Monday, May 08, 2006

Bites, April 2006 - Part II

The undisputed culinary highlight of last month was my second visit to Sugiyama, the transcendent Japanese kaiseki restaurant on West 55th Street. The modern kaiseki that chef Nao Sugiyama serves grew out of a Zen Buddhist tea ceremony, where the emphasis is on fresh seasonal ingredients. Visual beauty was always an important component of the kaiseki, and it is an essential part of the Sugiyama experience. The 8-course modern kaiseki (actually nine with dessert) at Sugiyama is probably the most popular dinner choice on the menu. It consists of small, leisurely paced courses of beautifully prepared seasonal delicacies, all of which are explained in detail by the server. The meal unfolds over an approximately two-and-a-half-hour period, and at $68 a head it qualifies as a bargain among splurges. On my two visits, some of the items were identical, but there were variants in most of the courses. The starter was monkfish liver (known as the foie gras of Japan) blended into a custardy fresh tofu. A mixed appetizer course is a veritable sculpture garden, and usually includes Nao's signature Japanese bayberry in a tiny cube of clear wine gelatin along with a baby crab that one eats with the shell on. A sashimi course included a spectacular Japanese oyster and tuna garnished with edible gold foil; the sashimi is served with real wasabi, which is noticably far superior to the mock wasabi made of mustard and horseradish powder that one is usually served at sushi bars in North America. On this evening one of the later courses was oden, several boiled items served in broth, including an absolutely stunning tofu puff stuffed with lobster meat, whitefish and shiitake mushrooms. The only part of the meal the diner chooses is whether to have seafood or beef tenderloin cooked at the table over a hot stone. The dessert, which happily never changes, is an amazingly refreshing grapefruit wine jelly (which encompasses the very essence of grapefruitness), topped with fresh cream. I had brought my camera along to photograph the meal, but when I reviewed the photos on a large screen I discovered that they were all somewhat out of focus. It turns out that one of the selectors on my infrequently used camera was set to landscape mode, and I was shooting closeups. I considered lying and saying I was aiming for an arty soft-focus effect, but instead I've decided to come clean. Photos don't do the food justice anyway.

Take a look at Ruth Reichl's three-star New York Times Review of Sugiyama (it might require registration).

I also got to a couple of 9th Avenue places last month that had been on “the list.” An Italian dinner at Roberto Passon preceded a concert by my favorite Brazilian singer-songwriter, Joao Bosco, at Birdland. Passon is a rising-star chef who provides excellent food at real people’s prices. He was involved in several other restaurants before opening the eponymous one, and he still has a hand in a couple of other Hell’s Kitchen eateries. Passon is Venetian, and the menu is influenced, but far from controlled, by the northeast. The restaurant has one of those menus that invite indecision, as just about everything looks interesting. That combined with good food is a pretty good way to encourage return visits. The two of us shared two appetizers. The crab cake in warm shiitake salad and spicy red pepper sauce is clearly not traditional Italian, but it’s very good indeed. The skewered jumbo shrimp on rosemary cannellini beans was somewhat less successful, as the shrimp were a tad overcooked and dry, though the sauce, which seemed to be balsamic-based, was tasty enough. My main course, slow braised rabbit with peppers, kalamata olives, tomato with grilled white polenta was both enormous and delicious, a steal at $16. Also quite delightful was a glass of Arneis, a Piemontese white wine that I had never heard of before. This place is definitely a keeper. A 6:30 reservation, however, was not optimal, as the place does a bustling pre-theater crowd, and it was very noisy. By 7:30 things had quieted down considerably. Passon’s restaurant has one of those really infuriating Flash-based websites with annoying music and a totally stupid user interface. Check it out!

Another Hell’s Kitchen spot that somehow evaded my radar until my old friend Holly Anderson mentioned it recently is Pam Real Thai, on W. 49th, which also has a completely ridiculous website (this one holds your mouse prisoner). Holly’s raves and the ones I subsequently found online made me plan a lunch for four post haste. The place has become so popular that they have recently added an “Encore” branch two blocks south of the original, and that’s where we went to avoid a long wait. The “Real” in the name refers to the fact that while there are many Thai restaurants in New York, few are authentic (and I believe most are run by Chinese, not Thai, people). The food at Pam is indeed better than most Thai food in Manhattan (not a difficult feat, unfortunately), and not unlike the Thai food I ate when in Bangkok. For appetizers we had hae guen (crabmeat wrapped in bean curd sheets and fried), delicious with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce, and some excellent steamed chicken dumplings. The shrimp pad key mao, a flat rice noodle dish with basil and chili that is also known as drunken noodles on some menus, was the best I’ve had in New York; like all the food at Pam it retained a complexity of flavor in spite of hot spice, and was lighter and less greasy than most versions of the dish I’ve tried. Chicken laab (or larb), a very typical Thai salad of minced meat with fish sauce, lime juice and herbs, served warm over greens, was also more subtle than others I’ve had in New York, but it wasn’t a big hit with the rest of the table. A pork Panang curry was good, with a nice lemongrass finish, but I felt it could have been spicier; I’ll probably try the green curry next time. They have a full list of crispy duck dishes, and we tried the prik khing, a dry saute with curry paste, long beans, lime leaves and basil. This Thai chicharon de pato was heavenly.

I closed out the month with a reunion dinner with those three evil proofreaders who got me into this blasted blogging in the first place. The occasion was a return visit from our kiwi cohort David, who for some reason gave up his plum job as a freelance proofreader in New York to move to Tortola, in the Virgin Islands, where he has a shitty job as a yacht captain and editor of a yachting magazine. Go figure. We finally were able to make our long-standing wish-list date to see the wonderful Django Reinhardt-influenced guitarist Stephane Wrembel at Barbès, Park Slope's best French watering hole and eclectic music venue. Before the show we dined at Belleville, a decent if unexceptional French bistro in the neighborhood, sister restaurant to the very similar Casimir in the East Village. Getting together with those three is always a blast, even if they have caused me to waste countless hours scribbling at this ridiculous hobby horse.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

elephant is the sister restaurant of belleville. casinis is no relation.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...


"Chef Joe Elorriaga has served as executive chef in Casimir, Felix and The Elephant, three restaurants owned by Belleville proprietors Eric Lagrange and Alain Deuneulin. At Belleville, Elorriaga wisely leaves many bistro classics alone."

11:57 PM  

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