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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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