All-Day Mexican Fare at Atla

the light, airy and spacious dining room at atla

Enrique Olvera’s Cosme is one of the best restaurants in the city, and the duck carnitas and husk meringue are two signature dishes that I’ve raved about to others. But the high price points and fine dining atmosphere at Cosme don’t allow for frequent visits. Things are about to change now that Olvera has introduced a more accessible, casual Mexican concept called Atla in Noho. I can now enjoy Michelin-caliber cooking at reasonable prices at any time of day, and as a result, Atla is fast becoming my favorite everyday, neighborhood standby.Read More

Bessou, A Charming Japanese Eatery

the kabocha shakshuka – curried roasted kabocha, baked egg, miso tofu labne with thick-cut milk toast

At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss Bessou as just another cute Japanese restaurant. The brunch menu reads like the whimsical thoughts of a young schoolgirl with visions of Seuss and sugarplums in her head, whipping up concoctions like a green eggs and chaashuu sandwich or a matcha black sesame babka. It all sounds very fun, but maybe not all that substantial, like reading your way through the pages of a lightweight gossip mag. Highly instagrammable, but highly edible? I was a little skeptical.Read More

Sushi on Jones $50 Omakase

Processed with VSCO with hb2 preset

What are you willing to do for cheap sushi? That’s a relative term, so to be clear, I’m not talking about sushi you get from a market or an average take-out place, I’m talking about freshly caught, high quality fish comparable to that served in a good restaurant. Would you be willing to give up good service, as long as the food comes out in a timely manner? Never mind the high strung host whose nerves seem to be getting the best of him from the moment you arrive and who keeps reminding you that you were 5 minutes late and were ruining their overwhelming operations of serving 4 other people. Or the fact that the same host with the stanky attitude who never offered you water and wanted you to leave as quickly as possible tried to upsell you on a $12 hand roll that you could take to go? What about your physical comfort? Are you okay with sitting outdoors on a small stool? It’s only 30 minutes, so not a big deal, right? This is how they do it at the Tokyo train station and the Tsukiji fish market! And speaking of 30 minutes, is this brevity something you can live with? It might even be quicker than that, maybe 25 minutes, I Dream of Jiro style, even though this is no Jiro, but as long as the sushi is tasty, it’s all good, right? You only paid $50 (only?) for such 12 premium pieces, what a steal!Read More

Double Take Dinner at Vic’s and Upland

This past weekend, I had an uncanny moment where I felt like I had the same meal at two different restaurants. On Saturday, I had dinner at Vic’s, the relatively new Italian-Mediterranean restaurant that replaced Five Points in Noho. The menu consisted of seasonally driven appetizers, a good selection of traditional entrees like roast chicken and flank steak, as well as a pizza and pasta selection. The next day I had a meal at Upland, a Flatiron restaurant featuring “California cuisine”. The menu consisted of seasonally driven appetizers, traditional mains like chicken and skirt steak, supplemented by pizza and pasta. You would think that Californian and Italian-Mediterranean might be materially different, but the two meals I had tasted very similar.

Atmosphere: Let’s start with the dining ambiance. Vic’s is more of a neighborhood spot, whereas Upland is more of a scene. As a result, people tend to be more dressy casual at Vic’s, with a slant towards the preppy, whereas things got a little clubby at Upland. I personally like a more comfortable, neighborhood vibe, so I would probably return to Vic’s, less so to Upland.

Starters: At Vic’s, we had the crispy sweet onions and the bitter greens, whereas at Upland we had the Japanese mackerel and the complimentary potato bread. Based on pure taste, the ones at Upland slightly edged out Vic’s’. The potato bread was outstanding–it was sweet and buttery like a brioche, dissolving into a golden pool of starch at the slightest touch. The Japanese mackerel was wonderfully rich and oily, tempered by the tangerines and brussels sprouts that came with it. The only downside was that it was very heavy…

upland - potato bread
upland’s potato bread
upland - japanese mackerel
upland’s japanese mackerel with celeriac, brussels sprouts, pistachio, benson’s ham and tangerine

…which was why I ultimately preferred the experience of eating the lighter vegetable dishes at Vic’s. The bitter greens were refreshing and had a lot of depth for a green salad, much more interesting than your run of the mill bibb lettuce or mesclun mix. I was hoping the onions would be thin and very fried, in which the breading and the oil would cook out all the sharp, raw flavors of the bulb, but they were a little too preserved. Luckily the side of thick, melted parmigiano cheese almost made up for the strong onion flavors lingering in my mouth.

vic's - crispy sweet onions
vic’s’ crispy sweet onions with dried tomato and parmigiano
vic's - bitter greens
vic’s’ bitter greens with balsamic dressing and fennel

Pizzas: I had the burrata pizza with anchovies at Vic’s, while we tried the ‘nduja pie at Upland. The burrata pizza at Vic’s won this round, hands down. I loved how the crust was super crispy and thin, and how the medley of melted burrata and anchovies created a delicious fishy, salt lick on top of the surface. The ‘nduja pie, on the other hand, was just so heavy and overbearing. The crust was way too thick, and the thick passata tomato puree was intensely concentrated, like it had been freshly squeezed from a tube of tomato paste and chorizo.

upland's ‘nduja pizza
upland’s ‘nduja pizza
vic's burrata pizza with anchovies
vic’s’ burrata pizza with anchovies

Fish. This was more of a draw–the whole roasted Long Island porgy at Vic’s vs. the whole grilled branzino at Upland. Both fillets featured wonderfully flaky and fleshy white meat that was flavorful and fantastic, although the citrus vinaigrette seasoning at Upland was a little more refined and pulled together. The Vic’s version felt like a watered down rendition of a Thai chili dish, but because the underlying meat was so good, it almost didn’t matter.

upland's whole grilled branzino with citrus scallion vinaigrette
upland’s whole grilled branzino with citrus scallion vinaigrette
vic's whole roasted l.i. porgy with watercress and chilies
vic’s’ whole roasted l.i. porgy with watercress and chilies

Overall, the meal at Vic’s edged out the one at Upland. Something about Vic’s felt very comfortable and cozy, and that made me want to come back. I felt like I was having dinner with an old friend, who happened to have a beautiful home with a warm, inviting dining room. Whereas at Upland, I felt like I was with my former sorority sisters one-upping each other with stories about career wins and luxury hand bag purchases. So while you might have a pizza or fish at either, the way you enjoy it may differ significantly.

And true to my word, I’ve been back to Vic’s multiple times, trying several new things in the process. I absolutely fell in love with with the “little purse” pasta, these small, chubby ravioli-like pouches filled with the creamiest ricotta cheese. There was also a roasted delicata squash appetizer that I really enjoyed, although I think it was a seasonal item that is no longer on the menu.

"little purse" borsa with ricotta, hazelnuts and lemon
“little purse” borsa with ricotta, hazelnuts and lemon
grilled flank steak
grilled flank steak
roasted chicken and brussels sprouts with mustard seeds
roasted chicken and brussels sprouts with mustard seeds

The burrata with mushrooms was fine, but ultimately the earthy flavors of the mushroom and the saltiness of the toast overwhelmed the delicate flavors of the cheese, which was a shame. The roasted chicken and brussels sprouts was very solid, arriving with the requisite crisped skin on top and plump, juicy meat underneath. The flank steak was a palate pleaser as well, although our medium rare arrived a little too red. I find myself planning a lot of group dinners here because everyone can find something to like from the roster of delicious, dependable classics, all at reasonable price points. Vic’s is truly a neighborhood restaurant in every sense of the word, and a very valued one at that.


Vic’s
31 Great Jones St (between Bowery and Lafayette)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 253-5700

Upland
345 Park Avenue South (between 25th and 26th St)
New York, NY 10010
(212) 686-1006

Mediterranean Throwdown with Bobby Flay at Gato

There’s no question that Bobby Flay knows how to cook. You don’t get to be Iron Chef or have several TV shows under your belt by being just ok. But I wonder if all those Throw Down challenges maybe impacted his palate a bit. Maybe he developed a propensity for really strong flavors after years of competing to make the best jerk chicken or cheesesteak or whatnot, all of which are not shy with flavors.

That was my issue with the food at Gato. The food at this Mediterranean Noho restaurant (France, Italy, Spain were all represented here) was very uneven. Either Flay hit it out of the park, or he put too much seasoning in something. You could tell that all the technique was there, but the flavors in the majority of the dishes needed to be scaled back.

scrambled eggs with almond romesco, boucheron cheese and tomato confit toast
scrambled eggs with almond romesco, boucheron cheese and tomato confit toast

The famous scrambled eggs, for instance, was one of the biggest offenders of overseasoning. I loved the texture of the eggs, which were the silkiest and creamiest scrambled eggs that I’ve ever had, and the hint of heat from the chili oil was a nice touch. But the flavors of the goat cheese were just so overwhelmingly dominant in each bite, so much so that I felt like they should have renamed this “goat cheese with scrambled eggs”. The small pieces of crunchy, golden toasts were great, but there weren’t enough of them to sop up the eggs, and they did nothing to offset the goat cheese.

burrata with black olive oil and beets
burrata with black olive oil and beets
eggplant with manchego, oregano, and balsamic
eggplant with manchego, oregano, and balsamic
mussel and razor clam salad with saffron pickled shallots
mussel and razor clam salad with saffron pickled shallots

Our trio of bar snacks suffered from the opposite problem–they didn’t leave enough of an impression. Which was interesting, because they were also a little overseasoned, yet I totally forgot about them the next day, unlike those eggs. The eggplants were warm and meaty, but the balsamic on them was a tad too sweet. The mussel and razor clam salad was light and refreshing, but the citrus notes were very strong. My favorite was probably the burrata, which was creamy and luscious as good burrata should be, but I’ve had better renditions of this cheese elsewhere.

At the end of the day, I didn’t really crave second servings of these small snacks. Maybe that’s the point–the bar snacks shouldn’t overshadow the appetizers and entrees, and they should just quickly whet your appetite with apertifs? But I think they play a pivotal role in serving as teasers for the good food to come, and based on the previews of these snacks alone, I would have probably skipped the movie.

Flay did make a comeback by throwing down an amazing kale and wild mushroom paella, as well as an excellent crab risotto. This man really knows how to work it with rice. I noticed on Wikipedia that he lost to some guy on an arroz con pollo challenge, but that must have been some bullsh*t, because there’s no way he’d lose. This is his thing, this is his jam. It’s like saying Morimoto lost a sushi throwdown challenge. I think he probably needs to “lose” some episodes so that he doesn’t alienate viewers and appears humble and likeable or some nonsense like that.

kale and wild mushroom paella with crispy artichokes and egg
kale and wild mushroom paella with crispy artichokes and egg

I would come back just for the kale paella. The crunchy, slightly charred bottom layer of rice, also known as socarrat, was glorious. The rice had this extremely satisfying, chewy texture, and the way the grains had locked in the flavors of the golden, pan-seared scraps was just incredible. The artichoke, which was indeed extra crispy, and the kale were both moderately seasoned, a nice counterbalance to all the excitement going on with the rice. There was also a delicious runny egg in the middle of it, which was meant for mixing and mingling all the comforting, hearty flavors together, a la bibimbap style.

crab risotto with garlic bread crumbs and calabrian red chile
crab risotto with garlic bread crumbs and calabrian red chile

While the paella was crispy and crunchy, the risotto was soft and creamy, as it should be. What struck me about the crab risotto was how strong and “crabby” it tasted. I’d definitely expect this from like a Singaporean street hawker, but not from a Western restaurant. I loved how briney each spoonful was, because it meant that there was real crab meat in there, and that the kitchen was being generous with it. It also reminded me of the awesome Korean crab soup jigage that my mother used to make for me as a child. If you don’t mind intense crab flavors, then this is definitely the dish for you.

Much like his show, Bobby Flay wins some and loses some at Gato. Unfortunately, I think the losses edged out the wins, and I’m really in no hurry to come back to the restaurant. That also played a factor in why I declined to order dessert. I wanted to leave on a high note with memories of the paella, instead of a potentially disappointing and overseasoned dessert. I’m going to tune out from the Throw Downs at Gato going forward, but I might be open to some reruns involving paella.


Gato
324 Lafayette St (between E. Houston and Bleecker St)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 334-6400