Ai Fiori

400 5th Ave. New York, NY 10018 • (212) 613-8660 aifiorinyc.com

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One flight up from the lobby in the Langham Hotel you will find a sizeable, fancy pants dining room that goes straight for the jugular (and by that I mean wallet), letting you know right off the bat that you are about to drop some serious cabbage for the privilege of eating at one of New York’s top rated restaurants. But with dozens like it, the décor kinda feels like it came out of the very same mold as Le Bernadin, Asiate and Per Se. Granted as molds go, you could definitely do a lot worse. But unique, it is not.

In an attempt to live up to the top-notch tenor, the service tries very hard to be perfect and comes but doesn’t quite get there, dropping things, hovering when you don’t want them and then disappearing when you do.

Like the service, the food also came up short of expectations, starting with the butternut squash soup with foie gras, which arrives at the table like a work of art, which they then cover in orange silkiness. But as texturally pleasing as the dish is, I found the foie gras virtually imperceptible to the taste. So then what’s the point? I mean if I’m gonna torture a goose, at least let me taste the pain.

The crab spaghetti fared much better, sporting a healthy kick to it, but even as much as I liked it, it falls way short of the one at Nomad just a few blocks south. And although I didn’t actually try the burger, which apparently won best in New York in 2014 according to our waiter, it looked pretty amazing and if the duck fat potato balls that come with it are any indication (which I did try), good gracious Ignacious!

3 teeth

Sessanta

60 Thompson St. New York, NY 10012 • (212) 219-8119sessantanyc.com

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Not all that long ago if you saw a restaurant located in a hotel it was like the kiss of death. But that was before the likes of Maialino, NOMAD and Dirty French. So, when I heard all the rave reviews about this new place in the Thompson Hotel I said to myself, “Self, let’s add it to the list.”

Now, it just so happens that it wasn’t on the list for very long though, because I just recently had a business dinner there and got to see whether it was all that or all hype.

The hotel itself is rather quaint, like the street it’s on, but the restaurant is actually rather sizeable winding around corners and bars with its soothing wood, ribbon walls that almost give it a midcentury vibe.

Off on the wrong foot, we embarked with a Brunello that was very strong on the tannins almost to the breaking point, which didn’t do the food any favors, because it really didn’t complement a single dish. And it’s a shame too, because most of the food could’ve benefited from a little help.

Among the starters in need were the tuna crudo, which was what one might expect from a tuna crudo. Nothing more. Nothing less. Well, maybe except for the additions of zucchini and caper berries, neither of which moved the needle in either direction.

But far guiltier of not moving the needle were the beef tongue sliders, which were so surprisingly bland it felt like you were being cheated out of the gluttony you thought you were buying into.

Also on the bland list I would put the highly revered Struncatura Spaghetti (AKA Peasant Pasta). I had heard from friends and blogs alike that it was exploding with flavor. The saltiness of the anchovies, the heat of the chilies, the heat and saltiness of the neonata (a condiment from Calabria made from baby fish). But I guess the chef must’ve imploded under the pressure of serving the Ferocious Foodie, because what I got out of this dish was neo-nada. Go with the lamb ragu. It’s so much better. More on that later.

Moving up a notch from bland was the marinated calamari with puffed black rice and crunchy celery hearts, which proved to be a textural stroke of genius, contrasting greatly with the squid and making what could’ve been yet another snore just passably interesting. But even with that said, I would still opt for the braised octopus with couscous, apricots and turmeric. It was tender, flavorful and apart from the meatballs, the only thing I would ever order again.

Speaking of the meatballs (pictured), they are pretty amazing. Easily the best thing on the menu. But these ain’t your run of the mill balls. They’re made with spicy Italian sausage, red peppers and Sicilian honey, which almost acts like a candied coating, creating a hard outer shell, locking in the juices. But the true magic is when that honey and heat coalesce in your mouth to create a sonata of sumptuousness.

The other high point of the meal was the Tagghiarini (lamb ragu) pasta, made unique with crunchy bits of baked ricotta salata. The flavors of the ragu were bursting, the cheese was crunching- So then why isn’t it something I would order again, you ask? Because after a few bites the crunchy gimmick passes novelty and starts to become distracting and dare I say off-putting. Like crunchy bugs or burnt bits of lamb floating in your sauce. It’s great as a shared dish, but to commit to an entire bowl yourself is a bit overkill on the crunch.

Dessert also proved to be a tale of two Sessantas with the peach cake coming out dry and worthless. Whereas the cream filled puffs, an Italian take on profiteroles, were a far superior way to end your meal.

So, in all fairness, Sessanta is probably a three knifer, but because of all the hype, being lauded as one of the best new openings in New York according to Thrillist, it is teetering precarious on the edge of two, because apparently they have already started to slide. C’est la vie, as they say not in Italy.

3 teeth

All’onda

22 E 13th St. New York, NY 10003(212) 231-2236 allondanyc.com

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Hype strikes again! Damn YOU HYPE!!!!

I swear this place must’ve made it onto at least half a dozen top lists in NYC, from Thrillist to New York Magazine. Well, unless you’re caught up in some cockamamie Brewster’s Millions scheme where you’re trying to squander your hard-earned coin, I’d say skip it, because it’s almost all’unda whelming.

From the moment the first starter hit the table things were off. The arancini with black truffles were so lacking they should be blacklisted. Not even the faintest hint of earthiness from the truffles, which most likely didn’t come from France. And no butteriness or creamy cheese to make the risotto shine from within.

The polenta crisps had their issues as well, served with a baccalà montecato dip (cod salad) that was so incredibly salty no one was able to endure more than a single bite.

The best of the lot was easily the duck crostini, but that was in large part due to the lack of competition. Almost like a foie gras terrine, the duck was silky smooth, spreading over the toast like a blanket of richness, sweetened with pickled Asian pear and contrasted with a little hazelnuttiness.

I shared the short rib risotto for two (pictured) with a friend, and fortunately she didn’t disown me after talking her into it, because it was a huge mistake. Both in physical and conceptual terms. Starting with the physical, let’s just say that I think they misprinted the menu and it was supposed to be for 20. That, or Fred Flintstone was in the kitchen and no one ever bother to discuss portion control with him. Also, it’s not a risotto dish. It’s the friggin’ side of a cow on a plate next to a drizzle of tomato mostrada and a tiny bowl of Arborio rice, so don’t be fooled by the misleading description. Also, just don’t order it, because it’s too expensive for what it is and how it’s served, “sous-vide” as they like to call it. Or “raw,” would be another way to describe it. The server tried to convince us that the color was a result of the sous-vide process, but I can assure you that the texture didn’t lie.

The garganelli was much, much better, prepared with peekytoe crab, citrus and tarragon. But somehow it still didn’t reach the level of expectations. If you want a truly special crab pasta try NoMad or Frankies 457.

Then, just when all hope seemed lost, All’onda rallied with an Ultimate. The Brussels sprouts are as good as the reigning champ Ilili. But this is no copycat. All’onda goes its own way, using candied pancetta and bottarga (dried mullet roe) to harness greatness. It was so incredibly good, the Japanese eggplant turned green with envy.

Another surprise came from the dessert course and while I usually don’t recommend olive oil cake, this was the best I’ve ever had. But considering it’s still just olive oil cake, it’s hard for me to get so excited that I can declare it an Ultimate. I suppose it is though, trouncing the likes of Maialino and The Inn at Pound Ridge.

The apples were also good, basically a deconstructed crumble. And the sorbets were delicious as well, the best being the kiwi.

And last but not least, a shout out to the cocktails. The basil gimlet was nice and refreshing and the La Serenissima was nice and spicy. But while it had its moments, it had its misses. Too many, if you ask me, to ever call it one of the top new spots in the city.

2 teeth

The Ultimate Pasta Dish

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Piccolo – Venice, CA

Unlike the other pastas on this list, Piccolo’s Venison, Clove and Cinnamon Pasta is a bit on the wintery side. And after the insanely brutal winter we just endured I’m sure about half of you just skipped to the next one. Well, your loss. This pasta is truly something special. And unique. I haven’t had anything like it anywhere. Nor have I ever even seen it on a menu since. But I can tell you this, shitty winter or not, next time I’m at Piccolo, I’m getting it again.

Capo – Santa Monica, CA

The Quattro Fromaggi is like a pillowcase stuffed with dreams. Only the case is made of pasta and the dreams are made from four of the creamiest cheeses to ever explode in your mouth. It’s literally as if fireworks made of cheese are putting on a show for your taste buds. And it’s about a dozen other metaphors I could think of as well, but some of them are sexual and gross, so perhaps the single most compelling thing I can say is this: One time my wife couldn’t make the trip to LA with me, so I begged the chef to vacuum seal an order of the pasta, so I could fly back with it and she could have it at home. Yes, it’s THAT good. And yes, I remind her of that every time I do something stupid… So about once a day.

NoMad – New York, NY

The crab pasta is so deceptively simple that you’ll likely overlook it on the menu. Well, that is, unless you heed my advice. So what makes this pasta all that? Balance. Proportions. It is a clinic on the alchemy of cooking, made effortless by the way its impeccable ingredients come together. The spicy hit from the black pepper. The acidity from the lemon. The tender, meaty, saltiness of the crabmeat. And the starchy, crunchy bed of al dente pasta. It’s simply divine.

Osteria – Philadelphia, PA

You won’t find it on the menu, which only makes it that much more fun to order, because you’ll impress anyone else at the table who’s not in the know. And impress them you will, because it’s easily the best thing they make. Now, for some of you, here’s the rub. It’s chicken liver pasta. But wait, wait, wait! It’s friggin’ awesome chicken liver pasta. So rich and savory. I mean if there was ever a time to give chicken livers their day in court, this is it.

Manzo – New York, NY

It’s not often that you come across a pasta that can hold its own in the company of steak and pork belly. But the anglionotti at Manzo does so quite handily. As if the juices from a perfectly cooked rib eye were somehow magically injected into the dumplings, so when you bite into them, it’s that exact same sensation you get when you bite into a wonderful, medium rare cut. Bellissimo!

NoMad Restaurant

1170 Broadway New York, NY 10001 • (347) 472-5660 • thenomadhotel.com

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While the Flatiron already runneth over with great restaurants, it just got more flooded. NoMad is absolutely sensational. From the décor with its incredible skylight to the service to the drinks to the food. This place didn’t miss a single beat.

For drinks I had the La Piña, and if you like spicy cocktails like I do, this one is a winner. Looks very cool too. My friend ordered the basil lemon drink (can’t recall the name), which was also quite solid. Bright and refreshing.

For appetizers, I had the egg with pancetta and corn. So creamy and savory, which is perfect for sopping up the sauce with their amazing fresh baked bread.

Also as an app, my friend ordered the cauliflower with almonds, grapes and manchego. Such a surprise winner. The carmelization of the cauliflower creates a wonderful sweetness that is accented by the grapes, yet contrasted by texture. Then, there’s the creamy saltiness of the cheese, which is both equaled and contrasted by the almonds. This dish is masterful.

Then came the entrees. I won this round with the tagliatelle. Bone simple, but simply brilliant. The acidity from the lemon, the cracked black pepper and the freshness of the crab. Not to mention the buttery, silkiness of the pasta. Absolute perfection.

As for the other entrée, the Butternut Squash, it was good. But not great. Granted, it truly relied on being the sum of its parts. For example, any bite without the green apple was just eh. Too much of one note. It really needed the balance of bitter to sweet to make it memorable. Although, to be fair, the dish is supposed to come with sausage instead of mushrooms, but because my friend is a veggie we had to suffer 😉

And last but not least, dessert. Perhaps the least impressive course of the meal, but that’s still high praise. The dessert cart is astounding (granted, presentation across the board was stellar). We had what is basically a croissant soaked in simple sugar to create a hard outer shell, then served that to us with a fig compote.

What else can I say? I’m mad about NoMad.

5 teeth