Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



November 2, 2006 -- One of my greatest pleasures as a business traveler has always been the opportunity to sample fine and diverse dining in various cities across the country and around the world. And I always believed that the road warriors whose itineraries brought them to New York City were especially fortunate in this regard.

Being a resident of the Big Apple for many decades, I can certainly appreciate what New York has to offer on the dining circuit. It is in this context that you will find the following four food critiques, spotlighting three old standbys on my dining rounds, as well as a quick look at a newcomer on the scene that made its debut last year in a museum setting.

I'm pretty sure that you'd enjoy any one of these four Manhattan eateries.

Two of my severest critics, my wife and a sister-in-law, recently took on the mantle of restaurant reviewers as a favor to yours truly. We're talking about The Modern, the new restaurant that made its debut last year when the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) reopened with a $400 million renovation. Since we are talking about MOMA, the midtown restaurant, understandably, has a minimalist look that conveys a feeling of elegance and charm. The Modern comes in two dining sections: the handsome dining room and the bar. The bar is where the ladies dined. The main room offers its primary meal at $82, followed by the shorter tasting menu at $125 and the longer one at $150. The menu in the bar is not nearly as expensive, with everything priced from $10 to $19. (The same chef presides over both rooms.)

For appetizers, the ladies ordered the lobster risotto and the basil gnocchi with peekytoe crab. Strong thumbs up for both dishes. For entrees, they had wild salmon with horseradish crust, cabbage and riesling, and cobia with cockles and summer vegetables in broth. Both dishes were deemed to be delicious. For dessert, our critics shared the beignets, which came with maple ice cream and two fresh fruit sauces. My wife, who spent five years in New Orleans in an earlier life, described the dessert as splendid, or as close as you can get to those at the Café Du Monde. High praise indeed. Portions were perfect and the food presentation was artistic, which is what you would expect from a restaurant at MOMA. I am told that service in the bar was friendly and flawless. My wife also splurged on a $20 glass of champagne, and her sister enjoyed a fine red wine. The total bill with tax and tip came to $163.30. They both agreed they would be happy to go back any time, with or without wearing the critic's hats. Reservations are a must.

I recently revisited an old friend, the Villa Berulia, and found the Northern Italian restaurant as reliable as ever. The cuisine was very good, the service was hospitable and the ambiance guarantees convivial dining. That's not too surprising when you consider that Villa Berulia has just celebrated its 25th anniversary under the management of John Ivanac and his sister Maria. They have (proudly) kept seven of their excellent staff for the duration, including Danko, my regular waiter. Many of the other staffers have worked the Villa for most of the quarter century.

The Ivanacs, who hail from Croatia, specialize in hearty Italian basics. Besides an appealing list of daily specials, they spotlight permanent favorites such as osso bucco and fresh brook trout as you like it prepared. My two companions at lunch started off with a California Chardonnay at a respectable $8 for a generous glass; the vino got high marks. We all had the wonderful fresh mozzarella and ripe tomato in a zesty vinaigrette (at $11 a pop) with crusty Italian bread, of course. Main courses included fried calamari ($18); a buccatini pasta with wild mushroom carbonara and a white truffle drizzle ($17); and veal Française ($22). My veal was cooked to perfection, tender and more than enough for my hearty appetite. Lima beans and oven-roasted potatoes came as the accompaniments. All of the Villa's veal dishes are the same price ($22), except the veal chop, which costs $35 and up. There's always a selection of fresh fish and creative pastas, too. While the Villa is not inexpensive, it is certainly reasonable, given its location and its quality. I hope the Ivanacs are on the scene for at least another 25 years. Reservations are highly recommended.

It had been a decade since I'd eaten at I Trulli, so it took a recent lunch there to remind me of how much I liked the place, both for food and atmosphere. With two companions in tow, I chose to sit in the garden, where fan-induced breezes made dining bearable, if not pleasant, on a sweltering day. The garden is open in the winter, warmed by heaters, and there is a large fireplace in the main room.

Based on the specialties of Puglia, the province seated in the heel of Italy's boot, the dishes at I Trulli are flavorful and interesting without being fancy. The appetizers run from $10 to $14. I started with imported mozzarella and marinated peppers; I also tried the prosciutto, which you can skip. My compadres praised the small calzones stuffed with tomato and mozzarella and the seared sea scallops over chickpea salad. For an entrée, they both chose spaghetti with mixed seafood in a light tomato sauce ($20) and there was obviously nothing to complain about since the plates were eaten clean. I had the veal chop Milanese, pounded flat and breaded, and topped with arugula leaves and pear tomatoes ($28). Excellent! The bread was the way I like it: hearty, crusty and delicious. The desserts are served in clusters of three or four treats and, at $10 each, it's a real deal. I chose the almond pineapple tart with seared pineapple and vanilla gelato. They had a fresh fruit plate with sorbettos and mixed Italian cookies. I also lucked out with several fresh figs from their generous fruit selection. It was too hot, incidentally, for wine; we settled for the bottled water. One petty negative: I was not allowed to order from the prix-fixe lunches. Would you call that metro inflexible? Reservations are suggested.

I've always had a soft spot for Mark's Restaurant and its parent, The Mark Hotel, on the Upper East Side. My first date with the current Mrs. Deutsch was at Mark's in 1990 and we were married at The Mark four years later. Now there is word that the hotel's new owners, who bought The Mark from Mandarin Oriental last year, will shut the property at year's end and eventually reopen it as a hotel and condominium. Mark's Restaurant, I'm told, may then be farmed out.

Armed with this unconfirmed but reliable news and mixed feelings, four of us set out the other night to see how things were faring in the dining room. We learned it was business as usual--except for a new chef and a new menu, which is distinguished by various themes such as Mediterranean, Asian or seasonal. Guests can mix and match à la carte or select prix fixe with one of the themes. We began with three appetizers: chestnut soup; mixed greens; and tomato salad with goat cheese. All were rated as decent. Main courses included racks of lamb (excellent), a Dover sole (very good) and a striped bass (splendid). Desserts involved a wonderful green apple pie and a refreshing lavender mousse with sorbet. The meal was expensive at about $110 per person, including an accompanying Meursault that was judged decent but overpriced at $95. Service was friendly, attentive and unobtrusive and the dining room remains handsome, spacious and comfortable. Missing from earlier days were the ongoing visits by a bread-basket waiter and the delicate petit fours with dessert. Mark's Restaurant is still a good place for corporate entertaining or a social occasion and we hope for similar standards when it reemerges in its new guise.

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