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Neo-Cantina El Vez Sprouts a Battery Park City Branch

“Are you ready to order?”

It’s a reasonable enough question, especially when posed to diners sitting in a restaurant with menus in front of them. But at El Vez, mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr’s local outpost of his decade-old Mexican standby in Philadelphia, the waitstaff is as hot for answers as a team of film noir private dicks.

The call for orders comes suddenly — in one table’s case, a server set upon patrons immediately after handing out menus. This, and other normally innocuous requests are repeated often enough throughout the course of a meal to be borderline intrusive. There’s no doubt that turnover is important, but guests shouldn’t be made to feel as if their asses are worth less than the seats they occupy. Disappointment doubles when an entire order lands at once, and some of it feels slapped together.

Take the tlayuda, a pizza-like disc of crisped masa, which on one visit bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Play-Doh nightmares of a maladjusted kindergartner. An earlier (and likewise unsuccessful) version of this Oaxacan street specialty consisted of cheese melted over shrimp, garnished with multicolored salsa squirts. The current incarnation leaves the cheese shredded but unmelted (a traditional presentation), mixed with salsa but otherwise unseasoned, looking like something unpleasant has taken place over a shag carpet.

“So, have you decided on one of our guacamoles yet?” We hadn’t — both times we were asked — but once we finally did, the contents of the stone molcajetes were disconcerting. It’s commonplace to tinker with guacamole these days, adding everything from pomegranate seeds to chorizo, truffle oil — even sea urchin. Here the standard variety comes adulterated with Cotija cheese and a preparation that renders the avocados more trampled than mashed. The other guacamoles, mixed with mango and bell pepper or a bourgeois combination of goat cheese and pistachios, are palatable, even if they’re a sin against sound judgment. Still, you’re better off submitting the restaurant’s excellent chips to the barrage of melted Monterey Jack cheese, black beans, sour cream, and pickled onions that comprise the fried tortilla masterpiece dubbed “Nacho Mama” nachos.

Starr, who got his start in Philly, now operates more than 30 restaurants across four states. The flagship El Vez, a frolicking, gilded neo-cantina, still shines gaudily in Philadelphia’s Washington Square West neighborhood.* Our city’s counterpart, plugged into the ground floor of the Goldman Sachs building, only barely dials back the glitz. Tile mosaics frame gold booths, and multihued sculptures made from stacks of wine bottles lend the two massive dining rooms a convivial air. A photo booth occupies a corner opposite the central bar area, though chances are none of your snapshots will look as dashing as the painted portraits of Elvis and various luchadores, which hang on the restaurant’s walls. Sadly, the visual stimulation appears wasted on the suits who invade the place at lunchtime and after work, some of whom don sombreros while toasting jobs well done (because we might as well appropriate culture while we’re appropriating funds). Tourists and Battery Park City families, however, appear to appreciate the effort.

Conceived by Starr’s Mexican Culinary Team and executed by Philadelphia chef David LaForce, the menu is expansive and, despite a few missteps, warrants a visit if you’re in the area. Huitlacoche stuffed inside crescent-shaped quesadillas has a pleasant, muddy funk, but the corn-fungus snack lacks punch. The same is true of the eight taco varieties, which include a few atypical choices — pork belly with pickled watermelon, for instance, and lamb “Arabes” (a Pueblan specialty of shawarma-style lamb introduced by Lebanese and Iraqi immigrants).

Enchiladas are the best of El Vez’s tortilla-wrapped dishes, in particular, the oxtail and crab renditions, which practically melt inside masa blankets covered, respectively, in piquant red and green salsas. The condescendingly labeled “Holy Mole!” sampler provides a trifecta of variations on the Mexican mother sauce: Bone-in chicken stands in for the more-traditional turkey in a moderately complex, chocolate-spiked mole poblano; stewed lamb falls apart, as rich and deep as its earthy, herbal mole negro; the third sauce, nutty pipián rojo, is a ruddy mole made with pumpkin and sesame seeds, served here over a baby back pork rib.

Many of the desserts are geared toward children, including a one-note chocolate taco that can’t compete with the ice cream — truck original, and a platter of puffy, brown-sugar cookies shaped like pigs, served with strawberry jam and a goblet of saccharine horchata. Everything we tried was overly sweet.

Battery Park City is remote yet highly trafficked, and El Vez doesn’t need to be a destination Mexican restaurant in order to survive. (The enormous bar and massive tequila and mezcal list won’t hurt.) The restaurant dabbles in a broadly appealing approach to south-of-the-border mixology, offering eight kinds of margaritas and classic cocktail riffs, but unless you have a reason to visit the neighborhood, you’ll probably want to get your agave on beyond its borders.

*Correction published 8/12/14: Owing to an editing error, the original version of this review referred to El Vez as a chain of restaurants. There are only two locations — the flagship in Philadelphia and the restaurant in Battery Park City. The above version reflects the corrected text.

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Here Are the Five Best Memorial Day Weekend Food Events in NYC

Not fighting the traffic or beach crowds this three-day weekend? Make the most of sticking around the city by taking advantage of what’s cooking up around town.

Free Suckling Pig Roast, Ariana, 138-140 West Houston Street, Friday, 7 p.m.

This Village Russian restaurant is kicking off the weekend with a free suckling pig roast and punch party. At 7 p.m., the kitchen will start serving up bits of the buckwheat-stuffed hog, and the bar will pour a berry and vodka punch. You’ll want to get there early to partake — food and drink are first come, first served.

Passport to Taiwan, Union Square, Sunday, noon

Come Sunday, Union Square will be filled with performances, art exhibits, and plenty of food celebrating Taiwanese-American heritage and culture. Look for goodies like bamboo tamales, shaved ice, oyster omelets, and intestines with noodle. Food-related exhibits include dough figurines and sugar paintings, which showcase the artists’ use of edible materials for creative purposes. A full line up of food vendors and activities can be found on the event’s website.

Rub-A-Grub, Do or Dine, 1108 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, Sunday, 2 p.m.

With a three-part menu accompanied by DJ sets, this musical feast includes bloody marys, beer and shot specials, and record-sized plates of hearty BBQ. Music will be provided by the I Love Vinyl crew, and a selection of appetizers courtesy of Justin Warner’s team are also part of the tasting menu. Tickets start at $15 for the event without food and $30 if you plan on dining or drinking.

Manhattan by Sail’s Out@Sea Party, Slip 1 — Battery Park, State Street at Battery Place, Sunday, 9:45 p.m.

Celebrate having Monday off by staying up late on a Sunday with this two-hour boat party geared toward the gay and lesbian crowd. Hop aboard the Clipper City Tall Ship where you’ll find a full bar — including Jello shots, pickle backs, and other drink specials — and a DJ, who’ll play sets as you take in the city skyline. Tickets are $20 if you use the promotional code MBSFFOS14; they can be purchased through the Manhattan by Sail website.

A Drinking Game NYC presents Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, A Celebration of Whimsy, 21-A Clinton Street, Monday, 9 p.m.

To cap off the weekend, head out for this live stage version of the 80’s cult classic, which involves drinking — both by the actors and the audience. When you hear key phrases and buzzwords, everyone drinks, which means that by the end of the show, certain lines may not come out as intended — or at all. There’s a cash bar inside the theater that will provide beer, wine, and soda, though the event is 21 and up. Tickets are $15.

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Gabriel Kahane+Suzanne Vega

Tonight, Brooklyn and Queens Poets Laureate Tina Chang and Paolo Javier bring their pavement-pounding poems to Battery Park City to team up with folksy singer-songwriters Gabriel Kahane and Suzanne Vega. And while the former finds a poetic desperation in failed New York romances and Craigslist personals ads, the latter mines the quirks and nooks of dive bars and diners in the Village to elevate the mundane to the sublime.

Tue., June 26, 7 p.m., 2012

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North End Grill’s Floyd Cardoz on Battery Park City, Challenges of the New Space, Part 1

The new friendly face in Battery Park City,

Mr. Top Chef Master and North End Grill headmaster Floyd Cardoz has certainly risen to the top of his game since opening Tabla in 1998. Now, with a few cookbooks and a line of foods at Fresh Direct, the India-born chef talked to Fork in the Road about the neighborhood he’s bringing back into the dining game with his new nuanced touch with spices.

Last we spoke, Tabla was closing. Now you’re at North End Grill. Can you tell us about the new restaurant?
North End Grill is what we like to call a new American bar and grill. We’ve taken the concept of a bar and grill and are trying to make it as fresh as we possibly can. Traditionally bar and grill’s have chops and steaks, but we’re focusing on seafood–whole fish and also lots of eggs.

What did you bring from Tabla to the new project in terms of food?
Well, we’re working with farmers as much as possible. Using farmers locally in the tri-state area and a little to the north. I’m also keeping the idea of changing the menu pretty often. When things come in and out of season, we change them. And where Tabla was very strongly influenced by India, I’m not going in that direction anymore. There is some spice in the food, but it’s not obvious, and it’s not in the forefront.

The other thing that I am doing over here is grilling most of my stuff. Ninety percent of my protein is grilled. So it’s either charcoal grilled or wood grilled.

Experience-wise, what did you take from Tabla?
I did bring my love for food and my love to make things the best as we possible can. I think opening my second restaurant was a lot easier. I was prepared for all that can go wrong with a new restaurant. I’ve been through it before. You know what’s going to happen, and when it happens, you deal with it.

Also, when I opened Tabla, in the first three months, I lost half my kitchen crew. I have not had that happen again. I’d say 95 percent of my staff has stayed, and the people who have left, I either made the choice to let them go, or it was not a perfect fit for them.

What are some of the challenges of the new space?
I’d say the biggest challenge was in the first month. It was trying to understand how the grills work. Obviously, I hadn’t done that before. These are two grills I hadn’t worked on, so we tried to figure out how to make it best work. That was the biggest challenge we had.

The second thing is not being as close as we can be to the greenmarket, the Union Square Greenmarket. It’s a little challenging for me to get produce the way I want to. The other thing that I find is that people [in Battery Park] eat very differently in terms of timing than in Chelsea, or Meatpacking, or the midtown area.

You talk about people downtown eating differently, and you’re in Battery Park City, which doesn’t have a ton of restaurants. How does the location play into your menu choices, and is it a difficult place to be located?
I don’t think it’s a difficult place to be located. The reason is that restaurants weren’t here for the longest time, and I think it’s about time that someone comes in and opens restaurants here because it’s a great neighborhood. The people who live here love it, and they’re good supporters, so I don’t think we made a mistake coming down here.

I think it was a great decision. Mostly what Danny [Meyer] does is open restaurants [in newer neighborhoods] and wait for others to come. He did that with Union Square, he did that with Gramercy Park, with Madison Square Park, and in all of those places there weren’t any restaurants when he opened. We have a fair amount of people working in the area. We have 60,000 residents that live in the area. So using both of them is great. We also have people come over from Tribeca. They cross over the highway, so it’s a great thing. We have people come in for brunch. We have kids in the restaurant on Sundays, [and] they come during the week, too. It’s used in various ways by different people. You just don’t want it to be only neighborhood or only business or only kids or only older people. It’s kind of a mix of everything, and as a restaurant, that’s what you want.

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Our 10 Favorite Far Downtown Restaurants

It’s generally agreed that the area below Chambers Street is a food no man’s land. However, take a closer look, and you’ll find a number of options that don’t just fill a void, but are top-notch. We’ve rounded up our 10 favorites and lumped Battery Park City and the financial district together for our 10 Best Far Downtown Restaurants.

10. Toloache Taqueria: At the quick-concept outpost of Julian Medina’s Toloache empire, if you get there early enough, you can watch your tortillas being pressed. Come lunchtime, the only thing you’ll be watching is your watch as you creep down the line toward your order–especially on Taco Tuesday when they’re $2 a pop. Regardless, the food is fresh and filling, the flavors are strong, and the tortilla soup is creamy and satisfying.

9. Suteishi: Every neighborhood has its sushi spot. This is the one that Seaport residents belly up to. Fresh fish standbys, interesting roll combinations, and flavor-packed sashimi “tastes” make it worth regular visits. Modern, airy digs and lack of pretension give it a big leg-up on nearby Haru–where we were once served hardened pre-sliced fish. Never again.

8. Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches: The third location of mini chain Nicky’s Vietnamese is a no-frills spot with four high tops and maybe 10 stools total, but that doesn’t hurt the location’s brisk business. Neither does the Baoguette that recently moved in down the street. There are warmed baguettes stuffed with one of five options (classic pork, chicken, sardine), plus cold-killing pho soups. Vietnamese coffee is at the ready for the mid-afternoon desk slump or morning pick-me-up.

7. Leo’s Bagels: Shh, don’t tell too many people, but we’re pretty sure there is a Murray’s Bagels offshoot staring right down Stone Street. That’s right, Leo’s serves that same goods as the popular Sixth Avenue shop, though in a much smaller space. Same bagels, same lox, even the same specials posted on butcher paper. Best to keep this a neighborhood secret.

6. Pearl Street Diner: Walk into this streetcar-like diner, and you’re quickly transported back in time. There are few of these style canteens left. The benches are squishy, the menus are large, and everything from grilled cheese to burgers to Greek specialties are available. Sidle up on a stool for a midday meal or have a sunglasses-and-Advil-stoked hangover breakfast –this is that kind of place.

5. Alfanoose: Sure, most FiDi places have a line out the door at lunchtime. However, few deserve the hysteria as much as Alfanoose. Pitch-perfect pita sandwiches stuffed with falafel, flavorful shawarma, or the football-shaped ground meatballs known as kibbeh are both fairly inexpensive and super fresh. The spinach pie gets an unorthodox addition of mint, swiss chard, and pomegranate juice–a flavorful spin on a standby.

4. Barbarini Alimentari: Part specialty store, part restaurant; Barbarini Alimentari is the place for pasta below Little Italy. A breezy atmosphere and attentive waitstaff seal the deal, but the burrata to-go, cheaper than the nearest vendor (Whole Foods), sweetens the whole thing. Like a mini Eataly without the crowds, it’s best to pop in post-lunchtime, when the place is mobbed with co-workers shooting the shit.

3. North End Grill: Danny Meyer and Floyd Cardoz’s restaurant in the Conrad Hotel was led by a beehive’s worth of buzz. Fortunately, the restaurant has, mostly, lived up to the hype. We’re fans of plunking down in the bar area where bites like bacon-peanut-butter-topped pizza or perfectly grilled mixed mushrooms can be picked over while watching the Top Chef Master in the kitchen. Spirit-based brown cocktails are a big draw here as well.

2. Shake Shack: No, we’ve confirmed that there is no special line for Goldman Sachs employees but I.Banker-loving single women take note: Shake Shack Battery Park is swarming with them. Regardless, the famous shackburger is probably the best meat patty downtown, and the Wall-nut Street (chocolate truffle cookie dough, walnuts, and cherries mixed into vanilla custard) and Lower West Side (malted marshmallow sauce and Mast Brothers cocoa nibs swirled into chocolate custard) might be the best location-specific concoctions to date.

1. Sho Shaun Hergatt: Now this is a restaurant that doesn’t get enough press. Just steps from the stock exchange and Occupy Wall Street, the 1 percent can get down on upscale inventive dishes that aren’t quirky just to be different. They’re quirky with a reason . . . and utterly breathtaking. In the true Wall Street way, you might find gold leaf adorning your egg and intricate plating. Then get bowled over by the finishing touches, including mignardises for days on a roving cart plus plenty of spoiler desserts. To note: A $33 lunchtime three-course prix fixe is possibly one of the best bets in town.

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Tomorrow: Our 10 Best Far Downtown Restaurants

The financial district, Battery Park City, FiDi, the Seaport district . . . whatever you want to call it, the southern tip of the city is not the barren food land that many think it is. Tucked behind the touristy Seaport strip, Front Street is chockablock with worthy dining and drinking options, and though the lunchtime and happy-hour scene on Stone Street might be a bit more boisterous than its twilight dining, there’s still plenty of worthy options. We’ve lumped the area from Chambers Street on down into one dining destination, Far Downtown, and gathered the best food joints to present our 10 Best Far Downtown Restaurants. Check back tomorrow for the list.

 

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5 Unexpected Dishes to Try at North End Grill

For this week’s review, I headed down to Battery Park City to check out North End Grill, one of three eateries Danny Meyer has erected in the neighborhood in the past year. Floyd Cardoz, formerly the chef at Tabla, is running the kitchen, dishing up a menu of American classics, many of which have unexpected twists or exotic flavorings. Here are five unexpected dishes to try.

1. Cod Throats Meunière: This was my favorite dish on the menu — simple in concept, but it blew me away in flavor. Cod throats are rare enough, but the real winner here is the meunière sauce. Not just a bland butter-lemon treatment you find in French bistros, this version is decked out with lime (it even had finger lime pulp at one point) and jalapeño for a complex, savory finish.

2. Crab and Pumpkin Soup: Before dining here, I had never really thought of pairing crab with pumpkin, but this soup, heavily spiced with Indian flavors evocative of what Cardoz was doing at Tabla, illustrates their happy marriage.

3. Elysian Fields Lamb Loin With Minted Chickpeas: Again, you’ll find subtle spices in the vegetable garnish here, all of which become even brighter thanks to the addition of preserved lemon. The meat is expertly cooked and pairs lovingly with the veg.

4. Berkshire Pork Chop: This is some fine swine. A good pork chop is hard to come by, with so many overcooked and gnarly. But here, the meat is juicy and flavorful — that’s to say, a chop you’d actually want to order again and again.

5. Eccles Cake: It’s very rare to find Eccles cake, a British dessert of a flaky, sugary bun stuffed with currants, on a menu in New York City, so whenever I see it, I order it. It’s a good dessert for people who don’t have a sweet tooth, and this version came garnished with a hearty mountain of nutty shaved cheddar. Add in an after dinner drink, and you’ve got a swell finale to your meal.

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North End Grill: Danny Meyer Shall Rule Us All

Is Danny Meyer going to revitalize Battery Park City the way he did the Flatiron district? Last summer, the wildly successful restaurateur opened up a Shake Shack branch on Murray Street. Now he’s unveiling an outpost of his barbecue joint, Blue Smoke, on Vesey, plus a swanky American spot around the corner on North End Avenue called North End Grill.

The upscale North End Grill certainly fills a void for the nabe—a sea of stern office towers and shiny, soulless condos. Suits from 4 World Financial Center power-lunching is a common sight, and the crowd here generally skews older (white tablecloths tend to do that). A striking wall of Scotches greets guests as they enter the barroom. You might as well sample one of the hundred available, which come in portions ranging from a 1.5-ounce “wee dram” to a three-glass sampler “plank.” Then wend your way past the open kitchen to the spacious main dining room, while taking note of the umbrella-shaped light fixtures and the blown-up black-and-white food photographs.

Having previously run Meyer’s haute Indian restaurant Tabla for 12 years until it shuttered last winter, Floyd Cardoz helms the kitchen. You’ll find the occasional exotic spice used here, too, but while that Madison Avenue eatery surprised and delighted with every bite, this one plays it safe and occasionally bores.

Don’t stop reading: Certain dishes blew me away. Cornmeal-battered cod throats ($15)—a heart-shaped cut of the fish rarely seen in New York—roost over a meunière sauce that’s miles better than the rustic lemon-parsley-brown-butter treatment common in French bistros. Here, lime pulp and paper-thin slices of jalapeño enrich the sauce. Grilled sardines ($13) are also top-notch, hefty enough to complement the frisée-and-lardons salad accompanying it. And a lightly spiced soup illustrates the underappreciated affinity of crab and pumpkin ($14).

After starting with surf, you’ll want to head next for the meaty treats. Lamb loin fanned over a bed of chickpeas and preserved lemon ($32) is bright and flavorful. And one of my dining companions proclaimed a grilled pork chop at lunch ($28) as some of the best swine she’d ever eaten. I concurred. (Replaced by a version with chorizo and white beans, that dish is now off the menu.)

So that’s the good. What’s not: overly mushy grilled Gulf shrimp with fennel and radish slaw ($14), a rawer-than-it-should-be coddled egg with hard grits ($15), and a seafood sausage at lunch with nary more than a hint of shellfish ($18). I could have also skipped the hamachi sashimi drowning in dressing ($14) and a dull shaved-turnip salad with pecorino ($12).

Desserts ($8), however, provide a happy ending. You’ll find traditional sweets such as a tangy lemon meringue pie, plus more inventive fare, like a currant-filled eccles cake with a side of shaved cheddar.

As you fork up those last bites of your meal, be sure to gaze out the western-facing wall of windows. Directly across the street lies artist Brian Tolle’s Irish Hunger Memorial. The quarter-acre monument contains stones from each of Ireland’s 32 counties and serves as a reminder of all who died of starvation there during the 1840s and 1850s. Even if you don’t totally love everything at North End Grill, seeing that sculpture will make you appreciate those masala-spiced French fries just a teensy bit more.

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‘Talking Landscape: Early Media Work, 1974-1984’

Chicago-born Andrea Callard, among the first wave of Tribeca artist-settlers in the early ’70s, loved to find the country in the city. Several of her Super 8 short films from that period on view at her Maysles tribute (which also includes slide shows of her hand-colored print collages) reveal nature’s splendor in the most unlikely places: Notes on Ailanthus is a reverential précis of the tree of the title, known as the “tree of heaven” or, as the filmmaker reminds us, “the tree that grows in Brooklyn.” Fluorescent/Azalea juxtaposes the soul-crushing overhead lighting of Manhattan office towers with the blazing primary colors of Gotham’s plants and flowers—which have a larger starring role in Flora Funera (for Battery Park City). When Callard appears in front of the camera, as she does in 11 Thru 12 and Lispenard Ladder, she’s a droll presence, cracking wise about National Geographic in the former and eternally ascending and descending in the latter. Climbing ladders, however, had little place in Colab, the artists’ collective Callard helped form in 1977. It was “a group with diverse ideas about hierarchy,” she notes in the voiceover accompanying the slides of “The Times Square Show,” a Colab-sponsored exhibition mounted in the summer of 1980 at a building at 41st Street and Seventh Avenue—an area teeming with its own soon-to-be-extinct flora and fauna.

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Food Trucks: Soon in Battery Park City

Lower Manhattan might be home to a large population of office workers, but lunch options still remain somewhat scarce. But all that’s about to change: As DNAinfo reports, a rotating group of five trucks per day will soon be rolling outside the World Financial Center digs in attempt to bring a greater variety of food to the neighborhood.

The building is working with the New York City Food Truck Association to pick a regular rotation of its 30 members to serve Battery Park City. Possible vendors include Wafels & Dinges, Mexicue, Frites ‘N’ Meats, Souvlaki GR, Schnitzel & Things, Taim Mobile, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, Frying Dutchmen, and Red Hook Lobster, with trucks to be parked seven days a week on North End Avenue during lunchtime hours. And with North End Grill about to open on North End Avenue, it looks like Battery Park City might soon be nicknamed Eatery Park City.