FIG

232 Meeting St. Charleston, SC 29401 (843) 805-5900eatatfig.com

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Ask anyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line what the best restaurants in Charleston are and you’re likely to hear about FIG, an acronym for Food Is Good. So with gauntlet thrown it was a moral imperative for me to suss out whether or not FIG was all hype, or all that.

Out of the gate, FIG seemed like yet another success story resting on its laurels, doling out bad service with a waitress who gave barely any recommendations to us “out-of-towners,” but then went on and on about half the menu with the local table next to us. But that’s minor compared to the fact that we had to ask to have our plates cleared and to see a dessert menu.

The other cause for concern was the bread. Never a good sign when the bread at a place is a pass. Appears they could learn a thing or two from Husk in terms of bread, service and décor.

But then FIG rallied with a dynamic duo of dishes. The first being the white shrimp appetizer with fennel, chili, raisins and pine nuts. Such a great, light app, yet packed with flavor and texture and nice dose of heat.

The other starter, however, was a bit on the heavier side, a lamb bolognese gnocci made with pillows of outstandingness only bested by Elan, Blue Hill and Bar LaGrassa in terms of flavor, but the dumplings themselves are incomparable.

Then, just when I thought I understood what all the hype was about, back down we went, with two dull-ass entrees. The tile fish with bone marrow and carrots was just too much of the same note and if it didn’t say bone marrow on the menu, I’d defy anyone to say they could actually taste it. And speaking of not tasting things, the suckling pig, while moist, was so bland that I couldn’t even tell where the pig ended and the rice or black-eyed peas began. And even though the dish was loaded with shishito peppers, sadly they did nothing to save the dish, because they were the most flavorless shishitos I’ve ever had, bringing not even an ounce of heat. Such a huge missed opportunity for some much needed heat.

Now deep into the woods of Two Knives-ville, it was looking grim for FIG. But from afar the sticky toffee cake with walnut ice cream (pictured) was lookin’ mighty fine on its way to virtually every table around us. So, when in Rome (or Charleston) go with the flow. And flow it did, right down my pie-hole, capping things off strong at 3 knives.

3 teeth

Pastis

28 rue du Commandant André 06400 Cannes, France+33 4 92 98 95 40 pastis-cannes.com

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No, the one in New York City didn’t reopen, sorry to get your panties all in a bother. But the one in Cannes is still inexplicably going strong and as packed as ever. The reason for my puzzlement is that I never really liked the one in NYC either. Gasp!

Yes, I found it horribly overrated and the apple doesn’t fall far from the Big Apple. The other thing I found horrible is the service. First they made us wait 30 min for a table when we had a reservation. Then, once we sat down they had the gall to tell us that we couldn’t order appetizers because the kitchen was closing soon, which was utter and complete bullshit because they proceeded to serve everyone else in the entire restaurant appetizers throughout the duration of our meal.

So, after calling bullshit on his bullshit, our waiter caved and let us have two apps, and lucky for us, because they were the best things we had. Starting with the better of the two, the beef tartar. It is bright and lemony, with excellent seasoning and flavor. But, still he had to fuck us, docking us the caper berries that were served on top of everyone else’s in the entire place. Oh the French!

The other decent appetizer was the foie gras terrine served with a fig jam and crostini. It’s pretty typical in these parts though, so it’s hard to get to gushy, especially when it’s followed up by a pair of losers like the linguini with shrimp and the gnocci with black truffles. And while the gnocci was the better of the two, it was overly creamy to the point where you couldn’t even taste the truffles.

Adding insult to injury, the “not worth the wait” gnocci arrived 20 minutes after everyone else’s entrees, meaning he probably forgot to put in the order. But rather than fess up to it, he lied to me repeatedly that it was coming in two minutes. Well, either he was lying or he’s horrible at math.

Although, to be fair, it’s very possible that he’s gone deaf, because the music was so goddamn loud in there that they even made The Gypsy Kings and Michael Jackson grating, both of which I love.

2 teeth

Via Carota

51 Grove St. New York, NY 10014 •  viacarota.com

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Trying to get lightning to strike twice in the same spot isn’t an adage because it’s false, and while Jody Williams of Buvette fame, certainly has skillz, the proverbial lighting “missed it by that much” (to be read like Maxwell Smart).

The space, like Buvette, is quaint and endearing, with a little more size to its beautiful exposed brick dining room. But unlike Buvette, it is MUCH easier to get a table, especially if you go to dinner on the early-ish side (translation 6/6:30pm). I recommend this not just because it’s easier to get a table, but also because once the dining room fills up, it becomes noisy as all hell, with sound ricocheting off of those brick walls like a son of a bitch.

Speaking of profanity, the other thing that will have you cussing is the painfully slow kitchen. And when it’s that early, and the restaurant isn’t even that full yet, I can’t even begin to imagine how bad it must get once the place is packed. Fortunately they comp’d an extra glass of wine for wifey and I, so the cursing would abate.

The other gripe with service is that their recommendations deserved condemnation. The first of them being the chicken liver crostini, about which she gushed. It is so ho-hum that we left half of it stranded on the plate. For a truly memorable chicken liver dish, be sure to get the off-menu chicken liver pasta at Osteria in Philly. Not exactly down the street from Greenwich Village, but worth the drive nonetheless.

Her other adamant winner was also a bit oversold for my tastes, the homemade gnocci, sauce in a family recipe marinara. Now I don’t want to shit on anyone’s family, but I think running away from home might’ve served the chef wall, because then they might’ve come across some better recipes. For example I’ve got at least three other gnocci’s that blow this away. Try Bar Lagrassa in the Mini Apple and Blue Hill or Elan in the Big one.

Sadly, I can’t only blame the waitress, however, after all, we went rouge on a few choices, like the underwhelming raw artichoke salad. From eyes-dropping on other tables I think the grilled variety would’ve been the better way to go, but I think deep down we were hoping for a dish reminiscent of the one we had at Osteria San Marco in Venice. Not so much. But like any good story, now comes the twist.

Just when all hope was lost, like phoenix from the ashes Via Carote rose, delivering two flavor-packed entrees. The first being the spicy grilled tuna with carona beans, perfectly cooked and far more balanced than any of the previous dishes. The other was a pork braciole, which was touch over cooked, but was such a unique preparation that I forgave it for the overcookage. Rather than a tomato based sauce, they used cream and greens and herbs. Sliced and folded through and through. It’s a hearty portion, so if you’re not famished, I recommend skipping it or skipping the starters.

What you shouldn’t skip however, is the chocolate, hazelnut mousse parfait with roasted hazelnuts, fresh whipped cream and biscotti. This threepeat of winners was such a winning combination it actually managed to raise the Titanic for me.

3 teeth

Lugo Cucina

1 Penn Plz New York, NY 10119(212) 760-2700 lugocaffe.com

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I know it doesn’t seem possible, but there’s actually a pretty nice restaurant in Penn Station. Well, not IN, in, but definitely attached to the building and definitely not a secret, because it was pretty packed at lunch hour. Mostly with a business crowd, but it’s actually the staff who means business, pouncing on you like an over-caffeinated personal trainer trying to coax you through your dining experience faster than if you were on a lubed conveyor belt, dialed to eleven and hooked up to nitrous packs. So don’t go here to linger, because if you do, you’re liable to get stressed out or thrown out.

Our belligerent waiter aside, the focaccia they serve at the start is nice and moist, and the gnocci, while varied depending on the season was pretty solid. Word on the street is that their meatballs (pictured) are quite ridonkulous as well, but currently that is only hearsay. And lastly, they also sport a decent wine list both by bottle and by glass with a décor that’s surprisingly tasteful for the Madison Square Garden locale (which essentially means the absence of any Knicks or Rangers paraphernalia).

So get in. Mangia! And get out. You kinda don’t have a choice.

3 teeth

Charlie Bird

5 King St. New York, NY 10012(212) 235-7133charliebirdnyc.com

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It’s tough to get a reservation at Charlie Bird. Too tough if you ask me, because it simply isn’t worth the aggravation. Hell, even if it were easy to get a table here I still don’t think I could honestly say it’s worth the money or your time, falling into that ever-growing pile of over-hyped Italian restaurants in New York.

The décor is an intimate sliver on the Soho fringe with exposed brick and a floor to ceiling windowed wall, which tends to make the place quite noisy and thus less intimate because you constantly have to break the flow of conversation at your table by saying, “Wha?” The service was good though. Friendly, unaffected and most importantly attentive.

But Charlie choked where it counts, serving up a ho-hum string of dishes seven deep, made up of three starters and all four pastas. The only bright spots being the focaccia they serve as their bread and the painfully simple, yet surprisingly delicious faro salad (pictured).

So starting positive, let’s talk focaccia, which once served you might ask, hey, where’s the olive oil for dipping? But take just one single bite and you will soon learn that ample amounts of oil are already in the bread. It’s very good, but let’s just say you’re napkin is going to look like you had a run-in with one of those Turkish wrestlers and lost.

Apart from the focaccia, the only other thing that managed to impress was the faro salad I mentioned above, made with a colorful array of roasted cherry tomatoes, pistachios, mint and Parmesan. And while it’s very good, why bend over backwards to get a reservation at 6:30pm for a dish you could easily make at home?

So now that the backhanded compliments are out of the way, it’s time to get nasty… The grilled octopus saltimbocca with Tuscan beans and prosciutto is okay, if not a touch dry. Also, after hearing that it was the best in the world, I feel it is my moral duty to bring those hypers back down to Earth, and correct this injustice by setting the record straight. This pus wouldn’t even crack my top five in New York City alone! Pearl & Ash, Gato and Pasha all handily trouncing this lame attempt at an Ultimate.

Far more disappointing than the octopus, however, was the burrata, served up with baby romaine and pickle accompaniments that did absolutely nothing for the dish. In fact, this dish was so boring it makes watching golf on TV seem riveting by comparison. Yet even as boring as the burrata was, I think the cauliflower with hazelnuts might actually be able to out-bore it in a bore-off.

Then came the pastas, and all four tasted like the chef had developed an acute case of flavor-a-phobia. The best two were the corn parapdelle with leek fondue and the linguini with uni, bortarga and lemon. But saying they were the best is like claiming bragging rights after winning a foot race versus a corpse. The corpses being the gnocci, (Élan’s is WAY better, not to mention Frenchier), and the Chitarra Nero with crab and chili, which was just flat out too salty to be enjoyable. And so was the entire experience for that matter. Especially when there are scads of other places out there that are easier to get into and are infinitely tastier. Sorry Charlie (couldn’t resist a little old school Starkist ad humor).

2 teeth

Élan

43 E 20th St. New York, NY 10003 • (646) 682-7105elannyc.com

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When you enter Élan it doesn’t exactly exude much élan with its small bar up front funneling into a narrow hall decorated with a pop art step and repeat mural, which opens up to a somewhat secluded, mid-sized dining area in the back. And while everything is done with a tasteful, modern flair, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the awkwardness of its layout.

The other thing I found distracting was the spotty service. Each course taking way too long just to order, from drinks to starters to mains and dessert, the pacing felt like we were in a car with someone learning to drive a stick shift, bucking back and forth between stop and go. But then the truly bizarre happened… Before pouring our third bottle of wine that I had ordered, the waiter informed me that he had “already tasted it and it was fine” therefore no need to have me taste it. At first I thought he was joking, but when I looked back at him, there was no wink or smile, just the weight of creepiness now hanging in the air.

But don’t count Elan out just yet, because David Waltuck, former chef of Chanterelle (RIP), seems to have carried his gift of gourmet over to Elan. And he doesn’t take much time warming up either, channeling that warmth and infusing it into his seductively, warm pretzel rolls served with Bavarian mustard butter. They are so addictive I could’ve just done two plates of those and a couple of beers and called it a win. But should you manage to muster up the restraint and not fill up on the bread, bully for you, because fortune awaits!

Such treasures being the mushroom, truffle croquettes, which are so wonderfully warm and gooey inside, it’s like an edible womb. It’s also like an Ultimate, because for me, most croquettes aren’t even worthy of mention, usually tasting more like their fried breading than anything else. But mention these I shall, at the tippy top of my lungs.

Also worth shouting about is the crispy ricotta gnocci so skillfully prepared it’s almost unfair that it’s only a starter, because I would’ve happily ordered it as a main. Well, that would’ve been true had I not heard about the off-menu duck burger with foie gras (pictured), which is so devilishly good you owe it to yourself to order one. But be sure to get it “done up,” as if the foie gras and caramelized onions weren’t enough. Yes, “done up” means it’s also topped with a fried egg and bernaise sauce. Sure, your diet is going to hell, but look on the bright side, your mouth is going to heaven. It really is a must. If I recommended it any higher I’d get altitude sickness. In fact, the only burger in the city to best it is Minetta’s Black Label Burger, and that’s some seriously high praise right there people.

Other dishes shined as well, but perhaps not as bright, for example the much hyped sea urchin guacamole was certainly good, but according to the Yelp consensus it was supposed to be “the best thing on the menu” which it surely wasn’t, coming in a distant third even just amongst the starters alone.

Another almost great dish was the raw oysters with an Asian marinade packing a nice ginger kick. The preparation was very good and unique, but fell just shy of greatness due to the mothershucker who left so many shell fragments in the second one I ate that I’m lucky I didn’t crack a tooth.

And of the side dishes, I also found myself really enjoying the Japanese eggplant with honey. They’re not quite up there with the ones at All’onda, but after that duck burger you’re gonna need a veggie or two to stem the guilt and the pea shoots don’t quite cut it on flavor.

In addition to the pea shoots, another side worth passing up (especially if you’re getting the duck burger) would be the duck fat hash browns. I know duck fat is all the rage in potato land these days, but I’ve had way better at Twisted Oak in Tarrytown, NY. Besides, the squashed potatoes that come with the duck burger blow the hash browns away.

Also living in miss-o-potamia would be the foie gras roulades with fig, which proved to be very blah amongst the deep bench of winners, as did the swordfish made with eggplant and a black bean salsa. This dish was the resounding loser of the night. So lackluster it almost makes you question the judgment to keep it on the menu.

As for the desserts, nothing had me doing bell kicks around the dining room, but the clear winner was the berry ice cream sundae, surprisingly enough. The chocolate cheesecake, pumpkin cake and butterscotch pudding all registering a tepid reception from the table.

Let’s not end on a down note, however, because Elan is nothing short of a smashing success, serving up a whopping four Ultimates. Earning it just as many knives as a result.

4 teeth

Bar La Grassa

800 Washington Ave N. Minneapolis, MN 55401(612) 333-3837 • barlagrassa.com

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There is an old saying in the restaurant biz, Holy Fuckoly! I mean I knew it was going to be good, considering it’s the sister restaurant of 112 Eatery, my former favorite in Minneapolis, but I had no idea how good. I mean like world class good. Like Ultimate Italian Restaurant good. Like I-need-to-quote-Bill-Paxton-in-Aliens-2-good- “Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.” I never understood what that actually meant until now.

To explain, the linen droppin’ starts in tandem with the eye poppin’ as you pass through the lively dining room on your way to your table, craning your neck at the dishes on other people’s tables like an over-sexed teenage boy walking through Bryant Park during Fashion Week. The piles of jumbo grilled shrimp. The heaping bowls of gnocci. The monumental lobster and egg burschetta. It’s so overwhelming, by the time you get the menu in your paws, you honestly don’t know whether to shit or go blind. So we did what anyone would do in that situation, we deferred to our waiter.

The waiter of which I speak is a half Seminole, half Italian joyful man named Alex, with the longest braided ponytail I’ve seen since Crystal Gayle. But don’t let that throw you. He was ponytailed perfection, nailing it with almost every single recommendation. He was attentive and friendly and masterful at striking that balance between overbearing and MIA.

And now, a dinner so beauteous I actually learned something about myself that night. That I am capable of multiple foodgasms. It started with the best balls of arancini one could ever hope for. Made ridiculously moist with the aid of duck confit, then served over a shallow taleggio pond. But equally life-changing was the soft egg and lobster bruschetta with white truffle oil. An Ultimate on two fronts; scrambled eggs and bruschetta. You simply must get this. You need this. It will single handedly make up for every bad thing that has ever happened to you in your life.

For entrees we were in a pasta kind of mood, so we passed on the secondi and doubled down on the primi. One from column A (dry pasta) and one from column B (fresh pasta). Both were stunningly good and equally inventive. The dry pasta being a spicy calamarata with sushi grade raw tuna that melted in your mouth (pictured), cooling the flames. Such a wonderful, textural experience- like the oral equivalent of running through a sprinkler on a hot Summer day.

But as amazing as the tuna pasta was, the gnocci with cauliflower and orange was the stuff of kings. The pillows of potato so unsurpassed I can only recall one equal, the pumpkin gnocci from Blue Hill at Stone Barns. And the flavors within it were reminiscent of the brilliance at Piccolo in Venice, CA. Perhaps due to its use of cinnamon and spice. But this was no copy cat. No, this cat was a horse of a different color. Which is even starting to confuse me with the mention of all of these animals. But net, net, just order the friggin’ thing. You will love me for it. And speaking of, you’ll also love me for this tip, there’s a gorgeous $44 dollar bottle of Sangiovese that drinks like champ with all of the above.

The only miss, and by miss I mean mortal, was the crespelle (Italian crepe) with salted caramel gelato. It was certainly good, but after its predecessors, it was condemned to a plight of soaring expectations. I mean anything short of making my face fall off was destined to be a failure. The salted dark chocolate cookie that came with the check, however? Let’s just say I’m scheduled for face replacement surgery in the coming weeks.

***Having been back twice since, I can add a few more dishes in my continued love affair with this restaurant. The first being the Berkshire pork tenderloin with salsa de peperone. It’s pretty incredible, making it a VERY tough choice between this and the pastas above. The chicken is also quite good, breaded and squashed a bit, but juicy as all get out. And while very good, not sure it’s worth passing on some of the other stars I’ve suggested. For smaller plates the shishito peppers were good, but pretty standard (to be read like Dr. Evil). And having now tried two of their other bruschettas, I strongly urge that you stick with the lobster, because the drop off is steeper than Mt. Everest. And last but not least, dessert continues to be where BLG struggles the most. The Pot du Creme was just okay and the ice cream, while the clear winner of the three desserts I’ve tried, is not exactly a tour de force.

5 teeth

Aria

100 N Tryon St. Charlotte, NC 28202(704) 376-8880 • ariacharlotte.com

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Depending on how you enter you might have two entirely different impressions of the décor. From the street it’s very nice. Heavily influenced by Craft in New York City I’m guessing. But if you cut through the Bank of America building, the entrance from that side is very unfortunate as you enter through a rather unappealing indoor mall, with an even lesser appealing entrance to the restaurant.

But either way, once you sit down, you are in for a treat. The menu really has some wowsers on it. At the top of those wowsers would be the lamb shank with tallegio polenta. Three of my favorite things one plate, served moist and stanky. I regrettably offered to share so I only had about half of it, but at least it afforded me the opportunity to sample a number of other dishes.

A very close second to the lamb was the fettuccine carbonara with pancetta. Perfectly done and as good as any place I’ve ever had it. Highly recommend it as a shared dish, because it’s as rich as the bankers on the floors above.

And speaking of rich, the peanut butter and chocolate dessert was another crowd-pleaser. And I don’t usually dig on peanut butter desserts, but this one was undeniable.

Other highs would be the scallop crudo. Very fresh, with a nice touch of heat to complement the sweetness of the mollusk. The salmon entrée. And the Crostada, which was basically a blackberry crumble.

From there the drop off to goodsville was steady, marked by a rib eye special which was a touch too fatty to be great, the NY strip, which was too hyped and too overcooked to live up to the hype and a kale salad that was, well, a kale salad.

And while there were a few misses, none of them were severe. For example, the gnocci with pear and prosciutto was great if you had a bite with all three ingredients at once. The problem is that it’s served with only enough of everything to do that for about five or six bites and then you’re left stranded with a bunch of boring potato dumplings.

Another hyped miss was the eggplant parmesan. It was honestly nothing better than you’d get at an Olive Garden for half the price. And same goes for the Tiramisu.

But after so many highs, it’s hard to complain too much about the food. Service, on the other hand, is definitely worth picking on. They simply aren’t up to the caliber of food they are serving. They are too slow and disorganized for such a seemingly high-end experience that boasts touches like a table in the kitchen and a wine list with bottles north of $500. All they need to do is weld the back entrance shut and hire new waiters and Aria would easily reach a full four knives, but as of now, I’m going with a strong 3.5.

3 teeth