Solid Small Plates, Sub-Standard Service and a Botched Dessert @ Alta

Name: Alta

NGM Rating: B-

Restaurant Inspection Rating: Grade Pending

Website: http://www.altarestaurant.com/

Location: 64 W. 10th Street, NY, NY 10011

Cuisine: Mediterranean-Influenced Small Plates

Ambiance: This Greenwich Village gem of a place (in terms of look and feel) combines rustic, elegance and romance all into one. The entrance is charming, and as you open the door you enter into a long bar room with hoards of people laughing, enjoying a cocktail and nibbling on small plates at the bar. Then you walk into the duplex dining room that has great high ceilings, ornate light fixtures and is very low lit. The abundance of candlelight gives the dining room a romantic touch. Very warm feeling and somewhere you would like to keep warm during the cold of winter. … and there’s even a working fireplace.

Menu highlights: House-marinated olives, fried goat cheese with lavender-infused honey, grilled smoked mozzarella skewer, seafood paella, pulled pork empanadas, sea bass tartare and kale salad.If you’re feeling really amibiitious you can order “The Whole Shebang” for $450 and literally try everything on the menu.

What I didn’t get to try:  My sister raved about the Philadelphia Truffle Surprise, so we were disappointed to hear that item had been removed from the menu. That was the one item I feel like I missed out on, but there were plenty of other small plates that could have been sampled as well. We had plenty on the table to keep me occupied.

Constructive criticisms: The service really crushed my experience at Alta. All in all, the food was quite good but the pace of the meal was very inconsistent – we were brought five small plates very, very quickly and then everything slowed down dramatically from there – and our server forgot to bring our drinks multiple times. Then to top it off, we ordered a Pumpkin S’More Sundae that was plopped on our table and had more the appearance of a soupy blob than ice cream. … or really anything I wanted to consume or pay for. There was zero acknowledgement from the waiter that this presentation was unacceptable and he really paid us no attention. To add insult to injury, when we asked for the bill he did not leave the receipt for us to review and, instead, took the credit card off the table and ran the check. Big no, no. It was a busy Saturday night, with the bar area packed with people waiting for tables, but this is still unacceptable and really tarnishes one’s opinion of what could have been a perfectly pleasant dining experience (and birthday celebration).

Best for: Group dining, dates, fun occasion and pre-weekend night out dinners

Dress Code: City Chic

Average Pricing: Cocktails: $12, Small Plates: $13, Dessert: $10

Reservations: Alta accepts reservations by phone 30 days in advance (212) 505-7777. Note: the restaurant only accepts cash and American Express (kind of odd).

 

Mixing Old World with the New @ Carbone

Get out your wallets. … it’s time for Carbone. Yes, Carbone is a splurge but in a pretty fantastic way. Even though you can’t get out of there with any sort of a cheap meal I will try to give you some tips on what to order to get the best bang for your buck. … and hopefully not (completely) break the bank. Before getting into the food – which is really what you’re here for – I will briefly make note of the ambiance. Think old school Italian without the cheese-ball and add extra class and sophistication. That is the kind of vibe you get from Carbone. White tablecloths, hand-painted Italian serving dishes and dark walls to give the restaurant that sleek finish. All the servers are suited up and fancy with everything neatly pressed  – I do not think I saw one waitress now that I think about it – and everyone acts like you’re part of the family. It’s authentic, not over-the-top and the people take care of you. Italian hospitality. … what else do you need?

Family style is the way to go. Don’t fight it – just do it. If you try to order by yourself you will be disappointed, probably over-order and end up with a bill you’re not pleased with. You’ll want to try a little bit from each section of the menu anyway. The menu is divided into six sections (eight if you include the daily seafood selection and dessert): Antipasti, Zuppa e Insalate, Macaroni, Pesci, Carni and Contorni. Let’s start from the top. Before you even get the food you order there will be a pleasant surprise coming to your table. A fresh bread basket with several varietals, thick chunks of parmesan, a little charcuterie and some pickled cauliflower for noshing purposes. A generous touch and a pleasant pre-dinner snack. Now, on to the main event. The Baked Clams appetizer is great for sharing. You get nine clams baked in three different styles – classic, casino and one variety topped with sea urchin. It was a little much for two people, but don’t worry we cleaned the plate. On the topic of salad, Carbone has a pretty impressive Caesar. Not too much dressing, not too heavy, great croutons and well portioned. I glanced at the Caprese served at the table next to us which looked delicious as well. Fresh mozzarella that the server sliced in front of the table with very ripe and fresh-looking tomatoes. A perfect summer treat and I am sure it tasted just as it would if you were on the Italian coast. OK, maybe not quite, but close enough.

Macaroni, Macaroni! This is no Kraft or Velveeta. … these pastas are far more impressive. There are many options, but I received a lot of menu guidance from friends before going to Carbone and every single person said Spicy Rigatoni Vodka. At first I thought this was too simple. Can’t you get any more original about what is considered the best pasta on the menu? And maybe it’s not THE best. … after all it’s the only one I got to try. … but it was a pretty tasty vodka. First of all, the portion was not overwhelming. Second of all, the sauce was used sparingly. This was no Penne alla Vodka with a sauce that is so thick it’s hard to muster up the energy to consume more than three bites. Carbone’s sauce used just enough cream and the spicy kick really makes the dish come alive. My mouth was a little bit on fire (I am more sensitive to spice than many people), but I think that’s what kept me coming back for more. All the pasta dishes are portioned as a middle courses and, therefore, your meal is not overwhelmed by carbs and you have room in your stomach for the rest of the menu. To round out the meal we went with something off the Carni section. Our server did recommend a number of the Pesci dishes, including the Shrimp Su’modo, but we went with the meat after seeing so much of it floating around us. Now, I am not a beef eater so we did not get to follow up with friendly pre-dinner advice regarding the Veal Parmesan. The table next to us – yes, the same one with the Caprese- got it though and it looked damn good. Huge piece of pounded and breaded meat topped with sauce and plenty of mozzarella. I almost went for it. …almost. In an attempt to not overwhelm ourselves at the end of our meal we kept it simple with Chicken Scarpariello. A classic with plenty of flavor and served with very tender white and dark meat, but it wasn’t necessarily the highlight of the meal. A good way to finish and not over-stuff ourselves.

So, we ended there and didn’t feel compelled to dive into dessert. It was that perfectly full feeling. The one where if you consume one more bite it could take you over the edge. A sage piece of advice. … always stop there. Easier said than done. Anyway, the most compelling sweet was the carrot cake. If it tastes nearly as good as it was displayed I am sure it was thoroughly moist with a perfectly creamy icing and sure to induce a sugar coma. There were other options as well, with the standard Tiramisu not to be forgotten, but Italian desserts never do excite me much so we saved the extra bucks and got the bill.

Speaking of bucks, other than ordering in family style and skimping on dessert, another way to save some cash if you’re on a budget is to go light on the booze. The cocktails and wine are quite pricey so maybe  limit yourself to one hearty glass of wine that you can enjoy throughout the meal. If you’re at a larger table order reasonable (oxymoron) bottles in accordance with that same rule – enough for everyone to have one. I had a red from the Umbria region and it coupled well with pretty much everything we ate. … and more importantly, I was able to stretch one glass throughout the meal’s entirety. It was skillful, but I promise you can do it too. Sorry Carbone, I am sure you don’t like my thrifty advice! If you have a special celebration, work affair or you’re a food fanatic like me, and save up for such decadent meals, then think ahead and plan a trip to Carbone. It took me a while to get there, but I am glad I did. Next one to add to the list. … the latest from this restaurant crew, Dirty French.

Carbone, 181 Thompson Street, New York, NY, 10012. Phone: (212) 933-0707.

When To Book: Carbone accepts reservations 30 days in advance on OpenTable. Yes, you need to book 30 days in advance if you want a shot at a normal eating time. … and even then it’s not a sure thing. You can also call the reservation line at (212) 254-3000. 

Downtown “Cool” at Margaux

Checked out a relatively new spot in Greenwich Village Thursday night that will surely continue to get “hot” as the word spreads  about the hip, cool hangout hidden in the Marlton Hotel. Margaux boasts a seasonal Mediterranean menu and draws in the trendy downtown crowd looking to see and be seen. The hotel is the work of hotelier/restauranteur Sean MacPherson, who also brought this city The Jane and The Bowery Hotel (among others), so it’s really no wonder why the “cool kids” are flocking here. The Marlton hotel itself has a sleek, refined design that is also charming  and inviting.  The bar/lounge area is reminiscent of a Parisian brasserie with its dark wood and red leather, while the restaurant itself  is brightened by ivory walls, white marble tops and an assortment of green booths.

By 8 p.m. on Thursday the restaurant came to life and nearly every table both inside and out on the covered garden was humming. The bar scene began to heat up as well with small groups enjoying a light bite  in a banquet while others scattered the lounge area to enjoy one of the many inventive cocktail offerings.  I went with a couple of friends and we had a good booth location in the corner of the restaurant nearly looking into the covered veranda. It would have been nice to sit in the “outside” area, but I will leave that for another visit. The menu, which invariably changes by the season, contains an array of small-plate options, house-made pastas and hearty mains that should please many crowds. Our table went the sharing route in an attempt to sample as much as we could without killing each of our wallets and our stomachs. My one regret was not ordering Margaux’s signature Farmer’s Board, but otherwise I think we ordered well and tried a little bit of everything.

 

The initial amuse bouche of raw vegetable crudite was a nice touch and very “farm-to-table” of the restaurant. The burrata melted in my mouth and was everything you could want from that creamy delicacy. The artichoke salad was simple, but good and the winner was definitely the squid ink pasta with lobster. It was portioned correctly with the pasta cooked just right and served with chunky lobster bites and breadcrumbs. It also had a nice spicy kick to it at the end. … but not overpoweringly so.  We also sampled the Artic Char which was generously portioned  and served with sweet green peas and greens. Simple, healthy and no frills but very tasty. After the first two courses, we decided to prolong the meal and not head straight to dessert. We sampled the cheese plate which was displayed nicely on a long wooden board with four cheese offerings coupled with each’s own honey, nut or jam garnish. Finally, it was time for dessert. We were all torn about which way to go here as there were several appealing options. We all agreed on the Rhubard Crostata served with Feta ice cream. Sounded like a summer dessert – which is a season everyone in this city is yearning for at this point – and the Feta ice cream was strikingly unique. There was, however, one problem. The menu was mis-printed that night and the restaurant was still serving a Blueberry Crostata with Buttermilk ice cream. It remains a mystery whether that was the truth or we were really  just served an extra Blueberry Crostata that was a couple days old and mistaken for Rhubarb. If that were the case though I think we still would have received a dollop of Feta ice cream. Ours definitely tasted more of buttermilk. We still ate the entire thing, but were disappointed not to get the flavors of rhubard and feta.

Overall, the food was enjoyable and the atmosphere lively but I do need to make a quick comment on the service because I think it’s an area where Margaux could improve. While our waitress was friendly she was also frustratingly aloof and seemed to have little knowledge of what was going on with the menu, the restaurant or the kitchen. We would ask about the menu and she had difficulty describing each of the dishes and once we ordered she was pretty absent from the table. Additionally, when we approached her about the dessert slip up she openly admitted to seeing the wrong one placed on our table and rather than addressing the issue she just let us sit there and eat it without explanation. Um. … if you see something, say something. Or, at least make up a good lie. Maybe Margaux wants to be too cool for top service, but if the goal is to be a fun, lively and quality neighborhood spot I would suggest making sure that’s conveyed, in part, through a quality wait staff.

All in all, I enjoyed my meal and had a very pleasant Thursday evening with close friends. We ate, drank and were merry at Margaux. Had we all not been exhausted we would probably have lingered at the bar and enjoyed a few more cocktails. It is a tempting scene as you recess from the restaurant. As I do plan on going back at some point  – particularly to sample another season’s menu- I will leave that experience for a later date. Check it out, enjoy the central location, have a good time and good food, and be sure report back on your experience with the service.

Margaux, 5 W. 8th Street, NY, NY 10011. Phone: (212) 321-0111

When To Book: Our waitress claimed the restaurant does not take reservations, but that is false. We made a dinner reservation via e-mail @ margaux@marltonhotel.com. Margaux also accepts phone reservations and walk-ins. If you plan on going during peak weekend hours I would suggest reserving a table in advance. 

A NYC Steakhouse Done Right: Strip House

Choosing a place for a business dinner is never an easy task. There are always so many factors to consider – dietary restrictions, cuisine preference, menu options, convenience of location, general clientele, atmosphere, etc. The decision is always complicated and there will always be more than one person who wants to give their two cents on the matter. The funny thing is, however, that no matter how long you think about such things and how many restaurants you consider you will probably come up with the same list of 10-20 restaurants that most other NYC professionals do. … Does not leave much room for creativity, but I will leave my “innovative thoughts on business dining” for another blog post. What you will also typically run into in this watered down list of options is that a business dining establishment and steakhouse are nearly synonymous. I do not think I have ever walked into a major steakhouse in New York City where there wasn’t an abundance of business men and women at large tables entertaining clients and colleagues over bottles of red wine, seafood towers and plates full of red meat and hearty side dishes. It can get a bit bland if you do a lot of these dinners, but there are a few places that do not feel stale in terms of atmosphere and serve food that is consistently solid. I put the original Strip House on East 12th Street in this category. In five or so dinners I have been to there in the past year I have yet to be let down.

Now, do not be alarmed by the restaurant’s name. I promise you will be served steak and not a burlesque show on the side. That being said, there are some remnants of the old gentleman’s club feel. Rather than the old mahogany look that many classic steakhouses in New York flaunt, Strip House takes a different approach and the entire restaurant is red. Red fluorescent signage outside, red walls, red leather banquets, red bar and the walls are lined with old black-and-whites of legendary actors, musicians, etc. Rumor has it the men’s restroom walls include some risque photographs, but there’s no such entertainment in the women’s room. The lighting is dimmed to set the mood, but sometimes they over do it to the point where it’s hard to see what you are eating. I went this past week, however, and they seemed to adjust the lights perfectly. The atmosphere is not stuffy and the experience far more relaxed than larger steak houses. The service is solid and in my experience the waitstaff always tries to engage the clientele in a jovial way.

If you have paid any attention to this blog over the past couple of months you may be asking yourself, “Why is she writing about a steakhouse. … She doesn’t even eat beef!” And to that I would say you make a valid point. But even without enjoying one of Strip House’s (or any other restaurants’) signature cut I think I can probably do a fine job evaluating the restaurant on its merits and demerits, particularly given the number of times I have landed at Strip House. One of the most tell-tale signs for me about the quality of a steak joint is the selection of side dishes. Everyone wants the meat, but it needs some other good stuff to go with it. A steakhouse without adequate, tasty sides has failed in my opinion. Strip House has some great ones and here are the highlights: Garlic Herb French Fries, Black Truffle Creamed Spinach, Mac & Cheese and Sauteed Green Beans with Garlic. What are they missing? ONION RINGS! Some thick-cut, beer-battered onion rings would be a positive adjustment to the menu. Every good steakhouse needs some of those.

The second thing to examine is the appetizer selection. There must be double-cut bacon. One of the things I look forward to most when going to a steakhouse for a business dinner is the bacon. It may sound silly, but try it and you will be hooked. I am torn between Strip House’s version and that of Wolfgang’s, but each are really tasty. The seafood tower at Strip House is also a must if you are in a large group (or if you just want to splurge). It may seem pricey, but the restaurant is generous with it’s portions and when I dined recently as part of a table of six (and I was the only petite female among some hungry men) it was a struggle to finish a tower prepared for four. It is a great selection of oysters, clams, jumbo shrimp, crab legs, lobster, scallops, tuna tartare, calamari and whatever else they are offering that evening. I always enjoy it and think it’s the right way to start a meal off at Strip House. In terms of the main course, choose your cut and it’s yours. If you are like me and looking for other options, they make a darn good Colorado Lamb Rack crusted in Dijon and served with a white bean stew. I am consistent at a steakhouse – it’s either the lamb or pork chops so I feel pretty confident in my feelings about the lamb. You can also choose from lobster, veal and other fish options as well.

After being fully stuffed from all the aforementioned food you may feel more ready to fall asleep at the table from food coma than think about dessert. But when your server comes to the table and asks if you are interested in the dessert selections, just say yes. If you like sugar, even just a little bit, you cannot leave without trying the signature Strip House 24 Layer Chocolate Cake. Remember when I said there were six of us there last week? This was the only dessert on the table and it took all of our participation to finish that one piece of cake. It’s really too bad I did not have my camera to take a photo, but the cake is massive, decadent, a chocolate lover’s dream and all around delicious.

So let’s review the highlights. The Strip House ambiance sets itself apart from other “classic” NYC steakhouses, it passes the side dish test, the bacon appetizer and seafood towers are a must, you can the meat you want and how you want it and the way to end it all is with the chocolate cake. And what can the restaurant work on? Making sure every piece of meat is cooked to the customer’s liking. The last time I was there two of the steaks were a little too rare when those in party cut into the center. For the most part Strip House is pretty good about this, but a steakhouse should always make it a priority to cut the meat right. During the week the clientele will be predominately those there for business. The suits can feel a little homogeneous at times, but on the weekends I am sure the vibe is difference. And on a sillier note, I would really like to see those onion rings! Overall, if you are a steak lover and have not checked out Strip House I think it’s time to give it a whirl. I have not yet been to the new Midtown location or the Strip House Grill, but my best advice would be to start at the original location to get the full experience.

Strip House, 13 East 12th Street, NY, NY, 10003. Phone: (212) 328-000

When To Book: Strip House accepts reservations on OpenTable. If you plan on dining with a large group during the weekend I suggest booking at least one week in advance. During the week there is usually more availability.