Twenty-Somethings Taking On The Upper East Side

If you’re a twenty-something living on the Upper (upper) East Side I can understand if you sometimes find it difficult to find a place to gather your friends at a “hip,” “trendy” and interesting restaurant for some Thursday night fun. I am not talking about the East 60s here. This is for those of you looking for a fun place in the 80s on up. The area is great, but be realistic. A majority of the restaurants – while some are very good – are tailored more for families, will leave a dent in the wallet and do not attract a crowd full of young people catching up with their girlfriends, out for a date or just going out for a fun meal with a mixed group. So I have three suggestions for you: Flex Mussels, Bocca East and Toloache. This is by no means the end-all-and-be-all of where a twenty-something can eat in the East 80s. They are just a few that have come up on my dining radar and may be worth your consideration the next time you scratch your head looking for a place for drinks and a good meal that does not include wings and beers from Brother Jimmy’s. And yes, it is pure coincidence that two of these restaurants happen to be on the same block.

Flex Mussels:

Flex Mussels in itself is a great concept. A beach-vibe restaurant with 23 distinct variety of mussels that come in large, deep pots to share amongst friends. If you enjoy mussels you will definitely find your niche here. Flex has everything from the classic preparation of mussels with white wine, herbs and garlic to more off-the-beaten track and creative innovations to the cuisine with menu items such as the Thai which consists of mussels in coconut curry brothm coriander, lemongrass, lime, ginger and garlic. I have dined at the West Village and Upper East Side locations a number of times so I have sampled quite a few of the selections and never find myself disappointed. The Parma and Bruschetta happen to be my favorites, but I have also enjoyed the Thai, San Daniele and Fra Diavolo (Note: If you order the Bruschetta you will be pleasantly surprised with the generous lobster portion). And what are mussels without fries? Try the regular or the truffle. … but really, just order the truffle fries. You know they will taste better.

If you have some people in your party who do not eat mussels, or do not even enjoy seafood, no need to fret. There are some options for them as well. They can order a nice piece of fish, lobster roll, chicken or take a sampling of some of the appetizers as well. It might not be the best spot for you non-mussel lovers, but it is a lively and fun place so if you can find something on the menu you would enjoy I suggest tagging along with the group.  For dessert, the donut collection with a variety of dipping sauces is a must. Might as well skip over whatever else is on the menu because this is clearly the winner here if you like fried dough. I have also ventured off the road most traveled and tried the Deep Fried Whoopie Pie, which was quite tasty as well.

Now, I said this place was fun, so on to a little flavor of ambiance. I won’t lie to you. When you walk in on E. 82nd street, the entry way with counter top and bar seating is quite tight. You fight your way through the narrow entrance to the hostess stand among groups of people enjoying a drink or just taking their meal at the counter. I have never done Flex that way, but it actually looks pretty fun to kick back, be casual and order a pot of mussels at the bar. The crowd is mixed, but I do not think I have ever seen so many young people at an Upper East Side restaurant on a Thursday night. Maybe is was just the night I was there, but it was really a fun scene. Young women dolled up in their heels and outfits ready to take on the town and the young business-looking type men coming straight from the office in their suits (without the tie and with a couple more buttons unbuttoned on their shirts than is “work appropriate”). The place is always crowded and definitely an opportunity to do some good people watching. The decor sets you on the beach with brightly colored walls with ocean-set art work while the black-topped tables and metal chairs make me feel like i am at a real (somewhat upscale) seafood shack.

The service is decent, but can be spotty. The last time I was there our waitress forgot to give us silverware, came back to the table twice to confirm our meal and there was an approximate 25-minute pause between when we finished our appetizers to the arrival of the main course. Iffy service aside. … I will still go back. So the next time you have the urge for a Prince Edward Island treat gather the troops and make a pit stop the Flex Mussels. I do not think you will leave hungry or disappointed.

Flex Mussels, 174 E. 82nd Street, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 717-7772.

When To Book: Flex Mussels takes reservations on OpenTable. It can be tricky sometimes to know how far in advance to book. If you know a week in advance you are going to want to stop in on a Thursday night or the weekend then you should probably book ahead. There are times, however, you can get lucky on a Thursday or Friday afternoon and find yourself a table at a decent time. You can always walk in and sit at the counter or bar as well. 

Toloache

One tequila, two tequila, three tequila. … floor! This Mexican taqueria situated just a few doors down from Flex Mussels on East 82nd street is another fun one for us younger folk. If you have the urge for a couple margaritas, a bowl of guac with tortilla chips and some tacos then drop by Toloache. Do not worry about the cocktail list – they have it covered. When it comes to the food I think it’s best shared among girlfriends since the taco portions would leave a grown man hungry and wanting more.

These are not your typical over-stuffed, extra large soft tortilla tacos. These are daintier and can fit in the palm of your hand. And if you are with your boyfriend or a group of young dudes, tell them to look at the side of the menu entitled, “Platos Fuertes.” Those dishes are probably more their speed. But then again. … this is a taco place. So just over-order and get a bunch of tacos, quesadillas and more to share.

The restaurant does a pretty good job of highlighting all of its signature dishes. I do not think you can go all that wrong by following those guidelines. I ordered one of the signature quesadillas with truffle, corn and manchego cheese that was delicious. It was not too big nor too rich, but it did leave me wanting more. Definitely start with some guacamole. It’s not the best in New York City (there’s quite a bit of competition), but nevertheless pretty good and will hold you over while sipping on margaritas waiting to order.

The restaurant is larger than you would think when walking in the door. There are a couple rooms in the back and the tables are spread out enough that you do not feel like you are bumping shoulders with your neighbor. The dining room was a little dark, but I guess the mood was set and the lights were not dimmed to a point where I wanted to fall asleep or anything. Again, being on the Upper East Side (and in Manhattan for that matter) the crowd was naturally mixed, but as I surveyed the tables around me there were a number of parties who looked to be in my same age range, whether they were on an awkward-looking first date or a group of girlfriends looking to catch up on each other’s week. Good”margs,” good food and good people. Another neighborhood solid in my book.

Toloache, 166 E. 82nd Street, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 861-4505.

When To Book: Toloache  takes reservations on OpenTable. You can usually get a table the day of your planned reservation or try to walk in. 

Bocca East

This one is for you Italian lovers. The newer comer to the Upper East Side is an off shoot of one of my favorites from the very very West Side on 55th and 9th. When Bocca East opened on 78th and Second Avenue (it’s basically in the East 80s for those following this post and trying to fault me on a technicality) I was very excited to see how it would compare to the original Bocca Di Bacco. It did not disappoint. In some ways I even find this location more enjoyable. It is definitely more centrally located. This wine bar and trattoria is good for anything from al fresco dining to enjoying a nice glass of wine or devouring a big a bowl of pasta.

One of the more unique things to note about Bocca East (and it’s sister restaurant) is the wine system. The restaurant has a very complex wine storage system that essentially allows them to serve a very wide variety of vino on “tap.”  In addition there is a fairly comprehensive selection of Italian wines, beers and cocktails to choose from. The dining room is rustic with wood floors, tables and chairs. The glass windows allow you to peer outside from your table and not feel closed in by the restaurant walls. You can always exercise the option in warmer months to take a table outside too. The dining room in the summer is a tad over air-conditioned, so if you are able to get outdoor seating I suggest doing just that. Plus, outdoor dining is usually more enjoyable anyway.

The menu is well rounded and consists of enough options for whatever Italian dish for which you might be in the mood. I would recommend sharing a number of appetizers. The Crostini Misti, Baby Artichoke Salad and Buffalo Mozzarella are all worth trying. Our waiter also suggested the Seared Yellow Fin Tuna and Grilled Shrimp, but we already had too much on the table. I will save those for next time! I have always been biased toward the meat dishes when dining at Bocca di Bacco on the West Side, so I decided to go with pasta on this visit and realized I had been missing out. The Bucatini all’Amatriciana (This happens to be one of my top three favorite pastas. … kudos to Bocca for somehow predicting that and putting it on the menu) was light, flavorful and cooked al dente just as it should be. It was quite a generous portion but there was nothing left when I was done with that plate. Others in my group ordered the scallops and skirt steak, and both were pleased with their meals.

The service was attentive an friendly enough. My one qualm was with the Buffalo Mozzarella appetizer when the waiter tried to convince me that bresaola was of the pork variety and not beef (Note: I am not a beef eater). When the dish arrived it was pretty clear there was cured beef on the plate in front of me. I get my Italian cured meats confused from time-to-time as well, but if the restaurant wants to be authentic its servers should be able to discern the difference! The Buffalo Mozzarella was creamy and delicious so it did not bother me too much. I ate and moved on.

Bocca East is a great for a date, vino with the girls or even a meal with the family. Again, it is very pleasant to sit at one of the outdoor tables so make your visit quick before the late Fall and Winter months force your meal indoors.

Bocca East, 1496 Second Avenue, NY, NY 10075. Phone: (212) 249-1010/

When To Book: Bocca East takes reservations on OpenTable. If you plan on dining at Bocca East earlier in the week you can likely book the day of or one day in advance. For Thursday, Friday or Saturday reservations I would suggest booking a week in advance or very early in the week. The prime-time tables can book up. 

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Get Me Some “Dino” BBQ

Here’s one for all you BBQ lovers. I went to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem tonight and it was finger lickin’ good. For those of you who enjoy the likes of Fette Sau, Blue Smoke and Hill Country you should definitely check this place out. The location might be off-the-beaten path (literally off the West Side Highway), but when you step inside the vibe is kickin’ and the place is mobbed. Yes, even on a Sunday night in August. Luckily for me, I was running late to dinner so I missed the 45-minute wait for a table and joined right in with my friends who already knew my order. I was all set!

Like any good ‘roadhouse’ BBQ joint, the brews were flowing and everyone seemed to be enjoying a casual throwback meal. Even those waiting for their coveted tables seemed to be enjoying the experience. If you’ve been to any of the other aforementioned NYC BBQ restaurants you know the deal: Fette Sau is beer from mason jars and picnic tables full of lunch trays with ribs, brisket and tons of sides; Blue Smoke is more “upscale” as you are seated at your table, waited upon and delivered your southern cookin’; Hill Country is cafeteria-style fun where the ribs and brisket are sliced in front of you and you shuffle down the counter for your sides, etc. “Dino” is a hybrid of them all. A little more upscale with the table service and more deliberate decor, but the food is no frills and served on plastic plates (like those you would get in grade school at the cafeteria separated in thirds for each part of the meal – one third for the veggies, one third for your meat and the other for your starch. … got the visual yet?). The menu has all the BBQ classics and then some. 

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My standard order is a half rack of baby backs so why should tonight be any different. The pit plates come with corn bread and two sides. Another must for a proper BBQ joint – great sides! Dinosaur Bar-B-Que does not disappoint there as you can choose from 14 sides on the menu. I went with  cole slaw and BBQ beans with pork. The ribs were tender and the meat came off the bone easily with each bite. Another key to good BBQ is obviously the sauce. I knew the ribs were good when I did not have to smother them in extra sauce to get adequate flavor out of them. They were already smoked with the succulent sauce and I just added a little more for that extra kick. The corn bread was tasty, the cole slaw was not overpowered by mayo and the beans were fine but could have been a little more flavorful. My other friends ordered pulled pork sandwiches and brisket, and there was also some mac n’cheese floating around the table. They are all regulars at Dino so they knew exactly what they were doing. I do not think anyone had any complaints as the table was silent during feasting time and there was barely any food left on the table when we were finished.

If you do not live uptown in Harlem and enjoy a good plate of ribs, pulled pork or brisket I would say Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is worth the dining exploration. Yes, you may have to fight off the long waits, but stop complaining and go grab yourself a beer at the spacious bar. I am sure there will be some sports game playing that will entertain your time. In terms of “strategy”, you can try your luck on OpenTable but you might get stuck with the utterly annoying 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. slots. News flash – no one wants to eat at these times! Those reservation slots are just insulting (that’s just a brief general dining rant right there).

Dino also has live entertainment on the weekends, so if you are looking for more than just a meal it might be worth checking out their calendar of events as well. I would just recommend going up there and toughing out the lines.  And let me take a second to adequately set your expectations. Do not make this your next dining choice if you’re expecting some high-class meal where your are doted upon and served a five-course meal on white table cloths. What you get is simple, but it’s good and tasty. If you know anything about BBQ you’ll know that’s exactly how it should be.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 700 W. 125th Street, NY, NY 10027. Phone: (212) 694-1777.

When To Book: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que takes reservations on OpenTable, but if you want a “normal” dinner time I suggest booking 2-3 weeks in advance. Otherwise, walk-ins are welcome or you can always do take out. 

Rushed @ red bar brasserie

I find it increasingly difficult to have a hassle-free meal in the Hamptons during the high summer months. But since I enjoy dining out, I get the itch sometimes to go to an old standby or the newest en vogue out there. This past weekend I went with my family to red bar brasserie in South Hampton for an early dinner before making the trek back to the City. It was quick reminder of why I usually just eat a fresh meal at home between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Now I have been here a number of times before and typically have a very nice experience, but this time something was off. I thought we were off to a great start when the host recognized someone in my party and said, “Oh! I did not know you were on this reservation or I would have seated you at your regular table.” That should be the golden ticket to good service at a high-end restaurant, right? I thought so too.

Everything was going well until the appetizers were on the table. We ordered the Bruschetta with Artichoke, Piquillo Pepper, Black Garlic and House-Made Lemon-Farmers Cheese for the table and some people ordered the special Tuscan Tomato Soup with Bell Peppers and Croutons. The Bruschetta was tasty even though the other ingredients overpowered the artichoke to the point you could barely taste it. And we clearly did not order enough because there were only three small toasts for the five of us, but that’s our on problem! But here’s where the evening went downhill. One person still had about a quarter of her soup left in the bowl – and she was still hunched over the plate as though she wanted to continue eating – when the bus boy arrived at our table trying to remove the dish. She politely told him she wanted to continue enjoying the appetizer and he disappeared. … for approximately 60 seconds.

So, I guess we were moving onto the main course. I ordered the Truffled Chicken Breast with Mushroom Risotto and French Beans, which I highly recommend. I could smell the truffle aroma wafting in the air as the waiter placed the rest of the plates on the table before mine. And who doesn’t like truffles! The chicken was tender and under the crispy skin was a thin layer of truffles giving the dish that extra “umph!” The risotto was rich – as all risotto should be – and the green beans were there to round out the course and serve as an attempt to be healthy. But as I was finishing my meal the vendetta against our table resurfaced.

The same person who ordered the soup ordered a simple Endive Salad, and before she could eat half of it the bus boy arrived trying to remover her plate. I understand the need for table turnover, but it was 6 p.m. on a Sunday. Seeing as there was not a long line of people waiting to get in I do not think it would have killed the staff to let us enjoy a peaceful family meal. We each enjoyed our food, but could not figure out why they wanted to get us out of there so quickly. Did we smell bad? The table behind us did not appear to have the same issues. After each bottle of wine they all consumed (I think we counted three, but who knows) the noise level in the restaurant grew two octaves. They were having a grand ‘ole time and lasted far longer than us.

We decided not to order dessert for fear the Profiteroles would be gone before we could scrape the chocolate sauce from our plates. We paid the bill, the host tried his friendly charm yet again and we went on our way. As I said, I have been to red bar a number of times. And I usually leave satisfied. I like the brasserie feel with the wicker chairs and white table clothes, and the intimate dining room setting. The dining room fills up quickly and there is usually a nice, unpretentious liveliness about the place. The food is consistently good, but my experience with the service this go around was just particularly notable (and in case you didn’t get the memo, it wasn’t in a good way). I am also a patron at the owner’s other restaurants, Beacon and Fresno, and would hope the next time I dine at one of them I feel just a tad more wanted. If you head over to red bar, let me know your thoughts. I would like to go back at some point!

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red bar brasserie, 210 Hampton Road, Southampton, NY 11968. Phone: (631) 283- 0704.

When to Book: red bar brasserie takes reservations on OpenTable and you can typically get a reservation a week in advance. During the peak season of summer, you may want to give yourself an extra week to make your reservation if you want prime-time weekend spots.

The Next Great Meal Goes International: Ireland

Welcome to the first international restaurant series from The Next Great Meal. I spent a week in Ireland, mostly in the outskirts of Dublin in County Wicklow. Below you will get a brief taste of the highlights. Maybe you won’t make it to Ireland in the very near future, but should you find yourself in the country’s capital or the luscious green countryside here are some places to keep in mind!

Gordon Ramsay @ Powerscourt

This restaurant by the well-known Gordon Ramsay is situated in the Ritz Carlton hotel on the Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow, Ireland. The setting is beautiful as you get panoramic views of Sugar Loaf mountain in the distance. There is a lovely terrace for when the weather in Ireland permits you to enjoy a peaceful dinner outdoors. As I am sure many of you have experienced, hotel dining can be very hit-or-miss. Some hotels know how to do it right, but others struggle to create ambiance and character, so while the food could be exceptional the restaurant ends up lacking in energy. With Gordon Ramsay’s Powerscourt location I felt more the latter. The wait staff, however, was friendly and I found this was mostly the case in Ireland. They also knew how to make the customer happy. After a fly had flown into my glass of wine for the second time there was no charge on the bill. Now that’s what I’m talking about! The menu composed of fresh, local ingredients from the region which is something I always appreciate.  I started with a beet salad with fresh, local goat cheese followed by a diverse lamb medley which included tenderloin, crispy bacon-like slices and sweetbreads garnished with baby artichoke and cherry tomatoes. The main course was delicate, light and succulent. I did, however, pass on the sweetbreads. The best way I know how to describe what came next is as a chocolate bomb (see the picture. … you’ll understand). All I can say is it was pretty darn good. Then the meal was over. And while I did enjoy the food and it was clearly of high caliber, I was really hoping for character and Ramsay has still yet to find it here.

The Box Tree

This was a special place we visited in County Wicklow. It’s situated in a small town called Stepaside Village and couldn’t be more charming. With a seating area outside lined with pots of bright yellow flowers, and a charming wine bar next door, I was able to tell from the entrance that this was going to be a serene evening.  The Box Tree does receive accolades for being and Eamonn O’Reilly establishment, who is one of the acclaimed chefs in Ireland. O’Reilly also owns a successful restaurant in Dublin, One Pico, that I did not have the time to try but looked appealing as well.  We were seated in a banquet in front of the semi-open kitchen. Above our heads, the walls were lined with all sorts of wine bottles organized and encased by glass. There were a number of creative dishes on the menu, such as the Poached Egg and Grilled Asparagus appetizer that came with Kellys Black Pudding, Capers and Bacon and Grain Mustard Hollandaise or the Butter Roasted Chicken Breast with Spinach, Mushroom Ravioli, Crispy Wing and Sweetcorn Cream. I ordered the latter and started with the Ardsallagh Goats Cheese and Pickled Beetroot salad. I almost did not get the salad because the server initially brought out the wrong goat cheese appetizer, but just as I was sticking my fork in the phyllo-wrapped cheese (and don’t get me wrong. … I was confused about the dish, but was going to go along with it anyway) he realized his mistake and pulled it out of my grasp. Oops! When I finally did get the correct salad, it looked more like a work of art than something I should be eating. There were three statues of soft, coiled goat cheese sandwiched between two thinly sliced beets, garnished with greens and candied walnuts. Something about the goat cheese in Ireland (and the butter) is just a notch above the rest, but this rendition in particular was quite tasty. It was light, flavorful and very fresh. Then came the (first) rich part of the meal. … the chicken. From the description, I was not quite sure what to expect from all the ingredients but they surprisingly worked very well. The spinach lay at the bottom with the one large mushroom ravioli placed on top, which was surrounded by the buttered chicken breast and crispy baby chicken wings. Then the sweetcorn cream to finish it off. That was home style cooking in the most gourmet way possible. I really enjoyed this dish. I think the chef did a very good job of making each piece of the meal work together. The chicken wings were definitely a creative touch. The finish touch wasn’t disappointing either. The chocolate walnut brownie bites with dollops of chocolate mousse and a scoop of Bailey’s ice cream were a great way to the end the meal. It may sound overwhelming, but the brownies were dainty and the mousse not overpowering, so it actually was quite a nice way to end a filling meal. Overall, great place with character and innovative cuisine. The location is a little out-of-the-way so it’s not a touristy spot which gave it a lot of charm. The service is friendly and accommodating. We heard that some have had problems with it being spotty and slow, but we just had the appetizer incident! 

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Campo De Fiori

Campo De Fiori is a quaint Italian restaurant in the coastal town of Bray. Bray is one of the larger towns near where I stayed and the most vivacious. There was an Italian festival going on that week and the night we were in town the entire town seemed to be in the streets cheering on the local Olympic heroes during the opening ceremonies. It was a fun scene. Campo De Fiori is situated right across from the water so you can get some picturesque views if seated at the right table. When we walked in it seemed like a one-man show. The manager was acting as hostess then waiter then bus boy and anything else in between. He was running it all. The whole experience felt quite intimate and felt closer to a trattoria in Italy than one in the middle of Ireland. And like most people do at Italian restaurants we ordered a bit too much. It was nothing fancy, but the simple ingredients worked and made the meal enjoyable. The Antipasto appetizers are a must. You cannot find many places that really do antipasto well in the U.S. (if you know of some please let me know) and this one had all the right stuff. Just make sure if you’re a table for two to get the small one. I got the Black Sole as my entrée, which was very simply prepared fish with boiled potatoes and vegetables. We also got the Mixed Grilled Fish which is probably the best way to get a sampling of all the fish offerings. You’re in a coastal town. … you should really order some fish. There was one snafu with a prawn that wasn’t fully cooked, but otherwise we enjoyed the meal and there wasn’t much left over on our plates. If you haven’t figured this out yet, I am a sucker for sweets but I wasn’t impressed by my chocolate mousse. Worth stopping by this Italian gem if you’re visiting Bray. And if you are not in the mood for dinner, there is a wine bar next door.

Fern House

The Fern House is rustic cafe attached to the Kilmacanogue location of the well-known Avoca stores. After you’re done picking up your hand-woven blankets, socks and scarves you can take a breather at this lovely cafe for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. The servers here were some of the most friendly I had during the trip. The setting was peaceful and it almost felt like you were in a massive green house with lush gardens surrounding you. The space is enchanting and the food tasted farmhouse fresh. I had a lovely crab and apple salad that was a refreshing summer treat. We also ordered a vegetable antipasto plate (another great antipasto!) that had an assortment of marinated vegetables, falafel, cheeses and more. The only disappointment was my Smarties cookie that was a little stale. But the other baked goods looked delicious, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Winding Stair

From the outside you wouldn’t think much of this Dublin charmer. The yellow building blends with the others on the city block, and it’s hard to spot from afar unless you look way up and see the intricate letters that read “The Winding Stair.”  The second-story restaurant sits above a book shop in the center of Dublin and looks over the river. The wooden loft space is simple, cozy and warm. The menu  has plenty of options and I would love to come back and try some more. I ordered a special lamb shank they were serving that night that was tender and fell off the bone. Everyone in the restaurant seemed to be enjoying themselves and I was having a good time observing the food that landed on their tables. It all looked just as delicious as mine tasted. The desserts were the real kicker. They are known for the Bread and Butter Pudding with Whiskey Sauce. It really does melt in your mouth. You shouldn’t leave without at least having a bite. Another phenomenal dessert was the Apple and Rhubarb Crumble. It’s actually very hard for me to describe either of these desserts because I won’t be able to do them justice. The skillet crumble was mouth-watering good and so perfectly warmed that the cinnamon ice cream formed a river throughout the dish. I would venture to say that if you venture to Ireland there is a high likelihood Dublin would be part of the trip. If this is the case and you have some time, this restaurant is worth a trip. I hear their lunch is great as well. It’s high quality with not a lot of bells and whistles in an inviting and relaxed environment. I could have sat there with a bottle of wine for another hour enjoying the setting. Too bad we had to drive back to County Wicklow!

Those four restaurants represent the highlights of my culinary adventures in Ireland. There were some other places I went worth making quick mention of as well. The Wicklow Heather (Glendalough), The Powerscourt Arms (Enniskerry), McGill’s (Powerscourt) and Elephant and Castle (Dublin. … and yes, the sister restaurant to the one in the West Village). If you want more information on any of the restaurants I have highlighted feel free to leave a comment or email thenextgreatmeal@gmail.com. Contrary to what I expected from its former reputation, Ireland cuisine consists of more than meat, potatoes and Guinness pints. I enjoyed some great meals here and, for the most part, at a reasonable price.