Thursday, July 15, 2010

New York City: Sam Sifton

Sam Sifton is the New York Times' replacement for food critic Frank Bruno. Sifton is a more than adequate replacement for Bruno, but has something that Bruno did not: wit and a literary style. Sifton came on like gangbusters with a style all his own and a sense of restaurant lore to boot. Look at the way he ends his review of "Torrisi Italian Specialties, a tiny and terrific new restaurant on Mulberry Street at the very top of Little Italy."

"No reservations are taken. The best strategy for a table is to go as a couple, either at 5:30 for the first service at 6, or on the hour thereafter, with the hope that you will be seated within 90 minutes. Larger groups should consult horoscopes and witch doctors for advice.

"It sounds awful, the waiting. But Mr. Carbone and Mr. Torrisi are in a burst of creative excellence, and reinventing themselves daily. Theirs is not the simple, pared-down Italian-American food of the Frankies restaurants — their cooking is too aggressively technical for that. But it is simpler than the inventive, luxurious new-Italian fare of Michael White at Marea or Mark Ladner at Del Posto. It is reminiscent most of the spirit of Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune, and of the early days of David Chang at Momofuku Noodle Bar.

"And how long can that last? The Torrisi project as it stands surely must run its course, the way any performance does, the way any combination of kinetic energy and art must eventually fall off its axis. (What happens if the money gets tight? No one counts on the tears.) Presumably Mr. Carbone and Mr. Torrisi will cook this way until it gets boring, and then will do something else.

"Which means the time to get to Torrisi Italian Specialties is now."

Alas, what can one write when the food at the restaurant under review is dreadful? Frankly, I wouldn't review it. Apparently, Mr. Sifton does not have the luxury of throwing up and moving on, so review he must. What else to do when you've spent over, perhaps, a thousand bucks of the boss's money on multiple visits and full tables. While he gave Torrisi two out of four stars, Sifton gives Kenmare none, but has fun doing so.

"The dining room is pretty enough, dark and cool, with white marble tables and a vaguely Mediterranean feel enhanced by big sprays of flowers. It is crowded nightly, first with dinner parties that seem pulled from rejected “Sex and the City” scripts and then with a late, late, late show of models and people with incredible collections of music and sneakers and phone numbers, accompanied by the people who went to college with them who now work on Wall Street.

"But the food is inconsequential....

"...a bread-crumb-crusted asparagus gratin with endive and fontina that tasted like a woody version of macaroni and cheese; and a weirdly tasteless Midwestern-style broccoli-beer soup with cheese and bacon croutons. It is difficult to imagine denizens of any precinct of New York’s night-life world eating these...The entrees continued the trend of mediocrity, time after time. A Milanese-style veal cutlet, essentially a breaded and fried laptop case, was served with lemon, arugula, ricotta salata and a garish, oily salsa verde....

"Not that many people are actually eating, though. There are enough pretty young things and the people who chase them at Kenmare to recall Bret Easton Ellis novels, Scissor Sisters songs and the whole first season of HBO’s “How to Make it in America.” The incessant rumbling of the nearby Lexington Avenue subway vibrates up into a table-hoppy, air-kissing, haven’t-seen-you-since-Quogue bubble of nighttime excitement. No one pays attention to dinner."

Sam Sifton's writing is a lot of fun, but with so many good restaurants that probably won't be reviewed in the NYT, it's not right to give up space and the readers' time to losers. I promise not to do so, that's for sure.

--Torrisi Italian Specialties

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Austin: Uchiko, Tacodeli, No Name Coffee

In the six months I've been in Asia, hip, upscale, ultra-modern restaurants and coffee shops have spring up around town, many in rehabed strip centers. Reminds me of Bangkok. For lunch today I went to Tacodeli, on North Lamar across from Central Market, whose name sounds like old-shoe Austin (you saw "Slackers,"right?), but its extensive menu is anything but. I had The Jesse Special, migas in a corn tortilla with Monterrey jack cheese and fresh sliced avocado. It came with spicy salsa dona. Shannon, my daughter, ordered an Otto, refried black bdans, bacon, advocado, and cheese on a whole wheat tortilla.. Everything was super fresh. For drinks, we had Budda's Brew, a local fermented tea that supposedly is good for you. It probably is, because it tasted pretty awful. In spite of that, Austin Chronicle said Tacodeli is the best place in town for a taco lunch, and Texas Monthly listed it as "Best of Austin." Shannon said I should come back for dinner and try the Cowboy Taco, beef tenderloin, carmalized onions, roasted peppers, and queso fresco. This place isn't your mother's Taco Deli, that's for sure.

Next door at the No Name Coffee (it has a name, but I've forgotten it), I had wonderful, regular Americano. This industrial modern room is so hip that the barrister gave me a choice of three kinds of espresso for my Americano, kinds of coffee I never heard of. "Surprise me," I said. For desert, I had the best coconut macaroon puff ball ever. This place was so upscale that the deserts in the fancy case had no prices. I guess they figured if I had to ask the price, I couldn't afford it. Unlike Tacodeli, the noise level here was quite high, with the shrieks of modern moms bouncing around the room's rock solid surfaces.

Then it was time to check out Uchi's new, Northern outpost. (Same strip, next to Floyd's Barber Shop.) Uchi is a nationally known japanese contemporary sushi restaurant run by executive chef Tyson Cole that is so cutting edge its web site contains pages on its philosophy as well as biographies of its principals. Zagat gave its "brillant creations" 28 out of 30 points, and it has been reviewed in Bon Apetit and Saveur. Uchi downtown has an old Austin deco feel, housed in a converted residence, but Uchiko was disigned from the ground up, has a fine art, japanese modern feel, and bills itself as "japanese farmhouse dinning," with a reworked Uchi menu, its outer walls visually closed from the shops and trafic around it. I'll have to give it a try before leaving town again.