Is it summer yet? Not quite. But our dining professionals found themselves in the kind of casually inviting spaces that seem to usher in the warm weather (at least, we hope they will).
Robert Sietsema checked in on longtime West Village favorite Cafe Cluny, while Tejal Rao ventured to Carroll Gardens to visit the brand-new and buzzy Nightingale 9. Find out if the hotspots lived up to their hype after the jump.
The decor at chic Cafe Cluny can feel “as if your great-great-aunt–the one who worked for National Geographic and went on assignment to Borneo and the Arctic — had just left the room,” writes Robert Sietsema. Sounds cozy, but how’s the food? Our critic visits in the wake of some major kitchen changes — the restaurant brought in chef Phillip Kirschen-Clark three months ago. At this point, the heart of the place still seems to be intact, while daring (and often tasty) flourishes have been added.
It’s been a pleasure observing from the sidelines as the menu has been tweaked little by little. At every visit I asked the waitstaff–nattily attired like French sailors in white blouses with horizontal navy stripes–what’s new on the menu? One time it was an heirloom beet salad ($14), showing the chef’s propensity for seasonally available ingredients. It also featured poached pears, candied walnuts, and baby arugula. Little splotches of pink turned out to be ricotta that had been whipped with beet juice into a light dressing–nothing quite like it has graced a salad before.
Ranging in color from orange to deep purple, a carrot salad ($17) arrived stacked helter-skelter into a thicket. Some of the carrots were pickled, some shaved raw. But the most remarkable part was what covered the multihued roots: finely grated foie gras, which began to melt and trickle as the dining room’s warm breezes played over it.
And while there were a few missteps, most could be forgiven:
Lamb ribs in a thin gravy lightly tasting of chocolate were neither sufficiently Mexican nor sufficiently tasty enough. But most of the new dishes in this laboratory of menu formation were spot-on: Homemade mozzarella accompanied by toasts smeared with mellow black garlic, alongside pickled pink radishes and shredded chiles, was just the sort of thing you want to savor as a shared starter or luncheon main course.
Tejal Rao enjoys bites of Vietnamese street food at Nightingale 9, the popular new restaurant from Kerry Diamond and Robert Newton (Seersucker, Smith Canteen). While most of the food might seem inauthentic, that matters little when the dishes are so “well-built and finely tuned.”
The menu involves a mix of Vietnamese-style salads, hot noodle soups, and meaty bowls of rice noodles. Bun cha ($13)–the everyday Vietnamese dish of cold vermicelli with grilled pork patties and belly meat–is made with Berkshire pork and peanuts from Aunt Ruby’s in North Carolina, with a small heap of roughly textured rice noodles that turn out to be far more gratifying than they first appear.
Flavors are more vibrant than Nightingale’s painfully glum setting lets on (with its drab gray walls and communal tables, you could easily be sitting in a low-security-prison cafeteria). But color appears on the plate, and it’s mostly green: sawtooth on thin stems and paisleys of mint and basil, ramps, chickweed, shoots of the lemony rice-paddy herb, and more. Each one is lovely and indispensable.
There’s only one option for dessert — but it’s strong enough to stand on its own:
For dessert, there are popsicles on wooden sticks, served in the practical stainless-steel containers found in many Asian home kitchens. A palm-sugar pop ($5) with a complex caramel flavor, covered in a crunchy crumble of benne seeds and peanut brittle, is the star.
The city’s other critics were also on the search for spring this week. At the NY Times, Pete Wells checked in at the post-Sandy Randazzo’s Clam Bar in Sheepshead Bay. The refurbished spot, famous for its sauce, had revived its façade but stayed true to its culinary roots. “A pure distillation of Italian-American cuisine,” he writes, “the Sauce tastes as if a chemical analysis would reveal the blueprint for every great dish in every red-sauce joint in the country.” He awards Randazzo’s one star.
At NY Mag, Adam Platt searches for Spanish food, first at Cata — where Tejal Rao checked-in earlier this month — on the Bowery and then at Manzanilla in Gramercy. His findings: while the spots claim to create “reimagined cuisine,” they offer nothing new. In Cata’s case — where chef Larry Baldwin turns out “classic recipes with a combination of old-fashioned elegance and modern heft” — that’s just fine. Manzanilla, a spot so loud you “can’t hear yourself think,” does not impress the critic at all.
Former food editor Jordana Rothman steps in as TONY’s critic this week and samples the latest fare at Kappo at Má Pêche. The just-launched chef’s counter inside the Midtown restaurant is unlike many intimidating, clubby dining spots. Rothman writes, “the welcome here is warm and familiar, the vibe more like a particularly ambitious dinner party than a stoic tasting menu.” All in all, it’s worth a visit.
NY Daily News critic Stan Sanger likens a meal at Pearl & Ash to a “scavenger hunt.” Is that a good thing? At least his hanger steak tartare “flirts with perfection.” Meanwhile, Tejal Rao said Pearl & Ash was “delicate.”