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GoogaMooga Participants: Reviewed

This weekend’s GoogaMooga, the hyped-up food festival set to take over Prospect Park from Friday through Sunday, has a cast of 85 food vendors, 75 brewing companies, and 100 wines. But after last year’s debacle–Saturday was deemed “a mess” after food and drink ran out, cell service dropped out, and vegetarians left hungry–the folks at Googa Mooga are promising better logistics, shorter lines, and more vegetarian options. The food lineup features restaurants and providers that had our critics raving this year. Here’s what they had to say about some of this year’s offerings.

See also:
GoogaMooga: The Recap
GoogaMooga: A Photo Essay

The Not-So-Great GoogaMooga Offering Full Refunds

Rosemary’s
What it’s serving: Vegetable antipasti
What our critic thinks: “At one side of the room, a towering stairway leads to the roof, where the city’s latest restaurant fetish is to be found: a garden. Although a quick calculation demonstrates that its squashes, tomatoes, and peppers are not numerous enough to have much impact on the menu, the rows of fresh herbs do.” —Robert Sietsema’s review of Rosemary’s

M. Wells
What it’s serving: Surf and ground turf
What our critic thinks: “The comfort food of another time and place, gut-warming and animal-rich, with a weight that can anesthetize the aching body and lullaby the racing mind. Sure, there are pills to pop for this, but it’s more fun to settle in for a long lunch at M. Wells Dinette in Long Island City.” —Tejal Rao’s review of M. Wells

Big Gay Ice Cream
What it’s serving: Vanilla ice cream with bourbon butterscotch and cardamom with cocoa nibs
What our critic thinks: “I had a chance to try the new vanilla and chocolate and compare them with the old mixes. The experiment was conducted on a pair of identical ice cream machines. The old was certainly grainier, and the new one smoother, with a mouth feel something like Wisconsin-style frozen custard. The new vanilla tasted more like vanilla than the old one.” —Sietsema on Big Gay Ice Cream’s new soft-serve

Pok Pok Phat Thai
What it’s serving: Phat Thai Thamadaa
What our critic thinks: “Go! You’re likely to enjoy most every dish, unless you bring along a killjoy who insists on measuring food’s authenticity by his own pseudoscientific criterion.” —Rao’s review of Pok Pok NY

Burger Joint
What it’s serving: The works
What our critic thinks: “I loved it. Less gussied up than the Shake Shack burger, but at a similar price, this is the kind of thing you’d carefully make for yourself at home–if you had ground beef this fresh. The french fries are exactly the heft and length of MacDonald’s, only about 20 percent better.” —Sietsema’s taste-test of Burger Joint’s “Normal” Burger

Jeepney
What it’s serving: Pinoy corn and Chiori slider with beef and longaniza
What our critic thinks: “Jeepney bills itself as a modern Filipino gastropub, but with massive portions of regional dishes, it’s a bit more traditional than it lets on.” —Rao’s review of Jeepney

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New Restaurant Reviews: Three Letters Asks ‘Parlez-Vous Brooklyn?’; Cata Serves Sublime Paella

This week, our critics were equally charmed by a petite French bistro and a bustling Bowery tapas joint. Robert Sietsema dug into a mussels poutine at Three Letters in Clinton Hill, while Tejal Rao scooped up hearty bites of paella at Cata on the Lower East Side.

Will the professionals go back for second helpings? Read on to find out.

Down on the Bowery, Tejal Rao reminds us that “paella should taste better than it looks,” and Cata’s renditions do just that. Our critic favors the rustic Spanish restaurant and notes that “it may require some effort to eat poorly at Cata.”

She also says:

Cata’s paella is all about the traditional bomba rice, that firm Spanish variety, sweet here with sofrito, savory with duck stock, brown and crisp along the edges. You’ll want to steady the hot pan with a folded cloth napkin so you can scrape every last grain from its surface.

The crisp patatas bravas ($7.50) make a case for foams on your food–they’re served with a lovely, dense froth of aioli that works like a fluffy mayonnaise. There is kale ($8), of course, whole leaves with edges blackened on the grill, dressed lightly in buttermilk. Cata’s version of baked oysters ($11) involves a golden crust of bread crumbs and bone marrow, but the oysters tucked underneath remain fat and juicy.

And while Rao also enjoys Cata’s sister spot, Alta, the new restaurant proves to be more inviting:

Cata is fresher than its sister–lighter, brighter, more informal. The metal barstools can be slippery, and there’s always the risk of a little awkwardness at the long communal tables, but service is proficient and the dining room isn’t crowded, with huge windows looking onto Stanton Street, letting in the light. Who knew this corner space was so beautiful?

The kitchen at Three Letters steers away from “a predictable collection of recipes,” says Sietsema, resulting in an overall experience that’s more L Train than Left Bank. But that can be a good thing.

He writes:

Take the classic moules frites, offered in a dozen standard variations in Paris. Here, copping a craze from Francophone Montreal, it has been reinterpreted as mussels poutine ($8): a few bouncy specimens riding atop fries doused with a thin mushroom demi-glace.

And the kitchen excels at other dishes, as well:

More succulent is chicken St. James, which arrives littered with garlic cloves and broccoli as if the bird had flown into a roadside farm stand. But underneath is the real payoff: a mushy pavement of pommes alene, which just might be the best cheesy potatoes you’ve ever eaten.

The borough’s influences continue to poke through in playfully enjoyable ways:

This being Brooklyn, homemade pickles can be ordered separately, either plain or deep-fried–the latter an odd departure from the French theme. Pickles also come with many dishes, including a pâté de campagne that would be perfect if the cool slab weren’t nearly salt-free.

Meanwhile, the city’s other professional diners were equally busy this week. At the NY Times, Pete Wells was the latest critic to sample (and favor) the “fresh-killed” chicken at Hanjan in Koreatown. He declares chef and owner Hooni Kim “the city’s leading interpreter of Korean cuisine,” and awards the restaurant two stars.

At Time Out, Jay Cheshes writes that at Filipino restaurant Jeepney, “everything comes with a story behind it.” And that story is a good one. Cheshes says that “most dishes are likely to make converts of adventurous diners discovering them here for the first time.”

Harlow brings life and laughter –and intermittently strong, globally tinted seafood — to East Midtown, a zone that after dark feels as dead as downtown Des Moines,” writes Steve Cuozzo. However, the NY Post critic appears to be more interested in the scene at the midtown restaurant (“you might run into your boss, your ex-spouse, or even your current spouse”), than the food.

Michael Kaminer describes his meal at the revamped Beatrice Inn as “almost defiantly awful.” But, as fans of its former iteration know (and others will quickly learn), “no one’s here for the food.”

At NY Mag, Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite found much to love at Mama Joy’s, a new Southern gastropub in Bushwick. The kitchen turns out gutbombing dishes–“tender stout-braised short ribs with sautéed cabbage and cheesy mashed potatoes, pot roast with sweet parsnip purée and roasted carrots, mac ‘n’ cheese with duck confit, and chicken and dumplings rescued from potential blandness by a mega-blast of cracked peppercorns” — so bring an appetite and an elastic waistband. They also enjoyed Soho’s Café à la Carte at Hotel Particulier, where “the care taken with the food and the unique atmosphere make for an entirely civilized experience.”

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Catch Up with Our Critics: Sietsema at Lotus Blue; Rao at Cocina Economica

This week, Robert Sietsema introduces his meal of crossing-bridge-noodles at Tribeca’s Lotus Blue through a Yunnan folktale. Further uptown, Tejal Rao reminisces about the highs and lows of restaurant staff meals before exploring the Upper West Side’s new Mexican comfort-food restaurant, Cocina Economica.

Fables and family-meal memories aside, how did our critics rate this week’s homier dishes? Read on to find out.

Robert Sietsema wonders if Lotus Blue’s “cocktail-loungey” Tribeca digs are a bit too posh for the Chinese restaurant’s traditional Yunnan cuisine. However, when greater problems emerge from the kitchen, the dining room’s decor becomes less of a concern. “Hey! Where’s the thick layer of oil?” Sietsema asks his dining companion (a native of the Yunnan province) as a steaming bowl of noodles — sans the classic veil of warm fat — is set before him. The rest of the meal appears to be acceptable at best.

Sietsema writes:

Artistically arranged in tubular rolls studded with boiled quail eggs, potted beef shank ($9) had been braised in the province’s celebrated pu-er tea–a mild brew said to aid digestion–to great effect. Pale swatches of stewed sea bass ($25) came in an arrestingly orange bean-paste sauce with pickled greens, a Yunnan passion.

The scallion pancakes were flaky and outsize compared with those at the average Chinese restaurant. “My mother loves to make those,” said my friend, “but she stuffs them with meat and fries them in duck fat.” Had the restaurant only been less timid with its menu, spectacular cooking could have resulted.

The cocktail menu is equally disappointing:

I ordered the one that sounded weirdest: pu-er kung-fu ($12). Made with rum infused with the same black tea that bathed the beef shank, it also features, perplexingly, bacon vodka and “a touch of rosemary.” For reasons I couldn’t fathom, the drink is served steaming hot. I took one nauseating sip, and decided not to offer my Yunnanese friend a taste.

Meanwhile, Tejal Rao seems more content with the home-style cooking at Cocina Economica Mexico. Pedro Hernandez Perez, a former Land Thai sous chef, has turned his attention to Mexican food and creates plates that the restaurant’s servers recognize from when he cooked for staff before service.

Many of the dishes are “hearty, satisfying, and rough around the edges”:

The antojitos shine, like the hot quesadillas sealed with Oaxacan cheese, dripping neon chorizo-longaniza oil, and the soft, doubled-up tortillas stuffed with braised beef cheeks and pulled pork shoulder ($4). Nopales, the slippery cactus leaves, are a crunchy delight in tacos ($4), and better still in a rowdy little salad ($7) of jicama, radish, and string beans, dressed in a splash of serrano-spiked lime juice. Tiny pork meatballs ($8) in a pan of wilted greens and Oaxacan cheese must be scooped up quickly with hot tortillas, before they start to set.

But not all of the dishes are hits:

This is especially true when it comes to the platillos ($13-16), larger plates of meat and vegetables that can be comforting, but also veer dangerously toward the 30-minutes-or-less efforts of an exhausted parent, eager to get something–anything–on the table.

Still, diners seem cozy, warm, and comfortable at this tiny neighborhood restaurant:

Tables are packed tightly enough for diners to strike up conversations with strangers, as they often do. Others sit at the bar, alone, straight from the office, eating stewed short ribs while glued to their Black­Berrys, swigging beer between bites of black beans, catching up on e-mails. It’s like they’re already home.

The other critics in town were equally busy exploring other homespun flavors this week. At the NY Times, Pete Wells enjoys the trendy flair behind the Filipino bites at the Lower East Side’s Pig and Khao, as much as he does the more authentic Pinoy feeling at marks ever corner of the East Village’s Jeepney. The critic writes that chef Leah Cohen’s food at Pig and Khao seems personal, causing him to feel “as if I were poring over an album of carefully edited postcards from her travels” throughout the Philippines. “Dinner at Jeepney, on the other hand, felt more like parachuting into Manila myself. I didn’t know all the vocabulary and didn’t always know what I was putting in my mouth, but I knew I had left home.” He awards both restaurants two stars.

At Time Out, Jay Cheshes visits chef/owner Saul Bolton’s latest Italian trattoria, Red Gravy in Brooklyn Heights, and finds that the kitchen offers “serious food with prices to match.” The critic’s feelings about the restaurant are a mix of hits (“there are meaty medallions of braised octopus, charred on the grill and paired with bitter singed escarole”) and misses (“But the desserts — more in line with the troublesome service and space – -are a flat-out disaster: Chocolate-chip panna cotta jiggles like Jell-O, pistachio cake is mealy and dense”).

Steve Cuozzo declares that Midtown steakhouse Siro’s “has enough good dishes to make it worth fighting for.” The NY Post critic enjoys the sprawling 10,000-square-foot space as much as he does a “not to miss Chesapeake Bay jumbo lump crab cake.”

Also on the Upper East Side, Daily News critic Stan Sanger checks in at Moti Mahal Delux, an upscale Indian restaurant that’s an offshoot of a Delhi-based chain. Pleased with his spicy meal, Sanger writes, “Moti offers some exquisite examples of the diverse Mughlai cooking of northern India that should reshape our perceptions of the country’s cuisine.”

Over at Bloomberg, Ryan Sutton is the latest critic to explore the city’s newer barbecue offerings, this time at Williamsburg’s Briskettown and the East Village’s Mighty Quinn’s. At Briskettown, Sutton feels that the hefty prices — even for a single beef rib — are warranted. He writes, “Yes, it’s just one rib. And yes, it’s just barbecue (which used to be cheap before beef prices soared and everything went artisanal). Still, the $21 rib is about as good as the $38 version at Il Buco Alimentari.” Mighty Quinn’s food, with its “amped-up beefiness” and “gorgeous marbling” proves to be equally strong.

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Experience Derby Days at Maysville; Egghead Heaven at Chennai Flavors

Our own Tejal Rao appreciates the refined elegance amidst the southern hospitality at Maysville, the new Flatiron restaurant from chef Kyle Knall. The Gramercy Tavern alum shows his roots at his new spot. Rao writes, “Knall has [GT chef Michael] Anthony’s reverence for local vegetables, always accompanying moderate portions of meat with several kinds of beans, greens, mushrooms, and tubers, and often pickling whatever is growing at the moment to elevate and brighten a dish.” Maysville is a “restaurant to visit and enjoy immediately.”

Also at The Voice, Robert Sietsema checks in at Chennai Flavors, the South Indian cafe in Jersey City. The egg-centric menu is not for the faint of heart (or breath) as the “Chennai egg masala ($6.99) deposits the hard-boiled article in a creamy beige sauce with enough garlic to get you booted off OkCupid.” The dosas are worth trying as well.

Over at The Times, Pete Wells visits the Upper East Side nouveau steakhouse and sometime sushi bar, Arlington Club. While the place may suffer from a slight “identity crisis,” the overall effect is working. Wells writes that “the restaurant may not know what to call itself, but it knows what it’s doing.” He awards it two stars.

Stan Sanger, at the Daily News, enjoys the Filipino gastropub fare at Jeepney, in the East Village. Sanger finds that, while some of the menu is only for adventurous diners, “Jeepney still has plenty of lower octane adventures on hand. A good start is the Fried Tripe ($4), which arrives in a tangled heap of lightly battered strips seasoned with a sprinkle of salt and a side of jufran, a sweet-spicy banana ketchup.”

Time Out’s Jay Cheshes samples the slices at Krescendo, the new pizza joint from West Coast celebrity chef, Elizabeth Falkner. Before running to the Brooklyn restaurant, Cheshes warns, “though [the chef’s] blistered Neapolitan-style rounds feature excellent crispy crust, her pizzas are rarely on par with New York’s best–standard-bearers like Motorino and Kesté.”

Andrea K. Scott, at the New Yorker, deems El Toro Blanco a good place for “weekend warriors who just want to unwind downtown with friends over warm chips and cold margaritas.” The Soho restaurant offers Mexican food under So-Cal decor.

 

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Unhatched Ducklings at Jeepney; Smoking Up Meat at BrisketTown

Our own Tejal Rao visits the East Village’s Jeepney, the latest venture from the Maharlika family, to try the unhatched duckling eggs at the “modern Filipino gastropub” in her review of Jeepney. She offers some guidelines for enjoying the small bites: “Think of the impossibly pure broth you get when you poach a whole, unroasted bird–don’t think amniotic fluid and don’t look down, because if you examine the tiny, scaly thing inside, folded up like a sleeping dragon, you might lose your nerve when it comes time to spoon up the duckling and put it in your mouth.”

Also at the Voice, Robert Sietsema smokes out the scene at BrisketTown, a Texas-style barbecue joint in Williamsburg. In his review of BrisketTown, he writes that the restaurant is helmed by Daniel Delaney, the hard-to-miss pit master “with horn-rim specs [and] red visor with a volcano of unkempt hair shooting out the top,” and serves as equal parts meat laboratory and designer deli counter.

At the Times, Pete Wells wants to bathe himself in the buttery polenta at the East Village’s L’Apicio. Of the Gabe Thompson and Joe Campanale restaurant, he notes, “the yellow grains are spread in a broad swath on a long wooden dish, the spianatora. At first they feel almost weightless on your tongue, like polenta foam, but gradually they surrender multiple waves of nutty melted Parmigiano-Reggiano.” Though some dishes miss the mark and the space can feel overwhelming, Wells finds the experience an enjoyable one. He gives the restaurant one star.

The Post’s Steve Cuozzo checks-in at John DeLucie’s “damned fine gorgeous new place,” Bill’s Food and Drink in Midtown. The space formerly belonged to Bill’s Gay Nineties, but now houses a revamped version of the famed restaurant. Cuozzo suggests diners bring an appetite and try “the marbled mammoth’s sirloin portion… garnished with herbed horseradish lardo in a pool of thick but allegedly butterfree redwine bordelaise. Confounding expectations, the filet seemed deeper-flavored than the sirloin–proof that any steak can surprise you.”

Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton praises the New York restaurant scene for its fighting spirit in the last few months and offers his top choices for the 12 best new restaurants of 2012, all of which live below 28th street. Pok Pok, The NoMad, North End Grill, Thirty Acres, Maison Premier, La Vara, Atera, Parm, Perla, Gwynnett Street and Blanca all make the list. The winner’s circle belongs to Empellon Cocina, where Alex Stupak has ” has helped free Mexican cuisine from the stereotypes of rusticity, the shackles of authenticity and the burden of being cheap” and Mission Chinese, a spot that will “inflames your insides while warming your soul.”

The New Yorker’s Leo Carey visits Ootoya, a chain restaurant from Tokyo serving a canonical rendition of Japanese food. Carey says of the experience, “Just as the classic New York diner serves everything from chicken Cordon Bleu to gyros and hamburgers, so Ootoya presents seemingly the whole of Japanese cuisine–yakitori, noodles, sushi, hot pots, and, for that matter, hamburgers. Known as hanbaga in Japan–say it out loud–hamburger is often eaten without the bun, and Ootoya’s version comes in a thick demi-glace sauce.”

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Munch an Ugly Duckling at Jeepney

Unhatched ducklings make for pretty good eating. Don’t take my word for it—try one, boiled in its shell, at Jeepney, the newest Filipino restaurant to join the Maharlika family in the East Village.

Break the top open and sip from your egg ($4). Think of the impossibly pure broth you get when you poach a whole, unroasted bird—don’t think amniotic fluid and don’t look down, because if you examine the tiny, scaly thing inside, folded up like a sleeping dragon, you might lose your nerve when it comes time to spoon up the duckling and put it in your mouth. Fine, discard it in the provided ramekin if it’s freaking you out with its partially developed tail feathers; the best part of the young balut is what’s left over, a soft yolk and veined egg white, hot and rich right out of the shell.

Jeepney bills itself as a modern Filipino gastropub, but with massive portions of regional dishes, it’s a bit more traditional than it lets on. You’ll find Miguel Trinidad’s sturdy rendition of pinakbet ($16), the Ilocano stew of pork and vegetables from the northern tip of Luzon, studded with green half-moons of bitter melon—an extraordinarily grim and medicinal-tasting vegetable, far more challenging to enjoy than some sweet embryonic bird. A slow-roasted pork shoulder ($15) with roots in Bicol is made with Jeepney’s own longaniza sausage and pickled chiles.

Patis, the Pinoy fish sauce, is available throughout your meal so you can season your food as you go along, though as a rule these heavy, fatty dishes will prefer a dab of vinegar to any additional salt. The oddly named “defeated” chicken ($18) is a little dry in an anise and black bean sauce, served with an almost-candied pig’s foot and slow-poached egg. It tempers out nicely with the vinegar dip, bright with sliced red and green chiles. Jeepney’s arroz caldo ($6) is lovely, tasting of golden-fried garlic, but with the texture of silky grits. It comes with lemons to squeeze over—though the fried tripe on top is tricky to cut when the sharpest thing you’ve got is the edge of a spoon.

So use your fingers to pick things up. Jeepney isn’t trying to be elegant—you don’t have to, either. Servers routinely straighten out wobbly tables with wads of paper napkins shoved under their feet. When littered with pork belly and dried-up fish, tabletops are wiped down with wet, smelly rags from the kitchen. Cocktails are weak and sweet, served in little plastic tumblers, but this food calls for beer, and in vast quantities.

The space on First Avenue is colorful and loud, decorated with vintage pinups. On a recent evening, a beautiful blond East Village drag queen and her date sat under huge images of topless women in the back room, taking phone photos of their pork ribs in super-sour tamarind broth—the night’s special—and of each other. A young couple moaned about work as they shared a fine dessert of hot tofu and chewy tapioca pearls in pink ginger syrup ($6). By 9 p.m., the restaurant was buzzing, comfortably full, and the waitress was greeting many of her tables in Tagalog.

Service is caring, and the staff is keen to explain unfamiliar ingredients and rituals. Sometimes, though, even they aren’t sure. A waitress insisted that the house-made kropek, Filipino-style puffed shrimp chips, were not made with shrimp. With what, then? She couldn’t say.

Portions at Jeepney are monstrous, even the ones with lower prices, but you can still defeat the defeated chicken: Take what’s left home to eat the next day, Pinoy-style. Pull the remaining meat from the bones and stir it over the heat with leftover rice and a little water to make your own bastardized arroz caldo. Simmer the chicken carcass and demolished pig’s foot for a half hour, then strain the gently spiced broth to sip alongside your breakfast, traditionally, like a fortified, meaty tea. You’ll find that even Jeepney’s leftovers will make enough to serve two.