Oak & Almond

544 Main AveNorwalk, CT 06851 • (203) 846-4600 • oakandalmond.com
This might just very well be the best restaurant in the world… that is adjacent to a DMV. A dubious distinction by all accounts, but don’t let that sway you, because even if it weren’t right next door to the DMV, it would still be pretty damn good. So if you’re in the area, pounce. And if you’ve just spent an infuriating day at the DMV, double pounce.

The setting is surprisingly nice considering its locale, although it’s not a place I would propose or anything. That said, it’s set far enough away from the road and the DMV parking lot to make you feel like you are elsewhere.

But what really transports you is the food. From get go, you know they’re the real deal when they serve you their homemade, fresh-baked bread with a whipped butter-like cream thing that is dangerously habit-forming.

And the app-e-teasers proved strong as well. My favorite being the fungi flatbread (pictured). This pie is legit. Doing CT Pizza culture proud. A close second was the buratta, which was melt-in-your mouth creamy, drizzled with balsamic and served up with beefsteak tomatoes and perfectly thin, crisp crostini, just strong enough to provide textural contrast with the buratta, but thin enough so as not to overpower it and let it be the star. A close third for me would be the octopus, just missing the second slot because it was a touch overcooked. But the preparation was wonderful. A mix of fave beans, peas, dill yogurt, fennel, potatoes and chorizo, all drizzled with a kicking’ vinaigrette.

The only miss for me was the salmon tartar, significantly lacking in compared to its bunkmates.

For entrée, I went with the lamb burger. Not sure why, because I was already pretty damn full by this point, but perhaps it’s because I’m like a dog and would eat myself to death if you’d let me. Pressing on, I managed to hork about two thirds of it down. But like the octopus, I do have to say it was also over-cooked. That said, also like the octopus, the balance of flavors made up for a lot with the tzatziki and the olive aioli.

But as good as it is, I’m not suggesting you make a special trip just to go here. I mean it’s still right next to the DMV for Christ’s sake! But, if you happen to work nearby, or be in the area, you could do a lot worse. And if you just failed your driver’s license exam, it’s a nice place to lick your wounds.

Consider it a VERY strong three knifer, trending four when you adjust for DMV proximity.

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Alta

64 W 10th StNew York, NY 10011 • (212) 505-7777 • altarestaurant.com
Finally, a newbie with rave reviews that actually lives up to them! Yes, Alta is Al that (and a bucket of chicken). Set in a somewhat odd location for a tapas joint, an old Amish home (pictured). But, hey, if it works, don’t knock it.

In terms of the tapas itself, the hit ratio was most admirable. Going 10 of 12 with not one thing being bad and only two mehs. So let’s do role call, from best to mehs:

Top of the list has to go to the ridiculous parker house rolls with dill butter. So good you’ll wanna open a vein. Also muy delicioso are the bacon wrapped dates and olives (granted you could wrap garbage in bacon and I’d probably eat it), the scallops are money, the Brussels sprouts with green apple are inventive and much lighter than so many other sprout dishes getting love these days, and two different desserts, the sundae and the lemon tart also rounded out the best of the best. But there is an MVP from the meal that I feel compelled to give a shout-out to, the wine. The Morgon Beaujolais is phenom. This is now the second time I’ve had it (first at Scarpetta) and it is right up there with Prisoner, for those who are fans.

Now back to the food. A notch down toward very good, I would list the buratta with black truffles, the short rib with beet parpadelle and horseradish slaw and lastly, the warm chocolate cake.

Bringing up the rear would be the fried goat cheese with lavender honey. It’s clearly trying to do the Italian ricotta and honey thing, but misses significantly. The other non-starter, get it? Is the agnolotti with yam, shroom and cheese. As I caveated above, it wasn’t bad, but with so many other hits, it was surrounded by tough competition.

Speaking of, Alta is, or should be, some major competition next time you are planning to go out, because chances are, the place you’re thinking of going to isn’t as good. The name says it all. Alta is tops.

Witwenbull

Weidenallee 20 – 20357 HamburgGermany • 49 40 53630085 • witwenball.com
 

I’m gonna have to say Witwenbull was probably my favorite all around dining experience in Hamburg. The setting is very nice, without being fancy. Walking that perfect line between casual and dressy. Service is very good as well, particularly with the wine recos, starting with the mostcomplex Reisling I’ve ever laid lips on, to a wonderful German dessert wine that I can’t even begin to figure out how to spell, but I’m pretty sure there were umlauts. 

The food had a strong showing as well, particularly on the bookends. For apps, the eggplant caponatta is fantabulous. Topped with a killer, creamy buratta and given texture and sweetness with cashews and raisins. Dessert was perhaps even more impressive though, a simple crepe suzette and a thing of beauty, paired up with that aforementioned dessert wine and you’ve got a duo the likes of George and Gracie. 

Unfortunately, the entrée was a pretty big miss for me, and I use the word “big” intentionally, because the pork belly was enormous, which at first probably has you saying- “But FF, how could a ton of pork belly ever be a bad thing? Isn’t more of what you love always better?” Well,  I’m not sure I agree. Some things are better in moderation. And pork belly is just inherently one of those things, which is why you always see it as a starter and seldom a main, which is why I blame myself for this, because I should’ve been wary of it listed under entrées. Foolishly I thought it would be smaller, but it was ginormous. Worse still, it also had bone fragments in half of it, which was a bizarre first for me. The flavor was still good, however, and just good enough to eke out a fourth knife. 

Buca

604 King Street WToronto, ON M5V 1M6 Canada • (416) 865-1600 • buca.ca/king.html
 

I hadn’t been to Toronto in over a decade, but I remember having some great meals there. In fact, if you ever read my review of Mercer Kitchen, then you will know that it was the sushi pizza from Toronto that is somewhat responsible for finding my wife. So, it probably goes without saying that I didn’t really need another reason to love the Toronto food scene more than I already do, but then Buca happened.

An epic love story all its own, spanning across eleven rapturous dishes. It was like a scene out of Gone With the Wind- me running into the arms of antipasti, secondi and dolci… and antipasti, secondi and dolci all running into my mouth.

To start, Buca is a massive, industrial space right across the street from another strong Italian option, Gusto 101. That said, Buca is a cut above by all measures, including price tag. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t worth every last loonie.

From the get go, Buca served up more wow’s than Sam and the Firefly, starting with their salmon crudo with goat yogurt, zucchini blossoms, capers, cipollini and dill. Quickly followed delectable, little, warm rosemary, garlic and olive oil bread knots and a strong charcuterie board loaded with assorted cheeses and salumi.

And then Buca stopped playing around and brought the heat. Showing off in the most unlikely of places like a salad of mustard greens filled with berries from a local farm, dressed with goat yogurt and an olive oil of the gods.

This was then chased by a simple, beautiful buratta pizza. But all of this matters not, because the bigoli, aka duck egg pasta with duck offal ragu, venetian spices and mascarpone came in like the second coming and stuck the landing like Mary Lou Retton, crossbred with a cat wearing spikes on its feet.

The prime rib might’ve been the most mortal of the dishes we had or perhaps it was more a dimension of comparison, because it was served back to back with the branzino which stole the show.

For the final act, the dolci, Buca reimagined a Tiramisu with espresso soaked tapioca biscuits, mascarpone and chocolate mousse all layered deep in glass I wish was a yard in hindsight. And while the gelato was no slouch either, after that Tiramisu I could’ve just curled up in a ball and died happy.

Easily among the best Italian restaurants in the world, including Italy.

Brick + Wood

1275 Post RdFairfield, CT 06824 • (203) 939-1400 • lovelifeandpizza.com

Mama Mia! I have to admit I was already pretty happy with the pies at Tarry Lodge in Westport, but after Brick & Wood I am a changed man. Granted Tarry is a lot easier to get into, because sadly Brick & Wood is no secret, which stands to reason once you sink your teeth into a slice of za (that’s pizza for all you non-Scrabble lovers out there). The sauce! The crust! So fresh and balanced and perfect. From plain to pepp and all the way up to fancy, like the GUMBA, billed in all-caps because it’s worth shouting about. Topped with a gorgonzola buratta (you read that correctly), that is so skillfully balanced so that the creaminess and stank live in harmony without either one overpowering the pie. A level of difficulty not to be taken for granted. Then they top it with spicy soppressata and cherry peppers to give some heat. Pair that up with a glass of their Troublemaker and you are indeed in trouble- or at least your waistline is.

Speaking of gut-busting good, the Kit Kat bread pudding is worth breaking your diet for. Hmm, perhaps that’s what they really mean with their “Gimmie a Break” jingle?

The only mortal dish of the lot, was the arugula salad with pecans and shaved parm. Which was still good, but a bit overdressed.

Also worth noting, service is very friendly and surprisingly on their game even amidst the rush. Which reminds me, they don’t take reservations so a word of advice if you don’t want to wait too long for a table, either go at an off hour or go as a couple and sit at the bar. Otherwise the wait will make you earn the meal. Fortunately, it’s very worth the wait.

The Spread

70 N Main StNorwalk, CT 06854 • (203) 939-1111 • thespreadsono.com
 

I wanted to like The Spread more than I did, but damn did they make it hard with misses so far off the mark it’d be like trying to bomb North Korea and hitting Australia.  For example, the Rose Sangria, which was so disturbingly floral that you’d swear you were guzzling a bottle of perfume. Equally bad is the steak tartar, which lacks any semblance of basic seasoning, coming off more like ground beef.

And while there were some hits, even those don’t live up to the hype. Like the crab stuffed avocado, which sounds more impressive than it is, especially because it’s billed as the second coming and they only make 12 a day, so you almost feel obliged to order it if they’re any left. Well don’t. It’s just okay. In fact, the buratta was every bit as good and sans pressure.

Making matters worse still, the music is akin to something they probably play to torture prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and the service is slow and inattentive, rounding out The Spread as a very weak two in my ferocious opinion. Spread the word.

Il Leone Mastrantonio

22 Cobern Street | corner of Prestwich, Cape Town Central 8001, South Africa
+27 21 421 0071 • www.mastrantonio.com/il-leone-mastrantonio

This cozy Italian charmer is a pleasant surprise for being hell and gone from Italy. But as good as it is, I assure you it is nowhere even close to as good as the reviews make it out to be on Google and TripAdvisor. So go in with tempered expectations and I think you’ll be happy.

From the outside to the inside, the place has an inviting old-school vibe about it. Sadly, the crowd has an old-school vibe as well, so keep your voice down, because apparently at several places in Cape Town people like to eat in libraries. Luckily they don’t live in New York or they might starve. Either that or they’d live off takeout.

But I digress. In terms of the food, they kick it off right with a visit to the wine room to check out their offerings firsthand. The antipasti offerings are also solid, from the creamy buratta to the grilled octopus and bruschetta. Nothing exceptional, however. The real stars are their pastas. I had both the Bolognese and the carbonara and both hit the el spoto. Again, nowhere near Ultimate status, but for South African Italian, you could do a lot worse.

Like with dessert for example. I found their gelatos to be so lacking in flavor it was hard to tell which flavor was which, coming off more as just scoops of frozen cream.

Jesup Hall

90 Post Rd EWestport, CT 06880 • (203) 557-6198 • jesuphall.com

Just stop it already Whelk people. You are making the restaurant business look WAY too easy. I mean, do you ever miss? If not, would you mind doing it just once so the rest of the industry doesn’t look so inept by comparison?

Yes, from the people who brought you The Whelk, Le Farm (RIP) and Kawa Ni comes yet another homerun. It’s enough to make Barry Bonds feel inadequate.

And I have to admit, I was skeptical this time, with the stiff competition of Rothbard on the floor below. But once again, I am proven deliciously wrong. Just one bite of their Monkey Bread and you will start making involuntary noises that would have Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally blushing like the wrong end of a red-assed baboon. It is lick-the-plate addicting, but please do your best not to fill up, because there’s more where that come from.

Like the buratta for example. Sure, buratta is usually a layup, but in the right hands, it can be the game winning shot. Just excellent. Less so would be the cauliflower which the love to push as the end all be all. It’s certainly good, and clearly inspired by Ilili in New York. But it’s drowning a bit in add-ons and you really don’t taste the cauliflower.

The grits with spicy crab nudja were also quite good, but a little odd at the same time, trying to pay homage to shrimp and grits I suppose, but it’s not quite as good and it’s also not the most visually appealing dish of the lot.

The burger is also very good (pictured), but having tried the burger at The Whelk, Kawa Ni and now here, I gotta give it to the Whelk. But fret not, because if it’s meat supremacy you’re after, the steak is tops. Easily blowing away the rib-eye over at The Cottage. And if you’ve read my review, you know how much I love that place, but meat vs. meat, there’s no contest.

Finally, be sure to end your night on a high note with the lemon curd tart. It sings.

Autograph Brasserie

503 W Lancaster Ave. Wayne, PA 19087 • (610) 964-2588autographbrasserie.com

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If you should ever find yourself in or near Wayne, Pennsylvania, perhaps visiting your child at Villanova, you will be delighted to know that I have you covered, because believe it or not, there’s actually a pretty rock solid place for lunch right there on the main drag.

Relatively a newcomer, this remodeled space is a wonderful homage to celeb photography that sprawls through the various interesting rooms. They also have a nice outdoor patio in the summer, but that comes without the photo gallery.

To drink I recommend the special Arnold Palmer and to eat I can’t say there is a miss to be had. Everything is either good or better, starting with the burrata salad appetizer which is a variation on a caprese.

Also nicely done for a place north of the Mason-Dixon are the shrimp and grits. And for all you pus fans out there- no, not Billy Bush and Donald Trump, I’m referring to the one “S,” tentacled variety. The octopus starter is one of the best things I’ve had here, only bested by the mushrooms with faro, which for a vegetarian dish is surprisingly hearty, so don’t order unless you’re borderline ravenous.

Sadly I have yet to partake in the dessert menu here, but my hope is that the third time will in fact be a charm.

3 teeth

Morandi

211 Waverly Pl. New York, NY 10014 • (212) 627-7575  •  morandiny.com

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If star sightings are your thang or you simply melt over the thought of witnessing barrages of obnoxious air kisses over the shoulders of the maitre’d, you have come to the right place. It’s basically Pastis (RIP), resurrected and turned Italian.

Starting off on the wrong foot, they had us wait for 40 minutes even though we had a reservation, assumingly because they gave our table away to Cameron Diaz who just waltzed in and batted her alien eyes and viola! Miraculously a table just happened to be open in the midst of the dinner rush for the same size table as ours.

Once seated, at the a crap table thrown together with one copper two top and a wooden four top, crammed between the wait station and the hostess stand, they finally got around to serving us up a bottle of tepid rosé (it got better after chilling in the moat).

For appetizers, I actually can’t complain, although trust me, I want too so badly I can taste it. But I’ll be the bigger man and give Morandi the only props they earned that evening. The meatballs are a must. Moist and full of flavor. I’m guessing a ménage of meat (veal, pork & beef). I also enjoyed the buratta, but that’s not saying much, since it’s pretty rare that I don’t. The grilled artichokes were also nice. Simple, but nice. The octopus with celery was just okay, however. So much better pus to be had in the city. And the loser of the lot was the prosciutto and melon. The melon was under ripe and the prosciutto is nothing you can’t buy at any specialty market in the city.

Then the wait came. A full hour between the time they cleared our appetizers until they arrived with our entrees. And this is after making us wait 40 minutes to even be seated at a shitty table. I swear if I wasn’t with friends who I hadn’t seen in a while I would’ve walked out and told the place to take the bill and shove it up their affogato!

But I will exact my revenge toot sweet, because the pastas blew. The carbonara was a tried, overcooked bowl of mush and the hard rolled spaghetti with lemon was only a minute notch above that, clawing its way toward bland.

Suffice it to say we didn’t stay for dessert, otherwise I might’ve had to stab Cameron in the throat with a fork to ensure we got it before sunrise. You can also probably deduce at this point that this review is going south of the mid-line.

2 teeth