Archive for January, 2007

Gramercy Tavern’s Mid-Winter Renaissance: A New Voice Emerges

January 30, 2007

I went to Gramercy Tavern last night and had a wonderful dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. New chef Michael Anthony is still finding his voice–he’s not quite ready to jettison that Blue Hill bag of tricks–but after one round of his Winter Tasting and Vegetable Menus, I’ll vote Gramercy a forward-thinking concern again.

Cooks, clients and servers alike seem relieved and recharged now that Captain Tom has finally moved on. Colicchio had a great run, but his inattention was beginning to show. The buzz is coming back now and so are the unforced smiles and belly pats of people eating above expectation.

On a first pass, and I plan to make more, I noticed Anthony’s degustation was a far lighter and less overtly luxurious affair than I’d encountered previously at Gramercy: comforting food without after-dinner discomfort. Little butter, no mushroom cappuccinos, no foie gras and no beef meant no late night fat sweats nor early morning Advil.

The vegetables, greens, herbs, and sauces accompanying this lighter fare were fresher, tastier and more colorful than I’d ever had in the City at this time of year, much less at Gramercy. Cilantro purée was beautifully colored, clean flavored and delicious. Beets, cauliflower and daikons were prepped summery even if they’re winter stalwarts. Citrus accents on scallops didn’t hide the Blue Hill connection; then again, Blue Hill never hid its respect for the Gramercy model, even down to their servers’ uniforms.

After five savories–fluke, mackerel, bass, bacon and lamb–I was still feeling peckish, and thankfully the cheese menu was there to lead me toward satiety. Two full pages of rarities, it’s a far bigger and better affair than on my last go-through. Though I missed the ceremony of the cart in the far backroom, I did appreciate the generous portions, appropriate varieties of bread and, yes, the cheese. All the taste but none of the Artisanal preciousness and portion chintzing. Vacherin slid off the plate into oozy, smile-making pools. A gouda of the fruity, funky high quality parm reg school was mimolette on meth, the kind that makes you proud to be Dutch. A Bayley Hazen blue was less exciting but irreproachable.

Wines were uniformly excellent, though 3AM headache (okay, some Advil was still required) makes me wonder about the Hungarian number. Still, beverage director Juliette Pope has a beautiful nose, so I’ll resist the urge to libel her selection.

Pastry Chef Nancy Olson’s desserts and petits fours were also exceptional. A chocolate multi-parter proved how versatile this ingredient is in the right hands, especially the almond joy riff. I wish I’d ordered a third selection for the table, mainly to find out how much more she can do. Best work since Claudia Fleming.

Would have done a Marc after coffee, but check was already on the table. Server was good, though a bit off on reading our sobremesa mood. Of course, I like to talk to servers and linger while my spouse wants to dine and depart in a veil of silence. I guess it depends on whom she read.

En cinco palabras: A great restaurant leaves you thinking and thinking about coming back. Gramercy: II is on the way. I’m looking forward to the Anthony’s spring creations. By then this place should be in full flower, not pushing up daisies as Mr. Bruni would have it.

Haute Cuisine is High Cuisine: 5 Options for Dining Under the Influence

January 23, 2007

Of course you don’t, but if you did…

1) ‘Shrooms: Room 4 Dessert
Wildly colored, flavored and textured foods, dangerously eclectic music and koan like phrases on the menu, plus city’s strangest servers. If that’s not enough to send you to Wonderland, talk to Will and really jumpstart your head trip. So much better than those late career Phish shows and a wiser use of your precious psilocybin.

2) Benzedrine: Gordon Ramsey
Not my speed, as it were, but given how fast they’ll rush you out, it pays to be predisposed to getting things done in a hurry.

3) Coke: Balthazar
No need to do it, just sit next to some middle-aged coked up patrons and dine off their plates. I’ve enjoyed towers of fruits de mers from nose-powdering neighbors who ordered and didn’t eat some of the best items on the menu.

4) Weed: Babbo
You’ll hear and see the flavor profiles in a whole new way with a bit of vaporized help from your friends. Though menu isn’t divided into burner categories of salty, sweet, buttery and spicy, it offers plenty of them all, plus umami-like depth of flavor, Italian style. You’ll lick your fork. Just don’t lick your server (or take a bite of Mario’s charcuterie-perfect calves).

5) E-Letdown: Gramercy Tavern
Who better to guide you back to reality after a night of ecstatic brain frying than Danny Meyer? Gentle rhythms, fantastically comforting food, warm voices and big friendly eyes that swaddle you in love: this is the infancy you never had and the perfect place to rejoin the ranks of the rational.

No Soy Marinero, Soy Captain Tom: Best Oysters Between the Coasts

January 17, 2007

Captain Tom’s Seafood & Oyster Bar (Houston area)

I’ve never paid so little to eat so well, nor felt so good about doing it. Captain Tom’s shucks all the pretense away from the overwrought oyster house and gets you back to its origins as working man’s tavern food. Even better, Tom’s tone and taste profile isn’t Maine, Massachusetts or Manhattan, but rather coastal Mexico. And thanks to immigration patterns, it’s unlikely to go Anglo anytime soon.

Outside and inside, Captain Tom’s is shaped like a snubnosed Gulf shrimp boat. Listing gently starboard on a sea of concrete, it also rises steeply upwards towards the bow, making for some tenuously anchored seats at the bar. If you go off hours and have a choice, grab a seat on the bow or lower stern, the two flattest parts of the boat.

That said, there are few off hours in this always packed pearl, so be ready for some crowding. Still, you’ll eat quickly and well, even if the few minutes of waiting feel like an eternity once you see what everyone else is eating or find out how little they’re paying.

Once you’re strapped in, signal your intentions to the oyster shuckers. These guys all work within the confines of the horseshoe shaped center area, taking and making orders for the raw stuff as well as shucking beer bottles. A dozen oysters will run about four dollars and take a minute or two to prepare. Beers are two bucks or so and arrive with much faster.

Once the first plate is set before you, simply spray a bit of lime, limón verde, on each bivalve then down them. Order a second dozen when you hit the eighth or ninth oyster to minimize downtime. I know some people like lemon juice, horse radish and cocktail sauce on their oysters, and Nixon liked ketchup on his cottage cheese. Both choices are impeachable offenses, especially at Tom’s.

Once you’ve warmed up with a lime spritzed dozen, order your first Michelada. Salt on the rim, spice in the glass, this beer cocktail makes and slakes your thirst. While versions vary, here it consists of Bloody Mary ingredients plus an iced blonde beer (chela helada). I find one per dozen to be a good ratio.

With a little food and beer in your belly, you can further spice up the next round. Add a squiggle of hot sauce, preferably the thick vaguely smoky Guadalajaran number in the large plastic bottle, to half your oysters. The spiced burn will carry you through the plain ones and leave your lips and face pleasantly numb. In short, the hot sauce is MSG for a beer buzz. If you’re unsure which sauce to use, follow your neighbor’s lead, particularly if he’s alone, has construction dirt on him and chats up the shuckers in Spanish.

With a few dozen oysters wriggling in your gut, you might want to venture out to the rest of the menu: No need. No point. The non-oyster menu items are really only here for children and the childish. That said, fried catfish and shrimp are perfectly adequate, especially in the house’s good light cornmeal batter. Frog legs-overpriced chicken on the tongue though thrilling to order for some-are adequate but unnecessary. Have a dessert beer instead and call it quits. You can always grab ice cream on the way home. Better yet, stop by one of the local donut shops, or grab an horchata across the street at the taquería.

When the meal comes to an end, head to the cashier to pay. Everything is on the honor system. Texans and Texicans aren’t as entitled or suspicious as New Yorkers, so no one will press you to tip or about the details of your order. Then again, this is a place to reward excellence and expedience with an extra dollar or two and to show that some people born East of the Mississippi aren’t selfish, self-absorbed godless heathens.

A Day at Chipotle: Surviving on Chain Food

January 12, 2007

A Day of Fast-ish Food: Don’t be a sad and skinny food prude. Sometimes it’s the chains that set you free!

1) 11:30 AM Carnitas taco: Beat the lunch crowd by arriving at 11:30 for a pulled pork taco. The meat is from Niman Ranch and far exceeds fast-ish food expectations. Most flavorful fare at Chipotle and customers know it. Chipotle’s Niman order is so big that they forced Mario Batali (I’ve heard him say) to find new suppliers for pork shoulder. Skip the Mexican sour cream, unless you have time for a mid-day fat stroke. Stick with a bit of white cheese and tomatillo-green chile sauce.

2) 1 PM Mr. Pibb and Lemon: The perfect early afternoon beverage break. No worse for you than Starbucks and you can chew on ice while staring at your computer monitor. Plus Pibb Extra sounds vaguely athletic.

3) 2:30 PM Taco tasting: Order one each of chicken, beef and beef (barbacoa and steak). Triple down with a trio of salsas (boring, tomatillo green and tomatillo red). This is fast-ish food at its best. Throw in a complimentary water to wash it down and add some lemon and lime slices for a house-made homage to Lymon (or if you’re shameless, pour a bit of Sprite while pretending to hold down the water button).

4) 5 PM Salty chips and Sol: Use Chipotle for an abbreviated happpy hour. The beer selection includes Bohemia, Tecate, Sol and Negra Modelo, and the chips are cheap. Add some house-made tomatillo red sauce and a few squeezes of lime juice and linger if time permits.

5) 9:30 PM Salad and Margarita: It’s Friday and you’ll be at work ’til dawn. Don’t worry, no fat-induced night sweats if you keep it light for the night feeding. This is the culinary equivalent of the disco nap. You’ll mellow out a bit about a wasted weekend and feel virtuous enough about the salad to forget you haven’t exercised in days, unless you count chair swivel contests. Granted, best not to drink at your desk, so enjoy the hipper than expected soundtrack while eating on the lower level, then head back to the salt mines.

Writing a Wrong: Sample Restaurant Complaint Letter

January 11, 2007

First, see my other posts on when to complain.   Remember, your name and your word are on the line when you write, so make sure you mean it. This is not a lottery! That said, here’s a sample expression of concern about a meal.

Dear Service Director:

I am writing to express my profound frustration and disappointment with my January 6th dinner at Café B. I went to your restaurant that night with high expectations. Not only were my expectations not exceeded, they were not met.

My concerns revolve around two primary areas, pacing and dish preparation. Regarding the former, we were rushed through our courses after waiting half an hour for a table. As for the latter, on that particular night, the food was not up to the B. name.

First, our wine arrived well after our appetizers, though I had ordered it to complement them. As a result, we were left with only water to accompany our appetizers and more wine than we needed to accompany our entrées. The courses were also brought out almost on top of each other. Additionally, our coffee, which we specifically ordered for after the dessert course in order to make the heretofore rushed meal more leisurely, arrived with the desserts. The server either wasn’t listening or wasn’t on our side.

I was at least as surprised to find several problems with the food itself, harder to understand even on a busy night. The amuse bouche of tuna was rubbery and stuck to the plate. I presume it had been prepared well in advance. Similarly, the sauce on my spouse’s ravioli had congealed. Finally, my lamb was so salty as to be difficult to eat. Why not make an issue during the meal? Simple. I wanted to preserve what I could of the evening.

On our honeymoon in Provence my spouse and I never had a bad meal. We certainly didn’t expect one at a B. restaurant featuring Provençal dishes. I am sure this experience was a rare aberration from your usual high levels of service and food quality. Unfortunately, it occurred during what should have been a very special evening.

Sincerely,

Fulano de Tal

Writing (Righting) a Wrong 2: Additional Sample Restaurant Complaint Letter

January 11, 2007

Dear Customer Service Director,

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of patronizing various dining establishments in your restaurant group. Consequently, my expectations were high last night when I took my husband to his birthday dinner at Café Z. My expectations were not met.

There were several problems which I would like to mention. First, the service was indifferent, uninterested and uninformative. No suggestions, commentary or inquiry as to the quality of food was made. A maitre d’ passed our table several times to speak with a couple at a neighboring table but made no effort to acknowledge our existence. I expect such treatment in some restaurants, but not in one that proclaims its democratic atmosphere as a virtue.

Second, the seating was behind a busing station, though seats were empty in more aesthetically pleasing portions of the restaurant. I’d chosen the restaurant for my spouse’s birthday largely because it’s so beautiful. Sitting in the most remote wing under a low ceiling did not allow us to enjoy much of the décor.

Finally, the food was not up to the high standards of your restaurants. My scallops were greasy, the foie gras was underseasoned, and the cake in the chocolate dessert was dry. I enjoyed my beef and my husband enjoyed his lamb. The wine was also good. Again, no one asked. Again, in a restaurant of this quality, everything should have been superb.

I regret feeling compelled to write this letter of complaint. At this point in life, I eat out less often and choose more carefully where I go. I thought I’d made the right choice last evening. I hope it was just an off night.

Sincerely,
Fulana de Tal

Top Five Tastes at ‘wichcraft (And a Few to Fix)

January 9, 2007

TOP TASTES

1) Slow roasted pork: Best ordered in the waning hours of the afternoon when the shreds and patches of pork peak after a long stew. Don’t worry, hot mustard, vinegared red cabbage and fresh jalapeños will wake up the meat and the meat-eater.

Additional kudos for not using gooey cheese as the simple solution to sandwich making. A Salamander need not exist exclusively for melting provolone!

2) Anchovy and soft-egg sandwich: A provocative combination, even with some salsa verde and ciabatta to buffer the unabashed anchovy flavor. Eggs are always good on this sandwich, but watch out for the undercooked breakfast egg, frisée and lardon combo. I loved my runny yolks but not the phlegm-soft, snot-textured whites.

Grilled gruyère with caramelized onion is a fun and funky alternative for the anchovy and ovum averse. Deep on the umami account, especially on warm rye bread. Relatively cheap and exceptionally satisfying.

3) La Colombe Coffee: Yes, they’re using this top-tier Philadelphia roaster’s beans in their hot drinks and in their exquisite iced coffee. Probably the fanciest thing on the menu. Best when paired in the morning with ham and cheddar grits.

4) Peanut brittle: Cheap, delicious and portable. Leaves you feeling gently hugged and not in the least bit screwed. In short, a bit of Gramercy Tavern in a fast-ish food chain.

5) Vanilla shake: Lustful luxury in a glass. Skip the Starbucks 5 dollars Crappuchino and order this ‘wichcraft concoction. You’re drinking dessert either way and might as well get something delicious.

A FEW FEATURES TO FIX

1) Colorless truffle sandwich. Bread is bland, dried out and adds nothing to the flavors of already mild truffle and fontina cheese. Truffles themselves are often gritty. Earthy flavors fine. Dirt, uncool. Total lack of garnish makes for a ruthlessly dull presentation, especially for ten dollars.

2) Unwelcoming interior: Perhaps if ‘wichcraft were always packed, I’d get over the sense of sterility, but at present the Barcelona plastic chic comes off as an empty Target store design module gone awry. Food porn on the walls is realistic representation of store offerings, but not warm enough to infuse soul into what remains an emotionally frigid takeout joint. Take your pleasure in a better place!

3) Water shortage: Almost impossible to get ice water without asking twice. When and if it comes, the portion is generous (no Dixie cups).

4) Chaos at the counter: People enter and exit from all directions and seem uncertain where to ask for and pick up food.

5) No liquor license: A few handcrafted beers and wines by the glass would go well at lunchtime and maybe even add a few covers in the evening hours.

Great Food Finds in Yorkville (And a Few to Forego)

January 6, 2007

1) Conte’s Meat Market (90th and York):

Cut the fat from your budget by avoiding the overpriced overhyped Vinegar Factory. Instead patronize this nearby workhorse that continues to carve high-quality meats at a price point belying a recent surge in real estate value. Service is quick, knowledgeable and amiable.

N.B. Also great for sandwiches, particularly the world-class rare roast beef. Stop by for late afternoon lunch and you’ll see a stream of schoolkids popping in for single serving ice-creams from the freezer.

2) Cinco de Mayo (89th and 2nd)

Skip the overpriced bulletproof cliché that is Maz Mezcal (after grabbing some chips and spicy avocado sauce at the bar) and head over to the humbler and better-priced Cinco de Mayo. As authentic as Mexican gets in this neighborhood, it’s especially good for breakfast. Great egg dishes and horchata for the early hours. Superbly balanced torta sandwiches for lunch. You’ll figure out dinner. If you need some bubbles, grab a Mexican soda or beer. The beverage selection, like the savory menu, is comprehensive but not overwhelming.

3) Two Little Red Hens Bakery (85th and 3rd)

Toss your Rive Gauche menu in the East River–erratic service, high prices and galling attitude–and head to friendlier shores at Two Little Red Hens.

The main money maker here is the cakes to order– high-end, high butterfat, high quality often destined for blocks west of here–but the small and affordable stuff is equally exceptional for those seeking value.

Mammoth Maple or Almond Cherry scone with a double espresso makes for a filling and well-priced start to the day. For a mid-afternoon snack, grab one of the coconut lime bars. Edge of crunchy crust, great lime taste and balance of flavors make for a vastly improved revision of the classic one note lemon bar.

If you’re dining solo, consider the individual servings of fruit pie, particularly the much-loved apple.

4) Andre’s European Café and Bakery (85th and 2nd)

Skip the ethnic hostilities at the Hungarian Meat Market, unless you’re a sausage fanatic or speak unaccented Magyar. They’re always out of the “daily special” sour cherry soup and the goulash is grammar-school glop. Save your money and wounded pride and head over for dinner with Andre. The dinner menu is a bargain, the service is friendly and the pastries up front, especially anything with sour cherries or poppy seeds are super-stars.

5 Overrated Foodie Books: 4 Fluffed, 1 Muffed

January 4, 2007

1) Tony Bourdain’s Nasty Bits: Some good, some bad, some ugly, much like Use Your Illusion, II. A few gems, but feels like a series of loosely connected refritos put together on deadline. Bourdain’s having trouble with a second act, other than being the celebrity Tony Bourdain. Fortunately, he’s smart enough to figure out a solution.

2) Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked: Repetitive. Okay to stitch columns together into a book. It just shouldn’t be so obvious. Anecdotes reappear, including a citation from a wealthy French friend, Jack Nicholson on overeating as only heroic in the Midwest and Elaine’s big veal chops. Even oddly esoteric word-choices, such as “factitious,” are repeated ad nauseum.

3) Michael Ruhlmans The Reach of a Chef. Big-font, triple space, wide margins. Much like a Princeton lax player’s senior thesis. Anyone else remember Courier 14? I did like Ruhlmann’s first two books but “Where’s the beef?” This mash note to celebrity chefs is a food version of Almost Famous. Get some distance!

4) Bill Buford’s Heat: Great New Yorker articles on Pasternack and Batali show Buford’s strength as a writer of profiles. However, amateurish sections on Renaissance food history overreach. Also packs a fair amount of stuffing into a book that could have been far shorter. There are four or five great articles in here, but not worth it at hard cover prices.

Muffed:

5) Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: Concise, clear and larded with personal, sometimes painfully personal, anecdotes. But too many smudges on the glass for such a perfectionist. Counted 4 typos in the book, and big ones.

Could also use a bit more punch. I’d like to see some suggestions for fixing the restaurant industry, applying his ideas to different formats, cities, etc.

Re-Setting The Table: 5 Smudges on Danny Meyer’s New Book

January 4, 2007

In Danny Meyer’s restaurants, the tables are always well marked, and the glasses always glisten. The only fingerprint you see is his, and that’s on the whole place. Unfortunately, Meyer’s copy editor missed a few typographical “smudges” in the hardback edition of Setting the Table. Below are a few to fix before the paperback version goes to press.

1) P. 55 During in those first weeks and months it didn’t take me long to learn that very little makes guests madder than having to wait for their reserved table or their food.

2) P. 66 I had already learned that the trick to delivering superior hospitality was to hire geniune, happy, optimistic people.

3) P. 88 My assitant also reviews the sheet in the morning.

4) P. 120 First Paragraph: …having convinced his chef, Gray Kunz, to greatly expand the number of aromatic spices in the resataurant’s pantry.

5) I’m sure I missed one.