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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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)