Wednesday, October 24, 2007
I started out trying to write a review of Iron Bridge, where I went for dinner with my parents over the weekend, as though it were any other place I review in the city, as an exercise. I started out with a semi-jocular description of Columbia, the town where I grew up, and then got stuck. I had written down everything we ate, but didn't have all that much to say about it. But maybe that is what I have to say.
Columbia is a planned community, situated on the imaginary line between Baltimore and Washington (as a quasi-local, I never got into calling it DC, although everyone else seems to), a little closer to Baltimore. What "planned" means, at least in Columbia's case--the circumstances were considerably different in Levittown, NY , and somewhat less so in Reston, VA--is that some developers (led by the late James Rouse, actor Edward Norton's grandfather) got together in the mid-late 60's, found some land in then-rural Howard County, MD, and built a town on the idea that different people from different backgrounds could live well together. Present-day Columbia consists of seven "villages," each with its own village center (a sort of circularly laid-out strip shopping center with some public space), a high school or two, a handful of middle schools, and several elementary schools. The town center is home to Lake Kittamaqundi (featured in the lovely picture above, which I found here), an ever-increasingly upscale mall, and a handful of restaurants and green space. Columbia's a great place to grow up, but I wouldn't [yet] call it a tourist mecca.
Over the years, the occasional eatery of note has cropped up in one of the restaurant parks in the area (that's what they call them; do non-planned communities have restaurant parks?), but on the whole, given time and the inclination to do some driving, my parents go to Baltimore or Washington to do their serious eating. Iron Bridge Wine Company is one of the few places in town that could survive in a foodier setting than Columbia. It's got the sort of "we love good ingredients" attitude that we take for granted here in New York, but is a refreshing change along Route 108. Iron Bridge could lead the way for Columbia to become the sort of dining destination that many of its residents would give their cul-de-sacs to live in.
So, about that food. The sweet potato bisque, while a little under-warm in my book, was very tasty. It had a little kick to it and, frankly, stole my heart with its color and seasonality. Who can resist a sweet potato in October? I ordered the baby arugula salad with strawberries, queso fresco, and chocolate-balsamic vinaigrette and had the kitchen hold the hazelnuts. It is only in rereading the menu that I am reminded that chocolate was supposed to be part of the dressing; I don't recall noticing it as I ate. The salad was good overall: nice, fresh strawberries, and I'm a sucker for a salad with fruit and cheese in it. My mom ordered a Caesar salad. This was what theatre historians would call her tragic error, because she is the Queen of Dressingontheside and what she really wanted was a green salad, but it seemed there wasn't one available. Sure enough, moments after Caesar's arrival, she flagged down a server (not ours, incidentally) and asked for another salad without the dressing because, as she put it, "it looked like each lettuce leaf had a pint of mayonnaise on it." But how do you really feel? To her credit, I think she may have made that last comment to us and not to the waitstaff.
If there is something Maryland does right, it's crab. I used to order crab cakes regularly in New York, because I assumed they would all be like the ones I grew up with. I have learned my lesson and now avoid them outside DelMarVa. I now know that most of the world thinks that little shreddy bits of crabmeat are wholly acceptable building material for a crab cake. Where I come from, only jumbo lump crabmeat will do. In summary, please observe the following:
Top Chef, famously said back in June that "[y]ou can fry my toe and if you batter it right, it's going to taste good." Indeed, frying something as delectable as jumbo lump crabmeat is unnecessary and insulting and would only conceal its beauty. Toes, yes, but good crab, no.
That said, my mother and I had the jumbo lump crabcake with heirloom tomato salad, asparagus, and balsamic drizzle. These cakes were fine specimens; I only hope they tide me over until my next visit home. My father had oven baked rockfish with tapenade, lime-scented polenta, and charred tomato sauce, which was inventive, flavorful, and satisfying. I often bypass fish in favor of proteins I think will better hit the spot, but this one would have done the trick in style. And lime-scented polenta. Yum.
Unfortunately, dessert was a no-go this time, as we were in a semi-hurry to get me to an Amtrak back to the city, but I would definitely return to Iron Bridge Wine Company. It's doing a great job of helping Columbia to be a place to visit, and not just a place to live.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
I know the name Bobo makes you think of things like Mr. Burns’s childhood teddy bear and Fijian rugby players, but put those out of your mind. This one is short for “Bourgeois bohemian,” a term for post-yuppies coined by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, and the
This is a gorgeous space, with low, beamed ceilings and exposed brick on all sides. It’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a trendy, touristed part of town as outside noise melts away and streetlights give way to taper candles on every table. After the bartender explained the differences between the Perfect Manhattan and the Sweet Manhattan as though Vermouth were his first language, we were prepared for a very special meal.
One of our first courses was the tarte flambée, a regional specialty of
Next up for me was homemade almond pappardelle with roasted porcini mushrooms, speck (seasoned and smoked pork), and parmesan cheese. The fact that the pasta was made with almond flour was an innovative touch and, for me, more than excused the slightly unusual taste and texture. The mushrooms were in large pieces, particularly compared to the tiny shreds of speck—specks, really—and so I kept mistaking the porcini for meat, then fat, before realizing what I was eating. The ensemble got frustratingly less appetizing the more I ate of it. Chicken Grand-Mère, with red wine, mushroom, bacon and mashed potatoes, was our other main, and it bred visions of coq au vin gone slightly awry. It was clearly intended to be the sort of comfort food you would ascribe to someone’s grandmother, as the name indicates, but the grandmothers I know do a better job of seasoning. We decided to skip dessert.
Bobo’s location and aesthetic will probably keep it afloat for quite some time. The service was excellent, the bread basket above average, and we were able to get a table without a reservation after a lovely few minutes at the bar. It is my hope that Chef Nicolas Cantrel and company won’t rest on these laurels and will raise the level of the food up to that of which they are capable.
11 W 31st St (5th Ave/Broadway)
What kind of a name is Ayza? I wondered. The food and the accents on the staff suggest some cross between
The interior of the restaurant is wide and shallow, with a bar in the center and seating areas on either side. Each seating area consists of two long, high benches facing each other, punctuated with small tables. The benches are upholstered in a warm red fabric and allow their occupants to look either out the wall of windows or at the action going down at the bar. Pairs and groups of diners are given the option of putting chairs at the tables opposite the benches, or adopting the side-by-side arrangement favored by people-watchers and lovey couples. Rectangular pendant lamps with linen shades hang from the ceiling and complete the cozy ambience.
We started the meal with tuna tartare with fresh avocado, crème fraîche, and sweet fish roe. Raw tuna seems to be popping up every time you open a menu these days, with avocado as a frequent accomplice, but the crème fraîche set this dish refreshingly apart from the masses. Next came a platter of cheeses and charcuterie (the generic French term for cured and cooked meats, usually pork-based, of which we chose three and two, respectively, from a list that features five of each. The meat-and-cheese-oriented can select either three or five items from the combination of Column A and Column B, and they come with fresh peaches, champagne grapes and fig mustard. Our cheeses were soft Bucheron, made from goat’s milk, hard Hoch Ybrig from
When I asked our waitress what goat cheese in pâte de brick was, I worried that her hesitation before comparing it to a blintz might be due to the distance between English and her mother tongue. But her description turned out to be perfect. My plate featured a bed of greens upon which lay the loveliest of gifts: goat cheese with honey, thyme, and rosemary, cradled in crisp pastry and drizzled with a balsamic glaze. If you have never had the pleasure of tasting goat cheese and honey together, now is the time. The herbs did the divine pairing one better. We also ordered the medallions of filet mignon with roasted port shallots. The meat was flavorful, but was thin and lacked the sear we expected, almost appearing to have been boiled. The shallots were nicely caramelized and there was a small green salad flavored with truffle oil.
I’m not going to dress it up: the Twenty-Layer Crêpes Cake, which comes from Lady M Cake Boutique on the
As for wine, we enjoyed a glass of Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Les Setilles Chardonnay—a light, fresh white Burgundy—and one of pink-tinged white sangria fairly brimming with peach and strawberries, which was ladled from a large pitcher on the bar.
Ayza is not the restaurant I would choose for an expense account dinner, but it is the perfect place to gather a group of friends for a delicious bite before a night out. I look forward to returning to try the rest of the meats and cheeses and—I won’t lie—getting another piece of that crêpe cake.
9 Jones St (Bleecker/W 4th Sts)
We had high hopes when we made our reservation at Perilla. It is, after all, Harold Dieterle’s first-born child since he was named the first-ever Top Chef on Bravo’s reality series of the same name. My husband, Gourmando, and I arrived at the restaurant about five minutes before our reservation and, with “what are you doing here so early?” eyes, the hostess told us we could stand by the bar until our table was ready. By the bar, not at the bar, as the bar was already packed to capacity. A few minutes later, some of our predecessors were seated at their table and we were able to score a couple seats in which to wait.
Our dinner at Perilla could be approached from two angles: that of the fairly good food, which ranged from pleasant to excellent, and that of the service, which ranged from decent to dangerously negligent. I will try to tackle both.
As always hard-pressed to pass up a look at a crustacean digit, I began with the peekytoe crab salad with avocado and mango and ginger dressing. The ingredients were fresh enough and combined well, but the whole was predictable; I felt I could have found the same dish prepared equally well at a dozen other good restaurants.
Gourmando had the crispy
My main course was the black truffle ravioli with sheep’s milk ricotta, forest mushrooms, and peas, and as with anything truffled that catches my interest, I had to do some fast talking to convince Gourmando to let me be the one to order it. Each of the ravioli had a slice of black truffle inside, visible even before the first bite. The pasta and filling were silky smooth and the light, buttery sauce made me wish I had more bread so that I didn’t have to leave any of it behind. Unfortunately, the bread man never came back, and so I was left to scoop up what I could with the inedible utensils at hand.
Gourmando was successfully distracted from his truffle-hunting ways by the wild boar chop Milanese, with aged Pecorino, pine nuts, and fennel pollen vinaigrette. He enjoyed its nutty flavor, which he was pretty sure came from more than just the pine nuts; is fennel pollen nutty? He was also impressed that the chop’s being fried didn’t make it overly heavy.
When it came time for dessert, I wondered if I had done something to anger somebody in the kitchen, because my butternut squash cake was so very small. The flavor was satisfying and autumnal, though, and combined with cranberry compote, it made me feel as though Thanksgiving had come early. The crème fraiche ice cream that came along for the ride was tangy and a nice touch.
It turned out that Gourmando was the one who should really have been worried. Although his apple rum raisin crisp was almost too much dessert for one man alone and contained a pleasing ratio of crumbly topping to fruit, it was served in a metal dish. There was no mention made when it was placed in front of him of how hot it was, and Gourmando actually burned his finger on the bowl. He was able to secure some ice water to dunk the finger in and some burn gel, but this was a mishap that could so easily have been averted with a little communication. The restaurant didn’t charge us for the dessert but—foolishly, in my opinion—didn’t tell us they weren’t charging us for it, which could have earned them some points in the customer care department.Perilla’s major failing overall, aside from the nearly intolerable noise level, was an absence of communication. Once our food arrived, our waiter never returned to ask how it was, something that servers seem to have mastered even at such informal eateries as TGIFriday’s. The support staff—busboys and the like—didn’t say a word to us. We were left feeling just short of welcome, as though a restaurant that was so in-demand that we couldn’t get a table before 10pm could really do without our business. And so they may. The food was good—and at moments phenomenal—but I’m not sure Perilla has made a return customer of me.
(Note: this is a long one; I got excited.)
Fabio Trabocchi was taking an unnecessary risk when he came to New York to assume chef-partnership of the reimagined Fiamma on Spring Street in Soho. He was Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 2002, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington's Chef of the Year in 2005, and just last year, won the honor of being the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef - Mid-Atlantic--all for his work at Maestro at the Ritz-Carlton Tyson's Corner in McLean, VA. This was not a guy whose career needed a boost. And yet, he decided to leave all that behind and make his way north to notoriously tough Manhattan this summer, to take the reins of a restaurant that had garnered a Michelin star and three from the Times under its previous chef. The stakes were considerable.
I got to Fiamma just about on time for our reservation. My husband, Gourmando, who I knew was running late, had not yet arrived. The hostess invited me back to the bar where, she assured me, Javier would take care of me. And take care of me he did. When I told him that I was looking for something sweet, he suggested the Fruit cocktail, explaining to me what the egg white was for (garnish and frothiness) and that once it touched the alcohol, bacterial concerns were a thing of the past. He checked in with me as I sipped to make sure that it was sweet enough, which I told him it was, although few drinks truly are sufficiently unalcoholic-tasting for my fluffy pink poodle of a cocktail palate. Javi practically gleamed with his pride at being behind the bar there. He was pleased at the changes the restaurant had undergone since Fiamma Osteria became simply Fiamma last Monday. He was enjoying his new glassware, among other things, and was eager to know what I thought of the place. We joked as though he had poured me a drink every evening for the last several years. By the time Gourmando arrived, Javi knew my name and wished us a splendid meal.
Fiamma is a veritable hug of a place even beyond the solicitous service. The walls are a glossy, comforting reddish wood and much of the tableware is made of this terrific thick, bubbly glass. This is somewhere you want to hang out. The language is welcoming, too. When our waiter brings us a little something—which most restaurants call an amuse-bouche, or simply an amuse—to start the meal, he refers to it as “a treat from the chef.” I love that; it’s a simple choice that makes us feel looked-after, as though the Chef-Partner Fabio Trabocchi wants to make sure we, specifically, have a great dinner, and so he sent this out to start it off right. It was a treat indeed: whipped cod, crispy squash blossoms, and a little cup of tomato water that somehow managed to be utterly tomatoey even though it was colorless. Trabocchi and his staff are magicians, and we didn’t even know it yet.
For my first course, I had something called Il Tonno. These were cubes of ruby ahi perfection, topped with shimmering little morsels of Caraquet oyster, the two blissfully united with tangy lemon confit. The closest I’ve ever been to being someone who clamors for oysters was when my mother was pregnant with me and craved them terribly one night. And now that I think of it, that may have been when she was pregnant with my brother. I’ve had a few (oysters, that is) in my time and usually find them curious and odd and best enjoyed with copious helpings of vinegary, shallot-infested mignonette. These, however, were fresh and oh, so clamor-worthy. That the little stacks were elevated on a sort of platform made from that blown glass, each one in its own little indentation, seemed wholly appropriate to their excellence—not to mention very pretty.
Gourmando started with Il Carpaccio, which was a duo of raw beefs, one a tartare with mushroom and Parmigiano, and the other tenderloin wrapped around marinated tofu, with a poached quail egg on top. Beef wrapped around tofu? The combination was unexpected genius. The presentation was beautiful and the two preparations were tender and expertly seasoned. It was something I would never have thought to order myself, but I count myself lucky to have married someone who is both gastronomically more adventurous than I and always willing to share a bite.
My main course was called, simply, I Ravioli, which so doesn’t begin to evoke what was happening on my plate. It was listed as Maine lobster ravioli with ginger and Sicilian Olio Verde. My eyebrows were raised slightly at the appearance of ginger in Italian environs, but I pressed on. Blessed be. As far as lobster goes, I am what can be called a claw girl. Lobster tails are easier to come by in the restaurant world, but I find them frequently chewy and inferior to the succulent claw meat. Well, I had found my match in I Ravioli. These were, to my mind, less ravioli and more dumplings, the skin translucent, letting through the red and white of the lobster meat within. And beside them was naked lobster meat, including my very own claw, fairly beckoning me closer. It didn’t even need to ask. The ginger turned out to provide a brilliant fusion of Asian flavors and Italian concepts.
Gourmando’s main course was I Vincisgrassi, a lasagna from Chef Trabocchi’s home region of Le Marche in the upper calf of the Italian boot (which I like to think of as knee-high, but if you prefer it as thigh-high, then think of it as where the saddlebags would be in a less svelte country). The lasagna came with ovoli mushroom salad and black truffle. “Do you think these truffles came from a jar?” Gourmando asked me, testing the waters of his good fortune. All the jarred truffles we have known were far smaller than these could possibly have been. Could they really be fresh? At this reasonable price? As I look at this week’s version of the Fiamma dinner menu online, I notice that the truffles are no longer listed and that the price has been reduced. So it looks as though Gourmando hit the fungus jackpot. The whole lasagna was delectable.
“Would you like to see the cheese menu or the dessert menu?” our waiter asked us after we had finished our main courses. Yes, we replied, we would like to see them both. And so it was that we ordered a plate of three cheeses to share: Tomme du Berger, a semi-soft raw sheep- and goat’s-milk cheese from France; Capra Sardo, a hard goat’s-milk cheese from Sardinia (I am the goat cheese maven of the two of us, and Gourmando generously let his mold-phobic wife pick two of the cheeses if I would allow a blue for the third. Marriage is all about compromise, no?); and Strachitunt, a cow’s-milk blue from Lombardy. The blue turned out to be quite mild, and so I really came out a winner. It’s hard to find a loser, though, when you’re dealing with three good cheeses and the attendant pageantry of sunflower honey, white wine jelly, quince paste, fig cake, and anise cookies.
But wait, there’s more! Not order dessert? Do you really think I’d do that to you? I had La Mela, featuring sheep yogurt mousse, compressed apples, apple consommé, and nepitella, an herb that smells like a mix of mint and oregano. It was good, but had several hard acts to follow, and didn’t quite measure up to its predecessors. We felt the same way about Gourmando’s dessert, Il Caramello, a combination of caramel textures (their word, not ours), nonino amaro gel, made from an Italian herbal liqueur, and vanilla.We almost went back to Fiamma the other night to have the tasting menu, but it was the weekend and we didn’t yet have a reservation. But we are that eager to return. I assured Javi on our way out that he has much to smile about: the new Fiamma is a tremendous success.
Usually, after I eat a meal at a restaurant I am going to review, it is all I can do to jot down some notes after I roll myself home. I make a point of ordering a first course, a main, and a dessert, so as to have a sense of each part of the menu, and this can be a coma-inducing amount of food. Never before have I sat down to write a full review as soon as I got home. But the diminutive portions at Tailor have left me feeling downright sprightly, which, as my grandfather likes to say, is a plus. On the other hand, as I write, three hours to the minute after we arrived for our reservation, my stomach is rumbling, which, as I regret to say, is a minus.
The menu at Tailor is labeled “Salty” on one side and “Sweet” on the other. Our waitress, who throughout the meal observed an almost comical level of formality, calling Gourmando and me “the gentleman” and “the lady,” respectively, suggested that we order three dishes per person, selecting those three from the two sides as we saw fit. I opted for two salty and a sweet, and Gourmando for three salty, with the last-minute addition of a sweet.
The gentleman started with the foie gras and peanut butter terrine with cocoa and pear. I don’t particularly enjoy either foie gras or peanut butter, but feel that their richnesses blended well, even if I didn’t much like how they tasted. Gourmando found the dish only fair. The lady began with the peekytoe crab salad with smoked pineapple, basil, and pine nut purée. I do love the word “peekytoe,” which only increased my affection for this fresh, satisfying dish. The crab and the pineapple did a little two-step in my mouth, and I only wish there had been more of them to keep the party going.
Gourmando’s next course was duck tartare with marjoram pesto and pickled cherry jam. I know that duck is all dark meat, which makes it inherently different from chicken and turkey, those lower-fat fowl oft dined upon in my youth, but I nonetheless have a hard time sitting with the idea of any raw bird. My kitchen socialization tells me that beef, lamb, and fish have options in their doneness, but pork and poultry—these need to be adequately cooked. So…duck tartare? I don’t trust it. I tasted it (humans are large creatures; a little bit of something I’m afraid is dangerous is probably okay, right?) and have yet to suffer any adverse effects, but wasn’t blown away.
My second salty course was slices of rare snapper with avocado ice cream, candied pistachios, watermelon, and black olive salad with minced shallots. The snapper was fine, but once I had finished it, the real fun began. Once again, I proved incapable of resisting watermelon in a savory dish, and its seductive ruby juiciness did not disappoint. This avocado ice cream concept should be exploited on a grander scale, I think, and with the watermelon, the saltiness of the olives, the crunch of the pistachios, and the quiet zing of the shallots…I’ve found my new favorite trail mix. Messy, yes, but the flavors! A delightful combination.
Gourmando’s third salty dish was classic him: pork belly with miso butterscotch and artichoke. Far be it from my beloved to pass up pork belly. Ordinarily it’s not something I would order, but once I tried his, I wanted my own. Our waitress had asked if the lady was going to mind not having a plate in front of her while the gentleman had his third salty course, and I assured her that his plate would be in front of me as well. She knew of what she spoke. I managed to nab a second fingerful of the sauce, but I did end up feeling a certain deprivation at only getting one bite of the whole. Miso butterscotch sounds odd at best, but ignore your instincts this time: the sweetness is divine with the pork, and the artichokes play along beautifully.
The same part of myself that convinced me a few years back to get several inches of my hair cut off, just to see if I could handle being less cute (not a comment on short hair vs. long hair, I assure you—just on what looks better on me), convinced me to order a dessert that started with the word tomato-peach. Sometimes—although not often—I like to be the member of the couple who wears the culinary headlamp and waders. The tomato-peach, which ended up being peach purée reset into the shape of peach slices (providing, Formal Waitress explained, unexpected textural and visual impact), tomato foam, and some other cherry tomatoey bits, was accompanied by black sesame ice cream and whipped ricotta cheese. The peach was lovely and the dish as a whole was interesting and worth trying. Gourmando had the soft chocolate ganache with ancho chile and a molé sauce, which was pretty good.
Tailor is trying hard. Not everything hit the mark for me, but the sweet-salty concept is very hip right now, and it makes this a fun place to spend an evening. My biggest qualm is the paltry amount of food we ended up consuming, and solving that problem could be as simple as having waitstaff suggest that patrons order more courses. Chef Sam Mason, former pastry chef at wd-50, is doing a great job of making our palates think, and despite the occasional miss, he’s getting a lot of it right.
We have a sneaky habit of arriving in advance to restaurants where we were only able to secure a late-night reservation. Often, even when OpenTable had said there was nothing available, we are able to be seated and fed right when we arrive. At BLT Market, Laurent Tourondel’s new cuisine-specific outpost in the Ritz-Carlton, early arrivals are pointed to the bar at the Star Lounge, just outside the restaurant’s door. This is the sort of spot where city bartending legend Norman Bukofzer charms gents and ladies alike, and a cocktail-for-a-crowd called the 1k will run you a cool $1000. Old-school class pervades. With this as our starting point, the chaos within BLT Market was all the more striking.
BLT Market serves tasty local, seasonal fare in an atmosphere so loud that I’m not sure I would go back. But I’m getting ahead of myself; first, the food. After we were seated, magical tongs placed a long, narrow white paper bag on our table, next to the small pot of rosemary that served as our centerpiece. Inside lay a delectable baguette, each segment spread with butter, garlic, and parsley. As our 9:30 reservation had refused to budge a moment earlier, we were starving and most appreciative of this flavorful beginning—or, frankly, anything edible placed before us.
I started the meal with the heirloom tomato and watermelon salad with Vidalia onion and
The langoustine arborio risotto with basil broth, zucchini, and Wisconsin Stravecchio cheese was offered in two sizes. I was prepared to order the smaller one, but sought the counsel of our waiter, to get a sense of what I was in for. He assured me that the smaller size was “very small.” Me: “How small?” Him: “A couple bites?” Come on. Really? So I took his advice and ordered the large, which came in at $38 to the small’s $24. It was good, although I couldn’t help thinking that my Italian forebears, if I had any, would plotz if they knew I was eating cheese and seafood together—or, worse still, that a restaurant had offered it that way! When we traveled to
For his main course, Gourmando had the 7-pepper-crusted, grass-fed
My dessert was a peach Tarte Tatin with frangipane, black currant, and frozen almond milk. I like to think of myself as something of a Tarte Tatin connoisseur (sample size: embarrassingly large), and I found the black currant an unfortunate addition to an otherwise respectable dessert. The flavor was unnecessary and got in the way. The almond, on the other hand, went well with the peaches and the overall Tatin ethos, if you will. Gourmando was excited about the rhubarb, raspberry, and blueberry cobbler with
Sequels often don’t measure up to the original. You don’t hear much about Teen Wolf Too, Pommes Frites 2 in
Tasting menus seldom catch my interest. I was never the girl who let her date order for her, and I don’t see why I should let some guy I’ve never met choose my food either—even if he is an executive chef. It’s not that I’m a picky eater, but there are things I’d just as soon leave to my foie gras-relishing, eel-inhaling husband. So much appealed to me on Pó’s menu that I couldn’t see not ordering the tasting menu. With a request to avoid sweetbreads, we set chef Lee McGrath free, our empty stomachs at his mercy.
Our menu began with a salad special: heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, purple basil, and olive oil. When our waitress brought it to our table, she told us that the purple basil had an interesting flavor, and if we would hold on a moment, she would go outside and snip some of their own basil for us to taste and compare. Were we in
The first of our two pasta courses was broccoli rabe and ricotta ravioli with butter sauce and chives. The ravioli was folded like an open envelope—an unusual and distinctive touch—and the broccoli rabe, lacking most of its typical bitterness, made for easy eating. Topped with a butter sauce lighter than its name might imply, the dish was a success. Our second pasta was one of the evening’s specials: mezza rigatoni (which, indeed, appeared to be half-rigatonis) with roasted garlic, guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon), sundried tomatoes, arugula, and shaved asiago cheese. This was one of the biggest treats of the night, a supremely satisfying combination of earthy, savory flavors. Yum.
I gently applied the brakes on our next course, concerned that if I wasn’t careful, I would be edging out storage space that rightfully belonged to dessert. Our main course was the grilled skirt steak with gorgonzola butter, string beans, and roasted pepper salad. This was the most ordinary dish we were served, but was nonetheless cooked to perfection. I enjoyed a few bites, reconfirmed for myself that I’m no great fan of gorgonzola, and patiently awaited what was to follow. Next up was a selection of cheeses from nearby Stinky Bklyn—what a great name for a cheese place! The presentation was oddly stark (three bits of cheese on a plate, sans accompaniment of any kind), but the cheese was tasty: one mild and semisoft, one harder and sharper, and one bluish.
Ah, dessert. I knew you wouldn’t fail me. This was the only course for which the two of us were each given something different—the better to taste you with, my dear. One was a chocolate terrine with caramel sauce and something slightly buttercrunchy inside, decadent and dreamy. The second was my favorite, Pó’s “world famous” panna cotta with cherries and cherry sauce. “‘World famous?’” I asked Beatrice. “Well,” she said, “it’s just really, really good.” Love this chick. And so it was, with a transcendent texture I couldn’t help envisioning as the perfect mattress for angels—yes, it made me a little delirious—and a sweet, dark sauce that helped to raise the whole yet farther above the standard, overplayed Italian-restaurant panna cotta to dizzying heights of loveliness.
We left Pó Brooklyn tremendously satisfied and—unimaginably—with wallets not bled dry by our indulgence. A $50 tasting menu at this level of quality, or indeed, a level much lower, is unheard of in
A glance at chefdb.com, which is to dorky foodies as IMDb is to dorky film buffs (but much, much worse), reveals that Anne Burrell, Executive Chef of Centro Vinoteca, held the same position at The E.U. from 2005-2006. Having reviewed The E.U. under its current Executive Chef (the third since Burrell’s departure) back in May, I feel completely justified in stating that Burrell has traded up. Way up.
In another past life, Burrell was Mario Batali’s sous chef on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, and Batali’s way with hip music and staff in soothing surroundings seems to have osmosed its way into Burrell’s new digs. The sleek blacks and grays of Centro Vinoteca’s furniture ooze urban chic without being pretentious or uncomfortable. When we arrived at our table, a wine list and slim menu of piccolini (which my limited grasp of the Italian language and woodwind instruments tells me means “little stuff”) lay before us. I feared for a moment—needlessly—that these 17 mini-dishes were all the food the restaurant offered. If, however, the three we sampled were any indication of the quality of the rest, a piccolini-only meal would have been a delight, although a bit disjointed given the number of courses it would have comprised. We chose the truffled deviled eggs, cipolline fritte (fried cipollini onions) with aioli, and peperonata (stewed peppers) with goat cheese to munch on while we decided on the rest of our meal (the menu for which, our waiter assured us, existed and brought us on our request). Swoon. There were actual bits of truffle in the deviled yolk of the eggs, rendering them decadent and delicious. Truffle oil is a more economical substitute often used to impart truffle flavor, and Burrell and company could easily have taken that route, but elected instead to regale us with the real thing. The cipolline were perfect little whole onions in a tempura-type batter, and the aioli was so tasty that we dipped the parsley garnish from the deviled eggs in the extra. Simple and perfect. The goat cheese and peppers were lovely together and boasted a gorgeous red color when spread on the accompanying slices of crusty bread. As I said, a dozen tiny courses of this stuff wouldn’t be a bad way to spend an evening.
One of our first courses was Dancing Ewe Farm ricotta sformato with caponata and arugula pesto. Sformato means, literally, unmolded, and in practice is a sort of denser soufflé, often containing beaten eggs. This one looked like a shallow, scallop-edged volcano and was light and creamy. The caponata, which went beautifully with the ricotta, contained the usual eggplant and peppers, and the unexpected addition of raisins provided a well placed hint of sweetness. Next up was lamb bolognese with crispy gnocchi and fried onions. This is gnocchi as you’ve never seen it before, caramelized on the outside, hearty and flavorful. Combined with the ground lamb, this was, as one at my table put it, “the ultimate comfort food,” and as imaginative a preparation as you’re likely to encounter.
My main course was farrotto with lobster, peas, mint, and oregano. Farro is a grain that is a predecessor of modern-day wheat, and farrotto is a risotto-like dish made from it. The lobster included tender claw meat and the flavors were refreshing and delightful. Knowing that dessert would surely be a treat, I tried to stop eating the farrotto before it was all gone, but was unable to resist downing every last bit. I also had the opportunity to taste the pancetta- and rosemary-crusted baby chicken with parmigiano polenta and fagiolini (string beans). The “crust” was more of a thin, crispy layer, “bursting with flavor,” that lay atop the bird. Burrell and her team succeeded with chicken where so many other kitchens fail: the meat was juicy and perfectly cooked, and the dish as a whole delicious and just right.
At last, time for dessert. The hazelnut cake with Nutella mousse was nicely presented and had a deconstructed, almost sandwich-cookie look to it. For me, however, it was the weakest part of the meal. I think it suffered from its exceptional surroundings; at a lesser restaurant, it would have been a highlight. The goat cheese cheesecake with macerated blueberries, on the other hand, measured up in every way to what had preceded it. It was not overly sweet and had a smooth, pleasing texture and crunchy crust. The blueberries were not only an excellent flavor choice, but made for a stunning contrast against the white of the goat cheese.Earlier on the day we dined at Centro Vinoteca, I had received an e-mail from my father, asking for a
It was Forum’s menu that drew me in: creatively combined ingredients, imaginatively prepared, as far as I could tell. My first steps inside should have tipped me off as to the place’s true focus. Restaurants have many tables and a bar, whereas Forum has a tremendous bar and a few tables up front. But let’s be fair: Forum doesn’t claim to be a restaurant; rather, it’s a lounge with ambitious food. So let’s talk about that food.
Dishes at Forum aren’t grouped into appetizers and mains, and so all are on the small side and invite playing the field. One of our first courses was the snow pea gazpacho soup with sweet shrimp salad and truffle oil. Not a pretty color, and Forum’s chefs seem to have interpreted “gazpacho” to mean any cold soup with vegetables, rather than the tomato-based concoction we all know it to be. This one was on the cold side, but not a tomato in sight. The shrimp was an interesting touch, but some at our table found the shrimp dry and unimpressive. Next up were the bouchot mussels with curry mango (what’s a curry mango?) and saffron aioli. The mussels were tough—possibly overcooked—and some were difficult to pry from their shells. This and something of a fishiness led us to doubt their freshness.
The Forum pizza wins the prize for the oddest dish we ordered. Foie gras, truffle oil, and mozzarella cheese, it advertised, and I was wary of the combination from the start. Indeed, they make a strange and heavy pizza topping. To our frustration, there was no truffle flavor to speak of and the crust was burnt. If the folks in the kitchen could get their cooking time right, I imagine the Margherita and Pepperoni incarnations wouldn’t be half bad.
The number-one menu item that made me want to check Forum out was the Summer Tuna Rolls with mango, avocado, cucumber, wasabi, and ginger sweet chili sauce, and they disappointed only in their diminutive size. I could easily have eaten and enjoyed a main course-size serving. The flavors worked beautifully together and were enhanced by the sweet spiciness of the sauce. We had the peach tartlet for dessert and it was not memorable enough to merit more than this one sentence.
I believe that Forum suffers from an acute lack of appropriate punctuation. I think it could be said most accurately that Forum is Fo’ Rum (the Sunset, made with Bacardi, coconut rum, mango puree, pineapple juice, and a splash of grenadine, made for delightful sipping while we awaited our food), or, if you prefer, that Forum is For, um, drinking. Bring a small appetite, if any, and enjoy the drinks. I regret that my lightweight status only allowed me to try the one, but the cocktail menu runneth over with enticing offerings, and appears unlikely to disappoint.
Borough Food and Drink, Zak Pelaccio and Geoffrey Chodorow’s new co-venture, celebrates the best of
We first dined at Borough Food & Drink on opening night, and the scene was a combination of circus and approaching-well oiled machine. There appeared to be almost as many employees as customers, which made the space between tables a bit busy at moments. When I had called ahead for a reservation, I had been told that I would be able to walk in and get a table, but this was woefully inaccurate. We ended up waiting at the bar, where bartendress Summer took excellent care of us, for almost an hour. The specialty cocktails are worth a sip, and so these were not moments idly spent. The “Legacy” of Bay Ridge tastes of the tropics (Bay Ridge in August?) and is almost unbearably sweet, and the Chelsea Cherry skillfully blends chocolate and cherry flavors. The Queens Candy Apple is a twist on the classic apple martini, topped with a slice of apple that, once you near the bottom of the glass, makes it difficult to get the last drops of appley goodness until you eat the apple. Once we were seated, service was attentive and our food arrived in a reasonable amount of time.
Borough Food & Drink is comfort food heaven, assuming that “comfort” isn’t referring to the sensation one experiences after a meal there. The restaurant is not the wisest pick for waistline-watchers, but for those who worship at the altar of the happy tastebud (and don’t mind the slight discomfort of overfullness afterward), this is the place. On our first visit, we began with flatbread topped with guanciale (an unsmoked Italian bacon) and ricotta and the big bowl of dumplings, and I would have been satisfied leaving the meal at that. The flatbread was especially delicious, making it difficult not to overindulge, even in anticipation of the courses ahead. The dumplings were pan-fried rather than my usual boiled, which made them no less delectable, but slightly heavier (read: less room for what followed). What followed were the spicy pork sliders, one topped with bacon and cole slaw, and the other with bacon relish. These were good, but our first course was a hard act to follow. We also got the perfect, threadlike tobacco onion rings and the fried pickles with spicy aioli, which, while they sound odd, were awfully tasty. Dessert was Brooklyn Blackout Cake from the Two Little Red Hens Bakery. Listen to me carefully: Do. Not.
On our second visit, for which we arrived with the triple threat of a reservation, an earlier dinnertime, and its being a Wednesday, we started with the Borough spreads & dips. These included smoky eggplant spread, a Lebanese “yogurt cheese” called lebneh, and taramosalata, the Greek fish-roe spread, and were served with warm bread spiced with zatar, a Middle Eastern blend of spices that often includes marjoram, wild oregano, thyme, toasted white sesame seeds, and sumac. One of my companions, who does not count himself among the babaganoush-friendly, nonetheless quite enjoyed the eggplant spread. The tangy lebneh and salty taramosalata balanced out the trio. The
This is not your father’s restaurant. Rather, it is your six-year-old nephew’s restaurant. Why else would the menu be covered in plastic, but to protect it against spilled juice? On the backside, beneath the plastic, is a cautionary image of a burlap surface with a splotch of sauce on it. You see? Saucy is telling us. This is what happens when you don’t cover your menus in plastic. The restaurant was also almost unbearably hot inside; apparently underage restaurateurs are most comfortable in womblike conditions. Junior also must have picked out the decorations, suspending burlap sacks full of “spices” from the ceiling in a Plexiglas® case. He did a nice job for a first-grader, to be sure, but what were supposed to look like heaping quantities of the various herbs and powders (which spice is Crayola crayon Orchid-colored again?) were clearly thin layers glued onto dome shapes inside the sacks.
It is a fact of American culture that the playground set is sadly lacking on the viticultural front. When we asked for the wine list, our waiter told us they were “still working on it,” but on our request, listed several types of red wine available by the glass. We ordered a glass of Pinot Noir, and he returned shortly after to tell us that not only did they not have Pinot available, but he “couldn’t find the bartender.” He brought us two bottles of red from which to taste, and said they were a Merlot and a Spanish wine. I asked him what kind of Spanish wine it was, and he examined the label and said that it was a “vino tinto.” Know what that means? Red wine. Period. We ordered the Merlot.
I started my meal with the lobster cake with mixed grilled mushrooms. The mushrooms must have been hiding out with the bartender, because I never found them on my plate. My first bite contained lobster shell, and while I appreciate the chef’s looking after my calcium intake, I would have settled for some mushrooms. The lobster was chewy, and the tomatoey broth in which it sat was decent, but not enough so to redeem the rest of the dish. The Caesar salad was underdressed (how embarrassing!) and, frankly, boring.
The main course portion of the menu consists of a list of 47 sauces, set up as a sort of checklist. Next to each sauce’s name and description is indicated on which of organic chicken breast, pasta, or beef that sauce is offered. Cute concept, right? I thought the “Turquoise” sauce sounded especially unappetizing; can you think of any naturally occurring foodstuffs that are turquoise in color? “Pesto cream sauce” (its true identity) sounds innocuous enough—appealing, even—but turquoise? Why not gravel? My brave companion threw caution windward and ordered penne with turquoise sauce, which turned out to be unremarkable, but at least no semiprecious stones were harmed in its creation. I had the chicken paillard (breast meat pounded thin) with Crimson sauce, which consisted of caramelized fresh pears, beef stock, and red wine. The paillard, unfortunately, bore a creepy resemblance to a flattened brain and the sauce was sweet, but that was about it.
Remember the moppet who was in charge of menus and décor? He must also have been put on side-dish selection detail, because the list seems to have been assembled with an eye to avoiding strong flavors that might offend the immature palate: baked potato chips, french fries, white basmati rice, wild rice, string beans, steamed broccoli, steamed asparagus & corn, and baked yams. We ordered the string beans and the asparagus, which were bone dry, and we were only about 60% sure they hadn’t been freshly picked from our grocer’s freezer. Tell me, O Great Namer of Restaurants, WHERE’S THE SAUCE?
It’s rarely a good sign when you order dessert and its presentation makes you laugh. Our Chocolate Terrine appeared to be a slice of Jell-o® Pudding Pop off to the side of the plate with a small puddle of sauce next to it. To its credit, this was the best fudge pop either of us had ever had. I bet that, of all the desserts on offer, Junior put the most energy into the “Ice Cream Rainbow”—but that’s just a guess. Maybe next time.A quick peek at a dictionary defines the word “saucy” as “impertinent and disrespectful.” Indeed, the prices we paid for the food we ate could be characterized precisely thus. My companion admitted that the highlight of his meal was going outside to feed the parking meter. Please, if you make it to Saucy, do tip your servers well; they may soon be out of a job.
The tagline on the storefront sign at Grom is “Il gelato come una
Grom comes to us from Torino, heretofore best known as the town where France’s Pierre-Emmanuel Dalcin displayed a particular finger to the officials who forced him to re-do his Super-G race due to bad weather conditions at the 2006 Winter Olympics (and who consequently fined him $3,800--2,826.00 € at press time). Like so many other Italian imports (Giada de Laurentiis, Ferragamo pumps, Fabio), Grom has an intrinsic layer of sexy that its stateside counterparts lack. One wall is covered with semi-pornographic photos of ingredients so fresh you may be tempted to slap them. Spring water, eggs, coffee beans, chocolate—all of them are captured from mere centimeters away, and it’s almost more than I can handle. These folks are big into their ingredients. The owners, Federico Grom and Guido Martinetti, have become involved with the Slow Food Foundation, and certain among the flavors on their menu are highlighted with the special Slow Food Snail, to indicate that it will take even longer for you to burn off these calories than the others you have packed in during your visit.
In all, I got to sample, in larger and smaller quantities, seven flavors—all of which, before I enter into more detailed analysis, were lovely. My first serving was divided between Tiramisu and Zabaione, which was made with
The tri-fold brags that, in addition to its being low in calories, “Grom gelato is the ideal, guilt-free dessert, with less cholesterol, carbohydrates, and 50% of the fat in super-premium brands.” Whatever you say, fellas, so long as it means I can eat more of it and not hate myself in the morning. And so, guilt no longer a factor, I got back in line for a second cup. The fact that the Coconut sorbet and Pistachio gelato I ordered were numbers six and seven in my tasting lineup may have contributed to their not being as extraordinary as their predecessors. A Californian transplant to Rome—and so, you would guess, someone who knows her fresh produce—told us when we were in Italy that the way to ascertain whether gelato is authentically artisanal is to check out the Banana and Pistachio flavors—both of which should be brown in color (like the ingredients themselves when they’re all mashed up), and not worrisome, day-glo® yellow or green, respectively. Grom’s Pistachio—noted on the menu as snail-worthy—passed the test, and the Coconut had the Ruby Red’s same impressive creaminess (although coconut milk is both creamy and non-dairy, and so it seems sort of like cheating). Both grew a bit boring after a few spoonfuls, but again, if they had been my evening’s only gelati, I think I would have been satisfied.The only major downside of Grom (aside from the lines, which we handily avoided by going near closing on a rainy Wednesday) is the prices. I paid $5.14 for each of my small cups, and they were quite small. I guess the snails don’t eat for free. But maybe this exorbitance is for the best; if the rent weren’t so high, I might just pitch a tent and move in.
Here’s my problem with The E.U.: they can’t spell. Why should I believe that their “Bresoala” can hold a candle to true Italian Bresaola, air-cured beef that is often served with arugula and shaved parmigiano? Who’s to say that their “Muscato d’Asti” isn’t some paltry imitation of actual Moscato d’Asti, a sweet Italian dessert-appropriate wine? Such errors, though possibly merely typographical, didn’t leave me wanting to trust this place.
I like the idea behind The E.U.: a best-of, something-for-everybody roundup of European food and drink. The items on their menu range from Waterzooi, a Belgian creamy fish soup, to fish and chips with string beans. The execution of this ambitious undertaking is frustratingly uneven. We began the meal with restaurant’s flight of five “handcrafted artisanal beers” (artisanal, you say?...Guinness?...really?). One of the five, Sixpoint Sweet Action, is American...although in French, E.U. can be an acronym for les Etats-Unis, the United States, which must be what the beer people at The E.U. were thinking when they included it.
The white asparagus appetizer, served with smoked sablefish and smoked roe, was stringy when cut, but tender when eaten. The mayonnaise-y sauce was a tasty addition, but the fish knocked the whole dish down a notch. White asparagus is very popular in Europe, particularly in
The star of the evening was the English burger with farmhouse cheddar and brown sauce. The meat was a perfect medium rare where some restaurants overcook, the cheese an excellent pairing, the brioche-esque bun golden delicious, and the Belgian-frite-style fries delightfully seasoned, improved only by dipping them in the brown sauce. Dessert was English sticky toffee pudding with buttermilk gelato. Although I may never understand why date cake is called toffee pudding, it was dense and flavorful, a lovely end to the meal.
The bathrooms—potentially a make-or-break element of an otherwise undecided savvy restaurant-goer’s experience—were unisex and nothing special. The sinks were either intentionally distressed or had been rescued from imminent curbside garbage pickup. Either way, they succeeded only in making the bathroom look trashy. It was variously referred to at my table as an “imitation dive bar” bathroom and “rusty on purpose,” a quality whose supposed coolness was clearly lost on us squares. The poor condition was mere illusion, however; everything worked perfectly well.The E.U. fancies itself a gastropub, but has yet to earn its “gastro,” as far as I’m concerned. The restaurant’s greatest appeal lies in its simple pub fare. Perhaps the nations of the European Monetary Union should secede from the restaurant and leave the Brits with their pounds, their pudding, and their pride.