Friday, June 16, 2006

Breathing Room New York City Entry #102 Veritas

Whenever I fly, I think about New York restaurants. The same economic malaise that has turned jets into cattle cars has transformed many restaurants, even those with soaring aspirations, into sardine cans. Perhaps one can understand this desire with downtown boîtes like Prune, Momofuku, or Fatty Crab where sweat is part of the equity, yet the intimacy of strangers can be quite disconcerting at a restaurant like Veritas with its $76 three-course prix fixe and its tempting and extensive reserve list. Veritas is a restaurant where one can easily spend $200+/person, yet hear more of one's neighbors' conversations than that of one's partner. With tables tightly arranged along a banquette, the acoustics are not designed for private intimacies.

The frugality of interior real estate does much to hide the real human virtues of Veritas. Perhaps the economics of rent seeking demands such a packing, but one can't help but think that here is a case in which less is more. Were a goodly quarter of the tables to vanish, Veritas would become a strikingly serene restaurant. One wall of the quiet, elegant room displays a set of contemporary paintings hung on exposed brick; opposite are niches filled with exquisite glass bowls and vases.

The staff manages the tight space with aplomb. We appreciated the sommelier who directed us to a Clos Rougeard Saumer Champigny "Les Poyeaux" 2001, a Cabernet Franc that we would have been unlikely to select but that matched the meal with grace, substance, and a light but firm touch.

As for the food, for a restaurant that is known for its wine list, Chef Scott Bryan does quite well. His menu is not designed to distract from the grape, but his dishes have a modest flair, and with a three course prix fixe, presenting eight appetizers and eight entrees (and two specials), the kitchen staff will not be overly challenged. None of the dishes were transcendent, but both the appetizers and entrees were well-conceived and stalwart.

An amuse of Marinated Calamari, Eggplant Caviar, and Herbs was both modest and charming. The micro squids were tender and the eggplant (reprised in the entree) added an intriguing smoky flavor. I wouldn't consume eggplant and squid all night, but this was a bright and flavorful start.

Chilled Lobster Salad with Smashed Avocado, Peppercress, Ruby Red Grapefruit and Ginger ($8 supplement) seemed ideal on paper. The tastes promised a challenging combination. In execution, the appetizer was worthy but not sublime. The shellfish was hidden by a haystack of cress, and the avocado was, as promised, smashed into paste. Although the grapefruit and ginger added impish complexity to the lobster, the dish might have been brilliant with a more inspired presentation.

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I enjoyed my Roasted Saddle of Lamb with Provençal Vegetables (a modified ratatouille of eggplant and summer squash), Flageolet Bean Purée, Garlic Confit, and Rosemary. These were ingredients that blended well, and if they weren't daring, they matched a robust red wine. The lamb, cooked medium rare, was intense and perfectly tender. It was a most satisfying late spring entree.

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Pastry Chef Dalia Jurgensen's dessert demonstrated excess caution. Fresh Raspberry Tart with Toasted Almond Milk Ice was strikingly mundane. A tart of similar quality could have been had at dozens of quality bakeries throughout this town. Nothing was wrong, but there was no zest, no value added. The Almond Milk Ice was a puzzle. With a rich tart, why skimp with a skim gelato. The ice was thin and there was no deep flavor to compensate for the absence of dairy fat. It was a scoop that one might expect at a self-denying vegetarian bistro.

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The strength of Veritas is its cellar, and we regretted that we only shared a single bottle. The courses, sturdy enough not to distract, demonstrate that food goes with wine, and not only the reverse. But after learning of the lives of our neighbors, we had to wonder whether at Veritas the wine has more room to breathe than the customers.

Veritas
43 East 20th Street (at Broadway)
Manhattan (Flatiron)
212-353-3700

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