Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Rubenesque New York City Entry #55

Some restaurants demand that diners deny themselves. They are islands of restraint. For the past forty years chefs have retreated from a cuisine of excess. Classic haute cuisine was based on the assumption that if you asked about the calories, you can't afford them.

If Fatty Crab is any indication, fat is back, and with a vengence. Regulars will inexorably be transformed from stark Giacometti fantasies to Rubenesque dreams. Super-duper models. Given that the night we ate at Fatty Crab most of our fellow diners were svelte-twenty-somethings - culikids - it seemed that they considered calories the way previous generations thought about tobacco. There will be years enough to quit. If this is hip, it is a heavy shank, indeed.

A comparison of Fatty Crab and Momofuku across town seems inevitable (walk due east from the former and you reach the latter). Both restaurants target the same audience (if they're under thirty, can you trust ‘em?), neither accepts reservations, both sit snugly on a knife's edge of asphyxiation, both present dishes according to the kitchen's whim, avoiding the quaint notion of courses. Add to this that both offer Crafty renditions of Asian street food, outposts of youngish celebrity chefs (FC's chef Zak Pelaccio also runs the neighboring, elegant 5 Ninth), and that a smart $50 buys a night of inventive cuisine.

For two restaurants that are so similar, they could hardly be more different. If restaurants can be divided into those that are ideational (Charlie Trotter, Alain Ducasse) and those that are sensate (Frontera Grill, Babbo), Momofuku is the former and Fatty Crab the latter. The former force diners to think about the food, the latter push them to dive in and indulge. Even the ambiance distinguishes the two. The deep red walls and wild decorations (standing fans on the ceiling) - and music - at FC contrasts with the stark oak walls and tables at Momofuku - just as the restrained noodles contrast with the rich cuts at Fatty Crab. Fatty Crab is intense energy - in decor and in cuisine. Even the staff hail from different corners of Our Youth: the scrubbed earnestness of our East Village servers contrasted with charming scrubbly and dyed staff in the Meatpacking District. Nothing was more symptomatic at Fatty Crab than the absence of knifes (forks and chopsticks were available); these were dishes where Sumo diners wrestled with cuts of meat (a knife is available on request).

We began with Green Mango with Chili Sugar Salt, a dish that would have been most welcome as a palate cleanser in the midst of the dinner. Slices of sour mango were paired with a bowl of Asian Pixy Stick Powder. The sweet heat of the powder took the edge off the puckery sour mango. If it was not ideal as a starter, it would have provided a heartfelt break from the main courses.

Soon after arrived fat salad: Watermelon Pickle and Crispy Pork. The chunks of Crispy Pork might better be characterized as crispy belly held together by the merest floss of meat. Was it ever luxurious. The cool and sexy watermelon pickles kept the plate from pure decadence but it was as close as might be found outside Crobar. This was a dish for the Book of Days.

Short Rib Rendang, braised with kaffir lime, coconut and chili matched the salad in indulgence. The muscle was swaddled in a fluffly blanket of fat. The flavors of Malaysia cried out that the dish was exotic, but it really was the fat that captured and fixed these flavors, as fat always does. Although the dish had considerable heat, it was cooled by the solidity of the rib.

By the time that Fatty Crab's Fatty Duck was brought to the table, we were beginning to get the point. Served alone, this vastly hedonist dish would have been (almost) as satisfying as the rib (although the wild gaminess of the duck was lost as brined and fried). I could appreciate how this dish could have been a fine entree when served with the green mango as a side, but in a temple of fat there were other Gods to worship.

Black Grouper Masak Lemak with a sauce of chilies and potatoes, poached in coconut broth with bok choy and jalapeno was libertine as well. Even fish can have zaftig heft. I admired the mix of coconut broth and fish, glad that the fat did not smother the fish, even if by no magic could it pass weight watchers muster.

Our final dish, the least successful, was a Sous Vide Chicken Breast (the technique of preparing meat by boiling in a vacuum bag) with rice, sweet soy, and chili-ginger sauce. By this time in the evening we appreciated just how much flavor fat can capture, and a lean dish seemed out of place. The dish was inoffensive, and the accompaniments attempted to jazz this austere poultry, but it seemed like cosmetic surgery: the least Crabby moment of the evening.

To dine at Fatty Crab is to indulge in an intense, sweaty, and ardent cuisine. For those frolicking in middle age, Fatty Crab is like passion, not to be missed, but not every night if you please.

Fatty Crab
643 Hudson Street (at Gansevoort Street)
Manhattan (Meatpacking District)

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