Thursday, June 29, 2006

Regular Guys New York City Entry #103 Chanterelle

All year I have been waiting for an occasion to return to Chanterelle, Karen and David Waltuck's smooth outpost in TriBeCa. A decade ago I had a most pleasant evening (after the restaurant had moved to Harrison Street). Perhaps most impressive about my evening were the remarkable floral displays (once designed by Karen Waltuck, but now outsourced). The gold-maize walls and the space between tables created a lightness of spirit that was conducive to bright dining. And the service then - and now - was silken and congenial. The art works in the small entrance conveyed that here were restauranteurs of class.

Of course, when one begins a review discussing the ambiance and the service, one might fret about the food. And it must be admitted that at Chanterelle, the package may be more impressive than any dish within it. Some have scorned the cuisine at Chanterelle as "boring." This is not a sentiment that I accept - my meals now and then were satisfying. Yet, the plates do not snap and crackle. If this is not your father's cuisine, it is your older brother's. As much as I enjoy dining at Chantrelle, if I had to select a last meal, it would be from Jean-Georges or per se or, should I wish to puzzle my guards, from Moto.

My return visit was courtesy of two friends who are long-time regulars. Such good friends of the restaurant are they that Sommelier Roger Dagorn arrived on a Sunday evening, hobbling on crutches. Roger's wine selections were first rate, even though I hold no brief as an oenophile. We began with a Nicolas Joly Savennieres La Roches aux Moines "Clos de la Bergerie" 2003, a Loire wine that tasted to me like a Sauterne with the sugar removed but with a honeyed aftertaste. Our red was an Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2002 from Martinborough, New Zealand. Its smoothness matched my white tuna. Perhaps our table was more fussed over than is typical. Even my blogger's camera doesn't get me such attention. Being a regular has its advantages.

We began with a pair of amuses: a duck spring roll with hoisin sauce and a chilled watercress soup with Parmesan palmiers. I found these starters surprising. Such choices gave ammunition to critics who argue that Chanterelle eschews kitchen creativity. The crisp spring roll was perfectly fine, but no more compelling than that to be found at most upscale Chinese restaurants. One wondered what was the point of producing such an ordinary dish. Could it have been take out? The watercress soup was better - vivid green - a tangy herbal broth with a rich, meaty stock. Yet, it too pointed to satisfaction, rather than thrills.

Tonight was the final evening of Chanterelle's late spring menu (May 22nd - June 25th) and after so much practice no technical flubs marred the evening. As appetizer I selected Fresh Pea Ravioli with Sweet Onions (!) Sauce and Smoked Pork Reduction. From other reviews, I gather that Chef Waltuck is partial to spring peas. The ravioli itself was intense - a splendid vegetable dish. I was less taken by the accompaniments, which detracted from both the aesthetic center and the taste contour of the dish. The pea puree was too pure to have the distraction of pork and fried onions.


My wife selected "Sauteed Zucchini Blossom Filled with Lobster and Shrimp." The lobster-shrimp was a quenelle filling. It was exceptionally flavorful and beautifully presented, but stuffed in a zucchini blossom, it edged towards a culinary cliche. For those who missed the culinary trends of the 1980s, Chanterelle will startle. But perhaps it is not fair to deny oneself gastronomy's greatest hits.


It was a difficult choice between Grilled White Tuna with Red Wine Risotto and a Noisettes of Lamb with Thyme and Goat Cheese. Both seemed fairly traditional, but I was curious as to how a red wine risotto might match the tuna. If it was not a stunner, the match was a happy one, and the tuna was cooked to the proper moment. White tuna is not as flavorful as a big eye tuna, but that only made the red wine risotto more potent. It was a well-conceived dish, but one that seemed satisfied with the dominance of its sturdy rice.


As my wife treasures shellfish, she selected the Chesapeake Bay Softshell Crabs with Young Ginger and Chinese Chive Coulis. This was perhaps the most striking dish of the evening. In keeping with the ability of the kitchen to present food simply, the crabs were not mushy as they often can be, but suitably crispy. Neither the chive or ginger overpowered the dish. The crabs had center stage, simply presented but with the subtle addition of herb and spice.


Although I didn't copy the names of the cheeses served in our pre-dessert course, I had a powerful blue, nutty Gruyere, and creamy Brie. The pear and kumquat compotes both were worthy additions.

I particularly enjoyed my wife's Warm Vanilla Brown Butter Almond Cake with Cherry Compote. The mixture of cherry and almond was a pleasure. We are not in Will Goldfarb/Sam Mason territory, but the dessert shared the bright elegance of the room. The cake was dense, the compote sweet, what was not to like?


My Apricot, Almond and Crème Fraiche Tart with Basil Ice Cream was particularly notable for the intensity of the basil. The tart itself was a high-end composition that one might pick up at the most ambitious neighborhood bakeries. No complaints, even if I felt that this reflected the desserts that were common - and praiseworthy - when Chanterelle opened.


Every restaurant has shaped by its birth. When one enters Chez Panisse, one steps into 1971; for the Four Seasons it is always 1959, and at French Laundry forever 1994. Chanterelle opened its doors in 1979 at a moment in which the American simplicity of produce was merging with French nouvelle cuisine: two approaches that incorporated a purity of taste. Perhaps Chanterelle could use a jolt of energy to enliven its cuisine, to recognize Century W. But after twenty-seven years its continuing civility is welcome. It is easy to understand how Chanterelle, more that most luxe restaurants, could be that special spot that gathers a coterie of regulars. Not overrun with trend-setters, Chanterelle keeps purring along, not strutting on a highwire, but strolling down the boulevard.

2 Harrison Street
Manhattan (TriBeCa)

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