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The Simpler Pleasures

The Upper West Side Renaissance

West Branch  

Not so long ago, smug downtown critics (like me) considered the Upper West Side to be a culinary disaster zone, where the restaurant-starved inhabitants wandered the bleak landscape gnawing on gristly shards of General Tso’s chicken, and formerly promising chefs crawled off to die. Not anymore. With the arrival of the polished, shockingly spacious Shake Shack across from the Natural History museum, local burger junkies don’t have to travel downtown for their Shack Burger fix. Italian-salumi addicts will find all sorts of esoteric imported sausages and hams available at Salumeria Rosi, Cesare Casella’s new small-plates Italian tapas bar next to the Jacques Torres outlet on Amsterdam Avenue, and if fancy French charcuterie is your thing, you’ll find the best selection in the city across from Lincoln Center at Bar Boulud. Daniel Boulud’s newest dining venture is riotously noisy in the evenings, and the standard brasserie items on the menu can be slipshod. But rustic specialties like the smooth, house-made boudin blanc, and the tantalizing array of saucissons and luxurious Parisian pâtés and terrines, are worth a special trip.

Tom Valenti’s Ouest, on upper Broadway, is still where all my fatso fresser friends in the neighborhood like to go to inhale crispy portions of quail stuffed with ground sausage, and platters of the chef’s patented braised short ribs, dressed, the last time I checked, with baby beets and spoonfuls of creamy, rich horseradish sauce. But if you can’t stomach this kind of unrelenting excess, then wander a few blocks south to Valenti’s new brasserie, West Branch, where there is a whole range of more modestly priced (and portioned) trencherman dishes, like confited duck leg sunk in bowls of buttery choucroute, and a special hot pressed pannino stuffed, in the traditional Valenti manner, with dainty deposits of mashed short ribs and melted cheese. Similarly, the little bar at Terrance Brennan’s great restaurant Picholine is still my favorite venue north of 63rd Street for a decorous gourmet dinner, but if the little shoe-box-size space is overrun in the evenings with opera fanatics from Lincoln Center, then make your way uptown to Ed Brown’s ambitious new restaurant, Eighty One, off the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel on West 81st Street. The restaurant has its own cache of black truffles from Provence and Osetra caviar from the Caspian Sea, but the best dishes on the veteran chef’s varied Greenmarket menu tend to be the simplest ones, like little wheels of fresh Montauk calamari tossed with garlic chips; oysters simmered with leeks and bacon; and a great, truncheon-size braised veal shank, which Brown serves, in contemporary barnyard style, with a helping of velvet-smooth organic grits spooned from a shiny silver pot.