More on Morandi, and Who I Am

Addendum, later that night, 3/30/07: Morandi is ready for prime time, folks! Guess what? Ever intrepid, I went back to Morandi after writing this. The wines by the carafe I would now recommend are the Puglia 2005 Rosato (aka rosé, very nice with the usual artichoke/mozzarella starters and not available on original list), the Liguria, a white 2004 Al Barola (not available on the original list), and the Toscana, a 2004 Rosso di Montalcino (which might have replaced my original bad Tuscan wine experience). At last, this tastes like the real Florentine Chianti jug wine.

This is what blogs are for: initial commentary. I am happy that we diners have secured some excellent carafe wines to drink at Morandi.
Mille grazie, Keith.

The real story in online restaurant reviews is often in the comments. Witness the recent brouhaha over Frank Bruni's snapshot of Balthazar in the Times' new food blog, Diner's Journal. Cataloging a single meal, Bruni proclaimed the risotto "inexcusable" and the chicken "overcooked." As soon as the review went up, the comments started to fly. A host of diners wrote in about similar negative experiences at Balthazar, others had nothing but good things to say, and a number of industry people defended the restaurant's good intentions - waiters, hosts, restauranteurs, and finally even one beleaguered Balthazar chef himself, Riad Nasr. All this prompted Bruni write in a follow-up post: "I tried to stress in my blog post that it was a single experience — that my descriptions didn’t amount to a formal review."

I don't have 50+ people writing in response to my reviews (and yes, I call mine reviews), but after enraging a couple of winos with my comments about the wine at Morandi, I thought it might be time to set the record straight. What I am trying to do with the reviews is give you a first impression of a restaurant. For the new places, I try to wait at least three weeks to let a kitchen get its legs. I'm not trying to convey an experience of the entire menu (or the wine list) from A to Z, just my opinion of the place and an idea of what it's like to dine there.

Back to Morandi

For you, dear readers, I stole a wine list and scanned the whole thing in, probably outing myself as a critic in the process. (Have you ever tried to steal a 12x15 booklet bound by two pieces of wood? It's not easy, even with the help of a trench coat.) The entire wine list is below. Correction: the list is not paltry but extensive. I was initially reacting to just the "vini della casa" available by the glass and carafe and should have been clearer about that in the review.

Second, though I fully endorse Morandi as a whole, I still am not crazy about the wines available by the glass or carafe (addendum: but see above), which are not incorporated into the rest of the list. These are still being tinkered with (last revision to wine list was 3/23/07), and one of the reds I had is no longer on offer. The first time I went to Morandi, we ordered by the glass so that we could try more than one wine. Most recently I had the one of the bianchi, the 2005 Vermentino di Gallura "S'Elme" Cantina del Vermentino. My friend was doing the wine ordering, and the sommelier, who was very prompt, polite, attentive, and knowledgeable, steered her in that direction. Did I like it? No. I'm sorry, Morandi. Next time I'll order the Orvieto. I found the Vermentino simplistic and too acidic, but guess what? Keith McNally triumphs again. I'm pretty sure I was the only one in the entire restaurant who cared that the carafe wines were not that great.

Why? Because McNally's an expert at giving the people what they want. He knows that many diners do not know a whole lot about wine, and he would never do anything to make us feel uncomfortable, particularly in the tricky field of Italian wines. So for the boozers, there's wine by the carafe, for the winos, there's the selection of fancy wines available by the bottle. And once those French doors are thrown open to the springtime, there will be nothing more refreshing than one of Morandi's inexpensive lite white wines by the carafe.

Throughout this wine controversy, I became annoyed that some comments were signed only as "anonymous." Then I realized you do not know my name either. It's Marcy Swingle. Google me if you want to know more. The internet never forgets.

To the industry people: if I reserve at a restaurant under my own name from now on, it means I'm just there to eat, not to review. I'll be using fake names to dine for future reviews. Though this may require the eventual wearing of wigs, I think it's better to dine anonymously than to write anonymously.

My Previous Experience with Italian Wines by the Carafe

Someone suggested I not write about wines at all unless I'm an expert in the topic. Again, I'm no expert, but here's my previous experience with Italian wine served by the carafe.

In 1993, I spent a semester abroad with an Italian family in Bagno a Ripoli, a suburb of Florence. They drank red wine with every lunch and dinner, and, in a custom I thought was quite strange but was also quite common, they poured their glasses half full with wine, then filled the rest with water. (They used wine glasses, not drinking glasses.) The wine wasn't anything to be talked about; it was just part of the meal. My Italian "mother" got the wine, which was a Chianti, from a vintner nearby. Her family had bought wine from his family for generations. It didn't come in a bottle but in a big glass jug; when she wanted more wine, she brought the glass jug back for him to refill.

my Italian host family, the Renais, outside their house in Bagno a Ripoli

In April, my parents came to visit me in Florence, and my Italian mother invited them over for a meal. Unlike me, my father actually is a wine expert. I grew up drinking excellent wines, mainly French and Californian, and so I remember wine labels and names - mostly of wines I can't afford. My father arrived bearing a very nice Italian wine he'd bought at one of the shops in Florence. The gift had the opposite effect he'd intended: My Italian host family was horrified.

"Mother of God!" they said in Italian. "That wine: it's too good! Why did he bring it? We can't drink that now, with this meal. It's too expensive."

Fortunately, I was the only one there who could understand both English and Italian, so I managed to negotiate a deal with my Italian family before an international incident arose. They would "try" the fancy wine if they could serve their house wine with the meal.

A separate set of glasses was brought out for my father's wine. Meanwhile, my Italian brother poured the house wine for my father, though I stopped him before he could dilute my the wine with water. My father poured the fancy shop wine into their glasses. Everybody drank.

"Buono," the Italians said, eyeing their glasses as if they contained a form of liquid gold.

My father started to laugh when he tasted the jug wine. "It's really good!" He raised an eyebrow. "Where did you get it?"

"From the guy down the road," my Italian mother said.

My father wondered he could buy some from the vintner, which only confused them further. Why would he want a jug of wine? The local vintner didn't even bottle it. Why would he want this wine if he could have something much better?

Because, I explained to my Italian family, "è così buono."

And that's how I think carafe wines should ideally complement the fancy ones. Is it possible outside Italy? If it's possible anywhere, it's possible in New York.

- Marcy Swingle

the disputed Morandi wine list as of 3/23/07, in its entirety


Maoz Vegetarian

The recent DOH shuttering of the popular vegetarian go-to spot Gobo threw downtowners into a tizzy. Gobo has since reopened (and sounds busy), but still... Though I'm not a vegetarian, and will probably return to Gobo someday, I sympathize with the squeamish. What's a person for the ethical treatment of animals to do?

Fortunately a new rat-free vegetarian take-out place has opened in Union Square, land of the thousand yoga studios. Maoz Vegetarian (pronounced like Mao Zedong), is a popular European falafel chain that's "dedicated to spreading the vegetarian lifestyle worldwide!" Because I am fascinated by things that are popular in Europe but may or may not catch on here, like David Hasselhoff, Mentos, and Pret A Manger, I decided to give it a try.

Though the space itself is tiny, with seating for just three or four people, the green-and-white tiled interior is very appealing. Squeaky clean and minimalist, Maoz is a vegetarian place designed for the IKEA era.

There's nothing particularly revolutionary about a falafel sandwich, but Maoz's extensive toppings bar is a new twist on an old standard. You can go wild piling your pita with cucumbers and dill, bulgur wheat salad, pickled carrot slices, cole slaw, olives, tomatoes and onions, excellent roast cauliflower, even cilantro sauce or salsa.

Dense, bright green and mildly spicy, the falafel tastes fresh and light. Here, too, Maoz shows more flexibility than the average falafel joint by offering it in several forms: as a Maoz sandwich (5 falafel balls) or a Junior (just 3), with feta, eggplant or hummus, or as a salad topper. The hummus is bland, but the Belgian fries are tasty. Like the falafel, they have a nice slow afterburn of Middle Eastern spiciness.

The new falafel shop also presents a solution to a common problem: What kind of portable, healthy food makes for an easy lunchtime picnic in Union Square park? Maoz is the answer. No fork required.

Maoz Vegetarian
38 Union Square East, between 16th and 17th Streets

Mentos: the freshmaker!



Years after it became a destination for trend spotters and stylists in search of ideas, Williamsburg remains one of the most fashion-conscious places in New York. The specialty here is a quirky sort of jolie-laide style whose appeal is its resistance to the mainstream.

Williamsburg itself retains an element that has been lost to many Manhattan neighborhoods: a certain amount of mystery.

military brass

Verb Cafe, a neighborhood institution


bangs - more Bettie Page than Reese Witherspoon


skater culture

marigold yellow

car culture

a desolate stretch of Kent Avenue

mural by the bridge


Le Petit Marché

Though they play at seriousness, restaurants are just as vulnerable to irrational trends as fashion is. Remember the Belgian pommes frites craze? Towering food? Churrascaria? Reassuringly overpriced comfort food? Communal dining tables?

By no means am I saying I haven't been prey to the same follies. I was right there with the rest of New York, pointing to a huge stack of broiled meat on a spear at Riodizio on Lafayette while trying to pronounce "caipiriña." But there are some things you don't realize are a trend until they're gone, like knee-length skirts. Such is the case with French bistros. One day you wake up and Le Zinc has vamoosed, La Jumelle est disparu, Balthazar and Pastis are overrun with tourists, and Anthony Bourdain has definitely left the Les Halles building.

At least there's a little neighborhood French bistro, Le Petit Marché, in Brooklyn Heights, if not in Manhattan. And when better to try it than Brooklyn Restaurant Week, which runs now through March 30th?

Aside from a long aluminum ventilation tube running down the middle of the room, Le Petit Marché is a good-looking place with all the trappings of a turn-of-the-20th-century bistro. The barstools are appropriately clad in oxblood leather, the tin on the ceiling may even possibly be original to the brownstone building, and the ornate flower arrangement on the bar reaches dizzying Daniel-esque heights.

The cocktail menu was reassuringly French. My Brooklyn friend and I tried an excellent, not-too-sweet kir royale, which Le Petit Marché garnishes with raspberries, and an intriguing fizzy Lillet, which was a mix of champagne and the famous French apertif. We eyed the elaborate flower arrangement. My Brooklyn friend recounted a dinner party thrown by her ex-pat friend, now enviably stationed in Paris, at which all the Parisian guests arrived with flowers, not in the deli wrapping that's the norm in New York, but in oddly neat little bundles, completely pruned of all thorns and leaves. "The French are really anal about flowers," the ex-pat explained.

The appetizers arrived. I can hardly ever find a good pork country paté in this post-bistro era. (Alas, Le Zinc's was my favorite.) Le Petit Marché's was the real thing, presented with two types of mustard, a handful of greens, toast, and cornichons. It could have used some more oomph, but the pistachios embedded in the meat were a creative country touch.

The chef's name is Robert Weiner, more Brooklyn than French, but we'll give him a break. After all, he studied under Christian Delouvrier at the grand old Maurice at Le Parker Meridien.

What stood out with the duck confit salad and all the meats and seafoods was freshness. Even in a confit state, the duck didn't taste at all gamey, but pure and meaty. This was a welcome relief. As the crowds and chef talent have slowly retreated from Manhattan bistros, the quality of the ingredients has gone down, so that I've started to approach certain menu items with a distinct feeling of trepidation. You can dive fearlessly into the menu at Le Petit Marché.

One thing that seemed quintessentially French was Weiner's skill with lentils and beans. The smoky, earthy, garlicky lentils, finished with a slight tang of vinegar or citrus, nearly stole the show from the duck they accompanied. Equally as rich as the lamb shank entree, pictured here, was the accompanying white bean ragout, which was overlaid with flavors of tomato, herbs, and shallot. Like the duck, the lamb was not gamey but tender to the point of falling off the bone.

I hesitated before digging into the escargots, and not just because they were piping hot. Would these be the canned sort that plagued inferior bistros? Those hard little lumps that serve only as a carrier for butter and garlic? Mais non! These escargots were fresh and plump, broiled just to the point of doneness and not a second more. The sauce was predictably buttery and garlicky. The moules frites too were just what they were supposed to be, cooked perfectly, bathed in a white wine sauce and speckled with flecks of garlic.

For dessert we tried the tarte tatin. This was the traditional French dessert, but with an edge: the soft chunks of apple, served with creamy cinnamon ice cream, were caramelized nearly to the point of burntness. The dish pushed the envelope but stayed firmly in French territory.

Which was exactly what I wanted. When a French bistro opened in Manhattan about a year and a half ago, it sent me into a rage. Why? Because they have buffalo wings on the menu. Ce n'est pas français! My only hope for finding authentic French bistro fare in a new setting had been dashed. It was the kind of frustration you feel when searching endlessly for the most basic item of clothing, like a black turtleneck sweater, only to find that it's no longer sold by any store, because it's only a basic.

When you tire of the latest trends, head to Le Petit Marché, where authenticity is always in stock.

Le Petit Marché
46 Henry Street, between Cranberry and Middagh Streets
Brooklyn Heights

This is the Brooklyn Restaurant Week menu - the whole prix fixe meal goes for $21.12. Quelle steal!

For borough-phobes. How to get there: Get in a cab and say: Henry and Cranberry Streets in Brooklyn Heights - it's spitting distance from the Brooklyn Bridge. Or take the A/C to High Street or the 2/3 to Clark Street.