The strongest trend in New York restaurants right now—with the possible exception of Italian, a perennial favorite—is a category called "fine-casual." Such restaurants offer the smart, serious wine lists and refinement on the plate traditionally found in stiffer dining rooms, but with a more relaxed, downtown attitude. Here are six fine new examples in this style.
1032 Lexington Ave., between 73rd and 74th Streets
Telephone: (212) 249-5700
Open: Dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $29-$65
Credit cards: All major
Award of Excellence
Laurent Tourondel has had a long and varied career as a chef, beginning in the French navy and progressing through fine restaurants in France, London and the United States. In New York, he expanded a hit steak house, BLT (Bistro Laurent Tourondel), into a successful chain. Now he has opened Arlington Club in partnership with the Tao Group. It's an Upper East Side steak house in a clubby setting, with the twist of adding intricate, modern sushi (as well as more classic dishes) to the menu.
Tourondel has excelled at tweaking classics, so the potential is high here. First courses met the promise, with a tuna roll subtly flavored with sriracha and shallots crisped for texture. Rock shrimp were very good, though the accompanying avocado, yuzu and jalapeño stretched the limits of fusion. Ginger yellowtail sushi was exceptional, especially with a glass of Eugen Müller Riesling Kabinett Pfalz Forster Mariengarten 2011 ($12).
We ordered a bottle of the Catherine & Pierre Breton Bourgeuil Franc de Pied 2010 ($70), but the 2011, a weaker vintage, was brought. Our server went to speak with the sommelier, who sent her back with the message that for this wine, younger was better anyway. The 450-selection list includes some very serious wines, from sushi-friendly Austrian and German whites to blue-chip reds from France and California. But for wine lovers, details are important.
A filet was good but not great, with a mushy rather than tender texture. A skirt steak special, with chimichurri and cippollini onion rings, was better, but oversalted. The New York sirloin had an excellent char and great flavor, and a half-bottle of Faust Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2010 ($65) had just the right heft and forward red fruit for serious meat. A side of tomatoes with Stilton was only OK. The fries, though, were perfect—crispy outside and light and tender inside. Desserts also shine, and highlight Tourondel's ability to heighten such flavors of Americana as chocolate and peanut butter.
181 Thompson St., between Houston and Bleecker Streets
Telephone: (212) 254-3000
Open: Dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $31-$54
Credit cards: All major
Carbone is probably the hardest reservation to get in Manhattan these days. It is the third restaurant from chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi and their partner Jeff Zalaznick. Their first, Torrisi, drew in droves an insider crowd hungry for their updated Italian-American food. Parm, a casual spinoff, followed. Carbone is their latest.
Carbone is on a quiet Greenwich Village street. Its tall windows have high curtains, making the place feel secret and exclusive. A warm greeting area at the cramped entrance leads into three dining rooms: The first has a tiled floor and bright blue walls, with banquettes along one wall; the other two rooms feel slightly more grown-up, though quirky art brings levity to each.
The rooms are boisterous, with tourists early and locals later, and the place has a strong feeling of everyone—staff included—wanting to be there. Servers are professional, even while wisecracking, rapping their knuckles on the table and saying, "Comin' right up." Even the tuxedoes work. This is not a clever or ironic take on Italian-American food. It's a celebration.
As soon as you are seated, some delicious chunks of Chianti-soaked Parmigiano-Reggiano are served to you from a wheel. A plate of prosciutto (actually country ham) and another of excellent focaccia show up after a bit. The menu is a huge piece of cardstock with about 50 dishes, all told. It is easy to overorder here, so be careful. A glass of Punta Crena Vigneto Reine Mataossu Colline Savonesi 2010 ($18) and an excellent Manhattan with a cinnamon note helped the decision-making process along, as did a knowledgeable waiter.
The first two dishes were the best. The Caesar salad is just perfect, with a good strong anchovy presence, the right creaminess in the dressing, and remarkably tasty lettuce. Croutons were terrific small batons, crisp on the outside and chewy in the center. Ask yourself, how often are you really impressed by a salad? A scampi appetizer was also excellent, with three head-on shrimp split lengthwise, cooked quickly and sauced with lemon and butter. Simple. Right on.
Ravioli Caruso were stuffed with chicken liver and bacon, and sauced with a frankly sweet reduction of red wine and butter. It had a great mingling of earth, smoke and fruit flavors, but it was served on a dollop of insipid tomato sauce, probably intended to bring acidity to the dish. A dish of meatballs had what appeared to be the same sauce, and the meatballs themselves lacked flavor and texture.
Two excellent and generous pieces of bass that had spent a bit too long on the grill (despite bearing the descriptor "oreganata," the fish was not breaded) were served on top of a terrific slaw of white beans, arugula and tarragon. And the veal parm? It was good, really good, but it was not perfect. Parts of the substantial breading were crispier than others. The sauce was timid. Maybe expectations were too high, but it was not the anticipated apotheosis.
The wine list numbers some 250 selections, roughly half of which are Italian. Values can be found in up-and-coming regions—from Campania, the Salvatore Molettieri Taurasi Aglianico 2004 ($85) was deep and gorgeous, but with enough bright cherry and spice notes to help it play with a range of flavors. Northern and central regions are well-represented, and there are even a couple of miniverticals.
5 King St., entrance on Sixth Avenue, between King and Houston Streets
Telephone: (212) 235-7133
Open: Dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $27-$38
Credit cards: All major
In some ways, Charlie Bird embodies the ambitious, early 21st-century New York City restaurant. The kitchen and beverage program are run by fine-dining veterans, but the restaurant aims to be comfortable and unintimidating, so diners get a "fine-casual" experience, with excellent food and service in a relaxed, fun setting.
Charlie Bird sits on the border of SoHo and the West Village. In the first room, large windows overlook busy Sixth Avenue, with tables in the middle and a bar beyond. Leather and wood dominate. A smaller room, up a few steps at the back, is more intimate, with mustard-colored banquettes and photographs of boom boxes on the wall—a visual clue to the evening's soundtrack.
The wine list is also intimate, topping out at around 120 choices, including a section called "Shameless Plugs" that contains eight wines made by restaurant industry friends of the partners. The smart list is put together by partner Robert Bohr, who has run some of the finest cellars in New York, most recently Tom Colicchio's. The list emphasizes Italy, but offers bottles from Burgundy and the Rhône, among other regions. About a third of the bottles are under $100. Surely Bohr's connections are behind the inclusion of wines like the Fratelli Oddero Barolo 1978 ($250). All wines are also available as half-bottles, which invites adventure.
Partner Ryan Hardy, formerly at wine-lover magnet The Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., heads the kitchen, which turns out strongly Italian-inflected food made with real verve. His menu runs through sections titled raw, pasta, small plates, vegetables and large plates. He sends out textbook fried squash blossoms, stuffed with just a little cheese and anchovy, as an amuse bouche. Raw fluke is sprinkled with slivers of toasted brown and uberseasonal pickled green almonds, a few arugula leaves, peeled tomatoes the size of your fingernail, and some of the best olive oil you are likely ever to taste. This is a perfect dish, with terrific ingredients and balanced flavors and textures, to go with a gorgeous but almost slapdash appearance, like someone who looks great without makeup.
Cappellacci, witch hat-shaped pasta, are here sauced with pea puree and guanciale. The dish was made with confidence, and served by a friendly, knowledgeable waiter with a bowl of olio santo—red chile flakes steeping in oil—and a warning that it is hotter than you might think. The pasta went well with a crisp, refreshing glass of Domaine Comte Abbatucci Ajaccio Faustine 2011 ($17) recommended by sommelier Grant Reynolds. The Corsican white was not on the list that evening, but Reynolds happened to have a bottle open, and offered it. The restaurant also tends to have some older bottles sitting around, which, like the option of ordering any wine on the list as a half-bottle, is all opportunity for the wine lover. This is a place where evident interest in wine is rewarded, though considering the caliber of those involved, one might expect more selections.
Entrées are generous, if less artfully plated than what precedes them. Suckling pig brings some pulled and sliced meat in a small heap, tender and flavorful, with broccoli raab and peas. The chicken is roasted under a brick, making it incredibly succulent, with crisped skin. Fava beans, pea puree and a bit of chicken liver round out the dish. Domaine Gramenon Côtes du Rhône Poignée de Raisins 2012 ($50) is fruity, savory and tart, with cherry flavors warming up to the major proteins, while vegetal, even licorice flavors are coaxed out by the accompaniments.
Do not skip dessert. The molten chocolate cake is as good as any, and a dish of olive oil ice cream and crunchy Rice Krispies brings a tug of war of flavor and texture.
It remains uncertain whether Charlie Bird will be the neighborhood place it calls itself, or the destination that food at this level can command. Regardless of where you live, you should try it.
206 Spring St., between Sullivan Street and Sixth Avenue
Telephone: (212) 334-3320
Open: Dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $33-$59
Credit cards: All major
Opened in late spring, Costata is the fifth of six Manhattan restaurants from the Altamarea Group, headed by chef Michael White. The flagship Marea and Ai Fiori have been critical darlings on the fine-dining side, while Osteria Morini and Nicoletta, a pizza parlor, have successfully filled the casual niche. Costata rounds out the portfolio, with a polished concept that might feel a bit cynical if it weren't so well-executed.
The restaurant occupies three floors of a nondescript, early 20th-century brick building on the western edge of SoHo; there's a bar and a few tables on the ground floor, a smaller bar and more tables on the second floor, and rooms for private parties above. (Years ago, it was home to Fiamma, White's first New York kitchen.) The decor is sophisticated and comfortable but neutral, the space enlivened by a collection of colorful abstract art. The room could be anywhere, and the customers, a mix of New Yorkers and upscale tourists, look as though they come from everywhere and are enjoying themselves.
The food and the wine—especially the wine—are the reasons for this joy. The list is curated by Hristo Zisovski, beverage director of the Altamarea Group, and managed by Raphael Ginsburg, head sommelier at Costata. It offers more than 500 selections, about half from Italy, followed by California and France. Nearly half the bottles are priced under $100, and almost a third are 10 years old or older.
The selections include plenty of blue-chips, especially from France (Vincent Dauvissat Chablis La Forest 2000 for $172) and California (Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Martha's Vineyard 1999, $290). An eight-vintage vertical of Antinori Toscana Solaia ranges from 2009 to 1985. But there are treasures for explorers, too. Arnaldo Caprai Grechetto Colli Martani Grecante 2011 ($48) is one of Umbria's most distinctive whites, offering an intriguing mix of citrus, mineral and dry honey flavors. Also from Umbria come eight different Sagrantino de Montefalcos, including the rare Paolo Bea Vigneto Pagliaro 2005 ($165).
The by-the-glass program alone could hold a wine lover's interest through an entire meal. About two dozen offerings, mostly Italian, are offered in the $11 to $26 range. Then come old and rare bottles offered via Coravin, a new technology that draws wine through the cork, thereby preventing spoilage or degradation. There's no excuse for drinking poorly at Costata.
And there's practically no chance of eating badly, either. That's partly because the kitchen team, led by executive chef PJ Calapa, is highly skilled, and partly because the menu is straightforward, offering high quality ingredients in simple, yet imaginative, combinations. You can begin with raw oysters, or slightly more elaborate crudo, or significantly more expensive caviar. Slices of raw branzino, prettily garnished with black olives and pine nuts ($21), were delicious. As for salads, what the menu calls "romaine cacio e pepe" ($16) a waiter referred to as Caesar, and that's what it is, salty and garlicky.
A half-dozen pastas ($17 to $21) are offered as sides or appetizers (they're large enough to serve as a small main course, too). A soupy seafood risotto was delicious, the rice creamy and toothsome, the broth rich and refined. Spaghetti with chopped razor and manila clams and breadcrumbs was harmonious but a bit bland. The meat options are standard: filet, New York strip, and rib eye (portioned for one or two), plus veal, lamb and chicken. The boneless rib eye for one, prime Black Angus dry-aged 40 days (18 ounces, $55), was dense and meaty, with a nice balance of sweet and mineral. The bone-in New York strip (18 ounces, $55) was equally good.
In fact, everything was good. The sides, seafood, and desserts all shone. If none of the food was transcendent—and how distinctive can steak house food be?—the beverage program kept taking it up a notch. When the desserts arrived, Zisovski brought over a lovely cart carrying a dozen different Amaros, and described every one. I chose two and loved the contrasting play of bitter, sweet and spicy flavors.
Hyatt Union Square, 132 Fourth Ave., between 12th and 13th Streets
Telephone: (212) 432-1324
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $18-$34
Credit cards: All major
Chef Marco Moreira and his wife, manager Jo-Ann Makovitsky, have already brightened the area around Union Square with their fine restaurants Tocqueville and 15 East. After bringing on veteran sommelier Roger Dagorn as beverage director, they have opened The Fourth, serving three meals a day in the new Hyatt Union Square hotel.
The double-height dining room is split by stairs that lead down to a modern, woody private event space, and a sculpture of wooden bunk beds hangs from the ceiling. The front room, with huge windows onto Fourth Avenue, is casual, with small tables and a couple of couchlike banquettes. At the back, past a long bar, is a more formal room, its deep red walls hung with photographs. Though the room feels light and open, the sound does tend to bounce around here.
The Fourth promotes itself as an American brasserie, which seems fair. The food is very well-made, finding a balance between creative and comforting. A fantastic, homey appetizer of fire-roasted baby artichokes comes with a Taleggio-Gruyère fonduta with a grilled lemon half and a sprinkling of crushed pistachios on top. Asked to recommend a glass of wine for the artichokes, sommelier Andrew Shields recommended Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch Reserve 2012 ($14). This juicy, appley wine acted as a refresher to the vegetal, rich dish.
The Descendientes de J. Palacios Bierzo Pétalos 2010 ($55) that arrived with the next course brought cherry flavors and elusive smoke or leather notes. The 200-selection list ranges freely across regions, and will accommodate most tastes. The majority of bottles is priced under $100, and the list's varietal grouping places different, but distinguished, wines next to each other, such as Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2011 and Alban Wind Gap Sonoma 2009.
Chitarra Abruzza was spot-on, with perfectly firm, thick noodles sauced with braised tomatoes, basil puree, cheese and the right amount of garlic. Flavorful slices of leg of lamb were paired with a showstopper version of moussaka—actually eggplant slices wrapped around shredded lamb shank, atop eggplant puree. Baby romaine and pepper puree lightened the dish.
A coffee pot de crème had mascarpone mousse, coffee crumble, amaretto gelato and coffee foam. It may sound like a lot, but the flavors and texture are light and very pleasant. The texture and light flavoring echoed a similarly delicate dessert I had across the park at Tocqueville years ago: a loose tapioca pudding with vanilla, and just enough fresh fruit to brighten it.
PEARL & ASH
220 Bowery, between Spring and Prince Streets
Telephone: (212) 837-2370
Open: Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost: Entrées $25-$29
Credit cards: All major
Best of Award of Excellence
The Bowery, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, has known both wealth and poverty during its long history. The red-brick Bowery Mission, founded in 1879 to help the suffering and needy, is located on the same block as the New Museum, devoted to contemporary art, which opened its striking building in 2007. Across the street is Pearl & Ash, a new restaurant that attempts to honor all of the Bowery's spirit.
The narrow room is marked by blond wood and dark accents. A long bar and a big communal table encourage singles and walk-ins. Seating at the row of banquettes is on stools rather than typical chairs. The walls display small, open boxes filled with bric-a-brac—antique glass, old kitchen tools, small bouquets. The soundtrack mixes rock and roll from many eras. When Pearl & Ash is crowded—and it's usually crowded—the restaurant is full of energy, and requires an energetic response to enjoy it.
The menu offers two dozen dishes in various categories (raw, small, fish, meat, vegetables, sugar, cheese), priced mostly from $8 to $12. The larger dishes are offered as half-portions (around $14) and full ones (about $26). The presentation encourages wide sampling and sharing. The kitchen is small and many of the dishes are quite elaborate, yet the pacing is good and the execution consistently fine.
Salmon is tea-smoked, then cut into small strips and tangled with seaweed and nuggets of goat cheese, the smoky flavors brightened with tamarind. This combination of soft and crunchy textures with savory and tart flavors marks many of the dishes, including delicate shrimp with smoked yogurt and radish, and rich, smoky octopus with sunflower seeds and shiso. Earthy and spicy notes are common, too. The menu leans away from sweet flavors, though, with the result that wine matches work best with Old World versions, whether rustic or mature.
But that's fine, since that's where Cappiello's passions take him. In fact, it may be that the menu is responding to the wine list as much as the other way around. Cappiello has worked at three Wine Spectator Grand Award winners in New York: Tribeca Grill and Veritas as sommelier, and Gilt as wine director, where he built a 2,500-selection list to earn his own Grand Award in 2011. When Gilt closed last year, Cappiello joined Pearl & Ash as a brief diversion, but now, as a partner, he has built one of the most exciting wine programs in the city.
The ever-growing wine list currently offers about 800 selections, many of them from France and many priced at less than $100 a bottle. Its diversity and value allow customers to experiment freely, which Cappiello encourages with lively patter and generous tastes.
Cappiello loves Europe's most obscure grapes and regions. He offers 30 wines from France's Jura, for example. But he also venerates the classics. There are more than 100 choices from Bordeaux on offer. Great bottles—and excellent values—include Château La Croix du Casse Pomerol 2000 ($100) and Château La Mission Haut-Brion Graves 1986 ($750).
Between his extensive network, which allows him to source the obscurities he loves, and three collectors who supply the mature and classic bottles, Cappiello can keep visitors to Pearl & Ash happy. "This is the way people like to drink wine today," he says.