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At Pasta Flyer, Fast and Flavorful Italian Takes Off

Thank hospitality majordomo Danny Meyer and his 152 (and counting) locations of Shake Shack for inspiring scores of fine-dining chefs and restaurateurs to take a crack at serving high-quality fast food. For the past decade, empire-building food personalities like Bobby Flay (owner of several burger “palaces”), David Chang (of fried chicken sandwich chain Fuku), and José Andrés (who owns the vegetable-focused chain Beefsteak), have all lent their reputations to this increasingly popular market. In the last year alone, we’ve seen Meyer look to strike gold twice with Roman pizzeria Martina, while Daniel Humm and Will Guidara launched Made Nice, which synthesizes the fancy signature dishes from their world-renowned restaurants Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad for the masses – like an affordable version of the latter’s brioche-stuffed chicken that swaps foie gras and truffles for lemon and Parmesan.

Mark Ladner rose to prominence as the driving force behind several Batali-Bastianich kitchens, most notably racking up accolades as the executive chef of Del Posto until his departure two years ago. In October, after several years of development and fine-tuning, he and partner Nastassia Lopez opened Pasta Flyer, the first of what they hope will become a chain of nebulously intergalactic-themed Italian noodle shops. They’re not the only ones with star-shaped pastina in their eyes: quick-service Italian restaurants are on the rise. In addition to competing with newcomers like the Sosta and Bigoi Venezia and big dogs like Parm and the Meatball Shop, Lopez and Ladner coincidentally share a street address with six-year-old takeout spot Meatball Obsession.

Garlic Dots (aka: warm fried dough in garlic butter)

The flagship location occupies a loft-like space along the northern reaches of Greenwich Village that juxtaposes quirky UFO imagery with Mediterranean rusticity for a cheery aesthetic that’s part moon landing, part moon-meets-your-eye. Although it’s designed with speed and convenience in mind with an assembly line setup, Pasta Flyer exudes earnest oddball character rather than looking like yet another sterilized corporate cafeteria. One wall of the dining area is painted sunset pink, stalks of wheat rise from behind the paisley print-upholstered banquettes, and a flying saucer-esque light fixture looms over the long communal table in the middle of the room. Imagine attending a casual dinner party thrown by your Arthur Avenue-dwelling friend who got really inspired by their vacation to Roswell, New Mexico.

While in charge of Del Posto, Ladner’s culinary feats included making hundred-layer lasagna and his own gluten-free dough. At Pasta Flyer, the menu of pastas and sauces ($7-$8.75), which you can mix and match to your liking, intentionally adheres to the simple and traditional – the kinds of meals you’d whip up for dinner on a weeknight. It’s the way they come together that’s remarkable. By flash-freezing premium-quality imported Italian noodles, the 48-year-old chef has cut his cook time from minutes to seconds without sacrificing textural integrity. To his credit, he’s reliably turned pasta into fast food. Full orders come together in under three minutes. And honestly, if I made a fusilli tossed with nutty, zippy basil pesto as emerald-green and balanced as the one here I’d be tempted to post it to Instagram. Fettucine alfredo, meanwhile, is buttery and cheesy without going overboard. Sturdy tubes of wholewheat rigatoni sluiced in “nonna’s meat ragu,” which is made in the Tuscan vein with pork, beef, carrots, porcini mushrooms, rosemary, and red wine, reminded me of the kind of the coarse, rustic meat sauces I grew up eating (for the record, I’d give dad the upper hand). Only the meatballs, which can err on the side of spongy, are a bit of a letdown. And besides, Ladner’s nicely acidic marinara pooled around al dente spaghetti stands on its own.

Whole Grain Rigatoni with Nonna’s meat ragu

 

Pasta Flyer isn’t necessarily meant to be a date spot, but it’s certainly much nicer and more comfortable, aesthetically speaking, than when White Castle goes all out for Valentine’s Day. The wallet-friendly booze is a boon, too. Beers cost $6 and wines – including cans of Ramona, the tart grapefruit wine spritz owned by fellow fine-dining expat and former Momofuku beverage director Jordan Salcito – are $7. And I’m especially glad that Ladner’s joined his former pastry chef, Brooks Headley—owner of wildly popular vegetarian fast food joint Superiority Burger—in channeling his more creative impulses into off-menu specials like arugula-shrouded spaghetti dotted with tender rock shrimp, and side dishes ($2.50-$4) that run the gamut from peppery broccoli rabe under dollops of fresh ricotta to airy, savory “garlic dots” made from fried choux pastry, and crisp, burnished wedges of deep-fried lasagna. Headley would likely also be proud of Pasta Flyer’s sole dessert, a $3 duo of tiramisu-inspired cannoli made with brittle browned shells flown in from Palermo, their sides blooming with billows of coffee-infused mascarpone. For just a few bucks, they soar.

Pasta Flyer
510 6th Avenue
no phone
pastaflyer.com

Fried Lasagna Bites (aka: Garlfield crack)
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The Danny Meyer Documentary Airs Tonight on PBS

In 1998, Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group embarked on restaurant mission impossible. He opened two restaurants at once — Eleven Madison Park and Tabla — and a documentary film crew hung out with him the whole time.

Flash forward 14 years, and the finished documentary by Roger Sherman will air tonight on PBS at 10:30. “I was pretty convinced I’d made the absolute worst mistake of my entire professional life,” the then-dark-haired Meyer said in the opening line of the trailer.

The Restaurateur follows Meyer at the beginning of his career, and when asked if he could see opening two restaurants at the same time again he answers, “Can’t say I’ve seen the upside just yet.”

Now if only there were a documentary about Shake Shack’s caloric value.

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Union Square Café Revisited

At Union Square Café, your meal begins with a bread basket, butter with herbed sea salt, and picholine olives.

As Danny Meyer increasingly focuses his attention on an expanding Shake Shack empire, seeding locations up and down the Eastern Seaboard, you’ve got to wonder, is he still paying attention to his white tablecloth joints? To answer this question, a friend and I returned to his first restaurant, Union Square Café, which celebrated its 27th birthday this month.

See More:
Telepan Retains Its Luster — and Then Some

Urbanspace Meatpacking: A First Food Foray

The beef sirloin carpaccio (click on image to enlarge).

It was one of the city’s first farm-to-restaurant establishments, showcasing the produce of the farmers’ market at Union Square, then in its infancy. The emphasis was on New American cooking with prominent Italian influences, a mix of styles still popular among new restaurants today. Yet rumors of the restaurant’s decline have been common, as newer places were added to the Meyer portfolio, which includes Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke in several permutations, Maialino, North End Grill, and Untitled.

As we stepped inside the semi-subterranean space at lunchtime, we recognized much of the old decor in a labyrinthine space that includes three dining rooms — one upstairs on a mezzanine — plus a long commodious barroom. The rooms are decorated with vases of flowers, still-life paintings featuring food and flowers, and, in a rear room, a large mural that looks like a Matisse that the artist walked away from and never finished.

At lunch on a Friday the place was mobbed, but we were shown to a nice table near the front window. In lieu of an amuse, a bread basket was brought with a big pat of butter sprinkled with herbed sea salt. What a relief to see the bread basket appear, when most establishments these days stingily withhold it.

Sign of the season: squash soup

An adolescent octopod rides atop the brodetto, flanked by two demi-squares of fried polenta.

We chose three apps, including a beef carpaccio, squash soup, and grilled mackerel. The carpaccio was nearly perfect, thinly sliced sirloin topped with plenty of shaved parmigiano, arugula, and little curls of a woody something we first identified as plantain, but turned out to be artichoke leaf. The soup was pretty much the regular article, but supremely smooth and livened with toasted chestnuts and matchsticks of firm apple. Best of all was the mackerel, which arrived in a crock with a rich tomato-olive-oil sauce, the perfect thing to sop with bread.

The mains set a similarly high standard. Offered in a broad bowl, a brodetto (there’s that Italian influence) bobbed with in-shell Manila clams as a tween octopus lounged on top. Underneath was a small filet of a hake-like fish that pulled away in big planks. The bowl was as busy with flavors as we might have hoped, the broth rich, and the flavor amplified with thinly sliced fennel bulb, making the potage a remote cousin of bouillabaisse. (Thankfully, the chef resisted the impulse to toss in a shot of Pernod, and the dish remained resolutely Italian.)

The best of our two entrées was a magnificently crumbed chicken Milanesa topped with a perfectly dressed heap of salad so large it could have been a main course in itself. Dotted with goaty tasting pecorino, it came in a lively dressing. For dessert, we split a ginger cake with cardamom ice cream. Cutting into it, poached pears tumbled out.

In the usual Danny Meyer fashion, the service was superb: friendly, attentive, and nearly self-effacing without being omnipresent in the least, setting the perfect tone for a sometimes-rainy Friday afternoon. (Meyer is famous for hiring Midwesterners in the front of the house for their plainness and agreeability.) For my pal and me, this meal was the culinary high point of our week. The original luster of the restaurant remains.

For dessert, gingerbread with poached pears

The front room empties out after the lunch rush.

Union Square Café
21 East 16th Street
212-243-4020

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$3 Draft Beers at Central Park’s Public Fare

Home to Shakespeare in the Park, Central Park’s Delacorte Theater also hosts a seasonal outdoor cafe run by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group: Public Fare. The outdoor cafe is open for the season, serving hotdogs with crushed barbecue potato chips, scallions and tangy housemade sauce, as well as a range of salads, sandwiches, and sweets. You’ll also find white sangria by the glass.

Happy hour on Fridays (4 – 6 p.m.) will feature $3 draft beers, $5 wines by the glass and 20 percent off the entire food menu.

The cafe will be open Wednesday through Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6 p.m. on Fridays), and when a performance is going on, Public Fare will serve through the beginning of Act II.

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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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Caffè Storico: The Museum of Fine Dining

Just a few years ago, museum dining meant chomping down on watery Cobb salads and mayo-laden tuna sandwiches—and that’s if you were lucky. But then good old Danny Meyer introduced high-quality chow to art lovers, first with the Modern at MOMA, followed by Untitled at the Whitney. Along the way, the Museum of Arts and Design got a swank commissary called Robert, while New Museum patrons devoured delicious mango-quinoa-chocolate cookies from its Birdbath bakery outpost. Eating well while getting your daily dose of culture has never been easier.

Now joining the gang is Caffè Storico, an architecturally beautiful Venetian-inspired spot from restaurateur Stephen Starr. Located in the venerable New-York Historical Society on Central Park West, it’s a cool space, all white and marble, seemingly influenced by Dutch modernism and American colonialism. Fifteen-foot-high display cases dominate the walls, featuring monochromatic china and assorted service pieces. Brass chandeliers twinkle overhead. Stealing glimpses at the cooks sweating away in the open kitchen, ladies who lunch command the long, neon-yellow banquette. Evenings, too, tend to bring in a slightly older (though still pre-AARP) crowd, perhaps lured by the lack of blaring music and relatively straightforward Italian cuisine.

Chef Jim Burke has divided his menu into cicchetti (a/k/a small bites), primi (pastas), and secondi. One of the best starters happens to be the most expensive: a $16 portion of lightly fried, intensely sweet langoustines, served with tart pink grapefruit and ricotta. But worth every penny. A minestrone chock-full of crisp veggies and beans ($8), meanwhile, takes the chill off blustery evenings. And how can you say no to burrata ($13), especially when garnished with tiny fried artichokes? Note that these plates are truly portioned for nibblers. If you’re looking to feast or are eagerly awaiting your big income-tax refund, be warned. Cases in point: four bites of decent-but-not-outstanding arancini for $7 and, oh, two tablespoons of lackluster king crab salad clocking in at $12.

But you’re sure to be smitten with the house-made noodles. My faves? The ricotta cavatelli with chunks of lobster and black trumpet mushrooms ($22) and the artichoke mezzaluna with porcini ($20). Sweet and earthy flavors vie in the first, while the second is brightened with lemon zest and parsley and a snowdrift of Parmesan cheese. And those half-moons don’t skimp on the prickly vegetable stuffing. Pappardelle, meanwhile, plays host to a duck ragu that has been seduced by whispers of chocolate and orange ($21). The kitchen knows its greatest strength, too: It offers twice as many pastas as main courses.

Indeed, compared with their starchy sisters, the entrées play it safe, almost to a fault. Of course, there’s roast chicken ($24). It’s served with chanterelles and fennel, which are lovely, but the bird’s skin should be crisper. Sea bass over cannellini beans ($28) veers toward boring, though it is cooked nicely. Better is the hearty, gremolata-spiked osso buco with polenta (actually well priced at $28).

The all-Italian wine list is food-friendly yet also unearths some unusual varietals. Try the 2008 Foradori Teroldego ($50) if you’re in the mood for red. The 2010 Le Giare Vermentino ($46) offers a fine change from the standard selection of whites. Suds lovers can knock back Moretti on draught ($8), but they’re in for an arguably greater treat beginning May 25, when the Society launches its three-month-long exhibition “Beer in New York.” Who doesn’t want some additional proof that hearty boozing makes for awe-inspiring history.

 

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North End Grill: Bacon + Peanut Butter = Pizza

What this pie lacks in the looks department, it makes up for in flavor.
What this pie lacks in the looks department, it makes up for in flavor.

With all of the hype leading up to the opening of Danny Meyer and Floyd Cardoz’s new Battery Park City eatery, North End Grill, there’s one thing you probably didn’t realize. That some of the duo’s most interesting flavor combinations can’t be ordered in the dining room.

Snag a seat, before one of the suited post-bell Goldman guys, at one of the half-dozen tables in the bar area and you’ll be rewarded with a fairly reasonably priced assortment of bar bites. There are grilled mushrooms that are balanced with a tangy dash of vinegar and cubes of compacted ground chorizo atop honey-soaked toast, but look beyond the tacos for what may be the most innovative pizza in New York. Or at least the most bacon-y.

A personal-size pizza is topped with crunchy bacon crumbles — the real stuff, not bacon bits made of fabricated chemicals. But the brilliance is in the condiment. Shmear the provided peanut butter onto each slice for a topping that would make Elvis swoon, and could convince an Upper East Sider to traverse the subway system to this former food-no-man’s-land for a hot Saturday night.

North End Grill,
104 North End Grill, near Murray Street,
646-747-1600, northendgrillnyc.com

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Maria Schneider Orchestra

The composer-bandleader’s annual Thanksgiving run at this Danny Meyer establishment acquires some foodie synergy with the local premiere of “The Thompson Fields,” her Americana-tinged tribute to the environmentally attuned farmers of her native Minnesota. Schneider specializes in buoyant big-band music with classical aspirations, and she’s ably aided and abetted by the likes of Frank Kimbrough (piano), Donny McCaslin (tenor sax), and Alex Morris (flugelhorn).

Tue., Nov. 22, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2011

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Hadley Schmitt ‘In’ at Northern Spy Food Co.; Richard Brower ‘In’ at The Four Seasons

Northern Spy Food Co., in the East Village, has a new chef. Hadley Schmitt was chef de cuisine at What Happens When and a sous chef at Dovetail.
[Eater]

Rumors that Danny Meyer was selling Eleven Madison Park to executive chef Daniel Humm and general manager Will Guidara have been confirmed.
[Diner’s Journal]

Odette Fada, the longtime chef at San Domenico, then at sister restaurant SD26, will take the helm at Giovanni Rana’s forthcoming pasta place in Chelsea Market.
[Diner’s Journal]

The Four Seasons has hired a new executive chef. Richard Brower, formerly of Le Bernardin, shares the title with Pecko Zantilaveevan.
[NY Times]

BR Guest has enlisted Joël Robuchon to consult on Kibo, the restaurant group’s first Japanese venture.
[Diner’s Journal]

News from Chez Panisse has traveled all the way here: Jerome Waag, who got his start as a busboy, will take over from Jean-Pierre Moulle next summer.
[Eater]