Sunday, June 22, 2008

Fiore Coming Down from it's Grand Opening Fury

I passed Fiore for the first time this past winter during our biyearly trek to Bozu, a great Japanese tapas spot right down the street. We grabbed a menu and were dazzled by new restuarant low prices -- our first visit was less than a week later. It's been on the dinner rotation ever since, and while it will remain firmly on that list, I'm a little sad to report that the inevitable product pull-back and price hike has already taken place.

The quaint Italian restaurant, located on Grand Street in Williamsburg, really is quite charming. Exposed brick walls decorate either end of the narrow space, and the bar boasts of shelves and shelves of wine. In the summertime, they open the small backyard patio and open the entire front, making for a cozy yet breezy atmosphere.

The beef carpaccio is my favorite appetizer. It comes atop a small salad topped with large shaved chunks of parmesan cheese. Lemon halves allow you to get just the right of citrusy juice on top of the carpaccio -- to die for.

The pasta is freshly made at Fiore. I'd recommend getting any of their pasta dishes before any of the Secundi options -- they're tastier and better priced to boot. The spaghetti is perfect in its simplicity, piled high atop itself with fresh tomato and basil. The traditional meat ragout lasagne comes fresh out of the oven with hot, juicy bits of meat. My only complaint about this one is that it isn't cheesy enough. The spinich ricotta ravioli may be my favorite, topped with a sweet brown butter sage sauce. The reason I don't get it every time is that you only get about six raviolis, so if you're hungry you'll want to get a side to help fill you up.

The desserts are great, but the only one really worth talking about is the tiramisu. My mom always makes hers with lots of marsala wine, butterscotch pieces and whipped cream instead of mascarpone. I love it, but I love Fiore's almost as much even though it is completely different. Fiore's version is very simple -- just lady fingers and mascarpone cream, no masala wine. But here's the surprise: dark chocolate chunks in the center that elevate it to dessert hall-of-fame status. The fresh berries on the side only help the cause. At $4 (but now $5), how can you beat it?

The brunch menu is composed of both breakfast items and a selection of pasta found on the dinner menu. The best part about brunch is that you never have to wait. But that is probably because nothing is stellar in the breakfast department here. The short rib hash used to be its reason for being, but unfortunately they pulled it back and only offer a fatty "beef hash" instead. They didn't think we'd notice the switch? This morning I had the mozzerella and spinach omelet. It was good (how can you go wrong with mozzerella?) and they certainly didn't skimp on the spinich. But it was an omelet. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now that Fiore has a fairly faithful following, I guess they've felt comfortable jacking the prices of everything by a dollar and switching quality food for mediocre substitutes (ie the short rib for the vague-sounding "beef"). I don't mind the small price hike, but I really hope they don't start pulling back on anything else. I'll still be back for my monthly dinner, but I'm not expecting to take a bus ride for that brunch again anytime soon.

Below: Fiore frontview, patio, mozzerella omelet and beef hash.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Five Napkin Burger Lives Up to it's Name (in Some Regards)

So because of all the buzz surrounding the new Five Napkin Burger (and by buzz I mean an ad on the Captivate screen in the elevator at my office, a homepage spot on and yes, even a hit for a blog about it after a search for "NYC Restaurants") I decided to head over to Hell's Kitchen tonight and check it out for myself. It wasn't hard to spot. The all-American bar and grill, right on the corner of 9th and 45th, was all dazzled up with fancified meat hooks danging from the ceiling. After waiting for about 20 minutes, Rob and I were ushered into a booth right by a window. We both ordered burgers, even though they offer an impressive (yet decidedly unAmerican) selection of maki rolls. I tried the original 5 Napkin Burger, a full 10 ounces of lean beef topped with Comte cheese, smothered in caramelized onions and doused in rosemary aioli. When I say lean beef I mean it -- it's lean to the point of almost crumbly, and you'll be hard-pressed to find any big grease splotches. While leaner is certainly good (read: healthy), I missed the satisfaction of the juicier bites. Luckily, the abundance of rosemary aioli helped lessen the pain (but did I mention they only gave me one napkin?). Rob's Ahi Tuna Burger sounded exciting —- ginger, scallions, soy, wasabi mayo, and tempura fried onions -- but turned out to be a letdown. For me, the wasabi mayo was far too overpowering, but he was more disappointed that the actual tuna was on the dry side as a result of it being overcooked (and he ordered it rare). Luckily, the fries were a saving grace -- thin, golden brown, perfectly salted. They came free with the meal, which I guess isn't really saying much as each burger is $15. Yes, $15!! Now I definitely don't regret going, but at this price I just don't think I'll be back. Especially with all that mayo making up for the lack of natural juice. When you're swapping fat for fat, I'd rather get more of the good stuff.

Below: Five Napkin Burger restaurant, Ahi Tuna Burger, Original Five Napkin Burger.

'68' a Greenpoint Favorite

If I had known that it was anything other than a vacant space, I would have gone much sooner. I had heard that Coco’s was adding a restaurant directly next to its hugely popular bar space, but I had a hard time believing that it was even in the works. One February afternoon, I decided to take a chance. From the outside, a large steel door and frosted windows makes the place looks more like a warehouse freezer than anything else. A typical restaurant chalkboard claiming the status of “Open” was sitting at the top of the walkway as the only sign of life. I looked skeptically at the board, back up at the cold-looking door and pulled, unconvinced that it would even give. Indeed, the door did swing open and I was pleasantly greeted by a window that gave a glimmer into the warm ambiance of the restaurant. Once I swept through the dark velvet curtain, I was all of a sudden in another world.

It has been clear since the beginning that 68 – named for its address on Greenpoint Ave – is the adored sister of Coco 66, the popular hipster bar of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Just like next door, stainless steel tables are decorated with red votive candles, and the bar is dimly lit exposed brick. But unlike the DJ blaring a variety of drinking-friendly tunes next door, diners of 68 are treated to the softer playlists on ipod shuffles. With the mood set and all other senses cared for, everyone’s palate should be adequately primed for a fresh and unique treat.

Although the item is never highlighted as such on the menu, it’s clear that the restaurant’s signature dish is the goat cheese brulee. Noting the conversation around us – often between strangers – seemed consistently focused on the goat cheese and how everyone must try it, my boyfriend and I knew we made the right decision to order it. Three discs of warm goat cheese sat atop marinated red beets and were decorated with plump blueberries and fresh sprigs of mint. The airy, aromatic beets produced visions of lush country gardens and were contrasted sharply by the pungent taste of heavy, farm-like goat cheese. The berries and mint mingled their way into the equation eloquently, providing soft notes of summer grace and rounding out the visions of faraway provinces.

Feeling serenaded by our first dish, we awaited our next course in relaxed anticipation. Although it turned out to be a bit of a wait, we were pleased to find that it was completely worth our time. My tilapia arrived perfectly fried Рcrisp on the outside, soft and warm in the middle Рand arranged atop homemade guacamole. The rare combination of the mild fish with ripe avocados was a great balance, rounded out by a ring of jalapeno cr̬me fraiche around the edge of the dish that allows you to get just the right about of desired kick in each bite. The large side of mashed potatoes Рwhich I had ordered separately Рwas impressive in its simplicity. The dish was completely void of any lumps at all and tasted exactly like fresh potatoes Рa rarity, for some reason, in mashed potatoes. My boyfriend's mussels and clams came in a deep bowl filled with a delightfully spicy beer-based broth. Olives, sausages and roasted peppers simmered inside, infusing the broth with its flavors and producing a warm, hearty treat perfect for any cold day.

Despite the fact that we were completely full after dinner, we could not resist the temptation to order dessert. We decided on sugar and cinnamon churros, knowing that the light luxuries would take up minimal space in our stomachs. While still tasty, the churros were somewhat of a disappointment to the overall stellar meal we had just consumed. About four tiny churros arrived with two large dipping bowls – one chocolate, the other caramel. The churros were more on the crispy side than the light and fluffy texture I was expecting, and the bowls of dipping sauce were enough to accompany five times as many of the fried treats. Nevertheless, this last dish did not dampen our high opinions of the place in the slightest, and the surprisingly low number sitting on our bill only heightened its value.

I've been back many times over the past few months, though no visit was quite like the first. The tilapia remains my favorite entree, as the steak is a little lackluster and the chicken, while good, just doesn't excite me. The exclusive post-midnight burger mingled its way onto the regular dinner menu, and they changed the mussel and clam dish into an appetizer portion before phasing it off the menu entirely (though I have seen other diners order it anyway, so give it a try!). 68 also started serving brunch back in March -- the free alcoholic beverage my favorite perk. But when the weather is nice, it's too much to trudge into the dark bar space. I'd save this place for a rainy dinnertime instead.