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Bianca NYC: it’s like having your own Italian grandma
August 23, 2011, 10:35 am
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Or a mini army of little Italian grandmas in the inimate, white-paneled, rustic shabby-chic candlelight that is Bianca. In reality, I’m pretty sure the kitchen at Bianca is manned by a bevy of super talented and hardworking Ecuadorians under the direction of Emilia-Romagna native and chef-owner Giancarlo Quaddalti, but I like the imagery of some sweet Italian nonna hand-shaping meatballs and whipping up a mean red sauce next to a blazing fire.

Bianca was one of the very first restaurants I checked out upon moving to New York City in 2008. It’s good, honest Italian food, nothing fancy or pretentious about it. Since then, it has remained a stalwart of my delight-your-out-of-town-guests-and-prove-living-in-NYC-can-be-affordable-to-non-believers arsenal. Nothing on the menu costs more than $15 and there are a couple bottles of wine for less than $30, so it’s especially great if you’re looking to watch what you’re spending without sacrificing ambiance or quality of food.

My go-tos at Bianca are the gnocco fritto with charcuterie (fried dough puffs with stuff-it-yourself cured meats – $9) and the insalata carciofini (artichoke salad – $8.50) to start, the tagliatelle alla bolognese (tagliatelli pasta with meat sauce – $9.50) and the straccetti di manzo (thinly sliced pan-seared filet mignon with rosemary potatoes – $15) as mains, and the tortino di cioccolata (chocolate mousse cake with dark chocolate ganache – $6.50) and the tiramisu ($6.50) for dessert. You also cannot possibly go wrong with any of their pasta specials of the day.

The artichoke salad (above) is a salad of julienned raw artichoke that’s been marinated in olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper, topped with thin slices of shaved parmigiano reggiano cheese. I’ve never had anything quite like it before, but apparently it is a dish common in central Italy in the winter when winter artichokes are abundant. I found a great recipe for the salad on Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino, complete with a tutorial on how to trim an artichoke. I will definitely be trying out this out at home.

I veered from the usual suspects recently and tried the tagaliolini ai frutti di mare (seafood pasta – $12.50 – pictured above). Clams, calamari, shrimp, and mussels sauteedin garlic and served with a light tomato sauce. I found myself wishing this dish had some spice to it – it’s nothing a generous sprinkling of red pepper flakes wouldn’t have helped, but I was in a rush and it was a hassle trying to get our server’s attention and the dish was still tasty as it was, I just like my seafood pasta in red sauce with a little kick.

My only true complaint? They don’t take reservations. So arrive really early (they open at 5 pm daily – it’s usually not too hard to get a table before 7) or really late (like after 9:30), especially if you have a party larger than 2 people. If you don’t mind waiting a bit, sidle up to the bar at Von next door. They’ll let you bring your wine from Von over to Bianca, or you can have your food served to you at Von if Bianca’s full and you’re able to get a table at Von. Von does take reservations, by the way. If you live in the area, you lucky duck, you can also order Bianca to-go.

Note: Bianca is cash only. There’s a Chase on Bowery at Bleecker, though, so no worries if you have to run to the ATM; it’s not far.

If you’re uptown in UWS, sister restaurant Celeste on Amsterdam between 84th and 85th is supposed to be similar, as well.

Eat: Bianca (Bowery/NoHo) 5 Bleecker St. between Bowery and Elizabeth. Open daily from 5 pm.


Sake Bar Decibel
March 7, 2011, 10:00 am
Filed under: Drink | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Outside Sake Bar Decibel, an ON AIR sign surreptitiously marks the entrance down the stairs to this graffiti-covered izakaya on a quiet strip of E. 9th St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves. in the East Village. This sake and small plates joint is better suited for a date or intimate outing with a couple of of friends. It’s certainly not quiet, but it’s a cool place to go when you actually want to be able to hear the people you’re with. If Yakitori Taisho & Oh Taisho on St. Marks are izakayas for rowdy college kids and Village Yokocho is a step up from that, then Decibel is the hipper, tattooed cousin of Village Yokocho.

Once inside, you might notice the black wood, the graffiti-covered walls, and servers that look like they may have stepped off the pages of some Japanese manga – one of the servers when I went had half of his head shaved with the remaining long, straight hair pulled into a ponytail and looked like some punk rock samurai from the future. The dining area in the back is outfitted with the requisite red izakaya lantern and cat figurine but is otherwise dark, save for the light reflecting off of sake bottles from a few tea light candles.

The food itself is not exceptional, but it’s solid and makes for good snacking. The okonomiyaki with its billowing bonito flakes makes for a good stomach liner (even if the one at the takeout place Otafuku a block away is better). The raw squid was very wasabi-y and a little crunchier than I had expected – I would have gone with a thinner cute rather than little chunks, but it was still pretty good. The broiled dried sting ray is served in strips and tastes like a sweeter, slightly fishier version of the dried squid served in Korean drinking establishments, and it is served with a generous dollop of mayo for dipping – this was my favorite dish of the evening. We also tried the hamachi, which I didn’t care for as I felt the fish wasn’t terribly fresh. The Decibel tofu was nice, though fairly standard. I tried the sesame chicken and it was so gamey that I actually spit it out.

Still, I’d say it’s a good place to go and have some sake or shochu or beer while chatting with friends, but the strongest draw here is the atmosphere and the booze, and not so much the food. As long as you remember that, you’ll have an awesome time.

Drink: Sake Bar Decibel (East Village) 240 E. 9th St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves. (212) 979-2733. Open Monday – Saturday 6:00 pm – 2:50 am, Sunday 6:00pm-12:50 am.

Go a la carte at Bohemian

A clever marketing scheme it may be, but dinner at the under-the-radar NoHo restaurant Bohemian is a lovely experience. I was invited at the last minute by a friend from out of town who was going in a party of three and happened to have an extra seat. I was excited about dining at a speakeasy-style restaurant with an unpublished phone number, all hush hush and super cool. It is an excellent date spot (check out the sweet bar!) because it is small (maybe 26 seats or so?), quiet, and feels like you’re hanging out in someone’s well-appointed living room. Oh, and the food’s pretty good, too.

Dark wood, hot towels, long chopsticks, Japanese print napkins. Both the decor and food were refined, restrained. Check out the bathroom. The bidet is on steroids. Perhaps the only thing that’s over the top here.

Don’t get the tasting menu. You’ll miss out on some really amazing dishes, and from what I understand from those who had dined at Bohemian before me, not everything on the tasting menu is that great. Also, if you get the tasting menu, everyone at the table has to get it, so you’ll have way too much food leftover if you order additional plates.

We decided to try a little bit of everything, and we definitely over-ordered but everything was so pretty and so tasty! I don’t regret anything, though next time I think I’ll suggest that we share the uni and mushroom croquettes (1 croquette per 2 people) instead of getting one each, I’ll skip the charcuterie platter and sweet potatoes, and order just one of the ikura (salmon roe) bowls – probably the one with the uni.

We ordered a bottle of the Dassai 39 sparkling sake ($52) as no one else had tried a sparkling sake before. I’m a huge fan of bubbles in general, so the effervescence followed by the nigori creaminess and delicate rice flavor was a real pleasure. I felt like it was sweeter at the open and drier on the finish, and it served as a wonderful palate cleanser with its mild acidity.

We started off with the large order of oysters (12 oysters for $30) from Massachusetts somewhere (couldn’t hear the waiter when he told us exactly what kind they were). They were pretty mild, but briny – the oysters were good, but not my favorite. The apple cider vinegar and key lime mignonette with diced Granny Smith apples was tart, a little sweet, and brought a nice brightness of flavor to the oysters. I probably would not order this again, but that’s mostly because I enjoy my $1 oyster happy hours immensely.

The second dish to come out was the washu-beef short rib sashimi with hon-wasabi and garlic soy sauce ($18), and it was stellar. The raw beef was so tender and so flavorful – it actually tasted like really high quality cooked beef, but more delicate and softer in texture. The accompanying pickled cauliflower was a nice touch, too. I was so distracted that I forgot to take a picture before we started eating. I think there were eight or ten pieces. Wow.

We also ordered Herve Katz’s cold cuts platter for $23, but aside from the duck, everything was pretty standard. In order of best-ness: duck, ham, chorizo, and the salami/bologna thing. It was fine, but I’d rather get my charcuterie at Jadis or L’Oublis.

One of my personal favorite dishes for the night was the foie gras soba ($15), though I am biased towards anything with foie gras in it. I don’t think I could eat the entire bowl by myself – probably best to share between 2-3 people – because it was really quite decadent. The warm duck liver lent a sinfully rich dimension to the soba noodles and soup, and I liked that we were able to control how much wasabi, grated daikon, and shredded green onion went into each bite.

The mushroom cream croquette topped with uni and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds ($13) was another favorite, and we had ordered one per person at the behest of the two who had tried this dish on a prior visit when they had the tasting menu. The croquette is about the size of a duck egg. Since uni (sea urchin roe) is basically the foie gras of the sea, this is another rich dish I enjoyed immensely, but would rather have shared with one other person. I was delighted by what I felt was a very novel combination of uni and mushroom, the epitome of umami for me.

The miso-glazed black cod ($18) was delicious, albeit in a fairly standard way. I love miso black cod at any Japanese restaurant worth its salt, so this was kind of a no brainer. The creamy mushroom and sour cherry sides were a nice touch, and the fish was perfectly seared and moist and flaky. I would come to Bohemian to have this dish and a glass of sake after work on any given evening.

We ordered two rice bowls (each $10) because we were afraid the food we had ordered wouldn’t be filling enough. That was dumb, because the ikura & uni rice bowl and the sashimi rice bowl ended up being very similar to one another – both were rice bowls topped with a lot of salmon roe, but one had uni and the other had hamachi. I like the way the ikura pops in my mouth, though, and this is another dish I might order after work one day for a light meal, though I’d likely pair it with a frosty beer and negate its lightness.

The $28 pan oven-roasted branzini with seasonal vegetables was phenomenal and huge. I can’t actually imagine one person ordering this and being able to finish it. If you order this and nothing else, it will comfortably feed two. If you ordered like we did, it could easily feed 6. My favorites of the vegetables were the roasted garlic and the brussel sprouts, and I especially enjoyed the occasional olive and anchovy in between all of the potatoes and zucchini – it was like a treasure hunt!

By this point, we were all pretty full. We could easily have ended the meal with the branzini and the four of us would have left quite happy, and not completely bursting. But we had a medium-rare, 5-ounce flat iron steak ($32) left to go. We felt we needed to order the steak because Bohemian is connected to a Japanese butcher shop and has daily steak specials; not sure if they are owned by the same people as the butcher shop or if it’s just a symbiotic relationship born of proximity. The steak, juicy and pre-cut for ease of sharing, came with some of the most delicious pan-roasted garlic I’ve ever had in my life, and was served with a potato. Sadly, given that we were all really full, I don’t think any of us enjoyed the steak as much as we could have.

I really wish we had known that the steak came with a potato, because then we wouldn’t have ordered the fried satsuma sweet potatoes ($8). That was a whole lot of potato, and while good, I don’t think anyone enjoyed it because at this point, we were ready to explode.

Knowing what I know now, I would suggest the following a la carte menus for groups of 2, 4, and 6 people respectively. I’ve heard mixed reviews about the wagyu beef sliders, so I can’t recommend that you order or not order the sliders.

2 people: beef sashimi, uni croquette, miso black cod, foie gras soba, and sashimi rice bowl OR beef sashimi, uni croquette and branzini

4 people: beef sashimi, 2 uni croquettes, miso black cod, foie gras soba, branzini

6 people: beef sashimi, 3 uni croquettes, miso black cod, foie gras soba, ikura & uni rice bowl, branzini, a steak of the day – medium rare

I can’t publish Bohemian’s phone number – that would take away the fun in your having to procure it somehow yourself – but I will tell you it’s definitely worth a visit. Just don’t get too excited and order way too much food like we did because it will end up being pretty pricey and you won’t enjoy the last dishes to come out.

Sushi UO blows me away (again)
November 12, 2010, 3:57 pm
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I’ve written about Sushi UO a couple of times already, which seems unfair because I have dined at several other restaurants and have failed to write about those experiences even once. But I just enjoyed one of the best sushi dinners I’ve had in a long time, and I felt I should encourage you NYC sushi lovers to go here once more. Don’t get swayed by the hype or the haters – Sushi UO’s celebrated Chef David Boudahana left several months ago and gone are the days of hot, tatted 23 year-old wunderkind sushi chef slicing fish and taking names.

On my most recent visit to Sushi UO last night, I opted to sit on the side of the sushi bar where two Japanese sushi chefs joked and laughed with one another as they worked away at fulfilling orders on a bustling Thursday night. He may not be 23 years old or covered in tattoos, but watching him slice, score, and roll, I thought he was pretty hot. It was definitely the best seat in the house. I felt like I was at a dinner theater, except better.

The first dish to arrive was the Creamy Rock Shrimp Tempura Duo with wasabi aïoli and spicy red pepper aïoli ($13). The shrimp is just barely cooked through, the tempura batter is unbelievably light, and there is just the right amount of sauce. No soggy bits, no gushing oil, no rubbery texture. Just delicious, bite-size pieces of creamy shrimp. Also, this is a huge appetizer. Can easily be shared between 4 people, so for $13, it’s a steal.

Sitting at the sushi bar is a great way to get a feel for the other dishes at the restaurant. Someone, presumably on a low-carb diet, had ordered a lovely roll wrapped with cucumber instead of rice. It was just four pieces, albeit four very large pieces, and immediately Sara and I had food envy. When we asked what it was, we were told it was the No Rice Roll #2 with yellowtail, tuna, kaiware (daikon sprouts), and Asian pear. Since that sounded light and heavenly and was just $8, we went ahead and ordered one for ourselves. The Asian pear brings a hint of unexpected sweetness that truly makes this roll stand out. This is going to be a roll I order every single time I come here.

Sara and I ordered the $49 sushi and sashimi platter for two. We didn’t know what would be on it or even how many pieces, but somehow we felt it would be a good call. And it was. The platter included 18 pieces of sashimi, 10 pieces of sushi, and an 8-piece crunchy spicy tuna roll. The rice-to-sushi ratio was perfect, and the fish was impossibly fresh.

This might be a little blasphemous, but I actually think I enjoyed the salmon here at UO more than the salmon I had at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. The salmon was melt-in-your-mouth soft, almost buttery, without any of the harsh fishiness of stale salmon. The tuna was so fresh and so perfectly cut that the fish was almost falling apart at the striations between the grain (I don’t know the proper terminology – sorry!).

The crunchy spicy tuna roll was good, but that’s fairly standard, I think. I usually don’t enjoy unagi. I think eel has a tendency to taste way too fishy, and I feel like the sweet sauce usually just masks the flavor of the eel rather than enhancing it. At UO, this was most certainly not the case, and I really liked the taste and texture of my unagi, finding the sauce to complement rather than hide the flavor of the fish.

After we had stuffed ourselves silly with sushi, the waitress brought us a two-bite dessert of flourless chocolate cake with raspberry ganache. The perfect end to an already-excellent meal.

Next time I head to Sushi UO, I plan to order the Botan Ebi Sashimi ($9) two pieces of shrimp sashimi, one topped with ikura (salmon roe) and the other with uni (sea urchin roe). It looked positively amazing. I will also be getting the omakase, a Japanese phrase meaning “It’s up to you.” The sushi omakase is $38 and the sashimi omakase is $46, 9 pieces of the chef’s choice depending on the freshest fish of the day. It is beautifully presented with fried shrimp head and tail, and the chef takes you beyond just the standard tuna, salmon, yellowtail, etc. that you usually find in the sushi/sashimi platters.

If a guy were to take me on a date to Sushi UO (without having known that I totally love this place), I’d be thoroughly impressed. It’s small and intimate, dark and sexy, and the food is really effing good. Quality sushi for a reasonable (not cheap) price. Sake flight also available for $14, I think.

Another important note for you dealseekers: Sushi UO serves an impressive $24.07 3 course prix-fixe menu daily from 6 to 7 pm. Sushi UO is closed on Sundays.

Eat: Sushi UO (LES) 151 Rivington St. between Clinton and Suffolk, upstairs. 212-677-5470. They take reservations starting at 5 pm, or you can reserve seats on Open Table.