For chefs and restaurateurs, this truly is a town without pity. Rare is the Gotham restaurant that lasts longer than a mayoral term. Yet even with the endless cycle of openings and closings, losing a beloved haunt feels painful. It also intensely focuses attention on the latest darlings. Flat Top, from the team behind nearby hot spot Jin Ramen, is well on its way to achieving darling status.
A bistro nestled in the knolls of Morningside Heights, Flat Top glows with candlelight from inside its expansive front windows. A monochrome mural painted on brick depicts a bridge’s undercarriage, contrasting with a row of wooden booth-backed tables. It’s an inviting space that feels instantly familiar, and Flat Top would be a welcome addition to any neighborhood. On 121st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, it has garnered the attention of Columbia University students and faculty, area residents, and doctors, staff, and visitors from St. Luke’s hospital a few blocks south. Downtown dwellers have also been sniffing around, as word trickles out about chef Charles Cho’s competent cooking.
The uptick in goat, seaweed, and other “it” ingredients is a welcome arrival, but I’ll be damned if I’m not tickled magenta to see another applause-worthy chicken dish in this blustery metropolis — this one a steal at $18. The ample, herb-roasted breast sits in a pool of grassy jalapeño sauce, a scattering of fresh Brussels sprouts leaves evoking the broad strokes of Jasper Johns’s Green Target. Thick disks of potato round out the plate, hidden under the lush sauce.
Service is friendly and helpful, though not without an occasional hiccup. After running into my ophthalmologist dining with his family, I observed them endure an extended wait while the kitchen corrected a technical issue with a plate of mussels. And at the end of one visit, our server neglected to bring the brownie-square petit fours we’d received on previous visits.
“New American” is the moniker food writers give to restaurants with hodgepodge menus. Cho incorporates a broad repertoire, with elements from European and Asian cuisines mingling on the plate, sometimes to ill effect. If the chicken is a study in green, Cho’s striped bass is an ode to yellow. When the place opened in mid-July, summer’s peak corn was starting to pop up. Dining on the eve of a polar vortex, the pile of sweet corn, partially submerged in slightly saccharine peanut-miso vinaigrette, felt out of place. The bass itself was lovely, covered in a ginger panko crust that didn’t overwhelm the delicate fish.
Plating on other dishes is decidedly less dramatic, including another holdover from summer, a bowl of soft burrata cheese enclosed in a ring of off-season cherry tomatoes dressed with balsamic vinegar and arugula. It has no business being on a winter menu.
Questionable seasonality aside, the menu is full of flourishes that keep things exciting enough to warrant return visits. The brown-and-off-white combination of mushroom risotto beneath Parmesan foam had an extra layer of depth from being cooked in porcini stock. Sister restaurant Jin Ramen’s noodles are a triumph; Cho’s fusion udon pasta comes coated in a slick beurre fondue, a butter emulsion that’s thinner than the more common beurre blanc. Hidden beneath a chiffonade of the mint-like shiso leaf, a quenelle of the marinated Japanese cod roe called mentaiko adds a provocative if grainy texture. It’s a head-scratcher until a squeeze of lemon ties the ingredients together.
Like any good neighborhood restaurant worth its salt, Flat Top features a noteworthy burger. Cho gets a beautiful sear on the organic Angus beef patties, covered in chile-spiked mayonnaise, arugula, and tomato. Best of all is the bun, a house-made brioche affair as soft as a potato roll. Brioche is controversial burger-bun material in that it goes stale quickly and often suffers from overwhelming the meat through bulk. Soft and sleek, this is undoubtedly one of the better brioche burgers available, along with its perfectly crisp Parmesan-dusted steak fries.
Desserts include an invigorating affogato made with vanilla ice cream and Blue Bottle espresso. The bitter blend mellows as it melts the frozen treat. There’s also what appears to be an ode to Marcus Samuelsson’s Arctic Circle dessert from Aquavit 1.0 (goat cheese parfait with blueberry sorbet). Here, it’s goat cheese cheesecake with cranberry compote, the stewed fruit perfectly accenting the sour-sweet dairy.
With the death of every local favorite, a newcomer arrives to take its place. In Manhattan’s northern reaches, a place like Flat Top can have a future.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 15, 2014