Restaurant travels recap 2016

We were already huge fans of John Fraser’s Dovetail, and especially its vegetable extravaganza on Monday nights. Now with Nix in Greenwich Village, Fraser goes all-in on vegetables―and it’s delightful. As I’ve said before, I think “vegetables only” is more of a culinary challenge than the average menu where chefs have large palettes of fish, meat, and poultry to work with. But chefs around the country are increasingly choosing vegetables as their primary means of culinary expression. As a wordsmith I had mused about the choice of “Nix” as a name for a new restaurant. They deliver on that too: The bill is presented with a postcard of explanation. “Nix v. Hedden” was an 1893 U.S. Supreme Court decision that unanimously upheld that the tomato should be classified as a vegetable rather than a fruit. Clever and apropos indeed!

Mission Chinese Food
I am thrilled to have discovered Mission Chinese Food on East Broadway—the more-upscale, right-coast version of the popular San Francisco eatery. Adam Platt credited chef/owner Danny Bowien with “lavishly eclectic, consistently inventive cooking”—perhaps a reference to the Filipino influences on the neo-Sichuan menu, courtesy of executive chef Angela Dimayuga.’s Ryan Sutton compared Mission’s duck rendition to “the level of technical competence one might expect at Daniel or Eleven Madison Park”—high praise, indeed. Pete Wells is another evangelist.

The food is meant to be shared family style, which I happen to really enjoy when I’m with adventurous diners. While I liked the raw scallops well enough, the three other dishes we tried were amazing: Chinese red cabbage salad with anchovy vinaigrette, puffed rice, beet, and nori; green tea ramen noodles with a hint of ginger scallion; and perfectly-crisped, tender Hainanese-style Koji fried chicken. I cannot wait to go back. I would love to host Fine Diners Over 40 at Mission Chinese Food, but I’m afraid the noise level would be a problem. Maybe I can talk to the management about a quiet, “early-bird” seating.

Huertas co-owner Nate Adler has said he and chef Jonah Miller, a 2015 James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year semifinalist, “set out to create something … authentically Spanish in New York City” and “to create a transportive experience.” By our group’s account they’ve succeeded. Every dish was interesting and delicious—the refrescos new to us all. We shared Basque pintxos paired with Tinto de verano; conservas and roasted octopus with Txakoli; and raciones with Priorat red wine. Dessert was house-made churros and chocolate. We wish Jonah and Nate continued success.

After years of strolling by Hearth on walks through the East Village, dining there was long overdue. My visit was a few months into chef/owner Marco Canora’s culinary revolution―a major overhaul of Hearth’s approach to ingredient selection. The new menu is derived largely from concepts in Marco’s 2015 book, “A Good Food Day.” The focus is on wholesome, nutrient-dense food that is chock full of taste and still inspired by Tuscany’s earthy gastronomic traditions. I had my very first ribollita followed by a most excellent roasted cod and a dreamy caramel panna cotta. We also got to sample some of the offal that figures prominently in the menu mix. You can read all about Hearth’s recent transformation by clicking here.

I rarely go out for brunch, but thanks to my recent experience at Bustan where I ordered its phenomenal shakshouka, I will be easily coaxed to this Upper West Side Mediterranean on weekends between 10 and 3. This was my first shakshouka, which Wikipedia describes as eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions. It’s usually served with a big side of delicious bread. At Bustan shakshouka is taboon-baked and offered in “green,” “Turkish,” and “merguez” versions. My friend, Linda, was equally dazzled and we plan to try dinner at Bustan soon.

Make no mistake—the food at Laut is very good. But after my second visit to this Union Square Malaysian, I’m still scratching my head over the Michelin star. Menu-wise at Laut you can choose from a large selection of Malaysian, Singaporean, and Thai dishes—the Pan Asian approach that is standard in this location on the ethnic-cuisine spectrum. I’m guessing it makes the most sense for a lot of [business] reasons. My dining companion was intent on sticking to Malaysian out of principle; that night I happened to be in a vegetarian state of mind. The Malbec was also good. With most wines at $10 and above, it added to my impression of a trend at some Asian establishments to increase margins on alcohol sales by offering higher-quality labels.

Pies ‘n’ Thighs
Once in a while the urge for comfort food strikes. Classic diners—once reliable purveyors of same—have, regrettably, gone the way of the dodo, presumably on account of outrageous rents. Thankfully, there’s Pies ‘n’ Thighs and luckily, there’s one on Canal Street just a 10-minute walk from my apartment. Pies ‘n’ Thighs has collected awards for its signature menu items. And it’s not just New York Magazine (Best Donut) and the New York Daily News (Best Biscuits) who’ve noticed, but in national surveys by FOOD & WINE and bon appétit Pies ‘n’ Thighs won for Best Apple Pie and Best Fried Chicken. And recently said Pies ‘n’ Thighs “secretly” has one of the best vegetarian breakfast sandwiches in town, the Hippie Banjo. The culinary artists behind the concept are Carolyn Bane and Sarah Sanneh, who opened their first outpost in Williamsburg in 2006. Kudos, ladies!

Market Table
Located on Carmine Street, Market Table was close to our after-dinner destination, NYU’s Skirball Center to see dancer Aakash Odedra’s performance of Rising. I had the grilled Arctic char with citrus, palm hearts, and black olive dressing and a side of roasted Brussels sprouts with sweet and sour apples and pecans. Both were delicious and “engaging,” in the words of Zagat reviewers. I think Market Table is a solid choice—for food, service, and ambience—if you’re in the neighborhood.

The Masalawala
Much like my neighborhood comfort-food-favorite Pies ‘n’ Thighs, I’m so glad to have an excellent Indian restaurant within 15 minutes’ walking distance from my apartment: The Masalawala on Essex Street near Houston. For many years I lived in the East Village not too far from E. Sixth Street where there is an abundance of good Indian places for when the mood strikes. Outside the East Village reliable Indians are fewer and farther between, which is why I’m lucky there is The Masalawala, which means “merchant of spice.” I’ve been there about five times now and the food is consistently very good. The host—The Masalawala himself—is always there to make sure the food and service are up to snuff.

Dirt Candy
FDO40 went to Dirt Candy. Since everyone in our group was thrilled with the vegetable extravaganza at Dovetail last year, we were keen to try another vegetable-focused chef’s rendering of fruits, seeds, roots, tubers, bulbs, stems, and leaves from the plant kingdom! Dirt Candy is chef/owner Amanda Cohen’s award-winning vegetable restaurant on the Lower East Side. The team at Dirt Candy presented truly inventive takes on vegetables. A fellow diner and I agreed that “vegetables only” is more of a culinary challenge than the average menu where chefs have large palettes of fish, meat, and poultry to work with. Of course not everyone liked everything, but we all agreed that the number of dishes and creativity on display were very impressive. Cohen chose the edgy restaurant name because, for her, vegetables are “candy from the dirt.” She was the first vegetarian chef to compete on Iron Chef America. Her comic, graphic-novel cookbook, Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, is currently in its fourth printing.

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