Tuesday, January 30, 2007

NYC Restaurant Week - Part 1

ARTISANAL: The first adjective that comes to mind when entering Artisanal Restaurant and Fromagerie is: pungent. This French bistro boasts over 250 cheeses, and the powerful aroma is a bit off-putting when you walk in for a meal. I chose to persevere, as this was the first destination for Restaurant Week (which is actually two weeks) in NY. For those unaware, this is the twice yearly event in which many restaurants have a special 3 course, prix fixe menu available for lunch and/or dinner, $24 for lunch and $35 for dinner. It gives diners a chance to go to restaurants that they might not otherwise be able to afford, and it give restaurants a chance to expose their skills to a new audience, one that will hopefully return. Reports vary, as some restaurants rise to the occasion, while others offer meager portions and not the greatest fare. I think it’s unreasonable to expect rack of lamb on Restaurant Week, so if you don’t go in with unrealistic expectations, you may have a wonderful dining experience. The ones who seem to dislike it a bit are the waitstaff, as people tend to tip based on the prix-fixe price rather than what the meal would actually have cost them, but hey, that’s kind of the point, isnt it - having a chance to eat there and not pay full price?? I’m sure it works out in the end due to volume, as most places are completely booked.

Last year I vowed to book a bunch of reservations at the next Restaurant Week, and luckily I have. I’ll be taking notes and will post my reviews here. First up is the aforementioned Artisanal, located at 2 Park Ave. off 32nd Street. Very high ceilings, many French cheese posters, and a friendly waitstaff (maybe too much as I caught our waiter flirting with my brother’s boyfriend). We started off with the Artisanal fondue as an appetizer, very tasty and not too rich, served with chunks of crusty bread. We shared a bottle of Chateau Pichon Saint Emilion, a rich bordeaux which matched up great with our dishes. For the first course, we had a choice of pumpkin soup, parmesan gnocchi or mesclun salad. The mesclun was a good portion served in a bowl, and the gnocchi was prepared with braised pork and root vegetables in a delicious brown sauce, however, there were only TWO gnocchi in there! TWO! I mean, it was tasty but this is not a high ticket item, and serving only two gnocchi is an embarassment. It was definitely a WTF moment. Entree selections were Beef Bourgignon served on a bed of creamy,cheesy polenta with glazed vegetables. The beef was tender and full of wine and seasonings. I was jealous that I didnt order it, as I got the Parsillade Crusted Cod with Fennel Marmalade and Caramelized Orange Vinaigrette. The cod crust was delicious, delicate and a bit of crunch but the piece was about 1-1/2 by 4 inches and maybe 3/4” thick. The fennel was braised and the sweet orange vinaigrette was an interesting match. The beef dish was a good portion, and I found myself reaching for the bread to fill up with my cod dish.
We each got one of the three dessert choices. Most interesting was the refreshing Fruit Soup with a scoop of coconut sorbet and pomegranates. I got the Fromages Du Jour, three slices of cheese, one mild and semi-firm, one a tangy goat cheese (I think) and the third a ripe blue cheese. Most popular as can be guessed is their wonderful cheesecake with pecan praline and some caramel sauce.
Overall, the food and wine were very good at Artisanal, the restaurant was well-lit, busy but not too loud, and service was good. One can argue that it was “only” $35 for the three courses, but I at least want to be relatively full (and not on bread) and for the most part they skimped on the portions, at times embarassingly so. Our bill was $187 (not including tip nor the $14 martini Pete had at the bar). Perhaps the non-Restaurant Week menu offers larger portions, but this is not an inexpensive bistro. Am I glad I ate here? Yes. Did this make me want to come back? Not really. Last year I ate at Mesa Grill during Restaurant Week, and it was such a great meal and dining experience that I went back shortly thereafter and bought a gift certificate for a friend who did some legal work for me. That is how a business benefits from Restaurant Week. Not to beat a dead horse, but for a coupla more gnocchi and some better portions, I might have left Artisanal feeling more appreciative and shown it the way I did at Mesa Grill. If you are a cheese lover, a fondue lover, are fond of good French bistro food and have some bucks to spend, then try Artisanal. Or stop in with a group and just enjoy a fondue and a good bottle of Bordeaux!

CRAFTBAR: #2 was lunch at Craftbar on Broadway between 19th and 20th. Simple, semi-elegant atmosphere, and we were seated side-by-side at a comfortable banquette for 2. Right off the bat, the menu was excellent. Plenty to choose from, and everything sounded fantastic. Ms. Kyle, former chef and current salesgalextraordinaire at Petrossian and I were ready to explore some of famed chef Tom Colicchio’s menu (he’s also a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef). We started with a glass of dry Cava Brut, and these salty spiced breadsticks that were awesome.
For appetizers we got Seared Calamari with Baby Arugala and Lemon Confit, cooked to perfection with a hint of citrus. The other app was Fried Oysters with Celery Root Remoulade. These oysters were perfect examples for Frying 101 - light, crisp, and not oily at all. Delicious. There must’ve been a dozen or more appetizer choices.
Our lunch entrees were difficult to pick from the wide selection, but we went with Sauteed Skate with Black Currants and Bacon and Brown Butter. Two portions of skate (I think they were pan fried) - very tasty, subtle taste of brown butter on a bed of sauteed cabbage. One piece was a overcooked on one end, but THAT is the only complaint about the entire meal! The other dish was Braised Short Ribs over Potato and Celery Puree, the rib meat was succulent and tender and the puree was creamy, light and had lots of potato flavor. The cooking was dead on, this was great. We almost ordered the Pork Belly with Red Cabbage and Spaetzle, mainly from a curiosity standpoint - I’m sure it’s great, too.
For dessert I got the Crispy Chocolate Cake with Pistachio Ice Cream. The cake came wrapped in a light pastry shell, about 2.5 inches in diameter, and the cake was very rich. Reminded me of a molten chocolate cake. The pistachio ice cream was very fresh, right out of the ice cream maker! Creamy, and not at all like the green pistachio ice cream you get at the ice cream shop. Kyle got the cheese plate with 3 cheeses - Bucheron (goat-France), Cabrales (cow/sheep-Spain), and Plave (cow-Italy).
Cappucino and tea brought the bill to 81.43. In addition to the friendly and efficient service, we were each given a $10 gift certificate! Now THAT is how you make the most of Restaurant Week from a business stanpoint - great menu, delicious food, decent portions, and an added incentive to get the customer to return. Highly recommended.

DEL POSTO: Del Posto is owned by two huge names in the Italian restaurant biz, Mario Batali and Lydia Bastianich. Located on 85 Tenth Ave and 16th Street, where many giant-sized restaurants, like Morimoto, reside. An expansive space, when you walk in there is a dining area to the right and the bar and more tables to the left, and dead center is a staircase leading downstairs to walls of glass and wood wine storage. This is available for private affairs, but when we (we being college chum Paul and I)walked down the staff was dining and giving us the “why are you here?” look. Paul’s a very successful self-employed graphic designer, husband and father of four, so he doesnt have much opportunity to go out like this. It’s great because his enthusiasm level is always high for these special occasions, plus he’s just good company. I got a glass of Moscato d’Asto prosecco and Paul got an Italian white. Paul started with the Pasta Fagiolo soup. It had a hint of rosemary that accented the flavor perfectly, it was mostly broth with a few cannelini beans and extra virgin olive oil. That had to be Lydia’s touch, if you ever see her show, she is HEAVY with the olive oil. I got the Affatati Misti, a selection of house cured meats and dry aged sausages with bruschetta. Three meats, one slice each, two pieces of prosciutto and a very small piece of crusty bruschetta. Good, but kind of a small portion.

For mains I got the Pork Loin with artichokes, fennel and peppercorns. Omigod! The pork was juicy and tender, lightly crusted with the pepper and spices - excellent. Paul got the Garganelli Verde, quill shaped spinach pasta with Mario’s favorite Bolognese sauce. Quite tasty, the pasta was light and fresh and not heavy on the sauce.

For dessert we had the Sheepsmilk Yogurt Cheesecake, with kaffir lime leaf and coconut gelato plus something else that I can’t read in my notes! Oops! I got the Semifreddo di Torone, and this was unique and full of flavors. Served in a short glass, it had siciilian pistachios, blood orange and moscato d’asti meringue. Layered, and the various textures of the frothy meringue and other ingredients was unlike any dessert I’ve had before. If you go to Del Posto and it’s on the menu, definitely order it. Our waitress was great, didnt rush us and took time to chat with us for awhile. She gave us each a glass of dessert wine on the house, which was a very nice touch. My amigo was inquiring as he wanted to take his wife here for dinner sometime, and apparently there are two menus that alot of people arent aware of. I’m a bit restauranted-out so I can’t remember the particulars, but it sounded like the same food but served on one side of the restaurant or something like that, and less expensive. If you call for reservations, inquire about this, or check out the website DelPosto.com, there might be info there. Del Posto has nice atmosphere, roomy, not loud and an excellent waitstaff, and I recommend it for a special date or business meal. Could get pricey, and I don’t know what their non-Restaurant Week portions are like, although I’m sure they’re more generous. Mario being Mario you know there will be unusual ingredients and surprises (in a good way) and Lydia does solid Italian cooking with a homey touch. If you are a wine enthusiast, you’ll appreciate the selection if Italian wines here.