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Notes from New York

Written By Scott Joseph On January 2, 2013

standardTop of the Standard, overlooking Manhattan.

Anyone who knows me knows that New York is one of my favorite destinations. I’ve lost actual count, but I’m guessing I’ve visited there more than 70 times in the past 20 years. So when I tell you that the trip I just completed was one of the best, especially from a culinary standpoint, you’ll know that it was really good.

One of the highlights was a new place in the West Village called Cocotte. I learned about it because it is owned by a fellow I had encountered on my first visit to Buvette, another Village favorite. Raphael Latrache was the server who first greeted me at Buvette, and his conviviality mixed with food and wine knowledge made an impact. So when I returned to Buvette and found him missing, I asked about him. That’s when I found out about Cocotte.

cocotte entreesCocotte means little casseroles.Latrache is a partner in Cocotte, which is owned by its chef, Sebastien Pourrat, who was also a chef and partner of a restaurant in the Marais district of Paris. Cocotte is small — 35 seats — is a sub-level space with windows that look out to the sidewalk on Thompson Street. Much of the seating is at communal hightops of oak that matches the overhead beams. The gray walls double as chalkboards with the menu (and witticisms) written on them (there is also a three-person counter in the kitchen that will eventually be the chef’s table option).

The menu is also small but well thought out. My friend and I started with two of the farci options, the squid and the eggplant. The former had onion, garlic and Spanish ham infused with white wine, the latter had onion, garlic, chives and Basque chilies. Both were delicious, but I liked the mouthfeel of the eggplant just a bit more.

Plates are mostly small — cocotte means little casserole — and Latrache suggested several for sharing (think of a French version of tapas). Indeed many of the items, especially the vegetables, are served in cute, colorful enameled casseroles. The cauliflower was the standout in this category. Creamy, cheesy and better than any cauliflower you’ve ever had. We also had potatoes that had been sauteed in fat sufficient enough to make them irresistable.

For our entrees we shared the boudin aux pommes, spicy Spanish morcilla with caramelized cocotte interiorCocotte occupies a small space just below street level.apples, an inspired pairing, and the Cocotte burger, a special of the evening, presented on focaccia. It was a very good burger, though in hindsight I wish I had gone with one of the other “regular” items.

Dessert was a tarte au citron, or lemon pie, that was a perfect pitch of tang balanced with a sweet note. 

Service, provided by Latrache and one other waiter, was as warm and welcoming as I’d experienced at Buvette (which, by the way, is also still as wonderful as before). Cocotte was an absolute delight from beginning to end, and I recommend it to anyone who loves good food.

Breslin hangtownHangtown fry at the Breslin is an omelet with oysters.

breslin steakSkirt steak and eggs at the Breslin.

Another highlight was the Breslin, next to the Ace Hotel. An old-style tavern atmosphere with a cozy dining room in the back, near the kitchen, and additional seating in the front, at or near the bar, with the big windows looking out at potted foliage. 

Here we had the skirt steak entree and a hangtown fry, a sort of omelet that was popular in the Gold Rush days with oysters, jalapeno peppers and scallions. The steak was impossibly tender, served resting on two fried eggs and topped with fresh cilantro and a tangy tomatillo sauce. The hangtown was bulging with plump oysters — a terrific brunch item. We also loved the friendly service from the hard-working bartender. What a difference it makes to know that you’re welcome in a business.

That wasn’t what we got from our late-night dinner at Minetta Tavern. The overall feel was that they were doing us a favor by letting us dine there. While we waited at the bar for our table to be ready, we stood in front of dirty plates and a debris-strewn bar top while the bartender stood with his arms folded instead of cleaning the surface for us.

The food — steak with fries and risotto — was quite good, although an oxtail terrine tasted more of the oil that had been drizzled on it than the meat. But the service left us sour and determined to dine elsewhere next time.

We would certainly go back to Tartinery, where we stopped in for a plate of charcuterie and a glass of wine. The array of meats was wonderful, but I was lusting after a nearby diner’s croque madame tartin sandwich.

Tertulia lambLamb hash sandwich at Tertulia.We only had the “appetizer” there because we were headed to Tertulia for lunch. Tertulia, whose chef is Seamus Mullen, has a Spanish flavor, and most of what it offers at lunch are sandwiches. This was hit and miss — the lamb hash bocata was a hit, well seasoned and with a smokey flavor and spiciness from fresh arugula. The anchovy sandwich was a surprising miss, with hardly an anchovy present. Also tasted the Spanish tortilla, which was modest. There was also an inexplicably long wait for the food to appear. We nearly left before the sandwiches finally arrived.

Cafe Luxembourg, on the Upper West Side, was a perfect place for another lunch visit. Here we had a meaty bowl of onion soup, a steak tartare with mustardy notes, and a thickly stuffed croque monsieur. We sat at the zinc bar where we were well served by the friendly bartender. It should be noted that, apparently, no one associated with the restaurant is from Luxembourg, but it really didn’t matter.

Service was the only drawback at Casa Mono, the luxembourg tartarSteak tartare at Cafe Luxembourg.one-Michelin-starred tapas restaurant from Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Pork belly topped with octopus and butternut squash was my favorite, although the rabbit with skewered anticuchos was pretty darned good, too. An upsell by the server to a glass of Naiades ($24) put the bill up to $84, pre tip. Too much for two glasses of wine and two small tapas. The best seating is at one of the two bar areas in the small space.

A few non-food highlights included Pete’s Tavern, where O. Henry wrote, in 1905, “Gift of the Magi,” and which is a tavern that has been in operation since 1864 (during Prohibition it was camouflaged as a flower shop); P. J. Clarke’s, the original, on 3rd Avenue; Monkey Bar, at Hotel Elysee (known to many as Easy Lay), once the home of Tallulah Bankhead and the place where Tennessee Williams choked to death on an eye-dropper; and, my favorite, Top of the Standard, the 18th floor aerie at the Standard Hotel over the Highline in the Meatpacking District. I felt as though I had been transported to the 1940s to an elegant lounge. Jazz musicians played next to windows overlooking the Hudson River to one side and the vastness of Manhattan to the other. I don’t know why I hadn’t visited this room before, but now I can’t imagine going to New York without coming here and sipping something from a martini glass.

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