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Flat Top Brings the Neighborhood to You

For chefs and restaurateurs, this truly is a town without pity. Rare is the Gotham restaurant that lasts longer than a mayoral term. Yet even with the endless cycle of openings and closings, losing a beloved haunt feels painful. It also intensely focuses attention on the latest darlings. Flat Top, from the team behind nearby hot spot Jin Ramen, is well on its way to achieving darling status.

A bistro nestled in the knolls of Morningside Heights, Flat Top glows with candlelight from inside its expansive front windows. A monochrome mural painted on brick depicts a bridge’s undercarriage, contrasting with a row of wooden booth-backed tables. It’s an inviting space that feels instantly familiar, and Flat Top would be a welcome addition to any neighborhood. On 121st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, it has garnered the attention of Columbia University students and faculty, area residents, and doctors, staff, and visitors from St. Luke’s hospital a few blocks south. Downtown dwellers have also been sniffing around, as word trickles out about chef Charles Cho’s competent cooking.

The uptick in goat, seaweed, and other “it” ingredients is a welcome arrival, but I’ll be damned if I’m not tickled magenta to see another applause-worthy chicken dish in this blustery metropolis — this one a steal at $18. The ample, herb-roasted breast sits in a pool of grassy jalapeño sauce, a scattering of fresh Brussels sprouts leaves evoking the broad strokes of Jasper Johns’s Green Target. Thick disks of potato round out the plate, hidden under the lush sauce.

Service is friendly and helpful, though not without an occasional hiccup. After running into my ophthalmologist dining with his family, I observed them endure an extended wait while the kitchen corrected a technical issue with a plate of mussels. And at the end of one visit, our server neglected to bring the brownie-square petit fours we’d received on previous visits.

“New American” is the moniker food writers give to restaurants with hodgepodge menus. Cho incorporates a broad repertoire, with elements from European and Asian cuisines mingling on the plate, sometimes to ill effect. If the chicken is a study in green, Cho’s striped bass is an ode to yellow. When the place opened in mid-July, summer’s peak corn was starting to pop up. Dining on the eve of a polar vortex, the pile of sweet corn, partially submerged in slightly saccharine peanut-miso vinaigrette, felt out of place. The bass itself was lovely, covered in a ginger panko crust that didn’t overwhelm the delicate fish.

Plating on other dishes is decidedly less dramatic, including another holdover from summer, a bowl of soft burrata cheese enclosed in a ring of off-season cherry tomatoes dressed with balsamic vinegar and arugula. It has no business being on a winter menu.

Questionable seasonality aside, the menu is full of flourishes that keep things exciting enough to warrant return visits. The brown-and-off-white combination of mushroom risotto beneath Parmesan foam had an extra layer of depth from being cooked in porcini stock. Sister restaurant Jin Ramen’s noodles are a triumph; Cho’s fusion udon pasta comes coated in a slick beurre fondue, a butter emulsion that’s thinner than the more common beurre blanc. Hidden beneath a chiffonade of the mint-like shiso leaf, a quenelle of the marinated Japanese cod roe called mentaiko adds a provocative if grainy texture. It’s a head-scratcher until a squeeze of lemon ties the ingredients together.

Like any good neighborhood restaurant worth its salt, Flat Top features a noteworthy burger. Cho gets a beautiful sear on the organic Angus beef patties, covered in chile-spiked mayonnaise, arugula, and tomato. Best of all is the bun, a house-made brioche affair as soft as a potato roll. Brioche is controversial burger-bun material in that it goes stale quickly and often suffers from overwhelming the meat through bulk. Soft and sleek, this is undoubtedly one of the better brioche burgers available, along with its perfectly crisp Parmesan-dusted steak fries.

Desserts include an invigorating affogato made with vanilla ice cream and Blue Bottle espresso. The bitter blend mellows as it melts the frozen treat. There’s also what appears to be an ode to Marcus Samuelsson’s Arctic Circle dessert from Aquavit 1.0 (goat cheese parfait with blueberry sorbet). Here, it’s goat cheese cheesecake with cranberry compote, the stewed fruit perfectly accenting the sour-sweet dairy.

With the death of every local favorite, a newcomer arrives to take its place. In Manhattan’s northern reaches, a place like Flat Top can have a future.

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Where to Find Hungarian Pastries and Punk in Morningside Heights

Welcome to Drinks, Dinner, and Dessert, in which we share three picks in one neighborhood, keeping an eye out for deals, off-the-menu items, and new stuff to check out. This week, get off the 1 train at 110th Street and use these suggestions to guide you through Morningside Heights.

Drinks: Ding Dong Lounge
Perhaps the only bar in the area that hosts small punk concerts on the weekends, the Ding Dong Lounge is known for its dim lighting, worn-in furniture, and assortment of activities. Hula hoops hang on nails, and if you’ve had a few drinks, the bartenders will happily encourage you to wiggle your way through the night. A well-loved billiards table illuminated by the only bright light in the bar is usually up for grabs, and decks of cards are always lying around. Happy hour runs from 4 to 8 p.m. Cans of Genesee are $2, beer on tap is $4, and well drinks — made with a generous hand — and Guinness are $5. The walls are lined with old rock-show posters and toilet paper hangs on metal chains in the graffittied bathroom, reminders that the Ding Dong is a little rougher than its more refined counterparts a few blocks away. 929 Columbus Ave.

Dinner: Amigos
Amigos is the month-old pop-up Mexican restaurant from Chef Alex Garcia of A.G. Kitchen that has already garnered a neighborhood following. Garcia’s burgers are topped with bacon, cheddar, and guacamole, and served with spicy “Mexican” fries for $13. The queso fundido mixed with mushrooms and red peppers pulls apart easily and is served piping-hot with warm tortillas for $9. If you’re with a group, order the 32-ounce Fish Bowl — near-lethal pineapple rum punch — for $19. But if you’re dipping into beach drinks, you might as well order a $10 “Shark Attack,” a mixture of vodka, lemonade, and grenadine, which comes with a toy shark. 2888 Broadway

Dessert: Hungarian Pastry Shop
The Hungarian Pastry Shop has been around for 51 years for good reason. Low prices, recipes that came straight from Hungary, and bottomless cups of strong coffee keep neighbors and Columbia students coming back and entice tourists to make a visit. The bakery offers an array of Eastern European sweets: thick baklava is sticky and nutty, while rum balls are coated in powdered sugar and almonds. Shared, they make for a few perfect after-dinner bites. The chocolate mousse cake, though not Hungarian, is a must-order, creamy but not too sweet. All three options are $3.85 to go and $4.05 to stay. But sharing a plate at one of the small tables, where customers enjoy cherry strudel over David Foster Wallace paperbacks, is worth the extra two dimes. 1030 Amsterdam Ave.

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Close Up On: Morningside Heights

Just above the Upper West Side and just below Harlem lies Morningside Heights, a college town bursting with bookstores, cafés, bars, and restaurants. Columbia University is the sun around which life in Morningside Heights revolves, yet much of the community has a love-hate relationship with the renowned institution of higher learning. The quintessential ivory tower, Columbia tends to focus on life inside its gates, preferring to let community groups assume the responsibilities of cleaning up Morningside Park, working with local schools, and negotiating neighborhood affairs. In addition to students and professors, a sizable Latino population lives in the neighborhood, giving the community greater diversity. As is the Manhattan way, boosters have begun to call the neighborhood Soha, for south of Harlem, but don’t buy it. This is the Heights, and you’ll kind of like it if you go.

Boundaries: 125th Street to the north, Morningside Park to the east, 110th Street to the south, Hudson River to the west

Main Drags: Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue

Mass Transit: 1 train to 110th Street or 116th

Average Price to Rent: studio, $1000 to $1200; one-bedroom, $1200 to $1400; two-bedroom, $2400 to $2600

Average Price to Buy: studio, $175,000; one-bedroom, $250,000; two-bedroom, $400,000

Landmarks: The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (Amsterdam at 112th Street), the world’s largest cathedral, is open and recovering from a fire last December. Columbia University’s main gates are at 116th Street and Broadway, with Low Memorial Library and Butler Library framing the handsome main quad. President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife are buried in Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive at 122nd Street. Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, is a Gothic beauty, and was the host of Martin Luther King’s anti-Vietnam sermon and Nelson Mandela’s welcome to America.

Cultural Institutions: The Miller Theatre at Columbia University offers concerts of mostly jazz and classical music, and lectures featuring distinguished professors pontificating on their pet subjects. Also at Columbia, the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery hosts art shows by students and professionals alike. The Promethean Theatre Company, 237 West 109th Street, offers “theater for the rational mind.”

Famous Diner: Tom’s Restaurant on the corner of 112th and Broadway has been immortalized by Suzanne Vega in her classic song “Tom’s Diner,” as well as serving as the storefront for the Seinfeld coffee shop.

Famous Residents: Thanks to Columbia, dozens of famous people have come and gone through the neighborhood: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Saul Bellow, Dwight Eisenhower, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Tony Kushner, Paul Robeson, Chinua Achebe, among many others. Julia Stiles is currently Columbia’s most famous student.

Best Eats: Pulled pork sammie at Toast (3157 Broadway); free wine with cheap Chinese food at the Columbia Cottage (111th Street and Amsterdam); fried chicken at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread (366 West 110th Street); everything at La Rosita, a Spanish-Cuban restaurant that is super-cheap and delicious (2809 Broadway); the lasagna at Max SoHa (123rd and Amsterdam). Max SoHa is the best date restaurant in the neighborhood.

Best Bars: 1020’s combination of booths, darts, and ancient neighborhood regulars make it the best bar around (110th Street and Amsterdam). Or try margaritas and the rooftop at the Heights Bar and Grill (2867 Broadway). The Beat generation was born at the West End (2911 Broadway), but the ghost of Kerouac has been pushed aside by the girls of karaoke. They still serve six-dollar pitchers, so shut up and listen to the drunk girl sing “Unbreak My Heart.”

Best Coffee Shop: The Hungarian Pastry Shop, 1030 Amsterdam Avenue, is always crowded, dark, and smoky, and filled with grad students poring over erudite philosophy texts and writers furiously filling up notepads. Great hot cider, bottomless cup of coffee, friendly staff, outdoor seating.

Best Bookstore: Labyrinth Books, 112th between Broadway and Amsterdam. Mostly an academic and scholarly bookstore, Labyrinth has a knowledgeable staff reluctant to help, a large literature selection, and so many esoteric books you won’t believe it.

Local Politicians: Councilman Bill Perkins; state senators David Paterson and Eric Schneiderman; Assemblyman Edward Sullivan; and Congressman Charles Rangel—all Democrats

Crime Stats: As of October 6, the 26th Precinct reported 1 murder, the same as last year at this time; 8 rapes, compared to 7; 165 robberies, up from 153; 118 felonious assaults, up from 107; and 99 robberies, compared to 100.