Jan 24, 2010

El Patron Round Two

Went back to El Patron Friday night to expound on my first assessment and try something new from the menu. Consider my original viewpoint reinforced.

The dining room was quite busy when we walked in. No surprise. It was Friday night. We got lucky and two people sitting at the bar were seated shortly after we arrived, so we snatched their seats and ordered two margaritas for further reconnaissance on the recipe. Turns out they were telling the truth: no Jose Cuervo mix here, but nothing special, either. The bartender last night used a heavy amount of tequila, a little triple sec and a little Rose's lime juice. No fresh lime juice. Too bad.

A few sips in, we were seated in a comfortable booth, near the spot we had last time (I have yet to be seated upstairs in the two story restaurant). It took almost no time to decide on the Enchiladas de Mole - three chicken-filled corn tortillas topped with chocolaty, deeply flavorful mole sauce and, as you can see, absolutely smothered Mexican cheese.

If you haven't had mole before, I highly suggest it, if the idea of its slightly sweet chocolate background flavor doesn't sound off-putting to your sensibilities. It's a labor-intensive, thick, dark sauce made from peppers and spices, grounds nuts or seeds and Mexican chocolate and is one of the most deep and complex tastes I've ever encounered. El Patron's was quite tasty, as was the shredded chicken inside the tortillas.

Fully stuffed after two Tostaditas covered in generous heapings of guacamole (the Guacamole con Tostaditas appetizer) and two enchiladas, I happily gave in to temptation and gobbled down the third enchilada, pushing my stomach past reasonable limits. If there was a fourth one there, I'd have demolished it, as well. There was something about the flavor of that mole against the moist, savory chicken that turned off the sensor in my brain that says "enough". They're absolutely scrumptious.

Decent margarita, simple but satisfying guac and intensely rich mole enchiladas. El Patron upholds its two napkin rating.
El Patron on Urbanspoon

Jan 18, 2010

El Patron: Good Competition on the Blvd

I asked my wife today, after having been to El Patron with our friends Erica, Tyson and I last weekend, why she had been hesitant to go for so long despite my insistence that it was quite good. Her response: "Because I've been to enough Mexican restaurants on the Boulevard, I didn't think I really needed another one."

Immediately, I find a key omission in that quote: a positive descriptor. Note, she doesn't say good or fantastic Mexican restaurants. Like so many of us who flock to Southwest Boulevard when that Mexican craving sets in, she was settling for the mainstays: Ponak's, Margarita's, Sol Azteca... there are already so many choices! And it's precisely that apathy for quality Mexican food that has allowed these places to thrive for so long despite mediocrity in their quality of food, service and atmosphere.

For some time I've been not-so-silently disparaging these places, Ponak's the most, and trying to encourage my friends and family to upgrade. My pleas were finally heard last weekend and I believe my followers saw the light (please disregard the self-aggrandizing, almost biblical comparison in that last sentence).

To El Patron we went, one of the last nights in the past couple of weeks when the temps were at their coldest. I remember commenting on our short walk from the car to the front door about the numbing effect that sets in when temps fall below 20 degrees: from the teens to the negatives, it's all the same at that point. Cold.

What a pleasing, warm feeling, then, walking in the front door of El Patron. Immediate reactions, if you're used to the other spots on the Boulevard, are that it feels like such an upgrade. Whereas Ponak's, directly across the street, features dated wood-paneled walls from the 70's and a claustrophobia-inducing low ceiling, El Patron feels like an trendy loft with its exposed brick walls and sky-high ceiling.

The tall custom-made bar is nicely lit and features one classy and appropriately-sized flat screen TV, conveniently placed for those possibly eating alone but not intruding into the rest of the dining room where friends and families focus on one another.

And rather than framed pictures of chili peppers or 25 year old photos of the owners standing with pseudo celebrities who passed through long ago but clearly have upgraded to a new favorite spot, El Patron's walls are adorned with actual art! What a concept!

The menu items are in keeping with the touch of class the rest of the place exhibits. Sure, pretty much every Mexican restaurant in town has a collection of some authentic dishes and some Americanized grub, but El Patron devotes a whole section of their menu to the good stuff - traditional Mexican dinners like Carne Asada and Enchiladas de Mole. And for those tempted to go straight to the usual tacos or burritos, the first three items found are totally unexpected seafood-based dishes like marinated, lightly cooked shrimp and baby octopus - Ceviche de Pulpo y Camarones. Tortas are listed in this section, as well,  which are delicious Mexican sandwiches, usually featuring rich meats like chorizo.

In this case, I opted for their Torta Mexicana (no picture - it was too dark for my iPhone to photo to turn out) featuring flattened, seared Ribeye steak with avocado, jalapenos, lettuce, tomato, mayo and Mexican cheese (doesn't say exactly what kind). This massive sandwich is served on French bread which makes for a very pleasurable carrier, adept at sopping up the meat's juices, melted cheese, squishing avocado, etc. With rice and, what I would call the best refried beans in town, on the side, I was too full to even attempt eating the second half of the torta.

The ribeye was, as expected, a little chewy. I could have taken it seared a little more rare, but the texture of the meat was still very passable. I'd definitely order this product again based on great taste and reasonable value ($10.25 - for ribeye and avocado - not bad).

Chips and salsa were refreshed even while we ate our entrees. The chips were as good as anyone else's in town; nice rounded triangles with just enough heft not to snap in the salsa. Two salsas are provided including spicy and mild. The spicy is the clear star with good chunks of peppers and onion. It has a great combo of sweetness from the tomato balancing the onion and peppers. Our friends, who claimed not to be big fans of spicy food, loved it, so I'm led to believe it's "safely spicy."

We each had a margarita with dinner, as well, with salt and on the rocks. There were mixed reactions. Our friends agreed with me that they were oddly one-note and lacking sweetness. Elizabeth extolled hers for not being made with one of those acrid mixes (we quizzed our server on whether the margaritas were fresh or from a mix. She acted as though she was completely unfamiliar with the concept of margarita mix. Good sign). I agreed that those mixes are as offensive as battery acid, but still would've liked a little more triple sec and lime. Oh, and yes, they were - since you are wondering - plenty strong, too.

Back to the food: Elizabeth had the fish tacos. Here, again, came a generous portion of three breaded, fried fish-filled tortillas, cabbage and other typical dressing items. All tacos are served on the customer's choice of corn or flour tortilla. She liked them but didn't find them to be anything special. My one bite provided little to which I can react and write but I found nothing in it to discourage me from trying them myself sometime.

Erica and Tyson seemed equally pleased with their selections. Throughout dinner I waited for them to make a trip to the restroom so I could steal a bite from their plates, but this occasion did not present itself.

Throughout the evening, our service was quite good. Not only did our server stay on top of the chips and salsa situation, but the young man filling drinks returned just at the right times. And from our seat near the kitchen door, I constantly kept and eye on the floor manager who busily monitored the floor and staff like a hawk. She was clearly a dedicated employee, vested in the success of the restaurant. Perhaps, even better, an owner. And I appreciated her dedication.

I consider this post to be an incomplete review of El Patron, overall. I've only been twice, compared to having been to several of the other places on the Boulevard many times over. A torta and a bite of a fish taco is hardly the necessary sampling upon which to accurately judge a Mexican restaurant. So I'll return soon and report back on what I find.

But I hope this review does at least convey the important qualities that struck me as so obvious on my recent trip: it's more authentic, far classier, and provides its guests a much more rewarding dining experience than its SWBLVD neighbors. There are times when I don't need to pay a few more bucks for better atmosphere and service (read: my delightful experience at Chelly's). But, even with such little exposure to El Patron so far, I can still submit that it is, unlike its neighbors, a great "destination dinner". So go ahead. Make a night of it. The other boys on the block have something to worry about.

Rating: two napkins
El Patron on Urbanspoon

Jan 16, 2010

Julian: The New Heart of Brookside

The most talked about restaurant in Kansas City right now, easily, is the casual little place in the heart of Brookside called Julian. I set my sights on the place more than a month ago, and we finally honed in on it last weekend.

If you didn't already know, Julian is the new offering from award winning chef Celina Tio (on twitter), formerly of The American Restaurant and of James Beard Best Chef Midwest fame. We scheduled our reservation for Saturday night at 8:15. Elizabeth didn't think there would be anyone else there due to the weather and that we were picking a slightly later time slot, but when we arrived it was absolutely packed. We were early, so we squeezed ourselves into a nook in the bar area, just around the corner from the hosts' stand, ordered a glass of wine, and began observing.

First impressions were that the place was quite small, decoration surprisingly minimal, noise level high but not absurd. And it smelled guuuhd. The dining room screams "look at your scrumptious food" not "look at our... walls!".

From our nook we had time and proper vantage to contemplate our seating options, and agreed to take a hard-line stance that if the staff tried to put us in one of the four front-most tables by the entrance, we'd ask to wait for something better.

Sitting in any of those tables would have ruined our night. I guess someone's got to sit there but with so much traffic whizzing by, and the front door opening constantly, letting in the elements, it would have been incredibly frustrating. As we hooked pinkies, bonding our agreement, Chef Tio herself stuck her head around the corner, grinned and said, "your table's ready!" Great, I thought. No pushing back when the chef is seating you.

Thank goodness Elizabeth has more backbone than me, because the table we were headed to was the worst - right in the middle of the front dining room, too close to the front door, next to the hosts' stand and in the opening between the bar and the kitchen. Might as well have been in the middle of the Grandview Triangle. Upholding our bond, Elizabeth politely requested the table back in the corner that was just opening up. I nodded silently in an impressive show of solidarity. Chef Tio obliged. Phew!

Next observations were focused on the menu. It was nice and small, which I expected and was honestly glad to see. The idea of doing a few things really well always appeals to me more than trying to have something for everyone, which this menu may still have accomplished with its assortment of familiar but innovatively executed American dishes.

Starters: ruling out the salads (we eat too many lettuce salads), we landed on the house-smoked salmon on potato-chive pancake, quickly agreeing it was a solid choice. We were famished after hanging out among the aromas from the kitchen for a half hour, and the rich mayonnaised salmon was plentiful and satisfying. The pancake was hardly noticeable but its chives added a bright hint of flavor against the salmon, as did the crispy fried capers.  I'd order this again, robbing myself of the chance to try the other delicious-sounding starters on the menu which should tell you something about how much I liked it.

As I perused more of the menu, and took in the surroundings, I was taken by just how casual Julian was. I knew it was supposed to be a relatively casual place but as I looked around, I noticed Chef Tio, herself, was in jeans, as was the rest of the staff, most of whom were also wearing Julian t-shirts. I'd worn a typical work outfit - dressier jeans, collared shirt and sweater - but I'd feel totally comfortable returning in tennis shoes and everyday jeans, so long as I appeared pressed and clean. Don't show  up in a dress or jacket. Too pretentious for Julian. And there's something refreshing about that.

Another unexpectedly casual thing: sandwiches on the dinner menu - a choice of chicken, cheeseburger or pulled pork. Deciding that trying a restaurant's burger ($13) is a good way to gain insight on the motives of the chef, we ordered one, medium, with the works - lettuce, sweet red onion slices, shrooms, bacon, cheddar and - because "why not?" - a fried egg (see this post for a related comment on fried eggs). This turned out to be a remarkably wise choice.

I opted for a no-meat dish: pappardelle with organic squash, brown butter and sage ($15) because, admittedly, I was hopeful the portion would be large. I'd seen a few plates come out of the kitchen while at the bar including the short ribs and basted beef. Exquisite plates but small-ish. I was too hungry for that on this night.

Side dish offerings are not well varied but are exceedingly well priced: $4 for grits, onion rings, french fries, cheesy broccoli, or mac & cheese. I'd have appreciated something with a little crunch to go with my pasta, and the burger was already coming with fries. But wanting to sample at least one of the sides, I went with grits. I've enjoyed grits my whole life but have only had them in restaurants a few times, so I was interested to see Chef Tio's take on them.

It took very little time for the orders to come  back, and as soon as we saw the food, we were happy customers. The burger was one of the most appetizing things I had ever seen - a thick patty of sizzling beef topped with bacon lardons, sauteed mushrooms, rings of vibrant red onion, and a big, glistening fried egg.

The burger was cooked to a perfect medium - bright pink in the very center, but otherwise fully cooked. No blood oozing out of the meat. As our friendly server set it down, she commented that the burger was the envy of the kitchen staff and we were lucky it made it out to our table. This amused me greatly as I was feeling a slight bit of shame for ordering something as ordinary as a burger at a restaurant with such a high caliber chef.

A few minutes later, Chef Tio came by to check on us and mentioned the same thing! They were right, it was a great looking burger and it really did taste fantastic. So juicy and rich. The chunks of bacon were my only point of criticism. Of course they tasted fine - bacon always does - but not crispy at all. So they blended in with the shrooms and made me wish I had omitted one or the other. The heap of fries disappeared rapidly, and their house-made ketchup was even good! (So often, they're not. Runny, pulpy, lacking sweetness...). Overall a terrific burger. See my following comment for a comparison to Blanc, a four napkin burger restaurant I've previously reviewed.)

My pappardelle, too, was the exact dish for which I was hoping, and hit a personal culinary sweet spot. Wide, flat, soft noodles came in a steaming bowl with nothing more than cubes of orange butternut squash, toasted seeds (of unknown origin, though I'm guessing they were the squash seeds... or sunflower seeds), fried sage and butter. This was a daringly simple dish, especially with just butter as a sauce, but it was, nonetheless, delicious and hugely satisfying.

Chef Tio had no way of knowing, but when I was younger and, on spaghetti night, we ran out of sauce but I was still hungry, my mom would give me more pasta with a pad of butter on top, which I loved. For a while, I even shunned sauce, preferring the simple butter and pasta, perhaps one of the most comforting plates of food in my sensory memory.

Today, I noticed that this menu item has been replaced with pasta and meat sauce, so perhaps other diners or the chef, herself, grew tired of this dish. All I can say is that, to me, it was a home run.

My grits were the low-light of the evening. Julian had managed to accomplish the nearly impossible - adding too much cream to the grits, creating a flavorless white soup with very little texture or tooth. Yes, all right, yes: I ate every last bite of them. But that says more of my gluttony than it does of the preparation of the grits. I'd recommend a few things: less cream, a higher percentage of cheese and the choice of jalapeno. The grits were uninspired.

Neither Elizabeth nor I was the least bit hungry when desserts were offered, but at just four dollars, we couldn't turn them down! Our baked chocolate "puddin'" with a ginger doughnut was easily the best chocolate pudding I'd ever had (my apologies for not having remembered to shoot a photo) . Maybe that's not saying much, but the texture was nice and airy, but creamy at the same time. Not too gelatinous, the way I've found pudding before. Even better, crunchy crystals of sea salt rested atop the puddin' and provided a fantastic flavor and texture contrast to make the pudding more interesting.

The doughnut was pretty dry, the way gulab jamun usually is at Indian restaurants. I guessed that it was probably fried earlier in the evening and kept warm under a heat lamp. It could have benefited greatly from having been freshly fried and piping hot.

In summation, I found Julian to be not just a remarkably good restaurant, but a new treasure in the city and a place that will, I think, serve as the beating heart of Brookside for as long as it remains open. It's a friendly neighborhood place in the middle of a friendly neighborhood with appropriate menu items at a great price. With attention to the right details - the food itself and pricing wine, desserts and sides modestly to ensure diners have a full, enjoyable experience - Julian is poised for success.  I will return soon and often.

Rating: three napkins

Julian on Urbanspoon

Jan 5, 2010

5 Guys: Eh. It's a chain.

Over the holidays, Elizabeth and I went down to 123rd street and picked up my good friend Tyler for lunch before he flew back to Chicago. We hadn't been able to squeeze in as long of a visit with him as we'd wanted, so were making the best of just having lunch together, the underlying point being that lunch was not about the food. It was about catching up and having a casual atmosphere in which to talk and enjoy our short time together.

Tyler suggested the first thing that came to mind: a chain burger joint called 5 guys. Being out of our element (midtown), we were game for whatever Tyler suggested, so off we went to this place that reportedly had "amazing" burgers.

Walking in, patrons are greeted with huge bags of the potatoes the restaurant uses to make their better-than-average french fries. As you wait on your order, stick your mitts into one of the open boxes of salty peanuts, and have a few. Nowhere to put your shells? No worries - just toss them on the floor. (Don't mistake my facetious attitude here for acceptance. I actually hate this dirty little idea. It's gross... straight up.)

Ordering is a cinch. Choose a burger or, if you're a weirdo, a hot dog. There are a couple sandwiches on the menu, but - I mean - really?? I opted for the bacon cheeseburger with lettuce, grilled onion, ketchup, mustard and pickle, with a side of fries.

These are thick-cut fries... not artfully done, but they do have a decent crispness to the outer friend shell and lots of pillowy russet goodness. I didn't finish the whole portion, which tells you something about where they stack up.

The burgers were served, to our surprise, with two thick patties of beef. And somehow, between those fatty beef patties and the ooey gooey American cheese melting all over the place, I hardly noticed (read: tasted) any of the other toppings. No crunch from the lettuce or bacon. No contrasting texture or flavor. Just softness and grease.

Eating this burger was not a bad experience, but it wasn't a good one either. Before I was even done eating, I had a clear assessment of 5 Guys: it's a step up from a Back Yard Burger - still a chain but with a better burger - but a big step down from my favorite burger in town - Blanc. Yeah, the prices are lower than at Blanc, but I don't go out for a burger often. And I can make a good burger myself. So if I am going to go spend time and money at a burger place, it needs to be special, and something I'm not going to whip up on my own grill. 5 Guys didn't give me that.

Bottom line - it's not prize winner but whaddya expect? It's a chain. 

Rating: one napkin

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Jan 3, 2010

Chez Elle: Tres Ordinaire

I was hoping for great things out of Chez Elle, the new French-themed coffee house and creperie I visited Wednesday morning at the burgeoning intersection of 17th and Summit west of downtown and the Crossroads. This intersection has become one of the coolest little pockets of businesses in town, now home to The Westside LocalBlue Bird Bistro and Fervere bakery. Given the standard set by these establishments, I figured Chez Elle would fit right in. What I found turned out to be something a little too ordinary.

Walking in, we found ourselves behind two other parties in line for placing orders. All customers must wait in line to order regardless of whether they came for food or coffee. Ten minutes later, we were still standing there waiting to order. One simple recommendation to the Chez Elle staff as they work out their new-restaurant service kinks: employ a host/hostess and small wait staff so diners can sit quickly and order food from their table instead of having to standing in what should be just the coffee line.

Regarding the food and drink, let's start with the coffee. Now, I live in the West Plaza area, surrounded by the city's best coffee shops (Hi Hat, Broadway, Roasterie, et al), so I knew the coffee at Chez Elle wouldn't be the main attraction for me, but hoped that it would at least be decent. Unfortunately, Chez Elle commits a grievous error with their coffee drinks: assuming that all patrons will enjoy their légèreté des mains addition of ground nutmeg. Woof.

I have three rules when it comes to coffee: be hot, be rich, do NOT be sweet or secretly spiced. Nutmeg violates the latter of these rules. It overpowers the natural nuances of the beans and gives the coffee a strangely unctuous aroma (marijuana-like?!?!) and tea flavor. After a few sips, I forgot it was coffee I was drinking. Next time I'll opt for an unadulterated espresso drink instead of the drip.

The food menu, however, is absolutely tantalizing. Every single one of the options listed on the classy black chalkboards (many more than what their online menu indicates) sounds delicious. On this trip, we opted for one savory (Legume), one that would be a little sweeter (Le Franco) and a soup - French Onion... what else?

The soup arrived first, with a great aroma strong on whatever alcohol was employed (my guess is sherry). The broth was a little light - could have used a higher proportion of consume - but quite savory. Tasty. The croutons used were small but crunchy. The shredded Swiss eventually became gooey, but was added to the hot soup on its way out of the kitchen instead of being heated in an oven prior to service, so I had to wait a bit for it to melt and felt ripped off by the shortcut. Overall the soup was successful, but with the restaurant's French bent, I was hoping it would have been another level above what it was.

I started with Le Franco - a warm, eggy crepe filled with caramelized siced apples, brie and fig compote, topped with a drizzle of creme and enough walnuts to convince me they actually lose money serving this dish at $7.95. The ingredients were all tasty, but like a Chipotle burrito, didn't get mixed evenly through. So a couple bites were terrific, but others were imbalanced. Still, I'd order it again.

The Legume came filled with fresh tomato, spinach leaves, mushrooms and artichokes. All of these elements were added to the cooking crepe raw and only heated partially. Weren't seasoned at all, either. The end result was a little bland, luke-warm and watery. I wouldn't order this again, but as I write this, I feel like the description makes it sound somehow worse than it actually was.

So, lessons learned with regard to the food and coffee: avoid the legume or other crepes with cold vegetables. Avoid drip coffee and keep a close eye on the barista to ensure no nutmeg is shaken into espresso drinks. These tips employed, a fine breakfast or lunch can be had.

The final disappointingly ordinary aspects of Chez Elle were the ambiance and decor. I'd hoped for a touch of the history of the neighborhood or the old Summit Theater building - the building that Chez Elle occupies - but instead found myself in a rather strangely decorated, polished new establishment, instead.

From the new tile floor, to the ugly couch pillows, to the weird collection of lamps and furniture, it was a bit of a head-scratcher. And for a French-themed coffee shop, where I hoped to linger comfortably in a classy Provence-inspired aesthetic, I just couldn't overcome the feeling of disappointment. I'm sure many people will go and find Chez Elle's interior perfectly acceptable, if not pleasant.  But to me, kitschy Eiffle towers everywhere I looked, gimmicky indoor fountains and cheap-looking shiny new leather furniture made the place feel like something created by a fan of France, not someone actually from there.

With a long list of great sounding crepes at reasonable prices, I can safely recommend Chez Elle as a satisfactory alternative breakfast/lunch spot. Just don't go during a busy work week lunch hour, as I feel the weight and service will be nightmarish. Save your trips there for lazy weekend mornings, watch out for nutmeg, and take good company or a good book to focus your attention on, and you'll leave having enjoyed the experience.

Rating: one napkin

Chez Elle on Urbanspoon

Jan 2, 2010

New Tavern on Main: Jack Gage

In my previous post on Spin!, I mentioned that the East and West sides of Main street between 49th and 51st have become much improved of late, with several new bar and restaurants opening.

I popped into Jack Gage American Tavern at 5031 Main in the old Double Dragon location Wednesday night with my wife and her sister, Abby, to see what it was like inside and determine if we would want to go back to eat sometime.

Walking in, Jack Gage feels more like a restaurant than a bar. To the left are lots of tables and sturdy wood chairs. There are a couple TV's but not so many that it feels like a real sports bar. Lots of dark wood and dark colors... rich and inviting, but still felt pretty new. Carpeting is pretty dorky - kinda corporate feeling. Our seat by the front windows, next to the door were loud and a little cold, but when the weather is less frigid outside, I suspect it would have been quite comfortable.

The crown jewel of the tavern, though, and reason for its name, is the painted wood cutout that encases the bar. According to our server, it was purchased by the bar's owners from an auction, and was once the sign used when Jack Gage traveled town to town in England back in the early 1900's, promoting  boxing events. It's a neat touch that helps bring out the theme of the bar.

Framed photos of historic moments in boxing cover the rest of the walls in the restaurant and are a nice, classy touch, but I still felt like there was more that should have been done to carry through the theme of the restaurant. The cutout on the bar is so cool the rest of the dining room seems unfinished.

Surprisingly, there is a nice bar upstairs, as well, with more cozy seating. It wasn't being used that night but when I stumbled upon it on my way to the restaurant, I gasped... it looked like the perfect area for a little private party. Very cozy and private, but accommodating, too. I'm racking my brain for reasons to suggest using it for an upcoming event.

Unfortunately, the drink prices were a little high. At happy hour, we were still paying $3.50 for Boulevard drafts - not bad but you can do better on Blvd in this town - and import beers are $5.00 or more. It reminded me of another pub in town, O'Dowd's, which strikes me as equally overpriced. The beer and wine list were extensive, though, including the Boulevard Smokestack Series. I was impressed, but due to prices, I can't see this place turning into my favorite neighborhood bar (I'd rather be across the street at the Peanut, in fact).

Didn't eat anything but the menu looked pretty disappointing. Fried and fatty were the themes, true to most pub food but not special enough to get me to bite. The owner also owns Baja 600 on the Plaza, which stunts my optimism that there is much promise for improvement at Jack Gage (I've never had a great meal at Baja).

In the end, I don't see myself returning anytime soon unless I hear that the prices come down or the menu changes. The restaurant's ambiance wasn't special enough to overcome the sting to the wallet and there are better alternatives in the area. The food looked equally pricey and like a collective yawn. Let's see how long it lasts...

Rating: No Rating
El Patron on Urbanspoon

Jan 1, 2010

Take Spin! for a...

This time of year, almost nothing sounds more appealing for dinner than pizza. Nothing smells better than the scent of a pizzeria when you open the front doors and bread, tomato and oregano come pouring out into the stale, cold air. Nothing feels better than a cozy booth, a glass of red wine and the roar of the fire in the kitchen's huge oven.

I have to admit, I've been cheating on the concept of a city-wide artisanal pizza comparison because I haven't come up with a good enough list of local places that meet the criteria. Twice, recently, my mistress has been Spin! Neapolitan Pizza on Main street.

This section of Main between 49th and 51st streets has turned into a cool little strip of restaurants and bars and Spin! is right in the middle of it all, with its own sparkling new dining room. The layout of the restaurant is nice - the entrance features a spread of their $18 bottles of wine - a great idea for a casual place like this - and giant menu boards. 

Seating in the high-ceilinged room includes a mixture of small tables, larger conjoined tables and booths clinging to the outer wall made of painted cinder blocks. The decor is modern sleek and industrial (think Chipotle goes Italian), with nods to cycling like light fixtures made with bicycle gear sprockets and their cycling-themed logo painted into the murals on the walls.

Behind the front counter is the cavernous oven. It's not wood-fire or made of brick, but is the type that that you slide the pie into and out of on a long-handled board, rather than the typical stainless steel conveyor belt type. No pan required, which allows the flour-dusted crust to char and crunch rather than coming out wet and flimsy. It's a good crust, similar to Blue Grotto. I'd like the bottom of the crust to be a little more cracker-like and the top to have softer, pillowy pockets rather than being quite so cardboard-like, so it's not perfect, but still good.

Pizzas are categorized as Pizza Rosa and Pizza Bianca, and feature well-assembled compilations of ingredients, like The Patate - roasted potato, Italian bacon, roasted red peppers, goat cheese and scallions.

On my last two visits, we enjoyed the Pollo Arrosto e Chevre (roasted chicken and goat cheese with caramelized mushrooms and cremini mushrooms), the Cipolla e Chevre (roasted and caramelized onions and goat cheese with  fig jam and fresh mozzarella) and the super-savory Oliva e Carcioffo (olives, roasted artichokes, caramelized onions and capers). I've also had and would recommend the Salsiccia (Italian sausage and caramelized onions) and Polpette (meatballs with caramelized onions and mushrooms). I enjoyed every single bite of each of these pizzas.

The salads are exceptional, too... certainly a cut above what you find at the vast majority of restaurants in the city, including many much higher priced restaurants. We absolutely love the Sonoma and recommend it the highest - beautiful red leaf lettuce and tender baby spinach with grape halves, thin slices of crisp apples, raisins, goat cheese and chopped, sweet-glazed pecans. It's quite sweet, but the blood orange vinaigrette's tart bite keeps it from going over-the-top. The Greek is also delicious, but get the Sonoma for sure.

Spin! is one of those few restaurants that blends its offerings in a way that makes it enjoyable to almost everyone. It's quick and casual, but still special enough to be a good date restaurant. It's inexpensive, but not cheap-feeling. Ingredients are high quality and more unique than the typical lineup available from pizzerias, but not weird at all. So while the level of cuisine or sophistication of its ambiance may not rival that of my other three napkin restaurants in town, Spin! finds itself there among very good company. Check it out soon.

Rating: three napkins

SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza on Urbanspoon
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...