Food Porn: Lincoln

As promised, here’s some super close-ups of this evening’s offerings at Lincoln, Jonathan Benno’s highly anticipated new restaurant that opened tonight.  The food was, as you’ll see, beautiful, and pricing was comparable to other high end spots throughout the city (the previously reported approximations of $120/pp are about right).  I will say though that the menu (found here) is much more versatile than typical Italian can sometimes permit – and the thought that this spot is meant to compete directly with Marea is, in my opinion, askew.

Also, the evening wasn’t without its share of additional interesting restaurant news:  I have it on very good authority that another well respected Italian spot will get reviewed this coming week by the NY Times.  Scroll down to find out more.

And without further ado…

So, here’s the pay off:  a very reliable source has shared with me that Del Posto, Mario Batali’s GINORMOUS food cathedral in Chelsea will face Sifton’s scrutiny this Wednesday.  As has been very well reported, Batali has long had high aspirations – and has made adjustments to this end – of being the first four star Italian spot in NYC in quite some time.  However, with how fastidious Sifton has proven to be over his first year (see reviews of Marea and SHO Shaun Hergatt) I’m not sure even the Eataly deity can pull it off.  We’ll see Wednesday.

As for me, a full review of Lincoln to follow in coming days.

Cheers friends.

Dinner at Lincoln Tonight

Greetings not-so-loyal readers (it’s my fault you’re like that).

Good news:  I’m back!  Well, sort of.

After a lengthy time away from the “reviewable” dining scene, though I did fit in the Boston marathon and a trip to California (complete with dinners at, among other places, The French Laundry and Providence), I’m here to whet your palates with a teaser for an upcoming review of:  Lincoln.

Jonathan Benno’s striking post-Per Se endeavor inside the grass wedge (above) at the eponymous Lincoln Center opens this very evening (9/24) and yours truly has an 8pm rez.

I’d supply further photos or even a link to the menu but, strangely, in a counter-intuitive move Benno and the execs behind Lincoln have opted to be as close-lipped as possible in the run up to tonight.  Regardless, full review coming early next week and, perhaps more importantly, food porn coming to you as soon as tomorrow.

Cheers.

Published in: on September 24, 2010 at 3:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chanterelle: A Postmortem

In 1979, when this city was yearning to break free of what was otherwise its worst decade in some time, David and Karen Waltuck opened a restaurant in a part of town that others at the time dared not venture, TriBeCa.  They named it Chanterelle.  Behind his stellar cooking and her management, the restaurant flourished, luring patrons from all over the city and beyond to their sleepy corner of the world in the loft-ridden environs on the lower, lower, west side.

Fast forward 30 years, millions of diners, thousands of wedding proposals and anniversary meals, several cookbooks and one James Beard Award in 2007 for New York City’s Best Chef – what better praise can there be?  Indeed the Waltucks showed no sign of slowing down and that’s why last June, when it was announced that Chanterelle would close its doors for renovations – no doubt an opportunistic move despite these hard times – I was eagerly awaiting its reopening in “the fall” so I could scratch its name off my ‘must dine’ list.  It was not to be though.

When asked plainly what went wrong, Karen Waltuck explains that they’d reached preliminary agreements that June with some young financiers, a couple, who reassured them that all plans were a go…until they weren’t.  The couple backed out at the last minute and, sans new financing, the demise of Chanterelle was assured.  Although not an entirely uncommon story, it is unique in that it happened to such a successful restaurant. Chanterelle was, by all accounts, still going strong even with the city’s economic woes, and while other spots about town simply couldn’t make ends meet, Chanterelle, it seemed, had the carpet pulled out from under them and for that I was – and still am – very sad for the Waltucks and for the dining public.

Then I got lucky.

Time Out magazine’s Dining & Libation Society, which sounds much more esteemed that it really is, arranged a deal with the James Beard House here in Manhattan:  For one night only, David and Karen would resume their once typical behavior and occupy the kitchen at the Beard house in order to serve dinner to 120 Chanterelle fans, old and new.  Oh joyous day!

Let’s backup just a tick:  the James Beard House is precisely that, the one time home of the chef and food curator turned foundation, home to the eponymous award and, in this city of such high restaurant turnover, it passes also as a certain type of conservation society.  That said, being in the home reminds one much more of the latter than the former.  Several times a week the house plays host to a variety of dining functions, mostly as a showcase for chefs from around the country to display their craft to New York diners who otherwise would go without knowing of their existence.

Mr. Beard’s former home is a two story brownstone in the heart of Greenwich Village and entering through its nondescript doorway and comfortable foyer is a bit like attending an intimate dinner party more than a restaurant.  In this case, intimate is a nice way of saying tiny.  The house is not without its charms, however, as there is a great deal of mahogany, a sizable collection of books and the floors are mostly covered in various oriental rugs – this is to say that, except for the solarium in the back, every room I visited felt like someone’s library.  To borrow a ubiquitous New York real estate term, it’s cozy.

One thought did persist in me, however:  Mr. Beard, by all photographic evidence – in the house and out – was a rather large gentleman, and imagining him in this space seems like the equivalent of Shaquille O’Neill driving a Smart car.  I spent a great deal of my time in the home imagining Beard’s belly knocking unseen wine glasses off kitchen counters or his troubles with ascending a rickety set of stairs (and the noises they would have made); the thought of how he best utilized a heavily mirrored and very narrow bathroom is probably best left undiscovered.

. . .

After receiving our table assignment from the host, we followed the echoes of dozens of voices through a doorway to find the kitchen and with it Mr. Waltuck in the throes of preparation.  While it was enjoyable to see him and his team at work, I doubted that it was all that comfortable:  Time Out had brought along several reporters and photographers, each clamoring for footing in the slender walkway along the front of the kitchen.  What’s more, this same walkway needed to be traversed by the evening’s diners to the aforementioned solarium, in order to find wine and amuses bouches.  It made a cramped kitchen feel much more like a jail cell and, given the look on Mr. Waltuck’s face, the comfort level was commensurate with the setting.

Exiting the kitchen I was doubly astounded by the sheer size of the crowd assembled and the limited space available in the back of the house; like cattle penned before the kill.  Wine disappeared with staggering speed and, after discovering our poor positioning, Christine and I jockeyed for a spot closer to the entrance of the kitchen, so to be able to actually taste some of the small appetizers as they entered the room atop a waiter’s platter – they included flash fried oysters with a curry sauce, and a beet coulis with crème fraiche and dill.  Chaos, but not the controlled kind, the fault of which I feel falls neither on the Waltucks nor the Foundation, it’s simply what must be dealt with here in the city.

It was as the cocktail hour went on and some shoulder room became available that it occurred to us that, short of dancing, we were essentially at a wedding:  the scrambling for “free” booze and hors d’œuvres, the assigned seating with strangers, the cost per person attending ($125), the parting gift (a full stomach counts, right?).  The trouble with that analogy is that I can’t remember the last time I walked away from a wedding thinking: “Christ, that food was delicious!”  There are so many distractions.  The venue (while lovely and old-worldly, it also included poorly drawn/painted, framed depictions of Mr. Beard), the conversation with our dining companions (for us it was a lovely couple from Long Island, Kathi and Ralph), the other diners around us, and, as if to add fuel to the fire, a rather lengthy explanation of the menu followed by a laborious “tour” of the wines that had been chosen specifically for the evening.

It is for these same reasons that I hate dining out on Valentine’s Day (or dining on any Holiday for that matter), chief among them is the mass production of the food, or at least the perception of it.  I won’t trick myself into believing that corners aren’t cut in every restaurant and that sometimes things need to be prepared en masse, but, I suppose, ignorance is bliss.  So, when the experience finally ended, I was left feeling the way I did at Valentine’s Day dinner last year at Convivio:  as if I missed the true prize in the cooking as well as the other options the standard menu may have afforded me.  There’s the rub though, I can go back to Convivio anytime I like, but I’ll never get this chance again with Chanterelle, and for that I’m melancholy.

This may sound a bit duplicitous but this is not to say the food wasn’t quite good, it’s just that the environs and the way the food had to be made created a loss of wonderment that I will never know, now that Chanterelle is gone.  In that vain, I won’t spend much time reviewing the food as intently as I normally do – it’s not as if this is going to affect decision making afterall, no?

To start was the ginger pickled salmon with seaweed salad and wasabi.  Presented in a rather 80’s fashion – showy to a certain extent, with sauce zigzagging its way across the plate, vegetables strewn about – the fish couldn’t have been more well prepared, it was a great balance of firm yet soft and the seaweed/wasabi added enough additional salt to distract from the fish’s otherwise Scottish flavor profile.

Ginger Pickled Salmon with Seaweed Salad and Wasabi

One of the dishes that helped to put Chanterelle on the map (or so I’m told) is another variation of seafood, this time an imaginative grilled seafood sausage.  Unpretentious in appearance (when has anyone known sausage to be pretentious anyway?) and centered in a moat of cream sauce appeared three slivers of the sausage, so far nothing out of the ordinary…and then there’s the first bite.  It was at once delicate and familiar, something in me swore I’d tasted something like this in the past, just not this airy and, well, interesting.  It was sausage in so much as it had an encasement, but beyond that it was simply a great tasting combination of, presumably, a number of fishes and a cream sauce that made it glide down the palette.

Grilled Seafood Sausage

The next two dishes were each very good and quite opposite the two starters.  First there was the butternut squash ravioli, served atop a ragout of oxtail with some accompanying sage cream.  Oxtail –meat from the tail of the steer, not actual ox – has received a lot of play over the last couple of years and with due reason, prepared well it can dominate a plate in the most positive way.  Undoubtedly, the soft butternut squash was meant to be an undertone while the oxtail easily rose to the challenge of being the most memorable aspect of the dish; hearty and yet a little sweet, for a mid-course dish it was a star.

Buuternut Squash Ravioli with Oxtail Ragout & Sage Cream

Finally, there was the roast loin of lamb with haricots verts, mini moussata and marjoram.  I’ve made the comment before that lamb is certainly one of the more difficult meats to cook, but once one has the hang of it – hint:  never serve it anything but rare – it can be a staple of a fine restaurant; such is the case here.  It was moist – made all the more so by the delicious au jus – and well seasoned and relatively simple.  I feel Tom Colicchio would have been pleased with the dish, outside maybe the yet to be identified and salty-yet-still-bland, whatever that thing was (see yellow, circular object on the plate in photo below).

Marinated Roasted Loin of Lamb with Marjoram and Mini Moussata

Sticking with this theme of simplicity, Mr. Waltuck chose not to really blow the doors off with his dessert, a nice choice though I’m always game for some flare:  Bartlett pears served two ways, but both heavily induced with caramel and honey.  It was as good as this dessert could ever be and that is saying something in its own right, but still I think something with a bit more panache would have really capped the evening off the way it should have been

Bartlett Pears served Two Ways

All told, like all great artists – at least contemporary rock musicians – this was a terrific farewell tour for the Waltucks, a memorable evening at an interesting venue.  When prompted, Karen Waltuck was quick to say that, despite 30 years under their belts, she’d be hard pressed to keep David down for too much longer, “maybe something small and bistro-y,” she said.  So, perhaps just like those same aging rockers, this farewell tour is just one of many, and we’ll have the Waltuck’s around for some time to come.  I certainly hope so.

Dinner at Chanterelle tonight…sort of

In October when it announced it had shut its doors for good, I was slighted of any chance of dining at Chanterelle (above), a restaurant that had been breathing life, evidently to its own demise, into otherwise sleepy TriBeCa for some 30 years.

Or so I thought.

The James Beard House – yes, that one – courtesy of sponsorship from Time Out Magazine’s Dining & Libation Society has invited Karen & David Waltuck, the proprietor and chef of Chanterelle, to do what they do best one last time and for one night only – cook!

It will be six-course chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings and guarantees to be a memorable goodbye for one of the city’s finest.  While a bit nonsensical – Chanterelle now being a nonexistent restaurant and all – a review will most definitely follow.

Vox Populai

Gotham Bar & Grill

******* (seven out of ten)

Most chefs work by a code that may be best summed up as follows: ‘you can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time’ (forgive me Abraham Lincoln); however, for the past 25 years, Alfred Portale, chef at the New York gastro institution Gotham Bar & Grill, has built a stellar reputation defying that adage, a reputation that shines all the brighter today.  In fact, in a year that has brought about the demise of some of Manhattan’s most revered restaurants – immediately coming to mind are Café Des Artistes, Chanterelle, and the Rainbow Room (which, combined, operated for 205 years) – Gotham Bar & Grill seems to be thriving, as it always has, amongst its Greenwich Village environs at 12 E.12th.

Situated directly across from StripHouse, Gotham B&G is the opposite of ‘tucked away,’ its vaulted ceilings and exposed piping lay above hanging ceiling lights whose billowy drapes, suspended overhead, look like airborne pillows, adding a wonderful drama and what effectually is a feeling of trendiness to the dining room.

What the lights also do is distract from the space’s sheer size.  When Gotham opened in the mid-80’s, it had by far one of the largest dining spaces in the city and even today, with the ‘big box’ restaurants popping up monthly, the dining room is still not what one would consider tiny, rather, it remains as grand as ever and the seats continue to be filled.  Which raises the question:  How do they do it?  How does a restaurant with a lease and overhead like this survive for as long as it has?  The answer, like a page torn from Madonna’s playbook, is:  reinvention.

Unlike some bitter stalwarts of the industry, Gotham Bar & Grill has not seen fit to sit idly by as the scene around it changed, while the restaurant’s atmosphere did not.  While some diners in this city are happy to return to the confines of their neighborhood restaurants, pleased that nothing has changed since their last visit, the same cannot be said for trips to Gotham, much to its diners’ delight.  Its dining room is updated on a consistent basis, altering its color scheme, lighting and art (it is one of the few restaurants I know of that contracts its own curator).  Like most restaurants, Gotham’s menu changes from time to time as well, however, not before undergoing some stringent taste testing so to appease those long-time patrons and all while adhering  to a definitive, singular rule:  diversity.

It, of course, is incredibly difficult to be everything to be everybody, especially in the restaurant business, and attempts to do so are typically exercises in futility (or stupidity), and yet, the menu at Gotham Bar & Grill – and its resulting success – suggests that Mr. Portale knows something the rest of us do not.  Here’s a glimpse at what he’s currently offering on a single menu, each with a distinctive influence but all with classic French execution:

Sushi / Asian:

Yellowfin Tuna Tartare – japanese cucumber, shiso leaf and sweet miso asian ginger vinaigrette

White Tuna Sashimi – soy beans, smoked honshimeji mushrooms and pickled red pearl onions ponzu broth

Miso Marinated Black Cod – bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and sticky rice soy lemongrass ginger sauce

Italian:

Ricotta stuffed, housemade raviolis

Pan Roasted Branzino – chorizo piperade, manila clams, baby octopus and saffron rouille bouillabaisse broth

Indian:

Curry Spiced Muscovy Duck Breast – seared foie gras, basmati rice, toasted cashew and apricot chutney garam masala duck sauce

French:

Wild Game And Foie Gras Terrine – baby beets, sicilian pistachios and purslane fennel and raisin toast

Seared Foie Gras – tangerine marmalade, roasted cranberry, pain d’épices, maple sugar consommé

While understandably it’s important to ensure that a menu have at least one or two items that can appeal to a majority of patrons, most often such middle-of-the-road options become just that, mediocre, and when done to excess (as is typically the fashion), such menus tend to become unwieldy and, consequently, so does the cooking.  However, offering a limited number of dishes that are refined to the point where exhaustion meets delectability is a sign of both comfort in one’s ability and confidence.  After doing just that for some 25 years now, Portale ranks high amongst this city’s best chefs, and rightly so.

Finally, another striking element of the restaurant is that, for a destination that boasts numerous James Beard awards, it is lacking the pretense that (sometimes) accompanies that distinction.  I was wearing my standard jeans, button down and blazer, but I spotted one or two sweatshirts – though the snob in me scoffed a bit in their direction – and only a smattering here and there of neck ties.  This is egalitarian, come-one-come-all dining at its finest, and this revelation led Christine to dub it ‘cozy chic.’

The menu at Gotham Bar & Grill is divided into three parts (not counting the $125 Chef’s tasting menu), each aptly named, First, Second, and Third, and range in size accordingly.  When presented with menus like this – much like Italian menus with their antipasti, pasta, primi and secondi offerings – I’m quick to ask for guidance from the server, both in how the ordering process should go and, more importantly, what I shouldn’t dare miss.  When I think back on all the restaurants I’ve been to and have ordered blindly, without conferring with the waiter, I’m both saddened and disappointed in myself.  Most people have tastes that they hone in on when given a menu, straying away from things a bit out of their range, but in this city one must embrace the change in the norm and the best way to understand how to do that is with a simple question to the server, “What must I try here?”

I also like to get the waiter’s name.  I find it bizarre that some diners can be either so involved in the dining experience or themselves that they have no clue who is assisting them, as if dishes magically appear and disappear thanks to some phantom one needn’t take the time to know.  At Gotham, our server, Robert, suggested a number of dishes: the special ricotta filled raviolis, the seared foie gras, the risotto, halibut, chicken or lamb.

For an appetizer Christine went with something that was right in my wheelhouse and she knew it, an autumnal risotto with squash, smoked bacon, duck confit, brussel sprouts and turnips.  What a combination!  I seriously couldn’t believe she ordered this, as, aside from the vegetables, this sounded quite hearty and packed with meat.  Risotto in its own right is usually prepared in such a way (usually with cream) that to consider either adding anything else to it or enjoying a dish after it is quite the challenge.  Christine, however, charged on, most likely knowing that I would be helping myself from time to time.  The square chunks of bacon and smokiness of the duck made for an incredibly appetizing and, as expected, filling dish, while the vegetables harmonized nicely with the risotto, creating a silky texture devoid of any semblance of the mushy-ness sometime prevalent with the pasta.

Autumn Squash Risotto with Smoked Bacon, Duck Confit, Brussels Sprouts and Turnips

I followed another of Robert’s suggestions and went with the special appetizer for the evening:  ravioli filled with Sardinian goat’s milk ricotta, carrots, leeks and dehydrated mushrooms.  The way Robert explained this dish, how the ricotta was so smooth and decadent that it barely needed the accoutrement, his eyes gently rolling towards the ceiling as if describing the first time he got drunk, had me sold.  It lived up to its billing.  This pasta should go by another name than ravioli, as the dish consisted of two, saucer-sized, ricotta-filled cushions, lying subtly beneath a very light, almost broth-like cream sauce.  The now-expanding dehydrated mushrooms, soft leeks and carrots added, seemingly, more for color than anything else, as their delicate flavors were barely evident after the first bite into the creamy goodness inside the pasta.  I’m not much for goat’s milk cheeses but this certainly will forever be the exception, it was both velvety and ethereal, I enjoyed it immensely.

Ravioli Filled With Sardinian Goat’s Milk Ricotta, Carrots, Leeks And Dehydrated Mushrooms

After those two starters, Chris and I knew we’d acted wisely in following Robert’s suggestions for entrées as well.  For the main course, Christine chose the roasted organic chicken with heirloom beans, some root vegetables, cavolo nero (a type of kale) and, to top it off, truffles.  As I’ve explained before, much like foie gras, adding truffles to dishes is the rich man’s way of adding bacon to, well, anything.  However, this trend has been comparable to bacon in other ways too, as chefs more and more often leverage the inherent prestige their patrons associate with truffles to compensate for the dish’s otherwise lack of flavor.  Good chefs, however, like Mr. Portale, know when it’s a perfect accompaniment, and with this roasted chicken it was precisely that.  As with most well-executed roast chickens in the city, Gotham’s version was succulent and moist, rife with its natural juices and accented nicely by the fall flavors propping it up; a nice dish for a cold winter’s night.

Roasted Organic Chicken with Heirloom Beans, Root Vegetables, Cavolo Nero and Burgundy Truffles

I on the other hand opted for the rack of lamb.  Lamb is difficult meat to do well, it’s very easy to over- or undercook and without the proper seasoning or technique one could be left with plain, mutton-like lamb that has a taste comparable to blood: metallic from the iron content.  Luckily, that was not the case.  The three shanks came teepee-d against one another, resting atop a bed of swiss chard and puréed potato, several roasted cipollini onions scattered at various sides.

For a very long time as a child I ate the ingredients on my plate one at a time, in fact, I was so anal about the process that I hated when food touched at all.  If a stray corn kernel wandered into the mashed potatoes, that bit was dead to me; my mother went so far as to suggest that she start serving dinners on those compartmentalized paper plates often found at BBQs and picnics.  Somewhere along the line though, I got used to combining flavors, and that quickly led to enjoyment, bringing me to where I am today:  a seeker-outer of seemingly incongruous food profiles that, when combined, somehow make beautiful music together.  This was the case with the lamb.  Its well-seasoned and seared crust giving way to a wonderfully tender and medium rare center, that, once cut into large bites, could collect a bit of onion, a dripping of the wilted swiss chard and finally a dip into the potato, creating a complete bite and, for that matter, dish.

Grilled Rack of Lamb with Swiss Chard, Roasted Cipollini, Potato Purée, and Lamb Reduction

What?  Do you think we didn’t get dessert?  Of course we did.  I’ll be honest, though, the two we tried were relatively standard in nature, but nonetheless delicious and well executed.  Christine chose a lemon pudding, which resembled and tasted a bit more like lemon ice chips, with kaffir lime sorbet and a mandarin orange granite.  Eating the dessert made for a comparable expression to that of getting snapped with a wet rat tail in a locker room, in almost grapefruit-like fashion the sourness of the lemon dominated most everything else on the dish, and while I found it somewhat refreshing (and imagined my reaction to it on a warm July evening) I could see how others may be dissuaded from choosing it again.

For me, though I saw numerous other options that sounded a bit more complex, I chose something I expected to taste exactly as it did: the Gotham chocolate cake.  It came in a narrow sliver with a dusting of cocoa and a scoop caramel ice cream, the cake was warm and moist to the point where I could have confused it – in the best possible way – for mousse.  It was how I wanted to end the meal and I got what I was looking for, nothing more nothing less.

Lemon Pudding with Kaffir Lime Sorbet and Mandarin Orange Granite

Gotham Chocolate Cake with Caramel Ice Cream

The question that haunts many chefs and owners the world over – but especially here in New York – is: is it better to be good or loved? Thanks to much effort, diligence and a watchful eye on reinvention, Gotham Bar & Grill is both.

It has been a long 13 years since the New York Times has formally reviewed Gotham Bar & Grill, and while I have no doubt that it would retain its three star rating, I believe a revisit is in order for simple reasons:  to remind us New Yorkers just how great we have it.  As I mentioned, Chef Portale and his staff have received numerous accolades over the years, however, what stops the restaurant short of becoming a four star gem is, in fact, what makes it so appealing, that of course being its mass appeal.  A long time ago Gotham Bar & Grill could have easily chosen to go the way of those higher ranked restaurants, but to the exclusion of so many of its beloved patrons, most certainly causing more harm than good.  So for now, and hopefully for many years to come, Gotham Bar & Grill will remain the refined, comfortable restaurant with the simple name that has won over the hearts and stomachs of so many visitors and regulars alike, to become one of New York’s most popular destinations.

******* (seven out of ten)

King of the Hill

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

*********    (nine out of ten)

Nestled in the Pocantico Hills near Tarrytown, New York, a mere 25 miles north of midtown Manhattan, lies an 80 acre, non-profit, sustainable farm named Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.  Once a part of the Rockefeller estate, it opened to the public in 2004, and guests are now invited to stroll among its fields and pastures, to gaze at the many varieties of livestock – chickens, pigs, turkey, lamb, cows, to name a few – and equally so, the expansive vegetable gardens.

Here are some pictures from our first trip to the farm, this past June:

In a year that brought about the arrival of the term ‘staycation,’ a 45-minute train ride is truly the most heavy lifting one has to do to partake in the wonder and country feel of Stone Barns.  Stone Barns is also home to, in my opinion, the best restaurant in the state of New York:  Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  Here’s why.

Up a brick walkway into the center of the four sided main barn, one finds the entrance to Blue Hill tucked in the far corner, an old wooden door disguising the modern dining room and bar just beyond the threshold.

The setting inside the restaurant just may be the most modern thing about Blue Hill as, entering the main dining room, there is a distinct California feel:  instead of wooden support beams overhead, there is modern brown steel; same goes for the small lights and railings adorning the walls.  In the center of the room, to add an element of drama, and to divide it somewhat, is a long wooden table which poses as a waiter’s station and usually has a lofty bouquet of flowers grown on the farm, distracting diners from the waiter’s work below.

With its beautiful setting and gracious staff, Blue Hill is already a unique dining experience; however, what truly sets it apart from the state’s other fine dining establishments is the most obvious element a restaurant can offer:  its menu.  Everything that is prepared at Blue Hill is fresh grown on the Stone Barns farm or on its sister farm in Massachusetts, with the explicit intention of either making its way to the diner’s plates, feeding livestock or for sale at the small market.  This is beyond locavorism, this is literally the purest form of farm-to-plate eating and what Dan Barber, the Blue Hill chef (and the 2009 James Beard award winner for Best Chef in the country), ekes out of these vegetables is a testament to both his craftsmanship as well as the quality of product.

What occurred to Christine and I at one point during our meal is that what sets Blue Hill apart is something contrary to both our times and the way most restaurants tend to lean: they are moving backward.  Not at all cutting edge or nuanced, the food at Blue Hill – from the sweet cream butter, to the fresh carrots with stems in place, to the brussel sprout leaves that are the greenest we’ve ever seen – is a love letter to things long since past and the way food once tasted in this country.  While grateful for how wonderful his food is, one cannot help but feel a pang of remorse for this bygone era, a time when the ingredients that are so often available to Mr. Barber now were once ubiquitous to everyone.  I applaud Barber for his nostalgia and, with tongue in cheek, his ability to capitalize on it.

Settling into an unusually comfortable seat at an equally unusually wide table for two, we are handed menus.  Of course, these menus are unlike any other.  On the left side of the menu there is a cavernous listing of what is fresh today, as in, right this moment; on the right side there are simply three options: the 8- or 5-course ‘Farmer’s Feast,’ and a cheese plate.  One cannot help but acknowledge that Barber, despite the traditional setting, is thumbing his nose at convention and in its place has manifested genuine curiosity from his patrons, causing diners to reconsider the idea of menus altogether with questions like:  Why do we limit the chef in such a way to begin with?  Are menus akin to asking Van Gogh to paint by numbers?

A sharp dressed waiter – they’re all sharp dressed – arrives, and at first we’re unsure if he is our primary waiter or simply someone assisting our waiter, as it turns out, they’re all primary waiters.  He asks if we have any food or allergy restrictions, we mention that we’d like to try the parsnips and that, if possible, we’d like to pass on the venison.  After prompting from him, we also pass on offal (internal organs/remnants).

Let the games begin.

First course isn’t so much a course as it is a bombardment of food in one- or two-bite packages.  This marked our third trip to Blue Hill and we are yet to eat something similar, even if it involves the same main ingredient or protein.  Presentation, however, is comparable on some dishes, for instance the vegetables ‘on the fence’ have turned into a restaurant trademark.  The raw vegetables, brined slightly in vinegar and conservatively salted to ensure the already strong natural flavors are that much more enhanced, arrive pinned atop a slab of wood that looks like a missing plank from a bed of nails.  With winter comes the need to rely on more root vegetables and tubers – carrots, parsnips, potatoes, etc. – and, much to our delight, as the soil turns colder the vegetables collect and conserve even more sugar, making many of the vegetables we had something easily passable for inclusion in a dessert.

Vegetables "On The Fence"

Along with the vegetables came such items as fried salsify – a thin, long vegetable, comparable in texture to a carrot – with pancetta and buckwheat; on yet another wooden block we were presented with various thinly sliced and crisped vegetables such as smoked Tuscan black kale, beet chips, and, in an amazing combination, a potato was sliced in such a way as to create a pocket for a sage leaf and then fried, marrying the two in a way that could only elicit recent Thanksgiving memories.

Another mainstay of the Blue Hill first course is the varying types of ‘burgers,’ mini burger buns surrounding a seasonal diced vegetable.  In June it was peas, in September it was tomatoes, and in December, marking the best ‘burger’ we’d had this year, it was chiogga beets.  These could be no normal beets though, they were abnormally sweet and melted on the tongue much too quickly.

Beet "Burgers"

Then came the house made charcuterie from the Berkshire pigs on the farm, and included: coppa (or capicola) on an Adirondack blue potato frittata, the frittata soft and moist, tasting a bit like a potato quiche, was perfectly matched – one not overpowering the other – by the aged, spiced ham; there was also sliced Tuscan salami and bologna, also from farm-raised pigs.

It was at about this point that a unique spoon was set beside each of our plates, it was very long and slender, its shallow business-end designed more to scrape than to scoop.  We soon found out its use.  On a flat, wooden serving board, we were presented with a meatless Hudson Valley veal shank, the bone held firmly in place by gripping teeth at either side of the board.  The shank was cut in half, length-wise, exposing its marrow along with a generous sprinkling of sturgeon caviar.  The spoon had found its purpose: bit by bit we dipped the spoon into the bone’s cavity, collecting small tastes of the rich marrow and the brackish caviar, fast becoming one of the most decadent, if not unusual, dishes we’ve ever had.

Veal Shank Marrow with Sturgeon Caviar

Remember, so far we’re yet to even catch a whiff of a ‘main’ course, of which we’re anticipating at least four.  We wouldn’t be waiting too much longer.  A grilled wahoo soon arrived with parsnips and brussel sprouts, both from the field.  What I remember most about this dish is that, for being barely cooked, the char on the fish resonated nicely, offsetting the sweet parsnips and the slight twinge of the sprouts.  It was not at all oily or fishy and the texture was perfect, the fish was at once firm but tender, the same could be said for the vegetables.

Grilled Wahoo with Parsnips & Brussel Sprouts

As further proof that what is about to be served was unearthed just that day, a mere 100- or 200-yards away, servers often present to the table, much like at fine steakhouses, the main ingredient in the next dish.  This next one was Christine’s favorite dish and, I’d have to imagine, an entrée unique to the mind of Mr. Barber:  a roasted carrot from the field, served whole on a dark slate ‘plate,’ with spiced breadcrumbs, a hint of cocoa and, to further embolden the flavor, carrot puree.  The essence of this dish is what all of our mothers are attempting, mostly in vain, to force into the carrot side dishes prepared every year at about this time.  This fresh-from-the-field carrot, for being essentially and simply that, was idyllic.  It was fork tender and yet not mushy, the breadcrumbs creating a type of crust and the carrot puree serving two purposes in adding to the depth of flavor and, well, keeping the carrot on the plate.  Christine was in heaven.

Roasted Carrot with Spiced Breadcrumbs, Cocoa and Carrot Puree (apologies for photo quality)

Sometimes one truly knows what he or she is tasting, it’s easy to pin point some ingredients and know what each is adding to a dish, and other times it’s simply anyone’s guess.  The next dish, delicious and enticing, fell into the latter category only because any attempt to identify what was supposedly in the dish fell to the wayside:  braised hake fish with fennel from the field, crispy squid and pig’s ear.  Coming on the heels of the carrot, we didn’t quite know what to make of this when it arrived in front of us, it looked quite appealing but that last ingredient lingered in the air for a few minutes after the waiter had left.  ‘Pig’s ear,’ hmmf.  Truth be told, there was no discernible way to tell what was the crispy squid and what was the pig’s ear, both were crisped and salty; but what does matter is how the texture of each added to the plate, balancing out the somewhat oily prone hake.  Once completed, Chris and I looked at one another in a similar fashion as we had at Eleven Madison Park recently after finishing some frog’s legs; we shrugged and noted that at least we could say now that we’ve had pig’s ears.

Braised Hake with Fennel, Crispy Squid and Pig’s Ear

Much like with the carrot, once the barren hake plates were removed, we were presented with a glass bowl in the shape of a bird’s nest containing that morning’s farm eggs, remnants of dried hay underneath for even greater effect.  In what has become a customary dish at Blue Hill, the next dish was a farm egg, laid that day – the farm boasts 1000 hens, each laying three eggs a week – with dehydrated vegetables and lentils in a lettuce broth.  Each time we’ve been to Blue Hill I’ve looked forward to this dish and this one came far from disappointing.  The yolk, thanks to the hens’ natural, organic diet, is always the brightest I’ve encountered and it immediately expands once broken, engulfing the other ingredients in soup-like fashion.  The dehydrated vegetables, only briefly soaked in the yolk, soon begin to puff only to disintegrate quickly on the tongue.  The vibrant lettuce broth was smooth and its texture only further enhanced with the yolk and the olive-green lentils.  This dish alone is worth going back for, just to see how it could possibly get any better as it changes every couple of months.

Fresh, Blue Hill Farm Egg, with Dehydrated Vegetables and Lentils in a Lettuce Broth

On to the meat! Squab, for its comparability to duck alone, is one of my favorite poultries, though I do try to overlook its relation to pigeon.  Its tiny body makes for a tightly wound package of bone, meat and fat, perfect for getting the most flavor out of such a small fowl.  At Blue Hill it was served sliced with pureed rutabaga with dates, cranberries and tat soi from the field, a leafy green vegetable akin to bok choy.  I love when meat of any kind is perched atop a puree like this (mashed potatoes are even better), I enjoy pushing my next bite through the puree and accompanying sauce, and, in this case, piercing a soft and very sweet cranberry.  The barely cooked tat soi, much like its leafy green brethren, added the appropriate bitterness, compensating for a flavor I was sure would come more from the cranberry.

Squab with Pureed Rutabaga, Dates, Cranberries and Tat Soi

It was at this point, after five main courses, that the lights began to flicker a bit.  I became certain that I’d miscounted and that we were about to start dessert…that is, until yet another steak knife was added to both sides of our table.  I started to reel a bit, but I pulled myself together while Chris, much to my surprise, was happy there was more and was rooting it on.  And then there was pork:  Berkshire pork with a stuffed squash and spinach from the field.  The quality of these meats is unmatched, the pork is so tender and lean, reflecting all the virtues of its organic rearing, while the stuffed squash (the ‘stuffing’ was more sage, incorporated into the squash) again allowed me to parade the meat around the plate, gathering up bits of this and parts of that.  As great as it was – and this is sad – I was glad the eating was over, at least momentarily.

Berkshire Pork with Stuffed Squash and Spinach

While the vegetables and livestock at Blue Hill Stone Barns so effortlessly translate into appetizers and main courses, since our first visit we’ve felt that if anything fell a bit short at the restaurant it was its desserts.  While obviously prone to creative license, I’m not sure the level of creativity needed in dessert making, coupled with such fresh ingredients, create the after dinner sweets one would expect.  This time, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find that that was not the case.  Both desserts, a peanut butter yogurt parfait, which was light yet full of the earthy deliciousness of the peanut, and a chocolate and graham soufflé with prune ice cream, reached the level of decadence I’d been missing those last two trips.  Both were wonderful notes to end on, even if I was increasingly distended.

Peanut Butter Yogurt Parfait

Chocolate and Graham Soufflé with Prune Ice Cream

We had mentioned to our waiter when we had first been seated that this was our third trip to Blue Hill this year, as we were trying to eat with the seasonal changes, a fact that he seemed to check after asking us more specific questions on the dates of our reservations.  With coffee downed and the check cleared, he asked us if we’d enjoy a kitchen tour – indeed we would.  And so for the second time in three weeks, Christine and I made our way to one of the top kitchens in the country, where we found a clamor of suited waiters conferring with crisp-white laden chefs, all nodding and prodding.  Like at Eleven Madison Park, there was a job for everyone and everyone had a job: whole segments of the kitchen devoted to doing one thing well, be it plating that veal shank or the wahoo or the soufflé, everything was accounted for and precise, something so often overlooked or purposely taken for granted in such a casual dining environment.  Again, I couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff.

On the way out, we were met by the manager who asked for me by name.  He thanked us for our patronage and we chatted briefly on the aspects of the night’s meal and I asked when would be the best time to schedule our next visit.  He then handed me an elegant envelope with a piece of paper, he informed us it was that night’s menu, a unique gift as, other than the scribbled notes that Chris took, we’d have lost most memory of the specific ingredients.  We thanked him and left.  It wasn’t until we got home that, upon further analysis of the menu, we realized that it was Dan Barber himself who had encircled the ingredients in the evening’s dishes, and his note at the top read as follows:

“Come back for the next harvest.  See you then.  Thank you. ~ Dan Barber”

Indeed you will, Dan.

Post Script

A good friend of mine is a newborn pescatarian (essentially, he doesn’t eat red or white meat), and for months now I’ve been pleading with him to try the restaurant, to make the short trek north, explain his dietary restrictions, sit back and prepare to enjoy.  He thinks it would be a waste of time for someone with a limited palate.  I’ve assured him it is not, and that the majority of the menu items are vegetables as well as fish.  That the lengths this restaurant will go to make him comfortable and to appease his every whim, is unmatched and, consequently, worth every penny.  For those reasons, and for its freshness, serenity, service, style and, perhaps above all else, its commitment to sustainability and the diner alike, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is by far the best restaurant in New York, which makes it one of the best in the country.

After enough lobbying, and after hearing of this last visit and seeing the inscribed menu, my friend caved.  We’ll be going back with him in May.

…And Here’s To You, Mr. Meyer

Maialino

*******

(seven out of ten)

What’s the old adage, mothers are here to annoy their children?  I’m pretty sure that’s it.  So was my approach to my mother’s recent trip to New York to visit.  In response, I decided that plenty of booze and good food would make it a bit easier to bear – and, well, interesting.  Thus began our Danny Meyer weekend.

Mr. Meyer, the quintessential NYC restaurateur – with such great restaurants to his credit as Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café, and, of course, Shake Shack – recently opened his first fully Italian spot, Maialino (Italian for “little pig”).  I’ve received a number of cracks in recent weeks from friends over the pictures I post of New York restaurants as they all seem perpetually glazed in sepia hues.  Maialino is no different.

It is at once rustic and, because of its location – the lobby of the uber-chic Gramercy Park Hotel – trendy; however, the décor is fighting to stave off such a perception.  There is a great deal of exposed wood, reportedly from a razed barn in New Jersey, offset by Tuscan white; there are bench seats, green check table clothes covered in see-through white cloth; wine bottles and empty glass decanters line the walls in reset wooden shelves.  There is also, much to my delight, a charcuterie/cheese station opposite a baked goods/waiter’s station that one must pass to enter the spaces formal dining area.

As homage to the types of Italian standbys the likes of Tony Soprano and his Jersey clan would patronize, the oblong white plates are encircled with a red ribbon and Maialino is inscribed at the plate’s 12 o’clock position.  In addition, my steak knife’s wooden handle was also etched with restaurant’s name; both details make it hard to remember that this place is only two weeks old.  Kitschy but cool.

We were seated promptly 22 minutes after our 9:00 pm reservation time, a kink I’m sure will be ironed out once Mr. Meyer catches wind of it.  We were, however, seated before famous New York dining critic and Top Chef Masters judge Gael Green, so we were pleased with the egalitarian approach and brushed the delay off to popularity.

As for dinner, I’ll be the first to admit that, perhaps because my mother was in tow, I didn’t approach this dinner with the same ferocity and, well, hunger that I have of late.  This undoubtedly skewed my meal and, I’m sure, omitted some truly great options, most notably anything from the menus rather lengthy Salumi (cured meats) section.  Even more disappointing is the fact that I missed with my appetizer choice.  That’s not to say that my roasted artichoke hearts with thick balsamic dipping sauce weren’t delicious, rather, they just seemed to me meant more for a shared appetizer, or as an accompaniment to a better option, say, the octopus, potatoes and arugula, or my mother’s choice: sardines with tossed greens and radicchio.

Fried Artichokes & Anchovy Bread Sauce

Christine chose the insalata misticanza, or autumn greens with lemon & olive oil.  A bizarrely simple dish for its $12 price tag, it is exactly as advertised, greens with oil and some lemon juice.

Insalata Misticanza - Autumn Lettuces, Lemon & Olive Oil

I also whiffed and didn’t order a mid-course pasta, a rarity for me and altogether poor form.  My mother, however, did manage to order one and I was very glad she did:  tonnarelli cacio e pepe, or tonnarelli pasta (similar in thickness and length to spaghetti) with pecorino cheese and black pepper.  The pecorino cheese melted so nicely, coating each strand with a shimmer of cheesiness and the sharp, coarsely ground black pepper – a common accent to simple pasta dishes like this – added a worthwhile bite and pleasantly lingering aftertaste that really made me wish I’d have ordered the same.

Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe

Now, if one has the balls to name a restaurant after a food item, he or she better have the fortitude to back it up with an amazing rendition of the dish.  Moreover, as far as fine dining here in the city goes – I’m exempting Burger King and KFC from this comparison – if you have your namesake item on your menu, the chances are very good that I will be ordering it, just to see if you’re as good as you think and say you are.  For instance, the Strip House has, I feel, the finest strip steak in the city; Shake Shack has, yep, you guessed it, a terrific shake; Burger Joint has…well, you get the idea.

So it was with great excitement that I knew what I would be ordering at Maialino before I ever stepped foot in the place:  the maialino al forno for two.  In fact, the biggest obstacle to ordering this was convincing Christine to take part in it with me, begrudgingly she did and was not at all disappointed, even if she did eat only a quarter as much as I did.

When I placed my entrée order I looked at our waitress and jokingly quizzed her: ‘Is it any good?’ I asked.  Her response:  ‘I recently waited on a very famous chef who ordered it…he said it was the best thing he’d ever eaten.’  Sold.

The maialino al forno comes on a hulking platter, its burnt orange-colored crisp skin bubbled and still crackling.  Bite-sized chunks of potatoes lovingly swimming in the oil still emanating from the little pig’s finely roasted flesh.  A single twig of wilted rosemary the only garnish, its aroma, when combined with the pigs, creates what surely must be what heaven smells like.  This pig is amazing.  In explaining it to a friend I said: imagine the best fall-off-the-bone ribs you’ve ever had, now multiply it times five.  It’s that good.  The brined skin protecting the meat through whatever process it goes through makes for some of the most succulent, flavorful and, yes, fatty pork I’ve ever eaten.  Much like the hash browns that accompany so many steaks, the potatoes make for the perfect addition to the plate, crumbling easily with just the slightest pressure and packed with butter – delicious.

Maialino al Forno - baby, suckling pig

Equally impressive was how seemingly easy it is for Maialino’s chef, Nick Anderer, to change gears.  My mother’s grilled swordfish was simple in the best possible definition of the term.  It was delicious and moist, still possessing its natural juices, no easy feat considering how many dry and rubbery swordfish filets this city is rife with.

Pesce Spada - Swordfish, Fennel & Mushrooms

I’m continuously surprised by how few Italian restaurants in this town have limoncello on their after dinner drink menus, in my mind, the two are synonymous, but perhaps that’s just me.  Upon hearing my request for a glass, our waitress bemoaned and apologized, explaining that the restaurant’s wine director had not yet started making it.  I would have settled for any, it needn’t be artisan, but quality over quantity is key in the Meyer domain and so I moved on to select a dessert.

Aside from the typical Italian dolci favorites, there were some interesting and exciting options.  I went with the affogato – a favorite of mine – or espresso poured over vanilla gelato or ice cream; though disappointed the espresso wasn’t warm and the gelato cold, it hit the spot.

Affogato

My mother chose to try three scoops of gelato (two pistachio, one vanilla).  It was a rather pedestrian choice that I internally questioned, but she swore up and down that she’d never had gelato before and, if that actually was the case, which I doubted, far be it from me to stand in her way.  Christine on the other hand had a sformato di ricotta, what was essentially a ricotta panna cotta with figs and honey.  It was simple (picking up on a theme here?) and light, leaving her sweet tooth satisfied but not overly so.

Sformato di Ricotta (Ricotta Panna Cotta)

*******

(seven out of ten)

NYT Prediction: I’ll be honest: I feel I didn’t make enough divergent food choices at Maialino to appropriately gauge its scope.  That said, there isn’t a hell of a lot more one needs to know than to be sure to order the maialino al forno.  Danny Meyer has succeeded like no other in a business that’s founded on the rubble of crumbled – and still crumbling – restaurants, and for that he is to be applauded.  Maialino is his love letter to Italian dining and all that such food has come to mean for us Americans, and, though it may not quite measure up to his other great spots or those finer Italian competitors littered about the city, I have no doubt that it will be a raving success. I foresee two stars in its future.

Eleven Madison Park

*********

(nine out of ten)

On the way out of Maialino, my mother decided to swing into her “I’ll talk to anyone” mode that all mothers – but especially mine – have somewhere in them.  At what point in life do we stop caring, say ‘fuck it,’ and engage in conversations with, or, even better, make requests of, perfect strangers.  Some may find it endearing and the folks at Maialino may be among them, but to me it’s just my mom’s typical schtick and therefore highly embarrassing.  Regardless of my eye rolls, my mom approached a would-be manager at the baked goods station to inquire about what looked like a sticky bun that was topped with herbs and salt.  After some back and forth and the manager’s all-too-happy-to-assist attitude (another Meyer trait), he offered us some to take home, which we happily accepted.

What happened next would alter our dinner the next evening:  we mentioned that, for the second night in a row, we’d be dining at a Danny Meyer establishment, this time Eleven Madison Park.  Once he heard that the manager asked us to wait right there.  He returned with Megan, the manager of Eleven Madison Park, who just so happened to be eating at Maialino that night.  It’s always great to meet someone on the inside and to have an ‘in,’ so we were happy to meet her and she promised us a great evening on Saturday.  She lived up to her word.

Eleven Madison Park (EMP) is the crown jewel of the Danny Meyer empire, for over eleven (oddly enough) years it has been one of the most revered and elegant restaurants this city has to offer.  In that time it has always promised, much more so than so many other well-to-do spots, an experience as much as it has great food; however, it wasn’t until Meyer hired Swiss chef Daniel Humm in 2006 that it really turned the corner towards true New York greatness.

There are two things one immediately notices when entering EMP through its revolving door, tucked into the corner of the gothic, Credit Suisse building:  the space and the staff.  What surely must amount to the most expensive lease in Mr. Meyer’s domain, EMP occupies a soaring cathedral to culinary advancement smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.  Its walls and tables pure white, glass vases and their contents throughout the multi-tiered room stretching skyward to the ceiling some 40 feet above and creating an understated drama that immediately makes you wonder if you’re dressed appropriately.

Once through the door at EMP one is typically met by androgynously dapper young women, standing sentry at either side of the revolving entry, ensuring the door moves smoothly and effortlessly and that what one may have heard about the restaurant’s award-winning hospitality is not simply rumor.

On our brief walk from the hostess’ modest stand to our table we, right on cue, happen upon Megan, she’s smartly dressed and, as if donned upon entrance, her tone is distinctly calmer and quieter compared to 24 hours prior.  She again ensures us that she has a pleasant evening planned for us, that she will be by in a bit and that there may be some surprises to come later.  I smiled and thanked her and we made our way to the table.

This was my second visit to EMP and based on those visits what I can say is that the eating starts nearly immediately.  Not at all in the gratuitous way many of us have grown accustom to in this country, but in a way comparable to the humble welcoming of friends and family to your home: in small bites meant to whet ones appetite before amusing it.  It was no different the second time around, as long, elliptical plates arrived in short order with one-bite gems, the descriptions of which I forgot nearly as soon as they were explained, but all were outstanding.

Small Bites

As I’ve brought up in the past, well prepared duck has got to be one of my favorite proteins – and EMP has one of the finest I’ve ever tasted.  I would highly recommend the dish:  it’s prepared for two and is presented to the table whole, golden and warm, with dried lilac and provencal herbs shooting from its cavity; it’s then whisked away for preparation and plating.  It’s an event worth seeing.

I happened to mention my love of the dish to Megan on Friday night and, in what amounts to a testament to the lengths these employees will go for their patrons, she shared that with our server.  Menus in our hands, the waiter nodded at Christine and me and said he understood our understandable affectation for the duck and that, while of course still delicious, if we wished to move in a slightly different direction, he would recommend the Blue Foot chicken.

Before I skip right to entrees though, it’s probably best to talk about appetizers.  As is customary it seems these days, we were served an amuse bouche after the small bites – as if our bouches weren’t amused enough – that consisted of a silky pumpkin bisque with an accompanying foam.  Served in small and covered white ramequins, the tops of each were removed simultaneously by three set of servers, a move that, while cliché, felt more apropos, and my mother could do little but remind me how much my father would have really loved this meal.

Amuse Bouche

For appetizers, Christine had the heirloom beets ‘salad’ with some fresh farm cheese and a ‘rye crumble.’  The way this dish looked was precisely why some people are put off by true French cooking (though not me):  while visually stunning, its tininess is meant more to do exactly what appetizers are meant to do, leave one wanting more, not full.  Going back to my first point though, I’d find it hard to believe that, even if one was disappointed by its portion, this plate could soon be forgotten on account of its sheer beauty and the craftsmanship involved.

Heirloom Beets - Salad with Lynnhaven Farm Chèvre Frais, Rye Crumble and Nasturtium

Much as I did going into Friday night’s dinner, I had reminded my mother before entering EMP that this wasn’t going to be a pedestrian offering of food and that she may be, err, forced, to make some decisions she otherwise wouldn’t.  I think her appetizer was the one limb she went out on, much to her delight.  Mom selected the Alaskan king crab for a starter, which included a number of variations of the crustacean with some green apple, cilantro and a ‘madras curry.’  As crab cake this was not, and I was happy my mom took a chance, and so was she.

Alaskan King Crab - Variations with Green Apple, Cilantro and Madras Curry

Meanwhile, I chose the fresh farm egg, perfectly prepared and with a yolk so large that, once opened with a gentle prod, it became much like a soup.  Included with the egg were autumnal mushrooms and, in a first for me, frogs legs, which tasted, of course, a great deal like chicken.  Every part of this dish was unique in its own right, but together they became such a cohesive offering I’d ignored trying to identify each and rather just enjoyed them all.  By virtue of its colors alone this was certainly a fall dish but definitely not one I’d be opposed to eating year round.

Knoll Krest Farm Egg - Slow Poached with Autumn Mushrooms and Everglades Frogs’ Legs

A quick Google search for “Blue Foot chicken” reveals why the staff at EMP were so excited to have, just that day, received a shipment of the birds from California, after vying for them for quite some time.  The Blue Foot – which, yes, has blue feet – is the American variety of the French chicken Poulet de Bresse, a chicken long revered in France for its depth of flavor and tenderness.  Not to get too detailed here, but, the free-range Blue Foot is slaughtered later than the usual chicken and then air-chilled, which is believed to enhance the flavor and texture of the bird.  Also of note, the bird is salmonella free.

Ok, enough of the zoology lesson.  After hearing of the bird’s preparation: stuffed with foie gras, roasted, presented and carved table-side, Chris and I knew that we’d be sharing that as a dish for two.  Now, I know I’ve highlighted my love of roasted chicken in the past, but this was the roasted chicken to end them all and was incredible, like, last-meal-on-this-planet incredible.  The chicken, already well flavored from its rearing and preparation is all the more enhanced by the rich, earthy goodness of the foie gras.  I’m a firm believer that, much like how adding bacon to most things can improve it, adding foie gras to a dish elevates it ten-times higher than an easy fix like bacon ever could and makes for a tractor beam-like attraction, a la Robert Palmer:  simply irresistible.

A bit hard to see, sorry, but this is the chicken on its table-side carving board

Much like duck or foie gras, anything marrow crusted is not going to be terrible.  So, it wasn’t that hard a sell to convince my mother that, despite her unfamiliarity with the salty deliciousness that is cow’s bone marrow, she was sure to enjoy the black angus beef, crusted in marrow and accompanied by braised shallots.  Given her penchant for talking throughout a meal, I took her silence upon the entrée’s arrival as a sign of enjoyment.

I promise this review won’t go on too much longer.

Desserts at EMP are some of the most decadent available in this city, offering both seasonal variables as well as staples.  I went with a staple: the Eleven Madison’s Symphony No. 2, the restaurant’s ode to the ideal dessert, which is the deepest, darkest chocolate tart I’ve ever tasted, accompanied by a stripe of caramel, caramel ice cream, sea salt and, of course, gold leaf.  It is the best completion for a meal at EMP and lives up to every part of the restaurant’s reputation for excess and refinement

Eleven Madison’s Symphony No. 2 - Chocolate Tart with Caramel and Maldon Sea Salt

Christine opted for a seasonal choice, selecting the ‘Caramel Apple,’ which amounted to a broken down version of the carnival favorite, except prepared by a world-class chef, so, consequently, it was amazing.  Complete with toffee, walnuts and granny smith apple ice cream, she couldn’t have been happier with her choice

“Caramel Apple” - Toffee, Walnuts and Granny Smith Apple Ice Cream

Finally, my mother chose the sheep’s milk yogurt cheesecake with cranberries and gingerbread.  The tanginess of the sheep’s milk rivaled that of the cranberries briefly, before the smooth chill of the cake and the spiced gingerbread offset them both, creating a wonderful autumn dessert.

Sheep’s Milk Yogurt Cheesecake - New England Cranberries and Gingerbread

As is common with restaurants of its stature, the eating at EMP isn’t concluded simply with the ordering of dessert.  Rather, macaroons – the small meringue sandwich cookies – are next, typically with a digestif.  Before we could get to this point, however, Megan made her second trip to our table and asked if we wouldn’t mind following her for a bit of a surprise.  This is when my heart started to palpitate.  She proceeded to walk us up the slight ramp to the EMP kitchen doors.  We then entered the kitchen.

I’m a novice to kitchen tours.  Growing up, I’d wanted to become a chef and dreamed of creating dishes that were as enjoyable as those we’d just had, but at no point in my fantasy did the kitchen look anything like the one at EMP.  It is, quite plainly, a well-oiled machine.  Amazingly clean, it is stark white and tremendously organized.  There is a ‘cold’ station, where any dish that is required to be prepared and/or served cold is made.  There are comparable stations for essentially every particular phase of the meal, each of which having upwards of, from my count, six to eight chefs: small bites, amuse bouche, entrée, accoutrement, desserts and sweets.  As a testament to how impressive the kitchen is as a whole, even the dish washing station is a sight to behold:  as Megan explained, each individual glass, plate and silver is hand buffed or polished before making it to the dining room floor.

It occurred to me, mouth agape, that I was having the most memorable dining experience I’d ever had, in New York or anywhere, and I kept spinning round and round, section to section, drinking it all in.

Leaving the kitchen felt the way it feels when you quickly exit a Jacuzzi only to hop into a swimming pool, a bit of shock giving way to chilled refreshment.  Megan led us to a small lounge area near the restaurants door, where, on a glass table situated between two small couches, multi-tiered plates held the long awaited macaroons and beside it sat a bottle of very good and very strong cognac, with Megan’s compliments.

Cognac and Macaroons

In the note I wrote to Megan in the days following our dinner, I thanked her for her hospitality and kindness.  Moreover, I thanked her for something I could never repay her for:  the memory.  It is said that one remembers the company of a dinner more than the meal itself.  However, what Megan, the chefs and staff at Eleven Madison Park afforded us that night was the perfect balance of the two, and I know that for years to come I’ll be reminded of that meal with my mother and I will be forever grateful.

One may think that this must alter my opinion of EMP, that because they treated me so well that I somehow ‘owe’ them a positive review.  Well, I suppose that could be true but every aspect of this restaurant is deserving of such regard, all things have been considered, down to the most granular of details, and most of it done before you ever enter the door.  To me, there is no such thing as perfect; all things are subjective in the end and that is why I will never reward a ten-star rating.  Where a restaurant stops in its pursuit of perfection is what defines it, and that is why, with its seemingly unending quest of completeness, I believe Eleven Madison Park is the finest restaurant in New York City.

Weekend Eating

Image Gallery

First off, I know, I’m sorry, I never wrote a review on last week’s venture to The Little Owl.  I was a bit discouraged from doing so, mostly because it was so dimly lit that all attempts at photography were in vain and I’d have been left to try and steal from the web.  Not an altogether new concept for me but still, a bit disingenuous.

Anyway, as for this week, my Mom is making her annual pilgrimage to NYC to check up on me – and, of course, to judge me.  To distract me – and hopefully her – from her yearly inquisition, I’ve planned some dinners.  Shocker I know.

As I told Chris, it’s a Danny Meyer weekend:  tonight we’re hitting up his newly opened, and first-time Italian-only, restaurant, Maialino (photo above).  Meyer has proven time and again that he’s easily the best and finest restaurateur in this city and I am doubtful that tonight’s experience will disappoint.

Tomorrow, following a show, we’re returning to one of my all time favorite restaurants and anther Danny Meyer gem:  Eleven Madison Park (photo above).  Easily, in my opinion, a top 5 restaurant in the city, I cannot wait to engorge myself for over three hours in all they have to offer – including debating, once again, between suckling pig and muscovy duck for two.

This time, I promise:  reviews of each to follow.

Published in: on November 20, 2009 at 3:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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Dinner at The Little Owl Tonight

Another 12-seat restaurant with an impossible-to-get reservation, FINALLY Chris and I will eat at The Little Owl tonight.  And of course, its famous meatball sliders will be ordered.

Yet another Italian dinner…review to follow.

Published in: on November 13, 2009 at 9:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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Roasted Chicken Wizardry

Locanda Verde

****** (6 out of 10)

As of today, a Google search for “Roasted Chicken” yields about 9,260,000 results.  A rather staggering figure if you consider the results for the following searches:

  • Brownies – 7,600,000
  • Roasted turkey – 6,230,000
  • French fries – 4,680,000
  • Cheeseburger – 3,140,000
  • Chocolate chip cookies – 3,120,000
  • Filet mignon – 1,800,000
  • Grilled cheese – 1,640,000

And, just to cover all bases:

  • Ninja assassin – 8,410,000
  • Pablo Picasso – 3,850,000
  • Tears for Fears – 2,320,000
  • Steven Seagal – 1,490,000

I think you get the picture.  My point is that roasted chicken is, at once, both ubiquitous and, judging by the number of recipes included in those nine million-plus hits, one of the most complicated items to cook – and get right – any chef or novice alike could ever take on.

I’m sure a number of chefs have overlooked including a roasted chicken on his or her menu due to a misguided sense of refinement, however, I owe a lot of that resistance – whether the chef will admit to it or not – to fear.  I believe that the truest test of any cook’s might is not in the elaborate but in prevailing over this small yet potentially delicious poultry.  However, like slaying a dragon, many more fail than succeed; most return home scorched, happy to allow others to try their best in their stead.

Yet, for such an uncomplicated assignment, there is more to it than that.  To win over the fowl just once, twice, even a dozen times is not enough, rather to excel at it is the ultimate victory, garnering with it both praise and envy.  For all of these reasons, including roasted chicken on a menu is one of the cockiest moves any chef could make.  Consequently, Andrew Carmellini, executive chef of the Robert DeNiro-owned Locanda Verde in TriBeCa, may just have the biggest ego in the city…and rightly so.

It would seem that the perfectly cooked roasted chicken needs to be a number of things at the same time and the most successful of roasted chickens seem to carry a number of common traits.  Seasoning is a must; salt and pepper – rosemary is a common go-to, too – must rival even the most dominant of other ingredients.  Citrus is next; the most superlative of roasted chicken dishes, in my opinion at least, include an element, though seemingly unbeknownst to most home cooks, of lemon or orange, that adds a pungency and moistness that makes up one of the most memorable elements of the dish.  From here, the point is to stay simple, getting too ambitious or taking too many risks most often do not pay off.  Rather, heavy doses of common favorites like garlic and onions – in Mr. Carmellini’s case, carrots, mushrooms and roasted peppers, too – add both to the rustic feel of the dish and, of course, the flavor.

THE Roasted Chicken

Fire-Roasted Garlic Chicken for Two

That’s it.  Seriously.

Locanda’s fire-roasted garlic chicken for two easily is the most enjoyable dish on the menu and may be the finest roast chicken in the city – and, for me, makes for a close second to my all time favorite: Hamersleys Bistro in Boston.  It is dripping with flavor (and, I’ll admit, a fair amount of oil too).  There is far too much garlic than is socially acceptable, which I was grateful for, and was curious how popular this dish could be for the business lunch crowd from nearby Greenwich Street.  Finally, as you can see above, as a dish for two it comes served on a platter, a mass of contorted poultry that is somewhere between bistro chic and carrion.  Who cares though, this chicken is ridiculous!

I honestly could fill another two pages about this chicken, and roasted chicken in general, but I’d be remiss not to briefly delve into some of the other standouts.

The meal went by, almost unnecessarily so, in a blur from seating to ordering: cicchetti (or ‘small plates’), antipasti, pasta, secondi, & dolci.  A quick glance around the lofty, sepia-toned space at 9:30 this past Friday night revealed some empty tables, which made me question further the speedy, are-you-done-yet? service.

The cicchetti we ordered were smart and delicious.  Notably, the blue crab crostini with jalapeños and tomato (an order brings two, two-biters) was thankfully absent the fishyness that sometimes plagues the crustaceans, and the hot pepper and tomato added a hint of depth that made me consider ordering another.  The fresh – and by fresh I mean imported, perhaps even that morning – Sheeps’ milk ricotta is the most simple of appetizers I’ve had in recent memory but nonetheless one of the most delicious.  Aware of the standalone strength of the cheese, Mr. Carmellini simply plops a hearty dollop of it on a wooden serving dish, adds sea salt and some dried herbs and accompanies it with charred focaccia toast.  I cannot begin to tell you how wondrous a combination the cheese is with the carbon-filled char of the bread, I’ll simply say that we ordered more of the bread.

Sheeps' Milk Ricotta

Sheeps' Milk Ricotta with sea salt and herbs

For antipasti, the lone order was a delicious one: warm mushroom salad that, along with a light toss of oil, came with a poached farm egg which, when broken, emulsified slightly and became a rich coating for the friseé and mushrooms.

Admittedly, we took little risk with the pasta orders.  When a chef calls out a dish and allows for a window into its genesis, often times a favorite from childhood or a borrowed, ‘secret’ family recipe, it seems only wise to order it, and so “My Grandmothers’ Ravioli” was a no brainer.

My Grandmothers' Ravioli

Just Like Grandma Used to Make

A house-made ravioli filled with pork and covered with vine-fresh tasting ragu and fresh parmesan was more delicate than its hearty, old world name would imply, but it still happily matched or exceeded expectations.  The other pasta choice, made mostly because of our vegetarian dining companion’s love of pumpkin, an agnolotti (a kind of ravioli) with brown butter, sage and amaretti.  Sage is one of those flavors that instantly makes you think of fall, stuffing and foliage, and it is easily the best herbal companion to autumnal vegetables.  The dish made for cozy, come-in-from-the-cold enjoyment, much like the setting around us.

Spaghetti with cauliflower

Pumpkin Agnolotti with Brown Butter, Sage and Amaretti

All told, Locanda Verde has an enjoyable vibe that’s a combination of sceney and approachable, which makes for a welcomed departure from the somewhat sterile if not deserted environs of this part of the city.  Opened for less than a year now, the restaurant is still growing, working out the kinks that all restaurants do in their first year and, I’m sure, getting better.  The roasted chicken, however, needs no improvement.

******

(out of 10)

Published in: on November 10, 2009 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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