Oko Kitchen

6 Wilton RdWestport, CT 06880 • (203) 557-8404 • okokitchen.com

If you love The Cottage than you will, um, really struggle to like this place as much. As The Whelk is to Kawa Ni, they are sister restaurants, linked by the same chef, who, definitely upped the sushi game in Westport without a doubt. But if you’re going in with expectations that it is The Cottage in Japanese form, you will be disappointed.

Appropriately starting with the starters, I found the attempt at inventive edamame to be noble, yet messy and nowhere near as good as the ones at Koku in Armonk. Jazzed up with garlic, soy butter, gomashio (sesame salt) and shio kombu (a form of dashi). But net, net it’s a lot of pomp and circumstance without a lot of flavor.

Same goes for the shishito peppers, although the slightly better of the two, made novel with chickpea miso, guanciale and shoyu-koji (soy sauce).

For small plates, Oko didn’t wow much either. The deviled eggs with pork belly being the least wowiest and a far cry from two other versions in Westport alone- both Rothbard and The Whelk making far superior versions.

The sticky ribs fared much better, sauced with smoked maple, gochujang and sesame crunch. But the real winner of the smalls is the miso black cod, or as they call it “Torched Black Cod.” It’s cedar grilled and done in a madieira shoyu glaze with shitake and scallion and it…is…killer! As good as the one at Matsuisha in LA, the place that invented the dish.

But what about the friggin’ sushi? Okay, I get it. After all, it is a sushi joint, right? So, long story longer, it’s very good. The fish is fresh and the preparations are inventive without being gimmicky, for the most part- the one exception being the foie gras, which shockingly I would forego and just follow the omakase. Oh, and great news, this is more like it is in fine sushi restaurants in Japan, where you don’t even use or need soy sauce or wasabi, because the preparation is so wonderful on its own.

Speaking of wonderful, come dessert, you have to try the- okay, bare with me on this one… The soft serve. I know! What am I, like five years old?! But I’m not joking here. They take Dairy Queen’s invention to another level. Especially with the friggin’ Oko crunch!!! I mean, other than the miso cod it might’ve been the best thing we had. And that’s not just the killer gin cocktail talking (yes, they also have a killer gin cocktail).

It’s no Cottage, but Oko is definitely a strong three knives and the best Japanese in town. Give it a few more weeks to iron out the kinks and I’d imagine it will be a four or five.

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East

East Hotel Simon-von-Utrecht-Str. 31 – 20359 Hamburg, Germany • +49 40 309933 • east-hamburg.de

To sum this place up before I even begin, it’s Peruvian meets Asian meets Gaudi meets catacombs. An odd combination by most accounts with trendiness pouring out of every crease and crevasse, but somehow it all works. From the projection of tropical settings on the twisting white walls, to the deer antler wine racks and the polyp ornamented bar, you’d think you were back at Iridium near Lincoln Center in the 90’s.

But acid trip-inspired décor aside (pictured), the food impressed. Starting with a decent showing in the sushi department- but the clear winner of that course is the tuna tataki. This is a must-get. No seriously. If you don’t I will hunt you down and force-feed you.

Other top dishes were the red Thai curry boasting some kick-ass heat and moist-ass fish. The salmon poke was also the shiznit. Fresh and flavorful and smarter than your average bowl! Both are strong winners in the entrée round. The duck and the ribeye, however, were just okay.

For sides, ya gotta give it up for the truffle fries. And for dessert, I say skip the chewables and go for the liquid. The liquid tiramisu that is. Holy caffeinated hangover batman! Might just be an Ultimate in two categories at once- Cocktail and Tiramisu.

Kawa Ni

19A Bridge SqWestport, CT 06880 • (203) 557-8775 • kawaniwestport.com

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Kawa Ni is the sister restaurant to The Whelk, located just around the corner from here, and if you know anything about The Whelk, then you also know you are in for a real treat. Granted the two siblings have virtually nothing in common with the exception of exceptionalness.

The Whelk, as the name implies, is primarily seafood, feeling like it was plucked right out of Cape Cod, as does the entire town of Westport I suppose. Whereas Kawa Ni is pan-Asian and pan-Awesome. Casual, like the Whelk, and not your typical Asian fare with inventive twists everywhere you look.

It’s also slightly easier to get into than The Whelk. We walked in at 8:30 on a Thursday night and got a seat at the bar without any wait. And it was then that the fun began, our bartender, Owen, welcoming us like an old friend with great service, great conversation and most importantly, great recommendations. I think it’s safe to say that I love him. In fact, if I wasn’t there with my wife, who knows what might’ve happened?!

Starting with the booze, this place is a whisky lover’s wet dream, boasting a selection 100 deep. Not to mention great cocktails like the refreshing Tokyo made with gin, sparkling sake and yuzu or the wintery bourbon and scotch blended Kyushiki with amaro bitters and black sugar.

For small plates it should be a law that you have to try the shaved broccoli salad. It is remarkable. To quote my new bestie, Owen, “it may very well be the first time in your life you look down at a plate of raw broccoli and say, ‘Wow! I’d like another plate of raw broccoli!’”

Equally impressive are the tofu pockets made with pumpernickel and stuffed to the gills with crabmeat, sushi rice and yuzu tartar. It’s almost like a lobster roll and a sushi hand roll made a joint venture.

Even something as bone simple as pork dumplings are taken to the next level, made special by the pure freshness of its ingredients.

The only mortal dish of the line up was the BBQ eel served with cucumber slices and placed over a bed of slaw. It’s good, but nothing I will ever order here again.

As for dessert, however, that’s a different story. The banana bruleé is stupid good! As in you’d have to be stupid not to order it. Or, meaning you will look stupid eating it, because you will likely frolic around the restaurant, batting your arms wildly with glee.

5 teeth

Blackbird

619 W Randolph St. Chicago, IL 60661(312) 715-0708blackbirdrestaurant.com

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The first thing that struck me when I entered Blackbird was that the décor is very white without a morsel of black to be found anywhere, ironically. The other thing I noticed is that while the service is very friendly and knowledgeable about the menu, they are also unbelievably slow, to the point of distraction, taking 40 minutes just to take our order and that was only because I flagged him down. Not even bread or drinks came in this time. And once they did, our waiter dripped the wine all over the table and down the sides of the glass EVERY time he poured it. It was so bad I think I’ve seen less dribbling in the United Center!

Fortunately the wine was good (what was left of it after he dripped most of it on the table) and the Port of Call cocktail is just awesome and it comes with significantly less dripping, unless it’s self-inflicted. Also, I do want to mention that the wine list has some solid, affordable options and the bread was warm and yummy, served with a curried butter.

It was from that point on that Blackbird soared, from a tasty amuse bouche to a trio of incredible appetizers that resoundingly affirmed that this chef de cuisine got game!

The most creative of the three would be the panzanella salad made with sweetbreads and sweet bread. A fun play on words and ingredients, using Hawaiian bread as a sweet counterweight to the savory glands. As was the raspberry vinaigrette. But as good as it was, it was actually the weakest of the three, best by the turnip and foie gras soup. So creamy and rich you should have to pay luxury tax on every spoonful. And my favorite of the three, the endive salad, believe it or not. Served in a stunning bird’s nest (pictured) with a poached egg, crispy potato, basil, pancetta and dijon. Relatively simple, but positively brilliant.

Both entrees I tried were exceptional as well. Completely apples and oranges, but each superb in their own right. The halibut is perfectly cooked and artfully accompanied by peekytoe crab and gooseberries. It was also somehow both decadent (duck fat) and light at the same time. Whereas the beef striploin was a full on savory-palooza, cooked to perfection and surrounded by a wonderful chanterelle moat with additions of quince, horseradish and crispy polenta planks. Masterful!

The only miss of the night was the carrot cake, and by miss I actually mean that it was good, but in comparison to the complimentary eclair and the white chocolate bar I would skip it, because that complimentary duo beats the cream cheese out of that cake 10 times out of 10, and I’ve a HUGE carrot cake fan, so this is saying a lot.

What’s also saying a lot is that not since the Purple Pig have I had a meal this good in Chicago. Granted I haven’t been to Alinea yet, so stay tuned.

4 teeth

Jardin

3131 Las Vegas Blvd S Las Vegas, NV 89109(702) 770-3463 • http://wynnlasvegas.com/Dining/CasualDining/Jardin

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Don’t listen to the concierge if they should point you in this direction. And don’t let the French name fool you either because this place serves up more crap in Vegas than the dice tables. Starting with the “jardin,” which overlooks le swimming pool with a meek smattering of bushes between you and the rowdy, corpulent, inebriated sunbathers.

The service is god-awful as well, royally screwing up the recommendations, almost as bad as the concierge who recommended this restaurant in the first place. But shit recos aside, our server was also painfully slow. How slow? The place was maybe 20% full and we didn’t order a single cooked appetizer yet after two hours we had to bail on dessert because we ran out of time.

Of the abysmal recos, let’s start with the cocktails. The first was a painfully tart attempt at a vodka and citrus based thing that made me wince harder than those Bitter Beer Face commercials from 15+ years ago (damn I’m old). And the second drink was the polar opposite, sickeningly sweet blueberry sangria. I’m not entirely sure which was worse, but somebody needs to slap the mixologist who concocted these abominations and wake them up to the values of nuance.

The only positive thing I can say about the meal was that the Beau Soleil oysters were quite fresh and very good, served with a tasty mignonette.

But chasing the oysters was a kale salad drowning in dressing followed by a short rib entrée that was dryer than the surrounding dessert, accompanied by corn two ways, which managed to suck both ways.

I’d rather lose $200 at the tables than eat here again.

1 tooth

Rockhouse Restaurant

West End Road, Negril, Jamaica • 1.876.957.4373 • http://www.rockhouse.com/eat
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Nestled on a rocky cliff in Negril sits one of the finest, most beautiful hotels on the island of Jamaica. And within the hotel also lies the best meal I had during three days of breakfast, lunch and dinner. That meal being a lunch in the sun, overlooking the Caribbean Sea whilst sipping on a Humming Bird. No, not the actual bird. That’d be just gross. It’s the name of a cocktail they serve, made with banana, coffee and rum cream. Ya mon!

So skip the rum punch on this one. The bird is the word. And so is the fish, meaning the blackened snapper salad and the jerk calamari. Both have nice kick and great depth of flavor.

Rockhouse is not without its misses, however. I found the akee dip with plantain chips and the fish tacos to be somewhat bland. And while I would also lump the rum cake for dessert in the whatevs bucket too, if you ask them to serve it with vanilla ice cream it rallies strong.

3 teeth

Girl & the Goat

809 W Randolph St. Chicago, IL 60607(312) 492-6262girlandthegoat.com

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As you may have guessed, I love the name. It’s got a critter in it and alliteration. What more could you want? Good service? Check. Hip décor? Check squared. Great cocktails? Check-a-palooza. Great food? Well, depends on what you get, and I tried a lot.

It’s all small plates, so it’s a bit hard to distinguish between the appetizers and the entrees, but whatever you want to call them, be sure to get the warm marinated olives. They are tops. Never had better. Not even in Europe.

Another kickass dish are the green beans in fish sauce vinaigrette with cashews. It stole the show away from the cauliflower dish that so many others rave about. Sure it has pickled peppers (assumingly picked by Peter Piper), pine nuts and mint, but if you’ve ever eaten the cauliflower at Ilili or Tamarind in NYC, or Cleo in LA, this cauliflower is a mere apprentice in the shadow of their mastery. Whereas those green beans are Ultimate worthy. Trust me.

After that I’d go with the sweet corn pierogies with green goddess and rhubarb chimichurri (pictured). Or the pig face served with a sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine, maple and potato stix. So good and definitely the better way to go versus the goat shank.

But buyer beware, because not everything is worth your hard-earning coin. I say skip the shishito peppers. If you’ve had one, you’ve had them all, and there are so many other original dishes to be had.

The grilled baby octopus is decent with its guanciale (cured pork), fava beans, pea tips, pistachios and lemon vinaigrette, but not at the level of those winners I mention above. Same goes for the broccoli with smoky bleu cheese, the roasted beets with avocado crème fraiche and the kohlrabi slaw with fennel, toasted almonds and blueberries.

And finally, for dessert, the tres leche was the best of the bunch for me, with rhubarb, pink peppercorn and strawberry sorbet. It’s not so great that I would recommend force feeding it down your gullet if you’re already stuffed with everything else, but if you’ve still got room for jello, then go for it!

3 teeth

Positivo

100 Dorado Beach Dr. Dorado, Puerto Rico 00646(787) 278-7217 • http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/puerto-rico/dorado-beach/dining/positivo-sand-bar

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I am positively in love with Positivo. A jack of all trades and a bit of a chameleon, changing from more American fare by day, to Pan-Asian by night and somehow sticking the landing on both. Not that it’s without its misses, but I don’t want to get all negativo, because for resort food, even the misses are pretty impressive.

The setting is relatively standard for a resort of this caliber, situated completely outside with several tables right on the sand. Granted they are the furthest from your servers so should you opt for the better view, just know that attention will suffer a touch.

Of the droves of tasty looking lunch options we split an enormous kale salad that I can’t even imagine eating solo without blowing out your colon from ruffage overload. I liked it very much as it was loaded with goodies to keep it interesting, including corn nuts of all things.

We also had the chips and guacamole, which is the biggest miss of our stay, made surprisingly bland considering the locale. And while there were admirable attempts to make it interesting, they didn’t come through in execution. Nor did the Obsession cocktail, about which I was not very obsessed. It basically tastes like alcoholic coconut water with a spicy rim.

On the flip side, the brisket sandwich with chipotle aioli on ciabatta was pretty awesome. A touch too fatty to be fabby, but the flavors were dynamite!

For dinner the crispy snapper is a must, prepared almost like crispy orange beef, but with fish, obviously. So good. The ceviches are also decent, made very fresh as a ceviche should be, but the octopus was the more flavorful of the two because the halibut needed more lime to give it that all-important acidity.

But stop the presses come dessert, because we have an Ultimato. The grilled mochi is a stroke of brilliance. Caramelized on the top, it almost comes off as a roasted marshmallow wrapped around creamy red bean ice cream. It’s so good it almost makes up for all of the insanity caused by the Puerto Rican Parade in New York City. Almost.

3 teeth

Black Barn

19 E 26th St. New York, NY 10010(212) 265-5959 blackbarnrestaurant.com

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A unequivocal upgrade from SD26 (RIP), Black Barn slaps you in the face with energy the moment you enter, with its lively bar up front, adorned with sleek décor elements done in such a way that honors both the country and city, making the Osmonds proud. Especially in the main dining room in the back, where they really embrace the mix of design elements, complete with a framed out “barn” looming overhead. The only thing taking away from the vibe in a pretty big way is the tablet-style cocktail and wine list. It just cheapens the experience right as you sit down, making you feel like you’re in one of those iPad airport restaurants.

In terms of service, it was a bit spotty, proving to be noticeably lethargic on the bookends with both the cocktails and desserts taking an eternity. Then there’s the matter of our waiter forgetting all about delivering us a bread basket, probably because he was too busy delivering his table-side theatrically, obnoxious Shakespearean presentation of “The Menu.” This guy was so over the top we felt like we were being waited on by Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments.

Fortunately for Charlton the cocktails were very good. The winner of the two I tried was The Bad Seed, made with Buttered Corn American Whiskey and cayenne pepper dust. It was spicy and buttery in all the right places. Yes, it’s good to be bad. The other cocktail was the refreshing Cider House Cup, served in a copper mug, which seems to be all the rage as of late. Made with Apple Jack, fruit and lime juice. It’s a nice yin to the yang of The Bad Seed.

For starters the Beau Soleil oysters were oysters. Fresh, but nothing spectacular. Served with all the usual suspects from lemon to vinegar to cocktail sauce. The seared foie gras with green apples was also just okay, missing the broad side of a, well, barn, with a dish that should’ve easily been a layup had they just given it that hit of sweetness that is normally so germane to the dish. But weakest of all was probably the pumpkin salad, which was so unimpressionable that it might as well have never even been served to us and I doubt anyone would’ve ever noticed.

On the plus side, the mushroom toast with tallegio was good. Not what I would call it incredible, but amidst the losers it was served with, it was a beacon of hope. And speaking of hope, we finally held out long enough for that forgotten breadbasket I mentioned earlier. But once it arrived, it quickly became apparent as to why they had forgotten. Because it’s pretty forgettable. Although I will hand them the award for the most conflicted spread ever served with bread. A pat of butter topped with balsamic vinegar, sitting in a pool of olive oil, surrounded by roasted garlic cloves. Yes, all of that and yet it still failed to wow.

Sadly, the entrees didn’t fare much better. The scallops were just okay, only made mildly better by the potatoes they are served over. But compared to the amazing scallop dish at The Clocktower across the park, I wouldn’t wipe my ass with these. Not that you should ever wipe your ass with mollusks, that’s just gross, not even sure why you brought it up?

The rib eye with chimichurri was also just okay. The meat itself was nothing special at all, so it was in dire need of something to submerge it in, hence why they serve it with the chimichurri, I suppose. But even that wasn’t enough to mask the inadequacies of the dish. Nor was the cayenne popover, which was a nice touch, props for that one, but it’s obviously a borrowed concept from BLT and not quite at the same level, nor size. Still, I appreciated the effort.

And just when the barn was about to be set fire, the best entrée of the night came in to save the day, the sweet potato ravioli with bacon. Not only was it good, it was crazy good. Then, they followed that up with two killer desserts, the rum soaked bread pudding, which was my favorite, as you can imagine, and the other were the salted caramel ice cream sandwiches which were pretty dope as well, to use a horribly dated expression that I’m hoping to bring back into style. The weakest of the three desserts were the warm chocolate brownies. They’re not exactly bad per se, but when you can get a better brownie at Pret, it kinda makes it seem ridiculous to pay over 10 bucks for something inferior.

Such a shame. I had higher hopes for Black Barn. Sure, it had its spots of brilliance, but they were lost in a sea of too much darkness. Or should I say “blackness?” Yet I still stand by what I said at the beginning. It’s definitely an upgrade from the previous tenant, even if the misses outnumber the hits.

2 teeth

The Clocktower

5 Madison Ave. New York, NY 10010(212) 413-4300 • theclocktowernyc.com

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The Clocktower is so damn good, time stands still. From the moment you walk through the door, you are hit by a bar so insanely hip that you almost don’t want to head up the equally stylish spiral staircase. But please do, because b-b-b-b-b-baby you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Upstairs, the décor is simply magnificent. Like a grand, ritzy social club with high ceilings, huge rooms and stunning walls covered in a smattering of incredible black and white photography. And while the setting alone goes a long way in making you feel richer than you actually are, so does the staff, from waiters to hosts, you feel catered to like a Russian oligarch.

And that’s not just the booze talking, because I hadn’t even had a drink yet. But once I did, Whoa Nilly! I only tried two of the cocktails but both were excellent. The first going by the name The Cereal Killer, served in an old-fashioned mini milk bottle, complete with a red striped straw. It’s made with bourbon and Cheerios milk. Need I say more?

On the flip side from rich, the other end of the cocktail spectrum is nailed with comparable skill in the refreshingly light, Dill or no Dill. It’s comprised of gin, cucumber, lemon and dill, of course. Speaking of which, I love the touch they add to the glass with a teeny, tiny clothespin on the rim holding a sprig of fresh dill to the brim.

While we’re on the topic of hooch, the wine list is quite impressive as well, although the majority of the options are a bit steep ($200+), but luckily there are some solid affordable options on the list, even if they’re the minority. Like the Prisoner Cabernet blend (Syrah and Zin both play supporting roles) which I only just discovered days earlier. Great wine and an even better deal.

Firing on all cylinders, the food proves to be every bit as exquisite as its surroundings, plated with an architect’s eye, the presentations keep wowing one after the other, as do the bites. The first being the bread and butter, which might very well be an Ultimate, served warm, right out of the oven with a soft churned, salted butter that melts into every nook and cranny, making it a moral imperative to “get it while it’s hot.”

Going four for four on starters is also great way to get into my good graces, as all of them were shades of fabulous. In fact it was like Sophie’s Choice trying to decide which one was the best. The risotto with chanterelles, crispy veal sweetbreads and lemon confit was an Ultimate, so I tend to lean there, but that should take nothing away from the steak tartar au poirve with horseradish cream and charred onions which was superb. As were the pan seared scallops done up with cauliflower, pickled raisins and burnt butter. The native lobster might’ve been the least amazing of the bunch the more I think about it, but only in terms of flavor, because the presentation stole the show, served over ice, still in the tail, then mixed into an apple, mussel and fennel salad.

In terms of entrees, however, the winner was much more cut and dry. The lamb was the runaway champion, slow cooked and served with spiced eggplant and roasted salsify. Such a mastery of flavors on the fork, you have to stand in awe at the artistry. Following the lamb as a distant second would be the halibut with pink peppercorn sauce, seaweed and a carrot puree. And bringing up the rear was the filet mignon, which is a complete missed opportunity in my opinion (although the fries were good). Skip the steaks. There are so many inventive preparations on the menu that truly showcase the chef’s skill, so why would you ever go for something you could just as easily get at a Smith & Wollensky or Morton’s?

Closing strong, the dessert course also delivered yet another Ultimate, the best tart tatin I’ve had since La Goulue closed down (RIP). It’s made with pink lady apples and topped with Madagascar vanilla ice cream and if I could have children with a dessert it would most likely be this one. The other two desserts didn’t fare as well for me, however. I thought the pistachio soufflé with chocolate ice cream sounded amazing, but somehow fell short in execution, tasting less nutty and more chalky than one would hope. And the grapefruit sorbet with hazelnut streusel and fennel marmalade also proved to be better in theory than in practice.

But no place is without its misses and The Clocktower had very few. Surmounting its hype and outshining its next door neighbor Eleven Madison Park. Sure, them’s fightin’ words, but bring it on. I’d be happy to go toe to toe with any dissenting foodies out there who say otherwise. And I’m not just saying that because Clocktower is my new restaurant crush… Okay, that’s exactly why I’m saying it. But so what?

5 teeth