Letter Grades & Reviews of Robataya, Ten Bells, Collective, and Bread Nolita

by Alan Philips
03.18.2010

“Don't know much about history,
don't know much biology.
Don't know much about a science book,
don't know much about the french I took.
But I do know that I love you,
and I know that if you love me, too,
what a wonderful world this would be.”
-Sam Cooke, What a Wonderful World

To the dismay of many chefs and restaurateurs, as of July, restaurants will be required to post letter grades from the Health Department prominently within their establishments. Chefs such as Marc Murphy of Landmarc Restaurant are calling it “unconstitutional,” saying it “violates the first amendment.”  Let’s examine the different sides of the story. 

The Germaphobe
I have had relationships with some pretty major germaphobes in my time. This new policy is the perfect vindication for their many fears. Like a culinary terror warning system, they finally have a quasi-valid reason to say, “I won’t eat in that restaurant, it looks suspicious.” Some of the best food in the world comes from the most suspicious looking places. One person’s suspicions are another’s paradise. I used to be a regular at a sandwich shop in Florence called Antico Noe. Delicious beyond reproach, but sanitary, not so much. Many days I could have been caught saying, “I won’t give up this sandwich for all the money in the world.” With that said, if I got food poisoning, I would have given up my deliciously decadent paninis in the blink of an eye. 

Germaphobes – In favor
Foodies – Torn

The Insider
I am close with a pretty big guy in the fish distribution business, maybe one of the biggest in Manhattan, if not the country. He wouldn’t eat a sushi roll with your mouth. Not even fresh Blue Fin Toro plucked from the ocean and sliced by the great Masa Takayama. I know many people who would go deep into debt for just one slice of Toro from Takayama. Makes you wonder what the fisherman has seen to be so overtly against sushi... 

Fish Supplier – In favor, personally. Not in favor from a business perspective, as it could negatively effect his customers' opinions.

The Industry
Being in this business for some time, I know that many of the health codes are obscure and difficult to follow. Under these new codes, a mistake by an employee could lead to a PR disaster. Imagine if Daniel Boulud or Jean Georges got a B or a C on an inspection. Would it have devastating long-term effects on these businesses? The germaphobes would definitely never go back would then go on to tell all of their friends. Would the blogosphere jump on the opportunity to crush these great masters of the culinary world, like a noteworthy golf professional or many a great statesman?

Anyone who has worked in restaurants, hotels, bars, nightclubs or any other hospitality business knows that an inspection is a “snapshot.” You can never judge anything on a snapshot. I'd love to tell you I'm “sexual napalm,” like John Mayer said about Jessica Simpson, that every time my pants drop, its revolutionary; but that is just not the case. Sometimes my performance is an "A" sometimes it is a "C," but it all depends on external factors – mood, dinner, the girl, how business was that week. Remember, regarding sex, as long as the letter grade isn't "S-T-D," you always have another chance to make it right.

In the same vein, many factors go into restaurateurs getting it right. Unless there are major issues of health concern, multiple inspections should be required to post these types of grades. It is the way to be fair to the business owners. 

The Industry – Definitely not in favor

The Bigger Issue
I see one much bigger problem with this policy. Most of the people in the restaurant business got into it for the same reason as many entrepreneurs: because they hated being graded by incompetents in school. Yes there are some very talented teachers, but grades are really based upon how good you are at regurgitating information, not how well you grasp concepts and implement them. Now with this new grading system, these individuals are subject to grading by many times more incompetent city workers. These workers, in many cases, are more interested in reaching their fining quotas than protecting cash-strapped businesses. It just seems like a “fuck the man” situation. So, “…I'm Ron Burgundy. Go fuck yourself, San Diego.” 

Now let’s move on to last week’s food diary…

Wednesday: Robataya & Angel's Share
Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of dining with my friend Lee Anne Wong at Robataya. Lee Anne is the genius culinary mind, who finished 4th place on season one of Top Chef and acted as the show’s culinary producer for the rest of the seasons. More importantly, Lee Anne is generous with her culinary knowledge, sweet as hell, and super fun.

I was caught up in work earlier in the week and really did not have a chance to think much about dinner that night. Upon walking into Robataya, I was unexpectedly blown away by what I saw: two Japanese chefs sitting on their knees in the middle of a large semi circled food bar. Imagine a Benihana hibachi table, but three times as large, and instead of a grill, there is a Japanese guy in the center on his knees. Both chefs, with grills in front of them and coolers at their sides, act as both chefs and bartenders. The vegetables are set around them like a Thanksgiving cornucopia and the meats and fish are delivered to them at their posts. All the food and drinks are served by two chef/bartenders on a 10-foot-long paddle, similar to the wooden tool used to slide pizza in the oven at an old school parlor, except much longer and more narrow. 

I thought about ordering and Lee Anne encouraged it, but my better judgment told me to let her take the lead. The waiter must have known Lee Anne and the Japanese started flying. I drifted off into never never land, as I so often do when I'm not in control. The only reply I could muster was “yes” and asking for lamb chops between sips of beer. We decided to try two beers first, most notably Baird Beer. Described as a “celebratory experience of flavor,” Baird Beer is a handcrafted brew made in small batches that is both refreshing and delicious. We followed the beer with some Junmai Ginjo sake. Lee Anne explained to me that it is bad luck to pour your own sake and after each pour we toasted with the Japanese “kanpai.” With each kanpai, things got a little hazier until a tornado of Japanese delights began to head my way.

We started with perfectly grilled shishito peppers, mountain yam wrapped in nori, bamboo shoots, Tsukune (chicken meatballs with soy sauce), lamb chops, and a deliciously sweet and generous portion of king crab leg. After that we had Chawanmushi, a steamed egg custard, sort of like a savory Panna Cotta (not so much my thing). Then we had the highlight of the meal, Goma Agedashi Tofu, a fried simmered tofu in a thickened broth. The flavor was understated and perfectly smoky, perhaps the best hot Japanese dish I have ever eaten. Following this we had a preparation of asparagus that was both perplexing and delicious. Asparabou is an asparagus spear wrapped in whitefish paste and rice crackers. I did not know before and would never have known that this was whitefish; it seemed more like a delightfully light Panko crust to me. At this point you would think I was in a food coma, but the food was served in small portions and incredibly light. We finished with simmered Duck Nabe, Snow Crab Kamemeshi, and cold Udon in a rapid succession. The sake must have taken effect right at this point because I cannot for the life of me remember these dishes except for really not enjoying the frigid rubber like texture of cold Udon noodles.

After paying and receiving a thousand thank yous we checked out the hidden cocktail gem, Angel’s Share. Through a door on the second floor of a sushi joint, this cocktail bar is the real deal. Not a product of the cocktail craze, the drinks are extraordinary and prepared with care by real culinarily-influenced bartenders. Lee Anne had a Manhattan and I enjoyed a shiso-infused tequila. I have tried to be a fan of the “mixology” craze, but I have to say, more often than not I am let down.  Angel’s Share is the real deal and a must visit for anyone who wants to drink and leave with more than just a hangover.   

Thursday: The Ten Bells
This was my second visit to Ten Bells in two weeks. I have long been a believer that a wine bar doesn’t have to be boring and serious in order to serve great wines. Ten Bells is a prime example of having all the wine and the fun. The guys behind the bar definitely do not look like your standard wine snobs, as their attitude is similar to what you would find at CH favorites like Bianca, Bread, or Freeman’s Alley. There is a respect for the products being served without the need to change into a pseudo-intellectual to prove it. This hipster youth-food movement is incredibly burgeoning and exciting. I cannot wait to see how it spreads throughout the US and beyond. Ten Bells was reccomended to me by Caitlin Levin, a friend and fellow foodie who embodies this movement. Watch out for Caitlin, as she may be this movement’s downtown Martha Stewart. When she becomes famous I'll be able to say, "I told ya so."

When it comes to the food at the Ten Bells, the following are my recommendations: shrimp nachos, Cerignola olives, prosciutto and goat cheese cigars, and the white asparagus covered with a delicious chopped salad. I would avoid the crab, tomato, and avocado tar tar. There seems to be much more deliciousness to enjoy with your wine, but I have yet to get there. I will be back and the Ten Bells will be discussed again in the near future. If you visit, watch out for a random Australian gentleman at the bar – madness can ensure if you allow him to indulge you. Another word of advice: tie back your hair. On my first visit, a young Asian girl’s hair caught on fire. She freaked and the burning hair definitely did not help the bouquet of my Nero d'Avola- Frappato. Best wine bar in Manhattan – not sure. Best for the under-35 set – definitely. 

Friday: The Collective
On Friday night I was invited for a “friends and family” dinner at the new One Group spot, The Collective. One Group has been thinking of changing the One LW 12th St. concept for some time, with rumored concepts such as Sushi/japanese and a partnership with brunch impresarios Daniel & David Koch. Well, I guess they decided to go in another direction. The Collective is built of entirely reclaimed materials, a bold undertaking, since only a very talented designer can execute this without utter confusion. They seem to be playing on the green/recycling revolution by using materials such as pill bottles for chandeliers and scrabble boards for tables. When I first saw the pictures I was not really into it – it looked a little too busy for my taste. 

However, upon my arrival, I thought the venue was strangely appealing. In a picture and you can only see small areas, not necessarily getting the whole picture.  When viewed on a grander scale, with all the elements together, the aesthetic worked. It was almost like dining in a pop art exhibit. The restaurant has a very West Coast feel, with elements of classic urban Americana interspersed. The energy and vibe, the One Group’s specialty, was definitely in full effect. I can see the venue acting as much as a drinking establishment as a place for dining, which I think is the right move for this location. The service in the restaurant was great, especially considering that this was the first night of operation.

We ordered the house special disco fries, a decadent rendition of cheese fries with gravy, a Waldorf salad, the seared tuna (our favorite of the night), Hong Kong ribs, and veal meatballs served over rigatoni.  All the food was prepared well, very much in the style of upscale comfort food. My only comment is that the menu seemed a little heavy, considering the One Group’s tendency to lean toward the drink business and its Meatpacking location. I can definitely see this restaurant becoming the late-night food destination in the neighborhood and having a great brunch, but I would personally like to see a lighter and more focused dinner menu, which would make it more accessible to the “nightlifers” who spend their weekends dining in the meatpacking. I am very interested to see how this restaurant develops when they officially launch this week. I am sure the One Group will make it work, as they are one of the best in the business at finding their sweet spot.  That along with quite possibly the best location in Manhattan, should make Collective a success. 

Here is an interesting side note, according to a Nation’s Restaurant News survey a couple of years ago. Over 75% of people make their choice of restaurants based upon location. So you could open the most incredible restaurant or bar, but if it is not in a prime location, you may be precluding a large amount of your customers. Now does it make sense that all restaurateurs and bar owners want to open in hotels and casinos?      

Sunday Brunch: Bread Nolita
Bread in Nolita is located on Spring St. between Elizabeth and Mott. It has long been one of my favorite restaurants in New York because of its authentic vibe and understated cool. The restaurant used to be a third of the size and always had a wait of at least 30 minutes. The best part of the restaurant at that point was watching the cook prepare food for dozens of guests in a kitchen that was 4 ft. x 4 ft. max and only electric. About a year ago they expanded the restaurant, I guess to accommodate the demand. I understand and applaud their success, but as with all things, a little of the magic disappears when you expand based upon commercial success. More frustrating than the loss of its magic is the absence of the pesto tartines from the menu. This was one of my favorite items on the menu. It was low cost to prepare and stock and for some reason they got rid of it but still have brie and tapenade tartines. Why in g-ds name couldn’t they keep pesto????  It makes no sense.

Onwards and upwards. Despite the expansion and proliferation of wine and panini bars, Bread is still one of the top destinations in Nolita for brunch or lunch. My favorite items (still on the menu) are the tomato soup – probably the best in Manhattan – the Prosciutto Cotto panini, and the ravioli Bolognese.  There is a bunch of other good stuff on the menu, including meatballs that are sometimes too dry, but there is definitely one thing you must try on your next visit: the strawberry lemonade. It is spectacular, fresh, and probably the best non-alcoholic spring drink I can think of. I am sure it’s not that bad with some vodka mixed in either. Nolita is my favorite neighborhood in Manhattan and Bread is right up there with the best lunches in our fair city.

The End Result
Sunday night I finished the weekend with Shutter Island, along with steamed pork buns and Diver Scallops at Momofuku Ssam. A lot of people had mixed reactions to Shutter Island, but everyone told me to wait for the end. I thought the big reveal was perfectly executed and enjoyed the movie tremendously. It was a pretty ambitious undertaking by Scorcese to try and tell this story without seeming contrived. Probably not something he would have attempted earlier in his career. I would have given this movie an A, others may have given it a C, who knows and who really cares. It takes talent and balls which come from years of hard work and understanding of your craft, to even attempt these types of projects. The same applies to the many restaurateurs, chefs, and club owners trying to accomplish creative, exciting, and groundbreaking ventures.  New York is still a monumental city filled with incredible opportunity that can only be crushed by foolish and obstructionist policies. Let’s not handcuff our entrepreneurs with grading systems, let’s allow them to flourish.

I don’t want to live on Shutter Island, do you?

See you next time at Cocktail Hour, where more often than not one drink turns into ten and no one knows where and when the night will end.
-AP

 

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