Oak & Almond

544 Main AveNorwalk, CT 06851 • (203) 846-4600 • oakandalmond.com
This might just very well be the best restaurant in the world… that is adjacent to a DMV. A dubious distinction by all accounts, but don’t let that sway you, because even if it weren’t right next door to the DMV, it would still be pretty damn good. So if you’re in the area, pounce. And if you’ve just spent an infuriating day at the DMV, double pounce.

The setting is surprisingly nice considering its locale, although it’s not a place I would propose or anything. That said, it’s set far enough away from the road and the DMV parking lot to make you feel like you are elsewhere.

But what really transports you is the food. From get go, you know they’re the real deal when they serve you their homemade, fresh-baked bread with a whipped butter-like cream thing that is dangerously habit-forming.

And the app-e-teasers proved strong as well. My favorite being the fungi flatbread (pictured). This pie is legit. Doing CT Pizza culture proud. A close second was the buratta, which was melt-in-your mouth creamy, drizzled with balsamic and served up with beefsteak tomatoes and perfectly thin, crisp crostini, just strong enough to provide textural contrast with the buratta, but thin enough so as not to overpower it and let it be the star. A close third for me would be the octopus, just missing the second slot because it was a touch overcooked. But the preparation was wonderful. A mix of fave beans, peas, dill yogurt, fennel, potatoes and chorizo, all drizzled with a kicking’ vinaigrette.

The only miss for me was the salmon tartar, significantly lacking in compared to its bunkmates.

For entrée, I went with the lamb burger. Not sure why, because I was already pretty damn full by this point, but perhaps it’s because I’m like a dog and would eat myself to death if you’d let me. Pressing on, I managed to hork about two thirds of it down. But like the octopus, I do have to say it was also over-cooked. That said, also like the octopus, the balance of flavors made up for a lot with the tzatziki and the olive aioli.

But as good as it is, I’m not suggesting you make a special trip just to go here. I mean it’s still right next to the DMV for Christ’s sake! But, if you happen to work nearby, or be in the area, you could do a lot worse. And if you just failed your driver’s license exam, it’s a nice place to lick your wounds.

Consider it a VERY strong three knifer, trending four when you adjust for DMV proximity.

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Gusto 101

101 Portland St. Toronto, ON M5V 2N3 • (416) 504-9669 • gusto101.com
 

I’ve never taken a course in gusto before, but had I known the lessons were so delicious I would’ve majored in it. That’s Gusto 101. A crash-course on solid restauranteuring. From it’s open loft, hipster vibe to its tantalizing bread wall that dares you not to order it, I was sucked in like a ball of lint into a vacuum cleaner.

And damn is it good. So be sure not to heed the advice of your parents and do indeed fill up on the bread. It’s very worthy. That said, you might want to leave room for the grilled octopus because it is as remarkable in the belly as it is on the eyes (pictured). The presentation is bar none, like a painting on a wood cutting board canvas with earthy roasted potatoes and vibrant dollops abound of every sort of puree one can imagine. It is truly exceptional.

Whereas the kale salad is much more on the pedestrian side. It’s good mind you, but compared to the other things I had, you can tell this place is capable of so much more. In fact, the only reason I’m staying cautious with 3 knives is due to my limited sampling. Need to go back. Soon. Please.

BBQ Chicken

25 W 32nd StNew York, NY 10001 • (212) 967-8093 • bbqktownnyc.com

Welcome to the Korean Pret of fried chicken. A confusing, and yet surprisingly accurate description made only more confusing by the name, because there’s very little barbecue to speak of. That said, there is chicken in virtually every imaginable sauce you could want, fried, jerk, barbecue (naturally), grilled, thai, coconut, general tso, sesame, honey, spicy. It’s like Forrest Gump talking about shrimp. All pre-made for a quick grab-n-go mission (hence my Pret comparison) or there is a pretty extensive amount of seating if you want to sit and take in the rather nonexistent decor. It’s also very reasonably priced by Manhattan standards, making it one of the only options for lunch in the area under $20.

But here’s the thing, the bowls are all pretty damn yummy. Some served up with rice and potatoes. Others with rice and veggies like their bibimbap. And some are just piled high with poultry. But all of them are surprisingly good. They have other things as well, but chicken is clearly their bailiwick. Oh, and best of all, they have beer! Take that Pret!

Blackbird

619 W Randolph St. Chicago, IL 60661(312) 715-0708blackbirdrestaurant.com

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The first thing that struck me when I entered Blackbird was that the décor is very white without a morsel of black to be found anywhere, ironically. The other thing I noticed is that while the service is very friendly and knowledgeable about the menu, they are also unbelievably slow, to the point of distraction, taking 40 minutes just to take our order and that was only because I flagged him down. Not even bread or drinks came in this time. And once they did, our waiter dripped the wine all over the table and down the sides of the glass EVERY time he poured it. It was so bad I think I’ve seen less dribbling in the United Center!

Fortunately the wine was good (what was left of it after he dripped most of it on the table) and the Port of Call cocktail is just awesome and it comes with significantly less dripping, unless it’s self-inflicted. Also, I do want to mention that the wine list has some solid, affordable options and the bread was warm and yummy, served with a curried butter.

It was from that point on that Blackbird soared, from a tasty amuse bouche to a trio of incredible appetizers that resoundingly affirmed that this chef de cuisine got game!

The most creative of the three would be the panzanella salad made with sweetbreads and sweet bread. A fun play on words and ingredients, using Hawaiian bread as a sweet counterweight to the savory glands. As was the raspberry vinaigrette. But as good as it was, it was actually the weakest of the three, best by the turnip and foie gras soup. So creamy and rich you should have to pay luxury tax on every spoonful. And my favorite of the three, the endive salad, believe it or not. Served in a stunning bird’s nest (pictured) with a poached egg, crispy potato, basil, pancetta and dijon. Relatively simple, but positively brilliant.

Both entrees I tried were exceptional as well. Completely apples and oranges, but each superb in their own right. The halibut is perfectly cooked and artfully accompanied by peekytoe crab and gooseberries. It was also somehow both decadent (duck fat) and light at the same time. Whereas the beef striploin was a full on savory-palooza, cooked to perfection and surrounded by a wonderful chanterelle moat with additions of quince, horseradish and crispy polenta planks. Masterful!

The only miss of the night was the carrot cake, and by miss I actually mean that it was good, but in comparison to the complimentary eclair and the white chocolate bar I would skip it, because that complimentary duo beats the cream cheese out of that cake 10 times out of 10, and I’ve a HUGE carrot cake fan, so this is saying a lot.

What’s also saying a lot is that not since the Purple Pig have I had a meal this good in Chicago. Granted I haven’t been to Alinea yet, so stay tuned.

4 teeth

Lupulo

835 6th Ave. New York, NY 1000 • (212) 290-7600 lupulonyc.com
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I’ve been to Lupolo twice now. Once for dinner and once for lunch and while neither of them changed my life, of the two I actually kinda lean more towards lunch, to be honest. The expectations are lower for that meal occasion, and I think that helps this place a lot. Because while Lupolo tries very hard to live up to the New York scene it doesn’t quite stick the landing when it comes to the caliber of cuisine.

In terms of décor, however, I find the vibe to be high energy and equally high noise level, almost reminiscent of a fish market with its nautical ropes, distressed wood and beautiful ocean blue sea tiles- mixed with a healthy dose of New York hip (pictured). In pleasant contrast, however, the servers are all Portuguese-nice. Maybe this is a stereotype I have, but one has to admit that as stereotypes go, it’s a pretty good one to have.

From dinner, the only real stand out was the mackerel spread. The octopus, red snapper cru and Iberico ham all falling into the vortex of yawn.

Whereas for lunch, the bacalhau a bras, an open face scrambled egg sandwich with salted cod flakes, potato and black olive proved much better. But I say this with a grain of salt, or more accurately, with several drops of hot sauce, because it was only with their hot sauce that I found the dish worthy of my love. So be sure to ask for it. Just also be sure to use it in moderation, because it’s muy potento.

2 teeth

La Sirena

Maritime Hotel 88 9th Ave. New York, NY 10011(212) 977-6096 lasirena-nyc.com

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Had I not been staying in the Maritime Hotel, I don’t think I would’ve ever given this restaurant the time of day. But now that I’ve eaten here, I will be counting the days until my return.

The setting itself is somewhat odd, two pod-like dining rooms at opposite ends of a massive, oven bar area that feels like the lido deck aboard a cruise liner, but with trendy booze and cocktail tables as opposed to a swimming pool and corpulent sunbathers. But within the pods both left and right, The Siren is serving up Italian that sings like a choir of angels achieving multiple orgasms.

Bursting out of the gate like Sea Biscuit (the horse, not the atrocious movie), they serve up a fresh-baked loaf of piping hot Italian bread that is so good it will vanish quicker than Lindsay Lohan’s career. But be sure to order a second one, because there’s sopping up you’ll be wanting to do ahead.

For an appetizer, I seldom swoon over salad, but I gotsta hand it to the frisee with poached egg, spicy pepperoni and warm potatoes. It is excellent, made so by the skillful balance of all its ingredients, but I think a special shout-out is in order to the pepperoni. Cut thick and packing so much heat you’d think it was a soppressata.

With 80% of their pastas being homemade, go figure that I would pick one of the only two that wasn’t. But for whatever reason, regardless of the waiter’s caution, I pressed on, because I had pus on the brain. That came out completely wrong, but the pus I’m referring two has eight legs, not two. A beautifully prepared al dente bucatini, loaded with tender, thin slices of spicy octopus, roasted peppers and onions all tossed in a delightfully fresh red sauce. Again, so surprisingly good I started questioning myself and everything around me. Was it the fault of food critics for not giving La Sirena the rightful kudos it deserves? Or was I just coming down with a sudden case of the easy-to-pleasies?

Ending with the pine nut tart for dessert, I was hoping for a strong miss to help make sense of the world again, but sadly things will have to remain a mystery. Drizzled with a red wine caramel and topped with an olive oil gelato, the tart walks a razors edge between savory and sweet making it unique and curiously pleasing in unexpected ways.

I would easily go five knives on this one, but I didn’t hear a lot of oohs and ahhs from the others at my table so I’m guessing the chicken and the clams with linguini aren’t at the same level as the bucatini, which might help explain the surprisingly mortal star count on Yelp.

4 teeth

 

The John Dory Oyster Bar

1196 Broadway New York, NY 10001(212) 792-9000 •  thejohndory.com

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After having read that they offer the best whole fish in the city, I have to say I was a bit miffed when I got there and there was no such option to be found anywhere on the menu. Which is especially effed up when you have a name like John Dory and you don’t even serve the damn fish! But as deflated as I was by the “bait and switch,” I quickly perked back up when the oysters hit the table. Six East Coast, six west coast and all twelve were awesome. Fresh, not too briny. Shucked by pros, so not a shell fragment to be seen and served up with a genius jalapeno mignonette. Horseradish was also in the house, but no cocktail sauce or vinegar. And I gotta say, neither were missed, because both options really let the mollusks shine, without overpowering them.

Having nearly forgotten all about whole fish-maggeddon, the distractions continued with the Spanish mackerel crudo served in a cup of squid crackling and spiced chili. It was quite fabulous. So much so that I started to question the 3 star yelp consensus (not that it’s the first time, of course).

And that’s when the entrees arrived and things started to make more sense. The octopus, while good, didn’t quite reach great, and even at its best, was only made so with yummy additions like Bottarga, olives and the potatoes, which were surprisingly key for this dish. On the other hand, there was no saving the Beer, Lamb & Clam. Great name, but that’s about the nicest thing I can say for it. It’s basically a bowl of steamed clams with a crushed tomato sauce that vaguely resembles notes of beer.

For dessert, the sticky toffee pudding is quite good, reminding me a bit of the one you’ll find one block over at L&W Oyster Co. Granted it’s bigger, just not better. And therein lies the rub, with L&W so close by, I’m not sure I’d pick the John Dory over it 9 times out of 10. But if you’re craving a change of pace, it’s pouring rain or freezing cold and every block matters, or you simply can’t get a table at L&W, then I say jump in with both feet. You could do a helluva lot worse.

3 teeth

Mari Vanna

41 E 20th St. New York, NY 10003(212) 777-1955marivanna.ru/ny

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The name alone brings a smile to my face because it sounds a lot like marijuana. The other smile inducer is the décor, dressed like a movie set plucked right out of the 1920’s in post World War I Russia. From the chairs to the plates to the distressed walls and the copper kettle sink in the bathroom, you feel as if you’ve actually just done the Time Warp again.

It’s just a jump to the left. And then a step to the right. Sorry. Getting very sidetracked in a Rocky Horror kinda way. So back on topic, the décor somehow comes off authentic and not as gimmick, partly because it’s very well done and partly because the employees are actually Russian and I want to believe they wouldn’t dare work at a place that turned their culture into a caricature.

The food is also pretty authentic, for better or for worse, because it’s not exactly the most decadent cuisine, most dishes being born out of a need to pack on the pounds to keep warm, or out of poverty-stricken means to survive. This is excluding the caviar, of course.

Starting with the bread, it is served with a customary beet and green onion, along with coarse sea salt, which you are supposed to drag the root veggies through before eating. I took a pass and opted for the bread, because if it’s one thing Russians do well, it’s pain (2 points for the double entendre).

For starters we went with another classic, the Olivier Salad, made with roasted vegetables, bologna and mayonnaise. It was just okay, tasting more or less like potato salad, to be honest. This was then followed by the pickled herring, which was also a bit underwhelming, to be honest. I’ve had much better at some of the Kosher Delis in the city, not to mention the Romanian ones.

But the best starter- no, the best dish in totality, was by far the Borsh. So rich and hearty, the beets were like meat, and the broth like the sweet blood of Sookie Stackhouse. In other words, it’s most definitely an Ultimate.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most disappointing dish of all was the much touted Stroganoff, only offered as chicken instead of beef, which made the dish horribly bland, the chicken, rice and sauce all tasting like shades of the same. Not sure what the Yelpers are thinking on this one, but this strogan was off. So off, in fact, that I actually preferred the meat stuffed dumplings with sour cream. Nothing spectacular, but they reminded me a little bit of the Turkish dish manti, granted they are probably closer to a perogie than anything, in a good way.

The tally is mixed on this one, as you can see, but I’m leaning to the low side because of the slow service and a waiter who swooned about everything on the menu as if it were made with gold. I hate that.

2 teeth

 

Perry St.

176 Perry St. New York, NY 10014(212) 352-1900 • perrystrestaurant.com

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Jean, Jean, Jean… Is it possible that after SO many restaurants you are finally starting to spread yourself too thin? Not to take anything away from you, because quite frankly I think you’ve done the impossible. I can’t think of one other chef in the Tri-State who has as many truly great restaurants. So give yourself a pat on the back for Jean-Georges, Mercer Kitchen, ABC Kitchen, ABC Cocina and The Inn at Pound Ridge. But not even Babe Ruth batted a thousand, so I am sad to report that Perry St. might be Jean’s first brush with mortality.

Of course I am only speaking in terms of comparability, because Perry St. is still good by all normal human accounts. But no one ever accused me of being normal, and neither is Jean, so when you play the game at a higher level, the bad news is that you have to keep it up. And since Perry St. was listed on many a “Top Ten” list of 2015, the hype bar was set only that much higher.

The knives started falling early as we entered to one of Jean’s least impressive décor’s yet. Sure, it’s clean and contemporary, but it also feels a lot like a trendy hotel lobby and nowhere near as nice as his last three openings. But that’s not even why I’m docking the knives. It’s more because of the flow, or lack thereof. You see, the hostess, while stunning in appearance, is equally stunning-ly bad in seating parties with reservations in a semi-timely manner. As a result, the sliver of a bar area becomes so over-crowded and noisy that it takes away from any attempt at elegance for the surrounding tables, which is about 50% of the restaurant. Then there are the back corners of the dining room, both left and right, which are so secluded that no one would ever want to sit there, especially the one on the right, across from the bathrooms, which have their own issues as well. Now I’m not exactly sure what the hold up was, but let’s just say there’s a bit of a logjam at the ole WC, causing a line so long they actually have a sofa there in case your knees buckle from the wait.

Once seated at our table, however, things did take a turn for the better, thankfully. Our waiter was attentive and the food was good. Sadly not quite as spectacular as one might be led to believe from all the press and Yelpers, but definitely good.

Of the starters I would say Perry went two-for-two, the winners being the Spanish octopus with Romanesco sauce, pickled peppers and potatoes. It’s not quite an Ultimate, but it’s just about as close as it gets. The other winner is the shockingly delicious mushroom dish. In fact, they are so awesome that you owe it to yourselves to get an order in the middle to share.

Equally shocking, unfortunately, is that one of the misses is actually the seared foie gras. Nowhere near as transcendent as it should be for such a guilty pleasure. I mean c’mon, if you’re gonna torture a goose, at least make it worth the ride.

The other miss for me was the snapper sashimi. Not only did I find it to be very basic, the one touch of inventiveness made it feel as if you were chewing on bits of seashell and sand along with the fish.

The entrees rallied strong though with the lemongrass lobster. It’s excellent and worth every pretty penny. As is the duck. The beef tenderloin proved to be the weakest of the three, served with broccoli, broccoli pesto and chimichurri. The steak itself is cooked like a champ. Charred on the outside, moist and pink on the inside. But the flavors of the pesto and chimichurri just didn’t wow, which is especially surprising because the tenderloin is always one of the best dishes at The Inn at Pound Ridge, no matter what the preparation du jour, so I thought I was golden. But apparently I was just bronze.

Dessert also served up a mixed bag, the better of the two being the passion fruit soufflé with passion fruit sorbet. It’s done very well, but doubling down on the same flavor seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Whereas the brown butter carrot cake was just okay. Nothing I would ever sing about. Not that I should ever be singing with my voice.

So, without a single Ultimate and an admittedly clunky experience I have a hard time giving Perry the thumbs up. But there are many strong dishes to be had, so I can’t exactly give it the Julius Caesar either. Which leaves us with…

3 teeth

Black Barn

19 E 26th St. New York, NY 10010(212) 265-5959 blackbarnrestaurant.com

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A unequivocal upgrade from SD26 (RIP), Black Barn slaps you in the face with energy the moment you enter, with its lively bar up front, adorned with sleek décor elements done in such a way that honors both the country and city, making the Osmonds proud. Especially in the main dining room in the back, where they really embrace the mix of design elements, complete with a framed out “barn” looming overhead. The only thing taking away from the vibe in a pretty big way is the tablet-style cocktail and wine list. It just cheapens the experience right as you sit down, making you feel like you’re in one of those iPad airport restaurants.

In terms of service, it was a bit spotty, proving to be noticeably lethargic on the bookends with both the cocktails and desserts taking an eternity. Then there’s the matter of our waiter forgetting all about delivering us a bread basket, probably because he was too busy delivering his table-side theatrically, obnoxious Shakespearean presentation of “The Menu.” This guy was so over the top we felt like we were being waited on by Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments.

Fortunately for Charlton the cocktails were very good. The winner of the two I tried was The Bad Seed, made with Buttered Corn American Whiskey and cayenne pepper dust. It was spicy and buttery in all the right places. Yes, it’s good to be bad. The other cocktail was the refreshing Cider House Cup, served in a copper mug, which seems to be all the rage as of late. Made with Apple Jack, fruit and lime juice. It’s a nice yin to the yang of The Bad Seed.

For starters the Beau Soleil oysters were oysters. Fresh, but nothing spectacular. Served with all the usual suspects from lemon to vinegar to cocktail sauce. The seared foie gras with green apples was also just okay, missing the broad side of a, well, barn, with a dish that should’ve easily been a layup had they just given it that hit of sweetness that is normally so germane to the dish. But weakest of all was probably the pumpkin salad, which was so unimpressionable that it might as well have never even been served to us and I doubt anyone would’ve ever noticed.

On the plus side, the mushroom toast with tallegio was good. Not what I would call it incredible, but amidst the losers it was served with, it was a beacon of hope. And speaking of hope, we finally held out long enough for that forgotten breadbasket I mentioned earlier. But once it arrived, it quickly became apparent as to why they had forgotten. Because it’s pretty forgettable. Although I will hand them the award for the most conflicted spread ever served with bread. A pat of butter topped with balsamic vinegar, sitting in a pool of olive oil, surrounded by roasted garlic cloves. Yes, all of that and yet it still failed to wow.

Sadly, the entrees didn’t fare much better. The scallops were just okay, only made mildly better by the potatoes they are served over. But compared to the amazing scallop dish at The Clocktower across the park, I wouldn’t wipe my ass with these. Not that you should ever wipe your ass with mollusks, that’s just gross, not even sure why you brought it up?

The rib eye with chimichurri was also just okay. The meat itself was nothing special at all, so it was in dire need of something to submerge it in, hence why they serve it with the chimichurri, I suppose. But even that wasn’t enough to mask the inadequacies of the dish. Nor was the cayenne popover, which was a nice touch, props for that one, but it’s obviously a borrowed concept from BLT and not quite at the same level, nor size. Still, I appreciated the effort.

And just when the barn was about to be set fire, the best entrée of the night came in to save the day, the sweet potato ravioli with bacon. Not only was it good, it was crazy good. Then, they followed that up with two killer desserts, the rum soaked bread pudding, which was my favorite, as you can imagine, and the other were the salted caramel ice cream sandwiches which were pretty dope as well, to use a horribly dated expression that I’m hoping to bring back into style. The weakest of the three desserts were the warm chocolate brownies. They’re not exactly bad per se, but when you can get a better brownie at Pret, it kinda makes it seem ridiculous to pay over 10 bucks for something inferior.

Such a shame. I had higher hopes for Black Barn. Sure, it had its spots of brilliance, but they were lost in a sea of too much darkness. Or should I say “blackness?” Yet I still stand by what I said at the beginning. It’s definitely an upgrade from the previous tenant, even if the misses outnumber the hits.

2 teeth