This week, our professional eaters sought out plates that reminded them of home — if not theirs, then someone else’s. In Astoria, Robert Sietsema enjoyed an Egyptian feast at El Omda, while Tejal Rao sopped up the sauce at Red Gravy in Brooklyn Heights.
How did our critics rate their Middle Eastern and Italian feasts? Find out after the break.
El Omda’s food is “just so damn good,” writes Sietsema. More specifically, he’s a fan of the faithfully elegant renditions of recognizable Middle Eastern dishes, along with some of the restaurant’s more “working-class Egyptian” cooking.
This cuisine features a fascinating mixture of familiar Middle Eastern stewed beans, bread dips, lemony composed salads, and charcoal-grilled kebabs, plus recipes borrowed from Sicily, Greece, North Africa, and even France.
Unless you’re a fervid carnivore, you’re better off skipping the shish (lamb), kufta (ground beef with onions), and chicken kebabs in favor of the more interesting seafood preparations. The one exception is the quartet of long-boned lamb chops, which are flavorsome and cheap ($18). They’re so tender, you almost don’t need to chew.
Our conscientious critic notes that even vegetarians can string together an excellent meal.
El Omda’s baba ghanouj possesses a nice smoky flavor, but is strangely devoid of the usual tahini. Instead, like the foul, it conceals a megaton of garlic. Another favorite of mine in the same your-Egyptian-mama-might-have-made-this-at-home vein is stuffed grape leaves ($8). Swaddled in deep green, a dozen cylinders that have never seen the inside of a can bulge with red rice faintly flavored with dill. These three dishes would make a spectacular vegan feast.
Meanwhile, Tejal Rao relished Italian food and a packed house at Red Gravy, Saul Bolton’s latest restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. The upmarket spot draws huge neighborhood crowds into its cozy surroundings, plying them with dreamy pasta dishes and other hearty fare. Rao did note a few slip-ups with staff but, for the most part, finds her meal strong enough to ignore some minor mistakes.
Thick ruffles of reginetti ($19), made with semolina and chestnut flour, are layered in a nuanced sauce of braised rabbit meat. A bowl of bucatini, served with melting dollops of sea urchin and slices of pickled cherry-bomb peppers ($29), looks very small and plain for its price tag, but taste it and you’ll find it’s an undeniably gorgeous dish, swimming in salty butter and white wine, delicately sweet with basil.
The kitchen does especially well with the chiles, seafood, and breadcrumb-paved dishes of the south, and when it celebrates Italian-American favorites such as spaghetti and meatballs, or Sunday gravy.
Those seeking more than a hefty plate of noodles have options:
But it’s not all pasta: Rabbit appears again–the bones replaced with a dark, delicious mousse of the animal’s offal in a pretty roulade, roasted maybe a minute or two too long–on a bed of fine lentils and chard ($26). A recent salad special of fried smelts and arugula was lovely, the fish cooked whole, their bones as soft as their flesh, and their tiny eyes just visible through a veil of crisp batter. Branzino ($27), on a bright smear of beet puree, hid little smoked beets and their garlicky greens.
Over at the Times, Pete Wells declares the The Dining Room at The Modern is an oldie but goodie. “The restaurant itself is full of unexpected delights,” writes Wells, and “unpacking them one by one is the pleasant work of a meal.” He awards the MOMA restaurant three stars.
NY Mag‘s Adam Platt files a twofer in lower midtown. At Hanjan, he most enjoys “the barbecue skewers threaded with chicken hearts or sizzling strips of gizzard, sticky ddukbokki (rice cakes) tossed in pork fat, vats of viscous, spicy cod-roe stew,” small snacks which should be consumed at the bar with gusto. Just a block away, Maysville is “another stealthily good new restaurant built around the pleasures of a stiff drink.” Platt enjoys the “elegantly restrained” pleasures of the South at this hopping new spot.
“Manzanilla may be the first modernist import with a real shot at success,” writes Jay Cheshes of the new the new Spanish restaurant in Gramercy. Time Out‘s critic writes that the new spot offers an “approachable introduction” to Spanish cooking in a city that needed one.
The NY Post’s Steve Cuozzo also reviews Manzanilla. He feels that “while it might not be the best Spanish restaurant in Manhattan,” it’s the largest good one, and worth a visit.
Farther uptown, Stan Sanger also seeks out Spanish cuisine — Andanada 141 on the Upper West Side. The Daily News critic writes that “New Yorkers are blessed to have Spanish food this good.”