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Eaters' Journal: 6/4/16: Sushi Ginza Onodera, Olmsted, La Sirena, Totto Ramen, Bobwhite, and More

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

Olmsted: I'm not really part of the crew of diners who visits high-profile restaurants as soon as they open. But Olmsted, a beautiful little week-old spot in Prospect Heights, is both spitting distance from my apartment and — despite its Alinea/Atera/Per Se pedigree — crucially lacks that cool-kid-club intimidation factor that, for example, kept me away from Mission Chinese until nearly two years after it landed in NYC.

I really, really, really like Olmsted. The space is lovely, the service is warm, and the food is clean and elegant without being fussy. I can't stop thinking about the carrot crepe appetizer, topped with slivers of sea clam and carrot rosettes and drenched in a sweet-tart carrot butter — and I also can't stop thinking about the restaurant as a phenomenon. It serves fairly affordable dishes made with approachable ingredients, but it's all plated like exquisitely haute cuisine, the embodiment of a certain paradoxical ethos that's particularly of-the-moment. There's no denying that Olmsted is a casual neighborhood spot — the back garden is literally a garden, you can perch on the side of raised vegetable beds while sipping your glass of rosé and wearing mirrored Ray-Bans. But there's also no denying that it requires a very specific kind of neighborhood to be comfortable using the word "casual" to describe a $20 entree of slim poached leeks atop a puddle of parsley velouté, crowned with a cloud of what's best described as potato-chip cotton candy.

The leek dish is fantastic, though, and it's also maybe an unfair example: For $3 more than I spent on my leeks, my husband got a gorgeously seared portion of grass-fed steak, tender and robust all at once, plated with geometric stripes of tarragon and saffron that both paired beautifully with the meat and served to confirm my obviously correct hypothesis that the Silver Palate Cookbook-inspired flavors of the 1980's are back with a vengeance. Further proof came with dessert: chocolate mousse with a sidecar of vanilla cream, and a quenelle of ultra-fresh strawberry sorbet garnished, as the menu adorably put it, with "more strawberries." It was perfect. I was incredibly happy. — Helen Rosner

Totto Ramen (Midtown West): All the cool food people are eating at Ivan Ramen and Mu Ramen these days and with good reason: They serve some of the city's most ambitious and creative noodle soups. But when you're sick, which I was this week, you stop crossing town for alkaline noodles and make your selection based on a more reasonable criterion: what's closest. And lucky for me I live three blocks away from Totto Ramen, which can easily draw 30 minute queues at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights during the cold months. I slipped in at prime time as a solo diner, no wait, on a Wednesday, and am happy to report that the no take-out, no delivery, cash-only spot is still firing on all cylinders.

Totto is famous for its chicken paitan ramen, which is roughly (if not exactly) a chicken version of pork tonkotsu: creamy opaque broth with an intense poultry flavor (even the skinless char siu breast meat bursts with an intensely chicken-y tang) and thin, al dente noodles. Avoid the urge to order the spicy version unless you want to taste nothing but black pepper, but if you're beset with a cold, that's precisely what you get to clear out all your sinuses. I was in and out in under 30 minutes and dropped $26 after tax and tip for ramen and a beer. Not bad, right? — Ryan Sutton

[The pig out for two by Krieger]

Tuome: A revisit 17 months after my four-star review proves that this double-storefront restaurant — helmed by chef Thomas Chen — is still hitting on all cylinders, and remains a contender for best upscale eatery in the East Village (another is Oiji). Many of the old favorites remain on the menu, including the so-called "pig out (for two)," which consists of compressed cubes of pork belly with a perfect crisp skin laying a path of stepping stones along a slate plank between two collegial bowls of sesame noodles. The dish is not only a dish, but a game, in which you and a companion strategize about how to attack the thing.

The deviled eggs are still there and so is the octopus tentacle quivering in a foam of brown butter and fingerling potatoes, but there were some new things, too, that a friend and I ordered and thoroughly enjoyed. A coarse, bright-red wagyu tartare was surmounted by an eye-socking yellow yolk cooked slowly for three hours, the raw meat tasting of lemongrass; better yet were a pair of crisp-duck sliders called "quack on brioche." This is food with a sense of humor, and also delicious. — Robert Sietsema

Mala Project: Long days call for familiar, homey meals, and for me, that’s a bowl of rice topped with delicious, spicy Chinese food. It’d been a while since I made it to Mala Project when I visited on Tuesday, and for good reason. You can basically whittle the bulk of restaurant down to one flavor and one dish — the tingly, spicy, dry pot. It’s delicious! But as someone whose job it is to try what’s new and different and interesting, it’s not a place I can justify traveling to with frequency. No matter how many new ingredients I add, the flavor (however good it is) will always be the same.

My boyfriend and I ordered the pig ear in chili oil, a dish that Mala Project executes wonderfully. I’ve eaten pig ear in chili oil my whole life, and they put out one of the best versions I’ve ever had. We then selected about eight different ingredients for the dry pot itself, the minimum amount that the staff recommends. The fish filet and beef tripe were the ones we loved the most, but the whole thing was a lovely, garlicky thing to eat over rice. Eight ingredients ended up being too many, though; we took a good quarter of it home. I’d probably order fewer ingredients and more appetizers next time, for variety’s sake. It’s still not a place I could see myself visiting often, but if I lived nearby, I’m sure I’d be ordering food there all the time. Serena Dai

Babu Ji: Last weekend I had a cold and all I wanted was hot tea — but I was also moving and so my pots and kettles were packed up. Babu Ji to the rescue: The restaurant has arguably the best damn chai in town, and they just started brunch, which means the tea was available at 11:30 a.m. instead of only after 5. I brought my own mug and they sold me a hot cup to go, no questions asked. — Sonia Chopra

Sushi Ginza Onodera: You're probably curious about Tokyo export Sushi Ginza Onodera, but not super excited to drop $300 or $400 on an omakase. Because, I mean, hey, that's entering Masa territory. So the pro move here is to swing by for lunch (which just launched on Wednesday) and pick one of the $70-$100-$130 menus. Overall, Onodera's fish quality is excellent, though the dinner omakase is shorter than some of the others you've probably tried. Expect about 12 pieces after 3 appetizer drops. What I especially like about this place though is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Yes, this is serious sushi, but chef Saito (who is just 28 might I add) is more a la David Bouhadana/Sushi Dojo and will be cracking jokes with you through the meal. Don't expect a super serious ambiance, but do expect great service and great fish. Oh, and another pro tip: Saito LOVES Mister Softee, so if you bring him a cone, you might score an extra piece of toro. Kat Odell

[Franny's by Krieger]

Franny's: I was a fool for avoiding this place for so long! Last Sunday, I had what might be my favorite meal of 2016 at this Flatbush Avenue restaurant. Best of all was a warm beef tongue and pork cheek terrine that was size and shape of an iPad Pro, with slivers of tangy pickled peppers on top and warm bread on the side. It was like an elegantly re-imagined Italian combo. The farinata with salt cod was the other knock-out dish, and the margherita pizza was perfect. I will be back soon. — Greg Morabito

Bobwhite: Officially known as Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter, the small café with mainly counter seating appeared late in 2012 on Avenue C in the East Village, occupying some very low-grade real estate. With the most limited menu imaginable (short of only serving one thing), it specialized in fried chicken and fried catfish. Both were superb, and there were some entirely predictable sides to go with them, and a sop or two for vegetarians, including a toasted sandwich along the lines of pimento cheese. The whole place was an exercise in unfussiness, and appeared just as the Brooklyn chicken craze was cresting.

Now a West Village branch has appeared, with a food program even less ambitious than its East Village counterpart. Thus it was a friend and I paid a visit and found that there was no fried catfish to be had one weekday evening. "Does this happen often?" I asked the waiter. "No, they just forgot to send it over from the other Bobwhite," the waiter replied ruefully. We had to content ourselves with fried chicken, a salad with a nice buttermilk dressing, some biscuits, and an astonishingly good mac and cheese, crusty and browned evenly on the top. The chicken was obviously fried to order and damn good! There’s currently an early bird beer and chicken deal for $5. Robert Sietsema

Mr. Donahue's: Previous Eaters' Journals have made it pretty clear I'm a big fan of Uncle Boons, so it was hard for me to not love Mr. Donahue's before even walking in. Sunday is my favorite day to dine out because restaurants work at a much different pace, one that is smooth, quiet, and so quaint. I dined here on a recent Sunday night and had a lovely meal, but I also have the feeling Mr. Donahue's feels so lovely no matter the day. I love how simple everything was: the wine list that boasts one red, one white, one rose; the lace placemats; even the way your two sides are served on the same plate as your main. The beef cheeks were easily my favorite savory item, but the killer banana pudding is what I will keep going back for on future Sundays. — Patty Diez

La Sirena: Batali and Bastianich's new restaurant has what might very well be New York's most impressive patio. It's sprawling, it's cushy, there's a lot of space between the tables, and it's got a dedicated army of servers and bussers. Your water glass won't stay empty very long. I visited during brunch so the menu didn't have any pastas or meat dishes I wanted to try, but I liked the fried ricotta fritters with honey, and the polenta with a soft duck egg and greens. The food was good, but more than anything, I just really enjoyed the vacation-y feel of sipping a spritz on that grand patio. — Greg Morabito

Top photo: Olmsted by Krieger

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