Where the good times roll like Mardi Gras in Midtown – Review of Masq

BY ELENA MANCINI

306 E 49th St
(212) 644-8294 masqbar.com/
Midtown East

As 2013 draws to a close and we read our umpteen year in review round-ups in food, I would like to draw attention to a soulful and  truly original restaurant that opened its door on a sedate Turtle Bay block in March.

A cheerful venue recreating spirit of Mardi Gras from the colorful Venetian masks to the Persian rugs  and the decadent hues of crimson that cover the cozy divans and armchairs in its mood-lit lounge. The atmosphere is expertly accompanied by a New Orleans-inspired menu and a cocktail list with enough bourbon and sazerac mixes and a regular appearance of mint julep to do the Big Easy proud in the Big Apple.

There are many reasons why Masq deserves a capture on any foodie’s radar. Not at all the sort of place you’d expect to find in the high forties nestled between the UN and corporate banking establishments, Masq is a soulful gem in the eastern-most reaches of Midtown Manhattan. For starters, the doors to the venue open up to a lively New Orleans-inspired lounge area which gives way to  a gorgeous dark-wood horse-shoe bar fixture, seating twenty or more guests. The lounge extends to an area with more intimate seating options such as high tables or cozy sofas and arm chairs with coffee tables. It sets a warm and comfortable ambiance.

Offering an impressively executed lunch and dinner menu laced with many of New Orleans-inspired dishes and ingredients by Chef Marc Getzelman, and a daily lunch special and happy hour deal that goes from 4pm – 8pm,  Masq caters to the gambit of guests from foreign dignitaries to poetry slammers and indie singer-songwriters and open-mic adventurers–Masq has three dining areas and has a stage area for live performances– and everything in between.

Masq_lunch2

Turkey, Brie Arugula, Sliced Apple & Honey Mustard on a French Baguette

Masq

Beet Salad with Organic Greens, Candied Walnuts, Green Apple w/ Raspberry Vinaigrette

Having the fortune of working literally around the corner from Masq, I frequently avail myself of its  $10.95 lunch special, which consists of a two course meal–a baguette sandwich with choice of chips or salad–and the choice of a glass of wine or beer. Prepared with quality ingredients and generously portioned,  it’s thoroughly satisfying and unbeatable deal!

Beyond the special, the affordable lunch menu (most items are in the $10-$15 range) encompasses delicious, affordable options including salads, flatbreads and grilled panini. Featured above is a delightful beet salad. Served with a fresh organic greens and a generous sprinkling of candied walnuts and slices of brie cheese (a requested substitution for warm goat cheese), it’s a healthy and fulfilling lunch.

Having dined at Masq on several occassions and recently the guest of a press dinner it hosted, I’ve had the opportunity to sample a wide array of the menu. Featured below are some of my  favorites.

Masq - Mac 'n Cheese Croquettes

The mac ‘n cheese croquettes are a hands-down must try at Masq. These baseball-sized croquettes come fried to perfection. The crisp panko-covered crusts give way to a heavenly-rich bacon, cheddar, jalapeno flavored mac n’ cheese with a side of Remoulade sauce. 

 

Masq - Shrimp Po' Boy

Shrimp Po’ Boy on Sweet Hawaiian Roll

The Shrimp Po’ Boy is an excellent nod to New Orleans. Prepared with fresh fried jumbo shrimp and elegantly served on a delicate pad of Hawaiian bread and a slaw of iceberg, remoulade and Cajun spices, it’s a fun and flavorful twist on the beloved slider and one worthy of a spot on any best sandwiches list.

Masq - salmon

Asian Marinated Salmon

Somewhat of a departure from the Cajun flair is the Asian Marinated Salmon. A generous portion of fresh and lean farmed salmon deliciously marinated in a medley of sweet and tart Asian sauces, this entree was beyond enjoyable–it was outstanding.

Masq - Crab Cakes

Maryland Crabcakes

Served with a Remoulade  Sauce and spicy Tartar sauce, these succulent thick patties of  sweet and tender lump crab meat are great both as an entree or shareable appetizer!

Masq - Jambalaya

A staple of New Orleans Creole cuisine, Masq’s Jambalaya will please both New Orleans  aficionados and initiates. This hearty rice stew features tender slices of white meat chicken and chunks of Andouille sausage. I particularly enjoyed the smoky, peppery flavor notes that the sausage lent to the dish. Chef Getzelman signs this dish with a scoop of goat cheese.

All dishes can be finely paired with selections from a global wine list or an extensive cocktail list. 

Friendly service, a vibrant atmosphere,  favorable pricing and an accommodating space consisting of three dining rooms make Masq a great place for an evening among friends, a private party or a place to end the day with a chill, easy-going vibe and fine food and drink. 

Last but not least, if you’re finding yourself inspired by this review and in need of last minute New Year’s Eve plans, Masq will also be hosting a New Year’s Eve masquerade party.  Early Bird Tickets $80, Tickets at Door $90 Purchase of Ticket Includes: 5hr Open Bar, 2hr Buffet Style Apps, LIVE Music, NYE Party Favors & Midnight Champagne Toast to Bring in the New Year!  Click here for more info.

MASQ on Urbanspoon

 

 

Anassa – A First Glimpse

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Anassa
200 E 60th Street
212.371.5200/anassataverna.com
Midtown East

 

Inside Anassa

Inside Anassa

Anassa opened its doors to the public for the first time Friday.  A Greek Taverna with a prime spot on Third Avenue across from Bloomingdales. Hungry shoppers (expect a ladies who lunch vibe) will be a contributing factor to the mid-day customer flow here – especially with moderate prices right in line with the area and it’s attractions (entrees averaging at the $26 mark).  The Grecian space in the former Brasserie 360 location transports with plenty of windows, marble, and flowing white curtains.  The fashion forward crowd here will certainly enjoy the prime people watching of Third Avenue through the walls of windows the space sports.  An especially airy upstairs dining area doubles as an event space with its own ouzo bar.  

Anassa’s bartenders are engaging and knowledgeable, the marble bar top they stand behind, the perfect spot to try a glass of Greek wine while you wait for a table.

Greek staples like dolmades (stuffed cabbage with rice), lamb chops, and skordalia (potato and garlic dip) dot the otherwise seafood heavy menu – just the way I like my Greek.

Anassa Taverna on Urbanspoon

Home of Manhattan’s Best Banh Mi Sandwich – Review of Sao Mai

BY ELENA MANCINI

203 First Ave.
East Village
(212) 358-8880 / Sao Mai 

East of the East Village bustle and trendiness, this family-run East Village Vietnamese restaurant serves traditional Vietnamese fare and the best Banh Mi Sandwiches on the Manhattan side of the East River.

Vegetarian Bahn Mi

Available in six varieties including pho, sliced pork, grilled chicken and vegetarian, these sandwiches make a quick, nutritious, flavor-packed meal that’s easy on the wallet (priced between $6-$7). The Bahn Mi are prepared on baguettes are consistently fresh and crusty with a soft and chewy middle. Independent of the filling you choose, the kitchen always strikes the right balance between bread and ingredients. Their vegetarian Bahn Mi is among my favorite comfort-food lunches. Prepared on two warm halves of choice baguette, they’re stuffed with toothsome strands of sauteed bok choy, straw mushrooms, seedless cucumbers, shredded carrot and abundant swaths of cilantro, the sandwiches and seasoned with lemongrass,  sriracha mayonnaise, that provides a subtle and reverberating pitch of complex heat. In sum, it’s a light, filling lunch that delivers high-flavor rewards.

Pho’ Sao Mai

Front: Summer Rolls; Far: Spring Rolls

Lest one think Sao Mi is just about Bahn Mi, flavor mavens and fans of traditional Vietnamese fare will find other  sections of its menu will prove well worth exploring. The Pho Sao Mai will not disappoint. A flavorful broth, rich in tender strips of brisket, sprouts, rice noodles and a medley of herbs will consistently hit the spot. Adding appeal to  Sao Mi’s attractions is its steal of a lunch menu, which includes the choice of an appetizer, entree and a soft drink, all for $10. Sweetening things further,  both the Bahn Mi and the Pho are included in this deal!

Ga Gary – Chicken Curry

With a wide variety of vegetarian options on its menu, Sao Mai is also a smart choice for a low-key dinner that guarantees value, quality and flavor. Pity that wait staff has not yet mastered the walk-in dinner crowd on weekends. During these times, the  friendly service  can turn into a source of frustration for those who do not suffer extended waits and uneven food delivery times lightly.

Sao Mai on Urbanspoon

A Flavor Journey Both Exciting and Refined – Review of Mint

BY ELENA MANCINI

Mint
150 E 50th St.

Midtown East
212-644-8888 / mintny.com

A mood-lit contemporary decor coupled with spearmint hued trim lighting conspire to create a soothing, romantic vibe. As gratifying as the ambiance at Mint may be, it is an inspired palette of  traditional regional Indian and Indo-Asian fusion dishes and an supremely flavorful signature mint sauce created by Executive Chef-restaurateur, Gary Sikka, that delivers a paean to the restaurant’s namesake herb and the cuisines of the Indian sub-continent.

Signature Mint and Tamarind Sauce Platter at Mint

Basket of Warm Naan Bread at Mint

Attentive servers welcome guests with complimentary dipping bowls of Sikka’s signature mint and tamarind sauces optimized for dipping. Both sauces pair wonderfully with a share-friendly basket of warm naan bread ($5), which can be ordered plain or herb-flavored. The rosemary naan is a personal favorite.

Chicken Seekh Kebab at Mint

Vegetable samosas and Aloo Tikki (spicy potato fenugreek cakes) are excellent vegetarian starter choices. The samosas were consistently crisp to perfection and had a tasty, paste-like vegetable filling. The Aloo Tikki consisted of spicy potato fenugreek cakes were hearty and had a lovely, mild fragrance to them.

For the carnivorously inclined, the Chicken Seekh Kebab and the  Jhinga Balchao are not to be missed. The Seekh Kebab consist of succulent, herb-seasoned ground chicken grilled to the point of glistening with moisture. The texture achieved delivers a sausage-like snap with every bite. The Jhinga Balchao is a dish composed of crispy shrimp coated in a spicy pickled vegetable sauce are enjoyably hot and complex in flavor, and perfect to spark an appetite.

Navratan Korma at Mint

Among the entrees, the chili fish packs a pleasurable knock-out punch. A delicate, moist white fish coated in a light crisp coat of batter is bathed in a tasty herb-infused chili sauce that delivers heat without the tongue-numbing fire that chili sauces can often deliver.  On the milder side without sacrificing flavor are the Navratan Korma and the Saag Paneer. The Navratan Korma is a lovely stew composed of nine vegetables in a cashew sauce. The herbal richness of coriander, ginger and turmeric in this dish played favorably against the creamy cashew sauce and the various consistencies provided by the assortment of green and root vegetables.  The Saag Paneer is a spinach based dish  thickened with Indian cottage cheese. Both dishes are best consumed with a platter of Mint’s fluffy fragrant Basmati rice. All dishes are generously portioned and readily lend themselves to a communal dining experience.

Gulab Jamun

To close, Chef Sikka recommended Gulab Jamun, a traditional dessert consisting of a golf-ball sized orb made of milk and warm cottage cheese, and thus light and spongy in texture, set in a bed of rosewater syrup and pistachio sprinkles.  The straightforward concoction offers sweet satisfaction evocative of homespun flavors.

Armed with a full, seated bar, a respectable wine list and reasonable prices (appetizers range between $7-$14; entrees are in the $14-$22), Mint is a surefire bet for a smart-casual, palate-pleasing, non-stuffy lunch or dinner experience in Midtown East.

Mint on Urbanspoon


What’s On… Lexington Avenue? (Between 48th and 50th Streets)

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

What’s On… Lexington Avenue? (Between 48th and 50th Streets)
Midtown East


If walls could talk, rooms of the hotels looming above on Lexington Ave. here would speak of political figures, entertainers and artists alike.  Joe Di Maggio and Marilyn Monroe called the Radisson home during his 18 seasons as a Yankee and presidents Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton were loyal customers at Intercontinental NY Barclay, making it their headquarters when in town.  The famed Waldorf Astoria (whose backside shows on Lexington) housed presidents Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy, along with Henry Kissinger, Dwight D. Eisenhower and a slew of movie stars.  So, next time you’re grabbing a drink in the hotel bar after work know that the residents above could be dreaming up ideas that will someday change the world.

On Lexington, where droves of the finance world working on Park like to visit after work, is hotel bar after hotel bar, which can get pretty daunting – unless of course you’re part of the string of hotels who realizes this and has capitalized fully on it.  Below, the bars and restaurants that call Lexington Avenue home.

Barclay Bar and Grill (111 E 48 Street @ the Intercontinental NY Barclay)
Although the address says 48th Street, the Barclay Bar and Grill’s windows take up a large chunk of storefront space on Lex.  Although the American menu choices are geared toward the hotel guests who dare not venture out for a meal, the bar offers a sophisticated sense of New York to guests and after work patrons alike – just try to ignore the “Big Apple” themed cocktails.

Barclay Bar And Grill on Urbanspoon

517 Lexington Avenue – Lexington Brass (@ the Hyatt)
The recently opened Lexington Brass’s nautical themed restaurant features a selection of seafood centered small plates and a raw bar.  The comfortable atmosphere and laid back (but not slouchy) vibe make Lexington Brass a winner in this part of town.  *Don’t forget to try the warm chocolate chip cookies for dessert!

Lexington Brass on Urbanspoon

525 Lexington Avenue - Shelton Grille AKA 525LEX (@ the Marriott)
The Shelton Grille pays homage to the building’s original tenant, the Shelton Hotel and is the sleepiest of the hotel bars on this block.  Food is offered all day accompanied by a hefty price tag targeting hotel guests, so most agree 525LEX is best for grabbing an after work drink if you’re trying to avoid the crowds.

Shelton Grille Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Bull and Bear (301 Park Avenue @ the Waldorf Astoria)
Another choice bearing its backside on Lexington, Bull and Bear offers a taste of old New York, sporting leather seating and mahogany dressings.  Your meal at this steakhouse won’t come cheap and some say its past it’s prime, but no one can deny the grandeur of dining or grabbing a drink at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Bull & Bear Prime Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

541 Lexington Avenue – Whiskey Blue (@ the W Hotel)
It’s always crowded, and a see and be seen type of place (however, what W isn’t?), but if you can grab a cozy booth along the wall lined with beautiful people or snag a seat at the bar, it’s easy to sip on their signature cocktails or a glass of whiskey and watch your tab add up.  Just don’t let it go to your head!

Fáilte Irish Whiskey Bar on Urbanspoon
Oscar’s (50th Street @ the Waldorf Astoria)
Another of the Waldorf Astoria’s finest, Oscar’s offers breakfast and lunch to those visiting or on a business luncheon.  Buffet breakfast and lunches coupled with made to order menu items make this stop at the Waldorf feel a bit more casual if you can manage to ignore the $42 breakfast buffet.

 

Sophisticated Regional Italian without the Gimmicks – Review of Fiorini

Interior of Fiorini

Lello Arpaia

209 E. 56th St.
Midtown East
212-208-0830 /fiorinirestaurantnyc.com/

BY ELENA MANCINI

Set foot in Fiorini, and a coat check attendant and hostess extend a warm welcome upon your arrival. Mood music playing in the background and a cheerful bar sits across a  softly-lit dining room with classic decor and tables spaced apart, as a convivial host escorts you to your table. It is somewhere between then and inspecting the menu that it begins to hit you that not only are you free and clear of pretense, but you’ve also entered into another era of dining, one in which hospitality was as important as quality of ingredients and execution. No outrageous seating policies, no backless planks to sit on, no hidden charges embedded within the menu, and no cryptic language to decipher within the menu.  You rapidly realize that things are actually as they seem and that it’s safe to relax and give yourself over to the menu and to the culinary talent of Lello Arpaia and his Executive Chef Xavier Quispilema.

Whether or not you’ll become aware of the hidden star-power behind Fiorini really depends upon whether   you’ve done some advanced reading on the place and  you have an eye for reading faces for kinship. Arpaia is the soft-spoken, gracious owner-chef of Fiorini and has owned a handful of successful restaurants in New York City including, Scarlatti, Lello, Bellini and his original family restaurant, La Tavernetta on Long Island, which had a four-decade run. He is also the proud father of two adult children who are also in the restaurant business: Dino Arpaia of Cellini in NYC and celebrity restaurateur and regular Iron Chef judge, Donatella Arpaia. While Arpaia’s discretion conceals his family’s stardom, his olive-toned countenance is an open-book about his photogenic progeny: Donatella bears a striking resemblance to him.

What follows is a review of some of the dishes that I’ve sampled there over the course of several visits, one of which included a chef’s tasting.

Antipasti -

Polpo ai ferri – tenderized grilled octopus topped, lightly dressed in olive oil, caper berries, black olives, arugula leaves and a light drizzle of red onions. The octopus had a buttery smoothness and a very subtle smoky flavor. The preparation delivered all of the brightness and flavor rewards of a Mediterranean dish. The plump Sicilian caper berries were the crowning ingredient of this dish.

In line with the more traditional Italian appetizer route was the burrata. Delicate, creamy clouds of fresh burrata topped over  grilled asparagus, prosciutto Parma and roasted peppers harmonize to make a tasty, satisfying starter that encourages indulgence in the generous basket of focaccia on the table.

Of the first courses sampled, my favorite was the Bucatini all’ Amatriciana. This classic Roman dish was prepared with compellingly al dente bucatini noodles, coated in a naturally sweet, tomato-based matriciana sauce with onions, pancetta and Pecorino cheese.

Next came the Risotto ai Frutti di Mare. A medley of crustaceans rested atop a smooth bed of Superfino Arborio rice.  Prepared in a light pink sauce,  the rice was creamy without sacrificing its toothsome integrity.  The texture was perfect, the creaminess of the sauce was a tinge too rich.

Fish courses sampled included Sword Fish alla Livornese and pan seared diver scallops.

The sword fish was moist and meaty and combined well with the savory black olive, caper and deliciously fresh and full-bodied tomato sauce. In many ways, it reminded me of the seafood version of Puttanesca sauce.

The diver scallops were outstanding in freshness, execution and originality. Two large scallops seared medium-rare had a tantalizing sweetness. The simple lemon, white wine sauce allowed the flavor to shine through. A hint of kumquat in the sauce added an exotic touch that punctuated the flavor rewards of this wonderful dish.

Pan seared duck breast with Barlett poached pears in a dry vermouth sauce was an elegant and satisfying meat course. The duck was lean and juicy and the pears endowed the dish with texture and sweetness and the vermouth added a vapor of fragrance and acidic sweetness.

Dessert offerings are generous and lend themselves to sharing. During my visits I sampled a traditional Neapolitan Baba cake, filled with a light Mascarpone custard and served with a shot of rum. The cake was fresh and moist and I appreciated the fact that I could douse it with rum in accordance to my liking. 

The zuccotto was a departure from the sort of which I was generally accustomed. I usually enjoyed it as a light sponge cake layered with gelato. Fiorini’s zuccotto was a light sponge cake layered with a dark chocolate mousse and served with a delightfully sweet and tart passion fruit sauce. Both readily lend themselves to sharing.

Plating is elegant, portions are sizable, and prices are in line with what you’d expect for upscale regional Italian food in Manhattan. Dinner entrees range from $18 – $45. Bar offerings include a range of seasonal cocktails very reasonably priced at $8 and an extensive Italian wine list.

An evening at Fiorini is the perfect choice for a quiet intimate dinner or a more formal occasion for those who value execution above trendiness.

Fiorini on Urbanspoon

Embracing Evolution and Ever True to His Passion – Upclose with Pino Luongo on His Latest Venture: Morso

BY ELENA MANCINI

Pino Luongo

Often referred to  as the Dark Prince of Italian fine dining in the restaurant world, Pino Luongo pioneered authentic Tuscan flavors in the US with smash hit restaurants including Il Cantinori, Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Il Toscanaccio and Centolire, to just name a few. He’s been widely recognized for setting the standards for the modern Italian restaurant scene in New York and across the U.S. And he’s witnessed more than his fair-share of knocks from the forces of the real estate economy. His maverick style, uncompromising standards and outspoken manner have garnered both accolades and virulent animosity from the critics and his peers. He’s influenced, inspired and spurned many an emerging chef, most famous among them: Anthony Bourdain. He’s also disparaged and alienated a few of them as well.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Luongo in person on the occasion of the launch of his latest culinary venture, Morso, a restaurant located on the southern perimeter of the Queensboro Bridge championing Italian regional flavors with a Mediterranean twist. Its Executive Chef is Tim Ryan, whose previous stints include serving as the President of Culinary Institute of America and chefing at Four Seasons, Bouley and Picholine.

Luongo is an eloquent and engaging conversationalist. His speech is richly accented with the cadence and sonority of his native tongue, and peppered with New York colloquialisms. His responses are generous, on-point and appropriately emphatic. Luongo’s words are firmly in-synch with his gestures and facial expressions and betray his previous career as an actor in Italy, a decade or so before establishing himself as a renowned restaurateur in the U.S. Such biographical details can be had about Luongo  from his compulsively readable memoir, Dirty Dishes. The book reflects the tour-de-force impact that Luongo has had on Italian restaurants in the US in a gripping conversational style that alternates between Luongo’s narration and that of its writer, Andrew Friedman.

Asked about his inspiration for Morso (morsel, or bite in Italian), Luongo explains that he’s always been “a lover of Mediterranean cuisine and ingredient-driven cuisines.” He had developed the concept from the desire to offer an ambitious menu structured by groups of ingredients or products that would allow for smaller portions to feature a greater variety of flavors.

Morso’s menu in fact is divided into categories such as: Vegetables, Legumes and Grains, Eggs and Cheese, Duck, Rabbit and Chicken, Beef and Veal, and Fish and Seafood. Items come in two portion sizes and corresponding pricing: “morso” (3/4 of a full size) and “tutto” (full size). Prices are reasonable with morso-sized items firmly beneath the $20 range and the majority of the tutto portions less than $30.

Asked about his choice to partner with Chef Ryan, Luongo states that it was the result of a half-year search. He cites Ryans’ sensitivity toward Mediterranean cuisine, his maturity and lack of an ego as his main rationale for selecting him. For a review of the dishes sampled, see below.

I asked Luongo to talk to me about the Italian restaurant landscape when he first arrived in New York in 1980 and about his greatest challenges in executing his culinary vision and philosophy here. Luongo describes the Italian scene as mostly populated by restaurants that predominately  featured staple items of Italian-American cuisine such as scungilli, and meats prepared scarpariello- and scallopine-style. These were items that were alien to the Tuscan-born Luongo. The stark absence of the foods with which he was brought up in New York restaurants, awakened him to his mission as a restaurateur: to champion the regional-local ingredients that constitute the backbone of Italian cuisine. His vision was “to take away the idea of the Italian restaurant with “the flask with the candle.”

Luongo explains that at the time that he arrived to New York, Italian food had no reputation for being a restaurant cuisine. Italian cuisine was identified with the food served on 1960s Italian cruise ships. French food enjoyed undisputed primacy as the cuisine of restaurants. In contrast, the essence of Italian cuisine lies with regional, local ingredients. Therein lay the major challenge for Luongo in the 1980s when he came to the restaurant scene with Il Cantinori. Ingredients that are now considered standard fixtures in Italian menus were extremely difficult to attain. Luongo recounts that items that are readily taken for granted today such as branzino, sardines, red chicory Trevigiano and Arborio rice and that were essential to the flavors and dining experience  that he was pioneering here were rare to come by and required a great deal of red tape to procure from Italy. It was more the rule and not the exception, and he recalls that crates of porcini mushrooms would get stuck at customs if they were labeled “porcini.” Whereas if they were labeled “bolletus,” they would often get through. Luongo rightfully reminds us that cooking with extra-virgin olive oil was far from common practice in those days. Today, the challenge of trying to incorporate some of his favorite ingredients from his homeland, such as sweet breads, ribollite, rabbit and chicken liver into his menu persists because palates are not accustomed to these flavors and textures, and the whole Walt Disney factor that perpetuates the resistance to rabbit. Italian and American palates don’t compare. The food of one’s childhood has a profound influence on the flavors which one will pursue. It makes a big difference whether you grow up with burgers or soups.

Ultimately, Luongo states, Italian cuisine is “a cuisine of ingredients, seasonality and straightforwardness. From there one can begin to fantasize and elaborate on it and make it more rich and generous.” As for his own approach to food, he pursues taste and bold flavors. The art of professional cooking in his view requires “discipline, knowledge, passion, technique of cooking and the ability to evolve over time and expand.” Often times, Italian food can be bland. The challenge is to maximize the flavor from each ingredient. The key lies in how ingredients are treated. Knowing how to treat an artichoke, for instance, is essential.

Luongo also recalls the predominant style in more refined and upscale Italian restaurants during his early years in the States. Wait staffs were clad like penguins, he recounts. Restaurants were extremely classic and stuffy. In contrast, Luongo’s ideal is informal, but not too casual, in essence the style of the modern Italian trattoria. Luongo also stresses the importance of the training and presentation of wait staffs. He is adamant about their training and the knowledge of the menu. Ultimately, “they are your ambassadors, and the ones that represent your food.” Luongo is also infamous for his rigorous attention toward hospitality details and low-tolerance approach toward service staffs. Far from a stranger to the service aspect of restaurant business, Luongo’s first job in hospitality was as a bus boy at his uncle’s restaurant on the Tuscan seaside and later as a bus boy at Da Silvano in Greenwich Village. His memoir suggests that his sensibilities for creating a seamless dining experience for patrons were acquired during these experiences coupled with his highly attuned theatrical eye.

During our chat, I turn to the question of his relationship to the critics and whether his penchant for speaking his mind has cut both ways for him. “Absolutely,” he asserts. It’s often served to his detriment. When asked whether he wishes he could retract anything he’s said, “no,” he asserts. “I am who I am.” A critic he genuinely admires is Bryan Miller. While acknowledging that Miller was more oriented toward French cuisine, and has not always reviewed Luongo’s restaurants favorably, Luongo admires his professionalism. Too often, Luongo maintains, the critics focus on things that are irrelevant to the experience of dining, such as the personality of the chef or the bathroom decor, as occurred with a review that he once received.

Admittedly, Luongo offers, the job of the critic is a difficult one. He or she must eat all of the time, often causing the palate to become tired and confused. Additionally, the fact that critics are often readily recognized leads to their being offered special privileges and treatment not awarded to the average diner, generating an unbiased review.

Asked about the future of Italian cuisine in New York and whether there’s still room for growth:
“Yes, of course, because it’s beloved, despite other cuisines on the horizon. Italian cuisine will continue to play a major role in America.”

Accomplishments that he’s most proud of:
In terms of restaurants, it would have to be “Le Madri.” The restaurant was an intersection of a concept that he tried to realize in America with Italian food. To foreground Italian regionality and home-cooked foods.

In terms of books (Luongo has authored five cook books.):
He is proudest of  his first book, A Tuscan in the Kitchen. The book put forward his idea that learning how to cook is best accomplished by experimenting while implementing common sense. Cooking requires the development of a palate and taste for preparing food. This is the book that reminds him who he is and where he comes from. “It’s what I’m about,” he says.

Insight that Luongo would offer to newbie restauranteurs to New York:
“You better know what you’re doing before you put your food out there.  The New York consumer is very evolved and has a sophisticated palate.”

What Luongo enjoys doing when he is not in his restaurants:
He enjoys spending time with his family in Westchester, and playing soccer with his youngest son.

When eating out:
Luongo enjoys going to any type of restaurant other than Italian, with the exception of pizzerias. He is a big fan of Moroccan and Indian foods.

If given the opportunity to face off with a chef in a throwdown, he would choose…
If we are talking about Italian food, anyone.” Seconds later his eyes sparkle with mischief, and he says, “well, actually…,” and opts for self-restraint instead, “Let me not go there.”

MORSO
420 E. 59th St.
Midtown East
212.759.2706 / morso-nyc.com/
Full bar, sidewalk cafe and extensive wine list on premises.

Following is a selection of the dishes that I’ve had at Morso over the course of several visits.

Raw artichoke salad

Raw artichoke salad is an excellent start. The combination of artichokes, celery, shredded pear and frisee lettuce offer a harmonious medley of texture and subtle bitter flavors tempered with the sweetness of pear rendered bright by a simple lemon dressing. The recommended Roero Arneis 2010 was an excellent pairing for this course, and one that I’ve gone back to order at other visits.


The Uova dish is a hearty, original and beautifully composed dish and an ideal brunch item. Consisting of a poached egg, merguez sausage and chick pea fries with fontina cheese sauce it is complex and tasty. The merguez sausage was perfectly grilled, but what really stood out for me were the chick pea fries. They were dense, enjoyably crisp and appropriately salted.

The farro salad is a rewarding and aromatic dish with a multiplicity of textures and Mediterranean flavors that include eggplant, dried apricots, toasted almonds and portobello mushrooms.

Not that a carb-free diet is something I would ever remotely entertain, but if extreme circumstances ever forced me to renounce to my weekly pasta intake, I would indubitably forgo the ban for pasta prepared in Luongo’s restaurants. Luongo is a pasta lover par excellence. He has poeticized pasta in the written word–dedicating an entire chapter on his passion for it in his memoir– in multiple places and at the table. And all of his pasta dishes are sheer perfection. Boldly aldente, with sauces that efficiently flavor and coat the pasta without overwhelming it.

Bucatini Cacio e Pepe

The bucatini al cacio e pepe are marvelous. Coated in a glistening pecorino cheese and black pepper mixture, they deliver toothsome forkfuls of satisfaction.

Fettucine alla Bolognese

The Fettucine alla Bolognese are outstanding and represent the consummate winter dish for me. The traditional tomato-based ragu was perfectly balanced in acidity and had a beautiful rich flavor of braised beef and herbs and spices. The fettucine were reliably aldente. In short, sheer, loving perfection.

If there’s anything that I find lamentable about Morso’s pasta dishes is that there are so few (only three) of them on its menu.

On to the main courses:

Sardines

The sardines are a wonderful reprisal of the Mediterranean theme. Served with fennel, artichokes and sun-dried tomato pesto and a generous bed of orzo, it’s a healthy powerhouse of flavor for those who enjoy the oiler, Omega-rich fish varieties.

Maiale

The roasted pork chop with butternut squash gratin is a great seasonal choice. Spatzle, winter greens and an apple-sage sauce make a seasonable pairing to the tender cut of pork.

The braised duck breast is a winning dish. Triumphantly succulent and ingeniously paired with hybrid rice, roasted pears, dried cranberries and sweet and sour pomegranates it’s a rich and inspired dish with flavors that fragrantly linger on the palate after consumed.

 

Neapolitan Cheesecake

A slice of creamy Neapolitan cheesecake was a tasty and fittingly indulgent ending to one of my meals. Desserts offerings vary daily.

Each meal was perfectly paced by a courteous and well-versed wait staff, and unfolded in an airy and elegant dining room accentuated by mood lighting and a blithe décor inspired by 1960s Italian poster art.

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Pampano pampers guests with tequila tasting

BY BETH KAISERMAN

Pampano
209 E. 49th St. between 2nd and 3rd Ave.
Midtown East
212.751.4545/richardsandoval.com/pampano

RiazulPremiumTequila complemented a $75 five-course tasting menu at Pampano, a modern Latin restaurant in Midtown.

 

The ambiance was light and fresh, as was the food. The meal began with Tostadita de Jaiba: crab slaw in fresh crisp tortillas, with roasted corn, radishes and lime, and topped with an avocado slice. This was served with a Guanabana Margarita made with Riazul Silver. Next was Tiradito de Fluke with an amazing Mojito, again with Riazul Silver. Grilled marinated calamari with pea shoots and citrus vinaigrette was paired with Riazul Reposado. This tequila’s citrus elements really shined through in this pairing. Pavo al Mole, stuffed guinea fowl breast with peppercress, almonds and mole poblano was paired with Riazul Silver. Finally, Riazul Anejo was served alongside yuzu panna cotta with hibiscus sauce and toasted coconut.

 

My favorite dish was the first. I usually don’t like seafood slaws, but this one was bright and easy to eat; all of the ingredients highlighted the tasty crab. The lime really did its job here.

The tequila I looked forward to all night was Riazul Anejo, which is aged in a white oak cask for two years. This smoky honey-tinged tequila was perfect with the hints of vanilla in this creamy dessert.

InakiOrozco, founder and CEO of Riazul Premium Tequila, inherited growing space in the Highlands of Mexico from his ancestors, upon which he began harvesting tequila in the late 1990s.

The dinner began with a couple cocktails, but progressed into sipping a few tequilas, the way it is traditionally done in Mexico. Sipping offers drinkers a chance to explore the nuances of each tequila. Courtenay Greenleaf, tequila librarian at LaBibliotecadeTequila, advised us to sniff with our mouths open to capture the aromas, then sip slowly.

Orozco and Greenleaf provided useful knowledge throughout the evening, and the Pampano staff was helpful as well. All in all, it was an enjoyable time, and I certainly gained some new insight and appreciation for tequila.

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A Trip to Milan on 45th Street – Review of Gente Ristorante Italiano

BY CLAIRE McCURDY

153 E 45th St. (Between Lex and 3rd Avenues)
Tel. 212-557-5555 / genteny.com/
Midtown East

Monday – Friday 11:30AM – 10PM
Saturday 4PM – 10

Gente, a charming northern Italian restaurant,  is ideally located (E. 45th St.) to catch the voluminous commuter traffic eddying through Grand Central.  But even if it were located in the middle of the Mojave Desert it would be irresistibly drawing the customers in..  And for some of us, who did grow up in the Mojave Desert, culinarily speaking, Gente  would certainly have drawn us in — to sample its wonderful Northern Italian cooking.  Rich, subtle, intense, pungent!  The food would have been a revelation.

For me, growing up in 60’s in the northeast US , far from a major metropolitan area, Italian food in the malls was spaghetti and meatballs soaked in red sauce—or  gravy as they call it in Philadelphia.  Think canned Chef Boyardee.  Not a gourmet experience.

This pasta and indeed, all of the food served at Gente, is as far from the meatballs and gravy as it could possibly get.  It is truly a feast for the senses- brilliantly colored, scented, and of course, a taste sensation.  If I ever again pass the Chef’s  cans in the supermarket aisles, en route to the arugula,  I will swiftly rush past.

Dining Room at Gente

Gente’s  modest exterior belies a very spacious and comfortable interior with a twist—dozens of blown up black and white stills of 60’s starlets, many Italian, which makes it all dramatic and also offsets the warm wooden flooring and tables.  Recently renovated, it is very comfortable and relaxing.  Owner/restauranteur Jay Mitchell, Manager Etnik Gashi and his staff are charming, courteous, ready to educate you about the menu, and determined to get the plates swiftly to your table. 

And it’s a happy crowd inside. When you enter, even as early as 7:00 p.m.,  there is a contented  buzz among the diners, and they tend to linger long past the end of the meal – always a good sign.

I came to Gente with no preconceptions.  My own experience with Italian food has tended to be with the southern red sauce – or with the quixotic food of Venice- and while much of it has been delicious, I knew that this would be quite different.  And it was. What an amazing meal!  Rich with homemade pasta,  and luxurious risotto, , pungent, crisp lightly dressed vegetables,  each plate offered a new taste experience.

 

Salumi platter at Gente

The first dish that came to my table was the salumi platter .  It resembled a garden . A sampler of starters featuring a mini pizza, a mini caprese salad, a hearty bruschetta, white beans, and an incredible bundle  of arugula wilted with oil, lemon, and garlic wrapped in fresh prosciutto.   This last was a meal in itself and a great introduction  to all the courses.

 

Black and white tagliolini with shrimp at Gente

The second plate was tagliolini –a light, but sumptuous homemade pasta – with gigantic wheels of shrimp.  The pasta was black and white, very colorful but entirely natural.  The black pasta partially colored and flavored with squid ink -  brilliant set against the giant pink shrimp, as well as delicious. Left to myself I would have shied away from the squid ink and thus deprived myself of a fine treat.

Risotto with spinach and shrimp at Gente

The third plate was a risotto with spinach and shrimp—here is an alternative version with mushrooms, equally delicious.  As this was my first risotto, and I knew nothing of its composition except that it was of rice and took a long time to cook, I was really delighted to taste a slight crunchiness offsetting the creamy rich sauce. And of course, the wilted spinach and robust shrimp.  Not rice pudding!  And not spaghetti. But a wholly satisfying savory meal to itself.

The meal was served with sparkling Prosecco and ended with homemade biscotti and a luscious liqueur flavored with biscotti, and topped off with cappuccino.  As there were several thunderstorms, I was more than happy to linger, savor the tastes, take in the  crowd and relax.

Given the prime location, Gente’s prix fixe dinner is a pretty reasonable $35, with an additional $7 for a glass of wine. It is a good bargain. If you choose to go ala carte for dinner, the antipasti and salads range from 9$ to $16. Pizza, $18; risotto, $23, pasta ranges from $18 to $24. Secondi (a combination of meat and vegetable ) ranges from $20 to $30; sweets, $9; and aperitifs, $8-10.

My compliments go to this chef and his magic.  And I will certainly be back!

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Chasing umami – Review of Aburiya Kinnosuke

BY ELENA MANCINI

213 East 45th St.
Midtown East
212-867-5454 /  aburiyakinnosuke.com/

Sashimi Don and vegetable tempura don Lunch combination at Arubiya Kinnosuke

Sashimi Don and Vegetable Tempura Don Lunch combination at Arubiya Kinnosuke

Aburiya Kinnosuke introduces a welcome gamechanger  to the stalwart sushi power lunch standard, and its strengths  extend well beyond merely resisting the well-honed formulas of Americanized Japanese fare–the fact that it goes by name that is as memorable as an airline confirmation number for non-speakers of Japanese is a mere peripheral symptom of its authenticity.

Once passed the odd, green and pink pinstriped discreetly marked doorway, one descends into a large, sexy cavernous space,  with generous seating and beautiful, dark fir furniture.  The main dining space gives way to a multitude of private dining nooks that comfortably seat six. Despite the sizeable lunch crowds–at least 50% of Aburiya Kinnosuke’s clientele is Japanese–a gracious host attends to welcoming and rapidly seating incoming guests. While this places sacrifices nothing to laxity–quality and attention to detail govern it in every fundamental aspect–there is a relaxed and even calming vibe about this candlelit, tastefully decorated space.

As enjoyable as the elegant, soothing decor and the swift and efficient service may be, they are not the main attraction at this no run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant. That title is reserved for the inspired robata specialties and other fish and meat dishes featured on its menu. Offering a changing daily menu, the kitchen avoids any cookie-cutter approach to catering to its guests. Getting there early can be rewarding as the lunch menu features daily chef’s choice option made to accommodate the first ten or twenty guests, for $13. Lunch specials however extend to larger quantities and in varying and appealing combinations and price points.

Arubiya2

Sweet Soy Simmered Pork Belly and Salmon Flakes and Salmon Roe Don at Arubiya Kinnosuke

For anywhere between $16-$18 gets you the fish or the meat of the day special. Depending on your mood, your lunch can be accompanied by the choice of an array of shochus (distilled rather than brewed sakes), or Western wines, exotic cocktails or a more salutary beverages such as grapefruit juice or green tea.

My recent visits have been at lunch time, and each time I found myself unable to resist the $16 two don special. The combination special consists of  two freshly prepared, rigorously executed dishes  of choice with a bonus extras that include: densely flavored, seaweed strewn miso soup, a bowl of shredded Japanese radish,  a green salad and a bite-sized dessert. Beyond being well worth the price, these combinations make for a filling, umami-laden lunch indulgence indeed.

The softer than cashmere pork belly is moist, rich in flavor and an all around winning don. The same goes for the pristine cuts of sashimi over a perfectly cooked, lightly seasoned vinegar rice. The vegetable tempura cakes  merrily  defy the commonly known Americanized Japanese incarnations of tempura. The salmon roe and salmon flake dish stood out with flavors both light and distinct that they evoked a distant sea breeze. Finally, an absolute must is the grilled eel. The don is an outstanding expression of the robata technique of grilling with binchoutan charcoal for which Aburiya Kinnosuke is known–This thick, fleshy, glazed strip of grilled eel is divinely loaded with mouthwatering umami that it has quickly become the flavor expectation standard that keeps me coming back to Aburiya Kinnosuke for more.

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