Fiore: $ (Williamsburg) A great spot for a good, casual, low stakes Italian meal. I sat at the bar, which I highly recommend. The bartender was really helpful and friendly, letting me taste the wine before making my selection. In fact, the whole staff was really nice. The food wasn’t spectacular, but it was certainly better than average and exceeded expectations given the price. My carbonara had nice, large chunks of pancetta in it and cost only $9. I’ll definitely go back.
Moonshine: $$ (Downtown, Austin, TX) My first dinner at SXSW was an excellent plate of pork chops at this fine eatery. The chops were dripping in a molasses bbq sauce, and were as thick as The Wealth of Nations. There was good cornbread, steamed veggies, delicious baked mac & cheese–this was comfort food at its best. Furthermore, the waiter was extremely adept at handling our large party. In general, the staff did not seem overwhelmed at all with the SXSW crowds, which is not an easy feat. To steal a phrase from Banana Nutriment, when you’re in Austin, Moonshine is a “pick to click.”
Villa Berulia: $$$ (In the wasteland of the East 30’s in Manhattan, somewhere between Murray Hill and Midtown East) Italian-Croatian. The bar at this place is the high point. It’s very quiet, but everyone there seems to know the place and be very comfortable. It’s welcoming, and the bartender pours a strong Manhattan. The food left a lot to be desired, a lot, especially at the prices–in the low to high 20’s for all entrees. I got a Croatian beef stew with gnocchi, which was really just two slices of dried pot roast smothered in what tasted like canned tomato sauce. Somebody got fish, someone else got frutti di mare in a red sauce. Nobody said anything nice about their food. Don’t bother going here, unless you find yourself on 34th and Lex and need a drink, which for me is just about every time I find myself at 34th & Lex.
Balthazar: $$$ (Soho) My father went once about 4 years ago and ever since has been clamoring to return. He and my mom live in Boston so every now and then when they came to visit for a weekend we would try to get a table at Balthazar for brunch. Impossible. Recently, however, they were in town for a long weekend and we got a table on Monday. My dad had hyped it up so much that I was expecting a lot, something transcendent. But how good can brunch be? It was crowded. It was loud. I felt like I was among stylish clientèle. The waiter had that professional waiter “I’m totally uninterested in you and would prefer if you weren’t here, but I’ll still you give you excellent service” thing going on. The food was very tasty. I had hazelnut waffles with sour cream and berries–no syrup. The coffee was average, the mimosa was too. I have nothing bad to say about this brunch, but then again, I didn’t pay. If I had, I think I would’ve been much happier in Brooklyn.
Kai Kai Thai Bistro: $ (East Village) Very solid Thai fare at satisfyingly economical prices. If you’re up for an adventurous evening with gourmet Thai, don’t go to Kai Kai. But, if you need a low maintenance meal that won’t hurt your wallet or palette and will fill you up, Kai Kai is a great option. It’s quiet and quaint (in the good way), the staff is friendly, and perhaps best of all, it’s BYOB.
Frederick’s Downtown: $$$ (West Village) The service was distracted: we got three of four desserts at once, waited 15 mins. for the 4th, and the ice cream on one of the first three was half-melted. The food was mediocre: the champignon soup was too salty, my salmon was overcooked and absolutely smothered in olive tapenade leaving no room to taste the salmon, the short ribs were drowned in a beef broth and cream that made them sit in your stomach like a stack of bricks, and I did not like the choice of chocolate ice cream on a warm chocolate cake. It was chocolate overload; why not contrast it with raspberry or whip cream or at least vanilla ice cream?
Northeast Kingdom: $ (Bushwick) The contrast between the approach to this restaurant and the experience inside is so satisfying that you don’t even need to try the food to enjoy your visit. If you walk from East Williamsburg to Northeast Kingdom, you pass through one of the most industrial sections of New York. There were few to no residences, many empty lots, giant warehouses and factories that my or may not be operational during the day and are most certainly dead at night, and streets with no lamps and very stinky trash strewn about. Then you enter the oasis of Northeast Kingdom, serene, countrified, casual, friendly, and comfortable. The cuisine fully lives up to the environment, and the service is absolutely terrific (polite without snooty, charming without intimidating, it was like we were hanging out at a friend’s house)–a rare pleasure in New York dining. I highly recommend you make the journey.
Agave: $$ (West Village) The ambiance is fairly chic so if you’re dining with someone that cares more about what the restaurant looks like than the penny for penny quality of the food, you should go here. If you don’t see any sense in spending $13 on a quesadilla, no matter how fresh the ingredients are, then steer clear. This place will feel like just another one of those West Village traps, a place where the swank portion of the neighborhood residents eat because they feel like they’re slumming it if they spend under $10 on an entree.
Kion Dining Lounge: $$ According to their web site, the cuisine of Kion is officially Peruvian-Japanese Fusion, which turns out to be a pretty tasty mix although sometimes the pickled flavor of the cerviche dominates the flavor of the fish. This is as good a place as any to take a large party in the East Village because they have a semi-private room in the back and another downstairs. My Sicilian friend, Enrico, had been traveling in Peru and Chile and fell in love with Pisco Sours. He ordered them for us all at the end of the meal, and they were surprisingly delicious, topped with foam and nutmeg. I recommend that beverage highly.
Anthos: $$$$ (Midtown) The best and by far the most expensive Greek food I’ve ever had. The wine list was quality but outrageously expensive. My girlfriend and her mom were running late so I thought I’d pick out a bottle for us until I looked at the list. I decided to make a reasonable recommendation to my girlfriend’s mom instead of making a no less than $50 order. Strange thing was, I asked for a recommendation of a good Greek wine and there was no enthusiasm from the sommelier. He appreciated our choice of Barbera d’asti, but I was disappointed that there was no support for an equally priced Greek selection. The bronzino was extraordinary, and I got this Greek risotto that had a raw egg and caviar in it. Delicious.
Tamarind $$$$: The Flatiron knows their fancy food. This was hands down the best Indian food I’ve ever had. Here’s my normal experience with Indian food: Mmmm, spicy, flavorful, I don’t have this very often, look at all this rice…2 hours later I’m on the toilet cursing the invention of curry and its journey into America. Tamarind was altogether different. First was the presentation: all the dishes were family style and carted out in silver bowls (bowls is probably the wrong word. Think bowl-shaped jewelery on a pedestal.), and dished out to you in proper proportions. Then they left you the food to dig into as you please. Remarkably, the wine list was good too.
Maroons: $$ (Chelsea) This soul food and Jamaican food, white table cloth affair offers good food and decent service, but is a little pricier than expected. $16 for bbq chicken, mac & cheese, and collard greens seems too much, especially when you can go to a small place uptown and get a tastier version of the same thing for probably half the price. But, if you have a yen for soul food and you’re in Chelsea, you can go here.
The Dory: $$$ (Shelter Island) Appears to be a big bar on the way in, the kind of place where you can expect to find older married men drinking away their island blues. Instead, you find some oysters, striped bass, and sword fish at casual rich people prices. (all entrees in the $20 range) It’s decent food in comfortable clothes.
9D Thai: (Carroll Gardens) I love that this Thai restaurant is around the corner from my house, and I love even more that the food is above-average and that the atmosphere is something to write home about, and I love even more that they had a 30 min. wait on a Friday night, so they took MY phone number and called ME when a table opened up. How could anyone ever leave Carroll Gardens?
Le Refuge Inn: $$$ (City Island) A $45 prix fixe on the coast. The atmosphere at Le Refuge Inn is quirkily quaint. It’s like you’re eating in someone’s sort of nice house who sort of took some time to decorate. The wine special was much appreciated–a $45 bottle for $35. But the food is not worth the drive, it’s not even worth a short walk. The duck was over-cooked (if you can’t trust the duck, what can you trust?), and the lamb shank could’ve done well without bread crumbs.
The Piper’s Kilt: $ (The Bronx) If I were in college and with my 5 best guy friends, I would go to the Piper’s Kilt and get smashed during the all you can drink brunch of mimosas, draft beer, champagne, AND Bloody Marys. I would also stick with the cheeseburger. Not being in college and with my girlfriend, I found their Velveeta filled omelettes and ice-filled mimosas served in plastic Budweiser cups to be less than charming, and frankly, gross. Yet, we did have fun.
Kiku: $ (North Park Slope) An outside.in office favorite for lunch with terrific lunch specials. On Thursday, I had edamame, a tuna roll, a salmon avocado roll, and miso soup for $7. Get the same deal with more complex rolls for $8. Get a Teriyaki or Tempura lunch box (with sushi!) for $8.50. You can’t lose with lunch at Kiku. DEFINITELY BOTHER FOR LUNCH
Yuca Bar: $$ (East Village) Posing as a cheap-eats-for-young-people joint, this Spanish restaurant will run up on you fast, after you’ve sampled their happy hour of $5 margaritas, mojitos, and sangria and $3 drafts. The entrees are all in the $15 or more range. They have sandwiches, but who wants a $10 burger or a $9 Cubano at a spanish restaurant? I got the barbacoa short ribs, which were very tasty, but left me with that “my dinner is stuck in my esophagus feeling.” Maybe I ate too many Yuca fries. DON’T BOTHER