Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hot, Fresh NYC Restaurant Reviews

I just returned from a business trip to New York City and while work was the main thing on the "menu," I was able to drink and dine at some places new to me. Necessity, proximity and how easy a place is to find are keys to eating well on the run in NYC on a business trip, and for sure this is a lot different than doing your homework in advance and planning your dining as you would on, say, a vacation. 

None the less, I think I ate at some good places you  might want to check out when you're in New York next.

Here goes:

Bar Americain. This is not a bar - although it has one. Rather, it's an hip white table cloth restaurant in mid-town by chef Bobby Flay. On the night we were there, it was quite crowded. The menu features a typical variety of fish, poultry, chops, steak and and vegetarian options. However, that's the only typical thing about it. For example, I started with the gala apple salad with walnuts, blue cheese and pomegranates. These elements combined for a very interesting tangy, sweet, crunchy and creamy combo. Next, I had a piece of flaky good skate (a white fish) with a chili butter sauce and capers that was probably the most unique fish dish I've ever had. My buddy Craig had a piece of grilled tuna with red and green chili sauce, avocado relish and crispy onions. I also spied that the guy at the table next to us had the plate of the day - buttermilk fried chicken and black pepper biscuits. Hmmm. Looked good too. At any rate, we downed our meals with a bottle of mellow Bordeaux red.

Recommendation: This is a well above average restaurant - especially for mid-town. Go there if you're staying in that area of the city. However, I would not go so far as to say that it's a place you must seek out compared to some other places you need to go. Such as...

Nobu. Yes, this is the place actor Robert De Niro co-owns that you may have heard about. My three man crew went to Nobu Fifty Seven at 40 West 57th Street between Ave. of the Americas and 5th Ave. This restaurant does not take reservations, and there appeared to be a pretty long lineup of people wanting to get a table at this super sheik, darkly lit space. Luckily one of my group knows one of the managers and we were quickly whisked upstairs and seated at the sushi bar for a front row seat on the raw fish action.

While Nobu does offer some more typical options for sushi lovers, more of it's menu is lined with innovative twists on sushi or sushimi. For example, we started with a plate of Kumamoto oysters with Maui onion salsa. Wow! Next up, Yellowtail sushimi with Jalapeno. Double wow! What could top that? Well, how about a bowl full of deep fried creamy, spicy crab balls over a thin bed of lettuce. People, this is food of the gods! From this pinnacle we cooled off and eased on down with a Spicy Big Eye tuna roll, vegetable tempura and a Cucumber roll. I would also throw in a shout-out for Nobu beer as a great beverage to complement and wash down all of these delights.

Recommedation: If you like sushi, you need to go here. Seek it out and enjoy!

John's Pizza of Bleeker Street. There are lots of pizza joints in New York, and a lot of them have names like Johnny's or Ray's or similar. So, don't get this one confused with a pretender. No, this great old pizza joint is on Bleeker Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Serving fresh, hot made-to-order thin crust NY pies, John's delivers a unique pizza with equally impressive trio of crust, sauce and toppings. You know a pizza place is good when even their simple "plain cheese pizza" is sublime - and that's the case here. The atmosphere of this long-time Bleeker Street resident rules with red wooden booths and tables with years worth of names, messages and symbols carved into them. As a bonus, the overhead sound system plays a great mix of oldies rock, jazz, soul, and country tunes as you eat. Note also that John's only takes cash and you cannot order pizza by the slice. 

Recommendation: You in the Village? You like pizza? You need to go here.

The Blind Tiger Bar. Right across the street from John's is The Blind Tiger. Featuring an eclectic mix of draught, cask and bottled beer from all over the nation, this homely little bar is an old-time favorite with locals. My friend Tammi who lived in NYC for a while tells me that the name of the bar dates back to prohibition. Apparently it wasn't illegal to consume alcohol at that time, but it was illegal to buy or sell it. So, some enterprising entrepreneurs got the idea to charge patrons a fee to see an attraction like "a blind tiger" to which also just so happened to include a beer. True? Who knows. Sounds good to me.

Anyway, today patrons belly up around slab-like wood tables or sit down near the side-wall fireplace to enjoy brews that - to me at least - seemed to be predominately ales, IPAs, stouts, ambers, and other darker varieties. I did see some lagers floating around so there must have been a least one tap with a lighter option. Anyway, the friendly bar tenders draw out whatever you like. The bar also has a food menu of sandwiches and "small plates." I didn't eat any of these, so no review on that. In the summer, the street side windows open up so the place would definitely feel like an indoor/outdoor spot. When I was there it was like 20 degrees outside, so no such luck.

Recommendation: In any season, if you want a good beer stop in the Village after a long day of shopping or sight seeing - this is it.

Victor's Cafe. This Cuban restaurant has been in business for more than forty years. Originally an uptown spot, it is now located near Times Square. Normally that locale would indicate sketchy food, bad service and high prices. And sure enough, not far away are places like the Olive Garden, Bubba Gump's and similar restaurants built to capture tourists and the theater crowd. But, this is not the case with Victor's. No. This is delicious real Cuban food in a nice setting. Featuring classic and "neuevo" Cuban dishes, the menu is full of things like chicken and rice, roast pig, adobo pork shops, skirt steak - all surrounded by interesting Cuban sauces, spices and preparations.

Coming off my John's Pizza lunch, I was already pretty full, so I opted for the shrimp sauteed in spicy creole sauce with tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs over a sweet potato mash and a side of white rice and black beans. Loved it. Also to note, the staff were very nice and this place has THE BEST sangria I've ever had. Dynamite all the way around.

Recommendation: New York is one place in the U.S. outside of Miami that you can get high quality, authentic, Cuban food. Break out of your normal pattern and try something new - like Victor's. If you're seeing a Broadway show, definitely check this place out.

The Brooklyn Diner. On the last evening of my business trip to NYC last week, I found myself flying solo. In those instances, I like to find a friendly place to sit at the bar or counter and eat - no hassles trying to get table and I avoid looking like to big a loser sitting alone. You'd be surprised how difficult this is to do actually as most places that the masses know about fill up by 6:30 or 7 p.m. and no bar stools are open. Anyway, a couple weeks ago my buddy Ken - who used to live in New York - said that I should go to The Brooklyn Diner. With this little nugget of info, I decided to give it a try.

Now, the first thing to know is that The Brooklyn Diner is not in Brooklyn. No, it has two locations, but they are in Manhattan. I went to the original up on 57th Street between 7th Ave. and Broadway.

Next, the theme here is upscale comfort food a la Brooklyn. So, hot pastrami sandwiches, burgers, chicken pot pie, pot roast, lasagna, mac & cheese...well, you get the shtick. In terms of decor, this place is modeled after what original diners really were - train diner cars turned into stationary restaurants. This is not to say that it's a narrow little space, but rather that the ambiance and decor echoes that look with a bit of 50s style thrown in. I especially liked the dual TVs above the bar playing the classic old movie, The Man in the Iron Mask.

And so it was that I found a stool at the counter and proceeded to order a salad, pot pie and a Brooklyn Ale from the friendly waiter from Brazil working the bar area. The service was quick, but not too quick. My pot pie came to me piping hot and I have to say was quite delicious. As I ate, a couple theater-goers drifted in to the counter for a pre-show drink and chatted. As they talked, I noticed the massive cheesecakes and other pasteries sitting there behind the bar. Unfortunately, I stuffed myself on my diner so had to pass.

Recommendation: Not a "must-eat-at place," but one to check out if you're craving comfort food or you want that pre-Broadway show bite, a casual place for an after show drink or desert - or if like me you're looking for a friendly, easy place to eat solo.

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