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Jul 8, 2008 07:43 PM

Review of my trip to Manhattan

I stayed in Manhattan for 10 days on this trip and grateful to all who contribute to my earlier post "Singapore Family Seeking Advise" in April prior to my trip: . The planning has been smooth, with the exception of Babbo's which refused to accept our reservation for a party of of 5 initially. By the time we reached Manhattan, I have decided to avoid fine dining places as I was not sure if my kids would behave appropriately in such places, so have to miss JG, MEP, Aquavit, Daniel, Gramercy Tavern that were heavily recommended in the earlier post. Guess I would have to make it up in future trip.

In all, we visited 14 restaurants, 9 of which were recommended in Chowhound, and the rest more due to the convenience of the location during the meal time. My favorite would be Aquagrill, followed by Sushi Yasuda. Rating as follow (3= excellent), (2=good), (1= mediocre). The first 9 are the ones I got the recommendation from members of Chowhound.

1. Aquagrill (2) : this is my favorite place on this trip. We ordered 18 oysters from 6 different regions and 9 clams from 2 regions (Massachusett and Rhode Island) for 2 adults. All were super fresh and tasty. Also ordered the buttered steamed lobster, which was excellent. The tuna carpaccio was a let down though, and my kids did not enjoyed the big burger there. Very good service as well.

2. Sushi Yasuda (2) : very good sushi though not in the same league with the top notch sushi places in Tokyo (such as Mizutani, Kanesaka, Jiro). I thought it was one of the best sushi places I had outside of Japan, and the best thing is that it is "value for money", in my opinion. Each of us had more than 20 negiri (I lost the counts as Chef Yasuda kept recommending his rare stuffs to us) and the price about US$130-140 per person++, which I thought was quite reasonable for that quality standard. Some of my personal favorites, such as anago, ika, ebi, kohada, were mediocre; the tamago was really badly done. Toronto hound, Charles Yu, who joined me on this occasion, told Yasuda we had been to Sukiyabashi Jiro Tokyo before, whom Yasuda ranked the best sushi chef in this business, so he tried very hard to impress us. I liked the shiro salmon, a white salmon that he told us is available only for week(s) from Alaska, but not impressed with the unagi sushi, that he sourced from Chinatown, prepared and marinated himself with origin from Florida. The rest were very good. Yasuda is friendly and direct, a bit unlike traditional Japanese, but I guesses he is already Americanized. What I thought was interesting was that he volunteered and tried very hard to educate all his customers. The server was also friendly; unfortunately, I would not say the same for the 2 black-jacket, black-T shirt clad young men on the front door, who were quite rude when I requested for certain changes on seating due to the presence of my kids. Another interesting observation is that, on my left and right, most American customers love to order salmon sushi or roll. It seem like that is a favorite item here in America.

3. Babbo's (2) : I am also glad Charles joined me on this place. He had already wrote a poor review on his post and I added some comment there; you can read it here : . Overall, I enjoyed the meal here, but due to the heightened expectation prior to the trip, I was unfortunately not so impressed.

4. Keens (1) : another disappointing one. My previous experience with American steaks are Prime Rib in Lawry's LA, Porterhouse in Mortons and Ruth Chris. I have read on Manhattan site that those places are meaningless compared to the top notch steak houses in Manhattan, so i was looking forward to NY style steak. Unfortunately, I have not acquire the taste bud to appreciate them; the Prime Rib was bland and dry, T-bone steak was also dry though rich in its flavor. The server also had attitude problem and often disappeared when we need to order something extra. But the dessert, hot fudge sundae, was excellent, the best dessert on this trip. I am still dreaming about this dessert now, and it is perhaps the "best dish" on this trip.

5. Mandangsui (2) : love the galbi (ribs), both marinated and non-marinated. Also love the short rib with kimchee soup. The ribeye, beef tongue were mediocre though. My kids love the galbi so much that we visited this place twice on this trip.

6. Yakitori Totto (2) : A few starters were very good, such as sea cucumber in ponzu sauce. The yakitori pieces were ok, but nothing too impressive compared to my regular place Kazue in Singapore. I was disappointed with its Kobe tongue though, I thought the cuts were too huge for me. We had to queue for more than one hour for this place; and I am using this example to tell my friends back home that it sure does not look like a recession in America.

7. Hill Country (2) : first time we have been to a Texas style BBQ. Love the brisket moist, though it became too greasy and overwhelming after a few bites. The market chicken was also pretty good but the brisket lean and pork spare ribs were mediocre. ( I guess I find them too dry again, just like in Keens) Love the atmosphere too; everyone was friendly there. The only place I felt like a tourist on this trip in Manhattan.

8. Momofuka Ssam Bar (1+): I find this place quite expensive and not too impressed with its "innovation". I kept wondering if I should include it to (1) or (2) since it is in the borderline, so end up with 1+. The kids do not like this place so we just ordered for the 2 adults. We ordered Oysters kimchee consumme, Santa Barbara uni with some herbs, chanwamushi with snails, mussels/clams with bacon kimchee soup, steamed bun with pork belly. Most are Asian comfort food with a twist to suit the taste bud of Americans.

9. NY Noodletown (1) : after 2 weeks in Orlando, we need to have some comfort food once we reached NYC, so we headed to Chinatown. The brisket was really good but the accompanied noodle was just mediocre.

10. Lusardi (2) : love this Italian place in Upper East Side. We went to Metropolitan Musuem of Art on Monday before realizing it was closed on that day when we arrived there. So instead, we strolled and shopped around the UES area before deciding to pick this place as the Zagat magazine we had pointed to this place as the best Italian in that area. The grilled calamari was perfectly done; my pasta Spahegatti seafood with lobster was also pretty good. The place was empty and quiet for lunch; we were the first party to be there at 1:30pm before another 2 parties joined in. Almost had the place to ourselves.

11. Wollensky's Gill (1) : Went to Smith & Wollensky for lunch but was told only Wollensky's Gill is available for lunch. I ordered the Cajan ribeye steak, which was above average. My friends ordered the grilled Sirloin, which he said was mediocre, and the Prime Rib was quite poorly done for my kids. I liked the buttered lobster though. Seem like lobster is one of my favorite food in NYC.

12. Tang Pavillon (1) : I traveled to Shanghai quite often, so this Shanghai and SuChow place is just mediocre.

13. Sushi Ann (1) : Just right next to the hotel we stayed in, so we went there on the first night after arrival. Well, let's just say Sushi Yasuda is much better.

14. Onigashima (1) : went for the soba after the shopping trip at 5th Avenue. Just average.

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  1. I read your post before you came to NY and I am glad you provided feedback on your trip. Very interesting observation on Mr. Yasuda. I have not been to his restaurant before but from what you have seen, he is quite "Americanized". I think that's the fact of life for many Asian Americans here. We have to adapt to the local culture to become more "direct", especially living on the East Coast of the US, whether we like it or not, just to survive (yes, including myself). It's pretty sad to lose our tradition in a way, but it is so true.

    So.. to provide a direct, "East Coast"-style feedback to you, I can say that I have been to #5 Madangsui, #9 NY Noodletown and #14 Onigashima and agree with all your assessment. I think you are more objective than many of us here in the NYC area because you offer a fresh perspective from all your frequent trips within Asia. It's very hard to convince some folks here that certain Asian restaurants in NYC really are not that great because they haven't traveled to Asia. I am sure you know what I mean. I hope you can visit NY again and provide more feedback on restaurants soon!

    P.S. Very smart that you didn't try any dimsum places. You and your family would have been very disappointed by the quality and hygiene and give "-1" to some of the dim sum restaurants in NYC Chinatown.. Good move!

    9 Replies
    1. re: bearmi

      From my perspective, going to Chinese restaurants or Chinatown in North America is sometimes like traveling on a "time machine". For example, dining in even the best modern Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, which most acknowledge to have the best Chinese food in North America, is like going back to Hong Kong in the 80s and 90s, where most of the Chinese population migrated to Vancouver in that time horizon. While Asian Crisis (in late 90s) and SARS (in early 00s) has transformed the mindset of Hong Kong to provide better service, to be more health conscious and better hygiene standard, the mindset of Vancouver Chinese has remained stuck in the 80s and 90s mindset without that transformation. My friends and I have often joked that going to Chinatown in North America is like going back to history classes of 3-5 decades ago.

      1. re: FourSeasons

        Thanks for your review. You certainly got around in ten days. It would be more illuminating and helpful to add specificity to your oft-repeated adjective mediocre. What exactly made the noodles served at NY Noodletown, the grilled sirloin at Wollensky's or the spare ribs and brisket at Hill Country all mediocre?

        If "going to Chinatown in North America" is like visiting a time warp then you are perhaps not hitting the right places. We have here a large infusion of Fujian immigrants who have brought their vibrant cuisine with them as reflected in the more than half dozen Fuzhou restaurants that are now open in Manhattan's Chinatown.

        1. re: scoopG

          The texture of the noodle at NY Noodletown was not refined and rather rough, in my opinion. As to the grilled sirloin in Wollensky, it was the opinion of my friend. I find the spare rib and brisket lean at Hill Country to be too dry and not tender enough.

          I actually did not see any Fuzhou restaurant when I was walking around the Chinatown. I may be wrong but I recall most of the Chinese restaurants there still offer mainly Cantonese cuisine. If you look at the menu, the service level, and how greasy the food is, it will resemble what Hong Kong was like decades ago. Of course, some of them are Americanized as well: the size, the portion, fortune cookie etc.

          1. re: FourSeasons

            too bad you didn't find the 'real' chinatown! there is some very nice stuff to be found there and very different from what you recall of the typical canto-chinatown stuff. next time perhaps; do a search for eldridge street and its various noodle and dumpling shops.

            1. re: FourSeasons

              to my knowledge, i believe about 75% of the restaurants in chinatown although are cantonese style, are fuzhou operated and owned. if you are looking for some fuzhou food i think east broadway/essex st in chinatown has plenty. never tried it though but ive heard their soups are pretty good.

          2. re: FourSeasons

            You are exactly right. Glad you can tell us the truth as is. A lot of folks in NY are still stuck in the nostalgic taste of yesterday (last century?) and firmly believe that as "authentic". Pretty sad.

            1. re: bearmi


              I have the same sentiment. This is why whenever people said Jing Fong or Golden Unicorn have amazing dim sum, I just turned my head and sighed...

              1. re: kobetobiko

                Thanks for your feedback. Glad I am not the only who feel this way. I feel so helpless sometimes when people prefer to go to some of the places that are obviously mediocre and not wanting to acknowledge (or maybe not able to realize and appreciate) that there are better choices out there.

          3. re: bearmi

            Agreed with bearmi completely. As for NY Noodletown, the only dish I found worth trying is the soft shell crabs. I found the much raved wonton noodle to be a complete disappointment. That said, I was probably too spoiled by the fantastic wonton and say soup dumplings in Hong Kong, so the wonton at Noodletown and soup dumplings at Joe Shanghai are simply lacklusters for me.

          4. I go to Momofuku Ssam Bar quite often and three of the dishes that you ordered (Santa Barbara uni with some herbs, chanwamushi with snails, mussels/clams with bacon kimchee soup) are, frankly, not the strongest on the menu, so I'm not surprised you thought it was overpriced.

            BTW, although the items you ordered seem like "Asian comfort food" I feel that the rest of the menu strays further from that concept IMO.

            I'm not surprised you thought service at Aquagrill was great -- they're so bubbling and friendly, it almost seems like an act, but I know they're sincere. It can get grating after a while if you're not in the mood. Strangely, the only other time I can remember thinking "enough already" was at another Batali restaurant: Esca.

            5 Replies
            1. re: kathryn

              You are probably right that the rest of the menu strays from that concept, but it is my own bias that led me to order something that I am familiar with, so resulting in the focus of "Asian comfort food". I did not realize this until you pointed it out for me.

              I assume the oyster kimchee consumme and steamed bun pork belly are the popular items as you exclude these two from your "not the strongest" statement. But the oyster really pale in comparison to those in Aquagrill in terms of freshness, and if my recollection is correct, charges $3 per piece compared to slightly above $2 per piece in Aquagrill. And the steamed pork belly, this is just such a common comfort food where I come from, there is really nothing special about it.

              1. re: FourSeasons

                Most places that serve oysters in this town pale in comparison to Aquagrill. They do charge $3/oyster but part of it is the labor, I think. They don't have a dedicated shucker, the regular chefs do the shucking.

                You are lucky that you live in a place where high quality steamed pork belly is commonplace. For whatever reason, it's considered David Chang's signature (or first signature?) dish.

              2. re: kathryn

                I think kathryn is dead on. At Ssam Bar, I tend to order a lot of the offal dishes which you can rarely find in other restaurants. I found the "Asian comfort food" to be the least exciting (e.g. the lemon grass sausage, the rice cakes, etc.) I am always going for those offals - veal head terrine, pig head tornchorn, sweetbreads, etc. I found those to be the stars of the menus.

                FS, reading your posts made me feel how taste can differ based on where you live. For instance, while I like Aquagrill I was never very excited as I can find similar seafood restaurants with same quality easily in the States. However, I found it hard to find good seafood restaurants (talking about raw bar type that serves raw oysters and clams) in Hong Kong or hot countries in Asia and they are usually very expensive. I am not surprised that you liked Aquagrill a lot. On the other hand, Yasuda, while almost the best in NYC, is unlikely to be the top-tier sushi restaurants in Japan. The two restaurants (I have tried) in the US that I found closest to what I had in Japan are Urasawa in LA and Masa in NYC. However, at those price it may just be better for you to fly to Japan and enjoy sushi there.

                Of course, having Chinese food in NYC is like having pizza in Japan or burgers in Hong Kong. You have it because you need that comfort food. But you can't really expect the same quality as what you can get from the country of origins.

                I am the most surprised by your reactions to Keens and Babbo. I personally preferred the prime ribs at Keens more than at Lawry's, and I can't even articulate why the food turned out so underwhelming at Babbo. I was thinking that the chef might be off the day you and Charles visited. Though your review didn't deter me from returning back to Babbo as I have many excellent meals there.

                1. re: kobetobiko

                  Hi Ko:

                  I did not order the offals at Ssam Bar. Guess it is too late now to realize those are the stars of the menu.

                  You are absolutely right that we judge based on our experience. I love Aquagrill because there is nothing here (in Singapore) that can be compared to what I had in Aquagrill. And being a frequent visitor to Tokyo (with the habit to seek the top notch sushi places in the last 2 years) means that Sushi Yasuda would be benchmark against the very best in this business. And since I lived in Singapore , (and frequent visitor to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing) that means that the Chinese food in NYC is just comfort food for me.

                  You probably miss my comment on Babbo's on the post started by Charles. I actually quite enjoyed the meal there, especially the Pig Foot and the Goose Liver Rivioli. But there were some misses as well. I gave it a (2) even though I was expecting a (3) prior to the visit. I would certainly want to go back there again if I had a chance to visit NYC in future.

                  Maybe our biggest surprise should be Keens. I was certainly disappointed as I love to eat steak. I enjoyed my steak meals tremendously on the last trip to LA, and was hoping to repeat that experience in NYC. Perhaps I have not acquired the taste bud to appreciate NY style steak (after all, Lawry's is from LA, Mortons from Chicago, Ruth Chris from New Orleans). Or maybe I need to go to Luger or StripHouse like what other members suggested.

                  1. re: FourSeasons

                    that pig's foot dish will continue to haunt me.

              3. Forgot to include another discovery on the above post. While we were shopping at the West Village, I noticed a very long queue outside of a bakery shop named Magnolia Bakery. There must be a crowd of 20-30 people queuing outside that old tiny shop, quite frankly a rare scene in NYC. (beside the Abercombie shop in 5th Avenue) Upon enquiry, a shop assistant told me that is the "best cupcake in New York City". Never a fan of cupcake, but I have never tried the best one in NYC, so I decided to join the 20 minutes queue line. We eventually ordered 6 different flavor of cupcakes and 2 cheesecakes. I have to admit that is the best cupcake I ever tried, but again the rich flavor just overwhelmed me after a few bites.

                Magnolia Bakery (2).

                1 Reply
                1. re: FourSeasons

                  Hah! Magnolia Bakery is extremely popular, and became even more so after it was featured on many TV shows, including Sex and the City. I too am overwhelmed by the sugary nature of their cupcakes, and think there are some in town doing far better. Next time you are in town, maybe you'll get to try some....

                2. I agree with you on Babbo and Keens - I am consistently baffled that I'm really missing something at both these places since everyone else seems to love them.

                  Il Mulino isn't too far away from Babbo and serves the best italian in the city (and has been doing so long before Batali arrived) - oh and what's nice is you get plenty of great food without attitude. Wolfgangs, Lugers, BLT Prime and Strip House are all better than Keens. Although there are many, many people on these boards who flip out when I say such things.

                  Some of your service issues seem to be around special requests for your kids. Just curious if you had made requests in advance that weren't honored or if they were spur of the moment requests. The reason I ask is that (as you're probably aware having spent so much time here) it's less common in NYC to bring younger kids out to fine restuarants - which I think is a shame. When we're dining with children, we usually tell them at the time of the reservation, and make special seating requests at that time.

                  Many of the restaurants you visited book specific parties at specific tables - so when special requests are made last minute it's very difficult to accomodate. Not trying to defend poor service since all restaurants are in the 'hospitality' business, but letting them know in advance could possibly help in the future?

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: Spends Rent on Food

                    I have no problem that my request is rejected; it is within their rights to do so. But I do expect them to say "no" politely rather than a harsh statement with a grim look. And to reply your question specifically, I tried to book the reservation at Babbo's for a party of 5, but they only accept even number so will only confirmed for a table of 4 as the bigger tables were full. My friend helped me to call every other day but were consistently rejected. Finally, he just booked 2 tables for us, so we can split into 2 groups of 2 and 3. So you can see how desperate we were since both Charles and I thought we would have the best Italian meal ever. So when we arrived and explained to prefer a table of 6 rather than to split into 2 tables, he gave us a stern look and scolded us why we did not make the request earlier, which obviously we did. Then basically just ordered us to wait at the bar while he had to sort out the problem. Though we eventually got the table, we did not appreciate the way we were treated.

                    1. re: FourSeasons

                      I've never been to Babbo and maybe I'm obtuse, but if they only accept reservations for even numbers (which seems totally ridiculous to me), how did you end up with a table for 2 and a table for 3? Did your friend book two tables for 4? And once you got there, since you already knew that the tables for 6 were spoken for, why did you think you would be able to switch from two tables to one big enough to seat 5? Not that there is any excuse for a surly, accusative attitude on the part of restaurant personnel, but requesting that kind of switch on your part is not easily accommodated at a restaurant as popular and busy as Babbo. I'm surprised the person you were dealing with was even willing to try to work things out for you.

                      1. re: RGR

                        Let me clarify further: we booked a table for 2 and a table for 4 since they only accept even number. So our first option is to hopefully that they are able to switch to a table of 6 for us when we show up. The 2nd option is to split to 2 groups of 2 and 3 as the original reservation.
                        Again, I have no problem if the person had simply rejected our first request if they are too full. But in such a well known restaurant that is so highly regarded in the community, I expect their service and attitude to be accommodative and courteous. In most excellent hotels and restaurants, they will go all out to try to satisfy the customers requests, no matter how odd they are.
                        But though we eventually got our request, the attitude of the Maitre D is as though he had to suffer greatly to accommodate our wish, and it was our mistake not to clarify with him earlier, which is not the case. Simply said, I was surprised a place of this recognition is degraded to this low standard.

                        1. re: FourSeasons

                          Thanks for the clarification about the table reservations. As I said in my previous post, I agree the maitre d's discourteous manner was reprehensible and should not occur at *any* restaurant, regardless of its stature. However, he could easily have refused your request entirely and kept your party split between the two tables. Instead, it appears he juggled things around so that you could have the single table for the five of you, which should count for something.

                          1. re: RGR

                            Thanks for enlightening me. Yes, I probably should keep a positive attitude, after all, we got our wish. But had the Maitre D simply smile and replied,"I will try my best to get your table, please just enjoy your drinks in our bar while waiting.", then I would have written a very positive review.

                            1. re: FourSeasons

                              I so very much agree with you, FourSeasons, that an attitude adjustment on the part of the maitre d' would have made the Babbo experience much more positive for you. As I mentioned, we've never been there, but I have read that other people have experienced less than courteous treatment from the reception personnel there.

                              We have been to Casa Mono, another Batali restaurant, and ran up against some less than pleasant attitude from the hostess there. Maybe Batali is so full of himself that he doesn't feel he needs to worry about cordial treatment at the front desk because he figures people are so dying to eat at his restaurants, they'll put up with poor treatment.

                  2. Hello all!
                    Since I was present with Fourseasons and family for the Babbo and Sushi Yasuda meal, I guess I'll just use his posting and tag on one other restaurant to his interesting list. Before joining up with Fourseasons, I dinned on my own at Aquavit. Though the meal was kind of marred by a way to salty soup, the smogasbord appertizer and venison loin with pancetta,white asparagus and lingonberry sauce entree were both extremely well executed and absolutely delicious. At only $20, the visually appealing smogasbord with its three different kinds of marinated herrings, hot smoked salmon, gravlax, tuna tartar, prawns salad, scallop salad, Swedish meatball, cheeses....etc must be one of the best deal in town. Based on the appertizer and entree alone, I would give it at least a (2+). For such a fine restaurant not getting a star from Michelin, one can imagine the high calibre of some of NYC's Michelin stars kitchen! Cannot wait to head back down in the near future and try out the likes of EMP, Gramercy Tavern, Picholine, WD-50, Degustation...etc

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: Charles Yu

                      Did you eat in the Cafe or in the Dining Room at Aquavit? I've been to both, but find the Cafe particularly great value for the food. I think I said this in your other thread, but I'll repeat it. I think Michelin is really unreliable in NYC, and that you simply can't compare Michelin starred places in NY (particularly one star ones) to those elsewhere. The first year the guide came out, La Goulue got one star. Now, while I go there quite often, and like their foie gras/steak tartare/one or two other dishes, by no means does that place deserve a star, IMO. I hope that you have better experiences on your next visit to Manhattan.

                      1. re: MMRuth

                        I managed to catch a much earlier flight that day so was able to check into my hotel and walk over to Aquavit for a really early lunch. I managed to get seated in the dining room since I told the hostess I should be finish by 1 pm. Actually, the dishes I ordered were the same price for both the cafe and the dining room.

                      2. re: Charles Yu

                        do they normally have this smorgasbord? was this part of their herring festival the third week of june? AYCE?

                        1. re: bigjeff

                          I'm not sure but I don't see why not since all the ingredients used were available year round. You can always check out their website at to see.

                          1. re: bigjeff

                            I don't know what day of the week Charles was there, but Aquavit does have a Sunday brunch buffet (smorgasbord), which I've heard is excellent. I've never tried it because I detest buffets.

                            1. re: RGR

                              just had the smorgasbord this past weekend and your hunch is right, RGR. a buffet is a buffet is a buffet. they have it in the main dining room, its $48 and includes a drink and the offerings, while somewhat limited, were all excellent. the crowd was kids home for summer and dining in blazers and boat shoes, combined with tourists and some brunches of shame. the herrings were excellent (the wine- and tomato-marinated ones were too salty but the mustard, the pickle and the cream w/ roe were excellent), the salmon was overcooked, the smoked salmon was one of the best I've had in a long time, like eating fine smoked sashimi; the country pate was flavorful yet light, the vegetable sides (beets, mushrooms and nice, albeit basic, mixed greens) were good, the hot entrees were excellent. well, I didn't have the potato hash w/ anchovy (rosti?) but the swedish meatballs were amazing and so different from what I've had (no bounce, just ooze), and the perfect lamb and beef were roasted over leeks, carrots and cubed taro. excellent. the roast beef was good and basically, they served very few dishes but each one was exemplary. not an ideal but maybe an exemplar? but again, the multiple trips up to the buffet, waiting in line at the dessert station and the hot station, etc.; it coulda been old country buffet you know? and our meal in the end with coffee and tea (tap) was $70 each. rough. I wouldnt do it again, but I'm glad I did it once.