Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Review: Pera Mediterranean Brasserie

Pera Mediterranean Brasserie
303 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10017
(212) 878-6301

With dangerously high expectations, my heart was racing as I stepped into the soaring, elegant main room at Pera, the new Turkish grill restaurant in the shadow of Grand Central Station. An avid fan of sister-restaurant Kösebasi in Istanbul, widely considered the definitive modern Anatolian grill restaurant in Turkey, I was thrilled at the prospect of eating so well in my new backyard of Manhattan. But is it really possible to recreate such unique tastes and dishes in an entirely different part of the world? And given that Pera bills itself as a “Mediterranean brasserie” instead of a “grill restaurant” like its elder cousin, will the chef adapt the cuisine to our American expectations (shudder) or simply show us the way it is meant to be?

My impression is somewhere in between, but happily it seems not much has changed. We order the tasting menu ($46 each), the closest approximation to the Kösebasi experience. Discrete, elegant waiters begin immediately to flood our table with meze (small-plate appetizers) such as variations on whipped-eggplant caviar , cacik (spiced yogurt), hummus, and gavurdagi (cold salad of tomato and pomegranate juice). These are standard Turkish fair, well executed, and they set the stage beautifully for Pera’s specialty: grilled meat, and lamb in particular. Clearly pleased so far with the meal, I turn to the nearly invisible waiter and explain, “I have eaten many times at Kösebasi in Istanbul and have been waiting impatiently to eat this food in America.” He beams.

Next come kebaps, steaming, arranged like sushi on a smooth platter. Not drowned in sauces, but seared beautifully over an open flame as delicately as pieces of tuna, and served naked with only paper-thin bread sheets reminiscent of mushu pork wrappers. The meat flavors shine through with hints of smoke and explosions of spice. Miniature meat-pizza-like concoctions called pidette – which have an interesting but odd taste that reminds some diners of old beef– are noticeably “softened” in flavor for the American palette. The minced-meat adana kebap, on the other hand, is every bit the original: crispy and soft at the same time, packed with flavor and bursting with spice. Golden nuggets of grilled chicken are simultaneously so crispy and soft that I don’t even realize what I am eating. Clearly, someone here has grilling down to an art. The flavors are so subtle that even a dry white wine (Sancerre in this case) pairs beautifully with the lamb.

A second visit revels some inconsistencies in service, with a less knowledgeable waiter who has little patience for our group of five. It is quite a chore to order the tasting menu for all but one person. This time we perk up the meal with several glasses of raki, the classic Turkish anise-flavored grape brandy. Despite the less polished service and the ordering issue, my impression is the same: this is a great meal, and a special restaurant.

Bottom line: Discover what lamb can become in the hands of a skilled Turk. And bring a date, because the restaurant is beautiful. Pera could work equally well for a business dinner towards the front of the restaurant, which feels grander than the more romantic rear corners near the open kitchen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Review: Mizu Sushi

Mizu Sushi
(Flatiron district)
29 E 20th St (Between Broadway & Park), New York
(212) 505-6688

Vancouverites swear that five dollars buys you a heaping platter of sushi. I don't believe it. Regardless, Mizu Sushi in the Flatiron district is not expensive by Manhattan standards- two of us ate generously for about $60. Whether you live across the street or you take the subway, arriving here is a pleasure. Do you walk up from the Village, the Empire State Building framed perfectly by the ornate pre-war buildings of 5th avenue? Or exit the subway (I still struggle not
to call it the metro) at Madison Square Park or Union Square?

Mizu is relaxed, the sushi fresh and plentiful. The loudish pop music is a bit odd, but trust me (and I'm no Top-40 fan), it's entertaining. The relatively plain room, tucked in the bottom of an elegant brownstone, is bustling with women- almost entirely women- out with their girlfriends for an early Tuesday dinner. If you plan to go out later, this is a great place to begin the night.

Standards such as California rolls and the sashimi platter ($23) were excellent, and the chicken teriyaki was good but unremarkable. The only disappointment was the ebi (sweet shrimp), which were small and a bit shriveled, although still tasty. Service is efficient and minimal, which I prefer, but on busy nights they do rush customers a bit.

By the way, Mizu does not take reservations, so expect to wait a few minutes on busy nights. But given the crowd, it would be a pleasure- friendly young people abound and you'll make some new friends with whom to continue your night.

Bottom line: Recommended for a casual dinner or a spontaneous sushi fix, or as a jumping-off point on a Thursday or Friday night. A refreshingly unpretentious, simple Japanese restaurant.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Rationale

For some reason everything I wrote was showing up in Hindi. Glad I fixed that problem.

What's the point of writing about food in New York? Aren't there a bunch of other people doing it, people with more time and experience and probably a lot more money, people who have seen and tried everything and who can give you their sage advice? Of course, but that's exactly my point- I am not those people. What I can do is give you the perspective of a normal person, with a normal schedule and a normal income, who just happens to really like food. And I have enough perspective that i think I can provide an informed opinion. And if I don't, then tell me- this is the internet, after all, so you're free to spray profanity and I'll never be able to track you down and put a spike through your heart. So no worries.

From now on I plan to post my opinions, with a bit of explanation for each, about places I find in New York City. In the meantime, here's a quick list of places I've tried and enjoyed so far but haven't reviewed in any detail:

Flatiron/Gramercy district:

-Georgio's of Gramercy, on 21st between Broadway and Park. Cozy, unpretentious, very good reliable Italian. The bartender, Chris, makes a mean $5 white russian during happy hour, 6-7pm weeknights.

-Gramercy Tavern, obviously. Classic and great, and it makes me think of those wonderful Napa-inspired restaurants in California, such as Oliveto in Oakland. Sit in the front ("tavern") area. You can't afford the back (the "restaurant"). And even if you can, considering it's the same kitchen, I can't imagine it's that much different.

-Eleven Madison Park, on Madison Square Park. Soaring 1920's spaces and very refined food at a very high price. Creative franco-American cooking with such delights as a foie-gras macaron amuse-bouche with black truffles, and confit of suckling pig. Sublime- as long as someone else is paying.

Monday, April 09, 2007

New York City, new home of Kitchen 541

The number 541 has taken on new meaning. 541 new recipes to try? New restaurants? Dollars to spend in a single evening carousing around this city ridiculously rich in culture, cuisine, and opportunity? The team is down by two- only one blogger/foodie/gourmet/cook/explorer/opportunist remains- but that only means I'll work harder. I promise to report here what I experience- and judging by my first month in New York, this is going to be a long, long blog. Thank you and NAZ DRAVE! -Andrew