Saturday, December 30, 2006

What's Not to Like? Chicago Carlos' Restaurant

The 2006/7 Zagat's Guide to Chicago Restaurants - bless its tiny democratic heart - awards Carlos, Carlos and Debbie Nieto's contemporary French place near Highwood's restaurant row, a ‘29,' the highest accolade in all of Chicagoland. Is Carlos Chicago's best? Perhaps not, but unlike our T&As - Trotter's, Tru, Topolobampo, Alinea, Ambria, and Arun's - Carlos finds few detractors on Nina and Tim's three-point rating scale.

Despite this uncertain accolade, Carlos may receive less attention than any other serious culinary location. It is not that the cuisine at Carlos - or its chef - are old-fashioned. Granted this is not molecular cuisine, but it certainly is aware of and indebted to contemporary trends. And Carlos more than borrows. The menu is as creative as the most impressive contemporary fare in the region. Perhaps Carlos suffers from its location on the border of Highland Park (although Vie, Le Titi, and Tallgrass, much less Le Francais, do just fine), or perhaps from the sense that it a proprietor-driven restaurant (Carlos Nieto receives the press), rather than a chef-driven one. Can you name the chef at Carlos? It is Ramiro Velasquez, and he can hold his own within anyone in this diner's town. Still, one of my most pleasurable meals in the last few years was a Valentine's Day dinner at Carlos, and my wife and I determined to return before New Year's.

Carlos is not an establishment that trades on its frightening pretensions. Indeed, one might consider the smiling, congenial staff to be too playful, lacking in gustatory gravitas. Unlike restaurants that are so filled with themselves that they provide a genealogy of each ingredient, most dishes at Carlos are served without explanation. The cheerful, competent staff is largely Hispanic, but I found no Iberian bows in the dishes. Borrowing from older culinary traditions, servers dramatically whip away the silvered covers of serving dishes, surprising diners with the pleasures underneath. The wood paneled room is comfortably understated, not an architectural gasp, but warm and inviting.

Because Carlos looks into Chicago from its perch in Lake County, our amuse was a tiny ramekin of foie gras, quail egg, radicchio, finely chopped vegetables, and the inevitable microgreens - a finger in Richie Daley's eye. Put aside the politics, the dish was an awakening. The compilation was complex without being overwhelming, and the flavors, smooth and creamy, just short of bold, were well-modulated. This was an amuse in which the chef was explaining his authority, both in his choice of ingredients and in his confidence in his craft.

We both selected the Degustation Menu, a seven course parade, with a pair of choices for the larger appetizer and the entree. In addition, Carlos invites diners to select choices from the a la carte menu. An inexplicable quirk is that some changes carry a heavy upcharge, while others do not. One can order Chilean sea bass without additional charge. However, if you choose John Dory, you pay $15.00! Both dishes are priced at $39.50. Go figure.

We began with a lovely "Parsnip Bisque with Roasted Chestnut Mousse and Valrhona Les Perles Craquantres" (petite Cocoa Puffs). The presentation was an artistic dream, and the soup as bracing as a warming hickory fire. Chef Velasquez laid down a marker; he has a contemporary sensibility. The bisque was a brilliant launch. It is not Velasquez's style to overpower, but those bits of Valrhona confirmed that this was no homey, safe cuisine. I have only eaten at Carlos in winter; I was itching to learn of their summer cuisine.

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"Mountain Huckleberry Glazed Squab Breast with Grilled Pears, Shaved Fennel and a Cabernet-Wild Mushroom Reduction" was another impressive composition. Perhaps it borrowed too heavily from culinary cliques (the requisite fruity-duck), but if one doesn't think too hard of gustatory history, the dish was so amiable that it was hard to reject. The fennel added a more refined taste that nicely matched the mushroom reduction.

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"Winter Carnaroli Risotto with Kabocha Squash, Spaghetti Squash and Chestnut Puree" completed our trio of appetizers. I cannot differentiate Arborio from Carnaroli, but the mix of ingredients was another toast to winter, and the chestnut was a melodious refrain of the soup. Risotto needs to be properly portioned so as not to dominate the meal, but to be more than a tasting, and the small timbale of grain and squash was filling without weighing heavily. Provocatively demonstrating Chef Velasquez's brave facility, a flash fried, feathery basil leaf stabbed the mold. Breathless.

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Passion Fruit-Mandarin sorbet surprised by its refusal to sooth the sweet-tooth. As a good palate cleanser must, it awakened my mouth in its firm and unyielding tartness. The mandarin was a puckery and mighty taste.

We split entrees. I selected - from the a la carte menu – "‘Roulade' of Muscovy Duck Breast with Veal Sweetbreads, Baby Shiitake, Duck Confit Stuffed Baby Bok Choy, and a Vanilla-Seven Spice Reduction." This ‘roulade' was striking in its presentation, and complex in its flavor. I was less taken by the flavor and texture of the stuffed bok choy, but it was an interesting conceit. The duck and sweetbreads made for a startling pairing, and the vanilla reduction was impressively aromatic.

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Better yet was my wife's choice, "Pumpernickel Crusted Barramundi (Australian giant perch) with Pumpkin-Lobster Reduction and Diver Sea Scallop Stuffed Mussels with a Sage Beurre Noisette." Let me be succinct: the barramundi with its napping of pumpkin-lobster was one of the most tremendous dishes of the year, a combination of tastes that I will not soon forget. It was brilliant. The scallop stuffed mussels was another of the chef's conceits, but a very tasty one. But that barramundi with its supremely opulent lobster reduction married to the compliant pumpkin's slightly bulky sweetness! Wow!

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And now, sated, perhaps we were secretly transported to some eatery down the street. Never have I eaten so well under the hands of the chef and been so dismayed when handed off to the dessert crew. When I asked our server of the pastry chef, not listed on the Carlos website, he responded "Elizabeth." Could she be in the witness protection program? Let me not be too harsh. Perhaps we are in the hands of a novice or a gifted cuisinaire on a bad hair day. In truth, the desserts were neither more or less distinguished than dozens of suburban establishments.

We begun with a "surprise dessert." When my wife tasted her profiterole, she muttered that it was stale (or stale-ish). Could this have been the surprise? She might have mentioned that the vanilla ice cream was both over-frozen and under-flavored. She could have noted that the chocolate sauce seemed wan, thin, and ordinary. Aside from an odd pair at Le Bernardin, never had I had two dishes in sequence that traveled so far from zenith to nadir.

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The sympathy of desserts were only better in comparison. None of the trio were distinguished. The almond tuile with orange ice cream was characterized by more overly frozen custard with a somewhat bitter off-taste. The small cube of pumpkin-chocolate layer cake was less distinguished that cakes found at the better bakeries. The tiny ramekin of Vanilla Creme Brulee was smooth and sweet underneath an overly firm crackly crust. The concluding the petits fours were serviceable, but did nothing to save a disappointing end.

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We are in the midst of the age of sweets. Here in Chicago (think Mindy Segal) and in New York (think Will Goldfarb) dessertistas are laying down markers. I'll assume that our evening was an off-night, but, if not, a restaurant that is as wise, as happy, as creative as Carlos should wise for us to gasp at the end, not to yawn. A chef as gifted as Velasquez deserves a Goya or Picasso at his side. If not, at least we could have been presented with a lagniappe of candied foie gras for the trek to Rogers Park.

429 Temple
Highland Park, IL

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Schwa de Vivre - Chicago - Schwa

10:01 Wednesday morning found me punching numbers into my cell phone, cadging a new reservation at Schwa, Chicago chef Michael Carlson's hot and intimate storefront amazement. Less than twelve hours earlier I had been finishing dessert under Carlson's command. I had been away last year when Schwa opened to squeals of delight and unaccented schwa-y sighs.

Carlson is a graduate of the Grant Achatz school of dining as aristocratic amazement and has worked with Hester Blumenthal at England's noble Fat Duck, but Schwa has a different vision. Cooks fantasize opening a small boîte for the pleasure of a small circle of friends. And some few do. Michael Carlson is one. Schwa is a 28-seat restaurant in what some high-toned folk have labeled a "dodgy" stretch of Western Avenue (an ungentrified area of Chicago's West Town). The restaurant is situated in a pleasant-enough storefront, although sniffers might deduct points for decoration as some did for the late lamented Matsumoto (and seated by the radiator, my hot flashes were not only from the passion of the kitchen). Music piped courtesy of local white rappers, the melodic preference of the staff. Schwa's soundtrack is many leagues from Le Cirque.

The staff consists of three cooks, a helper, and a server, although everyone, including Chef Carlson (and Sous Chef Nathan Klingbail), carried plates. With two set degustations (including the eleven course menu I selected), the staff had a firm idea of their evening tasks. With the price of the full menu at $100/person (comparable to Moto or Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park in New York), savings from their modest rent is not passed on. Schwa is not a restaurant that is unaware or ashamed of its skills. (Schwa doesn't have a wine list, and the corkage fee is a wildly, trippingly modest $5.00/table).

Carlson's cuisine owes much to Achatz and other culinary modernists, although Schwa not as showy as Alinea or as antic as WD-50. I was struck by Carlson's use of negative space. As with minimalism in art, the emptiness directs attention. If the food was molecular, some plates could have used a microscope (OK, a magnifying glass). The pictures tell the tale. When I arrived home after my eleven-course banquet, I prepared a snack.

Let my phone call serve as evidence of my esteem. Michael Carlson among the most compelling and original chefs cooking today, an artist to watch. The opening of Schwa is a significant culinary event, dividing the decorator from the cook. As one who has groused at the "Disappearing Chef Syndrome," it is comforting to see Chef Carlson laboring at his stove. This is a chef who unlike some Iron Chefs doesn't need a map to find his restaurant. Should you find a hair in the soup, test for Carlson's DNA. Had not Alinea opened in 2005, Schwa is a dream personally sauteed and souffled.

Still, the critic's code of ethics prevents me from claiming that my meal was the brightest of the year (I ate at Per Se three times; Schwa was an improvement over one of those meals). Some dishes were sublime, splendid, and spectacular, some soared, and a few were good. Throughout the meal, a diner realized that there are some luxe touches that only a capacious staff can provide. Schwa's perfection was in the combination of astonishing food in its tight sphere - the diner's faith in the craftsman's touch.

Chef Carlson saved the worst for first. The amuse was two small candied apple balls, sprinkled with fleur de sel. The salt was startling, but the apple was more Coney Island than Midtown. Modest, but not deceptively so. I began to muse about hype.

Schwa Photos 001

Happily the salad course set things right. Chef Carlson composed an engaging salad with white anchovy, apples, celery, celery root, and Manchego cheese. With its bold flavors, subtle colors, and unassuming ingredients, it could have been an homage to Charlie Trotter. It was a dish that owed more to the new American cuisine that Trotter has been linked to than to the revolutionary fervor of molecular dishes. The salad was a blissful, bright introduction to Schwa's range.

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For soup, we were treated to a theatrical set-piece, Prosciutto Consomme with Melon and Arugula, a dish perhaps inspired by the vertical cuisine of Alfred Portole at Gotham Bar and Grill. Stacked languidly, as if 2x4s left by a casual carpenter, were two thin shaved slices of ham, one crispy and one smoked and thinly cut. The neighboring cup of bullion proffered the purest essence of ham. The fresh melon and arugula flakes were bit players in this moist and porcine drama.

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Carlson's Quail Egg Ravioli is that rare act of inspiration that could qualify a chef for a Genius Award. My companion asked if he could skip the rest of the menu and be served a heaping bowl. The ravioli was served with ricotta, brown butter, parmigiano reggianno, and as much white truffle as Caligula would need for a month of orgies. Here was a dish that channeled Thomas Keller, while knowing how much truffle to perfume the quail egg before a defibrillator was required. Be still my beating heart! Carlson has created the most erotic recipe this side of Tampopo, lush, gooey, musky, preposterous, and very, very opulent.

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Looking at "Illinois Sturgeon Caviar with Avocado and Cauliflower," one might imagine another Keller inspiration. It wasn't quite. Serving Illinois Sturgeon Caviar might satirize our desire to eat local at all cost. This was roe that serves in a pinch. The creamy cauliflower was a more joyous match than the avocado.

Schwa Photos 005

The butter-poached lobster was a surprise, off-the-menu entry, and it was the first of Carlson's minimalist, molecular dishes. The lobster was served with sauteed gooseberries, potatoes, and Swiss chard napped with a lavender emulsion foam. The lavender brightened the shellfish with its flowery floral overtones. In the past year, I have had some remarkable lobster dishes, and this lobster can be inducted into the club. By placing pieces of the lobster on the rim of the plate, Chef Carlson engaged in frame-breaking, emphasizing how much of the plate was unused and how airy his presentation. This was another glittering combine.

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On the printed menu Nantucket Bay Scallops were scheduled to be served with the gooseberries, lavender, and potatoes. Instead we were served scallops with white truffle (again, happily), chanterelles, and Brussel Sprouts. This was a one spoon dish (silverware that owed much to Alinea), but it was a terrifically powerful spoonful. The mushrooms, sprouts, and truffle created a dish that captured the mind of mid-November.

Schwa Photos 007

Chef Carlson was surely teasing us with his composition of Sweetbreads, Rhubarb, and Humboldt Fog Cheese. In the middle of a platter was a small pile of thymus, smiling like a goiter. As if emphasizing the embodied origins, a smear of rhubarb red and foggy white flowed from the organ meat. The presentation was characteristic of the Carlson aesthetic, although the dish, tasty in each part, seemed too carefully calibrated, lacking a warm heart.

Schwa Photos 008

For the main course, we were served "Beef: Raw, Pickled, and Braised." The trio of servings were petite, and their placement on a spacious plate emphasized their bulk - three bites and on to the next course. The raw was tartare with (I believe) quail egg, served on a plastic "ice cube," accompanied by squibs of sesame oil and yuzu. The yuzu was a surprising match. I have bitten my tongue on many occasions, but never had such a pickled bite. Braised short rib was served with a sweet tomatillo puree, and was delicious, if not shockingly so.

Schwa Photos 009

"Cheese" was another heroic single bite. A spoon of al dente risotto, tart apple and Morbier cheese (a semi-soft, ash-filled cow's milk cheese) was suffused with flavors that revealed a gustatory harmony. The apple cut through the creamy and rich rice and cheese. Like other bites, this might have been followed by a train of other bites. Just as the first sip of wine does not perfectly predict one's ultimate pleasure, one-bite tricks produce similar vexation. The first bite alerts the diner what to evaluate, compare, and combine. Dishes need time to breathe and breed.

Schwa Photos 010

Our two desserts were less compelling that the main courses. I wasn't fond of the olive shortcake with olive oil ice cream and strawberry mousse. It's sweetness had an off-taste. The plate was startlingly pretty, but not divine on the tongue. Chef Carlson's chocolate brownie with pumpkin seeds was a more satisfying construction, but not filled with the possibilities of memory. It was a fine brownie. Were it permitted, I would have selected other confections.

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Schwa Photos 012

Michael Carlson matters for our culinary future. He is blessed and limited in his locale. How much better he can get in his current location, and should we wish that he has a drive for improvement. Some dishes were a little off and some might have been tweaked or expanded, but the idea that we were eating food this stunningly satisfying in a little storefront on the West Side of Chicago made us brave adventurers with Carlson a bravura guide. I admit - sheepishly - that I award the idea of Schwa a solid four stars with its food at three-stars-plus. But that night I was where the action was - and where the action might not be for long. Does Chef Carlson owe us a sumptuous showplace with a corps of cooks readying an elaborate mise-en-place or does a heady gig more than suffice? I'm not taking chances. My morning-after routine is to schedule a future repast.

1466 North Ashland
Chicago (West Town)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Moto 4.0 Chicago

Jay Jacobs, the former New York restaurant critic for Gourmet, wrote of what he termed the “home-field advantage.” As applies to dining, it is the “Cheers” phenomenon, the place where everyone knows your name. And an advantage is to be had. These restaurants provide social comfort and the assurance that any problem will quickly be set right. My upscale Chicago go-to place is Moto. Moto is where I bring friends whom I really wish to impress with the possibility of cuisine

Dining at Moto is not for everyone, and perhaps is not for many. A diner who wants to stick a toe in molecular cuisine should choose the snappy and accessible Butter. But Moto provides an unforgettable and joyous evening. And, unlike so many other establishments, the entertainment is dancing on the plate and in the twinkling of eyes. I never have so much fun as when I dine on Fulton Market Street. The other grand molecular establishments - Alinea, for one – have a seriousness of purpose, absent at Moto. And, happily for diners, their price points are different (if $300 can be differentiated from $400 for the full show – less expensive for smaller menus).

Chef Cantu’s problem – or perhaps it is our problem – is that at times he seems constrained by his techniques. One feels that he has set his challenge as what dish can he make using one of his Tom Swift toys, rather than beginning with the conception of the dish and then discovering the method. Some dishes were spectacular creations, but others were modified versions of previous efforts. We were served an edible menu, dippin’ dots, nitrogenated fruit, fish cooked in a box, pizza and salad soup, liquefied Krispie Kremes, packing peanuts - greatest hits, but with the danger of soon becoming same old, same old. At his best, Chef Cantu serves remarkably evocative dishes, but at times his ideas are cramped. And as dearly as I love Moto, his genius does not shine as consistently as Trotter or Achatz. Still Cantu regularly provides a cuisine of amazement, a Cuisine Agape, distinct from what has been labeled as Molecular Cuisine. At least in the West Loop, shock and awe triumphs.

Our group of four decided on the Grand Tasting Menu. This is not the choice that I would have preferred. Once one knows the range of Chef Cantu’s abilities, he seems more accomplished working on the larger plates of the five-course menu. However, my three companions were Moto-virgins, and we selected the twenty course tour.

Moto (and other similar outposts) does not make a course-by-course evaluation easy. The menu is designed to misdirect diners: “ITALIAN food” (the pizza and the Caesar salad soup); “Chili-Cheese Nachos” (the final Ben Roche dessert with frozen mango, milk chocolate, diced kiwis and candied tortilla chips); and “Synthetic Champagne” (apple cider and verjus). The servers announce the ingredients, but in the rush, this scribe could not inscribe the complexity of the dish.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time (and although I would have enjoyed the hefty version on the five course menu), the dish that I best recall is “Rabbit and Aromatic Utensils” (utensils with a sage tassel). The dish was served with several preparation of rabbit, scarlet runner beans, white truffle power, and puffed rice. The serving was too small for its intensity, but it was a brilliant combination. A second astonishing dish was Maple Squash Cake – a squash soufflé with maple flakes and cider sauce and diced bacon. It was one of the most complete and integrated dishes I have enjoyed at Moto. The “main course,” a perfectly cooked Lamb Chop with stone-ground mustard, braised cabbage and ground kielbasa, revealed Chef Cantu’s skills in a recognizably traditional preparation, Passion Fruit and Crab, perhaps owing something to Wylie Dufresne’s attempt to create noodles of everything, was remarkable with a surprising, herbal Japanese shiso sauce and buttered popcorn puree. The Hamachi and Nitrogenated Orange worked as well – or perhaps better – than when the citrus was paired with lobster, and the Bass baked tableside had a lovely paprika smokiness. The Chili-Cheese Nachos, although a conceit, was the most impressive of the five desserts.

I find Chef Cantu’s ice creams are less appealing; the least stirring dish was Jalapeno ice cream, too salty, served with toasted quinoa. The goat cheese snow with balsamic vinegar was quickly passed over. Tonight’s doughnut soup was bubbly. I preferred the velvety version I was served at my first meal.

At the first dinner (our seven-and-a-half hour banquet referred to in Time), I commented on the wonder of the wine pairing. Since then, Moto has a new wine director, Matthew Gundlach, and I had been less impressed with the pairings, but tonight was splendid. The vintage Quebec beer (Unibroue 2005, Chambly) was eye-opening. Also notable was a 2004 August Kesseler Spatlese Riesling Rheingau, a 2004 Huia Pinot from New Zealand, and a honeyed Austrian Meinklang 2001 Trockenbeeren. We quaffed memorable dozen with only a single unimpressive pour (a 2001 Susana Balbo Brioso Mendoza). The Martini library, a set of colorful cocktails served in plastic pipettes, was an odd, giggly curiosity.

Like other diners, we were given a tour of the kitchen. Let me confess my misgivings. My guests (and I) welcomed meeting with Chef Cantu. However, this was an attempt to make the backstage a performance. Wearing goggles (and being warned not to remove them), we were to be wowed by technology. Yes, this was a memorable break, but perhaps distracted from the fact that we were there to eat and perhaps distracted the staff who were there to cook. This tension between cuisine and technology is the line that Chef Cantu must tread carefully.

Moto is a restaurant to treasure and to revisit. When I wish to persuade friends that some meals will never be forgotten this is where I take them. There are many worse things than to be known as the man from Moto.

Moto Restaurant
945 W. Fulton Market
Chicago (West Loop)

Martini Library
Moto Pictures 041
Edible Menu
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Tasmanian Salmon, Daikon and Yuzu
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Italian Food (Pizza and Caesar Salad Soup)
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Maple Squash Cake
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Synthetic Champagne
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Goat Cheese Snow and Balsamic Vinegar
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Hamachi and Orange
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Passion Fruit and Crab
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Fall Fruits and Aged Sherry
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Baking Bass Tableside
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Bass Baked Tableside and Eggplant
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Rabbit (with Aromatic Utensils, not shown)
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Jalapeno, Cilantro and Avocado
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Quail and Persimmon (with Splatted Sauce)
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Lamb with Kielbasa
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Mac and Cheese (Lychee pasta)
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3 Cotton Candy Stages
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Flapjacks Prepared Tableside
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Peanut Butter and Jelly
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Banana Split Deconstructed
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Doughnut Soup and Pancakes
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Chili-Cheese Nachos
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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Chefly Politics Chicago Copperblue

When chefs imagine themselves politicos, watch out. Bad enough that Arnold, Rosie, Mel, Barbra and Tom are on our case, but Grant and Charlie? Entering the new Streeterville restaurant, Copperblue, one finds - where mints are often stationed - a bowl of campaign buttons, advertising Chef Michael Tsonton's belief that Chicago's foie gras ban should be overturned, and Alderman Joe Moore, up there with Kim Jung Il on the axis of evil, should be routed in our municipal elections. Chef Tsonton serves "‘it isn't foie gras any Moore' duck liver terrine with pomegranate jelly, warm sweet pepper salad, cinnamon vinaigrette, and country bread," a concoction that reads as unappealing as Moore's resolution. We received an invitation to a fund-raiser sponsored Chicago Chefs for Choice to help defeat the bad guy Moore (November 17th: at Copperblue; $150 per). I had expected that chefs for choice were lobbying for fetuses on the menu, stem cells without the medical middleman.

Not to worry, chef. There still are kittens, tender when stomped as vigorously as if they were Cabernet. Societies (government, religions, ethnic associations) routinely decide collectively what foods are to served and which are to be avoided. That Chicago bans foie gras places liver in the same category as ortolans, absinthe, and the pancreas of supermodels. Food is morality on the plate.

Copperblue, recently opened near Chicago's Navy Pier, has received considerable buzz. The Tribune's Phil Vettel awarded the restaurant three stars, suggesting that foodies place the restaurant their culinary map. For those visiting Navy Pier or the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Copperblue, located in a nearby apartment building, should be on the map. Visitors to the pier were limited to Riva, a seafood house, which provides competently prepared food among the fast food and casual cuisine choices.

The claim that Copperblue is a three-star restaurant did not accord with my recent visit with some friends ($90/person, including cocktails, wine, three courses, tax, and tip). Copperblue is one of the least prepossessing luxe restaurants in town. One can spy the ductwork, not part of Eurostyle industrial decorating, but a result of the obdurate limits of its physical space. The paintings by Cleveland artist Paul Schuster, depicting the theme of "work and play," were pleasant enough in their heartland-friendly style.

Service was fully competent, although I was startled by how casually the waitstaff were outfitted. Stuffy they were not. For a mid-range restaurant one could not complain about shirts not fully tucked and outfits seemingly from the back of the closet, but if Copperblue wishes to compete with nearby Tru or Les Nomades, the staff must appear professional as well as be professional.

And the food. Chef Tsonton (and his chef de cuisine Victor Newgren) revere Mediterranean cuisine, the flavors of Iberia, the Midi, and the Casbah. Even when I enjoyed the creations, I felt that a bit more plagiarism might have sparked the plate. Tsonton and Newgren divide the appetizer and entree menus into "work" and "play." It is difficult to ascertain their division - or for the server to explain it. Dishes closer to a molecular, modernist cuisine seem to be considered play. But lamb kidneys in alfalfa with mustard cream is "work" while a "simple salad with a warm oven roasted fall vegetable ‘crepenette'" is play. The best predictor of whether a dish was work or play was whether an ingredient was in quotation marks (a nasty little habit I blame on Thomas Keller). No dish in the work category used quotation marks, but all but one in the play category did, including the unhappy "it isn't foie gras any Moore." Punctuation has replaced gustatory vision.

As appetizer, my wife selected the season's soup, cream of artichoke (work), I chose "Smoked Squid-Scallop mousse ravioli, walnut gelée, Tellicherry pepper cream" (play), and a friend opted for "‘ham & these' crispy saffron and Spanish ham rice croquettes with sofrito fondue" (play). [Sofrito is vegetable accompaniment, a Spanish cross between mirapoix and salsa]. The artichoke soup (with a soupcon of sofrito) was righteously smooth and intense. Creating silky cream soup is a skill that every fine chef must have, and Tsonton and Newgren do. While this was not the season that smoky artichokes are available at the farmer's market, it brought playful smiles all around. The ravioli was the highpoint of the meal. I loved how the squid mousse added a pungency to the mild scallop. Instead of sweet'n'sour, this was subtle'n'ardent. The plate was petite, more a tease in a ten course tasting menu than a main appetizer, but the artistry was evident. In contrast the croquettes, perched on thin rounds of apple, were pedestrian. Far more generous than the ravioli, my companion felt no desire to clean her plate, and I, the recipient of a croq, had no desire to help. The ham wasn't intense, and what the "heck" is "ham & these," a pun without flavor.

Entrees consisted of "ragout of lamb confit, artichokes, grilled fennel, fennel puree and sweet wine vinegar" (work) and "organic duck 2-ways: duck leg spice ‘ras el hanout,' roasted duck breast, candied cauliflower, kabocha squash, and vanilla-lemon balm vinegar foam" (play). Surprisingly Chef Tsonton had removed his signature "lobster poached in butter and rue with herb-filled whitefish roulade and warm caviar gelée." That a new restaurant would excise a dish that had been receiving glowing evaluations seemed a strange choice. The lamb was a study of browns and greys, lacking in eye-appeal. Might this be what Chef Tsonton means by work? But the taste was pleasing throughout. I admired the play of fennel "two-ways" with the rich lamb. Perhaps work referred to the beige food, but not the flavor.

The duck leg was another highpoint, crisp and redolent of the souk. Spices might have been more intense, but the duck made the plate alive. In contrast to the leg, the duck breast was unmemorable (as were several crescents of Kabocha squash), sweetened by the joyously candied cauliflower. Today the claim to serve foam has such cachet that chefs claim it, even when a light sauce lacks foamy bubbles. Vanilla-lemon balm vinegar foam falls beneath its own verbiage, more oddity than accomplishment.

The taste that I had of the "Mediterranean spearfish," poached with "popeye" olive oil [get control, chef] with piperade (Basque sofrito?), and warm spinach soup didn't impel me to try a second; it too was left unfinished.

Desserts proved disappointing, neither was finished. "Hazelnut Milk Chocolate Cream with Espresso Cake, Cappuccino Ice Cream, and Cinnamon Syrup" might have kept one up all night, but not because of delighted memories. It was bakery-average. "The Bosc" - a vanilla and Chardonnay poached pear with brown butter cream, puff pastry with amaretto ice cream was more successful, even if the puff pastry didn't measure up. Desserts seem an afterthought at Copperblue with the exception of the closing amuse, a nifty coconut tapioca pudding with chocolate crisp, more compelling than its sibs.

Copperblue has the virtue of location. When attending Shakespeare or an art fair at Navy Pier, Chef Tsonton's cuisine deserves consideration. Several dishes were compelling and delightful. The restaurant is worthy of two stars with its two-star prices. It is a notable new restaurant. But in its current incarnation, the restaurant seems unwilling or unable to be a premier restaurant (and here, of course, the price point matters). Perhaps Chef Tsonton is distracted by the politics of his larder, slighting the aesthetics of our plates.

580 East Illinois
Chicago (Streeterville)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

North Chicago -- Sanford Restaurant

As I frequently announce, my favorite Chicago restaurant is to be found in Milwaukee (perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly). Sanford, the eponymous restaurant of Chef Sanford D'Amico is a gem, benefitting from its relative absence of the glare of national publicity. (It did make Gourmet magazine's list of the Top 50 American restaurants). Since 1989, Sandy D'Amico has been turning out complex, thrilling dishes in a room that is quiet and sedate. Sanford is a restaurant that doesn't feel the need to hire Norman Foster to design their toilets. After meals at Moto, Alinea, or Avenues, Sanford may seem a bit old-fashioned, but fashion is not always what it is cracked up to be. Sanford's dishes have more in common with those of Trotter, a thoughtful global cuisine, but with a penchant for game (a delightfully undercooked chargrilled loin of elk was on the menu).

My friends and I ordered from the menu (declining the seven course tasting menu at $85; most main courses at Sanford are priced in the low $30s).

My appetizer will surely make my list of the top ten dishes of the year, Lacquered Squab with Salt Cured Foie Gras, Candied Leeks, Rhubarb Compote and Maple Gel. Just like Chicago in an alternative universe that lacks a Councilman Joe Moore. As good as the slightly salted duck liver was, the squab, with its Chinese taste notes, was even better. Although the dish had a sweetness, the sugar was never overpowering. Diners may believe that they love a stark cuisine, but a little bit of maple is a joy. While I sometimes complain about excess complexity, on this plate, all the ingredients combined in exquisite harmony.

To complete the theater of culinary cruelty, only veal can match foie gras. (Once we win the battle of moulard, let us celebrate with some ortolans.) I selected Chargrilled Loin of Strauss Veal with 17 Hour Veal Breast, Crispy Onion Potatoes, Tart Apple and Endive. And no, the veal wasn't slaughtered 17 hours after its birth, that refers to the slow cooking, capturing the essential juices of meat. Here was another excellent dish that reveled in its complexity. The veal was splendid, and the accompaniments added much to each bite. The weakness of the plate was in the chef's generosity in providing accompaniments, which lacked poetry apart from the meat.

Dessert was a richly adequate Banana Butterscotch Toffee Tart with Banana Rum Ice Cream. It was precisely what one might imagine from the description. Very pretty, but more at home at a restaurant with a less creative vision. Chef D'Amico has just opened a high-end Bakery in downtown Milwaukee (Harlequin Bakery) and the dessert seemed not all that different from a tart one might purchase from an excellent public bakery.

On the basis of this recent visit Sanford D'Amico shows no sign of slowing down. His dishes seem neither stale or trendy. Perhaps being head chef in a one-veal town allows one to escape the harsh, hot spotlight of the national gourmet maw. And we Chicagoans like that just fine.

1547 North Jackson Street

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Butter Battle Chicago Review Butter

Three years ago molecular cuisine was but a gleam in the eye of some odd visionaries. Here and there (often here, this being Chicago) was a Grant Achatz, a Homeru Cantu, a Graham Bowles, and at a distance Ferran Adria. These Americans learned from the kitchens of Keller and Trotter (and some stages abroad), but they were creating a singular and off-kilter style in their fits and starts. They were building a new paradigm, just as the eminent historian of science Thomas Kuhn suggested was true for Newton.

Over time - and time shrinks in our media saturated era - the word spreads. Outrageous experiments are tamed and become normal cuisine. The opening of Butter in Chicago reveals, if any additional proof is needed, that the molecular virus is spreading beyond its medicinal quarters.

Butter is a sedate, contemporary, and rather elegant restaurant in Chicago's up-and-coming West Loop area. If local avenues are not yet bustling, they will be. After what was a considered a rough start (with some glowing if not overly helpful publicity in Esquire), Chef Ryan Poli, a native Chicagoan trained at the French Laundry, Le Francais, and La Broche in Madrid, has by recent accounts found his place, and perhaps that place is to be in the spotlight. When it became clear that our table had some claim to culinary sophistication, we were invited into the kitchen to meet the chef (the restaurant was about half filled on this Friday). In my year in New York, such an invitation was a rarity, outside of a few chummy West African establishments. Servers might be trained to avoid patronizing their diners, so they won't be so startled if those at the table are not the farm-fed rubes they might imagine.

I won't proclaim our tasting menu as among the truly stellar meals of the year, but it was an impressive attempt to create a menu that bowed to the creativity of a Cuisine Agape while providing enough Midwest Comfort for those who do not chose to indulge in the aromas of laughing gas. I left persuaded that if high-mid price restaurants like Butter were willing to chance avocado foam and bacon ice cream the experiment had become the establishment. (The five course tasting menu was, if memory serves, $85).

We began with a trio of snacks. Shrimp crisps, potato chips, and popcorn with truffle oil. The popcorn was terrific, stressing that truffles are to be treasured for their aroma, not for their taste, much less for texture. Any film would be recalled as a classic with enough of that corn. The other snacks, adequate, were perhaps not worth the time in preparation.

Our amuse was a quite pleasant sweet potato soup with a brown butter gelee. I wished that even in the small taste Chef Poli had ladled more gelee. It just slipped right down. If the amuse was not as elaborate as some, it did demonstrate that this was a restaurant whose jellied hopes were real.

First course was Tuna Tartare with Avocado, Mango-Yuzu Vinaigrette, and Puffed Rice. If the dish seemed tame if rich in Omega-3s, its pleasures should not be held against this chef. In its architecture, the plate bid us recall that we were experiencing a measured construction. The Mango-Yuzu dressing was sparky, enough to insure that no one would conclude that this tartare was sushi in disguise.


The risotto, bolstered with sweet corn, white truffle oil, and shaved summer truffles, was an exercise in aromatic pleasure. I would have been as pleased without the shaved fungi, but its thin presence demonstrated that the dish was what it claimed for those blessed anosmics. For the rest of us smellers the oil would have sufficed. Perhaps by so much truffle Chef Poli wished to demonstrate his concrete commitment to luxe, but simplicity would suffice.


The main fish course was a Stripped Sea Bass (with modern chefs one should never assume typos - but this striped bass was not stripped of its skin). Notable was the earthy mix of "wild mushrooms": hen of the woods, trumpet mushrooms, and - despite the claim of the kitchen - cultivated shiitakes. Many fish dishes over the years will be recalled longer than this bass - stripped or striped. Yet, the well-cooked fish matched nicely its garlicky broth, garlic scapes (not a typo), and gnocchi. Well-conceived and well-executed it suggested that the kitchen was in secure hands.


As our beef entree we were presented Kobe Beef Sirloin with Glazed Turnips and Carrots, Kobe Short Rib Ravioli, and Bordelaise Consommé. The ravioli brought the plate (slightly) above Kobe routine, but it was not a dish of remarkable vision. Like the bass, it was admirable in its competence, but lacking in the imaginative zest that one might expect from a FL-trained chef.


Throughout we were served a set of amuses, amusing, but apparently Alinea homages. The bacon ice cream exemplified cute standards of molecular cuisine, as did an earlier plate with avocado-cilantro foam, celery confit, and "guacamole and chips". It was in these bits and pieces and in his dessert that Chef Poli most clearly signaled his allegiance to a post-modern cuisine.

Dessert was an Italian deconstruction, a fugue of reds and greens - the most post-modern of the main dishes: Cream of Sicilian Pistachio with Semi-Candied Rhubarb and Strawberries and Sweet and Sour Red Pepper Sorbet. The plate was lite up like a Christmas tree in a Curry Hill diner. The pepper sorbet had the grassy tartness of peppers, but one that I found harsh against the creamy sweetness of the nuts and fruits. Where sweetness was, I was sated, but the deconstructed pieces could not easily be constructed, despite the prettiness of the conceit.


Butter finds a niche slightly below the temples of Chicago cuisine, and this may be proper as Chef Poli weighs his allegiance to Midwestern haute cuisine and to his outrageous brethren. Butter is not yet a destination restaurant, but it is a serious, energetic one. With time, Swanson may produce molecular TV dinners. By then we can think back to Butter and realize that chefs like Ryan Poli helped make these culinary test less fearful, more heartland. Whether we will be grateful as we wolf down Puffed Salisbury Steak with Mashed Potato Foam and Nitrogenated Peas while ogling Rachel Ray staging on Survivor: Joliet, only time will tell.

130 South Green
Chicago (West Loop)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Will the Frog & Owl Be Reborn? Oak Street Grill, Highlands, NC

About thirty years a young chef - along with her husband - opened a restaurant on the back road between Highlands and Franklin, North Carolina. The restaurant, the Frog and Owl Café, owed a lot to Alice Waters and her revolutionary tradition. The young chef, Jerri Broyles, was clearly learning from Ms. Waters. The F&O was Chez Panisse without the heavy weight of Alice's ideological baggage. And I preferred the Frog and Owl to its Berkeley progenitor. Jerri cooked simply and elegantly, a minimalist cuisine. Each dish had a few herbs or spices to show the master's hand, but it was a pure as a western Carolina spring. My in-laws own a home in the region, and my wife and I made the pilgrimage to the F&O each year. The dozen or so meals that I ate persuaded me that the Frog and Owl Café was among the ten best restaurants in the United States. I have never eaten a better meal in the former Confederacy. (Macon County had designs on seceding from the Confederacy. These mountain communities had little sympathy for the plantation economy of the rest of the south). Her lamb rack and her trout in a court bouillon were definitive. The fact that the restaurant was located in a former grist mill along a serene stream certainly contributed, but I would have appreciated her cuisine if it had been located in an old paint factory along Greenpoint's Newtown Creek.

I imagined that a meal with Chef Broyles would be a part of my life for eternity. However, in the early 1990s, the Frog and Owl was shuttered, and I shattered. Whether because of a busted septic tank or the challenges of raising a family, Chef Broyles opened a lunch place - the Frog and Owl Bistro in Franklin, the local county seat, about dozen miles from nirvana. The food, lunches only most years, reflected a cuisine than most chefs could prepare. Salads and simple preparations. It was as if Heifetz decided to play bar mitzvahs. Yes, the Bistro was the best restaurant in Franklin, but that is rather like saying that Applebee's is the finest restaurant on the way to the airport. Every time I ate there, I cried.

However, Jerri is back, at least part way. As of last year, she is no longer involved in the Bistro, and is now cooking at the Oak Street Café in Highlands (although she is not the proprietor). The OSC is a nice, casual restaurant with touches of inspiration. One can see Chef Broyles' hand, even if the restaurant is not yet sufficiently serious as to deserve a long detour. Some friends and I ate brunch there. I was particularly impressed by a friend's trout in court bouillon served over curls of carrots. It was perfectly cooked and the carrots spoke of a sense of balance. My low-country shrimp, served over creamy cheese grits, was an excellent dish - moist and buttery, and prettily presented with a richly flavored seafood sauce. I have been eating at the OSC grill for some years, and the step up is welcome. The restaurant is too casual for fine dining and the prices too modest (and I imagine the kitchen staff too small).

When I returned for dinner, I was less impressed. The appetizer was first rate, Fried Green Tomatoes with Goat Cheese slices, Shoestring Beets and a lively horseradish tomato sauce. It was a nice and attractive twist on a southern classic, a plate most often found in Fannie Flagg's roadside cafes.

The main courses were less successful, and both deviated from the purity of the preparations at the Frog and Owl. A rack of lamb in a minted demi-glaze ($29) sounded fine, until the dish appeared. The lamb, somewhat overcooked, was sitting in an overly sweet minty gravy-soup, served with some colorful but uninspiring broccoli florets and overcooked squash. The garlic mashed potatoes were fresh and pungent.

The main course special was pan-seared scallops with a prima vera angel hair pasta, mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach and squash ($22). Too much, too much. The dish consisted of some sweet (but still rather gritty) scallops atop what can only be described as a mash of pasta and vegetables. As at many middle-brow outposts, quantity overwhelmed quality.

If brunch is an indication, Oak Street Café will be a nice local addition; if dinner is the model, Chef Broyles has not yet regained her touch. However, the Frog and Owl Café was so splendid that one can only hope that next year will increase the care and vision revealed in the evening entrees.

Currently the high-end restaurant in Highlands, a resort community in the southern Appalachians, is a hotel restaurant named Madison's (part of the renovated Old Edwards Inn), a restaurant with New York pretensions and New York prices. This is a restaurant that serves, as appetizer, "Peanut Dusted Breast of Quail with Seared Foie Gras, Vanilla Braised Cabbage, and Blueberry Scented Duck Essence ($19.00, mains run to twice that). Had I not eaten there (last year), I might have assumed that this was a parody. But it is real, and as misguided as might be imagined. You can't construct a menu by placing gourmet magazine in a blender.

Oak Street Café
322 Main Street
Highlands, North Carolina

Old Edwards Inn
445 Main Street
Highlands, North Carolina

Friday, July 21, 2006

Shellfish's Bitch New York City Entry #110 Jordan's Lobster Dock, Grand Central Oyster Bar, Per Se, Eleven Madison Park

For most Americans July is hot dogs and apple pie, for me it is lobster and drawn better. Even since I vacationed on the Cape as a tot, lobster announces the heights of summer. And now the divines at Whole Foods damn me as a sadistic cad for my overheated pleasure. Perhaps I should stick to foie gras and placenta. But the truth is that I am shellfish's bitch.

In the past week I have repeatedly indulged in my cruel sport within our city limits: Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Grand Central Oyster Bar, and Jordan's Lobster Dock. I regret not traveling to Nick's Lobster Restaurant on Jamaica Bay and the Lobster Box on City Island. Both Nick's and the Box may share the Down East ambiance I crave.

Jordan's Lobster Dock is a real estate tragedy. The restaurant and seafood market are situated in a fetching saltbox house on Shellbank Creek off Sheepshead Bay. Once diners could relax on a deck with a stunning view of the creek with its lobster skiffs. However, the damnable owners sold the half of the restaurant with the view to T.G.I.Friday's. Oy! Diners must choose between a sublime view and some pretty fine lobster. We chose the lobster, but it was served in one of the most depressing lunchrooms in seafaring history. The room, closed in and windowless might have served as an ethnic outpost if someone had cared to decorate it. For $60 for a three pound lobster, the industrial space was crushing. The staff matched the decor. No bibs, insufficient napkins and silverware, and astonishingly we were forced to leave a $3.00 deposit for a lobster cracker when we requested one. I grant that the clientele was more happily diverse than at most lobster shacks (a one pounder was $15.95), but it is hard to imagine a black market in plastic crackers.

The only worthy offering at Jordan's was the lobster, a very moist, tender, and creamy crustacean. Boiled simply, if not to the lobster's preference, it was excellent for an urban market. The cole slaw and French Fried potatoes were a wan afterthought.

Grand Central Oyster Bar, opened in 1913, has a different problem. The space in the bowels of Grand Central with its tile-lined vaulted ceilings is one of the treasures of New York culinary architecture. Service was friendly and efficient. We enjoyed our oysters (a mixture of excellent Kumamotos and good Blue Points). The Cajun sauteed moonfish (opah) was passable, and the string beans didn't even reach that level. The lobster (a two pounder) was satisfactory, but not at the level of tenderness one might discover on the coast. The meat did not match the room.

In the last month I have been returning to some of my most treasured restaurants to give my memory a jolt. This week it was Per Se and Eleven Madison Park.

I have said to all who listen that my two best meals in New York this year were at Per Se. However, after eating the Chef's Tasting Menu recently, I can't claim that Per Se wins, places, and shows. My meal was exceedingly pleasing, and it is only in comparison with Per Se 1 and 2 that I must subtract a star. There was much complexity and many quotation marks. However, fortunately for my story, the best dish of the evening was Chef Benno's lobster, described with quotation marks included as: Sweet Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster, "Ragoût" of "Ris de Veau," Corn Kernels and Morel Mushrooms with Watercress "Leaves" and Corn "Pudding." It was a sweetheart of a dish and exquisite in design. Its tragic flaw was its size, one reason that I have shied away from long tasting menus. This dish would have been a memory-maker had it been doubled and astounding had it been tripled. A plate with this much complexity needs to give the diner time to cogitate and masticate. We were eventually served some fourteen courses. If I could have selected a four course menu, what a meal it would have been, and the lobster would have been the star.


Eleven Madison Park was the most pleasant surprise of the year: some friends consider Danny Meyer's haute restaurant the comeback kid under the brilliant Chef Daniel Humm. On this second visit, I was convinced, until I reached dessert, that this might be the meal of the year. (There is no restaurant with more congenial or happier service: not in the Alain Ducasse metier). The cheese course and two desserts were not as assured or compelling. Cornbread ice cream might seem like a good idea on paper, but it is less inspired on the plate. However, our text for this sermon is lobster.

Chef Humm's lobster dish was the equal to Chef Benno's: Orange-Broth Poached Nova Scotia Lobster with Purée of Chantenay Carrots and Gewürztraminer Foam(and think of the savings on quotation marks!). Dining at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park reveals that while both are influenced by a Molecular (Agape) Cuisine, Chef Humm is the more experimental, and yet throughout there is a confidence that flows from a chef who persuades us that he knows what he is doing. Of the chefs working in this vein - tradition not quite the most apt word - it is Chef Humm who has transcended the constraints of this style. Never attempt flinging paint until you can a limn a portrait. The lobster chunks were surrounded by large squares of carrot (one might call them dice a la Las Vegas craps). The orange sauce, carrot puree and a foamy swig of Gewürztraminer was an ideal mix. And it was one of four astounding dishes that night.


Yet, despite these triumphs, I ache for a buttery New England boiled dinner served with sea spray on the Cape: God's lobster. Is He shellfish's bitch? If if He is, do crustaceans damn him too?

And, now, home to Chicago. That's all folks!

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

Oyster Bar
Grand Central Station, Lower Level (42nd St. and Vanderbilt Ave.)
Manhattan (Midtown)

Jordan's Lobster Dock
Knapp Street and Harkness Avenue
Brooklyn (Sheepshead Bay)

Per Se
Time Warner Center
Manhattan (Columbus Circle)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Four Asian Spots New York Entry #109

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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