Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Training Ground New York City Entry #36

One of the crises that every great restaurant must eventually face is what to do when the chef who "made" the restaurant leaves the kitchen. Can the restaurant continue or is it time to close up shop? Can one imagine Charlie Trotter's without CT, or Daniel sans Daniel, or Frontera Grill absent Rick Bayless. However, of course, restaurants do continue and even thrive despite a new toque. In Chicago (Evanston, actually) Trio thrived under Rick Tramonto, Shawn McClain, and Grant Achatz, until finally after Achatz's departure, owner Henry Adaniya decided to downscale the restaurant's culinary ambitions under Dale Levitski, marking the transition through a name change to Trio Atelier. In New York Maguy LeCoze's Le Bernardin purrs along nicely with Eric Ripert now at the helm. What connects the two establishments is the presence of a strong owner.

Perhaps the New York restaurant that has triumphed despite (or because of) kitchen turnover is Buzzy O'Keeffe's River Café, a restaurant that had a profound effect in its brave attempt to civilize the sorry docks beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, sandwiched between Brooklyn Heights and the white elephant Dumbo. While the spectacular view doesn't hurt (although the battle to claim the right table surely does), the parade of A-list chefs is impressive, including the pioneer Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, David Burke, Rick Laakonen, and now Brad Steelman. Many restaurants rest on their scenic haunches, but RC hopes for something more, and frequently achieves it.

At a recent dinner, I ordered the three course prix fixe menu, and despite a table as far from the marine action as possible (although with the prominent window no one is too far from the Lower Manhattan vista), I was well satisfied. Perhaps the food lacks the elegance of a Michelin three star restaurant, but the lack of a star reveals a certain scorn to the "boroughs." (Despite what the red guide suggests, you can ask for a window table, but unless you are known to the house, it is first come, first served).

The amuse was a silky yet hearty squash soup with apple brandy and pumpkin seeds. It set the tone for a defiantly seasonal menu, and was sophisticated enough that its simplicity added to its charm. The brandy cut the heaviness of the cream and squash, lightening the taste.

My appetizer was "Rabbit and Ravioli" Pancetta-Wrapped Loin of Rabbit served on a (Brooklyn) Ricotta-filled ravioli with garden pea puree and pan juices. The pea puree didn't have a strong enough presence to match the more dominant tastes, but the rabbit was so moist and juicy that it tasted like a cross between pork and sausage. The ravioli was properly cooked and enriched by the pan juices.

As an entree, I selected Millbrook Venison Loin with Green Peppercorns, Chestnut spaetzle, root vegetables, and wild lingonberry pan sauce. Again this was a tribute to November, perhaps the most autumnal dish of any I have had in Gotham. I loved the crispy, nutty spaetzle and felt that the root vegetables were sweetened and made Nordic with strains of lingonberry. Chef Steelman has no fear of undercooking meat. I was not asked how I wanted the venison served - I got it rare: perfect. A dish to prepare us for the long winter ahead.

Dessert was a Blueberry Almond tart with warm blueberries and caramel glazed almonds, lemon panna cotta, and blueberry sorbet. The presentation - a glass cone of panna cotta, a sphere of dark purple sherbert, and a small boat of berries and almonds - was impressive. Nothing was really wrong, if not quite spectacular. The tart had a granola-like texture, and the panna cotta, well-made, was plain, if pure. The sorbet was rich, dense berry-flavor, and a buoyant palate cleanser, if perhaps late in the meal.

In sum, the meal surpassed my expectations for a restaurant that is often remembered fondly for its history and for its ambiance. Yet, there must be something in the river air or in the layers of culinary history that keeps working its charm, inspiring whatever chefs are hired to do waterfront duty. For this, New Yorkers, facing chilling travel, give thanks.

The River Cafe
1 Water Street
Brooklyn (Below Brooklyn Bridge)
Table d'Hote

Freedom can be a curse. Constraint transforms an indulgent fantasy into an object to be shared. While some artists can curb themselves, often their most profound work is that on which others - bosses, backers, distributors, or dealers - make demands. Mel Brooks was never so clever as in those years before he became MEL BROOKS and could do what he wished without the limits that others placed. Compare his tight and tough early work on "The Producers" with his later flabby and self-indulgent "History of the World."

What is true for directors is equally true for chefs. The chef with too little oversight is prone to forget that variation on tradition surpasses variation without tradition every time. This is the challenge that those prominent chefs who are attempting to amaze diners with their Technocuisine often ignore.

This came to mind at a very satisfying second meal at Avenues. Avenues is the lead restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, currently overseen by Chef Graham Elliott Bowles. Bowles, along with Grant Achatz of Alinea and Homero Cantu of Moto, are reconstructing American cuisine in Chicago with nods to Ferran Aria's El Bulli or Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck -- and now Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 in New York. Yet, Chef Bowles has an odd advantage that these other chefs lack - a bureaucratic structure that grants some leeway, but demands that his creativity appeals to a broader audience. He must work within the bounds of corporate capitalism. Bowles's stage, pleasant though it is with a lovely view of the Chicago skyline, is hotel-generic. The scene is the comforting one of traditional high-end dining; the setting gives no clue that Bowles' work is outside the Hilton/Hyatt ambit.

Many fellow eaters, especially those who embrace an auteur theory of culinary production, would suspect that the presence of an international bureaucracy is less than a boon, but it is a curative for gustatory excess. Chef Bowles must please not only truculent gourmets who search out the new-new thing, but must satisfy hotel customers who choose The Peninsula and wish to dine avoiding the gusts of Michigan Avenue. Not only must he produce dishes that satisfy those gourmets looking to be astonished, but satisfy financial masters who demand a assigned food cost without dibbles of red ink stretching far into the future. Whether Chef Bowles can bring this off remains to be seen; however, from the standpoint of cuisine, his blend of creativity with pragmatism is a genial success. In these past six months Chef Bowles is developing a distinctive style. In visual terms his dishes meld Jackson Pollack and Morris Louis, thin smears of color combined with an dynamic placement of ingredients, encircled by the action painting of condiments, foams, and sauces. The dishes look like constructions from the zenith of New York Abstract Impressionism.

As for the taste and texture, Bowles draws on those features now become "traditional" (dare we say) in technocuisine - foams, startling ingredients (pop rocks with foie gras in Bowles's signature foie-lipop - an unbeguiling dish I had on my first visit and which will last me a lifetime). What impresses me is how these techniques no longer demand attention, dominating the plate, but rather enrich a classical palette. In contrast to Homero Cantu at Moto and Grant Achatz at Alinea, Bowles has remained loyal to the urbane purity of Charlie Trotter's experimentation. I speculate that some of his choices owe some to institutional demands.

Having eaten quite a bit recently in New York City, I was pleased to see that Chef Bowles stood by the display kitchen, actually checking each plate. All too often New York celebrity chefs need a map to get to their restaurants. Even Gabrielle Hamilton arrived at Prune after we started our meal and left before dessert. During my first meal at WD-50 (but not during the second) Chef Dufresne was chowing down in Berkshire at The Fat Duck. One is more likely to see Chef Vongerichten at JFK than at Jean-Georges. So, it is nice that in Chicago, chefs, even well-regarded ones, are kitchen-bound. Perhaps the best news of the Chicago fall was the collapse of Charlie Trotter's plans to clone himself at the Time-Warner Center.

At my first meal at Avenues last spring my wife and I selected the Chef's Palate Menu, consisting of twelve courses. In those heady pre-blog days, I did not keep tasting notes, but I recall an ecstatic lobster dish, flavored with celeriac and verbena, and a fine hamachi with soy, yuzu and radish. There were a number of disappointments, notably the half-frozen foie-lipop. If we must torture ducks, let them die for a noble cause, not to become a Tootsie Roll on a stick.

Here we ordered the six course tasting menu: I ordered the game menu (with a substitution for the foie gras) and my wife the vegetable menu. Unlike Charlie Trotter's where the Vegetable Menu outshown the Grand Menu, at Avenues, the vegetarian dishes were less well-conceptualized, although in several cases excellent in execution. At times the vegetarian dishes mimicked the meat dishes with an offending ingredient absent. This night I was not jealous of her choice.

We begin with a lovely amuse with a cauliflower puree with apple essence, micro-argula, and dots of salmon caviar (the vegetarian amuse excised caviar). The puree was a tribute to a Cuisine of Essences: pure cauliflower, with a bit of apple tartness and roe saltiness. A robust and mature start.

My opening dish of pheasant in a boudin noir smear with an oxtail confit and (again) sauteed argula was as fine an appetizer as I could have wished. Until the multiple course meals, a six course tasting menu permits the chef to work on a larger canvas and permits the diner to experience food over time, mixing the main ingredients with sauces in various combinations. I like the bravery of mixing pheasant with boudin and with oxtail (game, pork, and beef) in the same dish, and found that this dish - not exactly a stew but a buffet - had the solidity that a game dish demanded.

My wife's deconstructed Caesar salad, was a clever retooling of this classic dish. Large squares of brioche were filled with dressing, and a cleverly designed floweret of romaine was coated with a Parmesan mix. I don't know that the taste of a perfectly made Caesar was much improved, but the agape factor was high.

My second course was a highpoint of the meal, a surprising mix of scallops, pumpkin, eggnog, and endive. The pumpkin surprisingly did add to the scallop, not overwhelming it, and the endive was suitable to mix and match. I had worried about the sweetness of the eggnog, but it was a heady foam that could be added or avoided at will. This is the kind of thoughtful and unexpected linkage that characterize the best of Chicago cuisine.

My wife's Matsutake with Radish and Cilantro (with Togarashi spices - a Japanese spice mix) was unexceptionable as a salad dish, but reminded me of a very high end coleslaw.

As a third course, we both were served Risotto with cipollini onions. Mine had frog legs, hers did not. Les grenouilles tasted, well, like chicken, and rather stringy chicken. In the case, less was more. The menu lists truffle on the description of these dishes, and perhaps there was truffle in the risotto, but we were offered grated truffle as "a supplement," perhaps not the wisest strategy to keep happy diners, although perhaps a come on for the bottom line. We declined.

My fourth course was another grand success: tender-roasted bison covered with sassafras with grits and chard. I loved the mix of the bison - nearly a pot roast - with the properly prepared grits. At our previous meal we were served buffalo with grits, chard, and barbecue, but the sassafras lent a more classical and subtle edge to the dish than the somewhat overpowering sauce. Whether buffalo and bison are - at Avenues - the same animal, I can't tell, although each had its own spot on the Ark.

My wife's pumpkin with eggnog, spice and vanilla included a prettily displayed small squash, more beautiful than powerfully flavored, although a nice addition to the vegetarian menu.

My final main course consisted of several squares of venison surrounded by various accompaniments, including Irish Steel-Cut Oatmeal, Spinach (I think, although, who knows, perhaps it was sauteed argula!), and Yam "Tatar Tots" with cocoa and juniper sauce. The venison served as shards of bread - to mop up other ingredients. None of which made a huge impression, although the dish was not discordant. The tater tots may have been too cute (they were really more like a Yorkshire pudding), not bad, but less than memorable.

On the vegetarian menu, the choice was potato with kale and huckleberry. Having only a small taste, I can't express a firm opinion, but again this dish seemed less conceptualized than the dishes on the other menus - more a sop to those who don't eat meat than part of a philosopher's plan.

For the desserts, the vegetarian choice was superior. My wife was served a yogurt panna cotta perched in a tart-sweet cranberry soup. It was lovely in design and in execution. My dessert had its points as well - Avenue's cheese tray: Roquefort cheese, spiced walnuts, essence of pear, and still more micro-arugula. This conclusion was not shocking - conventional with a twist - but I did envy my wife's luscious soup.

Chef Bowles deserves much credit: in part, as Woody Allen notes, because showing up is most of life, but also because he has learned to prepare dishes that appeal to multiple audiences. The foams, deconstructions, and shot-gun marriages were shrewd and occasional, allowing the chef to demonstrate that he could apply classical techniques with finesse. Whether his supervisors - those necessary monsters with the green eyeshades - will agree only time will tell.

The Peninsula Chicago
308 East Superior Street
The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski (New York: Gotham Books, 2005).

When an good man takes his own life before his allotted span, we, less good fellows, are puzzled. Simultaneously we are envious at the success and smug at the failure. Did he not realize that It's a Wonderful Life?

The death of the influential Michelin three-star chef Bernard Loiseau raises these emotions. Yet, perhaps these emotions and the explanation provided are the least compelling aspects of Rudolph Chelminski's The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, an account of Loiseau's rise and collapse. His story is that of bipolar disorder, what used to be described as manic-depression. Of course, not all who live with bipolar disorder take their own lives, but the story is commonplace. Bernard Loiseau, chef at the Burgundian restaurant Cote d'Or, was so fearful of being bypassed by his colleagues and losing his third Michelin star (neither implausible fears, according to Chelminski) that he took a shotgun one quiet February afternoon and ended his life. All rather mundane tabloid news. Same old, same old.

Far more interesting than the psychiatric work-up of Loiseau's problems are Chelminski's accounts of the network of French cuisine (and, not incidently, the role of Michelin and Gault-Millau guides) and the description of the ideologies of cuisine that bubbled and squeaked in the last third of Twentieth Century.

As The Perfectionist emphasizes, the world of French haute cuisine is a tight-knit community and also a field of intellectual engagement. Star-worthy chefs are not merely cooking, but they are partying and talking. In this the world of French cuisine differs from that in most American cities with New York the primary exception. The United States has very accomplished cooks, but the social networks are rather thin and with a few exceptions, such as Chicago's Cuisine Agape of Achatz, Cantu, and Bowles, the goal of chefs is "simply" to cook well.

Chelminski delineates the dense social networks that operate at the highest levels of French dining. Indeed, one of the turning points of Bernard Loiseau's career is the time he spent as an apprentice at Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne. There he met other ambitious young cooks, subsequently his friends and colleagues, and there too he gained the scorn of Jean Troisgros, whose contempt for his apprentice was to shape Loiseau's career. Troisgros aborted the opportunity for Loiseau to train with other renowned chefs, preventing him from acquiring the technical skills of a chef who passed from kitchen to kitchen in a slowly accelerating career arc. Yet despite this black mark, Loiseau persevered and with the good fortune of finding a mentor in Claude Verger, Bernard soon found himself chef at Cote d'Or in Saulieu.

The French culinary world is, as Chelminski pictures it, a small town - and in this it differs little from many other occupations. Cuisine is a borough of the village that Tom Wolfe describes as Cultureburg. The linkages of Loiseau with fellow chefs Paul Bocuse, Michel Bras, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Guerard, and Guy Savoy shaped who he was and how his reputation was established. At Bernard's funeral, Chelminski reports, he had an honor guard composed of all twenty-four of the country's three-star chefs. This is not merely a tribute to a friend, but a recognition that they constitute a very special club: a fraternity for those who have been hazed behind the ovens and been crowned.

Add to this social world, a penumbra of critics and serious diners. Of institutional significance, Michelin is the Sun, and Gault-Millau the Moon, but critics like François Simon of Le Figaro are stars as well. Add to this the interested and the passionate, let us call them The Steves (to honor M. Plotnicki and M. Shaw): who have done so much, from outside of the kitchen, to create a community of diners. When Bernard Loiseau shot himself, the bullet ricocheted throughout a community.

Networks must be meaningful for participants: the intellectual stuffing constitutes a theoretical Oreo. Chelminski effectively connects his luscious descriptions of dishes to the underlying debates over food preparation. He describes how Loiseau created his "la cuisine des essences" - the belief that the chef could commit to a purity of taste with few ingredients, profound tastes, and commit to a slimmed down classical (French) cuisine. Cuisine off steroids. Chelminski is impressive in describing how cooking is a stage of professional thought. He depicts the linkages between Nouvelle Cuisine, Cuisine Minceur, and Loiseau's own, odd Cuisine à L'Eau. And, given a public always looking for the "next new thing," we learn how Loiseau's Cuisine of Essences became eclipsed by Cuisine Tendance, the Franco-fusion. This description reminds diners forcefully that - at least in the higher reaches of cuisine - real tastes are being fought over. The goal is not only to create dishes that taste "good" in an idiosyncratic fashion, but to create dishes that - like Tom Wolfe's vision of modern art in The Painted Word - are theory on the plate. Perhaps instead of menus, the day will come that we will simply be given a pamphlet and the bill.

All of these themes are worthy topics; yet to reach them one must face down a fair number of writerly oddities. Chelminski, for instance, claims that Loiseau has created a "Maoist" cuisine. Huh? Of all the descriptions that might apply to a three-star chef, being called an Maoist is among the strangest: if this is a Great Leap Forward, let it be so. Other claims (that five of six French families have second homes (p. 12)) seem equally bizarre. At times, Chelminski can let his wit run amok, speculating that when, as an alter boy, Bernard needed a "vial of holy vinegar" to complement his holy oil, prefiguring a career of preparing salad dressings (p. 38), that there is no trade in which "Latin passions" run as high as in the kitchen (p. 60), or in his analogy of the Michelin guide to Chairman's Mao's little red book (p. 51) (Chelminski seems inordinately taken with this corpulent Commie). Add to this, Chelminski's undefended preferences (his pungent distaste for Mark Veyrat and Ferran Adria and other chefs who work outside of classical cuisine) and this book lards its considerable insight with just plain weirdness.

The Perfectionist is a work of an imperfectionist. There are bizarro moments and quirks that a sharp copy editor might have pruned. Still, to be imperfect is not to be worthless. Put aside the Grand Guignol of Bernard Loiseau's lurid death, and we are served a knowledgeable account of the linkages between men and their theories that will add to any diner's experience at the table. Dishy, indeed.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Chick Pick New York City Entry #35

If restaurants have personalities, they also have gender. The steakhouse represents the archetypal masculinist bastion - a clubhouse for grown-up boys. Yet, until recently there was not an equivalent chick pick. In an industry in which until fairly recently most chefs were men and most owners were as well, this was to be expected - and most of those who made reservations were men as well. Servers considered women to be trouble, and fought to avoid all female parties at their station. The system was well-established. Most restaurants, even those at the high-end, bustled, bruted, and boomed.

The world has turned. It is not only that more women are poised with power - running, shaping, or choosing restaurants, but there is a new sensibility. Serene cuisine. Consider Annisa. This petite West Village establishment is a cove of repose. From the clean white, grey and cream decor with its gently swaying curtain, to the civilized calm, encouraging talk, intimate and otherwise, a diner realizes that this is not your father's restaurant.

Still, Annisa must not be labeled too readily. It is not a feminist restaurant, nor really a "feminine" restaurant (as described by Michelin), but a restaurant with a soft and supple aspect. Despite the fact that many of the well-priced wines are from vineyards with female proprietors or winemakers (selected by co-owner and sommelier Jennifer Scism) and that Annisa means "women" in Arabic, Anita Lo's food is not so easily categorized. The flavors are grand - not at all timid - although I wished that the cooks felt more comfortable in undercooking.

Annisa's menu is notable for the use of obscure foodstuffs: honshimeji mushrooms, bottarga di muggine, sumac, vincotto, Iroquois hominy, mochi, kabocha. Huh? Some boychefs play with chemistry sets or Lincoln Logs; Chef Lo's game is Trivial Pursuit.

As appetizer, I ordered Spicy Grilled Eggplant with Yogurt and Lentils - a dish as clear and compelling as its name. Chef Lo cooked the eggplant in an Indian style but with a well-modulated fire, further calmed by her sweet yogurt. Off to the side was a clever lentil patty. At first glance it appeared as couscous, but a taste revealed a complexity of spices and textures. My only complaint was that the eggplant was charred, and with the skin tough and splintery. If the eggplant is to be cooked such, it deserves to be peeled.

As a main course I ordered Sauteed Filet of Fluke with Fennel, Orange, and Bottaga di Muggine (grey mullet roe). As with the appetizer, the fluke was perfectly composed in its range of flavors. The orange sweet/acid brightened the fluke and the pressed roe, and the fennel added a restrained bitterness. However, the top layer of the fish was a bit overcooked, although the bottom was moist and rich. Cutting the fish, mixing it with the accompaniments, diminished the problem. Yet, both dishes suggest that at the stove sometimes less is more.

We shared two desserts. The star was the Tower of Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) with mascarpone with ginger. The "tower," less Alfred Portole-vertical than horizontal had the challenges of much culinary architecture. The first forkful precipitated a crackup. Yet, the ginger and pumpkin did nicely even when in shards. Ginger proved a fine accompaniment for pumpkin, and both made this creamy autumn evening memorable.

The second dessert, Crispy Mochi with Black Sesame and a duo of Coconut Caramel and Pineapple Dipping Sauces, was notable for the powerfully silky sauces. While the pineapple flavor was intense, it was the distinctive tropical mix of coconut and caramel that will be remembered. The mochi - sweet rice balls - were too gummy for my taste. They served best as a means of mopping up the delightful sauces.

I was impressed by Chef Lo's beautifully conceived flavor palette, by the reasonably priced wine list, and by the civilized, balmy environment that distinguishes Annisa from its brethren.

13 Barrow Street (near 4th Street and 7th Avenue)
Manhattan (West Village)

Sunday, November 13, 2005

WD Redux New York City Entry #34

What kind of art is culinary art? Is cookery performance art or plastic art? Is a chef a musician or composer? Do we judge the process or the product? Both views have appeal. Any chef who oversees a staff had better develop, if not recipes, at least procedures, so that dishes night to night will taste similar. Yet, diners who return to a restaurant often discover that what is lovely one night is loopy the second and lost it the next.

On the performance side this suggests that kitchens have on and off nights. Even on a night one dish may be perfectly timed with a just balance of ingredients, whereas the next order is ignored for thirty seconds with just a bit too much salt. Cooking is not robot work. There has been no Robot Coup. Even in those establishments in which chefs play with chemistry sets, men and women are key. Performance is not that of chefs alone, but of their cooks who labor often with light oversight.

However, a product may change as well, not simply a function of performance. Put aside the fact that some dishes are better than others (to particular diners and to culinary audiences), but the materials that form the dish change. The veal, morels, or apricots delivered on Tuesday may have a different quality as those on Thursday. An August orange has a different taste from one picked in February. A product delivered on Friday may be a little off by Monday. Add to varying ingredients is that conscientious chefs keep experimenting, even if the menu hides the change: Anjou in place of Bartlett, a surprising sprig of tarragon, or chanterelles substituted for porcini.

The recognition of the restaurant as a moving target came to mind in my second visit to WD-50, about a month after the first. On that first occasion, I was mightily impressed by the Sam Mason's desserts, and was occasionally dismayed by the lack of balance in Chef Dufresne's entrees. Tonight seemed a reversal in form. How to explain? One plausible explanation is simply that of presence. While not always perfectly formed, several of Chef Dufresne's creations bid fare for his stature as one of the most creative chefs outside of the hothouse of Chicago cuisine. Chef Dufresne was absent the first night, present the second. Pastry Chef Mason was present the first, absent the second. Could oversight make that much difference. Of course, a restaurant that plays on the field of WD-50 should not be dependent on the chef's proximity, otherwise the restaurant should charge bargain rates on "Chef's Night Out."

I prefer to believe that Chef Dufresne, a culinary-mind-in-progress is learning, tasting, testing, and improving, and this was not simply a case of Cooks-Gone-Wild when the master is away.

As much as my main courses improved, I was disappointed by the amuse, which had the unbalanced tastes of the chef's earlier dishes. The sardine with freeze dried corn and whiskey caramel was a brief taste in which the whiskey overwhelmed the sardine, adding a rather bitter/sweet accent to the pungent, slightly salty fish. The sardine should have been on center stage, not the liquor.

Our first appetizer was a revised reprise of the dish I was served the first night, "Foie Gras Mousse with Beet liquor on a bed of green pea/bayleaf soil. I had not been much impressed by the saltiness of the soil my first night, but this was far milder. The dish looked quite similar, but the flabbiness of the flan seemed more silky tonight. Yet, despite the surprise of beet jus spilling from its foie gras puck, I'm not certain that this is a grand innovation, but it was a signal improvement.

Our Shrimp cous-cous, papaya, bruleed avocado, crispy kaffir lime was not beautifully presented, a somewhat dull, beige pile of faux grains (shrimp grains), but the mixture of papaya, avocado brulee and lime added pungency to the subtle shrimp pellets. As in the previous dish, Chef Dufresne plays with our expectations. I'm not persuaded that the fact that one can refashion shrimp into grains means that one gains from doing so - other than a fleeting sense of amusement - but in taste this dish succeeds in its own terms.

For our third appetizer Chef Dufresne presented his hanger tartare, peaches, bearnaise ice cream, and amaro (the last, I believe, is an Italian herb and root cordial). While the slice of steak tartare did not astonish me, the peaches with rich ice cream were excellent accompaniments. If the center of the dish was somewhat unprepossessing, these secondary flavors were harmoniously constructed.

Of the main courses, my favorite - and the best dish from Chef Dufresne's kitchen in my visits - was his Seared Cod with Smoked Mashed Potatoes, Japanese Pickled Mushrooms, and Red Bell Pepper with a Grapeseed Oil Reduction. Perhaps it was no coincidence that this was the chef's most traditional offering. It was perfectly prepared and conceived. That cod is not by itself a particularly rich or charming fish made the combination all the more impressive. The smoky flavor melded with the pickling and the biting pepper. It was a triumph, and I imagine that when some of the smoke and mirrors of Cuisine Agape are forgotten, we will be left with wonderful memories like this.

Also successful was Chef Dufresne's lamb chop (cooked souvide and then quickly roasted), with tamarind-cashew, cranberry beans, parsley root, and baby cilantro. The cranberry beans didn't impress me much, but the rest of the plate certainly did. The lamb was as perfectly prepared as at any classical establishment, but its accompaniments were Chef Dufresne's inspiration. The tamarind cashew was delightful with the lamb, and adding cilantro, a herb that awakens the most jaded taste bud, was most welcome.

I was less impressed by the root vegetable lasagna with a sweet and sour mushroom broth. Denying ourselves starch may be a culinary strategy, but lasagna is beloved for a reason. This plate seemed chill and harsh, made less appealing through a sweet and sour broth. Chef Dufresne routinely denies us the warmth of pasta, but why do so in this post-Atkins age? The dish was vinegary and mean.

Odd, too, was "Pork Belly, Sauerkraut Spaetzle, Swiss Cheese Consomme, and Romaine." Again the chef takes a beloved comfort food - here the corned beef sandwich - and extracts the comfort, denying us our pleasure. Yes, this spare dish deconstructed Katz's Deli, but to what end? Katz's version would be mine any day. Perhaps Swiss cheese consomme scores high on the Cute-O-Meter, but if chefs wish to create homages they should equal what they are honoring.

Desserts were something of a muddle. The PBJ combined a sourdough wafer with a lovely, rich grape sorbet. Crispy crunches and a peanut "dirt" completed the effort. While I loved the sorbet, the nutty dust left me cool. Our chefs wish to reclaim their childish delicacies, but when they have to do so it must transcend. Chef Achatz did this at Alinea with his famed, funny PBJ (his grape robed in peanut butter), but Chef Mason seems all jammed up.

Better was the eggless lemon curd with a huckleberry smear and basil meringue. These flavors and textures work together in a splendid melding of herb and fruit. A happy ending.

Had only we stopped there. The last dish, butternut squash sorbet (with pumpkin seeds, I think - my notes are incomplete) over chocolate soil seemed filled with off-tastes, salty and bitter notes that never met in triumph. This autumnal dessert needs work before winter appears.

The conclusion was, as before, a splendid Cocoa Cotton - a truffle of cotton candy: a true and delightful tribute to carny cuisine. As with the great clowns, one leaves WD-50 with a grin.

Despite my mixed responses, I enjoy dining at WD-50. Chefs Dufresne and Mason make me think. They do not permit diners to sleep and chew, but to masticate their ideas. I hope to return, not because the third time is the charm, but because the charm of WD-50 can be seen when dishes stumble as well as when they fly.

50 Clinton Street
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Scoops 5 New York City Entry #33

Although I imagined that my previous entry on New York ice cream until the spring, I found myself in Highwood (aka Upper Washington Heights or Hudson Heights), visiting the Cloisters and getting a gasp of autumn leaves in Fort Tryon Park, the acre-for-acre the most beautiful park in Manhattan.

On West 187th Street is a cute little ice cream parlor (an "Ice Cream and Treatery"), cutely named YumLicious, run by two young women (Millie and Ana). They make their own super-premium ice cream, and it is comparable in consistency with such downtown stars as Cones or Ottos. Some flavors specifically appeal to a Latin audience: Bizcocho (ice cream with bits of cake), dulce de leche, cake batter, almond, guava, and passion fruit. Among their gelatos are blanco and nero, and strawberry variegata. Sorbets include tropical fruit and grapefruit.

The bizcocho was extravagantly delicious, rich, smooth, and like a cool, creamed sponge cake. The cake batter was fine, but was not as dramatic as the bizcocho. Guava was an excellent melding of fruit and cream, but the fruit flavors were muted, unlike the deeply pungent tropical fruit sorbet.

Washington Heights has much to recommend it as a culinary destination (Gideon's Bakery across the street with quite good Rugalach), and then Dominican neighborhoods to the north (207th Street in Inwood) and to the south (175th Street in Washington Heights). I headed north, just down the hill from the Cloisters, located by Inwood Park, the closest that Manhattan has to a forest (filled with caves).

For lunch I selected El Lina where I ordered a sublime shrimp asopao: a rice and shrimp soup with garlic and cilantro (and where one portion will provide me with three meals). A suggestion from Robert Sietsema's Food Lover's Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City. Delicious.

803 West 187th Street at Fort Washington Avenue
Manhattan (Highwood)

Note: YumLicious will close for the winter in the middle of November, opening again in March 2006.

Gideon's Bakery
810 West 187th Street at Fort Washington Avenue
Manhattan (Highwood)

El Lina
500 West 207th Street at 10th Avenue
Manhattan (Inwood)
no phone

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Choices New York City Entry #32

Every menu is a case of future shock. So many choices. How can one select? If one is an optimist, greatness must be hid somewhere on the menu; the pessimist believes that there are land mines aplenty. Several strategies present themselves. One can rely on the advice of pure and just friends, hoping that tastes match one's own and that the kitchen prepares no evil surprises. Or one may rely on the advice of the server, a bought friend if only because of the romance of a tip. One desires to learn the secrets of the kitchen, although suspicious souls sometimes surmise that the strategy is to push those dishes out the door that others reject. Finally one may read the menu with the diner's mix of hope over experience that such fictions often inspire: we depend on the culinary novelist. One searches for dishes that fit our passions or our preferences.

A few nights ago some friends and I visited Café Boulud, chef Daniel's more casual establishment in the wake of Steve Plotnicki's encomia. In my experience Daniel Boulud's cuisine is technically proficient, but lacks the heart and brilliance of the very finest practitioners. The night we dined was the evening that Chef Boulud discovered that Michelin had awarded him but two stars (I concur). However, I had a passing fear that we might be served screws and bile. I eyed the knives for bloody smears. But not to worry, Daniel Boulud is the consummate professional, both the saving and the boundary of his cuisine.

One should not approach Café Boulud with the assumption that it is Daniel. The peace of the latter is nowhere to be found. Only on the haute reaches of the Upper East Side would the buzz of bumping waiters be considered elegant cosiness. I had the same experience the day before at the Halloween parade in the Village spying more frugal costumes.

I relied on the wise advice of S.P. and ordered the Grilled and Marinated Octopus "La Rioja" with Authéntico Chorizo, Peppers and Tomato Compote. For the reason that I avoid chewing gum and rubber bands, I often avoid "Big Squid." But, as Steve remarked, this was a superb rendition. The Octopus was so good that I could have ordered eight portions and eaten them as chips. With the mix of meats and pungent vegetables, this was the finest appetizer of my New York months.

Fennel Risotto with Zucchini Flowers, Artichoke and Basil selected by one of my partners was an excellent version of risotto, a delicious melding of flavors. If the risotto looked like, well, risotto, it certainly tasted as good as risotto might taste. The dish was perfectly calibrated in taste and texture.

The third appetizer, a soggy Goat Cheese Souffle with lumps of Beets was misbegotten. The souffle did not hold together as a pool of liquid was revealed at the bottom of the ramekin. The beets lacked much flavor. All appetizers are not created equally.

Mr. Plotnicki raved (I think that is the word here) over CB's Porcetta. Despite my pleading, our server assured me that the dish was not on the menu (he did not, however, accept my helpful offer to root through the fridge). I asked our server - he who had just broken my heart - what the chef would recommend. He provided me with four possibilities. I selected Door Number Three: Sea Trout served over Chanterelles and Greens (I did not catch all the ingredients). When it arrived I was startled. This sea trout looked and tasted exactly a fillet of salmon, so much so that I assumed that a mistake was made. No so, I was told. (I still couldn't check on that pancetta. Sigh.). The dish was Chef Boulud at his most pedestrian; the fish lacked heart. It was perfectly cooked, but was not a dish that would have been much outside my own culinary range. I found the dish bland, if competent, and quite unmemorable - and revealed the dangers of relying upon the judgement of a server, although perhaps one with the best of intentions.

The finest of three entrees was Roasted Duck, "Mostarda di Frutta" with Sicilian Pistachios, Ripini, Baby Turnips and Balsamic Jus. So many duck dishes are dull combinations of fruit and poultry, but these fruits in sour citrus mustard were an excellent and startling accompaniment. Imagine this savory mixture nestled near rich duck meat. In contrast to the trout, this was Chef Daniel at his best, a stellar duck plate.

Our third main dish was Veal Tortellini. While the ground veal was pleasant and the cream sauce well-made, the pasta was somewhat heavy and dull. It satisfied without inspiring.

We ended with Roasted Figs with Sangria Flavors and Fromage Blanc Sorbet. Figs are a favorite, and these figures in a sangria jus were a pleasing end, yet neither the fruit nor the sorbet astonished. Here was a fine bistro dessert, and reminded me that when the noise and perfume lifted, this is the mark of Café Boulud, a café with elegant pedigree.

There are delights to be found on Chef Daniel's menu - notably the octopus and the duck - but how to find them? We rely on the kindness of both friends and strangers, and sometimes we are not disappointed.

(I should properly note that the chef at Cafe Boulud is Bertrand Chemel - although I refer to Chef Boulud as a convenience and because the restaurant relies on his reputation).

Café Boulud
20 East 76th Street (at Madison Avenue)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)
SoHo on the Seine New York Entry #31

What makes New York the only truly global city in the United States is its ability to contain the best of the world's culture on its streets and avenues. Many cities - Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Miami, once-and-perhaps-again New Orleans have worthy restaurants, but only New York has the range of restaurants that if they are not quite truly transplants, at least can pass for authentic if one is a gentle critic.

Balthazar in Soho is a adequately faithful rendition of a fin de siecle Parisian brasserie (the distinction between a brasserie and a bistro is perhaps most evident in that Steak Frites is the signature dish at the former and a bar is much in evidence. The brasserie is a bistro with balls).

Balthazar is not demure or restrained. Bustling is a fitting adjective. Loud is another. The food lacks subtlety, but makes up for this absence with robust charisma.

As a starter I selected Grilled Sardines with Roasted Eggplant, Arugula, and Basil. It was everything that might be wished. I particularly enjoyed the smoky grilled fish. If not delicate, it was as boisterous as Balthazar itself. The flavorful, pungent eggplant salad matched the sardine bite for bite.

My entree was Roasted Monkfish, Apple Smoked Bacon, Creamed Leeks, and Bordelaise Sauce. The combination of bacon and leeks merged two heavily marked tastes with a hearty monkfish. In such company the Bordelaise Sauce was a good match, not overpowering the other ingredients.

As dessert, I selected the tarte du jour: Fig-Raspberry Galette with Frangipane and a scoop of Toasted Almond Ice Cream. The galette was a disappointingly tough pasty sheet, but the fruit, almond cream, and almond ice cream were a soothing ending to a meal that succeeds in its terms, encouraging for a moment the fantasy that one was dining in SoHo on the Seine.

80 Spring Street (at Broadway)
Manhattan (SoHo)