Best of Manhattan 2001:Eats & Drinks

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Best Quietly Retracted Zagat Review
Tomoe Sushi

The Words (or Something) Get Stuck in Our Throat. When a friend first pointed this out to us, we couldn’t believe it. How could the Zagat’s people have let this one slip into their 2000 Survey of New York Restaurants? For those who didn’t catch it, here’s last year’s review of Tomoe Sushi:

Tomoe Sushi

172 Thompson St. (bet. Bleecker & Houston Sts.), 212-777-9346

"Heaven on rice", "an orgasm in your mouth" are how surveyors describe the sensational sushi that draws "masses" to this "zero" ambiance Village Japanese; it would be "a bargain at twice the price."

"An orgasm in your mouth"?

We’re not even going to touch that one. Suffice it to say, however, that that little analogy was pointed out to the editors. Here’s their 2001 Tomoe review:

"Join the street party" outside this Village Japanese joint where the "lines can be murder" but are worth enduring for sushi that’s sheer "poetry", "arguably the best in the city."

Best Pre-Broadway Restaurant
234 W. 42nd St., 21st fl. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.)

And I’m Gonna Be a Star. Above, Larry Forgione’s quixotic but successful attempt to bring a classy restaurant to 42nd St., is hard to find the first time you go. It’s hidden in the Times Square Hilton, which is itself almost invisible in the visual overload of the south side of 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Aves., near Madame Tussaud’s and the mammoth AMC Empire multiplex. Once you’ve found your way into the hotel’s street-level lobby, it’s a ride in a rather subtly marked elevator 21 floors up from the street. Considering that its trade must be almost entirely made up of tourists, we think the place should be a little easier to locate.

When you actually get there, though, the space is a very pleasant surprise–open, airy, casually elegant and moderne, with evening’s last light (or, in winter, twinkling city lights) blasting through expansive window views north to 21st-floor midtown Manhattan. You can’t even see the bustle of 42nd St. from up there. It’s downright peaceful. You feel the preshow Broadway jitters sinking away from you as you stroll toward your table (which is nicely placed for plenty of elbow room and privacy).

The food is classic Forgione: high-class American with a few sort-of-Asian hints, mildly inventive without startling you with its genius, served in American portions. Forgione leans toward fish and seafood–roasted oysters, softshells, a clever salmon pizza, big fishes like striped sea bass. But the kitchen also knows when to turn a black-and-blue steak. Sensible wine list. Simple desserts like key lime pie or sorbet, light enough for a pretheater crowd. As always at a Forgione establishment, the young waitstaff is well trained, flawlessly polite–and largely minority, a nice added touch.

With its understated class and uplifted location, Above seems blithely unaware that it’s on the 42nd St. strip. And as the name suggests, it floats well above most of the tourist shovel-food joints in the area. The only concession it makes to its location is the brisk and efficient way the staff gets you out in time for your 8 o’clock curtain.

Best Bar in Which to Flout the Laws of the Sabbath
96 Berry St. (N. 8th St.)
Brooklyn, 718-384-9787

Getting Mitzvah Tanked. We were in Teddy’s one recent Saturday afternoon–Saturday, aka the Sabbath, aka Shabbat–enjoying the high pressed-tin ceiling and the light and the friendly servers, the last a pleasant change from the slow, surly, sometimes downright bitchy folk who plague the trendy Bedford Ave. strip...

Anyway, we were sitting there, recovering from the night before, when two Hasidic men in their early 20s walk in. They’re decked out in Sabbath finery–white socks, satin robes, big round fur hat, the works. They go right over to the long wooden bar and started asking the bartender, a tall, tattooed lass wearing a tanktop, about the game–baseball, we guess, since we heard her explain that it was football on one tv, the U.S. Open on the other. After some more conversation the two belly up to the bar and settle in. They take off their hats and one of them dangles his stockinged feet out of his black shoes as the bartender brings them two bottles of–what else?–Budweiser.

Best Indication of the Tiredness of Foodie Culture
2 Park Ave. (32nd St.)

Blew Cheese. A restaurant that’s thronged to the manic bursting point, that approximates a train station during the evacuation of Lodz, except instead of shabby mid-century Europeans in stale woolens fleeing the wehrmacht, you’ve got the rabid local variety of bourgeois bohemian, with her Palm Pilot shoved up her ass, engaged in the gratuitous, and thus vaguely dishonorable, pursuit of–of all the things on God’s green earth–artisanal cheeses.

You could almost see the wheels turning in the minds of the braintrust up at Picholine, which is the overrated Upper West Side restaurant of which Artisanal is the spinoff. Fingers scratching pates, deep philosophical musings: how can we push an already absurdly precious foodie culture in a new direction? How can we do a few things more? What remains? Thus, a restaurant that fetishizes deeply special cheeses, to assume its position in the pantheon of silliness next to the eateries that already fetishize wine, beef, fashion models, desserts, overworked pizza pies, lesbians and guys with jobs in media.

None of which would be as much of a problem if the establishment weren’t less pleasant than it should be at these prices. Talk about obnoxious advance publicity–we were hearing about the place last winter. And yet there we were, like sheep, on a hot night not long after Artisanal’s spring opening, eating improved bistro food not noticeably superior to that at Balthazar or 10 other places, while dodging errant elbows from patrons who were waiting for tables, weaving through the aisles, scanning the humid air for illustrious faces. All the while, a ripe stench emanated from the cheese counter. Yeah, we know–it’s the funky foodie stench of artisanal fromage. Well, to hell with it.

Plus, the guy at the maitre d’s station was a bit of a dick. Plus you need a signal flare to attract a waiter. Plus, if you like cheese–which you probably should–we can name a handful of other restaurants where you can learn about, and eat, cheese in something other than a panicked, humid, stinking, overdetermined 125-decibel murk, din, hurlyburly, mosh and brawl.

Best Tribeca Takeout
Il Mattone
413 Greenwich St. (betw. Laight & Hubert Sts.)

Western Tribeca’s Jewel. Takeout’s a dicey proposition in any neighborhood. We suppose there’s solace to be taken in the fact that it exists at all, unlike in the vast majority of American cities, but when you wake up with a poisoned gut from Thai or Chinese grub that’s been fried in month-old oil, that’s a sign to get out the cooking utensils.

Il Mattone, a perennial winner in "Best of" annuals, is another story altogether. We prefer the thin-crust pizzas, well-done, either plain or topped with excellent sausage, pepperoni or onions. There’s also the hungry-guy special, a Sicilian number that can feed four. A pie with a Caesar salad is fine dinner. When we want variety, it’s a switch to the Napoli sandwich, an enormous concoction stuffed with prosciutto, sopressata, capocolla, mozzarella, tomatoes and olives. Another good bet is the fusilli Calabria, a sensibly sized portion of pasta with plum tomato sauce, sweet sausage and mushrooms.

Best yet, instead of the often gruff or impersonal clerks who take orders at restaurants, the Il Mattone staff is friendly, even when harried. When you’re greeted with a "Hey guy, what’s shakin’?" it might seem kind of jocular to the effete, but it’s vintage New York bonhomie that’s a mini-opera to our ears.

Best Surprising and Economical Tapas
245 W. 16th St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.)

Spanish Ayes. This is a close genetic and culinary relative of Rio Mar on Little W. 12th St., a colloquial Spanish bistro in danger of being hullabalooed by the Pastisization of the immediate neighborhood. Riazor is safe, for about a decade, even taking into account they’ve generated a tapas menu. They also have a stuffed tomato for about seven and a quarter bucks, which is virtually a full meal for a normal prudent human, and is abounding in aggressive taste. You can also have the shrimps ajillo, and if you ask for extra garlic or maybe even if you don’t you will have a pageant of gorgeosity. But the tomatillo is the first choice. Just drink the plonk or the sangria, though the staff has enthusiasms about the Spanish bottles.

Best Dish for Reform Jews
Herring in Cream
Blue Ribbon Brooklyn
280 5th Ave. (1st. St.)
Brooklyn, 718-840-0404

Beats Russ & Daughters. What’s the story with the Blue Ribbon restaurants’ thing for serving tarted-up versions of serious old Jewish dishes? Okay, so it’s not exactly epidemic–it doesn’t define the places–but still: here’s the Blue Ribbon Bakery in the West Village, serving up an excellent matzoh ball soup; and here’s the newish Blue Ribbon Brooklyn, in Park Slope, offering great herring in cream. Oh yes, just like our Uncle Isaac and our Aunt Edna used to eat up at Grossinger’s, when the world was theirs, and in the afternoons there were swim races and in the evenings there was a buffet, and Fyvush Finkel, and the next day you could take the bus back to Port Authority. Those were the golden days. (Isaac was such a card then, always kidding. He sold suit-pants wholesale, 45 years, right off New Utrecht Ave. Now he slobbers in a home in Fresh Meadows, and screams at the nurses about Pee Wee Reese.)

Actually, we doubt Grossinger’s served herring in cream anywhere near as good as Blue Ribbon’s. You’ve got your heavy bowl filled with onion pieces and big, soft, sweet slabs of good herring, and it’s all held together by dollops of sour cream so that you’re eating a soulfully and pungently fragrant bowl of peasant food that goes down easy and pads the gut in a satisfying way. You’ve also got your beer near to hand, and hopefully some friends around you–here with you at this smart, casual, excellent restaurant. Or maybe you’re alone, sitting all sleek at the bar, dreaming of the timeless glamour and sophistication of the Catskills in days of yore.

Best Inappropriately Named Restaurant
99 Stanton St. (betw. Orchard & Ludlow Sts.)

And Such Funny Bathrooms. Cantankerous throwbacks that we are, we sometimes pine for that long-ago time when words actually meant something, when names were not just signifiers pressed into the service of so much empty pandering. Look, you can call a restaurant anything you want. Wanna call your new Texas barbecue grill Nez de la Gamine or Happy Charisma! or Katelyn’s Sushi? Fine, do as your muse guides you.

But in the case of Barrio, whose appellation is presumably a nod to the former L.E.S. slum that it has recently come to inhabit, the name manages not only to confound, but to pander and insult as well. For starters, we doubt there’s anything about Stanton’s bodegaville era that Barrio’s proprietors (or the bohemian gentry who patronize it) would ever care to see replicated in their dining experience. Dogshit stew, perhaps? Baking diaper chowder? A DJ to distract you with obstreperous, bone-rattling crack-merengue while monster rats make off with your seared tuna and taro roots? It’d be quite another thing if Barrio actually served Mexican or Dominican food or Hispanic anything food: high-end pan-Latino, beans ’n’ rice, whatever. But we can only gather that the name is a sort of cute homage whose meaning must somehow point to the physical space.

Is Barrio’s interior some kind of loving evocation of regions Chicano? Of the dusty, forlorn, dilapidated quarters of say, East Los Angeles, or Mexico City? Not that we can tell. Take the dining area, accented mainly by a tin ceiling, abundant brasswork and exposed brick. It most recalls the vast interiors of middlebrow yuppie chow halls from the early 90s, Ernie’s and that kind of thing. The tiki lounge on the second floor is robust with extravagant Polynesian/Thai furniture. No, the only Hispanic architectural nod in the entire place is the rather cartoonish pyramid structure that sits atop the kitchen and upon which rest some artifacts vaguely suggestive of pre-Columbian Oaxaca: quite fitting if the descendants of Zapotec should one day descend the misty cliffs of Monte Alban and hobble up to New York City for an evening of pan-Euro fusion.

In the end the only thing Barrio, this odd farrago of unremarkable cuisine and mixed architectural metaphors, really pays homage to is cluelessness.

Best Bar in Which to Save an Acquaintance from Pulling a Bon Scott
The Village Underground
130 W. 3rd St. (betw. 6th Ave. & MacDougal St.)

Uncle Henry? Auntie Em? Is that You? After killing three Turkeys the band onstage has cleaned and gutted your buzz. It’s unusual to see a stinker here, but you figure you can’t win them all, then wonder, well, why the hell not, and go back to the bar for more of the same.

Toward the last stool, amongst the 90-pound record geeks and 6-foot-7 bikers, you notice a young lad in a state of extreme repose–laid out flat on the floor, his feet propped up against the bottom rail and his eyes rolled back in his head–sleeping it off? Pushing through the nonchalant loiterers, you bend down, grab his shoulders and yell (name has been changed from something beginning with "C" and ending in "L"), "Pete? Pete is that you?"

After a few good shakes he comes around long enough to ask for a pint glass from the barman. So he can puke in it.

"Pete! Pete, look, I’m not going to ask for an empty glass so you can…sweet Mary Mother of Christ, Pete! The purse! Watch the purse!"

And with that, an 8:15 p.m. Thai dinner is at your feet, practically good enough to return to the buffet table. Twenty minutes later Pete is outside having his picture taken by Jon Weiss with a 250-pound African-American bride–not his own, blushing and still in her veil–like a champ. And that is what they call a New York City moment. In Iowa they call it pathetic, incontinent and possibly vagrancy, but not here.

Best Salad Under $10 (East Village)
144 2nd Ave. (9th St.)

Veggie Tales. Time was when salad was the last thing we’d think of ordering at Veselka. It’s tough to say whether our newfound devotion reflects some sort of personal growth or just recognition of an item more consistent with the Ukranian eatery’s relatively recent renovation and scrubbed sleekness. Whatever. At $7.50, Veselka’s East Village Spinach Salad is one mother of a meal. It does what any honest salad should, balancing the sweet-sharp savor of feta and bacon against a base of crisp, hearty roughage. (Add $1.45 and they throw on a generous portion of grilled chicken strips.) With a foundation of fresh spinach, chopped raw carrots, feta, mushrooms and hard-boiled egg, it’s a dream for anyone who’s into the carbohydrate temperance craze, providing a solid charge of protein, while nodding to a more healthy notion of nutrition vis-a-vis the raw veggies and leafy greens. But heck, that’s health talk. As a friend of ours says: Health talk, dumb; big green salad, good! Our only regret is that with all that heaping spinach, it becomes a little hard to manage, distracting us and requiring that we unbury our head from our reading material. So do as we do and ask the chef to chop up the spinach for you. It’s a small but helpful accommodation he’s usually more than happy to make.

Best Brooklyn Thai Restaurant
215 Court St. (betw. Wyckoff & Warren Sts.)
Brooklyn, 718-222-3484

Thai Without Strings. Man, but this place kicks ass. And if there’s better Thai food in Brooklyn (we’ve heard tell of a certain well-established Thai hipster destination restaurant in West Bushwick–sorry, we mean Williamsburg), we’ll eat our hat. Summer rolls as fresh, ah, as daisies–and curries as soft, silky and smooth as the insides of a Swedish virgin’s thighs (you’re right, that was gross). Wash whatever good food you’ve ordered down with measures of Sierra Nevada in frosty glasses, or else with that glorious mixture of strong joe and super-sweet condensed milk known as Thai iced coffee, and you’ll be all right.

But it’s not only the food. What we like about this place is the handsome, monochromatic concrete-floored ambience, which we find reassuring. There’s none of that crappy tikki-tacky Asian decor that always bums us out when we encounter it in Thai joints–Joya vibes like a regular restaurant that just happens to serve good Thai food, rather than like an orientalist theme park. There’s a wonderful little garden out back when the weather’s nice, cool art on the walls, the usual well-dressed young semi-bohemian clientele and what appears to be a relatively fecund pick-up scene at the bar up front.

Best Jukebox
548 9th Ave. (40th St.)

We’re Mental over Bellevue. The Mars Bar has the best local jukebox, and the Library has the one on which we’re most likely to find that favorite song that no one else knows, but only Bellevue’s musical selections can light up our life for an entire evening. Over at this Hell’s Kitchen spot it isn’t unusual to hear Nirvana’s "In Bloom" followed by Halford’s "Made in Hell" and AC/DC’s "It Ain’t No Fun (Waitin’ Round to Be a Millionaire)." If that doesn’t do it for us, we put in Guns ’N Roses. It doesn’t hurt that Bellevue has a fascinating selection of behind-the-bar paraphernalia (old monster masks, weird bottles, Elvises), one extremely hot bartender, Pac-Man and a copious back area used for infrequent but rocking parties. The bottom line is that we used to love Q104.3 before it went classic rock, and this is the only place in the city that approximates its old playlists. We’re always on alert at the bar, however, for women named "Mimi," former "record executives" and liquor spilled on us by drunk barmaids (the hot one is never drunk).

Best Fried Oysters
The Golden Unicorn
18 E. Broadway, 2nd fl. (betw. Catherine & Market Sts.)

Pearly Bites. If your job description is comparative friedoysterologist, the adventure is quite demanding. We’ve sampled and sampled with a generous spirit, and finally concluded that the most satisfying is the version produced at the Golden Unicorn. The globes are lushly big, first of all, then surrounded with fat batter rather like big hair on a country singer. And they’re served with what is unhelpfully called "special sauce" that is a heated mix of sweet, sour, Chinese five spice, who knows what else. But the whole show is satisfying, the essential work of fried oysters.

Best Breakfast Joint (Brooklyn)
511 9th St. (8th Ave.)
Brooklyn, 718-499-1966

Lucky Seven. Okay, this is going to take a little bit of explaining, because if you’ve been around the block, you might have noticed that this cutesy Brooklyn corner diner–with the preciously named menu items and the waiters who call you "Bud"–is a little much. "Eggs and Other Good Things," our ass. And whoever the namesake is of "Mary’s Favorite Oatmeal" can shove off.

But here’s the thing: show up here on a weekday morning, right after the place opens, and a different, and appealing, reality unfolds around you. The tables are mostly empty, so you can spread out while you drink your very good coffee, peer out the window at the quiet and leafy street and ease yourself into the new day. Here’s a bunch of regulars, coming in for takeout coffee, for a happy word with the waitress and to throw their coins on the counter and grab the newspapers off the rack on their way out. At the next table down, there’s a cop in uniform, eating breakfast and talking about the Mets with the guy working the griddle across the room. In other words, you’re watching a community come to life and conduct itself in a way that transcends the diner’s twee ambience. And especially when the autumn light’s right, and the sun’s coming up over Prospect Park, it’s a beautiful thing.

The food’s all right, too. The coffee, like we said, is great, and Mary’s Favorite Oatmeal? Come to think of it, it’s good.

Best $2 Lunch
Fried Dumpling
99 Allen St. (betw. Delancey & Broome Sts.)

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