Saturday, April 22, 2006

Sushi Cartel New York City Entry #90 Sushi Yasuda

With the discussion of late of how Rev. Moon's Unification Church (through linked companies) controls the world's supply of raw fish, perhaps Americans should stop grousing about the Arab stranglehold on oil, and start glancing nervously towards the mysterious East for its domination over Omega3. Whether this is a source of concern, the articles in Chicago Tribune and elsewhere remind us again, should we need to be reminded, how little we know of the process by which food magically appears.

When we learn - whether fish or foie gras, veal or venison - our nerves are on edge. So much of the good life depends upon a studied obliviousness, of turning our minds from the dirty work that permits us to clean our plate. As is said of legislation and sausage making, surveillance is dangerous for one's digestion. There is a politics everywhere. Discovering how food is brought to the table is enough to turn one's stomach and raise one's voice - and let us not even think about caviar. Ignorance makes dining possible.

Sushi Yasuda depends on our willingness not to think too hard about raw fish and trades on our confidence in Chef Naomichi Yasuda. And that confidence is well-placed. Yasuda is the highest rated Japanese restaurant in Zagat 2006 - the fifth highest overall - higher rated than such notables as Masa, Sugiyama, and Nobu. Yasuda, however, is not among the fifty most popular, suggesting - accurately - that Yasuda is a restaurant for connoisseurs.

Sushi Yasuda is also one of those serene spaces found in corners of New York. Laminated in light wood (perhaps a white oak, though no tree specialist I), it is not a jewel box, but a humidor. (Momofuku seems an off-kilter and microscopic tribute to Yasuda; Yasuda with the air squeezed out). Yasuda is one of the quietest, most civilized, most adult restaurants in New York.

Unfortunately it is not a restaurant that bends over to please. A group of nine chowists attempted to make a reservation and were told that they only take reservations for parties up to six. Fine. Reservations were made for parties of five and four. Many restaurants would have directed us to two tables together or, better, moved them together on our arrival (such would not have been difficult). Instead, we were seated in opposite ends of the restaurant, as if to suggest that we would not be permitted to violate their rules. It seemed unnecessary, especially in a city so devoted to rule-bending. The service was certainly precise, but not as helpful as it might have been, a combination of distance and disdain.

Still, we were there for the fish, which was always fresh and often exceptional, especially once the sushi arrived. None of our three appetizers were memorable. Best was the soft roll with young mackerel and sea bream. These were luscious bites of fish with a texture close to custard, an impressive opener. The flash fried prawns with green tea powder were nicely crunchy, a unique texture, although the taste was not much different from any lightly fried shrimp. Least impressive was a grilled Spanish mackerel, marinated in sweet sauce. Here the sauce did not live up to its billing and the fish the least compelling texture of the night, almost grainy.

After these appetizers, we treated ourselves to a banquet of sushi and maki rolls. Chef Yasuda takes the quality of the fish so seriously that on the sushi/sashimi list he indicates what he recommends from his own list. He is like a server willing to second-guess the kitchen. In general, we obeyed his commands. Our choices included fluke, chum salmon roe, sea urchin (Maine), sea urchin (California), otoro, eel (anago), eel (unagi), peace passage oyster (perhaps from Hiroshima?), arctic char, king salmon, white king salmon, Tasmanian trout, kimedai, monkfish liver, orange clam, and then a few maki rolls, including toro, mitsuba (chervil), and ume (cherry/shiso). With one or two bites, a close reading is not to be had. But the quality was well-pleasing matched by its excellent rice. Perhaps not the most exquisite sushi, especially in contrast with a recent breakfast repast at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, there were few missteps and several brilliant choices. I particularly enjoyed the Godly oyster sushi, the Maine sea urchin, flavored with a bit of sea salt and tasting like foie gras of the waves (and much better than a too creamy California version), a buttery fluke, the eel, and a most interesting, herbal chervil maki. Salmon and char were also at the high end. Less impressive was the toro maki and, as mentioned, the California urchin. At Sushi Yasuda, one must taste one's sushi before even thinking of dipping it. The chef adds what he conceives of as the proper amount of wasabi, and some of the bites had a rare heat. This is not fish and rice, but fish and rice and philosophy and care.

With this my second visit to Sushi Yasuda, I find it a restaurant that is easier to respect than to love. And I do respect it. Perhaps the space cools my ardor, perhaps it is the service, or perhaps it is the maki and starters that sometimes sing and sometimes hum. The fish is exceptional and the chef is a master and, for us, with sake, tax and tip, the meal was well-priced at $90.00. Yet, I remember Sugiyama and Nobu with such fondness than despite my great and true admiration for the work of Chef Yasuda, I am next likely to think of contributing my tithe to the very Rev. Moon across town.

Sushi Yasuda
204 East 43nd Street (at Third Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Stars Over Astoria New York City Entry #89 Kabab Café

My initial excursion to the bustling village of Astoria was to dine at Mombar Café, whose decor I described - and still describe - as one of the wonders of the New York dining world. Soon several friends gently took me to task. They didn't deny - how could they? - that the ambiance at Mombar's was thoroughly otherworldly, a love sonnet from restauranteur to diner. However, they noted that just down the street Mustafa's brother, Ali, was a genius behind the stove.

Let me not cause any quarrels between siblings - I understand that they cook together on occasion - but having returned from Kabab Café, I can attest that Ali is one of New York's star chefs. And he works his magic in a space that makes Momofuku or Prune - or Mombar - seem spacious by comparison. My Chicago home has a larger closet. The decor at Kabab nods in the direction of the odd and self-taught, but the cuisine is assured.

Since four of our party of six knew Ali El-Sayed (after eating at KC once every diner knows Ali), we were treated to Ali's revelations. Kabab Café has a menu, but in practice it doesn't count for much.

As appetizers we were presented with three plates: an Egyptian antipasto plate of light, fragrant and oddly shaped falafel, silky humus, and an array of crispy fried greens. It was splendid. A second plate contained slivers of woodsy mushroom tart in a crisp phyllo dough. The final appetizer was marinated sardines. Not the now trendy fresh sardines, but sardines in a marinate that never overpowered.

While Ali offered goat in a pomegranate glaze, we selected duck two ways and a plate of fried tilapia. The grandest dish of the evening - one of the most heavenly duck preparations I have ever had - was Ali's "Marsh Duck," a perfectly stewed wild duck with accompaniments appropriate for such untamed meat, including caramelized green almonds, lotus root, and bamboo. These flavors demanded a new way of conceiving duck, a novel taste register. The second, domestic duck, roasted with honey and served with squash was memorable as well, although lacked the complexity of the first plate. Our tilapia, fried whole, was a sight to be seen, even if mild tilapia does not - and did not - have the evocative flavors of the poultry pair.

Dessert was another combination plate: this time Ali's Egyptian sweets. Each was a honeyed success, particularly the bird's nest and his homemade yogurt.

If there is a chef's Believe-It-Or-Not, Chef Ali will surely receive the award for the most culinary miracles per square foot of kitchen. This is a tiny restaurant that no one who cares about the possibilities of cuisine can afford to pass. And Ali's Marsh Duck demands to be bronzed.

Kabab Café
35-12 Steinway Street (near Astoria Boulevard)
Queens (Astoria)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Sweet Brooklyn New York City Entry #88 Saul

A friend of mine decreed that I needed some Brooklyn chow, so we braved the F train out to restaurant row on the Smith Street corridor, somewhere between Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, and Cobble Hill. (Jonathan Lethem can point to the subtle divisions, but I am lost).

We chose Saul, one of the earlier outposts along this gentrified stretch, well-loved by Brooklyn Zagateers and known by crusty Manhattanites for the novelty of its Michelin star. Saul's allure makes us the bridge and tunnel crowd.

Judging by Saul, Brooklyn dining reminds me of the best meals I have had in Minneapolis or St. Louis, filled with diner's pleasures. No putdown to be sure, but as has been noted Saul is inventive without being experimental. If you do not expect to be walloped in the gut or in the wallet, you will eat well. Chef Saul Bolton knows what we like, and if we are not confronted, we are indulged.

The first glance tells the tale. Saul is a sleek but modest space. The exposed brick and paper tablecloths say much about what argue is the best dining in the borough (if one doesn't count The River Café or Peter Luger or DiFara). Saul is less art than craft, and the prices (for both food and wine) match. Put another way, the food at Saul doesn't seem to be in dialogue with the current trends across the river; it merely aims to satisfy. The innovations are thoughtful, but don't amount to a philosophy of the plate.

We began with an amuse (or more properly a starter) of the signature carrot-ginger soup with chive creme fraiche. The overriding sensation was a velvet tranquility. The ginger was an undertone. Although it was presented as carrot-ginger, I had to wonder how much ginger was present (on the menu, it is listed as "carrot soup").

My appetizer was duck confit with Anson Mills grits, pickled ramps, and green fava beans. Perhaps the dish suffered slightly from being overly sweet (a problem throughout the dinner - and often evident in restaurants distant from New York, where chefs have learned that the surest way to please diners is to remember, following Mary Poppins, that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down). The sweet pickled ramps and what may have been a honey glaze made for a dish that was easy to eat and perhaps a bit too easy to savor. Most intriguing were the jade green al dente favas. The dish was well-made, but not a challenge.

Saul's candied creativity was on display in my main course, a nightly special: Rabbit loin and rack of rabbit (a very miniaturized rack) with chestnut honey puree, caramelized endive, frisee and green apple, served with a cider reduction. Here was a main course dessert. I particularly admired the clever frisee with apple. The chestnut puree added a distinctive herbal note, but verged on cloying. Admittedly the number of diners who would object to having a three courses of dessert might be tiny indeed.

My dessert was also sweet and good. (My companion ordered the Goat Cheese Panna Cotta, which was not sweet, he attested; that might be a better choice for those who felt a saccharine buzz). My choice was a poached bosc pear in a saffron scented passion fruit cream, and a macadamia nut crunch dulce de leche ice cream. I couldn't taste much promised saffron; the plate was all fruit and nuts. The passion fruit and macadamia nuts echoed the surf on Smith Street.

I enjoyed each sweet mouthful. And yet I felt that chef Bolton pandered to my pleasures. This is a restaurant for eaters, not for chefs, not for critics. Saul does not rely on a theory of the table, merely the practice of an evening's delight. Crossing the river is to travel from art to craft. For Manhattanites the East River is as wide as the Mississippi.

140 Smith Street (at Bergen Street)
Brooklyn (Boerum Hill)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Low Down New York City Entry #87 La Esquina

The demimonde of New York was abuzz. A buzz. A hidden restaurant had opened in a rundown basement, and the best thing was . . . you could not make reservations. You had to be known or know the right someone. Some publicist deserves a Oscar. Who wouldn't salivate to dine in a club that wouldn't have them as a member? To enter La Esquina, "The Corner," located a stone's throw from SoHo in Nolita (North of Little Italy), one passes through a guarded door, reading "Employees Only," leading to a walk through the busy kitchen and into an underground scene.

In due course, the phone number was publicized, and La Esquina now counterfeits its own image. Still, if it does not serve Mexican cuisine that is either distinguished or authentic, the basement is a blast. As has been described, here is Latin chic or, perhaps, sheik. We sat across from a tile rendition of a erotic pano, an image based on cloth drawn by Hispanic prisoners. The painfully loud music and shadowy bar captured the Downtown ethos as filtered through Veracruz. We ate in a dungeon of fantasy, whitewashed brick walls and faded arches. Even if conversation was a lost art, the crowds and servers were bubbling and merry, and the food promptly prepared.

We ordered Ceviche Tostados and Cochinita Pibil Tacos (pulled pork, shredded cabbage, picked onions, and jalapeno). The tostados were acidic and the tacos slightly dry, but we were flying too high to critique. As a main course I selected Camarones a la Plancha, Mayan shrimp with honey, lime glaze, over corn salad. I was well-pleased by the glaze and the large moist prawns. Perhaps the corn salad could have been further drained, but I was sucking down the ambiance. The spareribs and fried plantain sufficed without being evocative.

At $100 for three, La Esquina stands at some considerable distance from a corner taqueria. It merely plays one on TV. Mexican cuisine has not been one of the strengths of the New York ethnic dining scene; for that Los Angeles or Chicago is the ticket. La Esquina doesn't push far in that direction. Across the street from SoHo, La Esquina is environmental art. Yet, its rough charm is abundant, and when that is not sufficient, just imagine all of those suckers who couldn't have the pleasure.

La Esquina
106 Kenmare Street (at Lafayette Street)
Manhattan (Nolita)
American Night New York City Entry #86 Tocqueville

With the abundance of fine chefs in the neighborhood, Union Square qualifies as Toque-ville. However, there is only one Tocqueville, a newly expanded and ostensibly more ambitious eatery off the square, co-owned by the wife-and-husband team of Jo-Ann Makovitzky and Brazilian-born chef Marco Moreira.

I cannot emulate America's finest social critic Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America, a work of genius that underscored our paradoxical striving for status and equality, for community and for selfhood, while not ignoring our sometimes problematic cuisine. Such themes still resonate as the work edges toward its bicentennial in 2035.

If I cannot match this astute Frenchman, at least I can ask the question of what message is being sent when the restaurant was christened. Surely restaurants need not mean in order to be, but for a social scientist, this moniker is a tease. Moreira describes his philosophy by suggesting "purchasing the world's best seasonal ingredients and enhancing their natural flavors will produce fresh, innovative dishes." Soothing, but a such a philosophy would be embraced most of New York's ambitious chefs. It's my motto, too. One wonders why a restaurant named Tocqueville does not embrace the majesty of the American west (or Midwest) of which the Frenchman was so impressed. (While wondering, why name a gin martini the Volstead, after Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead, the sponsor of the act that enforced prohibition; perhaps the martini had more punch than the wit).

No matter, call the place Chungking Charlie's as long as the experience is ecstatic. Makovitzky and Moreira announce that they designed the restaurant themselves. On entering one is reminded of the old adage, "the lawyer who represents himself has a fool as a client," although perhaps we might alter this to "the lawyer who operates on himself has a fool for a patient." Doctor or lawyer, restaurant designers can sleep soundly. For an elegant restaurant, the Tocqueville space is one of the least impressive around. The fabrics of browns, tans, and creams seem tired and numb before even a few months have passed. The room felt sleepy. And judging by the john, Tocqueville has a way to go.

When I opened the door to Tocqueville I was startled. The lobby was deserted. I waited. Finally I walked back to the bar and found the hostess. Odd hospitality for a restaurant that hopes to break into New York's top echelon. The service needed improvement as well. The staff was uncertain about what could be served with their five-course tasting menu. The dishes were on the a la carte menu, but the decision was the chef's. If so, announce his preferences. We chose to choose.

It would be nice to report that despite limitations, the food was inspiring. Or it might be dramatic to discover that the food was god-awful. In truth, neither claim would do justice to the evening. Our choices were pleasing without transcending; they blurred with much competently prepared modern cuisine. One had the touch of genius. One resonated on my bleech-o-meter.

Our amuse set the tone: a nicely plump mussel over microgreens with a bit of saffron vinaigrette. The bite was agreeable, not sharply redolent of saffron, but a smooth taste. Perhaps a stronger mark of saffron would have created gustatory engagement, not a passing gulp.

The enchanting presentation was a Slowly-Poached Araucana Farm Egg, served with Parmesan-infused poultry bouillon, paysanne (thinly sliced) root vegetables, and black truffles. Stock can be theology, edging toward the divine. In this case the liquor was powerfully evocative of earth and root. Although the egg was prettily poached, it played a secondary role in a dish that pointed to a liquid dawn. It was superb.

California Sea Urchin and Angel Hair Carbonara with soy, lime, and sea lettuce needs tweaking. The sea urchin and pasta made a nice match, even if the accompaniments were less strongly evident than I had expected and the noodles were not prepared al dente. While the dish in its current state is not a classic, through a weakness of texture and a timidity of taste, it served well as a starter.

The better of the two entrees was Seared Diver Sea Scallops and Foie Gras with forest mushrooms, artichokes and apple cider balsamic vinegar, another in the sea and farm school of entrees. To describe the dish as nothing special seems to damn a dish that's only offense was in lacking electricity. Same old, same old can be a compliment, as it is here. The flavors of the accompaniments were not so intense to direct attention from what was, in truth, properly prepared foie gras and scallops in a rich balsamic jus. Put differently, this is not a dish of genius, but of talent.

The same cannot be said of the Roast Suckling Pig with Collard Green Mousseline, Crispy Mandioc, and Farofa da Bebe, a misguided entree. Given that this is the only dish of the evening that pays explicit tribute to the chef's Brazilian heritage, a grand and complex cuisine, its failure was particularly disappointing. The plate was anchored by chunks of ham, shoulder, and belly. I admired the crispy pigskin - what a football that must be - however, the belly was too fatty, and had it not been for a shred or two of pork, it would have been elemental lard: to eat this dish is to pig out. The pig was the most appetizing element of this perplexing adventure. The idea of collard green mousseline has a certain appeal, but not when it tastes like weary spinach puree. Mandioc is a cassava plant, a source of tapioca. Here it added little but a slight textural interest, designed to play off the farofa. Unfortunately one wished less attention to the mound of farofa, toasted mandioc flour, an Amazonian stable. The grain was dried out and wan. Although culinary soil is a molecular texture at WD-50 (loved not always wisely but too well), this dirt had faced drought; some pork drippings would have been welcome. That Chef Moreira might someday create a Brazilian-inflected cuisine is intriguing, but this dish is not a model.

Both desserts were sweetly prosaic. I enjoyed the Caramel Apple Confit, a deconstructed apple tart with walnut linzer and a mild caramelized green apple ice cream. The smear of apple butter nodded to Dufrasne or Collichio, but none of the flavors proved exciting or intense. Surely critics require a richer vocabulary to denote pleasant. How about good?

The second dessert Mango Creme Brulee with Cardamon, Kaffir Lime and Lemongrass suggests that more is less. At the heart was a brulee that didn't crackle or pop, but only soothed. Without an ideal centerpiece, the assorted exotic tastes were frou-frou. Too much happening in a dish that must perfect the simple things.

Given my diverse reactions, I imagine that if one chooses well, an extremely fine meal is to be had at Tocqueville. Perhaps Chef Moreira will not demonstrate the complexity of our native spirit, but his efforts reveal a Brazilian-born chef working to good effect. Tonight genius was found in an egg, the symbolic heart of the universe.

As we finished, the staff watched us sauntering to the entrance. Again we stood alone. Now I opened the cloakroom door, grabbed my hat, and strolled into a perfect American night.

One East 15th Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Manhattan (Union Square)
Sushi Virgins New York City Entry #85 Jewel Bako

My younger son and his friend are what we in the reviewing biz call "sushi virgins." When I learned that they would be spending spring break with me in New York, my initial question targeted dining. I didn't have profuse hopes for the response. As my older son once announced, his sib would make a great vegetarian if only he ate vegetables. He seemed to live on air, chips, Sprite, macaroni, and the odd taco. So I was startled when the response was "Japanese." Adolescents change rapidly in college, even if not all changes are comforting to parents. But never should one stare a gift squid in the mouth. After all, my son had been treasurer of his college's anime club: that should count for something!

For dinner I selected Jewel Bako. Choosing JB in the heart of the East Village was designed to demonstrate that, despite my pate (not paté), I could register on the hip-o-meter. And Jewel Bako is known as both refined and straight-forward. It is more traditional than new age sushitoriums such as Sushi of Gari, and at a price that if things went south would avoid intense pain. As their sushi is flown in from Tsukiji, I knew that our sushi would be hyper-fresh. What I had not realized that neither had ever tasted sushi, and while they were game for the experience, perhaps shabu-shabu or tempura was what had been imagined.

Jewel Bako (or Jewel Box) is exquisite. On entering one of the front rooms with their sleek vaults, one feels one has entered a piscatory cathedral, a synagogue of the seas. The arched ceiling creates a space as inspiring as any small restaurant of my acquaintance. The slate and river stones gives JB a natural serenity. Jewel Bako is not a space to canoodle, but it is precisely the place to repose while thinking wistfully and tranquilly of the object of a canoodle. And as of this week Jewel Bako has a sib, Degustation, a newly opened tapas bar, the work of the same designer and owner. They are cross-continental "Siamese" twins, conjoined at the front hall.

In our dinner, some compromises were essential. We avoided the counter. It is not only watching sausage being made that can be disconcerting. Such an education is for the next visit. With the exception of sturdy, fungal miso soup with chives and a dessert plate, we ordered only sushi. The rice served as a familiar comfort. I ordered the ten piece Chef's Omakase Sushi menu, my son's friend the eight piece selection of sushi served with a sushi roll. I ordered otoro, hamachi, salmon, and snow crab for my son. Sushi with training wheels.

We began with an amuse of eel surrounded by a bit of omelet. I was pleasantly surprised by the crunchy texture of the bite, and happy that my guests enjoyed the taste. (Their chopstick skills indicated that their experiences of Chinese food are more extensive than their knowledge of sushi).

I was served raw scallop, sea urchin, sea eel, shrimp, jack mackerel, otoro, king salmon, hamachi, fluke, and needlefish. As I could tell their preferences (salmon, for instance), some trading ensued. Most pieces were served straight-on with perhaps a band of jalapeno or a dot of hot sauce or a few sesame seeds. But most were rice, a dab of wasabi, and fish. No dipsy-doodles. Although the sushi, even the omakase, was not challenging, it was pure and fine. I particularly enjoyed the otoro (of course), the sea urchin, and the fluke. Jewel Bako serves sushi that is estimable and reputable.

The trio of desserts, in contrast, were barely passable. The chocolate mousse cake was distressingly slimy, the green tea cheesecake was dry and dense; only the lychee sorbet proved satisfying.

Although I wish that I can declare responsibility for the enslavement of two sushi addicts, such a claim must await further developments. My son ate his pieces, and two others, and decided that six pieces made a comfortable meal. His friend started strong, but during the meal looked wan, not finishing her pieces. But the time we reached my building, her distress was evident, and much of the chef's handiwork reappeared at an awkward moment. She rests as I blog.

For some, sushi is slimy and slippery and slick and unthinkable. But there must be a first time for all pleasures. As we recall.

Jewel Bako
239 East 5th Street (at Second Avenue)
Manhattan (East Village)

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Attention Please New York City Entry #84 Sugiyama

Restaurants can be good or they can be grand, and the difference can be summed up in a single word: attention. Recently some friends and I ate at Sugiyama, a restaurant that is, by all accounts, one of the prime kaiseki restaurants in New York, that Japanese cuisine that channels seasonal cuisine, tied closely to market availability. Having just returned from a pair of astonishing kaiseki meals in Kyoto (at Kinmata and at Yutaka), I can report my meal that Sugiyama was quite as rapturous. In both of those wonderful Japanese meals I had the full attention of the chef. For the first I ate in my room at the lovely Kinmata ryokan (an elegant and historic Japanese inn), served by the chef; at the second a colleague and I were the only diners at a superior establishment where my companion had a connection with the proprietor.

At Sugiyama, the three of us were not dinning alone, but we held down a corner of the counter, having an up-close and personal view of the action. As one of us was a longtime friend, well-known to chef Nao Sugiyama and his staff and family, our meal was appropriately sublime. The chef was at our service, laughing, joking, gossiping, and creating a meal filled with surprise and cunning. In such a situation, one cannot generalize from the vigilant service, but the staff seemed attentive to all. If only it had been comped, I could have returned once a week to taste the chef's work as the seasons and their meals evolve! But such gratification does not come cheap. (Because the meal was off-menu and I missed some explanations my descriptions may be inexact and rough).

Sugiyama is an engaging space. It lacks the stark refinement of Masa or Sushi Yasuda or the lapidary brilliance of Jewel Bako, but it pleases. Not one of the stellar Manhattan rooms, Sugiyama has its design charms, cherry, birch, tatami, and black and white river stones abound.

To start we were presented with a trio of small appetizers, fish pate, roe with spinach, and, the last, a tactile masterpiece of sea urchin and raw quail egg to be quaffed with a smug smile of delight. The urchin and egg cocktail was sublime even if it required a touch of bravery in our age of avian flu.


These amuses were shortly followed by a severely fresh plate of sashimi - otoro, salmon, squid, kamachi (I believe this was kamachi-kama or yellowtail collar), oyster, tai (sea bream), sea urchin, scallop, and squid. These delicacies were at Tsukiji fish market yesterday and frolicking in the waves the morn before. I have never had an oyster fresher than the kumamoto oyster, a texture to which even oyster haters must admit fealty, and the otoro, kamachi, and scallop were no less distinguished. However, for me, perhaps the most startling and monumental was a little pile of spring green wasabi, a treat as fresh as the fish and so different from the contents of wasabi packets. If I cannot always judge the precise freshness of fish, the same can't be said of my wasabi. Little things can matter so much. Sugiyama wasabi is now my desired complement for matzo for Passover 2006: no more crimson horseradish at seder.

Chef Nao's third course was a panoply of small appetizers: white fish cake, omelet, tuna cake, edamame, a bit of shiso, a little fried crab that was a miniaturist's dream, and one of the night's delight, a small cube of bayberry wine jelly, surrounding a small tart fruit (peach?), what Jell-O could become in the hands of genius.


Next appeared a clear dashi soup, pure smoke and sea. Dashi is a soup stock traditionally made from kelp and bonito flakes (the latter newly arrived we were informed). Floating in this Japanese broth were little egg cakes and rice cakes, flowers and hearts. Simple, elegant, and composed with traditional art.

Now is lobster time, served with a bouquet of sea urchin roe, mushroom, red pepper, and asparagus. I admired the pure tastes of the ingredients, but confess that this was a less startling dish, not a remarkable treatment of lobster in a city whose caress of crustaceans makes it seem Kennebunkport on the Hudson.

We tucked into the chef's sushi and maki selection. I especially relished the maki that combined shrimp and cucumber. The lovely bonito was a delightful treat. Yet, truly unforgettable was a simple pile of fresh bamboo that was to be dipped in a tart yuzu sauce.

Then kobe-style beef (from a Japanese owned-ranch in Texas, I believe). To ogle a cube of "kobe" is to understand the meaning of marbled. Lines of red and white composed what might have been a Jackson Pollock production, had the Dripper been as enamored of protein as he was of pigment. On a heated iron bowl we placed mushrooms, pepper, and cubes of meat worth their weight in truffle. The doneness was left to each of us, and when my internal clock was ticking the melting meat was cow-butter. The additional butter pat was what Thorstein Veblen might have derided as gustatory emulation had he encountered the Japanese leisure class.



Unlike Western meals, Japanese dinners slide to a close without explosions of caloric luxury. We received a palate cleanser: a subtle mushroom soup, served with a rice, vegetable, and fish mixture, served in a traditional leaf (reminiscent of fine dim sum) and pickled vegetables. Finally appeared a gift of grapefruit compote in wine jelly - sweet, sour, and creamy. At Japanese restaurants there is no tradition of pastry chef: one meal, one chef.

Perhaps other diners at Sugiyama will not be treated to a dinner of such precise calibration. Yet, the basic structure of Chef Nao's kaiseki meal will surely be recognizable by others. And if, like us, one sits at the counter, the show of artistry deepens one's appreciation of a meal in which a chef's performance is as aesthetic as the product. At many Western restaurants a chef can train assistants to carry out the tasks of cooking while s/he travels, promoting the brand. Such a division of labor is hardly possible in a culture in which the doing of perfection is at the heart of cuisine, techniques that reach for eternity. An absent chef is no chef at all.

251 W. 55th Street (at 8th Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Robert Sietsema is My God (and Elaine, Too) New York City Entry #83 Cock's

Before my relocation to New York, my religiosity was rusty. I was a jack Unitarian. But now I have a God of my own device: Robert Sietsema, the restaurant critic of the Village Voice and author of The Food Lover's Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City. Every night before bed, I read a few chapters and verses, and carry the writ close to my heart. (Would it hurt if Thy future revelations included cross-streets?) Because if you must have Bajan food, what are you going to do?

And I must have Bajan food. Although there are worse ways to spend a weekend than organizing an all-Carribean tour, Sietsema's three star recommendations more than suffice. For food from Barbados, we are directed to Cock's, located on a busy stretch of Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn's Crown Heights.

Cock's is a small, modestly decorated store front, presided over by Elaine, the excellent Bajan cook. (The restaurant is run by husband and wife). Our party of six constituted the only diners of the evening, although a stream of customers came in for take-out. Although Sietsema claimed (in 2003) that the restaurant serves everything on the menu ("It isn't one of those establishments where asking for something on the menu elicits, ‘Sorry, we're out of that'"), this was not true on the weekday night we visited (so much for inerrancy!). Roti, conkies, and puddin and souse (pig face) were not available, although we were told that many of the absent dishes were prepared on the weekend.

Our party ordered family style, receiving a banquet for a mere $85.00. The finest dish of the evening - and surely one of the most miraculous of my stay - was Flying Fish with Coo Coo (and potatoes). The fish was expertly fried with a complex, spiced sauce. If only Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert could learn to fry fish with such divinity. Coo coo is a mass of buttery cornmeal porridge with hints of okra, resembling the best of polentas. We fought over the final bits of fish. This was a theological dish. Amen Elaine, amen Sietsema.


While other dishes did not reach the soaring taste of fish, several were excellent. I particularly cherished the Cow Foot Soup (yup!) made with Provision, a mix of green banana, yam, and potato. Both oxtail and curried chicken were very creditable versions of these standards. At the end of the meal we were served fried cod balls, excellent cakes that would have been consumed with more gusto at the start of the evening. We also enjoyed an tasty salt fish (cod) stew, although the first few bites were the most compelling.

Less successful was a somewhat dry jerk chicken and a pork stew. Rice and pigeon peas was standard, comparable to what might be found at most Afro-Carribean restaurants.

As canonical as the flying fish was our serving of mauby, an ecstatically bittersweet drink from the bark of the mauby tree, mixed with sugar cane, cinnamon, and perhaps some anise. The drink starts candy sweet, but hits with a powerful and demanding bitter aftertaste. As the aftertaste struck, one needed another slug of sweet juice. Mauby is the roller coaster of pops.

Cock's also prepares a blazing hot sauce available on request: peppers (Scotch Bonnet, I believe), Turmeric, Lime Juice, and Dry Mustard. It had heated, but the turmeric, mustard, and lime provided a richness than mere Scoville units cannot provide.

We tried several cakes and cookies. My choice is the Current cake, fruity and syrupy, but I also enjoyed the Sugar Cake, a caloric coconut confection, colored red as velvet cake. Lead pipe is a heavy cookie-cake with a nutmeg-cinnamon flavor, the result we were told of a cook neglecting to add yeast in her dough (recommended for Passover!). This error produced pastries that are a local favorite, exemplifying the Bajan proverb, "Every Mistake is a Fashion." Fashion it may be, but I found it heavy and dry, although I plan to soak the remainder in a cup of tea. Cute name, though.

I bend my head in veneration of those blessed sprites who make my life happier, fuller, and fatter. To discover Cock's - and many other off-center establishments, hidden in plain sight - make me realize how much I depend on the pointers and obsessions of eccentric strangers. Elaine is a culinary treasure. Perhaps her treasure hunter isn't supernatural, but the Food Lover's Guide comes damn close to intelligent design.

806 Nostrand Avenue (near Eastern Parkway)
Brooklyn (Crown Heights)

Monday, April 03, 2006

Have It Our Way New York City Entry #82 Lupa

After reviewing Otto and Babbo, I recognize that multo Mario fans are sprinkled throughout cyberspace, while others lack that je ne sais quoi that would permit the proper appreciation of the Batali style.

To understand Lupa - as well as other Batali properties (I haven't tried Del Posto) - is to realize their goal: casual dining with flair. I haven't yet tasted a truly grand dish, but have eaten some good ones, all the time in the midst of booming rooms that magnified the ambient noise. If one prefers more subdued dining, off-off hours are the times to reserve.

Lupa, our server informed us, somewhat aggrieved, is not really a Mario restaurant. He is a partner, but the menu was designed by Mark Ladner. Ladner has since decamped for Del Posto, but the menu remains his, and the webpage has not been updated to announce the new chef. Perhaps the kitchen lacks direction.

Lupa fancies itself a trattoria, although one that edges towards pretentiousness, even while embracing its raucous charm. The ochres and oranges give bounce and pizzazz, but seem designed to create the illusion of informality. Despite - or because - of their appeal to Food Network refugees, much of the menu at Batali restaurants is in untranslated Italian: Sformato, Testa, Cece, Piccantino, Farrotto, Bavatte, Gaeta (The Lupa website has a glossary, but the menu does not; bring your laptop!). Granted these may be terms of the Roman street, but their presence on a Manhattan menu conveys a cultural elitism in the guise of creating authenticity, establishing Italy as an exotic Casbah.

My dining companion had a number of crucial allergies, wheat among others. Given that Lupa presumes itself a neighborhood trattoria, I was startled that our server insisted that Ladner's recipes were sacred text. My companion had hoped to order sweetbreads but discovered that they were dredged in flour. Surely the kitchen does not dredge their sweetbreads before an order comes in, and so skipping this step would have been easy, even if it altered the platonic conception of the dish. At a casual eatery, the customer, not the chef, should be king. Not at Lupa. We finally assembled a suitable menu, but with a struggle. And a warning for those who wish a simple glass of wine, Lupa does not offer wine by the glass, one must select a mini-carafe: a glass and a half.

We finally selected the Frutti Di Mare, a salad, two vegetables, a pasta and a fish and a dessert. The meal had its pleasures, both minor and substantial. Most enjoyable was the Crimini and Fennel Salad with Truffle Oil. The woodsy taste of the mushrooms (although crimini are cultivated and truffles are now in the process of being farmed) were well-suited to a marriage with the slightly bitter, herbal fennel. This simple, yet elegant treatment was the highpoint of the meal. Also enjoyable was an order of carrots coated with cumin and honey. If they were slightly sweet, the cumin prevented them from being cloying. A sweet and tangy Eggplant Caponata was very satisfactory as well, perhaps through a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. They lent a dulcet air to the meal. Several of the frutti di mare also passed muster. Particularly excellent were the Octopus with Black Cece (chickpeas with black squid ink, rosemary, and red chili) and a Bass Scabece with Arugula was made lovely by the tangy vinegar in which it was poached. The closing Panna Cotta with Honey and Laurel (and Dates?) was candied, pungent, and intense.

Other dishes proved disappointing, notably our two main courses. I looked forward to Bucatini All' Amatriciana (a dish known to Babbo diners). The thick spaghetti was properly al dente, but the tomato sauce was rather pasty, and while the salt pork (presumably guanciale or cured pig jowls) was passionate, the hot pepper overwhelmed the robust pork. Although Batali restaurants often excel at pasta, this dish was not transcendent. The trout was poorly conceived. The trout and herbs were baked in a paper bag, but in the course of cooking the bag became waterlogged, and we found ourselves eating chewing wads of paper along with a trout that was adequate but never stirring. The tuna piccantino was too peppery to reveal the taste of the fish and was harsh and chill. Other dishes - Sardines with Cracked Wheat, Salt Cod with Gaeta Olives, and Escarole - were modest creations, pleasant to consume, but neither delicate nor powerful.

Given its overall quality, Lupa's attitude seems unwarranted. One is made to feel that dining in this hectic room is an honor, but honor is not what it once was. Several dishes were flavorful and well-constructed, but why would one choose a restaurant that imagines itself a neighborhood joint when one can skip down the street to a joint that knows who it is.

170 Thompson Street (at Houston Street)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)