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WEST SIDE DINING STORY
By Martin B. Deutsch
May 15, 2014 -- Two months ago, I introduced you to Hotel Beacon, a comfy and affordable lodging option on Manhattan's residential Upper West Side. Although the hotel is co-located with a superior coffee shop, business travelers checking into the Beacon are forgiven for wondering where they can dine in this unfamiliar part of town.
Quite coincidentally, I offered up a few noteworthy restaurants near the Beacon a few years ago. But allow me to add three more choices. They span the culinary globe and, frankly, each is worth a visit even if you're bunking down in a Midtown hotel.
A UNIQUE TAKE ON MIDDLE EASTERN CLASSICS
The Druze, a small Muslim sect whose major communities are in Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, have a reputation for hospitality and a creative take on Middle Eastern cuisine. An enterprising chef/owner named Gazala Halabi, who comes from a Druze village in northern Israel, has been entrenched for many years at the edge of Manhattan's Theater District. A more recent addition is Gazala's, her restaurant on Columbus Avenue and West 78th Street, facing the rear of the American Museum of Natural History.
Several of us lunched at Gazala's on weekdays in recent weeks and we weren't disappointed with the menu. There's an extensive à la carte list and weekday lunch specials for $12.50. You won't go away hungry--or complaining about prices or portion sizes. And, without exception, the dishes are savoy.
The six or so lunch plates we tried included the chicken and kafta combos served with rice, salad and tahini. There's also a veggie platter offering hummus, babaganoush, labanee, falafel and potato cigars (rolled pitas stuffed with potatoes, curry, spices and tahini). We also enjoyed the meat cigars, rolled pitas stuffed with meat and onion. They are crispy fried and served with tahini sauce and the appetizer even got a thumbs-up from our vegetarian dining companion. He was particularly effusive about Gazala's vegetarian options, including several excellent takes on fava beans and hummus. The salads were fresh, tasty, well-prepared and satisfying, too.
Instead of the thickish slabs of pita one associates with Middle Eastern food, Gazala's serves a paper-thin crepe version called sagg. It is a typical Druze variation, firm but light and almost ephemeral. I thought it could have been made from the finest Egyptian papyrus.
Desserts are unique. At one of the lunches, three of us shared Osh Al-Saria, a creamy yogurt pudding prepared with oranges (or, at our sitting, apricots) and rosewater. It was deemed quite refreshing and delicate. If you want to taste some of Gazala's other desserts, try the sampler. It includes date cookies, baklava, the osh al-saria and an intriguing blueberry cake.
There is a selection of loose teas, a welcome step above tea bags. All are brewed at the table. Wine and beer are available, too. We had no problems as lunch walk-ins on weekdays, but reservations are recommended for brunch and dinner.
UPSCALE ITALIAN DOWN A FLIGHT OF STAIRS
Down a flight of steep stairs on West 77th Street just off Columbus Avenue is Scaletta, an upscale Northern Italian restaurant that obviously has a loyal following built over the decades. Most diners knew the waiters by name and the waiters seemed to know many of the patrons as well, all good signs. Understated surroundings and impeccable service also distinguish Scaletta, which is part of Delmonico's Restaurant Group, a small collection of dining rooms built around the historic Delmonico's in New York's financial district.
It was my first visit to this Upper West Side institution and Scaletta was also new to the three other diners. I'm sorry I waited so long to sample this elegant room.
Our appetizers included several arugula-based salads: Insalata Arugula (baby arugula, shaved Parmigiano with a balsamic vinaigrette); Insalata Caprese (tomatoes, arugula, fresh mozzarella, shaved red onion and basil); and Carpaccio di Manzo con Funghi e Parmigiano (beef carpaccio with portabella mushrooms, arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese). Prices ranged from $12 to $15 each.
There were three very tasty pastas: Rigatoni con Broccoli Rabe; Capellini Pomodoro Basilico; and the Ravioli di Formaggio alla Scaletta. Prices ranged from $19 to $22 each and all were served perfectly al dente. Entrees included a $23 Risotto Con Funghi (Risotto with assorted mushrooms) that was excellent and more than enough to have about a third left over. Another main dish was a generous grilled salmon paillard served on a bed of sautéed spinach. It was deemed "perfect" for $27.
The Italian bread was hard to ignore and we asked for refills several times. Wine, ordered by the glass, included Malbec and Pinot Grigio. Of the deserts we tasted, the plum cake (buttressed by a double serving of ice cream) was considered very very good. But the dark chocolate cake mousse was only so-so. The rice pudding with apricots was interesting, but I doubt I'd order it again. There was also a complimentary platter of freshly baked biscotti. We ended dinner with various American coffees and cappuccino.
We had no complaints about any of the dishes, or the wines, with one exception: A diner at our table opined that he would come back for everything except the ice cream, which he declared was not up to the restaurant's standards. Oh, well, you can't please everyone all the time.
Scaletta is not inexpensive, but it is not out of line with the prices of other Italian restaurants in its class. It's open only for dinner and reservations are recommended.
NO MSG AND PLENTY OF CHINESE CHOICES
Chinese food in all its regional permutations is a staple in New York City's culinary lineup and the genre is fairly well represented on the Upper West Side. Legend72, the newish Upper West Side outpost of the Legend mini-chain, drew my attention because it does not use monosodium glutamate (MSG). As you know, MSG brings on the dreaded Chinese Restaurant Syndrome and I studiously avoid places that cook with it.
Although Legend72 specializes in genuine Sichuan cooking, which is noted for its spicy dishes, our party of three began with more traditional appetizers such as wonton soup, spring rolls and spareribs. We also kept it simple with main dishes, including pork fried rice and chicken lo mein, both of which were very good. There was also a decent and spicy General Tso's chicken.
One diner, however, held out for the real thing. He quizzed the waiter on a list of specials printed only in Chinese. It was mostly dishes using duck tongue and he could find no other interested party at the table. But he did insist on dandan noodles, a Sichuan staple that, when properly prepared, is usually the spiciest dish in the restaurant. He rated them excellent and appropriately spiced. He also praised the dry-sautéed string beans which, unlike versions at more slapdash Chinese places, were well-cooked, crisp and not oily.
Moving on to dessert, two of our group ordered the sweet potato cakes. Although they were considered light enough, one of the diners thought they lacked flavor. I chose lychee to clear my palate. Alas, I suspect they were the canned variety.
By offering a menu that appeals to both conservative and adventurous eaters, Legend72 solves one of the big challenges of group dining at a Chinese restaurant. The notable quality of the traditional dishes, along with the appeal of its authentic Sichuan delicacies, ensures a satisfying dining experience for both. Better yet, prices are modest and beer and surprisingly good wine by the glass are available.
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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 © 2014 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.