Written by Hulda Lawrence
The restaurant is open to the street and in the sunlit months tables are set outside, but as autumn arrives it is more pleasant within. We were seated at an angle where we could watch the doings behind the bar and all those who arrived. Over in one corner of this "front room" is a gelato purveyor. Behind the huge bar all kinds of coffee, desserts, sandwiches and salads are prepared. Hot food comes from the rear kitchen. Of course, the bar also is responsible for the wine, which arrives in large goblets or bottles. If you order by the glass the wine comes in a small carafe. Wine is not inexpensive here; our glasses were $17 for my Bradissimo and $19 for me companion's Napa Valley Chardonnay.
We were lucky that Salvadore from Calabrese was our waiter. He gave us tips on the food and made good suggestions. He also arranged for half portions so that we could taste different dishes.
We began with cocktails, a Negroni for my companion and a Cosmo for me. With them we nibbled some fine toasted bread dipped in olive oil.
For our antipasti we shared two salads. First was Insalata con Rucola Pomodori e Parmiggiano - rucola and tomato salad topped with shaved Parmigiano. It was delicious and was $12. Our second salad was Insalata di Spinaci - Spinach salad in a light red wine vinaigrette dressing with fresh artichoke hearts, at $16. Other antipasti include Chilled Asparagus, Sliced Tomato and Buffalo Mozzarella with fresh basil; Hand-cured sliced Salmon; a selection of hand-cured Salamis; Prosciutto Crudo di Parma with Figs or Melon; Bresaola alla Valtellinese, air-dried beef tenderloin filet with rugola and Parmiggiano; Carpaccio di Manzo con rucola, beef filet carpaccio with rucola and Parmigiano or Carpaccio di Tonno Fresco marinated in extra virgin olive oil.
Antipasti prices are $10 to $22. We ordered a "signature" dish, Risotto all'Amarone, a delicious choice which was the color of the wine in which it was cooked. It was $23 as were such other specialties as Bigoli all'Anatra, semolina egg pasta in duck gravy; and Tortellini della Bottega, filled with beef, veal and prosciutto served with a dusting of porcini mushroom powder. For $12 diners can have the traditional Pasta e Fasoi; Baccala alla Vicentina, Norwegian slow-cooked salt cod stewed with a bit of anchovies and extra virgin olive oil with polenta; Brasato all'Amarone, braised beef in a thick Amarone sauce with polenta; Trippa alla Parmiggiana, stewed tripe in a tomato base with polenta; and Fegato di Vitello alla Veneziana, Venetian style veal liver sautéed in extra virgin olive oil and onions. These choices are $24 to $30.
For our second dish we shared Branzino al Balsamico, oven-roasted Mediterranean striped sea bass done in a balsamic and rosemary glaze. Surrounded be vegetables it was $32. Of course, there are a number of pasta dishes including Spaghetti with New Zealand Clams or tomato and basil sauce or Fettuccine alla Bolognese, beef and tomato sauce and gnocchi. The pasta dishes are $19 to $22.
Beef and veal choices include grilled veal tenderloin, grilled filet mignon, grilled Porterhouse steak, grilled chicken breast, Chateaubriand, grilled lamb chops, sliced filet mignon, veal chop in a Gorgonzola sauce and scalloped veal in a mushroom cream sauce. These meat dishes are $24 to $38; the Chateaubriand is $80 for two persons.
We had tastes of several fine desserts. Diplomatico, a traditional Veronese sliced custard cake was topped with caramel and raisins; Tortino al Rum, rum cake with vanilla pastry cream was topped with sliced toasted almonds and there is a marvelous Panna Cotta with fresh berry chutney. Each was exceptional. There are also profiteroles, tiramisu, mousse al Cioccolato Bianco as well as gelati and fresh fruit. Desserts are $12.
We were very happy with our luncheon, but there always are special menus devised by the chef. It might be assorted mixed grill of fish served over greens or roasted filet mignon with sweet paprika sauce and green apple mashed potatoes. Always check the daily specials and whatever the chef has prepared other than the excellent printed menu. Private rooms are available.
On a street crowded with many restaurants geared to the wishes of those hurrying to theatres is Saigon 48, a Vietnamese outpost for an exotic cuisine. Located at 234 West 48th Street, 212 247 8669, it is a bustling place with many lunching on a reasonable special of $6.95 with a variety of dishes, including pickled vegetables and a choice of rice dishes. This is served from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Such choices are Grilled Slices of Pork Chops, Sauteed Chicken with Vietnamese style ginger honey sauce, Sauteed Shrimp, Stir Fried Vegetables, Sauteed Bean Curd with ginger-scallion sauce, Sesame or Curry Chicken, Basil Beef, Sauteed Vietnamese Rice Vermicelli, Grilled Beef or Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork or Chicken. With this great list of dishes it is no wonder that the room with its banquette and hungry patrons is jammed. In addition to those dining in there is a constant flow of waiters taking food outside.
With our lack of knowledge of Vietnamese cookery we relied on the advice of our helpful waiter, Roscoe from Hong Kong. We sipped our cocktails, a Cosmopolitan for me and a Mai Tai for my companion. With them we sampled Grilled Chicken Sate and Vietnamese Crispy Spring Roll, a small fingertip filled with pork.
The menu is so vast it was difficult to determine our main dishes, but with Roscoe's help we decided to try Teriyaki Marinated Cube Steak which arrived accompanied by Taro Chips and was extremely good. Another choice that was fairly spicy was Stir Fried Lemongrass Shrimp. But the best dish was the stir-fried noodle dish Vietnamese Chow Fun which can be ordered with beef, chicken shrimp or vegetables. We chose the vegetables and that was superior. Prices are reasonable for these a la carte options. The beef is $12.95, the shrimp is $12.50 and the Chow Fun is $7.50.
As we ate we noticed what other diners were choosing. There were steaming bowls of soups with a selection of noodles and chicken, seafood, duck, beef balls, many vegetables all with noodles. There are dumplings which are steamed and have a number of fillings. The appetizers are $3.25 for scallion pancakes to $7.95 for a platter of assorted appetizers. Soups are $3.75 for a small bowl to $6.95 for a large bowl. There are salads with mesclun greens. Chicken (white meat only) is prepared grilled, sate, marinated in lemongrass, sesame, and with brown sauce and eggplant at $10.50. There are a number of pork, beef, seafood and curry choices with prices from $9.95 to $14.95 for Grilled Red Snapper. For those who eschew meat, seafood, and chicken there is a vegetarian menu with a way of designing your own dish at $8.25. Such dishes as Sauteed Spinach, Grilled Eggplant, Tofu Steak or Bean Curd are $8.25.
Wines are available by the glass and we had Pinot Grigio, Due Torri and Merlot, Maison Nicolas. Cocktails are $6.50 and include Apple Martini, Blue Parrot, Peanut Butter and Banana Martini, Coconut Kiss, and Zombi.
There are steamed noodle dishes, stir fried noodle dishes and some dishes served over noodles like sesame beef, shrimp with vegetables and sautéed chicken. The noodle dishes range from $7.50 to $8.95.
For dessert we shared some cheesecake and that excellent Vietnamese Espresso Filter Coffee.
Hours: Monday thru Sunday, 365 days a year. 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
The dollar sign indicates the approximate cost of dining for two persons, excluding beverages, tax and gratuity.