Monthly Archives: November 2017

Popina – Wacky New Italian in WeCo

Popina Negroni

May 15, 2018 Update:

That chicken!  Its as real as Traveler’s Diarrhea.  I’m not sure I’ve had better Schnitzels in Austria, and I’m not sure I had better Chicken Milanese in Milan.  Its the perfect example of what delicious sweet heat can do to a bird.  Worth braving to WeCo just for this dish.  Well, its not like you have much of a choice here.  This is one of two mains.  The other item on the current menu is the elusive great sounding Porgy which is never there when I’m there.

Popina also makes a killer Negroni.  I think thats the only thing I ever drank here.  The pastas continue to impress.  One of which I had not too long ago was particularly memorable, but for the life of me I cant remember the ingredients (Seriously what kind of blog is this.  Not the serious kind).  But the anchovy Bucatini is still on and its looking like one of the classics, along with the Pappardelle and the chicken.   Considering the Instagram name of chef Chris is AlwaysAnchovy, you know where his loyalties lie.  The small menu redefines small.  It may be the smallest menu in NYC in fact.  May deter some, but as I keep saying over and over, its not the size of the ship…

November 26, 2017 Post:

I suppose I need to explain the title first.  We dont really have an area called WeCo.  Not yet at least.  According to Google Maps the small no man’s land west of the BQE around Columbia street in Brooklyn is called Columbia Street Waterfront District for some reason.  While other Brooklyn neighborhoods nearby like Greenwood and Sunset Park include their waterfront districts, Carroll Gardens, and Cobble Hill decided to neglect it, blaming the construction of the BQE that broke them apart.  And while it didnt work for Clinton (Hell’s Kitchen) much and other neighborhoods, the name change can definitely work here.  So might as well continue with our lazy Real Estate naming conventions and call the area WeCo (West of Cobble Hill).  Other consideration were Pok Pok City, and “That area where Pok Pok is”.  I used the latter to describe the location of Popina to my wife and friends.  No one around here heard of the Columbia Street Waterfront District.

Popina is the anti-Lilia.  Ever wonder why Lilia doesnt have a Michelin star by now?  Its simple.  Inspectors cant buy a reservation.  Ever since my meal there, its been notoriously difficult to get a table of any size.  But while the meal we had at Lilia left us very impressed, the place felt more like a neighborhood joint than one of those destinations you need to wait until midnight to reserve 30 days out.  Popina’s cooking approach and neighborhoody feel reminds me of Lilia in some ways.  But its their dedication to the neighborhood with their no reservation policy that will win the hearts of the local WeCos (See, its catching on already)

Popina Chicken

They dont come much tinier than this.  We sat comfortably by the bar, and by 7:45 or so on a Friday night the place filled up.  By 8, the wait was more than an hour.  Other than one or two bars nearby, there’s not a whole lot to do and drink in WeCo (Industrial funk, Red Hook-like zone).  Chris McDade and James O’brien are the two Maialino and Marta veterans opening their first restaurant.  Being under the guidance of Nick Anderer and co at Maialino can make all the difference in the world, and it showed

This is my kind of menu, a picky eater worst nightmare, and so WeCo!  Small and to the point.  Around 10 items all together, including only 2 secondis (mains).  Starters include terrific Arancini ladened with honey with hints of saffron.  Raw Bay Scallops with soppressata and pistachio the only dish that didnt work for me.  The Bay Scallops were just too large for the rest of the ingredients to catch up and balance that scallopy sweetness.  Maybe some more acid and pink peppercorns can help.

Much has been written about Popina being a mesh-up of Italian and Southern cuisine (McDade grew up in the south and speaks fluent Southern), but I’m just not seeing it.  The menu has all the look and feel of Italian with some subtle southern hints.  You wouldnt know that you are eating in a southern establishment unless someone told you.  And much has been said, for good reason, about the spicy Chicken Milanese that suggests that southern influence.  Its essentially a Schnitzel gone wild.  But for my taste it was the Pappardelle with Ham Hock that really showcases these guys capabilities.  Perfectly cut fresh Pappardelle, slow braised porky goodness, with no tomato to be found.  The kind of dish you may find in the hills of Piemonte.  Chocolate dessert is that proper finish one would expect here.  This is a GO!

Popina
127 Columbia St (Kane), WeCo, Brooklyn
Rating: Two Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Arancini, Chicken, Pappardelle, Chocolate dessert

 

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Khe-Yo – For the Bloggers Who Lunch

Dinner menu envy – Its a real thing.  A first world problem.  So often we salivate over the dinner menu when all we can do is lunch sometimes.  Unlike in other countries (like Italy), lunch plays second fiddle here.  While there are many ethnic plays that offer the same menu all day long, most of the places out there offer lunch menus that aren’t nearly as interesting as dinner.  It all boils down to our busy lifestyle.  Our daily routine means we need something good and quick during the week.  And when finally the weekend comes and we have more time, these guys transform into French Toast factories.

Khe-Yo isn’t really an exception to the rule.  Its an elevated Laotian (the only one in NYC as far as I know), and I wouldnt expect them to offer an all day menu.  But what they do is offer exactly the type of menu you would want from a place like this.  This gang puts a lot of thought into what goes on each dish and just pulls it off.  When they first started offering lunch, your options were Banh-Mi A or Banh-Mi B, to go. Nothing wrong with it, but 4 years later this is a different Khe-Yo.

Its the same kind of small concentrated menu they offer for dinner.  The lone appetizer, excellent chicken wings got that perfect messy balance of sweet, sour and spicy notes.  Its been a while since I had Bahn Mi here but I have full confidence in any of the three options.  The Coconut crusted shrimp sounds appealing even though I’m not the biggest fan of coconut shrimp.  The Pho here, Nong-Khai Style (city in Thailand on the border with Laos) is as top notch as any Pho I’ve had in a NYC.  And last but not least, the Creekstone Farms Skirt Steak is a lesson in skirt perfection.  Marinated with sugar and Hoisin, top quality tender awesomeness that just melts in your fork.  Possibly my favorite overall restaurant in Tribecca, and a solid Z-Lister

Previously on Khe-Yo

Khe-Yo
157 Duane St (Hudson/W Broadway), Tribeca
Rating: Two Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes (lunch): Skirt Steak, Wings, Pho

Categories: New York City, TriBeCa | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Balaboosta Needs a Boosta Shot

Balaboosta - OctopusYou can get easily lost in the constant changing dining shuffle here in NYC.  One minute its Poke, another minute its Ramen, and before you know it, Sabra joints popping up all over like.. well, Sabra.  When Balaboosta first opened 7 years ago, it was quite the welcoming menu featuring refreshing Middle Eastern and north African fare not so easily available elsewhere.  But today, with places like Nur, Timna, Taboon, and even Balaboosta’s hipper sister Bar Bolonat, this once perfect housewife (the meaning of Balaboosta) seems a little lost, neglected, disowned by the family and left in a nursing home in Idaho

After all these visits to the Einat Admoni empire (Taim, Bar Bolonat, Balaboosta), I’ve never seen her pink scooter parked in the front which also means I’ve never actually met her.  She strikes me as a very busy celebrity chef nowadays, promoting, cooking, touring, pink scooter racing, etc, etc.  There’s nothing unusual about establishments running themselves like well oiled machines.  But one cant help but wonder if this one requires a little more attention these days.

Take the current menu for example.  You have usual classics like the cauliflower that pretty much started the Israeli cauliflower trend all over town.  The hummus that makes me question my stance on chunky vs creamy every time I eat it.  A perfectly tender octopus that defines smokiness.  And a taste of Israeli street food, chicken and merguez in a pita with that mango-ish Amba sauce normally poured on shawarmas.  The appetizers here are solid for the most part and set the tone

Balaboosta - Hummus

But unfortunately the excitement stops there.  There are places out there that make me want to come back and try every single entree on the menu, and then there are those where I struggle to pick two.  If you remove the first item (“Syrian Pasta ‘Rishta’) you are essentially staring at you average “New American” menu.  Two fish dishes, chicken, brisket, lamb burger, and a skirt steak.  Some come with small hints (“Israeli couscous”) that you are inside an Israeli/Middle Eastern/Mediterranean establishment.  My super picky mother-in-law and the entire Joy Suck Club can have a field day with this menu.  Maybe thats the idea.  Remove the exotica, and make it as Balaboosta friendly as possible, where NYU students can bring their Bridge and Tunnel parents (I am one, and yes it is a thing) to finally meet that new boyfriend.

On this Saturday night, even the two specials were both appetizers.  We settled on the chicken and Branzino.  The boneless chicken was tender alright, with crispy skin that blended nicely with flesh, but got progressively duller.  The Branzino was cooked well (hard to screw it up), but flavors not very distinct or different than what we grill at home once a month.  We wanted at least one fish dish and that was the only one served whole.  My friend enjoyed her skirt steak, while her partner was struggling with the lamb burger.  And for dessert the Knafeh didnt seem as eventful as last time around.  An enjoyable meal nonetheless, but I think I’ll stick to the younger hipper sister for the time being

Balaboosta
214 Mulberry St (Spring/Prince), Nolita
Rating: One Z (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Octopus, Hummus, Cauliflower, Israeli Street Food

 

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Nishi is Now Italian, But Still Momofuku

July 23, 2018 Update:

This is your annual reminder to check out this gem in Chelsea that continues to fire on all Bucatinis.  Three visits this year alone and about a dozen overall, making Momofuku Nishi my most frequented fine dining destination these days.  Its the only place with a four Z rating in the EWZ NYC universe.  But as with any establishment, its important to keep expectations in check.  The menus constantly change and sometimes those crazy Fuku chefs like to experiment on us.  So allow me to decipher the current menu to uncover some gems for you.  Well, you really have no choice.

To Start – Here I go for the market veggies mostly.  Endive with walnut Bagna Cauda, the classic Piedmontese dish that serves as the perfect counter for the sharp Endives. The various Gem Lettuce renditions always work, and last time the Romano Beans and Burrata with Spring Onions did the trick.  But if you dont mind the high markup for some of the most prized Uni in the world, the Hokkaido Uni on top of two spongy Panelle in Dashi is pure ecstasy with every bite.  Also the scallop whether regular or bay are always good.  And I love their Sourdough Focaccia with ‘nduja (Calabrian chili with pork spread)

Nishi Uni

Pasta – Wait there’s more?  I think I’m stuffed.  But if this is your first visit, by law you have to start with the Bucatini ceci e pepe.  Notice the Ceci spelling.  Instead of Pecorino, these crazy scientists are using their trademark “Hozon”, a fermented chickpea paste, giving it more of a sweet note.  My favorite new discovery is the Campanelle with blue crab and old bay seasoning – light, summary, earthy flavors throughout.  But the best pasta on the current menu is probably the Tagliatelle with pork skin, black beans and Chinese garlicky chives.  Its unlike any pork ragu you’ll come across.  The fantastic Capellini alla Fideos, perhaps the best clam dish in NYC is not on the menu currently for some reason.

Lobster Fra Diavolo – This deserves its own category because it is its own category on the menu.  I describe this $62 beast below so I wont repeat.  It was recently featured on Grubstreet.  A textbook example of that classic Nishi marriage of Asian and Italian.  You cant find this on Jdate folks.  I tried.

Meat and Fish – The Monkfish and Roast Pork are the standouts right now, though I didnt have the good looking lamb leg yet.  No steak on the menu at the moment (I think we finished all of them) but its usually dependable.  The ribs need to be back as well.  The only thing I wouldnt order again is the Branzino.

Pasta Tasting – Never had it.

Dessert – Get the Frozen Vanilla Mousse and Pistachio Bundt.

Enjoy!

November 10, 2017 Post:

I pretty much declared it my new favorite Italian before my first visit to the new and improved La Cucina Fukina.  Improved?  It was more like wishing things stayed the same as much as possible.  It wasnt the first time I was disappointed to learn about a restaurant I really like turning strictly “Italian” overnight (Caicos Cafe in my adopted home of Turks and Caicos).  Turns out however, fears overblown again, but this time I expected it to be.

Momofuku Nishi seem to have an identity problem, but not so much a creativity problem.  When I talk about Momofuku during my tours, I often stumble upon the “What kind of cuisine is it” question.  “Its Momofuku cuisine” I often say.  A bunch of talented guys and gals in a lab making magic.  Asian influenced magic.  We often default stuff like this to “New American”.

As long as its still Momofuku and Joshua Pinski at the helm, Nishi can go Polish, Norwegian, or Ethiopian as far as I care and still deliver.  If not for the surprising announcement, I wouldnt even know there was a label change after my recent meals.  Nishi has been executing nifty pastas and crudos since they opened pretty much.  The identity flak mostly came from aging critics who didnt care for the space nor the noise.  A valid complaint, met with death ears by many once they tried those luscious spare ribs or the sick Capellini a la Fideos which is going through its third incarnation.Nishi Radish Bagna Cauda

The big change that meant closing Nishi for a few days was to the space.  No more community tables, and the chairs now got your back.  Its more comfortable now, which can be perceived as a little fancier as some pointed out on Yelp.  Another big change is the introduction of a Pasta tasting menu.  I’m not normally in favor of this kind of carb overload, but by the look of it, and having eaten some of this, it could be the new pasta tasting menu to beat in NYC.

And then there’s the Lobster Fra Diavolo.  Coincidentally, another thing in common with that Italian counterpart in TCI I mentioned earlier.  Here its a mammoth plate loaded with garlic, chili and XO infused spaghettoni, with the emphasis on the chili making it more Asian than Italian.  On top are chunks of 1.5 lb flash fried lobster coated with salt and pepper, cracked and ready to easily fish out that wonderful meat.  Its a $62 triumph!  One of the best things I’ve eaten all year

In the two recent visits I’ve enjoyed the walnut Bagna Cauda both times.  Once for lunch with radish, and for dinner with red endive.  This Piedmontese classic sauce is the perfect counter to the sharpness of Endives.  In Piedmont they use it as a dip for vegetables but I prefer it on top.  And the fact that the Striped Bass Carpaccio topped with thin slices of castelvetrano olives wasnt particularly memorable serves as a true testament to the rest of the lineup, because we didnt find anything particularly wrong with it.  The infamous Bucatini ceci e pepe is still on the menu.  And while I do recommend it, I’m not sure it cracks my top 3 pastas here.  The saucy, finger licking awesome BBQ Pork Ribs however can crack top 3 ribs in the city

The fine Lumache with spicy beef and mint is now part of the pasta tasting menu.  At lunch time its available in the form of Pappardelle.  And I presume those Capellini a la Fideos is still that same toasty, apple cider infused goodness.  The only thing missing from the menu is that sick Skate with brown butter I had last year.  More goodness on the dessert column.  Olive oil cake with candied fennel greatly enhanced by a zesty orange sauce, while people around us going gaga over the the Apple tart.

Ladies and gents, I’m giving out my first 4 Z’s.  Its essentially the equivalent of giving my virginity to that special someone at my age.  Big Mazal Tov to the Nishi family.  I expect to get invited to the party and see those silly Zagat Rated stickers on the window replaced with this Z rating in no time.

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Nishi
232 Eighth Avenue (22nd), Chelsea
Rating: Four Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Everything!

Nishi Scallops

Categories: Chelsea, New York City | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Ikinari Steak is a Standout

Ikinari Steak Rib EyeYou may as well forget everything you know about Ikinari, the latest Japanense import to hit the streets of NYC.  The gimmick of standing while eating quickly caved in to stressed out New Yorkers.  While thousands of runners are running the NY marathon as we speak, the rest of us creatures of habit having major difficulties coming to terms with the idea of eating while standing.  Eating while walking is acceptable.  Standing, not so much.

In a way I was disappointed to be offered a seat when me and my friend showed up as I was all ready to have this new experience.  I even trained for this.  I ate a fruit salad while watching TV, clocking at 3 minutes and 40 seconds standing time before collapsing.  The next day I almost made it to 5 minutes of couscous, which requires higher concentration, balance and hand mouth coordination.  But the big steak test never arrived.

Ikinari is a new concept in NYC, and its surprising that it hasnt been done before.  A fast-casual steakhouse.  Steak is arguably the most sought after food item for locals and tourists alike, but is not very affordable.  A good steak in an average steakhouse will run you over $50.  Similarly we made lobster affordable over time with fast food lobster rolls available all over, so why did it take this long for steak.  I cant really answer except to say its here, and by the sound of it it, here to stay.  The natural progression is usually for a place like this to open in East Village, and then if successful spread to areas like Hell’s Kitchen before spilling elsewhere.  But in this case the plan already in the works to open 7 NYC locations by the end of the year.Ikinary Steak Rice

So how does it work?  Good question Timmy.  You get your steak options (Sirloin, Filet, Ribeye) and the amount you want, just like buying steak in the supermarket pretty much.  We shared a 15oz Ribeye that was grilled to a beautiful rare hot pink.  Unless you require it any other way, it is best to follow their recommendation and order it rare.  The steak is simply seasoned with pepper and continues to cook on the sizzling plate.  By the time we were done with it, it was getting closer to medium.  While it wasnt exactly top steakhouse quality ribeye, it was a nicely cooked satisfying ribeye aided by the dollop of garlic butter on top.

Another must dish here is the garlic pepper rice.  It comes sizzling with corn, and pieces of almost raw meat that are cooked enough by the time you (or the waiter) mixes it all.  Corn is the vegetable of choice here that also comes with your steak (with some onions).  The entire experience almost feels like eating steak in my backyard.  They give you a selection of sauces including a warm, salty soy based that they advise pouring on the meat.  But after trying some of it, we were glad we didnt, and instead opted for the sweeter sauce in the smaller container.  Final bill: no drinks, $23 per person for a steak dinner!  Except that this was lunch

Ikinari Steak
90 E 10th St (4/3), East Village
Rating: Two Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Steak, Garlic Pepper Rice

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