Karahi (Indian Food in the West Village)

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We all know that the first rule of real estate is “location! location! location!” Apparently, though, it’s also the first rule of New York friendships. Want to see a lot of someone you really like? It helps to live in the same borough.

Take my friend Lisa, for example. There was a time we both lived in Chelsea and when we lived close together we made videos about bulimic tomatoes and miracle almond cakes. Then I moved to Brooklyn and she moved to the Upper West Side. We still see each other, of course, but we’d see each other a lot more if she came to her senses and moved to Brooklyn or if I came to my senses and moved back to Manhattan. Either way, the point is that Lisa has a boyfriend named Eric who I hadn’t met yet and so we made a date to meet for Indian food on Sunday so Craig and I could meet this Eric character.

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Mamoun’s Falafel

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It’s a shameful fact that up until last week, I’d never been to Mamoun’s Falafel. For someone who went to grad school at NYU and spent two years flitting about Washington Squre Park, it amounts to something of an outrage. Mamoun’s is an NYU tradition: cheap, fast, and flavorful falafel all just a few steps away from classes. Last week, though, I was a perfect Mamoun’s candidate. I’d gotten my haircut at my new favorite haircut secret, Sei Tomoko (not a secret anymore!), where Japanese hair stylists pound your back into submission (I started laughing the first time they “massaged” me–I felt like a punching bag) and then style your hair with exceptional skill for an incredibly reasonable $40. Afterwards, I was starving and Craig had dinner plans so I sauntered over to Mamoun’s.

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Perry Street

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If you leave a restaurant happy, does it matter if the meal itself was anything but perfect? Yesterday I had this very experience at Perry Street, Jean-George’s oft-ignored Greenwich Village outpost where savvy diners can enjoy a three-course lunch for $24. I’d been meaning to try Perry Street for a long time–ever since it opened–but an opportunity never arose. Then, yesterday, after a morning meeting, I was in the Village looking for lunch and soon I was face to face with Perry Street. The glass exterior was a bit daunting: what would it be like inside? Would I be dressed appropriately (in jeans and flip-flops)? Would it be crowded, empty, filled with nudist monks having an orgy? I took a deep breath and decided to try my luck. I’m glad I did.

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Why Annisa Should Have Three Stars

Earlier this year, Keith McNally–owner of Balthazar, Pastis and the newly opened Morandi–wrote an open letter to New York Times food critic Frank Bruni accusing him of sexism. McNally wrote: “Bruni has never given a female chef in Manhattan anything more than one star, ever….On the two momentous occasions that Bruni saw fit to hand a woman two stars (both outside of Manhattan) he flatly refused to mention that the chef was a woman. This is peculiar, because when the chef is a man Bruni often makes quite a song and dance about it.”

Most people, myself included, found McNally’s rant to be misguided: as a response to Morandi’s one star (the chef is a woman), it came across as sour grapes. The issues it raised, though, are important ones: why don’t female chefs in New York have more stars? Is it sexism or do female chefs just not aspire to the same heights that their male counterparts do? What’s going on?

The way I understand the star system, four star restaurants must offer everything there is to offer when it comes to fine dining–stellar service, a beautiful setting, and highly accomplished, innovative, breathtaking food. A four star restaurant must fire on all cylinders all the time; it must succeed in every way that it’s possible for a restaurant to succeed. And because four star restaurants are all so similar (Jean-Georges, Daniel, Le Bernardin) it’s easy to judge the aptness of other star appointments based on how close they are to the ultimate dining experience.

Annisa–Anita Lo’s two-starred restaurant on Barrow Street–gets very close. I ate there for the first time last night with my friends Lauren and Julie and our meal was delightful in every way a restaurant meal can be delightful. The service was exemplary, the setting was lovely, and the food was extraordinary. Take for example, this first course: Seared Foie Gras with Soup Dumplings and Jicama:

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This dish was a triumph on several levels. First of all, the execution was flawless. The soup dumplings were cooked perfectly, the proportion of foie gras to dumpling to broth was right on. Second of all, it was incredibly creative, it was innovative and exciting. It mixed the unfamiliar with the familiar, street food with fine dining. Like the end of a good book or play, it felt surprising and inevitable: I had a catharsis in my mouth.

My entree was equally thrilling–veal with veal sweetbreads:

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I’ve had sweetbreads elsewhere, but I’ve never had sweetbreads as glorious as these. They were crispy, caramelized pockets of meaty goodness. The veal was perfectly cooked, as you can see in the picture. And the cabbage provided perfect vegetal contrast; the sauce was fruity–rhubarb, if I remember correctly–and all together, eating this was a sublime experience. I was recently asked what I wanted for my last meal, and if this were what I was served I’d be happy to die. Only I’d want this for dessert:

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That’s a goat cheese cheesecake with candied beets. Look how colorful and inventive: it makes me think of Miami or Mardi Gras. And then there was a poppy seed bread pudding with lemon curd that was equally amazing. These desserts dazzled, as did the whole meal. So why doesn’t Annisa have three stars?

This is a question I want to take seriously. I don’t want to make up my mind that Annisa deserves three stars for political reasons without balancing the matter against what I know about how stars are awarded. Luckily, Frank Bruni has given us a blueprint for what makes a three star restaurant a three star restaurant in his re-review of 11 Madison Park.

He writes: “I gave Eleven Madison two stars in February 2005, and while I normally wouldn’t review a restaurant again so soon, Mr. Humm’s food — not the new table settings, not the tweaked lighting — made me do it. I can’t have beef tenderloin in a bordelaise sauce this dense with marrow — this druggy — and stay mum. I can’t cut into such impeccably roasted duck — glazed smartly, but not too sweetly, with lavender and honey — and shut up about it. That would be a dereliction of duty. It would be just plain mean.”

So, clearly, enhanced performance impresses Bruni. It comes down to the food, and that makes sense. The New York Times archive only has a little blurb about Annisa, not the full review, so it’s hard to know what it was marked down for. The blurb says: “Ms. Lo reaches far and wide for ideas and influences, without strain. Throughout, her cooking is defined by good taste and good judgment. Fish is infallible at Annisa.”

So what went wrong? Or did anything go wrong? Maybe Anita Lo doesn’t aspire to be a three-star chef. Certainly her peer, Gabrielle Hamilton, doesn’t. As quoted by Frank Bruni in his one-star review of Prune, Hamilton wrote in a Food & Wine essay: “I wanted an unassuming way to slip into the shallow end of the pool of New York City restaurants. I wanted to cook for my neighbors.”

Maybe that’s all Anita Lo wants too. Annisa certainly feels like a neighborhood joint. But my suspicion is that Ms. Lo wants more. She kicked Mario Batali’s ass on Iron Chef America and Batali is a three-star chef twice over (Babbo, Del Posto). She was a contender to cook at the White House; she was a Food & Wine Chef of the Year. She means business and she is, perhaps, the female chef best primed to shift the gender paradigm as it now exists for chefs in New York (and elsewhere): how fitting that Annisa means “women” in Arabic.

Here’s hoping that Bruni pays Annisa a visit sometime soon. It’s a perfect opportunity for him to challenge (or at least address) McNally’s claim that he’s sexist and an even better opportunity for Lo to get the extra star that she so richly deserves.

A Tale of Two Burgers: The Corner Bistro & Prune

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Clotilde just completed her book tour (I love the video of her giving a talk at Google) and I am honored to say that Craig and I were co-Chairmen of the Official Welcoming Committee, ushering Mme. Clotilde to her first American nosh-spot on a tour that would take her through Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. Where did we take her? Did we take her somewhere fancy? Somewhere trendy? Someplace important? Nope. We took her to a bar for burgers.

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How We Almost Ate At Ye Waverly Inn

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Dear Graydon Carter,

Hi, you don’t know me, I’m just a silly food blogger who likes to eat out sometimes. For example, yesterday I went to a Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood (Los Pollitos in Park Slope) and it was very tasty. We showed up there at 7 PM, without a reservation, and they sat us immediately. Granted, the food is very basic–I had a chicken burrito–but it’s nice to know it’s there. If I ever want a burrito, I can go there and that makes me happy.

Your restaurant, Ye Waverly Inn, seems to function in a different way. For starters: you don’t serve burritos. More importantly, though, you don’t take reservations. In fact, when people try to call your restaurant, they get a pre-recorded message that gives directions to the restaurant without taking messages. In other words: unless you know somebody who knows somebody, you can’t eat there. You’ve made the place a very exclusive joint.

Normally, this would be a really bad business model. Imagine a dentist who doesn’t take appointments and who only does dental work on people he knows. He’d be sucking lots of nitrous oxide to wile the time away. Only a dentist is not a restaurant; the dental profession thrives on consistency and skill; the restaurant business thrives on the very thing you’ve created with your restaurant: buzz.

Only, you’ve done it in a very clever way. You can justify your restaurant’s stand-offishness because (a) you claim that the restaurant isn’t open (your outgoing message says it’ll open in the fall); and (b) even though it is open and people are eating there, you claim it’s more of a private club, for people connected to you and the magazine. So no one can be mad for not being allowed into a private dinner right? I wasn’t mad when Angela Perkins had a birthday party in middle school that I wasn’t invited to, was I? I moved on with my life. And I’m happy to do that with your Waverly Inn.

Except, last week my parents were in town for my dad’s birthday. They were staying at a hotel–I’d rather not say which, in case you want to get into THEIR private dinner party (if you know what I mean)–and the hotel concierge, who they’ve known for years, told them that, if they liked, he could make a reservation for us at one of the hottest restaurants in New York: Ye Waverly Inn. “What we do,” said the concierge, “is we send a page to the restaurant a few days before in person. They secure the reservation and then we confirm the reservation with you.”

And that’s exactly what happened. My parents were thrilled. I was mildly enthused–I heard the food wasn’t so great–but I thought it would be cool to see what all the buzz was about. Maybe we’d see some glitterati. Or literati. Or both: Diane Von Furstenberg with Joan Didion sharing Mac & Cheese.

We showed up at the restaurant at 6:30, the time of our reservation. Actually, my parents were already there; I came (with Craig, my boyfriend ) a tiny drop after. We walked in expecting to see my parents at a table. Instead, we saw them talking to the host with disappointed looks on their faces.

“They don’t have our reservation,” said my mom.

I looked up at the host. “Really?” I asked. “Don’t you have a print-out?” I asked my mom.

“I do,” she said. “But they say that the person who the hotel made the reservation with–Courtney–doesn’t work here.”

“That’s weird,” I said.

“We don’t have a Courtney here,” confirmed the host. “And tonight we have a private dinner party, so we wouldn’t have taken the reservation.”

Was he calling my mom a liar? The hotel? Courtney?

Honestly, Graydon, I didn’t really care. I was over it. Instead, I was already brainstorming our many other restaurant options there in the West Village. And wouldn’t you know it, one of my favorite restaurants in New York–maybe in the world–Blue Hill, when we called, was incredibly gracious and agreed to take us in at 7. All we had to do was walk over.

And that’s what we did. And the meal was fantastic. Unpretentious, unfussy: just really good food in a really comfortable setting. By the end of the dinner, we’d forgotten that your Waverly Inn even existed. “Waverly Inn?” one of us slurred. “What’s a Waverly Inn?”

That would end our tale, except that, the next day, the concierge at my parents hotel was completely flustered by what had happened to us. He wrote your restaurant an e-mail that asked for an explanation, saying that the hotel’s page had made the reservation with Courtney five days prior. What had happened?

Your restaurant wrote back (and I quote verbatim): “We apologize profusely. Consequently, Courtney was let go yesterday and we would like to offer your guest a reservation this evening at any time of her liking.”

Courtney was let go?? But the host said there was no Courtney!!? You mean there WAS a Courtney and you fired her on our account? I doubt that very much.

And even if that’s true, that’s messed up! You fired someone for taking a reservation at your restaurant? Oh wait, it’s not a restaurant? It’s a private club? But how come pages from my parents hotel can get hotel guests in? How did Frank Bruni get in? Or, for that matter, Ruth Reichl? Graydon, what’s going on here? Are you a club or a restaurant? Make up your mind.

It was nice of you, though, to invite us back. Maybe we’ll take you up on that in a few months and we can evaluate your club/restaurant on the merits. But, as for right now, I think I’ll stick to burritos in Park Slope.

Sincerely,

A. Gourmet

Bar Pitti Is A Good Place To Eat Outside

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As the weather grows nicer and nicer, you may find yourself saying, “Hey! I want to eat outside!” And yet when it comes to decent places to eat outside in New York, the question gets tricky: where to go? The Meatpacking district? Too trendy. The Cornelia Street Cafe? Too bland.

Two answers sit side by side on 6th Ave. right near Houston. The first is Da Silvano which, like the Meatpacking district, is trendy and expensive. And when you realize that right next door you can get an equally good meal for half the price, you’ll wonder how Da Silvano ever stays in business when there’s Bar Pitti.

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February Is The Kindest Month (August, Palo Santo, Five Points)

I love having a February birthday. If I see the light, some day, and I’m born again I hope it’s in February. Having a February birthday means that in the dead of winter, when it’s cruelly cold outside, you have a big happy day to look forward to. Add to that Craig’s birthday, also in February, and Valentine’s Day and you have a month worth celebrating.

Take this pancake, for example:

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I ate this pancake on my birthday. Craig and I went to August in the Village, something we wouldn’t ordinarily do but because it was my birthday we had a reason. And it was a good pancake, a mighty good pancake. Craig loved brunching in the sun room at August (it was his first time there) he said he felt like we were in Montreal. I liked how the pancake was cooked in a wood-burning oven, though–I must say–the inside of the middle of the pancake was undercooked (the batter ran out when I cut in). But it was a dynamite pancake (studded with golden raisins, I should add) and we have February to thank for it.

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