May 24, 2004
Leather is a seasonal business, which left Steve Rappaport, owner of four Original Leather shops, with very idle summers. So this year, he converted his Greenwich Village location into the equally weather-dependent Mary’s Dairy, a mod ice-cream parlor that, with its campy vibe and T-shirts for sale, seems destined to expand into malls everywhere. Rappaport conceived the fictional Mary as “a Betty Crocker for our age, the Queen of Cream.” She’s also a woman of extremes, hungry one day for super-premium flavors with 14 percent butterfat, riddled with mix-ins like Callebaut chocolate and pistachio halvah, and the next for Likity Lite, the store’s fat-free soft serve. Not, in fact, unlike Rappaport himself: “My wife says Mary is me in a skirt.”
171 West 4th Street
Shabu-shabu (“swishing swishing” in English) is a one-pot Japanese dish named for the sound raw beef makes as it’s swirled through hot broth. Van Mei (left) and Hershey Chen (right) consider it Asian fondue, and serve multiple versions of it at their new Swish Cafe & Shabu Shabu, along with the retro-trendy (and emphatically Western) cheese and chocolate fondues. The NYU-grad partners chucked their sales and marketing careers to open a restaurant back on campus, where diners can swish everything from fish balls and surf clams to ribeye and tofu, in individual and sharing portions. They’ve rounded out the menu with Japanese standbys like gyoza, tonkatsu, and yakisoba, plus bubble teas—those tea-and-tapioca-pearl drinks that have become as ubiquitous as the Frappuccino.
88 West 3rd Street
Culinarily speaking, sports fans—no matter the sport—are not usually a hard-to-please bunch: Give them some nachos and a bucket of beer, and they’re happy. French rugby enthusiasts, however, may be the exception to the rule, if an early visit to Le Quinze, a new bistro named for the French national team, is any indication. “We want to concentrate on the food,” says partner Pascal Escriout (left), who once played flanker for Toulouse while chef-partner Bernard Liberatore (right) was a Paris prop. Despite the elegant vintage photographs of athletes displayed throughout the room, Le Quinze is no more a sports bar than Escriout’s other restaurant, Long Island City’s popular Tournesol, and the kitchen is equally proficient, maybe more so (Liberatore’s day job is cooking for the French ambassador to the U.N.). Herb-roasted chicken is crisp and juicy with a toothsome side of porcini risotto. Tender thyme-crusted lamb is accompanied by a potato gratinée rich and creamy enough to make up for a slightly soggy tomato Tatin. And you’re more likely to linger over a bottle of rosé than a pint of Bud—never mind a bucket.
132 West Houston Street
object of desire
Like the Philly cheesesteak, the muffaletta—as any aficionado will tell you—is all about the bread, and the necessary round loaf is nearly impossible to find outside New Orleans. Which may be why even in an Italian-hero hotbed like New York, you rarely come across one. To the rescue: Gumbo Café’s Dexter Stewart, a Nawlins native but no muffaletta snob. Where others insist it can’t be done, he improvises with suitably soft focaccia from Parisi Bakery. A proper two-fisted sandwich, it’s packed with salami, smoked turkey, and melted provolone. The clincher, though, is the finely chopped olive-and-pickled-veggie dressing (cauliflower, carrots, and peppers), upon which Stewart takes a stand: He imports his from back home.
950 Columbus Avenue, near 107th Street
at the greenmarket
Ay, There’s the Rhubarb
Rhubarb, which has made its annual return to the city’s greenmarkets, may be the prettiest leaf stem out there, but also the most misunderstood: Some say it’s a fruit; others say it’s a vegetable. (Maybe that’s why crusty old men use the word to describe a noisy quarrel, and film directors used to tell their extras to mouth the word repeatedly to simulate an angry mob.) What to do with it is another question. The high priestess of produce, Alice Waters, likens the plant to “the smell of the earth in spring,” and cautions against oversugaring. Jason Neroni, the new chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, is of the same mind: He goes the savory route, with a sour-rhubarb garnish for his crispy skate wing. But ’Wichcraft’s Sisha Ortuzar turns it into jelly for his classy triple-decker PB&J, and up at Stone Barns, the Blue Hill team exploits its crimson hue and tart flavor for the house Cosmo and serves it in a cold dessert soup. Rhubarb might be a veggie masquerading as a fruit, but for some, it’s a lifesaver: “Apples are over; citrus is waning; there are no berries yet,” says Claudia Fleming, who consults on Amuse’s dessert menu. “Thank God for rhubarb.”
Talk about Slow Food synergy. When Bierkraft’s Daphne Scholz couldn’t get any more of her beloved beer-washed Belgian fromage, owing to a snag with the distributor, she came up with an all-American bit of ingenuity: Persuade one of her local artisanal cheese-makers, Connecticut’s Cato Corners, to bathe its excellent washed-rind Hooligan cows’-milk cheese with Merry Monks’, a small-batch Belgian-style ale made in Pennsylvania, instead of the usual buttermilk and brine. The winning (and profoundly stinky) result is Drunk Monk, a fruitier, zestier, slightly creamier Hooligan that, naturally, goes nicely with beer.
Union Square Greenmarket
Union Sq. at 17th St.; 212-477-3220
191 Fifth Avenue, near Union Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn; 718-230-7600.
the underground gourmet
Maria’s fresh approach to mexican food—and Brooklyn bistros.
There’s no Maria at Maria’s Mexican Bistro, which isn’t much of a bistro, either—at least in the traditional steak-frites sense. It’s plenty Mexican, though, which is what attracts a local following to this tasteful, cozy Park Slope spot, just over a year old and settling, after some initial menu tweaking, into a comfortably under-the-radar neighborhood-restaurant groove. The Ecuadoran partners both have mothers named Maria, which accounts for the name, and wives from Mexico, which gives them culinary insight (and, presumably, that killer salsa). Even though it ably honors its Mexican-restaurant obligations—guacamole to order and frozen margaritas, including a delicious avocado version—Maria’s distinguishes itself with offbeat, thoughtful touches: a Mexican cheese plate, for instance, or grilled Muscovy-duck breast in Oaxacan mole, and creative nightly specials that surpass combination-plate expectations (but not the $15 ceiling). The emphasis is on seafood, which shows up in everything from sea-bass tamales to an array of cool, tangy seviches, like salmon with blood orange and mango. Tortilla soup and pozole are deeply soothing in the way that only steaming bowls of chili-spiked, lime-enhanced broth can be. Sizzling volcano-rock molcajetes make the most dramatic presentation, with strips of meat, seafood, and vegetables draped over the rims, all to be wrapped up in warm corn tortillas and dipped into the salsa that’s bubbling away in the bottom. The flavors might remind you of fajitas, but not the approach, which is purely Maria’s—wherever she is. —Robin Raisfeld
669 Union Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Who’s that dancing in the kitchen at Morrells?
Sure, there are 120 wines by the glass any day of the week, and oenophiles can bring that precious bottle (without a corkage fee) on BYOB Mondays at Morrells. But fussy mouths will also be pleased to discover new pizzazz in the kitchen, where chef Patricia Williams turns out the kind of food that obsessed her in her abstemious ballet-dancing days. A lusciously creamy toss of asparagus, sugar snap peas, yellow wax beans, anorexic string beans, and icicle radishes is an ode to spring. Soy-yuzu vinaigrette perfumes lemon-“cooked” hamachi. You needn’t be a vegetarian to appreciate sautéed portobellos in root-vegetable pot-au-feu or savory goat-cheese-mushroom-arugula-strewn penne. Let the sommelier pour a glass of Bordeaux to go with rack of lamb with merguez sausage on Israeli couscous, the whiskey-soaked pork chop, or a wonderful big burger on brioche with first-rate fries. Desserts are all madly sweet. Better to treat yourselves to a splash of Sauternes with the cheese plate. Or economize with the new $39 prix fixe.
900 Broadway at 20th Street