Steak Frites, June 28, 2005 - Restaurant Week

Steak Frites
9 E. 16th Street

My co-waiters during the summers of my youth at the Jersey Shore were mostly 20/30-something women who grew up in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. So, when we had the occasional gay couple or group of gay men show up at the diner it was assumed that I, a young and fit (yes, its true, there was a time) male from "the city" (I actually grew up in Bergen County, but that was close enough for my "southern" coworkers), would be their waiter -- even if my tables were in another room. It was a simple business practice that has probably been used in many establishments over the course of modern dining. I bring this up only because I feel that sometimes, maybe not today, but sometimes, when I dine alone, I am served by a young, attractive woman or someone who looks like someone the management thinks I might find unique/attractive, have a similar quality or whatever. My waitress today, Meaghan F. (according to the check), was, by all accounts, kinda cute and without trying to sound lame, funky. She also happened to have the majority of her tables in another section of the room.


I am at Steak Frites for pretty much one reason. Okay two reasons. One, is to take part in Restaurant Week. Sort of a rite of the seasons for me. The second, is to try the Union Square eatery's namesake to see if it lives up to it.

But since I take a look at everything, I'll describe the decor first. Its a typical French brasserie in the same vein as Les Halles, slightly more beat up, and far less refined than say Park Bistro and with double the ceiling height and space between tables than L'Express. The artwork on the lengthwise wall was a cross between Toulouse Lutrec and Dali and had sad, almost ostracized-looking, empty magnums of champagne above the server station closest to the door. It looked like they were going to be thrown out, but a case of guilt came over management, so they were put there to (misguidingly) provide more ambience.

My table was fine, sturdy, and at the near center of the room - not usually my favorite place to be when dining alone ("hey, look at the guy eating by himself") but no big deal. My waitress was quick to provide the regular and Restaurant Week menus.

The menu. Hmmm. It was clear (if it wasn't already) that the patrons this restaurant seeks to retain are not the same people that its neighbor, Union Square Cafe, wishes to retain. And if that's not true, than the folks at Steak Frites need to stop insulting its patrons. For example, the first dish on the Restaurant Week menu was "Chilled Wild Mushrooms Vichyssoise". Chilled Vichyssoise? Um...yeah! I should hope so. That's nearly as bad as having tomato bisque (without the seafood) on your menu.

Other discrepencies in the menu include "Eastern Shores Crab Cakes" (though you only get one) and "Steak Frites "A La Florentine"" that don't come with frites! That'll cost you a supplemental (which they don't list on the menu) $6. And let me tell you -- the frites were lousy. Blech! More on that later. The same dish, according to the menu, comes with "Melted" Spinach and "Chianti" Reduction. I should have steered clear of any French restaurant's steak frites dish that melts their spinach and uses Italian wine to make their reductions. But I didn't just so that you, faithful readers of this dining guide, will know what's what.

To start, I had the frisee salad with lardons and Roquefort Cheese. I opted for the suggested wine pairing, a glass of Pinot Gris, Bethel Heights, Oregon, 2002 ($9). Both the salad and the wine were perfect. Truly. A great start.

The steak frites, as I mentioned above, didn't come with frites. At Meaghan's cheerful suggestion and head's up, I went ahead and ordered them. They must be great, right? After all, the place is named Steak Frites. Well, the steak that arrived was short of anything special, having very little flavor and cooked more medium than medium rare. The frites were bland, barely salted and not even attractive looking. The silly holder that they come in didn't help matters - although it could have been a lot gaudier. If anything, it reminded me...you paid $6 for this. Not something you want to be reminded of. The "melted" spinach, was actually very good though the chianti reduction did nothing for me. It couldn't even revive the bland fries. The steak was presented as a slab, different than (and far inferior to) the steak frites that you get at Artisanal which is neatly sliced. I would strongly suggest to the management to change the name of the restaurant to Moules Frites as I hear that their mussels are excellent. I was tempted to order them today (they came in a hearty lobster jus) but resisted the dish with the highest profit margin.

The gap between salad and entree was perfect. The gap between entree and dessert was much longer. Meaghan only had one flub - well maybe two - the first being that she forgot that I ordered the profiteroles at the beginning of the meal and had to later (7 minutes after my entree was cleared) ask if I wanted the profiteroles or the lemon pudding cake. The other flub was more of an overagressive mistake. She asked if I wanted more wine when I still had half a glass left. A bit pushy, but I can sympathize with having to serve the RW menu and all. She was doing her job.

The profiteroles, which did come two per order, were rich and chocalaty but otherwise stale and bland. They are light years away from the profiteroles at Gascogne, for example, and tasted like they were baked slightly longer ago than would be recommended to serve. Also, why not offer vanilla and chocolate varieties? Couldn't cost much more.

All in all, I found the dining experience passable but nothing more. I won't return, simply because I can tell, at least from the effort put into several of the dishes and the overall feel of the place, can better be had elsewhere in the city for probably the same price or less. My recommendation would be to visit Park Bistro or Artisanal before going here. But if you are more of a Les Halles or L'Express person, you might find yourself comfortable here. I just won't be sitting at the table next to you.


Quartino (downtown), June 24, 2005

review coming soon.


Bonobo, June 23, 2005

18 East 23rd St.

It's an interesting concept. Name a restaurant after the most recently identified great ape. Said great ape, the Bonobo, is closest to humans of all the great apes, even more than a chimpanzee, sharing about 99% the same DNA. The website continues to tell us about how bonobos live very long lives (I don't doubt it, but can't find life expectancy anywhere) all by eating natural food in their general form - some bugs, but mostly vegetation. The only way they die is old age, accidents or by predators -- degenerative diseases are unheard of.

So they name a restaurant after this wonderful animal. And I'm not being facetious, they are very cool and have much to teach us about a lot of things, perhaps eating being one of them.

But what irks me about this is that if they are so brilliant and so closely linked to humans...why haven't they evolved. Why didn't their brains develop like humans, especially if we share 99% of the same genetic code. My guess is that its because they never learned to cook food/eat meat.

But you have to appreciate the idea behind this concept and, truth be told, the food is very good. I ordered the veggie nut burger with tomato compote and a side salad and it was remarkably flavorful, not dry at all (that's the low-heat cooking for you) and filling taboot.

If only places like Bonobo could hire managers that aren't what your conservative uncle thought you were like when you told him you were going vegetarian that one Thanksgiving. If you don't know what I mean, go to Bonobo to get the image yourself.


D.C. Trip, June 18-21, 2005

Here's a quick recap of the restaurants I ate at during my trip to D.C. for the JDRF's Children's Congress 2005.

Old Ebbitt Grill, June 18, 2005

Petit Filet Mignon sandwich
Foggy Bottom Ale draught bottled
According to the website, the ale is a pale ale made from pale and caramel malts, hopped with Tettnang, Hallertau, and Cascade hops and the name refers to the DC neighborhood where the pre-prohibition Heurich Brewery stood. According to me, it was a very tasty and drinkable pub beer. I'd order this again in a heartbeat.
The petit filet sandwich was average at best, featuring a below average bernaise sauce, old school "Burger King-style" french fries that were okay. Oddly, instead of lettuce, it was served with bean sprouts. It filled my stomach and that's about it. The Grill is a great old D.C. establishment where you can almost feel the presence of the politicians of yesteryear. I'd return again for a lunch. Service was annoying. They seemed to be reenacting the 1830s with their dialogue and salesman-like demeanor.

Gordon Biersch Brewery, June 18, 2005
After walking around downtown and checking out the majority of the Natural History Museum (extended viewing of the Gems and Geology exhibit), my colleague Joana and I stopped off for a drink and a snack. For drinks, she had a watermelon mojito that was sweet but well made and I had a Lynchburg Lemonade that hit the spot. We also noshed on garlic fries and calamari. The fries had chunks of garlic on them which was a bit of a turnoff and the calamari was quite spicy, which we liked. Overall, a great place to sit outside with a drink and some apps, and perfect if you are checking out the museums, especially the (sold-out today) International Spy Museum, which is right across the street.

Corduroy, June 18, 2005

Corduroy strives to be like Blue Hill but doesn't come close to hitting the mark. The ingredients, though fresh, often organic and mostly local, are, as promised, "cooked simply", and indeed they are - perhaps too simply. There is no oomph to any of the dishes. The Caesar salad was very good, but still standard for a better restaurant. Not much you can do with a caesar. My crab cake appetizer was good, but again too simple. No flavor that stood out.
My lamb loin dish was good but a bit sinewy and undercooked. My colleague's salmon dish seemed to be unevenly cooked. This place has a lot of potential, but I am doubtful that it will ever acheive its fullest. The decor was equally as wishy washy, with ugly-upholstered chairs, beveled mirrors that really distracted the person facing into them (seating along the back wall) although the lighting was good. I asked what "corduroy" had to do with anything other than the corduroy-covered menus. His response was that the chef didn't want the diner to have any preconceived notions about what the food would be like. I think he may have been right, but instead, it seemed, and this is just one man's subjective opinion, that everyone in the restaurant this night was someone who probably wears (and enjoys) corduroy, myself included (perfect for crisp days in late September). Take that for what its worth...

Georgia Brown's, June 19, 2005
The one good thing about the Capital Hilton is its proximity to a ton of restaurants, in fact every one of the one's listed here were within walking distance. Georgia Brown's was nearly the closest, and after a long day of being on my feet, something close to the hotel was much needed. I had a Dominion beer, another local brew, that went quite well with the "everything-I'd-hope-they'd-be" fried green tomatoes and the slightly "thin-on-the-meat" gumbo I ordered. The gumbo had a pretty tasteless and chewy andouille sausage and shreds of crab flesh. Otherwise it was broth and okra. Good, but lacking any real substance. The broth was thick, which helped in filling my belly. Their crab cake was very good though and the batter dipped fried chicken looked pretty good if a bit dry. Great service - in fact it probably gets the vote for best service. Not intrusive. There when you need it.

Restaurant Kolumbia, June 20, 2005

Arguably the worst restaurant experience I've ever had. The waiter was also the bartender. The server was also the sous chef. The two bussers stood around and did nothing. The hostess took five minutes to get to the front of the house. The chef, as we'd find out later, looked like he was strung out on hardcore drugs or woke up with a hangover an hour earlier. The restaurant looked like a Kandinsky nightmare and the pricepoint for this tripe was ridiculous.
Drinks: My colleagues had wine, I had two 7 and 7s that failed to have a hint of alcohol in them.
Eats: The girls had scallops wrapped in bacon and shared a ricotta gnocchi appetizer. The sauce for gnocchi (our waiter called them Ga Nocki) was actually pretty good but the gnocchi itself was very heavy. Not expertly made at all. They enjoyed and finished all of their well-seared scallops, which I was thankful for. The lobster and she-crab soup I had tasted like campbell's soup with even extra salt added to it. Inedible. I chalked it up as a loss and hoped for a good entree. It never came. The crabcakes served to me would definitely have caused me to vomit profusely if I continued to eat them. The one bite I took made me gag. I asked the "waiter/bartender" to take them back and take it off my tab and he said he'd have to ask if he could. The hostess, embarrassed, sent them back and offered a replacement. I told her I didn't feel safe eating the chef's food. The meal was seriously unsafe. With only 10 people in the entire restaurant, it should never have taken as long as it did to receive our plates and should never have been this bad. The chef came out and, sweating and looking haggard, begged our forgiveness and offered to "show us the proper service and quality of food next time we came back". Uh huh. He went on to say that he must be having an "off night" and that he is "usually here" so that we "should come back and try it again". Right. I will personally try to see that his restaurant closes as quickly as possible for the horrible service (or rather, lack thereof), unsafe food and the most awful interior of a restaurant I have ever witnessed. Please shut this place down now.

Olive's, June 21, 2005
Had lunch with a colleague after a long and successful day at the Hart Senate Building. We split a really tasty caesar salad with crispy prosciutto and each got some pasta dishes. She had green colored ricotta ravioli in a spicy red sauce with spicy italian sausage. Very good. I had the remarkably rich goat cheese dumplings in a yellow tomato mash of sorts. Also very tasty but heavy yet fully edible for the truly hungry. Both the green and black olive tapenades were tasty (served with the bread) but the iced tea was two tea bags too strong. I like the place, especially for a chain. Service was better than satisfactory and quite friendly (despite a delay in getting us water/refilling our tea). Music was good too. Booths near the kitchen, however, were somewhat uncomfortable and not conducive to eating at the tall tables (you sunk a bit into the booth).


Park Bistro, June 15, 2005

Danna was kind enough to surprise me with making dinner reservations tonight at Les Halles (Park Ave. South) on her way home from work. The reservation was for 9:00.

Being 7:45 or so, and having other plans nixed, we decided, at my encouragement (I've listened to Steph, RGR and others on Chowhounds, as well as have had my own mixed reviews of the John St. location), to check out Park Bistro.

What a great little restaurant.

The same dishes at Les Halles were between one to five dollars cheaper at Park Bistro and, without giving away my full review right away, without the attitude and raucous customers.

Danna was in the mood for steak. I was in the mood for mussels and just about anything else. And so we had several good options to choose from.

I had the mussels and she had the prosciutto plate with mango salad.

The mussels were just fine, but the broth was excellent. It had a thai-lime flavoring to it that just got better and better as you dipped the fluffy and flavorful bread into it. Yum. Mussels are becoming a favorite of mine and this version squashed any fears I might have had about the dish being just your typical wine broth.

Danna's prosciutto looked excellent and although she didn't share any, she was sure to clean the plate and offer positive reviews but wasn't totally sold on the mango salad's other ingrediant (which neither of us can remember at the moment).

Danna ordered the filet mignon with frites but requested another sauce, other than bernaise. The chef was kind enough to make a red wine and peppercorn sauce on the spot. The filet literally fell apart. Deliciously tender, cooked medium rare despite Danna's request for medium...but the chef knew what he was doing...and we were both glad for it. The frites were uneven. Some were limp, others were overcooked. Honestly disappointing, but the chef is clearly interested in the "real" food. The only hiccup.

I ordered the duck breast with port sauce and duck confit (orange flavor). This was served with circular slices of roasted potatos, corn (straight from the cob), wilted spinach and something else that escapes me. The duck was delicious. Actually the whole dish was wonderful. The duck thigh (confit) was crispy when and where it needed to be and velvety elsewhere. Excellent dish.

We opted for just water tonight however the wine by the glass was on a "ask your server" type of basis. They were encouraging half bottles.

Service was fast, efficient, unobtrusive, friendly (huh?), yes, friendly and accomodating. I can't say a bad word about it.

This is, if I were to actually be able to have such a thing, the place I would be a regular at. It's my speed. The volume wasn't at hush level, but was moderate to low, the clientele were "business casual" couples that probably ARE regulars and the room itself felt like a true, French bistro...slightly worn around the edges (not too polished) but well kept with nice appointments. And enough choices to keep me content.

I will probably take my parents, in-laws and maybe my more sophisticated "couple" friends (I tend to hang with a mixed bag of friends) back here but I'd rather we keep it for ourselves.


Aki Sushi III, June 14, 2005

We decided to give one of the latest additions to the neighborhood a chance and I think we've both agreed that one chance was enough.

Danna and I each ordered a piece of eel, some edamame (Danna), an order of the beef negamaki, an order of the chicken negamaki, a spicy tuna roll "with crunch" and maybe something else, I honestly can't remember.

The eel had little of the teriyaki flavor to it that is customary and the piece was very large, probably to justify the lack of quality. Disappointing. The beef negamaki was passable but below the standard set by Wasabi in Ridgewood, NJ. I have yet to have a better version of this dish than the one they make. The chicken negamaki was pretty dry and bland but wasn't downright awful.

The spicy tuna roll with crunch (which I believe was panko) was probably below average and even the edamame was weak...with low-grade salt like you'd see on the table at a diner.

Service was average, food was pretty bad although they have made decent use of the space. We will not be returning to this place and probably will avoid both Aki Sushi I and II wherever they may be.


Big Apple BBQ Block Party, June 12, 2005

The (third annual) Big Apple BBQ Block Party was much more manageable compared to last year.

We got to a nearly empty lawn in Madison Square Park at about 12:30 on Sunday. I got a beer in 2 minutes at the north beer garden. After drinking my Brooklyn Pilsner near where I bought it (couldn't go anywhere else to drink it...which is kind of ridiculous), I got on the longest line around, blindly. It turned out to be the one I wanted to get on (about 2 minutes into waiting), which was Big Bob Gibson's Real Pit BBQ.

I was witness to the actual pulling (or more appropriately, pushing) of the pork that would eventually find its way to my stomach. The pork came out of the smoker steaming a little and remarkably tender. The bone eased out with a simple pull and the meat literally fell apart as the pitmaster pushed down on it. I've never seen anything like it. Pulling and tearing led to some chopping and more pulling. And that was that.

The three sandwiches I purchased for $21 were of inconsistent size/amount of pork. I had to ask (with confused looks from the volunteer staff) to have them evened out. The sauces were excellent. I tried a little of both the habenero and the regular tomato sauce. Both very good. The roll was perfect for the meat and sauce. Danna enjoyed hers as much as I did mine and we both felt lucky to have landed on the right line.

The worst part about the BBQ bash is the volunteers. I've never met a more inept group of people in my life. Danny Meyer, if he actually saw who he had hired to put this event on, would be appalled. No one, not one person, could answer any question I overheard. For the question: Are there tickets we need to purchase or is it cash at the front of the line? I heard two different answers...1) I don't know. 2) Yes, you purchase tickets at the booth somewhere over there and then you can wait on line (When asked if this was different than the express line, the individual got an affirmative). For the request, can I get a Fiji Water? They didn't know how much they were selling it for. A call on the walkie talkie resulted in someone replying..."I don't know, you'll have to ask so and so"... Mind you...this was on Sunday, day two. Wow.

Anyway, the service was exactly what you get at the Shake Shack - disappointing for such an easy gig. Very un-Danny Meyer-ish. Fortunately, the day was perfect, if not too hot, and the feeling in the park was awesome. I'm very glad this event takes place each year and was pleased with the redesign and better use of the Park and surrounding streets. Well done. So to speak.

Special thanks and welcome to Bob Gibson and crew for bringing up north some delicious pork.


Waterfront Ale House, June 11, 2005

Danna and I grabbed a quick bite to eat at the Waterfront Ale House for the same reason I imagine many people do - its proximity to the Kips Bay Lowes Cineplex.

From the outside, the place looks like a dive...more like a shanty that sells seafood at a beyond-its-prime NJ beach town that only stays open from Memorial Day to Labor Day and gets heavily weathered by the salt air during the winter months.

The inside is no better. I can only say that the din inside prevents diners from seeing the true condition of the walls, ceiling and floor. Remnants of the "Smoking Years" still can be found...as close as the table we ate on (cigarette burns in the laminated tabletop).

But after a few of the excellent beers they have on tap, you could probably forget what a dumpy place it is.

Since we are already talking about them, the beers or at least beer selection is the best thing about this place. I chose a Little Thumper Ale, which I haven't seen, let alone drank, in years. Yum. Great tap. The bar, unfortunately, isn't big enough to handle a large amount of people that it no doubt gets...especially on Thursday and weekend nights...or when an important Yankees game is playing.

Danna ordered a half rack of ribs which she said were good, but your typical, average bar version of ribs. I ordered the Special burger, which was a Kobe beef burger with Asian ketchup (catsup), that, unfortunately, came out overcooked and of below average quality. The Kobe sliders at The Stanton Social, for example, really taste like Kobe beef. This had a faint taste of Kobe but the overcooked nature of the burger didn't help it much. The waffle fries they served with the burger were heavenly fluffy. I haven't had waffle fries this good in a long time. The Asian ketchup was mediocre.

All of the issues related to the food could have been resolved, but there was no waiter to be found and any attempt to wave him down was denied as he practically ran past our table into the kitchen.

So atmosphere and service were lousy. The atmosphere's only redeeming quality is that it reminds me of my old home place, the Allendale Bar and Grill (also known for their excellent burgers) - but more run down.

Food could be passable and location is unbeatable for a night at the movies. Will I go back? Probably, but I'll stick to the regular burger and beers and keep it at that.


Chicago Trip, June 3-5, 2005

Bradley, Keith, Aamir and me on Aamir's rooftop just outside of downtown Chicago (skyline behind us). Some of the best food of the trip was had on this rooftop...including a mango salsa, Aamir's wings and an excellent potato salad with peas.


I opted to sit at the bar of this very nice downtown restaurant a few blocks north of the Hilton we stayed at and a few blocks south of the Art Institute of Chicago, which was my next stop for the day. On a limited budget, I opted for the burger, which was served with red onion, lettuce, cheddar and bacon. The burger itself was semi-hefty - about the size of a Waterfront Alehouse burger and slightly tastier. The glass of wine I had with dinner was nice and crisp, but alas I forget the name. Service was pretty good. Timing was great, the hostess was very accomodating and pleasant and the main dining room looked like a great place to enjoy lunch. I would return to try some of the seafood dishes that looked pretty good.

Pizzeria Due

I met some Phish-scene friends, Brandon and Mikey at the sibling (and sort of neighbor) of Pizzeria Uno in a quick sit down, eat, say good-bye dinner. We ordered a sausage deep dish pie and a round of 203 (?) beers. The number is the area code for Chicago. The beers were good and the pizza, though completely different than the kind I am used to, was pretty tasty. My favorite version of sausage, this was not, and the flaky crust seemed to suggest that the dough was of the frozen variety. But the rich tomato sauce and getting caught up in the whole Chicago pizza thing as well as hanging out with some fun guys for an hour or so was worth it all.

Al's "Hot" Italian Beef

Another friend, Brian G. picked me up in a cab at the hotel and took me out to Al's to get a traditional hot italian beef sandwich. Kind of in the middle of nowheresville sits this shack of a building that is just as thick and sweaty as the dishes they serve. Our sandwiches, which featured beef similar to a good quality cheesesteak but in the style of a French Dip, also had hot and sweet peppers and was dunked quite heavily into the jus of unknown proportions. The result was a blissful heart attack-inducing dining experience. Yum. It cleared (as promised by Brian) the hangover I had gotten from a night on the town with Aamir and warmed up the whole body as it made its way to its final resting place in my belly. This IS the cheesesteak of Chicago, in a sense, and one I would return to again in the future. A must have experience for visitors of the windy city. Next time, however, I will take Brian's advice and get a watermelon ice across the street from the other little shack on the block that dishes up flavorful iced-teas and italian ices.