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 NABE FEST HAS GOT THE UPPER HAND 

 

Last updated: 3:24 am
May 27, 2009
Posted: 3:23 am
May 27, 2009
EAT your heart out, Upper East Side -- land of leaf-eating, lunching ladies leaner than bank accounts skinned by Bernie Madoff.In contrast to the demoralized dining scene north of Bloomingdale's, where the idea would be a joke, the zone across the park is throwing itself a helluva food party this Saturday, when 35 restaurants will offer up samples of their best work at the second annual New Taste of the Upper West Side.The bash sold out all 1,800 tickets, twice last year's total, weeks ago; participating chefs include marquee names Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael Psilakis, Zak Pelaccio, John Fraser, Ed Brown, Michael Bao Huynh, Andy D'Amico, Cesare Casella and Bill Telepan.For good measure, the Hamptons-style tent on Columbus Avenue between West 76th and 77th streets, bigger than last year's, is designed by Glen Coben, who created the look for Del Posto, as well as for nearby Compass.Don Evans, Compass' owner and the event's chairman, said the Wall Street crash caused some of last year's sponsors to drop out. But new sponsors, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, took up the slack.He worried, too, over selling tickets and signing up eateries. "We weren't anticipating the response we got," he said. Tickets sold out at $85 for general admission to the tables and $200 for also getting to mingle with the chefs, and 36 eateries signed on compared to 27 in 2008. Evans and Barbara Adler, president of the Columbus Avenue BID, the event's chief sponsor, have a lot to crow about. But how did so much star power come to Manhattan's once most culinarily destitute district?The now-spent economic boom obviously helped. And much credit is due Ruby Foo's "Dim Sum and Sushi Palace," which closed in January. Its shuttered façade on Broadway between 77th and 78th streets makes for a forlorn site, where the colorful signs share frontage with a "store for rent" sign.Some restaurants just run out of steam over time. So it was with Ruby Foo's, which Stephen Hanson launched in early 1999 and faced a monster rent increase when its lease expired this year.But Ruby Foo's was the first Upper West Side place that dared serve good food in so large (250 seats) and spectacularly designed a setting. It proved to be the prototype for any number of Vegas-like, Asian-fusion jumbos like Buddakan, Ono and Chinatown Brasserie. More important, the media splash it made, and huge
crowds, finally alerted major owners and chefs to the fact that one of Manhattan's greatest neighborhoods was starving.
In 1999, there were no Ouest (which is oddly not participating in New Taste), West Branch, Bar Boulud, Dovetail, eighty one, 'Cesca, Telepan, BarBao, Kefi, Fatty Crab, Compass, Nice Matin, Salumeria Rosi -- nor anything like them.Now, Food & Wine magazine proclaims the Upper West Side the nation's "Hot Food Zone" -- a slapdown to the Upper East Side which, although never a cutting-edge foodie destination, had more than enough fine places to laugh at its crosstown counterpart.But if you leave out the Upper East's best restaurants that are in a league apart, Restaurant Daniel and Café Boulud, the vaunted gulf between the uptown Sides all but disappears. Even Boulud's places are offset by Vongerichten's flagship, Jean Georges, if you're willing to consider Columbus Circle part of the Upper West Side.Lots of UES places are half-empty. On Madison Avenue's fanciest blocks, La Goulue is closing, and Frederick's is in Chapter 11. Meanwhile, subway construction and the imminence of more street work cast a pall over Second Avenue's lively, lower-priced noshing scene.While downtown restaurateurs wouldn't dream of opening Upper East Side outposts, they're flocking to the Upper West: Danny Meyer's Shake Shack to Columbus Avenue, Pellacio's Fatty Crab to Broadway and Casella's Salumeria to Amsterdam. It's hard to imagine anything as good as BarBao (interpretive Vietnamese) and Fatty Crab (Malaysian-inspired) ever popping up on Third Avenue. The Upper West's Jewish-style deli restaurants, Artie's Delicatessen and new Lansky's, whip the matzo balls off anything across town.Not every new place will survive. But the Upper Best Side kicks Upper Least Side butt, and it will likely be doing it for a long time.scuozzo@nypost.comOur picks in the neighborhoodTHE Upper West Side now offers so many great dishes at so many locations in every price range, it would take a whole page to list them. But here are a few of my favorites:* BAR BAO, 100 W. 82d St.; 212-501-0776. Uncompromisingly seasoned "Mekong Market" clay pot packed with prawns and daily fish ($21) and iron-pot chicken with quail egg, ginger and chilies blow away memories of the ersatz exoticism of past Upper West Side spots.* BAR BOULUD, 1900 Broadway, at 64th Street; 212-595-0303. Charcuterie was the thing to order when the place opened two years ago, but the regular menu has spectacularly improved to the point of eclipsing it. Everything's grand, from simple salads to boudin noir and blanc to sophisticated French-influenced seafood dishes.* COMPASS, 208 W. 70th St.; 212-875-8600. The hands-down favorite at this handsomely redesigned American seafood house is the 3-pound, fresh Maine lobster for an unbelievably modest $39.* DOVETAIL, 103 W. 77th St.; 212-362-3800. Don't miss chef/owner John Fraser's inventively embellished (piquillo vinaigrette, ossabow guanciale) striped bass for $28, less than most other entrees.* EIGHTY-ONE, 45 W. 81st St.; 212-873-8181. Succulent roast California squab with polenta gratin and English and sugar snap peas; $32. And anything on Ed Brown's "Eco(nomy)-friendly" menu offering two courses for $30.31.* KEFI, 505 Columbus Ave.; 212-873-0200. Impossibly low-priced, nonclichéd Greek dishes from Michael Psilakis are typified by grilled swordfish with tomatoes, cauliflower, olives and a brace of Hellenic accents -- a fully realized joy for all of $16.50.* LANSKY'S OLD WORLD DELI, 235 Columbus Ave., at 70th Street; 212-787-0400. Chef David Ruggerio's matzo ball soup, all of $3.50, was the takeout hit of many a Passover seder this year.* NICE MATIN, 201 W. 79th St.; 212-873-6423. It's hard to find a bad dish on Andy D'Amico's Provencal-inspired menu -- but this is also the home of the original, singularly oozy Five-Napkin Burger, which now has an entire Midtown restaurant to its name.

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