A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Jun 30.

Special Feature -

Half A Year In Food - It's six months into this young blog's life and it's been quite an experience. I've met some excellent people and had some very interesting dialogues. I've learned a lot more about the dining experience by writing about it. But perhaps best of all, I've had the opportunity to have some amazing meals. Whether it was dollar dumplings or bank account-clearing extravaganzas, I've really enjoyed sharing my meals of this half-year. I'm also looking forward to what's in store for the next six months, but first here's a look at the best thus far:

Best New Restaurant (over $50 meal)
1) Per Se
2) The Modern
3) Masa
4) Devi
5) Cacio e Pepe

Best New Restaurant (under $50 meal)
1) Una Pizza Napoletana
2) Hummus Place
3) Mercadito
4) Franny’s
5) Klong

Best Appetizer (over $50 meal)
1) Oysters and Pearls (Per Se)
2) Uni risotto with black truffles (Masa)
3) O-toro Tartare with Iranian osetra caviar (Masa)
4) Foie Gras Terrine Marbled with Roasted Artichokes and Green Peppercorns (The Modern)
5) Waltz of Appetizers (Kumamoto Oyster with Apple Mint Gelee, Foie Gras Terrine with Crisp Porcini, Japanese Yellowtail with Wasabi Tobiko, Crisp Portuguese Sardine) (Danube)

Best Appetizer (under $50 meal)
1) Steamed pork and crab tiny buns (New Green Bo)
2) Shrimp Pakoras (Tangra Masala)
3) Venison and Chestnut Terrine (Craft)
4) Roti Canai (Overseas Asian)
5) Herring Sampler (Aquavit)

Best Entrée (over $50 meal)
1) Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Chorizo and Black Chilis (Babbo)
2) Roasted Maine Lobster in a "Folly of Herbs" with Asparagus and Salsify (The Modern)
3) Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage (Babbo)
4) Homemade nettle gnocchi tossed with tomato comfit, rosemary and buffalo mozzarella (Cacio e Pepe)
5) Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod with White Cocoan Bean Puree and Harissa Oil (The Modern)

Best Entrée (under $50 meal)
1) Pan Roasted Sea Scallops (Pearl Oyster Bar)
2) Banana Walnut Pancakes (Clinton St. Baking Company)
3) Mushroom-stuffed Veal with Porcini Risotto (Assenzio)
4) Roasted Atlantic Salmon with Soba Noodle, Soy Beans, Shiitake Mushrooms, Soy-Wasabi Vinaigrette (Bistro St. Marks)
5) Lobster Congee (Congee Village)

Best Dessert (over $50 meal)
1) "Coffee and Doughnuts" (Per Se)
2) "Snickers Bar" (Per Se)
3) Austrian Chocolate Hazelnut Souffle with Chocolate and Vanilla Ice Creams and Apple Sorbet (Danube)
4) Milk chocolate-hazelnut parfait, orange reduction (WD-50)
5) Cantaloupe Mousse with a Glass of Port (Cacio e Pepe)

Best Dessert (under $50 meal)
1) Goat's Milk Ricotta, Rose-Rosemary, and Meyer Lemon with Blackberry Gelato (Otto)
2) Dulce de Leche (Itzocan Cafe)
3) Almond Cookie Ice Cream (Chinatown Ice Cream Factory)
4) White Chocolate Mousse with Fresh Strawberries and Strawberry Granité (Bouley)
5) Banana Tarte Tatin (Craft)

Best Soup (a surprisingly very hotly contested category)
1) Butternut squash shrimp bisque with saffron (Itzocan Cafe)
2) Hot and Sour Soup (Tangra Masala)
3) Matzo Ball Soup (2nd Ave. Deli)
4) Celery Root Soup with Maine Diver Scallops, Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Chervil (Hearth)
5) Seafood Soup (Rancha la Cascada)

Best Salad
1) Fried Watercress Salad w/ Chicken, Shrimp and Squid (Sripraphai)
2) Octopus Salad with Spicy Lemon Dressing (Tab Tos)
3) Roasted beet salad (Babbo)
4) Hearts of Palm salad (Per Se)
5) Arugala, pear and gorgonzola salad (Fornino)

Best Pizza
1) Una Pizza Napoletana
2) Franny’s
3) DiFara
4) Denino’s
5) Nick’s

Best Cocktail
1) Mango-Passion Mojito (The Modern)
2) Per Se Cocktail (Per Se)
3) Monkey Business (El Avión)
4) Danube Cocktail (Danube)
5) Coming Up Roses (The Bar Room at the Modern)

Best Sandwich
1) Sesame bagel with lox, tomato and cream cheese (Russ and Daughters)
2) Classic Vietnamese Sandwich (Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches)
3) Pastrami sandwich on rye (Katz’s Deli)
4) Corned beef sandwich on rye (2nd Ave. Deli)
5) Pastrami spiced turkey sandwich on French bread with Edam cheese, sprouts, cucumbers and house dressing (Take It Away)

Best Day of Eating
1) May 22 - Pizza World Tour
2) Jan. 30 - Three Meals Under $30
3) Apr. 3 - From Jewish to Spanish
4) Apr. 23 - Dumpling World Tour
5) Jan. 8 - Asian Excursion

Best Service
1) Babbo
2) Per Se
3) Pó
4) WD-50
5) Itzocan Café

And finally, here is a list of my favorite 40 meals and my favorite dish at each place.

1) Per Se - Oysters and Pearls
2) Masa - Uni risotto
3) The Modern - Roasted Maine Lobster in a "Folly of Herbs" with Asparagus and Salsify
4) Babbo - Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Chorizo and Black Chilis
5) Una Pizza Napoletana - Margherita Pizza
6) Craft - Venison and Chestnut Terrine
7) Itzocan Café - Dulce de Leche
8) Danube - Maine Day Boat Lobster with Sunchoke, Mango, Hon-Shimeji Mushrooms and a Saffron Curry Broth
9) Sripraphai - Fried Watercress Salad w/ Chicken, Shrimp and Squid
10) Tia Pol - Patatas Bravas
11) Devi - Tandoor Grilled Lamb Chops with pear chutney and curry leaf potatoes
12) Pearl Oyster Bar - Pan Roasted Sea Scallops
13) Tangra Masala - Hot and Sour Soup
14) Russ and Daughters - Sesame bagel with lox, tomato and cream cheese
15) Franny’s - Tomato and Mozzarella with House-Cured Garlic Sausage Pizza
16) Hummus Place - Hummus Tahini
17) Khushie - Chicken Kali Mirch
18) DiFara - Plain square
19) Denino’s - Sausage and mushroom pizza
20) - Tortelloni with Ricotta and Ramps in a White Butter Truffle Sauce
21) Cacio e Pepe - Homemade nettle gnocchi tossed with tomato comfit, rosemary and buffalo mozzarella
22) Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches - Classic Vietnamese Sandwich
23) Congee Village - Lobster Congee
24) Shimizu - O-Toro sushi
25) WD-50 - Slow poached egg, parmesan broth, tomato
26) Al Di La - Malfatti
27) Rose Water - Kevin's Farm Grilled Chicken With Mustard Greens, Falafel, and Roasted Pumpkin Seed Sauce
28) Aquavit - Herring Sampler
29) Assenzio - Mozzarella-stuffed Veal with Porcini Mushroom Risotto
30) New Green Bo - Steamed pork and crab tiny buns
31) Mercadito - Shrimp Tacos
32) Taverna Kyclades - Roe dip
33) Otto - Goat's Milk Ricotta, Rose-Rosemary, and Meyer Lemon with Blackberry Gelato
34) 2nd Ave. Deli - Matzoh Ball Soup
35) Nougatine - Slow-Baked Salmon with Pad Thai
36) Overseas Asian Restaurant - Roti Canai
37) Kuma Inn - Edamame in Thai-Chili Lime Oil
38) Shake Shack - Double Shack Burger
39) Nick’s Pizza - White pie with Spinach and Prosciutto
40) Klong - Kee Mao Noodles

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Jun. 25.

Dinner -

Cacio e Pepe - 182 2nd Ave., East Village
Capesante con pancetta su crema di finocchi e olio di tartufo (Bacon-wrapped scallops served over a fennel purée and a touch of truffle oil); Spaghetti alla gricia con scaglie di tartufo nero (Spaghetti tossed with sautéed guanciale, pecorino cheese and shaved black truffle); Gnocchi di ortica con pomodoro comfit, rosmarina e mozzarella di bufala (Homemade nettle gnocchi tossed with tomato comfit, rosemary and buffalo mozzarella); Homemade cantaloupe mousse with a glass of port, half of a bottle of Sangiovese 2003

It’s the classic foodblogger’s dilemma: to blog or not to blog. I was going on a first date and I didn’t want the camera flashes to interrupt the mood. I didn’t want to push away her fork, saying the first shot was blurry, I need to take another one, or to scribble furtively in my notebook as we decided what to order. In short, I chose to forgo all the usual annoyances my friends have learned to endure when eating with me.

Her request was “Italian or Asian” and I was happy to comply. I had been awaiting a reason to revisit Cacio e Pepe, one of my favorite discoveries from last year. It’s a Roman trattoria that seems ideal for a second meeting. It’s lit by candles but still casual. The food is serious but not intimidating. The vibe is both relaxing and relaxed. My main reason for wanting to return was purely selfish though: I had to retry the nettle gnocchi that floored me last time.

Arriving at around 8:30, the restaurant was about three-quarters full. (They don’t take reservations for parties under six so I was a little concerned.) We had our choice of sitting inside or outside but were lured to stay in by the humming AC. Our waitress came by our table and rushed through the specials. Admittedly, I wasn’t really listening, knowing I’d be getting the gnocchi and trying to come up with good conversation starters.

Because she knew my gastronomic ways, we also decided to split appetizers and pastas. First came the bacon-wrapped scallops, which were excellent. Prepared with a fennel puree, the scallops were light and very artfully seasoned. The flavors of the seafood shone through but the earthiness of the herb and the saltiness of the pork complemented them in just the right proportion. My one complaint is the dish was too expensive, $11.95 for three bacon-wrapped mollusks.

Next we split a spaghetti with guanciale and truffles. I liked everything in this dish, especially the guanciale, which is the dried meat of the hog’s jowls. But I found the truffle flavor too dominating and the pasta too oily. It was still tasty, but it seems that there are stronger options to select. One obvious choice is the namesake cacio e pepe that Vince had last time. Peppery and cheesy, the pasta is scooped out of a giant block of Pecorino. If I had to do it again, I would’ve chosen it instead.

For the entrees, she had the salmon whereas I got the much-anticipated nettle gnocchi. I had been building it up since last October, but thankfully, it met the hype. The olive green gnocchi was softly firm, with a delightful and unique flavor. The chunks of mozzarella, the tomato comfit and the sprigs of rosemary were perfect companions, adding balancing richness and textures to the mix. But even more than the red, white and green color scheme, the harmonious blend of the ingredients and the simplicity of the dish were great testaments to Italy’s splendors.

Finally, it was time for dessert. More than most Italian restaurants, Cacio e Pepe’s list leans toward the unique and offbeat. Last time, I got to sample their green tomato strudel and this time around, I ordered the cantaloupe mousse. Even better, it came with a glass of port. The mousse was delicious, really highlighting the freshness and mildness of the fruit. The port cleverly supplied the requisite sweetness for the dessert. This was another winner.

As we finished our desserts and launched into yet another topic, I realized what a great time I’d had. The conversation had seemed to flow effortlessly and the food had been fairly wonderful. As we wandered back into the heat, tipsy on Tuscan wine, I knew that I would have to write about this dinner. Some things are too good to keep to yourself, and Cacio e Pepe is certainly one of them. 8/10

The Village Voice review from October 2004

Friday, June 24, 2005

Jun. 24.

Dinner -

Devi - 8 E. 18th St., Union Square
Cashew Roll (amuse), Manchurian Cauliflower, Tandoor Grilled Jamison Farm Lamb Chops with Pear Chutney and Curry Leaf Potatoes, Mango Cheesecake, a Palindrome (OP Aquavit, fresh pear cider, essence of ginger, Poire Williams, served up with a Bosc pear slice soaked in Navan vanilla cognac), two glasses of a Millbrook Cabernet

Some things are victims of their own success. Just compare Russell Crowe circa-L.A. Confidential to his vase-wielding days now. Look at Williamsburg, whose surge in popularity produced skyrocketing Manhattan-level rents. Consider Tom DeLay, whose shady dealings seem like a symptom of ruling party hubris. And I would add to that list New York’s Restaurant Week, which, in its thirteenth year, seems more like an institution than an innovation.

Many restaurants, seeing the draw of prix-fixe menus, have already incorporated them into their daily offerings. Some of the top restaurants have dropped out, able to fill up their dining rooms without discounts. Others have scaled back their selections to the boring and cheap, crafting pared down dishes specifically for the two week run. Too often, diners miss out on the cuisine that makes the restaurant noteworthy to begin with. (see Apr. 11).

But whatever hesitations I had after my Restaurant Week lunch at Gotham (see Jun. 22) were nullified by my dinner at Devi. The incredible value this fledging restaurant (your choice of any appetizer, entrée and dessert from the regular menu for $35) seemed staggering compared to the number-crunching approach of comparable places. Considering that Devi has been a big hit since its opening in September and is already earning accolades as the best upscale Indian in the city, that’s an act of generosity worth a lot of praise.

I already had a sense that Devi would be a destination. I very much enjoyed the tasting menu at Amma, when chefs Hemant Mathur and Suvir Saran were there. Striking out on their own now, they’ve only expanded their ambitions with a much larger, two-floor space to match. Walking in on Friday night, I was immediately wowed by the atmosphere, which felt elegant and quietly ornate. Vince, his parents and I were seated downstairs in the back by a very friendly and forgiving host (although we'd called, we were still an hour late for a prime time reservation). Similarly, our waiter was friendly and service overall was polished and easygoing. I appreciated that the waiter freely made recommendations from a menu he clearly knew very well.

Still, even with the great deal, attractive décor and able service, the food eclipsed everything. We all started with a complimentary cashew roll, a small, nutty amuse that was simple but delicious. (Again, I have to reiterate, when have you ever heard of getting an amuse for a Restaurant Week dinner!) The Manchurian cauliflower I had as my appetizer was even better, the garlicky red sauce topping the cauliflower blossoms bursting with flavor. It was tangy and complex and addictive and incredibly tasty, relying on the same Sino-Indian influence as Tangra Masala (see Jun. 12, Mar. 26). If my mother had this dish at her disposal, I wouldn’t have resisted eating my vegetables nearly as much.

Yet even the cauliflower couldn’t compete with the lamb chops (regularly a $29 entrée!). Supple and intensely seasoned, it was no surprise that the lamb is one of Devi’s most praised creations. Unique among lamb dishes, it completely fulfilled the mission of upscale Indian, respecting Eastern traditions and ingredients while integrating some Western techniques and inspirations. (Tellingly, Mathur used to work at Diwan Grill, which fuses Indian cooking with French and American.)

Vince, already a veteran of Devi, insisted the four of us pass around our orders and try a little of everything. Everything I sampled was excellent, from Mary’s idly upma to Joe’s pista chicken. When we reached dessert though, there was no need to exchange plates. All of us went with the mango cheesecake, the star dessert at Devi. This too was attractively plated and wonderful tasting, a creative ending engineered by pastry chef Surbhi Sahni.

With every course as fantastic as it was, I would have been more than happy to pay full price for my meal. But that Devi instead gave diners a break and that chef Mathur frequently circulated the room chatting with grateful patrons showed how this restaurant stands apart. The experience not only restored my faith in Restaurant Week-- it also proved that a success can remain as humble but self-assured and as magnanimous but magnificient as Devi. 9/10

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Jun. 22.

Lunch -

Gotham Bar and Grill - 12 E. 12th St., Union Square
Sweet Corn Puree with Braised Leeks and Grilled Shrimps; Roast Skate Wing with Lemon Crushed Potatoes, Pipérade and Saffron-Mussel Jus; Chocolate Cake served warm with Cinnamon Buttermilk Ice Cream; a glass of 2003 Muscadet "Clos de la Sénsigerie," Chables, Loire Valley France

I don’t cook. It’s largely because I spend an infinitesimal amount of time at home, am too interested in the New York dining scene, and don’t own any pots or pans. But it’s also because I don’t think I have the gift chefs have. Even if I round up every ingredient in a recipe and follow every step to the letter, my final product will lack soul, that essential and ecstatic verve that elevates food to art.

When I visited Gotham Bar and Grill, it had the same problem. It’s assembled the ingredients for a fine fine dining experience, but can’t quite combine them into something spectacular. The room, with its very high ceilings and sleek grey design, should be beautiful but it’s also so vast and anonymous that I felt lost in some fashionable cafeteria. Our waiter was friendly enough but he also seemed disappointed when he realized Pat and I would be ordering from the Restaurant Week menu. He also appeared tired and for one stretch, disappeared for too long. Unfortunately, the problem of quality ingredients and average outputs also extended to the lunch.

Pat and I both started with the soup, a course which changes daily here. Today was not a good day. The sweet corn puree was way too strong and tasted like being punched in the face by an ear of corn. The leeks were a welcome addition but the two shrimp sunk to the bottom tasted more of the grill than the shrimp. They also didn’t add much to the soup, more diversion than anything else.

My entrée, the skate, was better but only because it stuck to the basics. The fish was cooked well but still seemed boring. The saffron-mussel jus didn’t help much. The slight tang in the potatoes was a nice touch though, giving the ordinarily mundane mash a surprising twist. All in all, the skate was the definition of average.

Finally came the chocolate cake, the best course of the afternoon. Again not culinary outstanding, here the simple preparation paid off with lots of flavor. The cake was delightfully soft, leaning toward the texture of mousse. The cinnamon ice cream that came with it was an inspired pairing. The dessert was the one thing that hinted at chef Alfred Portale’s reputed genius, that je ne sais quoi that I think I lack in the kitchen. Unfortunately, Gotham’s Restaurant Week menu was largely missing it as well. 5/10

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Jun 18.

Kuma Inn and Edamame and Shrimp

Pork and Shumai

Sausage and Bass

Dinner -

Kuma Inn - 113 Ludlow St., 2nd Floor, Lower East Side
Edamame in Thai-chili lime oil; Drunken shrimp with sake and kalamansi; Pork Loin; Wasabe Pork Shumai, Vegetarian Summer Rolls with Thai basil, bean sprouts, carrots and chayote; Sauteed Chinese sausage in Thai chili sauce; Bass in ginger sauce; Flight of sakes (kaori, kaishu, chiyomusubi)

It seems everyone wins with small plates. Diners get to try a far wider variety of tastes, breaking out of the stodgy routine of appetizer-entrée-dessert. Restaurateurs can pad their profits as people lose track of their mounting bills. Even the atmosphere usually benefits, buoyed by the free-flowing drinks. Some of my favorite restaurants, like Tia Pol (see Dinner, Apr. 3) and Otto (see Apr. 24), subscribe to the theory of small plates and pull it off masterfully. I was hoping Kuma Inn in the Lower East Side could do as well.

Pat and I went to find out on a muggy Saturday night. Located on the second floor of a quieter stretch of Ludlow, Kuma Inn is a Filipino tapas restaurant that incorporates many pan-Asian influences. It’s softly lit but plays Depeche Mode and Spoon, simultaneously intimate and casual. It reminded me of Decibel (see Mar. 4) if Decibel were clean and chill and had tables spaced widely apart.

First things first, we started with the sake list. Pat and I chose the nice option of a flight, which offered three glasses of different chilled sakes for $15. Coming with kaori, kaishu and chiyomusubi, the flight was a welcome extension of the sampling mentality. They were all pretty good, and contrasted with each other in pleasant but subtle ways.

To accompany the alcohol, Pat ordered a serving of edamame without looking at the menu. So when we each popped open our first soybean pods, we noticed something special. Bathed in a Thai chili lime oil, these beans went from bland to suddenly exciting. I found myself sucking on the pod skins just to get a little more flavor. We were dipping relatively dry husks on top into the sauce below. It was such a simple yet inspired touch of fusion, but it foretold the level of thoughtful care and light but bold flavors to come.

Our first dishes, the shrimp and the pork loin, were both prime example of this. Nothing exotic, they were classic preparations made new by their potent sauces. King Phojanakong’s kitchen also cooked very well, producing a delicate and tender shrimp enlivened by kalamansi juice and a grilled pork with just the right texture.

Next came a plate of Chinese sausage, the wasabe shumai and the summer rolls. I continually went back to the plate of sausage, intrigued by it because I’d never had it. In another context, I would’ve almost thought it was kielbasa or a thick Russian salami, but the distinctly Eastern green chili sauce reclaimed its Asian identity. The shumai, which can be found almost anywhere, still impressed me here. It really packed a sinus-clearing punch of heat and the skins on the dumplings were noteworthily tasty. The summer rolls were the one item that wasn’t improved or heightened. They were the same clear-dough rolls you’d find anywhere, which is still pretty good.

To finish, we had bass, once again distinguished by its winningly gentle ginger sauce. The fish was again cooked expertly, easily yielding to our eager forks. We hadn’t planned to order another course, but everything else had been so good, it only stoked our appetites. And of course that was the beauty of small plates. We could keep ordering dishes to split until we were sated. We could keep getting the small, narrow glasses of sake until we were tipsy. At Kuma Inn, with so many promising choices and so many unexpectedly vibrant renditions, it’s just a wonder we stopped at the bass. 8/10

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Jun 12.

Dinner -

Tangra Masala - 87-09 Grand Ave., Elmhurst, Queens
Hot and sour soup, chicken pakoras, shrimp pakoras, Chili goat (dry), Tangra Masala fish (with gravy)

There’s always that concern. You rave about it to your friends, you use the megaphone of the internets to shout its praises, you even find yourself monumentalizing it in your head. Then you go back for a second taste and find out how wrong you were. The novelty of the experience fooled you. The outer borough address gave it a cachet of cool. Your critical judgment was temporarily malfunctioning.

As Vince and I hiked out to Elmhurst after a Mets game, this was my fleeting concern about Tangra Masala. But then I reminded myself of the spicy soul of their hot and sour soup, the fried craggy crunch of their pakoras, the sweet cilantro enlivening the Manchurian shrimp. My first visit (see Mar. 26) was one of my best meals of the year so far and I felt confident that Tangra would do it again.

Armed with bodega Sapporos, we arrived and took the last table left, the lone island of white faces in an ocean of Indians. Both times so far, the Indian-style Chinese restaurant has almost exclusively been packed with Indian people, not necessarily a promise of quality but certainly a good sign of it. Vince and I both ordered my beloved hot and sour soup and we split two orders of pakoras, one chicken, one shrimp. Branching out from the Manchurian preparation, we tried their other two saucings, getting the chili goat dry and the Tangra Masala fish with gravy.

From the first bite, I confirmed that my worry was all for naught. Tangra Masala’s soup was just as tangily beautiful as before and the shrimp pakoras may have even outdone the chicken. The chili goat was complexly spicy without burying the multitude of subtler flavors. At first glance, the fish coated in a bright orange sauce resembled Sweet and Sour Chicken, but the taste was anything but takeout. It was sharp but not overpowering, sweet but not saccharine. It was a taste so singular that’s hard to describe and probably even harder to replicate. But somehow, in its second round, Tangra Masala managed to remain just as excellent as ever. 9/10

Dessert -

Serependipity 3 - 225 E. 60th St., Upper East Side
Frrrozen Hot Chocolate

Do you enjoy Tiffany lamps and obscenely long lines? Are you thrilled by anonymous service and a dessert with as much depth as a sheet of paper? Do you take it as a good sign when a restaurant's entire clientele consists of twelve-year-old girls and tourists? Will you go anywhere people tell you just have to go? If so, please put down your name. We'll get back to you in about two-and-a-half hours.

It was clear from the outset that Serendipity 3 wasn't designed for me. My knowledge of the Britney Spears catalogue is embarrassingly nonexistent. The last season of The Real World I could stand to watch was Seattle. I'm far more likely to read Daily Kos than Daily Candy. Nonetheless, dessert is dessert and naively, I reasoned that the famous Frrrozen Hot Chocolate had to be pretty amazing to gain such acclaim.

Suffice it to say that it's the Paris Hilton of desserts: needlessly rich and famous solely for being famous. Not inherently awful, it's still not nearly as special as it believes. Basically, it's just a giant cup of icy hot chocolate and whipped cream. No more, no less. If a regular-sized glass of hot chocolate in a less tacky setting doesn't do it for you, then by all means, start lining up now. If you enjoy the sensation of sugar shock and sweets with no sign of artistry in sight, feel free to enjoy. But for me, this is right up there with George W. Bush, Magnolia Bakery and Ben Affleck as popular phenomena that completely baffle me. 2/10

New York Magazine picks Serendipity 3 as Most Overrated

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Jun. 11.

Dinner -

Bonita - 338 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Chips and Pico de Gallo, Lime soup, Fish tacos, Half of a pitcher of White Wine Margarita, a Dos Equis

Friday, June 10, 2005

Jun. 10.

Lunch -

Fleur de Sel - 5 E. 20th St., Gramercy Park
Spanish Mackerel Tartare, Paddlefish Caviar, Mustard Ganache; Roasted Cod, Tomato Confit and Spring Garlic Coulis; Crème Fraiche and Vanilla Panna Cotta, Confit of Rhubarb, Strawberry Sorbet; a glass of a Merlot-Cabernet blend

What if French restaurants were painters? It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves but no one’s effectively answered. Well, I propose: If romantic and florid La Grenouille is Renoir and funky, pint-sized Ivo and Lulu is Toulouse-Latrec, Fleur de Sel must be Monet. Its beauty is its delicacy, its attention to intimate detail and its interest in impression and subtlety over gaudy showmanship.

It also doesn’t hurt for the starving artists out there that Fleur de Sel features a daily $25 prix-fixe. Short of kidnapping a chef, Cyril Renaud’s cuisine is among the best lunch values in the city. Each of the three courses only offers two (constantly changing) selections but on the day that Vince and I ventured out to Gramercy Park, everything looked like a winner.

I started with the mackerel tartare, an attractively plated opener that was fresh and light. I appreciated the touches of caviar that pointistically dotted the dish, adding a soft, beady texture to the smoothness of the fish. The red leaves unifying the various stations reminded me of brushstrokes and provided a fragile crunch. The casual precision of the ingredients and the presentation really did call to mind a paintbrush, and combining the tartare, the caviar and the ganache into one forkful revealed the care put into this combination.

Next it was the roasted cod, which also came with a very careful and light preparation. The mildness of the fish was offset with the more potent pairing of tomato and garlic, applied artfully underneath as a base coat. All in all, it was a pleasant entrée, nicely timed for late spring. In keeping with upscale French notions, the portion wasn’t very big, but in another context, it alone could’ve been the price of the entire lunch.

Finally, there was the crème fraiche and vanilla panna cotta, a refreshingly different approach to dessert. It was another effort that favored the artistic, incorporating vivid reds and contrasting shapes. The panna cotta was also soft and sleek, and all of the other elements were similarly delicious. Here though it felt like a little too much. While it could’ve stopped at the sorbet and panna cotta, the dish also had a ribbon of rhubarb and a crunchier base and center that resembled brittle. Instead of meshing, all of the competing flavors clashed.

More troubling though, the one major black stroke across the canvas, was the service. While not incompetent, it certainly verged toward clueless. With only one waitress to serve the whole room, it took Vince and me nearly ten minutes to receive a menu. Another extended wait greeted us when we wanted to order. The lag between entrée and dessert was so long, when we were literally the only people left in the dining room, that we were about to ask if the kitchen had forgotten us. (I thought at first that Fleur de Sel was trying to create a leisurely meal, but everyone else received better and more efficient service.) I was also annoyed when I decided to forgo the $17 three-glass wine pairing and asked if I could just have the middle glass paired with my entrée. The waitress raised her eyebrows in confusion but ultimately agreed. When I got the bill, I noticed that not only was the glass $15 (how about suggesting a $2 upgrade?) but it also wasn’t the wine listed on the menu.

Still, aside from the service faults, Fleur de Sel remains a restaurant I would happily return to. I found chef Renaud’s elegant attention to detail quite charming, and it didn’t surprise me at all when I learned that many of the paintings in the dining room were ones he had done himself. So while we may not have gotten a masterpiece that afternoon, we did see some beautiful shades of one. 7/10

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Jun. 5.

Dinner -

Overseas Asian Restaurant - 49 Canal St., Chinatown
Roti canai, Asam laksa, Mee goreng

I was in a Malaysian malaise. After a lackluster meal at Nyonya (see Dinner, Apr. 30), I decided to test out my friend Manny’s recommendation of Overseas Asian. Located in the eastern end of Canal Street, the restaurant still had the Chinatown formula down pat: small, unadorned space, brusque but effective service, and lots of cheap food.

Intent on comparing, I ordered some Nyonya favorites, the roti canai and the asam laksa. Also looking to sample something new, I went with the mee goring as my main course. “You must be very hungry,” the waitress warned. No, I just blog about food, I wanted to retort.

The roti canai, a doughy crepe-like pancake with a deeply brown chicken curry, is the most standard Malaysian appetizer. It was far from standard here. The curry had a depth of flavor to match its color. Every time I soaked my shred of pancake in the liquid, I was rewarded with a wave of overlapping tastes. Salty, spicy, sweet, meaty, this dish had it all and pulled it off expertly.

The asam laksa was similarly wonderful, again edging out Nyonya. The version of the soup here turned up the weirdness even further, emphasizing its fishiness and lemongrass sourness without apology. It was no surprise that the waitress felt the need to warn me again, as its strangeness could upset many uninitiated stomachs. As much as I enjoyed it though, I had trouble finishing the bowl, because the portion was so massive and the chunks of pungent fish so generous.

After all, I had to save room for the mee goreng, a stir-fried noodle dish that contains bits of egg, chicken, vegetables and shrimp. Of the three dishes I had, this was the least exciting, though it was still very tasty. Again, the portion was almost daunting and the heavy wheat noodles made it feel even more substantial. It reminded me of a very well made and more interesting lo mein, though my one criticism is that like its Chinese counterpart, this dish was too greasy.

Still, Overseas Asian more than revived my excitement for ethnic eats. It reminded me of all of the unique spices and bewildering combinations that I didn’t even know I was missing. Best of all, it gave me a new go-to place to satisfy my cravings, turning my Malaysian malaise to Malaysian elation. 8/10

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Jun. 4.

Dinner -

Per Se - 10 Columbus Circle, Upper West Side
Chef’s Tasting Menu: “Oyster and Pearls” (“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar); Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm (Braised Radishes, Garden Mâche and Radish "Mignonnette"); Crispy Skin Fillet of Mo’i (Sautéed Yellow Squash, Zucchini, Sweet Peppers and Italian Eggplant with “Moulin des Penitents” Extra Virgin Olive Oil Emulsion); Nova Scotia Lobster “Cuit Sous Vide” (“Ragout” of Spring Pole Beans” and “Sauce au Pistou”); All-Day Braised Four Story Hill Farm’s Pork Shoulder (Wilted Dandelion Greens, Poached Granny Smith Apples and Whole Grain Mustard Sauce); Rib-Eye of Nature Fed Veal “Rôti A La Broche” (California Green Asparagus, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parsley Root “Puree” and “Béarnaise” Reduction); “Tomme Du Berger” (Roasted Heirloom Beets, Bulls Blood Greens, Red Beet Essence and Horseradish “Aigre-Doux”); Pineapple Sorbet (Tamarind “Sponge”, Rosewater “Gelée”, Whole Milk Yogurt and “Freeze-Dried” Raspberries); “Snickers Bar” (Milk Chocolate “Crémeux”, Chocolate “Sacher” and Salted Caramel “Glaçage” with Spanish Peanut “Nougatine” and “Nougat” Ice Cream); "Coffee and Doughnuts, “Mignardises,” Per Se Cocktail (Ciroc vodka, Pineau des Charentes, Grand Marnier), Nonalcoholic Pairing (Chilled chamomile, virgin margarita, almond milk, GUS Meyer lemon soda, virgin bloody mary, pinot juice)

People are routinely shocked when they hear how much I spend on a meal. Sometimes, even I’m taken aback when I total the cumulative damage. We tend to view food as an especially wasteful expense, the logic being that a meal lasts a few hours while electronics, jewelry or kitchen cabinets can endure years if not a lifetime. And while I understand this point of view, I’d wager that its proponents have never tasted a transcendent lox or an ecstasy-inducing soufflé. They’ve never dreamt of dulce de leche or worshipped in front of an altar of pastrami. Otherwise, they’d know that on the rarest of occasions, a dinner can last far longer than the span between amuse and dessert. It becomes an experience you carry with you, an artifact of awe as indelibly pressed in your memory as the color of your first car or the last kiss from a girl you loved.

It’s an impossible standard to set but that’s what I hoped my dinner at Per Se would achieve. If any restaurant could, Per Se would be the one. As Thomas Keller’s follow-up to his world-famous French Laundry in Yountville, California, it arrived with a stellar pedigree and equally daunting demand. Reservations for the intimate sixteen tables have to be made two months to the date exactly, and only people who can sneak past the busy signal blitz in the first hour land a table. New York readers named it the best new restaurant of the year. International chefs and cognoscenti voted it seventh best in the world in Restaurant magazine. It won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Bruni’s four-star review in The Times felt more inevitable than incredible. In short, even its hype was weighed down with hype, the praise so persistently and loudly proclaimed that it seemed no meal could meet the expectations.

On Saturday, for my twenty-third birthday, Vince took me and Libby to Per Se to find out. It was an incredible and generous gesture so I was very much hoping that this place I’d been babbling about ad infinitum proved at least as formative and fulfilling as my dinner at Daniel. Stepping off the fourth floor escalator in the Time Warner Center, my nervousness subsided to relief. The hostess welcoming us was some ideal combination of friendly and professional. The lounge, where we were invited to wait, was more elegant and comfortable than many of the main dining rooms I’ve eaten in. Using a scheme of muted browns and earthy tans, the decor was simple but calming, elemental without being altogether minimalist.

After this very brief detour, the hostess escorted us into the main room to the banquette we’d specifically requested. It was on the top tier near the front, a great location that felt both central and removed. The view overlooking a dark Columbus Circle felt surreal, almost a painted-on backdrop for such serene environs. But any table would have been a fine one, whether it’s against the windows or nuzzled in the back. They’re each so widely spaced that I often felt like we were the only three people in the room.

To start, we each ordered a cocktail. I selected the eponymous Per Se Cocktail, which consists of two parts Ciroc vodka, one part Pineau des Charentes, a blend of wine-grape juice and Cognac, and a dash of Grand Marnier. It was remarkable, so unfathomably smooth that it went down like spring water. So confident but subtle, it was no wonder that it’s the house drink, effortlessly presaging some of the marvels to follow.

While enjoying our drinks, we turned our attention to the menu. It comes with three choices, all of which cost $175. The first is the nine-course, which comes with set selections. The second is the vegetarian nine-course, also already chosen but all prepared without meat. Finally, there was the five-course, where every course comes with a minimum of three tantalizing options and bigger portions. Ravenous to sample as much as possible, Vince and I both went with the nine-course. Libby, who doesn’t eat lamb, beef or fish, decided to have the vegetarian menu.

As much pleasure as I derived from browsing all of the culinary possibilities, I was even more impressed by the wine list. That it was broad and geographically diverse was no surprise. What did earn my attention was how reasonably priced it was. There were more than enough bottles for the usual suspects of partners and brokers, but even diners on a budget, who had to scrimp and save to afford their seats, had pages of choices. I ended up selecting a very crisp and full-bodied riesling from Australia, whose flavor only grew on me as I had more of it.

Along with the bottle, all three of us ordered the nonalcoholic pairing that had been featured in the Times. It was a novel and creative alternative that we had to experience at least once. And while I have no doubt the sommelier would’ve masterfully paired wines for us, I was even more curious to see what variations and inspirations the nonalcoholic limits would invite. The result, which included chilled chamomile, pinot juice, a virgin margarita, almond milk, Meyer lemon soda, and a virgin bloody mary, was well worth a night of giving up the grape.

After we ordered, the waiters brought out the amuse, corners of salmon with red onion crème fraiche. A deliberate announcement of Keller’s intent, they were, on a very basic level, delicious. But more than that, they made a perfect statement, playful and postmodern, cerebral and original. The crunchy corners were a clear reference to ice cream cones and the smooth crème fraiche had the milky texture of vanilla soft-serve. Just as it evoked humid suburban summers and the relieving chimes of the ice cream truck though, it simultaneously evoked the very New York breakfast of bagels and lox. It complicated both of these simple charms with better ingredients and highbrow presentation, but the result remained just as charming.

Next came the course I’d been dreaming about trying for months. As Per Se’s signature dish and the one fixed item on the constantly changing nine-course, Oysters and Pearls embodies the light-hearted but still deliciously serious mission of Keller better than any other. Combining Island Creek oysters and sevruga caviar with a sabayon of pearl tapioca, it was even better than I imagined. It was incredible, literally beyond belief. I didn’t know food could taste this good, that it could produce a sensation so rapturous in me. Immediately, without much argument, the dish ascended to the rank of the best I’d ever had, topping even Daniel’s langoustines and chanterelles in a chanterelle emulsion and Masa’s uni risotto. Even now, I’m having trouble recovering from the buttery, silky, luxurious layers.

The following course was the simplest, a salad with hearts of palm as its chief element. (Vince went with the one available $25 supplement, substituting for a very beautiful foie gras terrine with poached cherries and pickled ramps, but I needed a duck liver respite.) The salad was understandably a bit of a letdown after the first course, but impressive on its own terms. Basic and unadorned, it boldly put the difficult flavors of hearts of palm and braised radishes on display instead of burying them. Still, as much as it accomplished its purpose, of all the courses I tried, it was the least essential, more transitional than central.

After salad, Vince and I had the mo’i, a tender Pacific fish grilled with its skin intact. It was another light but very satisfying course, paired with sautéed seasonal vegetables, slowly easing us into the unfolding arc of the nine courses. On my right side, Libby was starting on her third offering, “Red Rice and Beans,” which consisted of cranberry beans, haricots verts, Romano beans and banyuls vinaigrette. It was definitely creative and delicious but not quite incredible enough to make me renounce my carnivorous ways.

It was also with the mo’i that I understood how extremely fine-tuned the service was. The waiters moved so expertly I could’ve been watching choreography. They presented dishes without ever interfering or intruding. They announced each course without ever interrupting. Each one answered every question with an evident depth of knowledge, whether it involved the character of the wine or the origin of an ingredient.

When I inquired about the mo’i, our waiter elaborated that it was a fish favored by Hawaiian royalty. It was a beautiful fact although not every diner would appreciate hearing about the distinguished history of what was occupying their plates. When we did show interest, he felt comfortable giving us additional information. Similarly and equally remarkably, the staff seemed to perceive and adjust to our relaxed level of formality, adapting to even crack a few jokes with us.

Next up we had the lobster, which is usually my favorite element of a fine dining evening. Here though it felt like a slight misstep, a little overly ostentatious for my taste. For a meat that’s already so naturally perfect, infused with a rich, chewy sweetness, the best course of action is to let it shine. I thought that the Nova Scotia import came too heavily buttered, overwhelming the flavor of the seafood. Still, it was a minor complaint, the end result still better than many of the best dishes elsewhere.

The next two courses were veal and pork, and again, the kitchen offered standard-setting takes. These dishes also felt like a return to the tongue-in-cheek allusions and the blurring of the upscale-downscale division. The pork shoulder was accompanied by balls of Granny Smith apples. The quarter-sized orbs here were an able and fun stand-in for cipollini onions. The veal, so palely pink it looked newborn-pure, came with asparagus and Bernaise sauce that could've been a barbecue side dish in another life. Thankfully, this incarnation was more flavorful and yet more subtle than any I’ve tasted.

After the meat, we had our cheese course, a mild sheep-goat blend called Tomme du Berger. Aromatic and soft, it was brought to life with the vivid accompaniments of beets and horseradish. It was another masterful pairing, where the various ingredients worked with each other to form unexpected combinations, as ostensibly improvised as a jazz performance.

Our first dessert followed, an intriguing threesome orbiting a sun of pineapple sorbet. The sweet planets revolving on an axis of freeze-dried raspberries were tamarind sponge, rosewater gelee, and whole milk yogurt. All of them were fun and tasty on their own or combined according to the diner’s whim. Like the salad and the cheese, the dish was also nicely light, both flavor- and portion-wise, another transitional course somewhere between amuse and full dessert.

The fun continued in classic Keller style with the Snickers bar, a signature Per Se dessert. I'd been hoping to try his Coffee and Doughnuts, but when the dishes emerged, I could hardly complain. A deconstruction worthy of Derrida, it isolated and pulled apart the ingredients of the Mars candy bar. It turned it into a modern art exhibit, with the long extended ribbons of chocolate giving it the appearance of a Calder mobile. Again, as with all of his other culinary quotations, what made the Snickers bar amazing wasn’t its cleverness or its complexity, but that it was undeniably delicious.

Because Vince had told the staff it was my birthday, they also brought out an additional dessert with a candle in it. As if the night hadn’t been special enough, this extra treat was the famous Coffee and Doughnuts, the one other prominent offering I’d been hoping to try. The doughnut of the duo was a warm, incredibly soft beignet, dusted with sugar. Inexplicably, somehow the coffee was even better. Coming in a small white mug, it consisted of an espresso mousse topped with a layer of foam. If Thomas Keller’s mother were in the room, I would’ve kissed her on the mouth for giving birth to the man who gave birth to this creation.

Still not quite done, a waitress came by with a stunning tray of house-made chocolates. They ranged from the exotic to the slightly exotic and all three that I let her choose for me were exquisite. The assortment of mignardises were also thoughtful and wonderful, as evidenced by the fact that I continued to eat them even as I verged on exploding.

When we finally concluded eating, it was twelve-thirty, a three hour span that had passed by like an hour. Before we left though, I had to see the kitchen so we requested a tour. The head maitre’d appeared, acting as gracious and warm as an old friend as he guided the three of us behind the scenes. A few pastry chefs were plating the last servings of Snickers Bars. Others were cleaning up the large, immaculate space. They nodded to acknowledge us, one of them saying, “You did the right thing taking the tour.” I kept asking questions, like a nerd on a field trip, my excitement too apparent to disguise. To prolong the tour, I asked our Virgil through this Paradiso to show us where the chocolates were made.

He led us further through the kitchen area, to show us a refrigerated backroom. On the way there, we passed a small storage area with its metal gate raised, revealing stacks of boxes and crates. “That shouldn’t be open. I’m sorry,” he said, the embarrassment heaving in his sensitive baritone. It was such a striking moment, this glimmer of vulnerability and error that I wouldn’t have even noticed if he hadn’t immediately moved to lower the gate. The flub only made me love Per Se more though because it was a reminder that as enchanting as the dinner had been, as exact and artful as the service had been, as amazing as the entire experience had been, the restaurant wasn’t perfect. It was only so far ahead of the competition in nearly every aspect, so consciously crafting a superlative meal, that it verged as close to perfect as possible.

As we left Per Se, they gave us copies of the menu and packages of macaroons as mementos. As we found ourselves back under the vast ceilings of the halogen mall, I had trouble believing we had been in the Time Warner Center all along. I really had felt transported. As we stepped out into the night, blending into the crowd and the humid darkness, I didn’t bother to rank Per Se on my list of best meals. It wasn’t even a close call. Instead, that dinner was scaling up another even more selective list, of the memories I’ll always carry with me. The first nauseating sip of Heineken in a breezy Barcelona café at sixteen. The opening night ripple of applause for the play I spent all semester directing. The way my heart stopped when my girlfriend said she loved me under a haze of constellations.

Even though it seemed to speed by, I think my night at Per Se may prove to be one of the longest meals I’ll ever eat. Whenever I’m starved for inspiration, I’ll think back on every ecstatic spoonful of Oysters and Pearls. Whenever I’m disenchanted with dessert, I’ll dream of the Snickers Bar and Coffee and Doughnuts. Whenever I’m lonely or depressed, I’ll remember the two wonderful friends who shared the experience with me and made the night possible. It may have cost Vince a small fortune but in return, we received something priceless. 10/10

A Fork and Pen review from February 2005
A Gothamist review from January 2005