Monday, February 27, 2006

Planet Kyoto New York City Entry #75 Nobu

Why tinker with a sharp formula? A decade ago I ate an astonishing meal at Nobu, Nobu Matsuhisa's haute Japanese TriBeCa joint. The evening was a rare experience that changes how one thinks about the possibility of cuisine. Borrowing from Europe and South America, Chef Matsuhisa invented for many diners a new way to think of Asian flavors and textures. A decade later in hope of preparing my palate for a visit (my first) to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, I returned, and Nobu is as almost as good as it once was , even if it is a victim of how much it has changed the world of dining. Chef Nobu has tough competition, and several of his iron colleagues and students can challenge the master. And, of course, the restaurant has cloned itself endlessly, creating a formulaic cuisine - Planet Kyoto.

Nobu is one of the wittiest restaurant spaces in the city. The sculptural trees that adorn the dining room suggest an ryokan set in a Japanese forest. It is dramatic without facile elegance, and it is never misses a thoughtful detail. Our waiter, pure American, was cheerful, knowledgeable and efficient.

We selected the high-end omakase dinner to which we added a tempura dish, creating a menu of ten dishes. While a few dishes did not stun, there were no failures. After a dozen years, a weeding-out process is evident. Perhaps Nobu is resting on its well-earned laurels, and one sometimes suspects that the kitchen is not charged with the gas of imagination, but the best dishes still tingle.

Although I rarely order or write about cocktails, the Matsuhisa Martini reflects the Nobu style. The mix of Level Vodka with sake, ginger and cucumber slices proved to be startlingly effective in awakening my palate. Not sticky sweet like many failed cocktails, these additions were quietly modulated.

Our opening appetizer (Nobu doesn't provide an amuse) was toro (tuna belly) tartare with a powerful and wicked wasabi soy sauce and Sterling (white sturgeon) caviar. The tuna and soy were set in a tiny crucible placed atop a ball of crushed ice. The drama was evident. We were impressed knowing that this was a meal that had been carefully calibrated. The wasabi jus was a fiery accompaniment, skating near the edge of pleasure. Diners were not given a choice, it soaked the toro. Eat or starve! I ate with tears in my eyes and a song in my heart. Confronting Nobu, one must be brave. To the side, a Japanese mountain peach, the size of a raspberry. Designed as a palate cleanser, it was a reward for clearing one's blazing plate.

The toro was quickly followed by a quartet of Kumamoto oysters, served with hot sesame oil, chives, ginger, and citrus soy sauce. This pile of oysters was sublime. I wondered whether sesame and citrus would be a match, but they were harmonious and in tune with oysters that were as perfect as bivalves could be. If the legions of phobes would be forced to eat these Kumamotos, a run on oysters would surely result. With its symphonies of pungent flavors, this was a star dish.


Our third course was Kanpachi (young yellowtail) sashimi. It was served with sesame soy vinegar and a haystack of micro-fennel. We tried to divine the subtle flavor of the micro-greens, not imagining that the farmers at Nobu grew fields of tiny fennel shoots. The display was stirring, and the kanpachi fresh and pure.


Our next course must have created by a lapidary with some slight assistance of a chef. We were served four slivers of Japanese red snapper, set in a pool of citrus (yuzu?) juice. On each slice was an aureole of forest green cilantro with a nip of bright chili sauce. One needed to nibble a morsel of the perfect fish before venturing into its combinations. The chili pepper provided a holy fire, an enchanted massacre. After the subtle dishes, we were reminded of the biting toro tartare.


The fifth course changed the world. My two companions had never visited Nobu before, and so we were blessed by Chef Nobu's broiled black cod marinated in miso (four days to create the world). The cod was as buttery and sweet as one could imagine. Were it the naked cod, we would have spied heaven. However, Nobu's pickled onions are certainly the finest pickled onions that human hands ever touched, the foie gras was measured and devout, and the crispy Japanese mint leaf was transformed by a magician. That this dish has delighted so many diners for over a decade is a miracle. That it has changed the way New Yorkers have conceived of Japanese cuisine reveals that kitchens have cultural power. Nobu's Cod is a finalist for Dish of the Century.


So ecstatic were we that the next plate - Kobe beef with a chili paste sauce, and red and yellow grape tomatoes on a lemon slice - was a disappointment. As one, we decided that the tomatoes were the chef's treat. Kobe beef is rather like truffles, foie gras, or caviar: unless used with inspiration, it announces conspicuous consumption. To suggest that the Kobe slices were "not bad" is to mock their precious pretensions, but we could have happily noshed on a bowl of tomatoes.

Feeling a bit peckish after the beef - and not wishing the meal to end quite yet - we ordered Rock shrimp tempura with ponzu and chili pepper served with a mound of micro-mache. This transformed the possibilities of tempura, a culinary domain that I hope to explore during my stay in Japan. As all dishes at Nobu, the presentation was sublime, dramatic and precise.

Sushi and soup is a transition to dessert. Our five pieces (otoro, belt fish, red snapper, king salmon, and orange clam) were exemplary, but after the rock shrimp, after the kumamoto oysters, after the miso cod, the sushi did not astonish, but only satisfied. As a palate cleanser sufficed.

I was not enchanted by Pastry Chef Jessica Isaacs' desserts. Japan is not a dessert culture. Tokyo is not Paris - I'll report back if my visit upends my bias. We were first treated to a mango citrus granita. This bowl looked like jewels, and was topped with edible gold leaf, but tasted like a routine and awkwardly chunky snow cone.

Our final sweet was a bento box composed of a Warm Valrhona Chocolate Souffle Cake with Shiso Syrup, White Chocolate Sauce and Green Tea Ice Cream. The elegance of the dessert critiqued the humble bento box. Ho ho. I licked the smooth and mild ice cream, but was left cold by the warm cake. I should not indulge in caffeine, often a struggle. Tonight, after a few small bites of a rich but ordinary cake I lacked desire to violate doctor's orders.

Nobu is an essential restaurant, the rising sun lighting TriBeCa. To be sure there is danger of Nobu becoming Hard Rock Café, but until cod is endangered, Nobu will remain more wonderland than Disneyland.

105 Hudson Street (at Franklin St.)
Manhattan (TriBeCa)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Hurried Chef New York City Entry #74 Ureña

It is said that half of newly birthed restaurants do not celebrate their second birthday. I question the basis for this somber and dispiriting statistic. Perhaps it is proclaimed by chefs who wish to raise the drawbridge after they cross. This is one of the army of factoids too good to be false.

Despite my doubts as to the certainty of the evaporating restaurant, it recognizes a partial reality. If diamonds are forever, beaneries are not. And yet every young chef believes that s/he will be the exception. So we find Ureña, the newly opened redoubt of Chef/Owner Alex Ureña, formerly chef at Suba, Marseilles, and, for a glittering moment with Dan Barber at Blue Hill. Ureña is formerly of River Café, Jo Jo, Bouley, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, and El Bulli. Can't this man keep a job?

It takes the labor of mundane repetition to learn from masters. Can one soak up enough as a culinary tourist? Except for his lengthy, early training in Bouley (Alex Ureña started working in restaurants shortly after he landed in New York from the Dominican Republic at age fifteen), Ureña is a gastronomic butterfly. He has worked many years, but he is still a young cook. Too green to be an owner if baseball were his sport. Even callow W was grayer.

Ureña has been exposed to much and has talent in abundance, but as yet he lacks capital and a distinctive culinary vision. Adding Spanish ingredients, though wise, does not a cuisine make. Ureña's space is, as has been noted, one of the least impressive rooms for a restaurant of its ambition. With the exception of impressive toilets, everything is done on the cheap. A devout aesthete might chose to eat on the pot. The tables are laid out to insure that a service will be an obstacle course. On this nearly deserted midweek night the close quarters represent a triumph of hope over experience.

Ureña's servers are still learning their craft. We were served flat water in place of sparkling, our server didn't know whether the panko bread crumbs were wheat-based, some dishes were poorly described, and we weren't offered coffee at the proper moment. The service was cheerful, but training remains: perhaps established servers perceive that Ureña is not here for the long haul. No doubt with time - if time there is - this will be sorted out.

Ureña's cuisine had both real successes, a few errors, and many satisfying attempts. With a $100 nine course chef's tasting menu, this is a few steps below elite dining, but the price suggests a seriousness of purpose. The style is Manhattan Moderne by means of Barcelona: a blending of Blue Hill and Bouley, with perhaps a bit of El Bulli as seasoning, although the Iberian influence is most noticeable in the occasional choice of ingredients: chorizo, chicharon, manchego, and saffron. Despite suggestions that Ureña is an outpost of molecular cuisine (New York magazine suggests it is "the kind of place that assumes a certain foodie familiarity with phrases like mustard paper and chorizo emulsion"), the restaurant doesn't provoke or bewilder. This is no WD-51. Were Alex Ureña an Impressionist, he would be a Sisley, not a Monet, a synthesizer. Ureña still a young man's restaurant, short on a unique culinary style. Perhaps he has been over-exposed. Too much is buzzing in his brain - a result none of the many satisfying dishes seemed like a signature dish.

Chef Ureña might have been better advised to open a little place in Williamsburg where he could sharpen his ideas of cuisine. (If only I was his down-market investor!). Away from the Manhattan hothouse would provide time and space and resources to develop an identity and a following, and to experience joy in the process. Ureña is a two star restaurant in a two-bit space. There is much more to achieve.

We ordered the chef's tasting menu (nine courses, plus amuses), and the chef attempted to dazzle us: for most courses the table was served two different preparations that demanded sharing. I hoped we might remain friends through the meal. Eventually some fifteen dishes were served. I appreciated this bounty, but I couldn't help feeling as I espied empty tables that for the kitchen it was us or ennui.

The meal with pair of amusi: Creamy Potato-Fennel Soup and Mussels Escabiche with Pickled Onion. Both were sterling and better by being served together. The soup, so smooth and sumptuous, needed the jolt from the bivalve ceviche. I loved the pungent pickled onion and basil reduction underlying the mussels, making this one of the best and most assured bites of the night. The opening packed a one-two punch.


This duo was followed by two appetizers. First, a luscious Ostra Escabeche of Marinated oysters, saimfaina brunoise (a vegetable mix, akin to ratatouille), and smoked oyster gelee foam. In such a mix with oysters the foam brought out and stood apart from the oyster's texture, and the vegetables added a tartness that mixed well with the slightly briny oysters. This was certainly one of the finest raw oyster combinations that I have had, comparable only to the starter at Aquavit.

The Salt Cod Mousse (Baccalao) with flake cod salad, and microgreens with grapefruit, was less compelling. The combination of salt and sour proved intriguing - a potentially clever dish - but less satisfying than its mate with a texture that demanded more crunch.

Our house smoked tuna was a breather. I was impressed by its straight-forward luxuriousness with its onions and greens. If it was not novelty on a plate, it was a subtle take on gravlox. The dish was both a picturesque and harmonious. Not every dish needs to strain at the edge of the envelope of flavor.


The next pair was warm seafood. Shrimp over Manchego Rice (rice with Spanish sheep's milk cheese)is Spanish for Shrimp on Cheese Grits. Although not wild, it was a startling and effective mixture, mild and robust, and we loved it.

Its partner was Nantucket Sea Scallop with Parsnip Purée and Chorizo Sauce. Chef Ureña presented yet another shotgun marriage of trough and brine. The chorizo sauce should have had more of a smack, and its diffidence emphasized the blandness of the purée. The scallop was well cooked, but was not backed by a strong flavor combination. It was pleasant as a quiet companion to the shrimp.

Two fish dishes followed. I admired the marinated and sauteed mahi mahi with a ginger aromatic sauce over spinach with a portobello confit. This was a delicate and subtle dish, only marred by a slight saltiness. The ginger aromatic was compelling and framed the beefy mahi mahi.


The roasted flounder with glazed celery root, honshemiji mushrooms, manchego and arugula mousse with a grapefruit and elder flower sauce was too busy. Even reading the ingredients is exhausting. On small plates simplicity is often essential. On a larger canvas this construction might allow for a quieter appreciation of ingredients, but here the dish was riotous.

Our fifth course continued the chef's emphasis on seafood, but, in contrast to some earlier efforts, these were undistinguished. The steamed lobster with pickled rhubarb purée, glazed salisfy, and blood orange sauce might have been a high point of the meal. Instead, it was upended by an sickly sweet sauce of goopy consistency. I recognized sweet-and-sour chicken from a small town Chinese take-out. What a waste of a blood orange. What a waste of a lobster.


The chicharon (pork rind) crusted halibut with Japanese panko bread crumbs, yellow candied beets, onion soubise, zucchini, and saffron mussel sauce was also a bungle. The flavors were muddied. The fish was fine, but the tastes, as served, lacked distinctive definition. Again, the problem may have been this chef needs a larger canvas than what a tasting menu can provide.

Finally we reached our meat course. I thought that the seared duck breast with Savoy cabbage, bacon, dried apricots, and star anise scented sauce was one of the finest plates of the night. Chef Ureña was confidently playing with duck cliches. The duck itself was seared and intense, and the star anise sauce brought a striking bitter-sweetness to the breast. The dried apricots and cabbage proved an inspired match (perhaps add chanterelles), and the complexity of the dish didn't mash together. Many of the plates, but particularly this, had a Blue Hill aspect, closer than to the games of molecularism.


I enjoyed the roasted lamb chop with cashew nut purée, Swiss chard, and oyster mushrooms. Although the idea of a cashew nut purée was an intriguing conceit, it didn't add much to the lamb but was intriguing by itsef. Ultimately this dish stood successfully on the quality of the well-cooked chop.

The pastry chef at Ureña is Caryn Stabinsky, formerly at WD-50. Because of the allergies of a tablemate, we were not served her signature dessert, "breakfast" (desayuno) - wheat toast cake, Bulgarian feta, maple caramel, with rosemary ice cream, but it seemed more intriguing than the three choices provided.

Our first dessert was an oddity: dill yogurt sorbet with Meyer lemon curd and sea salt. The dill yogurt was unexpected. Curious if not quite compelling. Chef Stabinsky was indulging herself at our expense.

Second was almond ice cream over candied almonds with piccolo (?) pepper sauce. The almond ice cream over almonds was almost dessert-normal, fully admirable, but to gain our attention pepper sauce was dribbled around. I didn't find that it added much other than an demand that a diner pay attention to the musing of a chef.

The final dessert was beet panna cotta, chocolate sauce, broken chocolate cookie with orange salt (salt again!), and sour cream ice cream. The beet panna cotta was a treat - pungent, mild and sweet in a bite. The rest of the plate, deconstructed as it was, held nothing so much as a bit of this and that. The beet panna cotta was a special crimson delight, richly made and happily consumed.


Our dinner contained many gratifying moments: a little blue hill overlooking Barcelona. Chef Ureña's attempt to add a Spanish accent - a tilda - to a American cuisiñe of localism is to be hailed. And yet perhaps this establishment has opened a decade early. Chef Ureña is still developing a style, but his outpost is so close to such established and mature restaurants like Craft, Gotham Bar and Grill, Blue Hill, and Grammercy Tavern that it suffers by comparison. I hope - and suspect - that someday I will boast that I tasted Alex Ureña's early independent efforts. If, as some suggest, Ureña lacks the resources and readiness to become established Downtown, I would follow this chef to cheaper digs across bridge and tunnel or to the outer hustings of Manhattan.

37 East 28th Street (at Madison Avenue)
Manhattan (Flatiron)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Babbling Babbo New York City Entry #73

Stepping over the threshold at Babbo, Mario Batali's flagship restaurant is to be placed in the midst of a scrum. The obstacles at the narrow entrance demand bravery and resolve. Yet, such layout conveys the message that Babbo in its bar and beyond is a happening place. Even when seated, the sounds from the front meld with the background music to create a sense of occasion. Babbo is a restaurant that is shaken, not stirred.

The Babbo space is known to older New Yorkers as the long-standing home of the Coach House, one of the more elegant examples of mid-century dining. The decor has been updated, and is quite handsome, although it is one of so many Manhattan restaurants where the flower arrangement is King. By the end of the evening as the ruggers at the bar decamped, it was actually a restful environment at which to dine. Service was efficient and helpful throughout the evening - servers, sommelier, and runners.

And yet what is one to make of the food. What does one tell an energetic B-plus student why there is no gold star today. With the exception of a failed dessert, the dishes were in the upper quintile: 650 culinary SATs. Yet, not a single dish proved astonishing, although the combination of ingredients - as well as Mario's buzz - indicated that this was the goal. True, my companions and I - tough graders all - did not assay the Tasting Menus (either pasta or "traditional"). Ignore the buzz, and this is a respectable and amiable restaurant that uses Italian ingredients (and Italian labels) to persuade diners that something "big" is at work. Yet, at the end the dishes are neither transcendent creations nor sublime Italian renditions.

Our amuse modeled the evening: a plate of herbed chickpeas on toast. The dish was unpolished but flavorful. It was not the kind of amuse that shows off the culinary virtuosity of a chef, but a dish that indicates that the meal will jolt one's tongue.

Antipasto was Warm Lamb's Tongue Vinaigrette with Chanterelles and a Three Minute Egg. I had recently enjoyed a home-made and perfectly prepared lamb's tongue served with a curried mayonnaise. Babbo's version was busy by comparison. I finished the dish with gusto, but the pungent vinegar buzz was excessive. While I did espy chanterelles, a portion of the mushrooms were other varietals. As a starter, it was a gratifying choice; one completed with a smile, but slightly out of balance.


As Primo (Pasta) our table shared "Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffles." I didn't smell many truffles, although at $21 tartufo chunks were not in the bargain. The problem was less the slight tubers and not the al dente ravioli, but the flavor excess of a mix of cheek and liver. Babbo is not a restaurant that serves quiet dishes. This dish was as loud and rough as the bar scene. Its robustness was to my liking, but its brusque quality suggests a kitchen that shouts rather than whispers.


As Secondi, I selected Prawns with White Beans, Leeks, and Spicy Mint Oil. The quartet of prawns were glorious and architectural, and grilled expertly. The plate was newly-minted. I grinned at the mixture of mint and heat, even if the rather mushy beans seemed odd strangers. The plate was the highpoint of the evening, even if its flavors were as jagged as those before.


The happier Dolce was Babbo's Chocolate Hazelnut Cake with Orange Sauce and Hazelnut Gelato. Even Batali's harshest critics acknowledge that his staff is skilled at Gelati, and the Hazelnut Gelato was no exception. My bite of Chocolate Cake was rich and moist, and surely satisfying for those who are cocoa nuts.

Tasting Gelato di Castagne (Chestnut Gelato) with Bigue (pastry shells) and Chestnut Honey, I imagined a terrorist had infiltrated the kitchen. This was one of the least appealing bites I have eaten. Something must have gone wrong, given that the server had waxed poetic about the dish. It tasted as if someone had ladled Campari - or perhaps Listerine - over the Gelato. With a little experimentation it was clear that the culprit was the sauce (the chestnut gelato was, of course, first-rate). Our server at first was as mystified as I, but eventually the good sport inquired of the kitchen, and came out holding a bottle of Chestnut Honey, noting cheerfully "It's either that or poison." Good choice. The honey tasted as nasty as the dessert. Our mystery was solved. Why innocent diners were treated to this odd concoction without warning remains Mario's mystery or perhaps that of his Pastry Chef Gina DePalma. Given that it is a recent addition to a beloved list of sweets, it will surely be trundled off to dessert purgatory.

To deny the pleasures of Babbo would be unfair to Mario, Joe Bastianich - and their Executive Chef Frank Langello - and - God Knows! - Joe and Mario have enough real estate problems without diners piling on. Still, one has to wonder whether, despite the hoo-hah, Batali is the Italian chef of his generation. Iron chef he may be, but can Babbo rise above the babbling of a bombastic publicity machine?

110 Waverly Place (at 6th Avenue)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Pronouncement Sripraphai New York City Entry #72

In a city as varied and as disputatious as New York, to find unanimity on anything is as rare as coming upon a parking spot. Yet, as far as Thai restaurants are concerned, one name is on everyone's lips - even if that name is routinely garbled. Sripraphai, located in the heart of Woodside, Queens, a few blocks down from the Jackson Heights subway stop. One imagines that the staff keeps a list detailing how customers scramble three simple syllables - two dozen entries would be a start. The menu helpfully provides the correct pronunciation (See-PRA-Pie).

Since opening Sripraphai has expanded, and in its current incarnation, it has a simple elegance, particularly in the back area away from the front door (it also has a garden for summer visitors). Sripraphai now also has a liquor license, and serve some Thai wine and beer. But the restaurant remains efficient, we turned over in just above an hour, having spent a mere $24 apiece.

I learned Thai food in Chicago, which along with Los Angeles, is reputed to be the American nucleus of Thai cuisine. The most creative menus in Chicago are "secret menus" - once written in Thai script, but now translated for their Anglo patrons (see - an essential Chicago dining companion).

I was impressed by the food served at Sripraphai, but often felt that the dishes were improved and subtler versions of dishes found at serious Thai restaurants, rather than some of the incandescent dishes found in Chicago at Siam House, Sticky Rice, TAC Quick, or Spoon Thai (try the Exploded Catfish Salad), or the haute Thai appetizers at Arun's.

This should not suggest disappointment. Our dishes (at a level of heat between medium and "Thai spicy") ranged from quite good to superb. We began with papaya salad with crispy catfish meat. The texture of the strings of green fruit were delightful as was the crispy coating, an ethereal fat. As wonderful as the coating was, little catfish graced the plate. A better balance between fish and crisp was called for.

Sripraphai is rightly known for their tom-yum pork leg soup (a hot and sour soup). The broth was exquisite. Light and full of heat. The fatty pork leg was less to consume than to perfume the perfect stock. I dream of unhurried, unsullied, immaculate pork leg consomme.

Our quartet ordered three main courses: roasted duck in hot and spicy sauce with Thai eggplant and bamboo shoots, jungle curry (a red curry) with beef and mixed vegetables, and fried soft-shell crab with green curry, pineapple, pumpkin, and long beans. Of the three, the green curry grabbed our attention. It is startling that a dish can be simultaneously hot and subtle, but this green curry made it seem easy. Sharing one order, we didn't consume quite enough of the beautiful crab, but the sauce and vegetables made up for the absence. The vegetables reminded me of the accompaniments at the most storied haute restaurants. The other two dishes were superior examples of Thai cuisine, but recognizable. I enjoyed the well-cooked eggplant, which mixed nicely with the fatty duck. The jungle curry was rich with spice, even if recognizable from dishes at other Thai restaurants.

Dessert at Sripraphai is an afterthought. We ordered pumpkin custard, a simple sweet which only disappointed because of its profound predecessors. Better stroll to the nearby Paraguayan-Uruguayan (??) bakery a few blocks along Roosevelt Avenue.

I make no claim to have conducted a census of Thai food in New York, but cannot quibble over the conventional wisdom. Dinner at Sripraphai was not transformative, but it was powerfully good; an establishment easy to reach and easy to love, but hard to pronounce.

64-13 39th Avenue (off Roosevelt Avenue)
Queens (Woodside)
Closed Wednesdays

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Cruisine Cru New York City Entry #71

A spectre is haunting Downtown, the spectre of Community. A gaggle of Manhattan chefs (often tied to the strings and strains of Bouleywood) have concluded that if they cannot pump their plates with a clashing cornucopia of ingredients, they will lack creative cachet among their consorts. The strategy of this club stands in stark contrast to those who embrace the Cuisine of Essences. There are Stakes in Tocque-ville. Chefs have choices. When they select a personal cuisine, they embrace a gustatory team. And Cru's Chef Shea Gallante reveals and revels in his apprenticeship at the red mothership Bouley.

Cru is known for its extensive wine list (a two volume encyclopedia with some 3,500 bottles), and so perhaps cuisine is a lagniappe. It inhabits a space on lower Fifth Avenue known as a cemetery of cuisine. Its current incarnation is a somewhat uninspiring clubby space, neither stunning nor repellent, with woods and leathers, browns, tans, and golds. Our service was attentive, although our waitress pushed us from the wine tasting to a more substantial bottle. Perhaps she was right. Our five small glasses were just fine, if not especially memorable, but we did not have to play oenophile roulette.

In general, at Cru the simpler the dish, the more satisfying. What, aside from throwing up one's hands, is one to do with a dish that mixes Burrata cheese, truffles, dates, caviar, and chive-olive crisps.

We started with a set of amuses. Cru is a restaurant in which one might make a meal of what arrives before the appetizer. Our first amuse was a carrot horn filled with goat cheese and green apple puree. While the cheese and apple blend was smooth and tart, the mixture had been piped in too soon, and the carrot was not fully crisp. We were next served three small bites, a lovely, startling, inspired one-bite Cubano "sandwich," miniaturism at its finest; a squash truffle with Fontina and cocoa nibs, light on the chocolate but a pleasant starter; and an ordinary goat cheese cup. This trio was followed by a salmon spring roll with creme fraiche, simple, clever, profound, and very satisfying.

Before our tasting menu, we selected a trio of crudos: Kinme Dai (with Micro Shiso, Red Salt, and Olive Oil), Arctic Char (with Smoked Pepper, Apple, Endive, and Vanilla Oil), and Langoustine (with Green Papaya-Truffle Salad, Gooseberry and Gin Sauce). I particularly admired how the truffles managed to perfume the langoustine and a lovely, subtle Kinme Dai, in which the salt framed the taste of the fish. Despite a certain frou-frou-arie, it was salt and truffle that made these bits of sashimi memorable. The crudo remain the most elegant and compelling moment of this winter night.

I decided to avoid Beets, Roasted, Foamed and Pureed with "Micro Bull's Blood" (micro bull's blood is not a plot device in "Honey, We Shrunk Pamplona," but a micro-green; beet foam is, presumably, just that). My choice was Roasted Diver Scallops with Celery-Almond Pesto, Passion Fruit Nage, Scallions, and Speck. A critical problem with such dishes on a tasting menu is that portions are so petit that the contrasting flavors get mashed in a short half-dozen bites. I didn't taste much of the passion fruit nage, except perhaps as an underlying off-taste. On a larger field, the ingredients might have mixed better. Here the Scallops and Speck dominated (This is another dish that bows to the new culinary cliche of pork and sea: Trough and Brine). I enjoyed the dish, but mostly from its core tastes.

The second dish was less successful: Sea Bass with wild mushroom goulash, watercress, and coconut puree. Coconut, mushroom, and bass did not make a compelling mix, and the sea bass as served was covered by skin soppy and chewy, not crisp. The dish was unappealing. One must wonder, why - other than the ability to make a claim for excess - did Chef Gallante feel that this dish would work. The other second course choices seemed in my reading to suffer from the same precarious brinksmanship.

The pasta improved my mood. Ricotta Cavatelli, scented with Clove, White Bolognese and Confit Leeks was cooked al dente. I wish Chef Gallante had been more generous with the "clove scent." Perhaps he used an atomizer, stopping short of actually adding a corporeal clove. In contrast to the additions in the first two courses, cloves seemed a profound and inspired addition. I wish it had perfumed the plate, just as the truffle perfumed the langoustine.

"Maine Lobster, Quince Purée, Orzo with Porcini, Smoked Tuna and Tarragon" nicely reveals the challenges of Shea Gallante's Bouleyesque cuisine. Here is a small dish: lobster, fruit, pasta, mushrooms, smoked fish, herbs. Eight bites and onwards. Inevitably things - here the quince and tuna - get lost. Wouldn't perfectly cooked lobster, orzo, porcini and tarragon be nice? Perhaps Tom Keller or David Bouley can pull off these complex combines, but Chef Gallante hasn't yet mastered the puzzling art of culinary intricacy.

Our cleanser was Honeycrisp Apple Consommé with Yogurt Sorbet and Yuzu Cloud. The apple soup was simple and simply outstanding. The yuzu cloud - a cute fuzz - wasn't necessary in this modest dish, but it was fun, and the sorbet was well-made.

When first opened, Cru received paeans and brickbats for Will Goldfarb's Dada Desserts. He is a memory (the current inhabitant of the sweets stand is Tiffany MacIsaac), but judging by my dessert - Sweet Potato Beignet with Huckleberry Compote, Vanilla-Pernod Ice Cream, and Boylan's Root Beer - Cru may be a little gun-shy. I thoroughly enjoyed my Root Beer-Pernod float, but found the beignet doughy and boring. In this two-desserts-in-one, the liquid half triumphed.

So many cunning young chefs are plying their trade in Manhattan 2006, and Chef Gallante must be counted as one of the Crew. Yet, with the exception of his impressive Crudo, none of the dishes will long remain in my memory. Their busyness, striking when one reads the bill of fare, become a burden on the plate. One surely shouldn't condemn Chef Bouley because his followers lack his genius, yet a certain malign influence is evident. Of course, such is the power of influence. Admirers will be inspired, working as best they can, until they realize that the greatest honor they can pay a mentor is not to do him one better. Chef Gallante needs to create a Cruisine.

24 Fifth Avenue (at 9th Street)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Airs and Stars New York City Entry #70

It took several courses before I "got" Devi, the mbitious Indian restaurant, set smack in the Union Square restaurant district. I had considered Devi and Tabla as rough equals in New York's culinary space. Indeed, both have tasting menus and according to Zagat's their price points are not vastly different (outside Z's world, the difference is significantly wider, with Devi the less expensive). Restaurants may gain or suffer by these implicit comparisons, hard to shake.

Devi does have airs - any restaurant that provides alternate tasting menus, and that advertises their chefs - Pastry Chef Surbhi Sahni, and Chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur - asks us to take them seriously. Yet, Devi's professed intent to create authentic regional Indian home cooking places their goal betwixt haute cuisine and street food.

Devi is not Tabla in looks or culinary style. Its decor, service, and cuisine is more humble than Danny Meyer's pleasure palace on Madison Square. This is not to suggest that Devi's food doesn't alternately satisfy and amaze, but it represents a modest cuisine, not a grand one. Its ambitions are somewhere between Curry Row and Savile Row. The decor is an upgrade of the Indian-restaurant-in-a-box; gauzy, gaudy, gossamer, and rosy, not a candidate for Architectural Digest. And with a six course tasting menu, we were out the door in under a hundred minutes. On this snowy evening, staff weren't turning tables (the restaurant was largely empty), but their efficiency was nervy.

In contrast to Tabla with its imagined place in an international culinary universe, Devi is about is creative and impressive as an ethnic restaurant can be in New York (and quite possibly anywhere, given the quality of ingredients available on this magic island).

Selecting from the two tasting menus, our combined menu consisted of:

Fried Cashew Ball (our amuse)

Calcutta Jhaal Muri: Rice Puffs, Red Onions, Chickpeas, Green Chilies, Mustard Oil, and Lemon Juice

Salmon Crab Cakes: Tomato Chutney Mayonnaise

Sweet Potato Chaat: Sweet Potatoes, Toasted Cumin, Chaat Masala, Lime Juice

Aloo Bonda: Potatoes, Mustard Seeds, Curry Leaves, Ginger, Hot Pepper, Tumeric, Urad Dal, Chickpea Flour

Tandoori Quail: Spicy Fig Chutney

Grilled Scallops: Roasted Red Pepper Chutney, Manchurian Cauliflower, Spicy Bitter-Orange Marmalade

Mirchi Wali Machhi: Halibut, Roasted Pepper Chutney, Spiced Radish Rice

Manchurian Cauliflower: Spicy Garlic Infused Tomato Sauce, Scallions

Mirch Ka Salan Aur Puri: Preen Bell and Hot Peppers, Coconut, Peanuts, and Tamarind Curry with Puri Bread

Tandoori Prawns: Eggplant Pickle, Crispy Okra

Tandoor-Grilled Lamb Chops: Sweet and Sour Pear Chutney, Spiced Potatoes

Jackfruit Biryaani: Basmati Rice, Potatoes and Whole Spices, Yogurt Sauce, Okra Chips

Emperor's Morsel: Crispy Saffron Bread Pudding, Cardamon Cream, Candied Almonds

Pistachio Kulfi: Indian Ice Cream, Candied Pistachio, Citrus Soup

This is quite a spread, and at $60 for six courses, by no means unreasonable. Chef Saran and Mathur push the envelope of Indian cuisine, but never puncture it. Despite their creativity, they reject a fusion cuisine, but remain fully planted in the varied regional cuisines of India (the restaurant does not inform diners of the regional components of the cuisine, leaving the impression that the culinary choices are undifferentiated). With several tandoori dishes, a heavy use of peppers, and multiple chutneys, dishes tend to blur.

The most memorable creation, given this array, is among the most modest. Chefs Saran and Mathur's crispy okra might better be labeled okra frites. The crispy fried strips of okra were magnificent. Okra is one of American's uniquely despised vegetables - abhorred for its repulsive slimy sludge - but if okra were served so cleverly it would challenge potato chips for America's heart. I also admired the tandoori prawns that shared a plate with the okra. This dish was the star of the evening.

The pair of crab cakes were suffused with pleasure. They were cooked simply in a surprisingly subtle tomato chutney mayonnaise. They were sublime. The tandoor-grilled lamb chop with a vibrant sweet and sour pear chutney was exceptional as well, even if the spiced potato seemed standard issue. The flavors of the Grilled Scallops were complex, particularly with the bitter-orange marmalade. Of the two desserts, the Crispy Saffron Bread Pudding was superior with the addition of crunchy candied almonds on a canvas of saffron.

Other dishes proved less successful. Those on the Vegetarian Tasting Menu did not match the skill shown with meat and fish. The cashew amuse was a spicy bite of not-much. Manchurian Cauliflower, slathered in ketchup was sickly sweet, and no match for a superb, ketchup-free version I enjoyed at Chinese Mirch. The Biryaani lacked much of a punch (also true of spiced radish rice). For some reason, Devi was not successful with rice dishes, seemingly a standard of Indian cuisine. While I happily sipped the citrus soup served with the Pistachio Kulfi, I found the ice cream less compelling than that available from dozens of unassuming stands in Jackson Heights.

Devi rides high in comparison with Indian restaurants throughout the five boroughs. I was fully satisfied with what might well have been the best "ethnic cuisine" of my New York stay. This is no backhanded compliment, although these ambitious chefs might, perhaps, take it as one. I grieve over the absence of a glittering Michelin star for Tabla; the stars that Devi deserves are those twinklers on a clear winter night, admired while walking home from Union Square tickled and astounded by what Indian cuisine in the right hands can reveal.

8 East 18th Street
Manhattan (Union Square)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

So Blue New York City Entry #69

Walking into David Bouley's Austrian restaurant, Danube, is a joke. One faces an azure wall: Blue Danube.

Situated at the crossroads of Bouleywood - near Upstairs, the Bakery and Market, and the scarlet mother church - Danube is surely among the most glittering and compelling restaurant spaces in Manhattan. One has a disconcerting sense that the space sells, not the dishes. The webpage begins, "Danube restaurant, which received the number one ranking for decor in the Zagat Survey of New York City Restaurants, was created by Chef David Bouley in collaboration with Parisian designer Jacques Garcia and New York architect Kevin White." Well, first things first. Bouley's Chef de Cuisine, Mario Lohniger, is not mentioned. Lohniger is the potted plant hid by Fin de Siecle Art Nouveau wallpaper, curtains, and furniture.

Having recently had a fine meal at Kurt Gutenbrunner's Wallsé, the pair beg for comparison. Gutenbrunner expands from the core of Austrian cooking tradition. He strives for a New Austrian cuisine. On the basis of nine courses on the Danube's Seasonal Menu, an Austrian influence was only lightly felt. To be sure, Danube also offers an "Austrian menu" (two dishes of which appeared on the seasonal tasting menu), and these dishes sound more mittel European. However, in contrast to Wallsé, Danube is more subtle; its aspirations are higher (with a modestly higher price point). Danube's are busier, filled with touches and curlicues, crowded with ingredients. Perhaps the dishes are only slightly more memorable at Danube, but they were certainly intended to be. Service was more refined with more staff than strictly needed. At Danube one doesn't get to know one's waiter. Service is a team sport.

Dining with my wife, I thought that I would be clever. She ordered the Tasting Menu, and I ordered the Chef's Seasonal Degustation Menu ("available upon request"). This suggested that the chef's inspiration would be based on Greenmarket availability. I could see his mental synapses firing. Instead, the degustation was a longer version of the tasting menu with a few dishes cribbed from other menus. I should have asked, or, better yet, been told.

The Amuse Bouche started in Bouley fashion with a smash of flavor: a bit of fresh salmon, a touch of creme fraiche, a fleck of pickled cucumber, and a dab of grainy mustard. With these ingredients, I checked to see that I wasn't at Aquavit, but no, this compelling bite had the deep tastes that Chef Bouley favors.

I began with a signature dish, "Freshly Harpooned Sashimi Quality Bluefin Tuna and Hamachi with Key Lime Pickled Onion with Organic Roasted Beets and Horseradish Fromage Blanc." As beautiful as this dish appeared on the plate, it improved in the mouth. It gathered big tastes, and demonstrated that they could work in harmony. I prized the exquisite beets and horseradish baton. The composition with the tuna and hamachi was irresistible. If it was not notable Germanic, it was sublime.


Next arrived "Pan Seared Diver Sea Scallop and New England Crabmeat with a Paradeiser Coriander and Lemon Thyme Sauce." Paradeiser is Austrian, it is true, but the tastes would only be known to diners in Wien. It is not part of the imagined Austrian flavor profile. The sauce, Viennese or not, was remarkable. The scallop was ordinary, but the lush and spring-like Paradeiser worked magic. Thyme waits for no man.


"Gently Heated Wild King Salmon with Stryrian "Wruzelgemüse" (Zucchini, Yellow Squash and Chives), Apple Rosemary Purée and Horseradish-Chive Sauce" was less stirring, in part because of the aftertaste of horseradish from the first dish. Here the horseradish was combined with the mild salmon, and was overwhelming. This small dish had too many flavors in play, leaving a mush confederation.


The least satisfactory dish of the night was "Maine Day Boat Lobster with Salted Spinach, Mango, Saffron Curry Broth, Hon-Shimeji Mushrooms, and Coconut Foam. Just the ingredients suggest the problem. Chef Bouley doesn't believe in the cuisine of essences; at his most naughty, he proffers a hectic cuisine. The dish most notably failed as a textural composition. I found the both shimeji mushrooms and the foam slimy. Add an embarrassing, if excusable, bit of shell, demonstrating the authenticity of the lobster. This dish could best be admired from afar.


My fifth dish was recruited from the Austrian menu, "Carinthia ‘Schlutzkrapfen' High Altitude Austrian Cheese Ravioli with Harvest Corn Foam, Maitake Mushrooms, Spinach, and Pumpkin Seeds." Given that Schlutzkrapfen is German ravioli, this high-falutin' label explains that I was served Carinthian High Altitude Ravioli Ravioli. Had my server a stronger command of English I might have inquired about the relative advantages of high and low altitude ravioli, but that query must wait. Here Bouley's mash was a happy one. I particularly admired the addition of the meaty Maitake Mushrooms and the corn sauce, melding definitively with the cheese pasta.


The meat plate, "Roasted Rack of Colorado Lamb with Organic Barley, Glazed Asparagus, Roasted Cippolini Onion and Fresh Tarragon Lamb Sauce," was a work of art. As with the scallop, the sauce was magnificent. Chef Bouley is a budding herbalist. The tarragon jus proved to be one of the strongest accompaniments to a rack of lamb in my memory. This dish triumphed because the center and periphery belonged together, not as strangers in the night. One expected that a restaurant like Danube would serve tender Lamb, but the tender barley was an inspiration.


As a palate cleanser I was served "Elderflower Gelée with Lemon Verbena Sorbet with Blood Orange Slices." The dish was a sourpuss. If it was not striking, it effectively scrubbed one's tongue. I was unimpressed with the sorbet, which had an off-texture. Perhaps it soaked up some of the gelatinous elderflowers, but it lacked the gracious smoothness of the best sorbet.

My two desserts were represented Danube at its most and least triumphant (I find no indicator of the identity of our pastry chef). Tahitian Vanilla Parfait with Pumpkin Seed Oil, Poached Seckel Pear and Pomegranate Seeds was attractive, but not appealing. The marshmallow-like burnt caramel topping was salty and stringy, the ice cream was more heavily frozen than optimal, and - perhaps from the pumpkin seed oil - I noticed an off-bitter taste.

In contrast the Crispy Caramel Strudel with Bartlett Pears, Aged Balsamic and Moscato D'Asti Ice Cream was a pleasure. The strudel was Austrian mille-feuille to which the sweet old vinegar brought an electric jolt. This ice cream was as dreamy as the vanilla ice cream had been lumpen. I will not soon forget the combination.

Despite the frequently exceptional food, it is hard not to feel that Danube is a conceit. A strutting peacock restaurant makes diners forget that designers and architects stand behind chefs, not before them. Not every restauranteur needs a Calatrava. Certainly a stunning decor contributes to feeling repose or amazement, but one should be wowed by the plates. This night, sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Yet, when I reread my report of an earlier meal at Bouley, I realize that I now rhapsodize about that meal more than my text might suggest. Some meals rise in recall, others fade. Perhaps a sense of occasion matters more than we might imagine. We chew the scenery. Could Shoeless Joe's adage be true: Build it and we will come.

30 Hudson Street (at Duane Street)
Manhattan (TriBeCa)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Slacker New York City Entry #68

Brasserie Les Halles has amassed its share of critics. With über-celebrity-chef Anthony Bourdain as its animating spirit, skepticism is served slathered in butter. Since the publication of Kitchen Confidential in 2000, Bourdain has been more of a marketing phenomenon than chef, and judging from his account, even when he was a cook, he was a player; stovework bowed to other pursuits of the evening.

A few years before the appearance of Kitchen Confidential with its grand guignol yarns of culinary hijinks, I published Kitchens, a description of work in restaurant backstages, populated with men and women of a serious mien. I watched as M. Bourdain became a millionaire, while I remained, uh, a thousandaire. My imagined adventure in the wilds of TV-land was not seen fit for cancellation. "Survivor Gourmet" seemed the perfect accompaniment for the Food Network. Two teams dropped on a tropical island compete for culinary superiority. I remain convinced that an audience is waiting to watch Richard Hatch whip up a mess o' grubs in the altogether. I come to my review with several deadly sins in play.

Les Halles strives for adequacy. It usually achieves its goal, creating a thoughtless cuisine. The usual failings of a misbegotten restaurant were muted. On a Tuesday night this faux brasserie was not as loud as its reputation. Granted our server appeared and disappeared at odd moments, sometimes hovering, sometimes invisible, but we didn't wait unduly for our meal. Les Halles, not as carefully designed as Balthazar, charms as it mimics American cultural images of French brasseries. Walnut paneling and framed posters lend a touch of the Parisian night. If it felt faintly inauthentic, it was not unpleasantly so. Les Halles has a maudlin appeal.

Duck Confit with Frisée Salad could not stand up to a close inspection. The duck liver pate (assuredly not foie gras) and duck leg were soft, mild, and fatty. Simple and adequate. It was an appetizer that didn't interrupt our conversation for a culinary mind-meld.

The same applied to Hanger Steak and Frites with Shallot Sauce. How many ways to say inoffensive. Hanger steak is not a tender cut of meat, but it is flavorful, and so it served its purpose. Although Les Halles is known for its freedom spuds, Burger King comes pretty close. This generous portion was satisfying, fried in peanut oil, and they were crisp through and through. They just didn't crackle, pop, or snap. I puzzled over the shallot sauce, which I assumed would be a buerre blanc, but turned out to be barbeque sauce with chopped shallots - an odd mix that hid any subtlety that the shallots might have contributed.

For dessert, we chose Crème Brulee. The caramelized topping was just fine, if not remarkably crackly, but the creamy custard had a slight lemon off-taste (perhaps it was an unadvertised lemon brulee). The portion was so ample that four diners shared the ramekin, not quite finishing the pudding.

I have been trying to cut back on calories, but often it is hard to resist cleaning my plate. I had no trouble with this arduous resolution at Les Halles. I didn't desire to return dishes, but neither did I feel a need to finish them. At Les Halles, 60% suffices.

A critic can find much carp about. But I can't deny that I enjoyed the evening, and not only because of my company. Les Halles has figured out just what it must do to get by. It is the slacker of New York City bistros, skating by on roguish charm and good looks.

Brasserie Les Halles
411 Park Avenue South (at 29th Street)
Manhattan (Gramercy Park)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Roots and Wings New York City Entry #67

Wallsé is Aquavit on Strudel. Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner takes Austria as his inspiration, just as Aquavit is Stockholm on the Hudson. Labeling Wallsé Austrian as precise as suggesting that Tabla is a Delhi deli. New York takes indigenous cuisines, reaches for a mixer, and turns on the juice. The outcome is recognizable, if cracked. At its best, the mash is sublime.

Wallsé, in the heart of the West Village, serves nicely as a poster child for post-fusion cuisine. Whereas once restaurants competed to see how many continents could be contained on a plate, chefs are now drawing on their heritage and on their international training. They show their roots and wings.

The Wallsé space is as pleasing as any upper-middle restaurant. The two rooms are filled with contemporary art (works by Julian Schnabel and Alfred Olin, among others), pieces that set off the white brick walls and black carpeting. If the room was once minimalist, today it bounces and sizzles with color and drips.

Perhaps it is Germanic clockwork, but the staff rushed us through dinner. Our appetizers arrived moments after the order went in, and the time between appetizer and entree was barely sufficient to lay down our forks. No amuse for us. We had the impression that our 7:00 table was to be turned over by 9:00. If two seatings are required, early reservations should be scheduled at 6:30 and later ones set for 9:30. The crowd at the bar suggested that the late shift might have applauded our exit. Restaurant clocks should always measure soft time.

I began with Spicy Lobster Soup with Lobster Ravioli. The dish was admirable, but not orgasmic. It didn't tingle. The liquid had nice heat, but the spicing was too heavy on the salt. The soup had a roughness that didn't detract from the pleasure of its dense lobster, but served as a marker that this was not David Bouley's kitchen. The ravioli was pure lobster and laudable, although its purity was overwhelmed by the competing spice. It was an commendable broth, a step from distinguished.

Crispy Cod Strudel with Braised Leeks and Black Truffle Sauce is a marriage of the Outer Banks and the Inner Ring. Let no one castigate cod in the hands of Chef Gutenbrunner. Cod, when cooked properly, is ocean essence. Forget salmon, swordfish, or trout. Cod is Fish. And this was a beautiful piece, framed with delicacy by the braised leeks. Given this headstart, I was disappointed with the strudel. The top was properly crisp, but the pastry base was thin and soggy. The black truffle sauce must have existed in the chef's imagination, because it was absent on the diner's plate. Perhaps he used an atomizer. With work, this could be a classic dish.

Dessert began with a scoop of marzipan sorbet. This is not a misprint. Not gelato. Sorbet. I admired that the pastry chef Pierre Reboule (if he is still the dessert chef, he is not listed on the website) was willing forgo a heavy sugar base. This was iced almond, not sticky toffee.

The startling and remarkable Green Apple and Celery Sorbet with Horseradish, Sea Salt, and Olive Oil was triumphant. Having recently eaten dessert flavored with sea salt and olive oil at Otto, what seemed a curiosity is fast becoming a trend. Of all the dishes that shouldn't work, this combine ranks high. Yet, the sweet, hot, salty, and bitter ingredients not only collaborated, but fused. This choral cuisine will long vibrate on my tongue. I tremble at the chef's inspiration.

As we were leaving my companion and I agreed that despite the bum's rush and despite a few culinary infelicities, Wallsé is a restaurant to which we would return. The room is striking and the menu is filled with surprises that we have only began to explore. New Yorkers are blessed by restaurant workers converging here from the World Beyond. Chefs and dishwashers deserve our gratitude for their mettle, showing pluck to provide for Gotham's table.

344 West 11th Street
Manhattan (West Village)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Terminal Condition New York Entry #66

Does anyone eat at Otto twice? A friend and I visited Molto Mario Batali's pizzeria/enoteca last Friday night ans asked this question. Otto fashions itself an Italian train station, loud and crowded. Diners are called to table on an arrival board. By the time our entree arrived, I was ready to embark. All that was lacking was fumes.

Granted this was Friday evening but the acoustics touted sign language and aspirin. One party at a table near us were screaming at each other, not a domestic tiff, but the only way to converse. With each table howling we caught snatches of conversation throughout the room. We could everyone but each other. This dazed reality puts the lie to my opening query: crowds do find Otto energizing. But after visiting numerous establishments in which I was the grayest head in the room, youthful buzz is not necessarily a cause of complaint. But at Otto the chaos is contagious at the tables and perhaps in the kitchen.

Service was cheerful, and we appreciated the sommelier making wise suggestions for two carafes of wine. When the server brought anchovies in place of parsnips - a mistake anyone could make! - they quickly apologized, letting us keep the fish. We did feel pressure to turn the table, particularly from an overeager busboy, who felt that a clean table was more to be treasured than a clean plate.

The food, which some admire, was hit and miss. We began with Anchovies, Breadcrumbs and Scallions; Roasted Beets and Saba; and Parsnips "Agrodolce." A fine line exists between respecting the culinary sophistication of diners and organizational pomposity. Agrodolce and Saba (sweet-and-sour sauce and boiled white grape must, respectively) felt pretentious, especially in a restaurant aiming at a wide audience.

Best of the trio were the parsnips. Both the sweetness and the sourness revealed complexity of this often ignored root vegetable. It was the most completely satisfying selection of the evening, a creation that appeared simple but was built upon levels of taste. Our chunks of beets were inoffensive, and not deeply flavored. The anchovies were deliciously fresh, but this pesce was sabotaged by stale cubes of bread (by no means "crumbs," just crummy). And the bread brought to our table was far from hot and chewy. Bread is the canary in the mine of Italian kitchens. When the bread dies, call the coroner.

Our pizza was Fennel and Bottarga - tomato, fennel, bottarga (salted tuna roe), pecorino, and mozzarella. The thin crust was too dry, and the topping lacked pizzazz. I love fennel's bitter bite, but this tang was not much evident; neither was the salty bottarga. The topping was a thin gruel of cheese and tomato.

Our pasta, Linguine with Broccoli Rabe, Pine Nuts, and Garlic was unbalanced. The pesto was dominated by the taste of ground broccoli. The pasta was, as promised al dente (we were advised - warned - of this), but, as with the pizza, the flavor combinations were off.

Dessert was on the right track. Olive Oil Coppetta (a small cup, or Italian Sundae) was composed of olive oil gelato, tangerine sorbet, blood orange, dried cherries, capezzana olive oil, and Maldon sea salt. Batali deserves iron points for his spunk in advertising sea salt in a dessert, but his fortitude paid dividends. Dessert was the only moment in which one could see the chef's mind at work. Batali extended the range of dessert flavors beyond what might be considered decent. He begins from strength with his tangerine sorbet and, especially, the subtle and sublime olive oil gelato, and adds the contrasting tastes of olive oil, oranges, cherries, and salt. It is inspired. If every course could have been dessert, I would have accepted my malaise as the price of genius.

Otto is a cross between a roadhouse and madhouse, and not dazzling enough for its bedlam. Perhaps a quieter moment would have been more auspicious, but the craziness seems integral to the meaning of Otto. Its volcanic tumult is molten Mario. Otto, pronounced Oh-toe, might otherwise be whispered Uh-oh.

One Fifth Avenue (at 8th Street)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Chelsea Lullaby New York Entry #65

A lot of good cooking is to be had. As a critic with but eleven months of New York eating before my retreat to Chicago, I select restaurants others recommend. They are my tasters. Sometimes I am brazenly disappointed - as at Spice Market - but typically my meals waver between very good and excellent with a handful of outstanding restaurants. The challenge is not to produce pleasant food, but to be transcendent. I average about one such dish a week.

Proprietors attempt to gain attention by constructing a narrative to differentiate themselves from the competition. This is certainly true at Cookshop, a new restaurant on Chelsea's restaurant row from the creators of Five Points. Chef Marc Meyer (and Chef de Cuisine Joel Haugh) have persuaded themselves - and they may be correct - that we diners desire indigenous American foodstuffs. When ingredients combine authenticity and moral virtue, so much the better. This is "honest" cuisine. The website asserts, "‘The butcher and the baker were the first chefs, if you ask me,' states Chef Marc Meyer, whose culinary passions run deep for sustainable ingredients, humanely raised animals and the support of local farmers and artisans. The menu . . . stays true to Meyer's respect for the earth and its bounty." Well, gag me with a spoon. Cookshop's niche is the Virtuous Gourmet, a category that apparently captures Frank Bruni of the Times, who asserts that Cookshop is "a place where eating well and doing good find common ground." Oink.

Fortunately for my appetite this syrupy benevolence and honied amity was not pushed by our waitress, whose service was as winsome as it was casual. Yes, clues were on the menu and chalkboard, but we didn't let decency spoil our evening. And one could not read the chef's ideology from the room, a modernist L-shaped space that was a symphony in whites, tans, and burgundy, but with a noise level that matched. Diners on the long side of the L had an open view of an efficient display kitchen, where ducks were eviscerated with respect.

We began with one of Cookshop's famed snacks, fried spiced hominy. The dried corn kernels were expertly fried and bravely spiced: a sonorous chile popcorn. The first bites were astonishing. But as we talked, these pellets became increasingly stale and pulpy. Our first bite was transfixing, our last disheartening, and perhaps half the plate remained. A lot goes a short way.

Starters were first-rate. I selected Grilled Montauk Squid, White Runner Beans, and Salsa Verde. I am not sure that I am comforted to learn that squid reside off the beaches of Long Island, but after tonight there was one less. And it was sweet and tender: essence of squid. The salsa verde had a mild but dense spiciness. The salsa was short on the chile, but long on the garlic and onion. It modestly called out the flavor of the squid. I expected runner beans that resembled green beans, but these were closer to lima beans or perhaps lupini. They had a slight snap to them, and I enjoyed them quite as long as beans deserve to be enjoyed.

As a second starter, we selected wood-roasted razor clams, fingerling potatoes, green olives, and preserved Meyer lemon. The idea of cooking razor clams over wood was a puzzle. Nothing wrong, but I couldn't taste mesquite or maple. The choice seemed more poetic than practical. What made this dish successful was the pungency of the preserved lemon and green olive, added to the tender clams. This dish was flavor-full. Perhaps the fingerlings were excess, but the dish was satisfying-plus.

The most appealing entree was "Chile Braised Grass-Fed Short Ribs, Georgia White Speckled Grits and Fried Onions." Ah-ha, Cookshop was going global. No so. The ribs were braised in Chile, not from Chile. The spice, however, was so tamed that I was unawares of its heat until I taunted our waitress about the Southern Cone. The barbeque sauce was tangy and thick, although not complex. I slurped the creamy grits, mixing easily with the sauce. The airy fried onions began well, but like fried food generally, had a fleeting perfection.

The other entree, Black Trumpet, Maitake, Hedgehog Mushroom, and Root Vegetable Pot Pie, may have been morally uplifting, but not uplifting as cuisine. A disappointment.

For dessert, I chose Meyer Lemon Marmalade and Almond Frangipane Tart. Normally this is served with Mascarpone Ice Cream, but I pleaded for Blood Orange Sorbet. The tart was straight up marzipan with a tinge of citrus; it was candy pie. The sorbet did not equal its companion. Not silky smooth, the scoop was icy and not bloody acidic. No one to blame but the blogger.

As we were leaving, the women at the next table, seeing my note-taking, provided a evaluation, "Good, but didn't knock my socks off." (She was wearing stockings.) Her conclusion had a non-blogger's truth. With the exception of the pot pie, I enjoyed the dishes, and particularly admired the early minutes of the hominy and the two appetizers. Yet, Cookshop is much like many other medium-priced restaurants found throughout New York neighborhoods. The food is creative, fun, and satisfying, but is limited by constraints of cost and inspiration. Without its moral narrative Cookshop is what much middle-level food has become. An ingredient here, an ingredient there, blanketed in a lullaby crooned by a weary chef.

156 10th Avenue (at 20th Street)
Manhattan (Chelsea)