Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bukharan Banquet New York City Entry #97 Salute

When a few months ago I had cause to be in Japan for two weeks, each time I took the subway I ached for New York. The brimming diversity of these boroughs is bracing. Every street is a Silk Road, although some, such as 108th Street in Rego Park, are silkier than others. Recently a group of friends and I ventured to Salute to sample kosher Central Asian (Bukharan) cuisine. Since we were ten, a banquet ensued. (There seems to be alternative spellings for Salute - notably Salut - but the menu, signage, and business card allows us to salute Salute).

Although Salute is sometimes billed as an Uzbeki restaurant, the food has Russian accents as well as Central Asian traditions. The restaurant characterizes itself as a "Kosher Restaurant." It is startlingly clean and spacious, not elegant but simple and comfortable without an attempt to claim the authenticity of the steppes. Our waitress hailed from Pinsk, the White Russian town, several thousand miles from Samarkand. Some dishes were Crimean, others Near Eastern, and some such as Herring and Salmon, seemingly Russian; still others, such as kebabs, lagman (noodle soup), and pilaf, were more traditionally central Asian. Some such as khorovak-kebab (Veal Sweetbread Kebabs) were delightful and novel.

Our dinner consisted of simple preparations with some dishes more moist and delicious than others. The jewel of the evening was lagman, a lamb and noodle soup, given surprising flavor by cilantro, cumin, and a sharp taste of anise. The broth was rich and aromatic. The bowl had a distinctive taste that I will long treasure.

Also excellent was a "Asian Pilaf" (sometimes spelled Plov or Palov), a hearty mix of lamb, rice, carrots, chickpeas, and onions. Of course the kebabs - lamb, sweetbreads, salmon, seabass, and vegetable - were admirable, if not remarkable. Good too were cheburekes, thin Crimean meat pies, large golden, flaky moons of fried dough; ochor (marinated mini-eggplants); humus and national bread, looking like a giant bialy. A hard halvah dessert (which I heard as lavs), was sweet and pretty. I was less taken with the marinated mushrooms; pickled cabbage wedge; samsa, a home-made piroshki with too little filling; and a somewhat dry baklava. None were unpleasant, but didn't stand comparison to the best dishes. Throughout dinner we quaffed Borjomi, a popular Georgian water treasured for its distinct alkaline taste of mineral salts.

With the exception of the wonderful Lagman soup, the other dishes are pleasurable and simply made. The sweetbread kebab is unique in my experience, although aside from the startling experience of seeing these organs on a skewer, they were not uniquely tender. Still at under $25/person, a trek to Salute is to demonstrate that the middle of nowhere can be somewhere special.

Salute Kosher Restaurant
63-42 108th Street (at 63rd Road)
Queens (Rego Park)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Some Things New York City Entry #96 Le Veau d'Or

Any restaurant that has survived in the tumultuous New York restaurant scene for seventy years must have learned a thing or two. And so we come to Le Veau d'Or, a French bistro, opened in 1937, a stone's throw from Bloomingdale (although perhaps Bloomie's was the new kid on the block).

Le Veau d'Or was my parents' favorite restaurant. They dined monthly, and during my adolescence brought me several times a year. It was touching and deeply symbolic of Le Veau d'Or that I could greet several of the same staff after forty years. Robert, the old school maitre d', has lost some hair and some spring in his step, but he might say the same of me. In a real sense it was at Robert's knee that I came to appreciate French cuisine.

Again and again as we reminisced I was counseled, "the place hasn't changed a bit." How true. New York diners judge their eateries by the restrooms, and these tiny closets have not been spruced up since before I last dined. The banquettes are still red leather from bistro central, and the objets d'art on the wall are those etchings that men of a certain age once invited lithesome inamorata to their quarters to inspect. The menu with its classics - Coq au Vin, Vichyssoise, Frog's Legs, Escargot, Baked Meringue - harbors plates that were classic in the interwar years. For certain diners, like my parents, Le Veau d'Or was a welcoming community, classic but never challenging. What might they say of WD-50 and its psychotic antics? Judging by our fellow diners this remains true. Le Veau d'Or has suffered the affront of no longer being rated in Zagat's (the Le Pain Quotidien chain makes the list, as does Starbucks). Yet the restaurant is well-attended on a weeknight by older couples who look for an place where everyone knows their name and which is affordable on a budget (with tax, tip, and wine the three course meal was $60). This means, of course, that Le Veau d'Or has chosen to be straight-jacketed by its market niche.

But how is the food? Slathered in nostalgia. My companions and I ordered classic bistro food, and were we to measure by strict critical standards, this Golden Calf is not fatted. While never offensive, one could taste the rust of time. My Soupe à l'oignon Gratinee does not rely on a rich beef stock, simmering for three days. It tasted warm and wan. The cheese and bread did evoke French farmhouse preparations. The soup was not so different than what one might expect at an rather adequate ocean liner banquet. The pate was dense but not distinguished.


As a main course I selected one of the specials (yes, they have specials, although traditional ones), Sweetbreads with Cream and Mushrooms. The dish was soothing, if a bit mushy, and the mushrooms had surely nestled inside a can; the potatoes au gratin were slightly overcooked, but nicely creamy. The Canard Rôti aux Cerises was a rather tough old bird, napped with a cherry sauce that was sweet without much complexity. (Probably a dish I once ordered on the theory that each course should be dessert). Steamed mussels were not as plump as the sea contains.



Desserts continued the string. My Peche Melba, as classic as bistro cuisine can be, was sweet, but marred by canned peaches and middling vanilla ice cream. Oeufs a la Neige (Floating Islands) was sweet enough, but lacked a divinely light consistency. Best was a intense chocolate mousse that seemed as if it might have been just scraped from egg beaters.


Le Veau d'Or's modestly priced wine list does not list vineyards. One chooses varietals, and hopes for the best. We ordered a buttery Meursault that turned out to be a Clos du Cromin 2003 for $60. The restaurant offered a 1994 Chateau Beychevelle for $110.

As a critic, I must present the restaurant as it might appear to others, but I must confess that despite my complaints, I was gladdened that Le Veau d'Or still serves and has a clientele. The service was occasional, the food passable, and the ambience shadowy, but this was my culinary home. In 1965 Le Veau d'Or was much as it is now, never glittering or accomplished, not Le Grenouille. Perhaps in 1937 it was the same. Some things never change. Yet, dining in the dusky room brought a happiness - a suffused glow - that recognizes that sons can't live on soupe à l'oignon alone.

Le Veau d'Or
129 East 60th Street (at Lexington Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)
Grown Up New York City Entry #95 Jean Georges

If asked to design a New York restaurant that represents all the best of high-end dining, I would surely be accused of plagiarism. I would have created Jean Georges. Although not a restaurant of perfection (more later), Jean Georges does so much so well, and does so with panache, enticement, geniality and a marriage of classicism and fusion. This is a restaurant that deserves all the stars that twinkle over Columbus Circle.

What is perhaps most notable about the cuisine of Jean-Georges Vongerichten - the man has a hyphen, his restaurant doesn't - is that its mark is the synthesis and intensification of contemporary styles. This is not a cuisine of extremes: of purity, of experimentation, of minimalism, or of flavor contrasts. Rather it is a cuisine of the dish, a cuisine that takes flavor and visual appeal as the essence of dining, bowing sometimes towards minimalism (the turbot), at other times to molecularism (carrot soup with passion fruit foam), occasionally nodding to Asian fusion (broiled squab in a light and lively five spice sauce), and at still other times to a cuisine that plays with tough and overwhelming flavors (bitter caramel custard with grapefruit confit). Not Bouley, Ducasse, or Keller, Vongerichten (and his chef de cuisine Mark Lapico) reads them all. Perhaps his preference for synthesis will limit his influence: we have mini-Waters, Bouleys, Adrias, or Trotters, but at this moment, in this town, there is no one whom I would trust more to conceive my dinner. That Jean-Georges lords over an empire of many cuisines is alternatively impressive and troubling, as he flits from the simple and happy elegance of Perry Street, to the creative bistro JoJo, to the grim Spice Market.

The Times recently announced that architecture is the art that we fight over, and diners do have their preferences. I found the red dungeon of Bouley taxing; Daniel, elegant but stagy; and Alain Ducasse, monarchical. Excluding the magical and mad Mombar, the Egyptian café in Astoria, a paradise of outsider art, the clean squared design of Jean Georges - by way of über-designer Adam Tihany - is perhaps my favorite dining space. With its creams, whites, grays, and tans, this is a space that doesn't distract from the food, but every so often one gasps at its placid sophistication. The large picture windows that look out over Columbus Circle made the room feel warm with spring.

Our service was not only flawless, but filled with charm. (My foremost gripe resulted from the staff's startling generosity). I was particularly gratified by the sommelier's suggestion of wine selections, fining a perfect (and reasonably priced) Chateauneuf du Pape in some basement warren.

We began with a trio of astonishing amuses. A splendid sashimi of salmon toro (what would surely be otoro at a sushi bar) with an olive oil gelee and crunchy soy was as luxuriant as one could imagine a fish, but with sufficient ornamentation that one knew this was not the Tsujiki fish market.

Nudging the salmon, was a small spoon, a ticking flavor bomb: a cute and juicy strawberry slice with a bit of dill and a smear of Roquefort cheese. I would not have imagined that the combination of bleu and berry would have been as evocative as it became, but I will make the trek to Fairway to attempt an impossible re-creation.

We save the best for last, a dish that should have been a travesty, a calamity, a sick joke. Here was essence of carrot soup with tarragon and passion fruit foam. When life passes in front of my lips, a few gustatory memories will remain. This will be one of them. (A strawberry soup from Nougatine will be another). Chef Vongericten or his executive chef were inspired to combine the airy passion fruit with the rich solidity of carrot puree to demonstrate their talent to recognize a compelling synergy.


At Jean Georges, diners choose between two tasting menus - his classic dishes and (in May) a spring menu - or a four course prix fixe. We were tempted by some prix fixe dishes, but, as we were Jean Georges virgins we decided to assay his classic seductions, a menu that, we were told, has continuously been offered since the opening.

We began with one of the dishes for which Jean Georges is best known: a witty roe conceit. Eggs on egg. In a scooped out brown egg shell, the chef partially cooks the yolk, covers it with a vodka creme fraiche and stuffs the cooked egg white back, and covers the opening with eggs from California farm-raised sturgeon (an Osetra-like caviar). If not the most dramatic taste of the evening, the dish was a triumph of Faberge indulgence wed to gustatory theory. Here was a reconstruction of a caviar repast but with such flair that one had to love the man.


Scallops with Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion left one crying for more. This dish played on essences. The pair of scallops were perfectly presented with a floret of cauliflower on top, surrounded by a pool of deep, biting caper-raisin emulsion. We wondered whether that exotic bite was from curry or from mustard, to be told that it was vinegar that revealed the flavors.


The Young Garlic Soup with Thyme and Sauteed Frog's Legs was the least compelling main dish. The combination of the garlic with curly cress, chive blossoms, tarragon, and chicken stock was harsh, particularly the mix of garlic and a somewhat salty stock. Others at my table vouched for its quality, but I felt the flavors lacked harmony.


Jean Georges' Turbot with Chateau Chalon Sauce showed that a dish of essences could be startling and revealing. Here was a triangular filet napped by a better than perfect sauce: caramelized carrots to the highest power. On top of the mild turbot sat a pointillist line of micro-cubed tomato and zucchini. As pretty as a postcard and with better mouthfeel than chewed cardboard. A miminalist classic.


Lobster Tartine with Lemongrass and Fenugreek Broth and Pea Shoots was brilliant in its fusion. I adored the broth with its heady Orientalist fantasy. This appeared a simple dish on the plate, but its complexity was revealed on the tongue, and in shades of green and red (echoing the turbot's garnish), the tartine stood out visually as well as through the aroma that Jean-Georges so loves.


It is getting repetitive to remark how blessed are these dishes, but the broiled squab, onion compote, corn pancake with foie gras was a fitting pre-dessert close (no palate cleanser is served). The foie gras atop the johnnycake wasn't necessary, the pancake was simply too exquisite. This was another dish in which Chef Vongerichten relied on his Asian spicekit, adding a five spice jus, a wedge of preserved Meyer lemon, and a dusting of five spice powder. Unlike the turbot which played with minimalism, this was a dish of complexity, lushness, and surprise.


Dessert at Jean-Georges under the guidance of Chef Patissier Johnny Iuzzini requires that the diner selects a quartet of choices (the same forced choice as evident at Room 4 Dessert): a tasting menu within a tasting menu. Tonight we could select among Citrus, Chocolate, Rhubarb, and Exotic Fruit and be served a plate divided into quadrants. I selected the first and was pleased I did. Of the quartet, my preference was Bitter Caramel Custard with Grapefruit Confit. What a brave corps of cooks to advertise their gall. Bitter tastes are underutilized, but not here. This dessert combined quinine tang with the sharpness of grapefruit. Bitter on bitter with enough acid and sugar to make the dish sublime.

The blood orange sorbet with tarragon jus used the herb in a way that would have been unimaginable moments before serving. The simple combination of savors was profound, revealing a chef who knows his way in the physic garden.

The kumquat strudel with chartreuse ice cream made fine use of an underappreciated citrus. Why wife's parental homestead was favored with a kumquat tree, and we would often snack on these potent orange marbles. Tonight I skipped down memory lane. The ice cream was flavored with Chartreuse liqueur, but rather than the bright expected yellow-green hue, the custard was a pale cream, possibly flavored by Yellow Chartreuse.

The fourth dessert was a Creme Fraiche Cheesecake with Meyer Lemon Jam. It was tasty, but not superior to a slice from S&S or Junior's.


When presented with the dessert list, a companion sighed, "I wish we could have all sixteen dishes." To our surprise - and at first to our pleasure - our server brought out the quartet of Exotic Fruit desserts. This was Jean Georges' undoing. Only one of these desserts was a pleasing treat, and one was roadkill. Who would have guessed that such things might have been hidden in the recesses of Vongerichten's kitchen? I approve the Passion Fruit-Mint Sorbet with Coconut and Petit Beurre. Flambee Banana with Crispy Phyllo was pleasant although not startling. The chef's Grilled Golden Pineapple with Cumin Meringue, Curry, and Cilantro had too much exotic spice for a dessert treat. And then there was Chilled Mango Lhassi with Tropical Fruits and Carrot Froth. For our amuse we were served a divine Carrot Soup with Passion Fruit foam. This dessert was the starter's Bizarro Double. It was nasty. How could tastes and textures (thick and rough) create an axis of evil? Fortunately petit macaroons quickly effaced that malevolent memory. Perhaps at that time of the night, it was us or the disposal. I vote for the plumbing. But let us not hold such munificence against a restaurant too ready to please.


Jean Georges does what four-star dining must do, dispense joy: the pleasure of being there, of seeing that, of being treated so, and of eating much. Given its success, diners might regret that Chef Vongerichten has chosen to spend less time in his kitchens. He is an endowed professor who chose to be a Dean. Such colleagues create the conditions for others to excel, but one wonders what might result if they were back in the lab. Having chosen the Jean Georges classic menu, the quality of current innovations in the kitchen remain to be tested. Can genius be franchised? Perhaps, but one rather wishes that it need not be. Still, even without Chef Vongerichten behind the kitchen door, Jean Georges the restaurant is purring and grinning. When the cat is away, these mice play as if they are kittens.

Jean Georges
1 Central Park West (at 60th Street)
Manhattan (Columbus Circle)

Friday, May 19, 2006

Authenticitology New York City Entry #94 Roberto's

Before my recent lunch at Roberto's, the Zagat's 27 restaurant near Arthur Avenue, I imagined that my review would write itself. I could stick it to Mario. Here in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx was an exquisitely authentic Italian cuisine, unavailable in the boot of Manhattan. Sometimes reality sticks its Roman nose in one's plot.

Italian restaurants come in two flavors: not the red South verse white North, but those that trade on the inspiration of the chef and those whose inspiration is from tradition. Some Italian restaurants are marketed through celebrity, others through legend. Roberto's, something of a hybrid, slants towards the latter.

It is not that Executive Chef Roberto Paciullo is an unknown, and Roberto's is known for its creative daily specials, hardly the mark of a red-gravy Sicilian (Chef Roberto hails from south of Naples). Roberto's is a more adventurous enterprise than most of its neighbors, such as the down-home Dominicks. Roberto's is a stylish, white-tablecloth place with exposed brick walls, decorated in tones of gray and yellow, even if it wishes to trade in hominess by its stout refusal to take reservations and keeps a chalkboard for its specials.

To be fair, some fine restaurants falter at lunch, when the evening crew - and sometimes the chef - are away. And the meal was hardly distressing, but the main course specials were undistinguished. Our meal was on a different order than the satisfactions of Dominicks, but not so impressive to demand a visit on a busy Saturday night without reservations.

Our appetizer was the comfortable zenith of our lunch: Insalata di Bocconcini: Bite-size Mozzarella, Roasted Pepper, Sundried Tomatoes, Sopressata, and Spiedini alla Romano (thin wedges of baked cheese sandwich) over Mixed Greens. Quality ingredients, carefully prepared and presented. However, with the exception of the buttery Spiedini, the plate didn't require the fire's touch.


We chose a daily pasta special, Mezzanelli with Fava Beans, Cherry Tomatoes, and Pecorino. The Mezzanelli, a thick rod, was properly cooked, although the exploded cherry tomatoes did not stand the heat well, providing a squishiness in what otherwise might have been a sturdy dish with delicate al dente favas.


Entrees were moist flubs. My companion ordered Soft-Shell Crabs with Spinach. But rather than lightly and crispy fried, the crabs were sodden, a failure that the soggy spinach did not hide. Veal Scallopine with Mortadella, Peppers, and Scamorza (a curd cheese from cow's milk) was a casual mistake. I recognized and appreciated the quality of the ingredients, but the plate edged toward the sloppy and gloppy. As with the crab, the dish had a watery excess. The veal was a high-quality product, as was the cheese and mortadella. The problem was preparation, perhaps a novice dishwasher was filling in this weekday lunch.


Many excuses can be made for this beloved restaurant. And I am tempted to embrace all to preserve my ardor for authenticity. But considering our entrees, Roberto's is not our fantasies. As in so much of the Bronx, what IS nips the heels of what MIGHT BE.

603 Crescent Avenue (near Arthur Avenue)
Bronx (Belmont)
Blame it on Bruni New York City Entry #93 A Voce

A few weeks back we reserved a table for a Tuesday night at A Voce, Andrew Carmellini's sleek new Italian restaurant on Madison Park. We imagined a quiet evening at a restaurant that was gaining its bearings. Reservations were easily had, even if A Voce coolly required that diners (at least for our party of five) sign a contract, not just provide a credit card number. One must return a reservations form, scrawled in blood. What has happened to the gossamer trust between diner and restauranteur? When questioned, the reservationist asserted that ninety percent of New York restaurants have the same requirement. As a student of Italian geography, I can only respond "Bologna."

By the time our evening arrived, Frank Bruni had just revealed his quixotic three-star musings in the Times and the restaurant was overwhelmed. Perhaps a restaurant whose name translates as "word of mouth" expected a slowly gathering fame, not the shock of anointment.

In truth, the kitchen fared better than the floor. Service was as disorganized and as thoughtless as any I have experienced. A hostess neglected to provide claim checks. Our server attempted to push a $100 bottle of wine as a first choice without asking about our price preference. Appetizers and pasta were served simultaneously, leaving no room on the table (was this a hint to eat quickly? - perhaps, but we were ignored for long stretches). Both our shared dessert and shared contorno were served without separate plates. As a fellow klutz, I give a pass to the dropped salad. But if this night is an indication, this staff is not ready for prime time. One wonders if tranquility rules a week ago. The receipt of three stars by an affordable restaurant generates what in polite circles might be termed a feeding frenzy. With sixty-somethings holding court at the tables and thirty-somethings surrounding the bar, A Voce was juggling a generational divide, two clienteles in a single space.

Much has been made that A Voce does not look "Italian." One can not guess the cuisine from the decor, but the comfort and polish of the space - Eames swivel chairs, leather table tops, and a beautiful sculptural with orange back-lighting - provides a theatrical flair. If the cuisine shies away from slickness, it does not attempt Arthur Avenue authenticity. This is a chef's cuisine, not a nation's. A Voce has a culinary style, marrying hardy provincialism and the elegance of Café Boulud, Chef Carmellini's former employer. If the dishes do not always reach the happy rococo imaginings of Mr. Bruni, this was a most satisfying evening in culinary terms.

Our table began with a trio of appetizers. Order the Grilled Asparagus Parmigiana, served with Fried Farm Egg, Duck Bresaola (a dry-cured duck breast, borrowed from Babbo's bag of tricks), and white truffles. May is asparagus's moment. Despite the extravagance of the ingredients the dish was substantial, not fussy. The egg, cooked so it wiggled, combined eagerly with the grilled spears of spring. This plate was the star of the evening.

The Duck Meatball with Dried Cherry Mostarda (a mustard-based fruit glaze) provided a pleasant interlude. After five months in Uppsala, I am well-trained in Swedish meatballs and lingonberries, and this enjoyable taste didn't much surpass what I had been frequently served at lunch mess, but the mustard provided a kick. The duck wasn't much superior to well-ground beef, even if the meat was lighter and more complex in its gaminess.


Roasted Beet Salad with Hazelnuts, Gorgonzola Dolce, and Barolo Vinegar completed the starters. The beets were stellar, although the salad itself was a simple high-end beet salad, a rendition not so different from my own preparations.

We ordered two pasta dishes (the ones that mysteriously appeared with our appetizers). The better of the two was Homemade Pappardelle with Lamb Bolognese, Mint, and Sheep's Ricotta. The pasta was dense and rich, another dish removed from the stove at its moment of glory; the Ricotta was admirable as well. Chef Carmellini could have been more generous with his mint, a choice that would have provided an exotic flair.


Potato Gnocchi with Spring Peas and Prosciutto was composed of tiny pearls of spud and peas, lovely in its presentation. The taste was straightforward - gnocchi, ham, and peas in a cream sauce. No complaints, but not much memory.

Steamed Black Sea Bass with Shrimp Polpettini (petite shrimp balls), New Potatoes and Basil-Shellfish Broth was nearly seafood soup with the unadvertised but welcome addition of cockles and mussels. This was another precisely timed dish, and was most notable for its sublime herbal broth. The polpettini and potatoes didn't add much to the dish, but perhaps a potage of bass, bivalves, and broth might have seemed thin gruel to others; I would have been entranced.


As a side dish we ordered Funghi Trifolati: Spring Mushrooms with Garlic and Herbs, sauteed in Olive Oil (prepared in the truffle style). Chef Carmellini combined three mushroom species (Blewits, Trumpets, and Hen of the Woods, each available to dedicated ‘shroomers). (Our server assured us that morels were not included in this spring mix because of their prohibitive cost, but Blewits, autumn funghi, are rarer in the May wilds than morels). To say that I can cook up a mess of mushrooms equal in clarity is not to deny my dusky enjoyment.

Pastry Chef April Robinson's dessert list disappointed. The night we dined, most desserts (excepting the sorbet and a panna cotta) were made with chocolate or coffee, a caffeinated bias. The Vanilla-Yogurt Panna Cotta with Saba Vinegar (a sweet, thick vinegar, akin to balsamic) and Raspberries was passably smooth, but, even with the vinegar, was rather bland.


Italian cuisine rarely reveals the subtlety of the French. The robustness that diners cherish also poses a barrier to transcendence. And so Chef Carmellini suffers for his cuisine. As much as I enjoyed dinner, A Voce is not evocative in the way that Café Boulud is, but perhaps this is a company that Chef Carmellini prefers not to keep.

And, on this warm spring evening, A Voce crashed from the curse of the sated critic. The crush of humanity that resulted cracked service. Signore Bruni has recently passed time as a server; perhaps he could have shown penance for his good deed by lending an ink-stained hand.

A Voce
41 Madison Avenue (at 26th Street)
Manhattan (Flatiron)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Too Good Burgers New York City Entry #92 Burger Joint at the Parker Meridien and db Bistro Moderne at the City Club Hotel

Hamburgers are nothing to sneeze at. It is not for nothing that the American fast food industry applied their Fordist techniques most successfully to those pucks of beef. Seemingly anyone can flip a burger, making it the ideal entry job for teens whom no parent would think of trusting with the family meal.

However, everything can be upscaled, transformed into a luxury good, a source of what social theorist Thorstein Veblen spoke of as pecuniary emulation. Burgers are no exception. This past week I slipped into two hotel restaurants to see what all of the fuss is about. Over the past year I have had a few noteworthy burgers, including those at Donovan's (an extraordinarily fulfilling, juicy burger at an archetypal, convivial Irish neighborhood bar in Woodside, Queens), Better Burger (a better-than-average fast food effort) and Burke in the Box (a cute conceit at Bloomingdale's), but none that I have written about. (Perhaps I should try the burger at Peter Luger's Steakhouse, but that seems such a damn waste). Hamburgers are among the most American of foods: steak on a bun, and even when they are not at their best, they can be intensely satisfying.

Perhaps the most notorious celebrity burger in Manhattan is "The Original db Burger," a $29 platter of excess, the Paris Hilton of beefcake: "Sirloin Burger Filled with Braised Short Ribs, Foie Grass and Black Truffle on a Parmesan Bun with Pommes Frites." But where is the beluga and Tasmanian leatherwood honey? No diner could possibly doubt the damage of this fare to one's own liver - or the elegance of the luxe room in which it is served. One could hardly spend a year in Manhattan without a db Burger and a bit of sushi at Masa (more on this later), if one hopes to understand how capitalist inequalities are tottering.

Daniel Boulud and his Chef de Cuisine Oliver Muller serve a composition that truly deserves the label "concoction." After finishing I felt like a nervous ten year old who has just exited the Cyclone, glad that he had a story to tell and relieved it was over. Chef Daniel, has anyone ordered the db Burger twice? Why? I do not disdain the experience. It was luscious and I will remember the foie gras, short ribs, and truffles, and I have a tale about a burger priced $28 above a White Castle slider.

The Burger Joint at Le Parker is reached by entering a curtained area off the lobby of this upscale hotel. The experience has the feel of finding La Esquina, the hidden SoHo Mexican dungeon, a space whose concealment swells the arch desire to Be There! (At 10:30 p.m. on a weeknight I faced no long line.) This is a burger that does not carry the weight of Chef Daniel's reputation. It is a high-end burger, ground top sirloin and shoulder. Mine nicely grilled with some charring. I requested my burger rare, but it was, by my standard, medium-rare. I am perfectly happy with medium-rare hamburgers. Ordering rare insures that I will not receive a grey medium. Perhaps the Burger Shack did not produce a Platonic burger, but at $5.50 it was estimable. It did not match the beauty of the perfectly cooked burger at Donovan's, just good sirloin cooked without pretense, and presented rare, served by barmen who are not just marking time, and, of course, at the Meridien there was no Guinness Stout on hand to complete the perfection.

db Bistro Moderne
55 West 44th Street (at 6th Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

Burger Joint
Hotel Le Parker Meridien
118 West 57th Street (at 7th Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

Donovan's Pub
5724 Roosevelt Ave. (at Skillman Avenue)
Queens (Woodside)

Monday, May 08, 2006

Fennel Fantasia New York City Entry #91 Eleven Madison Park

When a restaurant manages to scale the heights of its potential - to discover its G spot - critics must be of two minds. Gone is the opportunity to slip in those cutting bon mots that readers treasure. Great great great makes a tinny sound.

But when a restaurant that once was passable becomes within spitting distance of perfect, there is a story to tell. Eleven Madison Park was designed to be the high-end of the Danny Meyer portfolio. Yet, despite an art deco nod to extravagance, it never reached its promise. The food was critiqued as pedestrian, or at least not sufficiently startling as to capture the heart of high-concept diners. (I had not dined at Eleven previously.)

This is a sour back story of a glorious present. Danny Meyer, the George Steinbrenner of New York dining, bought himself the Barry Bonds of the Bay cuisine (Not the most apt metaphor these days, but much rare chemistry and raw power is involved.) The cross-continental hiring of Daniel Humm, the Swiss-born chef, formerly working wonders at San Francisco's Campton Place, was inspired. Campton was perhaps the finest of San Francisco restaurants (although I can't compare Campton to Restaurant Gary Danko). This deal is as inspired as the culinary sensibility that Humm brings. When such cookery is blended with the preternaturally gracious, cheerful, and (usually) attentive service at a Danny Meyer restaurant, the results are bound to astound. Eleven Madison had been the recipient of the 2004 James Beard Award for Service. At the time this honor may have felt like being named Miss Congeniality at the Playboy Club, but tonight our main server, Adam, was world-class in charm, not through Franco-haughty efficiency, but with all of the ingratiating jocular charms of New York wit. The service was as cheering as the food.

Of the over 100 meals, I have eaten this year, Eleven ranks second, just behind Per Se (is all great cuisine left coastal?), and when one realizes that the tasting menus are $75.00 (four course, plus at least four concealed courses), the ratio of joy/dollar ranks just behind Papaya King.

As a matter of culinary politics, Eleven Madison Park is probably not a candidate for a Michelin trifecta. The room, through striking with its distant, elegant ceiling, lacks the gravitas of a three-star temple and, judging by my dinner, Humm and Meyer might not need to tweak the dishes, but double the charges.

Chef Humm offers three four-course tasting menus: an aquatic, seasonal, and garden (vegetarian) menu - the latter relatively uncommon in Gotham, but de rigueur by the Bay. My companion and I both selected the first (this was not a circumstance in which I could demand half a plate).

Before we reached our amuse, we were amused by five appetizettes. I can't recall so many firecrackers on the same plate. The aspect of Chef Humm's cooking that is so impressive is that he seems throughly comfortable with ideas of molecular cuisine, but never does he pay obeisance to these post-modern demand. Twice we spied foam, but each time the foam made a case for its presence. In this Humm belongs in the same category as Thomas Keller. Perhaps because of the lower price point, the food was less fussy, if equally flavorful. Possibly some of the "touches" were missing, but the heart was beating as strongly.

First, we were treated to an airy foie gras pate. Having just learned that my Chicago City Council has decided to deny us foie gras (their "live and let liver" policy), I must consume as I can. But this was a more like the pates one used to eat when goose liver was the organ of choice, not heated bits of liver, but a smooth pate of infinite grace.

Next was what is likely the finest sweetbread that I have eaten. (Calories are not to be counted). This buttery, crispy sweetbread was surrounded with rich brick dough (a thin wheat dough) and a bit of chive. Even those who profess a distaste for sweetbreads could offer no complaint here. As satisfying a pair of bites as might be imagined, and a reminder that with crispy genius, food can sometimes be auditory as well as mastering the other four senses.

In the midst of the line up was raw Bigeye Tuna. Very nice, but that is not what made this dish worthy. It sat on a slice of raw fennel (with more fennel to come) with a dusting of fennel pollen and a little fennel confit. The slightly bitter edge of this petit four was a profound contrast to the foie gras and sweetbreads.

Fourth was a Hummdinger: a small piece of Swiss bunderfleish (dry, salted beef) blanketing a bit of pickled radish. This jewel (one bite this time) boldly combined salt and sour in a way that reminded a diner that, like the most creative molecular chef, Chef Humm is not afraid of big, bad, bold combinations - and he gets them right.

Finally a galette napped with a goat cheese mousse and a touch of Meyer lemon jam. Once again the flavors were brazen and heroic: the jam sliced through the sometimes unctuous creaminess of goat cheese.


We imagined that this quintet would constitute our amuse, but Chef Humm had other ideas. At Eleven things come in numerical sequences, and our amuse twinned tomato. I was stunned by a sherry tomato sorbet with a comb of potato gaufrette. Forget the gaufrette, the sorbet was essence of tomato: a perfect cooler by the Tomato Ice King of Madison Park. Ice cream for adults, just ready for a steamy afternoon.

My first taste of the sorbet's partner disappointed: a green gazpacho - green tomatoes, tomatillos, avocado, romaine, cucumber, and zucchini, blended into a light, bright green liquid. The soup tasted bland and thick until the sour, vinegary aftertaste hit. This radiant sourness emerged just as I was concluding that the gazpacho was nothing special. Few chefs are skilled enough trust aftertastes. I might propose a lighter version of the soup, but this was something special.


We still were not ready for the first dish on our tasting menu. Next was perhaps the highpoint of the meal: a fantasia in fennel - a sly salad of fennel raw, cured, shaved, pickled, pollinated, sprouted, and served in beignets, dressed with chive oil and lemon vinaigrette, coupled with small sections of blood orange. I admire a chef who is willing to play with tastes on the bitter register: bondage and discipline for the foodie set. (Sadly I lack an image of this beautifully presented dish).

After this, the menu. First listed was "Maine Diver Scallops ‘En Chaud-Froid' with Osetra Caviar." A pair of scallops one hot, one cold, each with crowned with osetra caviar. The hot scallop was napped with a rich lobster bouillabaisse; the cold was served with a cauliflower mousse on a pool of cream. I was amazed that a scallop could taste so different with smartly distinct preparations. Perhaps I preferred the warm scallop, but the cool preparation was delightful as well, and together the flavors revealed the force of thoughtful synthesis.


Our second aquatic course was centered on Blue Hawaiian Prawns, perhaps a tribute to The King, and one that truly honors Sir Elvis. This shrimp on steroids was served in a saffron consommé with tastes of green apple and ginger. This dish was pure in conception and in its execution. Another brave and splendid dish. With all of these flavors flowing about one might wonder about muddy flavors, but the flavors were clear and distinct, and even though it was served on a tasting menu, the plate was large enough to satisfy with all the tastes evident.


The centerpiece of our dinner was a Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster with Chantenay Carrots (Who knew of carrot varietals?), orange-soy sauce, and a touch of Gewürztraminer-sea urchin foam. This was another in a string of valiant and compelling plates. Chef Humm has a way with vegetables - the carrots were splendid. The mix of lobster, orange, Gewürztraminer and uni was entrancing - rich and slightly puckery. Humm's dishes are recognizably modern, but still hold to classic techniques of flavor and presentation.


Following was our third amuse (or was it our eighth), a palate cleanser in the form of a raspberry soup with almond meringue and clear vanilla ice cream. Perhaps one could dismiss this dish as only delicious, but it was a dessert that is suitable for daily consumption.

Finally appeared a triptych of Meyer Lemon: a meringue tart, a warm Chiboust (lemon custard) with ginger cookies, and a scoop of lemon-basil sorbet with kaffir lime. I found the tart less special than its companions, particularly the ethereal custard, but pastry chef Nicole Kaplan can match Chef Humm bite for bite. Perhaps these were not grand, glorious, and evocative desserts, startling with surprises, but they reflected a serious of purpose as evident at the end of the meal as at the start.


Eleven Madison Park is, today, a signature New York restaurant. If we place Per Se on a shelf in the heavens, Eleven Madison provides as much brilliance as any meal I have had, and at its price it is without any peer. Even if restaurants critics cannot slip in the nasty bon mot, Eleven Madison Park makes a writerly diner grin.

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