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GO (UPPER) EAST (SIDE), NEW YORK DINER
By Martin B. Deutsch
July 18, 2013 -- Manhattan's elegant Upper East Side, for decades the repository of some of the city's finest restaurants--and an easy trip north from the Midtown hotel community--includes eateries with cuisines for every palate, if not for every wallet.
However, I believe that the upscale Italian and French kitchens, which continue to distinguish this neighborhood, are among the Upper East Side's most stellar attractions. That's not to say that the dining fare of other countries is underrepresented ... but that's for another column.
At any rate, here are two Italian and one French restaurant recommendations for your gustatory consideration on your next visit to this part of Manhattan Island. And, as always in New York, reservations are recommended.
LUSARDI'S: LAIDBACK, CLASSIC AND UNPRETENTIOUS ITALIAN
A longtime East Side favorite, Lusardi's is a laidback but classy Northern Italian dining room. There's no pretense, a good deal of charm and some very fine food. And, not to underestimate its importance, menu prices are comparable to eateries of similar distinction. Appetizers start at $13 and top out at around $19, while the pasta, fish and meat entrées range from the mid-$20s to a high of $32.
On a recent Thursday night, we chose to dine indoors chiefly because it was simply too hot to sit outdoors. Our group of four was very comfortable, not only with the seating but also with the quality of the unobtrusive and friendly service--something that's MIA in too many tony New York eateries.
Of the appetizers, I chose the cream of asparagus soup, which was both hearty and flavorful, although I lodged a complaint about the absence of croutons. Of the three salads, the Insalata Francescana (field greens with red beets, corn, tomato and shaved aged ricotta) drew the highest praise.
Among the entrées, my choice--the risotto with mushrooms--was outstanding and generous in size. (Other risottos were available with either truffles or shrimp.) As we say in Brooklyn, "You couldn't go wrong." The fresh, grilled salmon, served with a side of made-to-order pasta with garlic and olive oil, also merited a thumbs up. And an off-the-menu main course, cavatelli with vegetable ragout, garnered appreciative comments from two of our group.
For dessert, I chose a delicate and delicious cappuccino mousse with fresh whipped cream. Fabulous. The rest of the group passed around a tray of biscotti. They must have been good since they were gone in a matter of minutes.
Wines by the glass included a brisk and refreshing Pinot Grigio and a Malbec, both pleasant accompaniments to the evening's selections. And, believe it or not, the coffee was deemed outstanding.
CAFÉ BOULUD: A WEAK LINK IN THE RESTAURANT FAMILY
Daniel Boulud's family of New York restaurants has long been considered among the city's outstanding eateries. And I have long been an appreciative devotee. I've chalked up memorable meals at Daniel on East 65th Street and Bar Boulud on Broadway, across from Lincoln Center, among others. In fact, I've never been disappointed at any of Boulud's establishments.
We recently had the occasion to try the lunch menu at Café Boulud, handsomely situated both indoors and outdoors at The Surrey Hotel. The big attraction, considered a "steal" by leading dining gurus, is the $37 two-course prix-fixe and $43 three-course prix-fixe menus. The menus, which change weekly, are available only for lunch on Monday through Saturday.
We ran into a problem as soon as we arrived at exactly 12:30 p.m., as our reservation specified. The maitre d' or captain--very serious, very imposing, very French--said that the outdoor tables were taken and we would have to dine indoors. No way, fella, I told him. I'd made this booking weeks ago with the understanding that we would be served outside on what was a genuinely wonderful day. We were nevertheless led inside and I was not pleased. I told the staff entourage that was trying to placate us that we were leaving. They then miraculously found an outside table--albeit fairly remote from the main outdoor dining area and just abreast of some sidewalk construction.
We tried all three appetizers offered on that day's prix-fixe menu, including the arugula salad, deemed "excellent;" chilled carrot soup (mixed reviews, although mine was favorable); and the rock shrimp ceviche, which I inhaled almost before I began.
Among the day's entrées, the potato gnocchi (with niçoise olives, tomato sauce and pecorino romano), which wouldn't cut it in an Italian kitchen, drew no applause. The skirt steak (with black bean masa cake, jersey corn and mole) got high marks--for what there was of it. My main dish, the pan-seared flounder (with romesco purée, green zucchini, couscous and sauce vierge), was very good, but the portion was appetizer-size.
On our visit, just two deserts were listed: a Choux à la Crème (pistachio diplomat, black pepper macerated strawberries, goat's milk sorbet) and a Dark Chocolate Mousse (raspberry balsamic jelly, toasted milk cream, olive oil sorbet). Somehow, they neglected to serve my mousse. Some protracted negotiations ensued, and, finally, a delicious and generous portion materialized. (I think that in the confusion they brought me a larger à la carte version.) Incidentally, my wife enjoyed a delicious glass of Champagne, but don't ask about the price.
All in all, a mixed experience and not quite up to my earlier Boulud experiences. Most of the portions were skimpy, although this is often the case with prix-fixe menus. We didn't see too much of the wait staff during our meal and my water glass was never refilled. Would I go back? My answer: I'd probably choose among the other Boulud restaurants.
ITALIANISSIMO: AN ITALIAN RESTAURANT STAFFED BY ITALIANS
Tucked away on a very quiet side street is the narrow, boisterous and invariably-crowded-as-the-evening-progresses Italianissimo. Although reviews from individual patrons are generally mixed, I found the ambiance pleasant, the service helpful and unpressured, the food mostly to my liking and the wine list impressive. Prices at this dinner-only place are acceptable by today's standards, and, incidentally, the waiters were actually Italians at home with the dishes and their nomenclature.
Before we ordered, the waiter stressed that "We make anything you want us to prepare, even if it's not on the menu, as long as we have the ingredients." This worked out particularly well for our 13-year-old daughter, who orders pasta only as she likes it, for both lunch and dinner, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Appetizers, sampled over two meals, ranged in price from $9.95 to $12.95. A special salad of arugula with walnuts, oranges and goat cheese received high marks. The Antipasto Caldo (with shrimp, baked clams, stuffed mushrooms and rolled eggplant) was described as "excellent." I had a custom-made plate of sautéed sweet sausages, peppers and onions, which was quite tasty, but they were skimpy with the sausage slices.
Pastas ranged from a very reasonable $15 to $17 while the other entrées ran from the low to the mid-$20s. Among the pastas we enjoyed were Fusili Polie e Rapini (corkscrew pasta dressed with chicken, broccoli rabe, garlic and tomato sauce); Pappardelle Alla Boscaiola (homemade flat pasta with sun-dried tomato, mushrooms, basil, Marsala wine, garlic and pecorino cheese) and a specially prepared fresh fettuccini with shrimp, mozzarella and tomato sauce. Speaking as an expert, our daughter declared the fettuccini her favorite restaurant pasta ever. From the half-dozen fish entrées, I tried Spigola Marechiaro, a filet of sea bass with shrimp, clams, mussels and a hint of tomato.
Among Italianissimo's homemade desserts, the chocolate mousse cake stood out. The tiramisu, the cheesecake and the banana flambé were decent, but nothing special.
The wine list was extensive, with a special emphasis on Italian whites and reds. We sampled a bracing and delicious house Pinot Grigio, priced at $4.50 by the glass. There was also a full bar and a selection of grappas.
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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2013 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.