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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.

Miriam’s quietly stated elegance makes it look more forboding than it should be.The restaurant’s red lights stay on 24 hours a day, useful if ever I have to stumble home in the fog!

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.

Miriam’s newly-painted wall framed by felled cyclist Elizabeth Padilla’s bike

And more:

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

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Discussion

5 Comment(s)

  1. 7 August, 2005 at 10:23 am

    It’s rather unfair to categorize a restaurant as being mediocre based on one experience on opening night no less. In addition, any review should also be factual: Bogota consists of two owners: one is Costa Rican and the other is from Bogota.
    The story of the making of this restaurant, from being only a dream 4 years ago, to the reality of what it has become (a very successful restaurant in only 4 weeks) is truly an amazing and inspiring story. Kudos goes to anyone who would even attempt to take on an endeavour such as we have.
    Opening night was about opening our doors finally. It was about bringing starting up the engine of the business we’ve worked very hard to create. It wasn’t without it’s flaws: no restaurant exists that can’t be criticized by someone for something it does that’s perceived as less than what an armchair food critic would like it to be. We are not the same restaurant that we were on opening night. We have improved and continue to do so. The number of repeat customers, the overall great comments received, the sales that we’ve generated thus far all point to us doing something right. So do the number of people who have eaten at Bogota Latin Bistro who have come back with more friends and extended family in addition to booking future parties with us.
    We’re doing something right. We’re doing a lot of things right as far as I’m concerned. As far as the drink menu: we’ve got a great one with really delicious cocktails that have since become pitchers on the menu and sell, sell, sell. The food: I love the food we serve. I’ve eaten at far worse and far better but I do love our food … and so do many of our repeat customers. Our servers, for the most part, are fantastic, friendly and attentive and they go home with lots of money in their pockets at the end of the night: testament to great customer satisfaction derived from their Bogota Latin Bistro experience.
    Please, if you’re going to render the food community a service, please be factual, honest and for heaven’s sake: give people a break. Life is about living, learning and growing. The same holds true for entrepreneurs and businesses.

  2. 7 August, 2005 at 10:33 am

    I learned from Brian Buckley, noted restaurant consultant, that some customers you just don’t want back. Ever. He’s even gone on to tell them so. I also learned from Brian the 80/20 rule: 80% of my business will come from 20% of my customers. It’s those people, the ones who leave elated and keep coming back that I will truly focus on. I’ll do my best to rectify a situation, but for those who, after one experience, go on to bash a place in the interest of appearing witty, I just have to chalk it up as an, “Oh well. Whatever.”

    In looking over your comments, it actually gives me great comfort knowing that you will never set foot in my restaurant again. You’re not the type of customer we’re aiming to please. Regards,
    Bogota Latin Bistro

  3. 11 August, 2005 at 1:44 pm

    Dear Farid

    Many thanks for posting your reaction here; that’s why we have the comments section. I’m perfectly willing to publish your criticism and hope in turn you will hear me out in a public forum. Your first post is certainly civil enough that it requires a civil reply. Your second post, on the other hand, is extraordinary.

    Firstly, you’re correct that I should have my facts right. My friend had heard that Bogota was run by a Costa Rican and remarked that, as Bogota was in Colombia, he couldn’t see the connection. (Quite a bit of your press has talked about the food being Costa Rican.) To him it was just another ‘fusion’ restaurant charging what he views as exhorbitant prices. My friend genuinely does travel to a lot of ‘developing’ (for want of a better word) countries. He really does eat a lot of street food on those travels. He really would sooner head to Sunset Park for Central or South American food and in general doesn’t believe in patronizing the newer 5th Avenue restaurants. He’s therefore not a customer you may feel you need to woo. Nonetheless, as we are both long-term lower Park Slope residents, his opinion is important to readers of my web site. I felt that what he said warranted repeating – as did my belief that Miriam proved him wrong. However, it was my job in even mentioning his comment to check that what he said was factually accurate. For not doing so I apologize.

    Beyond that, I have several points I feel compelled to make and am not sure how to get them in the right order; they’re all clamoring to the forefront.

    Leaving aside the fact that to be an ‘armchair food critic’ you would have to stay at home to review a restaurant, I would state that I’m not a food critic, period. I’m a professional writer who, on his web site, allows topics of discussion to extend beyond music into other areas of popular culture, to life in New York and Brooklyn, the development and gentrification and politics thereof, a certain amount of wine talk for those who can bear it and, because it overlaps with several of the former, my occasional comments on restaurants on the rare occasions I get to eat out. Those latter foodie comments count for little in the bigger scheme of the restaurant world and the first thing I thought when I read your second comment was: Haven’t you got more important things to worry about than banning local customers? Like, perhaps, making the restaurant so good that those customers won’t use the word ‘mediocre’?

    But then your thin-skinned reaction suggests that the opening paragraph of my post was correct: restaurant owners on 5th Avenue are coming to assume that they have a divine right to good reviews and full tables at hefty prices simply by opening their doors. I understand that the number of local publications which offer glowing tributes in exchanging for advertising dollars contribute to this malaise but along the way, the people running the businesses seemed to have switched their modus operandi from ‘the customer is right’ and ‘how can I improve your experience’ to, ‘if you can’t say nice things about us, we don’t want you back.’ Certainly that’s what you’re implying by telling me I’m not welcome to return to Bogota. For someone who has yet to prove themselves in the restaurant world, you have some gall.

    To be clear, my original post above was NOT a review of your restaurant. My experience on opening night WAS mediocre but because I don’t set out with this site to post negative comments about local businesses I was willing to cut you a break (despite the hefty cost of the meal), come back another time, and then maybe write up the experience. But in writing positively about Miriam – a restaurant I have no personal connection with whatsoever – I felt it necessary to explain why it was such a relief… And it’s because I’ve had so many sub-par meals on 5th Ave of late. You should note, Farid, that I also didn’t review The Curry Shop’s meal: it wasn’t worth it. On the other hand, I had posted a big thumbs-up to the Chip Shop’s mushroom pie sold at the 5th Ave Street Fair. (As you know, Chip Shop/Curry Shop are the same business.) If Chris from that eaterie comes across those reviews and reacts as you did he’ll have to decide whether to ban me from eating curry while allowing me to keep ordering the mushroom pies in the same shop. Can you see how ridiculous that would be? Can’t you just take it on the chin and get on with improving your business?

    I don’t set out to upset people. But those of us who run these web sites that others call blogs are opinionated by nature. We don’t write platitudes and we don’t hide from what we perceive to be the truth. Along the way we occasionally piss people off, and we sometimes have to make up with our friends for saying the wrong thing. But it’s who we are. If we didn’t occasionally have something useful to say, no one would read us.

    You seem to have a different perception of blogs. Your bogotabistro.com blog is one daily self-promotion after another. Let’s see: You get one review in the Zagat database and you post it online, twice in a few days. (Worried we didn’t see it the first time?) You also make a noise about three good reviews at citysearch.com but you giveit away, because one of them refers to a ‘negative’ review that you elected not to quote.…

    Farid, I went to Citysearch.com and checked all the reviews of Bogota. The first one was very unfavorable – like myself, it used the word “mediocre” though I can promise you it didn’t come from me. (But at least I’m not alone in my opinion.) The four subsequent reviews are all favorable. Unquestionably so. So unquestionably favorable that I checked the profiles of the reviewers: three of them have never posted a review at citysearch.com before. The fourth has only posted two reviews, including that of bogota. Coincidence? Or cronyism? Perhaps you know the answer.

    Elsewhere on the blog, you post headlines like ‘Kickin’Ass’ (where you show off about being busy when other restaurant owners are complaining that they’re empty), and ‘It’s Mad Busy’ (bully for you); you tell us what a great guy you are for not firing someone whne you could have done, you let us know that you gave up a well-paying job to work long hours in your own business like you’re the first person who ever took the leap, you even link to my own completely unimportant link to your site from a month or so ago… But there’s no link to the negative reviews of your restaurant, there’s no original discussion of the issues involved in running restaurants, there’s no real opinions expressed of any kind. Your blog is self-promotion, pure and simple.

    That’s fine, Farid, you pay for the hosting and bandwidth, it’s yours to do what you want with. Just don’t be surprised if all this chest-beating comes back to bite you. With Bogota you made such a very big noise about what a wonderful place you were going to be that you gave yourselvessomething to prove. You raised the stakes to the point that a friend implored me to come on opening night. So I did. And the simple fact is, and I speak for my wife and myself only here, our meals were mediocre. My dictionary defines mediocre as “adequate but not very good.” Thinking back on it, then, mediocre was a compliment. Believe me, I could have been a lot more harsh than that, especially as I came away with a stomach ache, the condiments and drinks didn’t show until we made repeated requests for them (ruining our mood and allowingt he food to go lukewarm) and that the experience cost us $93. Before tip! (And I do tip, even when the experience is mediocre. I’m soft like that.)

    Nonetheless you seem to believe that I don’t have the right to express my opinion. Not all of us on 5th Ave, especially those of us raising kids, have the disposable income to laugh off $100+ on a mediocre meal for two adults and one kid. Yet because I dare to express that opinion on my web site you tell me you don’t want me back in your restaurant! I ask: Would you write the same letter to the NYTimes?

    Farid, I know perfectly well what it’s like to get bad reviews. I know what it’s like to be badmouthed in public too. But I’ve learned that it’s better to just accept the bad reviews and weigh them against the good ones. If we choose to stick our heads above the trenches in life then we have to expect to take some knocks. Besides, who would want to please all the people all the time?

    In the meantime, though, Farid, you’re in a service industry. Your job is to satisfy your paying customers. Because, like you say, it’s customer satisfaction that brings repeat business. So, while it may be true that 80% of your business will come from 20% of your customers (though I’m having trouble doing the math there), you may want to ensure you’re not getting into a pissing match with the 80% who are not bringing you repeat business and publish popular Brooklyn-based web sites.

    I wish you well in your venture. I’m really sorry that I can’t come back and try the food again. But in the meantime, Farid, If you can’t stand the heat…

    Tony

  4. 15 August, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    Mistake at my end:
    That $93 was including tip.

  5. zendira

    16 August, 2005 at 6:12 pm

    I signed on to read the review of Miriam, where I now intend to have dinner this week with friends. But you can bet yer baloney that I won’t be eating at Bogota. Nor will any of my friends in my Park Slope/Prospect Heights neighborhood, if I can help it. Now, Farid, is that good business? Or is that bad business? Phooey on you for your arrogance and for treating your customers — especially the local ones — like you don’t even need them. I’m so insulted that I can’t even see straight.

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