Autumn/Winter/Spring/Summer

360 Park Ave S. New York, NY 10010(212) 951-7111parkavenyc.com

2008_1201ParkAveCafe0047

For everything…turn, turn, turn… There is a season… turn, turn, turn… And now a restaurant, apparently. Hence the name Autumn/Winter/Spring/Summer, located on the grave site of Hurricane Club (RIP), but carrying the baton quite nicely I have to say, with an inventive concept that ups the game of a seasonal menu, because they don’t stop there.

Not only does the menu change based on the season, but so does the décor and the name of the restaurant itself! So, when I went, it was just called “Winter,” not that behemoth of slashes above. And the décor du month, was quite nice, adorned with winter branches, with white walls and soothing lights, to make it feel like you are dining in a snowy, wintery forest.

Good service also appears to be in season, as they are not only friendly and accommodating, they are also very spot on with the recommendations, nailing it on the My Essential Cabernet blend from just outside the Santa Barbra, CA area. It was just the right amount of bold, yet smooth enough to pair with anything.

The edible portion of the evening started off with warm, parker house style rolls, which were very good, but in terms of bread-like things, the steak tartar toast with foie gras and black truffles stole the show. Granted how could it not with that trio of ingredients? Unfortunately the other toast, with kobach squash, sheep’s milk ricotta, burnt honey and pancetta, should be ashamed of itself for being on the same menu.

For entrees, I found the halibut with black truffles and a brioche crusted egg to be the winter winner, besting both the pork schnitzel with pear mustard, dates and cornichon, as well as the branzino over spaghetti squash, which was the laggard of the lot.

The sides also proved a little hit and miss- the hugest of hits being the Brussel sprouts with bacon. So good they might just give Ilili a run for their money. The latkas, on the other hand, were lame. Way too small and thin, to the point where they were more like potato chips than latkas. Especially when compared to the thick, fluffy latkas I just had the other day at Russ and Daughters. Legend.

For dessert, again it was a mixed bag, but on the tastier side of the satchel was the sticky toffee pudding over fried bananas. So good it was almost as if they knew I was coming and made it just for me. My second favorite would be the hazelnut pot du crème, which was very good and much better than most pots I’m had. It was also clearly superior to the chocolate cube and the popcorn sundae, which seems to be stolen from ABC Kitchen down the street, and I’m not even sure why, because I didn’t like it there either.

So as mixed as the above is, I can’t really go great guns in either direction on the knife count. And while the concept alone is worth an extra knife, I feel reluctant to let myself be so swayed that I give this place 4 knives when their misses were equal in number to the hits.

3 teeth

Grit & Grace

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

GritGraceChickenMeatballRamen

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

Bar La Grassa

800 Washington Ave N. Minneapolis, MN 55401(612) 333-3837 • barlagrassa.com

o

There is an old saying in the restaurant biz, Holy Fuckoly! I mean I knew it was going to be good, considering it’s the sister restaurant of 112 Eatery, my former favorite in Minneapolis, but I had no idea how good. I mean like world class good. Like Ultimate Italian Restaurant good. Like I-need-to-quote-Bill-Paxton-in-Aliens-2-good- “Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.” I never understood what that actually meant until now.

To explain, the linen droppin’ starts in tandem with the eye poppin’ as you pass through the lively dining room on your way to your table, craning your neck at the dishes on other people’s tables like an over-sexed teenage boy walking through Bryant Park during Fashion Week. The piles of jumbo grilled shrimp. The heaping bowls of gnocci. The monumental lobster and egg burschetta. It’s so overwhelming, by the time you get the menu in your paws, you honestly don’t know whether to shit or go blind. So we did what anyone would do in that situation, we deferred to our waiter.

The waiter of which I speak is a half Seminole, half Italian joyful man named Alex, with the longest braided ponytail I’ve seen since Crystal Gayle. But don’t let that throw you. He was ponytailed perfection, nailing it with almost every single recommendation. He was attentive and friendly and masterful at striking that balance between overbearing and MIA.

And now, a dinner so beauteous I actually learned something about myself that night. That I am capable of multiple foodgasms. It started with the best balls of arancini one could ever hope for. Made ridiculously moist with the aid of duck confit, then served over a shallow taleggio pond. But equally life-changing was the soft egg and lobster bruschetta with white truffle oil. An Ultimate on two fronts; scrambled eggs and bruschetta. You simply must get this. You need this. It will single handedly make up for every bad thing that has ever happened to you in your life.

For entrees we were in a pasta kind of mood, so we passed on the secondi and doubled down on the primi. One from column A (dry pasta) and one from column B (fresh pasta). Both were stunningly good and equally inventive. The dry pasta being a spicy calamarata with sushi grade raw tuna that melted in your mouth (pictured), cooling the flames. Such a wonderful, textural experience- like the oral equivalent of running through a sprinkler on a hot Summer day.

But as amazing as the tuna pasta was, the gnocci with cauliflower and orange was the stuff of kings. The pillows of potato so unsurpassed I can only recall one equal, the pumpkin gnocci from Blue Hill at Stone Barns. And the flavors within it were reminiscent of the brilliance at Piccolo in Venice, CA. Perhaps due to its use of cinnamon and spice. But this was no copy cat. No, this cat was a horse of a different color. Which is even starting to confuse me with the mention of all of these animals. But net, net, just order the friggin’ thing. You will love me for it. And speaking of, you’ll also love me for this tip, there’s a gorgeous $44 dollar bottle of Sangiovese that drinks like champ with all of the above.

The only miss, and by miss I mean mortal, was the crespelle (Italian crepe) with salted caramel gelato. It was certainly good, but after its predecessors, it was condemned to a plight of soaring expectations. I mean anything short of making my face fall off was destined to be a failure. The salted dark chocolate cookie that came with the check, however? Let’s just say I’m scheduled for face replacement surgery in the coming weeks.

***Having been back twice since, I can add a few more dishes in my continued love affair with this restaurant. The first being the Berkshire pork tenderloin with salsa de peperone. It’s pretty incredible, making it a VERY tough choice between this and the pastas above. The chicken is also quite good, breaded and squashed a bit, but juicy as all get out. And while very good, not sure it’s worth passing on some of the other stars I’ve suggested. For smaller plates the shishito peppers were good, but pretty standard (to be read like Dr. Evil). And having now tried two of their other bruschettas, I strongly urge that you stick with the lobster, because the drop off is steeper than Mt. Everest. And last but not least, dessert continues to be where BLG struggles the most. The Pot du Creme was just okay and the ice cream, while the clear winner of the three desserts I’ve tried, is not exactly a tour de force.

5 teeth