Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Chef on Board New York City Entry #39

I have kvetched about what I label Disappearing Chef Syndrome; where is a chef when one needs him? Cooking is a worker's occupation, not a skill for management. On this score I find no fault with the Tasting Room, Colin (and Renee) Alevras's Lower East Side bite-size restaurant, a prime contributor to the remarkable restaurant renaissance in that formerly blighted corner of the city, along with Prune, Thor, WD-50, Schiller's, and 71 Clinton Fresh Food, making this perhaps New York's most exciting culinary neighborhood outside of ethnic Queens. East First Street was once no man's land, a deserted boulevard of crack, smack, and hopelessness, Buildings could not be given away. Nightmares trumped location, but no longer.

As I entered, hostess Renee Alevras was leaving with young Alveras in tow. However, Colin was in the kitchen and appeared in order to converse as we were leaving. The presence of the chef - and his clear enthusiasm and seriousness of purpose does much to sharpen one's fond memories and excuse missteps.

The Tasting Room is not quite a tapas bar, but emphasizes small dishes (although diners have the choice of larger or smaller versions - and our server spent more time than necessary explaining the system). We selected three starters, three continuations, and two desserts. Our opinions varied, but with a chef who creates a daily menu, and makes changes as the evening progresses, we made allowances - allowances that would not be as agreeable had the chef been busily marketing himself.

As others have remarked, Tasting Room is known for the congeniality of its staff; I concur. But sometimes the changes in the menu were so sudden that Sean, our server, was not aware of them until we inquired. While this communication gap should be addressed, it suggests that Chef Alevras is intent on his ingredients, not chatting up his staff. After we ordered, we were informed that Jerusalem Artichoke Soup was not being served; the chef was unsatisfied by his creation and perhaps swirled the bitter liquid down the sewer. With ten tables or so in a space smaller than my suburban living room, permits Chef Alevras to cook as if diners were guests.

The best of our starters was Effingham Washington Oysters: hyper-fresh bivalves with a touch of winesap apples and its juice with Grenada Seasoning Peppers. The oysters were coyly sweet, but the apple made this an opening dessert. The apple transformed a naked oyster into a taste of Eden.

We also enjoyed the Delaware River Smoked Eel with Newtown Pippin Apples, Pappas Amarillos (something yellow this way comes), and Celery Root. Our expectations were upended. The eel was sharply smoked, and tasted at first like a smoked ham (the smoking, we learned, was done in a smokehouse that did smoke hams). Later we concluded that it tasted like a smoked trout. The fishy eel taste for which we secretly hoped was absent, but pork, trout or eel, the combination was a happy one. In honor of the season Chef Alevras used apples often tonight (one more apple dish was to come), but in this dish, as in the previous one, the choice was wise and sweet.

Less successful was Chopped Duck Liver with Buckwheat Groats, Pickled Onion, and Parsley. The vinegary herb, often harsh as a main ingredient, overpowered the rest of the dish, unfortunate in that the liver (not foie gras) was both somewhat bland and dense (although, presumably, these ducks died in peace). I enjoyed the bravery of serving kasha on the Lower East Side, but this plate neither flew nor quacked.

The finest continuation course was surely Line Caught Haddock with Red Pepper, Almonds, and Leeks. This creation far outshone any cooked fish at Le Bernardin, and demonstrated the value of the close attention of an artisan. The haddock was buttery perfection, and the bright red pepper coulis had precisely the level of spice to enhance the fillet. The leeks added crunch to the dish with the almonds adding a slight touch of sugar. This was a stellar dish, and to think that perhaps it was not here yesterday and might not be here tomorrow made me both wishful and incredibly fortunate that I chose tonight to visit.

Roasted Red Wattle Pork Shoulder with Smoked Jowl, Tiny Potatoes, and Cipolle Onions with a taste of pork jus was a tribute to heritage food. Red Wattle Pork is a rare breed (that one website suggests is at some risk - and certainly will be should this dish get around!). The tiny potatoes were a cross between small marbles and BBs - and as flavorful as any potato. Cipolle Onions are the onion of the moment. This was a worthy and satisfying dish, but when all the hoo-hah was removed, it was at its heart pork, potatoes, and onions.

Our third dish was least satisfying: Violet Hill Pheasant with burdock (a root vegetable), apples, shallots, and fresh rosehips. One sometimes gets the impression that Chef Alevras chooses ingredients based on their obscurity. However, the real problem was not the hips or dock, but a pheasant that was dry and overcooked. With a more juicy bird, this dish would have been successful, but not tonight.

Desserts seem an afterthought at The Tasting Room. Our Oregon Hazelnut Tart was a take on Pecan Pie, and it had the virtue and drawback of that historic dessert. It was powerfully sweet and not very subtle in its sweetness. Granted replacing pecans with hazelnuts changed the taste, but not so much as to make change a Southern classic into a staple of the Pacific Northwest.

Our Peach Leaf Panna Cotta with Braised Pears, Bee Pollen, and Honey was a disappointment - to us and to the chef. We couldn't find braised pears on the plate and when we inquired we learned that Chef Alevras decided to puree the pear instead. This had the unfortunate consequence of making the fruit flavors of the pudding muddy and murky. The bee pollen (why, oh why?) added a rather unpleasant crunch without a pleasing taste. The bits of honeycomb contributed an odd chewiness. Well, there is always tomorrow.

No description of the Tasting Room (a wine bar as much as cafĂ©) should neglect the wine list. Since there were only two of us, we did not take advantage of their willingness to waive the corkage fee if a second bottle was purchased, but this is the way to please one's diners. Our glasses of Roshambo Chardonnay ‘03 and Syncline Syrah ‘01 were well-priced and accessible matches to our food.

I will eagerly return to the Tasting Room. Eight courses, two glasses of wine, a congenial server, and a working chef for well under $100 in a former crack house: who could ask for anything more.

The Tasting Room
72 East 1st Street (at First Avenue)
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

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