The Upper West Side: A Vast Culinary Wasteland


It really saddens me to say this, but my new neighborhood is a vast culinary wasteland.

Sure, I haven’t eaten out nearly as much as I used to. The economy and the fabled NYC cost of living increase has certainly taken their toll. However, the wife and I have tried several eateries in the past month and a half, and we were not impressed.

To wit:

Citrus (photo above)

This restaurant is only a few block from my apartment and boasts “Latin fare with Asian flair.” It’s a fun motto, which is matched by the almost clubby atmosphere of the interior. It’s a modern place, very glossy looking, with the patronage to match.

Unfortunately, the food’s not very good.

We started with a bland salmon tartare, which I followed with some bland sushi. Particularly troubling was the rice, which was not nearly sticky enough to cohese and fell apart in each piece of nagiri. My wife had the  Ancho Chile Glazed Salmon (wasabi infused cauliflower-potato mash & agave glazed carrots & zucchini), which was definitely the best thing we ingested that night. Still, it wasn’t nearly worth the price tag, and we left without dessert.

I’m not thinking we’ll ever go again, but if we do, we’ll probably stick with the Latin fare without the Asian flair.

La VelaLaVela

As was the case with Jersey, New York City is littered with Italian restaurants. And the Upper West Side is no exception.

We chose La Vela from among five or six others vying for the distinction of being not only the first Italian restaurant we went to in our new neighborhood, but also the one we would bring the parents-in-law. It fit the bill we were looking for: it was close and looked like it served basic Italian.

This is one of those Italian joints that drowns about 70% of its menu in red sauce. Which, honestly, can be good or bad, depending on the red sauce. I thought La Vela’s was actually decent, though my wife wasn’t so impressed.

The big winner of the night was the fresh pastas, including my spinach ravioli, my wife’s gnocchi, and my mother-in-law’s linguine. But there were some major problems. The mussels that my wife and her father shared were hit-and-miss. They both tossed a few aside because they didn’t taste “fresh.” That’s never good.

Also, the shrimp in my mother-in-law’s dish were overcooked. And then there was the aforementioned red sauce. Despite what we thought of it, there was simply too much.

Look, I like this type of ‘traditional’ Italian food. I grew up on the stuff. But there’s a big difference between restaurants that are still trying to make things good and those that are just resting on the fact that East Coasters gobble this stuff up, no matter what the quality. It’s the difference between a place like Ralph’s (in Philly) and a place like La Vela.

No offense, but people like me can tell the difference.

Cafe Con Leche

cafe con leche

This place is weird.

The menu says that it serves Latin American, Cuban and Caribbean cuisine. And I guess it does. But it’s awfully suspicious that it’s adjacent to an Indian restaurant and the entire waitstaff was Indian. Somehow, the food just didn’t seem that authentic. And it wasn’t what you’d call good.

I can’t seem to find the menu to give you exact names, but we started out with some shrimp in garlic sauce housed in what I can only describe as a hive of molded plantains. The mini shrimp were decent, as was the garlic sauce, but the plantains were the most tasteless, bland things I’ve ever eaten. There was not a hint of sweet to them, and even the texture seemed off.

Because I wasn’t that hungry, I chose a salad for my entree. While it was nice and crispy, it also seemed suspiciously pre-made, or at least the lettuce, tomato and cucumber base did. To this they added a few scraps of avocado (presentation is not a strong suit) and some of the same mini shrimp that were in the appetizer. The dressing didn’t have the bite I was expecting and there was entirely too little of it.

My wife made out a little better with her mango chicken dish – flattened pieces of chicken, breaded and sauteed with a mango sauce. It still didn’t seem quite Latin enough, but it was the best thing we got.

Sorry Cafe Con Leche, you lost me at hello.

Next time: the good parts of Upper West Side food.  (It may be a small post.)


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