Itzocan Cafe - 438 E. 9th St., East Village
Butternut squash shrimp bisque with saffron, tequila shrimp burrito, dulce de leche, Jarritos grapefruit soda
I wouldn’t call my childhood traumatic. And yet, even throughout the ravages of puberty, I believed that Taco Bell was the extent of Mexican food and penne in vodka sauce was the most that Italy had to offer. It came as a shock then when I learned just how much wider and better the gamut ran. When I tried my inaugural bites of homemade mango salsa or stinging nettle gnocchi, it was like my taste buds had turned on for the first time.
My lunch at Itzocan Cafe wasn’t quite that revelatory, but it came tantalizingly close. All three courses revealed unscaled levels of flavors and pleasures, while at the same time remaining simple and unpretentious. The meal even contained an impressive number of moments where I leaned back in my chair with a stupid grin, startled by and thankful for just how good it all was.
Undoubtedly, it helped that I knew the restaurant well. I’d been to Itzocan at least five times before so I knew that I preferred the lunch menu to the dinner, and that the specials were especially good calls. From my exemplary experiences with the pumpkin and zucchini soups, I also knew that their soup du jour wasn’t a course to pass up. Finally, because I loved the tequila shrimp burrito on another visit, I was sure I couldn’t go wrong there.
Even walking in with all of these advantages though, I was still disarmed. The intimate décor, dark and decorated with Mexican iconography, was as enjoyable as ever, and the upbeat Mexican music added another relaxing element to the mix. The waitress radiated sunshine, recommending dishes out of an obvious love for the food rather than trying to push the unpopular plates. I hadn't even started eating and I was already having a great time.
It only got better when she brought out my first course, the butternut squash shrimp bisque. As excellent as my two earlier soups had been, this one exceeded both. The squash had a light creamy flavor, but the sweet depths of the vegetable were on full display. The four sizable shrimp floating through the bisque were a delicious and unexpected extra. My full understanding of how good it was didn’t come until I found myself scraping the bowl, hoping to gather just one more spoonful.
The tequila shrimp burrito that followed was also wonderful, which is why I was getting it again. Loaded with brown rice and more shrimp than a Sizzler buffet, the burrito was a clean, upscale presentation of a meal that’s often not taken seriously. But like Mercadito’s tacos (see Jan. 9), the tequila-sauteed seafood and the freshness of every ingredient confirmed just how much potential there is in the Mexican basics.
After these first two courses, I was happy and sated, almost nervous to mess up my lunch with a substandard dessert. But my waitress raved about the dulce de leche, her grin a genuine crescent as she described it. I agreed, having only tasted this caramel and sweet cream confection through its Haagen-Daaz bastardizations. She brought it out, again promising that it was "so good." It looked like a soft crème brulee, when I’d been picturing a mousse. Digging in my spoon, I realized that my frozen yogurt preview had done little to prepare me. It was unfathomably good, rich and intensely flavored. Somehow, it managed to eclipse my prior two courses, and by a wide margin.
It’s incredible to have something for the first time, when it turns out to be that brilliant. It’s even better when it blindsides you, coming as a special that you wouldn’t have ordered. It’s even better when your taste buds roar back to life, reactivated and excited by the prospect there’s still so much out there to try. At Itzocan Café, that kind of experience is less of a fluke than a daily occurrence, which, heck, almost makes up for all those years of bad haircuts and thick plastic glasses. 10/10
Nyonya - 194 Grand St., Chinatown
Roti canai, mango chicken, coconut rice, coconut drink
It’s disappointing when you sense a restaurant you loved is headed downhill. You make excuses for it: maybe I hit it on a bad day, maybe I ordered the wrong thing, maybe it’s me and not the place. But there’s only so much nostalgia and loyalty can do in the face of lower standards. And while I’m not quite ready to give Nyonya the j’accuse treatment, my recent lunch made me worry just a little.
I’ve been there at least ten times, because it’s a great place to bring out-of-towners. Between the heady chaos of Chinatown, the distinctive but still relatively safe possibilities of Malaysian food, and the very reasonable prices, there’s a lot to love. There are dishes that’d be familiar to anyone who’s eaten in a Chinese restaurant and some that come with the alarming caveat “Please ask your server before ordering!” (The latter are usually the dishes I prefer.)
Because my friends Lindsay and Emilia seemed tentative about Malaysian, I offered to split the mango chicken instead of getting a wilder dish of my own. This wasn’t much of a compromise – in the past, the mango chicken has been excellent, plated beautifully in the skins of the fruit. This time though, the presentation was plain and the portion had clearly shrunk. Worse, the sweetness of the sauce had intensified to a level that’d please dentists before diners.
Another negative was the service, which, while not bad, seemed bored and slow. At times, we would have to flag waiters down for refills. This was again the reverse of earlier experiences, where our waitress was always efficient and friendly.
More reassuringly, the roti canai appetizer was still very good (though not as good as it once was), the coconut juice was tasty (though it used to come in a coconut shell instead of a glass), and the coconut rice was still a nice change of pace (nothing parenthetical to add here). So whether Nyonya is actually worse or we just caught it on a mediocre day, I can’t say for sure. However, I think it’s worth coming up with enough excuses to warrant one more visit. 5/10
A Year In Food
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
- Name: Lonesome Hero
Saturday, April 30, 2005
Sunday, April 24, 2005
Otto and Calamari
Penne and Pane Frattau Pizza
Taleggio Pizza and Gelato
Otto - 1 5th Ave., East Village
Calamari, Potatoes, Chiles; Penne con Noci e Zucca (Hazelnuts, Butternut Squash and Smoked Ricotta); Pane Frattau Pizza (Tomato, Pecorino, Egg); Funghi and Taleggio Pizza (Mushroom, Taleggio Cheese); Three Flavors of Gelato (Goat's Milk Ricotta, Rose-Rosemary, Meyer Lemon with Blackberry); Stoudt's Pilsner
A day spent watching both Godfathers (I’ve been advised to pretend there is no third) could only be celebrated with Italian food. And so the afternoon began with my third trip to Otto, to explore the crevices of the menu I hadn’t yet reached. Since my last two times out I’d stuck with their verdura, cheeses and meats, today meant the pizza and pasta. If there was going to be any weakness to the menu, it’d be in these two arenas. My friend Dario had lambasted the spaghetti carbonara while many a critic has taken Mario Batali to task for his flatbread-thin pizzas.
I’ve also heard that Otto can get quite hectic at dinnertime, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve only been there for lunch, when I find it very pleasant. Opera is playing (a curious contrast to the more formal Babbo where The Bends is playing), the servers are always relaxed and friendly if occasionally hard to track down, and the pumpkin-painted walls and wine bottles on display create an amiable atmosphere. And because we were seated by the windows twice in a row now, we were even treated to the view of the European-style architecture along Eighth Street. Add a glass of wine to the mix and you’re all set.
Vince and I started with the potato, calamari and chile antipasto, a lively and creative dish that we both heartily enjoyed. Like many of the other dishes we’d try that day and have tried in the past, it encapsulated Batali’s gift. Instead of overwhelming his cooking with too many ingredients, he keeps it relatively simple but always original, rooting his inspirations in Italian tradition but building on it as well. Here the novel component was the chiles, which elevated the clammy seafood to special.
Next, we moved onto the pasta, which we’d tacked onto our order on a whim. It too was refreshingly simple but deceptively good, the hazelnuts and chunks of butternut squash adding unexpectedly ideal flavors. But even the penne demanded attention, cooked to a firmness beyond al dente. It’s the kind of detail that could easily turn off fans of more mainstream Italian food, but I, for one, love cuisine that confidently asserts itself.
This confidence remained on display for the pizzas, now and then to the point of the overconfidence. (We selected both from the more iconoclastic Pizza Otto list rather than from the Pizzas Classica, which offered artisanal interpretation of more traditional pies.) The first, the pane frattau, was a cheeseless pie topped with a fried egg. The egg was a great addition, and once my fork prongs unleashed the yolk, the yellow liquid gave the crust an even more enhanced flavor. But the part of the crust that received sauce but no egg could’ve been better. It lacked dimension and depth, essentially just a bland tomato sauce. Without the egg as the centerpiece, this pie wouldn’t have worked.
Our second pie was a funghi and taleggio combination, a cool pairing of customary and gourmet. The focal element here was undeniably the cheese, whose stinky dirty-sock boldness dominated the other flavors. Like the very firm pasta, it was another example of a kitchen that willfully challenged even the most commonplace preparations. And while I don’t think I’ll be craving taleggio in my regular pies, here it was a unique break from the norm. I wonder though if it might have been better to mix the taleggio with another milder cheese (or have one in the inner ring of the pizza and one in an outer ring) to give the pizza more balance.
To finish up, Vince and I each had three flavors of gelato, which is perhaps the only required order on the Otto menu. I’ve done it all three times I’ve been here and all three times, it’s been superlative. Texture-wise, it’s the best in New York and can even rival many gelaterias in Italy. (I still give my nod though to Il Laboratorio del Gelato for its more distinctive flavors.) On this visit, I painfully skipped the exquisite olive oil to try the goat’s milk ricotta, rose-rosemary and Meyer lemon with blackberry. Of course, the ricotta was still amazing and the rose-rosemary was even better. It was the best possible ending to a great meal, an offer we couldn’t refuse. 8/10
Nonna - 520 Columbus Ave., Upper West Side
Nonna's Sunday Feast (Arancini; Caesar Salad; Eggplant Rollatini; Rigatoni with a Meatball, Italian Sausage and Pork Braciole; Zeppoli with Honey Dip), a bottle of Agricole Vallone, Salice Salentino 2000 - Puglia, Italy
After an interlude for limoncello and amaretto, Vince and I headed uptown for more Italian. The destination this time was Nonna, a new spot in the West 80’s that was already gaining attention. From its name (meaning “grandmother”) and the little I’d gleaned about its traditional-style food, I was picturing a homey and homely mom-and-pop outfit, complete with apron-clad relatives in a backroom slaving over the perfect meatball. Not quite.
With the cuisine, I came close, the menu so standard it could’ve been cribbed from Little Italy. But the surprising aspect was the atmosphere, which resembled a brasserie, and the crowd, which was almost entirely in their mid-twenties. It was, I thought at first glance, as if someone had combined Balthazar and Olive Garden. And while I’m still not convinced cool spaces and chic cocktail lists mesh with servings of spaghetti and meatballs, it’s certainly a new approach to extremely well-tread territory.
Another way Nonna tried to distinguish itself was with its Sunday feast, a five-course prix fixe for a very economical $19. It runs a literal A to Z, from the fried balls of arancini to the fried balls of zeppole, also offering Caesar salad, eggplant rollatini, and rigatoni with a meatball, sausage and pork braciole in between. After an innovative lunch at Otto (see Lunch today), it was a little difficult to adjust back to such familiar dishes, but luckily, Nonna’s renditions proved to be mostly solid.
Smartly, the bookends of the meal were among the best items. The cleanly fried arancini arrived warm, their melted cheese and tender rice combining for a delightful opener. The seasonings were also well-balanced, all the ingredients working well in unison. Similarly, the zeppole at the end of the meal weren’t greasy or overfried, but cooked just long enough to give their coatings a nice crispiness. Here, even more than the arancini, the warmth of the dish was crucial in highlighting the deliciously soft doughnut centers. These were a long way from the pizzeria zeppole I knew.
The courses in between were also fairly strong though with some exceptions to the rule. For one, the Caesar salad was just that – a Caesar salad. It failed to exceed beyond the very basic limits of lettuce, Parmesan cheese and croutons, and so it barely registered. The meatball and pork braciole that accompanied the pasta were both excessively salty, especially upsetting because the flavors that managed to peek through the sodium blitz seemed promising. But the rigatoni, though very basic, was tasty, the sausage was excellent and the eggplant rollatini was prepared very well, making a vegetable I usually skip by delectable.
In the end, I still preferred Batali’s nouveau interpretations, Cacio e Pepe’s authentic innovations and Al di La’s casual creativity, but I admired Nonna for trying to make the conventional cool, a granny for the twenty-first century. 7/10
Saturday, April 23, 2005
Special Feature -
Dumpling World Tour - Dumplings are among my favorite foods, and apparently the world agrees. From pelmeni to piergoies, to kartoffelklosse to kreplach, from pork buns to potstickers, so many cultures have their own versions of this filling appetizer. Determined to get just a taste of what’s out there, Vince and I devised the Dumpling World Tour, a jaunt across continents or at least across town.
Mandoo Bar - 2 W. 32nd St., Midtown West
Goon mandoo, Seafood mandoo, a can of Coke
Kicking off in K-Town, we paid a visit to Mandoo Bar, a pleasant restaurant that felt sleeker and perhaps more corporatized than many of its neighbors. It reminded me, with its behind-glass display of dumplings being made, of Dumpling Man (see Jan. 6, Feb. 15), although it was less hectic and had much more available seating.
Waiting for Vince, and with my stomach grumbling epithets, I ordered an appetizer of Goon mandoo, a traditional Korean pork and vegetable dumpling that came pan-fried. It was very good, with a crunchy but not greasy dough, and a fresh if standard pork filling. But they did the trick, tiding me over until Vince arrived and we split an order of the Seafood mandoo. Ten boiled pieces to a portion, the peach-colored dumplings contained shrimp, squid and vegetables. I thought they were fantastic, the fact that they were hand-crafted and fresh a large part of their success. But the seafood was also delicious, making them -- sorry to ruin the suspense-- my favorite dumpling of the day. And though the dumplings here are more expensive than other spots in the neighborhood, it's a nominal difference and the variety and care that Mandoo Bar offer make it well worth the cost. 7/10
Bruno Ravioli - 387 2nd Ave., Gramercy Park
Spinach and Cheese Ravioli
After Mandoo, we proceeded southwest, because of course, Italy is southwest of Japan. Ravioli became the name of the game, and we were counting on the varied menu at Bruno’s Pasta Express and Café to tempt us. Instead of mushroom or spinach fillings though, we found empty spaces and Closed signs. Bruno’s Chelsea outpost had vanished, leaving only two locations, one solely takeout and the other still unopened.
Daunted but not defeated, we reversed course for the takeout Bruno. Stocked with an impressive cache of cheese, sauces and Italian ingredients, my hopes for salvaging our ravioli adventure were raised slightly. This didn’t last long when I saw the pasta selection. It only consisted of what was sitting on the refrigerated shelves, a paltry showing especially compared to the Café’s wide array of choices. With only three kinds of ravioli, Vince and I settled on the Spinach and Cheese in a plastic tray. We did this very half-heartedly.
We were right to be reluctant. It was pretty much the same freeze-and-heat prepackaged pasta you’d find in any supermarket. Vince also likened it to cafeteria food, and he was right. It didn’t deserve to be in an Italian store, because pasta should have a better end than growing old and getting reheated. Somehow though, in this case, it didn’t feel like such a tragedy. The spinach taste was essentially undetectable, the cheese was generic, and the sauce was a shrug. Instead of a satisfying version of the Italian dumpling, we were left with disappointing what ifs. 3/10
Teresa's - 103 1st Ave., East Village
A full order of potato and sauerkraut with mushroom pierogies, a large glass of carrot juice
From Italy, it was on to Poland and appropriately into the East Village. While I hadn’t actually eaten any ravioli in Rome, I’d had more than my share of pierogies in Krakow over tall glasses of Zywiec with some of my favorite Australians in the world. So I was fully ready to be critical, to complain of inauthenticity, to acknowledge Greenpoint as the true Polish hub of New York.
I was also quite hopeful however that Teresa’s would prove itself worthy. I’d walked by its mysterious black awning countless times, wondering at the contents inside. When Vince and I walked in, I was surprised by how different it looked from my imagined image. Maybe all those late nights at Veselka (see Feb. 21, Jan. 31) had inured me to bright lighting and noise, because by contrast, Teresa’s was sedate and dignified, its red walls bearing oil paintings of flowers, its lights dimmed and its clientele middle-aged.
Like Veselka though, Teresa’s serves Polish and Eastern European fare alongside American standards. But we had a mission, and so we skipped past the pancakes and omelettes to the pierogies section of the menu. They came in four varieties – meat, cheese, potato, and sauerkraut with mushrooms, either boiled or fried. Deciding to have the latter two boiled, we reasoned that this way, two of our four dumpling stops would be vegetarian and the other two would be meat.
The waitresses seemed a little bored and slow, but once the food hit the table, we didn’t care. Starting with the potato and dipping it into the 75 cent extra applesauce, I was pleased with the result. The filling was smooth and savory, if somewhat dry. The other problem with the potato was that I tried the sauerkraut with mushroom right after it. This second pierogie was excellent, enlivened by the zesty flavor of the cabbage. I could have easily and happily eaten a full order of these, which ran a very close second for my favorite dumpling of the day.
By the time we had finished our portions, I’d changed my tune. Sure, Union Square might not be able to replace the town square in Warsaw and a glass of carrot juice might not beat cheap-as-water pints, but Teresa’s, at least pierogie-wise, does Poland proud. 7/10
Tasty Dumpling - 54 Mulberry St., Chinatown
Fried pork and chive dumplings, a golden pancake
For our last stop, Vince and I visited Tasty Dumpling, the sister restaurant to Dumpling House (see Feb. 5). The menu was almost the same if not identical, with its star attraction being the same startingly cheap dumplings. Again, I got the pork and chive dumplings, although this time, I knew that they were much better fried than boiled.
Another improvement from the Dumpling House experience was the setup of the restaurant. Instead of a mob clamoring for attention, there was a walkup counter and a short, orderly line. In addition to the few bar seats that both places offer, Tasty also had three tables. Thus, while the process wasn't nearly as noteworthy, it was peaceful and simple, allowing us to concentrate on the dumplings.
They ended up the same as Dumpling House's, which is to say very good. The pan-fried base gives them a nice crunchiness, the left-unfried dough on top making the contrast more apparent. The pork and chive filling in top lives up to the namesake of tasty, but at these prices, I think it's better not to wonder about the quality of the meat. Niman Ranch this was not.
Readers may remember my earlier curiosity about Dumpling House's golden pancake, and this seemed a prime opportunity to try this pizza slice-shaped treat. Coming in at a whopping fifty cents, the golden pancake is one of the best investments in town. It's filling, delicious and warm, closer to a Chinese focaccia than any American pancake.
And so with the pork-and-chive and the pancake, the Dumpling World Tour came to its inevitable conclusion. While we expected to be stuffed, I think the adventure just whetted our appetite for more. We both could've kept going, surprised at how quickly we'd torn through our four destinations. There were still gyoza and shumai, a universe of dim sum, varenyky, soup dumplings, wontons, samosas and waldviertler, among many other possibilities, to try, I wanted to protest. But instead of feeling down, we looked to the future with excitement, and the Pizza World Tour that's coming in May. 7/10
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Rose Water - 787 Union St., Park Slope, Brooklyn
Meze Plate with Three Dips (Red Pepper, Garlic Hummus, Hummus); Cool Asparagus and Sorrel Soup Topped wiht Yogurt, Beets and Pickled Ramps; Kevin's Farm Grilled Chicken With Mustard Greens, Falafel, and Roasted Pumpkin Seed Sauce; Rhubarb Crips; Jasmine Lime Iced Tea
From a minute, reading over the menu, I thought Dine In Brooklyn might have become Dine In Berkeley. Seasonal ingredients, organic meats, a clientele almost exclusively decked out in glasses, conversations about politics and literature in the air. But no, I realized, I was just in Park Slope, that college town of a neighborhood, about to have my third and last meal in this year’s nine-day $19.55 prix-fixe extravaganza.
Whereas Blue Ribbon was a failure (see Apr. 11) and Bistro St. Mark’s (see Apr. 15) a solid meal, Rose Water was a standout. A small but welcoming Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, it has everything you want in a neighborhood spot. Its interior, with its simple paintings and shelves lined with cookbooks, could be an arty friend’s living room. The service, while a little slow, is friendly and unpretentious. The menu includes a nice mixture of comfort and creativity, introducing exotic ingredients into familiar settings.
Rose Water also impressed me with its generous offerings for Dine In Brooklyn, providing three choices for each course. Even better, each dish was also on the regular menu rather than a last-ditch switch. The only problem this presented was deciding between so many promising possibilities. I think any combination would’ve been successful, but ultimately, I was quite happy with my results.
To start, Vince and I got the meze plate from the regular menu, a nice opener that featured olives, mozzarella, and pitas with three dips. It really encapsulated the pan-Mediterranean influences at play, seemingingly drawing from Greek and Italian as well as Arabic dining. Of the dips— red pepper, garlic hummus and hummus – I enjoyed the garlic hummus the most. The mozzarella marinated in herbs and olive oil was another highlight.
From there, I went with the asparagus and sorrel soup, a cold appetizer that was smooth and delicious. But more surprisingly, unlike the heavy creams and oily broths that are staples at most eateries, this olive-colored vegetarian creation actually felt healthy, a painless way of conquering the food pyramid. The soup was good enough alone that the yogurt, beets and ramps on top weren’t necessary, but they were appreciated additions, on hand to provide an even greater variety of flavors.
Next, I painstakingly forwent the vegetarian risotto to try some of Rose Water’s meat. Usually reluctant to get chicken at restaurants because there are always more interesting animals to taste, I had no regrets this time. The chicken was moist, well-seasoned and altogether wonderfully grilled. It was, unlike many a chicken cutlet of my childhood, a pleasure rather than a chore to eat. The pumpkin seed sauce, which flanked the meat, was a terrific touch, adding an earthiness to the mix. Even better was the falafel, a novel side dish that had a very fresh and homemade filling of chickpeas.
To conclude, I had the rhubarb crisp for dessert, another winner. With its crumbly cobbler-esque top and a sweet rhubarb interior, it was a simple but pleasant cap to the meal. Like everything else I tried, it tasted fresh, well-prepared and casual, relying more on great recipes and ingredients than theatrics or gimmicks.
Thus, Rose Water proved to be a wonderful closer for Dine In Brooklyn. Vince and I got a great bargain and some great food, and were already talking about the possibility of coming back for a regular dinner sometime. While it may not be California, a great food scene is growing in Park Slope, and Rose Water is among the best of the crop. 8/10
Sunday, April 17, 2005
Clinton St. Baking Company - 4 Clinton St., Lower East Side
Iced Peppermint Cocoa, Two eggs over easy, Seven-Grain toast, Banana Walnut pancakes, Wild Maine Blueberry pancakes
Brunch continues to confound me (see Jan. 15). It seems like the meal for masochists: if you stand outside for an hour or more, we’ll serve you breakfast food later and expect you to buy drinks too. Yet the masses come ever-eager, assembling at the door like Springsteen tickets are going on sale at midnight. Vince and I thought we finally had ‘em outsmarted this time. He put his name on the list on his way to my apartment and got an estimate of forty-five minutes. We walked down to Clinton St. forty minutes later but weren’t seated for another forty minutes on top of that. Damn, they foiled us again.
Luckily, the weather was fantastic and the tempting food smelled nearly as good. We both came to try the famous pancakes, which many claim are the best in the city, and ordered both kinds. Starving and thirsty, I also got eggs over easy, some seven-grain toast and a refreshingly cool iced peppermint cocoa. The meal might have been brunch, but I was going to chow down like it was breakfast.
The cocoa was very good albeit expensive at $4.95 and the eggs and toast were both above average. But all of these were precursors to the pancakes, which we were anxiously awaiting. The two impressive stacks arrived, the first loaded with wild Maine blueberries and the other topped of walnuts and bananas. In the interest of trying more, Vince and I agreed to split the stacks, but after trying the banana walnut ones, I considered welshing to keep them to myself. These were, hype aside, the best pancakes I’d ever had – soft, fluffy, flavorful, and packed with nuts and fruit.
Finally, I decided to be a good sport and pass the plate across the table. Thankfully, the blueberry ones I got in return were also delicious, the afternote of egg yolks integral in the batter. They weren’t quite as good though, the generous filling of berries unable to compete with the combo of bananas and walnuts. But anytime I wanted to make either stack even better, all I had to do was dip a piece of pancake into the melted maple butter. It was such an improvement over maple syrup that the two barely seem comparable.
Still, as good as the brunch was (and it did beat out my previous one at Prune), I still doubt that it’ll become a regular meal for me. Between Clinton St.’s no reservations policy, the cash only policy, the dirty silverware, and the crowd outside watching jealously as you eat, I think I’ll keep sleeping until lunch and just have dreams about the pancakes. 7/10
Zabb - 71-28 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, Queens
Moo Dad (fried pork), Chicken laab, Thai sausage, Seafood Green Curry, Drunken Noodles with Chicken, two orders of Jasmine rice, two Thai Iced Teas
Saturday, April 16, 2005
The Modern - Exterior and Interior
Terrine and Tartare
Lobster and Cod
Cheese Cart and one of the Cheese Plates
Napoleon and Petit Fours
The Modern - 9 W. 53rd St., Midtown West
Amuse of Trout Caviar, Marinated Mackerel with Sweet Pea Puree, and Quiche (Complimentary); Chef's Tasting Menu (Amuse of Marinated Mackerel with Spicy Yogurt, Mushroom with Frisee Salad, Melon Gazpacho; Foie Gras Terrine Marbled with Roasted Artichokes and Green Peppercorns; Tartare of Yellow Fin Tuna and Diver Scallops seasoned with Yellowstone River Caviar; Roasted Maine Lobster in a "Folly of Herbs" with Asparagus and Salsify; Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod with White Cocoan Bean Puree and Harissa Oil; Buffalo Tenderloin poached in Spiced Cabernet with White and Green Asparagus and Shallot-Pepper Jus; Tangerine and Pomegranate Granite with Lemon Sorbet; Lemon Napoleon, Exotique "Brunoise" and "Fromage Blanc" Sorbet; Petit Fours); half of an eight cheese tasting; a P.G. Martini (Grey Goose Vodka, Campari, Pomegranate Juice); a Mango Passion Mojito (Mango, Mint, Passion Fruit Syrup and Bacardi Limon on ice)
Since my dinner at the Modern, it’s already become the stuff of legends. Since Saturday, the dishes have already been enshrined in the canon of greats. So many things from the Chef’s Tasting Menu were not only wonderful but exemplary, not only thought-provoking but mindblowing. As the night went on, it became clearer and clearer that this would be a night not just to remember but to treasure.
It started out stressfully enough as Vince and I speed-walked down 54th Street in our suits, both of us assuming we knew exactly where to find the Museum of Modern Art. Running fifteen minutes late, we’d been delayed by our pursuit (and consumption) of homemade martinis. But once the building appeared on 53rd, between 5th and 6th, and I took in the sleek, simple black exterior of the restaurant, I calmed down immediately. We were about to enter another world, where refinement and elegance reigned.
The layout of the Modern borrows from Danny Meyer’s flagship eatery Gramercy Tavern, which also divides its space into more casual and more formal settings. Here, the Bar Room seemed chic and upbeat, vivacious and hip, with a menu that could easily outshine many restaurants all on its own. Items included charred octopus with warm potato salad, potato and marrow cassolette with smoked beef tongue, and wild mushroom soup with toasted chorizo ravioli. Ever before stepping into the Main Dining Room, I was already plotting to pay a visit to the Bar Room another time.
The more austere Dining Room was quite a change of pace, more Kubrick-era 2001 than Meatpacking District, which I don’t think will appeal to everyone. But the space really grew on me though as the night progressed, its minimalist sophistication and vast openness fitting wonderfully with the architecture and aesthetic of the museum. With a view of the sculpture garden (which is probably much nicer when it’s not dark outside), this was a setting more artistic than romantic. Since I was with Vince rather than say Scarlett Johansson, this was all the better.
A waiter brought out an amuse to welcome us to The Modern. There were two portions of trout caviar and crème fraiche on a puff pastry, marinated mackerel in a sweet pea puree on a crispy corn shell, and a quiche. Each one was delightful, a bite-sized preview into the grandeur that was to follow. The caviar was light and flavorful, the mackerel and puree were bolder and more novel, and the quiche was a delicious nod to chef Gabriel Kreuther’s Alsatian background even as he worked in a New American milieu.
We also ordered cocktails at this point, from a list of intriguing choices. I went for the P.G. Martini (after learning they were out of the Coming Up Roses), which contained Grey Goose vodka, Campari and pomegranate juice. It wasn’t to my taste, because it emphasized the bitter Campari over the sweetness of the fruit. Yet it didn’t feel like a misstep for the restaurant, but rather a missed call for me. I know many people who would have loved the bitterness.
We then received another amuse, which was even more welcome, to precede our six-course Chef’s Tasting Menu. On a spoon, there was another cut of marinated mackerel on a dollop of a spicy yogurt. The introduction of the silverware was a great idea to break from the formula, and the juxtaposed textures and flavors of fish and creamy yogurt made for a thoughtful combination. The adjacent element, a marinated mushroom on frisee leaves, was a successfully clever allusion to the traditional first course of salad. Finally, a tumbler of melon gazpacho was a shot of mild juice spiced up by a light touch of seasonings. It was marvelously unique.
I wanted the amuses to keep coming, especially if they all promised to be this amusing. But they’d performed their job admirably, stoking my appetite for the pleasures to come. First up was a foie gras terrine with roasted artichokes and green peppercorns, also accompanied by a brioche and a wheat toast. The foie gras itself was predictably delicious, but the preparation of it with the nuts and the rich, spiced tomato paste coursing through it elevated it to excellent. Its flavor also went very well with the palate-cleansing vegetables, which were an unexpected and refreshing companion. Even better though was spreading the liver on the brioche, a combo fit for the Earl of Sandwich.
Next came the yellow fin tuna and scallop tartare, which was just as beautifully arranged as the terrine. Without even tasting the dish, I was already impressed how the minimalism of the food and the mission of the museum meshed so well with the presentation. Digging in, I found the tartare to be light and fresh, making for another terrific appetizer. I also enjoyed that it was a bold departure from the terrine.
After these appetizers came a hat trick of entrees so dead-on incredible that it left no room for doubt. The lobster, the cod and the buffalo were all so masterfully executed, so well-paired and flat out delectable that each could warrant their own posting. My favorite was the Lobster in a Folly of Herbs, the seafood so tender and meaty that it immediately trumped almost every other lobster dish I’ve had. But the Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod, for its terrific pairing of fish and sausage, and the Buffalo Tenderloin, for its zesty sauce, would’ve easily been taken the top spot at any other restaurant.
Finishing my cocktail, I returned to the list and selected the Mango Passion Mojito. Confidently, I threw back a long gulp and was knocked out. The mojito was the best I’ve had, the mint potent and fresh but still complementing and showcasing the other flavors.
Being gourmet cheese aficionados, Vince and I opted to add on cheese courses at this point. The waiter brought out the extensive and varied cheese cart, providing background for every piece on display. Some had traveled from upstate, others from across the globe. Some were made from sheep’s milk, others from goat’s or cow’s, yet others from permutations of the three. Some were soft or creamy; other firm and heavy. Using the waiter’s descriptions and expertise, Vince and I put together two plates that sampled a little of every category. Along with the kumquats, apricots, figs and cranberry walnut bread, it was a cheese lover’s dream.
The dessert amuse was next, another unexpected addition to our six courses. It was a tangerine and pomegranate granite topped with lemon sorbet. The contrast of the half-frozen fruit base and the solid sorbet was another good move, and the granite drew back memories of my first experiences with this cool dessert in Madrid. But of everything I tasted at the Modern, the amuse is also the one that could use some tweaking. Simply put, the granite was too sweet.
The critique of sweetness will seem strange in relation to my experience with the dessert. Impressed that the tasting menu allowed us a choice from a formidable list, I decided to go with the Lemon Napoleon. It turned out to be quite inventive, the reimagined hard crepes a far cry from the flaky puff pastries that my aunt uses. The fromage blanc sorbet and the dipping sauce of exotic fruits were also stylish touches. Still, I found the lemon filling that was so central to the dish too citric and acidic, lacking the sweetness to pull all of the elements together. Again though, as with the Martini, I couldn’t help but feel that this was more of a matter of preference than execution. Trying a bite of Vince’s expert chocolate soufflé helped to confirm this theory.
After dessert, I felt quite full but also ecstatic, basking in the heights our meal had scaled. But just when I thought we were done, a waiter brought out our selection of petit fours. Yet again, The Modern team had outdone itself. They could have made Willy Wonka jealous with all of the treats they laid before us. Alongside some remarkable chocolate, there were also chocolate raspberry brownies, cookies and even candied cilantro and passion fruit. I had to take a bite out of everything, but felt very bad that I didn’t have more room and energy to savor every morsel the way it deserved to be.
Finally, no review of The Modern would be complete with commending the service. The Danny Meyer brand carries a very high expectation of professional service, and our night was a prime example of an excellent staff. They attended to our every need, answered questions with impressive knowledge, and were always near to ensure that everything was going well. (One small issue: Whenever Vince or I got up to use the bathroom, whichever waiter was nearest would take away our napkin rather than folding it or replacing it. I’ve never seen that before and it puzzled us both. Anyone out there know the logic behind it?)
As Vince finished his decaf, he checked his watch. We had gotten to the restaurant at 8:45 and now it was past 1 a.m. It was amazing how quickly the night had seemed to fly by. As we set back out onto a hushed city, we were still trying to make sense of what to praise first, because calling anything a favorite felt like a slight to every other dish. Still, alternatively marveling at the chorizo or the brioche or the buffalo, we couldn’t help pronouncing it the best meal ever. As the legend continues to grow, I remained convinced that we weren’t far off. 10/10
Friday, April 15, 2005
Bistro St. Mark's - 76 St. Mark's Ave., Park Slope
Carrot-ginger soup; Roasted Atlantic Salmon with Soba Noodle, Soy Beans, Shiitake Mushrooms, Soy-Wasabi Vinaigrette; Coconut Panna Cotta; a glass of Syrah, Castle Rock Central Coast 2003
Restaurants are more than just places that serve food. They’re meeting places, settings for central events, forums for memory and commemoration. I’ve seen people proposed to, heated arguments, four generations of families eating out, couples on their first date. Good food helps to ease, not to mention mark, the transitions in life, so it was fitting that my roommate Perry and I had one last dinner before he moved down to DC.
Continuing my Dine In Brooklyn adventures, Perry and I met at Bistro St. Mark’s, a Park Slope restaurant headed by chef Johannes Sanzin. I’d chosen St. Mark’s because of Sanzin’s experience at Bouley, reasoning that if he could carry just some of the magic over from Tribeca, we’d be in for a very good dinner.
Unlike the Blue Ribbon fiasco (see Apr. 11), all the initial signs at this bustling but relaxing bistro seemed promising. For one, the choices on the regular menu were consistently appealing, offering classical dishes with innovative touches. Also, the restaurant week menu, which had two options for the three categories, was comprised of selections from the regular menu rather than cheap substitutes. Finally, I really liked the space, which had high ceilings and simple but attractive décor.
I started with the carrot-ginger soup, which packed a stronger punch than I expected. Most versions of this soup are at least a little sweet, but here, the emphasis was strictly on the ginger. It was so strong that I couldn’t detect the carrot, an imbalance that was interesting but ultimately tiring. This appetizer just wasn’t for me.
Next though, I was wowed. The salmon entrée, which came with a nice albeit oily soba salad, was phenomenal. The salmon was expertly seasoned in a soy-miso vinaigrette, making every bite a pleasure. But even without the sauce, the fish tasted incredible. Slightly raw inside at the center, it was soft, tender and fresh. Generally, I don’t even like salmon, but after grudgingly finishing my portion, I was already craving more.
To finish, I had a coconut panna cotta, an Italian egg custard that’s a reliably light finale to a big meal. And even though I wasn’t stuffed, I still enjoyed the silky texture and subtle flavor of this dessert. I wasn’t as taken with the pairing of pineapple sauce that surrounded the custard, but altogether, it was indeed a comforting and delicate conclusion to our dinner.
And just like that, with three courses, our dinner was done. Perry and I went back to our apartment, which was strewn with half-packed grocery bags. He continued to stack his books and CDs into boxes, his clothes into suitcases. Then two days later, he was gone on an afternoon train headed to the capital, but at least we had one more memory and one more enjoyable restaurant to share. 7/10