Written by Hulda Lawrence
When a restaurant is described to me as one that's really "hot" and "in" where all the famous people go, my reaction is usually questioning. My retort usually is "what about the food?" In many cases the décor is great, but the cuisine is not so. TAO is quite another thing. Yes, of course, the former movie theatre at 42 East 58th Street, (212) 888-2288, Fax (212) 888-4148, has been transformed into something like a movie set with it magnificent 16-foot Buddha placed above a reflecting pool and flickering lights. Visitors might expect to see Peter Lorre enter, followed by Humphrey Bogart escorting Marlene Dietrich as a mysterious Russian countess to a small table for quiet conversation. Well, it is wonderful to report that with all the excitement of the décor and aura of mystery, the food prepared under the astute direction of Chef Sam Hazen is very good. It is Asian with touches of such other Oriental disciplines as Japanese, Thai and Chinese making it a fun place to eat.
As soon as we were seated an attractive young lady appeared and suggested we order a drink from the Tao Specialty Drink Menu. My choice a Tao-tini of Absolut Mandarin, Stolichnaya Raspberry, Malibu Rum, Cranberry and Fresh lime juice was refreshing and not too potent. My companion's Fiji Apple was Kremlyovskya Vodka and Apple Pucker. Drinks from this menu are $10 and include The Buddha of Bacardi light and dark, Cointreau, Fresh Orange and Pineapple as well as Blue Zen of Bacardi Limon, Malibu Rum, Blue Curacao and Pineapple Juice. There also are 16 sakes and small batch bourbons, single malt scotch, cognacs, and a number of wines by the glass.
Our problem when we glimpsed the extensive menu was what to choose? Our cooperative waitress understood that we wanted to try different foods in smaller portions, so we began with Velvet Corn and Crab soup with Crab Stick. The soup was good and rich and the crisp stick was great. We shared a "small plate" of Thai Skewered Shrimp (incidentally there is a group of small plates including Satay of Chicken with Peanut Sauce, Squab Lettuce Wraps and Totaki of Beef from $7 to $12).
Throughout, service was impeccable and when I requested tea, a decision had to be made whether it should be green or black. There is a full tea menu with such rarities and Lapsand Souchong and Tao Lu Cha Blend, plus herbal infusions and coffees.
Miso Glazed Chilean Sea Bass with Wok Vegetable was our next "Taste." It was a delicious dish listed among "Noble Treasures from the Sea" and on my next visit another treasure to be tried is Thai Fish Hot Pot with Lobster, Scallops, Shrimp, Squid and Clams. The range is $19 for Tea Smoked Salmon to $39 for Lobster.
There are spring rolls such as Peking Duck spring roll and Bamboo Steamed Pork and water chestnut Dumplings with Sake Braised Shitakes. Among the special rolls are Crispy Oyster Roll with Chinese Oyster Sauce, Fried Soft Shell Crab and Shiso Roll with Yuzu Mayonnaise. There is a Sushi and Sashimi menu under the direction of Chef Charlie Ou with an amazing variety of fish and seafood.
Chef Hazen felt that we should experience a beef dish and Wasabi Crusted Filet Mignon with Tempura of Onion Rings was brought. The beef was flavorful and tender and the crust was an added delight. Among the beef dishes, Kobe Beef or Filet Mignon can be cooked on a hot stone with Wasabi Dipping Sauce or Wok Seared New York Sirloin with Shitake Mushrooms can be ordered. The range is $24 to $28, but the Kobe beef is $12 an ounce. Then "From the Sky" there is Peking Duck for two at $28 each, Mandarin Lemon Chicken and such additional dishes as Mandarin Sizzled Fried Rice with Roast Pork or Peking Duck or with Shrimp.
After all these tantalizing foods could we enjoy dessert? We certainly could and were overwhelmed by a Giant Fortune Cookie filled with Yang and Yin, white and dark chocolate mousse. It was more than a giant - it was tremendous. But for those fainter in heart there are Fuji Apple Springroll, Molten Chocolate Cake, Orange Scented Rice Pudding, Chocolate Zen Parfait with Godiva Liqueur or Ginger Glazed Pineapple and Mandarin Oranges. Desserts are $7 each.
Although all the food we sampled were from all parts of Asia, each in its own way was rewarding. The sushi bar is located on the mezzanine level. Above there also is a "sky box" for private dining. Celebrities enjoy Tao, and so will you!
The subtitle on this restaurant is Asian Bistro. It is for me a whole new way (Tao in Chinese means Way). Marc Packer, the talented restaurateur, and Chef Hazen have done an exciting and wonderful job. One goes on the way to Tao and experiences a real taste of the Orient in the handsomest surroundings.
Hours: Monday - Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to midnight
Baldoria, 249 West 49th Street (212) 582-0460; FAX 212 582 3479. The other afternoon we lunched at Baldoria. Under the aegis of owner Frank Pellegrino, Jr. whose family has operated the famous Rao's in Harlem for over 100 years, this restaurant presents authentic Italian food in a theatre district location. We were seated and then had the good fortune of being assigned as waiter, Gianni, whose family comes from the Coliseum area in Rome. He was charming and knew the menu so well that his descriptions enabled us to make good decisions about our choices.
Although there is an extensive raw bar with oysters from Maine, British Columbia, California, Washington State, Virginia and Rhode Island as well as clams, mussels, lobster and crabmeat, we began with Seafood Salad. This salad was a melange of crabmeat, lobster and shrimp all nicely mixed together. In addition to our choice here are such other antipasti as Roasted Red Bell Peppers with raisins and pignoli nuts; Grilled Octopus; Fritto Misto of calamari, shrimp, sardines, and zucchini; Prosciutto with Seasonal Fruit; Baked Clams; Sauteed Mussels and Clams or Bresaola, thinly sliced Filet Mignon with arugula and parmigian. There antipasti range from $12 to $16.50.
Primi Patti were such delights as Ravioli with Spinach, Linguine with Sauteed Shrimp; Tagliatelle with peas and ham; Spaghetti with sautéed clams and white wine; Risotto with Shrimp or Risotto alla Primavera. The famous marinara sauce is used with a variety of pasta dishes. We chose to have Sauce Bolognese on Angel Hair pasta and it too was a marvelous sauce. Each day there are pasta specials in addition to those mentioned above. Prices for pasta are from $17.50 for pasta with marinara sauce to $25 for Risotto with Shrimp.
There is a variety of appealing choices for main courses. We shared a huge Veal Chop accompanied by an arugula salad with a tasty dressing. Gianni felt we should sample some of the fresh vegetable side dishes and he brought us some fresh peas with prosciutto. Other main courses include Scaloppine Piccata; Fegato Veneziana; Broiled Chicken, Roasted Chicken, Wild Striped Bass with artichoke, capers and olives; Grilled Maya Shrimp with grilled zucchini, eggplant and fennel; Sauteed red and yellow peppers with hot and sweet sausage. Main courses are $17.50 for the Calf's Liver to $67 for a 54 ounce Rib Chop for two.
What would good Italian food be without vino? We began with an aperitif of dry vermouth and then had Pinot Grigio Collavini for my companion and Dolcetto d'Acqui Maioli Villa Sparina, a good red for Piemonte for me. There is a very full list of wines from all parts of Italy at Baldoria and eight by the glass. For those who prefer sparkling wines two are available by the glass.
Gianni urged us to try a special dessert, Crostata di Mele, a delicious Warm Apple Crostata with vanilla gelato. We also sampled the luscious Profiterol and its chocolate sauce. Other desserts are Tiramisu, Pot de crème, Cheesecake, Tartufo, Fruit with Custard Cream and Assorted Gelatti. Desserts are $6 to $9.
Baldoria in Italian means festivity and the warm friendly atmosphere under scores this. There are two Wurlitzer jukeboxes with lots of opera and Italian contemporary music. The upstairs lounge which accommodates 74 has a great bar and live music. Downstairs seats 62. The live music is from Thursday through Saturday, starting at 9 p.m.
Hours: Lunch: Monday through Friday noon to 2 p.m.
The dollar sign indicates the approximate cost of dining for two persons, excluding beverages, tax and gratuity.