Friday, September 30, 2005

Chinese in Cleveland New York City Entry #16

Those who search for the chimera of authenticity find some restaurants that just don’t belong. The image of the place in which they are found argues against their presence. Can there be superb Chinese in Cleveland, fajitas in Fargo, or tandoori in Tampa. The debate over the possibility (according to Ed Levine) that the best pizza in America can be found in Phoenix at Chris Bianco’s Pizzeria Bianco is a case in point. To the extent that food is about ingredients and talent, no place should have a particular claim to greatness (unless, as some say, there is something in the water). But eating is also about an appreciative community of diners – and about imagination.

This came to mind at dinner at Rebecca Charles’ Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village. Much (although not all) of the food served at Pearl might be found any number of lobster shacks along the Maine coast. Indeed, the last lobster roll I ate was from The Clam Shack in the village of Kennebunkport, consumed by the Atlantic on a perfect summer afternoon.

As quaint as the village of Greenwich may sometimes be, it has no ocean spray. The smells, memorable though they may be, are not those of salty sea air. But aren’t New Yorkers as entitled to a finely made lobster roll as Down Easters, or Cheeseheads for that matter?

The Pearl Oyster Bar is a tight space, simple and spare as any Mainer would recognize. The back room where we were seated is rather cramped and we felt somewhat rushed at this very popular restaurant (its 27 Zagat rating is undeserved, but not its popularity).

I began with a lovely plate of Prince Edward Island mussels in cream, wine, parsley, and mustard. The mussels were plump and pumpkin-orange; in their blacks shells mussels are the perfect Halloween cuisine. This was a fine starter, and a generous one. While one might find bivalves up the Maine coast, such elegance and subtly is not to be had at a coastal shack.

The lobster roll was exemplary, even if it carried a New York price tag ($22, about double my last roll). The lobster was buttery and fresh. The crispy shoestring potatoes were just fine, not as meaty as Maine fried potatoes, but not New York anorexic either. To claim that the Pearl’s roll was superior would be misleading, and, as much as I enjoyed my dining partners, I would choose to have my lobster accompanied by blowing sea foam.

Dessert was a superior blueberry crumble pie with vanilla ice cream. The ice cream was pleasant, and the blueberries with its crumb topping were sweet and slightly acidic, a most enjoyable close to a lobster meal. If I had my choice I would pick lowbush blueberries and eat them au naturel (the berries, of course).

However, choice is the issue. Perhaps we should force Iowans, New Mexicans, or Virginians only to eat locally produced foods, foods with a stamp of authenticity, and ban invasive cuisines. As a tourist, this is precisely my strategy for choosing a restaurant.

Yet, New York without Pearl’s and without Cajun, Tex-Mex, and California smoothies would be a lesser place for locals and guests alike (Barbeque is another issue). I welcome that Pearl’s brings a downeast flavor to the Village while knowing its place, keeping diners free from faux foam.

Pearl Oyster Bar
18 Cornelia Street
Manhattan (West Village)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Turning the Tables on Steven A. Shaw: A Review

Turning the Tables: Restaurants From the Inside Out by Steven A. Shaw. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. $24.95. Pp. xxiv + 216.

In 1947 a British radio journalist wrote a thin volume that was to usher in postwar morality. Stephen Potter has been largely forgotten in the wave of cynicism that his work spawned and his book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, is little read. But gamesmanship entered our way of thinking about civic culture. The title of his third volume, One-Upsmanship, published five years later, expanding his tactics to all of social life, similarly passed into folk speech.

Potter recognized that we moderns want rewards that we have not fully earned by virtue of position or ability, but that in a world where we must judge strangers, a convincing facade is all that is needed. This approach, termed the strategic model of social life, was brought to scholarly fruition by sociologist Erving Goffman (Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Goffman believed that social life was akin to acting and selves were but masks, a view that resonated throughout the 1960s and still does: life is a game with rules to be diddled. (Both Potter and Goffman could draw on Machiavelli, Diderot, Mandeville, and Veblen, but it is not until the post-war era that there slippery claims seemed intuitive).

The strategic virus spread, as we decided that living well is the best revenge against all those who would place us in our rightful place. We were taught how to survive in all of those privileged places where we did not properly belong by virtue of birth, education, or talent.

Nowhere was this crafty education more necessary than in restaurants. How could the Average Joe survive in a place in which one might actually have to pronounce French properly to escape the dreaded label "rube" - or worse "American." We all strived to be Francophonies. Many felt that restaurants were designed to make them feel socially naked, while stripping their wallets bare. If restaurants have changed - somewhat - they are still dangerous places for daters. Navigating a dining room is an effective means of matching a couple with roughly similar cultural capital.

Fortunately we have a book that provides a guide to that gastronomic minefield. The book is Jay Jacobs, Winning the Restaurant Game (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980). Jacobs, the long-suffering New York restaurant critic for Gourmet, composes with a poison pen he must have borrowed from Potter. Jacobs writes with that vicious bonhomie that New Yorkers so treasure. Jacobs knows that "Most social activities are competitive and dining out is no exception. . . . Under a thin veneer of politesse, we meet one another at restaurants to determine who has the clout." The book is a brilliantly malicious how-to manual to transform losers into something approaching diners. (One gets a sense of the writing by learning that Ronald Searle did the illustrations). Jacobs recommends that we choose our turf, becoming a restaurant regular.

Although he doesn't cite Jacobs, Steven Shaw writes in this same strategic tradition. Mr. Shaw is known for having devised and overseen the growth of eGullet, the leading Internet food and restaurant site. Yet Shaw, as Jacobs, is both competitive and opinionated about dining. Certain dainty rival websites are unmentionables, Shaw's victorious secret.

Every writer selects a persona. While Jacobs embraces his inner curmudgeon, Steve Shaw wants our love, and is not above a little self-abasement. This former attorney embraces the moniker "The Fat Guy" - and what better evidence could there be that American culture is teetering on the brink then that our authorities see personal humiliation as a good career move.

Steve Shaw wants to be our friend, and the friend of his food-givers, ripping only the sheerest of veils from the restaurant industry. Unlike Jacobs who - like Mikey - more or less mistrust everything all that is put before him, Shaw is enamored. He advises us, making bistros like beagles, "if you love restaurants. . . they will love you back." Even if designed to be a diner's guide, his is a big wet kiss for the restaurant industry. Shaw's introduction is labeled "Why I Love Restaurants"; Jacobs begins, "What Am I Doing Here?" Given all of Shaw's references to his "friends" in the industry - Tom Colicchio, Gray Kunz - they provide him with access that we mortals are denied. They seem to like him too. They really, really do. And who wouldn't with blurby sugarplums dancing between his covers. To be fair, Shaw surely chose these sources because he already admired them. (In contrast, I am on record that I will trade David Bouley a paragraph for dessert).

Shaw is an easy companion, light on his feet, low-maintenance to the end. His writing is plainspeak, not frothy; a book of Joe, not cappuccino. And I did learn from these pages. His account of the lifeworld of reservationists opens the door to a backstage world allowing us, following the strategic model, better to understand how to get where we want to be. I had little idea of the surveillance that operates in restaurant life; the amount of personal information that they collect is startling. Top restaurants seem as prepared for Bridezilla as for Al Qaeda. And after this review I will be viewed from thorny eyes as "critic of Steven A. Shaw." How I suffer for you.

Shaw, like Jacobs, is persuaded that the way to experience restaurants properly is to develop relationships. He claims, but fortunately does not carry the metaphor to its inevitable consummation, that the first meal is a first date. And, of course, he is right, although such a perspective is more useful for those with the resources to eat out regularly. Let us call it the "Cheers syndrome." The "Seinfeld syndrome" is, in contrast, that you will get crappy service no matter how often you return if you are jerks.

Not all chapters equaled the promise of the first. Although Shaw wishes to give deep truths about the restaurant industry in his guise of observer, he doesn't visit any restaurant long enough to understand the underside of work (there is no underside here). This book is the inverse of Tony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential where underside is the only side. What is needed is a recognition that the structural conditions of work and of temporal pressure contribute to the food that diners receive. As I have noted elsewhere, should your steak fall on the floor (OK, on the stove), what choice does the chef have but to serve it to you. Without knowing it, you demand it.

I admired the account of Sandor's tiny restaurant in Seagrove Beach, Florida (reminiscent of John McPhee's "Brigande de Cuisine"). The individual craftsman can do remarkable things, even if here, as with McPhee, the account may be enriched with a dollop of romance. Also a nice set piece is Shaw's account of Fernando, the "egg man" at Tavern on the Green (for a elegant piece that owes much to Shaw, see Burkhard Bilger's "The Egg Men" in the September 5, 2005 New Yorker).

Shaw is weaker when he leaves the kitchen, his boudoir. The controversies of food require more than description, but an assessment of the way that images of virtuous food are played out in a contentious society. One would imagine that the four-letter word PETA would be somewhere evident, but it isn't. Shaw dismisses those who wish their foods to reflect their politics, seemingly having little time for those who believe in foods that are organic, local, or authentic. (He blasts Slow Food, those goodmen and women who imagine the artisan in the fields. For the record, I am a member of this group, but am no better a member there than in most things). The case of foie gras could - and will - provide a window to how food politics becomes lifestyle politics. Only time will tell if Mike Bloomberg finds bloated poultry liver as easy a target as nicotine.

I admire eGullet as much as the next dweeb, but I couldn't help feeling that "The Restaurant Information Age" involved special pleading. Steve Shaw likes cooks and embracing the ethics of a Times critic would cramp his style. Frank Bruni is roughed up in these pages. Shaw argues, and there is some truth in his claims, that the critic should judge the artist at his best. Should we focus on those Leonardo caricatures that he sold for two bits each at the Florence county fair? And Shaw is right that there is only so much one can do when a VIP arrives: if you don't have plump strawberries, the Fat Guy gets the dregs, like the rest of us. Of course, he should expect fawning service for a pasha, but at least we can share his posh life. This kind of critic is not everyman, but Someone.

Shaw's strategy is to present several cases within each chapter (a residue from law school). In the case of describing the "The Business of he Restaurant Business," this strategy is ineffective, erasing those structural forces that organize the restaurant industry. It is interesting to observe the attempts of Gray Kunz to open a restaurant at the Time Warner Center (no more so than on a day on which Charlie Trotter called it quits as Kunz's neighbor), but we don't see the role that tax rates, building codes, labor markets, political pressure, and real estate vacancies play on which restaurants succeed. And how, for instance, do recent immigrants see restaurants as the ticket to the good life (cheap labor, coupled with easy rents and ignoring Bloomberg's burdensome laws), finding a community audience, even if chowhounds never discover these fragrant aromas. The depiction of Ed Mitchell's Ribs (of Wilson, North Carolina) tells us precious little about finances as messy as the ribs themselves.

Shaw concludes his text by speculating on the future of dining: pretty good, thank you. And located in W.'s USA. Just so long as we rescue authenticity from the authentologists (my goofy word, not Steve's). Novices to the food game will find Shaw's appendix a brisk compendium of culinary resources.

Will reading Turning the Tables provide $24.95 worth of better dining (or $16.47 worth of better dining from Probably. Shaw exudes a chirpy warmth that one finds neither in Winning the Restaurant Game or Kitchen Confidential (much less in George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, Bourdain's ur-text). One finishes infected by the virus of Shaw's enthusiasm, strategic and simultaneously the billet-doux of a fat man in love.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

When It Rains . . . New York City Entry #15

I used to be a habitué of Manhattan's Meatpacking District. In fifth grade, forty-five years ago, we were bundled off to see butchers at work. In time, meatpackers became meat markets, as our economy has sunk from production to consumption, beef to beefcake. Today those fragrant warehouses are haunts with handsome filles, not filled with handsome haunches. (Shoot me now.)

A friend and I reserved a table at Spice Market, Jean-George Vongerichten and Gray Kunz's take on Thai-Malay street food, an establishment where authenticity is a dirty word. Neither of these notables oversees the kitchen, that is the responsibility of Stanley Wong. The space dazzles, a fantastic concoction of a Malay street as wed to a Delhi seraglio. So beautiful was it that by the end of the evening, I was tempted to nibble my chair, finding pleasure where I could. Given some fond notices for Spice Market, I wonder what radical changes might have transpired over the past few years.

We set 6:30 for our dinner, and as a second friend had just arrived from out of town, I decided to meet her at 5:00 for drinks, having been assured that Spice Market would be serving. Technically the reservationist spoke true. If one didn't mind sitting at the bar or at some wobbly tables in the foyer, one could order a drink, just so long as one hied oneself to the bar to order and to pick it up (and for all I know to mix it - and tip oneself). No food was available.

Trudging through the rain, we landed at Pastis, where I had a most satisfying - what else? - pastis and my partner a chicken Caesar salad. For a restaurant to force their customers to their competitors seemed an act of perverse generosity. But to Pastis I shall return.

I arrived in time for our reservation at SM. As we were questioning the menu our waitress emphasized those wines and plates that we should avoid. Both the Thai and Indian wines were not to her - and perhaps to anyone's - liking. We were warned off the Striped Bass with Wok Fried Napa Cabbage, Water Chestnut, and Cucumber. Too fiery, we were told. When we selected it, the order was forgotten, and we were brought a single entree to share. I realize that servers try to befriend customers, but starvation might just go too far.

When I requested a copy of the menu, I was told that this was not permitted; I was allowed to copy the dishes we ordered. Whether our server violated a rule, I don't know, but the menu for Spice Market does not appear on Jean-George website, a decision for which I now share some sympathy.

We were informed that the dishes were intended for sharing, a nice concept, but with overly large plates on overly small tables, this plan seemed as fantastic as the setting.

With a single exception, the dishes ranged from the unimpressive to the unpleasant; the preparations from ineffective to incompetent.

But as I am sweetheart - everyone tells me - let me start with the dish. I enjoyed the Cod with Malaysian Chili Sauce with Thai Basil. The cod was mild and tender without being mushy. The Chili Sauce was more fruity than flaming, and the Thai Basil added a little complexity. It was a satisfying and pretty dish, with the bonewhite cod set off by the maroon sauce.

As it was emphasized that the dishes were meant to share, we were surprised when the two of us were served three Spiced Chicken Samosas with Cilantro Yogurt. Could they not realize that if dishes are to be split for a table of two, an odd number was, well, odd. Fortunately the samosa was not of such a quality that we were motivated to fight. The batter was not as crispy as needed and the meat was reminiscent of Taco Bell. The cilantro yogurt was, in contrast, refreshing.

Our Lime Noodles with Vegetables, Basil and Sesame raised a question: why did we order this mess. Yes, it was recommended, but as I read this I feel queasy again. Aside from the strange combination of tastes, the noodles sat patiently in a pool of sauce, a sauce for which our sporkish utensil was not well-suited, and so the poor pasta became soggier as time ticked on.

Given that our bass never appear, we were persuaded that this was a grave warning, and so we choose Onion and Chili Crusted Short Ribs, Egg Noodles and Pea Shoots. After about twenty minutes, they made their entrance. Lime Noodles redux! The noodles sat in a bowl of sad sauce. If there was crust on the soft ribs, I missed it. The flavors were just right, but the textures were a sodden muddle.

One can often count on dessert to save an otherwise unfortunate evening. Not so "Thai Jewels and Fruits with Crushed Coconut Ice." Although we were clearly sharing the dessert, the server brought a single big bowl (this dessert is enough for four), and when we requested separate bowls (scoops were provided to ladle the fruit and other spoons to eat with), we were asked "Do you want them?" Uhhhh. Note to kitchen: crushed ice does not mean marble-sized hunks. Yes, the dish was pretty, and as the coconut ice melted, it was cool and sweet. The sweet water chestnuts, lychee, and papaya were a chewy counterpoint, but not one that I shall repeat.

Something is wrong at Spice Market. The errors on the floor and in the back were so frequent that this can hardly be a bad night. The idea, a loving paean to Asian streetfood, is to be praised. If only we could dine on ideas alone.

Upon exiting, rain was pouring. A perfect end to a perfect evening.

Spice Market
403 West 13th Street
Manhattan (Meatpacking District)

Monday, September 26, 2005

Manhattan Sunday Morning - New York Entry #14

Restaurants are industrial organizations. They consist of line workers whose job is to manufacture when required. But unlike many factories, there is no room for inventory (cakes, excepted). Production is required immediately. And unlike services such as cobblers, laundresses, or auto mechanics, one can not request customers to return later while these professionals operate on their own schedule.

Of course, high-end restaurants, like surgeons or beauticians, require reservations to provide some temporal control. Yet, until operating theaters or salons, the number of dining reservations scheduled is a function of the size of the room rather than the time necessary for focused of attention to the needs of a particular client. When the restaurant is jammed, all hell breaks loose. Restaurants are routinely overstaffed, except for those moments at which they are dramatically understaffed. These moments - typically termed "the rush" - are necessary for a restaurant to be financially successful. At the best restaurants a rush is a high for workers, allowing them a sense of flow, flying through the kitchen, but it also creates a pressured space where mistakes happen.

This Sunday some friends and I decided on a late brunch at davidburke & donatella. davidburke is David Burke, formerly at River Café and Park Avenue Café. donatella is Donatella Arpaia a former attorney turned restauranteur. The name reminds me of a hoary magic act in which Mr. burke would climax by sawing his skimpily-clad assistant in half. Could he be channeling Charo?

We made reservations for 11:30. I can hear New Yorkers snickering at these rubes. In Chicago, our day is half over. When we arrived the restaurant was empty. Was davidburke & donatella suffering from being under-capitalized?

We had the staff to ourselves, hovering to snatch our plates before we were quite done - although perhaps they were aware of the circus to come. But at 11:30 we enjoyed the tight, but pretty, room, decorated in bright swaths of red; everything from the banquettes to the servers' ties was rosy, centered by an explosion of lilies in a stunning centerpiece. By 12:30, the space revealed its flaws. The staging area for the servers was near our table, and it was apparent that the tiny corner needed a redesign with plates teetering. The room became raucous with servers charging about, nearly colliding, and forgetting to bring both the sauce for one of our courses and our bill, the latter despite the customers waited to be served. What had been a restful brunch had become rush hour. Yet, despite flaws in the preparations, I could find no kitchen problem that I could easily attribute to the crowds. I recognize the need to squeeze in customers, but next time I will play a Chicago farmer and appear at a bleary ten a.m.

On first arriving, servers placed an object in front of me that seemed a simple popover. With thoughts of Boston's Anthony's Pier Four, I tapped it expecting the souffle to collapse. The roll tapped right back. Was it a Candid Camera roll? (davidburke can be playful, as in his signature cheesecake lollipop tree with bubblegum whipped cream.) I was so confused that I asked a servers (We had four at the start of the brunch), whether this was how it was to be. Assured that it was not last Sunday's antique, I broke it open with the imagined mess. No popover this, but a faux-popover hard roll. Not bad, but not the first thing to tackle with a hangover.

One guest began with "Fresh Berry [black and blue] Granola and Vanilla Yogurt Parfait with Mango Donuts." This is a good and straightforward dish. The berries were fresh, the granola was crunchy, and the yogurt mixed nicely. Less successful were the accompanying "mango donuts." Guess: What is a mango donut? Wrong. At db&d, it is a chewy little dough ball (doball?) with a bleak and bland mango-ish sauce. Bleech.

The warm asparagus with wild mushrooms, chorizo, black olives and goat cheese would have been just fine had the kitchen merely forgotten the asparagus. These tough old stalks had no place in a fine new restaurant. That the stalks were intended was testified by the fact that the kitchen had scraped them. If one cannot find baby asparagi, why not substitute a baby carrot disguised by guacamole? The mushrooms were delightful (the morning had a fungal flair), and the goat cheese and chorizo added a nice tang.

The third appetizer was "Pretzel Crusted Crabcake Tempura with Mango and Poppy Seed Honey." Put aside intramural debates about when frying becomes tempura, and let us admit that the batter, while not soggy, was not as crispy as to make it memorable. Still the crabcake was luxurious, enriched with dabs of mango vinaigrette and what tasted to me like a cumin aoili, circling the plate in delicious dipping dots of yellow and beige. The unadvertised segments of grapefruit was unneeded, but as readers of my reports know any chef who plays with bitterness gets a free pass.

The first main dish was "Classic Eggs Benedict." Classic it was, and well-made. It was served with a couch potato serving: an oversized mound of shoestring potatoes. The crispy threads sprinkled the table with tiny nubs of spuddy goodness.

I ordered Short Ribs of Beef with Wild Mushroom Cavatelli and Truffle Mousse. davidburke is described in Steven A. Shaw's Turning the Tables as a man who loves his meat, and these ribs were stunning. This is meat that you could cut with a butter knife. As a mushroom picker I greedily consume fungi with a smile. Were the meat not rich enough, the truffle mousse would have solved any spartan quality, abetted by the earthy mushroom cavatelli. I am not usually a fan of truffles, believing little slices add more to the bill than to the dish, but this belonged. The only surprise - and not a happy one - were a small pile of rather sad and tepid porcini chips.

The third main dish is course was stellar: Sheared Brown Eggs and Dried Figs with Braised Short Rib Hash. But before my groveling praise, three cavils. Cavil one: Perhaps the kitchen had run out of those distasteful dried figs, but our figs were fresh and moist. Cavil two: Brown eggs? - how would we know unless the chef left little bits of shell around for us to check? Cavil three: I had thought that sheared eggs were scrambled, not fried. Cavils aside, db's dish was spectacular. I adore the voluptuous mix of meat and fruit, and no fruit promotes concupiscence more than the beloved fig. With db's meat fixation, this dish could be placed on my culinary rotation.

Desserts were mixed in execution. Least successful was a "Warm & Crisp Apple Tart" (with cider caramel and cinnamon ice cream). The tart was not crisp (it was warm), but warm and stale might not pass muster with restaurant consultants, although it might create a unique market niche. The cider caramel was a proper mix, and the cinnamon ice cream, if not luxuriant, was cool and spicy.

Better was a canonical version of Vanilla Creme Brulee, properly crunchy and smooth, above and below. A traditionalist could enjoy a most pleasant brunch at db&d with Organic Greens, Eggs Benedict, and Creme Brulee. Perhaps the portion was over generous at the end of a rich brunch, but had we will-power, such complaints could be shelved.

My dessert was lovely: Butterscotch Panna Cotta with Curried Cocoa Gelée. The martini glass filled with perfect whipped pudding with little shards of chocolate, topped with a butterscotch jam. At the bottom of the glass was a joyous curried cocoa liquid, which could only have been more satisfying if there was twice as much. There was not enough to infuse in the panna cotta, but my last three bites were memorable. The dish was an advertisement that desserts can be as complex as any amuse bouche.

At times I was disappointed with the service and the kitchen work, yet at its best the food at db&d was very satisfying. I enjoyed the boldness of David Burke's flavors, his mix of imagination and tradition, and his respectful veneration of meat, not always evident outside the doors of steakhouses.

New York brunch reminds me of a heartland advantage: by intelligently designing when to dine I avoid Manhattan's madding crowds, who treat the Times crossword as an austere sermon from which they are not early released.

davidburke & donatella
133 East 61st Street (between Park and Lexington)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Potatoes Evermore - New York City Entry #13

I spent the winter and spring of 2003 warmly tucked in Uppsala, the comfortable University town forty minutes northwest of Stockholm. I have many fond memories of my hosts, but as for food two words will suffice: potatoes and Operakällaren. The latter is the perfect Swedish restaurant located in the Stockholm opera house. Of all the many meals that I have enjoyed over the years that dinner at Operakällaren was perhaps the only one of which I could find no flaws. The high-ceilinged traditional 18th Century dining room made no concession to Scandinavian modern, but the food drew from the best of the last three centuries (I understand that the decor has recently been remodeled and the cocktail bar is contemporary).

I provide this background to justify my claim that Swedes do - under the right circumstances - appreciate and prepare cuisine of the highest caliber. My visit to Aquavit proved delightful, but not surprising.

After a dozen New York outings, I had yet to find a restaurant that I could label brilliant. I was beginning to despair, feeling grumpiness around the corner. Aquavit brightened my palate.

I understand from a dining companion, an Aquavit admirer, that the previous location - dominated by a waterfall and a superb atrium - was an architectural marvel. The recent move brings a pleasant modernist room with clean lines and soft tones, but not a place that begs recording in Architectural Digest.

The food is, however, brilliantly constructed. Although I rarely start with a cocktail, in memory of my wintery months and in honor of the restaurant I ordered House Infused Pear Vanilla Black Pepper Aquavit. Skol! Joy! I cannot begin to explain how but this trio matches the icy purity of the aquavit. Pear, vanilla, and pepper share spicy aromas, which, although distinct, mix beautifully.

Marcus Samuelsson's cuisine nods at Scandinavian ingredients, but as at the Operakällaren, this is no folk cuisine. Chef Samuelsson is a global artist, and any misbegotten diner who expects boiled cod, peas, and potatoes should beware. I have eaten much smoked salmon, but never with goat cheese ice cream; venison was never served with a star anise broth.

We began with a doubly amusing bouche. First, a sashimi grade tuna in a slight coconut broth, followed by parsnip puree with American caviar on brioche toast. This pair did precisely what starters are supposed to do: amaze us with the skills of the chef: little matters that suggest the larger canvas of cuisine soon to appear. Samuelsson is a chef who is skilled in working with contrasting tastes, producing not clash but synergy. The coconut brought out the slight saltiness of the tuna, mingling salt and sweet. Something similar might be said of the mix of caviar and parsnip, but with the slightly bitter taste of the root vegetable embracing the salty eggs. I was sated and the meal had just begun.

As a first course I selected Kumamoto Oysters: half dozen bivalves topped by marinated salmon roe and dill oil, sitting on a dollop of smoked potato cream and a crouton. The presentation, here and elsewhere, revealed a intuition of Scandinavian design, witty and imbued with the beauty of simplicity. Our waiter explained that the chef wished for diners to slide the combination as a bite: six bites of heaven. The oysters were at the peak of perfection, and each ingredient made for a totality that could not easily be divided.

My second course was the Lemon Cured Duck Breast with Potato-Braised Duck Leg Hash, Walnut Vinaigrette, Duck Egg, and Glögg Sauce. How could one eat at Aquavit without potato: it wouldn't feel right. The lemon cured duck breast was so delightfully piquant that I forgave an egg that might better have been slightly runny and a more generously ladled sauce.

The disappointment of the evening was the intermezzo, a Buttermilk-Yuzu sorbet. How the heavy buttermilk matched the citrusy yuzu and how it was to be a palate cleanser, not a palate coater, I cannot explain.

Dessert set matters right. I ordered the signature Arctic Circle, a frozen goat cheese dessert with blueberry sorbet and passion fruit curd. Although I wished the dessert was served slightly less frozen, a few minutes of conversation cured the problem, spawning happy memories of those cloudberries that I enjoyed on my Swedish sabbatical. Again the symphony of flavors was thoughtful, startling, and brave.

Marcus Samuelsson is a creative and influential chef, a master at the top of his craft, and should I get lonely during a winter afternoon, I can appear at Aquavit's Café hat in hand for my nostalgic order of Meatballs, Mashed Potatoes, and Lingonberries. Now that's eating.

65 East 55th Street
Manhattan (Midtown East)
Reviewer-Proof New York City Entry #12

Some restaurants are reviewer-proof. One can just pack up one's adjectives and go home. They do what they do, do it adequately, if not memorably, and go on their merry way.

A couple that I know swear by the Madison Bistro, visiting it on most visits to New York. They find comfort in the dark, romantic (although some might say murky, gloomy) interior. They find the bistro food well-prepared and the service attentive.

I was recently taken to the Madison Bistro with a group of colleagues, and can sympathize with my friends. No one would confuse MB with one of the bright, elegant, creative bistros that New York has to offer. The Madison Bistro is not Balthazar through any fantasy that I can imagine.

What one might best say about the food is that it does not distract from one's conversation, amorous or intellectual. Restaurants are not only places for eating, but for talking. At some exceptional restaurants I wish that my partner would vanish to leave me alone with my food and my thoughts. This is assuredly not the case at MB.

My choice was traditional bistro fare: Escargot with Parsley and Garlic; Lamb Shanks Tangine with Olives and Lemon, and Praline Souffle with Vanilla Sauce. These dishes were neither successes or failures, they just were. The escargot was garlicky, perhaps a little tough, perhaps with too much butter, but six satisfying bites. The tangine sauce lacked much spice - and seemed more Madison than Mecca, but it did mix sweetness and acidity pleasantly. The souffle was fluffy, although not delicate. Given that the waiter attempted (successfully) to sell us the souffle, this seems a production-line item which the bistro has down pat.

None of my dishes astounded and none failed in this bistro that would be a credit to the restaurant scene in any number of small industrial cities throughout the American hinterlands; it happens to be located right here in Murray Hill.

Madison Bistro
238 Madison Avenue (between 37th and 38th Street)
Manhattan (Murray Hill)

Friday, September 23, 2005

Triage - New York City Entry #11

Despite internal voices urging caution, some things seem too good to pass up. Many top New York restaurateurs offer special "bargain" luncheons, but few of these establishments match Jean Georges in sheer culinary wattage.

Recently I crossed Central Park for a three course meal from a four-star chef for one nickel and two sawbucks. (Come January, add a penny). Chef Vongerichten offers this steal in the less formal of his two dining rooms, the Nougatine Room, an airy, if casual room, outfitted in light woods, tans, creams, and whites. One chooses among two starters, two entrees, and two desserts.

Considering the third course, our desserts, the food was matchless. My dessert, Strawberry Consomme with an Almond Blanc Manger, was the finest sweet I have had this year. When I was young I recall waiting for packages of frozen berries to empty so I could gulp the juice. This consomme had that intensity but with a lightness that was ethereal. Add an almond flan that almost floated off the plate, mild but still nutty, and the pastry chef deserves a standing ovation.

My partner's dessert was almost as satisfying. Chocolate Peanut Ice Cream with a gob of chocolate fondant and a smear of chocolate-orange (Jean Georges seems taken with smears; they were found on half of our dishes). The chocolate fondant was as intense as the finest mousse and the chocolate peanut ice cream was inset with meaty chunks of nut.

If only all six dishes could have been dessert!

As appetizer we had a worthy, if not startling, plate of "Wild Arugula, Bleu Cheese, Walnuts, and Pears." This was well balanced and fresh, but by now these tastes are rather ordinary - nouvelle salad as comfort food.

I selected a "Sweet Potato Soup, swirled with Brown Butter and Ginger." I admired the swirl which was spicy and indulgent, but the soup in which it twirled lacked taste and felt awkward and weighty on the tongue. It should have been lighter and more assertive.

Both entrees were overcooked (Skate, Black Beans, Red Pepper, and Celery - a smear, again - and Pork Loin, Napa Cabbage, Figs, and Smoked Bacon - here a fig smear). These dishes had the potential of being satisfying, although not uniquely creative, but the tip of the skate was dried (the center was nicely moist) and the pork was cooked to medium doneness with the cabbage mushy. Had I been asked to specify my preferred degree of doneness (rare) and had we not been eating on the cheap, the pork would surely have been returned. It was edible, but not enjoyable. The pork and figs, had it been cooked properly, would have delighted. In contrast, the black beans, even under the best of conditions, would have done little for the skate.

At lunch the staff serves diners in the main room, diners in the Nougatine Room ordering off the regular menu, and skimpers. I couldn't avoid the feeling that a process of triage was at work in the busy kitchen. Close enough was good enough for the likes of us. (The waitstaff, however, was professional and cordial).

The fact that our desserts (and the salad) were most satisfying suggests that the best choices at a bargain lunch may be those that the cooks need not attend to in the hustle of the lunch rush. Even at Jean-Georges - perhaps especially at Jean-Georges - a class hierarchy is never far from the surface.

Jean Georges (Nougatine Room)
Trump International Hotel
1 Central Park West (between 60th and 61st Street)

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Emily and Gabrielle - New York City Entry #10

Strolling down Houston Street, heading for Prune, I happened upon a woman standing by a portable heater along the avenue - the good sweet aroma of southern cooking could not be resisted. This chef introduced herself as Emily and introduced me to her mother sitting nearby. Emily has lived in New York for some forty years, part of the great Southern migration, a native of upcountry South Carolina (near Anderson), not far from where I spend my summers. Tonight she was serving fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collards, and upside-down pineapple cake.

I have always felt great sympathy for Calvin Trillin's young daughter, who, as he described the matter in his "Tummy Trilogy," always carried a bagel on family outings to Chinese restaurants "just in case." I feel the same about greens; you never know when pot likker might save an evening.

Prune thinks of itself as a neighborhood restaurant, but what could be more neighborly than a $10 plate of fried chicken, eaten on an East Village stoop. And Emily has not forgotten her roots with collards as sweet as tea, a peppery chicken, macaroni whose cheese is not quattro formaggio, and a dessert made for porch eating. Emily informs me that she cakes - vanilla, chocolate, red velvet, and, of course, upside-down pineapple. Her cakes, not uptown but upcountry, are worth a call.

With my part-eaten dinner in hand, I arrived at Prune. As many have noted, Prune's ambiance melds cramped and loud, but the tables - almost like a long communal table at Boston's Durgin Park - do make for acquaintance. May the couple to our right have a blissful life together. But when you choose you seats, ask your partner who is in greater need of the facilities, otherwise you may be plum out of luck. The restaurant seats thirty in a space that under less convivial conditions might fit twelve.

The starter - not quite an amuse bouche - was a mean trick. Gabrielle Hamilton, the highly regarded chef at Prune, served boiled peanuts cooked al dente, seasoned with cayenne. I was not amused. Boiled peanuts are a comfort food, designed to be served at the point that the nut is soft throughout, where the sweetness of the meat merges with the saltiness of the boil. I admit that a chef has the power the right to taunt our expectations, but to what end? The poor nut could not stand up to the kitchen's rough play. And my thoughts drifted to the perfection that Miz Emily would have brought to my bouche.

Prune is rightly known for its Monkfish Liver on Warm Buttered Toast, and, excepting lobster innards, I have never eaten a more dazzling seafood organ meat. (With Beef Marrow off the menu until winter, this is the closest we come to Fergus Henderson's offal cuisine). The liver was so mild and tender that it might have been the finest foie gras. Napped with a soy based sauce, one could eat it pungent or pure. The happily buttered toast added a richness that complimented the essence of liver. With the monkfish, we saved the best for first.

Along with monkfish liver, we ordered Prune's signature barfood, Sardines with Triscuits and Mustard. I have always fantasized that some day I would learn to cook corn flakes, and I assumed that Chef Hamilton would have taken on Nabisco. No such luck. I'm not convinced that any of the trio of ingredients deserve top billing. This is home cooking for those without a stove.

We had been deciding between the two sardine dishes, and kitchen kindly sent us the second a sardine and avocado sandwich. I wouldn't place this dish in a Hall of Fame, but it was a more successful presentation that its sibling. The sardine was more substantial, and seemed to have been cut rather than scooped from a can. This appetizer belonged in a restaurant, not a tavern.

I choose to order two starters rather than a main course (I was less than stunned by the choices of roast chicken, lamb chops, ribeye steak. Only the whole grilled bronzino tempted.) As is often noted in accounts of Prune, the "Fried Sweetbreads with Bacon and Capers" is a substantial opener: four sweetbreads supporting a long strip of bacon in a pool of caper sauce. Like the liver, sweetbreads are organ meats, but here the preparation detracts from the dish. While the sweetbreads were clean and fresh, their flavor was overpowered by a fried coating. Had the chef modestly sauteed them with a bit of flour or left them naked, the dish would been superior. The bacon and capers provided all the pungency needed.

The Pasta Kerchief (with poached egg, French ham, and brown butter) was too great a conceit. My preference would have been as a simpler take on pasta carbonara - horizontal, not sculptural. At the bottom of the plate, the pasta had become rather soggy as the sauce cascaded down. A sauced dish that is served vertically inevitably has a different textural profile in the basement than on the leaky roof. As with the sweetbreads, this is a dish that could be fine with some thoughtful tweaking.

My dining partner ordered the Roasted Suckling Pig (with pickled tomatoes, blackeyed pea salad, and aioli). In an eloquent memoir in Food & Wine, Gabrielle Hamilton reveals that she is a Pennsylvania girl whose her mentor, Misty Callies, inspired her in Ann Arbor. Nobody had to tell me that his girl isn't from Dixie. Maybe suckling pig doesn't require wood smoke, but it wouldn't hurt. This was B-bbq. The clanging tastes of this dish were louder than the background noise. Suckling pig can have a purity when cooked precisely. Pulled pork does not deserve tomato-jalapeno salad. The blackeyed pea salad did provided a welcome and witty commentary on bbq's standard cole slaw. Although I should have been focusing on Chez Prune, I mused about the contrast on Houston Street. Iron Chef Carolina.

Side dishes were thick Jersey tomatoes as bright as a Southern cardinal and as sweet as a honeysuckle night. The bitter greens salad contained fresh lettuces, but was rather cautious in its willingness to tempt us with bitter leaves. Chef Hamilton is more than willing to indulge in salty play, but bitter tastes are rare.

Dessert was an Upside-down Nectarine Cake (counterpoint to Upside-down Pineapple Cake). The cake itself was moist, sweet, and perfect. Thus, it was a surprise that the nectarines turned up missing. To combine this cake with pineapple rings with a maraschino nipple would have been divine.

The wine list, although not large, is well chosen. We selected a modestly ($24) priced Provencal rosé (Routas Rouviere Rosé. It was a perfect summer wine. Bravo.

I enjoyed my meal at Prune. Many dishes could have used tweaking, but at $72 (before tip), Gabrielle Hamilton provide creativity. If her inspiration is not always mine, it is inspiration. And yet there are those from whom she could still learn, not only Fergus Henderson of St. John's, but Emily too, dishing out heavenly cakes and blessed greens down the block.

Emily's Heavenly Cakes and Deli

54 East First Street
Manhattan (East Village)

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Scoops 3 - New York City Entry #9

Ask a stupid question department:

In my ice cream travels throughout the boroughs, I have puzzled how New Yorkers managed to bring pints of their favorite desserts home without finding a soupy mess. In Chicagoland we pop in the car and the pint is still chilled, at least if we choose our commutes well.

Today I returned to Park Slope for the gelato at Tempo Presto in Park Slope, and had answered what New Yorkers surely will surely label a foolish query.

On my recent tour of pizzerias, I hoped to detour to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, but perhaps my companions considered the potted herbs we spied a sufficient bout with nature. But with nudging from Steve R., I decided to make a Trifecta Sunday (the Brooklyn Museum, the garden, and another round of Brooklyn ice cream).

The advice was noble. Several of the flavors at Tempo Presto were inspired. TP specializes in gelato (and sorbetti), which, if made properly, will be more creamy in texture and more intense in flavor than American ice creams. Among the flavors offered are Nutella Swirl, Pistachio, Café du Monde, Cinnamon, Chocolate Sticks and Stones (peanuts and pretzels) (all milk based), and Mixed Berries (a sorbetti).

I selected Orange Cardamon, Caramel Swirl, Banana Bourbon Pecan, Tangerine Melon, and a taste of Concord Grape (the latter two, sorbetti).

The texture of all five were exemplary - smooth, not swollen; lustrous without being fatty. Although I typically prefer big bold flavors, I confess that the subtle Orange Cardamon was one of the most delightfully flavored ice cream I have tasted. One doesn't need much cardamon to make a point, and, as I enjoy ice creams that are not sticky sweet, the marriage of orange and cardamon was as inspiring as it was surprising. More traditional was the Caramel Swirl, a big flavor with intense caramel (and a ribbon of caramel) throughout. The third striking scoop was a Tangerine-Melon sorbetti. The mix of citrus with the sweet tartness of Cantaloupe was melodious - two fruits that belong together.

Less successful was an under-flavored Banana-Bourbon-Pecan. Like much rum raisin, BBP is designed for kids. I couldn't taste the bourbon, and, as is often the case, the taste of banana is readily hidden by the cream. Had I more than a taste, the Concord Grape Sorbetti might have appealed, but it lacked the puckery punch that I expect of Concord Grapes.

I anticipate revisiting Tempo Presto next spring when Prospect Parks's cherry trees is in bloom; perhaps cherry sorbetti will await.

To take my pint, I was provided a sturdy styroform tub (better living through chemistry!), able to hold my ice cream for two hours. Perhaps other parlors stock such marvels, but I am taking no chances. It will travel with me until the winter winds blow.

Tempo Presto
254 Fifth Avenue (between Carroll St. and Garfield Place)
Brooklyn (Park Slope)
Four Slices of Brooklyn - New York City Entry #8

Trekking through Brooklyn, searching for the perfect slice, from ethnic Midwood in central Brooklyn to Brooklyn Heights, viewing Lower Manhattan, is to be reminded of the diversity of humble pizza. Bread, tomato, and cheese - the stuff of life. It should be simple, but so many choices must be made.

In New York City, pizza is typically heated by coal [correction: Di Fara uses a gas oven]: Di Fara (in Midwood), Peperoncino (in Park Slope), Caserta Vecchia (in Boerum Hill) and Grimaldi's (near Brooklyn Heights). If pizza is known by their crust, these are all within the broad range of New York style pizza, having neither the cake-crust or crispy cracker-crust found in Chicago. Of these four, Di Fara, and not the award-winning Grimaldi's, was the one that brought me to the doorstep of my childhood pizza memories.

For those who label themselves "chowists" searching for a fantasy of perfect authenticity and uncorrupted artisans, Di Fara is the place. Chowhound's Jim Leff (who gives Di Fara's his highest rating) and Ed Levine of Pizza: A Slice of Heaven (who counts Domenico DeMarco as one of his "keepers of flame") should not be dismissed lightly. As Mr. DeMarco explained to us and to Ed Levine, he is "very proud of what he does." Let us lobby for a culinary heritage award.

When we arrived in the mostly silent area of Midwood on Saturday morning, an area labeled as "Kosher Brooklyn" by Myra Alperson, Di Fara was, like its neighbors, closed. Yet, as the 11:00 a.m. opening time, we could hear Mr. DeMarco puttering behind locked doors. Finally he took pity on us and let us in through the back, even before he was fully ready. He works alone, creating pizzas by hand, one at a time. He is an artist of the first rank.

Customers must have known of his schedule as we were the first diners for about fifteen minutes. Entering through the back might not be something that would be recommended for health inspectors, but the grease and dirt certainly added points for authenticity to the 1960s pizzeria in a neighborhood for which today a pizzeria might not be a natural foodstuff. I imagine that more than one once-devout teen violated kasherut laws, chewing Pieman DeMarco's pepperoni (Pepperoni can be made from beef, but that was not the case here). In the window boxes on Avenue J were his herbs - basil, rosemary, and oregano - that were to give their lives for these exemplary pies.

This was our first pizza of the morning, and we ordered a pizza straight up and one with pepperoni. What first impressed me was the quality of the ingredients. The tomato sauce (both fresh and canned) had a complexity that comes from a master's hand adding those herbs that create the synergy of a New York pizza. The sauce was sweet, but had the pungency of an oregano base. The cheeses - God's cheese (Mozzarella, Romano, and Parmesan) - were impeccably fresh, and blended with the tomato sauce to provide a pizza in which each bite contained a consistency of flavors. The edge crust was close to the Platonic ideal of a New York bread crust.

The single weakness was that the pizza seemed slightly undercooked. Not much, but enough to notice. The bottom was not burned or even singed, and the structure of the pizza allowed each slice to become immediately flaccid when raised to one's lips. The point of the slice pointed straight down. As we could see Mr. DeMarco checking the bottom of the pizza, possibly this was his style. But in my view an erect slice should only slowly become limp, cherishing its brief victory over gravity. (Pizza is a rare food whose imagined eroticism generously lends itself bisexual fantasies. Consumption can be doubly gratifying for amorous diners). Since New York pizza is a street food, not eaten, as in Naples with knife and fork, this disappointed. However, I found Di Fara the closest slice to my ideal, and had one been able, as at a reputable steakhouse, to return the pie for a touch more heat, it might have reached my ideal. Leaving I informed Mr. DeMarco that he is my hero and so he is.

Peperoncino in Park Slope is a different place: not a pizzeria, but restaurant, much attuned with its renovated neighbors. Brooklyn is the new home of an array of mid-priced restaurants for upper-middle class New Yorkers who find the newly elegant townhouse throughout the hills and slopes of northwestern Brooklyn satisfying their real estate yearnings (even pizza follows realty). Peperoncino aims at this market, despite the connection of the pieman with the owners of Caserta Vecchia and despite the claim that their ingredients were shipped from Napoli.

I found Peperoncino's the least successful pizzas of the day, each failing to entice me. We ordered a Margherita (tomato, fior di latte [a mozzarella-type soft cow's milk cheese], and basil), a Diavola (tomato, fior di latte, and spicy sausage), and a Pizza do'mare (tomato, calamari, mussels, clams, and shrimp). The tomato sauce was properly sweet but lacked complexity. I could taste no hint of basil, no fennel pungency in the sausage, and the shrimp was tough. Add the general soupiness of the sauce, creating a soggy crust (more characteristic of the Napoli style) and, despite the pleasant surroundings, these were not pies of my dreams.

A connection exists between Peperoncino's and Caserta Vecchia in Boerum Hill (the now-gentrified locale of Jonathan Lethem's magical realist account, Fortress of Solitude). The pieman's wife's grandmother (get that?) had been the piemaker at Caserta, Maddalena Carusone, according to Ed Levine she may have been the first female commercial pie'r. Caserta Vecchia had burned down in 2002, and the new establishment is rather spiffy, although not as elegant as Peperoncino's.

The pies at Caserta Vecchia were the first of the day that had a proper structure, holding gravity at bay. Unfortunately CV does not serve classic pizzas (tomato sauce and cheese), so we selected the Margherita (mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil) and their Quattro Formaggi (Fior di Latte, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, and Fontina). The Gorgonzola provided a tang, providing the four cheeses with a rare pungency. The tomato sauce on the Margherita was, like that at Peperoncino's, a simple blend. More troubling was the crust seemed chewy. Although the structure of the pizza was fine, the crust seemed somewhat undercooked.

Finally we reached Grimaldi's, huddled modestly under the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps the favorite pizzeria of New Yorkers. (In the 2005 Zagat's Di Fara, properly gets the nod, with the same rating as Babbo, yes!). Grimaldi's is not an old-time New York pizzeria, but a 1990 breakaway from East Harlem's Patsy's, where Patsy Grimaldi began working for his uncle in 1941 at age ten. Only in New York would half of a placemat serve as an account of the legal battles: the Brooklyn "Patsy's" lost, becoming "Grimaldi's." The hurt may still be felt in the desire of the piemen not to be photographed while working, a request that Mr. DeMarco had accepted happily.

While waits can be excruciating at Di Fara (although not for morning customers), Grimaldi's is a pizza factory. A specialized team produces these worthy pies. One man (and they are all men, when I were present) worked the ovens, a second added the tomato sauce, and a third placed the cheese. This is not artisinal work, but Fordism at its best.

In both structure and ingredients, Grimaldi's was superior. The crust was properly charred and deliciously bready, the tomato sauce was complex, and the mozzarella was smooth with a subtle and supple aftertaste. The pepperoni was not the superior spicy meat at Di Fara, but was good enough. My complaint with the Grimaldi pie may be judged in terms of my childish vision of what a pie should be. Grimaldi's does not produce a pie of consistent taste, but blotches of cheese and of tomato sauce. The pizza is a map of red and white shapes, a rather garish gifted Christmas tie. While the pizza held up better than that at Di Fara, the consistent profile of the Di Fara triangle provides the edge.

Four pizzerias, one guileless dish. When it comes to the stuff of life, men of the oven find as many ways to create memories as there are ways to live.

Di Fara
1424 Avenue J (at 15th Street)
Brooklyn (Midwood)

72 Fifth Avenue
Brooklyn (Park Slope)

Caserta Vecchia
221 Smith Street
Brooklyn (Boerum Hill)

19 Old Fulton Street
Brooklyn (near Brooklyn Heights)

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Scoops 2 - New York City Entry #7

The ice cream trust must have called in heavy favors for mid-September to boil the souls of New Yorkers. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade had the aspect of Marsailles in July.

Under the Brooklyn Bridge at the Fulton Ferry Landing Pier (a stone's throw from the River Café) sits the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, a highly regarded establishment (with a few indoor tables and a plaza with a spectacular view of lower Manhattan and that magnificent monster of a bridge.

After waiting on a substantial line (far longer than at Grimaldi's Pizza), I selected scoops of Peaches and Cream and Vanilla Chocolate Chunk. BICF serves a mere eight flavors (Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Butter Pecan, among others). These folks are purists.

Their ice cream base is as good as I can recall. It is creamy and sweet without being obese. It is super-premium ice cream, but without that excess that sometimes characterizes ice creams that feel the need to flaunt their luxury. Like great ice cream, the flavor profile should rely on a taste of half-and-half, rather than whipped butterfat.

With this base, one wishes that they added brave flavors to their suave cream. Both ice creams lacked powerful tastes. Although small bits of peach were present - and unlike many peach ice creams they were not half-frozen - they did not produce the child's peach memories that such a late-summer delight demanded. This was no Madeleine de la Pêche. If only the makers took "Peaches" as seriously as they took "And Cream."

One can say the same of Vanilla Chocolate Chunk. I couldn't find the vanilla in a selection more precisely labeled "Chocolate Chunk and Cream."

Some home-made ice cream artisans offer an option that they modestly describe as "Plain." I cannot think of a more pleasant setting to sample ice cream plain and simple.

Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory
Fulton Ferry Landing Pier
Old Fulton Street (and Water Street)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Lost on Curry Row - New York City Entry #6

Looking for mid-range Indian cuisine, six of us journeyed to Curry Row in the East Village. Diners who seek the diversity of South Asian cuisine of Chicago's Devon Avenue must travel further afield to Jackson Heights, but 6th Street, a short walk from NYU, serves in a pinch.

Haute Indian cuisine has now made its mark at such Western restaurants as New York's earnest Tabla and London's astonishing Chutney Mary. But 6th Street tames Indian food for a broader New York dining public.

We selected Banjara, a restaurant with good reports in Zagat's, named after the people from the Rajasthan region of Northwestern India (capital city Jaipur), which, the menu announces is known for colorful clothes and fine jewelry. Unlike other restaurants in "Little India" Banjara eschew the tiresome red Christmas lights that twinkle at passers-by along the block. In contrast, Banjara is festooned with colorful wallcloths, and mirror fragments embedded in the ceiling and walls. For a modest decorating budget, Banjara is a pleasant space.

Each restaurant along 6th Street has its own style and its own chef (Abu Ahmed at Banjara, no longer the highly regarded Tuhin Dutta), even if one might fantasize that somewhere in the bowels of Curry Row a bustling central commissary produce recognizable dishes. Banjara, to be fair, goes beyond the usual suspects of Indian cuisine, with mixed results. The appetizers, particularly the somosas and the murgi shaslik kebab (marinated chicken) seemed most ordinary and rather dry, although the onion bhaji (onions deep-fried in a chick pea batter) was more creative, tasting like potato pancakes as translated in Delhi.

Our six entrees included two that I judged excellent: the creamy and tropical Shrimp Pappas (shrimp in spicy coconut sauce with curry leaves and smoked tamarind; one of the specials of the evening) and the hearty vegetarian Bay Goon Ka Koon (pureed whole eggplant, pureed with fresh onions and tomatoes). In contrast the Chicken Biriyani was uninteresting, dry, and less complexly spiced than often found. Similarly dry was the Banjara Karahi, a local dish that consisted of overcooked pieces of lamb (cooked in "very high heat") with tomatoes, onion, green pepper and assorted herbs and spices.

The Chicken Balti, another local dish from the Northwestern frontier was much better with a definitive taste of coriander and a complexity of other Indian spices. The Pasanda Lamb was a suitable, if not striking, dish of marinated lamb in a yogurt-curry sauce.

The evening's surprise was the red plastic ring (harvested from a milk container) that my son discovered in his lamb. No persuasion could convince him that Indians serve a curried stew borrowed from La Galette des Rois, Mardi Gras' King Cake. Banjara, I suggested, was touchingly honoring the battered residents on the Gulf. Another remarkable idea that required the proper audience.

With several regional dishes and a decor that surpasses their neighbors, Banjara deserves some applause. Yet, Banjara can not be classed as a destination spot for either haute and authentic Indian cuisine. And, as my son would stress, sometimes the best surprise is no surprise.

97 First Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Monday, September 12, 2005

Pre-Med at Matsumoto

Globalization takes its toll. With the expansion in the United States of the depth and complexity of Asian, Latin, Eastern European, and, now, African haute cuisines, how can the serious diner break from the constraints of culinary cliche. In a world system, provincialism chains one to ignorance.

I have consumed piles of sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, tempura, ramen, and poki. Yet, although I have an intuitive grasp of the rudiments of French cuisine (at least a rudimentary grasp of the intuition of ...), my knowledge of the philosophies and possibilities of Japanese cuisine is narrow. Every visit to a Japanese restaurant is like sleeping at a Tokyo Holiday Inn where “the best surprise is no surprise.” Even with a son who speaks Japanese, spending time in Kyoto, and another who views far too much anime, I am as pure a Midwestern gaijin as might be found. Hai!

After last night, this must change. But change is never easy. Five of us (Cathy2, Cathy’s friend Helen, Crazy C, Mike G) dined at Matsumoto, a new and significant Japanese restaurant along a rather unprepossessing Chicago commercial strip (a center of ethnic cuisine in Chicago - Lawrence Avenue may well be the most appetizing street in the city). The meal will alter how I taste.

Dinner at Matsumoto stands in distinct contrast with a Philadelphia meal that a friend and I shared at Morimoto, the eponymous restaurant of Iron Chef Morimoto. That meal, worthy as it was (a three star meal, I felt), did not jolt me. Morimoto is shaped through Japanese preparation as shaped by an American sensibility. I have not visited Japan, and so this claim may seem amusing to those with a knowledge of the Tokyo dining scene. However, the restaurant with its Orientalist touches, has an ambience of an American’s night on the town. The Omakase (a tasting menu but - I believe - with less philosophical import than a Kaiseki menu) was worthy, with a hamachi sashimi the high point. I still fondly recall a Japanese inflected foie gras plate and a luscious tiny wild plum. Unsurprisingly the fish dishes - both the raw and the cooked - were the emotional center of the meal. The pace was a little rushed, as dishes were hustled away before they were quite done, but the waitstaff were agreeable in that very American fashion that waiters outside of Manhattan cultivate.

A student confronting a new world is swamped by information, none of which quite makes sense. There are no handles through which knowledge can be ordered. Everything stands alone. Perhaps one loves the idea of being a surgeon, but one must still pass organic chemistry. So many new and inexplicable things for which the comfortable familiarity of experience is useless. However, the cute metaphor of organic chemistry is inadequate to describe the experience of a Japanese Kaiseki menu (Kaiseki is a style of Japanese degustation menu, but is one that is linked to the philosophy of the seasons, an expression of a philosophy of living - the gustatory equivalent of Ikebana.) Facts are not what are required in exploring the intricate corners of Japanese cuisine - philosophy and sensation are. If art students were required to pass “organic virtuosity” classes, the metaphor might be more apt.

I lightly use the pre-med metaphor to excuse what the internists of Japanese dining will recognize as my offenses, gaffes, and embarrassments. I aim for a C+, passing, if lacking much distinction.

Matsumoto as a restaurant space is reminiscent of a pleasantly proportioned and designed neighborhood restaurant with a color scheme emphasizing gray and plum. Its decor is not much different from Chicago’s reliably excellent Katsu, but not comparable to those seductive Japanese restaurants that specialize in “Sushi and the City,” such as Japonais. The decor at Matsumoto may confuse those who see high-end restaurants as places where architects display their craft. How often does one consume a $150 banquet with wooden pull-apart chopsticks? There may have been gold leaf on the sashimi, but not on the utensils.

Throughout the meal we were educated by the charming Chiyomo and her assistant, our beloved server (and superb English-speaker) Suziko. Both were somewhat startled (at least the matter was raised several times) that we had prepared for the most authentic Japanese cuisine (what that means is a subject for professional authentologists). Without our two guides our experience would have been pallid and my confusion would have been disordered, not compellingly mysterious.

This is a chef who embraces his art passionately. The chef arrived at 11:00 a.m. to prepare our menu. He must have whirled and dashed in the kitchen to construct our four hour dinner. The soy sauce is made in-house (although, at least, for our banquet, the wasabi was not). Our sake, Junmai Ginjo, a gift from the owner, was a smooth as a Japanese river stone, rice water in a velvet glove. While I love the more pungent sakes, Ginjo is from highly polished rice (30%, I believe), and is as polished a liquid as I have tasted aside from certain rare Grand Crus.

The menu:

1) Oyster Shooter with quail egg in a soy broth
2) Squid innards, salt and sake
3) Sea Cucumber Liver with Mountain Potato mash
4) Seaweed in a sour liquid
5) Clam with dried bonito flakes
6) Assorted Sashimi
7) Broth with Shimeji mushrooms
8) Crab with a soybean (yuba) skin with Namatake mushrooms
9) Grilled salmon with pickled lotus root and pepper, and egg squares
10) Braised duck with green onion bundles
11) Fried sea urchin on fried noodles
12) Oysters with red miso and green onions
13) Geoduck clams (mirugai) in a lightly sour sauce with carrot and cucumber
14) Assorted sushi
15) Fruit soup

These images do not begin to do justice to the complexity of tastes. My most vocal complaint is the amount of food. But the time we reached course 13, doing justice to these creations proved impossible. I know that to take sushi home for lunch is a culinary crime, but not to do so would be a crime against all that my mother taught me, rather too well (Eat! Eat! People are starving in New Orleans!).

The moment of truth was the presentation of the first courses, five jewels, each in their own glass, and each confronting this American with the recognizing that my culinary map has many gaps: I am Magellan with clean and open hands. This tray as visual display could have been a creation of Charlie Trotters or the other American chefs of the age, influenced, like Picasso by foreign climes. The texture, however, was not for an American chef to imitate. Ultimately tastes are building blocks - sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and (some say) umami, a savory taste intensifier. However, textures are not universals, but tied to the very idea of what edibility is. Consuming these exquisite starters forced me to confront textures that seemed just wrong, but in their disturbing impropriety forced a reconsideration of the possibility of food itself.

The oyster shooter, the first starter, was, to Western tongues, the most conventional of the five. A perfect fresh oyster floating in a miso jus, nudged by a raw quail egg. Americans do not need to be told the arousing properties of oysters, and any viewer of the brilliant 1985 film Tampopo knows what a raw egg can do. We had just started, and already the bed beckons.

The second cup proved a different species altogether. I don’t know which part of the squid was at our service, but eating this innards was like approaching a cup of chewy anchovies in a thickened and salty liquor. Were I expecting Western cuisine, this would be an ouch! moment, but I am a novitiate searching for truth. I can not pretend that I will pair this with cereal - it will never be my comfort food - but I will think of it long after my Cheerios are soggy with soy milk.

The third dish was the most challenging of the evening, sea cucumber liver in a mountain potato (yam) puree. Imagine me: I thought that I would be able to hold to the potato while being challenged by that liver. The potato was a golden, slimy mucilage that at first taste reminded this Yankee of boiled okra without any of its charms. I couldn’t finish this dish which left me bereft of the full range of what chef Matsumoto can be. I remain an accidental tourist. But that sea cucumber liver wasn’t half bad.

Seaweed in sour liquid was velvet threads soup. A cocktail of Spanish moss is no Martini, but its texture, bolstering a sweet sourness, is something to consider. The texture of this dish will return whenever I trek through a southern swamp.

The tray ended with clam with dried bonito flakes. The clam was properly chewy, but the flakes added an singular crispiness that made the chewiness seem a reproach to the softness and the crackliness of so much western cuisine.

The sashimi, sprinked with gold flakes, was to be reminded of the potential of Japanese cuisine as known in the west. Each fish was magically above its peak of freshness (fish that would become fresh tomorrow), and each was constructed with accompaniments as to be its own work of art - toro, scallop, salmon, flounder, squid and a creamy sweet shrimp. This was perfection, but by raising the bar made so much other sashimi seem like yesterday’s meal.

Course seven was essence of soup: a miso broth, flavored with Shimeji mushrooms, white fish (according to JeffB: escolar). In each earthenware tea kettle, was a rosy star of processed rice. I have picked and eating mushrooms for decade, but I learned how the hidden heart of a mushroom tastes. This deceptively modest soup was a religious experience.

Crab with tofu skin (yuba) and salmon roe, nametake mushrooms and mountain potato puree was a dish that proved more accommodating that I might have expected. While the textures were still somewhat novel, by two hours into the meal my understanding was beginning to dawn, facilitated by the most elegant sake. My gaijin skin was slowly shedding. The ovals of crab were complimented by the range of savory and deep flavors and intriguing textures, making each bite an essay of possibility. It was like a Trotter’s dish as passed through a cultural mirror.

Course nine was grilled salmon with pickled lotus root and pepper and egg squares. JeffB points out that his salmon was a bit overcooked. Mine was perfect in the center, but slightly dry on the edges. This course was perhaps the most conventional dish of the evening (excluding the dovine sushi). Its glory was the presentation, cemented by a lotus root that resembled a slice of trompe d’oil Swiss Cheese. The squares of yellow and white egg were so quiet and discrete that one could hardly imagine that they harbored any of those fats that have excluded eggs from breakfast tables.

I adore duck, and for many years were drawn to the inevitable main course canard until I duck became a cliche as it was smothered each fruit in the orchard. But tonight my passion was reborn. This duck was cooked in a golden crown set atop an elegant tabletop stove heated by hot rocks. Here it was shiitake that gave flavor to the broth. Five pieces of duck surrounded fasces of green onion. I experienced perfection as the duck was perfumed from outside and from within. The texture of these bites was beyond compare. And not a fruit to be seen.

Course eleven was boiled black triangles of dough filled with pressed fried sea urchin, crab, and salmon. Perhaps the filling was not as glorious as some of the dishes and some liquid accompaniment would have helped, but the arrangement in shape was striking as it sat upon thin, budding noodles that had a crispness unlike any I have tasted.

By the time that the oyster with red miso arrived, I was slowing. The size of portions is a matter that Matsumoto might wish to review as smaller plates benefits both diners and owners. This was another course cooked at the table. The oysters were powerfully sweet and pungent while bathed a subtle soy sauce with green onions. My final oyster remained on my plate but I miss it.

Course thirteen might have been more memorable had I more capacity. Here was a plate cleanser from another culinary planet. Geoduck clams (mirugai) sat a bowl of purest ice water with cucumbers and carrots giving color and crunch. If one did not leave refreshed, one was but half a diner.

Finally a gigantic platter of sushi with some exquisite vegetable carvings. I was now unable to appreciate the freshness of the dish (and the size of the offering was a gift from the chef), but saved for the following lunch, I cannot recall fresher fish.

We reached dessert, an aftermath that was a final palate cleanser. Grapes, kiwi, strawberries, black beans were served in a super-sized martini glass filled with some of the sweetest but lightest syrup than a human could prepare. There is no comparison to a classically trained pastry chef, but fortunately this light ending never tried. My tongue was ready for a second dinner, a challenge that my poor stomach could not abide.

No meal must reach perfection, or we could just stop eating. However, Matsumoto provides a level of dining that demands the attention of every chef, every gourmet, and any one who thinks about food.

Last night we five were the only diners at Matsumoto. If this grand, newly opened restaurant is as quiet in October, culinary Chicago will have lost its way.

When I visit glittering Masa in the opulent Time-Warner Center, Chef Masayoshi Takayama will have a high bar to meet the brilliance of this simple kitchen in the deepest heart of ethnic Chicago.

Matsumoto Restaurant
3800 West Lawrence Avenue

723 Chestnut Street
Grandmotherless Bronx - New York City entry #5

When I was growing up in Manhattan, visiting the Bronx was a family matter. Yes, I would go to Yankee Stadium to sneak into box seats when the ushers weren’t looking. Yes, I went to high school in Riverdale at a rather chichi private school (since it was all-male, perhaps hee-hee is more apt).

But the reason to visit the Bronx was to see my grandmothers, one on the Grand Concourse and one on Jerome Avenue. My father, the son of my granny on Jerome, used to describe the attacks of the Italian kids across the street on the guiltless and guileless Jewish youth, circa 1927. The accounts provided a frisson of danger, even ten-year old Jews were at risk from childhood-fascists. Yet, while he narrated his strongly-felt childhood traumas, I suspected that there was more subtle class politics involved than his memories of innocence and attack suggested. (In Manhattan the strict Italian-Jewish culinary boundary was Canal Street; Little Italy to the north, Chinatown to the south).

Given the frequency with which we visited the Bronx, I am abashed to admit that not only did I never visit Arthur Avenue, but I never heard of it, despite its proximity to Fordham Road on which I spent so much time. Such was ethnic boundaries prior to immigration reform.

Eventually other ethnic transitions made their presence felt, and while we value the culinary treasures left in their wake, my grandmothers - and their yiddishe generation - left their urban redoubts to more comforting locales. Age multiplies fear.

This Sunday, after more than half a century, I visited Arthur Avenue, today less a neighborhood than a thematic shopping mall, unlike what it would have been in 1927 or even 1957.

While there are many restaurants on Arthur Avenue, Dominick’s has a special appeal. The restaurant has the feel of a church rec room with plastic paneling, long wooden tables, covered with long plastic tablecloths. Today was a particularly busy Sunday; along the street (on September 11th, no less) the neighbors were celebrating the 8th Annual Ferragosto festival, a lively, but lesser version of Little Italy’s feast of San Gennaro.

I was seated with two attractive women, returning to the old neighborhood, talking about family, friends, and, because this is New York, real estate. Each was surely blessed as grandma by a troop of fortunate moppets. One had close ties with Dominick’s staff (there was a fair amount of hugging of which I was not included), and so we received superior service on this busy afternoon.

Myra Alperson in her useful Nosh New York describes visiting Dominick’s, asking if they had anything “light” for lunch. She received the marvelous deadpan New York reply, “water.” She adds, seemingly without irony, “I went elsewhere.” I can imagine my mom doing the same. But what better advertisement could there be. Dominick’s does not have a menu, and one negotiates with the waiter as to what he thinks you might like and when the bill comes you learn what the traffic might bear. My large lunch (salad, veal, pasta, baked clams, and wine - no dessert was served) came to $41.00, but I have no idea if I received a discount thanks to my tablemates or whether this was more injustice to the Jews.

Dominick’s food is an experience, not a text. We began with bread as clean and thick as fresh Italian bread should be (with just a hint of salt). The salad was a mix of iceberg, romaine, tomato, olives, and onion in an excess of good olive oil and vinegar (not that northern chichi Balsamic stuff either). The pasta (a small rigatoni, whose name I don’t know, but not the elbows I had at grandma’s) was cooked as properly al dente in a bath of very tomato sauce. The veal parmigiano was layered with some fine mozzarella. If this calf was never fed milk, it gave its painful life for a happy diner. The bread coating on the clams was a bit heavy by downtown standards, but they were plump and juicy and the garlicky sauce could not have had more butter.

As I waddled out, I decided to make the walk that I never had as a teen, up the hill from Belmont. The walk wasn’t long - and today offers a range of restaurants inconceivable a half-century ago. Within about a quarter-hour I was at Fordham and the Grand Concourse. Fifteen minutes and fifty years to reach the old neighborhood.

2335 Arthur Avenue
Bronx, New York
718-733-2807 (closed Tuesday)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Scoops - New York City Entry #4

Central to my culinary consciousness are the lazy summer evenings that I spent in Somerville, Massachusetts, patiently waiting for my turn at the counter of Steve’s Ice Cream. This was the moment at which Alice Waters was refining fine dining in Berkeley, but considering the intense flavors, custom mix-ins, and the perfectly sinful, erotic richness, Cantabrigians had the better of it. Steve Herrell reconstructed frozen desserts, changing custard forever.

In 1977, Steve sold his name to others, and eventually opened a smaller, eponymous location - Herrell’s - right off Harvard Square, serving his ice cream in what seemed to many former fans as frighteningly akin to an assembly line. Steve’s decision produced a shock among his legions similar to learning that Chef Waters had sold Panisse to Pillsbury, only to open a bistro in the Bellagio.

But from the moment that the sacred Steve’s opened, ice cream was never the same: the platonic cone was simultaneously counter-cultural and indulgent, hippie and dippy. Frozen dessert belonged to Cultural Studies.

New York has never fully shared the dessert culture of Boston (pumpkin pie, Friendly’s cabinets, and, of course, Boston cream pie), and never took super-premium ice-cream to heart like its New England rivals. For the 20th Century the Yankees would wallop the Bosox, but after dinner Boston could not be licked. Proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Gotham now imports Emack & Bolio’s.

So, it was with some trepidation that I espied two of the high-end Village artisanal “gelato” emporiums: Otto and Cones. Let it be said that both are worthy ventures. If they don’t have the upright Jewish ambience of Schrafft’s or the outer borough’s let’s-feed-them-to-excess of Jahn’s, they have a scrubbed yuppie earnestness.

Each serves winners and failures. Neither recaptures the mix-in, have-it-your-way culture of the Boston home-made establishments (or their funereal imitators, Cold Stone and Marble Slab: Cold Slab, served “Six Feet Under”).

The treasure at Otto Enoteca Pizzeria (Gelato and Sorbetti), a pizzeria-cum-ice-cream-parlor, overseen by the Mario (Batali), is their superb Corn Gelato. This is as subtle a concoction as one might find in any high-end restaurant. In fact, if the silky corn amuse bouche at Blue Hill were properly whipped and frozen, it might taste like this. This is a subtle and haute version of the rough, but flavorful Maiz ice cream that one finds at neighborhood Filipino creameries in Chicago.

In contrast, Otto’s Black Raspberry was a huge disappointment. Aside from the annoying seeds, proving only that raspberry droppings were somewhere about, and a garish purple color, the ice cream had a heavy vanilla profile. Baskin-Robbins would have had more skill.

The third choice was a Cantaloupe Sorbetti that was powerfully rich with cantaloupe flavor, although somewhat more lumpy that one might have expected from a dessert with a Batali pedigree. By taste alone this was a treat, but perhaps the mixing had not gone quite right.

Cones had a somewhat different problem. It is designated as Argentinian, and in fact, in its heaviness (and occasional gloppiness), it is reminiscent of Penguin in Chicago. These icemen were not afraid to use flavors (although I don’t think of them as the traditionally lighter European gelato in their mouthfeel). The Dark Chocolate, Almond Cream, and Coffee Mocha Chocolate Chip were powerful, perhaps overpowering, in their flavor. All three, but particularly the Dark Chocolate, may have been too sweet, an occasional problem at Penguin.

The great disappointment here was the Cantaloupe Sorbet, which unlike Otto’s lacked a strong cantaloupe profile, and was disagreeably icy. I was given a taste of a refreshingly sour Grapefruit Sorbet, so pungent that I chose not to mix it with the other flavors. I will return for a full scoop of Grapefruit, but will stay away from the Cantaloupe, my standard for a proper sorbet.

Even at their worst, ice creams, gelatos, and sorbets are not lukewarm, but cool. Yet, as in all things, perfection is hard to reach. Of the eight flavors, Corn at Otto and my tease of Grapefruit at Cones bid to be memorable moments in late summer Manhattan.

Otto Enoteca Pizzeria
1 Fifth Avenue

272 Bleecker Street

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Tomato Terroir - New York City entry #3

Ten years ago a dining companion and I shared a memorable evening at Simpson’s on the Strand, that quintessential British restaurant in the heart of London’s West End. I rank the evening:

1) Yorkshire Pudding (very delicious)
2) Dining Companion (very beautiful)
3) Service (very British)

Much of the charm of Simpson’s is its sense of place: to dine is to bathe with British aristocracy. The food was ideally paired with our cultural imagination.

Some restaurants attempt to capture an idea: a place, a time. Among current New York restaurants, Blue Hill is one that strives for the truth of terroir. And, so, after the span of a decade, D.C. and I selected Blue Hill for a post-S.o.t.S. meal.

I will gain few admirers by a modest proposal to ban anyone under thirty from public spaces, but Thomas Hobbes had a point when he critiqued social life as a “buzzing, booming confusion.” Blue Hill started life as a West Village speakeasy, and much of this busy bustle remains. As the evening progressed and the restaurant emptied, the space became increasingly soothing. We could finally appreciate the place. Blue Hill indicates that they have fifty-five seats, but sounds echoed.

Blue Hill’s claim to culinary fame is their stated commitment to local, seasonal food and to sustainable agriculture. Many of their vegetables are grown on Executive Chef Dan Barber’s farmstead in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, what they described as “nature at its best.” One admires the commitment to quality that results from raising one’s own produce, but I reject the ardent claim that a salad will be more conjugal if my mixed greens once shared the same bed.

I came to feel that Blue Hill wanted to proclaim their virtue by including too many herbs, greens, and vegetables in each dish as if to suggest: look at our cornucopia. What a plot of land! Still, aside from self-satisfaction, Blue Hill is a superior restaurant and a worthy addition to New York dining.

Our amuse bouche was a simple glass of cool pureed corn soup. It was silky smooth, showcasing the essence of corn. It was very pleasant, indeed, although perhaps not sufficiently savory as to be a perfect amuse. It lulled the senses, not awakened them. The dominant taste was the liquid purity of the corn itself. I am somewhat embarrassed to relate that in its one note, it reminded me of Moto’s infamous Doughnut Soup. The selection was also peculiar in that Blue Hill serves a more robust Chilled Corn Soup as an appetizer. Given that my D.C. ordered that Corn Soup, why serve a second corn soup as an amuse? All corn, all the time.

The appetizer soup (“Chilled Corn Soup, Preserved Tomatoes, Marinated and Pickled [Enoki?] Mushrooms) was exceptionally delicious, and the most memorable course of the evening. The soup was flecked with caviar and the pickled mushrooms provided an unexpected but welcome tang. The signature of Chef Cuevas’s cuisine [Juan Cuevas is chef at the Greenwich Village Blue Hill] is a willingness to experiment with unexpected tastes - herbal, pungent, and candied. These dishes are designed to surprise and inspire, while remaining within the canons of contemporary dining.

I selected “Maine Crabmeat Salad, Green Tomato Marmalade, Preserved Tomatoes, Basil, White Eggplant Confit, Chilled Tomato Consomme.” As the ingredient list suggests, this is a dish that creates honeyed memories. Each bite of tomato marmalade, each taste of summery basil transformed the sweet crabmeat into a confection. Less successful was the pool of consomme that surrounded the cylinder of crab salad. Consomme may now be the preferred term for “vegetable water.” The water had strong notes of cucumber and zucchini, and perhaps the diluted liquid was intended as a naturopath’s gazpacho. The effect was to create a culinary bog at the waterline. Crab surely has enough moisture without such misguided assistance.

“Poached Hudson Valley Duck, Stew of Organic Carrots Cooked in Their Own Juices with Toasted Spices and Portobello Mushrooms” was a signal success in its refusal to embrace the cliches of duck preparation. The sliced duck breast was robed by a rich carrot jus (perhaps Blue Hill has now perfected carrots with butter in their veins, but I suspect the carrots were goosed by the chef). The sauce was flavored with chives and fennel, which along with the mushrooms, gave the duck a welcome touch of bitterness, undercutting the common treatment of duck as dessert.

Our second entree was less successful (“Wild Striped Bass, Pistou of Summer Vegetables and Pureed Basil”). A pistou is a vegetable stew that demands the chef thoughtfully consider which produce belongs together. I felt that the choice of vegetables were selected to show off Blue Hill’s farm, rather than for aesthetic reasons. The problem was less the taste than the texture (the slab of bass was fresh and properly cooked). Any chef who combines lima beans, broccoli, yellow squash, and field peas plays a dangerous game. Well-cooked lima beans have a delightful snap, but they can’t avoid the slightly grainy texture that make children and gourmets intensely suspicious. With a soft vegetable like squash, the odd edges of broccoli, and firm peas, the stew might have been vegan leftovers.

Our shared dessert was also texturally challenged. I am always amused when a menu places quotation marks around a dish, preparing diners for a full serving of irony. Here was “‘Strawberries and Cream,’ Ice, Jam and Puree, Lemon Cake and Crunchy Almonds.” Ice? Jam? Crunchy Almonds? We ordered it, and so caveat emptor. The play of tastes was compelling, but next time 86 the ice.

No wine tonight, but a smooth, yet tangy, sake: “Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo Sake, ‘Limited Release,’ Akita, Japan.” Sake is today’s Sauvignon Blanc. When not ordering a bottle of wine, I often select a fine sake, which I find, when well made, enhances most foods.

Blue Hill is a restaurant that demands to be taken seriously. As a mid-priced restaurant ($115/two), it delivers creativity that one might expect with a steeper tag. The chef may be too taken with the idea of displaying local produce for its own sake, but there are far more foolish claims that believing that the land speaks through the response of our senses.

Blue Hill Restaurant
75 Washington Place
New York, NY 10011

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Last Sunday I hosted my older son, a resident of Astoria for fifteen months. Todd’s most remarkable trait is his astounding linguistic expertise (Myself, I speak Latin, a talent that I keep polished for the day the Forum of the Twelve Caesars is reopened). Todd is fluent in German and Portuguese, near-fluent French, Spanish, Japanese, and oddly Rumanian. He has some abilities in Hungarian, Ukrainian, Greek and Arabic. This should make him a most useful dining companion. Alas, he refuses to use his skills in my presence. He insists on dining together where he cannot speak the language, preventing me from insisting that he query the chef for that perfect specialty that I know is waiting for me off the menu. I would think that bending to this ploy is a small enough return for an Ivy League education, but he is a serpent’s tooth.

Tonight we dined on restaurant row on 2nd Avenue in the 70s. I recall from my youth when in that stretch of Yorkville, the dining choices were German, Bohemian, Bavarian, Prussian, Czech, Austrian, and perhaps a bit of Hungarian and Slovak, too. Bookstores still sold Mein Kampf (under the counter, if you asked nicely). These good people pined for what might have been, in the meantime serving some pretty mean schnitzel. It seems only yesterday.

Our choice was Üsküdar. Turkish is a language with which Todd is still unfamiliar – although he threatens to learn Farsi, crossing yet another cuisine off my list of possibilities. Fortunately the servers spoke English, and I did not demand that he pretend to speak mock-Turkish.

Üsküdar is a small, pleasant restaurant (seating about 30), slightly upscale from storefront kitchen, but less decorated than many of the restaurants along that stretch. They were not aiming for the kind of faux authenticity of many more elaborate Turkish establishments, but merely presented quite good food.

I started with Cacik, a cold cucumber soup, blended with garlic, mint, dill, and yogurt. On a hot night, the soup was a cool relief. I felt that it was, perhaps, a bit thick for my taste in that it seemed more like a condiment for the loaf of bread we were served than a true soup.

My main course was Grilled Quail (three). This was a simple dish, but expertly prepared. It tasted just as promised and the rice and peppers made a suitable accompaniment. Perhaps the flavors did not hit another taste register, but not every quail needs to be draped with a burgundy-fig-thyme-demi-glace to be presentable.

My son’s Chef’s Mixed Grill - lamb, chicken, lamb patty, and lamb chop, and adana (chopped lamb with peppers and paprika) - reflected the range of Turkish cuisine as found in most “respectable” restaurants. If this is cuisine that can be announced on their menu – not hidden for questioning by the likes of me - it reveals that Üsküdar knows their customers.

Most ethnic restaurants lose me at dessert. I could manage if French chefs went on strike, but give the pastry chefs whatever they demand. Desserts are France’s gift to cardiology. For the life of me I can’t see how French women continue to look like French women: no one could give up gateau for Lent.

Üsküdar is an exception to my rule that ethnic desserts should be banked for the moment one passes a patisserie. My Kayisi (apricots stuffed with almond and “wheeped cream,”* and powerfully scented with coriander) was as good a Middle Eastern dessert as I have had. My son’s Keskül (coconut pudding) was the sweet soup that bookended my Cacik.

Üsküdar is one of those restaurants that will not reach my “best” list, but at $60 for two it is a restaurant that makes dining in New York not only possible, but charming.

1405 2nd Avenue (between 73rd and 74th)
New York, NY 10021

*I find those who make fun of the misspellings of others beneath contempt, but I make an exception because I prefer this emotive spelling to our excessively sadistic alternative.

Be warned: Üsküdar only takes AMEX.
Johnny’s on the Spot – New York City entry #1

Choosing a first meal in a great culinary metropolis is no easy task. Of course, one might simply begin eating, and let things work themselves out. But if one wished to be more deliberative should one choose Per Se, Rao’s, Four Seasons, Second Avenue Deli, or JoJo (just down the block from my apartment, and, thus, my personal neighborhood bistro)? All would have been worthy choices. Yet, I selected another restaurant entirely, a restaurant that would demonstrate my commitment to “eating the boroughs.”

I selected Johnny’s Reef Restaurant at the tip of City Island – a little goiter sticking out into Long Island Sound from Pelham Park. City Island was originally New York’s shipbuilding center, but that industry, and the Scandinavians who worked in those boatyards have long departed, leaving a string of yacht clubs and seafood restaurants (many Italian). Admittedly my choice was encouraged by the absolutely splendid weather on Labor Day weekend – weather that I found calming, but a New York friend of mine explained made her anxious: 9/11 was such a day. Not only madeleines but climate can take us back.

Johnny’s is an unprepossessing restaurant that reminds New Yorkers of Nathans, with stations where one picks up and pays for different courses: a raw bar, fried fish, drinks, desserts, etc. I selected a half dozen Littleneck Clams, Shrimp Cocktail, Soft-Shell Crabs with Fries, and Johnny’s Sea Breeze, and took my tray out to one of the hundreds of metal tables set up on a concrete slab by the Sound.

I confess that the experience was superior to the food: not just nature’s handiwork, but the congregation of New Yorkers. Perhaps if New York becomes touched by hurricane winds, the cross-ethnic harmonies would not sound so sweet, but today the Gods were on our side.

As a culinary event, the crabs were the highpoint. Half-a-dozen soft-shells, properly cooked and battered for $11.00 with well-made fries. The clams ($5.00) were fresh, if not notably tender, but the juices were sea-salty. The shrimp ($8.00) were edging toward rubbery, but they could be smothered in Cocktail Sauce. Jimmy’s Sea Breeze ($4.00) was cold and otherwise what one might expect at that price.

Yet, one can be too critical of a restaurant that is designed to be a people-processor, and a happy one at that. My forty-five minutes by the Sound made the start of my New York year a moment that will only be rarely matched.

Johnny’s Reef Restaurant
2 City Island Avenue
City Island, Bronx, New York
(open March through November, closed Friday – what kind of seafood restaurant would close on Friday?)