Blu Aubergine Blog

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Chicago's Ēma and Girl and the Goat

I'm looking back with nostalgia on just a few weeks ago, before the U.S. Presidential elections and the current "politapocalypse" -- to a time when everyone was rooting for the sports. The first week in November was a big week for Chicagoans. The Cubs won the World Series after a 108-year drought for the world champions and fans alike, and the city was on edge in the lead-up to the win. For the celebratory Cubs' parade, record crowds were reported, and they even dyed the Chicago River bright blue in the team's honor. I'm not a baseball fan, but I love a good underdog tale, and the feeling in the city all week was pretty electric (fitting, as I was there doing work with General Electric). I was in the right place at the right time.

Ema dining room 2.jpg

By happenstance, my flight from New York on Halloween evening arrived late, so I missed dinner in my hotel's restaurant and was directed to dine at a new place next door to my hotel, called EMA. I didn't realize until I got there that it's spelled Ēma with a long "e" -- as in the Hebrew word for mother. I asked my server about it and was told that the chef, who is Californian, had traveled around Europe and Israel for volleyball tournaments, and spent time in Israel. 

When I started reading the menu and the wine list, I was surprised and delighted to find some really interesting items, including a Greek cheese from a tiny island I'd just visited in September -- one which I'd never seen on a menu anywhere in the States. Color me impressed! There were also interesting wines from Israel, Sicily, and Greece that I really love but that you don't find too frequently on lists in the U.S., even in top Mediterranean restaurants in Manhattan.

I started off with a glass of Calabrian sparkling rose' (Garruba "Incanto Rosa") and decided to go with my version of comfort food, my culinary happy place: eggplant. They featured a smoky grilled eggplant puree served with warm homemade pita bread, and I could have made a meal out of these two items alone. Or I could have bathed in the eggplant dip! It struck the perfect balance of flavors, with the sweet and smoky eggplant flesh whipped with garlic, plenty of lemon juice, a little yogurt and a generous dusting of sumac for tang and a tart finish. And the warm bread! Suffice it to say I daydream about snacking on this pretty much every day. The next dish I ordered was a tuna crudo with crispy lentils (perhaps my favorite way to enjoy lentils), heirloom tomatoes, avocados, and turmeric. Every restaurant of a certain level seems to have a raw tuna dish on its menu, and many are simply mediocre, which is a shame because it should be illegal to waste good quality fresh tuna on middling preparation. Here, the tuna is lush and rich, and it's got a nice assortment of accompanying textures and flavors so that each bite awakens the palate.

The menu is structured in a way that encourages grazing -- mezze and small plates and portions that allow for ordering multiple dishes -- and so I moved on to a salmon dish and a vegetable dish. The salmon was a beautifully seared 3-ounce piece served in a shallow pasta bowl in green tomato water, with pickled green tomatoes, Michigan peaches, and herbs. It was light, bright, and happened to be perfectly matched to the balmy weather outside -- upper 60s in Chicago on Halloween! Now, what would be relegated to side dish status in most other dining establishments was elevated to a "hot mezze" here.

It's dubbed as "Pan-Roasted Romanesque Cauliflower", which isn't exactly right. It may paint a clearer picture for American audiences of the taste they'll be getting in the dish, but in Rome (hence the "Romanesque"), this is simply BROCCOLI. It is not called "romano" anything, nor is it called "romanesco" which is what so many other restaurant menus dub this veggie. "Romanesco" refers to anything that is Roman or Roman-style, and is not exclusive to cruciferous vegetables. Nomenclature aside, the dish was absolutely delicious. The broccolo romano was tender and seared crispy at its tips. It was served on a shmear of labneh/Greek yogurt, delicious olive oil, and plenty of that delicious tart powdered sumac, which for me is a personal favorite spice. It all came together as more than the sum of its parts, and a dish that is both filling and could double as a main course for a vegetarian. I accompanied my later courses with a hard-to-find Nerello Mascalese in WHITE (it's a red grape), from Terrazze dell'Etna grown in the rich volcanic soil of Sicily's Mt. Etna, a volcano I've visited while it was erupting. Very cool, and a very unusual wine.

My only disappointment was in later finding out that the chef is actually CJ Jacobson, from an early season of Top Chef (when I still watched the show religiously) -- he was always a favorite of mine, both for his cooking chops and his funny, warm personality and capacity to call things as they were. I had chatted with my server there and she'd mentioned that the chef would be happy to meet a fellow chef who'd lived in Italy as I did, and who'd traveled around the Mediterranean as much as I had. I mentioned I was staying next door for work for a few days, and she told me to "swing by some time and have a chat with the Chef"! But I got bogged down with work and I never made the time to stop by again. My mistake.

Speaking of Top Chefs, Season 4 winner (and the first female to snag the top spot) Stephanie Izard has been running a fantastic restaurant since 2010 in the West Loop section of Chicago. The Girl and the Goat, as it's called, offers a truly eclectic menu set up with a grazing-style format (see a trend here?). She hops from southern Europe to Southeast Asia and all over the world map for influences, to (mostly) excellent effect. You can start with items as simple as warm marinated olives, or an umami bomb like pan fried shishito peppers with parmesan, sesame, and miso. My culinary school friend and I went for the green beans, with the encouragement of our server, because it seemed an interesting, slightly Thai treatment of a green veggie we both enjoy. What we got was basically "green bean crack".

This dish was addictive! It's described as being served with a fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews, but to say it tasted of so much more would be a huge understatement. I would have split 3 orders of that dish alone and happily called it a night. But, there was so much more to try.

We moved on to the blue cheese sweet potato peirogies, in honor of the large Polish population in Chicago. This turned out to be the only disappointment of the evening. The peirogies were somehow breaded and fried, so they ate more like a Jamaican beef patty than a Polish dumpling. They were served with a mushroom ragout, mushroom creama (sic?), and fried capers. Frankly, I'm not sure all of the flavors worked as well together as I might have imagined. Not so great. So, we were very happy to move on to our next dish: wood-fired shrimp with a pork and peanut ragout and a cucumber salad.

This was delicious -- and again, echoes of Southeast Asian preparations. I must admit, as a chef and a non-kosher Jew, I am a sucker for the double-traif pairings like a pork-peanut ragout with shrimp. I think the flavors work really well together (and it's somehow more delicious in being somewhat forbidden -- mostly-kosher Jews who go out for Chinese and order the occasional shrimp with lobster sauce know of what I speak). And lots of sour lime and fresh coriander help anything along, in my view. Next up, and to finish our shared world culinary journey, was the extremely rich escargot ravioli.

Yes, each raviolino was filled with a whole escargot, sauced with a tamarind-bacon number, and accented with escarole, celery, and crispy onions. It was over-the-top decadent, French-Italian with an Asian accent, as if some Torinese chef with a sense of humor and a stint in a Hanoi kitchen had dreamt up the dish. It was the perfect ending to tip us over the edge, so that desserts were no longer a possibility. If they HAD been in the picture, however, I might have ordered the "All the Leches" cake, or the caramel corn and malt balls, as the caramel popcorn and "chocolate magic shell" are almost too much to resist. I'd also go for some more daring dishes like anything from the goat menu, or the pastrami-spiced beef heart. But we stuck to slightly safer bets (and the escargot), and left very happy. The service was really friendly and the atmosphere was fun, and 6 years in, still electric. Or maybe it was just that a future Cubs win was in the air...

74 West Illinois Street
Chicago, IL60654
(312) 527.5586

Girl and The Goat
809 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL60607
(312) 492.6262



There's nothing I like better than a warm-weather escape when it's absolutely frigid back home. And the past few years, my timing was perfect, as I fled from snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures. My latest escape? Puerto Rico, an island so proximate to New York that I'm truly surprised it took me so long to finally make it there!

And what an island it is. Or, at least, the north coast and San Juan, where we spent a fabulous five days. The city of San Juan is like an even-more-Latin Miami, and then Old San Juan takes you back to colonial Spain, even parts of Southern Sicily can be found in the wrought iron balconies on the candy-colored buildings, and the cobblestone streets. And after the holidays, it's still got a very festive vibe. So, we did the beach retreat, the city room on the shore, and ventured into various parts near and far for some amazingly good meals.

The highlight of our dining experiences, however, was clear: Santaella, a creation of local chef José Santaella. With stints a Le Bernardin in New York and Gary Danko in San Francisco -- two of America's best restaurants, hands-down -- the chef's top-notch pedigree is undisputed. Santaella's reverence for seafood certainly stems from his time living on a tropical island, and his urban chef stints surely cemented his love for fresh fish in all its forms. At Santaella restaurant, located in an offbeat neighborhood near the central market in San Juan, the modern dining room is an urban tropical escape. The well-informed staff are warm and helpful, never imposing.

The vibe of the place makes you love it even before your first sip of a delicious libation, like a Sandia mojito (with fresh watermelon), or a tamarind margarita. Moving on, the menu is divided into Nibbles, Specials, Salads, "Barely Touched" (this is crudo and ceviche), and Main Courses, then Desserts. This food is fun, vivacious, expertly prepared, and really delicious, AND, the portions are quite generous.

We started with the Hawaiian Waho Ono ceviche, with tropical juices, radishes, sweet potato, and cucumber with tortilla crisp strips. This was everything a tuna ceviche should be -- bright, happy, crispiness of varying degrees, and a gorgeous meaty tuna barely "cooked" by tart-sweet tropical fruit juices. Seriously yum, and very light. This was good because we ordered a lot of food. 

We had the house specialty empanadas that evening, a mix of meat and vegetables like mushrooms and peas. These were expertly prepared and delicious, and not at all bland like some empanadas can be. All in, a nice counterpart to the light tuna ceviche.

Moving on, we ordered another delicious seafood "crudo"-type dish, the "Japanese Crazy Salad," as it was dubbed. This was a spicy crabmeat salad (cold) layered with seaweed salad and avocado, on top of a plantain fritter as large and round as a personal pan pizza. It was a vibrant mish-mash of tastes and textures, reminiscent of sushi restaurant flavors but more interesting...and a lot of fun.

After a delicious salad and a few croquettes of the day, we finished up the savory part of our meal with a casserole of baby octopus, chorizo and chickpeas with sherry. The servers had warned us that this portion was not for the faint of heart, but since we were going through our meal grazing and sharing everything, tapas-style (and since I was with The Big Guy, who was never daunted by a plate of food), we laughed at the suggestion that something might be, well, too much. But this was a healthy portion. Very healthy. And the dish itself, with a huge nod to the Spanish ancestry of Puerto Rico, was rich and meaty and delicious. We were eating an early dinner before heading to the airport to catch our late flight back to New York City, so we definitely wanted to be satisfied, but not uncomfortably overstuffed. This was our last meal in Puerto Rico, however, so we decided to split a dessert because: vacation!

The coconut everything on this tropical island made me a very happy camper. So we decided on a signature Santaella dessert, the coconut and almond custard with a delicious coconut ice cream. The custard tart was very hot, its caramelized crispy almond cover shattering as we dug our spoons into the warm creamy sweetness underneath. The ice cream was the cool counterpoint to the creme brulee -- essentially this was baked and frozen versions of the same intensely flavored coconut custard, sharing a plate. After the meal, I inquired about purchasing the cookbook I'd seen on display at the hostess stand when we came in, as I was a chef and first-timer to Puerto Rico. With the same courteous manners and smiling service we'd enjoyed all evening, our waiter offered to get chef to personalize the cookbook, signed and dedicated to me. It was thoughtful and sweet, and really, what more could I ask for? It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip, our first but certainly not our last jaunt to this island nation just a hop, skip, and a brief plane ride away from my home back in the cold of a New York winter. 


219 Calle Canals

La Placita de Santurce

San Juan, PR 00907

Tel: +1 (787) 725-1611


Posted by Dana Klitzberg at Monday, February 01, 2016

ESCAPES: Chile's Central Coast: Valparaiso and Viña del Mar

At this point in the winter season, when we've all had our fill of snow and frigid temperatures, our sights turn to warmer climates and waterside escapes. One appealing antidote? Chile. And specifically, Chile's Central Coast featuring the towns of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.

After a long holiday season filled with seemingly endless work hours for both myself and my friend Jessica (a dear friend of mine from my time in Rome who returned to her childhood hometown of Providence, Rhode Island when she left Italy), we were looking for an escape. She's a jewelry designer in constant search of quirky keepsakes from her travels, which she then "translates" into original pieces of wearable art. I'm a chef in constant search of new flavors and cultures from which to draw inspiration in the kitchen. We travel well together. And we decided Chile would be the perfect spot: it offered warm weather in December and January (southern hemisphere summer), good food (ceviche!), good wine (more on that in another post), and interesting and eclectic culture and history (always a good thing for market trips, sightseeing, and interesting travel). An added bonus for me? The beach! With the help of suggestions from a dear high school friend who'd moved to Chile a few years ago, we were able to cobble together a nice 10 day vacation with work benefits built in. We began and ended our journey in the Chilean capital of Santiago (look for my Santiago dining post to come soon), but spent New Year's Eve, and several relaxing days afterwards, kicking off the new year in sunny, 85 degree weather on the Pacific. And though these two sister towns are right next to each other, they offer visitors a yin and yang of Chile's central coast.


Valparaiso ("Paradise Valley") is historically a port town -- until the Panama Canal opened, it was South America's busiest -- a working class city-on-a-hill. Actually, it's built on more than 45 hills, or cerros, which are covered with colorfully-painted houses, often constructed out of the corrugated metal torn from shipping containers, that look like candy confections tossed on undulating hills tumbling towards an azure sea. "Valpo" as it's called, is Chile's second-largest metropolitan area, and though it's on the sea, it's not a beach town. It's a somewhat chaotic jumble of South American culture and topography, Caribbean color, Germanic and Slavic immigrant influences in architecture and food, and a summertime climate that mirrors L.A. in the daytime and San Francisco at night. Confusing, yes. Eclectic, of course. And it's a lovely place to pass a few languid days recovering from New Year's Eve.

First off, I must mention Valpo's impressive fireworks display. Until the last couple of years (when a certain Middle Eastern city decided theirs needed to be the biggest and brightest on the planet), Valpo's fireworks show was the most expansive and explosive in the world. After having seen it, frankly I'm not sure I'd want one larger or longer. At just under a half an hour, and done over the C-shaped bay that runs along the Pacific coast to several towns north, the fireworks display was synchronized so you could see the grand fireworks right in front of you as well as those in the distance, all themed the same with the same colors displaying at the same time: really something to behold. We celebrated at a restaurant/bar/music hall called La Piedra Feliz, right on the water in the Errázurizneighborhood. 

It was probably the busiest area in the city that night, and knowing public transportation was sketchy for the holiday, forewarned was forearmed: we walked from our lovely apartment across town to the restaurant, and were able to see most of the waterfront area of Valpo in the process. Once we (finally!) arrived, we enjoyed a prix fixe dinner with plenty of champagne and pisco sours. We watched the fireworks out of the window of the restaurant on the second floor, and many locals were gathered on the street below us. Once we toasted to 2014, we wandered around the place -- live music and dancing were everywhere, but of course as a chef, I found my way to hanging out at the bar with the staff: our waiter and the Uruguayan chef, and some locals who were friendly and fun...and made sure we never saw the bottoms of our glasses of delicious Chilean red wine.

We were excited to eat the fresh seafood for which Chile is justly famous, so our dinner hours were spent seeking out great fish spots -- and of course for me, this trip was the "Cevichepalooza" I'd been craving, so I had it at every meal I could manage! At Oda Pacifico, we had the place practically to ourselves, and enjoyed the view out over the hills down to the water (it got windy and chilly the night we went, though it would normally be lovely to sit at a table outside on the back patio). Service here, as in most places we went, was slow but extremely warm, and our waiter advised us on what was fresh that evening. We started with a massive portion of mixed seafood ceviche with passion fruit -- two of my favorite things in the world, together in a big bowl! It was delicious, and perfect with our crisp Chilean sauvignon blanc.

Main courses couldn't live up to the ceviche, but I enjoyed a local specialty: conger eel, here grilled and served over a stew of tomatoes, corn, and peas, topped with peppery watercress. Jess had tilapia cooked in a banana leaf, with a coconut-laced sauce. Again, the portions were huge and we couldn't come close to finishing them, but we did manage to wash it all down with more vino blanco. We were on vacation, after all.

Valpo has countless great vistas from which to view the port and the water below, but one destination on a hill, and viewpoint not to be missed, is poet Pablo Neruda's local home, La Sebastiana. The cozy multi-level house resembles part of a ship and fits in perfectly among the pastel houses surrounding it. The decor is often nautically themed, and is quirky and built to entertain, much like the man himself. It's filled with glasses and plates and artwork and bric-a-brac from Neruda's world travels, and like all of his homes, there is a dedicated bar area where he would mix libations for his guests after a day of writing. The view from his home is undoubtedly inspiring.

Viña del Mar

Just next door is Valparaiso's louder, more social sibling,Viña del Mar. It is the Miami Beach of Chile, to put it in U.S. terms, and it's bustling and full of life while Valpo is relaxed and laid back. The shoreline is both rocky and sandy at turns, and the lawns and flower beds are as manicured as the high-rise hotels and condos lining the beach. There is a downtown as well, and boulevards lined with shops and malls and churches and outdoor arcades. This is no sleepy beach town, and it's been the place where locals and the wealthy and famous from Santiago come to play, where they have second homes. It lacks the character and vistas that Valparaiso has, but it makes up for that with the beauty of the coast and the lively, infectious atmosphere in its streets.

As for the food scene in Viña? Again, seafood is king here, but the variety of dining options is greater. Chile has great primary ingredients, great wine, great pisco. But as for a native cuisine, its neighbor Peru is better known. Case in point? All the ceviches. Seviche, as it's usually written here, comes in so many varieties that it makes sense to go for a sampling of types. At Sazon Peruana, we indulged in the trio at left, which included an octopus seviche with aji amarillo, the spicy Peruvian yellow pepper, as the base. We had local white fish with sweet potato and choclo, the ubiquitous oversized corn kernels. And we had salmon and shrimp with leche de tigre (the citrus juice and spice base of most seviches) with red pepper. I could have bathed in the stuff. We enjoyed mixed grilled seafood atop a salad.

Jess had the seafood soup, a slightly spicy stew of local treats from the Pacific made more substantial with yellow potatoes. And I pushed the boat out, as it were, with a light-as-air fried seafood platter (shrimp, squid, Chilean sea bass) with yucca, tartar sauce, and salsa criolla -- a topping of thinly sliced red onion, cilantro, and fresh chile pepper. The meal at the Peruvian restaurant turned out to be one of the best meals of my trip to Chile!

In Valpo, we lived like locals, renting an apartment in a residential area with a gorgeous view of the entire city from our balcony. In Viña del Mar, we went touristy -- but sometimes, you need to splurge. 

The Sheraton Miramar is perched on a rocky curve of the coast, on the way into town, and it jettisons out into the bright blue-green Pacific. All glass-and-steel, with soaring ceilings, this location was clearly built to allow guests the greatest appreciation of the sea. The shot above was taken from our balcony: the seats to the left are outdoor restaurant tables, as scenic for a seaside lunch as they are in the evening for dinner and drinks, to view the sparkling lights of the bay surrounding you. The pool overlooking the sea is a dramatic spot for sunbathing, by water both salty and fresh. Attached, there is a wonderful spa and gym where you can work up a sweat and then relax with a massage or facial. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon in January!

All in, we had a wonderful time on Chile's central coast -- not enough time, in fact. There were so many small beach towns lining the coasts both north and south of the Valpo area and we weren't staying long enough to explore them. Places like nearby Reñaca, surfer's paradise Concón, former whaling town Quintay, and the beautiful and aristocratic town of Zapallar: each offer a different taste of this stretch of the Chilean coast. We did make it to Quintero for an afternoon of lazing on the beach and eating empanadas, though it took a mini-hike to discover some less-trodden beach paths. Most of the beaches are rocky, and it's hard to get out of sight of the huge tankers that seem to be permanently parked in this part of the Pacific. But the water is beautiful and the trees and topography are stunning. Another positive? We were the only gringas in sight, always a good sign.

La Piedra Feliz

Avenida Err 1054


+56 (32) 225.6788


Oda Pacifico

Condor 35


+56 (32) 223.8836


La Sebastiana

Ferrari 692


+56 (32) 225.6606


Avenida Marina 15

Viña del Mar

+56 (32) 238.8600


Sazon Peruana

3 Norte 370 Esquina 3 1/2 Poniente

Viña del Mar

+56 (32) 319.1160

DINING OUT: Grano -- Rome, Italy

Fresh from the process of updating and rewriting the Where to Eat section of the Fodor's Rome Guide 2012, I thought I'd post an expanded and modified (and personalized) review of one of the restaurants I added to the section this year.

GRANO is a contemporary trattoria in a charming piazza around the corner from the Pantheon. Aesthetically, the white walls covered, in parts, with colorful children's drawings, give the main dining room the look of a postmodern architectural schoolhouse. 

The smaller, second dining room with the addition of bookshelves, seems the school's library. And the outdoor deck with large white umbrellas and numerous tables would, in this metaphor, be the playground. On the whole, Grano is a light and lively restaurant, serving tasty food, at not-too-steep prices, to a mostly local crowd. All good things.

The kitchen is not quite chemistry lab, but it does turn out re-invented versions of Italian dishes, both Roman and from other regions up and down the Italian peninsula. For starters, the polpette di brasato con salsa verde are smallish meatballs of the famous piemontese wine-braised beef, here pulled, breaded, and deep fried, served on a slick of bracing green sauce. It's unusual and delicious. And for traditionalists, there are portions of pristine mozzarella di bufala and marinated anchovies served simply on a few leaves of arugula with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. 

A delicious tweak of a Sicilian classic is the octopus antipasto (which could also be a primo): instead of pairing it with chickpeas or canellini beans as is the practice, a grilled baby octopus is placed atop a mound of orzo perlato, a grain -- not the pasta version of orzo -- with a bite that matches the chew of Sicilian polpo (octopus), here rendered tender by a braise before being grilled. The primi here are often standouts, including, when available, a pasta with tiny baby clams paired with asparagi di mare, know in English as sea beans. This is a delicious, fresh-tasting combination that encapsulates the brininess of the sea in every bite. 

Also looking southward -- this time Campania -- is the simple pasta dish of tiny ditalini with a vegetarian "ragu" of sundried tomatoes, Gaeta olives, mozzarella, and basil. As for secondi, they're often less interesting. Porchetta (roasted suckling pig) with rosemary potatoes should be called 'porchetta...che peccato' (what a shame) because serving a so-so version of what can be one of The Greatest Things To Eat On This Planet is a sin.

Ditto the tuna with caponatina: Sicily has some of the most prized fresh tuna on the planet, and caponata is one of the world's great traditional vegetable dishes (trumps ratatouille ANY day). Italians now need to learn how to cook said tuna, and Roman chefs could use some schooling in the ways of making sweet-and-sour eggplant-veggie-heaven the way it's meant to be made. Still, the breaded calamari is perfectly good, and with a side of broccoli or sauteed chicory, it makes a tasty main course.

Desserts here are relatively delicious, even though they don't stray far from Italian standards like tiramisu'. But the atmosphere is so pleasant, it's worth poring over the wine list to find a dessert wine or digestivo you can enjoy with your dining mates. A limoncello, or an amaro, perhaps? I liked the setting so much that I chose to have a recent birthday dinner here, surrounded by a dozen or so dear friends. We lounged and lingered, we ate, drank, and were merry.

And my lovely friends showered me with wine and prosecco and limoncello (my holy trinity?), and lots of gorgeous gifts, like the handmade earrings of breathtaking bronze freshwater pearls and jet I'm modeling in the photo below. And when all was said and done, they managed to find a tasty chocolate dessert into which they lodged a candle. I made my birthday wish -- and although it's bad luck to divulge that wish, I can say that it involves a lot more good food, great friends, and delicious fun in the future.


Piazza Rondanini 53

Roma 00186

+39 (06) 681 92 096

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Riverpark, New York City

Celebrity toque and Top Chef King of Snark Tom Colicchio quietly opened RIVERPARK, a restaurant situated on an underused stretch of the East River in Murray Hill, this past autumn. And over the course of these recent cool-into-cold months of Manhattan's fall and winter seasons, Riverpark has gained a foothold in the city's dining scene. 

Admittedly, I've always found office buildings and corporate structures to be strange settings for restaurants (which probably accounts for my propensity to head downtown to eat). The Alexandria Center is no different, except its sterile, shiny newness is in stark contrast to the surrounding old buildings and to the warmth of Riverpark once you...get past the security guards at the Center's front desk, walk down the corridor, and step inside the actual restaurant. It's decorated in handsome tones of copper, limestone, and dark blue, and its position overlooking the East River makes the interior feel modern nautical, and not necessarily very New York-y: the day these photos were shot was a damp, gray afternoon that reminded me of eating on the Thames rather than dining in Manhattan. 

Regardless, the bar is a nice place to have elegant drinks and nibbles or raw bar selections (or a full dinner) after work -- something the nabe has long been lacking. And as for the dining room itself (divided into 2 areas: one cozy interior, and one by the floor-to-ceiling glass windows), these are lovely spots for lunch or dinner, where one can enjoy a reliably good meal, professionally executed, with little fanfare and warm service. Put succinctly: Riverpark is the perfect place to come with someone you like, someone with whom you'd like to enjoy a conversation. Nothing about the place overwhelms or takes the focus off of your company, and you don't have to worry about the food disappointing. Many a spot has become an institution in this town for accomplishing less.

Now, to the food: not overly pricey (particularly for a Colicchio joint), not terribly exciting, but reliably delicious. Chef de Cuisine Sisha Ortuzar exhibits his skill honed in Colicchio's kitchens, along with his facility with market-fresh ingredients and Euro-American food with influence from The Americas (Ortuzar is Chilean). So, we can kick off our meal with a decadent starter of duck liver pate' with grilled toast and a cherry compote, or go the lighter route with a salad of field greens and lightly pickled vegetables -- or find the middle ground with a beef carpaccio with arugula and shaved parmigiano.

For seconds, try the Arctic char (replaced by branzino in the photo) with fingerling potatoes, pickled red onion, capers, and a salsa verde. The pork scaloppine with farro and wilted spinach was also delicious -- though no longer on the menu -- and the lunch item of the fried chicken sandwich with homemade potato chips (available as a bar snack) was a tasty plate of food. The pastas, like the squid ink chitarra, are well-balanced, and other meatier second dishes are accomplished as well.

Desserts tend towards updated classics-with-a-twist, as in the cinnamon panna cotta with rosemary ice cream and caramelized pumpkin seeds. The molten chocolate cake is there (with espresso gelato and burnt sesame brittle), and so is the apple crumb with cool cream to pour onto it. Classics, yes -- but with good reason.

Here's the thing: the experimentation, research, and reinvention of the wheel may be happening in this building, but in the pharmaceutical and venture capitalist offices and biotech labs upstairs -- not in the kitchen. On the ground floor at Riverpark, highly-skilled, professional execution of American and European flavors, using top-quality primary ingredients is the name of the game. That it's happening in a fairly underdeveloped slice of Manhattan overlooking a lovely spot on the East River (this should be a great locale come late spring and into summer) is all the more incentive to check out this neighborhood anomaly.

Diner: please pack your wallet and go.


450 E 29th St. New York, NY 10016




The lovely, sleepy town of Rockport, Maine is a thriving summertime destination -- despite the fact that it's not a terribly easy spot to get to, nor is it terribly inexpensive. But it is picturesque, temperate (3 months a year, anyway), and manages to strike a balance between 'Unspoiled Nature' and 'Manicured Lawn.' Rockport's sister village is Camden, which perhaps grabs a bit of the spotlight from Rockport itself, with its perfectly-preserved New England Main Street and Harbor, pretty inns and a handful of sophisticated dining spots. The owners of one of these spots, Francine's, realized that Rockport could use a locale that serves what the locals (and visitors) crave. And so, Shepherd's Pie opened last year in an old warehouse building next to an art gallery, on the main street above Rockport's harbor. And what a welcome addition to the dining scene it's proved to be.

The 'theme' of Shepherd's Pie could be labeled Sophisticated American Gastropub Fare with eclectic international touches -- though it's best to leave the idea of labels behind and just stick to the notion that Shepherd's Pie serves good food and tasty drinks in a great atmosphere. Period. The bartenders get creative with their cocktails, and they feature a few interesting concoctions each night. This included a peach-raspberry "shrub" one warm August evening -- a southern drink with rum and a fruit syrup and vinegar base that takes the edge off of a potentially too-sweet libation.

Appetizers run the gamut from fried calamari with hot peppers and herbs that's all traditional crunchy deep-fried squid with the tang and heat of Italian marinated antipasti thrown together. Also on offer is a crab ceviche (tasty, though could have used more kick from chiles), and shrimp tacos. 

Second courses include bar food like burgers, duck hot dogs (great idea!), and a pork belly sandwich that will convert any "Skinny Bitch" to Atkins devotee with the first unctuous, memorable bite. Also savory and delicious are the spice-rubbed ribs, packed with loads of concentrated flavor. 

We enjoyed the grilled pork with caramel sauce, too -- a take on Vietnamese pork ribs cooked down to sweet, sticky goodness -- but the scoops of canteloupe were a bit too one-note with the sauce. Better to amp up the contrasting flavors and add more cilantro, cucumber, and other crunchy, cool elements. But overall, the menu that globe-hops is a success in its comforting flavors and generous portions. We're sure the desserts are tasty as well, but we only had room for liquid left: a dessert of Dark and Stormies? Yes, we can. Perfectly sweet enough to send us off along the harbor, to bed.

Restaurant Review: LOCANDA VERDE (New York, NY)


Tribeca isn’t lacking in great eateries, but this Italian straddling the rustic/refined line is a welcome addition to the nabe. It’s many things to many people: a great lunch spot for the eclectic local work crowd, and a relaxed crowd-pleaser in the evening – the kind of place where expense accounters, local celebrities, and Manhattanites from further afield come for a reliably delicious Italian-esque meal. Renowned pastry chef Karen DeMasco (formerly of Gramercy Tavern) even turns out pastries and savory-sweet goodies for breakfast. The style is a mix of authentic, accomplished Italian food – traditional dishes tweaked ever-so-slightly for the local palate, or the chef’s amusement, or both – with Italian-American comfort food staples like Chef Andrew Carmellini’s  “ grandmother’s ravioli.”

The dining room is a series of different spaces, cavernous yet warm, with ultra-high ceilings more reminiscent of farmhouses in Umbria or the Maremma than a converted industrial space in downtown Manhattan. I headed to the ladies room at one point, and as I descended the stairs I was immediately swept away to an upscale dining experience (or a combination of experiences) I'd had in Umbria, Tuscany, and Le Marche, both by the aesthetics of the space and the smell of a wood-burning fireplace I'd not smelled anywhere outside of Italy. (I'm still puzzled as to where that exact smell was emanating from, and how...)

To begin to sate your appetite, start with a crostino appetizer like the simple sheep’s milk ricotta with herbs, or go for the Sardines in saor (a classic Venetian dish) – wonderfully paired with homemade focaccia that’s lifted with the addition of lemon. A classic fritto misto is made all’Americano with Ipswich clams and rock shrimp, species native to these shores of the Atlantic. Then, pull yourself away from the appetizers, since the pasta is well worth saving room for. Those aforementioned ravioli are delicious (and, we suspect, much lighter than Carmellini’s grandmother’s original version). So are the orechiette with broccoli rabe and duck sausage, a sauce more pesto-light than anything, lacking both the kick and bitterness of the signature pasta preparation of Puglia, but tasty anyway. Sides include a delicious sauteed spinach with chickpeas and ricotta salata (see photo).

The stuffed mountain trout (photo at right) main course with lentils and pancetta is in homage to landlocked Umbria, and beautifully presented. The garlic chicken is a simple, wonderful joy, meriting the inclusion on the menu of a fowl usually limited to staff meals in Italian restaurants. And when the porchetta sandwich is available…well, just make sure you order it. Period.

At left, savory thin-sliced porchetta  with caramelized onions and vinegar-cured peppers, spices...fantastico.

Desserts are well-executed if a little staid, but desserts were never a strong point of Italian cuisine. With DeMasco’s talents (and they’re evident in the savory breads and the like coming out of the kitchen), I’d like to see her apply some of that Midwestern sensibility that Carmellini wields so successfully, tothe desserts. If there’s one thing the American tradition has perfected – well beyond the Italian tradition – it’s sweets.




377 Greenwich St (corner of N. Moore and Greenwich).