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DINING ON MANHATTAN'S FRINGES
By Martin B. Deutsch
July 31, 2014 -- Business travelers are staying in more diverse locations around Manhattan, so we feel comfortable exploring a pair of unusual restaurants slightly off New York's beaten gastronomic path. These places are on the geographic fringes of the classic Midtown business hub, but only a brisk walk or a few minutes away by taxi.
One restaurant is a Pacific newcomer with an off-the-beaten-track approach to Chinese cooking. The other is a veteran of the New York dining scene that takes its inspiration from the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
EDGY MIDDLE EASTERN AT THE EDGE OF MIDTOWN
While it's somewhat out of the heart of Midtown Manhattan on the corner of 52nd Street and 10th Avenue, Taboon has been doling out a generally superior blend of Middle Eastern dishes to a sophisticated crowd for the last decade. If the size and enthusiasm of the clientele that inhabit this comfortable and pleasant eatery are any indication, then rest assured that the experience is decidedly positive.
The only-on-Sunday brunch, however, did not exactly thrill this observer although his fellow guests were both impressed and satisfied. We ate indoors, quite close to the show kitchen and traditional cone-shaped clay oven from which the restaurant takes it name. (Weather permitting, there is also street-side dining on 10th Avenue.)
The highlight for me was outstanding jalapeno-infused hummus ($8), served as an appetizer, along with Taboon's superb puffy bread ($4.50) brushed with olive oil and dusted with sage, rosemary and sea salt. It was delivered warm straight from the taboon. I enjoyed several rounds, accompanied by a uniquely spiced tea spiked with lemon, verbena, mint and sage. It came to the table hot, in a traditional Middle Eastern tea glass. I'd return to Taboon just for these special treats.
Somehow, however, Taboon's bread didn't come up to my heightened expectations as part of the Lachma Ba'joon ($13). Ground lamb, pine nuts and tahini crowned the bread, which now seemed tough and reminded me of a stale bagel.
Dishes my companions enjoyed included Americanized French Toast ($12), made from challah and served with blackberry marmalade and vanilla ice cream. Eggs Taboon ($12) consisted of two eggs any style with a choice of two garnishes from a list of vegetables, cheeses, meats and seafood. The Sabeech ($15), taboon-baked bread topped with deep-fried eggplant, brown egg, chopped salad and tahini, merited special compliments. Brunch Sambusak ($10) is Taboon's bread stuffed with feta cheese, jalapeno, onion and brown egg. Wines start at $12 a glass and choices include some exotic selections from Greece, Turkey, Israel and Lebanon.
Service was pleasant and accommodating and the staff is knowledgeable about the intricacies of Taboon's specialized cuisine, which reflects Mediterranean, Israeli, Yemeni and other regional variations.
During the week, Taboon only serves dinner, but its proximity to the theater district has led it to offer pre- and post-show menus that start at $38 and include mezze (appetizer), a main course and dessert. Reservations are a must, both for weekday or weekend dinners and the Sunday brunch.
CHINESE-AMERICAN FOOD THAT'S NOT CHINESE-AMERICAN
The addition of an upmarket restaurant with a creative, experimental kitchen is something to write about, especially on Manhattan's Upper West Side. As a longtime resident of this very pricey New York neighborhood, I know locals are always interested in another top-line dining room.
It is in this environment that we can welcome Red Farm, the 10-month-old sibling of the West Village original. Both are considered to be Chinese-American. Chinese-American they may be, but the cuisine, food presentations and menu verbiage are fancy and fanciful. To my mind, Red Farm trends more toward Pacific or Asian fusion than traditional neighborhood Chinese. After all, who expects a strip-steak luncheon special for $55 at a Chinese joint? What constitutes a Szechuan Bloody Mary for $12? And why is a "Chinese American" place serving a White Wine Peach Sangria with pomegranate, guava and apples for $14?
However bizarre some of this may sound, Red Farm is packed for lunch and dinner and the crowd is somewhat raucous. Obviously, it has been discovered by both the hipster diners and the local ladies who lunch.
To my jaded taste, Red Farm's dishes come across as fresh and succulent. Their presentation can be described as artistic and the food is prepared with a good deal of tender, loving care. As I implied, the prices are Upper West Side pricey, atypical of what one associates with Chinese-American food from less upscale and adventurous venues.
At a recent lunch, I was blown away by the fried wontons filled with shrimp and mango ($12), which is as good a way as any to ready your palate for the often-exotic dishes to come. Another starter that defies the genre, and I'm not kidding, is the pastrami egg roll ($7.50). It was tasty and crisp without being oily. A vegetarian among us raved about the two choices of vegetable dumplings ($12). I could make a meal out of the "small plates" and "dim sum" selections on Red Farm's menu.
Salads are also excellent, but who expects a flatiron steak salad for $24 in a Chinese restaurant?
The big hit at a recent dinner was an off-the-menu special dish: spicy beef with wide rice noodles. Although it was too hot for my tender palate, it drew unanimous applause from the other diners. Another popular choice was the moist and tender barbecued duck breast served with wide noodles ($27). At lunch, the marinated and grilled salmon ($27) won high praise despite the dinner-level price tag.
The daring menu alone justifies a visit to Red Farm. Among the other surprising choices were main dishes such as corn on the cob with Thai basil ($14) and lobster with chopped pork and egg ($41). And while there's no official dessert roster, we were offered a choice of mango panna cotta or a chocolate concoction.
I might mention here that the help is low-key, friendly and well-versed in what comes out of this eclectic kitchen. There's also a copious wine, beer and cocktail list. Seating is comfortable, but Red Farm does not take reservations. However, I've found that if you call in advance, they will make every effort to seat you as soon as possible.
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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.