Good Things in Midtown Manhattan

The midtown scene can be pretty dire.  Not to mention expensive. And as much as I enjoy overpaying for sub-par food and drink at impersonal chain restaurants … Oh wait, I don’t enjoy that at all.

Luckily there are a few bright spots scattered about here and there.  Here are some of my faves:

‘wichcraft

Choice #1 for lunch is Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortuzar’s sandwich mini-chain ‘wichcraft.

berkshire pork sandwich with jalapeno and red cabbage

For about $10 you can get a yummy lunch made with quality ingredients. With options like slow-roasted Berkshire pork, smoked turkey with goat cheese and mashed chickpea with roast pepper there’s something for everyone.

Plus: they make good soups and delightful mini cookie sandwiches, like lemon poppyseed with raspberry or oatmeal with caramel cream. A perfect little afternoon pick me up.

Vital Statistics:
Location: various, but I go to the one in Rockefeller Center
Subway: F, M, B, D to Rockefeller
Website: http://wichcraftnyc.com/
Prices: sandwiches $8-10

Macaron Cafe

It looks a little too pink from the outside, but Macaron Cafe place turns out good salads and sandwiches at reasonable prices – like the croque monsieur I sampled this week that came with a little side salad and mustard vinaigrette for $10.

on 59th between Park and Madison

As the name suggests the house specialty is macarons – New York’s new fad food item, giving the cupcake a run for its money. Macaron Cafe turns out a wide variety of flavors including classic (cassis) and not so classic (pumpkin spice). But at $3 a pop these are not the most budget friendly treats ever.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 625 Madison Avenue, entrance on 59th Street between Park and Madison
Subway: 6 to 59th Street or the N, R to 5th Avenue
Website: http://macaroncafe.com/
Prices: sandwiches and salad from $8-10, macarons $3

Zibetto

My go-to for coffee when I’m at work and in need of some caffeine help.  Helps that you feel as though you’ve walked into Italy when you enter.  I like to pretend and say “ciao” and “grazie” to the waiters, just for good measure.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 1385 Avenue of the Americas between 56th and 57th
Subway: F, M, B, D to 57th Street
Website: www.zibettoespresso.com
Prices: $3.50 for a latte, $7 for a sandwich

The Lantern’s Keep at the Iroquois Hotel

As I was bemoaning the lack of good cocktails in midtown the other night at Milk and Honey, bartender Theo told me clearly I had not frequented his establishment yet.  It’s true – some good things happened while I was away in Europe and Lantern’s Keep is one of them.

the Dodd's Cocktail: a bourbon Manhattan with a Fernet rinse

Tucked away in the back of the historic Iroquois Hotel, it features a list of the classics and a staff that can, in good Sasha Petraske fashion, make you exactly you want, even when you don’t know what that is yourself.  And so now I can go out after work and not cry on the inside every time I order a drink.

FINALLY.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 49 West 44th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues
Subway: F, M, B, D to Bryant Park
Website: http://thelanternskeep.com
Prices: $14 a cocktail, plus a menu of yummy snacks ranging from $4 to $19

Riverpark Restaurant & Farm

The first restaurant I planned to check out upon returning to New York a few weeks ago was Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark.  Riverpark restaurant is affiliated with Riverpark Farm, an urban farm located on the stalled building site of the Alexandria Life Sciences Center at 29th Street and the East River, right next to Bellevue Hospital.  The farm was set up by Sisha Ortúzar, former sous-chef for Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern (one of my all time New York faves) and co-founder of ‘wichcraft, a lunch staple for me in the food wasteland that is midtown Manhattan.  Sisha is also the chef and partner of Riverpark restaurant.

The thing that caught my eye at first about Riverpark, in the TastingTable coverage I read, was the urban farm aspect, because urban farms are way cool and I’m really excited about seeing more and more of them around New York.  Speaking of which – a college friend of mine is involved in a super cool urban farm project in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Grange Farm which is currently a finalist in the BBC World Challenge and thus a candidate to receive $20,000.  You can vote for them on the World Challenge website.

I imagine that the best and coolest way to experience Riverpark is at the chef’s table that is located actually in the farm.  It seats 12 and is available for private bookings only, for which Sisha will create a four-course meal and give you a tour plus a goody bag for each guest with produce grown on site.  But if that price tag (about $150 per person) is too steep, in the meantime you can enjoy the food in the regular restaurant setting, which is what we did.

My dining companion for the evening was Steph Kurz (check out her blog rabbitsnacks) and all the photos are courtesy of her and her superior iPhone 4, plus some serious photoshop skills since the restaurant was pretty dark.

On the night we visited, purely by coincidence, Riverpark was celebrating its first birthday.  (The restaurant, that is.  The farm has only been up and running for the past few months.)  This meant that every diner got a free glass of champagne to start the meal, always a good way to begin.

The food was fantastic – full report below – and as per above the concept is cool, but where Riverpark falls down is the ambiance.  Housed in the Alexandria Center itself, walking in you feel like you’ve gone back to college and are perhaps about to enter the cafeteria.  Except obviously when you round the corner it’s an upscale restaurant with sweeping views of the East River.  To go to the bathroom, you have to exit the restaurant space and go back into the sterile lobby to reach lavatories that, again, feel like university.  The juxtaposition is jarring.

To me, it seemed that they had really missed a trick not carrying through the farm-to-table aesthetic to the restaurant. What is the point of affiliating a restaurant with an urban farm (as per above, the epitome of cool) and designing it to be a conventional, conservative dining room?

Now that I know the restaurant preceded the farm, this makes more sense, but then I have the question why the restaurant is where it is at all.  But for the urban farm, I don’t really understand why one would choose to house a restaurant in the Alexandria center next to Bellevue hospital in Kips Bay.

At any rate, as I said, the food was outstanding, so the restaurant was largely saved.

We started with two raw fish dishes – avocado and hamachi salad with pickled red onion, radish and chiles.  It packed a punch and came with almost an entire avocado.

hamachi

We paired this with the salmon tartare, served with a white gazpacho, yuzu, cucumber and salmon roe.  I normally steer clear of fish tartare (I almost never want to see a tuna version on a menu again) simply because it has been done, over and over, and can we please move on?  But the gazpacho and yuzu intrigued me, and I was impressed with the result, whose citrus and tomato notes added a nice tang to the fish.

Next Stephanie had the mushroom consommé.  The plate arrived with a beautiful mound of fresh mushrooms and frisée, over which the broth was poured.  Rich and flavorful, it was a sophisticated, subtle dish.

For my main course I chose the cavatelli with braissed lamb and mint.  Pure comfort food, it was hearty and hit the spot.  Even Stephanie, a vegetarian for animal welfare reasons, felt compelled to have a bite.

cavatelli

Despite being rather full (are you noticing a trend here?) we decided to share the sheep’s milk yogurt cheesecake which had the added bonus of being the only type of dairy Stephanie can eat.  It came with roasted figs and fresh figs, and oh my lord it was good.  Super creamy with a zing from the yogurt and sheep, it was sort of a cross between a dessert and cheese course.

dessert

On balance, a successful meal, though probably not a restaurant I will be frequenting again soon.  I will, however, put their outdoor terrace on my list of places to check out next summer, and keep tabs on the farm part of the equation.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 450 E 29th Street, New York, NY 10016
Subway: 6 at 28th Street and Park Avenue
Website: www.riverparknyc.com
Prices: $70 per person, including food, 2 glasses of wine and tip