Gusto 101

101 Portland St. Toronto, ON M5V 2N3 • (416) 504-9669 • gusto101.com
 

I’ve never taken a course in gusto before, but had I known the lessons were so delicious I would’ve majored in it. That’s Gusto 101. A crash-course on solid restauranteuring. From it’s open loft, hipster vibe to its tantalizing bread wall that dares you not to order it, I was sucked in like a ball of lint into a vacuum cleaner.

And damn is it good. So be sure not to heed the advice of your parents and do indeed fill up on the bread. It’s very worthy. That said, you might want to leave room for the grilled octopus because it is as remarkable in the belly as it is on the eyes (pictured). The presentation is bar none, like a painting on a wood cutting board canvas with earthy roasted potatoes and vibrant dollops abound of every sort of puree one can imagine. It is truly exceptional.

Whereas the kale salad is much more on the pedestrian side. It’s good mind you, but compared to the other things I had, you can tell this place is capable of so much more. In fact, the only reason I’m staying cautious with 3 knives is due to my limited sampling. Need to go back. Soon. Please.

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Il Porcellino

59 W Hubbard Chicago, IL 60654 (312) 595-0800ilporcellinochicago.com

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Doing Al Capone proud, Il Porcellino (which means “Little Pig” in Italian- no idea why) feels like good, ole, authentic Chicago Italian, with lots of little back rooms tucked away in brick catacombs turned dining areas with private bars and back doors for easy escape… to smoke. Yes, Capone would’ve love this place, granted as slow as the service was, I think he might’ve whacked a few waiters until things improved.

Also worthy of mention is that we were a large party, and why I think this is of significance in this review is because very often that means that the food will be nowhere near as good as it would be during a typical dining experience. So fedora’s off to the piglet, because if this is a notch down, then it must be something special when you eat there like a normal person.

For starters the green chopped salad with kale, avocado, parmesan, pistachios and pepperoncini was good, as was the charcuterie, aka prosciutto trio (parma, cotto & speck). But if you want your world rocked, go with the guilty pleasure of the Tuscan Cheese Bread. I know it sounds like typical Americanified Italian crap, but damn is really friggin’ awesome Americanified Italian crap. Made even more kickalicious with some seriously spicy marinara for dippage.

Both pastas were also crowd pleasers. The rigatoni in vodka sauce with peas and red pepper flakes was a classic done right. And the orecchiette gigante with Italian sausage and broccolini, was right up there with it. Not even sure which was better.

What I am sure about was that the Steak Grigliata was terribliata. I’m guessing grigliatta is Italian for grisly because it was so undercooked and chewy it was inedible. In fact, I had to get up and go to the bathroom just to spit out my bite. And while I’m beating this dead horse, I would say it was so bad that it cost them a knive on this dish alone. That said, the parmesan-garlic fries were pretty darn good.

Ending on a high note, both desserts were great. The gelato is creamy and rich and the tiramisu cups are pretty spectacular.

3 teeth

Emmer & Rye

51 Rainey St. Austin, TX 78701(512) 366-5530 • Emmerandrye.com Emmer-and-Rye-2015-Austin-restaurant-grain-salad_142903

Born from a French Laundry graduate and found on many a Best of Austin list, Emmer and Rye makes you earn your experience before you even arrive, proving to be quite the trek from the heart of town, located on the far fringe of the booze district, which makes it especially fun to walk to, passing a Mardi Gras-esque scene to get to your grub. But as off-putting as the journey is getting there, the setting is really quite lovely. Somewhere between chic and quaint, the décor nails it with rustic details like an herb garden out front, mixed with more contemporary elements like clean white subway tiles contrasted against oiled bronze hardware.

As for service, I’d like to say that it was great, because they were definitely friendly and accommodating, but when it came to their recommendations they seemed a bit out of touch. Also, while the dim sum cart concept starts off charming, it quickly turns extremely annoying because they are constantly interrupting you every two minutes, making it impossible to carry a conversation. Someone needs a rethink methinks.

Worse still, the intrusive dim sum went a miserable 1 for 4, the worst dish being the lamb tartar with green cherry tomatoes and charred fennel oil. It sounds as good as it looked with it’s beautiful crescent-shaped presentation, but texturally it was very chewy and it didn’t boast the kind of flavor one would hope. For more impressive raw flesh, try the Bison tartar at Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis. It rocks the wool off of Emmer & Rye’s. Then there were two completely unmemorable dishes in the middle and thankfully one resounding winner, which was not only the best dim sum of the night, but the best dish of the night. A green strawberry soup served in a meyer lemon sabayon. It might just be an ultimate for strawberry-kind.

As for things ordered off of the menu, I’ll work from high to low with the peak being the red fife spaghetti ‘Cacio E Pepe,’ made with Challerhocker cheese and chicory. Aptly referred to as an “adult mac & cheese,” it lives up to the description quite handily and deliciously.

After that I’d go with the soft polenta adorned with fermented mushrooms, fresh shiitake and mint marigold spuma (Italian soda). It’s definitely good, but I’m not sure if soft polenta is even capable of being bad.

I felt similarly about the burrata toast with straciatella, kale, mustard frill and black butter. A convoluted, self-indulgent chef’s (Kevin Fink) attempt to make something unique out of a dish that would’ve been every bit as good, if not better, had he just kept it simple.

So after a myriad of mediocrity I decided to skip dessert in favor of one last spoonful from the bowl of green strawberry soup. So good.

2 teeth

251 Lex

251 Lexington Ave. Mount Kisco, NY 10549 • (914) 218-8156 •  251lex.com

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I was excited to try this relative newcomer, which seemed to have promise from the outside looking in. Unfortunately, the promise only seems to be on the outside. In fact, the only nice thing I can say about the inside is that the people are nice. Oh, and the prices were pretty great, granted it was restaurant week, but only twelve dollars for a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc is worthy of a star in and of itself.

Beyond the wine and the warm pita with olive oil, the restaurant falls short on virtually every other metric possible, coming off like a child’s doll house dressed up to play a game of restaurant. The kids, a.k.a. waiters, inside trying so hard to please that it’s almost charming, but when they keep spilling water everywhere and forgetting silverware, the charm wears thin.

In terms of grub, nothing was god awful, but if tepid is the response you’re looking for, then you’ve come to the right place. Starting with the oysters, they were probably the best thing of the night, clean and fresh, served with a beet mignonette that overpowers them, so I would skip it. And while we’re on the subject of skipping things, the kale Caesar salad was cream based, a major no-no, and blah based, also a no-no.

For entrees, the salmon with cracked bulgur struggled to even register a pulse, as did the signature octopus dish, served with Israeli couscous in a skillet that’s so friggin piping hot you could probably still use it as a kiln to bake ceramics after it cools down a touch.

With the writing already firmly on the wall, there was little dessert could do to sway my already solidified opinion and as one would expect, dessert did little to even try. The Greek yogurt and honey panna cotta with fig mostrada, while interesting in theory, proved par for the course in terms of taste. That said, I’m not the biggest panna cotta fan, so the fact that I didn’t hate it is a major coup for 251. And finally the gelati was also semi-decent in the most average sense possible, falling short of supermarket gems like Talenti and Steve’s.

And falling short was theme throughout. Short of expectations and hopes. Really not sure what people see in this place or why it has the crowd or reviews that it does, but I suppose I’ll chalk it up to the fact that people are easily fooled. Case in point, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president. Mic drop.

2 teeth

The Spotted Pig

314 W 11th St. New York, NY 10014(212) 620-0393 thespottedpig.com

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I have to applaud Yelp for not buying into the hype hook, line and sinker just because James Beard and Michelin apparently have. That said, I still find Yelp’s 3.5 stars to be a bit overstated as well.

Let me explain by starting with the “spotted” service. Not only do they make it painfully annoying to get a table as a result of not taking reservations, they get so crowded that the wait can grow as steep as an hour and 45 minutes by 6:30pm! So right off the bat, you’re basically going into the experience with a this-better-be-fucking-worth-it mindset, which is never good for anyone. I mean, by that point the only way a restaurant is ever going to fair well is if every bite on the menu is on physiological par with an orgasm. But on the plus side, as ridiculous as the wait is, the hosts handle it well. No attitude and they text you when your table is ready so you can go off and drink at another bar until your table is ready. Which also doesn’t bode well for them, because now you’re an angry drunk waiting far longer than is reasonable, only to be seated in an overcrowded dinning room that is so warm you’d swear you were going through menopause, all for food that simply isn’t worth it (more on that later).

As for the actual waiters, they are slow in both senses of the term, getting us the deviled eggs instead of the devils on horseback and then trying to charge us twice for the devils on horseback. But what was especially annoying was the lack of attention to speed of service. After all, wouldn’t one think, “hey, these people just waited nearly two hours for their table, perhaps I should try to make them wait as little as possible from here on out.” But nooooo, not here. It was the longest burger and beer experience of my life, lasting nearly four hours.

Now for the “spotted menu,” which proved to be so disappointing, starting off with the Spotted Pig Bitter, made with bubbles so infinitesimally small that it comes off as flat. But at least it had good flavor to it. Just pales in comparison to Blue Bird Bitter if you’ve ever had it.

As for the infamous Devils on Horseback, they are definitely good, but a bit too moist through and through, if you ask me. I much prefer the contrasty version, where the crisp bacon gives way to the moist, gooey date, like at Boqueria.

The runaway surprise hit of the night was the Apple Salad. It’s just awesome, but bone simple, hence we made a dead ringer of it at home the very next day without even having to look up a recipe online. It’s comprised of Pink Lady apples cut in large chunks, fresh parsley, a bit of arugula, sharp (aged) cheddar or manchego and a dressing made with apple cider vinegar, red chili infused olive oil, Dijon, honey and red pepper flakes to taste.

The most over-hyped dish of the night was easily the burger (pictured). Hidden beneath a tower of shoestring fries in hopes of masking its inadequacies. Sure, the patty is good, but it was so boring without ketchup and mustard, relying way too heavily on the roquefort cheese to carry it to greatness, toward which it falls miserably short. Instead, I highly suggest you head to Minetta Tavern for the Black Label Burger, which actually lives up to its legend. Or the Bash burger at B&B Wine Pub, which has won the best burger in the city five years running. Or even Élan’s Duck Burger, which few know about, but blows the spots off of this pig.

And finally, there’s the Skirt Steak, which not only skirted around our order of medium rare, but came in horrendously chewy, filled with sinew to the point of almost making it off-putting had it not been for the mushrooms and kale on the plate with it.

Unless you have a bizarre foodie fetish and like the masochistic notion of waiting forever for food that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I vote that you skip the Pig and just make that apple salad at home. It really is quite something.

2 teeth

Little Drunken Chef

36 E Main St. Mount Kisco, NY 10549 • (914) 242-8800

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Well, the fact that the chef is a self-proclaimed drunk explains a lot. And considering this place got four stars on Yelp, I’d say the chef isn’t the only one who’s plastered, because you’d have to be shit-faced to think this place was even worth three, much less two. And yet both times we have tried to go here there has been a 45 and 20-minute wait respectively. The second time we powered through it with a few drinks at the bar, which also had a wait to be seated. We haven’t had this hard a time getting a table in Westchester since Bedford 234, but at least that meal proved worth it.

So back to the bar, where we were eventually able to squeeze in and get the only highlights of the night, the drinks. Figures when you take into account where you are. The two drinks we had were the sake cucumber concoction and the Drunken Manhattan, which is far less inventive than the sake (my reco), tasting like your run of the mill Manhattan, but served in a martini glass as opposed to a lowball. Oooooh!

Then miracle of miracles happened, our table was ready in under 20 minutes. And lucky us, we scored a drunken, jovial waiter who went on to swoon about roughly 75% of the menu, which is always a worrisome sign, made only more worrisome by the fact that not one single recommendation was even just okay, much less good. I think he was just ecstatic to have a job and someone to talk to.

Starting with the Tossed Goat Salad, the kale is overdressed, the Drunken Goat (that’s the actual name of the cheese, which is available at any Whole Foods, but aptly chosen for its name) is shaved so thin you can’t even taste it and the chunks of peach aren’t even ripe! On the plus side, at least they didn’t screw up the candied pecans. But the rest of the salad should definitely be “tossed.”

Next came the jamon and manchego croquettes four ways. And sadly 75% of them sucked about five different ways by my count. The only one rising to an “eh” was the chutney, but I suppose that’s to be expected since Indian is the closest in to the chef’s comfort zone.

As the night progressed, the losers kept coming and I’m not just referring to the clientele lined up outside still waiting for a table. I’m also talking about the pulled pork buns, served with a hint of chimichurri. Not with actual chimichurri, mind you. Just a hint. That hint being in the description on the menu, yet nowhere to be found in the dish itself.

And for an entrée, I highly recommend the paella for none. I tried the Paella for one and it might very well be the worst form of Spanish torture since the Inquisition. Overcooked rice, overcooked chicken, overcooked scallops, overcooked mussels and a sprig of chorizo- granted I’m not entirely sure it was honestly chorizo, but it was definitely a sausage of some kind.

Now I know I get dramatic sometimes and take things to extremes, but to have had to wait 20 minutes for this performance should be punishable by death. I’d rather wait in line at the DMV! Seriously. And the worst part is that I had to actually pay for the mistreatment of my mouth! But what’s crazy about all of this is that I have actually been a long time fan of the “Little” franchise, going back to its humble beginnings as just a Kebab Station. Then a Spice Market. That said, I’ve noticed that the further they step away from their bailiwick, the more the seams start to show, because Crepe Street is a bit of a pass, especially compared to places like Good Food in Briarcliff. But never has anything been as bad as this place, which if allowed, I would like to rename “Little Big Mistake.”

1 tooth

Bedford 234

635 Old Post Rd. Bedford, NY 10506 • (914) 234-5656 • bedford234.com

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Brimming with potential, Bedford 234 still has quite a few kinks to work out, mostly in the service department. Well, to be fair, it’s more of an issue with the kitchen than the servers, because the waiters were keeping up. It was the kitchen that failed them. Not in terms of food, however. It was a matter of speed, or lack thereof. They simply can’t handle their own success, having to hold off on seating tables because the kitchen is so behind. A nice problem to have if you’re the restaurateur, but as a customer, not so much. That said, a word of advice to the restaurateur, to help solve this problem moving forward, perhaps you should consider taking reservations? That way you can manage the kitchen’s workload accordingly. Shocking concept, right?

Hopefully they figure it out soon, because everything suffers because of it. Patrons get annoyed, packed in like sardines trying to get a drink at the teeny-tiny bar as they wait for a table. Diners get annoyed by the noise level spilling over from the bar into the dining room. Bread baskets get forgotten and entrees get overcooked.

So now that I’ve told you what’s wrong with 234, here’s what’s right. For starters, the décor is very cool. Rustic cool, with an artistic vibe about it. Lots of energy too. Feels like something you’d expect to see in the city. And the outdoor seating is equally impressive with its brick arches and strung lights. A good place to sit with a drink if you need to wait for your table, which you will if it’s a Friday or Saturday night between 7:00-8:30pm.

In terms of drinks, the rosemary and cucumber margarita with Sriracha salt is very potent, which helps you forget about the wait. But sadly, all of those interesting ingredients don’t really come through and it ends up tasting like a normal, everyday margarita, which isn’t the worst thing I suppose.

For our appetizers, we shared the lobster knuckle escargot (pictured) and the warm mushroom crostini and both were very good. The former is pretty much what it sounds like, roughly half a dozen yummy chunks of lobster served in an escargot dish, each chunk nestled in a cup of buttery, garlicky paradise. The latter is comprised of warm, marinated hen of the woods and enoki mushrooms, along with melted leeks, all smothered in red beard cheese and placed over their house made bread, which is pretty tasty just with the olive oil, so you can imagine how fungalicious it is with this stuff stacked to the gills.

For entrees, the quinoa and rice bowl is surprisingly good, loaded with grilled veggies, avocado, kale, red spinach and spicy lemongrass yogurt all tossed in a citrus, chipotle vinaigrette. The dish is primary made by the freshness of its ingredients, but that little touch of heat is truly what keeps it interesting. Also, I recommend adding king salmon to it for a few bucks more. It really completes the dish. Unfortunately it was a touch overcooked though, but even so, I still found myself enjoying it.

Wifey, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well with the chimichurri grass fed bavette steak, which was delivered three temps over the request of medium rare! I mean, c’mon! I get the occasional medium fuck up, because the kitchen is busy, yada yada yada. But to try and send out a well done cut of meat and pass it off as an attempt at medium rare is borderline unforgivable. Shit, you could probably strap a flamethrower to a jackhammer and set it off in a room next to a piece of meat and get it closer to medium rare. So naturally she sent it back, leaving me to eat alone (Don’t worry, I’m okay). Then, some 15 minutes later, they rushed a second steak to the table, but because they didn’t give it time to rest, the thing bled out all over the plate, ruining the fries served with it.

We asked to speak to a manager about this, but apparently there wasn’t one that night (shocker). That said, the hostess did the right thing and comped wifey’s glass of wine. Not to mention dessert. Now normally you’d think they should’ve comped the steak in this situation, but once I tell you about dessert I think you’ll agree it was a win.

This winning dessert is the best damn coconut cake I’ve ever had. Served as a behemoth under glass, this towering mountain of Ultimateness was so irresistible we managed to put away a good three quarters of the slice. Now I realize that doesn’t sound all that impressive, but keep in mind that the slice started out the size of an adolescent Jack Russell Terrier. Also, waste not, want not was in full effect come the next day, when that final quarter made for a rather tasty stroll down memory lane, post lunch.

My advice, go there on less crowded days or at less crowded times and I would imagine you will be thoroughly pleased as punch.

3 teeth

Glasserie

95 Commercial St. New York, NY 11222(718) 389-0640glasserienyc.com

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Being that it is currently a James Beard nominee, this was way up on my list of Brooklyn bites, so when the chance arose to dine here on an expense account, I was in Ferocious heaven.

Regrettably, heavenly is not exactly how I would describe the aroma upon entering. Rather the word dishwater comes to mind. Such a turn off right out of the gate to be hit by a wall of wafting stank from the kitchen opposite the foyer. Not great planning on that one. Nor on the chairs, which make you feel like you’re auditioning for the shrinking role in Alice in Wonderland. Fortunately the rest of the setting is nice, with its exposed brick, charming divided-light windows and mid-century touches, mixed with a little rustic industrialism.

In terms of food, I really appreciated the inventive fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Not that there isn’t already an inherent overlap between the two, but the way the chef blended those elements was truly original.

Not wasting any time, our painfully hip waitress delivered a series of wows, the biggest and Ultimatest being the flatbread with labneh. Served piping hot, so much so that no one could even tear it apart for the first several minutes. And the labneh (yogurt) is unbelievably thick and creamy, filled with a lagoon of wonderful olive oil and harissa. The grilled bread was also good, but next to the flat, it was Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

I also loved the mixed nuts with leblebi. The latter are dried, crunchy chickpeas that are popular during cocktail hour in Turkey. The olives were also nice. Home marinated I’m guessing, because the stems were still on many of them.

After that the courses started hitting the table fast and furious, with a lot of hits, but unfortunately a few misses as well. The hits for me would be the lamb sweetbreads, done grilled as opposed to fried, which I really liked. Feels like a more faithful preparation. The rabbit tacos were also quite nice, served in what I believe was a jicama taco shell. The stuffed cabbage was such a blast from my past that I almost had to love it. And it did Bubby proud, granted a much more inventive spin, made with hanger steak inside, as well as couscous.

In the middle of the field I would put the chicken entree, the leaves and leaves salad, the Syrian cheese plate (pictured) and the Brussels sprouts. All are good, but the fact that sprouts are on every friggin’ menu these days is growing a bit played. And while I appreciate the brown bag serving vessel, I can’t get past the “me too” factor. It’s like kale and Brussels sprouts are being mandated by some sort of foodie mafia overlord.

Bringing up the rear would be the cauliflower and the hanger steak. The former for being way too basic to the point where you could make as good or better at home, and the latter because it was undercooked and chewy, without enough flavor to make the jaw work worthwhile.

In terms of cocktails, they all sounded better than they tasted and the Arak, while served up on a silver platter, literally, is as basic as it gets at its core. The only inventive twist being an actual twist- and a shot grapefruit juice to mix in with your ice, water and anise booze. For a better Arak cocktail try the Hana at Balaboosta.

During dessert things went a little off the rails. The cookie assortment was easily the best. The ice creams went 1 for 3, pistachio being the only one anybody touched. The cardamom and tahini both melted in the bowl like a lonely Wicked Witch of the North. And the chocolate mousse was so bad it shat the bed, or should I say the diaper, which is what it looked like once you opened the bag, like a diaper with shit in it. Not sure what they were thinking on this one, or more than likely it was a lack thinking that lead to this abomination of presentation, but unless you want to test the fortitude of your constitution, I’d take a pass.

So while the performance most certainly ended on a foul note, the earlier winners were enough to carry it over the mid-line.

3 teeth

Mexicue

345 7th Ave. New York, NY 10001(212) 244-0002mexicue.com

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Before you delve into this review, a bit of recalibration might be necessary, because from the name you are probably expecting to hear about a burrito or a taco. Maybe a quesadilla. But that’s not entirely how Mexicue rolls. So neither did I. Instead, I got the brisket chili over a salad comprised of blackened Brussels sprouts and kale. And while it sounds amazing, it only truly reached its potential with a healthy dose of Choula on top. Otherwise it was a desperado in need of some kick.

To drink I had the Arnold Palmero which was also a touch off. Too sweet for my tastes. And I just don’t understand why places do that. Lemonade is inherently tart. Tea is inherently bitter. So sure, maybe you sweeten one or the other to balance things out a touch, but not both! You’re defeating the whole purpose of Arnie Palmer’s invention!

2 teeth

Winston

130 E Main St. Mount Kisco, NY 10549 • (914) 244-9780winstonrestaurant.com

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Well that was a pleasant surprise. We had no idea what to expect when we set foot inside, but the décor is really quite fetching with its dramatic skylight, exposed brick and divided light windows. Unfortunately they undercut its beauty a tad by over-lighting the place.

The other surprise came from how young our server was, borderline an embryo, I’m not sure he was even old enough to serve. Which brings me to the cocktails. Having read online about how great they are, we were very excited to partake. I went with the Gentleman’s Fig and wifey chose the blood orange margarita. Sadly, I can’t say we shared the same enthusiasm for the booze. For starters, the Gentleman’s Fig is so sickly sweet I’m not exactly sure what gentleman would ever order it? Granted I did, so… selfie slam! And as for the blood orange margarita, it was marginally passable. The one at Truck and ABC Cocina rock its world.

Things picked up from there, however, with two great appetizers, the salmon tartar and the beef carpaccio. Both served with an inventive twist and both worthy of a FF stamp of approval. FF being short for Ferocious Foodie. Should I not go there? Thoughts?

For mains the striped bass was well cooked and prepared with really nice flavors like pear relish, sautéed spinach and herbed potato dumplings. It was definitely the better of the two. The other being a NY Strip grilled in a cumin-mustard rub and served over smashed baby potatoes with kale in a port wine reduction. And while all of that other stuff was indeed as awesome as it sounds, the steak itself was tough and flavorless, even though it was cooked to spec, medium rare.

And the ending only weakened from there, running out of the only dessert we were interested in, the warm apple tart. But apart from walking away empty handed desert-wise, the rest of the meal was still strong enough to carry things to a solid three. Let’s see if they can impress further come round two…

3 teeth