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New Restaurant Reviews: Share the Spreads at El Omda; Red Gravy Lays It on Thick

This week, our professional eaters sought out plates that reminded them of home — if not theirs, then someone else’s. In Astoria, Robert Sietsema enjoyed an Egyptian feast at El Omda, while Tejal Rao sopped up the sauce at Red Gravy in Brooklyn Heights.

How did our critics rate their Middle Eastern and Italian feasts? Find out after the break.

El Omda’s food is “just so damn good,” writes Sietsema. More specifically, he’s a fan of the faithfully elegant renditions of recognizable Middle Eastern dishes, along with some of the restaurant’s more “working-class Egyptian” cooking.

Sietsema writes:

This cuisine features a fascinating mixture of familiar Middle Eastern stewed beans, bread dips, lemony composed salads, and charcoal-grilled kebabs, plus recipes borrowed from Sicily, Greece, North Africa, and even France.

Unless you’re a fervid carnivore, you’re better off skipping the shish (lamb), kufta (ground beef with onions), and chicken kebabs in favor of the more interesting seafood preparations. The one exception is the quartet of long-boned lamb chops, which are flavorsome and cheap ($18). They’re so tender, you almost don’t need to chew.

Our conscientious critic notes that even vegetarians can string together an excellent meal.

El Omda’s baba ghanouj possesses a nice smoky flavor, but is strangely devoid of the usual tahini. Instead, like the foul, it conceals a megaton of garlic. Another favorite of mine in the same your-Egyptian-mama-might-have-made-this-at-home vein is stuffed grape leaves ($8). Swaddled in deep green, a dozen cylinders that have never seen the inside of a can bulge with red rice faintly flavored with dill. These three dishes would make a spectacular vegan feast.

Meanwhile, Tejal Rao relished Italian food and a packed house at Red Gravy, Saul Bolton’s latest restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. The upmarket spot draws huge neighborhood crowds into its cozy surroundings, plying them with dreamy pasta dishes and other hearty fare. Rao did note a few slip-ups with staff but, for the most part, finds her meal strong enough to ignore some minor mistakes.

Thick ruffles of reginetti ($19), made with semolina and chestnut flour, are layered in a nuanced sauce of braised rabbit meat. A bowl of bucatini, served with melting dollops of sea urchin and slices of pickled cherry-bomb peppers ($29), looks very small and plain for its price tag, but taste it and you’ll find it’s an undeniably gorgeous dish, swimming in salty butter and white wine, delicately sweet with basil.

The kitchen does especially well with the chiles, seafood, and breadcrumb-paved dishes of the south, and when it celebrates Italian-American favorites such as spaghetti and meatballs, or Sunday gravy.

Those seeking more than a hefty plate of noodles have options:

But it’s not all pasta: Rabbit appears again–the bones replaced with a dark, delicious mousse of the animal’s offal in a pretty roulade, roasted maybe a minute or two too long–on a bed of fine lentils and chard ($26). A recent salad special of fried smelts and arugula was lovely, the fish cooked whole, their bones as soft as their flesh, and their tiny eyes just visible through a veil of crisp batter. Branzino ($27), on a bright smear of beet puree, hid little smoked beets and their garlicky greens.

Over at the Times, Pete Wells declares the The Dining Room at The Modern is an oldie but goodie. “The restaurant itself is full of unexpected delights,” writes Wells, and “unpacking them one by one is the pleasant work of a meal.” He awards the MOMA restaurant three stars.

NY Mag‘s Adam Platt files a twofer in lower midtown. At Hanjan, he most enjoys “the barbecue skewers threaded with chicken hearts or sizzling strips of gizzard, sticky ddukbokki (rice cakes) tossed in pork fat, vats of viscous, spicy cod-roe stew,” small snacks which should be consumed at the bar with gusto. Just a block away, Maysville is “another stealthily good new restaurant built around the pleasures of a stiff drink.” Platt enjoys the “elegantly restrained” pleasures of the South at this hopping new spot.

“Manzanilla may be the first modernist import with a real shot at success,” writes Jay Cheshes of the new the new Spanish restaurant in Gramercy. Time Out‘s critic writes that the new spot offers an “approachable introduction” to Spanish cooking in a city that needed one.

The NY Post’s Steve Cuozzo also reviews Manzanilla. He feels that “while it might not be the best Spanish restaurant in Manhattan,” it’s the largest good one, and worth a visit.

Farther uptown, Stan Sanger also seeks out Spanish cuisine — Andanada 141 on the Upper West Side. The Daily News critic writes that “New Yorkers are blessed to have Spanish food this good.”

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Find Serious Meatballs and Sunday Gravy on Atlantic Avenue

Sunday gravy only sounds like one of those fast, unfussy, one-pot dishes. There’s the stuffing of the braciole, the mixing and shaping of the meatballs, the browning of the sausages. There’s the layering of the stock, amplified with bones and meat, simmered for hours. It’s no wonder that many Italian-American families have abandoned the tradition of weekly meals around this rich, time-consuming sauce. It’s a shame, too — gravy is glorious.

Chef Ayesha Nurdjaja grew up in Brooklyn on her grandmother’s, and the version she serves at Saul Bolton’s new restaurant, Red Gravy, is part of a $45 prix-fixe dinner, available only on Sundays.

Nurdjaja builds it with lamb ribs, cured with fennel seeds, pepper, and orange zest; a complex braciole made from short ribs sliced off the bone, filled with hard-boiled eggs and breadcrumbs; and a house-made sausage of pork shoulder and back fat. The gravy’s meatballs, available the rest of the week on a bed of polenta or spaghetti (seen above), are here in abundance, spiked with fennel confit. Nurdjaja browns the meat separately, deglazing with red wine, and finally simmers everything together, gently.

The result is a deeply meaty and multifaceted sauce. Eat it with fresh paccheri, a wide tubular pasta that’s also made in-house, and you’ll get why Bolton named his restaurant after it. For more on Red Gravy, read this week’s restaurant review here.

Red Gravy, 151 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-855-0051

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Saul Bolton’s Red Gravy Hits Atlantic Avenue

Restaurants are like family—the closer they are to us, the quicker we are to forgive them their faults—which is why neighborhood restaurants can often get away with a certain level of coarseness and inconsistency. Red Gravy is that rare one where the food is good even if you don’t live around the corner.

Since opening a few months ago on Atlantic Avenue, Red Gravy has been packed with families from nearby Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill—a kid in a backward baseball cap mortified by every word out of his parents’ mouths; a group of young dads drinking beers on a boys’ night out, getting hot and bothered over a new Wii release; and couples sharing antipasti at the roomy bar, pretending they aren’t thrilled to see half the cast of Arrested Development standing awkwardly at the entrance, waiting for a table.

A note on the menu assures you that the pasta is “house-extruded whenever possible,” which seems a weirdly industrial term for the beautiful handmade things chef Ayesha Nurdjaja turns out. Nurdjaja spent the last three years as Missy Robbins’s executive sous chef at A Voce, and she has the pasta chops to show for it. Her calamarata’s ($25) wide ink-stained rings arrive in a slick of dark, viciously spicy tomato sauce deepened by nduja, the cured porky spread from Calabria. The dish is a hot, fatty delight, with tiny, sweet shrimp tucked into its folds, and a sprinkling of crisp olive-oil-fried crumbs to make things interesting. Thick ruffles of reginetti ($19), made with semolina and chestnut flour, are layered in a nuanced sauce of braised rabbit meat. A bowl of bucatini, served with melting dollops of sea urchin and slices of pickled cherry-bomb peppers ($29), looks very small and plain for its price tag, but taste it and you’ll find it’s an undeniably gorgeous dish, swimming in salty butter and white wine, delicately sweet with basil.

Restaurateur Saul Bolton was a pioneer of serious dining in Brooklyn. He opened his first restaurant, Saul, back in 1999 on nearby Smith Street, and set such high standards there that he earned the borough one of its first Michelin stars when the guide finally came to New York. From there Bolton opened The Vanderbilt near Prospect Park, and launched wholesale sausage company Brooklyn Bangers. His new spot is not as serious as Saul—there are no white tablecloths here, no tasting menus—but Red Gravy stands out with bright, brainy Italian food. The kitchen does especially well with the chiles, seafood, and breadcrumb-paved dishes of the south, and when it celebrates Italian-American favorites such as spaghetti and meatballs, or Sunday gravy.

But it’s not all pasta: Rabbit appears again—the bones replaced with a dark, delicious mousse of the animal’s offal in a pretty roulade, roasted maybe a minute or two too long—on a bed of fine lentils and chard ($26). A recent salad special of fried smelts and arugula was lovely, the fish cooked whole, their bones as soft as their flesh, and their tiny eyes just visible through a veil of crisp batter. Branzino ($27), on a bright smear of beet puree, hid little smoked beets and their garlicky greens.

When it came to dessert, a goat-milk cheesecake, topped with a rough-textured mash of sweet olives and cherries, did its duty, easing us gently from savory to sweet, but Red Gravy, like every other good restaurant without one, needs a dedicated pastry chef if it wants to be taken seriously. And service can be clumsy. On a recent evening, our server asked if we’d like our main courses brought out when they were ready, though everyone was still eating their pasta dishes with gusto. This felt a touch passive-aggressive—if we said no, would the dishes suffer as they waited? Red Gravy’s prices demand more expert service.

Sure, you don’t need to know that this is Nurdjaja’s grandmother’s excellent meatball recipe—the ground veal, beef, and pork softened with a fine dice of fennel confit, onion, and garlic—to enjoy the hell out of them, whether they’re piled on fresh pasta or coddled in soft polenta. But when asked about spaghetti and meatballs, a Wednesday-night special, one server made the dish sound so absurdly flat that he actually discouraged my table from ordering it. “It’s meatballs that we make. On pasta. With tomato sauce.” Luckily for us, we decided to get them anyway.

trao@villagevoice.com

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New Restaurant Reviews: Brooklyn Ramen and Parallel-Universe Mexican

Despite the calendar’s promises, New York doesn’t seem to know that it’s spring. Perhaps our food critics had a feeling that the winter chill would linger in the air, as they both sought out belly-warming comfort food this week. Robert Sietsema slurped up ramen at Suzume and Ganso, while Tejal Rao opted for a Mexican-influenced meal nearby at Xixa.

How did the professionals rate their choices? Read on to find out.

“Just fooling around with the broths and throwing in extra ingredients may not have ultimately been the way to go,” Robert Sietsema writes about Brooklyn’s recent explosion of experimental ramen joints. Our critic visits two restaurants — one nouveau and one traditional — that specialize in the Japanese noodles.

Suzume has only five ramen choices, and Sietsema favors two of them:

One called “spicy butter tofu ramen” ($10) offers triangles of tofu poking like icebergs out of a dairy-enhanced pork broth. It’s fortifying, but butter and tofu together is undeniably strange. Against all odds, Suzume drops roast salmon — whose strong taste would overpower most soups — into a broth and makes it work, the orange fish swimming happily among little shrubs of wakame seaweed ($12).

But the kitchen nails more than noodles:

More important, can they really make good sushi in this hipster-run place? The unexpected answer is yes! The fetish of the menu is locavoric fish, which is a good idea and something that’s long been done in San Francisco.

Sietsema goes on to write that Ganso is “simply one of the best ramen parlors in town,” offering “broths that are rich without being fussy.” But visit for the appetizers:

There are wonderful gyoza ($7), six dumplings connected with a lattice of batter like an edible doily, and bulging shrimp shumai, each surmounted by a green soybean. Dark-meat chicken taken from the drumstick, skin attached, is cooked under a brick and heaped luxuriantly, while baby-back ribs arrive gobbed with miso, hoisin, and five-spice powder in an Asian-flavor group grope. Ganso is really like two restaurants in one. You could skip the noodles entirely — heresy at a ramen joint — and still walk back to the subway with a smile.

A few blocks away, Tejal Rao enters a “parallel universe” at Xixa, where Mexican-inspired food is influenced by Asian flavors, too. The restaurant, helmed by Jason Marcus and Heather Heuser of Traif, serves small offbeat plates that mostly charm the critic.

Rao writes:

Marcus’s take on roasted marrow ($11) is far enough away from New York’s archetype that the tiresome shinbone is exciting again. . .One of the finest dishes on the menu is a pair of warm, tender gorditas ($7) fried to an even golden color, filled with aioli-dressed shrimp, and topped with a crispy black tangle of puffed rice, sesame, and seaweed.

As at Traif, Marcus draws from an Asian pantry, making use of soy sauce, seaweed, and Thai flavor profiles such as nam prik, the umami jam, and tom yum, the aromatic broth. He cooks with the enthusiasm of a young chef but the finesse of a more established one, which is to say that these flavor pairings often make a lot of sense. Though a dish may occasionally look like an Asian-Latin fusion experiment from the 1990s–like the stack of raw mackerel and mango brunoise ($8) with chips and a dense avocado puree–it will taste fresher.

By the end of many visits, Rao praises the eccentricities of Xixa, which are “driven by a distinct, personal point of view.”

What a relief that there’s still room for cooks to carve out some space and do their own thing–not in some alternate reality, but right here in ours.

Pete Wells, however, is blunt about his feelings for Chez Sardine. The restaurant’s approach to “Asian stoner food” combines “the cuisines of Japan, Korea and other places as seen through bloodshot eyes, the cravings of a hipster whose late-night munchies send him out in search of tacos stuffed with bulgogi, pigs’ tails cooked in root beer and the like.” The NY Times critic awards the restaurant one star.

At NY Mag, Adam Platt declares that Noho restaurant Le Philosophe is “unexpectedly accomplished,” serving “the kind of ancien delicacies your parents used to rave about back when they were footloose and fancy-free on the streets of Paris in, say, 1953.” However, the Upper East Side’s Arlington Club proves far more disappointing, serving steakhouse chops that taste “like they’d come off the standard, if grievously overpriced, steakhouse assembly line.”

Jay Cheshes visits Aska — the Williamsburg New Nordic restaurant housed in Kinfolk Studio — which “has the scrappy feel of very good improv.” The Time Out critic describes the majority of the food as “offbeat and delicious.”

“Murray’s Cheese Bar rocks,” says Michael Kaminer. The Daily News critic embraces the whey-full puns that adorn the West Village restaurant’s walls as much as he enjoys his meal.

The NY Post’s, Steve Cuozzo “wanted to love Red Gravy on the Brooklyn Heights-Cobble Hill border” before he even walked inside. And he did. The sauce-heavy spot is “Italian heaven on Atlantic Avenue.”

Over at Bloomberg, Ryan Sutton is shocked by the outrageous price tags at Gaonnuri — but not too impressed by the meal. He writes that the Korean restaurant “takes the path of of familiarity and charges a markup for panoramic city views (if you get a good table).”

 

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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.