top 100 (off shoot edition): sushi of gari 46

sushiMy go-to Japanese has long been Sushi of Gari. Simple and unpretentious, with a meticulous presentation that borders on wizardry, it’s an Upper East Side anomaly hidden on a sleepy side street. When it comes to omakase (letting the chef decide what you eat) it’s easily the best deal in town, too. The only drawback is that the room is tiny, making a casual drop-by almost impossible. Over the past year, however, chef Gari has grown his humble one-off into a mini fish empire, opening branches in Tribeca, the Upper West Side, the Theater District, and even the food halls underneath The Plaza Hotel. Can Gari’s reputation for quality and fastidious attention to detail hold up across so many outlets? If Sushi of Gari 46 is any barometer the answer would be no. The setting is more refined, the lighting more forgiving, but there’s a chain mentality at work here that seems to be less about divinely sliced fish and more about herding people in and out as quickly as possible. The front of house is brusque, the servers even more so. And while you’d love to linger longer over a sweet, unfiltered nigori which comes to the table in a beautiful flask of blown glass, subliminally you’re waiting for a not-so-subtle cattle prod to signal your time is up. The sushi and sashimi are respectable, if not sublime – and certainly not worth making a special trip. But it is the atmosphere, which borders on aggressively hostile, that is so off-putting. Part of the allure of the east side original has always been that it’s very much a neighborhood joint, albeit one where the man with his name on the door is the one behind the counter wielding the shokunin. Sushi of Gari 46 might have style to spare, but it lacks the appeal that comes with having soul.

sake

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bohemian rhapsody

hospoda

Is there something readily identifiable as Czech cuisine? Though I’ve spent time in Prague, I can’t for the life of me remember any food. (At that particular time in my life the city’s chief attractions were Kafka, Havel, and bottomless pitchers of Budvar.) Blame the Soviet Union, but I think if you put a gun to my head, I’d lump the Czechs in with every slavic variant of Eastern Europe: grey meat, grey veg, and some form of potato – lard binding it all together, natch. Not so much a cuisine as communism on a greasy plate. No wonder I’ve blocked out the memories behind an Iron Curtain. Yet as the Velvet Revolution proved all too well, sometimes change – like God – comes so quickly. Hospoda, a new restaurant on the ground floor of the Bohemian National Hall – itself a recently renovated holdout from the days when New York’s Yorkville and Upper East Side were a hive of mittel-European emigration – is doing for Czech food what the Plastic People of the Universe did for the Czech people: expanding the perception of possibilities. And it starts, as you’d expect, with Czech beer. There’s no getting around it as it comes to the table like an aperitif, whether you want it or not: lightly sweet pilsner with a creamy head of foam that’s so tasty you’ll toss aside the wine list and ask for a proper Krug-full. An appetizer of grilled hen of the woods is the next pleasant surprise. On a bed of tuscan kale and topped by a perfectly cooked parmesan poached egg there’s a meaty earthiness to the dish, complemented by a slow flow of viscous yolk that pools in a puddle of chicken jus and creates a sauce I’d be happy to lap up as soup. Fried egg bread sounds like something Elvis might have conjured up: Prague-style smoked ham, mustard, pickles, horseradish and apple relish on rye bread, dipped in egg and pan-fried. It’s like the bastard child of a grilled cheese and a croque monsieur – and equally delicious. A crispy veal schnitzel is fork tender and surprisingly light – even with a Yukon gold puree that has more cream and butter than I  generally consume in a week. The addition of pickled baby beets is a deceptively smart idea, bringing another taste and texture to the plate and elevating what could have simply been (very good) meat and potatoes. Prawns are another unexpected dish: perfectly cooked and succulent. I would have liked a bit more seasoning in the schmear of fennel puree but a brightly dressed salad of arugula with raw fennel actually made the puree unnecessary except as plate decoration – which it very well may have been, setting off the vibrant red heads of the prawns. I hope you’re noticing the trend here: traditionally rich, hearty foods updated and elevated side by side with seasonally appropriate yet geographically non-specific modern plates rich in flavor. It’s satisfying without being too heavy – or guilt-inducing. And global – as thought through by a Czech palate. Over dessert it all intertwines – and beautifully so, I might add. Crispy Czech pancakes layered with soft-poached granny smith apples would have been satisfying unadorned. Ringed with a crazy-delicious beer foam creme anglaise, however, it becomes a dish worthy of taking to the streets for. Hospoda chefs Oldrich Sahajdak and Katie Busch might not be rock stars – though with chefs you never know – but together they’re cooking up an altogether more appetizing kind of Prague spring.

grilled hen o the woods, tuscan kale, and parmesan poached eggs

fried egg bread with ham, pickles and horseradish

veal schnitzel

mayan prawns

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in waterclosets lie secret codes

Or not-so-secret as the case might be at Jones Wood Foundry, a new gastro pub on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the bathroom walls are scrawled not with graffiti, but recipes for classic British comfort foods like Mulligatawny Soup and Sticky Toffee Pudding. It seems WC is now shorthand for What’s Cooking. What that means for Toad in the Hole, I can only imagine.

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top 100: sushi of gari

Even by New York standards it’s small and the tables are squished cheek by jowl. The uninspired decor is vaguely reminiscent of the Brady Bunch rec room. Service is anything but fluid and the wait staff are notoriously difficult to understand. Still for lovers of sushi there are few meals that compare to one which involves the sublime wizardry of the blade-wielding shokunin at Sushi of Gari, unassumingly tucked away on an Upper East Side side street. Not just the most meticulous kaiseki in town, it’s also – shhh! – the most reasonably priced, too – though you might not have a clue what it is you’re eating. Nevermind, it’s all so artfully done. And chopstick-licking delicious.

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dragonfly

Because you can’t gather dinner in Central Park everyday, it’s nice to have a local to keep you in comfort food when the urge arises. Though the doorway of Dragonfly looks more like a crime scene than a reputable restaurant, inside Chef Cornelius Gallagher – late of Oceana and Lespinasse – is cooking up his own personal riff on the flavors of Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. And it’s infinitely less grisly than the door handle might suggest. My favorites from a recent serendipitous drive-by: giant wasabi-infused tater tots and a signature curry coconut shrimp with fresh pea shoots. Come the next rainy day I’ll be tackling the cleverly-themed Street Cart menu. The thought alone of Fresh Sriracha Bacon, Hot Roasted Foie Gras, Kim Chee Tempura, and Marrow Dumplings is making me want to cuddle.

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top 100: telepan

As a long-term resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time turning up my nose at the dining options available on the other side of the park. For many years the Upper West Side was primarily the redoubt of cheap Chinese restaurants and hand-scrawled signs offering free box-wine with dinner. At a push there was Zabar’s. If you wanted a proper sit-down meal that didn’t involve a Kosher pickle you went downtown – or headed east. Reluctantly I’ll admit to having held on to this East-West bias for far too long. Times have indeed changed. The area surrounding Lincoln Center has blossomed and – dare I say? – makes my old ‘hood seem downright stodgy when it comes to fine dining. Case in point: Telepan. Earnest, honest, market-based cooking tucked into an unassuming side street brownstone – this is the type of restaurant you’d love to make your local if only the price points were as demure as the setting. There’s nothing outlandish or extravagant about the kitchen save Chef Bill Telepan’s devotion to seasonality. The homemade mozzarella is unlike any you’ve ever tasted: a shiny boletus cap that’s part cheese, part saltwater taffy. No workaday caprese, it is served atop peppery spring arugula and toasted green garlic with (appropriately enough) crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. A country pate “sandwich” arrives with house-made pickles, citrus chile vinaigrette and toasted triangles of brioche. Jumbo Maine sea scallops are seared to perfection. Cleverly presented on discs of fingerling potato, the toothsome mollusks are accompanied by the last of winter’s reliable veg, cauliflower and kohlrabi. A meaty filet of halibut replaced the advertised wild striped bass the other night because that’s what was fresh in the market. With wild mushrooms, spinach and sunchokes it made for a substantial entree. It’s at this point I was glad to have ordered a la carte and not done the recommended four-course tasting. While the cuisine might be nouvelle-inspired, the kitchen is clearly at the mercy of a Jewish mother who thinks you’ve gotten too skinny. Perhaps the coming spring menu will lighten things up a bit with a lithesome selection of shoots and leaves – I was hoping for the first ramps of the season myself –  but until then my best advice would be to pace yourself.  Because  the food is that good. And dessert is mostly worth saving room for. I would have loved a more significant (and less decorous) contribution of meringue in the Meyer lemon meringue pie, but the gooey puddle of sweet and tart – heightened by supremes of blood orange and grapefruit – made for a fragrantly pleasant palate cleanser. Wait, let me contradict myself: the pie crust and merengue were unnecessary. A big bowl of that custard topped with a sprig of mint would have enabled the less-than-sober scene of my licking a bowl in public. I have no such suggestions when it comes to the cheese board, however. Okay, maybe just one: there’s four pieces of cheese, Chef; please train your waitstaff to be able to identify which is which. That said, I can’t think of a finer quartet of artisanal cheeses outside of a Terence Brennan cave. The Smokey Blue out of Oregon’s Rogue River Creamery is alone worth the price of admission. Lightly smoked over hazelnut shells, it completely altered what I’d come to expect out of a traditional blue, like Roquefort or Fourme d’Ambert. At once pungently fecund and heady with smoke it tasted of the end of winter – and the burgeoning spring.

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top 100: sfoglia

The lighting at Sfoglia on the Upper East Side is both a blessing and a curse. In one regard it’s a minor miracle: the votive-filled, semi-subterranean restaurant manages to refine even the homeliest of profiles into a vision as serene as one of Giotto angels. Yet that self-same light is also a curse upon every amateur food photographer or blogger armed with equipment little more sophisticated than last season’s iPhone. As I fall into both of those latter categories, I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust my word about the food and accept the few images I was able to pilfer from the restaurant’s website. Then again the unfussy, casual elegance of this week’s dining experience is a sure sign that I’ll be returning to photograph the warm embrace of Sfoglia’s den of deliciousness again and again – preferably post-workout. Now that you know the happy ending I can share the evening’s irritating beginning, which didn’t begin nearly as felicitously: in the cold, cramped entryway the host was simultaneously handling future reservations, checking coats, and acting as sommelier to a four-top that wanted a bottle of wine while they waited for their table. My initial impression of an improvised hot mess was only reinforced upon sitting when the waiter asked about water before quickly disappearing. What I really wanted was a glass of Dolcetto but I had to wait, patiently nibbling olives in silent frustration. By the time the waiter finally returned to ask if there were any menu questions, I was hungry, and so quickly ordered a glass of wine, antipasti della casa, and the cavatelli, which sounded intriguing as it came with mustard greens pesto and breadcrumbs.  My partner in carbs went for paccheri, a floppy, tubular pasta with pork shoulder and fennel pollen, plus a side of brussel sprouts for good measure. The waiter repeated it all back to us, getting it wrong. Then he repeated it once again, this time getting the wine wrong, before giving an offhand nod and walking away. Before I could give sarcastic voice to the exchange a plate of bread arrived and we tore at it like a pair of hungry cats. The bread at Sfoglia has a cult following. They ship it now, as well as sell it at the restaurant. The crispy thin crust belies a pillowy warm inside which just happens to be an ideal vehicle for sopping up a flavorful plate oil. When the antipasti arrives with my wine I’m glad we decided to share:  two big crostini smeared with whipped ricotta and sea salt share the plate with a mound of peppery arugula and smoked trout and a salad of shredded radicchio and apple that’s unbelievably sweet and creamy and salty all at once. We begin to debate our favorite, coming close to those embarrassing acts of plate scraping and fork-licking. Who cares that our waiter is a dolt, or that we had to wait in the cold for a table? We are here, in this warm haven where simple ingredients being accorded a respectful finesse and we’ve still got two courses left to go. The pastas are, of course, equally memorable: tender pork shoulder, rich in tomato, has the proper ratio of acid to fat, making the perfect foil for wide tubes of the ribbon-like paccheri. Strangely the tiny cavatelli look like grubs – a sensation further enhanced by a topping of crunchy, butter-soaked breadcrumbs. Yet mixed with a pesto of bitter mustard greens it makes for a dish so savory that I’m glad it doesn’t come in a trough or I’d have to make a right spectacle of myself. A happy accident occurs when the waiter absent-mindedly stops by thinking he forgot to tell us about the special deserts that require pre-ordering.  (He did.) Once I hear the words “bread pudding,” I go deaf and don’t need to hear another word. Somehow I manage to continue shoveling cavatelli in my mouth while signaling that yes,the pastry chef should fire up some bread pudding and oh, by the way, more wine, more wine! It’s like being in one of those collegiate stoner dreams: the taste of everything passing my lips is elevated to such a degree that each bite takes on new levels of deliciousness. A heaping bowl of rum-soaked pudding is the night’s crowning glory, managing to at once be both a proper pudding and a wonderfully light finish to the meal. It’s a testament to the kitchen that I’ve managed to have a generous feed and yet I don’t feel stuffed. In the wrong hands an evening at Sfoglia could easily turn into a bacchanal of Falstaffian proportions. Or do I mean the right hands? I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be back to put that theory to the test.

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obit (the dust) of the month: take a right at michael caine

Elaine Kaufman, who became something of a symbol of New York as the salty den mother of Elaine’s, one of Manhattan’s best-known restaurants and a second home for almost half a century to a bevy of writers, actors, athletes and other celebrities, died Friday at Lenox Hill Hospital.

To the patrons she knew at her Upper East Side establishment, Ms. Kaufman was the quirky, opinionated, caring and imposingly heavyset proprietor who came in almost every night to check on things and schmooze, moving from table to table and occasionally perching herself on a stool at the end of her 25-foot mahogany bar.

With those she did not know, however, her demeanor varied; some accused her of being rude, though she indignantly denied that she ever was. As she put it, she had little time to explain to dissatisfied customers why they were being directed to tables in the back, known as Siberia, or led to the bar or even turned away, when they could clearly see empty tables along “the line.”

The line was the row of tables along the right wall of the main room, extending from the front to the back and visible from the entrance. Those tables were almost always saved for the most valued regulars, with or without reservations. One regular for many years was Woody Allen, who filmed a scene for “Manhattan” at Elaine’s.

Almost from the beginning there were writers, many of whom were granted credit privileges when funds were low or nonexistent. And the writers — Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Peter Maas, Dan Jenkins, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo, Sidney Zion and others — drew editors: Clay Felker, Willie Morris and James Brady, to name a few.

Then came the theater, film and television personalities, eager to meet literary lights. And they, having added to Elaine’s growing cultural cachet, soon attracted the famous from other arenas — sports figures, politicians and gossip-column society — wanting to be part of the scene.

It became an unspoken rule among the customers never to appear overly impressed or distracted by the famous. But there were exceptions, Ms. Kaufman recalled. Mick Jagger was one. (“The room grew still,” she said.) Luciano Pavarotti was another. (“Everyone stood up and applauded.”) And Willie Nelson proved irresistible. (“He kissed all the women at the bar.”)

Once, when a newcomer asked directions to the men’s room, Ms. Kaufman replied, “Take a right at Michael Caine.”  READ MORE

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