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A large light fixture hangs over a dark wooden table set with plates and glasses. A red brick wall is in the background.
Nick Solares

Eaters' Journal 3/17/16: Masa, Mr. Donahue's, Salvation Burger, Oiji, Bar Omar, And More

Field notes from Eater editors about recent meals around New York City

Masa: I went back to Masa recently. After starting this whole sushi video series on Eater, one of the most frequent questions I get is whether or not Masa is worth the price. Truth of the matter is that it's hard to justify spending $600 (PER PERSON, sans sake) on a three hour meal. Is the sushi good? No, it's great. Is the Masa experience reminiscent of dining at a sushi bar in Tokyo? To an extent, yes. Should you go? Well, if you have $600 to burn, then yes, you totally should. If you don't have $600 to burn, head to the new Zo, where you'll have sushi on par with Masa minus some caviar and truffle-Parmesan rice balls at about $300pp. If you have less than $200 to burn, the move is Shuko or newbie Kosaka. — Odell

Photo by Nick Solares

Nix: I am a fan of John Fraser's cooking, but I was not immediately sold on Nix. It shares the name of the lice shampoo, is located in what was an uninspiring restaurant space in prime NYU zone, is backed by Chipotle money, there's the strange involvement of former Conde bigwig James Truman, and I heard some mixed news from early diners.

But I went on Friday and absolutely loved it. Loved it all. Loved the prices, the room, the design. Loved the tofu skins stuffed with quinoa, the grilled avocado in tomato water, the fry bread doused in sour cream. I loved that they have homemade sodas that aren't too sweet and that there's no tempeh or seitan on the menu (though Fraser told me certain vegetarians have been clamoring for some). There's still work to be done here for sure (it was week two), but I'm counting this as another strong addition to this blockbuster late winter opening season in New York. — Kludt

Oleanders: I dined here on Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. with some family members who were staying at the hotel, and we only saw three other bodies pass through the dining room during the course of our meal. One person was working as host/server/busser, and, to my eyes, one guy in that giant open kitchen was cooking all the food. It was like each dish was beamed in from a different restaurant. Cavatelli with ricotta and beef ragu! Pork tamales with salsa verde! Polenta with bacon and eggs! A dry aged beef burger with bone marrow! But weirdly enough, everything was good to great — like, 30 percent better than what you might find at a John DeLucie restaurant. I'm rooting for Oleanders, even though it's undeniably sad in there when it's so empty. — Morabito

Oiji: Oh man, Oiji is so good. I never would have come here in the past — back when I was dubious of upscale or trendy ethnic food restaurants — but I'm glad I'm going to Oiji now. I brought some out-of-town friends from my childhood, and it did not disappoint. The buttered rice of the jang-jo-rim is still amazing, and in a time when truffle is often horribly misused, the seafood broth reminds you why truffle took off in the first place.

For new items on the menu, a cocktail with some sort of milk product in it impressed my group; its bright tang is reminiscent of yogurt without being heavy. They also started offering their honey butter chips with vanilla ice cream, and even if you are kind of full, you must order it. It tastes like the magical moment when you first tried a Werther's hard candy as a kid, but crunchy and creamy and warming and cooling, all at the same time. Honey butter chips alone are fun. Honey butter chips on ice cream is a revelation. — Dai

Salvation Burger

Photo by Nick Solares

Salvation Burger: I have visited Salvation Burger to shoot a video for The Meat Show and later as part of Hot Dog Super Tuesday, but I finally made it in for a proper off the clock meal this week. There were four of us, so we tried almost everything. The admiration that I had for the signature burger has not diminished. Quite the opposite in fact, since April Bloomfield has now added smoked blue cheese and hen of the woods mushrooms to the burger, imbuing the already flavor packed patty with both a smokiness and pleasing tang. But I actually prefer the classic. Its double patty stack serves as a case study in the benefits of the Maillard effect, and the torrents of molten homemade America cheese hold the whole thing together. It lives up to its name, fulfilling the promise of cheeseburger quintessentialism, yet it brings a chef's sensibility to the form.

That said, the burgers might not even have been the most compelling things I ate. The fish sandwich is simply the best fish sandwich I have ever eaten. Not surprisingly, for a British chef, Bloomfield knows how to fry the batter to the perfect bronze hue, rendering it shatteringly crisp while the fluke inside remains tender. Crammed into a homemade bun with a dollop of tartar sauce and a tangle of shredded cabbage, it is a remarkable sandwich — crunchy and creamy, with a gentle tang that allows the mild flavor of the fluke to assert itself. This sandwich is so good that if you visited Salvation Burger and ate nothing else, I wouldn’t hold it against you. That said, do not miss the outstanding Texas beef chili, beef jerky, or the tender ribbons of seared beef heart served with a salsa verde and crunchy nuggets of potato. — Solares

Tuome: I found myself here recently with a small group and had a very, very fantastic meal. Everything we ate was delicious, but easy standouts were the deviled egg (crispy, topped with chile), the kabocha squash (most perfectly mashed and topped with homemade vadouvan granola), and chicken liver mousse (served with maple syrup is all I have to say about that). The only negative: The mantou and ice cream dessert was not pre-assembled in sandwich form, but I've gotten over that already. It's also refreshingly quiet in there; and the staff, so kind. — Diez

The Happiest Hour: I'll admit it: I stayed away from The Happiest Hour for longer than I should have, thanks to tales of long waits and finance bros. But I've been three times since it started getting sunny and warm again in New York this year, and I have to say that I really like it. The space (bar in the front, dining room in the back) is very tropical modern, to quote our friends at Curbed, with retro-bold decor like palm tree wallpaper. The bar team will make you a standout negroni even if it's not on the menu. The food is solid — sandwiches, burgers, salads, mac and cheese balls! — and if you're willing to eat, your wait time is drastically reduced.

The only thing that gave me pause was the fact that the signature drinks come with the option of three spirits (do I want rum or gin or tequila in my mint-cucumber-lime cocktail?), which makes them less "signature" and more like a choose-your-own-adventure story. But hey, we're adults and we should be responsible for our choices. — Chopra

Mr Donahue's

Photo by Nick Solares

Mr. Donahue’s: For anyone who grew up in the South, or has merely enjoyed criss-crossing its vast rural expanses, "meat and three" has a special meaning. These small cafes are the regional version of a diner, serving the plainest and most unadorned (but delicious!) food imaginable: meat loaf, fried chicken, fried catfish, baked ham, barbecued spare ribs, and maybe burgoo, chicken and dumplings, or boiled crawfish, depending on which state you happen to be in. These mains are generally propelled by gallons of brown or white gravy, and each one comes with three sides (often including cornbread and biscuits) that manage to make the entrée look almost skimpy by comparison.

Well, it was inevitable that someone would come along and claim to be recreating a meat and three here in New York, and that place is Mr. Donahue’s. The tiny premises handily nails the concept with a short lunch counter, single cramped table, cheesy wood paneling, kitschy stuff on shelves, and a menu board with white wobbly letters stuck on by hand. Atmospheric perfection!

The food, however, seems calculated to frustrate your expectations. The BBQ’ed oysters — a New Orleans fave — are raw rather than cooked, while chicken fried steak is here rendered as the frankly weird chicken-fried pig cheeks. It’s like getting a rubber chicken instead of a real one. There are no mashed potatoes, instead there are marble-size, skin-on potatoes, and the gravy isn’t really gravy, it’s an "au jus" spiked with curry powder. What should be fundamental veggies are fussy medleys. And, no mac and cheese, biscuits, or beans!

Predictably, the meat comes with only one measly side, instead of three. Can we call it a meat and one? The food is well-prepared, and sometimes even delectable — but the place has almost nothing to do with the institution that supposedly spawned it. We’ve managed to create spot-on barbecue and even Tex-Mex here, why not a real meat and three? — Sietsema

Bar Omar: This new Williamsburg outpost of a longtime French Algerian place is adorable. The windows open up in the front, the bottles are affordable, and everything in the space feels warm. They also bring out unlimited couscous and vegetable stew with the couscous order. That said, an unlimited option was necessary — the accompanying merguez and lamb mechoi portions were a bit small. But the overall experience was enjoyable nonetheless. Omar himself was in from Paris when I went one weeknight, and he approached each table with a charming enthusiasm that tempted me to stop by again. — Dai

Five Napkin Burger Upper East Side: My crew and I were driving back from a funeral, and quite frankly, we weren't looking for culinary inspiration or destination dining. We just wanted a warm place with hot food and cold beer. We started walking to some Mexican spot two blocks away (seemed close enough), but we ended up at Five Napkin because it was zero blocks away (it was that kind of day). We looked at the menu figuring it's just burgers, but of course, there's edamame hummus and spicy tuna rolls and sushi platters and kung pao veggie bowls and mahi mahi tacos. The owners are apparently catering to New Yorkers who want, instead of a proper burger joint, a hipper version of an Applebee's or a Long Island shopping mall restaurant circa 2006. But whatever, we weren't here for a culinary spectacle; we were just here to eat.

I get the Korean BBQ burger, which comes with spicy kimchi slaw, Sriracha mayo, and a double patty, which usually means two thin discs of beef with all sorts of crazy griddle char going on. But what I ended up with were a duo of half-inch thick patties inside a single bun. It was like the burger version of an overstuffed Carnegie Deli sandwich. It was impossible to eat, so I removed one of the burgers, and all of a sudden everything became pretty decent: a neutral, overcooked patty with funky, spicy slaw. My buddy ordered the original Five Napkin, a 10-ounce burger that formed the base of an oversized, underseasoned error of a dish.

The waitress got us in and out in about an hour, and our rye Manhattans were properly stirred and balanced. But still, it was all enough to make me realize, even after a long, emotionally draining day, it can be tough to ignore average food, especially when that food isn't terribly cheap. If I had to do it again, I would've crossed town (or boroughs) for a better meal. — Sutton

Sweet Chick: I actively avoided Sweet Chick for many years because of the crowds that accumulate on the weekends, the cutesy name, the junky decor, the Edison bulbs, the massive communal table in the middle of the dining room, and the sign on the bar that reads: "Spread love, it's the Brooklyn way." It looks like Sweet Chick came in a box marked: "Obnoxious Brooklyn Brunch Restaurant -- Just Add Water." But, on a whim, I visited the restaurant during lunch last week, and really enjoyed the food. Two thumbs up for the unfussy fried chicken. Good white chicken chili too, and I liked the thick cheese grits.

And a note about service: Our order got sucked through a black hole. After handing over our menus, a party of French tourists managed to sit next to us and have a complete meal with dessert before we got any of our food. We didn't say anything, but the manager was quietly aware of the flub and offered to buy us dessert once we were finished. We declined because we were full, so she took the drinks off the menu. I really admire that. She turned a mistake around and changed the conversation. — Morabito

Dinnertable: Last week I dropped by Dinnertable, that new secret-ish restaurant behind The Garret East. The tiny — and I mean TINY — space glows in golden light and feels like you're sitting in a friend's dining room in Cobble Hill. It's really cute. As for seats, the move is to grab one of the four barstools overlooking an open kitchen that's turning out New American-ish plates from a decent burger to a refreshing chrysanthemum salad topped with Parmesan (when was the last time you had a chrysanthemum salad?).

If you're into reasonably priced "natural" wine, read on. Here, the most expensive bottle runs $80, but many are in the $40s and $50s. There's one orange wine on the list from Emilia-Romagna, but the wine I couldn't stop drinking was a highly quaffable trebbiano (Rhesan) from Lazio in Italy. I could down a bottle of this no problem on a hot day. If you're feeling a cocktail and dig a sour-sweet tang, go for The Weber, which calls for a fraise des bois liqueur, hatch chiles, and olive oil fat washed bourbon. BUT what you must not miss for dessert is the the cookie plate, which comes with this crazy delicious Pecorino-pecan cookie that's baked with house-made caramel. The whole thing is nutty and chewy and tastes of brown butter. — Odell

Top photo: Oiji by Nick Solares

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