In our constant striving to experience culinary excellence we seek out the most celebrated restaurants, where every bite must be a revelation and every gustatory failure seems like a personal insult. No longer can a meal proceed uneventfully, it must be a roller-coaster ride of high drama, with exalted peaks of success and crashing valleys of disappointment. Sometimes our expectations run so high, they can never be fulfilled. But does a restaurant always have to be spectacular to satisfy?
In a recent profile of Pete Wells in the New Yorker, the esteemed Times critic tells Ian Parker that he tries to forego one-star restaurants in favor of those with more formidable accomplishments: "No one likes one-star reviews. The restaurants don't like them, and the readers don't like them. It's very tricky to explain why this place is good enough to deserve a review but not quite good enough to get up to the next level." The problem, of course, is that a vast number — perhaps a majority — of restaurants deserve one star and even aim at it. They are often enjoyable and budget-friendly, but lacking the desire to dazzle. Here are three restaurants worth reviewing that merit a single star.
Pinned between a fabric store and a lingerie mart on a Lower East Side corner where traditional businesses still prevail, Bing Kitchen is narrow, high-ceilinged, and whitewashed, with red paper lanterns dangling from the ceiling and a ladder made of pipes, which employees rapidly ascend to a storage loft as if performing in an acrobatic ensemble. The brief menu specializes in the northern Chinese street crepes called jianbing, which here go by the rather unfortunate name of Beijing burritos ($7). Boasting a wrapper of mung-bean flour and dotted with sesame seeds, they lie flat on the plate, not very good compared to the plumper examples found at Flushing food courts.
But mediocre as the signature offering is, the other examples created in a fusion vein are considerably better. One day I enjoyed a Yunnan-style bing stuffed with sweet-marinated beef strips and cucumbers, almost like a banh mi, while another day the fried-chicken-stuffed "Southern Comfort" made a memorable lunch, especially if you have the usual mung bean wrapper replaced with the crunchier, corn-flour version. As an app or side dish, the tiger salad — made of shredded scallions and cukes seasoned with a lively chile vinaigrette — constitutes a bargain at $3. This is what a one-star review does best: directs you to the things at a middling place that are emphatically worth eating.
In fact, these days many one-stars have limited menus centered on a single gimmick, as if the chef isn't trying too hard. The Lower East Side is loaded with such micro-joints, mounting intriguing but ultimately unambitious bills of fare. OCA, which means "house" in an indigenous Brazilian language according to the website, is more comfortable than the bare-bones Bing Kitchen, providing relaxed accommodations at several low round tables flanked by wooden benches strewn with colorful cushions. Its single specialty is once again street crepes, but this time the Brazilian version, with a tapioca-meal wrapper that is bland, white, and porous.
There are 11 possible choices, seven good for snacks and meals, two aimed at breakfast, and two more intended as desserts. Their costs range from $9 to $14.50, and if this seems a little steep for a stuffed pancake you can hold in your hand and eat in six or seven bites, it is. Nevertheless, a careful choice on your part makes an agreeable snack; the crepe featuring smoked salmon, wasabi, cashew cream, and pumpkin seeds is the best. (Most of the daft fillings seem directed at the health-obsessed.) The dessert crepes are too sweet, but the eggy breakfast ones — configured more like small pizzas — would make a perfect calorie-wise morning meal. Indeed, all the food at OCA is so beautiful and carefully prepared, it might be worth eating even while foregoing value and pungency.
While the previous establishments offer limited menus, perhaps wisely, other one-star candidates are almost comically ambitious. One such is Teremok, a Russian fast-food chain founded in 1998, now with 300 branches that has only recently burst upon the local dining scene. It aims to reproduce the comfort food of its homeland, but in a way that makes it more familiar to Americans, in a 56-item menu divided into blini, salads, kasha, and soups. At all costs, avoid the soups. Teremok also manages to keep its prices mercilessly low. The premises at both branches are unusually comfortable for fast food, with high, well-spaced wooden tables and stools with backs.
Sounding like the title of a lost Lou Reed song, the composed salad called "Herring in Furs" ($3.95) features pickled fish, sour cream, beets, potatoes, and onions layered in a sort of cold lasagna. It is massively delicious, as is the serving of kasha (buckwheat groats) topped with creamy cremini gravy ($5.45) — perfect vegetarian winter fare. "This kasha is perfectly cooked, like my mother's," a Russian friend enthused, though she complained about the crepes called blini — the centerpiece of the menu — for their light, almost-French wrappers and odd combinations of patronizing fillings. (An example: "Tatiana's Ceaser" [sic], stuffed with chicken, lettuce, and parmesan.)
For a splurge, though, the $9.95 "Red Stars" blini can't be beat, the slightly sweet pancake rolled around more wild salmon roe than you might expect at the price, moistened with just enough sour cream. Call it caviar on a budget. But better yet is a breakfast offering known as "Sunrise Bliny." Loaded with scrambled eggs and gooey white cheese, it bulges and then bursts, revealing a pair of smoky hot dogs rolling inside like cedar logs. Post-Soviet frankfurters for breakfast? Maybe that's what Putin eats, and only in a one-star restaurant can you find it.