upper west side


For some reason or another, I’ve found myself hunting for a reasonably priced dinner on the UWS quite a few times in as many weeks.

When Ruoying was still in town, we hit Lincoln Center for a London Phil performance, and a pre-theater dinner at Landmarc. Located on the 3rd floor of the Time Warner Building, Ruoying claimed it was the first restaurant she’s been to in the city that’s requires an elevator to get to. How true, most places we go to are steadfastly located on ground floors and basements! The elevated view of Central Park aside, Landmarc served its purposes of being  convenient, relatively affordable yet close to Lincoln Center. The food,while a little inconsistent is decent too, with a very meat and potatoes menu to satisfy most tastes. Steak? Check. Burger? Check. Pasta? Got it. Salads? Yup. The extensive and well-priced wine list is yet another bonus. Ruoying’s pasta special was a tad over-priced but came with plenty of clams and was nice and al dente. I was in the mood for steak tartare and Landmarc’s version did not disappoint, very tart and flavorful with plenty of good country bread to go along with it. Unfortunately, the fries were overpriced, mealy and tasteless. We finished up with a slice of lemon tart, very lightly priced, and very small to justify the cost and headed off to the concert in 90 minutes flat. On previous occasions, I’ve enjoyed similarly well-prepared but not too exciting meals, the bone marrow and the shrimp salad being wonderful standouts, and shared a few glasses with good friends, in a comfortable setting that does not require much prior planning to get to, thanks to its ample room. In conclusion, Landmarc is hardly a destination spot, but seeking decently priced food in the area is challenging, and Landmarc plays to its niche well.

Last Saturday saw me and a few friends at Shun Lee Cafe for dinner before catching the excellent French film “The Class”. The cafe is the casual sibling of the more ostentatious Shun Lee Restaurant, whose reputation as a purveyor of gourmet Chinese has always been a little shaky amongst Chinese food enthusiasts. Our dinner was rather middling, with the dim sum quite dry and bland, the faux asian sauces (soy, mustard, hot sauce ala packets from takeout Chinese shops) on the table absolutely necessary to make things taste better. I was just disappointed that they had to prove me right. But all was not lost, the pork knuckles and oxtail stew was a surprise hit, the pork knuckles cooked long enough to retain some characteristic chewiness but still fall-of-the-bone soft and the stew, redolent of sugar, soy and accentuated by carrots reminded me of my family’s oxtail stew. Service was excellent, with the cafe allowing us to be seated while waiting for our companions to all arrive and the decor and particularly the animal-shaped lampshades, shall we say, was worth the entry fee.

If the dinners at the aforementioned restaurants seemed to have compromised my tasty ideals, my meal at Kefi on Sunday certainly made up for the blandness of Shun Lee’s food from the previous night. The last time I was at Kefi, the restaurant was still operating out of its previous smaller location. The current version is a mammoth for New York standards, seating more than a hundred in 2 levels, with a hopping bar scene to boot. But it’s perenially full, with UWSiders keen for Mediterranean food on a low budget, and the place was packed at 6pm. Reviews have accused the restaurant of deteriorating service and food standards, but Yanru and I experienced none of that. The bartender was helpful with wine choices while I waited for my dinner date to arrive, and our server funny, energetic and generous with a free shot of blood-orange flavored ouzo. Our food, rather amazingly priced at under $10 for mezes and under $20 for mains came quickly as the restaurant turns tables furiously to make the low margins work. I loved my plate of warm feta, less crumbly than usual, setting a stage for a melange of Mediterranean flavors, the brine of capers, olives and anchovies, sweetness of caramelized onions and roasted peppers, a little sourish kick from cherry tomatos. A generous stack of pita bread graced the crock of cheese, willing me to drag pieces upon pieces of bread through the creamy white paste. A plate of meatballs were generous with the juicy chunks of ground meat emitting alluringly smoky charred smells, and served alongside pickled onions and a tangy yogurt sauce. Yanru enjoyed her hefty casserole of rabbit pasta, the hand made noodles a testament of chef Michael Psilakis Italian training. The only slight misstep for me was the sweetbreads. The offal itself was well-done, lightly crusted and delicate, topped with amazing fried onion bits, unfortunately overwhelmed by the overpoweringly sour sauce. Still, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad especially at those prices, and when you can eat so well at such gentle prices, in an occasionally rowdy but congenial tavern-like setting, its no wonder Kefi’s an UWS hit.

Landmarc

10 Columbus Circle (3rd Flr)

http://www.landmarc-restaurant.com/twc/

Shun Lee Cafe

43 W 65th St (bet Columbus and CPW)

http://shunleewest.com/index2.htm

Kefi

505 Columbus Ave (Bet 84th & 85th Sts)

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It had been an awful awful week at work, and as Friday rolled in, all I wanted to do was go home, order Chinese takeout and then crawl into bed and not get up for the next 15 hours. Unfortunately, I had to honor previously made plans with friends and as dinner time approached, made my way up 80 blocks to Pisticci, Sarah’s (our dinner mastermind) favorite Italian restaurant in Manhattan. With an Italian grandma, that is no small praise indeed.

It is easy to see why Pisticci earns Sarah’s praise. The decor is charming in a quirky, kitschy way, with canary yellow wallpaper on one end and a mural of painted bookcases (replete with painted hardcovers) on the other. The pieces of art available for sale are electic and original. The service is friendly, quick, laidback and non-obtrusive throughout dinner, and no one attempted to rush us through our very long meal. Last but not least, the food is straightforward and very tasty. We shared a heaping bowl of spaghetti and meatballs to start, with the pomodoro sauce done just right, not too watery nor tart. I was having dinner with a group of carbophiles so after spaghetti came more heaping bowls of pasta, all al dente and slick with a myraid of tasty sauces, the most memorable being Chri’s fresh tomato and mozzarella mixture and Joanna’s rich, lemony broth that was as seductive as advertised on the menu. My bowl of fresh maltagliati (ie “badly cut” pasta similar to my favorite mee hoon kuay) was one of the heaviest dish, the pasta mixed into a thick lamb ragu and topped off with ricotta as if it was not rich enough. Not too distinguished, but it was a comforting dish suitable on a very cool night.

We then slowly whiled the night away with coffee and desserts which like the savory dishes were simple, traditional and delicious. Katherine’s bowl of fresh whipped cream and fruits was no doubt the most decadent, but the most delicious? I’ll give that honor to the hefty brick of moist coconut cake and the chocolate mousse that was not too sweet, super-smooth and without the grittiness that sometimes plague mediocre mousses. The evening went quickly, as we passed around desserts, shared stories of our lives, and talked about everything, from food trends to books to politics. We finally left the restaurant after an epic 4 hour meal (3.5hrs for me the latecomer). After a very trying week, dinner with friends in a welcoming spot such as Pisticci was exactly what the doctor had ordered.

Pisticci

125 La Salle Street (Between Broadway & Claremont Aves)

www.pisticcinyc.com

Floor-length windows wrapped around the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel almost assures killer views of Central Park and Midtown. With its glamorous address, the people watching is bound to be good too. I’m glad to say that with both fronts, Asiate did not disappoint. My parents and I were ushered to a nice table flush to the window when we visited for lunch, and while the day was gloomy grey, the bird’s eye view of Central Park was still impressive. Mum also had her New York moment when Will Smith popped into the restaurant to say hi to his friends/relatives seated right beside us.  As a spot to wow, to romance, to indulge in attentive service, Asiate is an obvious choice.

But what about a place to dine? While lunch was enjoyable and a very good value at $24 for 2 dishes on the ala carte menu, or $38/28 for 2 daily bento sets, I would be hesistant to go back for the fully-priced dinner menu. Why? The food was in general, not memorable enough, and the view can only carry a place so far. For one, the restaurant, with a fusion-Asian pedigree and a Japanese chef played too often on racial conceit. Many dishes, from the India-influenced leek soup to the bland chai panna-cotta made use of Asian flavors that tended to overwhelm. My beet salad, with no obvious Asian influence, was too sweet, and the sauce lacked acid or salt to contrast with the ruby beet slices. And ironically, our favorite dishes were those without Asian condiments, such as a hearty beef short rib braised for such a long time that it just melted in the mouth, as well as the daily fish, lightly crusted, pan-fried and presented with a tangy berry sauce.

Besides Asian flavors, presentation were Oriental-inspired, but to varying success.  My father’s bento set was preciously presented in a wooden box that housed 6 separate tastes, ranging from salad to robust meats. However, it was really trying to cut into a succulent cube of beef short rib or a really nice piece of crispy duck bathed in curry sauce on a 2″x2″ plate, whereas the pair of chopsticks presented alongside the bento did not help. Try holding a large chunk ( ~4 largish mouthfuls) of meat on chopsticks and eating it elegantly. Impossible. And while I am being picky, the disposable chopsticks looked cheap next to the luxe settings.  

Still, a meal at Asiate can be very enjoyable with a couple of caveats. Recognize that one would be very disappointed to call it a Japanese or just Asian restaurant, because the approach at Asiate less clear cut than that, and more a blend of Western cooking technique but an Asian flavor palette. Indeed, I’ve had more Asian dishes at Jean Georges than at Asiate including a steamed fish dish that tastes uncannily like Teochew steamed pomfret.  Also take your time to enjoy the attentive service and the view, and soak in the ambience while you eat, for that is a big part of Asiate, possibly more than the food. That way, you too can claim a little piece of affordable luxury called the mid-week lunch at Asiate.

 Asiate

80 Columbus Circle, 35 Floor (60th St, between Broadway and Columbus Aves)

http://www.mandarinoriental.com/hotel/532000039.asp

Walter ate with me and a few other friends at Pio Pio over the weekend and has graciously volunteered to write this extraordinarily detailed entry! Here goes:

Pio Pio Salon’s mascot is a cute little cartoon chicken wearing oversized running shoes. The bird clearly needs to run as fast as it can, because the main item on Pio Pio’s menu is Peruvian-style roasted chicken, and the roomful of hungry diners aren’t about to let anything even vaguely poultry-shaped escape.

Hispanic-style roast chicken joints are widespread throughout New York, but they’re mostly located in immigrant neighborhoods. While Pio Pio has roots in the outer boroughs, their Upper West Side location at 94th and Amsterdam is clearly an attempt to bring smart casual dining- South American style – to the UWS ‘masses’. Their dining room is modern and well-appointed, with furnishings seemingly by the same people who decorate chains like Panera Bread or Starbucks. However, the hand-drawn rustic murals and the ambient Latin musak remind you that you’re not in suburbia anymore. There is a definite energy about the place – radiating from the packed dining room – that makes you
convivially hungry. This is a place for friendship, and feasting!chicken

The menu at Pio Pio – for a place that’s supposed to be about the chicken – actually has plenty of non-chicken items. That probably makes sense since the centerpiece Peruvian roast chicken comes only one way – whole roasted and cut in quarters. The remainder of the entree list – consisting mostly of fish and a few other electic options like Peruvian-Chinese fried rice – is probably destined to be ignored, although we did order the Arroz con Mariscos. We decided the mainstay of our meal would be two roast chicken platters, each with a different combination of accompaniments like fries, rice, beans, and other starchy standbys. Two roast chickens, sides, and a rice dish -would that be enough food for seven?

We started by ordering two ceviches and a jug of Sangria. The starters menu has a definite pan-Latin-American flair to it -besides the ceviche, there were several intriguing options, including crab-stuffed potatoes and Peruvian tamales. Wikipedia tells me that ceviche originated in the olden Viceroyalty of Peru – it’s always reassuring to know that your raw fish dish has been eaten safely for hundreds of years! We had one fish ceviche, and one mixed seafood ceviche – both were great, the fish tangy and crisp from the lime marinade, with the characteristic sweetness of raw seafood but none of the unpleasant fishiness. Some restaurants will cook their ceviche, instead of curing the fish in the lime juice. While I’m usually happy to avoid food poisoning (although properly prepared ceviche should – I’m assured -render that risk negligible) I must admit that the raw version is probably superior. Cooking can be a harsh process that strips the subtlety from food.

Ceviche was, of course, only an appetizer. Scarcely had we cleared our plates when a platter piled high with roasted chicken arrived, landing squarely in the center of our table. The chicken looked somewhat lonely (if you can call eight juicy beautifully roasted chicken quarters lonely) until a giant platter of fries arrived next, followed by two avocado salads, nother plate of fries-and-sausages, tostones (fried plantains), and rice-and-beans. Just as we had thought we would expire just thinking about eating all this food, our Arroz con Mariscos arrived, a golden giant mound of rice bedecked with mussels, clams, and shrimp. And we wondered whether three entrees could have fed seven.

It’s a little hard to describe how exactly a piece of chicken tastes because we’re all so used to eating it. Unlike a fine cut of beef or lamb, we’re just unaccustomed to noticing that our chicken is meant to taste of anything distinctive at all. Yet hicken does have, in of itself, a particular flavor – anyone who has eaten just the chicken alone from Hainanese Chicken Rice knows this. Pure chicken is not the bland, overcooked and rubbery meat we’re used to in chicken salads and sandwiches – chicken that’s just barely cooked, chicken on the edge of raw, is, I dare say, bold, even a little gamy. Then consider the opposite end; the processed chicken product, the McNugget, the fast-food fried chicken piece; spiced and  assaged and tenderized until all you taste is not so much chicken as what some food scientist would like chicken to be. I think good chicken cooking tries to strike a happy balance between these two extremes. Pio’s Pio’s chicken is an exceedingly good example of this style of cooking – seasoned and roasted in a process that adds the rich flavors of spices to the meat, yet with a light enough touch such that the basic essence of chicken (not the type that comes in a tiny bottle) is not lost.

One of the best parts about the meal? We ate well and heartily for $20 each – including a glass of Sangria each! That’s not easy to do in New York. I’ll be back sometime. Pio Pio’s chicken had better keep running.

Pio Pio Salon

702 Amsterdam Ave (at 94th St)

My little sister is in town for the very first time and like a proud, slightly over-coddling older sibling, I was eager to show her quintessentially New York scenes. She’s covered the sights on her own, from the verdant fields in Central Park to the garishly mesmerizing lights in Times Square, so I decided to induct her to the decadent New York dining scene at Jean Georges.
The menu is built like this: for $28, one can choose two dishes from about 15 dishes, with each additional savory dish $12 and dessert for $8. To start, fresh bread and a trio of amuse bouches are served. The amuse bouches were fun, each yielding different textures and flavors. The pinkie sized ball of mozzarella was mild and sweet, the corn fritters a crispy bite while the cucumber water with lime “foam” tended to be a touch acidic, with a spicy kick at the end. Each bite into my starter, a bowl of corn ravioli, brings forth a burst of sweetness characteristic of fresh corn. The slightly charred kernels tasted a little like pop-corn, while the beautiful tomatos, at the peak of tomato season, was packed with flavor. Likewise, Ruoyi’s ruby ribbons of tuna, a ceviche of sorts in a tangy ginger and soy based sauce was artfully presented and tasted as great as it looked.
A platter of expertly fried sweetbreads extended the summery theme, when paired with slightly tart roasted peaches and peppery arugula. A dash of pink peppercorn salt for added flavor and pizzazz. Throughout the menu, Ruoyi’s braised short-rib was the only concession to the coming of fall weather, and it was no-frills but very hearty, though its vinegar base a tad sour.
No meal ends without dessert, and so we shared the summer themed one, as if that would make autumn stop dead in its tracks. The cherry souffle, with its fluffy purplish and white peak was pleasant but the accompanying cheese with peaches suffered from very aggressive cheese.
Even if one opted out of dessert, Jean Georges is still not letting you go without something sweet and petit fours are rolled out in style. We delighted in the surprisingly pleasant licorice-flavored chocolate bon bon, with a slight anisey rush at the very end, and ruoyi loved the plump marshmallow pillows that the server cut out of long marshmallow ribbons, particularly the strawberry ones, complete with seeds. Last but not least were lilliputan macarons that would surely interest any miniature enthusiasts.
In the realm of fine dining, Ruoyi is a convert. And who wouldn’t be, when for a fraction of what dinner costs, one can immerse in the soothing grey and mauve surroundings and be treated, if not like kings and queens, then at the very least like princesses?

Jean Georges
1 Central Park West

Of the neighborhoods I frequent in the city, the upper west side ranks highest in terms of baked goods. While the rest of the city sleeps in on weekends, the upper westsiders and eastsiders, typically a more mature bunch with children in tow are up and about by 9-10 am, hitting Fairway and the other supermarkets for cooking ingredients and on the lookout for breakfast and strong coffee. There are fewer generic bagel chains and more independent bakeries, and Arte around the Corner is one such shop, simultaneously a specialty store for Italian foodstuffs and purveyor of very gooey and addictive pastries and cakes. This morning, a honey and blueberry loaf looked extremely attractive on the cake stand, with pristine blueberries lined uniformly in the crack of the loaf cake like a row of edible buttons. I picked another honey-flavored item, a honey and fig muffin. Unlike regular muffins, it was a lot moister, the crumbs were less compact and suffused with the heady scent of honey. The muffin is not perfectly dome shaped, as the more liquid batter ran over the baking tin, rendering crispier bits that linked one muffin from the other. I picked up chunks of fresh figs in each bite, the caramelized fruit contributing to the overall stickiness of the muffin, sticky enough to have to lick my fingers afterwards. The muffin is paired with a potent cup of coffee. Not a bad start to Sunday at all.

Arte Around the Corner
274 Columbus Ave (73rd St)

I had visitors from Singapore again this weekend, and before a trip to the Met thought it would be good to fuel up somewhere nearby. Barney Greengrass – a 99 year old upper west side Jewish foodstore/ restaurant complete with tiny formica tables and 1950-ish shiny plastic and chrome chairs – isn’t exactly on the same side of the park as the museum, but I figured, a short walk wouldn’t kill anyone, not especially after a nice, fishy breakfast.

Jeanette had lamented on the dismal state of Singapore bagels and while Barney Greengrass is more famous for smoked fish, the bagels we had were dense, chewy, poofy, not too big. Overall a pretty decent bagel.
As good as the bagels may me, it unfortunately plays second fiddle at Barney Greengrass. For the main reason people frequent this old store is not for the bagels nor the excellent baked goods, but for the fish. I clearly wasn’t the only one with fish on my mind, as the main sitting room was already filled at 10.30am with early risers including my coworker Alan, his fiancee and friends, and my party had to be sitted on the more makeshift are right across the refrigerated displays. This proved to be a great seat as we stared at all the unfamiliar types of fish like sable and salmon pastrami, imagining their tastes, and watched the deli-men perform their mean slicing skills, shaving thick slabs of lox into thin layers fit for a cream cheese, lox and bagel trifecta. The lovely couple I breakfasted with both chose plates of nova scotia salmon scrambled with eggs and onions. The creamy eggs binded well with the thick chunks of flavorful cured salmon, while the soft and slow cooked onion provided a sweet counterpoint. I selected a fried egg sandwich stuffed with a generous serving of sturgeon, for which Barney Greengrass unabashedly calls itself a king of. The delicate fish was moist and flaky and the eggs was just as I liked it, crispy on the eggs but juice-filled as I bit into my towering sesame-seed flecked sandwich.
We, or rather I ended my meal buying a bag of black-and-white cookies that are as New York as bagels are and was not disappointed. The cookies are ubiquitous in New York delis, but are often stale, dry disks of cake dough topped with oily glaze. The mini cookies I bought were moist and tasted slightly lemony, while the duo of chocolate and vanilla glaze were sweet but not cloyingly so. Yummy.
For New Yorkers, Barney Greengrass is a great place to enjoy local favorites in an efficient, friendly and no-nonsense setting and for visitors, a charmingly old-school dining experience that is definitely not cookie-cutter!

Barney Greengrass
541 Amsterdam Avenue (86th St)

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