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)

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