Monday, May 26, 2008

The Best Italian in Manhattan?

Andre's Favorite Italian "Traditional" Restaurant of the Year is Da Umberto

As a true Pastafarian, I have long said that there is amazing italian in the most unlikely places....

Sometimes, you have to scream it from the rafters.

There are restaurants in NYC that actual do italian as well as Mario :)

One of my very favorites may in fact be one of, if not the best in NYC..... I visited Da Umberto several months ago, and here is what I thought then.... and now.

Fork New York: The Archive

Before I actually lived in New York, I questioned if in fact New York was the best restaurant city in the world. I had traveled to London, Paris, Tokyo, Rome, Berlin and others.... and had lived in Chicago and Los Angeles... not to mention growing up 60 miles from New Orleans. But after moving to NYC several years ago, it didn't take long for the realization to set in... NYC is simply the best restaurant city in the world.

A constant reminder of this realization occured only days ago, as I visited a remarkable Italian restaurant... that in many cities would be considered "the best" in town. Of course in New York, it is "one of the best".

The spot?... Da Umberto, the classic destination in Chelsea. And surprise, surprise. This joint isn't owned and operated by Super Mario.

Simply put, Da Umberto is the type of restaurant that makes NYC great. It is unassuming, unpretentious, truly authentic and incredibly delicious. Here's the skinny.

Those NY'ers that are keen to tricks and gadgets will smile at the door of Da Umberto's. Why? At the door you aren't greeted by a hostess stand or stuffy waiter.. but a coat rack. That's right, your are in the foyer of someone's home, and that's how you are made to feel. Come on in.

After a glass of prosecco at the bar (thank you Rocco), we made our way into the middle of the deep, narrow dining room to find a spacious spot. The three of us settled in and began to try and figure out where in the hell those amazing smells were coming from.

With one of our party having a good deal of Da Umberto experience, he put the evening in the hands of our terrific waiter. The waiter suggested a menu of many tastes... a plate of mixed grilled and marinated vegetables (Da Umberto antipasto) with a sauteed jumbo shrimp in garlic cream and a smoky, grilled baby squid that was out of this world.

Next, a plate of sliced proscuitto (perfect), sopressata (one of my favorites), mortadella (simple) and chunks of aged parmigiano reggiano (very high quality, with some salty crystals lurking within).

Not to miss a sampling of pasta, we all received a small plate of remarkable bites... the first, a handmade mushroom ravioli topped with black truffle cream... along side a spaghetti with fresh tomatoes rendered in pancetta fat. Outstanding.

As good as the first three course were, the meats and fish to come were worth waiting for.

The veal milanese, pounded thin, breaded and pan fried was topped with a saute of cherry tomatoes and arugula. The sweet tomatoes and peppery arugula were terrific... but after one bite of the tender veal I realized the cutlet had been fried in pure butter. Wow.

Not to be outdone, my colleagues enjoyed a venison osso bucco... rich and tender over a bed of perfect risotto... and a whole roasted monk fish, grilled to perfection on the bone. Topped with lemon and thyme, the dish was truly authentic and tasted as good as it smelled.

Desert looked amazing... a cart of treats including a 10 pound bowl of tiramisu... a gigantic offering unlike anything I had ever seen. Next visit, I'll remember this and try and save room.

So by now you are likely getting the drift that I like... no love, Da Umberto's. When you combine terrific staff, feel, food and ambiance, it's hard to miss. No, this isn't a cheap night (think $60-80 per person without wine)... but the dinner tab will cost you much less than a trip to Rome. Of course, a few bottles of wine and you could fly coach to Venice, but I'll leave that up to you.

Additionally, you should be dressed. One thing I noticed was there were no slackers waiting for a table, and the crowd was dressed to kill. Nice.

Lastly, call ahead. This isn't a place you can just "drop in" on and get a killer table. This is a special place, so treat it as such.

When the holiday season rolls around, I take time to thank my lucky stars for the things in this life that make me truly happy.

Thank you Da Umberto's....

Monday, May 19, 2008

Ocean Grill: A Neighborhood Favorite Shines

It's An Upper West Secret, And Folks Around Here Like It That Way

Without question, the Upper West Side restaurant scene is again a hot topic. With spots like The Mermaid Inn, Dovetail, Bar Boulud and Eighty One getting mucho press, it would seem that the area is evolving into…. wait for it…. a destination-filled neighborhood of quality eateries. Is there really a Shake Shack on the horizon?

Truth be told, there are many solid places to eat on the Upper West…. and even though the area gets hammered by the culinary elite, the locals above 59th like to keep secrets to themselves. One of those secrets may very well be Ocean Grill.

Being from South Louisiana, I’ve never been motivated to eat fish in a restaurant located farther than 75 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Having grown up eating fresh red snapper, drum, grouper, croaker, etc…. I have come to love fish that don’t taste like, well, fish.

But being hungry for a shellfish dinner this weekend, I happily rolled into Ocean Grill (a BR Guest Restaurant) and decided to approach this “north of the border” spot with an open mind.

I was pleasantly surprised.

First, Ocean Grill is a handsome spot. You can dress down, but with a sleek décor you may not want to…. as I noticed most of the people coming in were dressed for dinner.

The menu is a bit strange at first, as most traditional seafood restaurants don’t usually offer sushi, sashimi and maki rolls…. but then it makes sense. If you have a place full of fresh fish, why wouldn’t you serve sushi?

The menu also offers a list of tempting appetizers that include the obligatory Maryland Crab Cake and Fried Calmari, but it was the Bamboo Steamed Shrimp Dumplings (a very close cousin to those found at sister restaurant Ruby Foo’s) that did it for me. Served with a ginger soy sauce and full of freshly minced shrimp, they were a great start.

It was about this time my ordering veered away from standard fare, and went the way of the shellfish.

Next we enjoyed a large platter of Jonah Crab Claws. A pound of these, about 25 claws laid over a bed of crushed ice ($41), were reminiscent of the stone crab claws made famous at Joe’s, one of our Miami favorites. Served with both cocktail and seasoned mayo, the waiter suggested and delivered a cup of melted butter that elevated the dish another notch. These were delicious, and could be a reason we swing by another day for an afternoon treat.

The main course was just arriving, and as you might have guessed, we stayed the course and ordered a couple of 2-pound lobsters. The fine folks at Ocean Grill will either steam, broil or grill your lobster, and we chose the traditional steamed version, likely out of habit. They will also shell and clean your lobster, an option I highly recommend if it’s one of those days you don’t feel like getting your hands dirty.

The lobsters were quite good… firm and tender, prepared just right. Served with roasted fingerling potatoes and garlicky broccoli rabe, the dish didn’t disappoint.

Those who come to Ocean Grill looking for fish will find numerous options, including roasted cod, horseradish crusted salmon, a familiar Chilean Sea Bass, big eye tuna and a crabmeat crusted mahi-mahi. All of these looked great strolling past us, but none made us think twice about the lobster dinner we were devouring.

Deserts are another story, as the list was inventive and impressive. Topping the list was a chocolate fondue that made saying no just a bit more painful…. But we were glad we passed as a perfect draw of espresso was all we needed to cap a perfect early supper.

As we were exiting the space, the hostess presented us with a few treat to take home, a bad of sweet muffins to enjoy later… a nice touch.

I think it’s likely we’ll be back in the future to try a few different items, as the location and quality of Ocean Grill is to good to pass up. Albeit pricy, it’s a pleasant locale…. even for those who are tough to please.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Artisanal: A Murray Hill Gem

Andre’s Brunch Tour Continues… with Cheese

For years I’ve loved the charm of the Murray Hill area of Manhattan, in an almost jealous way. I guess it’s been a question of just who lives there…. and I’ve always looked at the neighborhood in two ways. First….. where the hell is everyone? And second, where the hell did all of these people come from?

Regardless of my musings, the neighborhood has its share of great restaurants, and for my money Artisanal is one of them.

First, for those of you who love walking into authentic Parisian bistros, you are in luck. The room screams Paris, with cozy banquettes, tiled floors and warmly lit glass globes. Thankfully, there is plenty of elbow room here…. An attribute that comes in handy when your table runneth over with cheese.

Speaking of cheese, this is somewhat of a cheese Mecca. It’s like Murray’s, with a restaurant attached. Even for those of us who know our cheese, the well crafted menu can be overwhelming, so do what I did…. solicit help.

The other thing that leaps out at you is the massive wine list that offers every selection by the glass. Fairly priced, there is something here for everyone…. you’ll approve.

My Saturday afternoon visit was one of bliss, as my “brunch tour” of Manhattan continues… and if you are like me and enjoy mixing sweet and savory tastes around 1:00pm on a lazy Saturday, you are in luck.

The menu includes a few items you might expect…. oysters and clams, salads, snails, soups, omlettes and sandwiches…. but throw in a pot of rich, hot fondue with bread cubes, air-dried beef, fingerling potatoes, kielbasa, beef tips and apples… and well, now you’re talking.

If you’re looking for something heartier, you can opt for a plate of soft scrambled eggs with hanger steak, a shallow skillet of decadent macaroni and cheese, a spring vegetable risotto or a pulled Berkshire pork sandwich. Of course those with a sweet tooth won’t be disappointed with the almond croissant French toast.

So the Fork New York verdict?

Me likey. I found the place fun and delicious, and priced fairly for a restaurant of this quality. The cheese is pricey, but pulling in this amount of artisan fare isn’t a cheap proposition, so I can’t slam them for it. I’d advise going easy on the cheese and heavy on the plate fare if budget is a concern. There are also lunch and brunch prix fixe deals which are good buys.

These guys are easy to find (right off of Park Avenue on 32nd), and offer reservations on Open Table. I’d suggest you throw on a beret and get over there.