Why Come Here? Try Gramercy Tavern cooking without breaking the bank or a reservation far in advance, solidly priced and excellent new american
Right Amount for 2? 1 app, 2 entrees
Gramercy Tavern has remained one of New York’s most popular restaurants for over 20 years with diners calling a month ahead of time and donning coat and tie to spend $90 (or more) on the Dining Room’s prix fixe menu. Fortunately, for those of us want to try the famous food but don’t want to put up with the above formalities, there is another option. In the front of Gramercy Tavern lies the “Tavern Room” which takes no reservations, requires no special attire and serves its own equally delicious menu a la carte at prices that almost make you want to apologize to Danny Meyer for stealing from him (all entrees under $25, with several less than $20). There’s even a $45 tasting menu if you want to feast on the cheap. Sure, it’s a little louder and more casual than the Dining Room and you may have to wait a bit, but the service and food remain top notch. This is definitely a place worth adding to the rotation.
Here’s what we tried:
Butternut Squash Lasagna, Kale, Mushrooms and Pine Nuts To be fair, butternut squash and kale are two of my favorite veggies. But the earthiness with a touch of sweet still might make this the best lasagna I’ve ever eaten
Grilled & Braised Flaitron Steak w/Quinoa, Sunchoke and Hazelnuts The quinoa, sunchoke hazelnut salad was spot-on but it overpowered the steak which I found slightly lacking in flavor. Enjoyed it thoroughly nevertheless.
Pumpkin Whoopie Pie w/ Rum Ice Cream I love pumpkin desserts but this one really stands out. There’s a layer of glazed pumpkin you scrape off the bottom of the place and the rum ice cream is just the right amount of cooling and bite. I just wish there were more of it.
Why Come Here? Dinner with the parents, suitable for foodie and non-foodie alike
Union Square Cafe was Danny Meyer’s (Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Shake Shack) first restaurant and at over 25 years old is still going strong. In fact, it might just be New York’s best restaurant for dinner with the parents (at least if they’re like my parents). The decor is classic mahogany and white table clothes without being stuffy or over the top. The noise level is low enough for easy conversation, even at a bigger table. And the food strikes just the right balance of being approachable enough as to not intimidate the “non-adventuorous” eater, but interesting enough to please hardcore foodies.
The menu changes seasonally, but my top picks from our recent meal are below. For a full rundown with pictures, check my DishEnvy page.
Union Square Cafe
21 East 16th St. (5th Ave. & Union Square West)
New York, NY
If you follow restaurant news and reviews, you’re probably aware that since Daniel Humm took the helm at Eleven Madison Park, it has become regarded as one of New York (and the world’s) top restaurants. And I am certainly not here to dispute that. So in my mind, the only question that remains to be answered is this: “Is Eleven Madison Park better than Per Se?” The NY Times says No. NY Magazine says says yes. Here’s what I say:
Ambiance: These are probably the two most impressive restaurant spaces in New York. EMP offers soaring ceilings and beautiful flower arrangements that evoke back a gilded era dining hall. Per Se on the other hand gives you the sense that you’ve entrered the grand living room of a Park Avenue Apartment, complete with fireplace and couch-like seating. While choosing between those two settings is really a matter of personal preference, I think most will admit portrait windows overlooking Central Park give Per Se the edge.
Winner: Per Se
Service: At neither restaurant will your glass sit empty or your server fail to answer a question to your satisfaction. These are again probably the two best waitstaffs I’ve had in New York and both were attentive and knowledgeable while managing to avoid the air of pretension found at many other top restaurants. While it may be unfair to judge based on a single trip, our server at Per Se was just a little more playful and at ease.
Winner: Per Se
Menu Format: Per Se offers only a chef’s tasting menu, with a handful of decisions for the diner. EMP offers that as well as a “four-course” menu where you choose among four core ingredients per course. The dishes are then prepared around that ingredient according to your preferences. You also receive about 8 amuse bouches and bonus desserts in case you were worried about leaving hungry. It’s hard to argue with having more choices and customization.
Price: Per Se’s Chef’s Tasting Menu will run you $295, inclusive of service. EMPs tasting menu is $195 ($235 with a 20% tip) and the four course will set you back a paltry $125 ($150 with tip).
Food: Each meal consists of over a dozen dishes and while not every one is equal, both had their share of very good, great and amazing. Additionally, everything was creative and excellently prepared. I’m not going to pretend I can pick an overall winner here.
Final Verdict: If you’re talking about the overall dining experience and ignoring cost, I give Per Se the slight edge for telepathic service and cozier space. However, it also feels like more of an extravagance, and charges you accordingly. EMP serves a more reasonable amount of food in their “four” course menu which makes it a place I feel you can return to more frequently. And if you’re a foodie basing your decision primarily on the food aspect, I think you’ll find spending the same amount for two meals at EMP as one at Per Se is the way to go. Of course, I highly recommend you try both of them at least once.
Now onto the food! Below is a brief recap of what came out of the kitchen at Eleven Madison and my ratings. Since we were never given a full menu, the dish descriptions are based on my memory and photos and may be incomplete.
Gougeres *** Fluffy and cheesy. This is also a specialty at Per Se, and while these are outstanding, Keller’s were a little airier.
The first two amuses were a pair of seafood ceviches: scallops*** and fluke***. Both were incredibly fresh flavorful.
Next came a quail egg ** and bacon with apple tea***. Apple and tea is a great combo, I think I’ll be drinking it more, although I doubt it will be nearly this good. The quail egg & bacon was rich and delightful, if not the restaurants most original dish.
The final amuses were a chickpea fritter** and greek yogurt popsicle*. I found the last one a little strange and bitter but Katherine loved it.
After all that we finally started with the actual “four courses.” We each ordered different things, so there are a total of 7 (the duck is for 2):
Foie Gras Creamy foie gras with black truffles ****. It’s exactly as decadent and amazing as it sounds.
Octopus w/ chorizo & lemon ***. Without mentioning it, it’s almost as if they knew about Katherine’s chorizo obsession. The octopus was also perfectly cooked and worked nicely with the smokey chorizo.
Sunchokes 3 ways (pickled, tempura and I forget the third )** An interesting mix of flavors and textures. Enjoyable but not mind blowing.
Lobster w/ Burnt Leeks *** The tanginess of the leek really comes through and I really enjoyed it. However, some may find it a little overpowering.
Duck w/ honey lavender **** The standout in a lineup of all-stars. This dish really blew us away. It’s an EMP signature dish for 2 and is carver tableside. The skin is sweet, tangy, salty, crispy and downright awesome. The meat inside is incredibly juicy and tender. I almost wanted to quit after this it was so amazing. But fortunatley I didn’t.
“Egg Cream” ** Ironically this contains no egg or cream, but orange syrup, milk, and seltzer water. You’d never guess it from drinking it though. It tastes like a light egg cream and I could probably drink these for dessert every night.
Strawberry Short Cake ** Another delicious and playful EMP take on a New York classic.
White and chocolate mignardise enhanced with white truffle oil **** and dark chocolate mignardise enhanced with black truffle shavings ** As if we needed more, this final offering was presented to us with a bottle of cognac to sip on. The white chocolate and white truffles was the perfect mix of sweet and salty. The dark was also very good, but couldn’t compare.
ABC Kitchen is Jean-Georges’ venture into the popular locavore arena. Having been disappointed by some of his other restaurants, I was skeptical about ABC Kitchen despite the hype and difficulty of getting a reservation (settled for 9:30 on a Sunday 29 days out! I know, it was sloppy not doing 30). After dining there, however, I have to say that all the praise is justified. This was definitely one of the best all-around meals I’ve ever eaten.
I would describe the space as “woodsy chic.” It feels like you’ve entered someone’s decked-out log cabin. The noise level was surprisingly low for a packed restaurant, yet another reason you should bring a date here. The service was fantastic with our waitress describing dishes in a mouth-watering detail I’ve never experienced before. Nearly everything we ate was great or better. ABC Kitchen needs to be in the discussion for best restaurants in New York, especially among those you can eat at for under $100/person.
Roasted Kabocha Squash Toast ** – The squash was very fresh, soft and flavorful. It was very good but lacked the complexity of some of the other dishes here.
Roasted Cauliflower ** – The cauliflower was crisp and tasty with the fried egg helping keep it moist.
Farro Salad ****- The farro was mixed with sweet potatoes, cranberries and bleu cheese. The symphony of sweet, salty, tart and smoky was simply amazing.
Whole Wheat Pizza w/ ricotta, dates, prosciutto and radicchio *** – We ordered way too much food and pizza was last but we couldn’t stop ourselves from devouring it. The dates surprisingly didn’t make it too sweet and the flavor of the baked ricotta was phenomenal. Throw that on a paper thin crust and it’s one of the best pizza’s in New York.
Cornmeal Crusted Skate **** – Skate’s not always the most exciting fish but the kale and butternut squash puree added a bitter/ sweet combo that was to die for. Hope they keep this one on the menu as long as they can.
Roasted Suckling Pig *** – Crispy bacon (and bacon marmelade!) on top and soft, melt-in-your mouth pork underneath. It’s a powerful dish on a menu of otherwise soft, complex flavors.
35 E 18th St. (B’Way & Park)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Inventive cocktails, quite conversation, knowledgeable and attentive service, someone else is paying.
Junoon is the sort of place built to take clients or your parents. The service is formal and attentive, the space heavily stylized and cavernous – reminiscent of an upscale hotel dining room. And the low spice level in the food makes it unlikely to offend any palates.
If you’re reading this blog though, I assume those aren’t the things you want to pay a premium for. The food, while sometimes quite good, does not justify the 50%+ markup to the many solid (albeit less fancy) Indian joints a few blocks east in “Curry Hill”. You may still enjoy stopping by the bar for one of the inventive and tasty specialty cocktails. In case you do find your self eating here, below is a rundown of what we ate and drank:
Proxy Sour (a take on the Pisco Sour)**- Sweet, but with out being overly so. It had a pleasant little kick from the green chilis.
Fall Vegetable Seekh Kebab**: The vegetables are mashed together with spices in such a way you don’t feel like you’re eating your veggies (see photo). But you are. And they’re very good.
Duck Gushtaba (Meatballs): We found these to be a little dry and skimpy on the sauce. Perhaps the two are related.
Lobster Tandoori ***: Definitely the star of the show – the 2 tandoori spiced lobster tails were tender, juicy and very flavorful. Sadly, they were also kind of small.
Chicken Awandhi Korma *: The cashew and saffron flavors were nice, but there just wasn’t enough of them in what was one of the thinnest curries I’ve ever had. If you find most Indian curries too rich, you may enjoy the subtelty of this dish. I, however, like my curries hearty and spicy and will try something else next time.
Quine Tart Tatin ** – This dish is all about combining bitter and sweet: salted carmel, pistachio streudal and fennel ice cream. It executes it quite well witha great texture which reminded me of a krispy cream donut.