FIG

232 Meeting St. Charleston, SC 29401 (843) 805-5900eatatfig.com

charleston_fig-5

Ask anyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line what the best restaurants in Charleston are and you’re likely to hear about FIG, an acronym for Food Is Good. So with gauntlet thrown it was a moral imperative for me to suss out whether or not FIG was all hype, or all that.

Out of the gate, FIG seemed like yet another success story resting on its laurels, doling out bad service with a waitress who gave barely any recommendations to us “out-of-towners,” but then went on and on about half the menu with the local table next to us. But that’s minor compared to the fact that we had to ask to have our plates cleared and to see a dessert menu.

The other cause for concern was the bread. Never a good sign when the bread at a place is a pass. Appears they could learn a thing or two from Husk in terms of bread, service and décor.

But then FIG rallied with a dynamic duo of dishes. The first being the white shrimp appetizer with fennel, chili, raisins and pine nuts. Such a great, light app, yet packed with flavor and texture and nice dose of heat.

The other starter, however, was a bit on the heavier side, a lamb bolognese gnocci made with pillows of outstandingness only bested by Elan, Blue Hill and Bar LaGrassa in terms of flavor, but the dumplings themselves are incomparable.

Then, just when I thought I understood what all the hype was about, back down we went, with two dull-ass entrees. The tile fish with bone marrow and carrots was just too much of the same note and if it didn’t say bone marrow on the menu, I’d defy anyone to say they could actually taste it. And speaking of not tasting things, the suckling pig, while moist, was so bland that I couldn’t even tell where the pig ended and the rice or black-eyed peas began. And even though the dish was loaded with shishito peppers, sadly they did nothing to save the dish, because they were the most flavorless shishitos I’ve ever had, bringing not even an ounce of heat. Such a huge missed opportunity for some much needed heat.

Now deep into the woods of Two Knives-ville, it was looking grim for FIG. But from afar the sticky toffee cake with walnut ice cream (pictured) was lookin’ mighty fine on its way to virtually every table around us. So, when in Rome (or Charleston) go with the flow. And flow it did, right down my pie-hole, capping things off strong at 3 knives.

3 teeth

Hinoki and the Bird

10 W Century Dr. Los Angeles, CA 90067(310) 552-1200hinokiandthebird.com

Hinoki And The Bird, 10 Century Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90067

Frequented by the agents at CA, this extremely trendy haunt rose up from demand, managing to fill that mid-city void between the beach and West Hollywood. Set downstairs in a building just behind Century City, the décor is clean and modern with high ceilings, a huge windowed outdoor space, and a dining room walled with earthy materials and flanked by a trendy open kitchen on one side, and an equally hip bar on the other, sporting a handsome list of cocktails, wine and sake (including the sparking variety).

Because of our large party we “ordered the menu,” which is my second favorite way to dine… Other than with the wife, of course. So please don’t think that I had each of this dishes in full at one sitting. If I did, I’d be dead by now.

So, kicking things off, let’s start with the starters. And the Ultimate within, the crab toast. A dish I normally find to be a bid of a whatevs, but this crustacean is on fleek. Not too mayonnaisey, a little heaty with it’s chili, coriander and spicy cucumber and a lotta goody. Another dish I’d call tops is the unique prep of the okra, served roasted in a simple, yet artful row, dusted with cumin and superb to the taste.

Also impressive were the roasted Brussels sprouts, which were refreshingly unfancied up, compared to those at Cleo, Ilili or All’onda. Another veggie side sure to please are the yams done as a slightly contemporary twist on the classic, using Asian (purple) yams with a sour cream/crème fraiche drizzle.

The third side, the mushrooms, were the only bore of the trio, marinated in nothing out of the ordinary and served in an equally pedestrian way. But if you dig on the fungi, they are far from bad. Unfortunately they are just as far from memorable.

Another starter sure to put a smile on your face is the lobster roll, which looks remarkably like a cigar, due to it’s narrow stature and its black bun. It’s only about two bites big, but by mixing green curry and Thai basil into the mayo, they are a flavor-packed couple of chews.

Another solid starter is the crispy suckling pig with apple jam and chili, albeit that one is somewhat of a lay up by description alone. Whereas the fried chicken is much more of a surprise with its perfect contrast from crispy crust to moisty bird. But both were outdone by the black cod (pictured), which might be the best I’ve had since Matsuisha invented the dish decades before.

As for the last of the starters, the fluke flunked. Just your standard sashimi with nothing unique to write about, and nothing so fresh to even swoon about.

But things starting with “fl” seem to cause Hinoki big trouble in little China, because the flank steak was also flucked up. So chewy, my jaw gave out after about three bites. Thankfully my friend with the kurobuta pork chop was kind enough for sharesies and while the chop wasn’t exactly divine swine, it was much better than chew toy on my plate.

And the downward spiral of entrees only kept spiraling through dessert as I found myself wanting to flick Hinoki the bird for wasting my caloric intake with buzz killers like the doughnuts with caramel dip and the ice cream sandwiches.

As a result, should you wish to follow suit, I think you would be much better served by ordering meze style here, with lots of starters and sides, as opposed to the traditional three course app, entrée, dessert. I know it almost doesn’t seem worth it to go now, but I give you my ferocious guarantee that if you stick to the top of the menu, you will be so happy with your order you won’t even think twice about what you’re missing, which isn’t much.

3 teeth

The Purple Pig

500 N Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60611(312) 464-1744thepurplepigchicago.com

Fried Devil's Egg

Apparently pigs can indeed fly, because this place easily soared over my expectations. From the moment I set foot in the lively space I was taken by its energy and fun, welcoming décor. This is code for noisy, in case you’re not into that sorta thing, but in a good way.

This energy could even be sensed in the service, which started off a touch coercive and overbearing as we tried to figure out what we were going to drink (sangria). But upon reflection I think they just wanted to be attentive, which they were. Also pretty good with the recommendations I must say.

And speaking of things I must say, AMAZEBALLS! It’s an expression I actually loathe, but it somehow came to mind when describing the food because everything was so fantastic.

To start, the burrata with grapes and pickled fennel was so bright and creamy it fell into the soft, warm crostini like a cozy spa treatment for the tongue.

At the same time were also served the cauliflower because I wanted to make sure we had a vegetable. Well, I’m not too certain it was all that healthy, but delicious mos def. Sautéed with a little honey and cornichon. Once again nailing that balance of sweetness with hits of bright vinegar.

After that came the deviled egg (pictured), and while I would like to complain that it is actually a Scotch egg, I am too busy reminiscing how good it was. Breaded on the outside, gooey and creamy in the middle. And served over a peppery bed of arugula and sliced green olives. So, definitely not deviled, but even I don’t care anymore what I saying… Just get it.

Next up, the suckling pig, How could we not? Served in duo I was partial to the belly side of the plate, balanced wonderfully on a dais of wilted spinach. Whereas the other was more of a pressed pork over cranberry chutney. Also good, but up against belly, belly always wins.

The only let down for me was the turbot, mostly because the waiter said it was the best thing on the menu and it wasn’t. Trust me. It was the least inventive thing of the entire meal. And while I’d like to be more upset it about it, the waiter quickly redeemed himself with a strong recommendation on dessert…

The Greek honey cheesecake with chopped walnuts and filo dough was like baklava and cheesecake had a love child… And then we ate that child. Without remorse. In fact, if they were twins I would’ve gladly eaten its sibling as well. And yes, it’s an Ultimate in case you were wondering.

A truly magnificent meal on the Magnificent Mile.

5 teeth

Restaurant North

386 Main St. Armonk, NY 10504 • (914) 273-8686restaurantnorth.com

Restaurant North

Having never been THAT impressed with this chef’s former stomping ground Union Square Café, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I find North to also be considerably over-hyped.

And after having been there twice now, I’ve come to the conclusion that my biggest issue is that they would be much better suited as a bakery or as a casual haunt. But when held to the standards of fine dining, they simply don’t measure up. Blue Hill at Stone Barns and The Inn at Pound Ridge are both much, MUCH better. And for Italian it’s bested by both Fortina (just two blocks away) and The Cookery in Dobbs Ferry.

For me, the misses start the moment you enter the door. First with a decor that is notch or two past minimalist, trending toward unfinished. This is then followed up with a hostess who tried to seat us at the shittiest table by the bar, even though about 75% of the tables in the restaurant were empty. And this is with us having had a reservation for weeks mind you. The excuse, because one of the tables on the other half of the dining room was being reserved for a friend of the chef’s. But what about the other six open tables?!?!

After that, things improved, but never so much that they fell in line with the sterling reputation this place seems to enjoy.  This is not to say that what lies ahead was all bad, by any means, but if your are going to be a top restaurant in one of the wealthiest suburbs on the planet, you’d better be more than just “not bad.”

Not bad, however, was the story from top to bottom. Not one course the first time we went reached what I would call “excellent,” and we each had three. Yet each course lacked that little extra something that takes a dish from good to memorable. And with 6 different dishes and two proprietary cocktails, I’d say they had ample ways to impress, but failed at every one.

The only two dishes from that outing to rise above just a solid good were a pasta dish and the soft shell crabs. Both teetering on great. But sadly, not actually great.

Fortunately, while definitely ferocious, I also try to be fairocious, so I gave them a second chance before writing this review and upon revisiting it, this somewhat only served to solidified my opinions from the first experience.

That said, there were a few shining moments once again, and this time they were shining much brighter. For example, the focaccia they serve as the bread with your meal is phenomenal. It’s also an Ultimate.

Another thing worthy of note is the muffin they give you after the meal to take home. Moist, heavily seeded for a nice contrast in textures, and heavily awesome. So, it would appear that they bookend you well, between incredibly delicious baked goods, but if you just look past the bready smoke and mirrors, mediocrity was once again abound.

For example, the swordfish entree while perfectly cooked was woefully blah. Their hazelnut encrusted variation of a Scotch egg was equally lacking in flavor, begging for some salt to bring out the flavor of the egg. And the “Super Awesome” chocolate chip cookie is “super overrated.” It’s the same typical half baked cookie in a skillet you’d expect to find at Applebee’s with a very mediocre scoop of vanilla on top. You want a truly “super awesome” chocolate chip cookie, head to Sherry B’s in Chappaqua and get the one with walnuts (even if you’re allergic, it’s worth it). Or if you’re in the city, there’s none better than the one at City Bakery.

Another inflated dish is the burger. And while it’s definitely more impressive than the aforementioned dishes, with its creamed kale topper, it also falls WAY short of places like Minetta Tavern, Father’s Office and Burger & Barrel, to which I’ve heard it compared. Blasphemy!

Back on the upside, because I like to end things on a positive note (not really, but I will), the mushroom flatbread was surprisingly good, well balanced between the heartiness of the mushrooms, the creaminess of the goat cheese and the fresh pepperiness of the greens.

And finally, the suckling pig. Definitely not the looker of the bunch. In fact, once shredded amongst the bed of spaetzle it looked more like a cat got a hold of a stuffed animal and ripped it to bits. But the taste was excellent. Accented with a nice touch of heat.

But even with the stronger showing my second time around, it’s still WAY too hit and miss to be playing at the level they claim to be. Especially when they pull shit like pawning us off on the busboy to take our dessert order. Classy North. Very classy.

2 teeth

 

Maialino

2 Lexington Ave. New York, NY 10010(212) 777-2410maialinonyc.com

malfatti-al-maialino

The bread alone is worth 3  knives. In fact, you have to be very disciplined not to scarf down so much that you can’t enjoy the rest of the menu.

That said, if you manage to exercise some restraint and make it to the menu, the antipasti options we had were all good. The fried artichokes being great. The octopus being solid. And the mushrooms being WOW! Fungus never tasted so good.

As for the pastas, we did a little menage-a-sharesy between the suckling pig, carbonara and the amatriciana. The clear winner was the carbonara, follow by the pig. The amatricana was just so-so.

And for dessert, we all split the olive oil cake with mascarpone. Good-ish, but not amazing.

Decor while casual, has its charms and the location can’t be beat. Also, while the decor itself is far from fancy, there is a distinct high-end vibe to the place so it feels special without feeling ostentatious. And the service matches, friendly and very accommodating.

Looking forward to going back.

4 teeth

 

The Gander

15 W 18th St. New York, NY 10011(212) 229-9500 • thegandernyc.com

Sea+Trout+Tartar

The restaurant has the dubious distinction of being the product of two former failures combine. The space is in the gravesite of the restaurant formerly known as Alison 18 (RIP) and some of the key players behind it are from Manzanilla (RIP) which was a wonderful restaurant that caught a kiss of death one star review from the NY Times. Such a crime, because their reviews are about as accurate as Yelp half the time. Manzanilla was a gem that shined far brighter than scores of other places in the city that boast an embarrassment of adulation, undeservedly so if you ask me. Babbo, Per Se, Eleven Madison Park and Union Sq. Café are among the first to come to mind.

So as a result of my deep love for Manzanilla, I was REALLY pulling for these guys to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and send a big “Fuck You” to the sycophant at the Times.

Well, sadly I did not get my way. The Gander, while it has its moments, is no Manzanilla. The décor, is appointed nicely here and there, but feels a bit barren and cavernous somehow in the main dining room. As though they aren’t quite done decorating just yet.

The service was also a bit sloppy. One of the bus boys spilled oil on my sport coat and tried to slink away as though he didn’t notice. So definitely off to a bad start comparatively to the past. The service at Manzanilla was excellent and the décor was beautiful. So now I shifted all of my hopes toward the food, which had been getting rave reviews from people at work.

Well, I have since fired those people. KIDDING! But the food was very hit and miss. Not a total disaster. There were some highlights. The fist being my blood orange tea cocktail. Another being the Sea Trout Tartar, beautifully presented, loaded with brightness and acidity. But the runaway success of the night was the suckling pig, prepared in a very traditional Mediterranean sauce of herbed olive oil and lemon. So good.

The angel food cake dessert wasn’t bad either, but it shouldn’t exactly make the highlights list, or the lowlights for that matter. It really falls somewhere in the middle.

Now for the lowlights. I personally would skip the much touted Buffalo sweet breads. They taste like fried batter with Buffalo sauce. You get absolutely nothing of the gland itself, so what’s the point? I mean even with Buffalo wings you at least get the chicken meat!

Another highly acclaimed miss was the Brisket Tots. Their issue was dryness. And truth be told, not very flavorful either. The only saving grace for the dish are these tiny shaved coins of apple when eaten together with a tot, brings the much needed moisture back to the dish, making them in fact worthy. The problem is that the apple to tot ratio is not is not a favorable one.

And last but not least, my biggest gripe of the night, the Brown Butter Ravioli. This dish is SO small it is laughable that of all the pastas on the menu this is the only one that isn’t offered as an app portion. Only as a main. But I defy anyone to tell me that this is an entrée. Literally comprised of three underwhelming dumplings for 14 dollars. It’s basically 5 dollars a bite! You’d think it had truffles or something. So overpriced and underwhelming. They should be embarrassed to serve a dish like that, that’s how bad it was for the money.

Sorry Gander. I wanted to love you so bad. Hopefully third time’s a charm.

2 teeth