Thursday, March 22, 2007

Café Gray... Taste with an Attitude

Delicious meets Pretentious at Time Warner Center

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The weather can make us do crazy things.

It was a gray, snowy, cold Saturday… and all I could think of was a good, hot meal. But not in my kitchen. Nope. Somebody else’s.

Café Gray, a spot that has been on my “get to” list for months was the call. OpenTable showed an early 5:30 rezo, and I snagged it. Dinner and watching the snow fall over Central Park. Good stuff.

So off I went, on the #10 bus heading oh-so-slowly towards the TW Center in just plain nasty weather. A little shopping, a little walking… and a nice dinner for 2.

Here is the skinny.

I know the dress is dressy casual (or so they imply), but don’t be fooled. My nice, casual appearance at the restaurant was met with a snarl… as suits and dresses seemed to be the order of the day. Did I mention there were women in furs? Hmmmm. No PETA folks at this joint. Uptight.

The person who sat us was nice enough, and the “waiter” (hard to qualify here, as you are serviced confusingly by many) was uber-nice. The rest of the staff was almost unbearable.

But wanting the experience to be about the food and not the people, we focused on dinner, which before 6:30pm is offered in a “pre-theatre” prix fixe. This was fine, but I really wanted to see the full menu, and almost felt as if they were happy we’d be gone by the rush (which was hopefully coming later, since the restaurant was nearly empty). Whatever.

The good news is that there is excellent food here, and not at astronomical prices (as compared to the rest of the establishments here at the TW Center).

The three course menu for $62 was a good choice, and the portions are filling.

There is an unspoken push here by the waiters to get you to order the house favorites on your first visit… and after eating them, I can understand why. They are full-proof, and sure enough, here I am sitting here telling you just how good they are.

The first course I selected the Risotto, with wild mushroom fricassee. The presentation was nice… as a warm bowl of risotto is gently placed in front of you… accompanied by a silver bowl of mushrooms, swimming in a delicate cream, which is promptly spooned over the top of the risotto. It is every bit as good as it sounds, and if in fact I were a waiter, I too would be suggesting. Other options included a Crab Salad, a gnocchi dish and a Bibb salad… but after seeing a few these surface from the open kitchen… I think I made the right choice.

The main course I enjoyed is also considered a specialty of the house… the Braised Short Rib of Beef.

This short rib… braised for over 24 hours, is melt in your mouth incredible. Served over grits with a meaux mustard sauce, the dish is aromatic and delectable. This is rich stuff mind you, but the beef is so tender, you’ll have problems getting it onto your fork. This is one of New York’s better dishes.

When dessert rolls around, you are getting fairly full…. but when there are options like caramelized Key Lime Pie (very good, but not my first choice) you find room.

The selection here, by far, is the sampling of homemade ice cream and sorbets. The silver dish comes with some 7 servings, and is incredible. Homemade coconut, pistachio, vanillas, chocolates, caramels, raspberry… you name it. This is just the right portion and sweetness to accompany your espresso before your comfy cab ride home.

So, as you can tell… I like the food.

It’s the snobby floor managers, sommelier and reception folks I can do without.

If they are reading, let me lend you this advice. The true greatness of Café Gray is the fact that this menu and price point is an approachable option for those who want to step up from Bouchon Bakery but not flip for a Per Se. Quit wishing you had a job at a nicer restaurant and start making your patrons feel wanted. The setting alone is spectacular enough to sell the experience… the overwhelming sense of high-brow bullshit is out of place here and got tired in 10 minutes.

You can make up a mediocre meal with this type of service approach… but you can also kill a great meal with an overbearing sense of being. Back off. Perhaps Alain Ducasse will be hiring soon.

Photograph by Kenneth Chen.

Cafe Gray
10 Columbus Circle- At 60th St
New York, NY 10019

212 823-6338

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Not Worth The Ticket

Grand Central Oyster Bar Sadly Disappoints

Let me first preface this blog by saying that no one wants to be blown away by a restaurant more than I. When a restaurant gets it right… the food, the service, everything… it makes me downright giddy.

I’m not that hard to impress.

The Oyster Bar in Grand Central just blew it.

I was excited about this visit, as a kid born and raised in South Louisiana, I know seafood. I know fish, I know crab, I know oysters. This was gonna be good.

But from the moment I hit the door, the evening started heading south.. and there was simply nothing I could do about it.

At a glance, the place reeks of nostalgia. First, how freaking cool is it to have a seafood joint in the train station, steps away from the tunnels and tracks? Only in New York.

I wandered in a few minutes before the rest of my party arrived and checked it out… a large dining room packed with hungry folks… a lunch counter straight from 1955 with a few scattered diners slurping down chowder, a cozy back room and bar packed with couples and an oyster bar with able onlookers enjoying their cold beer and pan roasts.

The excitement was building. One of a kind, I thought.

But when I hit the hostess stand, it ended. There I was greeted by a few pretentious “I wish I worked for Mario” employees that would send the evening south in a hurry. The attitude was horrific, and I paused and wrote it off to a long day, or something else… as I know this business. I have owned 2 restaurants myself, and have hired dozens of hosts and hostesses. They all have bad days.

But as hard as I tried, it didn’t matter. Someone should call and let them know that this isn’t Alain Ducasse, but a seafood place at the train station. They were simply rude.

When my buddies arrived and we were seated, the Big Cheese from the host stand wandered over to the table.

On this night, I was dressed in nice slacks, a crisp white long sleeve polo, a tie, and matching baseball cap (my calling card)…I listened intently.

“Sir, would you kindly remove your cap,” he asked.

“Am I offending someone?” I replied.

“It’s our policy,” he said.

“I’m the only person here wearing a tie. Are you sure I can’t keep it on?” I pleaded.
“You need to remove it,” he answered.

“You are aware we are in a train station,” I replied.

“We happen to be surrounded by a train station, yes,” he stated,

So, I removed my cap… which I don’t mind doing, when appropriate. But give me a break… this is a train station. There is a drunk at the counter on his 8th beer. Whatever.

About this time the confusion began. The table was approached by not one or two, but three different people asking what we may want to drink, or start with from he raw bar.

“Hi, are you our waiter?” I asked.

“Uh, we kinda all are,” he replied.

Hmmmm. I smell a mandatory employee meeting coming on.

The first dish to arrive we a pile of nearly inedible steamed clams. Gritty and smelling like they were pulled out of the water a month ago, the were a bomb at the table and enjoyed by no one… a real disappointment, since several diners had their hearts set on this dish.

Next was the chowder, a thick and creamy New England style bowl that was quite good. Not good enough to make the trip for, but certainly good enough to order when there.

We did order a tray of oysters, which arrived shortly after the chowder. These too were fine, but at 2 and 3 dollars apiece, may be the biggest rip-off in the city. The varieties are amazing… Whitecap, Penn Cove, Kumamoto, Eld Inlet, Willapa Bay… and the list goes on and on. But the server didn’t know enough about what makes them different… just the sizes. And where I come from, an oyster is an oyster. You want it fresh, cold, a bit salty, and firm. There really just isn’t any other kind.

And oh yea, in Louisiana, you can often get oysters for .25 at the bar.

I know we aren’t in Louisiana, but 3.50 an oyster? Shame shame.

Next was the main course, a New England lobster, steamed with the trimmings.

I wish I could boast on how the lobster saved the night, but the truth is any idiot can steam a lobster, so as you guessed, it was just fine. Certainly overpriced and undersized, but fine none the less.

So, heartbroken, I write this blog. From the exterior, I love this place. The look, the idea, all of it. It would be a place that I would bring out-of-towners. But with overpriced, uneven, mediocre food, I just can’t, knowing that I run zero risk of embarrassment somewhere else.

The Oyster Bar in Grand Central is known for it’s budget lunches and pan-roasts, which I admit are cooler than cool… and maybe that’s how this place was built to be enjoyed. But when you plop down a huge chunk of change for bad to average food, attitude and uneven service, well it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Kinda like the clams they served.

Grand Central Oyster Bar

Lower Concourse
AmEx, DC, Disc, MC, Visa

Mon-Fri: 11:30am-9:30pm
Sat: 12pm-9:30pm

Lunch, Dinner

Photos by Noah Kalina

Sunday, March 04, 2007

One Damn Fine Burger

This Juicy Burger Would Make Whimpy Proud

Greetings Foodies!

Your able epicurean is away this week on a west coast food tour (yes, Chez Panisse and French Laundry reviews to come)… but I wanted to pass along this review to tide you over!

Is NYC’s tastiest burger in the armpit of midtown?

It just may be.

Last week, I made my first visit to Burgers and Cupcakes, the silly idea of a restaurant on 9th Avenue, between 35th and 36th.

It was crowded at lunch, but I managed to find a table and grab a menu. The seating is simple… find a table, tell the lady what you want,… and she brings it.

The place is smallish as you might expect… and seating is somewhat cramped. Minor details when hunting for a good burger.

The menu is simple and straightforward. Pick a burger…. beef, turkey, chicken, vegetable, mushroom, salmon, tuna, lamb, venison or ostrich (by the way, if you order anything other than beef or turkey, you may be in the wrong restaurant). Choices abound.

The burgers plain are 7.95…. not cheap. Toppings like every cheese under the sun, or grilled onions, mushrooms, peppers, chili… you get the picture… are a buck extra. So, load it up, and it’s gonna run you 10, 11 bucks. This is New York, remember?

The good news?

They are worth it. Size wise, this isn’t a huge burger… think medium, old fashion soda fountain size. Not a Fuddruckers burger, but not tiny either. The meat patty itself is thick, but sits on a fairly normal size bun, not unlike the kind you might pick up at the grocery for a burger you would make at home.

The buns themselves are not toasted or grilled, because they are super fresh and soft.

The burgers and moist and juicy… grilled to order on a flat griddle. Coupled with fresh toppings, a soft bun and a layer of grease on the bottom (this is the real flavor is it not?) you get one damn fine hamburger.

Fries here make me happy, as they are taken seriously. The fresh cut potatoes are twice fried (once an hour ago, and again when you order them) making them crispy delicious. They do offer chop meat chili cheese fries, but as I am already asking for a heart attack of major proportions, so I thought I’d prolong my triple bypass another week or so.

The cupcakes are good, but nothing to write home about. They are nearly 2-bite cupcakes, making them mini-cupcakes in my book. Tasty, but not as nearly impressive as the burgers. Basic flavors include vanilla and devils food… but move past these for the chocolate peanut butter marshmallow, chocolate raspberry truffle or lemon meringue.

Final take?

Worth the trip for a nostalgic, yummy burger. If you are in the neighborhood, certainly worth the effort. It’s a familiar taste… one that either your grandmother or local drugstore may have first introduced you to.

Lucky for us, grandma has a joint on 9th Ave.

Burgers and Cupcakes
458th 9 Ave
NY, NY 10018
(212) 643-1200