on my “meal of the year”. Esca is the acclaimed fish restaurant owned by the partnership (bordering on empire) of the Bastianich and Batali families (Felidia, Becco, Babbo, Lupa, Lidia’s, the Italian Wine Merchant, and the Bastianich Winery). This venue is impeccably managed by the Bastianich’s longtime friend and manager, Simon Dean.

The room is simple and homey. Previously home to the family’s never quite successful Frico Bar, they’ve finally hit their stride. Sit yourself down at the classic bar that includes a well-priced, great selection of Italian wines and spirits, and an excellent raw bar. When your table is ready, prepare for the real treat.

Chef David Pasternak puts out simple, clean preparations of some of the freshest fish you will have in Manhattan. Start with a sampling of the “crudo”, the Italian version of sushi. Pristine slices of fish, each paired with a drizzling of selected olive oils, vinaigrettes, and an astonishing collection of sea salts (Red clay salt? Lava salt? Who knew?) grace your plate. Move on to a well-prepared pasta, and finish off with perfectly roasted fish with oil and herbs or a simple tapenade.

Esca, 402 West 43rd Street (9th Avenue), 212-564-7272. Lunch Monday through Friday from noon until 2:30 p.m., Dinner Sundays and Mondays until 10:30 and Tuesday through Saturday until 11:30 p.m.

OFF-BROADWAY

My first experience of Jane was shortly after they opened a year or two ago. It was for lunch, in spring, and we were the only customers there. We had a delicious lunch, and I hoped for their sake that the place would catch on. It has, and now Jane can justify staying open until the wee hours.

The room is done in “oversize”. There are large mirrors and paintings on the walls, the ceilings are high, the banquettes low, the tables high. You have a feeling that you’re sitting somewhere impressive, especially when the room is full and the noise volume high. When it quiets down you can feel a tad small, but the food and drink will take your attention away from any misgivings.

passporttheaterjaneThe food is, for lack of a better term, experimental American. The regular menu items, tried and true, show the mettle of the chef. Start with one of the flatbread selections, move on to the fantastic ahi tuna and pineapple roll, and finish off with any one of the well prepared entrees. The daily specials are hit and miss, but that’s what experimentation is all about, and even the misses are fun to try. A short but really well selected winelist and some quite good specialty cocktails round out the experience.

Jane, 100 West Houston Street (between Thompson Street & LaGuardia Place), 212-254-7000. Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, until 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

There has been a recent trend in New York to offer “wood-burning oven” food. Several really good restaurants, like Beacon and Five Points have earned excellent reputations for their offerings. Peasant is an unlikely candidate to join their ranks, being located about as out of the way as one can be in Manhattan on the Lower East Side. Nonetheless, don’t let the location scare you away, as this trendy little dive is putting out some of the best food in its class.

The room is definitely not what you’re there for. Sparsely and not particularly comfortably furnished, with a look like a not-quite-finished loft space. As one of my best friends would put it, “I see they’ve spared every expense on the decor”. Still, the room is somehow warm and inviting, and the smattering of well-known chefs having dinner on their nights off is an immediate, positive draw. The waitstaff is as disheveled as the room, but thoroughly charming and completely at ease with the menu.

Chef Frank DeCarlo’s food is simple and amazing. Working from an open kitchen, his team puts out well flavored, hearty fare, that will keep you coming back. Don’t miss faves are the roast sardines, a pizza that will transport you to southern Italy, and the chicken stuffed with sausage. The winelist is appropriately selected and well laid out, you won’t have any trouble picking a winner to pair with your feast.

Peasant, 194 Elizabeth Street (between Spring and Prince Streets), 212-965-9511. Dinner only, Monday through Saturday from 6 p.m. until midnight, Sundays until 10 p.m.

I was not prepared to like Industry (food). The name seemed pretentious, the location, in the now trendy East Village seemed selected just for effect, and the look as you step inside is one of a carefully choreographed treehouse for a magazine layout. You’re not sure if you should touch anything. The staff at the entrance have that Sex and the City new restaurant attitude down cold. The place is as slick as their website, and both turn out to be worth the visit.

The bar is sleek, polished wood, and peopled by a mix of East Village locals and hip, uptown folk “slumming”, but being careful not slum somewhere that is, well, a slum. The hostesses will guide you downstairs to a table, where, miraculously, the whole world changes. The waitstaff, if slightly spacey, is warm and welcoming. They don’t know much about the food, but they know it’s good, and they’re right.

The food is probably best described as eclectic. It’s the kind of food that chefs cook for themselves and friends when they sit down late night after service. They want something simple and clean, but intelligently thought out. Not unexpected when you find out that Chef Alex Freij worked for both Jean-Louis Palladin and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and co-owner Chris Eddy likewise worked for Jean-Georges at Mercer Kitchen.. The lobster bruschetta is a winner, as is the lamb with tomato marmalade.

Industry (food), 509 East 6th Street (between Avenues A and B), 212-777-5920, www.industryfood.com. Open for dinner only, until 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday. Listed hours on Friday and Saturday are until 3 a.m., but the dining room sort of gets turned into a lounge after midnight.


Passport magazine is a relatively new, ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay travel magazine. My friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who have owned and run QSF magazine for many years, launched this publication recently. It has received industry accolades. They asked me to come along and write the occasional article for this venture as well.

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Manhattan’s Hottest New Restaurants

manhattanshottest

Q San Francisco
September 2000
Pages 54, 55, 62

Manhattan’s Hottest New Restaurants

In New York restaurants pop up like a jack-in-the-box and close nearly as fast. Some restaurateurs take advantage of the world of trendy, treating their venues practically as day-trades. The glitterati come, see and be seen, and move on – but they come back when the theme, along with the chef and management changes; sometimes it seems they don’t even remember having been there before.

A half-dozen fairly high profile restaurants have opened within the last month. Another half-dozen are slated to open in the next few weeks. I predict three of those will be closed and three will be enroute to closure by the time you read this. Of the others, one, perhaps two, will shine and garner accolades from press and customers alike. That’s the key: the press and the customers need to like the place.

I was sitting with a group of restaurant friends a few nights ago and the question came up, “What restaurants have you been back to?” In the long run the ultimate measure of a restaurant’s quality is repeat customers – people who return time and again because the food is good, the winelist well chosen and varied, service is friendly yet unobtrusive and the ambiance is welcoming and enjoyable.

We came up with three places that all of us have been to repeatedly. The winners of our unofficial, apocryphal, and totally biased survey are: Five Points, AZ, and Fressen. Interestingly, all of our choices are in off-beat locations.

Five Points

Five Points is planted, nearly anonymously, on a cobblestoned block in the lower east side called Great Jones Street. It’s a half a block from the Bowery home to a mix of SRO hotels, half-way houses and off-off-Broadway theater companies and performance spaces.

We love the room. It has the feel of being in a large boathouse. I keep expecting a group of rowers to troop through the room ready to stroke their way along some nearby river. The room is divided by a long, hollow tree trunk, and a stream of water flows from one end to the other. High vaulted ceilings and indirect lighting create a comfortable place to sit and relax.

Chef Mark Meyer’s casual American food is comfort food with class. The kitchen offers wood-oven roasted foods that bring back memories of backyard barbecues and campfires. Admittedly, we never had food like this in the Boy Scouts.

Start with one of Five Points’ specialty cocktails. The cranberry-infused tequila cosmo, the cucumber “sake-tini” and the lemon-mint martini are the stars on my palate. There’s a nice selection of wines by the glass, along with a well-priced winelist with about a hundred choices. In a unique twist, the wines are simply divided by country: France, Italy, USA, Other. Most of the selections are from small, “boutique” producers, many from off-beat locales.

After cocktails order a selection of appetizers for everyone to share.

My personal favorite is the wood-oven roasted shrimp with chickpea crepes, a charred tomato salad and aioli. Other good choices include the grilled Alsatian-style sausage with a truffled-warm potato and red onion salad, and the fire-roasted mussels in white wine and citrus broth that had us mopping up the broth with baskets of bread.

Speaking of bread, Five Points makes a flatbread with mixed herbs and spices that you could make a meal out of all by itself. Among the salad selections, the lobster, mache and fava bean with golden beets and aged sherry vinegar is tough to beat. I usually don’t order pasta from non-Italian chefs, but ravioli of spring peas and morels was too tempting, and too good, to pass up.

For the main courses, buttermilk marinated free range chicken with roasted garlic mashed potatoes is comfort food at its best. My favorite is the baby lamb chops with parmesan-black olive risotto cakes; but I certainly wouldn’t turn down the fire-charred squid stuffed with shrimp, halibut and market vegetables in a roasted tomato vinaigrette.

The menu changes seasonally, so no doubt there will be new things to try the next time we get there, and we will be there again. Five Points, 31 Great Jones St., 212-253-5700

AZ

First, the disclosure. I am intimately involved with the creation and operation of AZ, and even I am amazed with the results of a year-long effort on the part of a stellar team of chefs and managers in putting together this new venue. Restaurant and foodie folk are flocking to this roof-top dining room, on a side street on the border of Chelsea, like they’ve been in hibernation for the winter. So what’s up with this new “Asian-Inspired American Cuisine” restaurant?

AZ is not just another attempt to palatize cuisines of the east for the western tastebuds. The approach is, for the most part, very American, with Asian-inspiration in the form of scattered spices, interesting ingredients, and more especially, presentation style. As chef Patricia Yeo says, “I’m an American of Malaysian descent. Anything I make is Asian-Inspired American”.

AZ is big, but it feels intimate because the restaurant is spread over three floors. The ground floor is a dark, midnight blue and scarlet red lounge scribed by iron rails, ultrasuede ottomans and a copper and iron bar that snakes the length of the room. Specialty cocktails that include a smattering of Asian ingredients rule here. The signature Metro AZ blends a creme of wild blackberry, fresh lemon juice and a buddha-hand lemon infused vodka sells as fast as we can make the infusion. Other favorites include a ginger martini called the tinA louiZe (we keep tabs on how many folk get the reference), a twist on the classic dArk and Ztormy using rum that we’ve infused with Chinese five-spices, and our Hawaiian punch for adults, the AZlammer.

Ascend to the rooftop in the glass elevator adjacent to the three-story black slate waterfall and you start to get the feeling you’re somewhere a little different. A retractable glass roof arches over a dining room graced by mahogany tables, blue ultrasuede banquets and flickering oil lamps.

The menu is prix-fixe, with choices from a dozen each of appetizers, entrees and desserts. Favorites among the starters include the grilled gulf prawns with soybean wontons and tomato water; an open-faced cured foie gras and roasted apricot sandwich; and a ginger-lacquered quail with roasted pineapple. Among the main courses the steamed halibut with soy-ginger sauce and Chinese sausage; the grilled lemongrass lobster in coconut-ginger broth and the absolutely heart-stopping double cut pork chop with Armagnac & oolong tea marinated prunes are complete winners.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said that “It is better to be honestly arrogant than hypocritically humble.” My winelist rocks. I had a dream situation – an entire year to choose the 500 plus selection with no limitation on budget. I was also involved in the design of the wine cellar, a beautiful glass and redwood display taking up the front of our second floor (just outside our private party room). AZ, 21 W. 17th St., 212-691-8888

Fressen

It’s the meat-packing district in all its guises. The space used to be a veal processing warehouse, and now it shares the block with a variety of late night casual sex venues and watering holes. Is it a pioneer or a lost soul? Maybe a little of both.

First you have to find it. An unmarked steel door in the middle of a group of warehouses doesn’t give you the clue that you need. If it’s a little later at night there may be a doorman the size of the door waiting. Despite the fear this may strike in the hearts of club-hoppers, he’s friendly, and merely there to greet you and open the door. Inside, prepare for more contrasts.

You find yourself in a bar filled with the latest model wannabees mingling with people who wish they’d made a call for a reservation now hoping to score a table. You, of course, were smarter than that – you have a reservation. Seating isn’t necessarily prompt, so plan on a short wait, but you’ll have your table soon enough and the cocktails are well-mixed, alongside a great selection of wines by the glass from consulting sommelier Geri Banks.

The dining room, or rooms, as one large space is divided in two by a wall, is lined on all sides with slabs of concrete. The industrial look is softened by golden lighting and bits of wood, stained glass and fabric scattered hither, thither and yon. Your table is actually big enough not only to sit at, but to fit everything you might order on.

The menu constantly changes. Constantly. It is short and “market-driven”, i.e., the local greenmarket informs the dishes of the day. Six to eight appetizers and a like number of entrees are prepared. Tomorrow, anywhere from one to a half-dozen of those is likely to be different. This leads to Fressen’s one real flaw. Now and again, you may feel like you’re the guinea pig of the evening.

Nonetheless, virtually everything I’ve eaten at Fressen has fallen somewhere between good and truly outstanding. Even the misses were never complete misses, just a little askew. The service staff are excited about presenting this kaleidoscope of food and are eager to tell you about it. Same goes for the winelist, a small collection of nicely priced, off-beat and regularly changing selections.

You can guarantee yourself a winner by just accepting that someone at your table has to order the Amish chicken in whatever guise it currently exists. The rich flavor of the chicken itself almost leads me to rent a car and drive the couple of hours to Lancaster, PA just to secure one. One visit we had the most amazing scallops with roasted corn salsa. Another we had a roasted beet salad that had us ordering a second round.

Chef Lynn McNeely (can we just say “cute!” and get away with it?) is especially good with fish and shellfish. His light touch with sauces and seasonings lets the fresh, organic ingredients shine through. He is at his best when he goes simple – perhaps the most memorable dish we’ve had was a plate that consisted of a half-head of butter lettuce, some scattered heirloom tomatoes and a light, lemon and cheese vinaigrette that was there more in spirit than in presence. Fressen, 421 W. 13th Street, 212-645-7775


Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.

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Putting It All Together

Santé
The Magazine for Restaurant Professionals
April/May 1999
Page 59

Putting It All Together

The Veritas team, back row from left, Sommelier David Singer, Sommelier Ben Breen, Owner Gino Diaferia, front row from left, Wine Director Dan Perlman, General Mananger Ron Lybeck

The Veritas team, back row from left, Sommelier David Singer, Sommelier Ben Breen, Owner Gino Diaferia, front row from left, Wine Director Dan Perlman, General Mananger Ron Lybeck

The phone rings early. The voice on the line says, “X told us to call you. We’re opening a restaurant. We have a private collection of 70,000 bottles of wine to create a reserve list, but if you want to add to it, you can buy what you think you need. We’re going to do low markups to attract people who are into wine. The chef is really talented. Even though it’s a 65-seat restaurant, you’re going to have two assistant sommeliers. We’re opening in four weeks. Interested?”

I’ve just finished my first pot of coffee. The caffein hasn’t quite kicked in. I’m highly susceptible to both flattery and intrigue. At least I can go talk to these guys. It’s not as if I’m committing to anything… Yeah, sure.

I go chat. Two weeks later, I’m at 20th Street in Manhattan, sitting in the basement of a construction site that will become Veritas, wondering just where I’m going to put 1,500 selections of wine. I have room for 500 – if I squeeze.

Taking Stock

Reality can bring tears to your eyes. There are personalities involved – four owners, three of whom are offering their personal wine collections for me to cull through. What complicates matters is that each of them has their own idea about what should be on the list. One partner hands over his entire collection. A second sends a list of what he is contributing to the restaurant. Partner number three knows what he has – it just isn’t written down anywhere. I make a trip to his cellar, and we comb through his collection.

I end up with over 1,200 selections of wine. They are heavily concentrated in “trophy” wines – top-growth Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône, California cult Cabs, Barolo, scattered selections from Spain (a large vertical of Unico) and Australia (ditto for Grange). There are few whites, lots of big bottles (25 percent is in magnum or larger) and virtually no half-bottles.

My two cellar rooms are both temperature controlled. I create “red” and “white” roooms, with double-depth, single-bottle racking. Initially, my reaction is one of dismay; how am I going to create bins?, there’s a lot of wasted space, etc. When I stop to think about how the wines are coming in, however, I realize that this configuration is necessary. Traditional bins would end up with five or six different wines piled on top of each other. On the other hand, because of the “selection” process, I can’t preassign bin numbers and spacing to wines. I end up creating bin number categories (e.g., 2000-2200 for red Bordeaux) and then assigning the bin numbers as the wines arrive.

Collaboration

There are two assistants to hire, one capable of creating the bar that will carry eclectic and interesting selections, not “well”brands and not even standard “call” brands. Also, I want someone who can manage a small, constantly changing, wine-by-the-glass program. We interview and hire, and we put one of the assistants, David Singer, on payroll and get him working. Between the two of us and General Manager Ron Lybeck, also a sommelier, we hammer out the concept, and Singer starts making selections. My second assistant, Ben Breen, joins us. He not only will handle floor service, but also much of the restaurant’s computerization, including the redesign of the preliminary web site where our wine list and menus are posted.

Lybeck and I come up with the concept of a “market” list. We approach it like a chef going shopping, finding ingredients and then creating a menu. I’m not going to worry about filling holes in this list. I look for wines that I like, that I can get at good values and offer at prices that beat the competition. We collect wine lists from all over the city and start comparing prices. If someone bought something years ago, we may not be able to beat the price. Instead, we go for giving the best value that we can.

There’s the menu to consider. Executive Chef/Owner Scott Bryan and I worked together years ago in another restaurant. Initially, his menu looks like typical fusion cuisine, but he has his own twists. Aiming for simplicity in a city where more is better, he pairs a minimum of ingredients to create a maximum effect. We taste through the menu with the staff – the food is amazing! From my perspective as Wine Director, however, most of what’s on the reserve list doesn’t pair with the food. A huge percentage of these are big, “chewy”wines. The food is lighter and simpler with touches of Asian spices. There are lighter, more elegant wines to add.

I’m a huge fan of half-bottles. We already have a ton of large bottles. I start collecting halves, and I ask one of the partners to do the same. He heads for the auction houses and starts bidding.

Presentation

I wish that I could remember the thought processes that went into the list design. I do remember waking up in a cold sweat at four in the morning and jotting down nightmares. Some of the presentation was dictated by prior decisions; a designer already had selected the physical book that would contain the list. It’s a half-width ring binder holding sheets of paper that are 4¼ by 11 inches. I decide to print pages on one side and fold them in half. The physical design allows me to update the list daily, a necessity given the wine-crazed clientele that we attract. Customers expect that the wine they see on the list to be there; being out of one item is guaranteed to convince them that we’re all smoke and mirrors.

veritas3I decide on a reference section for the list. Customers are always asking questions about bottle sizes, geography and wine trivia. I create a chart of bottle sizes, and I add some maps. Inspiration strikes, and I spend a couple of days researching an idea. I gather reviews of a recently released wine. As we all know, wine reviews vary considerably. I insert a blurb about the importance of trusting one’s own palate and quote from the reviews. Every flavor profile is different and the ratings vary widely. I show it to colleagues. They love it.

I want color on the list – just enough to accent the pages. I purchase an inkjet printer, which means slow printouts and regular replacement of pages when someone smears the ink with wet or greasy fingers, but we all like the look. I want to feature wines by the glass up front. A last minute call to the designer yields a pocket added to the inside cover.

We decide that we’re going to have the market and reserve lists in the same book. We want a certain level of impact in dining and wining here. We don’t want people to feel intimidated asking for the reserve list.

I gather a hundred selections or so as an opening market list. Given our “market” approach, I opt for separating them by varietal, not geography. I write a one-sentence blurb for each wine, but as time goes on, we’ll use commentary from staff tastings.

[Veritas – marketlist]

veritas2The reserve list requires a different approach. I go after it with a copy of a wine atlas in one hand. I try different formats until I find one that we all like. The page width requires certain decisions. I don’t want individual wines to take up two or three lines of text. My solution amounts to an outline of the wine world; true, customers must look at the top of the page to know where they are on the planet, but my scheme gives a simple categorization to the list.

Training

I have to deal with staff training. I decide that, over time, we will cover the equivalent of a sommelier’s course for the entire staff. Most of the wine education will be handled by me. I decide to leave the spirits education in Singer’s hands; though he’s new to managing a bar and teaching, it is a perfect opportunity for him to grow into a position.

The chef is approached. He’d love to have the kitchen staff participate. We plan classes and tastings, a demanding schedule that will tax the staff’s time and energy. The waitstaff is hired with that in mind. We look for people wo are personally into wine right from the start.

First Returns

Opening day arrives. The reserve list will open with holes intact. It will be a constantly evolving list, as any good wine list should be. Everyone says that their list is constantly evolving, but most aren’t. They become static creations because no one has the time to constantly update them. Our approach has to be different, and my assistants will free more of my time to do that.

I wish I had months to add more whites and to add wines from other parts of the world. I’d like to see more wines representing the lighter side of life. Balance will come with time. On the other hand, we know that the public, and the critics, will come looking for the holes and, finding them, will assume that we haven’t thought it through.

I add an opening statement onto the first page of the wine list, explaining our concept and evolutionary approach. It has no effect on a restaurant critic who arrives before we open, looks at a draft of the list and pronounces judgment on it. One shows up the day after we open and announces that we don’t the wine that the reviewer wants. We have 11 other vintages of the very wine, but… yawn… well, an interesting list. A neighborhood restaurateur comes in, combs through the list and asks for an obscure wine. “You don’t have it? I though tyou were going to cver everything.” He leaves, no doubt to return to his own restaurant and pass the word about Veritas’ inadequate wine list.

After a day or two, I realize that when you come into the New York City market with what we are offering, this reaction is unavoidable. Most patrons and colleagues are excited for us. There are always going to be those who feel that they have to criticize. We have over 1,300 wines on a brand new list. We’ll never cover everything. If we tried to cover everything in a list this size, we’d have one selection from each appellation, and that’s about it. Who’d be interested? Who’d be excited?


Santé is a glossy format trade magazine for restaurant wine buyers and educators. I wrote as a freelancer for them on and off from the first issue in November 1996 until November 2002 when they decided to stop using freelance writers.

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East Village Eats

Q San Francisco
November 1996
Pages 34-36

New York
The QSF Guided Tour

East Village Eats

eveatsWelcome to the new frontier. Sure the East Village is home to New York’s grunge set. And yes, it’s still probably the easiest place to score whatever mind-altering substance you crave. It’s also the simplest place in the city to get a tattoo as well as being home to New York’s cutting-edge artists, theaters, music scene, clubs and performance art. Best of all, some of the hottest new restaurants in town are springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Maybe they don’t rate four stars in the New York Times, but try to get a reviewer to cover this neighborhood.

Leading the pack is First. Chef Sam DeMarco knows good food. Actually he knows great food. The first thing you notice as you enter into the gleaming bar is the ceiling, stretched with a fantasy of tightrope wire, chrome and a strange facsimile of Star Wars’ Death Star (contrary to rumor, it doesn’t move). Highlights on the menu are an appetizer of guinea hen with caramelized onion, pistachios and plum sauce, and an always delicious pasta of the day. In the mood for something big? Come Sundays for the roast suckling pig special. Want a truly memorable experience? Let Sam prepare his five-course tasting for you. Check out the well-selected wine and beer lists, too. (First, 87 1st Avenue between 5th & 6th Streets, 212-674-3823.)

A couple of blocks away is Circa. This place tops my list for decor. Polished copper tabletops reflect artfully planned lighting. The surrounding walls mix exposed brick, wood and strange giant leaves. The bar is a long, curving S, with rows of bottles tempting you to just stop in for a drink. You can sit and relax in the front lounge area, or grab a table and sit down to dine. Chef Frank DeCarlo is another whiz in the kitchen.

From the main menu, don’t miss the lobster, tomato and artichoke risotto. Pastas are also great here. Where Circa really shines though is brunch. It may be the hardest meal for a restaurant to do right (we’re all at our pickiest late Sunday mornings) but Circa does it brilliantly. Don’t miss the huge plate of biscuits with sausage gravy. A pot of tea and the smoked salmon platter is my idea of a perfect weekend afternoon. A great wine selection from local consultant Steve Miller rounds out the experience. (Circa, 103 2nd Avenue at 6th Street, 212-777-4120.)

Hidden away on a block that looks like somewhere your mother told you never to go is Casanis. A cool little hole-in-the-wall French bistro where chef Sebastian Macszo turns out some of the best “simple” food around. The room is likewise simple, standard French food and drink posters adorn the wood and plaster walls. Tables are crammed tightly together, so plan on getting to know your neighbors – but that’s part of the East Village experience these days. Highlights on the menu include the salad with chevre and dried cherries, and the main course of roasted and confited duck with a lemon-fig sauce. The daily specials are always tempting, even when, as often is the case, your waiter can’t remember what they are. The wine list is chockfull of unusual selections from the French countryside, making this a don’t miss dinner. Oh, one note, cash only. (Casanis, 54 E. 1st Street between 1st & 2nd Avenues, 212-777-1589.)

Across the street from the Joseph Papp Public Theater is L’Udo. Rustic brick, frescos and a garden make a great setting for simple Provençal. An early prix-fixe menu offers the perfect meal before heading to the Public Theater or just down the block to the long-running Blue Man Tubes production. Highlights of the regular menu are the baked sea bass with saffron broth and Provençal vegetables, and for dessert, a baked apple with calvados and vanilla ice cream. The wine list reflects the cuisine, concentrating on simple country wines from both France and Italy, though many a trifle on the pricey side for what they are. Still, L’Udo is a delightfully romantic place. (432 Lafayette Street just south of Astor Place, 212-388-0978.)

It is impractical to discuss East Village dining without at least giving a nod to the strip of 6th Street known as Little India. A couple of dozen Indian restaurants line up side by side on both sides of the street and trail around the corners. Most are basic, with virtually identical menus. Though not hot or trendy, one stands above the rest, Windows on India. The corner location, lots of windows, beautiful lighting and impeccable service make this the spot for Indian dining in the East Village. A far ranging menu that even includes selections from Indonesia offers a vast number of dishes. My favorite appetizer is dal papri, a cold salad of potatoes, yogurt and tamarind sauce topped with crunchy diamonds of fried lentil fritters (the word “fritter” pops up more times on the menu than I cared to count). The best of the main courses come from the tandoori oven; go for a combination platter of your favorite meats, fish and vegetables. Unusual for an Indian restaurant, Windows on India offers a wine list, most of which is well picked to go with the cuisine. (Windows on India, 344 E. 6th Street at 1st Avenue, 212-477-5956.)

Numerous other culinary adventures await those of you who venture into the hinterlands of the East Village. There are the traditional and long-lived delis like the Second Avenue Deli, Katz’s and Ratner’s; Polish and Russian fare is served up from Kiev to Veselka to Christine’s, while Asian cuisine from all over – Lavo (Thai), Angry Monk (Tibetan), Esahi and Iso (Japanese), Indochine (Vietnamese) – are some of my favorites. One of the nicest things about dining out in this neighborhood is that you can have a great meal and your credit card won’t have a meltdown when the bill arrives.


Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.

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