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Eaters’ Journal 4/22/16: Mr. Donahue’s, Impero Caffe, El Rey, Very Fresh Noodles, and More

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

El Rey: Two years ago El Rey opened its doors principally as a coffee shop, but soon the quirky cooking of Goat Town veteran Gerardo Gonzalez began to attract attention on its own. The vegetarian menu seemed to be what everyone wanted to eat at the moment, its brevity being an added plus. With its use of avocados, seeds & nuts, poached eggs, and green salsas, the place attracted guests carrying their yoga mats for the menu’s healthy aura. It also became a popular lunchtime hang for editors, writers, and photographers, and in the ensuing years I managed to schedule many informal meetings there. I loved the food and the coffee wasn’t bad, either.

Thus it was with some sadness that I read of Gonzalez’s departure, and went this week for what may be a last meal with the old menu. Avocado del sur, with flatbread and two poached eggs, was as good as ever, squiggled with a mint pesto that tasted of spring. My companion enjoyed the "fully loaded" kale salad, reminding us that El Rey had been instrumental in popularizing that ubiquitous dish. No doubt I’ll soon return to see what the menu under a new chef will be like, but I’ll certainly miss the old one.— Robert Sietsema


Look by Plant Love House: Keeping up my pattern of going to restaurants shortly after Robert Sietsema raves about how great they are, I had an early dinner a few nights ago in the sunny front room at Look by Plant Love House. Sietsema doesn't lead us astray about this place: The pork blood-thickened broth of the boat noodles was spectacularly rich and fiery, the housemade Isan sausage is perfect, served with raw ginger and red onion and peanuts, and best of all they have a terrific rendition of my very favorite northern Thai dish, nam prik ong, a sweet-spicy pork-and-tomato dip that's served with raw veggies and pork rinds. Sietsema tallied the khao pad tom yum goong (shrimp-paste fried rice) among a list of dishes "so good they shouldn’t be missed," so I didn't miss it, but I kind of wish I had — it was pretty bland. I should've had the khao soy instead. — Helen Rosner


Aita: Open houses can bring you down. Two glasses of rose and a bowl of ravioli in a bone marrow sauce at the Clinton Hill Aita bar will bring you right back up. Service was also great. The bartender offered to charge my phone without me asking, which was a pleasantly surprising first. By the end of my visit, I even started to find the neighborhood's toddlers, at least one of whom was not happy to be in the restaurant, charming in their own way. — Serena Dai


Brasserie Cassis: So this place refers to itself as the "best French restaurant in Long Island," which is a heck of a thing to say for an institution with multiple televisions showing the Chopped Teen marathon — and not just in the dining room. Above each urinal in the W.C. was a small flatscreen, which means I got to experience Scott Conant talking about some kid's seared scallops while relieving myself. Also worth noting: Cassis refers to itself as an "authentic French Bistro," which is a reasonably inauthentic thing to say for a venue that has already named itself a "brasserie" and that serves duck confit "tacos."

But how does the food actually taste? Like it came from the prepared foods section of a non-gourmet supermarket. We had a half dozen oysters, three to four of which had their bellies popped (sent back to the kitchen), fried calamari with the type of mushy texture that lets you know the kitchen forget to put them in the silver crisper sleeve before firing them up in a microwave, some pasta with a syrupy red wine sauce, and a roast chicken desiccated to such a degree it tastes as if it had been left to die under a heat lamp long ago. Really one of the worst meals I've had in recent memory, even by Long Island standards.— Ryan Sutton


Mr Donahue's

Photo: Nick Solares

Mr. Donahue's: This is the oddest restaurant I can remember eating in. I am certain that it is unique in the world, and that no one but the wife and husband team of Ann Redding and Matt Danzer could envision such a restaurant, let alone actualize it. It is also true that some of the restaurant's numerous quirks might interfere with the dining experience — the stools are too tall, the lights are too bright, and plates are too small. The decor evokes the late 19th century diner, replete with China plates and laced doilies. The eclecticism extends to the menu which might best be described a meat + 2 (note this is up one side since Mr. Donahue’s opened, inching its way to the meat-and-three that served as inspiration). This might all be intolerable if the food weren't so captivating.

The roast beef for example, which in this case uses a strip loin rather than the more common ribeye, is utterly superb: perfectly medium rare and pink from edge to edge with nary a hint of grey.  It's suitably bolstered with copious amounts of coarse black pepper and salt. The result is the profound beefy flavor that only roasting can achieve. I've had this cut here before with the gravy (really more of an au jus) which I quite liked, but this time tried the horseradish tinged steak sauce, which was just okay. I ended up not using it. It doesn’t really need anything anyway. I can’t think of a piece of meat I would rather spend $27 on. — Nick Solares


Very Fresh Noodles in Chelsea Market: Very Fresh Noodles offers, well, very fresh noodles. Like, you watch a woman slinging dough as if it were jump rope (a la Lam Zhou) just seconds before she plunges them into boiling water, then into your bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup. It explodes with flavor as a good beef noodle soup should, studded with beef shank and fragrant from scallions and cilantro. It's a convenient choice if you don't want to trek all the way to Chinatown, or battle the lines at Xi'an. Sadly the tiger salad lacked in flavor, and the greens which comprise it were a tangled mess, making it hard to eat without getting sesame oil all over your face. (For those keen on the version served at Xi'an, it's simply not as good.) But that's okay because what you're really going here for is very fresh hand pulled noodles, served as a soup or with tingly cumin beef. — Kat Odell


Malecon: A small part of the half-Cuban Miami-native in me stayed away from trying Caribean food in the city after a few let downs. But Malecon is pretty spot on. I went with a party of four on Sunday afternoon, and we had plantains many ways: Maduros, tostones, and mofongo, the last one served with delicious roasted chicken I'll be going back for. Now I know I don't have to go back to Miami for killer fried yuca. — Patty Diez


Wandering Down St. John’s: Now that the weather is heating up, there’s nothing quite like an ambulatory meal. And no better place to get one than St. Johns Place around Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. That’s because most of the tiny, mainly Caribbean restaurants have little or no seating. Working my way eastward, here’s how a recent Saturday lunch went: Grabbed an aloo pie at A & A Tabletop, a new Trinidadian snack counter. This oblong donut comes stuffed with a spiced potato mixture. The counter guy slits the thing and squirts in tamarind and scotch bonnet sauces before he hands it to you.

Next, a cheese slice and a pepperoni pinwheel at Tony’s Pizzeria. Then, a stop at Tasty Bites, a Jamaican bakery and carryout. Everything looked good, including the Dora the Explorer cookies, but I finally selected a spicy beef patty and a serving of jerk chicken, dark meat only, on which the attendant squirted a dark jerk sauce. Finally, I went around the corner to Ah Yah Suh Nice on Buffalo Avenue and scored a piece of fried chicken and a small serving of curried chicken poured over rice and pigeon peas, with steamed cabbage on the side. All that was left to do after such a delightful and humongous meal was to crash on an Eastern Parkway bench.— Robert Sietsema


Amaranto: Bushwick has tons of delicious Mexican restaurants, and Amaranto is surely one of the best. At first glance, the happy hour specials and spare dining room might suggest that it is another gentrifying hipster business. And sure, a slightly upscale Mexican place probably wouldn't exist without the hipsters, but it's hard to complain when the restaurant is family run, the Mexican chef learned his craft straight from his mother, and the food is so damn good.

There's an uber tender short rib in a mole verde sauce. There's a tamale in a huitlacoche sauce with scallops and a perfectly spiced chorizo. There's a guacamole that's lovely even though it is slightly too creamy. Everything is flavorful, balanced, bright, and very, very delicious. Add on a glass of fruit-filled sangria, and it's a place I foresee myself visiting again. —Serena Dai


Photo by Bess Adler

Impero Caffe: Walking into the drab subterranean dining room of Impero Caffe, I was expecting a paint-by-numbers Scott Conant restaurant, which would not necessarily be a bad thing. And that’s pretty much what this place is, except you’d never find food like this at the old Scarpetta or even Fiamma (RIP). Underdressed salad. Bland beef carpaccio smothered in gunk. Greasy sausage pasta. And weirdly chunky pasta pomodoro that tasted only of butter. It was tall, at least. I might have caught this place during a weird service, but I hope it gets better, because this space isn’t cool or fun enough to make up for wonky food. — Greg Morabito


PN Pizza: This Fledgling Flatiron District pizzeria serves pizzas using organic flour imported from Italy. The conceit, not unlike that of Bruno Pizza, is that the grain is more digestible than dough made from brominated and bleached flours. But unlike the decidedly unorthodox offerings from Bruno, the pizza here is more doctrinaire Italian in the topping selection. The pies pulled from the fiery wood burning furnace evoke Italy, falling somewhere between the soupy, puffy pies of Naples and the flatter, crisper crust of Roman style.

The toppings are of a high quality, but nothing revelatory. The mozzarella is flavorful enough, and the crushed tomatoes have an abundant sweetness and vibrancy, but could use a little salt and a lashing of oil. But the crust is the star of the show. It has an unexpected mineral complexity. In comparison to Bruno, whose whole wheat crust has a mild nuttiness, the dough here has the tang of long maturation and a slightly more gentle chew.— Nick Solares

Top photo: El Rey by Robert Sietsema

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