Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Skim Milk New York City Entry #57

Some years ago I chose to switch from whole milk to fat-free milk. The transition was tough. I kept comparing the skim liquid to the richness of God's milk. Skim tasted watery. After struggle, I had an epiphany: said I, think of "skim milk" as an innovation and not as cow piss. Instead of comparing skim to "real milk," I compared this new beverage to itself. Now it seemed light and fresh, airy, delightful.

I recall my struggle when I visit vegan restaurants. No serious diner can deny that vegetarian cuisine can be sublime. Add enough butter and cream, and cardboard is a treat. When I last visited Charlie Trotter, my wife's Vegetable Menu was more impressive than my Chef's Menu. However, restaurants that specialize in vegan or raw food often deny themselves - and us - the curvaceous charms of dairy fat. Yum!

In New York, the most serious vegetarian restaurant is Heirloom, the Lower East Side establishment run by Matthew Kenney, formerly of Pure Food and Wine, and presided over by Chef Amanda Cohen. It is perhaps the only such restaurant in New York that aspires to haute cuisine. Heirloom has given itself somewhat more culinary room by serving vegetarian, vegan, and raw dishes. Although New York restaurants justly lack the reputation as bargain basements, even on Orchard Street, Heirloom constrains itself by its price structure. Appetizers are set around $10 with main courses under $20. If a few extra dollars would enrich the cuisine, it would be money well-spent.

Heirloom is a charming space. Its circular booths reminded me of classic restaurants of yore. I imagine it as 21 of the 21st Century. Granted that one might not find chorines on Orchard Street (only memories of their bube), but Heirloom evokes a peppy amour. With ardent red walls, eating at Heirloom is a romantic fantasia. This is not auntie's Zen haunt.

If every restaurant staff was a gracious and convivial as that here on Orchard Street, one would never hear complaints about the decline of an ethos of service. If the food can sometimes be precious and synthetic, the servers never are.

When a vegetarian restaurant hopes to appeal to carnivores the challenge is to erase comparisons with the deli down the block, the bistro across the street. This Heirloom does fitfully well, a problem that seems now to be recognized. Their new menu no longer refers to "Portobello Foie Gras" or "Seafood Trio," changes for the good. While WD-50 gets cute points for their quotation marks, at Heirloom non-vegetarians are reminded what they are denied. Vegetarians know that they are virtuous, and don't need anything to inflate their conceit.

To announce its seriousness of purpose, Heirloom presented us with two amuses. The first was a small glass of perfectly respectable apple cider with a tiny presentation of mango chutney and black eye peas. The chutney and peas were almost microscopic, even as an amuse. They slid down without a bite, but the taste had the pungency of chutney. The second amuse was Jalapeno Hush Puppies with two sauces, a maple mustard butter and a creme fraiche. The hush puppies didn't have much of taste of jalapeno and the sauces were bland as well.

As our appetizer, we selected the raw version of Beet and Goat Cheese Mille-feuille. Since in the raw version, any heated transformations of foodstuff are impermissible, the mille-feuille and the "goat cheese" were vegetable products, although I didn't note the replacement. I must confess that the taste was more curious than delightful, the plate more pretty than tasty. Although the beets were sumptuous, they could have used the butter and cheese that a vegetarian version allowed. Even at its least successful, the food at Heirloom is never unpleasant, itself something of a triumph for a restaurant that avoids the standard armature of cuisine.

Better was the Stir-Fried Spicy Rice Flour Noodles and Root Vegetable Kimchee, created with broccoli stems, honshimeiji (beech mushrooms), and galangal (ginger-like) teriyaki sauce. Kimchee is a vegetarian dish, and so Chef Cohen did not have to overcome our imagination. Rather she played with textures. While the taste was fiery and complex, it was textures that served as the basis for satisfaction. It proved a happy mixture.

I selected the Lemon Pepper Fettuccini with Arugula, Porcini Mushrooms, and Walnut Cream for my entree. The walnut cream was winsome, and the pasta was pleasant, a little under-flavored. But in eating the dish, I couldn't but think how much I would have enjoyed the presentation had it been soaked in butter and cream (it had some of each, but lacked the abundance of haute Italian cuisine). I kept feeling that I was missing something compared to the lush alfredos of my past.

Our second main course was Anson Mills' Creamy Grits with Smoked Hominy with Avocado, Queso Fresco and Roasted Tomatoes. Again the problem was more what was missing than what was present. Despite the ingredients, the taste edged toward the bland. Some of the spice from the kimchee would have gone a long way to add pizzazz.

My dessert choice was Candied Clementine Cheesecake with Cherry-Pomegranate Sauce. It was not, however, a cheesecake. The puckery New York sour cream was replaced with a cashew mix on an almond crust. I was impressed by the texture of the cashews, but it couldn't compete with its namesake. New York cheesecake is one of the great triumphs in pastry culture - a hall of fame entry. By reminding us of this achievement, in the culinary bloodstream of every real New Yorker, Heirloom plays a losing hand. I imagined a luxurious tart with an almond crust and cashew cream, floating in a cherry-pomegranate soup. Instead of competing with S&S, just say nuts and remember that the points are awarded for inspiration.

Heirloom in its current incarnation has much to offer New York diners, but rethinking the menu could make this a destination restaurant, rather than a diverting curiosity. If my choice is to be "Pastrami" at Heirloom or Pastrami at Katz's, no amount of waiterly charm will make me turn off Houston Street. We deserve a vegan cuisine that is proud, independent, and succulent, snug without being smug.

191 Orchard Street (at Houston St.)
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

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