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)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Four Asian Spots New York Entry #109

Over the past weeks I have traveled the silk roads of New York, bolstering my culinary memories. I recently dined at a Malaysian restaurant (Skyway) in east Chinatown, a Javanese restaurant (Mie Jakarta) in Elmhurst, a northern Chinese dumpling shop on the same Elmhurst avenue (Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House), and a Sri Lankan restaurant in Staten Island (New Asha Café).

Skyway is a well-designed space, more airy than is typical for the area, and one of several Chinatown establishments that serve Malaysian food, some of which are reported to be mediocre. Skyway is impressive. I understand from Pan that the provenance of the dishes vary widely, some being street food, others breakfast cuisine, and still others more elaborate presentations. They originate in several corners of Malaysia - from the more Thai-influenced west to the more Chinese east. Most dishes were highly satisfying, and I was startled that the sauces were far less fiery than I expected, but revelatory in their complexity of spices.

I particularly enjoyed the Nasi Lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk, a very luxurious taste, served with an array of accompaniments, including mashed anchovies, potatoes, and peanuts. Roti telur, roti with fried eggs, is a Malaysian breakfast dish. Quite pleasant if not startling. The beef and satays were fine, particularly their smoky peanut sauce. The two dishes that benefitted most from the rich blend of spices - what I gather is labeled rempah (spicy mixture) - were a squid with "special sauce" and "aromatic crab" (a Dungeness crab, baked in a combination of spices). The crab was particularly remarkable, worth its $25 pricetag. Finally Kang Kung Balacan, Chinese water spinach with shrimp paste, was one of the most compelling Asain vegetable dishes I have had in some time. For this banquet for four (including the crab), the price/person was a remarkable $21.00.

I understand from the ever intrepid Robert Sietsema that Mie Jakarta is a rare Javanese restaurant that competes against several rival Sumatran establishments (including one on the same black, of which MJ is an offshoot). Although the restaurant is rather tight, it is also serene in its shades of pink and tan. Mie Jakarta means Jakarta Noodles (Jakarta is Indonesia's capital and financial center), and the restaurant, lacking an extensive menu specializes in "Mie" or noodles. It is the Queens equivalent of a warung or hawker stall. Price/person was $8.00.

The most startling pleasure was the Sio Mie - rice noodle dumplings surrounded by a peanut sauce with palm sugar (although pronounced like the Chinese Shu-mei, it is quite distinct). The noodles were compelling and addictive, and I left musing on how to create a Sio Mie pipeline to the Midwest. Also delightful were Mie Goreng, the traditional Indonesian fried noodles, and a lovely, frothy, fruity, pink cream drink with tapioca and avocado. I was less taken with the fried wontons, more snacks than food and the Ayam Rica, Chicken covered with a red sauce of pickled chilies - although not super-hot, and surrounded with egg, rice, cucumber slices, and shrimp chips. Mie Jakarta is a choice restaurant hidden in plain sight that every chowist hopes to discover. I did.

A few doors down from Mie Jakarta is Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House, a modest stand with a few tables, serving Northern Chinese dumplings. Happily we were able to watch a noodle master stretching and shaping dough for our repast. Most striking among a triad of dumplings was boiled Celery Dumplings which I found surprisingly evocative and a very good version of Fresh Pork and Chive dumplings. Our long noodles with beef and herbs was fulfilling. And as pleasurable was the food (a few dollars/person) - and the company - we chose to eat at the diverse and busy local park, a block from the restaurant, the one-time homestead of Clement Moore, the Nineteenth Century Episcopal leader and poet, best known for "The Night Before Christmas." Consuming superb dumplings on a warm July evening in a charming park, I was receiving my presents under the tree.

The fourth restaurant is a small Sri Lankan café that I visited for lunch on my trip to Staten Island. Tiny and modest with four tables, this is not a restaurant for a large crowd, and the food is aimed at the working Sri Lanka community. I enjoyed talking with the proprietor (a friend is Sri Lankan), and relished the mutton and chicken dishes. Lamb (or mutton) roti, a rich, dark chicken curry, and samosas were all good with the curry worth a repeat. (Perhaps $10.00 for my meal). The dosas (thosas) and bowl-shaped breads called hoppers were not available that Sunday. Along with Italian food, Sri Lanka cuisine is characteristic of Staten Island, and justifies a ferry ride on a lovely summer day.

Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House
86-08 Whitney Avenue (at Broadway)
Queens (Elmhurst)

Mie Jakarta
86-20 Whitney Avenue (at Broadway)
Queens (Elmhurst)

New Asha Café
322 Victory Boulevard (at Cebra Avenue)
Staten Island (Tompkinsville)

Skyway Malaysian Restaurant
11 Allen Street (at Canal)
Manhattan (Chinatown)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Guys, Let's Put on a Meal New York City Entry #108 Blue Hill at Stone Barns/Blue Hill

The first serious meal that I ate in New York this year was at Blue Hill. So to provide symmetry my friend and I decided to return, but now to Blue Hill at Stone Barns. We dutifully made a commitment and assured the reservationist that nothing could prevent us from showing up at the appointed time. And so we fought our way through Grand Central. Upon alighting in Tarrytown with plenty of time in the gray, thick, heated air, we hailed a cab to be told that a storm had blown through and traffic was slow. Yet, our cabbie was a roadmaster and we arrived at Stone Barns at precisely 5:30, just as promised.

Stop the presses! Tarrytown had just experienced what in New York passes for a tornado, not an Oklahoma Supercell, but what my friends in Tulsa call "a bit of wind." The storm knocked out local electricity. And after our long trek, we were informed by a staffette that the kitchen was closed.

Say it ain't so, Dan. At most restaurants this might be a problem, but Blue Hill should treat it as a challenge. This is a restaurant that prides itself on its ingredients. No heat? OK, let's picnic. At 5:30, there were daylight hours left and a few candles were to be had.

This was an opportunity for Dan Barber to demonstrate that cojones are not just to slice and fry. Here is where we separate the chef from the sheep. A stream of hungry diners appeared, each turned away with an apology and a smile. We were informed that the staff didn't want to enter the coolers because the food would spoil! Sheesh! An opportunity squandered!

Use that luscious asparagus, luxurious berries, oysters, clams, apples, beans, mint, lettuce, nuts, and guanciale. Whip up some Hollandaise. Who needs a blender? Pour oil and vinegar. Open some wine. Start a campfire for S'mores. Have the staff at Blue Hill downtown form a caravan. Show the customers your stuff and show it gratis.

If Chef Barber was unwilling to turn lemons into lemonade, we weren't. Returning to New York, we plotted to visit the Blue Hill farmstead in the Village. And we were welcomed by Franco, the Blue Hill manager and his congenial staff. Yes, Blue Hill had electricity, but somehow the power never satisfied the air conditioner. Blue Hill was a steaming meadow until the restaurant emptied out, and as Blue Hill is a tight restaurant with low ceilings, and absence of a cool breeze was noticeable.

Still, the meal was noticeably superior to my first meal on the Hill. Hoping to capture the Barns oeuvre, we selected the Farmer's Feast, and began with a pungent, elegant and herbal Garden Green Gazpacho. It was a nicely chilled blend of vegetables, perhaps peppers, parsley, green tomatoes, and garlic. The amuse was paired with an olive oil financier, a cake that satisfied through its subtlety and being paired with the more potent soup.

Summer Bean and Herb Salad with Pistachios and Stone Barns Lardo, another cold dish (get the point!) was the high point of the meal. This is the cuisine that Blue Hill is known for. Profound and evocative ingredients, transformed but without being gussied up. The wax and green beans were luxurious, even the parsley - not one of my beloved foodstuffs - was as bright as a garden morning. This was a delightful opening for an agricultural repast.


The Lightly Smoked Lobster with Creamless Corn Chowder, Guanciale (cured pig's jowl) and Clams was another sublime dish. Granted Lobsters are not to be found up the Hudson, but they had a freshness that compared with any local fish camp. The dish was airy, and with bright summer corn was a candidate for the ideal summer dinner. Splendid.


The Blue Hill Farm Pastured Chicken with Roasted Nugget Potatoes, Local Chanterelles and Black Trumpet Mushrooms was as fine a piece of chicken placed before me since I was last at Jean's in Mount Vernon, Kentucky for their pan-fried poultry. Here was a tender, moist, flavorful bird, succulent and sensuous. If the potatoes and mushrooms didn't improve the meat, they didn't need to.


Both desserts were a letdown. The Cherry Soup with Mint Sorbet was a mismatch. Not only was the sorbet grainy and harsh, but it clashed with the sweetness of the soup. Few sorbets are unpleasant, but this was not a dish to reprise.


Steamed Cheesecake with Marinated Blueberries was served in a mason jar. Aside from the idiosyncrasy of its presentation, it was ordinary and could benefitted from a more generous helping of the marinated berries. At a moment at which exquisite low-bush blueberries are taking flight on the hillsides of Maine, these berries were pedestrian.


Blue Hill is ingredient-given, as evident in our appetizers and entrees. And had our intended destination been the steamy streets of Washington Square Park, we would have been well-pleased. But for this night we wished to be gourmets eating on the land, and no cyclone should have upended our fantasy. Dan, you're not in Oz anymore.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, New York

Blue Hill
75 Washington Place (at 6th Avenue)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Gastro Chic New York City Entry #107 Spotted Pig

One of shocks to the Gotham culinary mind was the awarding of a Michelin star to New York's first - and perhaps only - "gastropub." Here was the cute little Spotted Pig in Babbo's rarified company (Chef Batali is reported to be a silent partner at the Pig, along with Ken Friedman and London Chef April Bloomfield). There was no doubt that the Pig was a convivial neighborly place, but could a saloon be anointed for its haute cuisine?

It is said that there is no accounting for fashion, and somehow the Pig has transcended its West Village neighborhood to become a "phenomenon." When we arrived at 6:00, the bar had a pleasant Cheers-like feel; by the time we left, two hours later, we had to push our way to the exit, and the night was still in its infancy - a good six hours left to play. Indeed, arriving in time for the Senior's Discount, we missed the true Pig experience.

With its wood floors, exposed brick, and inviting bar, the Spotted Pig (which last year expanded to a second floor) is homey, if in a somewhat generic way. Emptied of customers, one would have no idea that this space will become the center of the downtown universe. The staff, as befits a generous community center, moved with verve and humor. Whether their joy derives from images of tips to come or from the pleasure of being a part of a happening is hard to tell, perhaps both.

The menu, beginning with such bar routines as Chicken Liver Toast, Marinated Olives, Pickles, Roasted Almonds, and Duck Egg, suggests modest satisfactions. However, further reading suggests Chef Bloomfield's ambitions. Having six entrees and desserts and ten appetizers the kitchen is not overtaxed. With its signature chargrilled burger and ricotta gnudi with pesto, the dishes avoid the fussy or challenging. Whether the Pig used to indulge in "modern English cuisine," the British influence is muted; the menu has a vaguely Italianate feel with its Mozzarella with Fava Bean Bruschetta; Gnudi; Pork Tonnata; and Squid and Fennel.

Despite the odds, the Spotted Pig provides early diners pleasure. We began with a pair of appetizers, Radish Salad with Parmesan and Arugula and an order of Sheep's Ricotta Gnudi with Pesto (a cross between gnocchi and ravioli).

The Salad was the star of the evening, one of the most potent salads that I have ordered. Radish are a vegetable less often seen in Manhattan than durian, but I recall it fondly from my childhood, sharing a chilled bowl with my radish-relishing dad. The parmesan cut some of the bitter edge of the radish. It was both gentle on the eyes and zippy on the tongue.


The Gnudi did not live up to its billing as a key offering. I found the gnocchi blanketed by a salty sauce and rather mushy dumplings. It was rich and filling, but not of star quality.


We shared an entree, Pot Roast Rabbit with Green Garlic. The dish was unpretentious but compelling. This is not complex cuisine, but is undeniably well-made. The garlic-based sauce did not overwhelm the pieces of hare, but bolstered its rural charm. This dish, like the others tasted, didn't require extensive culinary acumen, but it evoked a blessed moment before cuisine became finicky (repeat in unison, "what splendid food in a pub!"). With our entree we chose two sides: the Pig's famous Shoestring Fries with Rosemary, as delicious as it was impossible to eat daintily. Bits of spud flew everywhere. Thank goodness this is a pub where no one examines the floor. The heirloom beans were stewed, passable with a subtlety of color, even if the tastes were indistinct.




Dessert was what the Pig labels Banoffee: Banana-Toffee Tart. What a sweet tart: luscious and sugary with strong flavors of ban and offee. A Sundae pie for those who take their calories straight up.


The Spotted Pig works nicely as a modest restaurant that is both joyous and serious, but of course it is more. The Pig combines community center, dating bar, tavern, and nosherie. That the kitchen has ambitions makes it a dining destination for the beau monde. Whether this tiny, crushed, and charming pub can shuffle its audiences is for time to sort. Today this piglet is a spot of alright.

The Spotted Pig
314 W. 11th Street (at Greenwich St.)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

For My Money New York City Entry #106 Sushi of Gari

A few days ago I had a reservation for dinner at Masa. I couldn't pull the trigger. My New York dinner adventures have dented hopes for retirement, and, even for you dear readers, I chose not to put myself on the street, begging seal-style for raw fish. With two days and counting, I canceled. A sushi banquet whose tariff would have landed on the far side of half-a-G was too lush for this working stiff.

For a sliver of Masa's charge, I could indulge in Sushi of Gari's omakase. Gari is the compact outlet for contemporary sushi on the Upper East Side. If Jewel Bako is a paragon of purity, Gari toys with the genre.

The space itself is comfortable if close. The restaurant is dominated by a sushi counter behind which five black-clad chefs labored. While one chef seemed to have greater sway, the lines of authority are not tightly drawn. During the late evening, there was little interaction with the customers. This is a restaurant where efficiency rules. Around the center space were placed some dozen small tables. The room is not startling austere or elegant, but pleasant in a somewhat nondescript fashion: black tables, flowered carpet, airy white hanging light fixtures, and the ever-present oak accents. More nice than noticeable.

Omakase at Gari is a straightforward matter. For $79, I received a dozen carefully prepared sushi. Dining solo, the meal lasted an hour. It wasn't exactly rushed, but the twelve pieces of sushi appeared together and it was time to chow down (without miso to conclude).

The quality of the fish was excellent (and the otoro exquisite), but it was the twists and turns that made the meal so filled with fun. And, for all the virtues of Japanese cuisine, playfulness is not a label that often gets attached to these repasts. (Some vegetables or fish paste in miso can appear in cunning shapes). As is proper, soy sauce is not provided, but is incorporated in the preparation (the variation is part of the taste contour of the meal).

The image below depicts the plate. Read the selections in three rows. I begin with the diagonal row nearest the front and read from upper right to lower left (three, five, and four):


1) Bluefin Tuna with Creamy Tofu Sauce. This is, in effect, the chef's amuse, waking the palate. Of all the pieces, Gari uses soy sauce most assertively with the bluefin to contrast with the creamy tofu. Simple and thrilling.

2) Red Snapper, Baby Greens, Lotus Root, and Olive Oil. Of the snappers, this was my favorite, perhaps the most glorious creation of the evening. The lotus root gave a lovely crunch, and the greens (or vinegar) had a compelling sour taste.

3) Salmon covered with sauteed tomato and onion. Here was a heated piece, almost a sushi pizza. Very rich and flavorful, a textural surprise.

4) Mackerel, Daikon, Scallion, and Caviar. This was somewhat chewy in consistency. The oily texture played off the previous fish, but this was one of the least compelling creations.

5) Golden Eye Red Snapper with toasted seaweed. A simple and rich preparation. In its simplicity it contrasted the more complex preparations that had come before.

6) Seared Salmon. Another simple presentation, and stunning in reminding me how buttery fresh fish can be.

7) Miso Marinated Grilled Yellowtail. Subtle and good. Less memorable than some other pieces, although the purity of the fish was satisfying.

8) Fatty Tuna (Otoro) with Mashed Daikon. The daikon puree was too wet for my taste. A relatively unsuccessful piece.

9) Fatty Tuna (Otoro) with Garlic and Ginger Jelly was brilliant in its contrasts. A dance of complex tastes and beautiful fish.

10) Mackerel. I missed the waitress's description, but the taste of the sauce reminded me of coffee. Whatever it was, the combination was odd, more curious than brilliant.

11) Pike Eel with Plum Sauce. I loved the slightly sweet, salty, and smoky taste of the eel and the plummy drop of red atop. Here was a traditional sushi transformed in a fashion that delighted. A treasure of the kind in which Gari specializes.

12) Snow crab. A simple, straightforward close to the dozen pieces. Although this was not the finest crab I've had, it made a sweet, pure contrast with its predecessors.

This omakase intrigued and provoked, but it was one that would have been more satisfying had pieces been served in three courses, row by row, forcing a more intense focus on each piece. One had to fight against the temptation to treat them as Sushi McNuggets. These nuggets demand consideration bite by swallow.

Negotiating the way to the washrooms reminds diners that Gari is not Masa, and, as creative as Chef Masatoshi "Gari" Sugio reveals himself to be, Chef Masayoshi "Masa" Takayama may win the battle of the Sushi Masa's (just a hunch). Yet, for my money - and it IS my money - Sushi of Gari does just fine. And as Chef Gari is my namesake, this is a lagniappe too delicious to ignore.

Sushi of Gari
402 East 78th Street (at First Avenue)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Pleasant Dreams New York City Entry #105 Rao's

Rao's - the old school Southern Italian clubhouse, founded in 1896 at what is today a rare Italian corner of "Spanish Harlem" - is stuffed with "mystique." New Yorkers joke about the networking necessary to snare a reservation, six degrees of culinary separation. And those who are not so blessed (and some who are) turn up or look down their noses at a restaurant that represents, in this view, the "hysteria of hype." As Groucho realized, if Frank Pellegrino were to select YOU, is this really the place you would wish to dine? Rating restaurants by the effort to get a table, Rao's deserves three Michelin stars, but how would they know? Those Gallic judges surely didn't make the cut: Rao's is not listed.

When I arrived in Manhattan, I tried to get a reservation the old-fashioned way. I soon learned that the phone number was never answered (could it be caller ID?). It was a jape played on hopeful hicks. And in time, I came to believe that I was no more likely to meet Mickey the Vest (Rao's legendary sommelier) than I was to meet Mickey Mouse. And like a childish fantasy, I pushed Rao's from my mind, satisfied with Dominick's, Roberto's, Falai, and Marioland.

A few weeks ago, a deus ex machina occurred, implausible had it been scripted on Broadway. A colleague to whom I confided my fantasy informed me that a friend of a friend of a friend (and so on) who was supposed to dine bowed out. Let no seat be wasted; I was invited, warned that sometimes even reservations do not come to pass. And there I was - on leafy corner of Pleasant Avenue, a congenial lane if there ever was one. Being on my best behavior meant no flash photography, so a thin gruel of words must suffice (Bouley and Boulud don't seem to mind, but why chance it?).

From the street, Rao's resembles an upscale English pub, and the front bar dominates the room. (Rao's website needles hopeful applicants that "If you do not have a reservation, you can always have a drink at the bar." I am slightly dubious of this happy welcome, fearing the challenge of crowd control, but perhaps it is so). The room, walnut booths and circular tables, is of modest size with its most distinguishing design feature the excess of framed photographs on the wall. Of course, one no longer finds people strategizing to get into Sardi's, so that can't be all there is. The room is tight enough that gazing at the pictures is not likely. They reflect a surfeit of celebrity, rather than a visual guestbook. Life in Bloombergia insures that Rao's is smoke-free, but with enough imagination one can still smell those pungent Havanas.

Some trattorias trade on the celebrity at the stove - the auteur in the kitchen. Rao's is not among them. Anne Pellegrino Rao (the beloved "Aunt Anne"), the wife of then owner Vincent Rao, used to work the burners, but those nights have passed. Neither the website nor the gossip mill mentions the chef de cuisine. Whoever is cooking has much talent, but the food requires quick hands more than a nimble mind. Unlike Arthur Avenue's Roberto's, which chalks up its specials, suggesting the value added of kitchen inspiration, the verbal recital of dishes at Rao's does not advertise any offering as newly emergent from the gustatory brain.

What is crucial, what makes us all fighting fish, is the company. A possibility exists of being "where the action is." The restaurant is a cioppino of mugs, molls, toffs, cops, pols, profs, players, and the odd immortal Scientologist. But the heart of Rao's are Frankie (Frank Pellegrino, the co-owner), Joey (the maitre d'), and Mickey the Vest (the sommelier, outfitted in one of his 156 vests). Our night all three were present, and perhaps it was the sweet summer air or their innate charm, but we could hardly have been more accepted. Frank greeted us - and sized us up - at the door, and Joey and Mickey each visited the table. Joey pulled up a chair to explain the dishes and Mickey seconding our choice of a smooth, deep Banfi Brunello di Montalcino (I believe this was the Banfi we finally selected). From whatever random act of a chuckling God, we received a prime table, able to observe the community at the bar and in the booths. To insure that the evening was proceeding apace our reservation broker appeared to check on our good behavior, validating our bona fides (Rao's is the kind of place where that matters, a tactic less evident at Chez Panisse). We felt fuzzy, warm, and welcome, and were ready to spend on the dubious assumption that the size of our bill and our repetitious enthusiasm might at the end of this honeysuckle eve translate into a candied, "you'll come back now, boys."

So, we live to eat, no? Point one, no. My Dinner at Rao's was among my most memorable evenings through the Theater of Being There. For a few hours I belonged, and was damn glad. That night is recorded on the DVD of my DNA. Granted Woody Allen, Tony Bennett, Harry Potter, or the cast of South Park were not about, but we could imagine whom our fellow diners might be. And we were treated as if we might be them.

Point two. The food was, given its genre, impressive. I can't imagine traditional Southern Italian cuisine prepared with more mastery and panache. If Socrates were Bruni, he might label Rao's roasted sweet peppers as Platonic. Recall the sad tomatoes at Luger's. After tasting Rao's tomatoes, matched with mozzarella, I suspect some fiendish vegan gavage. Purists might have groused that the baked clams had gone missing under a mound of luxuriant buttered crumbs, but thinking of these bivalves as a oceanic stuffing made it lovely.

We selected two pastas, each perfectly prepared. Orecchiette (Shells) with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage and Penne with Tomato Sauce. I loved the mild, sweet spice of the tomato sauce, and the shells were as buttery as any. With two dishes split among four, we were on the right track.

As entrees, we chose herbed filet of sole, lemon chicken, and veal chop with peppers. The lemon chicken was simple, astonishing, and simply astonishing. The broiling of the chicken, browned to a moist blackened perfection, was matched by its snappy citrus marinade. No steamed yuzu, not even candied kumquat. The veal was juicy and tender, and the pepper, contributed a sweet-sour-spicy relish. I was less impressed by the sole, no danger of this fish being undercooked. It was fish of the old-school. The flavor was evocative, but the texture lacked bounce.

With our entrees, we ordered sides of escarole and spinach. I particularly treasured the slightly bitter bite of the escarole, but these were straightforward greens, boiled and buttered.

Tartufo, a bombe with vanilla and chocolate ice cream with a bit of raspberry jam, was surrounded by a rich chocolate shell. This dessert was as direct and immediate as a sweet can be, but none the worse for that. My friend's cheesecake was smooth, rich, and sweet. It was less the traditional New York slightly sour, slightly dry, slightly dense cake than how cheesecake is currently served throughout the land.

So, how was Rao's? If I claimed that it was a once-a-lifetime experience, I might falsely be on record that I have no desire to return. I lack the street cred to cadge a table without strings, but if I had to choose a place at which to be a benevolent patron, I can think of no sweeter spot than this starry venue on Pleasant Avenue.

455 E. 114th Street (at Pleasant Avenue)
Manhattan (East Harlem)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Scoops 6: Italian Ice Edition New York City Entry #105

With summer fully in place, I have been scurrying through the boroughs, tracking down the premier Italian ices: specifically Staten Island's Ralph's (with two outlets in Queens), Brooklyn's L&B Spumoni Gardens, and Queens' Lemon Ice King of Corona. Although it would be nice to report a race to the finish, in fact the outcome was never in doubt.

It is said that Frank Sinatra used to have his driver trek to Corona for Lemon Ice. Ol' Blue Eyes sure knew his ices. LIKC makes the Italian Ice of one's dreams. The ice is finely pulverized, leaving no chunks. The only texture comes from tiny bits of fruit, not so large as to become frozen. Whether one is consuming lemon, melon, peach, vanilla chip, cherry, or strawberry, the flavor is intense and pure. On any day, there are likely to be two dozen choices. As LIKC is about ten blocks from the nearest subway line (the 7), one works up a sweat that only a LIKC ice can satisfy. Famously the Lemon Ice King does not permit mixing of flavors, so it has become my habit (and it is becoming a habit) to purchase three small cups.

If getting to LIKC is a hike, Ralph's requires a car, taxi, or a Staten Island bus. Like LIKC, ices are served through the front window. And like LIKC, Ralph's has some two dozen (some water-based - the one's I tried - and some milk-based). I was impressed by the depth of flavor - I ordered Sour Cherry and Cantaloupe. The intensity of the cherry was remarkable. However, small chunks of ice remained in each. Should one prefer an ice that edges toward a snow cone, Ralph's will surely suit.

Most disappointing was the watermelon ice that I had at Brooklyn's L&B Spumoni Gardens (the spumoni ice cream was just fine, although the Sicilian square pizza slice was a bit salty for my taste. L&B is more a restaurant than an icery - but they, too have a front window to make one's purchases). Neither the flavor or texture made my trip to Gravesend worth repeating. When one describes the flavor of an Italian ice as "subtle," one knows trouble is afoot. I give L&B credit for providing something cool on a hot day, but I'll stick with spumoni.

Lemon Ice King of Corona
52-02 108th Street (at Corona Avenue)
Queens (Corona)

L&B Spumoni Gardens
2725 86th Street (at West 10th Street and Avenue V)
Brooklyn (Gravesend)

Ralph's Famous Italian Ices
501 Port Richmond Avenue (at Catherine Street)
Staten Island (Port Richmond)