Good Mojo…Keith McNally’s Latest Gamble…Pot Luck

Week of August 25, 2003

Sure Bet
Resisting the lure of Vegas, Keith McNally takes a gamble at home.
Few restaurateurs would walk away from a lucrative offer to clone their restaurant in a Steve Wynn casino. But Keith McNally did. “He was really nice, and it was lots of money,” says McNally of his Vegas experience, “but I’d always leave early and wash my hands compulsively in the airport.” Apparently, the creator of Balthazar and Pastis feels much more at home on the gritty (for now) Lower East Side, where he plans to open Schiller’s Liquor Bar next week with his wife, Alina. “We argued constantly,” says McNally, who admits to a certain obsession with detail. “I tend to fixate on one or two things.” In this case, it was the pebble-textured wire glass he scavenged from old industrial buildings. But one decision was easy: Despite the telltale presence of steak-frites, the 95-seat Schiller’s would not be Balthazar Lite. “I’m sick of French bistros,” says McNally, improbably. Instead of a croque monsieur, there’s Welsh rarebit, plus rotisserie chicken, fried-oyster po’ boys, and, as a tribute to the neighborhood’s immigrant past, German specials like wiener schnitzel with spaetzle. McNally hopes to woo locals with homemade doughnuts and coffee, a frozen-margarita machine, and low prices (everything—except that steak—is $15 or under). Compulsive hand-scrubbers take note: The bathrooms, according to McNally, are spectacular.
131 Rivington Street

Suba’s Yann de Rochefort and Philip Morgan, the owners of the new East Village restaurant Mojo, call their lip-smacking menu “South and down-home American,” but nearly every dish has consulting chef Chris Santos’s kooky Mexican-fusion fingerprints on it—from the grilled-apple-and-blue-cheese quesadilla with smoked bacon, walnuts, and mâche to the chipotle ketchup that goes with the venison-meat-loaf sandwich. Chicken-and-eggs Benedict with chipotle hollandaise shows up at brunch, and wild-plum quesadillas at dessert, not to mention pitcher drinks and high-speed Internet access.
309 East 5th Street

El Maguey Y La Tuna
The Manhattan incarnation of a defunct Williamsburg tacqueria presents a cheap, unpretentious alternative to Clinton Street’s restaurant row—not to mention an array of quesadillas, tacos, and house specialties like chicken enchiladas and chiles rellenos.
321 E. Houston St.

A troupe of sumo wrestlers on a feeding spree would not do too badly at Minado, the new Manhattan branch of the New Jersey buffet-style Japanese-restaurant chain. The serving table runs nearly the entire length of the block-wide restaurant, and, in spite of the slightly scary all-you-can-eat-sushi-and-sashimi concept ($23.95 during the week, $25.95 on weekends), the seafood is of decent quality and freshness thanks to a fairly high turnover rate, a scrum of fastidious sushi chefs, and headset-wearing waitresses who keep everything spotless. There’s a good 50 feet of of hot dishes like gyoza, tempura, and teppanyaki, too, plus soups and salads. Note to budget-minded parents: Kids are charged by height (two-and-a-half-footers eat free!), so go ahead and relax the no-slouching rule just this once.
6 East 32nd Street

Grotta Azzurra
If this Rocco character can get people to wait in line to eat zeppole out of a paper bag, why can’t we? the owners of this Little Italy landmark must have said to themselves. To that end, they’ve revamped the subterranean space, hired a chef with the right credentials (Daniel) if not an Italian surname, and, come next week, if all goes according to plan, the hungry hordes should be lining up for heirloom-tomato salad, steak pizzaiola, and lobster fra diavolo, just like in the old days.
177 Mulberry St.

The East Village restaurant It’s Greek to Me might have morphed into the less obviously monikered Pylos, but with Athens food authority Diane Kochilas consulting on the menu, an all-Greek wine list, and a worrisome number of clay pots hanging from the ceiling, the new owners are keeping things emphatically Hellenic. Rather than conform to street-food stereotypes—like souvlaki, which is available only for takeout—the gently priced menu showcases “rustic Greek home cooking” from traditional meze to clay-baked lamb and chicken.
128 East 7th Street

Pier 116
The owners of the former That Bar have retired the cocktails-and-brunch-all-day concept, and collaborated with the Minnow’s Aaron Bashy on a beer garden and “ship to shore” menu. Think Mermaid Inn crossed with Gowanus Yacht Club, with plastic baskets instead of china and outdoor dining at picnic tables.
116 Smith Street, Brooklyn

Puglian chef-for-hire Donato Deserio has been traveling the local circuit for 40 years, from Mulberry Street to Sign of the Dove, from Jersey to Astoria, cooking everything from spaghetti and meatballs to grilled salmon in a grouper-and-snapper consommé seasoned with a swig of Barbaresco. At Sette, he’s showcasing what he calls Italian food “past, present, and future”—a greatest-Italian-hits list interspersed with nouvelle novelties like pappardelle in creamless raspberry-vodka sauce, and an unlikely pairing of lamb chops and braised quail with truffled tortellini. Plum wine, chipotle peppers, and bean sprouts are a few of the untraditional ingredients you can expect to pop up in the daily specials.
191 Seventh Avenue, near 21st Street

Lickety-split, the Pan-Asian Nong has become a New American comfort-food canteen where the user-friendly menu format seems inspired by the one at Amuse. Everything is conveniently organized by price, from “mom’s potato salad” and onion rings for $4 to pan-roasted trout for $16.
220 Park Ave. S., at 18th St.

Midtown hotels may have the monopoly on afternoon tea, but the Lower East Side is carving out a leaf-brewing niche of its own. First came Teany, Moby’s vegan tea shop; now there’s Lulu’s, a playfully designed coffee bar and organic-tea salon named for the owner’s four-pound miniature Italian greyhound. For the time being, the beverage menu is supplemented by Ruben’s empanadas, ice-cream floats, and quiche from East Harlem bakery La Tropezienne, but come fall, owner and interior designer Tyler Leonard plans to start serving fondues and infused hot and cold sakes, available, like everything else, in two sizes: “petite” or “big-assed.”
106 Norfolk Street

Don’t count on dulce-de-leche-loving Häagen-Dazs ripping off any of the cheeky flavors Rosa Mexicano’s Roberto Santibañez has created for his ice-cream fiesta (served street-style from a sidewalk cart, and inside for dessert). Well, maybe the smooth cinnamony Mexican chocolate with slivered almonds. But probably not delicious oddities like an intense sweet corn, a subtle avocado-honey, or a spicy-tart tomatillo sorbet tricked up with a touch of jalapeño. Not exotic enough, you say? Then ask for a scoop of creamy chicharron on a mini cone—though, to be frank, it reminded us a little of butter pecan. (Through August 31)
61 Columbus Avenue, at 62nd Street

ask gael
What’s Jimmy Rodriguez up to on City Island?
‘Giving back,” he says. Jimmy’s Bronx Café launched him. So he’s invested considerable passion and more cash than he expected in Jimmy’s City Island (he lives just six blocks away) and it’s already standing-room-only on weekends. Look for a glowing white façade (and no sign) across from the seaside lobster shacks and neon. Inside, see how sexy cool can be—flowing blue, gray, and white chiffon sailing like waves above, orchids in shiny silver pails scattered on white walls, cushy leather pedestal chairs. So as not to tax the locals, chef Robert Pagan’s menu is classic shore—chowders, luscious baked clams, glazed baby-back ribs, and lobsters broiled and stuffed. And it’s mostly pretty good: the smothered pork chop, pineapple-and-crab fried rice, especially the paella, and even the crisp-calamari salad with banana and what surely must be City Island’s first orange-miso vinaigrette. But who will come in winter? “The Bronx will be here,” says Rodriguez. “This is their Hamptons.”
500 City Island Avenue

Good Mojo…Keith McNally’s Latest Gamble…Pot Luck