Today's review roundup includes 'Cesca, Amma, Matsuri, Divane, Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar, Golden Gate
NYPost Steve Cuozzo reviews 'Cesca (164 W. 75th St., between Amsterdam & Columbus Ave.; (212) 787-6300):
'CESCA is the Upper West Side's first truly good Italian restaurant above Lincoln Center. In a land of cramped, third-rate pasta parlors, it seems a dream come true - a grown-up setting for Tom Valenti's suave take on rustic Italian cooking, with scarcely a red sauce in sight.
. . . The smooth chemistry of his bold, earthbound flavors might overwhelm you - except that he usually finds a way to texture or sharpen it. "Comfort food" this isn't.
My favorite dish is an $11 appetizer: glistening, paper-thin speck arrayed in a triangle under a crusted Parmesan cup filled with soft egg and crackling arugula - each element perfect, the textural interplay spectacular.
. . . But the kitchen has moments of another sort, when clinkers dilute the joy. After fiery, cayenne-spiced parmigiano fritters ($6), some oddly bloodless choices are a letdown, like dry and underseasoned mackerel ($21).
Olive oil-poached red mullet ($11) arrived cold. Gooey pasta al forno with meat ragu under a cloud of bechamel ($18) lent cold-weather comfort but little in the way of flavor or contrast.
Although 'Cesca has yet to hit full stride, I wouldn't wait until then to ask for a table - unless you want to wait even longer. Meanwhile, Mr. V., keep an eye on that kitchen.
NYTimes Restaurants William Grimes reviews Amma (246 East 51st St.; (212) 644-8330):
Its menu is a whirlwind tour that extends geographically from the northwestern frontier to Goa, and stylistically from refined Mogul cooking to lunchbox fare and street snacks. Suvir Saran, one of Amma's owners as well as one of its two chefs, is the travel agent for this culinary adventure, and he has a not-so-secret educational agenda. For years he has taught a popular course on Indian cooking at New York University. Amma is his opportunity to reach a different kind of audience, in a different way, and he has jumped for it.
His able assistant is Hemant Mathur, who caught the attention of New York diners when he worked the tandoori at Tamarind before moving along to Diwan. At Amma, Mr. Mathur continues to tend the tandoor, which is the source of some of Amma's most seductive entrees, like juicy, basil-scented chicken with tomato chutney and lemon rice, and grilled lamb chops served with a sweet and sour pear chutney and potatoes spiced with curry leaf. But Amma gives him much more freedom to roam.
. . . Amma makes a point of doing honor to India's rich vegetarian cuisine. Tasting menus come in both vegetarian and nonvegetarian formats, and the meatless dishes on the à la carte menu are among the best. Americans with a taste for fried okra can rediscover it in a very different guise, dusted with chickpea flour and fried to a crisp, then served in a complex dressing of lemon juice and sour spices, like ground mango peel and dried, powdered pomegranate seeds. Amma must surely be the only restaurant in New York serving Gobi lahsuni, a potent, richly flavored Manchurian-style dish. Cauliflower florets are marinated in garlic and lemon juice, then tossed in a garlicky tomato sauce seasoned with scallions and chilies.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Bombay bhel puri; idli upma; raita with crisp okra; squash "meatballs" with tomato sauce; basil chicken; grilled lamb chops with pear chutney; Goan shrimp; mango cheesecake.
Mathur is a tandoori specialist (try the stuffed chicken breasts, and the tender, yogurt-infused lamb chops), but he and his co-chef, Suvir Saran, also have a facility with vegetables. Besides the okra, you’ll find fat kofte dumplings filled with zucchini, stuffed baby eggplants in a smooth curry-peanut sauce, and a delicious, crunchy, tempura-like stack of fried spinach leaves (“crispy fried spinach chaat”) dusted with a salad of mung lentils, tamarind, and mint (you can order all these together in a fine vegetarian tasting menu). There are also great, curling tandoori shrimp (although they cost $6 per piece), a nice rendition of Tamarind’s famous butter chicken (chicken tikka masala), and savory little fillets of lamb stuffed with apricots. You can order the usual boatloads of rice and (very fine) bread with all this food, although I suggest you do what one rarely does at an Indian restaurant, and save room for dessert. Focus particularly on the soothing rasmalai dumplings, which are sweet and tangy and dissolve slowly on the tongue like some exotic form of cottage-cheese candy.
NYMetro reviews Matsuri (363 West 16th St.;(212) 243-6400):
. . . Kobe beef, in my experience, is a showy, disappointing dish that rarely lives up to its extravagant price tag. At Matsuri, however, chef Tadashi Ono (formerly of La Caravelle and the esoteric Japanese restaurant Sono) serves his beef cold, cut in rich, slim rectangles, each one tipped with a refreshing drop of mustard vinaigrette (made Japanese-style with happozu sauce). After that came two fine varieties of eel (saltwater anago, encased in a single long, crackly piece of tempura, and freshwater unagi, mashed with a hint of vinegar and wrapped in a thin cucumber skin), followed by a tasty little pyramid of salmon interspersed with crisp lotus root, and an avant-garde construction of blue-fin tuna intertwined with crunchy, faintly gummy pieces of potato root.
. . . The main courses, when they arrived, were similarly arranged for delicate group consumption. Ono’s superior sirloin steak was decorated with crinkly slices of lotus root and stacked, like a set of (very small) children’s blocks, in juicy, bite-size cubes. My friend the tempura nut gave her quiet benediction to that de rigueur Japanese-restaurant dish (the batter is sufficiently crunchy without being greasy), and, after much discussion, the Nobu addicts at the table announced that the sake-marinated black cod was properly soft and sweet.
NYTimes $25 and Under Eric Asimov reviews Divane (888 Eighth Ave. at 52nd St.; (212) 333-5888):
Rarely has satisfying simplicity been offered with such focus as at Divane, a lively new Turkish restaurant in the theater district. The menu consists of a selection of grilled meats and fishes, with only four appetizers. And while virtually anybody can grill meat at home, few, I would wager, can grill it as skillfully as at Divane.
It is thoroughly unsurprising that Divane (pronounced dee-VAHN-ay) would be so appealing. Its guiding spirit, Orhan Yegen, who is also an owner, has opened engaging restaurants that center on one aspect of Turkish cuisine, won a devoted following for them and then departed for the next challenge.
. . . Main courses at kebab houses are often disappointments, dry and dull proof that uncomplicated food needs care and craft to bring out flavor. Divane makes the opposite case, showing how satisfying simplicity can be. Grilled seafood seems especially difficult for restaurants to get right, but swordfish kebabs ($15.50) are juicy and perfectly seasoned, while sea bass ($15.50) is moist and delicious. Doner kebab ($13.50), the cheap staple of souvlaki stands everywhere, is uncommonly good, crisp and savory around the edges.
BEST DISHES Lahmacun; chopped tomato salad; hummus; cacik; swordfish kebabs; grilled sea bass; doner kebab; doner-yogurt kebab; lamb chops; filet mignon; kadaif; almond pudding.
Catching up with a couple of last week's reviews, NYTimes Restaurants William Grimes reviews Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar (246 East Fifth St.; (212) 673-0338):
. . . Jack's, on two floors of a carriage house right across the street from Jewel Bako, is a New Orleans oyster bar that has been given a New York upgrade and a downtown twist or two. It's one of the most distinctive restaurants to come along in years.
The menu is downright peculiar. It starts with oysters, of course, a constantly changing roster of them, shucked downstairs at a small bar. Diners can order a few oysters on the half shell, along with some littleneck clams and a shrimp cocktail, and make a light meal of it all, with a glass of riesling or a cold beer. In other words, they can treat Jack's as a bar and skip the luxury. Diners in search of a full meal find themselves staring at a menu with one entree and one dessert, and it is at this moment of crisis that the singularity of Jack's hits with full force.
. . . Jack's may be the first to put the kitchen and dining room so close together that diners are tempted to open the oven door and take a peek to see how the food is coming along. It creates an unusual atmosphere. Dinner at Jack's is a little like being invited to eat at a friend's house, except you don't know the other guests.
Limited space means a limited menu, but Ms. Vines-Rushing, who started out cooking at Brennan's in New Orleans and more recently cooked at Alain Ducasse, makes the most of her opportunities. She gives a refined French touch to homey Southern dishes, or reverses the equation by throwing some Louisiana heat into a French recipe.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Oysters Rockefeller; oysters six ways; celery root rémoulade soup with crab; pig cheeks with langoustines; bananas Foster.
Also from last week, NYTimes $25 and Under Eric Asimov reviews Golden Gate (3550 Johnson Avenue, Riverdale, the Bronx; (718) 549-6206):
On my first visit, I waded impatiently through the preliminaries. An egg roll ($1.15 each) was big, bulky and crisp, filled with vegetables and meat, sure to appeal to egg roll fans, of which I am not one. Egg foo yong with shrimp ($6.75) was just as I remember egg foo yong, essentially an appealing omelet served with brown sauce that only seemed to make it less appealing. Won-ton soup ($1.35) was very good, with slices of pork and lacy dumplings.
Finally, the lobster with burnt pork ($22) arrived, looking and smelling as impressive as I had hoped. The lobster was cut into pieces, with mounds of ground pork heaped around, giving off an unmistakable burned waft. Yet the pork didn't taste burned at all. In fact, it was highly flavored, seared quickly in a wok to seal in the juiciness of the meat and well seasoned with a touch of sweetness. And the lobster was superb, moist and tender — fried quickly and then, what, braised with the pork?
I asked the waiter, but the most he would reveal was that it was an old Cantonese recipe, which, he said, was available nowhere else.
If so, I have no doubt I'll be back. And while I rarely have the urge for old-fashioned Chinese-American cooking, Golden Gate does a few things very well. Meaty barbecued spareribs ($5.75 as an appetizer, $10.25 as a main course) are excellent, crisp and lacquered on the outside, tasting of soy, anise and a little honey. So is chicken chow mein ($5.90), the flavors clear and precise, the sauce transparent and not starchy. The lobster-pork combination reappeared in lobster soong ($11.25), served wrapped in lettuce leaves, far more pork than lobster, yet still with fresh, honest flavors.
BEST DISHES Egg foo yong; won-ton soup; lobster with burnt pork; barbecued spareribs; chicken chow mein; lobster soong.