Saturday, February 2, 2008

Restaurant Week Report Card

Furthering my increase in weight were multiple excursions to restaurants for Restaurant Week, which is now a biannual thing in NYC. I've always tended to avoid Restaurant Week (see posts half a year ago), but I was pleasantly surprised by the few places I've tried this year. It's certainly better when I choose the restaurants and see the menu in advance.

Since most of these were only lunch excursions, there will not be much details in the reports. Mostly it'll be a quick synopsis of the food items, and will be followed by overall ratings in the categories of taste, value, service/ambiance (all rated out of 5), and a prix fixe category indicating whether they normally serve a similar prix fixe without restaurant week. Restaurants are listed in chronological order of my visit.

River Cafe (Brooklyn) Lunch

Went there 6 months ago, and the menu was pretty much the same. This time I went with 3 other people, so we pretty much sampled the full lunch menu. The starter choices were a house smoked salmon with crispy scallops, colorado lamb meatballs with potato puree, and a grilled sirloin salad. I had the lamb meatballs which were just as good as they were when I had them last year. Nice solid meatball texture and definite lamb flavor. The main courses included salmon, crisp duck breast, and ricotta ravioli with wild boar sausage. I had the duck breast which was cooked well and the sweetness of the red currant sauce and sweet potato puree worked well with it, but there was no real wow factor. Last year I had the ravioli and it was a wild boar ragout, this year it was just sausage on the side and the boar flavors weren't as strong. For dessert was a trio of chocolate marquis cake, vanilla creme brulee, and pineapple sorbet. The sorbet was very refreshing and I really liked the chocolate cake, and the creme brulee was well executed. When you go to River Cafe, you go for the view and the ambiance, but they wouldn't let us outside so we barely snapped any pictures.

Food: 4 Value: 3 Ambiance: 4 Prix Fixe: No

Mesa Grill (Union Square) Lunch

I didn't even know before I looked that Mesa Grill was just one block away from where I now work. I have never really heard any good things about Bobby Flay's restaurants (though I think their reputations are better than Emeril LaGasse's restaurants), so I thought restaurant week was a perfect time to try it out. I started with the spicy salmon tartare which had a nice little kick to it and was perfectly matched with a refreshing avocado relish. My friend had Sophie's chopped salad which didn't look very pleasing to the eye. The colors of the vegetables were not vibrant and fresh, and I didn't bother asking my friend how it was since after all it's a friggin' chopped salad. For mains I had the sixteen spice chicken which is one of the staples of the regular menu and it was actually really good. The spice mix had real flavor and the mango sauce was another refreshing touch for good balance. The chicken was cooked well and not dry considering it was not accompanied by a lot of sauce. My friend had the wild mushroom quesadilla which was nice but I did not feel that it wowed me like the chicken did. For dessert we had vanilla crunch profiteroles in a hot mexican chocolate sauce and banana rum bread pudding with sour cream ice cream. Executed well and tasty, it was a good finish to the meal. The restaurant is actually quite large and our food came pretty quickly and service definitely didn't lag.

Food: 4 (5 for the dishes I had, 3 for my friend's dishes) Value: 5 (especially compared to their normal prices) Ambiance: 3 Prix Fixe: No

Tocqueville (Union Square) Lunch

Practically hidden by the big Au Bon Pain right next door, this small French restaurant with very high ceilings is a nice little escape from the hustle and bustle of Union Square. Of the three appetizer choices, both my friend and I were only interested in the house cured Hon Jake salmon (I don't know what hon jake stands for I googled and got no relevant results). It was very tasty with a perfectly matched meyer lemon-caper dressing and some toasted brown bread. We found a better selection in the entrees. I had the cast-iron skillet roasted Daurade served with spinach puree, marrow flan, and sauce grabiche. I didn't (and still don't) know what kind of fish Daurade actually is, but it was executed perfectly with a delicious crispy skin and fish that didn't just disintegrate when cut into with the fork. My friend had the lightly smoked berkshire pork tenderloin and which had just a great bacony flavor and beautiful texture (from the smoking) and it was a nice light flavor (not overly salted like a lot of pork dishes tend to be). The desserts were rather disappointing however, as i had the apple beignets and my friend had the bitter chocolate pudding. The service was very good though there weren't many people when we went.

Food: 4 (5 for the food, 2 for the desserts) Value: 4 Ambiance: 5 Prix Fixe: Yes, at same price, but the selection doesn't look as good (only 2 choices per course).

Japonais (Union Square) Dinner

Having eaten there before (not during restaurant week) and finding the appetizers and rolls to be very good while the main courses were a little disappointing, I found that my verdict is exactly the same this time around for restaurant week. My friend and I sat in the lounge which I thought was a much better vibe (except for the lower tables) as 80's music played in the background. For appetizers we had a crispy shrimp and salmon maki and "the rock", thinly sliced steak cooked on a hot rock. It's a pretty cool presentation, and the soy ginger marinade was quite tasty. For our entrees my friend had the chestnut roasted chicken with shiitake rice stuffing. The chicken was actually quite dry, and the flavors did not stand out. I had the 6 oz filet mignon with uni butter and truffled potato puree. The uni butter and truffled potato stood out to give the nice tender beef very good flavor and I was pleasantly surprised, though not knocked over. For dessert we had the selection of homemade sorbets in a watermelon soup which was light and refreshing and a japanese pumpkin cheesecake with pineapple mouse and almond cookie crust which was really really tasty. Best dessert I've had all of restaurant week. I think this is a great place if you sit in the lounge and only order rolls and appetizers.

Food: 4 Value: 5 (their regular prices aren't that expensive either) Ambiance: 5 Prix Fixe: No prix fixe dinner

Bluewater Grill (Union Square) Lunch

The most disappointing restaurant experience I had during restaurant week was here. While I'm sure it's a nice place to go for some fresh seafood and jazz at night, the food they put out for our restaurant week lunch just wasn't good. For starters my friend had the golden split pea soup with smoked ham confit. Hard to go wrong with ham and pea soup, but there was nothing brilliant about it either. I had the spicy salmon maki roll, which was the worst salmon dish I've had during restaurant week. There was just nothing to show off the salmon flavor, and I didn't like the texture that the crispy haricot verts provided the roll. For our entrees, I had the seared jumbo scallops which were big and cooked well, but there was just the tinyest taste of grit, and the polenta cake and orange sauce were just a horrible combination in my opinion. My friend had the caribbearn style shrimp stew which had good amounts of shrimp fish and clams, but was overall quite bland. The lobster coconut broth had just a little curry taste and not much else. I think it needed a lot of saffron. For dessert my friend had the creamsicle parfait and I had the chocolate fudge torte. Nothing great.

Food: 2 Value: 3 Ambiance: 2 Prix Fixe: I wouldn't care

Japonais (Union Square) Lunch

Having had a good dinner I decided to try the lunch menu to see if maybe the entrees would be a little less disappointing. Nope. I had the same "the rock" starter as last time, and had the Japonais burger for my entree. The burger and the sweet potato fries were just overly spiced and I couldn't taste anything else. The meal was still saved by the cheesecake which was just as good. I guess I should have stuck to my original plan of appetizers only.

Food: 3 Value: 3 Ambiance: 3 Prix Fixe: They have a 2 course $21 lunch consisting of an appetizer and a choice of sandwich.

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