Tuesday, March 25, 2008


72 Madison Ave (27th/28th)

Olana welcomes you in. Plush red velvet chairs and cozy booths beckon you to sit down and stay a while. Expansive artwork adorns the upper walls, painted in the style of Frederic Edwin Church, a member of the Hudson River School from whose Columbia-County house and estate the restaurant takes its name. The wait staff is attentive, knowledgeable, and personable. Olana is the pretty girl who appears to have everything going for her (without engendering the pesky inner conflict of wanting to hate her)...but can she deliver substance to boot? Let’s have a taste.

We began with the Cauliflower Soup, which was poured atop a bowl of cheddar flan, mushrooms, and spiced almonds. Cheddar and cauliflower are a classic, comforting pair, and the almonds raise the hearty dish beyond the norm to make it special. The Mâche and Beet Salad was served with crispy sheep Brie, candied hazelnuts, pancetta, and tarragon vinaigrette. The saltiness of the pancetta and the Brie cut right through the sweetness of the beets and the nuts, making them a perfect match.

Being nearly virginal on the Sea Urchin Consumption Scale (SUCS), we asked our server about the creature’s inclusion in Olana’s risotto. He informed us that sea urchin isn’t fishy per se, but that it is definitely “of the sea.” That was enough to dissuade me, but my companion plunged ahead. I decided to order the Veal and Ricotta Cappellacci, presented with Sicilian pistachios, Grana Padano cheese, and roasted tomato sauce. The dish comprised pinwheels of delicate, homemade pasta, wrapped around the cheese and ground meat. The freshness of the ingredients combined as a harmonious whole that was gently filling without overwhelming. The much-considered risotto, which included king crab, copious slices of black truffle, and frothy truffle cream alongside the sea urchin, ended up being delightful, even to my fishiness-sensitive palate. It was definitely oceanic, just as our server had described, but he hadn’t been sugar-coating his description in order to make it sound better than it was, as waiters often do. How refreshing! The risotto was richly redolent of not only the aquatic, but the earthy as well, and was thus unexpectedly all-encompassing. We were not disappointed.

I’m a sucker for fillings inside doughy wrappers (dumplings, blintzes, pierogies), and so the Sambuca Chocolate Crêpes called to me. The idea of licorice and chocolate together, however, turned me away. Our waiter insisted that the Sambuca was subtle, and since he had, up until then, only steered us right, I gave it a go. Never before had I seen a chocolate crêpe whose pancake was itself dark and chocolatey. Aside from the visual impact next to a splash of raspberry coulis, this added intensity to the flavors, already well supported by the Valrhona pudding within and the cocoa nib ice cream on the side. And the Sambuca was, indeed, a mere whisper. Delicious. The pastry of the Rhubarb Strudel that my companion ordered was flaky and perfect.

So, what’s the verdict? Can pretty-girl Olana carry on a conversation? Can she talk politics and literature, listen to your problems and make you laugh? Irrefutably, all of the above. But act fast, fellas; she won’t be available for long.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


St. Regis Hotel
2 E. 55th St (5th Ave)

I expect big things from Alain Ducasse. Anyone who holds Michelin’s top three-star rating for restaurants in three cities at the same time, as Ducasse did for Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, the Plaza Athénée in Paris, and, until its closing last year, Alain Ducasse at Essex House here in New York, is clearly, to say the very least, a highly capable chef and restaurateur. So the prospect of visiting Adour, Groupe Alain Ducasse’s new venture, located in the St. Regis Hotel, bred visions of gastronomic ecstasy of the sort rarely encountered outside my dreams.

The restaurant seats 72 in an open central area and a handful of smaller rooms around its periphery. A separate tasting room can accommodate up to 12. We sat in one of the round satellite dining rooms, which held four tables and was decked out in various shades of gold. Our server was solicitous almost to the point of awkwardness, thanking us each time we thanked her. Thank us? What did we do? Perhaps the prospect of the tip she would receive on such a pricey meal explained her advance gratitude.

Our first starter was the Delicate Cauliflower Velouté with Dubarry Bagel and Comté Cheese ($17). I thought the Comté cheese with the Dubarry bagel was a cute, if possibly unintentional, play on titled nobility, since comté is the French word for “county” and Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, was also known as the Comtesse du Barry. But a Dubarry bagel? In “BITE,” the online journal portion of her Insatiable Critic website, Gael Greene calls the bagel “a Ducassian wink at New York,” further quoting executive chef Tony Esnault as saying: “‘I am sure if she were alive and in New York, Madame Dubarry would love it.’” Really? I suppose we can attribute anything we want to the tastes of 200-year-dead courtesans, but I have my doubts. On the other hand, there is a place called Barry’s Bagel Boys on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn. Might Monsieur Ducasse be a secret devoté of their schmear above others’...? But I digress. The most educational aspect of the dish was the fact that it contained braised purple, green, yellow, and white cauliflower. Who knew that the ol’ Brassica oleracea came in so many colors? Despite the rainbow of its contents, I found the velouté itself over-delicate. The bagel and cheese were a tasty, but incongruous, accompaniment that overshadowed the velvety soup. The Foie Gras Tapioca Ravioli in Sunchoke Broth ($23, plus an optional $22 supplement for black truffle) was a fairly successful undertaking, sweet and light, but the tapioca pearls within inevitably brought to mind bubble tea. Kudos to Esnault and his team for trying something different, if slightly odd.

I should have read between the lines and known that Adour Lobster Thermidor ($48) is not the same thing as Lobster Thermidor, and so I had no business feeling let-down at the absence of cheese, cream, and mustard. The Adour incarnation, served with Swiss chard fondant, featured a succulent lobster claw and tail, and a small lobster shell filled with chopped lobster, carrot, onion, breadcrumbs, mushrooms, Cognac, and we surmised, a touch of Pernod. The large pieces of lobster meat were fresh and a treat, but the whole was not what I was expecting, and so I couldn’t help being a bit disappointed. The Beef Tenderloin and Braised Ribs were said to come with a contrast of carrots and foie gras-black truffle jus. I think I would have a better chance of evaluating the dish effectively if I had the first idea what a “contrast of carrots” is. A combination of the classic orange with its complementary blue? Sometimes menu wording goes over the edge. The reports of foie gras and black truffle in the jus were, to our palates, greatly exaggerated; it tasted more like an ordinary red wine sauce. The ribs were rich and meaty, but the tenderloin, while properly pink on the inside, lacked the flavorful crust of a perfectly prepared piece of beef.

Dessert was a step above the courses that preceded it. Pastry chef Sandro Micheli has, as the kids like to say, mad skills. The Gala Apple Soufflé ($16) was at once light in texture and deeply, intensely appley. The homemade vanilla ice cream that sat beside it was a celebration of all that bean’s many possibilities, nearly blinding in its fullness of flavor. The Pear Clafoutis ($16) was not a clafoutis in the traditonal sense—that is, it was not a pancake-like custardy cake—but, unlike the Lobster Thermidor, the distance between what it was and what I thought it would be was exciting and enjoyable. I was delighted to find that the caramel “croustillant,” on top did not shatter when I sliced my spoon into it, but rather cut obediently with the rest of the well layered structure beneath it. The lavender honey ice cream was a gentle whisper of tastes, intelligently chosen alongside the pear and caramel. What dessert had that dinner lacked at times was a willingness to go far enough with flavor, rather than stopping short of what could—or should—have been.

Adour’s tagline is “Cuisine Designed with Wine in Mind,” and while the offerings by the glass are fewer than we would have liked, they have some seriously snazzy technology for one’s oenological edification. There is a list of wine categories projected on the bar, and merely holding your finger over your desired selection produces a trail of pixie dust that serves as a virtual click on the options available. Want something by the glass? Red or white? From which wine-growing region? Each choice produces a visually pleasing rosette of light reading about the varietal, the country of origin, and the vineyard.

On the whole, this is a good restaurant—but just good. Like a teacher with higher standards for her more capable students, I expect nothing short of excellence from Ducasse. Perhaps with time, imperfections will be ironed out and we will be regaled with an experience that is as Michelin-constellation-worthy as its predecessors.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


103 W. 77th St (Columbus Ave.)

The menu at Dovetail is an attention-grabber from top to bottom. Chef John Fraser, formerly of Compass and Snack Taverna, clearly has an eye to keeping diners’ tastebuds awake and alive. We started with clam chowder with chorizo, potatoes, and Manila clams. In a series of events that was entirely new to me, this turned out to be a thick, creamy soup that was poured into a bowl of clams, chorizo, and potatoes, thus rendering it clam chowder. It was tasty, if unusually assembled. The Brussels sprout leaves with pears, Serrano ham, cauliflower, sunflower seeds, and some sort of truffley mayonnaise were an unexpectedly delicious find. The sweetness of the pears and saltiness of the Serrano were beautifully matched. Diminutive and tender, I think that Brussels sprout leaves are poised to be the next great baby salad green; you heard it here first. The pistachio-crusted duck with endive, celery root, and truffles was declared edible perfection. The meat was cooked to just-right consistency, its flavor lent additional depth by the earthy accompaniments.

A couple minutes after the dessert menu arrived, a well dressed man who had not previously visited our table approached and asked if we had any questions about dessert. “Bring it on,” was my reply. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “careful what you wish for”? Indeed. For shortly after, he brought us not only the two we had ordered, but a third in addition. “You said to bring it on,” he said, “and so here’s our brioche bread pudding for you as well.” The chocolate hazelnut strudel was rich and delicate, the almond soufflé tart delectable, and the bread pudding downright odd. The body of the dish was well constructed and by-the-book, but it sat in a pool of bacon-flavored caramel. I am as culinarily adventuresome as the next girl—and likely more so—but I do believe there is such a thing as going too far. Maple syrup on my morning pork products is a winner, but when something claims to be dessert and is swathed in unmistakable bacon-ness...it just doesn’t work for me.

So yes, creativity can be taken beyond where it reasonably should. I nearly chose the beef cheek and sirloin lasagna for my main course, but ended up deciding against it. Somebody at the next table ordered it, and the server actually said: “I just want to make sure you know that there’s no pasta in the lasagna.” This wasn’t part of the description on the menu. Lasagna without pasta? Without warning? That’s crazy talk.

Overall, though, the food at Dovetail is great. They also serve afternoon tea, complete with such sweet and savory nibbles as cured salmon and Meyer lemon crepes...and foie gras Rice Krispy treats. And really, maybe I’m just a food prude; what combination could be better than a little organ meat and marshmallow?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

TWE Hits the Road: Newport, RI

We've skipped town this weekend and come up to Rhode Island for the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs National Conference in Newport. We're staying at the Beech Tree Inn, located at 34 Rhode Island Ave. So far our only meal has been breakfast at the inn, and so I dutifully report thereupon. The fruit salad had me worried, as it was clearly half-canned, half-fresh. Canned pear, canned mandarin orange sections, fresh apple and banana, grapes of indeterminate provenance...for this I got up? Jim, the innkeeper, took our order, and shortly thereafter our food arrived and the day looked brighter. I ordered blueberry pancakes with a side of bacon, and Jim convinced me to try a tiny serving of homefries. The pancakes were adorable, about the size of large coasters, and bursting with fresh berries. None of those frightening blueberry buds that sometimes speckle the purplish wares of soulless bagelries--these were the real deal. The bacon managed to be crisp, but not overdone, walking the thin line of satisfying both Nick and me with its level of cookedness. And the homefries! Cubes of potato with diced onion and green pepper that left behind a trail of savory, delectable goodness and had me scraping my plate so as not to miss a bit. Nick had the purportedly "famous" French toast, which was made with pumpkin pie-type spices and indeed earned its reknown. I find most French toast pointless, but this was delightful. And now, back to bed.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


675 E. 11th St (Ave C)

I had high hopes for Matilda. Mexican-Italian fusion has possibilities, and newly coined words like “Tusc-Mex” made my ears perk up. The restaurant is in a sweet space on East 11th Street, just west of Avenue C, where a parade of alternating Spanish and Italian words marches its way along the wall to the left as you walk in. A bar serving tasty-looking concoctions is on the right. Our waiter was friendly and quick to note which menu
items were his favorites, citing in particular the homemade pappardelle with oxtail ragù, which we ordered, and the shrimp tostada, which we did not.

We began the meal with Rucola con Ananas e Ricotta Salata, a salad of baby arugula with pineapple, avocado, ricotta salata cheese, and oregano dressing. Late October isn’t exactly pineapple season in these parts (does New York have a pineapple season?), and so the fruit was sweet enough, but stopped short of succulence. The cheese and other vegetables tasted good and fresh, but if there was actually oregano dressing on them, I sure couldn’t detect it. I asked the waiter for some extra dressing, thinking that sounded better than just “some dressing,” and he brought me cruets of oil and vinegar. The Chilaquiles alla Toscana were listed under soups (Zuppe/Sopas) and described as tortilla chips bathed in a fresh tomato, onion, basil, and chile de árbol sauce, topped with ricotta salata. The friend dining with me named this his favorite part of the meal (stay tuned to see how tough the competition was), but I found it somewhat boring, boasting more heat than flavor, and decent only if any given bite included ricotta salata.

The heartily recommended pappardelle came next for me. I’m ordinarily not an oxtail orderer under any circumstances. In this case, however, as the adventurous soul with whom I share most of my dinners out wasn’t there to continue his search for the perfect ragù, I took one for his team. This was a disappointment: the pasta was overcooked, bordering on mushy, and the ragù was woefully underseasoned. I rarely add salt to anything at restaurants, but it was the only way to render the dish interesting enough to eat. You have to be careful taking advice from strangers. My friend had the quesadillas with prosciutto, mozzarella, and basil, and in addition to the prosciutto’s saltiness overwhelming everything in its wake (although, admittedly, such is the nature of prosciutto), the tortillas were burnt. We shared Mexican chocolate gelato for dessert, and it was the expected lovely mix of spicy and chocolatey, but also a little melted on arrival. Still, it may have been the best of what we had.

Matilda is playing with a great concept and could do a lot to make it work. But potential can only go so far when the kinks aren’t ironed out of the execution. It is my hope that continued tasting and testing will lead to a final product as exciting as the ideas behind it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Iron Bridge Wine Company

10435 State Route 108
Columbia, MD

I started out trying to write a review of Iron Bridge, where I went for dinner with my parents over the weekend, as though it were any other place I review in the city, as an exercise. I started out with a semi-jocular description of Columbia, the town where I grew up, and then got stuck. I had written down everything we ate, but didn't have all that much to say about it. But maybe that is what I have to say.

Columbia is a planned community, situated on the imaginary line between Baltimore and Washington (as a quasi-local, I never got into calling it DC, although everyone else seems to), a little closer to Baltimore. What "planned" means, at least in Columbia's case--the circumstances were considerably different in Levittown, NY , and somewhat less so in Reston, VA--is that some developers (led by the late James Rouse, actor Edward Norton's grandfather) got together in the mid-late 60's, found some land in then-rural Howard County, MD, and built a town on the idea that different people from different backgrounds could live well together. Present-day Columbia consists of seven "villages," each with its own village center (a sort of circularly laid-out strip shopping center with some public space), a high school or two, a handful of middle schools, and several elementary schools. The town center is home to Lake Kittamaqundi (featured in the lovely picture above, which I found here), an ever-increasingly upscale mall, and a handful of restaurants and green space. Columbia's a great place to grow up, but I wouldn't [yet] call it a tourist mecca.

Over the years, the occasional eatery of note has cropped up in one of the restaurant parks in the area (that's what they call them; do non-planned communities have restaurant parks?), but on the whole, given time and the inclination to do some driving, my parents go to Baltimore or Washington to do their serious eating. Iron Bridge Wine Company is one of the few places in town that could survive in a foodier setting than Columbia. It's got the sort of "we love good ingredients" attitude that we take for granted here in New York, but is a refreshing change along Route 108. Iron Bridge could lead the way for Columbia to become the sort of dining destination that many of its residents would give their cul-de-sacs to live in.

So, about that food. The sweet potato bisque, while a little under-warm in my book, was very tasty. It had a little kick to it and, frankly, stole my heart with its color and seasonality. Who can resist a sweet potato in October? I ordered the baby arugula salad with strawberries, queso fresco, and chocolate-balsamic vinaigrette and had the kitchen hold the hazelnuts. It is only in rereading the menu that I am reminded that chocolate was supposed to be part of the dressing; I don't recall noticing it as I ate. The salad was good overall: nice, fresh strawberries, and I'm a sucker for a salad with fruit and cheese in it. My mom ordered a Caesar salad. This was what theatre historians would call her tragic error, because she is the Queen of Dressingontheside and what she really wanted was a green salad, but it seemed there wasn't one available. Sure enough, moments after Caesar's arrival, she flagged down a server (not ours, incidentally) and asked for another salad without the dressing because, as she put it, "it looked like each lettuce leaf had a pint of mayonnaise on it." But how do you really feel? To her credit, I think she may have made that last comment to us and not to the waitstaff.

If there is something Maryland does right, it's crab. I used to order crab cakes regularly in New York, because I assumed they would all be like the ones I grew up with. I have learned my lesson and now avoid them outside DelMarVa. I now know that most of the world thinks that little shreddy bits of crabmeat are wholly acceptable building material for a crab cake. Where I come from, only jumbo lump crabmeat will do. In summary, please observe the following:

This is a crab cake:

This is a joke:

I want jumbo lump and very little else in my cake, thank you very much. A teensy bit of mayo to keep things interesting, fine, a few breadcrumbs to hold it together, if you must, but that's it. And broiled, if you please. Padma Lakshmi, host of Bravo's Top Chef, famously said back in June that "[y]ou can fry my toe and if you batter it right, it's going to taste good." Indeed, frying something as delectable as jumbo lump crabmeat is unnecessary and insulting and would only conceal its beauty. Toes, yes, but good crab, no.

That said, my mother and I had the jumbo lump crabcake with heirloom tomato salad, asparagus, and balsamic drizzle. These cakes were fine specimens; I only hope they tide me over until my next visit home. My father had oven baked rockfish with tapenade, lime-scented polenta, and charred tomato sauce, which was inventive, flavorful, and satisfying. I often bypass fish in favor of proteins I think will better hit the spot, but this one would have done the trick in style. And lime-scented polenta. Yum.

Unfortunately, dessert was a no-go this time, as we were in a semi-hurry to get me to an Amtrak back to the city, but I would definitely return to Iron Bridge Wine Company. It's doing a great job of helping Columbia to be a place to visit, and not just a place to live.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


181 W 10th St (7th Ave S)

I know the name Bobo makes you think of things like Mr. Burns’s childhood teddy bear and Fijian rugby players, but put those out of your mind. This one is short for “Bourgeois bohemian,” a term for post-yuppies coined by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, and the West Village restaurant of the same name is where this sub-class is having dinner. Stand at the corner of West 10th Street and 7th Avenue South, in front of a door marked 181, and you still won’t know where Bobo is. Only after going down some stairs from the sidewalk and catching a glimpse of a menu did I know that I was in the right place.

This is a gorgeous space, with low, beamed ceilings and exposed brick on all sides. It’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a trendy, touristed part of town as outside noise melts away and streetlights give way to taper candles on every table. After the bartender explained the differences between the Perfect Manhattan and the Sweet Manhattan as though Vermouth were his first language, we were prepared for a very special meal.

One of our first courses was the tarte flambée, a regional specialty of Alsace in eastern France that resembles a thin-crust pizza, made with bacon, onion, and crème fraîche. I was thrilled to see this on the menu, as it is the stuff of my Strasbourg dreams. I was disappointed to find that the crème fraîche was next to imperceptible, and noticed that the crust was more puffed-up than it ought to have been. The gemelli pasta with poached egg, asparagus, and truffle oil lacked flavor—specifically that of truffle oil—and was something of a miss as well.

Next up for me was homemade almond pappardelle with roasted porcini mushrooms, speck (seasoned and smoked pork), and parmesan cheese. The fact that the pasta was made with almond flour was an innovative touch and, for me, more than excused the slightly unusual taste and texture. The mushrooms were in large pieces, particularly compared to the tiny shreds of speck—specks, really—and so I kept mistaking the porcini for meat, then fat, before realizing what I was eating. The ensemble got frustratingly less appetizing the more I ate of it. Chicken Grand-Mère, with red wine, mushroom, bacon and mashed potatoes, was our other main, and it bred visions of coq au vin gone slightly awry. It was clearly intended to be the sort of comfort food you would ascribe to someone’s grandmother, as the name indicates, but the grandmothers I know do a better job of seasoning. We decided to skip dessert.

Bobo’s location and aesthetic will probably keep it afloat for quite some time. The service was excellent, the bread basket above average, and we were able to get a table without a reservation after a lovely few minutes at the bar. It is my hope that Chef Nicolas Cantrel and company won’t rest on these laurels and will raise the level of the food up to that of which they are capable.