Archive for the ‘The Village’ Category

Blue Hill: Conscientious Calvinist Cuisine

August 10, 2009

I’ve been coming to Blue Hill since it opened, and I have always admired the ambition if not always the results of Dan Barber’s continual searching and reinvention.  There was a citrus phase, which was delightful during the lemon period but not so much when grapefruit was predominant.   And there was a time when asparagus was a little too ubiquitous.  On my last few visits those distortions were gone.  Local and seasonal no longer meant lapses into monothematic and monochromatic menus.

That said, it’s been a while since I’ve checked in, so I thought it was time this summer, when I’m using neither the season nor the weekend as verbs, to head to the island flagship.  I was especially keen to do so after enjoying Barber’s vegetable dish at this year’s C-CAP benefit.   He put together a striped beet dish with a horseradish cream that was visually stunning and tasty, a platonic ideal of Borscht.   If he could do such things with vegetables in February, I could only imagine what he’d have of on offer in July when things were really in season.

Hoping to get the widest spectrum of tastes, I opted for the Farmer’s menu.  It was by no means a disappointment, but it was also by no means a delight.  An opening amuse of oil slicked snowpeas, tomatoes and carrots on a bed of nails was whimsical in a retro-Inquisition chic/Grant Achatz house made tableware sort of way, but it didn’t taste good enough to justify the presentation. This was an Alinea-style setup without any payoff.

A followup series of spreads with Olive Garden type breadsticks was the most generous and hearty dish of the night.  The pork fat was tasty, as was the ricotta and the house butter.   Unfortunately, it was a last ditch burst of flavor before blandness and boredom set in.

Lobster on a bed of tomatoes didn’t make the case for the combination, which is usually a no-brainer.  Neither had much flavor and neither benefited from the pairing.  A much talked about chicken course was best for its broth but lacked the succulence of Bouley’s sous vide version—which Barber should know well—or the simple heartiness of a dozen roast chickens on offer elsewhere in the City.   It didn’t take Curnonsky’s maxim of food tasting of itself far enough.  The result, like much of the meal, was a course that tasted like high grade spa food.

No red meat followed the chicken—lamb, ostrich or beef could have done wonders for giving some weight to the end of the savory progression.  Rather, we went straight into what were somewhat deceptively labelled “desserts.”

A strawberry canneloni—more like a fruit rollup—continued the diet feel as did another unmemorable entry.   Here again, a single addition could have solved the problem.  A chocolate or caramel based dessert could have brought much needed closure to the meal and left me with a sense of the kitchen’s generosity.   Instead I felt a subtle nudge either to go take a jog or to go eat a few slices of lardo pizza over at Otto.

Additional thoughts: Food service was warm, intuitive, knowledgeable and flexible. Wine selections, especially a Loire sparkler and a semi-oxidized Alabariño were interesting, appetizing and well-priced.  Wine service was also well thought out with one exception: one person at our table stopped drinking after a certain course but was still charged the full pairing price, something I’ve never seen happen before.

Conclusions:  Avoid the tasting menu and enjoy excellent food.  Tasting menus have become tourist traps at far too many upscale restaurants.  People think they’re getting a greatest hits but end up with safe selections meant to offend no one—kind of like cruise ship fare—and excite almost no one.  The best, riskiest and most interesting selections were all on the a la carte menu, and that’s where I should have made my choices.

Sticking to my intuitions rather than handing over the reins to the chef, I could have pieced together a meal worthy of my memories of Blue Hill past.  Barber is a  man who cooks his own food and writes his own articles, which makes him 1) a rarity and 2) an artist and advocate worth supporting.  Next time I hope to get a better taste of his talent.

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Of Savory delights and Service Disasters: Solo Dining in the Cruelest Month

April 16, 2008

Springtime in New York is great for eating out but lousy for eating out alone.  Outdoor seating is way too precious to leave half empty—everything’s at least a two top—and indoor seating is neglected by bartenders rediscovering the charms of nicotine breaks or nubile prep cooks.  On an international tour of pork destination dining spots, a pair of favorites rewarded return visits even as a trio of others persuaded me never to return.  In a surprise twist, Italy won twice while Malaysia, Spain and Korea fell way short.

FATTY CRAB

Fatty Crab in the midafternoon would perhaps be more aptly named Fat Blunt or Fat Roach.  I don’t know if my server was smoking toad venom or the Chronic, but no one on the right side of Kubla Khan would call a dish of pork belly and watermelon the “Mecca of Pork.”  He also probably wouldn’t tell a solo diner that “Fatty Crab rolls family style, so ordering for one will be tough…but you can stay….if you want.”  Keep on rolling, buddy.  Sorry for the buzzkill.  If you don’t want my money, I don’t want to spend it.   

BOQUERIA:

Airheaded server, arrogant owner and errant flavor combinations made for a disappointing first foray to the counter at Boqueria.  The “bikini” sandwich—yes, the two piece swimsuit is also a grilled cheese in some languages—wedged an ill-advised mixture of cheeses and sun-dried tomatoes between a multi-grain bread that has never and should never grace a Spanish table.  A hacked up ham plate did little to remedy the situation. Pressure to booze and dessert denial from pneumatic beertender put a bitter finish to a none too sweet meal.  Gallic diffidence from paper-doodling owner Rochefort snuffed last bit of good will.  

MOMOFUKU SSÄM and MOMOFUKU NOODLE BAR

I will not eat David Chang’s porky butt and buns.  I will not eat David Chang’s green eggs or ham (former undercooked, latter mouldy).  I will not eat at Noodle Bar or Ssäm.  I will not be ripped off again and again.   I’m done with the Happy Peachster until his prices approach sanity and consonance with the cheap setting and minimal service on offer at Ssäm and Bar . 

During my last Noodle run, my prawns were well past gamey, my slow cooked eggs were simply undercooked (and vaguely chlorophyll colored) and my soft-serve ice cream had the texture if not the flavor of bung seepage.   Similar experience at Ssäm.  Hicky of a hangover from the crapulence of too much good food and drink fine.  Bruising bout of nausea from bad food and brazen overpricing, not so fine.  Ssäm and Noodle are too hip for this square.  The would be Emperor of the East Village needs some clothes, quick. 

FRANK PEPE’s PIZZA (NEW HAVEN)

Great view of coal oven and jovial highly caffeinated pie wranglers and servers added some noise in the early lunch hours.  Whole white pie with monstrously fresh and juicy clams and and mozzarella reminded me what all the fuss was about.  Cold glass of Long Trail was perfect foil.  Sometimes the perfect wine pairing is a quick cheap beer:  Whole meal was less than twenty dollars including twenty plus percent tip.    Porky pepperoni to go was a pleasure for my return train meal on wheels.  Gastrotourism in the Havens pizza belt sure beats Hamptons run to Nick & Tony’s!

OTTO

And back in the City for one more pie. Late afternoon counter eating was a people watcher’s delight.  Drunken middle aged woman kissing bartender and exclaiming in Brooklyn French upon increasingly evident subtleties of her third quartino of rosé.  Hipsters muttering and mulling over hip things hiply.  A few random NYU professors in for a quick cacio e pepe and a quicker couple of cocktails. Finally, a bartender willing to hold to restaurant’s promise to restore any and everyone at the bar from unabashed boozers to teetotaling foodies.   Price was high—almost fifty dollars for delicious lardo pizza, scalding and mediocre Lagrein quartino and a brilliantly redeeming ice cream confection—even for one, but I left feeling better than when I went in, and I left wanting to go back. The great places have no off hours or meals: When they’re open, they’re open with open arms.  Otto’s on the list.  

 

 

Centro Vinoteca: Burrell Steps Out of Batali’s Shadow and Into His Old Neighborhood.

March 5, 2008

Anne Burrell is still a mint love letter, beef cheek ravioli or lardo pizza short of  a career-making signature dish, but she’s well on her way to creating a signature restaurant in the neighborhood that made Mario Batali a star with Pó.  Below are a few high and lowlights from recent visits. 

1) Lamb Ragú: Well-priced, polyphonic flavor bomb of a sauce on perfectly cooked pasta.  No stunt ingredients, no hot or sour flavor tweaks.  Just disciplined time-honored, ingredient-honoring low and slow technique.  Can’t wait to try the boar version. 

2) Chicken Liver Paté: Generous flavors, generous size, low cost for kitchen and client.  Taste and nose are deeply earthy—good barnyard, not Missouri manure pond—but it’s a dish that needs to be shared.  Don’t go solo unless you like mid-afternoon fat sweats.  Deviled eggs are also worthwhile, though not as surprising as when they hit the menu at Blue Smoke a few years ago.  A rumpus room favorite from Midwest childhood.

3) Quartinos: Fun idea but arguably a bit pricey, and inexcusably a bit warm, especially the reds.  I love sun in the glass, just not sun on the glass.  Also, servers need not break the flow of conversation and courses by darting about refilling wine glasses from these diminutive little containers.  Even the most uncoordinated of drunkards can self-pour from tiny-tyke Sippee Cup serving vessels.

4) Centro Vinoteca’s Meat Balls: Biggest (Flavored) of Them All

Grilled up at lunch time and sandwiched between bread that’s just about texturally perfect, the savory lamb treats will make the afternoon nap that much sweeter.  No finer ground globes of meat in City at moment.

5) Cappuccino Panna Cotta:  Texture is dead on, flavors are harmonious, portion size is irresponsible and perfect.  Here chocolate covered coffee beans are delightful grace note rather than the usual gratuitous garnish.

Further advice:

1) Rinse carefully after eating the panna cotta.  I forgot to and went to a meeting looking like a Skoal Bandit had exploded in my mouth.  

2) Don’t waste cab fare on the overpriced grappa pairing.  Otto’s offerings are more fun and a heck of a lot cheaper.   Alto’s are more refined and about the same price.

Home Restaurant: Best and Worst of a Worthy Fixer Upper

July 30, 2007

Like Hearth, the name Home is lovely, simple and evocative, and so is much of the food on offer at the namesake restaurant on Cornelia Street. That said, front and back of house make enough avoidable errors to leave me hoping that a better restaurant can be built on this fixer upper’s attractive foundation. Below are the strongest and weakest features from a recent visit.

1) Intriguing East Coast Wine List: I thoroughly enjoyed the rosés from Shinn Vineyards during a recent trip to the North Fork, and enjoyed them again at lunch at the proprietors’ New York restaurant.  I’m still not completely sold on the Long Island wines that make up the bulk of Home’s list, especially the Cabernet Francs, but the whites I had were uniformly excellent. A non-LI Barboursville sauvignon blanc also confirmed the good things I’ve heard about Virginia wines and made me wonder if I’ll be seeing more of them soon.  Markup was a standard double of retail, a relative bargain in the City and sufficient encouragement to take more risks on subsequent visits. 

2) Surprise Patio in Back: This little seating area is one of the secret spots that you come to treasure in an open space-deprived city. I had no idea it awaited me at the front door and never would have thought to ask, except the restaurant was empty enough to encourage exploring. Nothing wrong with cozy rustic indoor seating, but out back is the place to be in the dog days of July and August.

3) Butterscotch Pudding a Homely Delight: Dessert saved the day as it so often can. Butterscotch pudding was rich but not gratuitously so and deeply flavored. Texture was on the right side of unctuous—close but not too close to grade school Cysco pudding. N.B. Avoid the burned popcorn espresso as a closer and you’ll go home without a bitter taste in your mouth.

4) Pacing Problems: A bugaboo of crowded restaurants; a surprise in an empty one. We were the first to sit, the first to give an order and the first to be served.  Unfortunately, enthusiasm for the maiden order turned to heedless rushing as hot mains were fired too early and kept on too long. When a salad was sent back—wrong order—mac and cheese kept on cooking and cooking and cooking. Rubbery in the middle, paint crust texture on top, no good from start to finish. Unfortunately, tasted too close to Home-made, at least in my house.

5) Schwag Water Cress Salad: Like a cheap dime bag, it was lovely to look at, but stem heavy to a fault. Stuck between teeth but not to ribs. Well conceived, poorly executed. Garde-manger needs to step up. That said, cashews were a nice surprise and goat cheese did more than usual yeoman’s duty.

Five Points of Virtue at Five Points

May 12, 2007

Another in my series of Lads who Lunch leisure meals. This time, at Five Points, the best thing to hit Great Jones Street since Don Delillo. www.fivepointsrestaurant.com

1) Value in the Village:
20 dollar prix-fixe tasted like twice the price. No wedding dinner salmon or chicken on this three courser (Modern and Nougatine take note). With the exception of an oleaginous tartar sauce splooge, every component was clean flavored and beautifully plated.

2) Freshness First:
Seasonal squid and soft shell were young and frisky. They tasted of themselves and in consequence required minimal intervention.

3) Creativity:
Best deployed citrus notes since early Dan Barber. Tartly dressed squid was highlighted, not hidden by stipples of sweet and sour. A crunchy shredded salad under the crab added one more texture point to an already complex soft creamy crispy interplay.

4) Generous beverage service:
Glass of Riesling was closer to a quartino. Carried me through to the panna cotta and rounded out the sobremesa time. Second beer was brought to table when first seemed short. No questions asked. Happy to tip accordingly.

5) Décor:
Flowers were fresh, extravagant, beautiful and understated, much like the food. Open spaces at both ends and great Andalusian airflow were Euro-cool without the exchange rate problem.

The Faults:
Didn’t look for them and didn’t find them. An unslick but well-oiled machine.

Secrets of the Beard House: How to get maximum joy from the World’s Premier Food Performance Space

December 6, 2006

A FEW MODEST SUGGESTIONS:

1) Skip the Greens: Greens events for younger members will leave you underfed and overliquored: you’ll feel green afterwards. However, a great place to hook up with a foodie.

2) Arrive at Beard House events at the start: Get there early and position yourself close to the garden entrance for passed apps. Often chefs take more risks with the apps and reveal a little more of themselves. Alternatively, particularly if you’re shy and alone, call and ask them to hold a plate of selections for your dinner table.

3) Hotel restaurant nights are super luxurious: Hotels spend more on wine and expensive ingredients and often give party favors.

4) Friday and Saturday aren’t usually the best: Chefs don’t want to be away these nights, so you’ll rarely get top restaurants on these nights.

5) No in-town: They’re often sub-par when competing with themselves, unless the chef is gunning for a Beard Award or trying to restore a tarnished reputation. Beware of the phone-in from a chef with a recent 3-star Times review–Cru was a disaster.

6) Beware of overreaching restaurants: Check the proposed menu against the restaurant’s menu. Too big a discrepancy in scope and scale often indicates an overreaching restaurant trying to do something inconsistent with its vision.  Humble, regional places should stick to what got them the invitation.

7) Lesser known can be most interesting: I never would have discovered the Chicago Mafia (Bowles, Cantu, etc.) if I’d stuck to big names.

8. Sit with strangers: Unless you’re with a large group, you’ll be seated with some strangers. This turns out to be a central pleasure of the house. People rarely talk about themselves, the market or their second homes. Instead, they focus on fun and food, two topics worth celebrating over the usual 5-7 glasses of top-shelf wine.

9) Go solo instead of staying home: Go by yourself and don’t feel like a putz.  If you’re shy, the cocktail hour can be excruciating, so get there closer to meal-time.

10) Embrace the wackos: A few people treat this place like an eating club, and among them are some truly original characters. If you sit with one, take it in stride.

11) Chefs want to be loved: Ask chefs questions on the way out when they’re happy and unstressed, and if you don’t have a question, say thanks. Q & A session is useless, unfortunately. More of a thank-you speech.

12) Don’t get greedy: Waiters are not there for special requests (like a second glass of the really expensive dessert wine). You’re getting plenty.

13) Stand by the pig: If you’re waiting for friends, walk over to the pig sculpture in the garden; it’s quiet, the view is great and you won’t be asked by investment bank associates if you’re here with UBS, twice.