Thursday, August 14, 2014

Countryfied Lower East Side - Root & Bone

The continuous gentrification, rising rents and constant change in New York City is a daily, almost hourly topic of conversation for anyone who has lived in this city for some time, and it is an obsession for those of us that grew up here. This has only ratcheted up in the wake of the announced closings of Union Square Cafe and WD-50, the actual closing of Rodeo Bar and Jim Meehan of PTD fame announcing he is pulling up stakes and moving to Portland, OR. The East Village has been particularly hard hit. One of the many casualties in the East Village was Mama's Food Shop, a beloved local joint that served Fried Chicken and other Southern Food staples to the East Village for fifteen years. Its closing came with a letter from the owner decrying today's climate.

Despite the tough climate and odds against success in opening a restaurant there seems to be no shortage of chefs and entrepreneurs who want to take a crack at finding success in the Big Apple. Do I need to quote Sinatra here? The only question was what would open in the old Mama's space? A 7-11? A bank? A Duane Reade? It turns out to be another restaurant. So, who is foolhardy enough to make a go of it? Two photogenic, former Top Chef contestants, Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth. The cuisine they were going with? Southern food. The name of the Restaurant? Root & Bone. Better than a Chase, but I was wary.

A look at the website did not inspire confidence. The cover photo had an old pick-up truck and a meandering chicken in sepia tone. This was not a nod to the abandoned cars and backyard chickens of Avenue B in the 70s & 80s. The menu was straight out of an Eater spoof. New York has seen a proliferation of down market, southern comfort food spots with a farm to table aesthetic and possibly, some foraging thrown in. Here was yet another one. The website promised "soul nurturing," a craftsman's ethic" and "artistic culinary thought." And, my mistake, this is not Southern or Soul food. This is food from "rural America." Did I mention the place is called Root & Bone? My native skepticism was running high.
Mr. McInnis and Ms.Booth have set themselves an impossibly high bar.  Replacing a a local favorite is hard enough. Serving the same cuisine just adds to the pressure, and when that cuisine is becoming as common as wainscoting and reclaimed wood in restaurants you are setting yourself up for failure. The two chefs do have some bona fides. They both cooked at Yardbird, which was a James Beard Best New Restaurant, South semi-finalist and Mr. McInnis is a two time James Beard nominee for Best Chef in the South. The only chance of surviving beyond the initial hype and brunch crowds is if they can really deliver in the kitchen and separate themselves from the pack. Are we getting The Allman Brothers or Molly Hatchet?

Cue Duane Allman guitar solo.

To start, Root & Bone has a nice booze and cocktail list, which is mandatory these days.  A good test of any restaurant is their Bloody Mary.

The care taken with this brunch staple is a good indication of the attention to detail you can expect across the board. Chances are that Bloody Mary that comes with a garnish that includes and olive stuffed with a cornichon as well as a piece of bacon it will be good. To quote my official Bloody Mary expert, Karen; "Oooh. Wow. Try this." If you like a spicy & strong Bloody Mary the bar at Root & Bone has one for you. 

As for the food, start with their Southern Peach Caprese salad:

This hits all the marks promised by the restaurant. The salad is a southern riff on the classic Caprese salad. Heirloom tomatoes, at their summer peak, are joined by their southern cousin, a pickled green tomato. Grilled peaches add some summer sweetness and char and a few greens are thrown in for good measure. Molasses vinegar dresses the salad, another riff.  In case you missed the southern touches the stand in for mozzarella is a fried ball of pimento cheese. This is a little like replacing your Fiat with the General Lee and let's be honest, we all want to take a drive with the Duke boys in the General Lee. This salad combines the high and low, the healthy and decidedly not on one plate and is flat out out delicious.

Drunken Deviled Eggs:

Deviled eggs are quickly becoming the new kale salad. Everyone has a version. Being a huge fan of deviled eggs I am fine with this trend. Can Root & Bone's stand out from the crowd? That is a definitive yes. The menu describes the place and pedigree of the eggs (a farm in the Catskills) along with pickled roots and sunflower sprouts. They are holding out us. The filling is a mustard delight, topped with a touch of bacon. I may have used my finger to clean the plate.

Chilled Watermelon:

Another dish that is becoming more commonplace on menus is watermelon salad. Root & Bone's watermelon salad is lightly bathed in a nicely original celery & lemonade vinaigrette. The addition of sliced radish is an inspired choice, the tart crunch of the radish complimenting the soft, sweet watermelon. This is a perfect summer dish and, like the caprese, highlighting the best produce of the season.

Grandma Daisy's Angel Biscuits:

I don't know if there really is a Grandma Daisy, but any southern joint worth its salt better deliver a good biscuit. These are fine biscuits. They are served with a honey roasted chicken jus for dipping, toasted benne seed-sea salt for sprinkling and a dash of fresh thyme. They will go quickly.

The main event, of course, is their fried chicken - Crispy Free-Range Bucket of Bird:

Root & Bone's signature dish is their fried chicken. This city is awash in good fried chicken. Hell, the ten block radius around Root & Bone offers everything from Bobwhite Lunch Counter's Georgia fried chicken to Momofuku's Fried Chicken dinner. Mama's signature dish was their fried chicken. Forget swinging and missing, even a solid double here is not going to cut it. This has to be a home run.

The chicken is brined in sweet tea and dusted in pickled lemon and comes in two sizes, half or whole bird. It is served in a homey wire basket. This chicken is no line drive that finds the corner. It is a no doubt about it, second deck home run. It is, in a word, spectacular. Perfectly cooked, with crispy skin outside and moist, flavorful chicken inside. The quality of the bird shines through as do the ingredients. The brine and dust are no cute trick, they make this a dish to come back for, again and again. My Bloody Mary expert, who usually stops at one piece of chicken, demanded a second. No small praise.

The chicken is also served with a bottle of house made spiked Tabasco Honey. It took a lot of effort not to pocket it.

Cheese Grits:

Grits are another staple of the southern kitchen. Root & Bone gets theirs stone ground from a mill in upstate New York. They come "loaded with love" which means cheese and bread crumbs and other goodies. They are decadent, thick and rich. You may never go back to mac and cheese after trying these. 

House made Whiskey Maple Syrup. Perfect for waffles, biscuits or drinking straight from the bottle.

Root & Bone is not a big restaurant. You enter into a small space which houses their take out counter. A small entryway on the right leads to the first of two dining areas, both tightly packed. The design uses every possible inch for seating.  Small wood tables run down the center of the first room. A part of the kitchen is in the corner of the room. It has a counter with six seats. Stools run along the windows which have an oversize sill for dining. On a warm summer day the windows are open and these seats are perfect for eating and people watching. The second dining space runs perpendicular to the first. It has banquette seating along one wall and a small bar tucked in the back with a few stools. The space is warm, painted in whites and light tans. Wood furniture and fixtures have a sun bleached, washed out feel. The large windows on the street make the rooms feel bigger than they are.

On our visit we sat at the counter in front of the open kitchen. We had a full view of the kitchen and staff at work. If you are under the belief that the life of a chef is a glamorous one, especially for those who have been on Top Chef, spend an hour at Root & Bone during prime Sunday brunch. This is hard, hard work.  The place was jammed. Chef McInnis was directing traffic, calling out orders, checking dishes, tables, calling for water bottles to be filled and having kitchen staff deliver food to tables. An hour earlier one of the restaurant speakers had fallen off the wall and directly onto his head, nearly knocking him out. Chef Booth was one of three in the tiny open kitchen, working at one stove, making Shrimp & Grits, Braised Short Rib Meat Loaf (both of which I plan on coming back to try) and a number of other dishes as the orders kept rolling in.  Before we finished our meal the credit card machine system went down. Chef McInnis personally apologized, embarrassed to ask us if we could pay in cash. A month old and still working out the kinks. This is reality when you own and run a restaurant.

The check, delivered in a namesake bone.

I will return to Root & Bone. I will return for the food and drinks, which are top notch. I will return in particular for the Bucket of Bird, my new favorite fried chicken.  I will also return because I am rooting for them to succeed. So go, eat, enjoy and support these fools that left Miami to open a small restaurant on 3rd Steet and Avenue B. This is a tough town. I hope they win and can play Frank's version of "New York, New York" at the end of the night. 

Root & Bone - 200 East 3rd Street (just West of Avenue B) -

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Pinot Grigio Ramato, an introduction

Folks, just wrote a piece for The Daily Meal. I attended a wine tasting and pairing at Giovanni Rana in Chelsea Market and had my first taste of Pinot Grigio Ramato. You can check it out here:


Friday, April 25, 2014

One good looking candy store - Handsome Dan's

There is good news for candy freaks of all ages in the East Village. Brooklyn's Handsome Dan's has opened a new location on 1st Avenue. The store is a nostalgic tribute to candy stores of old with an excellent and diverse selection of candy. Jars full of classic candy share the shelves with Brooklyn staples like Mast Brothers and Liddabit Sweets. Regional candies like Abba-Zaba and Big Hunk are represented as are European and Japanese candies. The candy is available individually and by the pound as well as by the Mason Jar (they did start in Williamsburg after all).

In addition to candy, Handsome Dan's also prominently features SnoCones and Cotton Candy, which is spun to order right in the store. The small store and shelves are painted white so the brilliant colors of the candy and packaging stand out. The staff is friendly and welcoming to kids of all ages and yes, there is a Handsome Dan. This is a dangerous store, especially if your are hungry or have kids, or both. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Candy! Candy! Candy!


A taste of Brooklyn

A mix of the high and low, literally.

Make your own (I think)

Nostalgic or  hipster? Both? Certainly reusable.

My kind of street sign.

Handsome Dan himself.

Handsome Dan's Candy -  186 1st Avenue between 11th & 12th Street

Friday, March 21, 2014

The first signs of spring and a welcome rebirth: The Roost

I do not remember ever being happier for, or more skeptical about, the first day of spring. A part of me still does not believe the cold will ever go away. Not to state the obvious, but it has been a long, brutal winter. More than ever, I am looking for those first signs of spring. I need something that signals the time for hibernation is over and I can happily go outside again.

The ice skating rink near my house is finally gone. The green of the turf in the playground where the rink once stood is a welcome sight. I saw my first Cardinal yesterday and the first crocus are popping up out of the ground. Maybe spring is really here.

Spring is about rebirth and renewal.  Which brings me to another sign I saw recently. This one:

This sign is for a new spot on Avenue B called The Roost. It is a coffee shop by day and a bar at night. Stop for a moment and take in what this sunny little chalkboard says they have on offer.

Brooklyn Roasting Company coffee and Balthazar pastries starting at 8 am.

Craft Beer, Bourbon and cocktails starting at 5pm.

Can you be all things to all people? I don't know. But it would seem The Roost wants to be all things to me.

Let's start with the coffee shop. It is a charming spot. The counter and coffee bar are white tile and marble. The small seating area has exposed brick with some painted wainscoting. There are a few stools by the big front windows. The space is warm and welcoming as are the staff.

They make a nice Cortado:

Behind the coffee bar there is a second room with the feel of a an old pub or library. Over-sized leather chairs and a couch sit in front of a fireplace with a faux-fire burning. It would be a nice place to have a cup of tea or a nice porter and whittle away the afternoon.

If The Roost was only this little store front coffee shop it would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. It isn't. At 5pm the back wall of the club room (pictured above) slides open to signal that the bar is open for business. What a handsome, nicely stocked bar it is.

During the day, sunlight pours in through skylights, original to the building, making the industrial chic interior feel warmer and more welcoming than most similarly designed spots. Light fixtures hung from old pulleys and bar stools that remind you of your old school room desks add to the charm. The best feature of the room is its size. It is long and deceptively wide which allows for a communal table and leather love seat up front and a deep bar and ample seating along the opposite wall in the back.

What this all adds up to is something familiar yet a little bit unique, especially for a new coffee shop and bar in the East Village. A true Local.

The coffee shop serves serious coffee, from a local roaster, well prepared, but without some of the more precious trappings of other well known shops. The sliding wall leading to the bar is not a gimmick. There is no bouncer, secret password or phone to call. It is just the door to the bar. Once opened it stays open and all are welcome. There will be a cocktail menu but this bar is meant to be just that, a really good local bar. It has a strong bourbon selection and some nice gins. It has a very good beer and craft beer list. The bartenders are pros and can make you a good cocktail. But if you are looking for house made bitters and shrubs you are in the wrong place.

The other night my wife and I stopped in for a drink. We ordered two Maker's Mark 46 Manhattans, up.  Matthew, our charming bartender, apologized that he did not have any Martini glasses and asked if it was okay that he gave them to us in an Old Fashioned glass. We replied that it would be fine. They were delicious and went down far to quickly. My wife pulled the cherry out, bright red and clearly store bought and said, "wow, I haven't had one of these in a while." She was right. I couldn't remember the last time I had a cherry that wasn't house made. Hell, I make my own maraschinos at home. Guess what? I loved it.

Don't get me wrong, I love all the temples to cocktails in this city and frequent them as often as possible. But sometime you just want to walk into a bar, sit down, order a drink from a smiling bartender and exhale.

What does all this have to do with spring and the idea of rebirth? The Roost is located in the former Luca Lounge spot. When Luca Lounge closed it appeared that yet another East Village stalwart was lost to rising rents and a changing neighborhood. I am happy to report that The Roost is owned by Vito DiTomaso, the former owner of Luca Lounge (and current owner of Luca Bar on St Marks). This is his reboot. Another great local bar with a coffee shop added, a smart way to maximize your income in a space that surely has ludicrous rent. It also turns out to be a smart way to ingratiate yourself to a neighborhood. They come for the coffee, and when told about the bar in back they are intrigued, not fearful.

The real genius of The Roost is the fact that it is a bit of a chameleon. This hit home for me when the wife and I stopped in for those Manhattans. The lovely Tanya welcomed us and informed us that the coffee bar was closed but drinks were available up front if we found the bar too crowded. We were able to find seats at the bar and enjoyed ourselves. I marveled at the different feel the three rooms at The Roost have. A fine bustling bar in back to drink with friends. A dark, intimate room in the middle to linger in with that special someone. A quiet front room to have a glass of wine and a real conversation. All of these exist behind a single store front on Avenue B. The Roost may not appeal to everyone in the neighborhood, but my guess is it comes pretty close.

The Roost - 222 Avenue B, between 13th & 14th Street.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Frozen Custard, the Wisconsin way.

I blinked and it was December. So much to share, so little time. I will try to be brief and prodigious. Quantity over quality if you will.

Frozen Custard. Have you had it? It was invented in Coney Island. It is soft serve ice cream's richer, better looking brother. (Don't get me started on the proliferation of crappy frozen yoghurt in this city).

What is the difference between frozen custard and soft serve ice cream? Higher milk fat content, higher egg yolk content and less air in the mix. The result is dense, rich and creamy frozen heaven.

Why do I bring this up? Because some fine folks from Wisconsin (and you don't ever doubt people from Wisconsin on anything dairy related) have opened a lovely spot called 5 oz. Factory on 8th Street. They offer Wisconsin Cheese Melts and Frozen Custard.

Today's focus is the custard.

The flavors offered are your classics like vanilla, chocolate, caramel and peppermint. The custard is offered in 5 and 10 ounce sizes. They offer 30 or so assorted toppings. I wanted to focus so I went with straight custard. Chocolate and caramel.

Becca went for vanilla and chocolate with caramel sauce (smart girl) and crushed Oreos.

Wow. Simply, wow (and these were the 5 oz., or small, size). This is flat out fantastic custard. If you love ice cream than you will fall hard for the rich, thick, dense, fresh and delicious custard than at 5 oz. Factory. This will be your spot. End of story.

Yeah, it is December. Who cares. It is always a good time for ice cream. It is even a better time when there is frozen custard to be had. Happy Holidays.

5 oz. Factory - 24 West 8th Street, between 5th Avenue & Avenue of the Americas -

Friday, November 8, 2013

Gabriele Bonci, the "Michelangelo of Dough"

Gabriele Bonci, Rome's famed pizzaiolo, recently made a trip to NYC to promote the English translation of his cookbook Pizza. I had a chance to meet him and sample some of his pizza. I wrote about it for The Daily Meal. Here is the link to the piece. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

First look: Sembrado

The days of lamenting the astonishing lack of good Mexican food in NYC are over. It was always a curious thing that in this, the great city of immigrants, where you could get every different type of ethnic food imaginable, there was a total dearth of good Mexican food.  That has changed, quickly and dramatically. You have natives of Mexico like Roberto Santibanez of Fonda and Salvation Taco showcasing all the diversity and depth of Mexican cuisine and non-natives like Alex Stupak of Empillion combining a passion for the cuisine with an open-ended curiosity to push the food into new realms. At this moment we are in the midst of a Taqueria explosion. They are popping up everywhere, nowhere more so than in the East Village. It is hard to keep up with them but it is fun to try. I recently tried the latest from one of the chefs that has raised the level of NYC's Mexican food scene, Sembrado.

13th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A is a very nondescript block. It is dominated by the back of the local post office and its delivery dock. There has been little reason to walk this block unless you lived on it. Now there are tacos.

Sembrado is the newest restaurant from Danny Mena, the chef of Hecho en Dumbo on Bowery. Sembrado's menu is focused on Tacos Al Carbon, a special style of grilled meats in Mexico City. Sembrado also has a full bar with a focus on Tequilas and Mezcals.

Sembrado is a small space that has been beautifully built out. Exposed brick walls are framed in wood painted white. Art and touches of Mexican tile bring plashes of warmth and color. Large windows look out onto the street, letting light in. On warm days the windows are thrown open giving the space a bigger feel.

The menu is simple and straight forward. Tacos (authentic, small tacos, not the big hand held Taco Bell kind) are the main focus but the menu also features Alambres (Mexican stir fry) and Costras (caramelized cheese on flour tortillas and meat) along with a few sides and starters. Tacos Al Pastor is the house pride along with the various Tacos Al Carbon.

I tried Sembrado at lunch. As much as I wanted to sample one of the house cocktails I opted for the Horchata. It was delicious and refreshing.


Despite the temptation of the daily Alambres lunch special I had to go with tacos. I ordered three to start. Al Pastor (marinated pork), Bistec (Flatiron steak) and Hongos (Portobello mushroom) with cheese.

Sembrado makes their own hot sauces and condiments for the tacos. Two hot sauces, one green and one red, along with a smoky poblano sauce and pickled onions and hot peppers. They are fresh, delicious and pack a punch.

House made hot sauces and condiments

When you decide to have a narrow focus on a particular style of food or item you had better deliver the goods. Sembrado does.

Taco Al Pastor and Bistec with grilled pineapple and lemon wedges

The tacos are outstanding.  The Al Pastor was juicy and rich from the marinade. The Bistec was simple with the quality of the meat coming through. The Hongos was meaty and funky in the best way grilled Portobellos can be.  A touch of Mexico City in New York City. I ordered another Al Pastor.

Sembrado is another welcome addition to the growing number of excellent Mexican restaurants in New York and another step forward in showcasing the diversity of the cuisine. Sembrado is perfect for a solo meal or a group dinner. It is great for a quick snack and drink or a leisurely meal. When you are in the mood for tacos, Sembrado fits the bill.

Sembrado - 432 E 13th Street between 1st Avenue & Avenue A -