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Eight tastemakers lead the way in a style-conscious city

Bruce Sanderson
Posted: April 16, 2001

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Six new shops emphasize regional specialties, wine tastings and informed, friendly service
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  New for Thursday, April 12
Tracking the Trends

A web-exclusive analysis of menus and wine lists at New York's new restaurants reveals the latest developments in dining

Eight tastemakers lead the way in a style-conscious city

By Bruce Sanderson

See also:
World Class
Neighborhood Stars
Steak Houses

In New York, trendiness can erupt without warning. No neighborhood is immune, no matter how desolate or downscale.

The unlikely epicenter of the city's latest culinary outburst is the jumble of warehouses lining the cobble-stoned streets of Manhattan's west side south of 14th Street. Known as the "meatpacking district," it was once home to butchers by day and hunters of wilder game by night, but the film noir setting is now overrun by willing young extras from all over town.

The boom was triggered by Keith McNally's Parisian-style bistro, Pastis. Modeled after Balthazar, his celebrity haunt in SoHo, Pastis began drawing famous names and beautiful people to the district, and other restaurants followed in droves. Although these trendsetters epitomize the style and swagger of today's New York, they are only intermittently successful in delivering fine food and wine. Fortunately for those who are just as interested in the menu as in the scene, new restaurants both lively and serious are making waves from the East Village to tony 57th Street.

Familiar themes weave common threads in these trendy spots. Pastis is only the most visible evidence that bistros never go out of style. Rhône and Fressen, also in the meatpacking district, exemplify semi-industrial decor, with concrete, exposed ductwork, bare wooden tables and unisex bathrooms. A cartoon version of Asia, colorful but exaggerated, influences both the interior and the cuisine at Lotus, AZ, Chinoiserie and Tao, the last featuring a 16-foot Buddha hovering over a reflective pool. The Brasserie in the Seagram Building, an old favorite that has reopened after a fire, boasts a sleek, contemporary design, while a new hotspot, Cafeteria in the Hudson Hotel, chose a retro look with monastic touches. Alas, neither of these two will draw customers for their food.

Others manage to generate social heat without sacrificing dining quality. Esca, in the theater district, specializes in Italian-style raw fish dishes called "crudo"; and Heartbeat, in the Midtown W Hotel espouses a health-oriented menu. The Tasting Room, Peasant and Merge, located in the East Village, Nolita and Greenwich Village, respectively, follow the minimalist philosophy in terms of decor, while endeavoring to make food and wine more than an afterthought. Chicama and Pipa, both in the Flatiron District, are vibrant tributes to pan-Latin cuisines.

The best newcomers, highlighted in the following reviews, integrate all the trendsetting elements. They succeed as restaurants, of course, with a professional approach to food, wine and service. But with their cutting-edge, imaginative environments and their ability -- for now, at least -- to draw a pulsing, high-voltage crowd, they go beyond food and drink to become the popular playgrounds of a restless city.

For the complete article, please see the April 30, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 87. (Subscribe today)

21 W. 17th St., bet. Fifth and Sixth
Telephone (212) 691-8888
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Prix fixe $57
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club

AZ plays Asian themes on a futuristic fantasy. The lavish design -- it's set on three floors in the Flatiron District and is topped by a retractable pitched-glass roof -- mirrors the lush, original fusion-style menu, created by Patricia Yeo (a protégé of Mesa Grill's Bobby Flay).

The boisterous dining room and swank downstairs bar are great places to people-watch. While connoisseurs of Asian cuisine may find the food unrefined or too busy, those looking more for punch than purity will be charmed. There are fruity sauces, spicy broths and lively pickled vegetables. Prunes are macerated in tea, duck is pounded into schnitzel, short ribs are braised in miso. Desserts such as passion-fruit mousse are more conservative, but delightful.

The international selection of 500 wines is rich in Gewürztraminers, Rieslings, Zinfandels and Syrahs. Sparkling wines ($30 to $400) constitute the biggest category -- there are 44, with eight of them available in half-bottles. Wines are listed under symbols from the I Ching, a device that's supposed to make choosing easy. It doesn't, but that's OK. Novelty is what AZ is all about, and it can be a heck of a lot of fun.

-- L.S.

402 W. 43rd St., at Ninth
Telephone (212) 564-7272
Open Lunch, Monday to Saturday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $17-$27
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Esca calls itself Italian, but it's one of the most interesting seafood restaurants in New York. This is reason enough to visit this theatre-district venue, the latest in the Bastianich chain. Yet, the sophisticated mix of wine professionals, theater-goers and celebrities makes Esca more than simply a good place to eat.

The specialty is "crudo," which is raw seafood Mediterranean style. Whether paired with vegetables (fluke with sea beans and black and red radishes), flavored oils (diver scallops with tangerine oil) or herbs (Spanish mackerel with crispy sage), the intense, pure flavors leave you wanting more. Rustic pastas play supporting roles to the range of seafood. Whole orata (pink bream) in a salt crust reflects both the simplicity of the menu and its reliance on fresh, well-prepared ingredients.

Esca offers plenty of wine to wash it all down. The regional Italian whites ($22 to $99) and reds ($22 to $150) are further divided into coastal and mountain categories. The list also features quarter liters, "quartini," with just the right volume when a glassful isn't enough.

The main dining area feels roomy, courtesy of a high ceiling and plenty of windows. Subdued lighting, table linens and good wineglasses add simple elegance. Casual, unobtrusive service delivers it all in an engaging but never overbearing way. All this lends an intimacy, however, pre- and post-theater crowds increase the level of noise and excitement.

W Hotel, 149 E. 49th St., bet. Lexington and Third
Telephone (212) 407-2900
Open Breakfast, daily; lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, daily; brunch, Saturday and Sunday
Cost Entrées $21-$34
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club

Heartbeat offers natural, healthy foods in simple, seasonal preparations. But don't expect bland vegetarian fare here. These dishes are spiked with flavor, artfully balancing contrasting elements. The crisp greens, sweet fruit and salty cheese of the Asian pear salad work together nicely, while the medium-rare venison loin chop is seared with coriander and cumin, a counterpoint to the rich, dense meat. Even mixed seasonal vegetables are grilled and roasted to perfection, preserving each component's integrity.

The wine list matches lesser-known selections in the $25 to $50 price range with some big names such as California cult wine Bryant Family (1996, $375; '97, $400). There's not a lot of depth in vintages, though Château Léoville Las Cases 1978 is available for $225. About 20 wines by the glass and several half-bottles round out the 160-selection wine list.

Service is friendly and the staff knowledgeable, and the high-quality tea menu with dessert is a bonus. Heartbeat's interior design, 1950s retro incorporating natural materials like limestone and wood, with soft lighting, is modern and relaxing. Ironically, the fashionable crowd, dressed mainly in black, exudes a nervous energy more akin to the pulsating atmosphere of the adjacent lobby of the W Hotel. As a result, Heartbeat lies somewhere between nirvana and pandemonium.

142 W. 10th St., bet. Greenwich and Waverly
Telephone (212) 691-7757
Open Dinner, daily; brunch, Saturday and Sunday Cost Entrées $15-$18
Credit cards American Express

Chef Sam Demarco has another winner with Merge. Like District and First (his original venture), it offers a showcase for DeMarco's adventurous food, but unlike the other locations, the decor at Merge has a minimalist, almost understated feel.

The first thing you notice about Merge are the two sets of arched entrance doors made of solid wood, the most ostentatious details in long, narrow room. Low key, in tones of gray and softened by hanging globes and torches, Merge projects a relaxed, unpretentious feeling, with paper over linen on the tables and the chef's signature hose-clamp napkin rings.

There's nothing low key about the food however. Drawing from an eclectic range of ingredients from around the globe, the menu adds offbeat touches to comfort foods, and usually makes the contrasts work. Dishes come piled three or four layers high, and deconstructing them is part of the fun. The breaded, lightly deep-fried Bluepoint oyster on a bed of seaweed sports wasabi mayonnaise and pickled cabbage in an engaging counterpoint of delicate and spicy. When DeMarco's base ingredient combinations don't quite balance, the sauce or sweet and sour notes provide the fine-tuning.

Prices are reasonable, with a five-course tasting menu costing $42. The short but well-chosen wine list offers an interesting mix of fruit-focused whites and Rhône varietals, a wise approach given the menu's adventurous flavors. Add friendly, efficient service to the mix and this Greenwich Village newcomer has what it takes to satisfy both serious food buffs and the young bohemian crowd it draws from the area.

9 Ninth Ave., at Little West 12th St.
Telephone (212) 929-4844
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $15-$19
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Pastis is the hottest address in the meatpacking district, the trendiest neighborhood for new restaurants in New York.

It looks like a bistro with its mirrors, tin ceiling and casual atmosphere. It behaves like a bistro, too, the boisterous crowd creating a din that almost drowns out conversation at individual tables. However, it doesn't quite cook as well as a bistro.

But this minor obstacle doesn't seem to bother the mix of old and young, artsy and business-types rubbing elbows over drinks and steak frites. Everyone appears to be enjoying themselves, except, perhaps, those waiting for a table. One Saturday night, the wait was an hour and a half, and you couldn't get in the door without a reservation.

Some of the classic bistro staples fail to excite, like the roast chicken with rosemary and the steak frites. The best choices are from the sea, like grilled sardines and a perfectly sautéed skate. Desserts are good, too, and the waitstaff works the room efficiently, with knowledge of both menu and wine list.

At 32 selections, the short list is too ambitious for the menu. Expensive Burgundies, Rhônes and a Pétrus '79 at $750 suggest that Pastis expects patrons with supermodel salaries, and those who party with them. Better to try your luck with the generic wine choices. While descriptions are limited to basic appellation designations, prices are at least more approachable. For example, 15 ounces of a '98 Côtes de Provence red costs $14.

194 Elizabeth St., bet. Prince and Spring
Telephone (212) 965-9511
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $18-$24
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover

This Nolita treasure presents its riches in a simple manner. Echoing the peasantry of former times, the focus is on the hearth. The similarities however, end there. The young, chic crowd and flavorful food elevate Peasant to a level of hip sophistication.

The simple decor exudes a sense of relaxation. At first, the room seems a little too dark, despite the mirror-dotted brick walls, but the absence of light enhances the warm glow of the wood burning oven and bustling open kitchen. And rightly so, because the food at Peasant is very good.

The rustic Italian fare features fresh, seasonal ingredients brought to life by generous amounts of garlic, tomato, delicious olive oil, herbs and spices. Wood-roasted cuttlefish served in terra-cotta delivered a peppery heat that lifted the flavors. Chef Frank de Carlo's signature porcini risotto lived up to its reputation as a rich, earthy concoction with perfect texture and consistency. But when they miss, the pasta dishes lack zip, and the fish, though tasty, is overcooked.

The 45-selection regional Italian list harbors a few gems, such as Colombini Morellino di Scansano 1997 ($36) and Allegrini's Verona Palazzo della Torre 1997 ($40), and the prices are fair, but a bit more breadth and depth would make the list stronger.

63 Gansevoort St., bet. Greenwich and Washington
Telephone (212) 367-8440
Open Dinner, Monday to Saturday Cost Entrées $24-$28
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Located in the trendy meatpacking district, Rhône's monolithic bar dominates the restaurant's industrial-style space, attracting a young, affluent crowd looking for action in the grungy neighborhood. But strip away the contemporary urban attitude, and Rhône is revealed as a sturdy restaurant whose soul longs for southern France.

Wine selections number 240, including 40 whites and 40 reds by the glass, served in Spiegelau stemware. Everything from fruity Côtes du Rhônes to complex Côte-Rôties (E. Guigal's 1996 single crus go for $375 each) is represented. The list features a few older vintages and a vertical of Château de Beaucastel, including the trio of 1988, 1989 and 1990.

The kitchen's country fare emphasizes bold flavors over finesse. Grilled diver scallops matched with oxtail ragout and bone marrow turns the seafood theme upside down, yet it exudes warmth, richness and earthiness. A hearty, saffron-infused seafood cassoulet and a braised lamb shank reflect their humble origins and marry well with the hearty wines. At press time, Rhône had hired Jean-Louis Dumonet, formerly of Trois Jean, as chef.

Personable, attentive service, flavorful offerings from the kitchen, and a wine list with a broad regional focus makes Rhône not just another trendsetter, but a true destination for food and wine.

The Tasting Room
72 E. 1st St., bet. First and Second
Telephone (212) 358-7831
Open Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $23-$29
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club

Taste and share: That's how the menu is organized at this small, funky East Village newcomer, and that's the essence of the exciting dining experience. Once you taste, you'll want to share.

Chef Colin Alevras, an alumnus of Verbena in New York and Michelin three-star Arpège in Paris, works with seasonal American market ingredients such as Alaskan halibut, Hokkaido squash, Jacob's cattle beans and regional farmhouse cheeses to create strong, direct flavors. A sterling example: In one dish, tender Maine lobster meets the frank earthiness of white turnip, salsify greens and a silky-textured braised carrot reduction.

Alevras, who also worked at Sherry-Lehman, and his wife, Renée, have extensive knowledge of wine, and it's evident in the all-American list. The 350 selections feature labels both familiar and adventurous; Varner, CL, Kunin and Palmina join Ridge, Caymus and Beaulieu Vineyards. Plenty of choices fall in the $30 to $50 range, while the big names fetch upwards of $100.

The Tasting Room embodies a recent minimalist trend in New York restaurants, where young chefs hone their skills for a hip, 20-something audience. The intimate space (800 square-feet), with its bare lighting and cramped tables, fosters a highly charged, noisy atmosphere, but the knowledgeable waitstaff manages to be attentive, even nurturing. This restaurant delivers one of the best one-two combinations of food and wine among the new trendsetting eateries.

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