Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



March 18, 2004 -- Even a cursory review of several of my recent restaurant reviews attests to the incredible diversity (and quality) of Manhattan's restaurants. I'm biased as a lifelong New Yorker, of course, but I think the cornucopia of dining pleasures here is probably unequaled anywhere in the world.

France may well have better three-star French eateries and Italy may be unequaled for its wonderful pasta-based cuisine, but no one runs the gamut like New York. These five reviews of current New York star eateries reflect the kitchens of India, Mexico, the Mediterranean, a uniquely New York Jewish deli, and, of course, Tuscany.

And this collection--like my reviews last year--are, obviously, the tip of the iceberg (lettuce?). The moral to be drawn from all this? Enjoy!

The word has always been that Manhattan's West Side lacks any restaurants of real quality, a belief to which I generally subscribe. The area is less of a dining desert now, but even before the climate began to change for the better, the neighborhood had Picholine, a handsome Continental dining room that drew high marks for cuisine, decor and service. We ate there on a recent Saturday with another couple and generally enjoyed everything except the bill. My warm Maine Lobster appetizer alone ran $21, but it was succulent. Here is a capsule look at the four main entrees: Wild Mushroom and Rabbit Risotto ($29), Crispy Free-Range Organic Chicken ($33), Truffle-Poached Day Boat Halibut ($38) and Alaska King Salmon ($38). All delicious, as was the Kali Hart Chardonnay from California at $12 a glass. Desserts are elegant at $12.50 a pop. I especially loved the Peach Napoleon, which I thought should have been double the portion. The cheese tray is considered among the best in the city. Maitre d' Pascal Signe and his staff are professional and friendly. (Picholine is located at 35 West 64th Street off Central Park West; phone: 212-724-8585)

The other day I grabbed a taxi on the way to a business lunch and the driver asked if I had my palate focused on pastrami. As a matter of fact, yes, I said. He quickly explained that he ate frequently at delis throughout New York, including top-of-the-line spots like the Carnegie Deli and the Second Avenue Deli. He then insisted that New York's best pastrami, bar none, was at a place called Artie's. I live within walking distance of Artie's, eat there frequently and also have orders delivered. And a friend in the restaurant business, who's a fanatic pastrami maven, concurs with the cabbie's assessment. He orders his pastrami sandwich extra lean--there's a surcharge of $1--and sends it back if there's a hint of untrimmed fat. If you're not a pastrami fanatic, Artie's offers the traditional deli menu and the prices are lower than delis in midtown. The decor is utilitarian and the service is sometimes gruff, but always entertaining. Just a few months ago, a dining review said the No. 1 deli in the city was the most overrated and that Artie's was the most underrated. Amen! No reservations necessary.

'Twas a bitter cold day, the side streets still clogged with the frozen remnants of a recent 10-inch snowfall and I was in the market for a warm and comfortable place to host a business lunch in Manhattan's downtown Flatiron District. A friend recommended the right place, an up-and-coming Tuscan eatery called Beppe. Well-lit, roomy yet cozy, Beppe proved to be a winner on all fronts. The food was very good, the service helpful and friendly and the prices, while on the high side, were in line with the total experience. Both of my guests had salads for appetizers, which earned high marks, as did the breadbasket, which was accompanied by olive oil instead of butter. (The radicchio salad ran $13, the beet salad $9.) Although the entree special was lamb stew, I had the fish, branzino, described as a wild striped bass. It arrived grilled, delicate and delicious, although at $29, I was surprised that it came without even a hint of vegetable or potato. This is an a la carte menu! My companions both had pasta, consumed with gusto, at about $18 a pop. We split a lemon yogurt panna cotta, which was light, tart and refreshing. Just before heading back into the bitter cold, we were treated to glasses of (delicious) hot chocolate with fresh whipped cream and fresh cookies. Nice touch. Nice menu, nice meal--and the selections and prices are the same for lunch and dinner. And here's an interesting twist for an Italian restaurant: Veal was conspicuously absent. Reservations are recommended.

I used to be a regular at Zarela, but hadn't eaten there in years. Much to my delight, however, a recent lunch confirms that this 17-year East Side veteran continues to serve New York's best and most imaginative Mexican dishes. No Taco Bell in sight here. We started off with Snapper Hash, the signature appetizer that is deliciously spiced with tomato, jalapeno, cilantro and other zesty, aromatic herbs. There was also a hearty shrimp and tortilla soup of the day. For my entree, I had the whole trout, seared and flavored with all kinds of savory herbs and, of course, jalapeno. My companion went with the special entree, scallops, prepared with garlic, almonds and jalapeno. It was mouth-watering and picturesque. We also shared a dish of flautas wrapped around chicken. We had two desserts: Mexican chocolate cake served with hot fudge sauce and chocolate fudge ice cream and warm Mexican caramel crepes with pecans and pecan ice cream. Prices at lunch are reasonable--they're higher at dinner--the restaurant is extremely comfortable and the service is low-key and competent. The owner, Zarela Martinez, has had her own PBS television series and she's authored three cookbooks, the latest of which is Zarela's Veracruz.

Four of us recently shared dinner at Dawat, a well-run and handsome Indian restaurant on Manhattan's East Side. The verdict was unanimous: mouth-watering and creative cuisine that's well worth the price. (The more modest lunch menu is a bargain, relatively speaking.) Among the appetizers, we chose two of the many daily specials: chicken tikka nan, the fluffy bread stuffed with seasoned tandoori chicken; and addictive crab nazakad, chunks of fresh crab with honey, mustard seed, kokam, coconut milk and fresh curry leaves. The baghari jhinga from Dawat's regular appetizer menu was also excellent, a wonderful concoction of shrimp with garlic, mustard seeds and curry leaves. Among the main courses were the chef's special, lobster shehnaz in a creamy tomato sauce; the subtly spiced lamb chops gurnar; a dish of mustard greens and spinach; okra flavored with dried mango and browned onions; spicy potatoes, lemon rice and moist, steamed basmati rice. We drank masala tea, a traditional spiced tea. I didn't try the wine, but my companions praised the selection and quality. Alas, no one had room for dessert. The chef behind this feast for the taste buds and eyes is Madhur Jeffrey, an actress and award-winning Indian cookbook author. At dinner, appetizers start at $6 and main courses at $16. Reservations are a must.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.