Saturday, October 15, 2005

Craft and Text New York City Entry #24

As a tagline to his online food essays Steve Plotnicki adds provocatively, "It's okay to like Salieri more than Mozart, but it's not okay to think that he's better than Mozart." An aesthetic puzzle that deserves unpacking.

In many of my dispatches from the culinary front, some feel that I have floated over the thoughtful and sensory writings of my fellows on various discussion groups. When I have read the texts (praying for wise advice), I rarely incorporated the ideas into my writings.

The case of Craft - the craft of cooking and of dining - demands such an assessment, even if I still touch lightly on deep and unresolvable issues. For this review I have read the extensive posts on Craft on several websites - and spent several days considering them in light of my meal. Not to tire readers, I abbreviate what could easily be a lumpen academic commentary, heavier than a leaden dumpling. In the case of Craft, the quality of Chef Tom Colicchio's cuisine aside (but not too far aside), the texts of Mr. Plotnicki on several websites have contributed to placing Craft at the culinary center.

Critics, when enthusiastic, persistent, and well-placed, can midwife an aesthetic. Here the classic models are Emile Zola as promoter of the Impressionist cenacle at the Café Guerbois or Clement Greenberg's role among postwar Abstract Expressionists at the Cedar Street Tavren. The recent attempt of Frank Bruni to trace the revolution in New York cuisine to the Ground Zero of Danny Meyer, 1985, and the Union Square Café has something of the same flavor.

When rare and well-done, these critical assessments matter when based in a web of ideas. In the several debates on those threads that assess the importance and limitations of Craft, opinionated diners attempt to assess whether Craft really matters to New York dining - and how. And how!

I return to the Plotnicki tag, and what it implies. In his writings (and I will avoid those citations that decorate an academic assessment), Steve calls for (on August 17, 2004) an "objective perspective," adding "What the dining experience should be about is not calibrating your palate to [others, but] it should be calibrating your palate to a standard of what is good. . . . The real bias . . . revolves around stylistic preference and not a critical assessment of ingredients, techniques and philosophy of cuisine." He later adds what could be a mantra, "our mission is to go beyond subjectivity."

We modernists often hold tightly to an ancient ideology, "De gustibus non disputandum." Caligula's philosophy. Now we are told to stake its heart. "Chacon a son gout," get thee gone! Yet, relativism and its sib subjectivism dampen disputes, of course, and that is sometimes a blessing. Relativism must be correct, but yet must not be. Put another way, objectivity can only exist within a shared world of communication. To suggest that a Bolivian peasant, a Uzbeki farmer, or a Eritrean hunter must share Steve's assessment of pain perdu would take eccentricity over a bridge too far. So, we must realize that objectivity must be linked to a community that is grounded on trust, socialization, and discourse. For objectivity to be possible, one needs to believe in the possibility shared assessment and in a desire for a hierarchy of value.

Yet, even in this more limited way, problems emerge. When two friends diverge how can we adjudicate the difference, except by splitting the difference. Is assessment to be based on a golden mean, the conclusion of a Quaker meeting, or through the insistence of one party. A "hard objectivity" cannot help but privilege some voices over others. Fortunately a soft objectivity is possible as well, and it is this that Steve's tagline explicates.

Some foods satisfy: we can call them Salieri foods. Perhaps these puddings and chips are comforts from our childhood (Most moments I'd rather quaff an egg cream than a Lafite). Mozart foods are harder tests, their appreciation demands effort. Their complexity must be considered, challenged, revisited, and not just ingested. Philosophers have it as hard as hod carriers. But philosophers in the kitchen also depend on seeing the dishes in light of assessments of others. A world in which everyone were to judge cuisine on their own would likely not produce much consistency. It is precisely for this reason that Steve demands that cooks understand their dishes while perched on the tongues of their diners. Alone all hell can break out. I ask my students to perform the experiment of viewing a museum without benefit of the wall labels, just judging the art without knowing whether others have determined that the painter was a Salieri or a Mozart. It is a disconcerting and discouraging task.

The point is that the collected texts of critics - all of us together - make possible the goal of an assessment that is not purely subjective. We are shaped by texts and well as by craft. I have read 100+ assessments, learning that both carrots and eyes can be glazed. But as a result my tasting of Craft is shaped, sharpened, and quite different from what it might have been. By claiming objectivity, we exalt community. This asserts that suggests that a chef is not an isolated artist in a cold-water garret, but a social worker.

Turning, at long last, to Craft, my assessment builds on what others have remarked about Chef Colicchio's craft (and that of his Chef de Cuisine, Damon Wise). This reality of a community of evaluation enriches - rather than pollutes - what food means. And our community provides a space in which others can present dissonant views where - if they persuade - the meaning of those dishes can be changed. And so to the truth of craft - at least when my tongue doesn't deceive my pen.

Craft, located just north of Union Square, is an sleek space, with enough curvaceous modernist browns, pumpkins, and oranges tones to be memorable without detracting from the chef's work. On this evening we selected the tasting menu, asking only that one of the choices be the heralded Kobe Skirt Steak.

We began with an amuse of a small glass of banana squash soup with chives, topped with creme fraiche. I believe that the soup base was a beef base. It certainly was beefy, substantial, and golden. This was a bracing start, complex in its aromas without being showy.

Our first course were two pairs of Oysters - Kumomotos and Chilmarks, each paired with a fruit: Asian Pears and Watermelon. Both oysters were pristine (I give my nod to the Chilmarks), but the Asian Pear matched the Kumomoto better than the pickled watermelon did for the Chilmark. However, my companion had the opposite reaction - damn him! He enjoyed the punch from the watermelon more than the tap of the pears. Who is to say? Is this only the final 10% - a dollop of subjectivity - or does it undercut a 90% objectivity.

Following these bivalves were "Marinated Sardines with a French Sucrine." (I treasure Google to inform me that Sucrine is a buttery, sweet French lettuce, semi-romaine, pretending omniscience). With the mild, sweet salad, with cucumber and bits of fig and black olive, the sardine proved a most suitable match. When well-married, I enjoy marinated sardine, but I could imagine a diner for whom sardines would have been a poor choice. Yet, and this supports an ideology of objectivity, the first thing that any young chef must learn is how to prepare nasty food so that one's diners feel that it is prepared to perfection. Even if that young chaud-froid cook gags on sardine, I must believe that s/he has an inspired touch with marinated fish. A quarter century ago I watched young trade school students grimace and blanche as they tasted oysters, asparagus, and artichokes - sometimes for the first time - learning what their craft demanded. If not acquiring an objectivity of taste, they were learning the demands of clients.

The Raw Dayboat Scallops with little sticks of black truffle and endive was a most elegantly displayed plate. Although I may be in the minority here (let's vote!), I preferred the slightly bitter endive (so modest that it was not listed on the tasting menu) to the Burgundy Black Truffle. Of course, the two were matched, black and white, bitter and musky, as they backed the raw dayboat scallops. The dish represented the magic of small flavors. In Chef Wise's hands, the mild flavor of the scallops was preserved while its slightly gelatinous texture was transformed with the sexy crunches of truffle and even sexier endive. Although I won't discuss our wine choices, the slightly sweet Macon-Villages Quintane, (Domaine Emilian Gillet, 1999) was the liquid high point of the wine pairings, with just enough sugar to enhance both truffle and endive.

If I were a vegetarian I would have treasured our fourth dish, "Butter-Braised Halibut with Chanterelles and Corn." Unfortunately the halibut, while not dry, seemed to have its flavor drained. Although it looked pearly white, it was no gem, but a damp memory. I was told that the chanterelles were flown in fresh from the south of France. Why Craft should import chanterelles in mid-October, rather than using local fungi is mysterious. A greater commitment to local produce seems proper. However, the mix of mushroom and corn was a lovely take on creamed corn (another Salieri moment transformed into a Mozart taste).

Concluding our main courses was an inspired Kobe Skirt Steak with infant Hen of the Woods, sauteed in a touch of olive oil, Hubbard squash puree, and Brussel Sprouts, those little green globes of chacon a son gout. If truth is anywhere at Craft, it is in the skirt steak. The purity and flavor of this beef with its roasted juices is profound. Even my partner who generously permitted this course, despite an aversion to beef, admitted we were served One Fine Cow. Simply and perfectly prepared, it didn't need its well-presented accompaniments. The sides, and they were really treated as apart from the steak, were fine (and the midget Hen of the Woods better than that, since my mature twenty-pound Hens generally require a lot of boiling).

Next appeared a small glass of Concord Grape Spritzer - deeply grape, but equally seltzered. Although Jews are reminded of Concord Grape on Passover (thanks to Manischewitz), this cleanser suited on a night before Yom Kippur.

Dessert was a Brioche Pain Perdu - a recast French toast with whipped cream, roasted bananas, and caramel ice cream. The dish was not a transformative moment, but it was certainly a superior sweet, leaving other choices for future visit.

We ended with a small plate of caramel popcorn, pleasant enough, but more Salieri than Mozart, and less Charles Ives that the packing popcorn that Homeru Cantu serves at Moto.

Craft may be an appropriate restaurant to propose gustatory objectivity: good to eat, good to write. It is hard to dislike the creations of Chefs Wise and Colicchio and it is hard not to recognize their confidence with tastes and textures, while not straining to create an alternate universe of cuisine. These are not dishes that undermine our collective expectations, but they are always well-conceived, smart, and inviting. Perhaps in this sense Craft represents, even when a rare dish doesn't work, an essential three star restaurant, proffering creative cuisine to its community of diners. Even when the kitchen flubs - as in the halibut - we avert our pens, erasing the memory.

No harm, no foul.

43 East 19th Street
Manhattan (Union Square)

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