Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Restaurant Week New York Entry #64

One of the more peculiar events in New York - a town filled with the jolting and the eccentric - is Restaurant Week. Here restaurants advertise special lunches (at $24.07 - get it?) (and some dinners - at $35.00) that allow some restaurants to pack their tables serving meals that cost the same as the prix fixe that they offer the weeks before and after and for others to allow their chefs to snooze at the stove with dishes conventional and spare. The week provides an excuse for Bridge and Tunnel tourists to descend on Manhattan restaurants, filling each chair, and causing chaos throughout. But if it works, go for it.

To embrace this marketing triumph, some friends and I chose lunch at Fleur de Sel. Fleur de Sel [gourmet sea salt] has a daily prix fixe three course lunch menu at $25.00, so we saved a cool $0.93 - or, as New Yorkers might say, that and $1.07 can get you on the subway. [A four course lunch with a cheese plate is served for $42.00.]

Undeniably Fleur de Sel is a graceful restaurant. Even on a rainy day, Fleur's interior space is sunny Brittany. Its colorful prints, flower arrangements, and bright tones is a pick-me-up. The dining room is a small space with a lithe French country feel.

At some restaurants, one feels that the lunch specials are a come-on, a loss leader, to get diners in the door where they learn of the good stuff at inflated prices. Lunch at Fleur de Sel is an honorable occasion. Yes, the vanilla lobster salad with truffle mayonnaise and sugar cane/coffee marinated pork chops were reserved for our betters, but during Restaurant Week, perhaps no lobster or sugar cane were needed in the larder.

I started with the finest soup I have had in New York (recalling that the once amazing Soup Kitchen International is now a metastasizing franchise). Chef Cyril Renaud's parsnip soup with roasted chestnut/parsley ravioli was exquisite. The bits of truffle - black and white - was the kitchen's gift to diners. While I rarely order truffles, when used moderately, they perfume a plate. The liquid was straight-up butter, cream, and parsnip: a January bracer. The ravioli was more Valhalla than Venice. I could eat these pasta pouches all afternoon. This parsnip soup, so well rooted, is one of the finest libations I can image.

My entree was Pan-Seared Drum Fish with Baby Carrots and Mushrooms in a Lobster Whisky Emulsion. Our server explained that Drum Fish is related to seabass, a claim that I have no reason to doubt except that I seem to be told that every fish is related to seabass. Drum Fish are carnivores so they get what they deserve. However, the description of this dish promises more than the plate delivers. It was a satisfying alliance of fish and vegetables. However, the emulsion didn't have much of an impact. The fish was rich (Fleur de Sel is a butter peddler), but it was an earthbound contrast to the transcendent soup

Dessert was Raspberry Feuilleté with a White Chocolate Caramel Ganache. Sandwiched between two thin wafers was a layer of plump berries. Spooned on top of this edifice was a ganache glob, icing posing as sorbet. Eating ganache is licking the beaters when the frosting is done, slightly less challenging but equally indulgent. Fleur de Sel is stomach - not heart - friendly. However, as rich as the burnt sugar ganache was, the dessert was routine: a plate of calories, not of memories.

To imagine this lunch, alternately sparkling and pleasant, served for $24 is to demonstrate that bargains endure. And New Yorkers believe that bargains are their right. The first $24 purchase - the mythic sale which all New York schoolchildren learn is their birthright - was the purchase of the island itself by Peter Minuit from the Lenape Indians. But times change. Today $24 would not be enough to buy a pound of fleur de sel. Thankfully butter is cheaper than salt.

Fleur de Sel
5 East 20th Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Manhattan (Union Square)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Shabby Chic New York City Entry #63

When preparing to leave chef Zac Pelaccio's 5 Ninth (on the edge of the Meatpacking District), a diner is given a postcard image of the neighborhood from a century back. An elevated train line is being raised in a district that had seen better days. This is still another quarter of laboring New York. The el has been and gone, and the district thrives mixing townhouses and industrial spaces: Dancehall Gotham. Such a vision of history is shared to evoke nostalgia for a world that customers can barely imagine, while they consume skate marinated in lemongrass and monkfish braised with Sichuan bean paste. The wacky strain between the authentic and the postmodern is palpable, as in so many gentrifying corners of Manhattan.

From the outside 5 Ninth's townhouse seems edging towards condemnation. Entering one realizes that the restaurant has been carefully contrived to that end. The design team was challenged to create a workingman's restaurant that the beau monde could love. Everything from the carefully constructed wood planks to the airless bathrooms tries to persuade that we are in 1906. Everything until the menu arrives. We soon learn that this is contemporary American cuisine filtered through Singapore nights. Not a single item - even for sentiment sake - could be imagined by the one-time residents of Gansevoort Street. Fingerling potatoes, honey tangerines, and always radicchio?

Still, in 2006 these treats are perhaps not so exotic. While Pelaccio develops a distinctive flavor palette, Nouveau Amerasian, he operates within the constraints of Manhattanite cuisine. And, at its best, his choices are impressive.

Best of the three courses was my appetizer, Veal Bacon and Egg Congee, cooked in a clay pot with Chili Paste and Shiitake mushrooms. I had recently dined at Chinatown's Congee Village, and found this to be a shrewd reconstruction of the more traditional porridge. The congee had a discerning artfulness not found in Chinese country cuisine, and the veal bacon was explosive with taste. Pelaccio's traditional preparation made this one of the most impressive fusion efforts that I have recently encountered.

As an entree I selected the Loup de Mer (a variety of seabass), steamed, and served with chili lime paste, ginger, and cilantro and bok choy greens. The fish, otherwise well cooked, was swimming in a soupy essence that detracted from the plate, making the ginger, cilantro, and greens watery and limp. With less liquid this would have been a much improved dish, although even so, the sushi-grade ginger dominated.

I admired the idea for dessert, persimmon cake and coulis, served with cashew-vanilla ice cream. The nuts added an odd saltiness to the vanilla scoop, which at its best should have a purity of taste. The persimmon cake was tasty, particularly when its slight dry cakiness was combined with the ice cream or the persimmon dice. Pelaccio evoked an haute Asian dessert. With a little custard tinkering and some cake moistening, this would have been a startling ending.

Unlike Pelaccio's more hectic Fatty Crab around the corner, 5 Ninth is a restaurant that directs attention to his culinary choices. If 5 Ninth can't quite decide whether it aspires to the exotic street life of old New York or of old Kuala Lumpur, we can suffer the chef his shabby fantasies. In the end it is our own culinary fantasies that may transform Gansevoort into the chic of Araby.

5 Ninth
5 Ninth Avenue (at Gansevoort St.)
Manhattan (Meatpacking District)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Theme Park New York City Entry #62

Often restauranteurs are convinced that good food does not suffice. One needs a theme to snare diners. One designs a fantasy to find a market niche. Most notably this is true of such restaurants as Hard Rock Café, Trader Vic's, Ninja, or, most dramatically, the memorable Forum of the Twelve Caesars. Walking into many restaurants, feels like landing in Las Vegas. All is hyper-reality, each table a simulacrum.

Mas (farmhouse) is a restaurant that doesn't need tricks, its kitchen is a treat. Yet, Mas fitfully pretends that it is a farmhouse in a village in Provence, not a hip space in the Village in Manhattan. Menus and business cards are emblazoned "Mas (farmhouse)." For many diners Mas echoes Hispanic culture, and indeed Mas is a favored Nuevo Latino destination in Chicago. New York's Mas leans French - it also leans late. Mas is one of the few places in New York to dine rather than to feed at three a.m.

Problem is that, aside from their parenthesis (farmhouse), the proprietors of Mas do not seem committed to their fantasia. Granted there are some design touches, notably rustic wooded walls and the restaurant does rely on a few other Provencal design features, but its heart owes more to Bouley, where chef Galen Zamarra apprenticed. Once seated, the pseudo-rustic charm that the name conjures shades into a comely and refined rendition of a provincial bistro. One never feels for a moment that one is being served by farm wenches.

The servers, though not wenches, have their charms, and service was congenial and helpful throughout. The staff tried so hard to be helpful that one might have imagined that Mas was part of Danny Meyer's chain. Certainly one of the changes that I have noticed, despite several ill-starred evenings, is how much more friendly and service-oriented are servers at a wide range of New York restaurants than I had recalled. The pleasure I used to take in slamming staff has been stolen from me. One sometimes steps into the Carnegie Deli just to gain a whiff of the old days when the waiter was king. Today a waiter is a cross of counselor, tout, and jester. Only the bread is crusty.

We were started with an amuse bouche. The presentation seemed modest, but contained a wallop. Smoked finnan haddie in a potato puff with sunchoke relish and saffron aioli is one powerful bite. As we were to admire again and again throughout the evening, these are dishes with big flavors. The finnan haddie was passionately smoky - Tallulah Bankhead on a plate. Add the sunchoke relish and the saffron aioli, and this opener shook one's palate.

Of our appetizers, the outstanding issue was Roasted Beets, baked with Goat Cheese, Baby Greens, Almonds, and Cucumbers. This is probably the finest vegetarian dish I have had this year. It was deeply pungent with a set of textures that continued to crackle and surprise. Even without the goat cheese, the beets, almonds and cucumber could have pleased. Each ingredient was perfect, as was the color medley on the plate.

Also highly proficient and elegant was Trout Piscator, a Neversink River Rainbow Trout (from the Catskills), stuffed with Watercress and Smoked Trout, Apple Salad and Horseradish Dressing. This was a beautiful and lush dish, a dish that owes much to the Bouley style, revealing a chef not afraid of flavor and unafraid of treating the plate as a frame. Chef Zamarra has bigger plates ahead of him.

My appetizer, Yellowtail Tartar with Paddlefish Caviar with Apples, Pickled Onion and Tarragon was the least compelling of the trio. I found the tartar pleasant - competent but not a gifted presentation - but I admired the flavors of the apple, onion, and tarragon. If it didn't succeed like the Piscator, it was a dish in the same register.

As entree I selected the Pork Loin with Polenta and Stew of Escargot. Of our dishes this was the least successful. The hunks of pork were notably overcooked and a dense cut. I enjoyed the polenta, and found the mix of escargot an amusing concoction, but at its heart stood a not-quite-tender loin.

Fortunately the Roast Duck with Bahri Date Puree, Sauteed Brussel Sprouts and Chestnuts was one of the better duck treatments I have tasted and surely the best thing to happen to Brussels sprouts since Lambic beer and eel pie. Duck with fruit and nuts is mince pie on the plate, a profound combination of flavors.

Dessert brought Warm Almond and Quince Tart with Spiced Red Wine Reduction and Yogurt Sorbet, a pleasant ending. The sorbet was somewhat less creamy and rich than I expected - more an ice than a cream - but the wine reduction brought out the flavor of the quince to its advantage.

Mas (farmhouse) is a restaurant with charm. Its space is snug and romantic, blend of French rustic and New York slick, with service that demonstrates that neither winters or New Yorkers are cold. Mas need not strain to be a concept restaurant; Chef Zamarra has the panache to cook in a white box or around a campfire.

Mas (farmhouse)
39 Downing Street (at Bedford Street)
Manhattan (West Village)
Training Wheels New York City Entry #61

Friday evenings in Chelsea have altered so much over the past three decades that one empathizes with H. G. Wells’ time travelers. Each visit to Tenth Avenue jolts those chronologically impaired.

Chelsea once was a working class quarter, Hell’s Kitchen South, one of a string of working-class neighborhoods huddling on the edges of Manhattan Island, dockland and dirty factories from the time when this city fabricated and shipped things, and not just ideas. New York was a city whose rivers were sewers; the island was a glittering core swaddled in slums huddled on the banks of the filth. In time, Chelsea was colonized by hoods, thugs, dealers, working girls, and other professionals of the night. These yeomen could not withstand the onslaught of gay men spilling out of the village, searching for real estate and ‘tude, soon assisted by the demimonde of the art world. Chelsea became SoHo, as SoHo is a TimeWarner streetscape. The young artiste has a Manolo firmly planted in Chelsea and a workboot in Billyburg. Yet, whatever Chelsea was, is and will be, the constant is restaurants, continually renewed but always needed. On a recent Friday night Chelsea restaurants were aflutter and abuzz.

The grande dame in Chelsea’s latest incarnation is The Red Cat, opened in 1999, named after the proprietor’s grandfather’s Rhode Island boat. Despite a name conjuring lazy, wavy afternoons on Narragansett Bay and a design that, were it less crowded, might suggest a New England summer retreat, The Red Cat is pure energy from the puckery radishes on the bustling bar to the fiery red banquettes and metal lanterns, from the display of contemporary prints by local artists to the blur of self-satisfied conversations of the soon-to-be rich and famous.

Chef Bill McDaniel’s menu is in the Craft mold, American culinary catholic. No longer do chefs strive to be self-conscious fusion gazetteers, but eclecticism is bred-in-the-bone. I began with an appetizer special: sea diver scallops on a citrus salad with frisee and orange emulsion, as representative of this style as I can imagine. The dish suffered from scallops not so lissome as the diners. Their chewiness suggested that perhaps the kitchen was offered a wholesaler’s deal, too tempting to resist. The bivalves’ accompaniment were so pleasant that I grieved that the seafood could not match. The citrus salad was composed with baby segments of clemantine, grapefruit, lemon, and other C-boosters. With a scallop of a mild mien the dish would have excelled. My taste of fillet mignon tartar revealed a solid version of that staple with the nice addition of a warm quail egg.

As main course, I selected Sauteed Muscovy Duck Breast with Sweet and Sour Delicata Squash with Scallion and Rice Salad. I enjoyed this wild poultry, particular with the squash hash. It lacked a sweet/sour tension, but the richness of the squash complemented the duck with wintery eloquence. The dish didn’t strive too hard and lacked any hint of fussiness. If the duck was not as gamy what a more ambitious restaurant might serve, it was perfectly cooked, and was most amiable. The light tempura of green beans with a sweet/hot mustard would have been a most delicious cinematic snack. It was light and yet rich with batter. The mustard, more sweet than hot, could lead to a night-long snack.

Dessert was a coconut flan - a panna cotta - perched on sweet pastry, surrounded by a bay of exotic fruits. The fruit were jewels on a plate, deep tart, sparkling, brilliant gems. The coconut pudding was light and cool, built on the cookie below.

Whenever I eat at restaurants like The Red Cat, I study those several decades and many pounds my junior and wonder what it means. Cat has a menu adventurous without being philosophical, a kitchen talented without being impeccable, a bill sensible without being absurd, servers who are enthusiastic and imperfect, and a room that is lively but lacking the hush of discernment. The Red Cat is haute cuisine with training wheels. Chelsea 3.0.

The Red Cat
227 10th Avenue (at 23rd Street)
Manhattan (Chelsea)

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Filipino High and Low New York Entry #60

Without intent I enjoyed a pair of Filipino meals back-to-back. Filipino cuisine does not have the charisma of Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese cuisine. Its hominess seems more attuned to a family dinners. Yet, the Philippines with its layered textures, including native cuisines, Chinese, Spanish, and American seems poised for a gustatory explosion.

My two meals could hardly have been more different. Cendrillon is an elegant decade-old pan-Filipino establishment that describes itself as an "Asian Grill and Merienda Bar," located on the southern edge of SoHo (soon to be labeled So-So Ho). The next day I traveled to Woodside, Queens, the old Irish redoubt that is now Little Manilla, for lunch at Ihawan, a bustling local restaurant that describes itself as "Home of the Best Barbecue in Town." Those descriptions tell the story, that and the clientele, Prada princesses and Luzon ladies.

Cendrillon is still basking in the two star review that Frank Bruni awarded last August. If that review was generous, Bruni's assessment was well within the margin of error. Cendrillon, named after a French ballet, serves Filipino-inspired cuisine, much in the way that Aquavit is Nordic-inspired, a nip here, a tuck there. The owner-chef Romy Dorotan, a charming host, was trained at French and American restaurants in Philadelphia, and his training shows. His dishes edge towards a Filipino sensibility, but are recognizably modern, just as is the restaurant design, not out of place in SoHo, but with Filipino accents and art.

We began with spring rolls with pork, mushrooms, and cabbage. They were attractively presented, but were reminiscent of those crispy cigars that served at upscale Chinese or Thai restaurants, not as thin as the more Filipino versions I have been served. Our other appetizer was more creative, a goat curry, served with plantain and a tangy fruit chutney. The best feature was the light rice pancakes that permitted the belief that one was treated to Moo Shu Goat. It was the high point of the meal.

My main course was a Salt Roasted Duck with Mango and Tomatillo Chutney and Cellophane Noodles. Both the noodles and the duck preparation winked at its Asian origins. This was a sturdy and fatty duck for which the chutney was a necessary accessory, and an addition it was. Should Cendrillon bottle the stuff, I will be lining up for my portion.

We also ordered Lamb Shank Braised in Coconut Milk, Lemongrass, Kaffir Lime, and Galangal (nouveau ginger, now epidemic in Haute Cultureburg). This was a powerfully robust dish, but the meat was too heavy for my taste and the fruits and spices were too light.

Desserts were a winning pair of tarts: Apple with Macapuno Ice Cream (a native coconut sib) and Blueberry and Purple Yam with Coconut Sorbet. I enjoyed the sweetness of both, but I particularly admired the deep sweetness and vivid violet of the Blueberry-Yam. The yam and coconut recalled the culinary heritage of the islands, but the tart crust revealed Chef Dorotan's training.

Ihawan was local to the core, a plain white dining hall with simple, functional tables and chairs, even if the menu was rather more elaborate than what one might expect in a community restaurant in the live heart of Queens. Once we persuaded our waitress that we didn't want the rib-eye steak, we got along famously. We ordered quite a spread, and discovered that the lunch for two was only a bit more than an entree at Cendrillon.

Filipinos, along with the French, treasure organ meats. This being Saturday, we started with soup of the day, Batchoy ("Pork Internal Parts in Ginger Soup" - no galangal). I wished that I had a hangover. This rich, piquant soup would have cured it. As much as I enjoyed the kidneys and liver, I found myself drawn to the broth, as rich as what might be at the stockpot at La Grenouille. This was Elysian bouillon.

Ordering a barbecue stick I imagined a small satay. What was served verged on being half a pig on a stick. The stick must have measured close on two feet with a large fillet of sweet and zesty thin cut pork.

The crispy pata was described as deep fried pork knuckles, a cut - ham shanks - more often linked to German cuisine. It was hunks of huge cracklins. This is not a dish to eat if you dream of defibrillators. One could find the meat shrouded under inches of crispy pork skin. In small doses, it is to be treasured, although like Pork Rinds, it is easy just to eat one.

Our final dish was Laing (Gabi - taro - leaves sauteed in coconut milk). It looks like creamed spinach and tastes like paradise. The shrimp perched on top was less ornament than the finishing touch for a dish that was nearly too rich for its own good.

A glass of pure, sweet, chilled cantaloupe juice was a simple reminder of a simple, profound restaurant.

I admire Cendrillon's attempt, creating a global cuisine in which nothing is out of bounds for trendy omnivores. But restaurants such as Ihawan remind us of what can be lost if recipes are placed in the blender.

45 Mercer Street (at Grand Street)
Manhattan (SoHo)

40-06 70th Street (at Roosevelt Avenue)
Queens (Woodside)
Gumption New York City Entry #59

Some culinary artists are social butterflies. Any trendy breeze that musses their locks changes their aesthetic. They zig, then they zag. Whatever criticism one might make of Alfred Portale, the long-time chef at Gotham Bar and Grill, inconstancy is not among them. Portale was one of the key figure in the movement that reached its zenith in the 1980s to treat food as architecture: a form of vertical cuisine. In the history culinary fads and fashions, vertical cuisine seems a bit like a hiccup, but it was a moment that provoked astonishment and it literally provided chefs with a new dimension. It gave cooks air rights. One of the greatest meals of my life was a tribute to this architectural cuisine at 24 Miramar in Jacksonville, Florida (now, apparently, closed - the restaurant, not the city.) The man behind this design was Alfred Portale, and his Gotham Bar and Grill has impressed New Yorkers for two decades, a culinary philosophy for a city always looking up.

Portale is a greater designer than chef, although this is not to denigrate his kitchen skills. His Village restaurant is one of the most stunningly elegant rooms in town, a room that demands examination from floor to ceiling. The floral arrangements are a tribute to the food or perhaps it is the reverse, but both are tributes to the transcending of gravity.

Having had a very satisfying meal at Gotham some years ago, I recently visited at lunch. I rarely dine out at lunch, but this could well have been the impressive lunch during my New York stay even had I a larger sample. It is true that the flavors did not equal the visual impact, but lunch was not mere packaging, although one might wish that the waiters uncovered the dishes with a flourish to stun one's eyes and take one's breath.

I began with the Warm Mushroom Salad with Frisée, Crisp Bacon, Aged Goat Cheese, and Sherry Vinaigrette. Portale presents a decolletage cuisine; one wonders what engineering feat holds it up. I was astonished. The grated Parmesan-like cheese covering the frisée hinted of snow on cedar. The problem was snow depth. The cheese overwhelmed the greens. If one shook the cheese off to the side (my eventual strategy), the dish was quite satisfying, but when Portale chooses between eye and tongue, the former always receives the nod.


As a main course I selected Moroccan Spiced Rack of Lamb with Couscous Salad, Roasted Eggplant and Lemon-Black Pepper Jus. If there is a single food stuff that God placed on earth for the pleasure of Alfred Portale, it is surely rack of lamb, and the chef did not fail this gift. The plate was a roller-coaster of heights and depths, colors and textures. The lamb was superb, as was its jus. I was less impressed by the couscous and eggplant, which to my taste, lacked the airy and mysterious spices of the Casbah. This was Bogart's Casablanca, not the Bey's.


While the Apple Pecan Tart is the stunner among desserts, a an impossible crown of baked cream, I ordered Vanilla Roasted Pears with White Chocolate Polenta and Orange Saffron Ice Cream. Desserts at Gotham may be a bit less startling than main courses, if only because Vertical Cuisine seems have had a greater impact on pastry chefs, who have the luxury of building plates without the insistent pressure of servers and diners. Like many desserts, mine was a fantasia of shape and color. The pears and polenta were sumptuous. The orange saffron ice cream lacked the acidity that makes dessert a cleansing ritual. The idea of combining orange and saffron must have seemed inspired, but as served this inspiration became insipid.


Gotham is one of the essential New York restaurants, and Portale an essential chef. As a diner I am grateful that he stokes the fire of the third dimension. Sometimes he forgets that taste is a fourth dimension - or the first dimension - but after twenty years he has persuaded many diners that cuisine can touch the heavens. Alfred Portale is Antoni Gaudi of the stove.

Gotham Bar and Grill
12 East 12th Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)
Calibration New York City Entry #58

To appreciate a restaurant, one must gauge its intentions. Nowhere is this truer than at the venerable Union Square Café, which at 21 years of age has reached its maturity.

At its start in 1985 (I dined there a few years later), USC brought a culinary flash downtown. The menu often reads as if it was the equivalent of the higher spread restaurants, even if the prices or the cheery ambiance was not. USC brought "gourmet" dining within the ambit of the exploding upper middle classes, newly minted professionals with taste (real or imagined). This was a New Class who rejected the stiff formality of the grand cuisine. As others have mentioned (Frank Bruni among them), USC was revolutionary in form and fashion.

Although I sometimes speak of USC and Gramercy Tavern in the same breath, this claim is misleading, even if both are Danny Meyer restaurants, and are ranked #2 and #1 in popularity in the 2006 Zagat Guide. Tom Colicchio's GT is the more subtle, producing dishes that in their preparation can challenge three star restaurants - it is a chef's restaurant. USC is a lot of fun, serving robust dishes with interesting flavor combinations, but is limited by the preparations and the quality of their ingredients. Compared to GT, USC is (even) more casual and (even) more modestly priced, remembering of course that this is Union Square. (So informal is USC that there a Baby Changing Station in the Men's Room, a fact that says quite a lot about market niche.) Anyone who doubts that the highest quality ingredients can make a noticeable difference should spend an evening at USC after having visited a four-star restaurant (in my case, Per Se). To enjoy USC is to appreciate it for what it is: an upper-middle sanctum of the Haute. USC is a destination restaurant just as Bloomingdales is a destination emporium.

Our trio began with a pair of appetizers. The Fried Calamari with Spicy Anchovy Mayonnaise was as advertised. The calamari was tender and good. The breading and mayo reminding me of Outback's Blooming Onion (a secret pleasure). Our other appetizer had more culinary ambition: Razor Clams and Cockle Pan Stew with White Wine Tomato Broth, Calabrese Sausage and Saffron Aioli. This was robust cooking. Despite the range of exotica, the dish was not subtle. The tastes screamed, not whispered. As I was enjoying it, I thought of how Alain Ducasse might have brought out the essence of rarely found razor clams or these hermaphroditic cockles. The delicacy of these bivalves was erased by the saucing.



As a main course, I selected Seared Sea Scallops with Black Truffle, Chickpea Sauce, Braised Baby Artichoke, and Crispy Sunchoke Salad. This is quite an list and the mix was enjoyable, even if a bit of a hash in which flavors were lost. I was disappointed by the scallops, which were not of the highest quality (as well as being somewhat overcooked). This dish reflected both the virtues of USC and its weakness. Given mid-range restaurants, this is an impressive construction, it just wasn't transcendent. Even more than being slightly overcooked, it was over-designed.


The main courses of my colleagues - crispy lemon pepper duck and tuna fillet mignon were enjoyed, but in both cases - duck and tuna - these were not proteins (or prices) of the very highest order.

Our pair of desserts had something of the same quality. We selected Sticky Toffee Pudding with Cinnamon Ice Cream and Ginger-Butterscotch Sauce and Meyer Lemon Bread Pudding with Blood Orange Sorbet. I found both puddings to be heavy, edging toward leaden, but I thoroughly treasured the Blood Orange Sorbet. Once again the complexity of the dishes promise more than they deliver.



On my return to Manhattan, I knew I had to return to USC on a night on which three courses and a manageable bill ($67/person) was what was needed. Danny Meyer (and his current chef Michael Romano) deserves honor for dumbing down haute cuisine. If this seems like a back-handed compliment, it is a front-handed compliment. To know what a restaurant can't do is as important as knowing what it can.

Union Square Café
21 East 16th Street (off Union Square)
Manhattan (Union Square)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Skim Milk New York City Entry #57

Some years ago I chose to switch from whole milk to fat-free milk. The transition was tough. I kept comparing the skim liquid to the richness of God's milk. Skim tasted watery. After struggle, I had an epiphany: said I, think of "skim milk" as an innovation and not as cow piss. Instead of comparing skim to "real milk," I compared this new beverage to itself. Now it seemed light and fresh, airy, delightful.

I recall my struggle when I visit vegan restaurants. No serious diner can deny that vegetarian cuisine can be sublime. Add enough butter and cream, and cardboard is a treat. When I last visited Charlie Trotter, my wife's Vegetable Menu was more impressive than my Chef's Menu. However, restaurants that specialize in vegan or raw food often deny themselves - and us - the curvaceous charms of dairy fat. Yum!

In New York, the most serious vegetarian restaurant is Heirloom, the Lower East Side establishment run by Matthew Kenney, formerly of Pure Food and Wine, and presided over by Chef Amanda Cohen. It is perhaps the only such restaurant in New York that aspires to haute cuisine. Heirloom has given itself somewhat more culinary room by serving vegetarian, vegan, and raw dishes. Although New York restaurants justly lack the reputation as bargain basements, even on Orchard Street, Heirloom constrains itself by its price structure. Appetizers are set around $10 with main courses under $20. If a few extra dollars would enrich the cuisine, it would be money well-spent.

Heirloom is a charming space. Its circular booths reminded me of classic restaurants of yore. I imagine it as 21 of the 21st Century. Granted that one might not find chorines on Orchard Street (only memories of their bube), but Heirloom evokes a peppy amour. With ardent red walls, eating at Heirloom is a romantic fantasia. This is not auntie's Zen haunt.

If every restaurant staff was a gracious and convivial as that here on Orchard Street, one would never hear complaints about the decline of an ethos of service. If the food can sometimes be precious and synthetic, the servers never are.

When a vegetarian restaurant hopes to appeal to carnivores the challenge is to erase comparisons with the deli down the block, the bistro across the street. This Heirloom does fitfully well, a problem that seems now to be recognized. Their new menu no longer refers to "Portobello Foie Gras" or "Seafood Trio," changes for the good. While WD-50 gets cute points for their quotation marks, at Heirloom non-vegetarians are reminded what they are denied. Vegetarians know that they are virtuous, and don't need anything to inflate their conceit.

To announce its seriousness of purpose, Heirloom presented us with two amuses. The first was a small glass of perfectly respectable apple cider with a tiny presentation of mango chutney and black eye peas. The chutney and peas were almost microscopic, even as an amuse. They slid down without a bite, but the taste had the pungency of chutney. The second amuse was Jalapeno Hush Puppies with two sauces, a maple mustard butter and a creme fraiche. The hush puppies didn't have much of taste of jalapeno and the sauces were bland as well.

As our appetizer, we selected the raw version of Beet and Goat Cheese Mille-feuille. Since in the raw version, any heated transformations of foodstuff are impermissible, the mille-feuille and the "goat cheese" were vegetable products, although I didn't note the replacement. I must confess that the taste was more curious than delightful, the plate more pretty than tasty. Although the beets were sumptuous, they could have used the butter and cheese that a vegetarian version allowed. Even at its least successful, the food at Heirloom is never unpleasant, itself something of a triumph for a restaurant that avoids the standard armature of cuisine.

Better was the Stir-Fried Spicy Rice Flour Noodles and Root Vegetable Kimchee, created with broccoli stems, honshimeiji (beech mushrooms), and galangal (ginger-like) teriyaki sauce. Kimchee is a vegetarian dish, and so Chef Cohen did not have to overcome our imagination. Rather she played with textures. While the taste was fiery and complex, it was textures that served as the basis for satisfaction. It proved a happy mixture.

I selected the Lemon Pepper Fettuccini with Arugula, Porcini Mushrooms, and Walnut Cream for my entree. The walnut cream was winsome, and the pasta was pleasant, a little under-flavored. But in eating the dish, I couldn't but think how much I would have enjoyed the presentation had it been soaked in butter and cream (it had some of each, but lacked the abundance of haute Italian cuisine). I kept feeling that I was missing something compared to the lush alfredos of my past.

Our second main course was Anson Mills' Creamy Grits with Smoked Hominy with Avocado, Queso Fresco and Roasted Tomatoes. Again the problem was more what was missing than what was present. Despite the ingredients, the taste edged toward the bland. Some of the spice from the kimchee would have gone a long way to add pizzazz.

My dessert choice was Candied Clementine Cheesecake with Cherry-Pomegranate Sauce. It was not, however, a cheesecake. The puckery New York sour cream was replaced with a cashew mix on an almond crust. I was impressed by the texture of the cashews, but it couldn't compete with its namesake. New York cheesecake is one of the great triumphs in pastry culture - a hall of fame entry. By reminding us of this achievement, in the culinary bloodstream of every real New Yorker, Heirloom plays a losing hand. I imagined a luxurious tart with an almond crust and cashew cream, floating in a cherry-pomegranate soup. Instead of competing with S&S, just say nuts and remember that the points are awarded for inspiration.

Heirloom in its current incarnation has much to offer New York diners, but rethinking the menu could make this a destination restaurant, rather than a diverting curiosity. If my choice is to be "Pastrami" at Heirloom or Pastrami at Katz's, no amount of waiterly charm will make me turn off Houston Street. We deserve a vegan cuisine that is proud, independent, and succulent, snug without being smug.

191 Orchard Street (at Houston St.)
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Back Story New York City Entry #56

Critics often make their reputations by cruelly trashing a beloved restaurant, forcing their readers to attend to a snarling nitpicker all too pleased to demolish received wisdom. These are rabid eaters: their foam is not on the plate. If such is a reputational ploy, it is strategy on which I must pass in assessing Per Se. I march in lockstep with their clients, confessing that my taste buds lack the wisdom of venom.

My dinner at Per Se was the best meal that I have yet eaten in this culinary capital. I will go one step further, before taking a step back. This was my first meal where all complaints deserve to be in small print. My caution is that should some culinary accountant ask me to compose the half dozen best dishes of my New York months, I doubt if any single dish would quite make that list. (Pace Jimmy Frey, I am fond of that petit-déjeuner in the Yountville slammer). After so many dinners that don't quite measure up, I face a challenge: should I dine promiscuously, tickled by Daniel, Alain, Jean-Georges, and their peers, or should I choose Per Se tomorrow, Thursday, Easter, and forever. Am I in love or is this passing fancy?

I cannot claim to have eaten at the French Laundry (Hell, I can claim it, but not with thesmokinggun.com dogging my blog). When my wife and I had a dinner in Napa a decade ago, we had a sterling meal at Mustards Grill (who knew our options?). My dining companions had eaten with Tom Keller at the FL several times. For me, dinner at Per Se was a revelation: the back story of molecular cuisine. Keller is the missing link, the evolutionary connection, between Chez Panisse and Alinea (as infused by Ferran Adria). Others who have followed Keller's career can speak to his chain of innovation from the mandate of localism. The small courses, flavor clashes, and deconstructed dishes that now terrorize diners when in the wrong hands were all in evidence. (The meal was foam-free.) The difference was confidence. Chef Keller and his Per Se Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Benno are not experimenting on their diners; failures are in the disposal, not on the tasting menu. The fact that this was the Chef's Tasting Menu, reconceived each market day, made its gaffe-free quality astonishing. Further, these cooks know how to build a dinner. They are slightly too generous on their plates, but the meal demonstrated a harmonious progression. Chefs Keller and Benno have an agile ability to judge tastes and textures. Perhaps more surprising was that in almost every dish one ingredient, seemingly a side one, grabbed center stage, and proved to belong.

The molecular chefs of today are Keller's children (or at least his nephews). Having eaten at Charlie Trotter, I had given more weight to the Chicagoan in creating a Cuisine Agape, but Keller demands his share, a share that I shall no longer deny him. To understand Grant Achatz's triumphs at Alinea is to realize his inspired union of Trotter and Keller, adding his own fixation on aroma and emotion.

Surely Per Se is among the loveliest and calmest spaces in this bustling town. Every touch - the woods, stone, glass - was exquisitely chosen: Subtle, handsome, sumptuous, and restful. One might say that at this price it had better be, but Alain Ducasse, despite its pleasures, seems a bit dowdy in contrast. Per Se stands apart from restaurants that strive to push as many customers together: the Grateful Dead assumption that if we can no longer breathe, we must be having fun. Per Se is luxuriously filled with clean, still, quiet air.

The staff, who famously are no longer cadging for tips, were as congenial and professional as could be. Had the coat checker not grabbed my fedora by its crown, I would have had no complaints. These men and women actually seemed happy serving at Per Se, an attitude that might suggest to natives that they are overpaid, but probably only means that the despite the location in the Time-Warner Center, Ted Turner's management style has yet to infect the fourth floor.

We selected the Chef's Tasting Menu: Nine courses composed daily, plus a few extras. A reader is immediately snowed by an avalanche of quotation marks. All but one dish had something in quotation marks, in some cases as many as four. We were told that quotes were used around foreign ingredients ("tomme de brebis") and to indicate irony ("macaroni n' cheese" - and, since we are in Lynne Truss territory, isn't it "macaroni ‘n' cheese"?). Our menu novelist embraces the Condiment Theory of Punctuation: sprinkle marks liberally to bring out the flavor of the text. And while I have your attention, must every ingredient have a provenance? (This meal is sponsored by Cowart, Hallow, Four Story, and Hope Farms, each raising memories of Orwell's Manor Farm). I shiver that soon diners may be forced to watch a procession of marketing videos before the bread arrives. Just emblazon the napkins and be done with it.

Dinner begin with an amuse: a black sesame tuile filled with raw salmon perched on creme fraiche. Such an opening was surprising in not shocking. It was a subtle transformation of bagels and lox: not New York Sunday morning, but modified through a Napa dawn. The black pepper tuile, with its thin cookie crunch, made the amuse delightful. It was just different enough to emphasize that the chef was carefully calibrating tastes and textures.

Our opening course was the Per Se classic: "Oysters and Pearls": "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar. With overfishing and Red Tide, we better scarf while we can. One imagines a taste profile when considering oysters and caviar: cool, slick, and just a bit fishy. But Chef Keller transformed this duo into a symphony of butter. I was startled at its grandeur, and that this richness did not seem cloying. The pearl tapioca provided an inspired echo of the sevruga, while soaking the butter, ready to explode. This dish not only deserves its repute, but deserves its quotation marks and deserves the Champagne that our sommelier suggested.

As a second course Per Se offers a choice: a foie gras terrine ($30 supplement to a $210 meal) or for those delicate of culinary politics a Vidalia onion salad (for truly delicate flowers a vegetable tasting menu is offered). I selected the Moulard Duck "Terrine de Foie Gras," with Quince "Jam," Marcona Almond "Crumble," Flowering Quince Relish and Frisée Lettuce with Toasted "Brioche." If truth be told my choice was a ballot for quince, a fruit whose presence in the United States is a side-benefit of immigration reform. The terrine was smooth, but no better than any competent spread (and rather a lot of it). But the quince transformed the somewhat unctuous organ with its bouncy acidity. The true hero of the plate was the "Brioche" - a slide of brioche, an idealized version of Paris, Texas Toast. I was grateful that, having consumed much of my first plate of toast, a server appeared with a second order (now briefly held in my larder). In the corner of the plate were a constellation of the tiniest droplets of a balsamic vinegar. The image was fetching, permitting a few bites with this divine Italian molasses.

By the third course we were getting serious: Sautéed Fillet of Red Mullet (Rouget, a small redfish) with Lima Beans, Piquillo and Serrano Ham with Seville Orange-Roasted Garlic Emulsion. Such a dish pays tribute to (or perhaps inspired) the faddish trend of combining pork and fish: the oink ‘n' gill school of cuisine. The rouget was perfectly cooked. Not a moment overcooked, and the ham added a spicy note that the sweet fish lacked. Again the centerpiece was unexpected: lima beans. Lima beans are the Rodney Dangerfield of legumes, and until now, I felt such treatment was well-deserved. Chefs Keller and Benno upended my beanism. Lima beans with a crunch? Yikes! They were delicious and mediated between the rouget and serrano ham. The kitchen might have been more generous with the orange-garlic emulsion but given the spotty treatment of fish at some of New York's finest restaurants, I was enchanted.

"Macaroni ‘n' Cheese" with Nova Scotia Lobster "Cuit Sous Vide," Parmesan "Crisp," Creamy Lobster Broth and Mascarpone-Enriched Orzo could not have been richer, even had there been a last-minute infusion of Devon cream and a dab of schmaltz. I offer myself as a medical subject to test whether flavor is enhanced through a sous vide technique (a boil in the bag without the boil): would a blind tasting reveal a difference with lobster plunged in a Down East stock pot? However cooked, the homard gave its life for this cuit cuisine. The orzo when consumed separately was rich for my taste, but in the mix, it did just fine. The star of the plate was the "crisp": a cheesy chip of which one truly could not just eat one, except one was all we were offered. Sigh.

Our pair of meat dishes were rabbit and veal, selections somewhat lighter than usual, a match for a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape. The rabbit was "Rillettes" of Hallow Farm's Rabbit with a "Ragoût of French Green Lentils, Celery Branch, Black Winter Truffles and Glazed Chestnuts. Of our dishes, I found this the least compelling. Served as a large brown marble, it had the taste of winter, somber, dusky, woodsy, nutty, and closed in. It was the dark heart of January cuisine. This dish was of the earth, not the heavens. I treasured the chestnuts and respected the soupy memories provoked by the green lentils, but I was soon ready for the veal.

The veal, in contrast, flew by, no matter the cage in which its wrecked body may have been incarcerated. The menu describes this as Rib-Eye of Four Story Hill Farm's Nature Fed Veal with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Thumbelina Carrots, Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach, and Red Pearl Potatoes with Veal "Jus." What the politics of "nature fed" might be the menu did not explain. Could it mean that Story Hill farmers did not feed the calf, an inspired marriage of cost-cutting and moralizing? (Soon to be the GOP child welfare policy.) Whatever. The upshot is that ‘ittle veal never became big ol' moo cow. Despite my speculations on the lifeworld of calves, I chose not to imagine wilted spinach, although I did glance down to see if mold was advertised. Despite my menu deconstruction, I enjoyed the large portion of veal, so much lighter than the rabbit. However, it was the trumpet mushrooms (black Chanterelles) that made this a treat for a winter night. Sometimes Per Se's dishes skirt the edge of complexity, but this was a simple, elegant preparation. Ignoring the adjectival arms race, the pinnacle of this dinner was simple veal, cooked in its own juices, with accompanying carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, and spinach. This is a canonical caress of perfect ingredients.

Feeling that we might be a bit peckish at this point, cheese was on the agenda: Hope Farm's "Tomme de Brebis" with Corn Bread, "Julienne" of Granny Smith Apple and Bourbon-Maple Apple Butter. Tomme de Brebis is an Auvergne sheep milk cheese. One of my dining companions recalled it as a semi-soft cheese, but this was made of firmer stuff, a slightly sharp-sweet cheese, but one that was upstaged by the splendid apple butter, slightly liquored up and waiting for the sap to run. It was a lovely mix with the corn bread, the apple, and the cheese, permitting us to choose how to mix these options. Like the veal, this was a fundamentally simple dish, but one that deserved its placement on the menu.

Our first dessert was Hayden Mango Sorbet with Braised Pineapple, Black Sesame "Nougatine" and Passion Fruit Syrup. While my sorbet was pungent and intense, it had a few stray bits of ice. But what amazed more than the sorbet was the strip of braised pineapple, looking all the word like a strip of fruity hamachi. One edge must have been dipped in a syrup (perhaps the above named passion fruit syrup). It was opulent and lush, and captured our hearts. A third in a sequence of simple tributes to excellence.

Although the final dish on the Chef's Tasting Menu was a deconstructed version of "S'mores", I requested a chocolate-free closer: Sweet Garden Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing, Candied Walnut "Crust," Black Raisin "Coulis" and Indonesian Cinnamon Ice Cream. With all those quotations, one knows that this too was an exercise in literary theory. It was once said that in contrast to cooks, bakers were chemists, today they are English majors. My wife makes a Platonic carrot cake, filled with rough-cut carrots and nuts, and I remain loyal to her inspirations. These cake bites were carrot flour and air, not farmstead sweets. Still, if one didn't mind eating a bite of this and a bite of that, this was a canny and sensuous dessert. (Per Se's pastry chef is Sébastien Rouxel). It reminded me of Sam Mason's desserts, more of what the best young pastry chefs do in their sleep. I was breathless at the microscopic carrot off to the corner, a mini-micro carrot cooked in orange juice, a lilliputian lagniappe placed as if to announce that "we will do anything to amaze."

The final extra (before the mignardises) was a yogurt pot-de-creme with Quince Marmalade. I have admitted my partiality for quince, admitting it to our server, and I wondered whether the kitchen made this smooth treat for "me" (quotations intended).

Being a French Laundry virgin (and a virgin at Bouchon and Bouchon Las Vegas, TK's Nevada food-porn palace), I can't claim experience in affairs de Keller. However, every life must have its start. What amazed me was less the treatment of the main ingredient, but the preparation of those that surrounded it. When I recall this meal, it will be through visions of quince, chestnuts, lima beans, Parmesan crisps, pineapple, and toast and butter. At the great restaurants, it is not doing the big things right, but doing the tiniest things astonishingly: a carrot that belongs in the halls of Ripley's Believe it or Not.

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle (at 60th Street and 8th Avenue, 4th Floor)
Manhattan (Time-Warner Center)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Rubenesque New York City Entry #55

Some restaurants demand that diners deny themselves. They are islands of restraint. For the past forty years chefs have retreated from a cuisine of excess. Classic haute cuisine was based on the assumption that if you asked about the calories, you can't afford them.

If Fatty Crab is any indication, fat is back, and with a vengence. Regulars will inexorably be transformed from stark Giacometti fantasies to Rubenesque dreams. Super-duper models. Given that the night we ate at Fatty Crab most of our fellow diners were svelte-twenty-somethings - culikids - it seemed that they considered calories the way previous generations thought about tobacco. There will be years enough to quit. If this is hip, it is a heavy shank, indeed.

A comparison of Fatty Crab and Momofuku across town seems inevitable (walk due east from the former and you reach the latter). Both restaurants target the same audience (if they're under thirty, can you trust ‘em?), neither accepts reservations, both sit snugly on a knife's edge of asphyxiation, both present dishes according to the kitchen's whim, avoiding the quaint notion of courses. Add to this that both offer Crafty renditions of Asian street food, outposts of youngish celebrity chefs (FC's chef Zak Pelaccio also runs the neighboring, elegant 5 Ninth), and that a smart $50 buys a night of inventive cuisine.

For two restaurants that are so similar, they could hardly be more different. If restaurants can be divided into those that are ideational (Charlie Trotter, Alain Ducasse) and those that are sensate (Frontera Grill, Babbo), Momofuku is the former and Fatty Crab the latter. The former force diners to think about the food, the latter push them to dive in and indulge. Even the ambiance distinguishes the two. The deep red walls and wild decorations (standing fans on the ceiling) - and music - at FC contrasts with the stark oak walls and tables at Momofuku - just as the restrained noodles contrast with the rich cuts at Fatty Crab. Fatty Crab is intense energy - in decor and in cuisine. Even the staff hail from different corners of Our Youth: the scrubbed earnestness of our East Village servers contrasted with charming scrubbly and dyed staff in the Meatpacking District. Nothing was more symptomatic at Fatty Crab than the absence of knifes (forks and chopsticks were available); these were dishes where Sumo diners wrestled with cuts of meat (a knife is available on request).

We began with Green Mango with Chili Sugar Salt, a dish that would have been most welcome as a palate cleanser in the midst of the dinner. Slices of sour mango were paired with a bowl of Asian Pixy Stick Powder. The sweet heat of the powder took the edge off the puckery sour mango. If it was not ideal as a starter, it would have provided a heartfelt break from the main courses.

Soon after arrived fat salad: Watermelon Pickle and Crispy Pork. The chunks of Crispy Pork might better be characterized as crispy belly held together by the merest floss of meat. Was it ever luxurious. The cool and sexy watermelon pickles kept the plate from pure decadence but it was as close as might be found outside Crobar. This was a dish for the Book of Days.

Short Rib Rendang, braised with kaffir lime, coconut and chili matched the salad in indulgence. The muscle was swaddled in a fluffly blanket of fat. The flavors of Malaysia cried out that the dish was exotic, but it really was the fat that captured and fixed these flavors, as fat always does. Although the dish had considerable heat, it was cooled by the solidity of the rib.

By the time that Fatty Crab's Fatty Duck was brought to the table, we were beginning to get the point. Served alone, this vastly hedonist dish would have been (almost) as satisfying as the rib (although the wild gaminess of the duck was lost as brined and fried). I could appreciate how this dish could have been a fine entree when served with the green mango as a side, but in a temple of fat there were other Gods to worship.

Black Grouper Masak Lemak with a sauce of chilies and potatoes, poached in coconut broth with bok choy and jalapeno was libertine as well. Even fish can have zaftig heft. I admired the mix of coconut broth and fish, glad that the fat did not smother the fish, even if by no magic could it pass weight watchers muster.

Our final dish, the least successful, was a Sous Vide Chicken Breast (the technique of preparing meat by boiling in a vacuum bag) with rice, sweet soy, and chili-ginger sauce. By this time in the evening we appreciated just how much flavor fat can capture, and a lean dish seemed out of place. The dish was inoffensive, and the accompaniments attempted to jazz this austere poultry, but it seemed like cosmetic surgery: the least Crabby moment of the evening.

To dine at Fatty Crab is to indulge in an intense, sweaty, and ardent cuisine. For those frolicking in middle age, Fatty Crab is like passion, not to be missed, but not every night if you please.

Fatty Crab
643 Hudson Street (at Gansevoort Street)
Manhattan (Meatpacking District)

Monday, January 09, 2006

Celebrity Infusion New York City Entry #54

Those passionate about cuisine sometimes must be reminded that restaurants serve many purposes. A fine evening can be had at an establishment where the food is not the purpose of dining.

I was reminded of this truth at a meal I shared with some friends at Russian Samovar, the Theater District restaurant at which (I'm told) the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and the late poet Joseph Brodsky have been investors. With the demise of the legendary Russian Tearoom, Russian Samovar (and FireBird) are what is left of Russian high cuisine in Manhattan. (Brooklyn is a very different, and more complex, story). Russian Samovar is a restaurant favored by Russian expatriates and well as American celebrities (Laurie Anderson, Cindy Lauper, Susan Sontag, Anna Kournikova, and Liza Minnelli - I wish I were at THAT party!).

My party included two Russian expatriates, both long-time American residents, and, even if the food was not glorious, the conversation was. And thanks to my hosts, the service was attentive. Russian Samovar is a room of Russian excess. The restaurants on Curry Row have nothing on the Samovar. The hanging lamps, red fabric with black fringe, provided a certain Russian je ne sais quoi. The restaurant is done in shades of red, white, gold, and black: Russian to the core. The walls are filled with sundry photographs and artwork that together prove to be a weirdly inspired marriage of Russian life and celebrity culture. Add to this the entertainment - the stylings of Russian pianist, Alexander Izbitzer, and one finds a temple of consumption, but one light years from Le Bernardin around the corner.

Russian Samovar fashions their own vodka. Perhaps they don't rely on a bathtub in the basement, but the infusions are home-made. Among the choices are Tarragon, Garlic, Coriander, and Cranberry Vodka (the most popular). At the suggestion of a companion I ordered Horseradish Vodka, a peasant favorite. This libation was the high point of the evening, pungent while retaining the smooth fire of this fine liquor.

As an appetizer spread, we ordered the Royal Baltic Fish Platter with Blini. The tray included salmon caviar, a small-egg sturgeon caviar, two types of marinated herring, smoked sturgeon and salmon. The herring was particularly enjoyable, the smoked salmon too thickly cut, but the blini, sturgeon and caviar perfectly presentable and satisfying (the vodka helped). The eggplant caviar that we ordered was smoky and pungent, even if this concoction is some distance from Caspian roe.

My beef stroganoff was disappointing. Great stroganoff depends on tender filet; my beef was dry and overcooked - a tough cut for a tender dish. The noodles, sour cream, and mushrooms were as proffered, but with a second-class filet, it didn't merit much thought. More time to talk.

For dessert we shared Natasha's apple cream cheese pie (apples and cinnamon over cream cheese, topped with almonds with a drizzled raspberry sauce). I was intrigued to learn that for many Russian men the name Natasha conjures images of a prostitute, but perhaps we shouldn't be too Freudian about pastries. Oh ho. As it was, the pie was sweet and tart; lush, if not carnal.

Had I been dining alone, my list of complaints might have been heavy and sad. However, this evening deserves no rough critique. Should the stars (Ms. Lauper and Ms. Minnelli?) align, I might return to quaff garlic vodka with a twinkling starlet.

Russian Samovar
256 W. 52nd Street (at 8th Avenue)
Manhattan (Theater District)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Border Crossings New York City Entry #53

This past week found me in three Asian restaurants that together reflect the glory of global New York. Perhaps none of the three deserve a lengthy tribute, but in combination reflect the joys of metropolitan life. We are blessed by the repeal of the harsh Coolidge-era Immigration Act of 1924, an outgrowth of the Palmer Raids and the fears of anarchy. Raise a toast to the 1965 Immigration Act: Lyndon Johnson's gift to gourmets (his responsibility for the waves of Vietnamese and Dominican refugees might be noted, but with more painful ambivalence). World cities are world kitchens. Immigrants first begin ethnic diners for their fellow nationals. In time these efforts merge seamlessly into cuisine of An American Place.

One of the first notable Indian restaurants serving the South Asian outpost in northern Queens was the Jackson Diner, beloved as a quirky diner. The restaurant has moved down the street, expanded, and now is elegant, contemporary (designed in shades of avocado, maize, and brick), if still modest, in the exuberant beating heart of Jackson Heights.

Before selecting some ingredients at Patel Brothers Supermarket, I stopped by. The luncheon buffet was spacious and generous. A dozen entrees were displayed by the front window. With their lively luncheon business, nothing sat around long, the curse of buffet culture. The Jackson buffet doesn't deserve a standing ovation, but at $9.95, it does what it needs to do. I particularly enjoyed the juicy Tandoori Chicken and the sweet, creamy Kheer (Indian rice pudding with raisins). Also available were Goat Curry, Shrimp and Egg in Curry, Palak Paneer (Creamed Spinach), Rice Basmati, Chicken Makhani, Lamb Korma, and Naan. For a quick, well-priced taste of India in a pleasant and airy room, the Jackson diner remains a part of New York lore. Perhaps in time we will speak of the Jackson Diner in terms reserved for Peter Luger: old New York, run by old New Yorkers.

What cuisine better matches a Broadway puppetry musical (Avenue Q) than Indonesian, a culture with its own distinguished tradition of shadow puppetry. There, in the heart of Hell's Kitchen - once the home of corned beef, boiled potatoes, and beer - sits Bali Nusa Indah, one of several Indonesian restaurants that bring a taste of Java to Midtown. I ordered Nasi Rames ($13.95), a mini-Rijsttafel (or at least a tasting). The dishes include jasmine rice, spicy hot shrimps and string beans, beef in coconut and chili sauce, chicken curry, beef satay with peanut sauce, mixed salad with peanuts, and dried anchovies with peanuts (very nice, if an acquired taste). In years past, I have shared some glorious Rijsttafels and this was not that, but it was a very satisfying post-theater treat. It is good to know that Bali Nusa Indah thrives, ready for the bereft crowds once McHale's - the go-to H-K bar for hamburgers of excess and tap beer - closes and the choice becomes Big Mac or Nasi Goreng.

Despite sharing a considerable border Burmese and Thai food are not similar. The spice-wary diner whose friends insist on South Asian food should opt for Cafe Mingala, one of a few Burmese restaurants in town (they don't refer to themselves as providing Myanmar cuisine, and who am I to argue). We ordered Basil Duck with Vegetables, Rangoon Night Market Noodles (Egg Noodles with Boiled Duck in a too-sweet Garlic Sauce), and the highlight Keema, which is rather like a Sloppy Joe in Mille-Feuille Pastry: Anglo-Rangoon on the Seine. Although the ground beef and potato mix was curried, it was a curry that any Brit could love. I fantasize that Thai gourmets whisper that their neighbors are wimps, but the dish was a pleasant surprise: a Boeuf Wellington for everyman. I suspect that recipes were surgically nipped and tucked for their Upper East Side clientele, but better an enhanced Burmese cuisine than no Burmese cuisine at all.

Traveling the corners of New York City, smelling the aromas, tasting the flavors, a culinaire can not but be roused by the politics of cuisine. Living in New York is to know in one's gut that closing our borders too tight and too fast is to cut off our tongue to spite that global gut.

Bali Nusa Indah
651 Ninth Avenue (at 45th Street)
Manhattan (Hell's Kitchen)

Cafe Mingala
1393B Second Avenue (at 73rd Street)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)

Jackson Diner
37-47 74th Street (at 37th Avenue)
Queens (Jackson Heights)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Restaurant 101 New York City Entry #52

In Adam Platt's list of the 101 Best New York Restaurants 2005 in New York magazine, Momofuku concludes the list. Chef David Chang may well have breathed a sigh of relief that a line cook didn't put a little too much salt in Mr. Platt's ramen. Being #102 counts for nothing (being #97 might be almost as bad).

In truth, finding additional customers is not Momofuku's problem, indeed a few more customers might bring the entire enterprise to its knees. I had called to inquire when the restaurant begins to fill up, knowing that reservations were not accepted. I was told (correctly) that we should arrive by 6:30. By 7:00 the doorway was filled, by 7:30 there were clumps of diners milling outside. And this was a weeknight in January.

In the law of supply and demand, a certain equilibrium should develop. At some point these extra customers should decide that the restaurant - as worthy as the food is - is not worth the hassle, and in time, economists suggest - the number of diners should equal the number of seats, unless some queuing system is launched (read: reservations).

A nouveau noodle bar, Momofuku is translated Lucky Peach, although that the name hints at another expression more widely heard on East Village streets. If some restaurants cater to blue-hairs, this is a restaurant that caters to purple and pink-hairs. We were the most seasoned customers by a generation.

As we ate - and we wanted to eat deliberately to appreciate Chang's serious cuisine - I was awash in guilt, noticing the starving, if trendoid, young masses hungrily eying my seat. Granted Momofuku has been designed as a neighborhood noodle bar, but Chang is too large for his current space.

Momofuku may currently be the best value of any restaurant in New York in its ratio of culinary creativity to cost. If the setting lacks the Orientalist fantasy of Spice Market, the cooking at Momofuku transcends their crosstown rival. Despite the conceit of serving original street-food, Chef Chang is ready for a larger canvas. If Chef Chang is still toiling at Momofuku in five years, we will all be the losers. Perhaps his moment is not here yet, but he should be preparing for his culinary bar mitzvah. He should have no reservations about a restaurant with reservations.

Still, one takes restaurants as one gets them - in the case of Momofuku as a cramped space that makes airline seating seem positively spacious. This is a restaurant that could never hire an overweight server and barely could contain an overweight diner. The setting is striking with white oak walls and tables covered; one feels one is dining in a cross between a submarine and a casket.

We began with sauteed baby tat-choi, a bok-choy relative. It was presented in a miso broth perfumed with garlic, onions, and dried chili pepper. As a vegetarian soup it was exquisite. Sheer, but with a sharp punch of chili. Seemingly modest, it was highly satisfying.

We followed this with Momofuku's signature steamed buns with Berkshire pork. As an artistic creation these pork buns outshown any rival in Chinatown; as a matter of taste, they equal the best that Chinatown could offer. My only complaint was an overgenerous smear of its hoisin-like sauce. However, so satisfying was the construction that a chain of bun vendors wandering city streets would surely increase the sum total of the culinary happiness of New Yorkers.

Through the vagaries of ordering, our three main courses turned out to be more similar than expected - each heavy on salt pork and each built on a poached egg. Had we selected better, the saltiness would have been less noticeable, but it is clear that Chef Chang is having a "fling" with smoked meats. Of the three, the most stellar was Yellow Grits and Ruby Red Shrimp with Bacon, Poached Egg, and Scallions. Chef Chang serves grits that are rather watery by Atlanta standards, something of a breakfast stew - but a dish that can be served throughout the day; it is timeless. Neither Southern nor Asian, these grits are a lucky peach of a dish.

The Aged Country Ham and Masa Cakes with Red-Eye Gravy, Poached Egg, and Scallions, also works within - and against - a Southern breakfast grammar. We were tempted to label this South Korean Cuisine. Country ham with red-eye gravy (coffee with bacon grease) is not to everyone's taste. I love it in small doses, but it worked less well after tasting the bacon and grits, even if the masa cakes (a slightly heavier blini) and scallion supplies a quite inscrutable quality.

We selected the Momofuku ramen - noodles, Berkshire pork belly and shoulder, poached egg, and scallions. I admired the broth, although this seemed the least creative of the three dishes. Ramen are such subtle threads that they can be hard to compare. I found these well-made, but not transfomative, and by this time the pork and egg combo was becoming same old, same old. As comfort food, the Momofuku ramen would cure East Village reveling, but I didn't feel that it amounted to destination dining.

As dessert we ordered Kaffir Angel Food Cupcakes, served with nigori and dried cherry jam (the only dessert offered). The angel food was not as ethereal as some specimens, but the combination was good enough in a restaurant where desserts are an afterthought.

The bill for these dishes (with barley tea, nigori sake, and tip) was $37/person, less than the cost of many lesser Manhattan entrees. What's not to like? Chef Chang is master of his domain. But he deserves a change to fly or fall in a restaurant that tests his mettle to produce dishes that will amaze and transfix - a restaurant with aisles. His deft touch with tat-choy, grits, and pork pork pork suggests a chef whose time may be near.

Like the inspired novelist writing successful genre fiction, Chef Chang must decide his next move. Will we look back on these heady Momofuku days as the crucible of a master or a hint of what might have been? In the culinary countdown is Chef Chang satisfied at 101 - Adam Platt's worst best chef - or does he dream of an electric life among the single digits?

Momofuku Noodle Bar
163 First Avenue (at 10th Street)
Manhattan (East Village)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Twee New York City Entry #51

Some restaurants can be captured in a single word. Such is Alice's Tea Cup (with two locations in Manhattan and a bakery on City Island in the Bronx). With its bright maroon and cream walls with yellow accents (at least in its East Side outpost, "Chapter Two"), mismatched chairs and flowered teacups, and wonderland images, ATC does dainty to a tea.

ATC appears poised to attract tween girls, winding down from a shopping spree at Dylan's Candy Bar. This is the only restaurant of which I am aware that has a menu section for "after school snacks." (Milk and cookies is $6.00; grilled American cheese will set nymphets back a cool $7.00, but this is the Upper East Side). Yes, you can get anything you want.

Perhaps a name-change to "Lo-Lee-Tea Cup" might not pass muster with restaurant consultants, though it surely would find a clientele, including, possibly, Charles Dodgson himself. And Nabokovian butterflies would fit the decor. At a Sunday brunch it captured more twenty-somethings than kids, but the couples, no matter age or gender, were fitting representatives of tweedom, as was the chirpy and accommodating staff. Twidledee.

The restaurant specializes in teas, often candied. I ordered Rooibos Phoenix, enhanced with honey, caramel and vanilla. Sweet. The dinner menu seemed too sophisticated for a nymph niche: lapsang souchong chicken breast on mixed greens with sliced tea-infused eggs, granny smith apples, crispy carrots, and a sweet ginger dressing might be much for an eleven year old, but of course we're not in Kansas anymore.

At brunch, young diners can order cornmeal pancakes, steel-cut oatmeal, and crepes (choose your filling). We selected Alice's Curious French Toast (oh, what a title that): "French toast bites with apple-cinnamon tea, baked bread pudding style, attacked with fruit coulis, vanilla cream anglais and syrupy sweet stuff." I can not possibly capture the essence of this establishment with more precision than does the title of this dish. This description is from the webpage, the menu claims that it contains "apple-brandy tea," an image that provoked a few moments of wry amusement before I came to wonder about the fruit coulis attacking defenseless French toast. That bites. As served, the dish was a glorious, if discordant, symphony of the candied and the sticky.

Our second choice was poached eggs and sliced smoked salmon atop a savory scone with rosemary hollandaise sauce and a side of roasted asparagus and pears. Cafeteria grub at the Alfred Portole Middle School. While I prefer a Holland Rusk under my Eggs Benedict, finding a scone too cakey for its assignment, the eggs were properly runny, and the other ingredient combined for a satisfying brunch.

Forgive my funning. If Alice's is not quite the restaurant on which chattering hordes of tweens will likely descend, mothers and grandmothers might select this cutie-pie restaurant as the perfect place for a late morning repast with their cherished Paris, Lindsay, Britney, or even Dolores.

Alice's Tea Cup, Chapter Two
156 East 64th Street (at Lexington Avenue)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)