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Restaurant recommendations, new openings, and highlights from the NY Chowhound community.

Phoenix Garden – Winning Cantonese in Midtown

Phoenix Garden’s many fans declare its Cantonese food dependably first-rate–not just for Midtown Manhattan but for the entire city, including Chinatown. A recent runaway hit is a casserole of oysters, pork, and bean curd. “The clay pots were scraped bare in minutes,” reports eating me, who lovingly describes “huge, juicy fried oysters chillin’ out with fried tofu rectangles, fatty roasted pork and chopped cabbage in an addictive, not-too-sweet brown sauce.”

“This place rocks,” agrees AKR, whose dinner was highlighted by snow pea leaves with garlic, braised duck with mushrooms in brown sauce, peppery/oniony scallops in five-pepper sauce, and sweet, succulent honey ribs. Others recommend sauteed watercress, seafood fried noodles, steamed flounder in black bean sauce, and crab stir-fried with ginger and scallions.

Peter Cherches, who advances the controversial thesis that Midtown has eclipsed Chinatown for Chinese food, ranks Phoenix Garden with Wu Liang Ye, Szechuan Gourmet and Evergreen Shanghai as four of Manhattan’s top Chinese restaurants. This is also the only restaurant in Manhattan that serves young stir-fried ginger with chicken.

Servers are friendly, knowledgeable and not above the occasional upsell. The place is BYOB; good matches include Rieslings, Alsatians, and other wines on the sweet side, AKR advises.

Phoenix Garden Restaurant [Turtle Bay]
242 E. 40th St., between 2nd and 3rd Aves., Manhattan

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Review–Phoenix Garden

Betty Bakery – Sweetness and Light in Brooklyn

Betty bakes some nice things: cupcakes, cookies, tea breads, fruit pastries, cinnamon challah twists, to name a few. iwantcake reports taking home a superior apple pie–very fresh, not too sweet–that made a lasting impression over the holidays. This bright little shop–opened in fall by the owners of wedding-cake specialists Cheryl Kleinman Cakes and Bijoux Doux–sticks to the sweet stuff. Its breads reportedly come from hound favorite Amy’s.

Betty Bakery [Boerum Hill]
448 Atlantic Ave., between Nevins and Bond Sts., Brooklyn

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Cute new bakery on Atlantic near Nevins
Newish bakery on Atlantic Avenue

Scrumptious Tamales at Broadway and 137th

At Broadway and 137th Street, $1 buys a terrific fresh tamale. “Big, flat, white corn tamales, moist and SPICY! Way better than any I’ve had in restaurants,” says Hling, who heard this vendor’s siren call (“Tamale! Tamale!”) after emerging from the subway. Fillings include cheese, chicken, and shredded pork, the latter boasting “good honest porky flavor that’s hard to come by these days,” she adds. Look for the woman who sells them on the traffic island outside the uptown entrance to the 137 Street-City College station.

Forty blocks (or five local stops) to the south, another hound-endorsed vendor hawks delicious, creamy-textured tamales Monday through Saturday mornings until 9 or 9:30. curranthound especially likes the ones filled with pork in green sauce; chicken and cheese are the other options. A man and a woman take turns working this location, which is on the west side of Broadway outside the southern entrance to the 96th Street station.

Tamale vendor [West Harlem]
Broadway at W. 137th St., Manhattan

Tamale vendor [Upper West Side]
Broadway, between W. 93rd and 94th Sts., Manhattan, in front of Payless Shoe Source

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Home made Tamales at 137th st.
Tamales, Tamales, Tamales…

Sasabune – Where the Sushi Chef Calls the Shots

Sushi at Sasabune comes with two conditions that hounds tend to either love or hate. At this L.A. transplant, open since November, meals are omakase only; “trust me,” implores a sign on the wall. And the sushi rice is warmed, in order to bring out maximum flavor and aroma in the fish.

Offerings are mostly traditional–no California rolls or spicy tuna here–though some are embellished with garnishes or house-made sauces. Well-conceived pairings invite comparison eating: e.g. bluefin with yellowfin, fluke with snapper, or two varieties of Japanese yellowtail side by side. Memorable bites include albacore in citrus soy, salmon with toasted sesame, and a sweet, dense hand roll filled with baked crab.

When diners buy in to the setup, it can be a wondrous experience. “I fell in love with sushi all over again,” marvels masterofceremonies after a beautifully harmonious dinner of supremely fresh fish. girlcritic says the warm rice adds depth and the seasonings are “just right, creative without being overwrought.”

But it doesn’t work for everyone. Echoing complaints from California hounds, some say the warm rice tends to fall apart (some opt for sashimi omakase instead of nigirizushi, to avoid the warm rice). Others say the sauces are applied with a heavy hand. And repeat visitors are sometimes disappointed at how little the omakase changes from day to day. “The sushi did not float my boat,” vinominer concludes. gutsofsteel says the pacing is much too fast and the seafood, while very good, is a notch below the best in town. But so are prices, he notes, starting at $60 a head–relatively gentle for omakase in Manhattan.

Sushi Sasabune [Upper East Side]
401 E. 73rd St., near 1st Ave., Manhattan

Sushi Sasabune [West LA]
12400 Wilshire Blvd. #150, Los Angeles

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Omakase under $75?
Sasabune NYC
Sushi Sasabune?? Has it opened in New York?
SASABUNE–a little intimidated!
Don’t Go to Sasabune!

Fresh Falafel Favorites Around Queens

janie’s falafel of choice comes from Hapisgah, a kosher steakhouse whose sprawling menu also ventures into Italian and Middle Eastern territory. Always made fresh, the falafel are a bright herbaceous green on the inside and served with killer hot sauce. Also recommended: Greek-style eggplant salad, Persian-style chicken kababs, and house-made hummus (try it with mushrooms).

Naomi’s feeds the Queens College crowd with crunchy falafel–six of them in a pita for just $4. Nonstop lines, especially at lunch, guarantee that they’re fried fresh.

In Sunnyside, Turkish grill and pizzeria Mangal also turns out freshly rolled falafel to order and folds them into sandwiches with a smear of hummus. Be sure to pay the extra $1 for house-baked pide bread otherwise you’ll get only a lame pita.

Others recommend the falafel at two spots in Forest Hills: Pahal Zan, a hole-in-the-wall next to the LIRR overpass, and On the Grill.

Hapisgah [Kew Garden Hills]
147-25 Union Tpke., between 147th and 149th Sts., Kew Garden Hills, Queens

Naomi’s Kosher Pizza [Kew Garden Hills]
68-28 Main St., between 68th Rd. and 68th Dr., Kew Garden Hills, Queens

Mangal Kebab [Sunnyside]
46-20 Queens Blvd., between 46th and 47th Sts., Sunnyside, Queens

Pahal Zan [Forest Hills]
106-12 71st Ave., just north of the LIRR tracks, Forest Hills, Queens

On the Grill [Forest Hills]
98-102 Queens Blvd., between 66th Ave. and 66th Rd., Forest Hills, Queens

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Any Good Falafel in Queens ??

Pizza Outside the Box at Layla Jones

The pizza at Layla Jones defies easy categorization, but hounds aren’t letting that keep them from enjoying it. “Not what I consider your typical New York pizza,” says Nehna, who describes a pie that’s square like a Sicilian, yet also thin and crispy in an un-Sicilian way. Whatever. The crust is tasty, the sauce thick and delicious, the toppings fresh and well balanced (winning combos include sweet sausage-caramelized onion, meatball-roasted pepper, and artichoke-roasted tomato). The result, concludes BGRose, is “a definite step up from your typical neighborhood pizza joint.”

Takeout and delivery orders don’t fare well, possibly because of the thinness of the crust. BGRose brought a pie home, a trip of just a few minutes, “and even though I saw it come fresh from the oven, the whole thing was a soggy mess.”

Besides full-size pies from the oven (dubbed “Brooklyn Classic”), they make personal pizzas on a charcoal grill (no reports yet on these). And beyond pizza, look for decent pressed sandwiches–grilled chicken, goat cheese, arugula and tomato is a standout–and better-than-average pastas such as pappardelle with spicy shrimp, feta and spinach.

Layla Jones [Cobble Hill]
formerly Campobello
214 Court St., between Warren and Baltic, Brooklyn

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New pizza place on Court St–Layla Jones

Black Pearl Resurfaces; and Other News

Black Pearl, a New England-style seafood house that enjoyed a brief but promising run in 2005, is back. The difference is that in its first go-round, it shared space–somewhat uncomfortably–with an East Village bar. Now it has its very own dining room on 26th Street.

Early reports praise seafood chowder, deftly cooked clams and fries, and a terrific wild blueberry crumble. Lobster rolls, as before, are unorthodox–just lightly seasoned and buttered chunks of lobster with little or no mayonnaise. The menu–longer than the 2005 version–also includes salads; a raw bar; lobster pot pie; fried, steamed, or roasted seafood; and clam, shrimp, or oyster rolls.

In other news, two neighborhood landmarks have called it a day. La Rosita in Morningside Heights, a Cuban hangout beloved for lechon (roast pig), hearty breakfast plates, and cafe con leche, closed at the end of December when its chef-owner retired. And Jade Mountain, an old-school Chinese joint that had dished up chow mein, egg foo young, and other Cantonese American classics to generations of East Villagers since 1931, shut its doors in mid-January. “End of an era,” laments mshpook. “It was like stepping back in time.”

In Nolita, casual Cantonese spot Jazzi Wok has changed hands and re-emerged as Funky Thai Cafe. No reports yet on the chow.

Black Pearl [Chelsea]
37 W. 26th St., between Broadway and 6th Ave., Manhattan

La Rosita [Upper West Side]
2809 Broadway, between W. 108th and 109th Sts., Manhattan

Jade Mountain Restaurant [East Village]
197 2nd Ave., between E. 12th and 13th Sts., Manhattan

Funky Thai Cafe [Lower East Side]
formerly Jazzi Wok
176 Mott St., at Broome, Manhattan

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Looking for Update on The Black Pearl
The Black Pearl
Cheap eats in SoHo
Central American Food–Where’s Breakfast?
Please help me introduce my girlfriend to NYC style Chinese food!

For Fans of O’Rourke’s Diner, a Heartfelt Good Morning

Finally, some good news for fans of O’Rourke’s Diner, a hound landmark destroyed by fire in August. Its chef and owner, Brian O’Rourke, is putting in breakfast shifts at the Coppertop, a year-old eatery a few blocks south of his gutted diner. For those who’ve missed Brian’s omelettes, breads, and unflagging positive vibes, he’s at the stove from 7 to 11:30 a.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays.

O’Rourke’s was not insured, which has complicated its recovery from the fire. But its hungry supporters have been raising money to rebuild the place, and they’re aiming to reopen sometime in summer. For occasional progress reports, check out the fan website.

Coppertop Bar and Grill [Middlesex County]
344 Main St., between Court and Washington, Middletown, CT

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RIP O’Rourke’s

Levain – Oatmeal Scone Paradise on the Upper West Side

“Heaven,” suggests Dave Feldman, “is a warm oatmeal scone at Levain.”

Levain Bakery [Upper West Side]
167 W. 74th St., between Amsterdam and Columbus Aves., Manhattan

Levain Bakery [Suffolk County]
354 Montauk Hwy., Wainscott, NY

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Fruit & Nut Scones

Bewitching Yogurt at Likitsakos on the Upper East Side

The stuff of dreams–that’s what ballulah calls the rich, creamy Greek-style yogurt at Likitsakos Market. Sweetened with honey, flavored with fresh fruit (pear, berries, apple, nectarine, and passion fruit, among others), it’s premium priced at $3 for 8 ounces, but well worth the splurge, ballulah swears.

Likitsakos Market [Upper East Side]
1174 Lexington Ave., between E. 80th and 81st Sts., Manhattan

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Symposium–UWS Greek