Thursday, October 27, 2005

Occasions New York City Entry #30

Rip Van Winkle waking in Manhattan after a half-century would have much to puzzle over: the stuff of situation comedy. Many changes are dramatic and salutary: changes in gender and race relations, technological advances, culinary blogs. Others - drugs, divorce, The Donald - can not but dismay. Still other changes sneak up on us, changing our world without awareness.

Dining at Gramercy Tavern gave me the opportunity to consider one: a culture of informality. When I grew up in Manhattan, stepping out was Something! When one went to the theatre, church, or New York's most popular restaurant, one would dress. One was treated with honor and responded in turn. To be sure, this social drama was limited to the wealthy and the white, and so it was not without its dark side. Yet, formality assumed that perfection was within reach.

By century's end this elegance slip-slided away. In the New York culinary world, such a change was institutionalized by the opening in the mid-1980s of a trio of restaurants in what had been an unappealing business district: the Union Square Café, Gotham Bar and Grill, and Gramercy Tavern. This culinary hour was described recently by Times critic Frank Bruni. Bruni suggests that 1985 changed the world of New York dining forever.

Mr. Bruni perhaps makes too much of a year, enshrining this twentieth anniversary. However, these restaurants and their follows changed how New Yorkers with cultural capital thought about dining. Now would could order sparkling, outre dishes without suit, tie, heels, or gowns. These restaurants severed the linkage between food and ceremony, making dining more accessible, less fearful, and perhaps less special.

Is this desirable? In my thirties, I surely would have shouted yea; in my fifties, I would whisper maybe. Every critic has the self-interest of getting diners into restaurant seats to increase the vitality of the market. And yet something is lost when culture is too accessible. Moments become less momentous.

In 2005 Zagat annoints Gramercy as Manhattan's most popular restaurant, edging out USC second with GBG fourth. These restaurants have captured the hearts of New York diners, at least those Zagateers. Put aside whether Gramercy Tavern would deserve a 28 rating if an omniscient divinity were doing the judging. This is a restaurant that is both accessible and creative. I didn't eat at GT in its heyday - which in New York is ALWAYS yesterday. Perhaps I would not select Gramercy for my final meal, I would gladly accept an invitation to return.

For better and for worse, GT is a welcoming, loving, crooning restaurant - slightly too clamorous, too casual, too crowded, and too colorful for a contemplative meal. It is not a temple of haute cuisine, but a dancehall of dining. A brasserie Gotham style. The staff (captains and servers) were unfailingly gregarious and helpful, even if our server wanted to know if we would order the "price fix" menu. This is not Le Cirque.

For those who resent the status games between customers and diners, Gramercy Tavern is a happy ticket. No one gets humiliated here. We are all equals at this game. This should be to the good, but somehow I left feeling that I would never have a transcendent experience at GT, lifting me off the mortal plane to a sensory heaven.

We began with a modest but thoughtful amuse of toasted crostini with two balanced daubs of white bean puree and salsa verde, a tribute to Tuscany by way of Jalisco. The opening was global and demure, an easy start with pure flavors.

A second amuse was more creative, and began the play of textures that would characterize the evening. Rounds of hearts of palm were composed in a small dish with sea beans, avocado cream, and Japanese basil. The crunch of beans added to the smooth elegance of the fresh palm, covered by a foamy blanket of light green. As well-balanced as the textures were, the tastes matched them bite for bite. To be sure, perfect palm hearts provide a headstart for any dish, but everything worked in a dish that would have served well as an appetizer if more generously plated.

We selected the three course "price fix." I chose the Sea Urchin Ragout with Maine Crabmeat, Lobster, and Potato Puree. With its odd and anomalous this appetizer may be among the most memorable and evocative dishes of the autumn, and to that I give great credit to Tom Colicchio and his brave chef de cuisine. Any chef who plays with potato puree is bound to get stung. When mixed with liquid, potato often turns gummy, a fact that fanciers of Japanese mountain potato treasure. And yet, somehow, this dish skirted disaster. The briny liquor of the sea urchins played in tangy counterpoint to the thick potato, as the crab and lobster attempted to provide a center that could link the otherwise clashing ingredients. The mixture buzzed and tingled on my tongue. How often does one find a dish that will not go gently down the gullet; victuals in the Kunsthalle tradition of Basquiat, Twombly, or Rauschenberg, disharmonics all.

My main course was more constrained, less daring. I ordered Braised Shoulder of Lamb with Savoy Cabbage, Chestnut Puree, Quince, Turnips, and Kiwis. These strange bedfellows did not seem as oddly matched as my appetizer. Contrasts in texture and flavor abounded (unmentioned rosemary perfumed the lamb, the tiny pearls of kiwi cut through the otherwise fatty shoulder), but the combination was well within the gustatory boundaries of stew. A fine daube it was.

As a palate cleanser, we were presented lemon jelly topped with a lemon mint sherbert. I was amazed at the assertiveness of the mint, not used to shade the lemon but as an equal partner - a southern julep of a sorbet.

We shared two desserts. Coconut Tapioca with Passion Fruit and Coconut Sorbets, Passion Fruit Caramel and Basil Syrup (served with a thin lemon cookie) with its striking reds, whites and greens reminded me of the a dessert as constructed by an Curry Row decorator. Again the kitchen played with textures, a strategy of tapioca servers in high and low cuisines. I do not complain about the taste, although the flavors played second fiddle to the textures. The passion fruit and coconut didn't disappoint, although they didn't soar. I was satisfied, but not stunned.

Our second dessert was a Warm Apple Tart with Pistachio Financier, Saffron Caramel and Vanilla Ice Cream. I found this less successful. The saffron caramel added a dynamic and unexpected flavor, but the tart was somewhat soggy and the financier rather ordinary.

The meal epitomized what haute bistros do well. Gramercy Tavern explores, prods, and tests. And how can diners feel cheated when a dish doesn't quite appeal in such a glad place. Without the formality of the heights of dining, Gramercy Tavern provides haute without pain. Its casualness has a double edge. Perhaps this is not a Moment of One's Life, but a meal at Gramercy Tavern allows our consumers of casual culture to feel that the evening is filled with Moments that serve well until the next Moment slides it from memory.

Gramercy Tavern
42 East 20th Street (at Park Avenue South)
Manhattan (Flatiron)

Monday, October 24, 2005

So Red New York City Entry #29

At the end of our meal at Bouley, my friend and I began reminiscing about our most profound meals: she at Lespinasse; me at Lutece. We had just completed an impressive, elegant, and superb meal, but somehow it seemed natural that this meal would not be on that list.

The story of Bouley is how a restaurant that has much in its favor - in many ways as sophisticated and as brave a cuisine as any in the city - lacks the punch of memory. It is easy to award Bouley four stars, less easy to understand how it avoids the hidden half-star that makes a restaurant better than the best.

Entering Bouley in fall is to be startled. Opening the door one is pierced with the aroma of apple. Looking left one finds shelves of apples, to the right are bushel baskets. I was told that sometimes grapes are the star, but often apples are selected, even out of season. The effect is startling and compelling. Perhaps the apples prepare the diner for a cave of a restaurant that is more red than any room has the right to be: an emotional hotspot. The space has a certain Iberian quality; all those scarlet domes raise seraglio thoughts.

At a restaurant like Bouley, the five course tasting menu beckons. We also selected the wine pairings.

The service was oddly mixed. The waitstaff was congenial, particularly the wine director, Brad Hickey, whose commentary on the wines was spot on. As someone who is not a specialist in the grape, I occasionally struggle to connect the description of wines to the taste. But the accounting of Mr. Hickey could not have been more precise. Our J. Leitz Rheingau Riesling had the puckery tangerine taste as advertised. Our Gruner Veltliner described as having a white pepper aroma was almost sneeze-worthy. However, oddly, for several courses, Mr. Hickey decided that we should be served two wines - one for each - even when we ordered the same dish. We were each given a single glass. While my partner and I are simpatico, our spouses might object to two straws from the same glass. The choices - twice - were politically and personally incorrect. I was given the heavier, guy wine. On one occasion, I was almost served a red; my partner a white. I prefer lighter wines. Never assume.

The busboys seemed strangely anxious about any wayward bits of bread that we had not finished at the end of a course. I must have explained three times that I did not wished to keep my bread, finally suggesting that I might have to arm-wrestle for the plate. Of course, the breads, fig, pistachio, raisin, and sourdough were worth fighting over.

Our amuse was a creative piece of work, goat cheese with raspberry gelee, roasted beets, horseradish, and almond foam. As I type this, I wonder if I wrote these ingredients correctly. Right or wrong these few bites awoke my palate. It did what a amuse should: to persuade us that a mind is at work in the kitchen. The various pungencies merged and crossed and exploded into a dish that perhaps didn't deserve a full plate, but was a welcome shot of culinary energy.

As the opening entree, I selected the Phyllo Crusted Florida Shrimp, Cape Cod Baby Squid, Scuba Dived Sea Scallops and Sweet Maryland Crabmeat in an Ocean Herbal Broth. Put aside the madness of the gazetteer, the herbed broth was splendid seawater and the seafood, sexy bathers. I tried to count the herbs that I tasted and gave up at half a dozen - thyme, tarragon, parsley, cilantro, and other good guesses. The only odd note was the phyllo crust on the shrimp. I think of phyllo as a flat sheet, but this was a nest of slivers: shrimp in a pastry haystack. The coating was crispy, but in such a bath, nakedness is seemly.

My second course was Seared Black Bass with French Cepes, Braised Salsify, Jumbo Green Farmer Beans, Lemon and Clam Broth. Such a long title for a dish in which a slab of bass in broth dominated. Yes, the other ingredients appeared, but they were bit players. Once again Chef Bouley's broth was a glorious creation, here mixing the tropic land and sea. The mushrooms, beans, and salsify were used almost as seasonings. I found the chef's subtlety of flavors to be profound, but the description misleads.

Speaking of descriptions, one of the choices for the main course was "Whole Roasted Berkshire Pig." What do you imagine will appear on your table? Wrong. Thank God! A diner should be grateful that Whole Roasted Berkshire Pig is not, in fact, a Whole Roasted Pig. Whoa. Diners receive slices from various corners of hog. I had to ask. Who needs Tony Bourdain when menu writers compose fictions?

What I did select was the most complex, robust dish of the night: Maine Day Boat Lobster with a Fricassee of Baby Bok Choy, Sugar Snap Peas, Celery Root Puree and a Passion Fruit and Port-Wine Paprika Sauce. I hope whomever created this label is paid by the word. I am usually dubious of those chefs who attempt to combine too much. Too often the dining room becomes a mess hall. However, Chef Bouley brings it off. I have had more tender lobster in seafood shacks and I would have enjoyed more vegetable, but the passion fruit, port wine, and paprika added complex layers of sweetness and pungency. The mildness and buttery quality of lobster allows it to be a divine mixer. This is a chef who is unafraid to walk the tightrope of taste.

Calling the next course a palate cleanser doesn't do justice to another layered dish: Chilled Concord Grape Soup with Candied Ginger and Fromage Blanc Sorbet: a colorful tribute to the NYU Violets up the road? The tartness of the grape soup is shaped by the pungent ginger and the cool pliable rich cheese.

Finally dessert: Warm Pineapple Meringue with Pistachio Cake with Ten Exotic Fruit Sorbet and Pistachio Ice Cream. Again I found myself puzzled by an ingredients arms race. If one chef creates three fruit sorbet, must another add a fourth. Are we headed for Heinz 57 sorbet? Nomenclature aside, this was a fine, sturdy dessert with luscious ice cream and the aforementioned sorbet of excess.

Our closing icy amuse was a flavorful strawberry granita with white chocolate mousse and yogurt foam. Of all of the dishes this was the one that played most explicitly with texture: the slightly crunchy ice, airy foam, and smooth chocolate pudding added a tactile complexity to the complexity of tastes to which we were now accustomed.

It is easy to praise Bouley. Yes, there were gaffes from the service to the ostentatious menu to the garish room to a few culinary flubs. However, Bouley is a grand New York restaurant: an establishment that betters the best restaurant in most cities. Still, it has been over thirty years since I first ate at Lutece and I can relive that menu nearly dish by dish. Lutece changed how I thought about what food might do. Bouley, for all its glory in pleasing customers, doesn't change the world.

In time these dishes will fade. What I will remember from my evening at Bouley is my entrance and, oh yes, all that red.

120 West Broadway (at Duane)
Manhattan (TriBeCa)
Seventh Wonder New York City Entry #28

Treasure the restauranteur who follows his own muse. While Zagat gives the River Café the nod for best decor, I vote for Moustafa Rahman's Mombar, a Southern Egyptian restaurant in the Arabic corner of Astoria.

As a fancier of Outsider Art, a friend and admirer of the late Howard Finster, the Georgia self-taught artist. My evening at Mombar reminded me of listening, open-mouthed, to the Reverend Finster preach in his redoubt at Paradise Garden. Moustafa Rahman, the chef and owner, has created an establishment like no other (its only competition might be Knoxville's King Tut's Grill, which has much of Mombar's glorious clutter and compelling charm, but without its cracked aesthetic vision). I regret not having a digital camera, discovering that some places can not be put into words. Even when viewed from the street Chef Rahman has created a landmark with his own sculptural vision, his fantastic bricolage. Inside he has painted and sculpted the tables with elaborate folk designs. The walls are brimming with objets d'art, photos, and once utilitarian objects as beer steins, alarm clocks, licenses, and lanterns. The kaleidoscopic mosaics on the floor and in the restroom are worth the price of admission alone. As in Finster's Paradise, one sits in the midst of a mental explosion filled with awe at human imagination. Mombar is a landmark destination for all New Yorkers.

The decor is matched by the chef and his host who strive mightily and successfully to make each diner feel at home. When Chef Rahman came by to apologize for the delay in our entrees, we had barely noticed, and felt a strong desire to assure him that, after all, it was quite all right. The restaurant, although not widely described (it is not rated in Zagat 2005), is not unknown, and the diners were a motley international crew, not the place to choose if one selects on the basis of the ethnic homogeneity of the diners. The authenticity is personal, not national.

Any restaurant with entrees in the $20 range is not a neighborhood dive. How many ethnic restaurants offer a tasting menu? This chef has vision. The food was very satisfactory, although without a comparative analysis I wouldn't suggest that Mombar serves better food than all of their competition. Chef Rahman has his own preparations, slightly off-center from most middle eastern cuisine (unless it was "Northern" Egyptian food I have been eating these years).

My son and I began with an amuse bouche (yes, although not called by that term) of Fried Egyptian bread with a sesame oil accompaniment. Modest though it was, I give the nod to this hot bread as the most indelible dish of the evening. One is used to dipping bread in olive oil, but sesame oil has a sweetness and exoticism that is unique.

We followed this by sharing the Mombar appetizer: a gently-spiced encased sausage of beef, lamb, and rice, served on a bed of chick peas and spiced green beans. I admired the trouble that the Chef went to of filling the sausage casing. The Levantine spices were carefully prepared.

I selected the lamb tagine with raisins, dats, and dried apricots. The stew included peas, carrots, (more) green beans, and (more) chick peas. I confess that I wish that the stew and more fire, more sweet fruit, and perhaps a more tender cut of lamb. I enjoyed the tagine, but it was the light golden pyramid of couscous that made the dish haunting. The grains of couscous were roughly microscopic, as light as air and as hard to spy. If couscous can be little BBs, Mombar's grains are atomized.

My son ordered the Egyptian steak, which he enjoyed, although the meat was not steakhouse quality. The spices did lead to imaginings of Luxor evenings. The fried onions and tomatoes, while not unique, added to the plate.

We chose not to order dessert (the restaurant offers special desserts), but I did enjoy my Hibiscus juice, tart, slightly bitter, and nicely floral.

If this food was offered in a spotless diner, stocked with white formica tables, it would be a pleasant enough evening. However, in a space that was so filled with the creativity of love and the love of creativity, Mombar could easily be labeled as one of the Seven Wonders of the New York culinary world.

25-22 Steinway Street (near Astoria Boulevard)
Queens (Astoria)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Dakar Nights New York City Entry #27

Hanging with an Africanist of my acquaintance, a woman who has spent much quality time in Accra, where she consults with museums and historical sites, we decided to dine under a full West African moon. Anglophone Africa is located in University Heights in the Bronx (Little Accra) and Fort Greene in Brooklyn. Harlem is the residence of choice for many immigrant Francophone Africans. Paris by Morningside Heights. The Senegalese community is particularly vibrant along 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Avenue.

We selected a beautifully decorated establishment, Africa Kine, a few steps from the 8th Avenue subway on a street that, if not yet gentrified, felt warm and safe. (An increasing share of Harlem real estate is now well beyond my means). The restaurant opened about a year ago, all art work and exposed brick, an upscale version of the now shuttered Africa Restaurant by the same owners across the street.

Senegalese cuisine has some of the elegance of French cooking with the heat of the tropics, and the food was a treasure in a restaurant that surely reaches the heights of ethnic cuisine in the city. Africa Kine is highly to be recommended.

One of the surprises of African cuisine is the way that Chinese cuisine has infiltrated. Africans - Ghanaians and Senegalese - frequently prepare egg rolls and fried rice. And hewing to local custom, we began with egg rolls, appetizers that appeared to be thin Thai rolls, but were a meaty mix of beef, chicken, and shrimp, more highly spiced that Asian versions. If one likes heat (and we do), they were inspired starters. Sparkling and complex with an equatorial burn.

We selected two entrees, although in truth one would have sufficed: Thiebu Djeun (Djol of Rice): Fish Stewed in Tomato Sauce with Eggplant, Carrots, Cassava, and White Cabbage, served on mound of short brown rice. This dish is considered the Senegalese national dish. Oh happy Dakar! This was as complex as any Thai dish of my recent memory. Beautiful fish, cooked to fall-apart, in an almost-too-hot sauce, placed by the hill of rice. Surrounding this were the vegetables, prepared in various styles. Even the lagniappe of okra lacked the slime that so often seems genetically mandated.

My friend selected Grilled Fish with Sweet Fried Plantain in Mustard Sauce. This fish (a bony white fish) was as sweet and delicate as could be desired, and it too had a hot sauce to add complexity. The plantain was fried and spiced to perfection, adding sugar to spice.

We also selected a homemade, and very sharp, Ginger Juice, a drink for which one needed a glass of water - a cool drink so hot as to demand relief.

Dessert, which at that point we were unable to order -or more precisely unable to consume - was Sweet Couscous with Soursopp. Given that the meal had not properly reached its close, we surely need to return again - and again. Dinner for two was an almost impossible $30.00, particularly given the care that went into the preparation of the food and the elegance of the decor.

According to the menu, lunch has a greater preponderance of African dishes than dinner, although both lunches and dinner are a mix of African stews (lamb stewed in peanut sauce, chicken marinated in lemon and onions) and more Americanized-sounding dishes.

Chowists have not explored the many African cuisines to the extent these cuisines deserve. Africa Kine, an open, inviting, and friendly establishment (although with somewhat slow service) is a felicitous first step for those who believe - sincerely if mistakenly - that Africa is an culinary dark continent. It is alive as the full moon that shone on our walk home.

Africa Kine
256 West 116th Street
Manhattan (Harlem)
Scoops 4 New York City Entry #26

One quick entry about New York ice creams before winter hits. What I have learned in my explorations of the best frozen desserts in New York is that no ice cream parlor does everything well - there are gaps and pleasures throughout.

I recently tried two well-known establishments in lower Manhattan: Chinatown Ice Cream Factory and Il Laboratorio del Gelato. In each I had a superior scoop, and in each some disappointment.

In Chinatown I tried Ginger, Black Sesame, and Taro. I endorse Ginger Ice Cream. This ice cream is both creamy and filled with a rich ginger taste. Not too sweet, but pungent. It is a delightful treat after a Chinese banquet. The black sesame was pleasant. It lacked a rich flavor, but the sesame was satisfying, and the visual appeal was novel. Taro was bland, perhaps like taro itself, and was unmemorable.

On the Lower East Side, Il Laboratorio is known for the quality of its gelato and sorbetto. Their Black Plum Sorbetto was plummy deep. A truly superb scoop, and one that justifies the laboratory's experiments. Their chocolate and marscapone were both worthy for the attention of connoisseurs, and I endorse them. Less successful was a pistachio that, although filled with nut meats, lacked a distinctive taste and had a disappointing mouth feel. Not bad, but not a choice that I will make when I return next spring. The pear sorbetto seemed thin and did not reflect the essence of pear.

In thinking back of all the ice cream parlors I have visited one scoop disappointed, but at least there was always another to salve my wounds.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
65 Bayard Street
Manhattan (Chinatown)

Il Laboratorio del Gelato
95 Orchard Street
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Speak, Memory New York City Entry #25

Memory challenges a food critic. Does the dish consumed today compare with that of yesterday, last year, a decade ago, or in childhood. Is our world growing better in every way or is it forever in decay?

New Yorkers of my acquaintance tend to accept the latter. Since arriving in Manhattan there has been a litany of complaint: Restaurant X (fill in the blank) is going downhill. The reverse diagnosis is rare.

Early in my visit I was told that Katz's Delicatessen was not what it was. Could it be true? And how could I tell, despite the many times I visited its location on the corner of Houston and Ludlow?

Katz's is something of the archetypal Jewish New York Deli (and is there any other kind?). Rows of common tables are set apart from a long counter at which work numerous busy countermen. On the walls are a who's who of the famous and less-so. One receives a ticket upon entering, and the countermen (and some table servers, too) mark one's purchases.

This Sunday morning my friend and I shared a hot pastrami sandwich on rye, an order of potato pancakes, and an egg cream. The good news was that the pastrami was better than any pastrami outside of the confines of the Lower East Side (starting with the ritualistic taste that I was offered before purchasing). Katz's serves their pastrami sandwich much as the archetypal Philly Cheesesteak vendors (Pat's and Geno's) serve their steaks. The meat is not so much sliced as chopped, although in New York there is no Italian roll to cup the mess. The pastrami was very flavorful and juicy. Excellent. Was it fattier than I recall? Perhaps a bit, but I was in no mood to complain. Memory did not permit a judgement on whether it remained at the same perch on Mount Olympus, but it was well above competitors (I haven't tried the Second Avenue Deli this visit).

The potato pancake was less satisfying: it was not as airy as some I recall. The dish was rich with potato, but rather solid. I'm not sure if onions used to be mixed in, but these pancakes were pure spud, lacking a kick. I enjoyed them, but was not in love. I have had better.

The egg cream was a canonical New York version, not too sweet and with the chocolate syrup added at the end. When we reminisce in heaven about egg creams, this could be one of which we speak.

Did Katz's measure up to my last visit some years back? I can't quite say. However, if Katz's is no longer a New York classic (and that is not MY claim), most other city's would roll out a carpet of pink smoked meats.

Katz's Delicatessen
205 East Houston Street (at Ludlow Street)
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

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)
Comfort Food New York City Entry #23

Restaurants trade in an emotional economy. Some generate joy; others, excitement; a seductive few, lust; and a bulging contingent, anger. Perry Street, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's latest outpost, radiates calm. Three of us (the other two once having interviewed Jean-Georges) visited Perry Street for a late lunch during one of the flooding rain storms in mid-October.

My experiences with Jean-Georges's empire have not been auspicious. I scorn the annoying Spice Market (although there were some staff transitions at that moment), and I had been underwhelmed by the $20.05 lunch at Nougatine. Indeed, the last time I had been impressed by a Jean-Georges restaurant was at the opening of the then-upscale Vong in Chicago.

Our afternoon changed my outlook, although drying out from our October floods may have contributed. The restaurant, designed by Richard Meier, is located in the architect's Perry Street Towers on the Western edges of the Village, another workingman's area of Old Gotham gone upscale. The space has the quiet minimalism that one expects in a Meier construction. The room is not opulent with simple wood tables with brown paper table mats. However, the tranquil whites and grays provides an aura of placid composure. I was particularly impressed by the off-white window scrims, separating the room from the busy road beyond without hiding that world. This is a room that calls for a return. Our servers were congenial, knowledgeable, and unobtrusive.

The dishes, too, radiated a confident composure. This is not comfort food as that phrase is often used, but they do comfort. The selections are not flashy with clashing flavors, but the combinations are thoughtful and demure. The taste register is not subtle, just spot-on. These dishes don't shout, but neither do they whisper. If not works of transcendence - offerings from a four-star temple - their pleasure invites a quick return.

Our amuse was the finest opening I have had in New York. We were served a small bowl filled with a celery root soup on which floated iced maple vinaigrette. The sharp maple-balsamic beautiful complimented and provoked a new assessment of the foamy herbal-vegetable base of the liquor. That the soup was served in a small rectangular bowl, lacking implements, required that in using the bowl as implement, we "tasted" the steam along with the soup.

We began with a trio of entrees. I often find that I envy my partners' choices, but this afternoon I had the edge. I began with the Rice Cracker Crusted Tuna with a Sriracha-Citrus Emulsion (and not a jarring smear, either - just a serene pool). Sriracha is a novel term - it is a Thai garlic-pepper sauce. Combined with citrus, it sparked the sashimi grade cylinders of naked tuna. The rice crackers added a texture that the soft fish and silky emulsion lacked. Not sweet-and-sour, this appetizer was mild-and-hot - and a delight.

The second appetizer was Warm Pumpkin Confit with Brown Butter-Soy Vinaigrette and Herbs. I was surprised at the solidity of the pumpkin confit, expecting a quivering dumpling, more like a quenelle. However, anything foodstuff can be preserved in oil, capturing it in amber. The pumpkin triangle captured the moment of the season, and, here as in the amuse, the tang of vinegar built upon the starchy modesty of the pumpkin.

Our third appetizer - Dill Broth with Vegetables and Lime - brought back disconcerting memories of a nasty lime pasta at Spice Market, but much is proper at Perry Street that is unbecoming elsewhere. I couldn't taste a poultry or meat base to the broth (perhaps there was), but I believe that the flavor was from vegetables and herbs alone. Although this soup might not be on my dance card next visit, the lime added to the vegetables rather than upturning them. The diced, sliced vegetables - of which there must have been a saucier's dozen - were covered by a satisfying dill broth.

My entree was "Warm Shrimp with Julienne Green Apple, Crystallized Wasabi and Coconut." The quiet row of plump, fresh shrimp was matched by a lightly transparent coconut jus on a bed of green apple matchsticks. Were that to have been the dish I would have been fully satisfied. However, the dish was made memorable by what Chef Vongerichten describes as "crystallized wasabi" and what I think of as "Pop Rocks for Adults." The wasabi was held by light green sugar buttons. I have a sentimental regard for Pop Rocks because of some writing on that small matter a quarter of century ago, but sentiment or not, these zippy beads revealed a chef's creative heart.

Our second entree, while satisfactory, was a simpler, less memorable presentation. The Grilled Paillard of Veal, Beefsteak Tomato, Wild Arugula and Black Olive was well-made, but was fundamentally beef-and-salad. Tucking into my chubby shrimp, I was not envious.

We shared a single dessert: Chocolate Pudding, Crystallized Violet and Fresh Cream. Although some of the desserts seemed on paper more creative (Baked Hazelnut Frangipane, Oatmeal Souffle), I can only eat chocolate at lunch. Here the pudding was as good as a chocolate pudding has a right to be, but it remained pudding. The rectangular bowl was bisected with two triangles, one of snowy white cream, abutting a purple rock garden of violet pebbles. A candied violet decorated the cream. Below the pudding was a thin layer of chocolate cake. If not explosive, the mixture - a riff on comfort food - proved a happy ending.

By the end of lunch I regretted departing - only in part because of the contrast between the torrent outside and the peace within. If Perry Street is not everything, it is something - and that's quite enough.

Perry Street
176 Perry Street (near West Street)
Manhattan (West Village)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Just Desserts New York City Entry #22

The relationship between a head chef and a pastry chef is rarely between equals. That we speak of "chef" and "pastry chef" displays a hierarchy by virtue of the extra descriptor alone. Virtuous diners skip dessert, seeing the denouement as a needless excrescence, and because desserts are typically served cold, they are often seen as less a performance than the hot dishes they follow. In my observations, pastry chefs, even if they prepare far more than pastries, pies, and cakes, do not work during the evening, preparing their morsels earlier in the day, home to sup quietly with the family. Not laboring in the kitchen inferno, they are not truly part of the trade. All too many restaurants, even some who advertise their stars, outsource the production of sweets. Made in Bangalore.

The relatively low status of the masters of dessert is evident by a simple thought experiment in this age of celebrity chefs. Most food savvy New Yorkers can rattle off the names of a dozen or more great chefs, but how many of these are pastry chefs? (Chicagoans may justly name Gale Gand whose magic outshines that of her husband Rick Tramonto at Tru). How many pastry chefs have restaurants named after them with the entree chef as second fiddle? Someone will certainly come up with such an example to which I will smugly add the line on which every mistaken loser relies, "That's the exception that proves the rule."

And yet the brilliant pastry chef can rescue a meal from the muddle that the chef has left.

In entering WD-50 I expected that my task would be to compare this outpost of "agape cuisine" with those standouts that have made the Second City the First City of cutting-edge dining. Leaving I knew that my story was of sweet closings.

WD-50 is a restaurant that is often compared to Alinea, Moto, and Avenues in Chicago (and El Bulli and the Fat Duck in Europe). This 60 seat Lower East Side "eclectic new American" has received much buzz, but a fair measure of disappointment. In considering my twelve course tasting menu ($95), it is not hard to see why. Wylie Dufresne seems to lack a sense of harmony that Chefs Achatz, Cantu, and Bowles share at their best, even while teasing and tormenting. These men are former students at the stoves of Charlie Trotter, and his academy left its mark. Trotter insists that his cooks and his diners think about their meals, and each chef has adopted this view in various ways, treating each food as an exercise in philosophy.

Chef Dufresne comes to his craft from other stoves, trained by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose cuisine is characterized by powerful flavors and challenging combinations, but not by a challenge to ideas of dining. Chef Dufresne carries this style one step further, but eating at WD-50, one feels that one is attending to a working cook, not a theorist.

It is appropriate (and surely desirable) when that cook has a palate that surprises and delights, melding different tastes into one. Others can write with words, while chefs must write with herbs, spices, meat, and mash: the poetry of the plate. However, in the eight dishes selected by Chef Dufresne for the Tasting Menu the tones were off. (The chef was not in the kitchen the night that we dined at WD-50, but the problems were not with the execution, but with the conceptions).

The problem in almost every Dufresne dish was that one flavor - and a jarring one - dominated the plate. The fact that the taste is unsettling, coupled with some instances of technocuisine, allows WD-50 to be classed under the El Bulli umbrella. The trick to have a satisfying meal at WD-50 is to take charge of one's plate, exiling the offending ingredient. Chef Dufresne needs to tame his creative urges, tasting his dishes as his customers might. Only then will he distinguish harmony from dissonance.

We began with a lovely pistachio soup with sour cherries, and a touch of garlic and lemon thyme. This would have been an ethereal starter. The cherries and thyme were quite sufficient to add the spark to the mild soup. Chef, drop that skillet. Yet, sitting in this innocent soup was a lump of marinated sardine. I have nothing against sardines - and used to eat them from the can and enjoyed a treatment on this workingman's fish at Prune. Dufresne's marinated sardine was well-prepared, it just belonged in an alternative universe. No pistachio, cherry, or thyme can win a battle with marinated fish. The answer was of course triage, creating two dishes from one.

This opening seemed an eccentricity of the chef, and diners find quirks in other temples of agape. However, the second dish had a similar problem. We were presented with a glowing pink puck of foie gras mousse, huddled at the edge of a large plate, perched on shamrock pixie dust, described as dehydrated green pea "soil." Our server advised use to cut the cylinder. Shades of Moto! Out spilled crimson beet liquor: Lucifer's boiled egg. This was Chef Dufresne's most explicit bow to Chicago's gang of three. I felt that the beet jus didn't fully bring out the flavor of the mousse (the candied olives helped). Here the problem was the soil. Let us give the chef points for cute, but deduct for a mix that was more salt than sweet pea. Pushing the soil to the side, the remainder could be savored, but, unless this represented an error of preparation, someone should have noticed the clash.

Third was Dufresne's canonical "Shrimp cannelloni," neighboring a bright orange chorizo smear and selected micro Thai basil. Shrimp cannelloni is "pasta" of extruded shrimp. Although cleverness can get wearying, the shrimp, basil and chorizo made a disarming match. The problem here was a hidden ingredient: preserved lemon. Once again, this one ingredient so dominated the plate that one had to rely upon the childish technique of making sure that different foods didn't touch. Without that preserved lemon - or by eating it as a mid-course amuse - I could come to appreciate the conception that went into a Mexican mix of sausage and prawn.

Our first meat dish was "picked beef tongue, fried mayo, onion streusel, and tomato molasses." The tongue was thinly sliced, an amiable lunchmeat, lacking the meatiness that I expected. The fried mayo, little dice of breaded Hellman's - another bow to adorable cuisine - nicely paired with the tongue. My disappointment here was a tomato molasses that smacked of prune and coffee aromas. Once again - my repetitions are becoming tiring - by exiling the molasses, the tongue could be enjoyed. (WD-50 does not serve bread, only crackly sesame flatbread, but I would have appreciated a roll to mop the piquant sauce).

A second dish that captures a sense of amazement was the "carrot-coconut sunnyside up." Here Chef Dufresne pays homage to the humble fried egg. A carrot yolk, seasoned with olive oil, is surrounded by cardamon coconut milk albumen. This dish is primarily notable for its trompe l'oiel texture (trompe les doigt?). Poking the creation one might imagine breakfast at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The dish tasted less impressive than it looked. The carrot dominated, although neither component was memorable. That the chef imaged the dish was sufficient without having to consume more than a bite or two.

"Hamachi with sausage flakes, plantain gnocchi, nasturtium smear, coffee-infused water chestnuts" was a more satisfying main course. While the intense coffee could have dominated, the Hamachi fillet held up well. The plantain was too mild, but eating the gnocchi as a separate mouthful allowed an appreciation of the tropics.

The carrot confit, hibiscus sorbet, and crispy lamb belly was a strange selection. Chef Dufresne prepared the lamb as bacon. What might have been an original and amusing encounter with a novel taste was lost in its preparation, less impressive than Alinea's bacon on a trapeze. A so-what moment. Here a too-sour hibiscus sorbet that destroyed the sweet-savory flavor that the carrot confit might have added to the belly. With the belly unimpressive and the hibiscus in its own world, I was left to commiserate with the finely-made confit.

Our final main course was a beautifully presented plate squab breast, crispy squab skin, sweet potato jus, and golden beets encrusted in ruby beet chips. The jutting crispy squab skin paid tribute to Albert Portale's architectural cuisine without requiring a building permit. While I found the beet in beet a little precious (although the contrasting textures of sharp and smooth were pleasing), the squab was succulent, and the potato jus added to the gamy flavor, sweetening without losing wildness. This was a dishes that I endorse without qualification.

At this moment, despite the success of the squab I was troubled. The meal did not compare with meals at Moto, Alinea, and Avenues. Would my Gotham friends see me as a hopeless Second City rube? Perhaps the New York Department of Health doesn't permit philosophers in the kitchen.

The miracle of Pastry Chef Sam Mason squelched a well-honed prairie suspicion. The quintet of desserts proved that some startling unions are blessed. (Four desserts are usually served, after pleading caffeine sensitivity, I was sent an alternative).

Often the more creative a chef, the more s/he hopes to capture the flavors of childhood. Some succeed, but occasionally one is glad that our toys have been put aside. Chef Mason served a plate of celery sorbet, peanut butter crispies, and pickled raisons. Ants on a log: a stalk of celery, smeared with Jif, plumbed with raisons. This is every mother's healthy snack. Mason transformed each ingredient, everything but the memory. And how they were transformed: the celery became sorbet, the peanut butter, cereal, and the raisons, pickles. What was a childhood compromise becomes an ageless delight.

When one sees "rice and beans" on a contemporary menu, one knows that the rice and beans will be steeped in irony. Here rice was a luscious, light, luxurious sorbet surrounded by an azuki bean jelly and lines of emerald bright cilantro puree. Both the beans and the cilantro deepened the cool, mild rice. This is how tastes should be combined: the sweet starch of the azukis played off the herbaceous coriander. Bravo.

I begged for Chef Mason's parsnip cake, served with carrot cream and carrot paper (a crispy carrot skin or the thinnest vegetable flatbread imaginable). Every cake deserves a scoop, and the chef's choice was a luscious coconut cream cheese sorbet. Although most non-chocolate desserts have a puckery fruit base, this wily cake was constructed in tones of dairy and roots. It was not the most colorful dish on the menu; its color was in its taste.

My companion was served the milk-chocolate-hazelnut parfait cake with an orange reduction. Once again I begged (I'm rather good at this), and was rewarded with a forkful of mastery. Chocolate, nuts, and orange are made for each other, and this pastry proved the rule.

As we reached the end of the meal, we wondered about the "cocoa cotton balls." WD-50 is not Moto, so our closing amuse was not a Mississippi boll (with weevil sprinkles?), but a delicious truffle filled with what was a cross between cotton candy and a malted milk ball. It was the fitting end to a string of desserts that I wryly dub my favorite recent meal.

Chef Dufresne is a cook with guts. I admire that. He is willing to stretch boundaries, to puzzle, and to offend. And his style of presentation with separated ingredients and not stewed together permits diners to work with and around his presumptions. Perhaps his cuisine will provoke glorious amazement if he can imagine his meals on his diner's tongues.

Chef Mason, a native Floridian, is an artist of another sphere. Should I be offered the opportunity to invest in an imagined hotspot - Mason's Dixie? - I would sell a kidney, confident that he could whip up another on pain perdu.

50 Clinton Street
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

A Walk in the Woods New York City Entry #21

Back in the waning days of the Communist empire, I was invited to Poland to give a series of lectures. This was a heady moment as the Poles were preparing for the first of their elections that would bring Solidarity to power. It was the best of times and the worst of times. The empire was collapsing with a gasp.

One late spring weekend my hosts drove to one of their favorite parks for a hike, a day to be culminated with dinner at a small restaurant, located in one of the small castles that dot the countryside around Lublin. When we arrived, famished after a day of walking, they were informed to their considerable chagrin that the restaurant had run out of meat. No goose, rack of lamb, sirloin, or even sausage, chicken gizzards, or beef tongue. All that was left were mushrooms. And that was our dinner: mushrooms.

It was one of the most heavenly meals that I have eaten. If the kitchen was out of meat, it was not out of cream, dill, or inspiration (or vodka). Sixteen years from my travels, memory of reminds me that whatever others might say about leaden Polish cuisine, such complaints don't register with me.

Greenpoint (or, as it once was pronounced, Green-pernt) now has no shortage of meat - or of Poles, young or old. Greenpoint is Polish New York. This little village neighborhood, just across the East Village, has enormous charm (particularly the area north and west of Nassau and Manhattan Avenues; it is industrial close to the river). I don't assess bakeries, but the three I tried, all pass muster.

Unlike French restaurants in Manhattan, there are few comparative evaluations of Greenpoint restaurants. Not all chefs are created equal, but we don't know about the Point's equivalents of Ducasse, Keller, Colicchio, or Takayama. Only some cuisines get Peopled.

For my late Sunday "linner" I selected Lomzynianka ("home cooking in the heart of Greenpoint"; pronounced Lahm-zhin-YAHN-eh-ka, according to Eric Asimov who reviewed it in 2002). The chef of honor is J.J.J. Grzelczak ("Janina"), and I gladly forgive her for what to non-Pointers seems an excess of J's, just so long as she keeps cooking. She is the girl from Lomza for whom the restaurant is named.

The decor bows to the fantastic. Hanging from the ceiling are lines of artificial flowers and curlicue ribbons, given the space the air of a bower as designed by a ethereal eccentric. There are not many rooms where a stag's head with tinsel hanging from its antlers feels right, but it does here. If for no other reason than its magic setting, Lomzynianka stands apart from its competitors.

Dinner began with a plate of lightly pickled carrots, sauerkraut, cucumbers, and red cabbage. It was a subtle amuse bouche, preparing us for a Polish meal that, not surprisingly, was short on roughage.

I selected the Red Borscht with Dumplings. Borscht comes in several styles (and not always with beets, as in white borscht), sometimes more of a chowder. I was served a crimson broth, as bright as any consomme of which Daniel Boulud could imagine. I could taste the beef stock, the beets, perhaps a little dill, salt, and not much else. The dumplings, little tortellinis with chopped mushrooms - ah, Polska! - became more intensely pink with each moment in their bath.

My main course (perhaps three main courses) was the Polish Platter (three pierogies, kielbasa, bigos, stuffed cabbage, and mashed potatoes). The one complaint that Asimov leveled at Lomyynianka was their "powdery mashed potatoes." Perhaps critics matter, because this afternoon the mashed potatoes were thicker and chunkier than they had any right to be.

The pierogies (farmer's cheese, potato and cheese, and mushroom and sauerkraut) were fried to a crisp and golden perfection. I can't claim that other local restaurants don't make excellent pierogies, but I can't imagine that they could be better.

The stuffed cabbage was filled with more rice than I am used to (and of course, the pork is not a touch that one might find in Williamsburg down the road). I grew up with stuffed cabbage in which a sweet and sour cabbage is dominant; here the seasoned rice is more prominent. It was satisfying and all-too-filling.

Bigos is often considered the Polish national dish, and like so many stews it may be the final resting place for leftovers (and a noble home). This bigos was a stew of heavily boiled beef with dill and sauerkraut. I felt that the stew lost some of its character as a hunter's dish by the amount of cooking. The tastes was sturdy, but the texture was softer than my preference.

The kielbasa was very nicely peppery, no doubt purchased from one of the many local butchers in the area.

I excused myself before dessert, and missed the blintzes that come highly recommended.

Polish cuisine is robust, hearty worker's food (Polish elites, like so many other culturally uncertain elites - including Americans - often embrace French cuisine). My experience in the forest and on the streets is that when Polish dishes are properly made, even humble platters can be platonic.

646 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn (Greenpoint)

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Hoping for the Wurst: A Journal's Diner New York Entry #20

Despite my best efforts, I run into restaurants that do not deserve a full review: they lack interest or my tasting was insufficient. Hallo Berlin falls in both categories. Hallo Berlin is a small restaurant, a step up from fast food, with a pleasant garden in back.

Although Hallo Berlin is known for the most casual side of the menu (their wursts and a good selection of draft beer), it also offers more substantial German fare that I have not tried, such as schnitzel, rouladen, and sauerbraten.

What I did try - their wursts and a few side dishes - were ordinary and inoffensive. Fair value in a city in which the grand old Yorkville restaurants (the Bremen House Restaurant, the Jaeger House) have long passed from the scene. (The Heidelberg still serves German food, but I hear it is not worth the trip).

I found the Bratwurst satisfying, but my companion, a Milwaukee Cheesehead, felt it did not meet local standards. My Currywurst was somewhat dried out and the curry sauce, always mild by Mumbai standards, could still have used a little oomph. I enjoyed the sweet red cabbage and the tangy sauerkraut, but found the pickled potato salad a bit of a bore. Our rollmops (wine herring stuffed with vegetables) were soggy and sour.

With its modest prices Hallo Berlin satisfies a sausage craving, but unfortunately this is not, ahem, wurst at its best.

Hallo Berlin
626 10th Avenue
Manhattan (Hell's Kitchen)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Future Choices New York City Entry #19

I have been eating at Chinese restaurants for a half century: every Jewish child's birthrite, our mess of pottage. There are many mysteries in eating Chinese food for those who are not restaurant brats, the offspring of the owners and staff. One that I have puzzled about for decades is what I describe as "menu excess." The question is one of how and why.

A group of us ate tonight at Green Bo Restaurant in Chinatown (most guides call the restaurant New Green Bo, but the menu has dropped the "New." Perhaps they have noticed that years have passed.)

The Green Bo, a highly regarded Shanghai restaurant, has 284 items on its menu, and this figure does not include the off-menu items that are available. Yes, if one ate every meal at the Green Bo for a year (by no means a torture), one would be able to determine one's favorite dish. Each Chinese restaurant provides Future Shock, Alvin Toffler's term for a surfeit of choice. However, unlike Toffler's vision of corporate options, Chinese restaurants provided these abundant options without the prodding of a head office.

Would a restaurant with 117 or 89 choices be scorned as pathetically limited? And how can one select between "Fish Head Casserole," "Duck with Part Tendon in Brown Sauce," or "King Sea Cucumber in Shrimp Seed Sauce." Well, we always do choose, but I often feel buyer's remorse, speculating that the truly heavenly dish was precisely the one that when the moment came to order I decided to skip. Aside from the question of how the cooks produce all these choices (an explanation that many a chef can provide to an ignorant diner), the other question is what a menu of this size is supposed to do for a restaurant. Does the size of a menu correlate with quality? Government funding is required.

This came to mind as I was instructed to make menu choices for our group of six. Eventually I selected nine dishes (five appetizers, four main courses), some selected through the welcome advice of The Chowhound's Guide to New York Tristate Area, a guide with all of the literary charm, organizational efficiency, and quality control of the website from which it takes its name. I appreciate the suggestions, but wonder if I might have done as well using a menu and set of darts.

At its best Green Bo is superb. I found three of our nine dishes memorable. Green Bo is properly known for its soup dumplings. We ordered the dumplings with crab and pork, and they were splendid. Opening each dumpling the enclosed soup exploded with an aromatic tingle. We agreed that these dumplings were the pinnacle of the evening. Also excellent was the plate of crispy eel, looking for the world like a purple haystack of shoestring potatoes - an architectural achievement that any fusion chef might have envied. The hoisin sauce (perhaps with some plum sauce as well) added a sweetness that was quite unexpected in coating the eel. The deep frying of the eel strips made the taste less aquatic than might be imagined, subtle, and perhaps slightly overwhelmed. Our scallion pancake was certainly tasty, although few Chicagoans would choose these crispy pancakes over the canonical feathery version at Ed's Potsticker House.

Less appealing was a cool Preserved Duck. The dish tasted more like cold duck than a dish that had been preserved with aromatic spices. The remaining skin made the dish disappointingly fatty without a distinctive taste. Our aromatic beef was rather tough and less aromatic than I had expected, although the sweet and hot sauce was pleasant enough.

My favorite main course was "Shredded Pork and Preserved Cabbage Rice Cake." Not everyone at the table enjoyed the somewhat gelatinous rice cakes, but I did. However, it was the sauteed preserved cabbage that tied the dish together both texturally and in taste. Also very good was the "Yellowfish with Dried Seaweed," astonishingly light fish sticks that could float away on their own juices. This dish challenges a very few Southern fried chickens for entry in the Deep-Fryer Hall of Fame.

Our Braised Pork Meatballs (Lion's Head) with Shanghai Cabbage was pleasant enough, although lacked a distinctive taste: an inflated sphere of ground pork in a rather bland and thickened sauce. The whole fish Szechuan Style (I didn't catch the species, perhaps it was yellowfish) was mushy with a thick layer of peppery hot sauce. It was prepared with a heavy hand, never a good sign for a delciate white fish.

Every restaurant has its specialities and each diner has favorites, the problem - particularly acute in conditions of menu excess - is one of matching. Eating out is a dating game. But now I have my favorites at Green Bo, and upon my return I know what to order, allowing my partners to explore the remaining 275 options.

Green Bo
66 Bayard Street
Manhattan (Chinatown)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Deconstruction New York Entry #18

Many small American cities would be pleased to have a satisfying Chinese restaurant and a satisfying Indian restaurant side-by-side. What makes New York a chowist paradise is that one need not traipse next door. Tonight I visited Chinese Mirch on Curry Hill, known for its row of inexpensive Indian restaurants.

The New York Times is quoted as announcing that Chinese Mirch is "the first Manhattan restaurant to serve this strange but satisfying hybrid of two of the cities favorite cuisines." I neither doubt the claim of priority or critic's judgement. Chinese Mirch uses traditional Indian ingredients, including a set of spices as Indian as Chinese, but with preparations that owe more to Chinese cuisine. I applaud the conception of the dishes (what literary scholars might label their hybridity), although the execution - with a single exception - was only adequate.

For much of what follows, I give great credit to my dining partner, who posts as "Hammer" on the grand LTHforum Chicago board. Hammer has an ability that I do not fully share of not only tasting the dishes placed before her, but as a skilled cook herself, she is able to deconstruct the dish into its components, revealing how it was prepared. She tastes the process; I taste the product.

Our superior dish, and a dish for which I would gladly return was "Gobi Manchurian," cauliflower florets tossed in fresh ginger, garlic and onions. The cauliflower was first quickly deep fried before being sauteed with ginger, white pepper, onion, garlic, and green pepper. The florets retained some of their crunch, while absorbing the pungency of the other ingredients. The Gobi has some heat, but will be satisfying to those who avoid peppers. This is a remarkable vegetable dish.

The second appetizer, one for which Chinese Mirch is known, was "Chicken Lollipops," spicy wings with the meat pulled back and fried to force a lollipop shape. This dish had more heat than the Gobi, and was pleasant for that, if not terribly complex. It was more a starter than a fully conceived dish. The spices included Chinese pepper, touched perhaps with curry-based spices. It was satisfying, if not memorable.

Less successful were our two entrees. The Crispy Szechuan Lamb was twice cooked meat, but unfortunately it had been coated with flour (and/or cornstarch), without the flour fully cooked, giving the dish a somewhat pasty taste. The lamb and the Chinese and Indian spices mixed well, but the dish was not as compelling as it might have been had the lamb been fried naked.

Our second entree was a disappointment: Chicken Coriander, diced chicken in a coriander sauce. Its texture with heavy notes of lemon reminded one of any inauthentic Americanized Chinese restaurant. It was more glop than glisten. The chicken sank under the weight of the sauce. The coriander, used with an intensity owing more to Indian cuisine than Chinese, could have, in the right hands, provided a memorable cross-cultural excursion.

Much on the menu of Chinese Mirch is intriguing, and the chef knows his spice rack. However, with the exception of the Gobi Manchurian the restaurant avoids the lightness of preparation that would transform dinner from an interesting experiment to a compelling example of culinary deconstruction.

Chinese Mirch
120 Lexington Avenue
Manhattan (Murray Hill)

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Pair of Queens New York City Entry #17

A delight of living in New York is to discover "hidden" corners of our town, each with its own culinary surprises. Today I traveled to Forest Hills Gardens, the first and oldest planned community in the United States. The community was planned by the Russell Sage Foundation (the foundation sponsoring my visit to New York) in 1909. (It was sold to a private developer in the 1920s). The leafy community with its curving streets was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and over the years residents have included Geraldine Ferraro, Buckminster Fuller, Jimmy Breslin, and Peter Parker (Spider-Man). One feels miles from Queens Boulevard, although it is but minutes across the LIRR tracks. Although the little corner of Queens was intended by the foundation to provide affordable housing, today smaller town houses sell for upwards of a million dollar, with private free-standing homes selling for selling for several times that amount. But perhaps this counts as affordable housing in today's New York. Cheap or dear, the community is well-worth a visit.

And on each side of the community by Ascan Avenue, chowists will find culinary attractions.

South of Forest Hills Gardens is Eddie's Sweet Shop, a century-old soda fountain (I am told that the date of founding has been lost to history). The fountain has its original charm. Perhaps it is not sufficiently elaborate to be included in the National Register of Historical Places, but along with Jahn's in Richmond Hill, Eddie's is part of the nostalgia for old New York. Eddie's makes their ingredients by hand (although I assume this does not include either the milk - I didn't spy a barn in back - or the maraschino cherry, but I was not in a contentious mood). My hot fudge sundae was exemplary. Although my walnut ice cream was not super-premium, the hot fudge was sweet and rich and the whipped cream was properly runny. It was a glorious concoction. My egg cream was more chocolate and milk than seltzer, but the counter-girl graciously offered to add as much seltzer as I wished. I only wish that I was not the only customer during a Saturday lunch. Saddle shoes have been replaced with spiked heels and Nikes and have moved on to the mall.

North of the Gardens on Ascan is Nick's, reportedly the best pizza in the borough. Notable was the stunningly fragrant sausage, if without a strong taste of fennel. It was delightful, as was the sweet yet herbed tomato sauce. My only regrets are that the crust was a little crispier than I prefer (a signature of Nick's) and the tomato and cheese are served in patches on the pizza, a style also found at Grimaldi's, although not in my youth. This is not artisinal pizza as at Di Fara, but it is awfully good, as good as Di Fara. Yet, with my gripes, my search for the platonic slice continues.

Nick's also serves stellar cannoli, more haunting than Ferrara in Little Italy and equal to an archetypal cannoli from Philadelphia's Italian Market. Nick's chooses a waffle pastry shell, making this crackly cylinder impossible as street food. The filling is smoother and more pudding-like than a more ricotta-texture. It is sublime.

* * *

For dinner I stopped in Jackson Heights, and had a disappointing meal at Inti Raymi, a Peruvian restaurant mentioned in several guides. The ceviche was fine (I enjoyed the inclusion of corn, potato, and yam), but the salad was undistinguished and the Grilled Red Snapper was dry and tasteless. To battle my circling depression I stopped in a nearby Colombian restaurant Pollos a La Brasa Mario and ordered a moist and satisfying broiled chicken which I must wipe from my fingers as I type.

Eddie's Sweet Shop
105-29 Metropolitan Avenue
Queens (Forest Hills)

Inti Raymi
86-14 37th Avenue
Queens (Jackson Heights)

Nick's Pizza
108-26 Ascan Avenue
Queens (Forest Hills)

Pollos a la Brasa Mario
83-02 37th Ave.
Queens (Jackson Heights)
718 457-8800