Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Restaurant Week 2006 – Part I

I don't usually do New York Restaurant Week, but this year I decided to give it a whirl since the blog gives me a betting interest.

Restaurant Week was started in 1992, when the Democratic convention was in town, as a way to showcase New York's top restaurants to visiting delegates and journalists. The price of a prix-fixe lunch was $19.92, pegged to the year, and I believe dinner was $30. The experiment was such a success that it became an annual tradition, with the lunch price going up a penny every year. I'm not sure when they changed the lunch pricing, but this year it's $24.07. How the fuck they came up with that number I'll never know. Dinner is $35.

Restaurant Week has always been problematic. Some restaurateurs treat it as a showcase for diners who might not otherwise visit the restaurant or are looking for an affordable sample first meal. Unfortunately, others seem to view it as a burden, treating Restaurant Week diners as second-class citizens, offering very limited choice, and serving small portions of their least interesting menu items. With Restaurant Week the early bird catches the worm, a number of the most coveted places getting booked up as soon as the list is announced. Some restaurants offer the special menu for lunch only, not wanting to cut into their lucrative dinner business.

I can only remember four prior Restaurant Week meals, all lunches, all in the nineties. Only one of them was an unqualified success, a spectacular three courses at Douglas Rodriquez's Patria, now defunct. The worst of the bunch was at the thankfully defunct Palio, a midtown Italian place. The staff were condescending, Restaurant Week diners were segregated in a separate section of the restaurant, and they offered a horrible selection, with the only entrées being grilled salmon and an orecchiete in pink sauce that was served lukewarm and tasted like school cafeteria food. My Restaurant Week lunch at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Thai-French fusion restaurant Vong was one of my first tastes of the Emperor's New Clothes trend in Eurasian fusion cuisine and convinced me not to return, so it served a heuristic purpose. The other place was an Indo-French fusion place that was utterly forgettable, and now defunct. For some reason Vong is not defunct.

Restaurant Week now runs two weeks, but I didn't even remember it was coming until the last minute, so available reservations were limited. I ended up doing four meals, one lunch and three dinners. I ruled any restaurant that extended the special through Labor Day, figuring I'd have other opportunities. I was sorry I couldn't get into Union Square Cafe for lunch, as their menu was particularly inviting, and seemed to take the showcase nature of Restaurant Week quite seriously:


Pappa al Pomodoro – Tuscan Tomato & Bread Soup with Basil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil

“Corn Ricotta” & Prosciutto Bruschetta with Stone Fruit, Arugula and Sycamore Farm Sweet Corn

Grilled Portabello Mushroom, Baby Spinach & Shaved Fennel Salad with Grana Padano and Aged Balsamic Vinaigrette

Frascatelli Genovese – Handmade Durum Wheat Dumplings with Green Beans, Potatoes and Pesto Cream


Grilled Swordfish with Eggplant Mashed Potatoes and Sicilian-Style Tomato, Orange & Olive Salad

Yogurt-Marinated Grilled Chicken Skewers with Lemon-Basmati Rice and Greenmarket Radish Raita

Summer Fried Fish Basket with “Tartar Slaw” and Pickled Vegetables

Berkshire Pork Shoulder Confit with Grilled Vidalia Onions, Rosemary Roasted Potatoes and Peach Chutney


Mississippi Mudd Pie with Kahlúa Whipped Cream

Strawberry-Crème Fraîche Panna Cotta with Basil Syrup and Greenmarket Strawberries

Chocolate Fudge Cake with Black Mint Crème Anglaise

Blueberry Tart with Lemon Curd and Blueberry Syrup

Much to my surprise, I was able to get a same day lunch reservation at Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne, close to my midtown office. I can't complain about the meal, but neither was I bowled over. My starter was the baby Bibb lettuce Nicoise with tuna confit, green beans and cherry tomatoes–pretty good, but I don't turn cartwheels for salads. My main course was the beef short ribs raviole (I believe the plural in French should have been ravioles) with baby spinach, fava beans, button mushrooms and Parmesan. The dish was pleasing enough, but nothing kvellworthy. The perfectly prepared vegetables did make a nice ensemble with the ravioli, which, by the way, reminded me of upscale kreplach. The dessert, lemon-rasberry cake with raspberry coulis and vanilla chantilly was rather pedestrian. When you consider the fact that it's normally impossible to get three courses at lunch for under $50 at this restaurant I suppose it was, overall, a nice opportunity, but I have no intention of returning.

I'm truly pissed at i Trulli. I've enjoyed sampling wines and eating cured meats, appetizers and pastas at this Pugliese restaurant's next-door enoteca, but I'd never dined in the main room. I saw Restaurant Week as an opportunity and was gravely disappointed. I Trulli's approach was to offer a decidedly second-class selection for the prix-fixe. In the appetizer department they really missed the boat. I have no idea why they didn't offer one of their house specialties, the typically Apulian panzerotti (small, fried calzones stuffed with mozzarella and tomato). The appetizer I ordered was a charred lamb salad with cucumbers, black olives and fried chick peas. It was good, and while it might be a preparation from Puglia it was much more Middle Eastern than Italian in taste. The main course was a disaster. First of all, one of the selections was a fish of the day over a tomato-bread salad. I asked what the fish was and was told it was cod. I hate cod. Is there a more tasteless fish with a less appealing texture? But cod was the fish of the day in steerage only; the first-class passengers (i.e. the a la carte diners) were offered branzino, the delicious Mediterranean sea bass, that night. Another entree was skirt steak over a faro salad. Now I have nothing against skirt steak, but it's not what you serve your special guests (as I was walking down Park Avenue toward the subway I noticed that Barbounia, the newish Mediterranean restaurant in the old Patria space, also had skirt steak on the R.W. menu). The dish I ended up ordering was a cut below mediocre. It was cavatelli, the typical Pugliese pasta dumpling, with a Sicialian pesto (a tomato-almond sauce) and "sauteed shrimp." The shrimp were tiny, dry and tasteless, more appropriate as fish bait than a dinner ingredient. They really should have offered their excellent cavatelli with broccoli rabe and almonds instead, which also would have made the menu more vegetarian-friendly. On a happier note, the torta di mandorle (almond cake with balsamic strawberries and strawberry sorbet) I had for dessert was wonderful. Despite the sweet dessert the dinner left a sour taste in my mouth, and to the owners of i Trulli I say fuck you and your codfish and fishbait shrimp.

I'll tell you about my two Restaurant Week Indian meals next time.

Restaurant Week experiences can range from wonderful introductions to some of New York's most esteemed restaurants to infuriatingly (and seemingly intentionally) second-rate meals. Unfortunately, in my experience, the latter scenario is the more common one. One wonders why some restaurants bother to participate when they seem so put out. Perhaps there should be an ombudsman to oversee and insure the quality of the meals. I'm available.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"Health Vegetarians"

I have no problem with “moral vegetarians.” If some people don’t believe in killing animals for food, I respect their choice, as long as they leave me alone with my meat. It’s the people who claim to be vegetarians for health reasons who irk me. First of all, it’s naive to assume that a vegetarian diet is in esse, or even in posse, more healthful than an omnivorous one, and most of those folks, unless they’re vegans, are probably eating more than enough milk fat to make up for all the animal fats they’re avoiding. Besides, as often as not these so-called vegetarians, it turns out, will tell you they eat fish. I’ve even met people who claimed to be vegetarians who ate poultry as well as fish. Fish and chickens may not be smart, but they’re not vegetables. Sure most fish is, in principle, better for you than most meat, but the chemicals and pollution have evened out the playing field somewhat. And forget about poultry. I’m no expert, but I think poultry fat is at least as dangerous as the fat from “red meat,” not to mention the hormones and antibiotics and salmonella potential. Then there’s my “vegetarian” friend who makes an exception for bacon, because she likes it too much to give it up. I do have a modicum of respect for that position.

I'm sure there are also people who claim to be "moral vegetarians" with an asterisk, who allow themselves to eat seafood because they consider fish and shellfish lower, less intelligent forms of life than mammals. The Nazis made similar value judgments.

And don't get me started on Jews who don't keep kosher but refuse to eat pork, as if that's the one thing the Alleged Deity won't forgive. Jesus.

Related to the health vegetarians are the “is it healthy?” and the “is it fattening?” types, people who aren’t vegetarians per se, but who obsess so much about these questions that they can’t enjoy a single meal with carefree abandon. I know several people who maintain a sensible diet at home and rarely eat out, but when they do they don’t order what they really want, they order something they think is “healthy” (even if they should be thinking it’s “healthful”). It’s a perversely puritanical and wrongheaded approach. One meal won’t kill you, damn it. Enjoy something for a change.

I was once in a restaurant and I overheard a woman asking the waiter of every dish, “Is it very fattening? Do you know how many calories?” What waiter knows how many calories are in anything? This woman was hardly fat anyway. I felt like telling her to go home and make some fucking steamed vegetables if she was so concerned about how fattening the food in a restaurant was. But I kept my mouth shut.

Of course it’s important to be health-conscious when it comes to diet, but it’s equally important to the mental health to live life with gusto. Maintain a balance; don’t be a fundamentalist. It’s certainly a good idea to eat more like the Mediterraneans or the Japanese, but if you want to eat like a Hungarian every once in a while, go for it.

I know a woman who is not a vegetarian, but she is almost one by default, since she is unable to eat the meat of any animal she considers cute or any animal she considers ugly. I can’t think of too many animals in-between. I will confess that there have been two types of meat I could not bring myself to eat. The first was monkey. It was on a menu in a restaurant in Phuket, Thailand. I thought seriously about it. I went back and forth. I pride myself on culinary adventurousness, but ultimately I just couldn’t do primate. So I did the cowardly thing and ordered khanom jeen nam yaa, the local fish curry noodle soup. The other meat I couldn't eat was dog. This was in Vietnam, where there are special dog restaurants. All those restaurants have signs with a picture of the big, wolfish food dogs that they serve. The dogs are bred for food, and I suspect the restaurants may be segregated this way so they can be better regulated, to make sure they don't serve strays or pets. For me, though, the association with domesticated canines was too strong, and I couldn't bring myself to enter one of those places. Still, I haven't ruled dog out altogether. I haven't yet been to Korea or the Phillipines, so I may have other chances. I don't think I'll ever get over my irrational fear of monkey meat, however.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Visit to the Ice Cidery

I discovered ice cider about two years ago. I had gone up to Montreal for the annual beer festival, the Mondiale de la Bière. Though called a “Mondiale” most of the products were actually from Quebec, and not all of them beer. In addition to many microbrews, Quebec wineries and cideries were well represented at the event. I had never heard of ice cider before, so the taste was a revelation.

Ice cider, the apple equivalent of ice wine, was invented by Quebec vintner Christian Barthomeuf in 1989. Apples are picked after the first frost, which creates the concentration of sugars that gives the cider its intense, aromatic flavor. Fermented for eight months, it takes the juice of about eighty apples to yield a 375 cl. bottle (a half wine bottle). Ice cider, to me, conveys the quintessence of appleness. Best consumed as an aperitif or a dessert wine, ice cider can be treated like a Sauternes or a Muscat. Of four or five ice ciders I tried, Pinnacle was by far my favorite, as I found all the others a bit too sweet. Pinnacle is sweet, for sure, but it seems to strike a Platonic balance. Barthomeuf is the cidermaster for Pinnacle as well as La Face Cachée de la Pomme. At about $22-25 Canadian per half bottle for most brands (or $40 in the U.S., see below), ice cider is definitely a luxury item.

For Fourth of July weekend this year I went up to the Montreal Jazz Festival with my friend David T.Z. Mindich, whom I met while working on my Ph.D. in American Studies (one of my many dust-collecting degrees). David lives and teaches in Burlington, Vermont. The Pinnacle cidery, near Frelighsburg in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, is about halfway between Burlington and Montreal, so we decided to stop off at the tasting room on the way to the festival.

The Pinnacle Tasting Room

At the Pinnacle tasting room we were greeted by Karolyn, the charming young woman who poured and described the products. In addition to the regular ice cider, which accounts for most of their production, they also offer a sparkling version and a special reserve. The special reserve, which blends six varieties of apple and requires over one hundred apples to compose a bottle actually disappointed. Described as having a “warm, caramel, baked apple flavor,” it was just too sweet for me. The sparkling version, a Pinnacle exclusive, was pleasant, but ultimately the original ice cider rules.

Karolyn Pours

Ice Cider is one of Quebec’s great gifts to mankind, and as it is difficult to find elsewhere, visitors to the province owe it to themselves to pick up a bottle or two.

After our cider tasting David and I stopped off in Frelighsburg for lunch at The General Store, a place that Karolyn had recommended, informing us that they were famous for their maple syrup pie. Naturally, the menu listed “Our Famous Maple Syrup Pie.” I had no choice but to try it, despite my lukewarm attitude toward maple syrup. I’m a sucker for these kinds of claims to fame. If the menu had listed “Our Famous Sea Cucumber Pie” I might have tried that too. Anyway, to call the pie pathologically sweet would be an understatement. Granted, I know from experience, having traveled in India and Latin America, that there are billions of people who would revel in such sweet overkill.

Pinnacle Update (July 12, 1 PM)

A friend and reader of this blog emailed me to ask where Pinnacle ice cider could be bought in New York. Karolyn at Pinnacle had told me that there were some distributors in the U.S., and that the information could be found on the Pinnacle website. A call to the listed New York distributor proved fruitless. I had much more luck with the Connecticut distributor, Slocum. The woman I spoke with suggested I contact Grapes, a specialty wine shop and mail/phone order business in Norwalk. At Grapes I spoke with Jim Winston, who determined that they could indeed special order and ship the product, but that it could only be ordered by the case, at a cost of $39.99 per bottle, plus tax and shipping. That would be $480 for the case plus about $60 (6% tax and $30 for shipping), with the net cost per bottle working out to $45.
I had a nice long chat with Jim, who is a kibbitzer and a mensch; it's always pleasant to deal with somebody on the phone who isn't an all-business automaton. The Grapes business model relies on a lot of interaction with their customer base. We discussed, among other things, ice wine production in Europe. I came away with a really positive feeling about this business. If you want to splurge on a case of Pinnacle, give Jim a call at 1-800-434-WINE (9463).

* * *

I don’t have much to report from the Montreal food front except that we had a spectacular breakfast the following day at a delightful Persian place called Byblos. Byblos offers the most marvelous fresh baked sweet breads with jams of your choice (I ordered the rose petal/pistachio and David ordered the ginger, both delicious). David had an excellent feta omelet an I went for the halym (Persian cream of wheat). Halym (usually spelled haleem) is interesting in that it includes meat (turkey at Byblos) that is cooked down until it marries with the texture of the cereal. It is a popular dish in India & Pakistan where it is more likely to be savory than the sweet version that Byblos serves. The Arabic coffee, a pot of cardamom-spiced filter coffee was similar in taste to Turkish coffee, but more satisfying as a morning beverage, and the many tropical fruit juice combinations on offer were hard to choose from–in fact, I can’t remember what the third ingredient in mine was, after the banana and tangerine. It’s a laid back, sunny, airy place, and the staff are friendly and eager to answer any and all questions about the menu.

After David drove home that night I stayed in Montreal for several more days and hung out with some other jazz buddies from Vermont. We attempted a Sunday lunch at a Syrian place called Le Petit Alep, which had come highly recommended and featured a dessert I was jonesing to try: a sweet semolina & ricotta ball rolled in pistachio and cinnamon. Unfortunately the restaurant was closed, but it was close to the Jean Talon Market, one of Montreal’s several large European-style markets. At the market I noshed on several kinds of sausage and a really tasty but very expensive buffalo rib ($3 for one smallish rib). The pistachio gelato from Le Havre aux Glaces was very good, but I’m still dying to try that dessert at the Syrian place.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Bites, June 2006 – South of the (14th Street) Border

Already I begin to tire of the Bites format. I really am not cut out to be a restaurant reviewer. In fact, I recently turned down an offer to do a regular review column for one of those free weekly advertiser papers. I have neither the energy nor the enthusiasm for a weekly obligation to write a set number of words in a proscribed format, at least not for the kind of money I was offered. Still, for some unexplainable reason I feel compelled to continue to make, at the very least, brief mention of some notable meals as well as notable disappointments, so I will go on, as much as it pains me to do so.

* * *

I took Janice out to Azul, a fairly new Argentine place on the Lower East Side, for her birthday. Janice always prefers lively places to sedate ones, and Azul seemed to fit the bill. That it did, with a great selection of Latin music and a very amiable, unpretentious staff. The food, too, was quite good. We shared the parrilada completa (mixed grill). The sausage and morcilla (blood sausage) were both tasty if unexceptional, the chicken breast moist and flavorful, and the sweetbreads perhaps the highlight of the combo. The skirt steak and lamb chops were also very good, but too well done for my taste–I hadn’t thought to ask whether one could specify how one wants one’s meat done in a parrilada.

* * *

For another one of those happy annual birthday obligations I took my old friend Howard S. out to Itzocan Café, an East Village French-Mexican bistro. The restaurant is quite small, seating 14 with a minuscule kitchen that miraculously holds two cooks and turns out some pretty good and interesting food. The scale of the place reminds me of a Lyonnais bouchon. The chef/owners are Mexicans from Puebla (I believe New York’s Mexican community is majority Poblano) who had previously worked in the kitchens of French restaurants. They decided to strike out on their own with a fusion menu. Now as you know I’m a fusion skeptic, but somehow cuisines of the Americas fuse with European ones more successfully than do Asian cuisines, perhaps because most western hemisphere cuisines already have a European basis at the core. Ultimately, I’d describe the food at Itzocan as Mexican-accented French, rather than vice versa.

The most rewarding item we tried was the sweet corn and huitlacoche souffle cake with truffle oil. This dish was incredibly sensual (bordering on erotic) in both taste and texture. A forkful, or a spoonful, of this light, custardy, but lighter than custard, moist, foamy concoction caresses the entirety of the mouth and gullet as it makes its inevitable way to the digestive tract. Its bouquet is at once complex and subtle, its mix of flavors a stroke of culinary genius, the sweet corn base providing a cozy bed upon which the aromatic huitlacoche and truffle flavors are allowed to have their way with each other. Huitlacoche, by the way, is a kind of fungus that grows on corn, and is a Mexican delicacy. So the dish is even a marriage of new and old world fungi.

Also wonderful, if not nearly so transcendent, was the grilled asparagus salad with Oaxacan cheese (a mozzarella-like white cheese) and mango, served with mesclun greens in a passion fruit vinaigrette.

The least successful appetizer was the queso fundido, a fondue of melted cheese, mushrooms, poblano peppers, and chorizo. Howard’s wife Pat hit the nail on the head when she described it as pizza topping without the crust.

For my main course I ordered the braised flank steak in Burgundy, with pasilla chiles, served with semolina epazote dumplings. Basically, we’re talking about a spin on boeuf Bourguinon, with only the subtlest chile influence. Epazote is a Mexican herb that if used liberally can have a musty taste, but used sparingly added an interesting, aromatic accent to the hearty, doughy dumplings. The serving was enormous, and though I quite enjoyed it, the heimish solidity was a bit of culture shock after the lithe souffle and asparagus appetizers. Next time I think I’ll try the shrimp sauteed with aged tequila, lime juice and guajillo chiles.

Howard and Pat split the most interesting sounding dessert, the blue corn crepes with goat’s milk caramel. I had a taste. It was incredibly sweet, and frankly I’m not a fan of goat’s milk products, including cheeses.

All in all the menu is audacious and largely successful. I applaud the proprietors for pulling it off.

* * *

Mid-June, during the Vision Festival, New York’s alternative jazz festival, I arranged a number of meals and drink outings for an international bunch of visiting jazz fans, concert promoters and record producers. One of these meals gave me the opportunity to try another fairly new place that has been on my radar, Samba-Le, a popular Brazilian-Italian place, with staff from both countries and menu items that sometimes seem to be a fusion of the two and sometimes just wild spins on one or the other. After some discussion about ordering strategy, we went with my ordering a range of dishes to share around the table. In general, the pasta dishes I tried were nothing special, even the intriguing chocolate tagliatelle with duck ragout, which was nonetheless superior to the eminently forgettable gnocchi. Rumor has it, however, that the lasagna with lamb that never came my way was very good. Among the highlights were a pretty straightforward but incredibly flavorful Brazilian-style steak and the sauteed, pancetta-wrapped scallops with a cachaca pink sauce. I want to give it another try with a smaller group, so I can have a chance to devote more attention to the food, which is difficult when catching up with a group of friends from disparate places.

The Latin theme continued with a brunch at Esperanto, a restaurant that has been a favorite of mine for at least five years, with Cuban & Brazilian food and live Latin music (though dinners are a better bet than brunch), and a dinner at Paladar, Aaron Sanchez’s Nuevo Latino place on Ludlow Street. Both places mix some of the best mojitos and caipirinhas in town. The food at Paladar can be uneven, but at its best it’s excellent, with reasonable prices and a casual vibe that I like a lot. Sanchez has recently opened the more traditionally Mexican (and somewhat more upscale) Centrico in Tribeca.

The United States of Downtown is just crawling with interesting Latin and Nuevo Latino places. This is, of course, a major culinary trend these days, and one that makes perfect sense given the number of Latinos from all over the hemisphere living here in New York, so many of whom work in restaurants. Yet it was not so long ago that Douglas Rodriguez brought the Nuevo Latino or new world cuisine concept to New York with his pioneering Patria and Chicama. Rodriguez may have left New York, but his shadow still looms large.