April 26, 2004
“I never knew how good the food I grew up eating was until I started traveling,” says Dexter Stewart, a New Orleans native and owner of the Upper West Side’s new Gumbo Café. “When you’re constantly surrounded by it, it’s like air—you take it for granted.” Upon arrival in New York, though, he started experiencing some metaphorical shortness of breath, so he and his wife, Keiko, opened this sweet little storefront. The gumbo, thickened with okra and loaded with chicken, smoked beef sausage, shrimp, and a crab leg or two, is the standout dish on a short menu that includes muffaletta and jambalaya, but Stewart readily concedes that his gumbo doesn’t come close to his Aunt Jewel’s version. “Even my mother admits that she’s the best gumbo cook in the family.” Cash only, and BYOB.
950 Columbus Avenue, near 107th Street
Jonathan Tweedy and Antonio Gomez (pictured, from left) run Avenue B’s family-friendly, cozily cramped Pizza Gruppo, and like all proud pizzeria owners, they wanted their pie to reach a wider audience. Posto, their new Gramercy satellite equipped with an identical menu of thin-crust pies and sprightly salads, needs some time to settle into its predecessor’s comfortably seasoned ambience, but with its blue slate tabletops and bar, low tin ceiling, and dim lighting, it’s off to an auspicious start.
310 Second Avenue, at 18th Street
Fanning the Flames
Empire builder Stephen Hanson acquired a meatpacking-district lease before there was a Soho Club, a Hotel Gansevoort, or a Spice Market. It was so long ago, in fact, that he jettisoned his original plan, a restaurant-nightclub called Sushi and Jazz, and opted to go with a better-known quantity instead. This week, the trilevel space finally opens as Vento (“wind” in Italian), a more casual spinoff of his Soho restaurant Fiamma. Executive chef Michael White (pictured, left) oversees both kitchens, assisted here by chef de cuisine Martin Burge (right), formerly of Fresh and Gotham Bar and Grill. The menu dips into more rustic territory than Fiamma’s, with antipasti like rice balls and braised veal trotters; wood-fired pizzas; and crowd-pleasing desserts like zeppole and Italian ice-cream sodas. The basement lounge, Level V, should open next month, and so—weather permitting—should the outdoor café.
675 Hudson Street
If you like Duke’s (same ownership), you’ll like Earl’s. If you’re an ex–frat boy who likes to associate with same, preferably over a good game and pile o’ ribs, you’ll love it. Past and present sorority sisters might prefer the Savannah salad and a pink lemonade.
560 Third Ave., at 37th St.
Citarella the Restaurant, like the gourmet market that spawned it, has diversified from its seafood-centric origins, adding meat and pasta—not to mention a new name, tweaked design, and expanded lounge (which, sadly, supplants the top-notch sushi bar).
1240 Sixth Ave., at 49th St.
il’ Frankie’s Big Cheech
Good news for fans of this perennially cramped East Village pizzeria: Downtown tycoon Frank Prisinzano has annexed the space next door, where he’s built a new bar and dining room in his inimitable punk-rock-meets-grandma’s-chandelier style. But the best addition is the second kitchen, whence will soon come a slew of various and sundry spaghetti dishes, fritti, and house-baked bread and pastries.
19-21 First Ave.
With branches in Yonkers, the Upper East Side, and now Kips Bay, this pizzeria chainlet, affiliated in some nebulous way with the Coney Island original, upholds the thin-crust no-slices tradition. The new branch boasts a sidewalk café, a full menu of salads, pastas, and entrées, and very convenient proximity to the Kips Bay multiplex.
462 Second Ave., at 26th St.
object of desire
“I call them giant gougères,” says BLT Steak’s chef Laurent Tourondel about the bulging, piping-hot Gruyère-glazed popovers he serves instead of bread. And as with those irresistible French cheese puffs, it’s impossible to eat just one, so the chef graciously offers seconds upon request. Even carbophobes can’t resist.
106 East 57th Street
Until recently, Scott Barton was roasting baby back ribs and stuffing plantains with ham hocks at Voyage—which is why we were surprised to find him newly ensconced at Counter, the East Village vegetarian wine bar and restaurant. But it’s not such an odd choice. The versatile chef once worked at the health-oriented Heartbeat, and his new menu tempts rather than deprives, eschewing fake meat in favor of eclectic, ethnic vegetable cuisines. Like Indian, say, which lends itself particularly well to the vegan treatment on his $40 prix fixe “Bombay Dreams” menu, featuring choices like raw curried-plantain dumplings and jasmine-rice croquettes (pictured). Bar snacks like a crispy chickpea-and-artichoke farinata, or pancake, are meant to accompany the extensive selection of organic wines, many of which are offered in flights. So are Barton’s seasonal soups, currently available in a tasting of green almond, white asparagus, English pea, and spring morel.
105 First Avenue
the underground gourmet
Delicious Indian food, no frills—and a waiter who knows best. Certain restaurants inspire fanatical devotion, monopolize the discourse on foodie Websites, and defy popular restaurant convention. Mina Foods & Restaurant, Inc. is one of them. It’s off the beaten track, to put it mildly—one of a few unremarkable storefronts on an otherwise residential stretch of 43rd Avenue in Sunnyside, Queens. Utterly unprepossessing and devoid of décor save for the string of holiday lights that rings the room, Mina (which bills itself as Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese) serves no alcohol, makes do with paper takeout menus, and, judging by the oil splatters, doesn’t change its tablecloths too often. On a busy night—which means a crowd of fifteen or so—you should be prepared to wait a while before the solitary waiter arrives at your table with apologies and his preconceived notions of what you should eat. It might sound like a lot of food, but once it begins to arrive—in no particular order, at random intervals—you’ll be glad you listened. Everything tastes cooked-to-order, absolutely fresh, and redolent of the herbs and spices that seem so muddled elsewhere. Chats are textural wonders, crunchy and yogurt-cool; goat curry is tender and distinctive, the antithesis of mystery meat; chicken tikka masala arrives sizzling on a platter, its tangy sauce transforming into crispy bits that enhance strips of sweet onion and pepper. Vegetables are spectacularly rich, from the baigan achar (soft, oozing eggplant flavored with piquant pickles) to the yellow dal fry—a bowl of creamy, compellingly spiced legumes you’ll want to sop up with the chewy roti your waiter, with any luck, persuaded you to order. Robin Raisfeld
48-11 43rd Avenue, Sunnyside