Mercado Little Spain

Observations from my first visit

José Andrés came onto my radar when molecular gastronomy was still all the rage and his restaurant, The Bazaar, at the SLS hotel in Los Angeles received four stars from the LA Times in 2009.  I think I visited not too long after and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t as bowled over as I was with Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago.  I followed the growth of his empire in the U.S., watched him make guest appearances on TV shows, and his tireless charitable activism.

I prepared for my visit to his Hudson Yards project, Mercado Little Spain by reading Eater critic Robert Sietsema’s early review.  

Atmosphere and design: Unlike most of the rest of Hudson Yards, this place feels warm and happy.  The food stalls are splashed with red; some walls have murals, and many of the servers wear red tee-shirts.  Also, no dark mood lighting or unfriendly fluorescence. Fortunately, the one light setting is on cheerful. Also, even when almost every part of Mercado is bustling, I can hear the wait staff and I can hold conversation in a regular voice.  

Tapas: It was before 8pm on a weekday and the Mercado was full with every seat taken and most of the standing tables occupied. Preferring not to be at a restaurant to allow for some food stall roaming, we had to make a few rounds before we spied two seats open at La Barra.  We each settle for a glass of wine (a rosé, and a white wine from Catalonia) and two tapas (very crisped bread topped with tomato seeds and sardines; and a tortilla topped with white shrimp). Tapas number one was simple and tasty, and we joked we could buy the three ingredients from the market and make a platter at home.  Tapas number two was simple but not so tasty. The tortilla is like a thin egg crepe layer which was asked to be cooked to medium; and topped with six small shrimp. I could not taste any seasoning on anything. And honestly, the soft on soft textures did not work and we did not finish this small plate. The two drinks, two tapas with tip came to $60.  

We headed to the Bravas food stall, ordered patatas bravas with aioli ($8), and sidled up to a standing table and speared the crunchy potato cubes with our toothpicks.  Hot and crispy and hit the spot.

We decided for one more drink and seeing two open stools at Vino, we took our seats on the corner.  Turns out the menu as identical to La Barra. This time we settled on chorizo wrapped in thin potato which was basically like a potato chip rolling a chorizo tootsie roll. And it tasted like you expected: spicy wrapped in crunchy. The two glasses and the tapas and tip came to about $42.

Market: This pickings are pretty small so one cannot compare it to Eataly. It is akin to a gift shop compared to someplace like Despaña in Soho.  

Overall: I may try to visit one of the restaurants but my overall first impression is that MLS is definitely a fun place for drinks with nibbles. It is on the pricey side but the pickings are slim in that neighborhood. The food feels kinda secondary but it does seem like a work in progress so definitely worth another gander.

Side note: While probably not in the purview of Mercado, the access to and from the Hudson Yards shops is pretty depressing. The red carpet looks like a remnant with a few posters hanging on bare walls to provide some connection and transition.  Also, for some reason, fire drills were being conducted without notice so the very sturdy looking gate was down. This was all the more annoying because the escalators were running so you could get downstairs but were only met with a closed gate. Fortunately, a security guard noticed this and keyed the door gate to reopen, and we were met with folks on the other side wondering what was going on.

Mercado Little Spain, 10 Hudson Yards, New York, NY 10001

Niche Mazémen

Rave reviews from restaurant critics for Chef Shigetoshi Nakamura brothless ramen from Ryan Sutton from Eater and Pete Wells from The New York Times prompted me to visit Niche (though the non-reservation policy kept me away for a few weeks and avoiding a weekend evening).  I strolled in at 6pm on a weekday to meet a friend and about half of the seats at the 14-seat communal table were open and I chose to sit closer to the glassy entrance side as opposed to the excitement of the kitchen area, which was pretty dark. It was a rare gorgeous day in April in NYC and had to go to the light.

All of the reviews have fawned over the meaty ribeye mazemen but neither my friend nor I were in the mood for red meat.  We opted for the duck magret special and the “Russ and Roe” (ramen with tarako-sauce, smoked salmon, basil, olive oil) with ikura and the temaki nori add-ons. Appetizers included the umami kombu fries and avocado crunch.  

The umami kombu fries really do look like McDonalds fries– the same super square cut and each about three inches long, the right length to evenly pack into the stubby white bag.  The best part of the kombu powder is the finish, the umami coating lingering on the taste buds. . . just the right amount of dusting to keep you reaching out for another fry.  That said, like McDonalds fries, once they cool down, they aren’t as tasty so we focused more on the sliced avocado salad with crispy balls of tempura crunch. Super simple and very satisfying. I was surprised how the crunchiness kept.

Now onto the mazemen. A popular pasta dish in Japan is mentaiko-spaghetti (there are flavor packets you can buy at the grocery store!) and it’s usually topped with shredded nori.  I love that dish, and it drove me to order the seafood dish and added the nori. . . and I couldn’t resist the thought of juicy ikura bursts so added that too.

Now, the nori on the add-on list is specifically listed as ‘temaki nori’ and I learned that the chef recommends that you use them to make handrolls, so we rolled up the saucy noodles, salmon and ikura as instructed. The nori adds much to the overall flavor profile but I don’t know if making a handroll made it better, just unusual. I think I would probably shred the nori on top of the ramen next time and dig in.  I may also lose the ikura as they just didn’t stand out as the noodles are chewy so somehow the special-ness of getting a juicy burst is lost.

The Duck Magret dish was more straightforward and did not have any of the topping that would be found on the meat dish, e.g. spinach so the dish just looked monochrome brown. The duck was very nicely prepared and flavorful.

I will admit that I come from the school that a bowl of ramen is expensive at $18, and these bowls beyond that. So, while I overall enjoyed the meal, with the tab for the two appetizers, two mazemen with a few extras, and 3 glasses of wine coming in at almost $150 (with tip), I think Niche is not *that* good or unique enough to put into my regular restaurant rotation.

Method Japanese Kitchen & Sake Bar

With the name ‘Method’ in cursive script and its darkened doors, it is sort of easy to mistake this establishment as another trendy bar specializing in cocktails, but over the last few months, Method Japanese Kitchen & Sake Bar has been getting attention from discerning foodies. Resy’s description of the restaurant says that Yasuhiro Honma is the chef-owner, and if he is that Yasuhiro Honma, he hailed from Sakagura and EN Japanese Brasserie.

Atmosphere and design: Subdued lighting and minimalist in design, the restaurant has counter and table seating.  The restaurant quickly filled up on the Friday evening I visited but the noise level did not result in a raspy voice by night’s end. The service was warm and courteous.

Menu: On its website, the restaurant describes itself as “a contemporary style of Izakaya restaurant influenced by [a] multi-cultural New York modernism approach to authentic Japanese cuisine.” One will find surprising pairings across the specials and standard menus like chicken liver pate with mochi waffles; daikon salad with bonito flakes and bacon-onion dressing; prosciutto-pressed sushi; and tempura options like brussels sprouts and shishamo (smelt).  I focused on the food but the wine and sake menus were extensive.

Dishes: I started off with a glass of sake and oil-pickled oysters. This dish was completely unique (or at least to me). I could not tell what the chef had done to the oysters beyond the title of the dish but umami was maximized through flavor and texture. What I believe was dashi and the incredibly silkiness of the oysters from the pickling creates a richness savored with each bite.  

Agedashi eggplant with namafu in dashi broth was topped with bonito flakes and was exactly the comforting dish I needed on a brisk cold evening.  The eggplant and namafu (wheat gluten) were soft but had body. The chef is a real dashi master as the broth was bursting with umami and did not enter that ‘danger danger Will Robinson’ overly salty territory.

Tempura: You always see shrimp on a tempura list; I had never seen shishamo. Served with flaky salt, and a dipping sauce with lots of grated daikon, the shishamo were flavorful with a light crunch from the batter.

Steamed black cod with scallions and ginger was ‘eclectic-ized’ with enoki mushrooms. The dish was tasty and any black cod lover would be supremely satisfied.

I had been craving noodles all week so ordered chicken ramen with scallions and sliced lemon. The noodles had the right ‘koshi’ or al dente-ness and the broth was bright. It was a nice ending to the meal.

Overall I am looking forward to returning and trying more of the menu. Every dish using dashi was so flavorful so I would probably focus on those items. Usually, descriptions like ‘eclectic’ and ‘multicultural’ scare me off, but the chef’s mixing and matching of non-traditional flavors and textures showed off his sophisticated palette.  I’m game to try more.

Method Japanese Kitchen & Sake Bar, 746 10th Ave, New York, NY 10019

Empellón Al Pastor (Pod 39)

A very quick visit to the bar

I read somewhere that Alex Stupak’s Empellón Al Pastor at the Pod 39 hotel was all about bar food so I knew it would be a quick meal. I think we were in and out in under 45 minutes.

Stupak’s Empellón restaurant group has been growing at a brisk pace since he left pastry behind and opened  Empellón Taqueria in the West Village in 2001. I enjoyed eating there but was never truly bowled over and so I missed Cocina, but really loved some of the dishes and presentations at Empellón Midtown, so wanted to check out this opening. And of course, there is the curiosity about the restaurant replacing Salvation Taco which was shuttered by April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman after the sexual harassment scandal borne at the Spotted Pig.

Atmosphere: Pretty much what you would expect from a bar in the Murray Hill area, it was lively and boisterous with pretty much a 30-something crowd. Service was friendly; definitely nothing to complain about.

Menu: Covers all the bases with snacks, tacos, sides, salads and dessert. It also has somewhat dangerous ‘eclectic’ and global themes like chicken wings with brown butter matcha, and chicken nuggets with sichuan salsa.

Dishes: We only ordered a few dishes and wanted to steer clear of nachos and guac. And to be honest, the all-over-the-globe items are turn offs for me. Given we were at a high table top, it wasn’t a place to linger either.

I was rather looking forward to the lobster rangoon. I grew up in the midwest where crab rangoon were standard on every Chinese restaurant menu. Wontons are stuffed with cream cheese, some chives and (most likely) artificial crab, and fried up. My friend from Japan loves coming to the US and eating these.  Anyhoo, the lobster rangoon was a bit of a letdown. In Stupak’s version, the wontons are folded over versus made into a pouch so there is less cream cheese. There is also some spice like paprika or chili powder which would probably been seasoning enough, but really gets lost when you dip them into the accompanying chamoy sauce.

The chicken nuggets were made of a meat blend it seemed as there was no texture of chicken but more like a dense sausage as there was a lot of seasoning in them. The sichuan salsa is not memorable.

The cheeseburger tacos were good.

The pork fried rice was the best thing we ordered. The rice was fluffy and flavorful. The strips of pork were a nice change from being diced. It was also the dish that tasted best reheated.

In truth, we ended up taking home the rangoon and nuggets as we weren’t keen on finishing them. I wondered if they would taste better on another day but they really did not.  I ended up tossing them out even though I really hate wasting food.

Having just returned from Mexico City, maybe my palette was sharpened to the wonders of Mexican street cuisine, but in the few dishes I sampled, I felt the flavors were lacking in the texture and refinement from Stupak’s other restaurants and just a bit too course for my taste.  I do not think I’ll be heading back anytime soon.

Empellón Al Pastor (Murray Hill), 145 E. 39th St., New York, NY 10016

Rocco at The Standard Grill

Observations from my first meal 

I went with great anticipation to The Standard Grill restaurant, where I could experience the genius of Rocco Dispirito. For those who were not in New York in the ‘90s and dined at his restaurant Union Pacific, it was a head-shaking decade-and-a-half where the celebrated chef sought fame and stardom through failed reality shows, calorie-focused cookbooks, and pop-py appearances at entertainment events.  I would even ask industry insiders about their thoughts on why someone so talented seemed to value an TV green room over leaning into this obvious talent (which would also then bring more fame and recognition).

After I saw the story of his return to serious cooking, I made a reservation.  I dislike overly belaboring every detail but my thoughts were these:

Atmosphere and design: I think the dining room has gone mostly unchanged but it’s been years. That said, it is arranged to not feel too crowded.  The menus were a nice touch being folded into quarters and stickered to create a feeling of surprise and delight in unsealing the menu of the day.  That said, if you looked at the menu on the website as I had done (many times to see if there were changes), it seemed exactly the same. To that end, it seemed a bit overdone to be printing out a new set of menus daily (and tossing them out daily).  But maybe they print as needed so I should not sweat the wastefulness…

Menu: Lots of sections and hype with names like “game changing toast.” What struck me the most was the emphasis on binchotan, a Japanese charcoal known for removing impurities (so great in water) and making whatever you are grilling crispier and accentuating it’s natural flavor.  The waiter would speak to it; it appears all over the menu.

Dishes: There was no delicacy to all of the dishes we ordered, save the shishito peppers, which were the most simple as they were grilled and salted.  The caviar was served with the ‘game changing toast’ which is a fairly common plant-based nut/seed bread that is sliced into thin crackers and toasted.  This stuff is great with avocado and cheese made from nutritional yeast, but the texture and flavor was much too strong to be serving with caviar! The star ingredient should not be demoted because one is proud of one’s toast! We had to ask for regular bread.

The fregola had way too many flavors in it, Todd English style as I like to say. The acid was too strong; the creaminess was too strong; the textures of the clams and creams seemed to fight each other; and there was enough parsley to make me worry that I would have some stuck between my teeth.

The sea bass with sweet pepper puree seemed almost equal in portions. If I evenly divided each mouthful of bass with the puree, I would have had over a tablespoon which was simply too overpowering.  And again, I felt that the flavor of the puree did not bring out the flavor and texture of the bass.

The braised shiitake mushrooms were soaked in something as they were nice and plump. They were very juicy but it seemed like the essence of shiitake was diminished as a result. Because shiitake is a pretty delicate flavor to being with, it can easily take on other flavors.  Such a preparation would maybe have been better served to be paired with rice, or other grain.

Anyway, at the top level, the meal was completely satisfactory but a true disappointment for this former Union Pacific fan.  The menu reflects the type of cooking Mr. Dispirito journeyed through with the necessary elevation a place like The Standard Grill and the prices would require; but they don’t seem to be in harmony quite yet.

The Standard Grill, 848 Washington St, New York, NY 10014