Entries in Pete Wells (85)


Sushi Nakazawa is a Welcomed, New Breed of Four Star Restaurant

[daniel krieger for the ny times] daisuke nakazawaPete Wells reviewed Le Bernardin in May this year and gave the restaurant four stars. It was the first time in his two year tenure the critic doled out such an accolade. Not surprising, considering the city only had six restaurants of this caliber at the time. The others being Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Del Posto, Jean-Georges, and Daniel. But Wells took away Daniel's fourth star in July this year. With today's review though, a shining four star number of Sushi Nakazawa in the West Village, the number is back up to six.

Daisuke Nakazawa, the chef, worked for eleven years at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the restaurant that got it's own documentary in 2011 that everyone still (rightfully so) talks about. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about a 10-seat sushi counter buried in a Tokyo train station that has drawn people from all over the world. A meal there costs about $300/person and lasts less than an hour, but the strict pursuit of perfection and immaculate execution there is priceless (it seems, we haven't eaten there. Yet...)

Sushi Nakazawa opened on Commerce Street in the West Village in August, months after Alessandro Borgognone, the restaurants owner, found Daisuke Nakazawa on Facebook and invited him to open a restaurant in New York City.

"The moment-to-moment joys of eating one mouthful of sushi after another can merge into a blur of fish bliss," Wells writes. "But almost everything Mr. Nakazawa cups in his hands and places in front of you is an event on its own. A piece of his sushi grabs control of your senses, and when it’s gone, you wish you could have it again." Wells also writes about Nakazawa's approach, "Everything is gently pressed over rice, in the two-century-old Edo style of sushi that Mr. Nakazawa respects and refines. Sashimi is not served, and there are no hot dishes from the kitchen."

Sushi Nakazawa is the city's first four star restaurant that's not a juggarnaut in terms of size and space. That means rent, among other costs, is significantly lower. The city's other restaurants of a shared caliber are 100+ seaters with tremendous rents and other variables that result in a high price for the consumer. You can eat at Sushi Nakazawa for $120 if you don't want to sit at the counter. If you do sit there and watch Nakazawa in action it's only $30 more. Either way, the meal is about 20 courses. The menu is different than the ones at the city's other four star restaurants, which might be the biggest factor in cost, but it's also much cheaper. A meal at Eleven Madison Park is $225. Jean-Georges, $198. Per Se, $295. Consider other restaurants that serve similar fare, (Brooklyn Fare charges $255, Neta $225), and the price is one on a long list of reasons to eat at Sushi Nakazawa. [NYTimes]

Sukiyabashi Jiro
Sukiyabashi Jiro

Sukiyabashi Jiro



Big Stars and Brooklyn

Since his early days in New York kitchens, Atlas in 2000 and Papillon in 2001, Paul Liebrandt has had a by-any-means-necessary attitude in his quest for perfection. Having shared our thoughts on The Elm (and the N.Y. State of Restaurant Minds) back in July, we were curious to know what Pete Wells would think of the chef's latest venture. Today, he awards the restaurant two stars.

"The Elm, in other words," the critic writes, "would be just like a hundred other restaurants if not for Mr. Liebrandt. He has ratcheted down the complexity and the number of surprises in his cooking," Wells says, comparing Liebrandt's cooking in Williamsburg to Tribeca, where the chef left his most recent post at Corton this summer. "This could have dumbed down the cuisine, but it has focused its pleasures instead."

"A dish called Flavors of Bouillabaisse, in quotation marks, sounds ominous," Wells writes, before concluding, "It is lovely. Mr. Liebrandt has kept it in seafood-stew form but rearranged the emphasis." And in the Summer Garden, with an array of vegetables, the critic notes some were "raw, some were pickled, some were roasted, some were braised; all tasted extremely fresh and delicious."

Wells touches on the restaurant's price point. He writes, "But while you can find a couple of sleepwalkers on nearly any menu, you’d be lucky to find just one dish as good as Flavors of Bouillabaisse. The Elm has at least a half-dozen that equal or surpass it, and none of them is more than $30." More than $30? The times they are a-changin'. How long ago was it when entrees in and around Williamsburg weren't more than $20? Then again, when was the last time a Michelin starred chef thought it a solid career move to leave Manhattan for Brooklyn? It's a move that seems enticing to more and more chefs and restaurateurs. Eater notes Tom Colicchio is opening some version of his Craft empire in Downtown Brooklyn, Hill Country hopes to open their location in the same neighborhood by year's end, and Grand Central Oyster Bar will soon be in Park Slope.

Despite the pair of stars, Liebrandt's new project in the King & Grove Hotel is closer to Corton and Manhattan fine dining than it is what we've dubbed the two-star template – the current trend of sophisticated food served cheaply in casual, whimsical, and oft slightly boisterous environs. Then again, Liebrandt has worked against the grain from the moment he donned an apron. Maybe he's a trendsetter. His presence in Brooklyn certainly reveals the borough's changing landscape and, with The Elm, he's taken a giant leap towards proving it can sustain a highly-refined and well-curated vision.


Midtown Dining With Giorgio Armani

[john lei for the ny times]We missed Frank Bruni's 2009 blog post about Armani Ristorante and it seems that was our chance to hear about the restaurant. But places like Luksus, Estela, Piora, and Khe-Yo are all too new to review, and since another #NYFashWeek has come and gone, Pete Wells sheds some light on the swank Midtown eatery in the Armani store that opened just after the '08 market crash.

"The mood in the city was humbled, downsized, frightened," Wells writes of the gloom that washed over the city (country) in the fall of 2008, "and here was an expensive restaurant reached by a private elevator from the street or, better, a sinuous white ramp that twisted past two floors of gowns and luxury leather goods like a floating catwalk."

The expensive part rears its ugly head in the $11 price tag for bottled water and the $35 average entree price. But Wells enjoyed most of what he ate, namely branzino with salsa verde, langoustines with green apple, black risotto with speck-wrapped cuttlefish, and bone-in veal chop Milanese. Baby octopus, spaghetti with tuna belly, and tagliolini with mushrooms, truffles and langoustines not so much. Of the latter, the critic writes, "Removing one accessory, Coco Chanel-style, would have focused the flavors and helped lower the ridiculous $38 price tag."

Sandro Romano, the chef responsible for the good, the bad, and the ugly, hails from the Modern, where he worked for seven years as chef de cuisine before teaming up with Giorgio Armani. "While the prices aren’t quite so out of step with the times," Wells concludes, "nobody would describe Armani Ristorante as of the moment." But for the gentlemen that sit with uncanny leans and the women that walk with weighty purses, a two-star dining experience awaits on the third floor at 717 Fifth Avenue.

Midtown is tough. Although Armani Ristorante was awarded two stars, it doesn't fit what we've been calling the two-star template. Armani Ristorante's location, elegant room, and pricey menu go against the casual approach that thrives downtown and defines the two-star template. Given the competition and plethora of two-star restaurants to have opened of late that actually are of the times, we don't think Well's positive review will turn Armani Ristorante into a midtown juggernaut, especially not when recently reviewed Betony operates around the corner with a shining third star. [NYTimes]


Maybe Tipping is a City in China Afterall

A lot has been written recently on the notion of tipping in restaurants. Should it stay or should it go? A few big names took to Twitter two months ago in an open discussion on the matter. There, Danny Meyer wrote that he "Considered eliminating tipping years ago," but didn't at his servers' request. David Chang also tweeted that he was "kicking around the idea at Momofuku of figuring out how to increase prices removing tips w/o revolt." In lieu of a review today, Pete Wells addresses the same question, Leaving a Tip: A Custom in Need of Changing?

Wells suggests three techniques for those seeking better service in restaurants: "1. Become very famous; 2. Spend $1,000 or more on wine every time you go out; 3. Keep going to the same restaurant until you get V.I.P. treatment; if that doesn’t work, pick another place." The critic goes on to explain his approach to tipping, but ultimately has this to say: "I could go on against tipping, but let’s leave it at this: it is irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory." But Wells also looks to adjust the system in a manner that would benefit both diner and server, "The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system, and so do we."

There is a lot to be considered if the tradition of tipping is removed from restaurants. Servers are individuals, and they bring their personalities to the experience. With that comes their ability to convey the restaurateur's vision in a unique way that is all their own. Menu knowledge and efficiency are other reasons, but this isn't a discussion on whether or not servers deserve tips. However, applying a fixed-rate to every server in New York City is like enforcing a dress code. You take away the server's sense of self, their identity, and the modicum with which they measure their ability to do their job. A server with three weeks experience in a diner knows a great deal less - not just about service, but the industry as a whole - than a veteran server at Peter Luger or Le Grenouille.

Minimum wage for food service workers in New York is $5 an hour. Let's say for example a 30-hour workweek brings in $900. One hundred and fifty of that is hourly wages, making the difference (earned in tips) $750. If tipping is eliminated, $25 needs to be tacked on to the hourly wage to make up for the $750 - making it $30 an hour. That's all well and good (great) for the server, but consider the restaurateur here. If a restaurant employs 10 servers on a given night, and those servers work an 8-hour shift, the house goes from paying $400 to $2,400. In order for a restaurant to make up for the $2,000 difference, and not offend their clientele, it would be an incredibly challenging task.

Tipping allows restaurateurs to open restaurants with less capital. Consider the added cost to open a restaurant if you had to pay servers $20 or $25 an hour. If a restaurant opens and needs to hire 10 servers, that's $50/hour labor cost. If the restaurant has to pay the same 10 servers $20/hour, the hourly wage jumps to $200. The added capital is enough to thwart any reasonable soul from opening a restaurant.

From a servers point-of-view, some shifts are more desirable than others. Senior servers at restaurants earn the best schedules and work the busiest days. What's the incentive to work weekends (the busiest restaurant days) if servers make an hourly wage? In other words, why work twice as hard serving at least double the amount of people on Saturday if you're going to make the same working half as hard on Mondays?

A number of restaurants have abolished tipping and operate with implemented service fees. In New York, Per Se, Atera, and Brooklyn Fare work this way. Our concern with this model is that those restaurants are the type of places you rarely eat at more than once. When it costs two or three hundred dollars a person to eat out, it's easy to take a percentage of that ticket price and bleed it out to the service staff. It's also easy to do when the staff (Per Se excluded) doesn't consist of back waiters, runners, polishers, and baristas - all of whom share in a server's tips on a nightly basis.

Sure, working a service fee/surcharge into a restaurant's business model is an effort to make things consistent. It's subtle and nicely presented, but really no different than servers automatically adding gratuity to every check before they present it to the guest. Let's just make the fine print at the bottom of every menu read, "Gratuity may be added to parties of 1 or more."


Betony and the Midtown Artery

[daniel krieger for the ny times]If you're a chef or restaurateur and you're after three stars from the New York Times, your best bet is to head north of 42nd Street. There has been recent talk of a downtown discovery, but certain restaurateurs aren't into the casual approach that thrives below 14th Street. Take Eamon Rockey and Bryce Shuman, the General Manager and Executive Chef, respectively, of Midtown newcomer Betony. The restaurant opened on West 57th Street earlier this year and, today, Pete Wells awards it three stars.

Shuman, Rockey, and Luke Wohlers (the restaurant's wine director) are all veterans of Eleven Madison Park. "As you’d imagine," Wells writes, "The two restaurants bear a family resemblance." This appears in many guises, notably service, in what Wells calls "E.M.P. ESP” – when servers know what you need before you do. And the food? Wells finds, "Traces of Mr. Humm’s style, minus the party tricks, show up in Mr. Shuman’s cooking, especially in the way that the signs of hard work have been tucked out of sight." The critic loves nearly everything he at in his visits to Betony and comments briefly on the decor. "But what would most help that dining room right now is a crowd," he writes. "Betony deserves it."

The guys behind Betony could have modeled their restaurant after the two-star template and opened a refined-yet-casual concept anywhere. The fact that they chose West 57th Street was a sign that they were taking a different approach. Midtown spaces are bigger and rents are higher. It results in a smaller margine of error and the need to raise menu prices. Part of the reason downtown has seen an explosing in smart, well-executed, delicious, and affordable food comes down to rent. The difference between $17,000/month and $37,000/month isn't just twenty grand, but maybe be the difference in a $17 fish entree and a $37 fish entree.

That's not to say Wells hasn't awarded downtown restaurants three stars (Kyo Ya, Carbone, Atera), just that the difference between a three star restaurant downtown and one uptown is itself significant. An artery runs through midtown dining and beats to the rhythm of a particular aesthetic. There's a slower pace, sprawling and grandiose rooms, and a certain elegance that comes with dining north of 42nd Street. Not everywhere of course, but restaurants that could flirt with three stars, or Times recognition in any sense, are at a caliber all their own compared to restaurants downtown with the same three star rating. [NYTimes]


Go Wanus Go, One Star for the Pines

We had a sneaking suspicion Pete Wells was going to review the Pines this week. With recent reviews of Costata, ABC Cocina, Uncle Boons, Alder, Lafayette, and Carbone, the Times critic has just about exhausted the white-hot (at least three-months-old) hits of late.

When Wells wrote about Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese Food on Orchard Street, he wove a Led Zepplin theme throughout the review. For the Pines, a looser, louder restaurant in a less-polished part of town, he goes for Television and the punk/new wave era of late 70s CBGB.

"None of my five meals at the Pines since its opening late last summer in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn has been in the “just awful” category," Wells writes of his early visits, "But two were so frustrating I swore I’d never return." "Three months later," he continues, "I was back. That night, the Pines and its chef, Angelo Romano, were in control of their chords and the tempo from start to finish."

Wells writes that chef Angelo Romano, "has a discerning eye for prime ingredients, but isn’t always as discerning about his ideas." Wells cites a few dishes that didn't work and calls out some early service blunders. Many of those kinds have been worked out, and a few of the restaurant's initial policies, i.e. cash only and no reservations, have since been changed, making a meal at the Pines that much more approachable. Wells awards one star.

Wells ate at the Pines five times and gave the restaurant almost a full year before filing his review (the restaurant opened on September 19th, 2012). This much time, and this many visits, have become a rarity it today's media driven food world, but the critic saw potential and wanted to give the young team time to get their Gowanus Canal sea legs.

In our opinion, each of our meals at the Pines have been two-star worthy. Romano's food, along with his knowledge and deft execution of unique ingredients, breathes a breath of fresh air into the city's foodmosphere. There's no doubt the one star is a bright one, and while two seems to be the trend, the solitary star gives Romano plenty of room to grow - which, according to an interview Romano did last week, sounds like it will be happening sooner than later. When asked, "What's next for you?" Romano's responsed, "We have a few projects we're working on this year that I can't really talk about yet. They're all Brooklyn-based." [NYTimes] [VV]


Violet, You're Turning Violet, Violet

[elizabeth d. herman for the ny times]The world has turned a watchful eye to food and the people who cook it. Now more than ever, food cultures thrive like mother starters and chefs/restaurateurs with solo projects are a dying breed. The guys from Battersby are expanding, Alex Stupak cooks some of the city's best Mexican in two different neighborhoods, and while Danny Bowien's business model thrives on two coasts, chefs like Mario Batali and Michael White seem to be chasing world domination. As chefs grow their restaurant empires, and grow them they will, it gives New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells plenty to eat, but might come at the cost of a diluted vision.

Wells took the forth star away from Daniel recently and hinted that it was due, in large part, to the idea that Daniel Boulud might be spreading himself thin. With a global empire that includes seven restaurants in New York, Boulud's task to maintain perfection at Daniel, his flagship, is exponentially more difficult with so many cooks in the kitchen.

The same might be said of today's review, in which Wells files on Costata, Michael White's return to 206 Spring Street where he started cooking in New York more than a decade ago. Costata, like the Elm and the Marrow, seemed to us as a concept that was chasing three New York Times stars. The Marrow fell two short, we patiently await Wells' thoughts on the Elm, and find Costata coming up one star shy.

"All those Foreigner and Stone Temple Pilots songs aren’t helping to set the mood," Wells writes, even though the loud rock thing worked for Babbo in 2004 when Frank Bruni awarded the restaurant three stars. Wells isn't a fan of the decor, a facet of the restaurant Adam Platt focused on for 80% of his short-winded review of Costata recently. Wells comments on "flame-shaped light bulbs programmed to flicker on and off." To Costata's defense, there's little else you can do without an open flame permit. But enough about that. On to the food.

Wells loves the pasta, "For a minute, we’re wondering if he’s laying it on a bit thick, showering shredded fontina over the oxtail ragù with cavatelli," he writes. "Then we take another bite and decide that when somebody makes pasta as wonderful as this, there are some questions you just don’t ask."

Pointing to a couple of the entrees, the critic writes, "Some of these dishes have a coarseness that wasn’t there when we first met," referring to White's time spent at Convivio and Alto before imploding with his Altamarea Group. Since the group's inception, Michael White's (exceptional) cooking and ensuing success has spawned projects in Hong Kong, London, New Jersey and New York, where he has opened six restaurants, three of which this year alone.

Few do it better than Michael White, and when a chef of his calibar falls short of the third star, it solidifies what we wrote about two weeks ago – two is the new three – and brings us to this question: If Costata were a standalone concept, or even White's second or third restaurant, would the likelihood of a three-star review be higher? [NYTimes]


Licked Plates and One Star for MP Taverna

[brian harkin for the ny times]Michael Psilakis has been in New York cooking the food inspired by his Greek roots for years. For a while he did it in Manhattan at Onera and Anthos. Both restaurants closed. Psilakis created an excellent, casual, neighborhood Greek den in Kefi, but that restaurant was forced to close back in February after a pipe busted. In today's Times review, Pete Wells heads to MP Taverna in Astoria, Psilakis' newest venture, and finds that the restaurant "offers a second-generation, melting-pot vision of an America where Greek flavors have been woven into the fabric of American cooking so thoroughly that they’re taken for granted."

Wells makes mention of the beverage options. He writes, "Unlike a diner, though, MP Taverna turns over the back of its menu to a list of about six dozen wines by the half glass, full glass, half bottle and full bottle, and about as many beers, nearly all from craft breweries." Despite the abundance of unique, indigenous grape varietals in Greece, stong beverage programs rarely make their way into Greek restaurants – particularly those in Astoria. The well-curated selection at MP Taverna is a big part of what makes the restaurant relevant. It's also another reason to make the trek to Queens.

As for the food, "The only delicate thing about the restaurant’s abundant, lusty plates," Wells writes, "is the prices: $8.50 for the cod, $11 for the octopus and $15 for the dumplings, a main course that I couldn’t finish, though I wanted to." The critic enjoys most of the fare, but finds some flaws in its execution. "Those who remember his earlier odes to Greece — sung elegantly at Anthos, soulfully at Onera — may wish more of his old finesse had survived the trip from Manhattan to Queens." Wells awards one star. [NYTimes]

Max Falkowitz recently reviewed MP Taverna at Serious Eats. He summed the restaurant up thusly, "it's not your average Astoria Greek joint. The food's more nuanced and careful, the booze is way better, and the prices are accordingly higher. But it still feels as genuine and casual as its mom and pop neighbors, respecting its elders while shaking up expectations." Falkowitz licked his plate clean. [SENY]