Today's review roundup includes: Sapa, Taci's Beyti, Onju.
NYTimes Restaurants Frank Bruni contemplates the correlation between the length of a restaurants menu and the focus of its kitchen in his one star review of Sapa (43 West 24th Street; 212-929-1800):
...I suppose all this is meant to fill you with a sense of limitless bounty, of infinite choice. But it just as easily triggers confusion about how much to order and in what combination. It should also provoke concern. To judge by my experiences in this city's newest and most assiduously trendy restaurants, the longer the menu, the less consistent the quality of the food. There are boundaries to most chefs' imaginations and most kitchens' flexibility.
Sapa offered plenty of dishes that I found enormously appealing and plenty that seemed to be throwaways, inoffensive but unmemorable. There was a hefty rib-eye among the entrees, but why? It contributed nothing new or interesting to the annals of oversize steaks (though I did appreciate the cylindrical tower of flavorful onion rings beside it), and it distracted attention from the terrific cod, roasted in parchment and paired with a lovely porcini sherry sauce.
There were spare ribs with a cocoa and peanut glaze among the dishes to be shared, but to what end? Spare ribs have sported similar flavors before and have boasted a moistness and generosity of flesh that Sapa's lacked. Delete them from the menu and a diner is statistically more likely to select the chilled salad of poached lobster, consecrated with avocado, a bit of caviar and a chive crème fraîche that was like an exalted tartar sauce.
It's an issue of editing, an issue I raise in Sapa's case because there's an excellent restaurant within the clutter. That's no surprise: the chef, Patricia Yeo, has done her time and earned her stripes. After years of apprenticeship under Bobby Flay, she ran her own shows at the Asian fusion restaurant AZ and at Pazo, which explored the Mediterranean. She's a genuine globalist, and the cuisine at Sapa, alternately advertised as French-Vietnamese and French-Southeast Asian, reflects that. It ultimately defies either label or any pigeonholing.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Mackerel salad; sweet potato and pumpkin soup; roasted cod; roasted duck breast; pistachio crème brûlée; pear tart.
NYTimes $25 and Under reviews Taci's Beyti, a Turkish kebab house (1955 Coney Island Ave., Brooklyn; 718-627-5750):
When you arrive, walk to the cold case at the back to shop for meze. Make note of what you want, and head back to your table to tell the waiter. Service is rapid-fire, and in no time an array of dishes arrive.
The case is filled with a dozen or so meze, including a handful of bean and vegetable dishes cooked slowly in olive oil. The stewing lends itself particularly well to leeks ($4), which take on a soft, buttery texture. Split artichoke hearts ($4.50) are a little fancier, lightened with a squeeze of lemon and served with chunks of potato and few peas and carrots for color.
My brother, who is not a swooner, did just that when he took a piece of warm sesame-crusted bread and scooped up a glistening pile of puréed eggplant ($4.50). The flavor was both smoky and bright, punched up with a hit of garlic. "Just like being in the Turkish countryside," he said.
...A nice spread of meze is more than enough, but go for the meat on the menu. The dozen kebabs represent a cross-section of styles. Straight-up lamb shish kebab with hot roasted Turkish pepper and tomatoes ($10.75) had wide appeal at the table, but we kept going back for more forkfuls of the iskender kebab ($10). It's a rich dish of ground, spiced gyro-style lamb sliced over a slightly spiced, buttery tomato sauce cooled with yogurt. Any kebab is perfect with what are some of the finest fresh-cut, double-fried French fries ($2 or $4) I've had in a good while.
BEST DISHES Leek or artichoke meze; eggplant purée; fried liver cubes; French fries; lamb casserole; kebabs; kunefe.
NYPress reviews Onju, wear vegetarians and meat-eaters can happily share a table together and both leave satisfied (108 E. 4th Street; 212-228-3880):
If you are of the mind that organic is just purist nonsense, you still might enjoy a dinner at Onju, a new Italian restaurant in the East Village that utilizes all organic ingredients while avoiding a "health" agenda (note the intervals at which staff members huff cigarettes outside and you'll see what I mean). At first glance, Onju is just another sexy East Village Italian boite (think Lavagna) with exposed brick walls, picture windows, a knobby wood bar and tight banquettes that draws the neighborhood's greasy-haired brand of beautiful people. With the exception of accoutrements like "tofu cream" served with chanterelle ravioli and two varieties of gnocchi, there is nothing ostensibly crunchy about the place. Though vegans and vegetarians can eat heartily here, there is enough meat, cheese and butter on the menu to compensate.
...Judging from our entrees, there is potential for the food here to soar. Right now, the merits of Onju are limited to a few standout dishes. The port wine and short rib risotto ($20) was the best risotto of my New York eating career. The unadorned heap of brown-tinted rice boasted a wonderfully low ratio of grains to shredded meat. The short ribs, marinated for 48 hours in Chianti, added to the winy resonance of the dish, which was perfectly balanced between the richness of beef and butter and the vaporous nature of the alcohol.
Not as delicious but a feast for the eyes was the seafood risotto ($20), heaped with attractive shrimp, scallops, baby squid and calamari. The risotto itself was basic, not overly rich—Onju displays wise restraint when it comes to fattening up risotto—wonderfully al dente, and redolent of a mysterious smoky flavor (Onju does not have a wood-burning oven). The Cornish hen special ($23) was also solid: a flavorful bird, almost entirely deboned, baked until crisp but juicy, served with competent but uneventful green beans and brussels sprouts.
Saturday morning we made an early run to the Ferry Terminal Farmers Market, and after collecting our bounty stopped at Mijita for some breakfast. The highlight, surprisingly enough, was the most perfect lime-cucumber agua fresca. The lime didn't overwhelm the cucumber, nor was the drink overly sweet. Delicious!
A recipe for aqua fresca de pepino (cucumber)
NYC Vietcafe = Viet Bland. A reader's email confirms:
"... the food was gross. portions were super tiny. [we] ordered the vegetable plate which consisted of--shredded carrot and thin slices of shitake. that's it. can carrot and shitake comprise a whole entree? no way. and the dish didn't include the 5-spice tofu advertised on the menu. terribly disappointing. we were all craving pizza at the end of our meal."
SF Vinography and Manresa present the Story Wine Dinner on Thursday, February 24, 2005.