Friday, December 30, 2005

De-Lovely New York City Entry #50

What did the beau monde so love about The Four Seasons? It was Cole Porter with grub.

The Philip Johnson-designed restaurant embodied the power lunch and the public tryst, encased within Mies van der Rohe's stunning Seagram Building, an exemplar of the boxy International Style. More than this, The Four Seasons was our celebrity clubhouse hosting a museum quality art collection by Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro, Frank Stella, and Pablo Picasso. The restaurant exuded élan from its opening in 1959. JFK spent his 45th birthday in the restaurant, chowing down shortly before Marilyn Monroe's breathy serenade. The Four Seasons - less dowager than roué - has had its up-and-downs, and perhaps it will rise again.

Despite the artwork and the architecture, the Four Seasons depressed me. Our meal was not a train wreck, but it could not bear the freight. Continental cuisine, like the International Style in architecture, died in the dust of the Berlin Wall. It was the attempt of Americans on the march to prove that they were citizens of the world, more sophisticated than their dour Soviet rivals. Unlike the flowering mid-century French cuisine at La Grenouille build on classical techniques, the Four Seasons relies on bourgeois standards, gussied up to create an illusion of elegance.

We reserved a table in the Pool Room, a space dominated by a square pond - perhaps ten feet on a side. Sitting by its edge I tried to recall what made it once feel sublime. All we needed was a few Jewish matrons and we could have had a mikvah.

The pool is framed by four tall artificial pine trees, scraggly and lifeless. The space feels forlorn. Only the shimmering window chains captures what this place must have meant to Jack and Marilyn. Johnson designed the room for diners to see and be seen, a paparazzi dream.

Continental cuisine traditionally places as much attention on the server's performance as on the skills of those hidden behind the kitchen door. Although Christian Albin has spent over thirty years at the Seasons as Sous Chef and Executive Chef, he is hardly a presence in the New York dining scene.

We began with Caesar Salad, composed table-side. Our waiter, surely a lifer at his station, performed gamely, and the results were a sturdy rendition of this classic. My wife has a gimlet eye for Caesar Salad: my mother-in-law was a sublime practitioner of this art. The lettuce, cheese and raw egg yolk dressing were first-rate (although light on the Worcestershire), but the croutons were dry and hard, not richly buttered, and the salad was served without requisite bits of anchovy. As a disconcerting touch our waiter spooned some mustard from a bottle of Grey Poupon mustard: one of life's finer pleasures for Kraft execs. The Caesar was respectable and the most satisfying dish of the night.

My wife and I both selected seafood for our main course. This was probably a mistake, but scallops, one of my wife's favorites, was a special and I daydream about Dover Sole Meuniere. The problem with seafood as cooked in the continental style is that it is routinely, traditionally, and thoughtlessly dredged in flour, giving even the freshest fish a touch of glue, a sin in the age of essences.

Nantucket Scallops were served with cauliflower puree and two types of baby cauliflower (white and purple). As a bow to the Twentieth-First Century a few springs of micro-greens decorated the plate. The scallops were fresh, although cooked to a degree of doneness not often found at a moment when the line between sushi and saute is increasingly smudged. I applaud the tiny florets and the creamy puree - the most idyllic sensation of the evening.

My sole was an impressively large filet. The problem, again, was the dredging. The sole looked golden, but I would have preferred a golden taste. Passe and pasty. On the side was a mild and smooth sauce that I took to be a Sorrel Cream Sauce (a lovely sea-foam green). The sauce was not listed on the menu; when I called I was shunted to several cooks, none of whom seemed familiar with the dish. (Had I been treated like royalty or was this bearnaise from the back of the fridge?) The implausible conclusion was that I had been served a lemon parsley beurre blanc.

For dessert we ordered a pair of souffles - Pear William and Grand Marnier - identical except for the sauce. After nearly half a century one would imagine that the Four Seasons might have perfected the souffle. Yet the aroma of the souffles seemed heavy with flour (or, perhaps, cornstarch) and being somewhat overcooked seemed more eggy than airy. Lacking wings, the dessert was pedestrian. Neither sauce had a kick.

At the end of the meal we were presented a plate of cookies and truffles. They had been tossed on the plate, some lying on their side. Forgettable all.

As at La Grenouille, I had hoped that this meal would recapture those magical dining experiences to which I had been early exposed. I wanted to be transfixed. Yet, La Grenouille constructs its dishes on deservedly classic techniques. In contrast, The Four Seasons is fancy food for rich folk. The Pool Room may deserve historical preservation, but it hasn't aged well as a dining place. Some architects create timeless spaces; the Pool Room's grandeur was oh-so-timely.

To experience how the beau monde supped during the Kennedy presidency the Four Seasons is a good choice. The Four Seasons freeze-dries opulence, but lacks the dynamic soul of cuisine. At prices that match restaurants with a heart and a brain, serving food that merely has a past is insufficient. De-luxe and de-lovely.

The Four Seasons
99 East 52nd Street (at Lexington Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

JJ-20 New York City Entry #49

The closest restaurant to my high-rise aerie happens to be Jean-Georges Vongerichten's bistro moderne Jo Jo. I have hesitated to dine with him, wondering how good could it be if it was so close. But someone must live down the block from paradise.

Jo Jo is not paradise, but a $20.00 prix fixe lunch makes for a rather stellar luncheonette. Jo Jo opened in 1991, with the young chef fresh from Lafayette. The bistro with its light vegetable stocks created quite a stir with its friendly prices, informality, and a cuisine described as "vibrant and spare." Jean-Georges produces a rollicking minimalism. In 2001 Jo Jo received a facelift, a fantasia in purple and green (plum and kiwi if one prefers) that is something of a cross between a narrow Roman piazza and creepy Jersey brothel: I found the space simultaneously cramped and unduly lush.

What makes Jo Jo an admirable culinary outpost is its $20.00 midday prix fixe: two small courses and a trio of sorbetti. A taste of Jean-Georges at an Applebee's price. Comparing the prix fixe lunch at Jean-Georges' Nougatine, the quality of the food is better on the East Side, although the portions are smaller. The dessert is worth walking to Columbus Circle.

I started with Shrimp with Orange Powder, Artichoke Hearts, and Arugula Salad. I was pleased by the buttery lettuce, and felt that the slightly citrus taste of the shrimp nicely cut the richness of the artichoke. The dish was not a pyrotechnic marvel, but it was a satisfying starter.

My second course was Black Bass with Cucumber and Basil Vinaigrette with Mashed Potatoes, crowned with a sprig of basil. This too was a pleasant, though spare, dish. I was surprised, first with discomfort and then with greater pleasure, at the inclusion of a slice of jalapeno: it added jazz. Too gaunt for a memorable dish, I appreciated the intent.

The trio of closing sorbets included an unfortunately icy Apple Cider sorbet, and scoops of smooth and soothing Coconut and Raspberry.

Jo Jo offers pleasurable and creative dishes reflecting the Vongerichten style and at the price the lunch is among the city's better values. At close to two hours, the meal dragged a bit; more attention to timing is needed.

Jean-Georges's website makes no mention of his worthy Chef de Cuisine, the name of his publicist is, in contrast, available.

Jo Jo
160 East 64th Street (at Lexington Avenue)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)
Quenelle Man New York City Entry #48

Who eats quenelles anymore?

Making a profound pike quenelle is as tough as cooking. Perhaps the architectural or chemical feats of other chefs seem hard, but let these Irony Chefs make the perfect quenelle at some imaginary quenelle Olympics - this finely minced fish, bound with egg, served with a fish veloute from a stock that takes a week to ripen. These are dumplings that could float away if not consumed quickly.

With my wife, an intense gardener, in town, lunch at La Grenouille (“The Frog”) would not not happen. La Grenouille, now 43 years old, presents dining as floral fantasy. If The Frog couldn’t cadge a star from Michelin, it would receive a corsage from Horticulture.(Most restaurants sell cookbooks, Le Grenouille published a book of their floral displays). With red velvet banquettes, rosy bouquets, and sensual hush this is romance to a higher power. Fine dining can still mean a silky meal in a silken space. If La Grenouille was never the best in town (think Le Pavillon or Lutece), it presented a respectful classical French cuisine little in evidence today. Most competitors are six feet under (with only Le Perigord of the Grande Dames remaining).

Service is of the old school. Servers (all male) can no longer impress with Parisian hauteur, possible when insecure New Yorkers aspired to formality. In Bloomberg’s New York the culinary air is cleansed of smoke and snoot. Our waiters were attentive and helpful, although I wondered about the lost ‘tude. Still, old skills remain. When my wife rose to use the ladies’ lounge (a euphemism from days before “I must piss”) the waiter dove to pull out her chair. He could have caught a sinking line drive at Shea.

In this day of celebrity cooks, it is odd to find a restaurant that does not advertise their chef. I must do so. The Executive Chef is Matthew Tropeano. The restaurant’s website - with such beautiful images of its floral arrangements - provides a black-and-white candid of a scrabbly Chef Tropeano looking vaguely like Anthony Bourdain on a bad night. No mention of Chef Tropeano’s past achievements or, pace Ducasse, no hint of his philosophy of life. The Frog doesn’t treat their chef as auteur. We speculated that he was a cyborg - more Isaac than Eric Asimov - programmed in the 1960s by a mad restauranteur in a lab beneath the Champs. When working with the constraints of tradition, owners do not wish the chef to outshine servers or cuisine, but Chef Tropeano deserves respect, even if he is channeling Escoffier.

We selected our lunches to recapture the grandness of classic cuisine, to taste what La Grenouille does best. My wife ordered Corn and Chicken Liver Crepes with Sherry Vinegar. Not every foie must be gras. The dish was a small, precise composition, building on a contrast of flavors and textures. That it was chicken liver gave the dish a rustic charm, but the sherry vinegar linked the plate to traditions of haute cuisine. This was not a haute presentation, but it was set within traditional taste.

My soup was a Veloute aux Marrons - Chestnut-Fennel Soup. It was as creamy and caloric as grand cuisine demands. But wait! Floating in the middle of the bowl, a cloud of foam! I could not have been more surprised had I found a tadpole doing the backstroke. Granted this was an egg white foam (not wasabi or kabocha), but it seemed that even such a fortress as The Frog is not immune from buckshot from Ferran Adria. Bully for them. Chef Tropeano added a touch of aromatic thyme on the foam and a bit of cranberry compote in the soup, and I consumed liquid satin with a hint of a new culinary century. It was delightful, even if - like so much at La Granouille - it trades pungency for richness.

As main course, my wife selected a cheese souffle (with Supreme Sauce - a chicken-stock-based veloute with gobs of butter and cream). After forty years, La Grenouille has nailed the souffle. When our waiter opened the souffle to pour the aroma perfumed our table. The scent was all rose and cheese. Ahh! The texture revealed how food can become aura, wispy memory. Perhaps souffles are now ghettoized for those who cannot chew, but such a limit is sin.

I could not resist the quenelles of pike, served with rice and a fish veloute sauce. Those who believe that haute cuisine is weighty have never tasting a properly made quenelle - all air and fish and a smidgen of binding - and this was proper. By current standards the course lacked drama in its shades of white: Agnes Martin on a plate, but it was not minimalist in its essence of taste. As impressed as I was, I confess that I wished for a savory to provide an edge, demonstrating how corrupted I’ve become.

As dessert my wife ordered Warm Tarte Tartin with Vanilla Ice Cream. It was our least satisfying dish. Slightly burnt on one edge, the mille feuille was a bit soggy on the other. Although the flavors were fine, the texture disappointed. La Grenouille seems not to make their own ice cream. The scoop was rather ordinary.

In joyous contrast, I ordered Oeufs a la Neige. I might well have begun by asking “Who Eats Oeufs a la Neige anymore?” This is a grand dessert, known as “Floating Islands.” On a sea of custard sauce sit two bulky islands of sweet, soft meringue. But over the top - and over the top is the proper description - hovered a glowing mist of spun sugar. Spun sugar is magic, and Felencia, the Pastry Chef, a magician. (I don’t know why she is listed with but a single name, but with her sugar spinning skills, she could be Oprah).

La Grenouille is not a weekly treat (although I must try the Frog’s Legs), but there is great comfort in knowing that it still anchors New York dining. Given the filled dining room, the Frog has found its ecological niche.

Someone must prepare quenelles for those days on which huckleberry fugu simply will not do.

La Grenouille
3 East 52nd Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

One Fine Thing New York City Entry #47

The great steakhouse chef has the touch of a masseur. In preparing a soup, sauce, pasta, or panna cotta a cook can - and should - taste and taste, modulating ingredients until they are just so. Even many main courses can be prepared as to permit tasting. However, the steakman lacks this luxury. He must have an internal clock for each of hundreds of steaks broiling. To assure the clock is not in error, he pushes and prods his meat until it feels just so. When I spent a month observing in a fine local steakhouse, I was impressed what these young men could calibrate doneness by the heuristic of the hand: rare steak had the give of the webbing by the thumb and forefinger, and so forth. (This was in Minnesota, where I was told rare means medium rare on the east coast).

Steakmen also have the problem of truculent customers. Customers know how their steaks should be prepared, but medium can cover many colors and textures. If not cooked to their preferred level of doneness, diners, who take whatever fish or fowl they are served, demand that their steaks are recooked. Steakhouses often cook steaks slightly less than what they believe their customer really wants knowing that a hunk can always be cooked more, never less.

At a steakhouse three things matter: the steak, the ambiance, and the service. Get those right and you have customers for life. Combined they create the “idea” of the steakhouse: one’s unique selling proposition in marketing-speak.

Last night some friends and I traveled to Peter Luger in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. Peter Luger has been rated in Zagat as the best steakhouse in New York for 22 years running (I couldn’t discover the previous winner, but I guess that it might be Gallagher’s - now fallen on hard times, more than 30 steakhouses are rated more highly in Zagat. Gallagher’s is the palace of meat I knew of as a child - that and Tad’s, the charmingly grisly chain where, if God is weighing, I ate more pounds of muscle - and gristle - than anywhere else).

Peter Luger has been in business since 1887 (a year before Katz’s Deli). In 1950, after Luger’s death it was purchased by Sol Forman; his family stills runs the place, and the women in the family, famously, select the sides of meat from several competing purveyors whom, it is said, save the most glorious marbled prime cuts of porterhouse for Luger.

The decor at Luger is hardly decor. The establishment has the charms of a rather spare (but clean) German workingman’s beer hall: simple decorations (perhaps slightly more elaborate at Christmas time) and wood tables and floors. Peter Luger does not cater to fantasies of an exclusive men’s club or the ultrahip designer strip.

Waiters are known for their gruff New York charm (not Stage Deli faux-gruff, but the real New York deal). Our server, however, had been working for five months (at some point in their career every long-time waiter at Luger had worked there for five months!). He was charming with only the slightest touch of gruff, and he provided us with a menu without (much) complaint. Like the steaks, he will need some aging. Luger is terminally efficient. Had we not ordered dessert, we would have been out the door in well under two hours. We didn’t feel rushed, but there was no downtime between courses.

Unlike most steakhouses, Luger serves porterhouse all the time (steak hamburger is available at lunch, surely a decadent burger). Aside from sides, the choice is doneness.

Appetizers, sides, and desserts remind diners that one travels to Williamsburg for the steak. Nothing else was memorable. The tomato and onion appetizer combined a Vidalia-type onion slice with a beefy and flavorless tomato slice. Covering these slices with the sweetish steak sauce mostly added empty calories. The shrimp cocktail arrived with large meaty shrimp with a cocktail sauce that had a fine punch, but neither the shrimp or sauce justified our travel. The “Canadian bacon” was a thick slice of belly bacon, not true Canadian bacon, and was more dry than moist. Rolls were purchased from TriBeCa Bakery and were fine.

Sides included German fried potatoes and creamed spinach. The fried potatoes had been broiled slightly too long, but were nicely buttery and crunchy. As for Luger’s creamed spinach, I would choose Stouffer’s spinach souffle. Desserts were a sweet cheesecake and chocolate sundae. Both were adequate, but the schlag (heavy whipped cream) was more memorable than the desserts themselves. Perhaps the appetizers, sides, and desserts are not afterthoughts, but it is hard to imagine the family squeezing the tomatoes or potatoes, the way they squeeze the beef. One senses that Luger finds anything other than porterhouse as faintly embarrassing (even if the waiter did recommend these extras, as surely they boost profits).

Now the steak. We ordered a pair of two-for-two steaks: one rare and one medium rare. The rare steak was by far the most charismatic. Most steakhouses use meat as charcoal-delivery systems. Diners are drawn to char-o. Our medium-rare steak had that crusty quality. Luger’s steaks are not as soft as many (these are not steaks to be cut by a butter-knife), further they are not served as a huge hunk of muscle, but are sliced into smaller hunks. The medium-rare steak was a high quality steak, but not uniquely delicious.

The rare steak was another matter. It was less broiled than expected, permitting us to taste the naked beef. I was reminded of the recent “Cote de Boeuf” that I was served at Alain Ducasse. Of course, a Luger steak is topped with butter, and perhaps a little salt and pepper, but the desire to have customers experience an essence was similar. I was impressed. The heat had been perfectly calibrated to produce a cut of meat that was cooked but not past the point where taste gets muddled with the charring. Often charcoal and steak sauce, salt and pepper, leads diners to assume that steak is heavily pungent, but a great steak is like a fine Dover sole; it is a most subtle repast. Whether the flavor notes are those of grass or corn, I cannot say, but they demand a philosopher in the kitchen.

The wine list at Luger is odd. It is heavy on young Cabs from California and Bordeaux. We couldn’t resist a 2002 Chateau Beychevelle - a baby at three years, too young, but at $75 worth tasting, at least if I can recall its taste when it is time to open a 2002 Beychevelle in a decade. Wines this young clearly will not show to their best effect, but the prices are modest.

To eat through New York without visiting Peter Luger is a sin. I have had a few steaks this satisfying - in Fort Worth and in Sioux Falls and a great one before Morton’s went national - but Peter Luger is a temple of beef, even if it has but one altar.

Peter Luger Steak House
178 Broadway (at Driggs Avenue)
Brooklyn (Williamsburg)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Joy New York City Entry #46

This being Christmas in New York, orthodox tradition demanded dim sum. Last night we slept with visions of dancing dumplings and steamed buns. Tonight we spin our dreidels. With Jing Fong largely filled with a private party, we walked to Ping, the two-story Cantonese seafood restaurant on Mott Street. Ping is somewhat more sedate, elegant, quieter, and smaller than the larger Hong Kong dim sum halls, but its ambiance was just right.

Ping’s dim sum included suitable renditions of traditional choices (the larger seafood dishes seemed the more creative, but we preferred quantity of selections to quality). As might be expected from the expertise of the kitchen, the choices tended toward fish and shrimp away from pork dishes. Ping does not wheel carts between the closely spaced tables, servers bear trays. There was no disappointment among the buns, dumplings, and rolls, even if they didn’t redefine dim sum. The dish that I will recall was a dessert: coconut balls filled with a runny grey-black center of sweet sesame. The contrasts of rich sweetnesses was a splendid surprise for Christmas noon.

And a Merry Christmas and Hanukah to all. And, if Bill O’Reilly will forgive me, Happy Holidays as well.

Ping Seafood Restaurant
22 Mott Street (near Worth Street)
Manhattan (Chinatown)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Sturgeon King New York City Entry #45

Among my earliest culinary memories are the dinners that my parents - grandparents, great-aunts and uncles really - brought me to at Steinberg’s Dairy Restaurant on the Upper West Side (Broadway and 83rd?). All those meals distant memories. Ratner’s lasted longer a little longer, so I could take my children, but that too is a memory. Following Kosher laws, these restaurants did not serve meat. I can remember eating cutlets of nutmeats. I thought of it as a peanut butter steak.

The Upper West Side - where Jews once met literature - is now unrecognizable with literary agents fleeing from red-state Kansas a large segment of the population. Unrecognizable, except for its politics still so progressively zany as to be perverse. It could be worse.

With the exception of Zabars, now more like “Fauchon with yelling” than Russ and Daughters, only Barney Greengrass remains (NOT Greenglass of the Rosenberg trial). Reaching the century mark in 2008, Greengrass is - other than Russ and Daughters, which lacks tables - the place for lox, sturgeon, and whitefish - and borscht. (Mention should also be made of Murray's, also on the Upper West Side, and, although I haven't been, estimable).

I recently visited for lunch, and it was a memory trip. I started with a cup of borscht - matzo ball soup’s evil twin. Borscht at Barney has the color of strawberry Quik, a watery Pepto-Bismol, but its taste is all beet and cream. This is not a chowder, but a cool, smooth liquor.

The sturgeon and eggs is breakfast at lunch. Sturgeon is a smoked whitefish, more meaty and fishy than lox, and made for scrambled eggs. This was followed with lox - both belly lox (obsessively salty) and the more canonical Eastern smoked salmon (goy lox). Either could serve as a smoked fish totem. The Greengrass bagel is a good New York bagel as is the cream cheese, but both are Manhattan average.

Many New Yorkers will select Dr. Brown Cel-Ray Soda (celery on ice) as sturgeon’s tonic. Whatever comes and more often goes, Barney Greengrass prepares for its second century and we with them.

Barney Greengrass
541 Amsterdam Avenue (86th Street)
Manhattan (Upper West Side)

Friday, December 23, 2005

Classic New York City Entry #44

I was startled when dining at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. My wife and I were enjoying a distinguished meal which I commented had just barely missed the heights of culinary brilliance that I experience rarely (this year at a special dinner at Craft, and one at Alinea, and a third at Moto). She explained that I preferred molecular cuisine to classic dishes. To be more precise, she claimed I liked "weird food," but her point was taken.

What unsettled me was her claim that Alain Ducasse reflects classic cuisine. Of course the adjective "classic" is a moving target. But as someone who began dining at a moment in which classic French cuisine in New York City - La Caravelle, La Cote Basque, and the survivor La Grenouille - was haute cuisine, it is odd to think of Chef Ducasse and his Chef de Cuisine Tony Esnault as cribbing from Le Pavillon. Alain Ducasse is very much a man trained in the ferment of French cuisine in the last third of the twentieth century, a child of nouvelle cuisine and the other bastardy theories subsequently spawned, so well summarized by Rudolph Chelminski in The Perfectionist.

Ducasse is a purist. In Cuisine and Culture Jean-Francois Revel distinguishes between culinary traditions that rely on exploiting the essence of a few ingredients simplified in their perfection, and those artists who go for elaboration, decoration, ornamentation, and complexity. Often diners (and I often find myself among them) believe that the more complexity, the more creativity. Perhaps so, but the same can not be said of quality. Ducasse asserts that ingredients are more important than technique by a freakily precise 60/40 ratio (where does this come from?). Is the chef less important than the butcher, farmer or fisher? If so, let us head to their table.

Ducasse is a synthesizer, not an analyzer. He brings traditions together, leaving others to rip them apart. He searching for the center that will hold, refusing the lure of the edgy. This was not a night of deconstructed recipes. As Ducasse notes on his website, "Inventive cooking is an art which requires a complete knowledge of traditional methods." Knowledge, yes, but how should a chef display that knowledge. His dishes rarely provoke, they satisfy. To collect his stars Ducasse carefully modulates what the uptown establishment can appreciate. Yet, this is not the classic French cuisine of the Jackie Kennedy culinary moment. Ducasse has a lighter touch, he does judiciously combine flavors, and in his food served in "plein air," he is hardly a saucier's apprentice. Spa cuisine this is not, but neither is there much call for a defibrillator.

Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, or ADNY as it is known, is a space of bountiful grandeur, exquisitely decorated (His webpage reads like a guidebook to a French chateau). Of all the weighty New York restaurants (with the exception of Daniel), it is ADNY that depicts a temple of haute cuisine. It is grand cuisine for an informal age (Blazers required, but no ties). But when the bill appears one knows that it is not cuisine for an impoverished age. Ducasse claims Haute Cuisine must be "simple, approachable, and understood by everyone." SAU-E for the masses. And we are assured that "a restaurant is first and foremost a place to eat." Silly me, once the check arrived I could have sworn that it was a place to spend. (By perusing the wacky wine markups I was comforted to learn that I can retire on my cellar, if Alain is buying).

Our service was both precise and gracious. It was formal without being stuffy. If during the transit strike, ADNY rounded up servers off the street (my personal fantasy), they demonstrated that a suit makes the man. My only complaint - a curious one - was that when I asked for a copy of the menu for tasting notes, I was graciously presented one from some other week. The current menu (with minor exceptions) is on the website.

For those who seek cuisine in extremis, something is missing at ADNY. By being a restaurant that attempts perfection, the quirks of love's labor can be lost. This is a restaurant of violins, not the clash of cymbals. I was impressed with most dishes, even when I wouldn't have called for a second helping. The overall quality was far higher than my experience at Le Bernardin, even if the most sublime dishes of the meals were two inspirations of Chef Ripert. Recalling Le Bernardin, in contrast to the pathetic bread service I suffered through, the breads at ADNY are sublime: baguette, plain and crunchy, and a blissful olive brioche that demonstrate that bread, properly made, is heaven-sent.

Rather than ordering seven course tasting menus, my wife and I selected two four course dinners, permitting us to taste eight dishes to skip some dishes - venison, for instance - that didn't appeal (the dinner was $50 less than the tasting menu. Smart us.) At ADNY most of the tasting menu dishes are available on the main menu; with a partner that one can bully into sharing, life is complete.

Our amuse was a splendid truffle construction. ADNY pushes a white truffle tasting menu, and they are advertising their wares (earlier the waiter had brought over a dish of white truffles, marketing the ineffable). Over a small square of exquisitely raw tuna was celeriac salad and finely chopped white truffles with a small tail of black truffle. So aromatic was the bite that I understood why swine wake to tuber dreams. Forget the tuna, a Ritz cracker would have sufficed.

As appetizer I ordered "Roasted Langoustine with ‘Cepe' mushroom garnish with Riviera Ligure olive oil." I asked about the quotation marks surrounding the "cepe," chuckling that I spotted Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 grade irony, but the server insisted that no drollery was intended. I was half right: the boletes were served three ways, dried, as a chopped mash, and whole. The dish, simple yet elegant, contained superb fungi, shellfish and olive oil. Let us call this classic nouvelle. Perhaps it was too austere, but one could hardly find grounds for complaint.

My wife selected "Marinated Nantucket bay scallops, cucumber vinegar young potatoes "moutarde pomme verte," and hearts of romaine. And to seduce Alain's bookkeepers, she supplemented the dish with a ring of Caspian Golden Osetra Caviar. Perhaps the bay scallops were touched by heat, perhaps they were French ceviche, but whichever they stood at the zenith of sushi. The same might be said of the demure underage potatoes, they were as cool as scallops. This was another simple, pure plate, avoiding clashing flavors or clashing colors. Mild in conception and presentation. If one cares about perfect flavors, about balance, about freshness, this was the dish. Gosh, it was perfect. Served without a hint of Bolivian, Slovenian, or Cambodian spice or a whiff of nitrous oxide.

My fish course was Chatham cod with braised and raw fennel, Taggiasca olive tapenade and clear essence (perhaps a tribute to Bernard Loiseau's watery cuisine). I love fennel and this pair was the high point of a dish that was muffled and lacked pungency. The fish was overcooked (I am coming to insist that if my fish is not swimming, it has been cooked too long). The dish was soggy in conception and execution. Perhaps it was not a failure, but the dish was not so transcendent that its lack of zest seemed like profundity. Good fish with lovely fennel; call it a day.

Our second "fish" dish was Lobster with matchsticks of butternut squash, salsify, mango, and "jus de presse." The last I take to refer to grape "juice" runoff from the wine-making process. Of the evening's presentations this was the one that is most dramatic and astounding, and the lobster was stunning. Ducasse takes foodstuff's seriously. The flavors were complex and pungent, although in contrast to the other dishes dripping with essence, this plate felt forced. I relished the contrasting tastes - and this was no Alinea on the Seine - but it seemed beyond Alain's range.

My meat course returned to the core of the Ducasse style, "Dry Aged Prime "Cote de Boeuf," Glazed Short Ribs, and a contrast of carrots" (balled and chopped). The Cote de Boeuf (ribeye) is beef squared. It is either to its credit or disadvantage that, with the exception of a dusting of pepper, it lies nude. This is not beef so tender that one can carve with a butter knife, neither does it have the charred remains of great steakhouse cuts. Chefs Ducasse and Esnault are testing us - are we really carnivores, or is beef a delivery system for A-1. At present short ribs seem as popular as foie gras, a chef's delight. I expected to be shocked, teased, and challenged, instead I was pleased. I admire the commitment to quality, but when my plate was cleared I had been eating beef and carrots. A trip to Lobel's (the red meat Tiffany where my mother shopped) could have provisioned meat of Alain's quality, and if I didn't screw up at the stove, I could replicate the plate in my jammies.

My wife lusts after rack of lamb, and so Lamb Rack "Au Sautoir" (sauteed) with a condiment of dried fruits and piquillos (sweet red peppers from the Pyrenees) with creamy quinoa was the inevitable selection. I second her choice. The lamb was pure, distinctive without being gamy, and the peppers and fruits added an interest less evident in my beef. One could eat the rack naked or in an exotic autumnal clothing. Quinoa is today's faro, or is it the reverse? Placing quinoa on the plate was, well, a bit nutty. Not terribly misguided, but I wished for ravishing Franco-spuds.

Ah, dessert. One stunner: the Pear soufflé with Bartlett compote, "beurre salé"/caramel ice cream. I admire chefs who include bitter tastes in their culinary palette, and a burnt caramel ice cream (the way that beurre salé is typically prepared) has evokes a sweet bitterness. My wife was not so charmed by the custard as I, but it added a complexity to a soufflé that demonstrated the chef's finesse, but was not haunting. The burnt caramel demanded notice. I choose different arrangements of pear and caramel to explore the splendor of this post-classic composition.

The second dessert, a white chocolate box with roasted pineapple, soft vanilla biscuit, and coconut/lime sorbet reveals what happens when a restaurant that strives for simplicity attempts elaboration. I'm not sure if Pierre Gatel is still the pastry chef (he is not mentioned on the webpage - but was in a 2004 press release), but this experiment in contrast didn't work. The mix of tastes was a bit of mess, and the dish, pretty as presented, was not comfortable to consume. Few desserts are really horrid - add enough sugar and everything goes down smoothly - but this box was too precious for a restaurant that hides its cunning.

On completion of these final courses, we were plied with more dessert: sour cream ice cream with mango and passion fruit juice (an odd mix of dairy and fruit). Were that not sufficient we accepted homemade marshmallows, a rare and divine pavlova, and a passion fruit panna cotta. Finally we groaned, "no more, no more." A parting brioche lagniappe recalled ADNY the next morning.

Diners should dismiss ADNY only at their peril. This is my first visit to a restaurant that may have had rough moments, but the restaurant is purring. While some dishes were too simple and others strained too hard to capture the new culinary zaniness, Alain Ducasse is a consummate professional. Perhaps he can only find his way to the Essex House with a map, but his Chef de Cuisine Tony Esnault knows his way around a stove and knows the Ducasse metier.

Maybe it is an insecure thirst for novelty that makes me a downtown eater - more Union Square than Central Park West. In league with many American colleagues, I search for a tickling of my passions through techniques outside the book of classical love. And it is this that dampens my respect with the hidden desire for culinary explosions: memories for a palate that I pretend has been jaded, but has only been untested. I want, need, demand astonishment, even knowing how foolish this sounds. Perfection is so yesterday.

And so I visualize Chef Ducasse perusing my thoughts. His imagined response, a properly Gallic "Feh!"

Alain Ducasse
155 West 58th Street (at 7th Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Janus and Ganesh New York City Entry #43

Some restaurants gain the attention of diners, while others, seemingly well situated are passed over. We hear a lot about Craft, little about March. Much about Bouley, not much about Chanterelle. Perhaps sheer talent has something to do with the matter (and it certainly should), but all four restaurants present food at a high quality of proficiency, and each would be candidates for the best restaurant in Cleveland - or perhaps Boston. What distinguishes the great from the sturdily competent.

In looking through the culinary discussions, I have been impressed by how little attention has been paid to Tabla, the haute Indian restaurant on Madison Square, part of Danny Meyer's collection. The relatively brief discussion on one list focused on the superior service with precious little about the food.

Tabla has been a favorite restaurant (my last meal three years ago was stellar), and so I returned tonight hoping for greatness. I find Tabla one of the loveliest restaurants in town, more captivating that the brittle and artificial fantasyland of Spice Market.

As always service was cordial and efficient, although I wished that the servers spent more time personally explaining the dishes on our five course Late Fall tasting menu, rather than expecting us to examine the printed card on the table.

The dishes from Floyd Cardoz's menu are proficient, even if a few nits are to be picked. Perhaps - as others have noticed - dining at Tabla seems a slightly schizophrenic experience. Some dishes veer toward European classical models, others go Goan. Unlike some high end nouvelle Indian restaurants (Chutney Mary in London, for instance), Chef Cardoz does not have a signature style, and in this he differs from his mentor Gray Kunz, formerly of Lespinasse. In contrast, he mixes Indian and continental styles in various measure.

Our amuse was a very congenial pumpkin soup with pumpkin seeds. The flavors here were curried, rich, and exotic. Unlike most pumpkin soups, this was stock-based, not cream-based. It was satisfying, if perhaps not tingly.

As a first course, we were served "Seared Nantucket Bay Scallops in a Cider Consomme with Apples and Thai Basil." In contrast to the amuse, this titled French. Bits of fresh sweet scallops were covered a basil-spicy consomme. I was grateful that it was a small tasting because the cider and apple made the dish over-sugary. Fine cider is always welcome, but for an exquisite memory, a greater reliance on herbs would have been warranted.

We then moved to "Rice Flaked Turbot with Yellow Foot Chanterelles, Tuscan Kale, Applewood Smoked Bacon and Jaggery-Tamarind Glaze." Jaggery is a cane-based sweetener, and as with the first plate, sugary tastes dominated. Our first two dishes were every bit as caloric as the Apple Tatin dessert. The turbot was coated in rice-krispie-like kernels, which while amusing at the moment, have receded in memory. I enjoyed the dish while on the table, but it seems too precious as I now consider it.

The third dish, "Coconut Poached Nova Scotia Lobster with Baby Basmati Risotto, Mustard Puree and Lobster Jus," was less of a dessert than the first two courses, but only by comparison. I was startled that the lobster was cooked to translucency: far less than is expected. I can't judge whether this was a choice or an error, and haven't concluded whether more stove time would have added or subtracted. As it was, the lobster became more noticeable. In contrast to the lobster the spiced risotto might have been slightly overcooked and slightly underseasoned. I enjoyed the dish in its moment of consumption, but wonder as I write this how it might have been modified to the point of splendor.

Our final main course was "Stone Church Farm Challan Duck Two Ways" (breast slices and chopped) with braised endive, horseradish, and orange curry. Chef Cardoz deserves credit for his mix of flavors, but the flavors become somewhat muddy in the consumption. With too much on the plate what begins a study in opposites because mush.

Dessert was Apple Tarte Tatin with Greenmarket Quince Membrillo (a type of quince paste) and Musu Apple Fritter (and what I took a vanilla based sauce). This closing was more European than Indian (although the apple fritter recalled a Jackson Heights Indian sweet. As is now often the case (as in the recent Baked Alaska I enjoyed at Café Gray), this reflected the pastry chef as literary critic. Olga Lusin, like so many of her peers, is a deconstructionist. With five components of the tatin on a long rectangular plate, Chef Lusin forced us to play with our food. I enjoyed it, although it fell short of tatin in which the chef did the work for us.

Writing this entry, I am startled. I enjoyed the meal more than it may appear from my critique. I now complain about each course, but while eating, I was pleased. Perhaps my complaints reveal that the food at Tabla is easier than thoughtful, more honeyed more than precise. I cherish Chef Cardoz for his candy and his bite - his Janus and his Ganesh - but perhaps I desire a cuisine of intention: a philosopher in the kitchen.

11 Madison Avenue (25th Street)
Manhattan (Flatiron District)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Green Day New York City Entry #42

In my first 100 days in New York, I had studiously avoided entering New York's Neo-Geo Twin Towers: the once-and-future AOL Center, the Time-Warner Center: Manhattan Glitz Central.

I broke my fast with lunch at Café Gray, the namesake stake of Gray Kunz, the former chef at the much-loved Lespinasse. Café Gray is a down-market version of Lespinasse, but Chef Kunz's (and Chef de Cuisine Larry Finn's) artistry shines through.

Café Gray is dominated by its display kitchen - oddly situated in that the doings of the cooks block what is otherwise a stunning view of Columbus Circle. That kitchen owns Manhattan's most stunning view for culinary labor. Cooks typically suffer in cramped warrens or underground bunkers. What a gig!

Lunch at Café Gray mirrors dinner in the choices and in the prices charged. Some are priced identically, including a Alfred Portale vertically-inspired skyscraper salad ("Café Gray Bouquet of Greens"), while others are a buck cheaper at lunch, a tease for bargain hunting diners. For a lunch bargain try Gray's Papaya. Given the casual, if elegant, setting, a thirty-plus price tag for an entree at lunch is presumptuous, or would be anywhere other than in this cathedral of consumption. For those who won't venture outside of TWC, this is Filene's Basement compared to neighbors Masa and Per Se.

For this critic money is no object, although I stuck with one entree and a dessert, producing a truncated review. As my second (there was no first), I ordered Roast Col Vert Duckling with a Star Anise-Honey Glaze, served on a bed of chestnut and savoy cabbage. This was a characteristically Kunzian dish: a classical preparation with Asian tasting notes. The Col Vert Duckling is a smaller, less fatty bird than the standard Long Island duckling, and the flavor seemed more intense and gamy. The cooking was precise: not raw, but a half-notch beneath medium rare. Perfect. The star anise added an exotic excitement and the savoy cabbage/chestnut slaw provided a nod to classicism, serving as a bed for the medallions of breast and braised leg. I imagine after several servings, the dish might seem thickly sweet, but wisemen eat dessert first.

Dessert brought a deconstructed Baked Alaska. This was not a vexing experimental rendition, but a subtle symphony of the flavors of this most traditional of desserts with the addition of sage and mandarin, again the Kunz trademark (and that of pastry chef Chris Broberg). The heated meringue blanketed a sphere of rich milk chocolate ice cream with the orb in a sea of deep chocolate jus. On one side was mandarin gelee and the other a mandarin compote. It was as startling as it was classic, revealing the skills of a chef who loves the intersection of tradition and experiment.

A two course lunch with a glass of wine for $80 is a lot of green, but if the alternative is to shop shop shop, Café Gray might be the bargain of a New York December.

Café Gray
2 Columbus Center (Time Warner Center)
Manhattan (Midtown West)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Real Pam New York City Entry #41

Chicagoans are inordinately proudful of our Thai cuisine (perhaps only Los Angeles can compete). On more than one occasion I have lobbied for Ritchie Daley to name larb Chicago's city dish. I have hesitated before trying Thai food in New York. Many New Yorkers find Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens to be city's premier Thai restaurant, but Pam Real Thai Food in Hell's Kitchen has received high marks for its authenticity and price. The restaurant has recently expanded its menu, and doesn't have the secret Thai menus that LTHforum diners have made famous in Chicago, but the waitress offered to ask the chef if we wished a special dish. The space, near the theater district, is cramped, even by the standards of ethnic restaurants although the decor is pleasant enough - this is not a down and dirty restaurant.

The seven of us ordered four appetizers, five main courses, and four desserts, ranging from excellent to exotic to ordinary. After drinks, our total, including tip, was $20.00 - a Manhattan bargain. Pam can not equal Chicago's Spoon Thai, Sticky Rice, TAC Quick, or Thai Aree - all mainstays of the Chicago dining scene, but the dishes were a step above suburban Pad Thai or Beef with Basil.

Of our appetizers, the best were Duck Noodle with Dark Soup, a hefty, spicy duck noodle soup with a deep rich flavor, and a One-Bite Salad (I believe it was named Miang Cone) with roasted coconut, peanuts, ginger, lime, red onion, chili, dried shrimp in a lettuce leaf with a dab of syrup. I found it as compelling as Spoon Thai's one-bite salad, which is high praise indeed. Less memorable were an adequate Steamed Thai Chicken and Mushroom Dumpling and Fried Tofu Squares which tasted no better - or worse - than fried tofu, but which had a nice chili-peanut sauce.

Pam Real is known in some Chowist circles for its Kaeng Tai Pla. This is described as a unique southern Thai dish, consisting of "fermented fish kidney with turmeric. Lime leaves, chili paste and vegetables." The menu screams "!!!Kaeng Tai Pla is the most hot and spicy Thai food." Our good waitress tried - in vain - to warn me away from this dish, alternately describing it as stinky and spicy. But her tears would not move me. Kaeng Tai Pla is hot, but not overly so, and no more than another dish we ordered. There is a tendency for foodhounds to assume that anything made with fermented fish kidney must be delicious! I was not sorry to have ordered it. I do like fishy tastes and offal textures, and I enjoyed the somewhat harsh, spiky and fiery flavors, but I wouldn't order the dish again. However, each reader will certainly wish to try Kaeng Tai Pla to discover if this is the perfect dish. (It isn't.)

The best entree was Pla Chili Sauce Khun Pam's [Chef Pam's] Style: a crispy whitefish topped with a hot - and rich - chili sauce. This was a main course worthy of a banquet. The other main courses were less memorable, but quite adequate: a smooth green curry with vegetables and tofu, crispy pork chunks with basil, and duck with ginger sauce. None of these were particularly remarkable, but each was enjoyed by our table.

Pam Real Thai Food has a more extensive dessert list than most Thai restaurants - eleven choices. We selected Rice Pudding with Durian, Golden Jackfruit Seeds, Thai Creme Brulee (taro custard with coconut), and a Fried Banana Crepe. It is nice to see durian on the menu. While my companions were mildly repulsed by durian's aroma, it was less overpowering than I expected, and was a cross between soothing honeyed custard and old onions. Of course, the rice pudding cut the aroma, leaving just a bit of the stink and much of the sweet.

Of the other desserts the best was the Fried Banana Crepe, a perfect cooked cigar with drizzles of chocolate and cherry sauce. It was a charming creation that seemed more French than Thai. The creme brulee was more of a pudding-cake than a crackly, crunchy brulee. The jackfruit "seeds" were small round doughy cakes that while amiable lacked a distinctive taste.

Pam's deserves credit for dishes that are not seen on less ambitious menus. The Dark Duck Soup and Whole Chili Fish were outstanding. The remainder should easily please any novice with the exception of Kaeng and Durian, dishes at home in Hell's Kitchen.

Pam Real Thai Food
404 West 49th Street (at Ninth Avenue)
Manhattan (Hell's Kitchen)
Tbilisi on U New York City Entry #40

Hungryrabbi and I met for our LTH-New York excursion in Sheepshead Bay, out in South Brooklyn, at Pirosmani, a Georgian (Soviet-diaspora) restaurant. One of the treasures of living in New York is the range of cuisines. I admit that the subway travel time from Manhattan to Avenue U in Brooklyn is approximately the driving time from suburban Chicago to downtown Milwaukee.

Avenue U was the heart of Old Jewish Brooklyn crossing Ocean Avenue. Now it is a highly diverse community with a large contingent from the former Soviet Union.

Pirosmani is a pleasant establishment with waiters who could speak sufficient English for us Yanks (with some help from Hungryrabbi's Russian). We admired the vibrant folk art murals on the wall and enjoyed the stylings of a Georgian chanteuse who, given the few diners, was almost singing for us alone.

Pirosmani serves honest middle-class Georgian food. Not peasant dishes, but not as sophisticated as a delicious elaborate Georgian banquet that I was served in Jerusalem. We particularly enjoyed the roasted eggplant with walnuts and a very flavorful lamb soup (Kharcho) with rice (the selection of herbs and the subtle broth suggested that this was not the hearty chowder of Georgian workers). Also satisfying was warm cheese in a bread that tasted much like a puri (the name of the dish was Khachapuri, which might indicate a connection). We relished our Pork Shish-kabob, Pirogi, and slices of a hard, mozzarella-like cheese called "Suluguni." Our major disappointment was Kuchamachi, advertised as Chicken Liver with Walnuts, but included chewy bits reminiscent of a beef tendon. The closing Chocolate Cake was sweet, but not particularly rich. We also had a robust, semi-sweet Georgian red wine, Khyanchkara.

Our meal emphasizes that just because a restaurant is "exotic," it need not be outstanding in all details. However, we had enough good dishes that we left feeling well-satisfied. By Manhattan standards, the dinner was not expensive, but compared to other ethnic dining, the bill of $65/person suggests middle-class cuisine on U.

2222 Avenue U (at 22nd Street)
Brooklyn (Sheepshead Bay)

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Chef on Board New York City Entry #39

I have kvetched about what I label Disappearing Chef Syndrome; where is a chef when one needs him? Cooking is a worker's occupation, not a skill for management. On this score I find no fault with the Tasting Room, Colin (and Renee) Alevras's Lower East Side bite-size restaurant, a prime contributor to the remarkable restaurant renaissance in that formerly blighted corner of the city, along with Prune, Thor, WD-50, Schiller's, and 71 Clinton Fresh Food, making this perhaps New York's most exciting culinary neighborhood outside of ethnic Queens. East First Street was once no man's land, a deserted boulevard of crack, smack, and hopelessness, Buildings could not be given away. Nightmares trumped location, but no longer.

As I entered, hostess Renee Alevras was leaving with young Alveras in tow. However, Colin was in the kitchen and appeared in order to converse as we were leaving. The presence of the chef - and his clear enthusiasm and seriousness of purpose does much to sharpen one's fond memories and excuse missteps.

The Tasting Room is not quite a tapas bar, but emphasizes small dishes (although diners have the choice of larger or smaller versions - and our server spent more time than necessary explaining the system). We selected three starters, three continuations, and two desserts. Our opinions varied, but with a chef who creates a daily menu, and makes changes as the evening progresses, we made allowances - allowances that would not be as agreeable had the chef been busily marketing himself.

As others have remarked, Tasting Room is known for the congeniality of its staff; I concur. But sometimes the changes in the menu were so sudden that Sean, our server, was not aware of them until we inquired. While this communication gap should be addressed, it suggests that Chef Alevras is intent on his ingredients, not chatting up his staff. After we ordered, we were informed that Jerusalem Artichoke Soup was not being served; the chef was unsatisfied by his creation and perhaps swirled the bitter liquid down the sewer. With ten tables or so in a space smaller than my suburban living room, permits Chef Alevras to cook as if diners were guests.

The best of our starters was Effingham Washington Oysters: hyper-fresh bivalves with a touch of winesap apples and its juice with Grenada Seasoning Peppers. The oysters were coyly sweet, but the apple made this an opening dessert. The apple transformed a naked oyster into a taste of Eden.

We also enjoyed the Delaware River Smoked Eel with Newtown Pippin Apples, Pappas Amarillos (something yellow this way comes), and Celery Root. Our expectations were upended. The eel was sharply smoked, and tasted at first like a smoked ham (the smoking, we learned, was done in a smokehouse that did smoke hams). Later we concluded that it tasted like a smoked trout. The fishy eel taste for which we secretly hoped was absent, but pork, trout or eel, the combination was a happy one. In honor of the season Chef Alevras used apples often tonight (one more apple dish was to come), but in this dish, as in the previous one, the choice was wise and sweet.

Less successful was Chopped Duck Liver with Buckwheat Groats, Pickled Onion, and Parsley. The vinegary herb, often harsh as a main ingredient, overpowered the rest of the dish, unfortunate in that the liver (not foie gras) was both somewhat bland and dense (although, presumably, these ducks died in peace). I enjoyed the bravery of serving kasha on the Lower East Side, but this plate neither flew nor quacked.

The finest continuation course was surely Line Caught Haddock with Red Pepper, Almonds, and Leeks. This creation far outshone any cooked fish at Le Bernardin, and demonstrated the value of the close attention of an artisan. The haddock was buttery perfection, and the bright red pepper coulis had precisely the level of spice to enhance the fillet. The leeks added crunch to the dish with the almonds adding a slight touch of sugar. This was a stellar dish, and to think that perhaps it was not here yesterday and might not be here tomorrow made me both wishful and incredibly fortunate that I chose tonight to visit.

Roasted Red Wattle Pork Shoulder with Smoked Jowl, Tiny Potatoes, and Cipolle Onions with a taste of pork jus was a tribute to heritage food. Red Wattle Pork is a rare breed (that one website suggests is at some risk - and certainly will be should this dish get around!). The tiny potatoes were a cross between small marbles and BBs - and as flavorful as any potato. Cipolle Onions are the onion of the moment. This was a worthy and satisfying dish, but when all the hoo-hah was removed, it was at its heart pork, potatoes, and onions.

Our third dish was least satisfying: Violet Hill Pheasant with burdock (a root vegetable), apples, shallots, and fresh rosehips. One sometimes gets the impression that Chef Alevras chooses ingredients based on their obscurity. However, the real problem was not the hips or dock, but a pheasant that was dry and overcooked. With a more juicy bird, this dish would have been successful, but not tonight.

Desserts seem an afterthought at The Tasting Room. Our Oregon Hazelnut Tart was a take on Pecan Pie, and it had the virtue and drawback of that historic dessert. It was powerfully sweet and not very subtle in its sweetness. Granted replacing pecans with hazelnuts changed the taste, but not so much as to make change a Southern classic into a staple of the Pacific Northwest.

Our Peach Leaf Panna Cotta with Braised Pears, Bee Pollen, and Honey was a disappointment - to us and to the chef. We couldn't find braised pears on the plate and when we inquired we learned that Chef Alevras decided to puree the pear instead. This had the unfortunate consequence of making the fruit flavors of the pudding muddy and murky. The bee pollen (why, oh why?) added a rather unpleasant crunch without a pleasing taste. The bits of honeycomb contributed an odd chewiness. Well, there is always tomorrow.

No description of the Tasting Room (a wine bar as much as café) should neglect the wine list. Since there were only two of us, we did not take advantage of their willingness to waive the corkage fee if a second bottle was purchased, but this is the way to please one's diners. Our glasses of Roshambo Chardonnay ‘03 and Syncline Syrah ‘01 were well-priced and accessible matches to our food.

I will eagerly return to the Tasting Room. Eight courses, two glasses of wine, a congenial server, and a working chef for well under $100 in a former crack house: who could ask for anything more.

The Tasting Room
72 East 1st Street (at First Avenue)
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sandwich and Life New York City Entry #38

Should I ever require a new spouse, the first question I would ask potential suitors is "How far would you travel for a sandwich?" Admittedly this query is asked by one who has driven fifty miles for a taco (strictly speaking a Navajo Taco from the Tuba City Truck Stop Cafe). When in a good mood Wife One (of One) considers this decision "eccentric," but perhaps needs less justification here.

Such interrogation carries risks. I could, I suppose, wind up with Calvin Trillin, Michael Stern, or Jim Leff as life partner. Viewed properly a jaunt to Massachusetts would permit the sated couple a lobster roll at the Clam Box in Ipswich.

To speak of sandwiches is to speak of Bánh Mi, the exemplary Vietnamese contribution to bread. Preserving this culinary heritage seems the only plausible justification for American misadventures in Saigon. I nearly regretted that I was unfit for duty.

Granted travel to Ho Chi Minh City seems excessive, even for a Platonic sandwich, but New Yorkers willing to travel to Brooklyn's Sunset Park have Ba Xuyen (a second location has apparently closed). I have not (yet) conducted a comparative Bánh Mi tasting, but the intrepid "Impetuous Epicure" has (

He concludes (with photos) - and who am I to argue - that Ba Xuyen is the ultimate Bánh Mi spot. I can state with confidence that Ba Xuyen's sandwich skills are exemplary. The restaurant, a short walk from the hilltop Sunset Park with its exquisite views of Lower Manhattan, is a bright, cheery coffee shop with a bright cheery staff and images of the sandwiches on their backlit counter menu. I ordered the #1 Sandwich (Pate, Ham, BBQ Pork Roll) and the #7 (Sardine Roll), both were sublime: the latter trumping Prune's sardines as the ultimate marinated fish experience of my New York year. The former was a more complex construction, perfectly balanced with the tang of radish and vinegar, the textures of the pate, ham (and I think some tendon) was as complex as many Manhattan gourmet constructions. A truly honest sandwich can be both bracing and sophisticated. Bread can contain miracles.

With these sandwiches (one is sufficient for most humans), I ordered Honeydew Milk with Pearl Tapioca. What was distinctive about this thin liquid was its playing with temperature (this might be labeled Molecular Cuisine if we were on Clinton Street and if the price was tripled). The bottom of the glass contained heated liquid, whereas the layer of ice cubes on the top created a serene sweet drink. The tapioca pearls could easily be (and perhaps already are) an essential ingredient at El Bulli.

I concluded my meal with a slice of sweet-sticky yucca cake, excellent in small doses, at least after two sandwiches.

Sunset Park, Brooklyn's Chinatown, is nearly an hour by subway from Manhattan, but for a sandwich it is just down the block.

Ba Xuyen
4222 8th Avenue (at 43rd Street)
Brooklyn (Sunset Park)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

It Shouldn't Be New York City Entry #37

I last dined at Le Bernardin fifteen years ago. It was my last restaurant meal with my father, whose name, as it happens, was Bernard. I still recall that meal for many reasons, including the superb and sensuous fish (this was pre-Eric Ripert) and the somewhat dowdy space. This evening my dining companion was a friend who had known and worked with my dad in his days as a Freudian training analyst. So a certain nostalgia, mixed with a dollop of transference, hung in the air.

The space is now quite lovely: an expansive dining room with touches of Frank Lloyd Wright, a Japanese teahouse, glorious sculptural bouquets and a bit of Craft's downtown style thrown in for good measure. With the canonization of Le Bernardin as a temple of haute cuisine perfection, I imagined that my task would be to speculate on whether a restaurant devoted to the life aquatic could hold its own with restaurants drawing from sea, land, and air.

One of the finest meals I have experienced this year was the vegetable menu at Charlie Trotter's. Trotter, like Houdini, thrives by tying an arm and leg beyond his back. Of course, vegetable cuisine is the triumph of Eros over Thanatos. Produce is easy to cherish in the right hands. One can have subtle, pungent, or spicy preparations. Fish are not so forgiving. There are more ways to miscook fish than to perfect them. Accompaniments that are too bland and the dish disappears, a few seconds too long and one has pablum; too much spice and it is time for the trash. When fish are perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked, perfectly presented, and perfectly sauced, it is heaven on the plate. But if I don't trust the chef, serve me a stew anytime. Cooking fish is dancing on the highrope.

Le Bernardin should be the New York restaurant in which the diners realize that the finest fish dish can trump the finest game dish every time.

Tonight Le Bernardin revealed itself not to meet its own standards often enough. The last meal that I had at Brasserie Le Coze in Atlanta was a more satisfying dinner than at Maguy Le Coze's flagship. Perhaps the fact that Chef Ripert was not in the kitchen tonight, too busy at Barça 18, the downtown redoubt where he is a partner, explains matters. But restaurants at the level of Le Bernardin should be able to muddle through without serving that muddle. Someone hasn't been paying enough attention back on 51st Street.

Our first surprise was our choice of wine. We ordered a Gruner Veltliner Hiedler Loess 2003. When the bottle arrived, we discovered that it was the Hiedler Thal 2003. I don't know the vineyard sufficiently to distinguish. The wine was just fine, but we were disconcerted by the sommelier who cheerily announced that, despite the list, they didn't have the Loess, but only had the "regular" Hiedler. Puh-leeze. Still, this is a small enough error (It turns out that the Thal is a more expensive wine than the Loess: the listed price of the "Loess" was $68.00, although the wine is available for $11.00, a startling markup; the Thal is $22.00). A three star restaurant is permitted one such error each evening for the whole dining room.

The amuse managed to set things right. The barely cooked scallop in a tomato, garlic and clam foam was Neptune's gift. This scallop was oh-so-slightly warm, and was given oceanic purity by the clam froth. The tomato and garlic added flavors that allowed the dish to marry the sea with the garden, underlining the scallop's otherwise petite flavor. It would have done well as an appetizer.

Before the appetizers bread appeared. New Yorkers expect that bread can matter as much as wine, and nowhere should this be more true than in a restaurant spitting distance from Carnegie Deli to the North and Amy's Bread to the South. It is my sad duty to report that Le Bernardin's bread should be given a decent burial at sea. After filling up on splendid rolls at River Café earlier this week, I realized that those starches were no accident. Bernardin's whole wheat slice could have been a Gristede's special. The sourdough roll had a slightly greasy taste, an impressive feat given how dry it was. The third set of slices (I didn't catch what they allegedly contained) was cold and stale. When we complained, we were brought more slices: warm and stale.

In the three course prix-fixe one chooses a dish that is almost raw, one that is barely touched, and one that is lightly cooked. My companion's starter was Alaskan Wild Salmon, Marinated with Olive Oil, Lemon, Herbs, and Grapefruit (and unadvertised onion). In ordering raw salmon the comparison is Russ and Daughters, served with a smear. It was a draw. The hidden onion proved too powerful for the dish. The salmon was sea-fresh with interesting, if somewhat unbalanced, flavors. Nothing special.

In contrast, the quartet of raw fluke salads were a dream. The four small rectangular plates held a set of philosophical compositions including mild, spicy, Asian, and tropical flavors. I particular admired the final presentation, raw fluke with a touch of coconut milk, although the mild starter with scallions and cilantro was first rate too. This was superb showmanship, and reminded me of Grant Achatz's symphony of five preparations of hearts of palm.

As with the almost raw course, the second course - barely touched seafood - had one stelllar dish and one good one. The latter was Celariac Open Ravioli Filled with a Medley of Lobster, Langoustine and Shrimp. Le Bernardin has been criticized for its portion size. I felt that these three micro-ravioli were not weighty enough. The thin pasta did not provide enough contrast with the small scoop of fresh and fine shellfish. Around these three bites, our server poured a foie gras truffle sauce (pouring sauce around a cooked piece of seafood seems a Le Bernardin trademark). I could not understand the culinary logic, unless it was to place every luxury food on the same plate (I should have searched harder for a few grains of caviar). The contrast was not a failure, but the sauce, both too rich and too thin, didn't add much.

My companion's dish was the high point of this - and many - meals. She ordered Poached Lobster in a Lemon Miso Broth, Shiso and Hon Shimemi Mushrooms (Hypsizygus marmoreus for those who still celebrate the Latin mass of the woods). Wow. I cannot decide at this late hour whether the broth was rapture or whether it was the lobster. The shiso added that slightly bitter edge to the consomme which I treasure. The lobster was warm, sweet, and giving. This is the work of a mature chef, unafraid to blend classical and experimental techniques. It was a profound dish that may inspire a death bed memory.

Perhaps someone should remove the stoves from Le Bernardin's kitchen. The more Le Bernardin heats their fish the more of a chowder do they become. We had three main courses, none impressive, and one a disaster.

At the suggestion of our long-suffering (and competent) server, I ordered the Pan Roasted Monkfish, Confit Peppers and Fiery Patatas Bravas with a Chorizo-Albariño Emulsion. (Albariño is a Spanish wine). The dish was listed as "A Tribute to Gaudi." Huh? I expected some architectural feat that Alfred Portale might be proud to construct on his plate, but the dish with four potato wedges and several small coins of monkfish paid the magical architect no honor. Although the monkfish was cooked suitably, the spicy chorizo sauce smothered the lobster-like flavor of the monkfish. In a recipe for patatas bravas, baking potatoes were listed, but these wedges had turned grainy, demonstrating why baked potatoes require butter, cheese, and ham to hide an uncomfortable texture. Two of the four wedges had a firmer texture than their mates.

This dish was positively rosy by comparison to the Halibut "Salsa Verde" with Clam Juice, Roasted Garlic, Herb Puree and Lemon Juice with Warm Crab and Raw Matsutake Mushroom Salad. All of these free associations are nifty enough, but they depend on an edible piece of halibut. I have often fantasied about returning a dish to the kitchen, finally we had the chance. (The bread gave us the courage). The fish was stringy, flavorless and overcooked. It wasn't "off," just awful. I will leave other intrepid diners to judge the clam, garlic, crab, and all the rest. This dish is bleech-worthy.

Our server reasonably offered to replace the dish, and my companion chose Masala Spiced Crispy Black Bass, Peking Duck-Green Papaya Salad in a Ginger-Cardamon Broth. I didn't inquire why we were served "Peking" Salad on a menu that offers Patatas Bravas, Sancocho, Vitello Tonnato, and Hon Shimeji Mushrooms. Once again the spicy broth was extreme, exotic, silky, and magnificent. (Perhaps Chef Ripert can step in for Al Yeganeh now that our Soup Nazi has gone national). The crispy skin was worthy of the broth. The fish itself was rather bland and flavorless, and slightly overcooked. We finished the bouillon, but left bites of fish for the cat.

This trio of dishes should have been the pinnacle, but they revealed missteps and poor choices. We had no complaints over the quality of the fish, only what was done to the fillets at the stove.

Desserts, under the direction of Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis, ranged from the excellent to the ordinary. To pacify us (although I could hardly be a sweeter and more accommodating diner), we were served an additional dessert. OK. It was the best of the trio: Passion Fruit Cream Enrobed in White Chocolate, Ginger Caramel, and Mandarin Sorbet. The "enrobed white chocolate" was a thin piece served on the side. Good, but not enrobed. However, linguistic defects aside (I'm still vexed about the Peking Salad), the passion fruit cream was delicious and the mandarin sorbet, if not as rich as some, made a suitable match.

The second dessert, Banana Crème Brulée with Citrus-Pistachio Biscuit, Beurre Noisette Ice Cream and Peanut Caramel, despite its many ingredients craved energy. The Crème Brulée sadly lacked its requisite crackly cover. I did enjoy the Hazelnut Butter Ice Cream, but the biscuit was bland and dry.

The final offering was a Dark Chocolate, Cashew and Caramel Tart with Red Wine Reduction, Banana and Malted Rum Milk Chocolate Ice Cream. The tart was unexceptional - dark and rich, and about what one might find at a better bakery. The malted rum ice cream had a nice rum flavor, although the chocolate taste was muted.

Lovely dishes are to be had at Le Bernardin, but the inconsistency, particularly on the "lightly cooked" list suggest that the kitchen may be distracted. Has the Bush economy forced worthy cooks to work a second shift to place better bread on the table? What good is a night job when your admirers wonder at the gaffes that should never happen during the day. Chef Ripert and his Sous Chef Chris Miller are making too many Freudian slips.

Before we decide if a great fish restaurant can match an unbounded restaurant, we must rediscover that great fish restaurant.

Le Bernardin
155 W. 51st Street (Between 6th and 7th Avenues)
Manhattan (Midtown West)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Training Ground New York City Entry #36

One of the crises that every great restaurant must eventually face is what to do when the chef who "made" the restaurant leaves the kitchen. Can the restaurant continue or is it time to close up shop? Can one imagine Charlie Trotter's without CT, or Daniel sans Daniel, or Frontera Grill absent Rick Bayless. However, of course, restaurants do continue and even thrive despite a new toque. In Chicago (Evanston, actually) Trio thrived under Rick Tramonto, Shawn McClain, and Grant Achatz, until finally after Achatz's departure, owner Henry Adaniya decided to downscale the restaurant's culinary ambitions under Dale Levitski, marking the transition through a name change to Trio Atelier. In New York Maguy LeCoze's Le Bernardin purrs along nicely with Eric Ripert now at the helm. What connects the two establishments is the presence of a strong owner.

Perhaps the New York restaurant that has triumphed despite (or because of) kitchen turnover is Buzzy O'Keeffe's River Café, a restaurant that had a profound effect in its brave attempt to civilize the sorry docks beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, sandwiched between Brooklyn Heights and the white elephant Dumbo. While the spectacular view doesn't hurt (although the battle to claim the right table surely does), the parade of A-list chefs is impressive, including the pioneer Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, David Burke, Rick Laakonen, and now Brad Steelman. Many restaurants rest on their scenic haunches, but RC hopes for something more, and frequently achieves it.

At a recent dinner, I ordered the three course prix fixe menu, and despite a table as far from the marine action as possible (although with the prominent window no one is too far from the Lower Manhattan vista), I was well satisfied. Perhaps the food lacks the elegance of a Michelin three star restaurant, but the lack of a star reveals a certain scorn to the "boroughs." (Despite what the red guide suggests, you can ask for a window table, but unless you are known to the house, it is first come, first served).

The amuse was a silky yet hearty squash soup with apple brandy and pumpkin seeds. It set the tone for a defiantly seasonal menu, and was sophisticated enough that its simplicity added to its charm. The brandy cut the heaviness of the cream and squash, lightening the taste.

My appetizer was "Rabbit and Ravioli" Pancetta-Wrapped Loin of Rabbit served on a (Brooklyn) Ricotta-filled ravioli with garden pea puree and pan juices. The pea puree didn't have a strong enough presence to match the more dominant tastes, but the rabbit was so moist and juicy that it tasted like a cross between pork and sausage. The ravioli was properly cooked and enriched by the pan juices.

As an entree, I selected Millbrook Venison Loin with Green Peppercorns, Chestnut spaetzle, root vegetables, and wild lingonberry pan sauce. Again this was a tribute to November, perhaps the most autumnal dish of any I have had in Gotham. I loved the crispy, nutty spaetzle and felt that the root vegetables were sweetened and made Nordic with strains of lingonberry. Chef Steelman has no fear of undercooking meat. I was not asked how I wanted the venison served - I got it rare: perfect. A dish to prepare us for the long winter ahead.

Dessert was a Blueberry Almond tart with warm blueberries and caramel glazed almonds, lemon panna cotta, and blueberry sorbet. The presentation - a glass cone of panna cotta, a sphere of dark purple sherbert, and a small boat of berries and almonds - was impressive. Nothing was really wrong, if not quite spectacular. The tart had a granola-like texture, and the panna cotta, well-made, was plain, if pure. The sorbet was rich, dense berry-flavor, and a buoyant palate cleanser, if perhaps late in the meal.

In sum, the meal surpassed my expectations for a restaurant that is often remembered fondly for its history and for its ambiance. Yet, there must be something in the river air or in the layers of culinary history that keeps working its charm, inspiring whatever chefs are hired to do waterfront duty. For this, New Yorkers, facing chilling travel, give thanks.

The River Cafe
1 Water Street
Brooklyn (Below Brooklyn Bridge)
Table d'Hote

Freedom can be a curse. Constraint transforms an indulgent fantasy into an object to be shared. While some artists can curb themselves, often their most profound work is that on which others - bosses, backers, distributors, or dealers - make demands. Mel Brooks was never so clever as in those years before he became MEL BROOKS and could do what he wished without the limits that others placed. Compare his tight and tough early work on "The Producers" with his later flabby and self-indulgent "History of the World."

What is true for directors is equally true for chefs. The chef with too little oversight is prone to forget that variation on tradition surpasses variation without tradition every time. This is the challenge that those prominent chefs who are attempting to amaze diners with their Technocuisine often ignore.

This came to mind at a very satisfying second meal at Avenues. Avenues is the lead restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, currently overseen by Chef Graham Elliott Bowles. Bowles, along with Grant Achatz of Alinea and Homero Cantu of Moto, are reconstructing American cuisine in Chicago with nods to Ferran Aria's El Bulli or Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck -- and now Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 in New York. Yet, Chef Bowles has an odd advantage that these other chefs lack - a bureaucratic structure that grants some leeway, but demands that his creativity appeals to a broader audience. He must work within the bounds of corporate capitalism. Bowles's stage, pleasant though it is with a lovely view of the Chicago skyline, is hotel-generic. The scene is the comforting one of traditional high-end dining; the setting gives no clue that Bowles' work is outside the Hilton/Hyatt ambit.

Many fellow eaters, especially those who embrace an auteur theory of culinary production, would suspect that the presence of an international bureaucracy is less than a boon, but it is a curative for gustatory excess. Chef Bowles must please not only truculent gourmets who search out the new-new thing, but must satisfy hotel customers who choose The Peninsula and wish to dine avoiding the gusts of Michigan Avenue. Not only must he produce dishes that satisfy those gourmets looking to be astonished, but satisfy financial masters who demand a assigned food cost without dibbles of red ink stretching far into the future. Whether Chef Bowles can bring this off remains to be seen; however, from the standpoint of cuisine, his blend of creativity with pragmatism is a genial success. In these past six months Chef Bowles is developing a distinctive style. In visual terms his dishes meld Jackson Pollack and Morris Louis, thin smears of color combined with an dynamic placement of ingredients, encircled by the action painting of condiments, foams, and sauces. The dishes look like constructions from the zenith of New York Abstract Impressionism.

As for the taste and texture, Bowles draws on those features now become "traditional" (dare we say) in technocuisine - foams, startling ingredients (pop rocks with foie gras in Bowles's signature foie-lipop - an unbeguiling dish I had on my first visit and which will last me a lifetime). What impresses me is how these techniques no longer demand attention, dominating the plate, but rather enrich a classical palette. In contrast to Homero Cantu at Moto and Grant Achatz at Alinea, Bowles has remained loyal to the urbane purity of Charlie Trotter's experimentation. I speculate that some of his choices owe some to institutional demands.

Having eaten quite a bit recently in New York City, I was pleased to see that Chef Bowles stood by the display kitchen, actually checking each plate. All too often New York celebrity chefs need a map to get to their restaurants. Even Gabrielle Hamilton arrived at Prune after we started our meal and left before dessert. During my first meal at WD-50 (but not during the second) Chef Dufresne was chowing down in Berkshire at The Fat Duck. One is more likely to see Chef Vongerichten at JFK than at Jean-Georges. So, it is nice that in Chicago, chefs, even well-regarded ones, are kitchen-bound. Perhaps the best news of the Chicago fall was the collapse of Charlie Trotter's plans to clone himself at the Time-Warner Center.

At my first meal at Avenues last spring my wife and I selected the Chef's Palate Menu, consisting of twelve courses. In those heady pre-blog days, I did not keep tasting notes, but I recall an ecstatic lobster dish, flavored with celeriac and verbena, and a fine hamachi with soy, yuzu and radish. There were a number of disappointments, notably the half-frozen foie-lipop. If we must torture ducks, let them die for a noble cause, not to become a Tootsie Roll on a stick.

Here we ordered the six course tasting menu: I ordered the game menu (with a substitution for the foie gras) and my wife the vegetable menu. Unlike Charlie Trotter's where the Vegetable Menu outshown the Grand Menu, at Avenues, the vegetarian dishes were less well-conceptualized, although in several cases excellent in execution. At times the vegetarian dishes mimicked the meat dishes with an offending ingredient absent. This night I was not jealous of her choice.

We begin with a lovely amuse with a cauliflower puree with apple essence, micro-argula, and dots of salmon caviar (the vegetarian amuse excised caviar). The puree was a tribute to a Cuisine of Essences: pure cauliflower, with a bit of apple tartness and roe saltiness. A robust and mature start.

My opening dish of pheasant in a boudin noir smear with an oxtail confit and (again) sauteed argula was as fine an appetizer as I could have wished. Until the multiple course meals, a six course tasting menu permits the chef to work on a larger canvas and permits the diner to experience food over time, mixing the main ingredients with sauces in various combinations. I like the bravery of mixing pheasant with boudin and with oxtail (game, pork, and beef) in the same dish, and found that this dish - not exactly a stew but a buffet - had the solidity that a game dish demanded.

My wife's deconstructed Caesar salad, was a clever retooling of this classic dish. Large squares of brioche were filled with dressing, and a cleverly designed floweret of romaine was coated with a Parmesan mix. I don't know that the taste of a perfectly made Caesar was much improved, but the agape factor was high.

My second course was a highpoint of the meal, a surprising mix of scallops, pumpkin, eggnog, and endive. The pumpkin surprisingly did add to the scallop, not overwhelming it, and the endive was suitable to mix and match. I had worried about the sweetness of the eggnog, but it was a heady foam that could be added or avoided at will. This is the kind of thoughtful and unexpected linkage that characterize the best of Chicago cuisine.

My wife's Matsutake with Radish and Cilantro (with Togarashi spices - a Japanese spice mix) was unexceptionable as a salad dish, but reminded me of a very high end coleslaw.

As a third course, we both were served Risotto with cipollini onions. Mine had frog legs, hers did not. Les grenouilles tasted, well, like chicken, and rather stringy chicken. In the case, less was more. The menu lists truffle on the description of these dishes, and perhaps there was truffle in the risotto, but we were offered grated truffle as "a supplement," perhaps not the wisest strategy to keep happy diners, although perhaps a come on for the bottom line. We declined.

My fourth course was another grand success: tender-roasted bison covered with sassafras with grits and chard. I loved the mix of the bison - nearly a pot roast - with the properly prepared grits. At our previous meal we were served buffalo with grits, chard, and barbecue, but the sassafras lent a more classical and subtle edge to the dish than the somewhat overpowering sauce. Whether buffalo and bison are - at Avenues - the same animal, I can't tell, although each had its own spot on the Ark.

My wife's pumpkin with eggnog, spice and vanilla included a prettily displayed small squash, more beautiful than powerfully flavored, although a nice addition to the vegetarian menu.

My final main course consisted of several squares of venison surrounded by various accompaniments, including Irish Steel-Cut Oatmeal, Spinach (I think, although, who knows, perhaps it was sauteed argula!), and Yam "Tatar Tots" with cocoa and juniper sauce. The venison served as shards of bread - to mop up other ingredients. None of which made a huge impression, although the dish was not discordant. The tater tots may have been too cute (they were really more like a Yorkshire pudding), not bad, but less than memorable.

On the vegetarian menu, the choice was potato with kale and huckleberry. Having only a small taste, I can't express a firm opinion, but again this dish seemed less conceptualized than the dishes on the other menus - more a sop to those who don't eat meat than part of a philosopher's plan.

For the desserts, the vegetarian choice was superior. My wife was served a yogurt panna cotta perched in a tart-sweet cranberry soup. It was lovely in design and in execution. My dessert had its points as well - Avenue's cheese tray: Roquefort cheese, spiced walnuts, essence of pear, and still more micro-arugula. This conclusion was not shocking - conventional with a twist - but I did envy my wife's luscious soup.

Chef Bowles deserves much credit: in part, as Woody Allen notes, because showing up is most of life, but also because he has learned to prepare dishes that appeal to multiple audiences. The foams, deconstructions, and shot-gun marriages were shrewd and occasional, allowing the chef to demonstrate that he could apply classical techniques with finesse. Whether his supervisors - those necessary monsters with the green eyeshades - will agree only time will tell.

The Peninsula Chicago
308 East Superior Street
The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski (New York: Gotham Books, 2005).

When an good man takes his own life before his allotted span, we, less good fellows, are puzzled. Simultaneously we are envious at the success and smug at the failure. Did he not realize that It's a Wonderful Life?

The death of the influential Michelin three-star chef Bernard Loiseau raises these emotions. Yet, perhaps these emotions and the explanation provided are the least compelling aspects of Rudolph Chelminski's The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, an account of Loiseau's rise and collapse. His story is that of bipolar disorder, what used to be described as manic-depression. Of course, not all who live with bipolar disorder take their own lives, but the story is commonplace. Bernard Loiseau, chef at the Burgundian restaurant Cote d'Or, was so fearful of being bypassed by his colleagues and losing his third Michelin star (neither implausible fears, according to Chelminski) that he took a shotgun one quiet February afternoon and ended his life. All rather mundane tabloid news. Same old, same old.

Far more interesting than the psychiatric work-up of Loiseau's problems are Chelminski's accounts of the network of French cuisine (and, not incidently, the role of Michelin and Gault-Millau guides) and the description of the ideologies of cuisine that bubbled and squeaked in the last third of Twentieth Century.

As The Perfectionist emphasizes, the world of French haute cuisine is a tight-knit community and also a field of intellectual engagement. Star-worthy chefs are not merely cooking, but they are partying and talking. In this the world of French cuisine differs from that in most American cities with New York the primary exception. The United States has very accomplished cooks, but the social networks are rather thin and with a few exceptions, such as Chicago's Cuisine Agape of Achatz, Cantu, and Bowles, the goal of chefs is "simply" to cook well.

Chelminski delineates the dense social networks that operate at the highest levels of French dining. Indeed, one of the turning points of Bernard Loiseau's career is the time he spent as an apprentice at Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne. There he met other ambitious young cooks, subsequently his friends and colleagues, and there too he gained the scorn of Jean Troisgros, whose contempt for his apprentice was to shape Loiseau's career. Troisgros aborted the opportunity for Loiseau to train with other renowned chefs, preventing him from acquiring the technical skills of a chef who passed from kitchen to kitchen in a slowly accelerating career arc. Yet despite this black mark, Loiseau persevered and with the good fortune of finding a mentor in Claude Verger, Bernard soon found himself chef at Cote d'Or in Saulieu.

The French culinary world is, as Chelminski pictures it, a small town - and in this it differs little from many other occupations. Cuisine is a borough of the village that Tom Wolfe describes as Cultureburg. The linkages of Loiseau with fellow chefs Paul Bocuse, Michel Bras, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Guerard, and Guy Savoy shaped who he was and how his reputation was established. At Bernard's funeral, Chelminski reports, he had an honor guard composed of all twenty-four of the country's three-star chefs. This is not merely a tribute to a friend, but a recognition that they constitute a very special club: a fraternity for those who have been hazed behind the ovens and been crowned.

Add to this social world, a penumbra of critics and serious diners. Of institutional significance, Michelin is the Sun, and Gault-Millau the Moon, but critics like François Simon of Le Figaro are stars as well. Add to this the interested and the passionate, let us call them The Steves (to honor M. Plotnicki and M. Shaw): who have done so much, from outside of the kitchen, to create a community of diners. When Bernard Loiseau shot himself, the bullet ricocheted throughout a community.

Networks must be meaningful for participants: the intellectual stuffing constitutes a theoretical Oreo. Chelminski effectively connects his luscious descriptions of dishes to the underlying debates over food preparation. He describes how Loiseau created his "la cuisine des essences" - the belief that the chef could commit to a purity of taste with few ingredients, profound tastes, and commit to a slimmed down classical (French) cuisine. Cuisine off steroids. Chelminski is impressive in describing how cooking is a stage of professional thought. He depicts the linkages between Nouvelle Cuisine, Cuisine Minceur, and Loiseau's own, odd Cuisine à L'Eau. And, given a public always looking for the "next new thing," we learn how Loiseau's Cuisine of Essences became eclipsed by Cuisine Tendance, the Franco-fusion. This description reminds diners forcefully that - at least in the higher reaches of cuisine - real tastes are being fought over. The goal is not only to create dishes that taste "good" in an idiosyncratic fashion, but to create dishes that - like Tom Wolfe's vision of modern art in The Painted Word - are theory on the plate. Perhaps instead of menus, the day will come that we will simply be given a pamphlet and the bill.

All of these themes are worthy topics; yet to reach them one must face down a fair number of writerly oddities. Chelminski, for instance, claims that Loiseau has created a "Maoist" cuisine. Huh? Of all the descriptions that might apply to a three-star chef, being called an Maoist is among the strangest: if this is a Great Leap Forward, let it be so. Other claims (that five of six French families have second homes (p. 12)) seem equally bizarre. At times, Chelminski can let his wit run amok, speculating that when, as an alter boy, Bernard needed a "vial of holy vinegar" to complement his holy oil, prefiguring a career of preparing salad dressings (p. 38), that there is no trade in which "Latin passions" run as high as in the kitchen (p. 60), or in his analogy of the Michelin guide to Chairman's Mao's little red book (p. 51) (Chelminski seems inordinately taken with this corpulent Commie). Add to this, Chelminski's undefended preferences (his pungent distaste for Mark Veyrat and Ferran Adria and other chefs who work outside of classical cuisine) and this book lards its considerable insight with just plain weirdness.

The Perfectionist is a work of an imperfectionist. There are bizarro moments and quirks that a sharp copy editor might have pruned. Still, to be imperfect is not to be worthless. Put aside the Grand Guignol of Bernard Loiseau's lurid death, and we are served a knowledgeable account of the linkages between men and their theories that will add to any diner's experience at the table. Dishy, indeed.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Chick Pick New York City Entry #35

If restaurants have personalities, they also have gender. The steakhouse represents the archetypal masculinist bastion - a clubhouse for grown-up boys. Yet, until recently there was not an equivalent chick pick. In an industry in which until fairly recently most chefs were men and most owners were as well, this was to be expected - and most of those who made reservations were men as well. Servers considered women to be trouble, and fought to avoid all female parties at their station. The system was well-established. Most restaurants, even those at the high-end, bustled, bruted, and boomed.

The world has turned. It is not only that more women are poised with power - running, shaping, or choosing restaurants, but there is a new sensibility. Serene cuisine. Consider Annisa. This petite West Village establishment is a cove of repose. From the clean white, grey and cream decor with its gently swaying curtain, to the civilized calm, encouraging talk, intimate and otherwise, a diner realizes that this is not your father's restaurant.

Still, Annisa must not be labeled too readily. It is not a feminist restaurant, nor really a "feminine" restaurant (as described by Michelin), but a restaurant with a soft and supple aspect. Despite the fact that many of the well-priced wines are from vineyards with female proprietors or winemakers (selected by co-owner and sommelier Jennifer Scism) and that Annisa means "women" in Arabic, Anita Lo's food is not so easily categorized. The flavors are grand - not at all timid - although I wished that the cooks felt more comfortable in undercooking.

Annisa's menu is notable for the use of obscure foodstuffs: honshimeji mushrooms, bottarga di muggine, sumac, vincotto, Iroquois hominy, mochi, kabocha. Huh? Some boychefs play with chemistry sets or Lincoln Logs; Chef Lo's game is Trivial Pursuit.

As appetizer, I ordered Spicy Grilled Eggplant with Yogurt and Lentils - a dish as clear and compelling as its name. Chef Lo cooked the eggplant in an Indian style but with a well-modulated fire, further calmed by her sweet yogurt. Off to the side was a clever lentil patty. At first glance it appeared as couscous, but a taste revealed a complexity of spices and textures. My only complaint was that the eggplant was charred, and with the skin tough and splintery. If the eggplant is to be cooked such, it deserves to be peeled.

As a main course I ordered Sauteed Filet of Fluke with Fennel, Orange, and Bottaga di Muggine (grey mullet roe). As with the appetizer, the fluke was perfectly composed in its range of flavors. The orange sweet/acid brightened the fluke and the pressed roe, and the fennel added a restrained bitterness. However, the top layer of the fish was a bit overcooked, although the bottom was moist and rich. Cutting the fish, mixing it with the accompaniments, diminished the problem. Yet, both dishes suggest that at the stove sometimes less is more.

We shared two desserts. The star was the Tower of Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) with mascarpone with ginger. The "tower," less Alfred Portole-vertical than horizontal had the challenges of much culinary architecture. The first forkful precipitated a crackup. Yet, the ginger and pumpkin did nicely even when in shards. Ginger proved a fine accompaniment for pumpkin, and both made this creamy autumn evening memorable.

The second dessert, Crispy Mochi with Black Sesame and a duo of Coconut Caramel and Pineapple Dipping Sauces, was notable for the powerfully silky sauces. While the pineapple flavor was intense, it was the distinctive tropical mix of coconut and caramel that will be remembered. The mochi - sweet rice balls - were too gummy for my taste. They served best as a means of mopping up the delightful sauces.

I was impressed by Chef Lo's beautifully conceived flavor palette, by the reasonably priced wine list, and by the civilized, balmy environment that distinguishes Annisa from its brethren.

13 Barrow Street (near 4th Street and 7th Avenue)
Manhattan (West Village)