Miriam Comes to 5th Avenue’s Rescue
A couple of weeks ago, only a lack of free time prevented me writing a diatribe about the restaurants on Park Slope’s happening 5th Avenue. My negativity was spawned by a terrible late-evening curry at the unrepentantly English Chip Shop/Curry Shop, and a mediocre opening night meal at Bogota, a keenly-anticipated Central/South American restaurant. Coming on the heels of another lukewarm evening at Cocotte, I’d started to wonder if this whole 5th Avenue thing was just hype, nothing more than a mile-long gauntlet of 58 eateries (and counting) existing purely to separate the trendy hungry from their easy money. Our son Campbell, it seemed, has it right. He’ll eat $2 rice and beans from the long-standing Mexican diner, or a $1.75 plain slice of pizza from the equally old-time Pizzeria, both at the top of the street; anything more expensive or adventurous he suffers under highly vocal duress.
Fortunately, this past Friday evening, Posie and I found reason to keep the faith. With the temperature too hot to cook at home, and Campbell still in England, we opted to visit MIRIAM, the oddly-named Middle Eastern restaurant at the top of our street which has replaced my neighbor’s culinarily creative but commercially unsuccessful Surrreal Café.
It feels regrettably necessary to clarify that Miriam, while absolutely Mediterranean and Middle Eastern in tone, is predominantly Israeli in specific flavor, something I first noted by the presence of several wines from that country’s Tishbi producer on its list. (And subsequent confirmation that the owner, Raffi, is indeed Israeli by birth and youth.) That wine list is also one of the first reasons to like the place: there are enough options by the glass to satisfy most tastes, and all of them are well-priced. My Marpeco Vinho Verde 2004, for example, had all the requisite green fizz you expect of Portugal’s indigenous refreshment, for just $5 a glass. Better yet, when we asked questions about the other wines (specifically the Israeli ones), our waitress was happy to bring free tastings. In the case of the Tishbi Chardonnay – nowhere near as oaky as she’d intimated – the sample paid off, as we ended up splitting a glass. Other white wines by the glass (it was far too hot to even study the reds) included one German and one Israeli Riesling, an Italian Vermentino, and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, all priced between $5 and $8, round what you pay for industrial swill at most bars. They each seemed a good match for a menu full of likely spicy, hopefully healthy and mostly Mediterranean food.
The hit of the night was undoubtedly the Artichoke and Halumi salad. Halumi is an Israeli cheese not unlike Italy’s Fontina: it arrived in thick grilled slabs atop a plate full of salad greens, green beans, walnuts, mushrooms and ample amounts of artichoke. (This last might seem obvious, but in New York, it’s far from assured that meals will arrive with much of the item they’re actually named for.) Posie was almost as thrilled by Miriam’s signature “veggie cigars,” fried pastries filled with spinach, goat cheese and caramelized onions which cost but $5.50.
My experience as a vegetarian is that I often do better with a restaurant’s appetizers. Miriam was no exception: my main course choice was confined to a couscous with root vegetables, healthy and filling enough but too plain for my adventurous if flesh-phobic taste. Meantime, Posie opted for grilled scallops with asparagus tempura, an interesting combination which she pronounced as “very good” while nonetheless commenting on the difficulties of cooking scallops to the right consistency. She could have chosen a less common grilled Dorado, and meat eaters would surely be happy, too.
As we finished up, our waitress confided that many vegetarian customers were opting to skip the couscous and double up on appetizers. That’s hardly surprising: our two hearty starters combined came in at three bucks less than Posie’s scallops. I suggested (as I did at Bogota) that the chef could still offer up another vegetarian entrée, especially given the imagination afforded the salads and warm appetizers. The waitress assured me that the owners were desperately seeking such feedback and that our comments would reach the right ears. They have: I met Raffi a few days later and he was proud to announce that a second vegetarian entrée was now on the menu.
I take it as automatic that a new restaurant is going to serve good food if it expects to survive (how the Curry Shop has got away with it for so long is beyond me). After that pre-requisite, I’m looking for good service and good value. Miriam passed the latter test on all but the scallops, and almost overdid itself on the former. When Posie politely noted that her white wine sangria had more fruit than liquid, the glass was immediately refilled. The offer of wine tastes was appreciated, as were the substantial pours and quality of the glasses themselves. If anything, the readiness to please was worrying: the main course showed up before I’d finished my salad, and the enthusiasm with which we were invited to offer our opinions and then spread the gospel suggested that the restaurant, having inherited a rarely failed 5th Avenue space and shrouded by mementos for a dead cyclist, may be operating below expectations.
Upon finishing our early evening meal, we accepted our neighbors’ invitation to share some wine in their back yard. (I make it sound like the life of Riley, don’t I? Given that we normally spend Friday evening on the New York Thruway, we had no qualms about making the most of such a hot night in the hood.) The man of that house is the same English friend with whom I’d had the soggy nan, the flaccid papadam, the ageing bhaji and an unduly spicy curry at the Curry Shop; as someone who travels the world for work where he readily eats at street markets, he’s extremely cynical about fusion food in general, and Fifth Avenue’s restaurants in particular. The mountain will likely move to Mohammad before he sets foot in any place called Bogota that’s actually owned by a Costa Rican. But whether or not it’s precisely true to the Israeli diet, Miriam does a fine job of with its Middle Eastern/Mediterranean menu. So while I agreed with most of my mate’s comments – especially allowing that I’d so nearly written something here along similar lines – I asked him to allow that perhaps Miriam will be the exception that proves his rule.
I can recommend IN VINO on 4th Street between A & B in Manhattan, but only for the most wealthy and adventurous of oenophiles: serving exclusively southern Italian wines and limited food items, at substantial prices, it’s almost begging to go bust. (Most of the familiar wines from Italy – Chianti, Barolo, Barbaresca, Barbera and Dolcetto – are all from the north of the country.) But the service is so warm and friendly and the wine list so genuinely interesting, I’d be happy to return. Preferably on someone else’s expense account.
I can more sincerely approve of MARSEILLE in midtown, where I met a friend for a pre-Raspberries dinner last Saturday. A yellow vegetable/gazpacho soup and a green risotto were perfectly colour-coordinated, if each a little too creamy for my liking; the cheese plate was, surprisingly given the location, better value than In Vino in the East Village. Service was rapid, as befits the Theater District where most people have a curtain to catch, and so well-tuned that both our waiter and sommelier found time to linger at our table more than we liked. (The latter was a drummer who’d played Glastonbury with James Hall and wanted to share his Joe Strummer stories with us.) The wine list understandably worked its way round the Mediterranean from the port city of its name, focusing on all the appellations you’d expect (Bandol, Corbieres, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes du Rhône, Provence, Hermitage, Cote Rotie) and some you wouldn’t, including an Israeli Chardonnay, the obscure northern Rhône appellation St-Peray, and the extraordinarily rare sight of a white Vacqueryas. All were priced around double their retail value, more than I wish I had to pay but less than you come to expect from Midtown. I chose Marseille for our meet as it came highly recommended both by Time Out and the Wine Spectator; this time, the critics got it right.
Miriam is at 79 5th Ave, Brooklyn, 718 622-2250
In Vino is at 215 E. 4th Street, Manhattan, 212 539 1011
Marseille is at 630 Ninth Street, Manhattan, 212 333 3410