Bella Sombra

Bagarasi Cad. No:24, Golturkbuku 48400, Turkey • T +9 0252 377 6100 • bellasombrahotel.com

Secrets, contrary to conventional wisdom, are better shared than kept. Obviously not all secrets, however. Like “I have another family” or “I’m actually a man” or “It’s not your baby.” But when it comes to restaurant finds, I lean towards letting the word get out. Sure it will make the place more popular and harder to get into, but it beats the alternative of no one ever hearing about it and the place disappears. This is a fate I would like to save Bella Sombra from.

As the name implies it is VERY “bella.” The setting when you walk down those steps toward the pool courtyard is breathtaking. Stone villas flanking it on all sides. The glow from the water, the moon and the lanterns on the steps luring you deeper into the seduction. And as you make your way around the pool, you will come upon the dining area, which is set apart by greenery and charmed with strung lights (pictured). The bar next door enjoys some of the same, but with a very spacious, more casual vibe. Almost done like an amphitheater of chaise-like sofas all facing the wooden bar meets hut in the center of the arena.

Sadly though, it is all wasted, because the crowd is not just virtually non-existent. It’s actually non-existent. We were the only table of the night. There were more stray cats than people, that’s how dead it was. On the upside, service was great. How could it not be?

So maybe it’s the food that’s killing them? Not really. I actually found most of the dishes to be quite worthy (not to mention large). The best dish being an inventive eggplant starter that tasted similar to baba ghanouj only better. The other winner was the paella for two, made with sucuk for a Turkish spin (resisting the temptation to make a dervish joke here).

In the middle for me would be the vegetarian sushi that tasted a bit like red lentil kofte. And the only miss was the manti. I get what they were trying to do, similar in some ways to how it is done at Limon. But in execution, it comes off like chickpeas and yogurt with Cheez-its stuck in it. So a pretty mighty miss in retrospect, but not enough for me to lose confidence as a recommendation. In other words, please go. It would be a shame to see this place disappear.

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Barcelona

971 Farmington AveWest Hartford, CT 06107 • (860) 218-2100 • barcelonawinebar.com

If the Bar Taco next door is anywhere near as good as the one in Westport, CT, then I’m not sure why you would go here unless, like the one in Westport, the wait for a table is just way too crazy long.

Okay, I lied. For brunch, there is one other reason I can think of, the DIY Bloody Mary table. Just pick your vodka (Tito’s), then choose your base mix. Sriracha, Horseradish, Chipotle or Black Pepper. Then load that baby up with virtually anything your heart desires. Bacon, cornichon, olives, celery, bell peppers, papadew peppers, marinated mushrooms, pearl onions, cauliflower, cheese, pickles… this could take a while. Seriously. The table is that bountiful.

But apart from the Bloody Mary’s and a couple other dishes, it’s a bit of a letdown. The sangria is so watery it doesn’t even pack the punch of grape juice. The meatballs owe an apology to the cow that died in vain.

Equally disappointing was the lamb chop with romesco and arugula. First they served it raw. Then they served it eh.

The pulpo (octopus) with smoked paprika is just okay, but if you know me and how much I like octopus, for me to be so tepid can only mean one thing, skip it.

Also located in the okay corral are the mixed greens with manchego & pistachios, the Brussels sprouts, the broccolini and much to my chagrin, the veggie paella loaded with eggplant, sprouts, peppers, asparagus and disappointment.

The winners, while sparse, could add up to a decent meal, though, if you played your cards (and ordered) right. For example I found the Mushrooms a la Plancha to be pretty darn tasty. Made with crimini, shitake and button. The Patatas Brava where also bravo, zazzed up with salsa brava and a garlic aioli. And since I’ve never met a charcuterie and cheese board I didn’t like, let’s throw that in too.

But if you’re like me and good isn’t good enough, your options dwindle further still, to only two dishes. The jamon and manchego croquettes and the chorizo with sweet and sour figs in a balsamic glaze. The latter being the best thing of the lot. And as you can see, we tried a LOT.

Rosa Mexicano

61 Columbus Ave. New York, NY 10023 • (212) 977-7700 • rosamexicano.com

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I’ve been going to Rosa for years. All three locations in the city, and multiple times at that. So I think it’s fair to say that we have some history together. And while there are many things I still love about Rosa, like any long-term relationship, we’ve had our rocky times as well.

The first time we met, I was instantly smitten by her fresh-made guacamole right there table-side. But this was back in the day before Dos Caminos and virtually every other Mexican joint copied them. Since then, however, I’ve learned a trick or two on how to spice things up, literally. Although the innuendo does work nicely. So, if you’re like me and you want more heat in your heat in your guac, you can ask them to double or even triple the chopped jalapeno count in the bowl. And if you’re into oral masochism, again like me, you can even ask that they go in the back and grab some habaneros instead, to give it more kick than a mule with a soccer fetish.

But man cannot live on guac alone, and fortunately Rosa does many other things very well. Some classics like empanadas, tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and poblano dishes, and some with a modern twist, like their skirt steak sandwich on ciabatta with caramelized onions and cojita cheese or their incredible bunuelos served with chocolate and raspberry dipping sauces that make them even more ridiculously addictive than they already are (a borderline Ultimate Doughnut).

Sounds like a Hollywood romance, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t always that way. A while back at their Upper West-ish/Hell’s Kitchen location, I took my cousin and his fiance who were in town for a visit. And let’s just say Rosa treated us like mierda. First they made us wait at the bar for about 45 minutes for our table, and that’s with having a reservation. Fortunately, they have great drinks, but the bar was so over crowded it felt more like being on the subway at rush hour with a margarita in your hand.

Then, once seated, we naturally ordered the fresh made guac, and everything was going deliciously as always… That is, until the entrees came. When a few of us ordered the paella risotto, and while it was tasty for the first several bites, it was also filled with shards of PLASTIC!!! Yes, several bits of plastic were mixed all throughout the dish. And when we told the waiter, they literally did nothing about it! They didn’t comp a single dish. The manager didn’t even come over apologize. Nothing. And just like that they lost a customer for over almost a decade.

However, forgiveness is divine, as they say, and a few years back I decided to let Rosa back into my life. The one near Union Square. And slowly but surely, she earned my trust back and we have been together happily ever since… end scene.

3 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

Kabuk

Merkez Mh., Tilkicik Cd., 48990 Bodrum, Turkey • +90 252 385 5431 • kabukrestaurant.com

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Having read a glowing article about Kabuk, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to try something new, away from the scene (and the squawking parrots) that has become the Yalikavak Marina. And I have to say, box checked. The setting is tastefully done, set back from the waterfront, but still overlooking the sea with a beautiful trellis and strung lights overhead.

The attention to detail doesn’t stop there either with their starfish embroidered table linens, solid wine list and inventive cocktails such as their frozen, blended-to-order peach belini and an “interesting” wasabi martini made with Russian Standard and complete with a strip of seaweed floating on the surface.

Come the food, they start by offering up what appears to be an amuse bouche (more on this later) of grilled jumbo shrimp and a basket of bread with a wonderful herbed dipping oil. Not only does it make the bread sing, it makes the shrimp dance as well.

After that came the Kabuk salad made light and refreshing with the addition of fresh chunks of peach. Definitely recommend this as it is the only solace from shellfish on menu, between the bread and dessert.

As for the shellfish options, while extremely pricey, I also thought they were very good for being non-Turkish preparations. The tagliatelle with langoustines was nailed- granted the plural billing of this dish is a bit of an over-promise because there was only half of one langoustine. But at least it was perfectly cooked with a killer kickin’ red sauce.

So Italian done, but what about Spanish? Well, I’ve definitely had better paella’s but I’ve also had worse. And I hate to say it, but Kabuk topped the master himself, Thomas Keller, because the paella at Ad Hoc was pathetic. I also like the presentation, served in a paella pan (of course), but over an open flame with a giant wooden rice spoon.

For the grand finale, the pumpkin sorbet presentation is insane! Served as a flaming sorbet mountain, they carve each portion off of the summit for your amusement. And while all of this pomp and circumstance seems like it might’ve been with the agenda of distraction, the sorbet was actually pretty darn good.

Riding high now on the four knife express, suddenly things went off the rails. The check came. And while we knew the place was pricey (hell, the crab legs on the menu were 780 TL!!! That’s $275 US!!! ), the bill seemed a bit higher than our order, drawing attention back to the “amuse bouche,” which was ringing in at a whopping $9 per shrimp! Now, I’m not exactly one to wince at paying through the nose for food, after all, I’m used to dropping coin at Keller, Barber and Boulud restaurants, but when you present something as if it’s courtesy of the chef, you are misrepresenting things if you then intend to charge for it. Plus, to charge that kind of price for overcooked, under-seasoned shrimp that only tasted worthy with the help of the herbed oil (intended for the bread), then you’ve got some serious balls.

But not only did Kabuk go sleazy on this move, they doubled down on the sleaze when we brought it up to the manager, who made us feel like we were being cheapskates as opposed to taking any ownership in the miscommunication. So much for “the customer is always right.” And so much for four knives, because that definitely cost them one. It will also cost me ever going there again. Or recommending that you should ever go there either. However. to sandbag Kabuk with one or two knives is a bridge too far. I’d be pulling the amateur shit I hate so much about Yelp reviewers, so I refuse go there. I enjoyed the meal. Just not the ending. Sort of like the movie Heat, in restaurant form. So three knives it is… but with a ginormous asterisk.

3 teeth

El Parador Café

325 E 34th St. New York, NY 10016(212) 679-6812elparadorcafe.com

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I have a warm and fuzzy place in my heart for El Parador. Not just because it’s the oldest Mexican restaurant in the city. Nor because I had my engagement party here. And not just because my best friend had their rehearsal dinner there either. Not even  because they have some seriously kick-ass margaritas- but mostly because of that last one. These are not just your boring old citrus based margaritas, however, we’re talkin’ frozen tamarind margaritas. And the crazy thing is, I’m not even a frozen margarita kinda guy. I’m rocks/salt all the way! Well, not all the way, I suppose, since I dig on these, but you get my point, they’re good enough to make you a convert.

The other thing I love about this place is the service. It’s always extremely warm and friendly and the owner is almost always there, making sure you’re happy and taken care of, which is key. But at the end of the day, we all know these are “nice-to-haves” and that the only thing that truly matters are the foodstuffs. Well, The Inn (English translation for El Parador) has no problema in that department either. But I don’t recommend going here for your typical cheap Mexican fix. First, because Parador is anything but cheap. And second, because Parador is a bit more of a class act, serving up a mean mole, a succulent ceviche and a plentiful paella. In fact, most everything falls somewhere between good and excellent and the misses are scarce.

Due to its age, it is a touch old-school to be fair, but old-school in an authentic, charming way. Granted some might find the cuisine to be a touch dated compared to the likes of more inventive places such as The Black Ant, ABC Cocina and Cosme, but there’s also something to be said for respecting tradition. Tradition! Tradition! (To be sung like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof).

So head on over to El Parador and pay your respects to a culinary trailblazer. You owe to yourself. And, should you need a great place to throw a party, I do highly recommend the private room downstairs.

4 teeth

Gato

324 Lafayette St. New York, NY 10012(212) 334-6400gatonyc.com

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Being that he is a millionaire several times over, it’s not like Bobby Flay needs my approval, but after Mesa Grill closed down in New York and Bar Americain should’ve never opened, I thought he lost it. Spread too thin between Throwdown, Iron Chef and Beat Bobby Flay. Well, apparently he found it again. In spades. Gato is purrrfect!

The décor walks that line between cool and casual, inviting and elegant, topped with great energy and phenomenal service. Not a morsel of attitude from host, to bartender to waiter. And very spot on with the recommendations, lining up three Ultimates and not a single miss amongst six plates and two drinks.

So let’s kick it off with the booze and an interesting wintery twist on sangria. Called Sangree, it’s made with Gamay, which is a black wine grape similar to Beaujolais, rye, orgeat (orangeflower water) and nutmeg. The other was a simple ole glass of red, but it was excellent. Ya gotta love it when the by-the-glass selections aren’t a consolation prize.

And while we’re on the subject of love, the roasted octopus with bacon, oregano and tangerine vinaigrette was so delicious I wanted to curl up in its tentacles and declare myself its bitch. But, the scrambled eggs with almond romesco, boucheron cheese and tomato confit toast were equally deft at sweeping me off my feet. So, suffice it to say that things began with an Ultimate love triangle.

Fortunately for me though, things started to taper off a hair from Ultimates-ville, otherwise my head might’ve exploded from bliss overload, like the guy in the movie Scanners. So on the merely fantastic side was the charred beef with blue cheese and broccoli rabe followed by the paella, which was very different from most, due to the absence of seafood, chicken or sausage. But even though it was entirely void of the usual suspects, this vegetarian version still managed to please. Especially as a nice complement next to the charred beef.

Perhaps the greatest reco of the night came next, the walnut brown butter cake, something I would’ve never ordered otherwise, especially with things like the tart tatin in contention (pictured). But I’m so glad I listened (for once), because head-to-head, the walnut easily reigned supreme and would be an ultimate if it weren’t for the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever had a walnut cake before, so it seems a bit unfair to crown it from a sampling of one. So TBD on that for now. What isn’t yet to be determined, however, is that Gato is the cat’s meow.

5 teeth

MP Taverna

One Bridge St. Irvington, NY 10533 • (914) 231-7854

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Out of the 4 different restaurants that have been in this space over the last 8 years, I would place MP in a tie for second place. ONE (RIP) takes first quite handily, and coincidentally, the decor is actually the most similar to ONE compared to Solera & Day Boat (the other half of the tie).

The service was great. Quick, but never pushy. With some good recommendations.

But as for the food, I found it a bit hit and miss and meh. For example, the fried calamari was quite bland. The octopus, while good, was nothing all that special. The sliders were also a solid good, but again, nothing off the charts. And the dip assortment was also just okay, with the exception of the humus-type dip, which was my first bite to reach OMG status.

As for entrees, I found the lamb shank to also be quite bland. As was the simple branzino. But I did enjoy the Greek Paella, made with orzo and lamb sausage. A nice inventive twist on a Spanish stronghold.

Then, came dessert and yet another miss. The baklava is definitely a pass, and a bit of a crime for a higher end Greek restaurant. But fortunately, we also ordered the chocolate halva. WOW was that good. The nuttiness with the chocolate and ice cream- whoever made this should be promoted to executive chef and take the reigns on everything else.

Oh, and last but not least, the sangria- also, you guessed it, good- not great.

Sorry MP, I had much higher hopes for you, considering how busy you’ve been. But I just couldn’t help wishing ONE was still around.

2 teeth

Ad Hoc

6476 Washington St. Yountville, CA 94599 • (707) 944-2487 • adhocrestaurant.com

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Much to my chagrin, it would appear that Napa and Thomas Keller aren’t perfect. In fact, my chagrin was downright disappointed, to be quite frank. I mean I get that it’s supposed to be a more casual Keller experience than The Laundry or Per Se, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw the badass with the bathwater. I’ve been to hordes of casual restaurants that crush Ad Hoc, so save the excuses, because unfortunately I can’t eat them.

The mediocrity hits you pretty quick when you enter. The décor feels very much like a casual dining food chain. The drinks at the bar, while good, are all classics with no inventive twists, save the fact that they make some of the ingredients themselves. For example they make their own Pims and their own ginger ale, which made for a pretty tasty Pim’s cup.

The menu, however, also proved to be woefully uninventive and considering it’s fixed, there was no escaping the oncoming train of blah. It started with a basket of bread that tasted no better (or worse) than the stuff you might get at an A&P. And the butter they serve with it is the unsalted crap you use to prime a skillet.

The arugula salad with peaches was simple, but good. And it went very well the wine we had chosen. But, Ad Hoc didn’t make the wine, and the salad is nothing you can’t make at home. Next…

The “paella” was quite the looker, hemorrhaging with shellfish. Unfortunately it wasn’t hemorrhaging with flavor. From the over-cooked mushy rice to the relatively bland mollusks, there was little to like about the dish apart from the chicken, which managed to be pretty moist. But relying on chicken to save a paella is like relying on the parsley garnish to save a rib eye.

Following that came the cheese plate and while neither were bad, neither were amazing either. In fact, the piave we had at a vineyard earlier that day put these to shame. And so did the accouterments. The mustard and the pickled veggies were both better than the cheeses themselves.

And bringing up the rear was a blueberry cake of sorts that only served as the final nail in the coffin. Which is a triumph in defeat, because I am an extremely easy target when it comes to blueberries and yet they whiffed it.

Such a let down. I almost want to give it one knife due to the hype factor, but to be fair, nothing was bad. It just wasn’t good either. And in Napa, restaurants should be held to a higher standard.

2 teeth

Maca

Hidalgo s/nBetween Boulevard Marina & Emiliano Zapata, Cabo San Lucas 23456, Mexico • 52 624 1434143
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The place was woefully empty when we went, which had us very nervous at first. But, being the only table in the place ensured that we had excellent service. Every waiter and even the owner tended to our every need.

But that is only a fraction of why the score is so high. The décor is also beautifully and thoughtfully done. Tasteful, clean, contemporary meets rustic. The wood doors alone are worth mention. So are the bathrooms. Every detail was thought through on this place. Which only made it even more upsetting that they were empty.

So now you have to be thinking, “okay, so the food had to suck.” But that’s what’s so crazy. It was EXCELLENTE! The Tapas was fantastic. From the shrimp to the octopus to the Manchego and Serrano Ham.

And as for entrees, the duck with cranberry relish was phenomenal. The only miss of the night was the paella. Very bland.

Even both desserts were perfection. One was a chocolate mousse. The other was a cinnamon dusted cream tart-like thing with ice cream. Not sure exactly what it was, but I devoured it before ever learning to pronounce it.

I HIGHLY recommend this place. My favorite meal in Mexico. Please give them business, as it would be a crime for this place to disappear with so many other lack luster places in town, that are packed with tourists eating the same old Mexican slop that you find at 98% of the restaurants there.

5 teeth