El Barrio Restaurant Reviews
Would appreciate your thoughts on the opening phrase ("in what was once called Spanish Harlem") in the review on Itzocan Bistro (see below). Thanks.
Mexican-French Relations Fare Well in a Kitchen
NY Times, May 19, 2004
If you are wondering why a restaurant that calls itself a Mexican-French bistro has opened at 101st Street and Lexington Avenue in what was once called Spanish Harlem, it makes all the sense in the world.
This stretch of Lexington, which 25 years ago was a center for Puerto Rican culture, is now dominated by Mexican grocers, bakeries and humble taquerias. Where better to push the boundaries of Mexican cuisine than in what has become a Mexican neighborhood? And who better to do it than Anselmo Bello, who with his brother, Fermin, opened Itzocan Bistro two months ago?
Anselmo Bello, the chef, first pushed the boundaries 16 years ago, when he arrived from Puebla and got his first cooking job in New York at Bernard's Organic French Cuisine on Avenue C in the East Village. No restaurants were on Avenue C back then, and patrons brave enough to make the trek were comforted by Bernard's frosted-glass windows, which saved them from having to see any unappetizing street activity.
Since then, Mr. Bello has cooked in a number of restaurants, including a six-year stint at Max & Moritz, a bistro in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that has closed. Three years ago the Bellos opened Itzocan Café, a tiny Mexican restaurant in the East Village with a few French touches. They've gone much further at their uptown place, replacing tortillas on the table with bread, and rice with potatoes.
No frosted windows are needed at Itzocan Bistro, a boxy little corner restaurant that looks out onto sparsely traveled streets. The tile floor is old and scarred, and the tables and chairs are nothing fancy, but Mexican candelabras and a portrait of Frida Kahlo add warm touches. The service is hospitable.
Mr. Bello's cooking is quiet and engaging. He takes the bistro repertory and adds Mexican touches that tweak the dishes in unexpected directions but do not overwhelm them. Nor does he settle for easy choices. He'll offer a chayote gratin, but no French fries. Typical of Mr. Bello's gentle approach is an appetizer of steamed mussels ($8), subtly different in their spicy broth of tequila, lime juice and serrano chilies. A disk of goat cheese ($6) is warmed and plopped down on a bed of greens, but its spicing of epazote and jalapeños adds a delicious nutlike flavor that makes it hard to stop eating.
I loved a special of mushrooms and huitlacoche ($6), whipped into a feathery light flan, with just enough truffle oil to enhance its earthy flavor, while a fine soup of pumpkin and shrimp ($5) comes alive with a dollop of crema fresca spiked with smoky chipotle chili.
Perhaps the least Mexican dish of all was a special of half-moon-shaped shrimp ravioli ($6) in a creamy white wine sauce. Perhaps I imagined a little burst of chili heat? I'd eat this anywhere, unlike a duck confit and mushroom quesadilla ($7), which bogs down with gluey Brie.
Main courses are almost all winners, and modestly priced, too. It's hard to imagine a better roast chicken ($14) than Itzocan's, crisp and juicy with a tangy tomatillo sauce and potatoes mashed with corn, and I can't remember enjoying a piece of filet mignon ($16) as much either. This cut, normally tender but dull, was full of flavor and made even better by its deep, complex red-wine-and-chipotle sauce.
Red snapper ($15), crusted with crunchy pumpkin seeds, arrived moist with all its delicate flavor intact, while duck breast ($14), too, is just right, juicy and pleasantly gamy with a crisp exterior. Seafood pozole ($15), a pot of spicy broth thick with hominy, mussels, shrimp and fish, was perhaps the dish truest to the Mexican flavorings of corn and chilies. A meaty pork chop ($14) was overcooked.
Mr. Bello applies his techniques to desserts ($5 each), with excellent results. A pineapple crème brûlée is actually refreshing, while a tequila-lime tart is lively and not too sweet. A pot de crème, made with Kahlua and brown sugar, tastes like pure caramel, while a chocolate-pear tart is sumptuous.
Itzocan Bistro does not serve chips and salsa, and does not have a liquor license. An application is in the works, but it is just for wine and beer, meaning no margaritas will be served, frozen. With those most obvious symbols gently but firmly omitted, Itzocan Bistro requires one to reassess what makes a restaurant Mexican. One thing is sure: further research will be a pleasure.
Rao's City Views (NY Times)
Macaroni, Gravy and Hardwood Floors
By Jeff Vandam
NY Times, January 2, 2005
There are bigger, fancier and gaudier tables in other parts of town. There are more expensive tables, even ones with plasma-screen televisions built into them. But no table is harder to get than a table at Rao's in East Harlem, the most venerable fortress of pasta and gravy in all New York. If you're lucky, you may someday get a seat at the bar.
It has been this way for decades at the corner of East 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, an avenue fabled for the mobsters who once haunted its six-block stretch. Yet in a few months' time, perhaps you, too, can have a table at Rao's.
Yes, there's a catch: you'll have to provide your own. Another catch: you won't technically be able to sit in the restaurant. But starting this spring, what you can do is rent a fully appointed luxury apartment just a few stories up.
Twenty-two apartments are under construction above the restaurant, its brilliant red facade overtaken by an exoskeleton of scaffolding. A sign urges passers-by to rent a place there and "Live Above a Legend."
The building, once home to the ancestors of Frank Pellegrino and Ron Straci, Rao's co-owners, is called Rao's City Views, and the units in its seven stories will offer marble bathrooms, granite kitchens and perhaps the aroma of sauce and peppers simmering downstairs.
"Thirty years ago, I said to my uncle, 'You boarded up the buildings; let's do something,' " said Mr. Straci, who is managing the apartment project. But at that time, rents on Pleasant Avenue, once a bustling Little Italy in its own right, were too low, and nothing happened.
These days, newcomers are charging up the No. 6 line and into East Harlem, buying up apartments and opening stores. "On every block, something is being renovated or rebuilt," Mr. Straci said. So two years ago, he began his dream project. A model apartment will be ready this month.
As for the restaurant, whose reputation was burnished further after a small-time mobster fatally shot a customer last December, it is not being altered in any way.
There have been some close calls, though. At one point, one of Mr. Straci's engineers requested permission to install a support beam in the middle of the dining room. That request was not granted.
The restaurant's regulars, with whom Mr. Straci chats nightly, have begun asking questions, but they aren't angry or upset - they want to know how big the apartments are and how much they will cost. (One- and two-bedrooms are $1,800 and up.)
Some people have shown interest in renting, which would provide them with the ultimate in convenience - wolfing down some tasty cavatelli or rigatoni, and then going straight upstairs to bed.
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