Restaurants to Watch: Burger & Lobster and Tramonti Pizzeria

Here they are: Two New York dining spots heralding three of America’s most-revered things to eat: Burgers, lobster, pizza. As someone aching for simpler food these days, I find the casual, straightforward, ingredient-driven approach to the British-born Burger & Lobster, and the decidedly southern Italian Tramonti, refreshingly satisfying. Many thanks to food trends guru Michael Whiteman — a most affable dining companion and critic.

Burger & Lobster

London’s fabulously successful Burger & Lobster chain has just opened its second New York location, this time adjacent to Times Square. As you might surmise from its name, this restaurant venture is built are just two types of food: live lobsters of varying size, lobster rolls, and a roster of inventive hamburgers … with varying combinations of the two.

The basic deal is for $20 you can get a one-pound Canadian lobster, or a 10-oz hamburger with bacon, cheese and onions, or a lobster roll, all with excellent skinny fries and salad. At the other extreme, you might select a 14.5-pound lobster from one of numerous tanks right at the restaurant’s entrance; it is large enough to walk on a leash, costs $377, and comes with unlimited fries and salad. Their top-of-the-line $33 London Burger is topped with freshly-steamed lobster meat and truffle mayonnaise. Lobsters are expertly steamed or grilled and served with drawn butter or a most-addictive lemon-chive sauce. (You’ll want to dunk your fries in it, too.)

More modestly, we ordered a 1.5 pound lobster ($28), their standard burger, and a corn-meal crusted lobster roll with spicy remoulade, and can proclaim them all to be well worth the money. And since lobster rolls in this city’s self-service food halls cost around $20, the roll here is a deal. This is especially true for large families on-the-splurge who fill up their tables for not a lot of money, or for people seeking a pre-theater dinner that is gentler on the wallet than most other places.

People who just can’t decide may order a grand combination called The Tower – any two burgers, any two lobster rolls, two whole one pound lobsters, any three sauces, unlimited fries, unlimited salad and any four specialty cocktails or a bottle of Cava – presented on a two tiered tray. Desserts are served in trendy jars – fabulous chocolate mousse or strawberry “cheesecake,” and the wine list falls into the category of pretty good. There are great beers on draft.

The 160-seat restaurant is located mid-block on 43rd Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway next to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, and you enter via a theatrical arcade of lobster traps. In addition to a cluster of these restaurants in London, there are Burger & Lobster franchises in Dubai, Bangkok, Kuwait, Stockholm and Jeddah, and we’ll probably have more in the US as well. It is, after all, a refreshingly satisfying place to go. Say hi to the brilliant Vladimir, the operating partner who is spearheading the U.S. expansion of B&L and other concepts, or to the terrific executive chef, Danny Lee, who has cooked in some of the best fish restaurants in town. (132 West 43 St., 917-565-9044)

Tramonti Ristorante Pizzeria

You’ve probably never heard about ‘ndunderi. Or re fiascone tomatoes. Or past’ e patane. Or melanzane al cioccolato. Except for the melanzane al cioccolato — a chocolate eggplant dessert that I wrote about several years ago — all these dishes are new to me, too.

They have two things in common: they’re ancient foods from the Amalfi area of Italy; and you can find them at the East Village pizzeria called Tramonti. New York is full of Italian restaurants calling themselves “authentic,” but the recently- opened Tramonti is the real thing.

First, I must tell you about the pizza. The dough incorporates millet, barley, rye and whole wheat — all traditional to the ancient mountain town of Tramonti from which this restaurant derives its name. It starts with a pinch of yeast and is left to rise for 48 hours, which accounts for its deep flavor and lightness of texture. This restaurant’s classic pizza marinara, topped with intense re fiascone tomatoes (see below), oregano, tiny slivers of garlic and olive oil was a revelation. Tramonti’s calzone was another stunner filled with some of that same tomato pulp, smoked provola, fresh mozzarella imported from Tramonti (of course) and hot soppressata (from a small producer in New Jersey); it tasted “Italian” in a manner that few restaurants here can muster.

The place is run by Chef Vittorio (Giovanni Vittorio Tagliafierro) and the food I’m describing was his everyday fare in Tramonti. His mother, grandmother and great-grandmother made ‘ndunderi from a recipe left behind by the Romans who established the town. They are large dumplings made of ricotta and flour, served in an intense sauce of those tomatoes and braised beef, topped with his amazingly creamy mozzarella. UNESCO says ‘ndunderi is one of the earliest forms of pasta.

Past’e patane consists of broken spaghetti cooked al dente with small bits of Idaho potatoes and then quickly sauteed with garlic, basil and olive oil. The potato’s starch subtly coats the pasta and adds body to the sauce it is served in. You may have it with a dollop of tomato sauce but it isn’t really necessary.

Re Fiascone reportedly were the original tomatoes on pizza margherita. Cultivated in the 1900s around Tramonti, they went into decline and only recently have been replanted in the area, the successful result of a crowd-funding effort. They are pulpy and intense, and Chef Vittorio exclusively imports vast quantities — no sugar, salt, herbs, or even olive oil are added.

And now for the chocolate eggplant dessert, found in many of the towns abutting Tramonti: I went hunting for it in 2011 near Ravello and finally found two versions in a small town on the coast, neither of which compare to what’s offered here. Theirs look like pancakes. Chef Vittorio’s consists of thin layers of fried eggplant that are sugared and spiced, separated by layers of ricotta, and then enrobed in bittersweet chocolate — as if it were a decadent square of lasagna. Melanzane al cioccolato originated in the Franciscan Convent de Polvica in Tramonti, spread to other religious orders and thence to local housewives. It often is spiked with concerto — an heady ancient liqueur originally made by local nuns but now concocted in various domestic versions. You might find some in Tramonti’s rendition of this dish.

Chef Vittorio, who has worked in New York’s most upscale pizzeria (including Mezzaluna) is a hearty raconteur and it doesn’t take much encouragement to launch him into the food history of his childhood, all of which rounds out a most delicious evening. (130 Saint Marks Place, 212-260-1441)

London Now: Restaurants to Watch

On a recent trip to London with trends guru Michael Whiteman, I had the luxury of drinking the world’s best martini – made with Cotswolds Gin. The distillery, located 1-1/2 hours outside London (in charming Shipston-on-Stour) is an alluring introduction to the idyllic landscape, known for lush patches of lavender and gentle hills. Ask proprietor Daniel Szor to give you a tour. Eat at the nearby gastropub, “The Kingham Plough” (20 minutes from the distillery), and then head on to bustling London, a world-eats destination, and stay a few days. Giving thanks, here, to MW (husband) for succinctly mapping the brilliance of three of London’s best new dining spots.

Without a great city street map you’d be pressed to find Beast, but every London cabbie knows the location. Beast comes from the creators of the sizzling Burger & Lobster chain but this time the menu focuses on humongous king crabs and great steaks from several countries. You pass massive tanks holding angry, prehistoric-looking crabs and lobsters with claws almost the size of your shoe before entering a bustling underground room full of wooden communal tables with candelabra. There’s a festive roar, mostly from men spending more than your last paycheck. A short assortment of starters (shrimp tempura with Cajun mayonnaise and avocado is sold by the piece but everyone seems to order a platter) leads you to “The Beasts”, all sold by the gram.

Next to us, four petit women from Paris shared some starters and a king crab beast that arrived on a silver platter; they then collapsed into a caloric stupor and gasped “fini.” Three of us, on the other hand, hoovered up a miraculously sweet crab and then carved into a great slab of corn-finished double sirloin from Nebraska grilled over charcoal. We’re partial to grass-fed Basque Holstein, but they were out that night and our other choices were beef from Scotland, Australia and Finland.

Our meal was rounded out by thrice-fired potato wedges and a green salad topped with juicy smoked tomatoes, which were infinitely better than expected. Do not request bread to sop up the salad juices or meat drippings because there is none.

The knowing wine list is full of big bruisers and first growths and, as befits a steakhouse, Beast is rightfully expensive. Don’t be surprised if this celebratory restaurant migrates to New York or Dubai where there already are busy outposts of Burger & Lobster.

Beast

3 Chapel Pl, Marylebone

+44 20 7495 1816

beastrestaurant.co.uk

Portland is the ideal neighborhood restaurant: smallish, warmly lit, gastronomically ambitious, acoustically sensible and fairly priced. For this reason, most people take taxis to this restaurant in the Fitzrovia neighborhood. Portland is one of three admirable London places run by Will Lander (the others being Quality Chop House and nearby Clipstone). The menu appears concise but then you’re struck with the “I want everything” dilemma. A recently bestowed Michelin star is so well deserved.

A smooth chicken liver parfait is offset by crisp chicken skin, candied walnuts and pickled grapes, and Devonshire crab is rolled with lovage into a thin slice of kohlrabi — both exercises of texture as well as taste. Evidently not one for gastronomical grandstanding, chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, who previously worked at Belgium’s famed In De Wulf, transforms complexities of ingredients into watercolors of flavors, as in foie gras with endive, clementine and raisins soaked in Alsace muscat — bitter flavors balanced by sweet. Roasted heritage carrots get the same attention with brown butter, aged nutty comté and toasted buckwheat. Cornish cod with green cauliflower, sorrel and smoked cream, and hay-baked guinea fowl with chestnuts and mushrooms were sublime and comforting on a rainy London evening.

Our waitress, fresh from Gramercy Tavern in New York, provided flawless service and there was nothing she didn’t know about the food.

The wine list is an endless work-in-progress since it changes almost every week, and is full of thrilling things you’ve never heard of — which is no surprise since Lander’s mother is the estimable wine writer Jancis Robinson (his father is food writer and critic Nicholas Lander).

Portland

113 Great Portland St.

+44 20 7436 3261

portlandrestaurant.co.uk

StreetXO is a rollicking transplant to London of a tapas bar in Madrid. That statement is akin to saying that Audi is an automobile. StreetXO is an underground, wackadoodle fusion restaurant where Michelin-starred chef David Muñoz layers Asian flavors onto traditional Spanish tapas, with occasional detours to Mexico. The resulting food erupts with umami and spices. A croquette that in Spain would be bound with a simple béchamel here is filled with sheep milk, XO sauce, lapsang souchong and kimchi, then topped with a slice of toro. If you fancy crunchy pig’s ear dumplings and pickles spattered, Jackson Pollack stye, with strawberry hoisin sauce, this place is for you.

There’s a long, brightly lit open kitchen “counter” where a gaggle of chefs— dressed puzzlingly in strait jackets — prepare these over-the-top inventions and serve you directly, each dish accompanied by an explanatory recitation. This is where you want to sit since the remaining space is night-clubby black, dark red and rather gloomy, but probably appropriate for date nights.

We particularly enjoyed a show-stopper of octopus, tomatillo and green apple mole (a faux guacamole) with “fake Chinese wok noodles” that turned out to be an amazing umami-laden tangle of enoki mushrooms. Muñoz’s steamed club sandwich is a pillow-soft bao with suckling pig, ricotta, quail egg and chili cream. And so it goes — tandoori chicken wings with pickled onion, trout roe and bonito flakes; Iberian pork belly with mussels in escabeche and sriracha; paella with sea urchin, chicken, bergamot and yellow aji — a carnival of animals and seafood.

StreetXO had opened only a few days before we dropped in and London’s trendoids already were clamoring for reservations.

StreetXO

15 Old Burlington St, Mayfair

+44 20 3096 7555

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