The kitchen in "Something's Gotta Give" (2003)
For the next four Tuesdays, in NYC, the French Institute Alliance Française, John Mariani, and special culinary guests will be hosting a series of films (with English subtitles) that celebrate the importance of food and wine in French culture. The series is as follows: Oct. 9: "La Grande Bouffe" (1973) with guest host patîssier François Payard; Oct. 16: "Vatel" (1973) with guest host Chef André Soltner; Oct. 23: "Romantics Anonymous" (2010) with chocolate tasting with Lauren Gerbaud (at 5:30 PM); Oct. 30: "Entre les Bras" (2010) with guest host chef Jean-Louis Gérin. All screenings will be held at at Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street at 7:30 PM, followed by Q&A with host. Tickets $10. For info click here.
The 28th edition of John Mariani's article "THE BEST NEW RESTAURANTS OF 2012" appears this week in the November issue of Esquire Magazine. Here is a list of the 20 best (in no order):
To read the article
on line click
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
As Autumn Arrives, So Do Fine Red
By John Mariani
Exhibition at The Country Music Hall of Fame
A good deal of well-deserved national attention is accruing to Nashville these days, of course for its music, but not least for an array of new and old restaurants that rank with the best in the U.S.A., including those downhome places that have never sought publicity because they're too busy serving their loyal customers. Others, as is the usual case in Nashville, dole out true Southern hospitality (with one notable exception below), and generous portions at reasonable prices for damn good food, from steaks to Italian, from meat-and-threes to Mexican. You won't ever go hungry.
SOUTHERN STEAK & OYSTER
150 Third Avenue
In 29 years of Esquire’s awarding Best New Restaurants honors, only a handful of steakhouses have ever made the cut, largely because even the best of them tend to keep to a strait-jacket menu and stereotyped look dripping machismo. Which is just not enough.
Southern Steak & Oyster, on the other hand, has a wide-open, bonhomie that is as appealing to women as men. (The owners even play women’s softball games on the TV screens.) You could come by for a big breakfast or drop in anytime of the day for good gumbo, benne-crusted shrimp with peach-and-sour sauce, or Caribbean-spiced Dominican pork. And at dinner you could even skip the steaks and chops and feast on terrific fried chicken with mac-and-cheese, Southern greens and country ham gravy or a mess of fish and sweet potato grits with hot tasso vinaigrette.
But you really don’t want to skip the beef. You really do want to order the “Nudie Suit”—named after the flamboyant, rhinestone-studded designer outfits favored by country singers like Buck Owens and Marty Robbins. This steak is “tailored to your appetite,” which means you go up to the counter, the chef sets his knife anywhere you like on a huge slab of well-marbled beef, cuts it, then cooks the thing exactly the way you want it (right)
Southern Steak & Oyster just goes
to show how to work an old, well-proven
concept and make it even better and a lot more
fun. When it comes to steakhouses, that is not
as easy as its sounds.
two-year-old Mas Tacos Por Favor has already
become a fixture for Mexican food in a town
not exactly inundated with such places. "MTPF"
has the look of a place in the barrio,
deliberately scruffy, with not a frill in
sight, just a blackboard menu, but you're with
good company here, since all of Nashville
piles in at one time or another.
Owner Teresa Mason, who began with a Winnebago
taco truck on the East Side, has put her
heart into the enterprise, and she's always
back there whipping up soulful dishes like
pulled pork tacos dripping juices; fabulous
grilled corn elotes with cheese, lime,
and cayenne; rich, chunky chicken tortilla
signature tilapia tacos, and whatever else
strikes her fancy to make that day. You
go up to the counter, give them your order,
and then wait as you sniff the air full of
aromas that will have your appetite flaring by
the time you get your food. There's a
juke box to help you wile away the time. Don't
bring too much money either. The tacos are
only three bucks.
Swett's is a "meat-and-three," around since 1954, opened by Walter and Susie Swett, who had ten children to feed, so they know about portions and appetites and economy of means. One of their sons, David, is now the proud keeper of the flame, along with a barbecue in another location.
A meat-and-three is a familiar concept in the South—one meat and three sides—though Nashville seems the capital of such eateries, and Swett’s is exemplary. It’s cafeteria style, with a big menu hung above the line, which is manned by the friendliest servers you’ll ever meet, the kind that gives everybody a little extra, coaxes you to try the beans or the beef tips are looking real nice today, and don't forget the peach cobbler that just came out of the oven.
The BBQ chicken is exemplary in that crisp-succulent way so many young chefs in fancier digs try to get right by brining or sous-Vide-ing or doing whatever they do and still not get it right. There is also rotisserie chicken, impeccably fried fish, BBQ ribs, and pig’s feet.
Now, about those “threes”: classic soul food items like turnip greens and candied yams are out there, alongside okra, fried apples, pinto beans and golden cornbread that is fired for extra flavor.
Those fruit cobblers are nonpareil, as good as the pecan pie and the lemony buttermilk chess pie (whose name has never been explained).
You drink soda or iced tea (I was dying for a beer), but that’s the way it is, was, and will be when you go. What doesn’t change at Swett’s only gets better. They've had seven decades of practice to get it right.
On its snazzy, expansive, inside-and-out, bar-and-booth surface, Tavern Midtown, looks like a place people go for a good time and decent food. There's a mezzanine here, a vibrant (loud) bar scene, lotsa music, and the requisite plasmas and big screens--fourteen of them. But Culinary Director Robbie Wilson calls this a "chef’s pub” experience, and it is all that and a lot more, with a better conviviality than you often find at many modern gastropubs where guests are made to feel privileged to be there. Here you'll see people--a very attractive crowd, too--having a great time of it, meeting friends and making new ones, checking out the faces at the bar, some of whom might be Nashville celebs.
So what about the food? Well, I'm very happy to report that it's some of the most impressively, genuinely thought-through American fare you'll find anywhere in the country. Even at brunch--my least favorite time to eat--Tavern delivers high points on just about everything, starting with impeccably prepared fried eggs with warm coconut jam, Texas toast, and sweet soy. The blueberry cornmeal waffles with cinnamon molasses takes on added interest from a dollop of whipped mascarpone, and if you're just up for salad, how about a crunchy Tuscan kale and parmesan offering with toasted almonds, currants, dressed with olive oil and lemon. O.K., how's the burger? It is terrific, made from a beef ribeye and filet, generously proportioned, on a "meltaway bun," with your choice of cheese, bacon, griddled onions, and roasted chilies. This is what an American burger should be, great beef, great roll, solid, fresh garnishes. Add some "white trash hash" to your brunch, and you're in business. The Tavern fries are as carefully cut and cooked as everything else, and the Tavern has become justifiably famous for its egg rolls, done up like Philly cheese steaks. Wood-grilled artichokes with a zesty remoulade are addictive, and I could sit at the bar all day and munch on the crispy little fried catfish dusted with cornmeal and served with a tartar sauce, jalapeño-spiked cornbread, and sweet potato fries.
There are also a few global touches, including a hearty Singapore stir fry with eggs, bacon, scallions, and sweet and spicy soy: if this doesn't cure a hangover or anything else that ails you at noontime, nothing will.
Saturday and Sunday they offer a Game Day Menu, which is not quail and pheasant, but geared to the kind of grub served for college and pro games on the weekends.
The wine is not as impressive as the spirits and beer list, so there's always room for improvement.
But not much: Tavern is expressive of the best ideas of what an American restaurant should be. Throw in a little Southern swagger, and it's a good place to be any hour of the day. Even brunch.
791 Porter Road
You come upon Pomodoro East out of nowhere, perched above the street, welcoming, with a patio outside, and inside some truly warm and inviting décor that includes rough-hewn old barn wood, an open pizza oven, comfortable seating, tablecloths, and first-rate waitstaff. The place smells great, wood-burning, grilling, sweet tomatoes, autumn itself.
Chef Joe Shaw has
been in the fine dining business for over 25
years and worked with Frank Stitt at
Highlands and Bottega in Birmingham, then
was Executive Chef at the Watermark
Restaurant in Nashville. Chef and
owner Guillermo ‘Willy’ Thomas was the
spirit behind Nashville’s Capitol
Grille, one of my Esquire picks in 1995 as
a best new restaurants. These guys know what
they're doing. It's what you call being a
Of course, being a
contemporary Italian restaurant, there is
pizza, just $9-$11, with straightforward,
savory toppings that include tomato sauce,
mozzarella, fontina, provolone, parmesan and
basil; roasted fingerling potatoes,
radicchio, gorgonzola and tomato sauce;
roasted corn puree, mozzarella &
and blistered onions; and pork and fennel
sausage, wilted spinach, fontina, mozzarella
sauce. The crusts are good, the taste
smoky, the ingredients first rate.
The less said about the much-hyped Catbird Seat the better, since it is not so much an inviting restaurant as it is an ego-driven laboratory of gimmickry and a few molecular riffs designed to dazzle you rather than sate your appetite. There's also no reason to show a photo of the place because there is no décor, not even any windows, just a gray room with dark gray counter and open kitchen where the cooks work in monastic silence (with music blasting in the background). The sole note of color is the EXIT sign. The rest is a U-shaped counter (hip contemporary chefs who believe they invented this configuration might go to any local diner or, if that's beneath their notice, to Joël Robuchon's original L'Atelier, where this style of counter first hit the high end of Paris gastronomy, oh, ten years ago.) A meal at Catbird Seat goes on for hours, with no choices for the guest, and much of the food and drink gets adulterated, even a single estate Champagne into which the sommelier adds quince vinegar and honey--flavors the maker certainly never intended to taste in his Champagne. From there on, you get tiny little dishes of tortured smoked food, including dots of tasteless, hay-infused yogurt, smoked cod char roe and burned bread, puffed rice, and a truly bizarre ice cream made by pouring milk over the burning embers of a wood fire, which tastes like what it is--smoked milk. For this and the rest of the food you pay (including wine and a service charge for a waitstaff that does little but clear plates) $220 per person. You may leave hungry and you may leave woozy from all the paired wines, whiskies, beers, and sake you are poured. So, if that's your idea of a great dining experience, do call. If going out to eat convivially with friends and choosing what you like to eat is your preference, Catbird Seat is not for you.
43 East 74th Street (near Madison Avenue)
While enjoying cocktails, it was all we could do not to nibble our appetites away on the wonderful breads and grissini, but soon enough we were presented with sumptuous antipasti that included the last of summer's heirloom tomatoes with a salad served with avocado tartare, homemade ginger ketchup, and finished with balsamic vinaigrette and basil pesto. A happy and unexpected starter, which I could easily make a main course, are chicken meatballs (below) served with cannellini beans, green peas, and tomato sauce. Hamachi crudo had an oddly intense flavor.
Pastas are glorious here: tagliatelle with a rich veal ragù; spaghetti with a Sicilian pesto made of a mix of five nuts, diced tomato, garlic, and assertive pecorino cheese; and very tender gnocchi made with pumpkin, amaretti for sweetness, and a sauce of butter and fresh sage (the sage a little too strong one evening), which is as autumnal as a pasta dish can be.
We had two fine meat dishes, a classic veal chop with the first of the season's truffles, not yet with the power and aroma they will have soon, and half of a roasted chicken, juicy to the bone, with carrot puree, braised Savoy cabbage, and sweet, roasted Vidalia onions. An Atlantic halibut was successfully paired with fennel puree and braised fennel, finished with a delightfully sweet-sour orange sauce. Roasted orata with roasted baby artichokes and artichoke puree, sautéed baby spinach and finished with truffle sauce, was both overwrought and overcooked.
There's a brand new, very good young pastry chef named Matthew O'Haver, who is doing some of the best desserts in an Italian restaurant in NYC. We loved the pumpkin panna cotta, the cheesecake with lots of vanilla flavor, fig sauce and strawberry foam, and a redemption of the cliché tiramisù, adding blackberry sauce, a mixed berry sorbet and a coffee ganache. Perhaps best of all was warm chocolate cake with pistachio gelato, salty caramel sauce, and sesame-smoked nut powder.
will drink very well at Caravaggio from one of the
stellar lists in NYC Italian restaurants.
Caravaggio is open Antipasti $18-$36; pastas $22-$26,; main courses $28-$48.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Autumn Arrives, So Do Fine Red Wines
John Mariani's wine column
appears in Bloomberg
Muse News, from which this story was adapted.
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