April 19, 2004
They Go To Rio
Nobu Matsuhisa built an empire by finding the common ground between Japanese sushi and South American seviche, and where he went, many have followed. Vela, which opens this week, continues the trend, taking its culinary cues (and a chef) from SushiSamba. Brazil meets Japan in dishes like smoked yellowtail sashimi with mango salsa, Wagyu rib-eye with black beans and farofa, and duck with cachaça-wasabi glaze. Traditionalists take heart: Maki rolls and nigiri come in all the familiar forms, from California to unagi (pictured).
55 West 21st Street
He’s No. 1
Consider No. 1 Chinese the East Village answer to Spice Market—with a side order of ironic nostalgia, in the form of fried wonton skins with homemade duck sauce. Chef-owner-designer-builder Frank Prisinzano (of Frank and Lil’ Frankie’s fame) must have had that Copacabana tracking shot from GoodFellas in mind when he drew up the floor plan, which takes you from an upstairs open kitchen and dining counter (complete with three-foot shooting flames), past a communal “waterfall” table, downstairs into a dim dining room, and around the corner into a lounge equipped with cozy alcoves and a fish tank. But Prisinzano didn’t need to travel to Southeast Asia to research the menu; he just channeled the Chinese restaurants of his Hauppauge youth, refining dishes like sweet-and-sour pork, beef lo mein, even General Tso’s chicken.
50 Avenue B
Francine Stephens met her husband-to-be, Andrew Feinberg, at Savoy, where she was a bartender, he was a cook, and both became devout disciples of the house religion of sustainable, local agriculture. After a trip to Italy and a back-to-the-land stint at a Massachusetts dairy farm, the couple (pictured) settled in Brooklyn, where this week they open Franny’s pizzeria and get to practice what they preach. The rustic Italian menu features black-kale-and-Pecorino crostini; fritto misto of squid, diver scallops, clams, and butterfish; and spaghetti with artichokes and mint. But pizza is the thing, cooked in a wood-burning brick oven built by a third-generation Neapolitan craftsman, and adorned with such uncommon combinations as potato, bottarga, and bread crumbs, and fontina, red onion, and pancetta—cured, like all the meats except the prosciutto di Parma, in-house.
295 Flatbush Avenue, near St. Marks Place, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
All too often, the New York Mexican-food connoisseur discovers an inverse relationship between south-of-the-border authenticity and north-of-the-border real estate: The better the food, the smaller the space. That’s why the recent expansion of Tulcingo Del Valle from a cramped Hell’s Kitchen deli to a full-fledged restaurant is reason to celebrate. The new dining room next door has been modestly decorated with Mexican-themed oil paintings lent by a local gallery, and the jukebox alternates between “Hotel California” and Mexican love songs (aren’t they all?). But the real draw is the food: huge portions of vibrantly flavored enchiladas cloaked in mole poblano (pictured); soft chiles rellenos in a soothing tomato broth; luscious tacos al pastor garnished with whipped guacamole. Factor in a basket of warm tortillas and a trio of delicious salsas—red, green, and a searing orange—and you’ll relish the room to spread out.
665 Tenth Avenue, near 47th Street
Power of the Press
At the new West Village restaurant Extra Virgin, olive oil gets star billing. Chef Joey Fortunato and partner Michele Gaton (pictured) court the neighborhood with gentle prices and an inventive Mediterranean menu of roasted artichokes Provençal, scallop “saltimbocca” with veal sauce, and lemon-crusted cod with Yukon Gold brandade. Classics for two will change regularly; for now, Wednesday means lamb tagine with Moroccan-spiced couscous, and Sunday is devoted to spaghetti and meatballs.
259 West 4th Street
the underground gourmet
County of Kings(ton)
A Jamaican restaurant in Brooklyn has people talking.
Located on a Greenpoint street so quiet you almost expect to hear crickets, the terrific Bleu Drawes Café is the type of tiny, friendly place that inspires you to drop your guard and get to know your neighbor. You might come to regret it, though, if, like the husky diner in attendance one recent night, you confess to the next table that you live upstairs and that it’s your cruel destiny to always dwell dangerously close to delicious restaurants. To which one of your new pals replies in a booming voice: “It looks like you don’t turn them down too often.” Good-natured or not, a comment like that can make a guy suck in his gut and skip dessert. Not so here—especially when the last course is the namesake Bleu Drawes, a steamed sweet-potato pudding spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg and drizzled with coconut milk. It’s been a hit for chef-owner Steve Brooks, who quit his day job at American Express to open the homestyle Jamaican restaurant, armed with family recipes for jerk chicken and oxtails. Brooks and his brother Paul collaborate in the open kitchen, taking turns mingling with customers in the sixteen-seat dining room, ascertaining just how spicy you’d like your escovitch fish. Say very, but if it isn’t, there’s plenty of Pickapeppa sauce on the shelf, along with cans of callaloo and ackee. Hefty entrées come with perfect rice and peas, sweet plantains, and sprightly greens, which unfortunately leave little room for the crusty mac-and-cheese or crisp-edged codfish cakes. For now, it’s BYOB, but your new best friends at the next table might spot you a Heineken—they owe you that much. —Rob Patronite
97 Commercial Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Give me a break from go-for-broke cuisine.
Come back to earth and baby your budget with the homey cooking of Sardinia at Assenzio in Alphabet City. Scattered candles and dishtowel-draped tables echo the kitchen’s rustic ways, expressed in dishes like zuppetta of handmade fregola pasta and clams in a spicy tomato broth and in the careful frying of calamari and artichokes. The maccheroncini tossed with eggplant, zucchini, mozzarella, and tomato sauce, and the lemon trenette with sardines and Sicilian orange, are wonderfully fresh and layered with flavor. All the salads cry out for a livelier vinaigrette, but the branzino is a model of careful cooking, and myrtle perfumes remarkably moist suckling pig alongside fabulous roasted potatoes. Braised wild boar in a red-wine sauce is scented with juniper. And nothing costs more than $15.95. But bring cash.
205 East 4th Street