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

Grit & Grace

535 Liberty Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15222 • (412) 281-4748gritandgracepgh.com

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This was the best meal I had in Pittsburgh, not that my time there has been of any impressive duration that you should ever misconstrue my minute sampling as extensive. But in those four short days I managed to pack in a few highs and lows, with Grit and Grace taking pole position.

The winning performance of which I speak takes place in a narrow, subway car-shaped dining room decorated with a minimal contemporary touches so as not to distract you from the small plate army about to descend on your table. From dim sum to sandwiches and then sum, Grit & Grace fills your plate with anything goes. But that’s what makes this place a blast, especially for larger parties so you get to try a little of everything. And per the list below, you will soon see, I truly mean everything.

So, listing them in hierarchical fashion, here we go…

The Brisket Sandwich: It’s all you could ever hope for in a sandwich. Moist. Beefy. Contrasting textures and brightness from the kohlrabi slaw and pickled red onions. A little kick from the horseradish cream and thousand island sabayon. All on a wonderfully fresh baguette that would make any Frenchy proud.

The Mortadella Bun: No. Not a sandwich. A bun. As in dim sum. As in get some. Because this is definitely the best Mortadella sand- er, “bun” I’ve ever had. Loaded with the additions of chicken thigh meat, kimchi and bread & butter pickles, then sauced with coriander mustard and chili aioli. It’s definitely not your usual suspect, but hot damn does the road less travelled taste good!

Pot du crème: I’m normally not a huge fan of the Pot, but then again, I had never eaten at Grit & Grace before. And now I’m a changed man. Probably an Ultimate in the category since the competition is all but non-existent in my eyes. And note to Crème brulée, eat your crème out, ‘cause you’ve got nothing on this.

Lettuce Wraps: Okay, not exactly the sexiest of names, nor is it much of a looker to be honest, but look deeper… and open wide, because the duck confit piled on top of these leaves is loaded with flavor, along with even more kohlrabi (of the fermented persuasion), peanuts and cilantro.

Pork belly bites: Anything that starts with the words “pork belly” is already halfway to the promised land by default. Which can be both a blessing and a curse, because it’s that much harder to stand out in land where the bar is pre-set to high. Nonetheless, these “bites” had a favorable showing, glazed with orange, chili, garlic and a nice kiss of ginger.

Roasted octopus and mussels: This was the most conflicted dish of the night, being both good and bad at the same time. The octopus itself being the good, done nice and tender, as are the potatoes, which soak up the lemongrass broth like a champ. On the flip side, the mussels are the Bad. Tiny and overcooked, tasting like shriveled up wads of mollusk.

Carrot salad: In the midst of such culinary wizardry, it’s a bit hard for salads to make a lasting impression, but I do have to say that this one has a nice Asian kick to it.

Tomato salad: Conversely to the Carrot Salad, this one takes a decidedly Mexican approach to its flavors, which, while good, didn’t fare quite as well with the overall theme of cuisine.

Kimchi: It’s fine, but to present it as its own dish is a bit remiss. It’s a gloried condiment to be fair and that’s all you should use it for, to add some nice kick to the other dishes you find lacking.

Meatballs: I’m not sure if these were the ones normally served with ramen, but perhaps they should’ve been, because by themselves they were a tad underwhelming.

Pastrami sandwich: I wanted to love this one so much more than I did, but compared to the Mortadella bun or the Brisket Sandwich it’s an ugly stepsister. But not for a lack of trying, with accouterments like broccoli rabe, roasted garlic aioli and provolone cheese whiz you’d think it was Philly’s second coming. Sadly though, it’s just a false alarm.

Short ribs: Like the pork belly, this is another one of those dishes that usually has me at “hello.” And when you place it on a biscuit smothered with friggin’ béchamel, you’re definitely going for broke. But that’s what happened. It broke. They pushed this little dish so far, it overshot decadent and landed right splat on the face of “I wish I hadn’t done this.”

Soba noodles with crab: Remember that kimchi I mentioned? Save it for this dish. It’s crazy bland and in dire need of some kimchi lovin’, which is the worst name ever for a Korean porno.

Peach cake: Speaking of worsts, this was the most unfortunate of recommendations from our server and easily the lowest point of the meal. Dry, bland and unworthy of the term “dessert,” bringing no joy and only caloric guilt in its wake.

Other than that final transgression, the service really was excellent and the wine choices by the glass, while minimal, were fantastic. I had one white and one red and both were much better than your average bear.

So now that you’re done reading my novel about Grit & Grace (I told you we tried everything) you can certainly see that there are some land mines to be avoided. But with so many highs and two Ultimates, I find it hard to dole out anything lower than a quad.

4 teeth

Sienna Mercato

942 Penn Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15222(412) 281-2810 siennapgh.com

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This place has got a lot of balls. Sorry. Couldn’t resist. But in all fairness, it is true. Three floors of them. Meat balls. Turkey balls. Veggie balls. Risotto balls. Even pecan balls for dessert. All served up in a create-your-adventure style menu broken down by ball, sauce, Panini, hero or just plain ole saucy balls. They have other stuff too, but balls are easily 90% of the menu.

So, being that I was meated out from hedonistic culinary pursuits in the days prior, I decided to go with the veggie balls on a Panini with smoked mozzarella and arribiata sauce. And like the knight says toward the end of The Last Crusade, “he chose…poorly.” Which I did. Very lack-luster at best. But I’m not about to throw Sienna under the bus, after all, I was master of my own domain (not the Seinfeld version).

On the flip side, I made up for it with the pecan balls which are essentially three very large balls of Turkey Hill vanilla ice cream rolled in chopped pecans and places on a bed of hot fudge. Crazy friggin’ simple and really friggin’ good. Granted I’m not so sure the ice cream itself was so good that it needed a special credit on the menu. I’ve had far better from the supermarket, like Steve’s of Brooklyn for example, which blows the feathers off Turkey Hill.

For cocktails, they do a solid Manhattan, albeit a touch on the sweet side (I know what you’re thinking, ice cream and Manhattans? This is how you cut back on the gluttony?). And speaking of sweet, the servers are all very warm and friendly, taking great pride in the bevy of balls they bestow.

2 teeth

The Ultimate Slider

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The Little Owl – New York, NY

These little meatball sliders lure you in with their petite, cute appearance. Almost so small you could pop one in your mouth with a single bite. But it is after that first single bite that you realize you don’t want it to ever end. In fact, you’ll want to eat these sliders so slow you’ll feel like you’re in a highlight reel on Sportscenter.

To break ‘em down, I believe they are a classic mix of pork, veal and beef, placed upon a mini brioche with some kind of wonderful “special sauce” that punches so far above its weight these things probably put out more flavor per gram than anything anyone ever placed on top of a bun.

Animal – West Hollywood, CA

If I could marry a restaurant, it would probably be Animal. They have SO many of my Ultimates it’s crazy. Like their Pork Belly slider, dripping with BBQ sauce and a wonderfully creamy coleslaw that make this thing shine like the messy-ass glob of godliness that it is.

What also helps is that they always manage to keep the belly VERY moist. I can’t tell you how many times, even at great restaurants, that they serve it dry. I’m sorry, but what’s the point of hard, chewy belly? Anyways, Animal gets it. And they get how to make a rockin’ slider, which is all that really matters in the end.

Oenotri

1425 1st St. Napa, CA 94559 • (707) 252-1022 • oenotri.com

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Not sure if you saw it, but there was a recent article in Food & Wine Magazine about Thomas Keller’s favorite restaurants in Napa, apart from his own, of course. And on said list just happened to be the one and only Oenotri.

And as foodie recommendations go, it’s pretty hard to beat Thomas Keller so we went guns blazing, ordering every single antipasta, every single pasta pasta. Two of the three pizzas. A salami plate. A side of potatoes (of course). And every single dessert. Obnoxious? Undoubtably. But there were six of us, so it’s slightly less obnoxious than it sounds, because it basically broke down to one dish per person, per course.

Now, prepare for a ride on the Bipolar Express… The first thing to hit the table was the salami plate which was a solid good. And one particular salami was quite special, made yellowish by the saffron within it.

Then an Ultimate arrived on the scene. The best funghi pizza I’ve ever had. Even the other pie (meatball) was pretty awesome, with a terrific crust and buttery cheese that worked harmoniously together like edible Olympic synchronized swimmers.

But alas the perfection was not to last. On the antipasta course Oenotri went an abysmal 1 for 5. The only one rising above an “eh” would be the wax beans with meatballs and quail egg. So right about then I started to question ole Tommy. That is until the short rib pappardelle came around. So good I wish we would’ve gotten six of them. Not that the others were bad, but the only other pasta dish worthy of a shout out would be the paccheri ragu.

Similarly, the desserts fared about the same. The almond panna cotta was the winner and easily the best panna cotta I’ve ever had, even thought I’m normally not a panna cotta person. Also, an honorable mention goes to the sour cherry tart.

Service was very good. The Amarone wine went wonderfully with everything. And apart from the antipastas, the only other big miss is that the setting is a bit tragic, especially if you sit outside, locsted in the courtyard of a strip mall. But Keller never was big on décor, so I guess it didn’t bother him as much as me.

Oh, almost forgot the all important side of potatoes! They were actually excellent. Packing some nice heat. I would’ve eaten more of them had my stomach not lit up the “no vacancy” sign.

So, all in all, in terms of knives, I am very conflicted. I mean on the one hand when a restaurant has two Ultimates in the same meal, it’s pretty hard to go below 4 knives. But on the other hand, when a restaurant serves up over 10 misses it’s hard to justify going over the 3 knives. Now obviously half knives would solve this kerfuffle quite handily, but that’s a cop out. So, being that I am a “ferocious” foodie, I am going to have to go with harsher sentence.

3 teeth