The Art of the Lunch Deal: Resto
111 East 29th Street New York, NY 10016; map); 212- 685-5585; http://www.restonyc.com/default.asp
Service: Friendly and knowledgeable
Setting:The room is rather austere, but that is the point. The focus is on the food and the incredibly complex drink menu.
Price: Three courses for $24.07
Resto is a perfect neighborhood restaurant in a neighborhood that not that many people live in. If it was located in Greenwich Village or Soho it would be packed at lunch, with crowds spilling out on to the side walks. But secluded as it is on a quiet street at the bottom tip of midtown, it manages to prosper because it is so good. It is the perfect place to stop in for a drink and some porky bar snacks, or alternatively a full blown nose to tail dining experience with a group of friends in one of Chef Bobby Hellen's large format meals. You will always eat well at Resto and at lunch you can get some of the menu's most compelling items for a very friendly price.
A rocket salad comes well stocked with snap peas, hazelnuts, and the inspired addition of pickled blueberries—a little sweet, a little tart. It's doused in a fine herb vinaigrette. It speaks well of Hellen that he turns out such excellent, carefully prepared vegetable dishes when his focus is on the heftier courses that follow.
Speaking of heavier fare, the Bitterballen are irresistible. Tender, battered balls come loosely packed with beef and butter and fried to a perfect crisp. You will want to dunk them liberally in the whole grain mustard aioli. The kitchen at Resto is particularly adept at frying balls (more on that later).
Any restaurant that draws on Belgium for inspiration better get moules frites right, and Resto does. A heaping portion of mussels comes bathing in a Dijon broth laced with Parmesan and larded with salty morsels of house cured bacon.
As good as the mussels are, they are eclipsed by the fries, which I believe are some of the best around. These thick planks of spud have a dense, crunchy, golden crust that yields to a fluffy, buttery inner core.
You can get better moules frites in Belgium, but I doubt that there is a burger on the whole continent of Europe that will compare favorably to the one served at Resto. The burger is the creation of Ryan Skeen, who has had about fifteen jobs since his time at Resto. The inclusion of pork fat in the beef cheek and hanger steak blend may mean this isn't a hamburger in the very strictest sense, but I'll gladly eat it anyway.
The pork component rules out serving the burger rare or even medium rare, but the blend is still juicy and moist, with a nice char on the outside. The generic white bun from Rockland Bakery is absolutely perfect, pillowy soft with a golden dome. Topped with a molten blanket of Gruyere, red onions and pickles, the sandwich has a pleasing synergy. Too bad it only comes with a wimpy salad.
Finish things off with a crunchy liege waffle served with vanilla crème fraiche and chocolate sauce on the side.
The restaurant's proclivity for frying balls, this time in the form of beignets, pays dividends at the table. You may have a hard time choosing between the caramel, chocolate, and berry compote dipping sauces.