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Summertime 2014 Catchup - Atera; Birch; Castagna; Hugo’s; Le Bernardin; Willows Inn & Others

Atera – After having an exceptional first meal at Atera, my second was much less enjoyable. If you asked me what caused me to feel the way I did about the meal, I would probably that Matt Lightner had taken a detour from the Aduriz-esque cuisine that he excelled at while he was cooking at Castagna, in favor of a trip down the more Noma-esque,foraging lane. As a result I had not visited the restaurant since June of 2012. But word on the street was that Lightner’s cuisine was moving back in the other direction, so I booked a seat at the counter. The meal got off to a roaring start and I would say that the first half was downright stellar. Then all of a sudden it took a turn for the worse in that flavors and textures began to be repetitive. Achieving the proper balance to a meal is one of the more difficult tasks that face a chef. But if you are going to repeat certain flavor profiles over the course of a meal (which is how it seemed to me), you need to create diversity through varying the textures. Especially in terms of giving the proteins you are serving a bit of a bite to them. Keep going Matt. I’ll be back Recommended ++ 1/2

Birch – Sometimes chefs create a style of their own and they do not even realize it. Ben Sukle sort of falls into that category. When he was at the Dorrance, Ben had a penchant for creating dishes based around proteins, but where the protein would actually be subordinated to the other ingredients (almost always vegetables) in the dish. When he opened Birch, he decided to take a more traditional approach whereby the emphasis was on the protein, which he paired with vegetables but. But there are some dishes where he still uses the old playbook, like a plate of corn and squid whereby the squid was cleverly (and uniquely) cut into strips and buried under the corn. I wish Ben would do more of this. Anyone can put a vegetable on a plate next to a hunk of codfish. But few chefs have the type of magical touch where they can flake the fish and seamlessly integrate it into a plate of vegetables resulting in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Ben happens to have it. Recommended ++

Bronwyn – You don’t see many German and Mittel-European restaurants open these days. But when one does open, I try to make it my business to pay it a visit. Not that the cooking is an exact match for the Azhkenazy cuisine of my youth, but it is close enough to cause a longing. More often than not, I end up being disappointed as I guess longing or not, the food from that region of the world isn’t all that good. The Bronwyn is the second restaurant opened by the T.W. Food team, and they do a reasonable job of delivering a hipsterized version of German cuisine with dishes like Swabian-style spätzle with tarragon, corn & cheddar, spicy squid goulash made with pork and veal, and a giant pork shank with mushrooms, apples and potatoes. Recommended

Castagna – One of the most rewarding things about eating for a hobby is when I find a chef who is pioneering a new style of cooking. Justin Woodward is one such chef, and he has decided that the way to make a name for himself is to go back to a style of saucing dishes that harkens back to the 1950’s. But instead of serving the type of starchy and over-reduced sauces that dominated that era (and can still be found at the old warhorses of cuisine), Justin has taken a completely modern approach, relying on the application of advanced technique and culinary theory. The result is that Justin’s sauces are light and airy, as well as intensely delicious. Now that he has mastered the hard part, I await to see if he decides to update certain classic dishes as well. Lots of potential here. Recommended ++ 1/2

Central Provisions – After spending a number of years making tartare out of toro for Ken Orringer at Clio in Boston, Chris Gould and his wife Paige headed up to Maine and opened this small plates restaurant in the heart of downtown Portland. The mouthwatering menu includes dishes like skillet corn bread with egg, bacon & cheddar cheese, Maine Bluefin Toro with daikon, chili, orange & lime, smoked carrots with cinnamon, house goat cheese & pistachio, seared sheep cheese with root vegetables and 15 year old Balsamic, corn fritters with jalapeno aioli & scallion. An excellent addition to the Portland dining scene and one of the better new restaurants to open this year. Recommended

Charlie Bird – Oddly enough, this restaurant is a somewhat controversial with OAD reviewers. Some people love the small plates of market Italian fare. But for some reason that is inexplicable to me, it leaves other reviewers cold. Given this controversy, as well as given the difficulty of getting a table, I stayed away from the restaurant for an entire year. I finally gave it a go this past July and I have to say; What’s not to like? There are tasty small plates of Diver scallops with brown butter and chives, fusilli nero with blue crab & chilies, and Black Bass with heirloom tomatoes & a basil salad. You can wash it all down with wine from a list compiled by none other than Robert Bohr. And in good weather the restaurant offers an outdoor terraces that can rival Da Silvano for best in the city. Recommended

Contra – I got off to a rocky start at this restaurant. My first meal there (about 6 months ago) was going so poorly that we decided to leave after the third course and head to Katz’s. But knowing that the chefs who run the place are talented, I decided to pay them a second visit over the summer. Better, well yes, as we didn’t leave to go eat pastrami. But was it as good as the word of mouth about the restaurant? No, not even close. Okay so here’s my take on it. The price point of $55 for a 5 course meal is too low for the cooking to be anything special, unless you hit it on the absolute right night. Also working against it are a wine list filled with mostly putrid natural wines, a no corkage policy, and an uncomfortably narrow space with cramped tables. In its favor are Fabien Van Huske’s fabulous desserts, which might be the best in the city now that Alex Stupak has gone off of the reservation. Van Huske deserves a better showcase than this place. Recommended

Country Cat Diner House & Bar – Ever since my pal Josh Ozersky raved about the fried chicken at this restaurant on the edge of Portland (in fact it felt like we had driven to Nevada), I have been dying to eat here. Well I am here to tell you that while perfectly acceptable, it was not worth the schlep to eat such ordinary food. The rest of the fare is hipster/diner, and includes dishes like a house-made chorizo, cherry tomato, & feta cheese omelet, the house fish fry with tartar sauce and buttery rice and the Country Cat's Whole Hog with brined & grilled Loin, roasted belly & braised shoulder. Acceptable

Dover – Walker Stern and Joe OgrodnekI I salute you. Most chefs who open second restaurants after having success at their first one (in this instance Battersby), usually dumb things down and hope to trade on their name. The two of you decided to deviate from standard behavior, and your second restaurant is even more ambitious than your first one. A must for anyone visiting the restaurant is the caviar pie, a decadent concoction of American paddlefish roe atop layers of chopped egg and a house-made crème fraiche. which sells for the amazingly low price of $35. Shoppers come on down! Other dishes like lamb ribs with mint & peanut hit the spot as well. Fabulous for what is in reality a neighborhood place in Carroll Gardens. Recommended +

Hugo’s – Everyone listen up. Get on a plane, train or boat in order to try Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley’s food. Okay, okay, okay, I know I sound like a broken record. But, if you like the sort of spare, modern, ingredient intensive cooking that is happening at restaurants like Saison and the Willows Inn, then the revamped Hugo’s is right up your alley. These days the boys are doing the best to show off their new pasta extruder (hint, hint, might there be more pasta in their future?), and their dish of thick-cut pasta and duck breast should be considered an American classic. The one place the boys could use a bit of improvement is in their final course: They served us a nice hunk of locally raised, dry-aged beef that was good but nowhere as splendid as the rest of the meal. Recommended +++

Le Bernardin – The last time I went to Le Bernardin, it was to celebrate the 50th birthday of a close friend. She is now 59, which tells you how often I visit the restaurant. The long gap between visits has to do with my lack of interest in the restaurant’s approach to cuisine, which is rooted in the principle of keeping the moneyed and fashionable crowd that patronizes the restaurant happy. The reason for my return was that friends invited me there for my birthday. So what did I find after a 9 year hiatus? Well I found the same rotation of ingredients that Eric Rippert was using 9 years ago, with the preparations slightly tweaked and updated. And while both quality of the ingredients and the level of technique on display meant the meal was delicious, it lacked that certain bite I am looking for when I visit a restaurant. But the food is prepared so well it is hard to criticize what is on your plate. Recommended +++

Miller’s Guild – The reason we decided to eat at this American brasserie opened by Crush’s Jason Wilson was to try the 82 day dry-aged Niman Ranch ribeye. Well guess what? It was terrible. Not only was the meat not very good quality. It didn’t even taste as if it had been aged 30 days, let alone 82. It was so poor that we actually complained about it to the manager, which resulted in a nice long chat with the chef about the steak. Sometimes these things pay off as they removed it from our bill, which wasn’t chump change either as the steak sells for a whopping $220. But all in all, better that they ate it rather than us. Can’t Recommend

Ox – Greg Denton is a clever guy. He opens what on its face looks like an Argentinian steakhouse, adopts a no reservation policy, and wham bam thank you M’aam, people are suddenly waiting two and a half hours for a table. But those who are lucky enough to get a seat at his restaurant should know the following. The real action is not in the grilled meats, but is going on with the entradas (starters) like clam chowder, smoked marrow bone, spring onion & jalapeño, charcuterie dishes like fried oxtail terrine, heirloom tomato, lemon aioli & basil and ten different vegetable preparations like grilled Walla Walla wweet onion with buttered beets, toasted walnut, and Fourme d'Ambert Blue Cheese. Okay the flanken-style beef short rib cooked on the asador, which was smokey and a bit chewy in a good way, wasn’t too shabby. Recommended +

Petruce – One of the more interesting developments of the modern restaurant kitchen has been a movement away from advanced technology in favor of more primitive cooking methods like cooking over or next to a wood fire. At Petruce, chef/owners, Justin and Jonathan Petruce, cook everything in one of those two ways. Yet like other restaurants that have blazed this trail, the cooking at Petruce has a unique combination of rusticity and elegance, and dishes like sweet potato. avocado, tomatillo, queso fresco and chicken from the wood burning over served with Anson Mill grits and grape, come off as surprisingly modern. A very nice choice in a city that doesn’t have many of them, especially if you are looking for farm to table cooking with a bit of a twist. Recommended

Piccolo – Tao Yuan’s Cara Stadler told me about this wonderful little Italian restaurant in Portland that has taken over the space that used to house Krista Kern’s Bresca. It’s one of those typical restaurant love stories: Damian Sansonetti spent time cooking in places like Bar Boulud, while his wife, Ilma Lopez's, used to do pastries at El Bulli. They were tired of the city life and a friend recommended that they check out Portland, Maine. Next thing they knew they were serving the best farm-to-table Italian food in the state featuring dishes like a Breezy Hill Farm pork chop with puntarelle, Calabrese potatoes, pork jus vinaigrette. There is a lot of potential here as these guys really know how to cook. Recommended

Rappahanack Oyster Bar – Washington DC’s Union Market was one of my better finds this past spring. Oddly enough, when I mentioned the market to friends of mine who live in the Capital area, I was surprised at how few of them never have been there. Anyway, the people who cultivate Raphaponack oysters have brought their bivalves to DC from the banks of the river of the same name in Eastern Virginia. Where they serve them, along with an assortment of raw and cooked seafood based dishes like Red Snapper Tartare with sorrel juice, & smoked beet and “Lambs & Clams" which features merguez sausage, at this counter-seating restaurant in the market. A nice addition to a town that is not overflowing with good lunch spots. Recommended

Restaurant North – The typical Momofuku spin-off story goes like this. After spending time in one of David Chang’s kitchens, a chef goes back to his home town and opens a restaurant that riffs on the style of cuisine David created. They are invariably good, which is not only a testament to Chang, but to the lasticity of the cuisine he pioneered. Unfortunately, Restaurant North is the first one I have been to that missed the mark. And by a fairly wide margin at that. Not sure why chef/owner James Mark hasn’t been able to capitalize on the Chang philosophy like others who came out of various Momofuku kitchens but, his cooking just doesn’t click. Too bad. Acceptable.

Roe – After listening to a year’s worth of hype about the quality of fish he uses and how creative his cooking is, I found that Trent Pierce’s seafood restaurant located in the back of the more casual Wafu fell way short of the mark. True, the ingredients are top quality, but Pierce doesn’t seem ready to run a kitchen with this level of ambition. It was a shame, as the dishes looked beautiful. Yet in dish after dish, Pierce managed to ruin the dish by adding at least one ingredient too many. Clearly, there must be a way to compliment pristine ingredients without mucking them up this badly. The rating is purely for the quality of ingredients as I certainly could not recommend the cooking. Acceptable.

Rolf & Daughters – Ten years ago, would anyone have guessed that Nashville would be producing some of the country’s best Italian cooking? The reason for this phenomenon is a bit unclear to me but, whomever is responsible for figuring out that the local ingredients lend themselves to the type of micro-regionality that make Italian cuisine so wonderful should get a Nobel Prize. Philip Krajeck’s restaurant is yet another who has adopted that model, and his menu is filled with dishes that blend the cooking of Italy and the South, like lamb ribs, sourwood honey & mint, squid ink canestri, nduja, clams, scallion & breadcrumb & a mixed roast of pork, corn, squash, okra, bay laurel. Recommended.

Tao Yuan – My meal at Cara Stadler’s restaurant was the biggest surprise of the summer. After cutting her teeth in Gordan Ramsay’s kitchen, which she followed up by working at a number of different restaurants in Shanghai, Cara decided to her native Maine and open this restaurant in Brunswick. The cooking is contemporary Chinese. And while her menu offers things like steamed buns and other items that have become de riguer for hipsterized Asian restaurants ever since David Chang invented the genre, where Cara really shines is in her main courses where dishes like lightly steamed sea bass are worthy of being served at a multi-star Michelin restaurant. The $48 Chef’s Tasting Menu might be the single biggest bargain in the entire US dining scene. Recommended + 1/2

Tasty & Sons – The menu at John Gorham’s restaurant looked so gimmicky that we couldn’t imagine that the food was any good. But, so many people had recommended the place to us that we decided to check it out for lunch on our final day in Portland. Well let me tell you they were right and it was excellent (maybe I should say egg-celent as they serve brunch from 9:30-2:30 every day). The daytime menu features an amazing mélange of cuisines that include dishes such as Korean fried chicken and a Hangtown Fry, replete with fried oysters, bacon & cheddar. While in the evening you can enjoy Skuna Bay cedar planked salmon, Iberico pork steak and a tandoori rack of lamb. Recommended.

Willows Inn – I find that Blaine Wetzell’s exceptionally charming restaurant in a remote location in Northern Washington state is one of the few restaurants worth visiting on an annual basis. The reason for this is simple: Unlike some restaurants where you get the plot after only one visit, Blaine’s cuisine is evolving at such a rapid pace, that missing a year could mean missing a substantial step in the development process. This year’s visit was a case in point, as Blaine wowed us with dishes like a tender mussel served in the box it was lightly smoked in, zucchini flowers and nasturtium petals served with a nasturtium puree, a crudo of first of the season albacore and a gorgeous hunk of local Black Cod with cherry tomatoes and lovage oil. I am already looking forward to next summer’s visit.
Recommended +++

Late Editions

Daruma-Ya - The Kyoto based company that owned Sushi Azabu quietly converted the restaurant into this soba and Izakaya specialist. Importing chef Nobuhito Dosei from Nori Sushi in Los Angeles, and hiring culinary savant, Kyle Connaughton to consult on the menu. The result is some of the best Japanese cooking in the city, including the mouth watering Daruma-Ya Set, which includes homemade tofu with ikura and uni, foie gras aonori, Washaguyu tataki, lobster uni yaki, seiro soba and dessert for the bargain price of $115 for two people. Considering the quality of the ingredients and the precision of the cooking, I am surprised more people aren’t talking about this place. Recommended + 1/2

Estella - My first meal at this Lower East Side small plates restaurant was decidedly ordinary. But most people have such a high opinion of the place that it was only a matter of time until I went back. Then, when President & Mrs. Obama had dinner there, I knew my return would happen sooner than later. Okay so here is what I found. A series of tasty small plates built on good quality ingredients. But was the cooking interesting enough to deserve the word of mouth the restaurant is getting? In my opinion, not. Of course that does not mean you want enjoy dishes like steak tartare, swordfish and potatoes, arroz negro witjh aioli, ricotta gnocchi etc. And there was even a tasty dessert of parsnip ice cream with chocolate caramel. One of the worst things about the experience is the space itself, which is small, cramped and noisy and not up to the quality of the food. Recommended