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.

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La Boulangerie par Jean Luc Pelé

104 boulevard Sadi Carnot06110 Le Cannet, France • +33 4 93 45 36 32 • www.jeanlucpele.com/fr/

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Located on a tiny, pedestrian-only rue, sits this bakery/grab-and-go café with a few tables outside and pretty decent looking pre-prepared food. For example, the roasted veggie sandwich on a long narrow focaccia roll filled with peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and squash, dressed with a pesto spread looked mighty tasty from the other side of that glass case. But after taking a bite, I was quickly reminded that even in France, pre-prepared food that’s been sitting around in a case is seldom life-changing. So don’t be Francophooled.

Also, along with the sandwich, I tried a cup of their avocado gazpacho, which sounded and looked very intriguing. Sadly, the flavor of avocado was quite absent, or taste in general, for that matter. Perhaps the sweets are better.

All in all, it’s not terrible, but why settle when you can just head to Cocoon around the corner- it’s less than a two minute walk and easily two to three knives better. Plus the name is a lot shorter and easier to pronounce.

2 teeth

Husk

76 Queen St. Charleston, SC 29401 • (843) 577-2500 • huskrestaurant.com

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Charleston just might be the only place on Earth where heading down a deserted alley would be sage advice, because when you do, you will find some of the most charming buildings, forested crypts and even parking lots that will take your breath away! In fact, the alleys are so stunning that they put the streets to shame. Granted that’s not saying much, since most of the main drags are swarming with a touristy hell.

But within this swamp of tank tops, mandals, and baseball caps that promise to “Make America Great Again,” there is a beacon of hope that goes by the name of Husk. Located in an old historic landmark, the building has been impeccably refurbished and decorated to the nines inside, my guess is by a SCAD alumni.

But a secret she ain’t, in fact, the news has spread so far and wide that I heard about this place from two different people in Cannes, France, so be sure to make a reservation well in advance, because this James Beard winning haunt packs ‘em in as if they were selling the antidote to Walkers (I felt it fitting to have a Walking Dead reference, being that much of it is shot in the Carolinas). And they flock here for good reason, because it doesn’t take long for them to impress, kicking things off with a magically refreshing Blueberry Hill cocktail, made with tequila, blueberries (obviously), orange juice and jalapeno for that nice little hit of spice to balance the sweet. Granted it’s more refreshing than it is anything else.

Another early crowd-pleaser was their bread. Baked with salty goodness in the form of bacon, I haven’t had anything like it since Cyrus in Healdsburg, CA (RIP). But try to contain yourself, because you’ll want to save room, and lots of it, after all, this is the South, and land of the lighter fare it is not.

For our appetizer, wifey and I split the hushpuppies based on the waitress’ recommendation, and while I liked her very much, I think she missed it wide on those puppies. I’ve had droves of better.

Also disappointing for me was the panzanella salad with fried chicken. The salad, was rather basic and while the chicken had great smokiness, the crust was a bit on the soggy side. Plus, I hate to say it, but I’ve had MUCH better fried chicken in Orlando at Highball & Harvest as well as in New York City (blasphemy!) at ABC Kitchen.

But just as the hype started to exceed the reality, the shrimp and grits rose to the occasion, done in such a way that almost tasted more like a sweet corn polenta, topped with roasted peppers, onions and tomatoes. It was in a legue of its own and only bested by one other, at Walton’s Fancy & Staple in Austin, Texas.

Unfortunately Husk is not exactly the storied success it was built up to be, but it also had its moments. Therefore I think it’s a worthwhile stop amongst your visit, should you grow hungry in your search for alleys.

3 teeth

BCD Tofu House

5W 32nd St. New York, NY 10001 • (212) 967-1900 bcdtofu.com

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I have no idea what the BCD stands for, maybe it’s Bargain Cuisine Delectables? Probably not, but whatever it is, ya still gotta love Koreatown for its bountiful spreads of food at a fraction of the price you’d pay anywhere else in Manhattan. It’s almost as if they don’t realize that there are sandwich shops all around them that are charging more for a tuna on rye- no chips, no drink- than the three course bento-paloozas the Koreans are doling out. So shhhh! Let’s keep it that way.

But cheap is only one reason to love the Tofu House. Good is the other. Especially in the winter with a bevy of fiery soups that manage to stay hot longer than Madonna. Offered in a range of spiciness from mild to medium to hot and finally very hot. I went with just “hot” and I found it to be perfect. Plenty of kick, but just up to that threshold where flavor ends and pain begins, without crossing it. Very hot would’ve probably rendered all of the goodies in the soup imperceptible to taste.

As for the goodies of which I speak, I opted for the dumpling soup, which as one might guess is loaded with dumplings. But also bulgogi, veggies, tofu (after all, the place is called Tofu House), and if you so desire, a raw egg, rice, peppers and kimchi. Plus a fried smelt on the side.

And speaking of dumplings, another worthy get as an appetizer are the fried veggie pot stickers.

Service is very friendly and attentive and the décor is rather basic. Not the point of this place though really. The soup here is the focus. So if you’re cold and looking for a bowl to warm you up, this should do the trick, even if you’re a White Walker.

4 teeth

Her Name is Han

17 E 31st St. New York, NY 10016 (212) 779-9990 hernameishan.com

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Even though his name is Ferocious, I was pretty much set on at least three knives before I even had my first bite. Starting with the name alone, it’s just friggin’ cool and somehow already tells you that you’re not in for you’re typical Korean culinary experience. Then, once you enter, the setting manages to keep carrying that baton, done in a rustic-chic that sort of bridges the gap between a Le Pain Quotidien and ABC Kitchen. And as I write that I’m realizing that’s quite the chasm, but go and you’ll understand.

Also, once you get a looksy at the menu, I think you’ll come to the same conclusion as I did, you just instantly have to like the place. I mean everything looks good, so I threw a dart and partook in the spicy raw tuna bowl, which is essentially a nice twist on a bi bim bap, made with sashimi grade tuna, brown rice, poached egg, avocado, carrots, peppers, green onions and spicy sauce. Not only is it good. It’s good for you. And it’s good for your wallet, being that’ll probably set you back less than a sandwich and drink at Pret!

Looking forward to going back soon. But on the earlier side, because they don’t take reservations and they do make you wait.

3 teeth

Rebelle

218 Bowery New York, NY 10012(917) 639-3880rebellenyc.com

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As soon as I learned that Pearl & Ash had a sibling, I started drooling from places I never even knew existed. But I’m not gonna lie, the other half of me was as nervous as a Albert Brooks in Network, because what are the odds that they could pull it off again?

Upon entering, once again, they managed to stick the landing on a cool, yet casual décor (granted I think P&A is still nicer). But when it comes to the service, not so much. They are so slow I would strongly advise that you not make any after-dinner plans other than retirement. On the upside, however, they are pretty spot on with the recommendations.

Exhibit A being from the equally slow sommelier who redeemed herself with a killer bottle of wine that was a quarter of the price of what I was going to do, and it was every bit as amazing. Glad the tradition of a brilliant vino list made it’s way up the street.

Then came the food and the presentations were gorge from start to finish. Speaking of, definitely skip the bread and do yourself a solid by getting the duck ham. It comes with some bread of its own and it is very worth the wait. Not at all like the version of the dish I had at Cask & Larder in Orlando, which was more of an homage to a candied ham, whereas this one is much more like a prosciutto. But while the two are very different, they are both stellar in their own ways.

The other STARter was the lobster with cabbage and herbs. Probably the best lobster dish I’ve had since Marc Forgione’s, which if you follow that link, you will soon learn that this is some very high praise.

After that, I would say the next best app of the night was the beef tartar, made dead sexy by the addition of sunchoke, horseradish and garlic. The only snore of the openers being the white asparagus salad with beurre blanc and summer truffle.

For the entrees, shockingly the chicken ruled the roost. A unique presentation in a juicy rectangle of love, made all the lovelier with a bright lemon preserve, sorrel and some killer potatoes.

The duck three ways, with frisee, pistachio and pearl onions. It was my second favorite, but the duck sausage was really the high mark of the dish. Had the entire plate just been the sausage I think it might’ve been the belle of the ball.

The weakest of the mains was the pork with romesco, Brussels sprouts and piperade, which is a Basque dish made with onions, peppers and tomatoes. It’s a noble attempt that’s just not at the level of anything else- other than the asparagus salad.

For dessert, the coconut cream tart is cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs-drop-dead-tastic. Simple and flawless, with nothing more to it than passion fruit, lime and the key to happiness.

The chocolate torte, on the other hand, was seriously upstaged, but not for a lack of trying. Made from a caramelia ganache and accompanied with sheep’s milk sorbet it just doesn’t get’r done. I say skip it and focus all of your efforts on the coconut tart. It demands your attention.

So the verdict is in. Pearl and Rebelle go two for two. Which, as we all know, equals four.

4 teeth

L’inizio

698 Saw Mill River Rd. Ardsley, NY 10502 • (914) 693-5400 •  liniziony.com

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After three different people recommended that I try this place, I knew it had to be at least a three knifer, but the true question was, is it four or five? Well, if parking were factored in, most certainly not, because it’s a major bitch. And you can forget all about that little lot over by the Thai House that’s always more jam-packed than a drug mule’s colon. So your best bet is across the street and down a touch, over by Star Bagel, since they’re closed for dinner and it’d be a shame to let all of that parking go to waste.

Speaking of space being at a premium, the restaurant itself is quite small as well, which wouldn’t normally be an issue for me, but it’s also pretty lacking in the personality department, making it a modicum nicer than the inside of a shoe box.

But the warmth that’s missing from the décor came from our server in spades, who was not only friendly, she was also spot on with the recommendations. Unfortunately, however, even as well intentioned as the staff was, the service itself is actually a bit spotty, getting both pepper and grated cheese in my wife’s water (so much so that it needed to be replaced) and forgetting to bring out our pasta course before the dessert menu.

In terms of the food, this is where L’inizio shined. Starting with a nice, moist focaccia and grassy olive oil to whet the palate. After that, we doubled down on bread opting for the ricotta with acacia honey, a simple, but wonderful Italian go-to that definitely hit the mark, but I have to say, the chef went a little stingy on the honey.

Next up came the charred endive salad with dates (or more accurately, date in singular form), which was excellent, but again, thin on the one ingredient that made it so interesting, the date.

The recommended octopus was also fantastic, sort of similar in preparation to the one at Charlie Bird in the city, only MUCH better, because there’s so much more going on. The heat from the peppers, the brightness and crunch from the celery. The creaminess of the humus. Even a slight note of sweetness. My only gripe being, you guessed it, a little too light on the octopus. A theme of the joint I suppose? Keep ‘em wanting more? Only I think the chef doesn’t truly get the intent of that saying.

As for pastas, the cavatelli was a bit of a snore compared to the much more flavorful parpadelle with lamb ragu, pine nuts and raisins. The anomaly of the night, because it was shockingly generous with the lamb.

We ended the evening with another great reco, the date cake with sweet mascarpone (pictured), sitting in a pool of caramel sweetness. It was divine. Which is a bit of a hoity-toity phrase for me, I gotta be honest. Almost feels like I should be typing it with a New England lockjaw. But it really was kickass. There. That’s better.

It’s no Cookery and there are many kinks still to work out, but there is not even a shadow of a doubt that this chef knows what he’s doing, even if he cheaps out a bit on the goodies. So my advice to you, go. My advice to the chef, let it go…LET IT GO! Let your yummy ingredients flow! (to be sung like Elsa from Frozen). Do that, and I’ll up you to four knives, because it’s holding you back from true greatness.

3 teeth

The Commoner

458 Strawberry Way • Pittsburgh, PA 15219(412) 230-4800 • thecommonerpgh.com

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Located in the basement of the tastefully done Monaco Hotel, lies an equally tasteful restaurant with an industrial loft vibe about it, cool lighting fixtures and elephant-sized steel beams, showing off the pride of Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately the taste doesn’t go much beyond the décor however, serving up some of the worst pancakes I’ve ever had. I know they look cool, stacked high and thick with a huge knife stabbed through the center, but they taste doughy and sad. Equally disappointing is their Arnold palmer which gets too tricky for its own good, yielding floral notes and other hints while leaving behind the flavor of lemon and tea. So what’s the point?

On the plus side, the green juice is made fresh to order and you can really taste it. And I mean really. For better or worse, because if you’re one to like your juice with a little sweetness or chill, you won’t find it in this glass of celery.

But in The Commoner’s defense, they do serve up a few things that aren’t so common (or average). For example the Messi Benny is pretty darn tasti. Made with chorizo, potatoes, peppers, onions and stewed tomatoes, all topped with a pair of perfectly poached eggs. It’s a tad on the oily side, but way on the kickin’ side. Good heat, great flavor and by far the best thing on the menu.

Back on the missy side though, the French Onion Soup Burger does everything right but taste good. Topped as the name suggests with caramelized onions, gruyere and aioli, but then stacked on a brioche bun way too big for its britches, overthrowing the burger and causing you to abandon ship, going open face just to get the balance back in order.

And last but not least, the final nail in the coffin is the painfully slow service. There were only six tables seated in the entire restaurant at the time and yet it took over an hour to get our food. Which I blame mostly on the kitchen, but then again, our server did little more than apologize as opposed to compensate. So I will do little to compensate on their knife count and give them what they deserve, two.

2 teeth

Hacienda La Paloma

443 Lexington Ave. Mount Kisco, NY 10549 • (914) 864-1750 haciendalapaloma.com

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There are two schools of Mexican, old and new, and while I am much more partial to the more inventive, more refined, more Tex Mex side of the campus, I can also appreciate the merits of the cuisine in its more traditional state. And as far as authentic Mexican goes, Hacienda does muy bueno.

By authentic I am not, however, referring to the Disney-esque hacienda you see in the photograph above. I actually go in spite of that, which should say something about the offerings within. Such offerings as good food, friendly staff and generous portions. In fact, most entrees are big enough to serve two or three people and still have leftovers. Case in point, the highly recommend fajitas. Loaded with veggies, three different kinds of peppers and enough rice, beans, tortillas, salsa and chips to max out the stomach capacity of a large, ravenous coyote.

Other worthwhile dishes include the Bistec a la Tampiquena (steak with onions, cactus salad, a cheese enchilada, guac, rice and beans- told you they were generous) and the arroz con pollo. Neither are quite as impressive as the fajita, but they get r done. The only laggard for me would be the camarones en salse verde (shrimp in green salsa). It’s atypically normal sized and asadly not all that great.

So, if you’re not all that close to Bar Taco or Truck, or simply don’t feel like making the shlep, but you’re still jonesing for something South of the Border, then hop in your coche and head on over to the Hacienda, arriba! It’s not great, but as Goldie Locks would say, it’s just right.

3 teeth

Sophie’s Cuban

28 E 23rd St. New York, NY 10010(212) 260-8884sophiescuban.com/28e23rd

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This is not the place to go for decor. The service is usually friendly, but this isn’t the place for that either. However, if it’s Cuban fast food you’re in search of, welcome to Havana-gri la. Well, almost. The fact that they don’t nail the cubano is a bone of contention with me. But that rather major ding aside, they have two winners I highly, HIGHLY recommend. So high you’ll get altitude sickness from the height at which these dishes play.

The first is the spicy grilled chicken platter.  It’s basically a hearty version of arroz con pollo served up with a nice helping of marinated peppers and onions, yellow rice, black beans and sweet plantains. Add a little of their green hot sauce and you’ll be doing the Cha-cha-cha.

The second thing might even be better than the first. It’s called the “Pernil with a twist” (pictured), which sounds more like an exotic cocktail or a secret dive performed by Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School,” but regardless of what it sounds like, WOW is it good. It’s served on the same bread as a cubano, topped with huge chunks of roast pork, marinated onions, plantains, mayo and hot sauce. And it is a game changer.

3 teeth