Tuesday, March 25, 2008


72 Madison Ave (27th/28th)

Olana welcomes you in. Plush red velvet chairs and cozy booths beckon you to sit down and stay a while. Expansive artwork adorns the upper walls, painted in the style of Frederic Edwin Church, a member of the Hudson River School from whose Columbia-County house and estate the restaurant takes its name. The wait staff is attentive, knowledgeable, and personable. Olana is the pretty girl who appears to have everything going for her (without engendering the pesky inner conflict of wanting to hate her)...but can she deliver substance to boot? Let’s have a taste.

We began with the Cauliflower Soup, which was poured atop a bowl of cheddar flan, mushrooms, and spiced almonds. Cheddar and cauliflower are a classic, comforting pair, and the almonds raise the hearty dish beyond the norm to make it special. The Mâche and Beet Salad was served with crispy sheep Brie, candied hazelnuts, pancetta, and tarragon vinaigrette. The saltiness of the pancetta and the Brie cut right through the sweetness of the beets and the nuts, making them a perfect match.

Being nearly virginal on the Sea Urchin Consumption Scale (SUCS), we asked our server about the creature’s inclusion in Olana’s risotto. He informed us that sea urchin isn’t fishy per se, but that it is definitely “of the sea.” That was enough to dissuade me, but my companion plunged ahead. I decided to order the Veal and Ricotta Cappellacci, presented with Sicilian pistachios, Grana Padano cheese, and roasted tomato sauce. The dish comprised pinwheels of delicate, homemade pasta, wrapped around the cheese and ground meat. The freshness of the ingredients combined as a harmonious whole that was gently filling without overwhelming. The much-considered risotto, which included king crab, copious slices of black truffle, and frothy truffle cream alongside the sea urchin, ended up being delightful, even to my fishiness-sensitive palate. It was definitely oceanic, just as our server had described, but he hadn’t been sugar-coating his description in order to make it sound better than it was, as waiters often do. How refreshing! The risotto was richly redolent of not only the aquatic, but the earthy as well, and was thus unexpectedly all-encompassing. We were not disappointed.

I’m a sucker for fillings inside doughy wrappers (dumplings, blintzes, pierogies), and so the Sambuca Chocolate Crêpes called to me. The idea of licorice and chocolate together, however, turned me away. Our waiter insisted that the Sambuca was subtle, and since he had, up until then, only steered us right, I gave it a go. Never before had I seen a chocolate crêpe whose pancake was itself dark and chocolatey. Aside from the visual impact next to a splash of raspberry coulis, this added intensity to the flavors, already well supported by the Valrhona pudding within and the cocoa nib ice cream on the side. And the Sambuca was, indeed, a mere whisper. Delicious. The pastry of the Rhubarb Strudel that my companion ordered was flaky and perfect.

So, what’s the verdict? Can pretty-girl Olana carry on a conversation? Can she talk politics and literature, listen to your problems and make you laugh? Irrefutably, all of the above. But act fast, fellas; she won’t be available for long.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


St. Regis Hotel
2 E. 55th St (5th Ave)

I expect big things from Alain Ducasse. Anyone who holds Michelin’s top three-star rating for restaurants in three cities at the same time, as Ducasse did for Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, the Plaza Athénée in Paris, and, until its closing last year, Alain Ducasse at Essex House here in New York, is clearly, to say the very least, a highly capable chef and restaurateur. So the prospect of visiting Adour, Groupe Alain Ducasse’s new venture, located in the St. Regis Hotel, bred visions of gastronomic ecstasy of the sort rarely encountered outside my dreams.

The restaurant seats 72 in an open central area and a handful of smaller rooms around its periphery. A separate tasting room can accommodate up to 12. We sat in one of the round satellite dining rooms, which held four tables and was decked out in various shades of gold. Our server was solicitous almost to the point of awkwardness, thanking us each time we thanked her. Thank us? What did we do? Perhaps the prospect of the tip she would receive on such a pricey meal explained her advance gratitude.

Our first starter was the Delicate Cauliflower Velouté with Dubarry Bagel and Comté Cheese ($17). I thought the Comté cheese with the Dubarry bagel was a cute, if possibly unintentional, play on titled nobility, since comté is the French word for “county” and Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, was also known as the Comtesse du Barry. But a Dubarry bagel? In “BITE,” the online journal portion of her Insatiable Critic website, Gael Greene calls the bagel “a Ducassian wink at New York,” further quoting executive chef Tony Esnault as saying: “‘I am sure if she were alive and in New York, Madame Dubarry would love it.’” Really? I suppose we can attribute anything we want to the tastes of 200-year-dead courtesans, but I have my doubts. On the other hand, there is a place called Barry’s Bagel Boys on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn. Might Monsieur Ducasse be a secret devoté of their schmear above others’...? But I digress. The most educational aspect of the dish was the fact that it contained braised purple, green, yellow, and white cauliflower. Who knew that the ol’ Brassica oleracea came in so many colors? Despite the rainbow of its contents, I found the velouté itself over-delicate. The bagel and cheese were a tasty, but incongruous, accompaniment that overshadowed the velvety soup. The Foie Gras Tapioca Ravioli in Sunchoke Broth ($23, plus an optional $22 supplement for black truffle) was a fairly successful undertaking, sweet and light, but the tapioca pearls within inevitably brought to mind bubble tea. Kudos to Esnault and his team for trying something different, if slightly odd.

I should have read between the lines and known that Adour Lobster Thermidor ($48) is not the same thing as Lobster Thermidor, and so I had no business feeling let-down at the absence of cheese, cream, and mustard. The Adour incarnation, served with Swiss chard fondant, featured a succulent lobster claw and tail, and a small lobster shell filled with chopped lobster, carrot, onion, breadcrumbs, mushrooms, Cognac, and we surmised, a touch of Pernod. The large pieces of lobster meat were fresh and a treat, but the whole was not what I was expecting, and so I couldn’t help being a bit disappointed. The Beef Tenderloin and Braised Ribs were said to come with a contrast of carrots and foie gras-black truffle jus. I think I would have a better chance of evaluating the dish effectively if I had the first idea what a “contrast of carrots” is. A combination of the classic orange with its complementary blue? Sometimes menu wording goes over the edge. The reports of foie gras and black truffle in the jus were, to our palates, greatly exaggerated; it tasted more like an ordinary red wine sauce. The ribs were rich and meaty, but the tenderloin, while properly pink on the inside, lacked the flavorful crust of a perfectly prepared piece of beef.

Dessert was a step above the courses that preceded it. Pastry chef Sandro Micheli has, as the kids like to say, mad skills. The Gala Apple Soufflé ($16) was at once light in texture and deeply, intensely appley. The homemade vanilla ice cream that sat beside it was a celebration of all that bean’s many possibilities, nearly blinding in its fullness of flavor. The Pear Clafoutis ($16) was not a clafoutis in the traditonal sense—that is, it was not a pancake-like custardy cake—but, unlike the Lobster Thermidor, the distance between what it was and what I thought it would be was exciting and enjoyable. I was delighted to find that the caramel “croustillant,” on top did not shatter when I sliced my spoon into it, but rather cut obediently with the rest of the well layered structure beneath it. The lavender honey ice cream was a gentle whisper of tastes, intelligently chosen alongside the pear and caramel. What dessert had that dinner lacked at times was a willingness to go far enough with flavor, rather than stopping short of what could—or should—have been.

Adour’s tagline is “Cuisine Designed with Wine in Mind,” and while the offerings by the glass are fewer than we would have liked, they have some seriously snazzy technology for one’s oenological edification. There is a list of wine categories projected on the bar, and merely holding your finger over your desired selection produces a trail of pixie dust that serves as a virtual click on the options available. Want something by the glass? Red or white? From which wine-growing region? Each choice produces a visually pleasing rosette of light reading about the varietal, the country of origin, and the vineyard.

On the whole, this is a good restaurant—but just good. Like a teacher with higher standards for her more capable students, I expect nothing short of excellence from Ducasse. Perhaps with time, imperfections will be ironed out and we will be regaled with an experience that is as Michelin-constellation-worthy as its predecessors.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


103 W. 77th St (Columbus Ave.)

The menu at Dovetail is an attention-grabber from top to bottom. Chef John Fraser, formerly of Compass and Snack Taverna, clearly has an eye to keeping diners’ tastebuds awake and alive. We started with clam chowder with chorizo, potatoes, and Manila clams. In a series of events that was entirely new to me, this turned out to be a thick, creamy soup that was poured into a bowl of clams, chorizo, and potatoes, thus rendering it clam chowder. It was tasty, if unusually assembled. The Brussels sprout leaves with pears, Serrano ham, cauliflower, sunflower seeds, and some sort of truffley mayonnaise were an unexpectedly delicious find. The sweetness of the pears and saltiness of the Serrano were beautifully matched. Diminutive and tender, I think that Brussels sprout leaves are poised to be the next great baby salad green; you heard it here first. The pistachio-crusted duck with endive, celery root, and truffles was declared edible perfection. The meat was cooked to just-right consistency, its flavor lent additional depth by the earthy accompaniments.

A couple minutes after the dessert menu arrived, a well dressed man who had not previously visited our table approached and asked if we had any questions about dessert. “Bring it on,” was my reply. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “careful what you wish for”? Indeed. For shortly after, he brought us not only the two we had ordered, but a third in addition. “You said to bring it on,” he said, “and so here’s our brioche bread pudding for you as well.” The chocolate hazelnut strudel was rich and delicate, the almond soufflé tart delectable, and the bread pudding downright odd. The body of the dish was well constructed and by-the-book, but it sat in a pool of bacon-flavored caramel. I am as culinarily adventuresome as the next girl—and likely more so—but I do believe there is such a thing as going too far. Maple syrup on my morning pork products is a winner, but when something claims to be dessert and is swathed in unmistakable bacon-ness...it just doesn’t work for me.

So yes, creativity can be taken beyond where it reasonably should. I nearly chose the beef cheek and sirloin lasagna for my main course, but ended up deciding against it. Somebody at the next table ordered it, and the server actually said: “I just want to make sure you know that there’s no pasta in the lasagna.” This wasn’t part of the description on the menu. Lasagna without pasta? Without warning? That’s crazy talk.

Overall, though, the food at Dovetail is great. They also serve afternoon tea, complete with such sweet and savory nibbles as cured salmon and Meyer lemon crepes...and foie gras Rice Krispy treats. And really, maybe I’m just a food prude; what combination could be better than a little organ meat and marshmallow?