Una Taste of Otto; Beef Bowl-a-Rama; Real Munchies Paradise

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I managed a single visit to Mario Batali’s brand-new pizza restaurant before deadline. It’s a big, beautiful space, not wholly unlike the restaurant that occupied the same address previously, Clementine. The chief difference is the front room, with a new bar along one wall, an adjacent antipasti station and a casual-dining area with stand-up tables in the middle. That last is an authentic Southern Italian touch. Or, it would be, were patrons allowed to eat pizza at the stand-up tables, but they’re not.

Once you sit down it’s hard to resist the wine list, which takes up three of Otto’s menu’s four pages. Even the beer selection points one to it. There are (so far) no bottled beers, and only two draft options, both specially made for Otto by the lackluster Brooklyn Brewery. The table rule I can accept as a business necessity, but the unavailability of a dry Italian lager had me thinking before I’d even seen a pie that despite Otto’s parlor-competitive pizza prices, Batali had gone too 5th Ave. and not enough Naples.

For appetizers we tried a plate of assorted meats ($21) and the bruschetta of the day ($6), which was called otto lardo. Naturally it was bacon on toast, and quite good. The meats also evidenced our celebrity chef’s passion for the rustic side of pork. Head meat cooked with oranges (testa) didn’t go over very well, but some aged coppa and fennel salami were delightful. The plate had only small tastes of those but plenty of Otto’s comparatively young prosciutto di Parma. It’s high-quality stuff, rich but not too powerful for consumption without wine or fruit. As imported prosciuttos go, I’d rate it a seven.

There’s a nice long list of pizzas, with all manner of topping strategies represented. For this maiden voyage my party tried two simple ones: the bianco ($7) and the Napoletana ($10). In both cases the crust was cracker-thin and tasteless. With the bianco it didn’t matter, because all that one has on it is olive oil and salt–which is to say it comes off as something meant to be less eventful than pizza. On those terms it was a knockout, because the stupendous oil had us smelling warm Mediterranean breezes on literally the coldest day of the year so far. Supporting the Naples-style pie, though, Otto’s quesadilla-esque crust incited yearning for the charred, crisp-yet-chewy stuff you get at Grimaldi’s or Lombardi’s. The tomato sauce showed serious promise, but it didn’t taste right on the Napoletana because its (otherwise excellent) anchovies had been soaked in vinegar. That’s just wrong. What the fish are supposed to bring to this pizza’s sweetly acidic tomatoes is unadulterated ocean salt.

For dessert we tried two more traditional specialties. Pecorino came with an astonishing chestnut honey, but its beauty overpowered the cheese, precluding an harmonious union. A sample of Otto’s gelato (made daily in-house) revealed it to be the major triumph of the restaurant so far. Murray Hill’s Il Gelatone came very close, but now Batali will always be the one who nailed it: true Southern Italian ice cream is finally available in New York City. To those who don’t know the experience, the price will be bigger news. He’s charging $7 for two scoops.

Otto, 1 5th Ave. (8th St.), 212-995-9559.

Beef Bowl-a-Rama

The mid-90s sushi boom resulted in a supersaturated market, but new Japanese restaurants keep on coming. These days a shabu-shabu barbecue joint or a sake bar is much more likely to show up on any given Manhattan block than is another sushi place. It’s as if making it over the sushi hump has primed the New York palate. Most promising is the arrival of walk-in noodle shops like the West Village’s Ony–where all the food is interesting, inexpensive and fun to eat.

But it looks as if the noodle-stand movement is being usurped. Suddenly, it’s beef-bowl restaurants that have the momentum. It doesn’t quite make sense. Maybe raw corporate power is the explanation.

Last spring’s opening of the first American Yoshinoya, near Times Square, made international business headlines. The chain is a national powerhouse, regularly referred to as the Japanese McDonald’s. It serves meal-sized portions of beef and rice (or chicken and rice, or beef and chicken and rice, or vegetables and rice) in styrofoam bowls for $3.79.

The Times Square Yoshinoya is bright enough but not sleek enough to convey Tokyo. There’s a mod decoration involving fake bamboo that takes up the center swath of the room. Without a setting of economical Japanese elegance to make it seem like exactly enough, the restaurant’s fare comes off as very little indeed. The beef might as well be strips of fatty Steak-Ums, and its thin teriyaki-ish sauce only barely seasons the otherwise tasteless rice. The veggie bowl sports a thoroughly off-putting carrot, broccoli and cauliflower medley.

The upside is that in every bowl served, the rice is glutinous and very hot. The promise of such warm and sticky sustenance is probably what keeps Yoshinoya regulars coming back. Much science must have gone into getting it to come out exactly that way every time. They’re not exactly lining up at the Times Square Yoshinoya, but most nights it’s full of all kinds of Asian Americans and tourists.

Meanwhile, down in Herald Square, a new competitor is trying a different model. At Don Don Ya, the bowls cost a dollar more. The place has the clean lines and relative silence New Yorkers have come to expect of modest Japanese restaurants. This one offers the staple sushi pieces and rolls in addition to rice bowls, including salmon, eel and shrimp tempura as well as beef and/or chicken. The bowls themselves are of a higher grade of styrofoam.

Don Don Ya’s leaner beef is still factory-processed rump roast. And though thicker than Yoshinoya’s, the sauces here, too, are little more than soy with sugar. But the salmon filet, accompanied by some steamed fresh broccoli, made for a nice light meal. Even Don Don Ya’s beef ’n’ rice made it easier to see how the dish can be the Japanese hamburger. If Yoshinoya’s is the equivalent of a Quarter Pounder, this is a standard pub burger.

If rice-bowl places are going to make it in this town as more than an adjunct of sushi restaurants, though, they’re going to have be very aware of their local competition: takeout Chinese. A minority of office workers might find that Don Don Ya makes for a nice lunch alternative now and then, as does sushi. A soba stand serves meals hardly more exotic and arguably tastier than its Hong Kong-style competition. Yoshinoya, with its proud branding and elemental menu, has picked a tougher row to hoe. They’re going to need more goopy sauce colors, more spices and some pork if they want even a prayer of muscling in on the Hunan Dynasty.

Yoshinoya, 255 W. 42nd St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 212-703-9940.

Don Don Ya, 875 6th Ave. (betw. 31st & 32nd Sts.), 212-643-8340.

The Real Munchies Paradise

I was going to follow the above with a few words about Hong Kong-based Aji Ichiban, the Chinese and Japanese chain that’s been popping up downtown, billing itself as "Munchies Paradise." There’s one on Mott St. just outside Canal St. Station, and another on the hip stretch of Lafayette St. They sell dried fruits and candies by the pound. The cool part is that there are lot of items you don’t see every day in America, such as dried squid treats. And in front of every big jar of Aji Ichiban product is a dish of samples for tasting. You can have a blast in there.

But you probably won’t want to return again and again. And catering a party with Aji Ichiban snacks is nothing a New York host would want to do more than once. No, our real Munchies Paradise is Sahadi Importing of Brooklyn. For its selection, prices and quality, there is no better place to load up on handfuls of good stuff. The 55-year-old store is far from secret–it’s a zoo on Saturdays–yet I’m of the opinion that more people need to know about Sahadi’s. Maybe with more business it can grow into one more room and have its own bakery. And some Sunday hours would be nice.

The nuts section alone is mind-blowing. You look at it and sense that all your life, your experience of nuts has been needlessly empty and unsatisfying. A taste of cinnamon-coated almonds can confirm this. A pound of Sahadi’s remarkably flavorful salted cashews is only $5. There are nuts and dried fruits from Iran, Turkey and all over the Arab Middle East–you can even get dates on the vine. The halvas, brittles and nut-paste loafs are a whole other thing to get into.

The prepared-foods counter features fine samosas and spanikopita, an array of Middle Eastern salads, curry couscous and delicious garlic hummus for only $2.75 per pound. There’s lamejun (seasoned beef and tomatoes on pita, a Lebanese favorite) and desserts from a bakery in Ridgefield Park, NJ, that must be quite an establishment itself. Sahadi’s cheese section includes feta from France, Greece, Bulgaria and the U.S., and there’re tons of amazing olives. The rest is spices, coffees, specialty teas, legumes and grains, locally baked pitas, breads and sweets and lots of imported packaged goods. When it comes to dealing in what people actually want, no Far Eastern (or strictly Western) merchant can mess with the Middle.

Sahadi’s, 187 Atlantic Ave. (betw. Court & Clinton Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-624-4550. Closed Sundays.

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