food 06.15.04

Upper West Side

Madame Chevalier had a pension at 167 W. 73rd Street in the late 1920s, and she enjoyed a reputation among gourmets for her cooking. After author Horace Fish wrote an article about her, Mme. Chevalier became, in today's terms, a celebrity chef. Unlike many of today's notables, though, she knew the value of holding something back. "If you wish to dine with her it is possible, if you tell her that you heard of her through Horace Fish. Madame Chevalier never takes patrons who are not recommended."

That account of Mme. Chevalier is from Helen Worden's book The Real New York, published in 1932. When you look back through the city's culinary history, Mme. Chevalier stands out because there don't ever seem to have been many chefs of note on the Upper West Side. Also from Ms. Worden's book is an entry for a restaurant called The Blue Plate, at 226 W. 82nd Street, which she describes this way: "This is a comfortable, substantially equipped restaurant in a neighborhood that does not abound in eating-places…The portions are generous, the food wholesome, and the prices moderate."

Sounds familiar, no? If you're an Upper West Sider it does. There are now serious chefs who've taken the plunge into this part of town, including Tom Valenti, Katy Sparks, Didier Virot, and Andrew D'Amico. But good mom-and-pop joints are almost non-existent, and you'd be hard-pressed to name a single memorable restaurant serving Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Indian, Moroccan, or Korean food. We can't think of any place that sells great sandwiches or salads (a la City Bakery) or barbecue, or even a creditable burger joint. And we've yet to hear convincing arguments on why this is so. In spite of all that, the following is a selection of UWS restaurants that would probably make Mme. Chevalier proud.

Aix, 2398 Bway [88th] 212.874.7400. Didier Virot's serious, if not universally beloved French restaurant. Virot is a good cook but somehow the fit may not be quite right. Entrees average $31.

Cafe Luxembourg, 200 W. 70th [Amst/WEA] 212.873.7411. The neighborhood's touchstone and old glove. We'd like to wear as well as this bistro. Entrees average $25.

Celeste, 502 Amst [84th/85th] 212.874.4559. Noisy, crowded, waits to get in, and cash only. But: delightful Italian cooking at more than fair prices. Entrees average $15, pastas and pizza are less.

Cesca, 164 W. 75th [Amst] 212.787.6300. Tom Valenti's second West Side hit, enormously appealing, robust, though not unrefined, Italian food. The windowless room isn't its strong suit and an unbooked table mid-evening is hen's-tooth rare, but the place has been warmly welcomed by the 'hood. Entrees average $25.

Compass, 208 W. 70th [Amst/WEA] 212.875.8600. Frankly, if Katy Sparks were cooking shish kabob on a loading dock in Piscataway, we'd pull our truck right up to that loading dock. Fortunately, she's turned up after a too-long hiatus at Compass with her new American cooking chops in fine form. Entrees average $29. [Ed.: Katy Sparks has left the restaurant since this article first ran]

En Plo, 103 W. 77th [Col/Amst] 212.579.7777. Early reports on the new incarnation of this Greek seafood spot have been raves. The nabe still hasn't caught on to chef/owner Peter Spyropoulos' cooking, but with any luck they will. Entrees average $22.

Gennaro, 665 Amst [92nd/93rd] 212.665.5348. Some of the best Italian food on the UWS is here. Downside is cash only and long waits, but entrees average only $11 and that's little money very well spent.

Neptune Room, 511 Amst [84th] 212.496.4100. Instantly popular, this seafood restaurant from the owners of Jane on Houston Street has a fine raw bar. Entrees average $22.

Nice Matin, 201 W. 79th [Amst] 212.873.6423. Uneven service is the Achilles' heel of Nice Matin and that's been true since they opened their doors. If they want to be around as long as Cafe Luxembourg, they should observe how Luxembourg does it. It's a shame, since Andrew D'Amico's food is such an asset to the area. Entrees average $22.

Ouest, 2315 Bway [83rd/84th] 212.580.8700. In culinary terms, Tom Valenti's move to the West Side was akin to going west in the 19th century across the Rockies in a covered wagon. Most other chefs thought it was a dang fool thing to do. Well, Mr. Valenti is now a hero in them parts. Entrees average $27.

Rain, 100 W. 82nd [Amst/Col] 212.501.0776. One of the only places for miles to find Asian noodles without gloppy sesame sauce, Rain's pan-Asian repertoire remains a welcome addition to the UWS. Entrees average $21.

Raku, 57 W. 76th [Col/CPW] 212.873.1220. It may not look like much from the outside (or from the inside, for that matter), but Raku II, an offshoot of their theatre district restaurant, serves superbly fresh sushi and sashimi. Don't overlook the inventive rolls, either. You won't find better sushi in this part of town.

Steakhouse at Fairway, 2127 Bway [74th/75th] 212.595.1888. When you've got a hankering for steak, Mitchel London's cafe on the second floor of Fairway, which transforms itself into a meatery at night, is just the place.
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