Friday, July 21, 2006

Shellfish's Bitch New York City Entry #110 Jordan's Lobster Dock, Grand Central Oyster Bar, Per Se, Eleven Madison Park

For most Americans July is hot dogs and apple pie, for me it is lobster and drawn better. Even since I vacationed on the Cape as a tot, lobster announces the heights of summer. And now the divines at Whole Foods damn me as a sadistic cad for my overheated pleasure. Perhaps I should stick to foie gras and placenta. But the truth is that I am shellfish's bitch.

In the past week I have repeatedly indulged in my cruel sport within our city limits: Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Grand Central Oyster Bar, and Jordan's Lobster Dock. I regret not traveling to Nick's Lobster Restaurant on Jamaica Bay and the Lobster Box on City Island. Both Nick's and the Box may share the Down East ambiance I crave.

Jordan's Lobster Dock is a real estate tragedy. The restaurant and seafood market are situated in a fetching saltbox house on Shellbank Creek off Sheepshead Bay. Once diners could relax on a deck with a stunning view of the creek with its lobster skiffs. However, the damnable owners sold the half of the restaurant with the view to T.G.I.Friday's. Oy! Diners must choose between a sublime view and some pretty fine lobster. We chose the lobster, but it was served in one of the most depressing lunchrooms in seafaring history. The room, closed in and windowless might have served as an ethnic outpost if someone had cared to decorate it. For $60 for a three pound lobster, the industrial space was crushing. The staff matched the decor. No bibs, insufficient napkins and silverware, and astonishingly we were forced to leave a $3.00 deposit for a lobster cracker when we requested one. I grant that the clientele was more happily diverse than at most lobster shacks (a one pounder was $15.95), but it is hard to imagine a black market in plastic crackers.

The only worthy offering at Jordan's was the lobster, a very moist, tender, and creamy crustacean. Boiled simply, if not to the lobster's preference, it was excellent for an urban market. The cole slaw and French Fried potatoes were a wan afterthought.

Grand Central Oyster Bar, opened in 1913, has a different problem. The space in the bowels of Grand Central with its tile-lined vaulted ceilings is one of the treasures of New York culinary architecture. Service was friendly and efficient. We enjoyed our oysters (a mixture of excellent Kumamotos and good Blue Points). The Cajun sauteed moonfish (opah) was passable, and the string beans didn't even reach that level. The lobster (a two pounder) was satisfactory, but not at the level of tenderness one might discover on the coast. The meat did not match the room.

In the last month I have been returning to some of my most treasured restaurants to give my memory a jolt. This week it was Per Se and Eleven Madison Park.

I have said to all who listen that my two best meals in New York this year were at Per Se. However, after eating the Chef's Tasting Menu recently, I can't claim that Per Se wins, places, and shows. My meal was exceedingly pleasing, and it is only in comparison with Per Se 1 and 2 that I must subtract a star. There was much complexity and many quotation marks. However, fortunately for my story, the best dish of the evening was Chef Benno's lobster, described with quotation marks included as: Sweet Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster, "Ragoût" of "Ris de Veau," Corn Kernels and Morel Mushrooms with Watercress "Leaves" and Corn "Pudding." It was a sweetheart of a dish and exquisite in design. Its tragic flaw was its size, one reason that I have shied away from long tasting menus. This dish would have been a memory-maker had it been doubled and astounding had it been tripled. A plate with this much complexity needs to give the diner time to cogitate and masticate. We were eventually served some fourteen courses. If I could have selected a four course menu, what a meal it would have been, and the lobster would have been the star.


Eleven Madison Park was the most pleasant surprise of the year: some friends consider Danny Meyer's haute restaurant the comeback kid under the brilliant Chef Daniel Humm. On this second visit, I was convinced, until I reached dessert, that this might be the meal of the year. (There is no restaurant with more congenial or happier service: not in the Alain Ducasse metier). The cheese course and two desserts were not as assured or compelling. Cornbread ice cream might seem like a good idea on paper, but it is less inspired on the plate. However, our text for this sermon is lobster.

Chef Humm's lobster dish was the equal to Chef Benno's: Orange-Broth Poached Nova Scotia Lobster with Purée of Chantenay Carrots and Gewürztraminer Foam(and think of the savings on quotation marks!). Dining at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park reveals that while both are influenced by a Molecular (Agape) Cuisine, Chef Humm is the more experimental, and yet throughout there is a confidence that flows from a chef who persuades us that he knows what he is doing. Of the chefs working in this vein - tradition not quite the most apt word - it is Chef Humm who has transcended the constraints of this style. Never attempt flinging paint until you can a limn a portrait. The lobster chunks were surrounded by large squares of carrot (one might call them dice a la Las Vegas craps). The orange sauce, carrot puree and a foamy swig of Gewürztraminer was an ideal mix. And it was one of four astounding dishes that night.


Yet, despite these triumphs, I ache for a buttery New England boiled dinner served with sea spray on the Cape: God's lobster. Is He shellfish's bitch? If if He is, do crustaceans damn him too?

And, now, home to Chicago. That's all folks!

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue (at 24th Street)
Manhattan (Flatiron)

Oyster Bar
Grand Central Station, Lower Level (42nd St. and Vanderbilt Ave.)
Manhattan (Midtown)

Jordan's Lobster Dock
Knapp Street and Harkness Avenue
Brooklyn (Sheepshead Bay)

Per Se
Time Warner Center
Manhattan (Columbus Circle)

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