Sunday, February 19, 2006

Cruisine Cru New York City Entry #71

A spectre is haunting Downtown, the spectre of Community. A gaggle of Manhattan chefs (often tied to the strings and strains of Bouleywood) have concluded that if they cannot pump their plates with a clashing cornucopia of ingredients, they will lack creative cachet among their consorts. The strategy of this club stands in stark contrast to those who embrace the Cuisine of Essences. There are Stakes in Tocque-ville. Chefs have choices. When they select a personal cuisine, they embrace a gustatory team. And Cru's Chef Shea Gallante reveals and revels in his apprenticeship at the red mothership Bouley.

Cru is known for its extensive wine list (a two volume encyclopedia with some 3,500 bottles), and so perhaps cuisine is a lagniappe. It inhabits a space on lower Fifth Avenue known as a cemetery of cuisine. Its current incarnation is a somewhat uninspiring clubby space, neither stunning nor repellent, with woods and leathers, browns, tans, and golds. Our service was attentive, although our waitress pushed us from the wine tasting to a more substantial bottle. Perhaps she was right. Our five small glasses were just fine, if not especially memorable, but we did not have to play oenophile roulette.

In general, at Cru the simpler the dish, the more satisfying. What, aside from throwing up one's hands, is one to do with a dish that mixes Burrata cheese, truffles, dates, caviar, and chive-olive crisps.

We started with a set of amuses. Cru is a restaurant in which one might make a meal of what arrives before the appetizer. Our first amuse was a carrot horn filled with goat cheese and green apple puree. While the cheese and apple blend was smooth and tart, the mixture had been piped in too soon, and the carrot was not fully crisp. We were next served three small bites, a lovely, startling, inspired one-bite Cubano "sandwich," miniaturism at its finest; a squash truffle with Fontina and cocoa nibs, light on the chocolate but a pleasant starter; and an ordinary goat cheese cup. This trio was followed by a salmon spring roll with creme fraiche, simple, clever, profound, and very satisfying.

Before our tasting menu, we selected a trio of crudos: Kinme Dai (with Micro Shiso, Red Salt, and Olive Oil), Arctic Char (with Smoked Pepper, Apple, Endive, and Vanilla Oil), and Langoustine (with Green Papaya-Truffle Salad, Gooseberry and Gin Sauce). I particularly admired how the truffles managed to perfume the langoustine and a lovely, subtle Kinme Dai, in which the salt framed the taste of the fish. Despite a certain frou-frou-arie, it was salt and truffle that made these bits of sashimi memorable. The crudo remain the most elegant and compelling moment of this winter night.

I decided to avoid Beets, Roasted, Foamed and Pureed with "Micro Bull's Blood" (micro bull's blood is not a plot device in "Honey, We Shrunk Pamplona," but a micro-green; beet foam is, presumably, just that). My choice was Roasted Diver Scallops with Celery-Almond Pesto, Passion Fruit Nage, Scallions, and Speck. A critical problem with such dishes on a tasting menu is that portions are so petit that the contrasting flavors get mashed in a short half-dozen bites. I didn't taste much of the passion fruit nage, except perhaps as an underlying off-taste. On a larger field, the ingredients might have mixed better. Here the Scallops and Speck dominated (This is another dish that bows to the new culinary cliche of pork and sea: Trough and Brine). I enjoyed the dish, but mostly from its core tastes.

The second dish was less successful: Sea Bass with wild mushroom goulash, watercress, and coconut puree. Coconut, mushroom, and bass did not make a compelling mix, and the sea bass as served was covered by skin soppy and chewy, not crisp. The dish was unappealing. One must wonder, why - other than the ability to make a claim for excess - did Chef Gallante feel that this dish would work. The other second course choices seemed in my reading to suffer from the same precarious brinksmanship.

The pasta improved my mood. Ricotta Cavatelli, scented with Clove, White Bolognese and Confit Leeks was cooked al dente. I wish Chef Gallante had been more generous with the "clove scent." Perhaps he used an atomizer, stopping short of actually adding a corporeal clove. In contrast to the additions in the first two courses, cloves seemed a profound and inspired addition. I wish it had perfumed the plate, just as the truffle perfumed the langoustine.

"Maine Lobster, Quince Purée, Orzo with Porcini, Smoked Tuna and Tarragon" nicely reveals the challenges of Shea Gallante's Bouleyesque cuisine. Here is a small dish: lobster, fruit, pasta, mushrooms, smoked fish, herbs. Eight bites and onwards. Inevitably things - here the quince and tuna - get lost. Wouldn't perfectly cooked lobster, orzo, porcini and tarragon be nice? Perhaps Tom Keller or David Bouley can pull off these complex combines, but Chef Gallante hasn't yet mastered the puzzling art of culinary intricacy.

Our cleanser was Honeycrisp Apple Consommé with Yogurt Sorbet and Yuzu Cloud. The apple soup was simple and simply outstanding. The yuzu cloud - a cute fuzz - wasn't necessary in this modest dish, but it was fun, and the sorbet was well-made.

When first opened, Cru received paeans and brickbats for Will Goldfarb's Dada Desserts. He is a memory (the current inhabitant of the sweets stand is Tiffany MacIsaac), but judging by my dessert - Sweet Potato Beignet with Huckleberry Compote, Vanilla-Pernod Ice Cream, and Boylan's Root Beer - Cru may be a little gun-shy. I thoroughly enjoyed my Root Beer-Pernod float, but found the beignet doughy and boring. In this two-desserts-in-one, the liquid half triumphed.

So many cunning young chefs are plying their trade in Manhattan 2006, and Chef Gallante must be counted as one of the Crew. Yet, with the exception of his impressive Crudo, none of the dishes will long remain in my memory. Their busyness, striking when one reads the bill of fare, become a burden on the plate. One surely shouldn't condemn Chef Bouley because his followers lack his genius, yet a certain malign influence is evident. Of course, such is the power of influence. Admirers will be inspired, working as best they can, until they realize that the greatest honor they can pay a mentor is not to do him one better. Chef Gallante needs to create a Cruisine.

24 Fifth Avenue (at 9th Street)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

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