Thursday, September 15, 2016

JAMS

Jams was THE place in its hey-day, back in the '80's, introducing California cuisine to the New York dining scene as a novel genre, celebrating market-fresh ingredients and lighter, breezier cooking techniques.  Although Jams closed before the nineties began, Chef Jonathan Waxman never faded from the scene, cooking in or consulting for twenty some-odd restaurants and fathering the ever-popular Barbuto in the West Village.  Perhaps on the coattails of its success, and a bit of nostalgia for the good old times, he resurrected Jams, this time in midtown occupying the ground level of  1 Central Park Hotel.  While in the eighties, the idea of cooking on a wood-fired grill, minimalist preparations of organic, seasonal ingredients and celebratory vegetables was enough to draw crowds, today it is basically a given.  So while the bar of expectations is a much higher today for type of food, the seasoning and innovations of the menu seems somewhat tamped to placate its midtown clientele.

That said, there is still a pleasant meal to be had at Jams... but it might take you awhile to get through it.  Service is a bit lackadaisical, and not particularly engaging even when you have their attention.  The menu is of standard format- there are few, if any, quirks that need explaining.  No real surprises in most of the dishes, either; the cooking here is rather straightforward.  A chilled corn soup with charred scallions was creamy and smoky, a nice late summer starter.  A kale salad could've held up pretty much any time of year, but the heirloom tomato with cucumber and melon certainly spoke of the bounties of August's
 market.  Peter's Point (MA) oysters were served a half-dozen, on the half shell, but almost double too much money, at $21.  They were good for the time of year, although notably briny.  For a restaurant priding themselves on market seasonality, the Starters seemed a little heavy, and lacking in vegetable/vegetarian options, so I took an offering from the side dishes, a whole roast tomato.  It was flavored like pizza with garlic, fennel and oregano, and baked 'til it succumbed to the ovens heat, releasing its plentiful juices that would've been wonderful soaked up by some slice of a chewy loaf, but continuing in true California-style
 (365 days a year bikini-season) no bread was offered, nor do recall any for purchase on the menu, so most of those fragrant drippings remained in the bottom of the bowl.    Snackier options consist
 of small bowls of nuts ($7) or olives ($6), or a cheesy toast with tomatoes and herbs.

The one pasta we tried was basically the white clam sauce classic, snazzed up with spicy breadcrumbs whose spice really of infiltrated the whole dish, making for quite a piquant little plate of noodles.  Clams were small but numberous, impeccably fresh and plump.  Gnocchi with corn and tomato, a seafood risotto and a hearty gemelli with braised pork shoulder joined its ranks.



The menu included five options for main courses, plus an evening's special pork chop served with lightly braised, leafy kale and spiced, charred carrots.   The kale was a little sour eaten on its own, but cut up in little bites to pair with the robust pork it made a nice condiment-type accompaniment.  Olive oil poached cod shared the plate with whole, miniature patty pan squash and slices of grilled eggplant.  The cod, too, might've worked better had it been thrown on the grill as well, the delicacy and softness achieved by this method of cooking less complimentary to the hearty smear of rugged romesco, with its chunky bits of almond, and abundant smattering of intense olives with which it was served.  It would've been better off with less aggressive bedfellows, or else grilled along with them to attain more continuity.
 And again, without any bread, I used the
 remaining romesco to pep up a rather lackluster side dish of fairly un-garlicky garlic sauteed green beans.





The best part of the meal came to close it out, which is always nice- ending on a high note.  And I actually thought that virtuoso would be the peach and blackberry cobbler, with is oaty, buttery crust, but in the end,  the stage-stealer was a moist, juice-steeped blackberry upside down cake with sweet corn ice cream.  Its ice cream could've been more intensely corny, but it was enhanced by the golden polenta cake, stained with the inky juices of the berries like sticky fingers after a day of picking.  The coffee that I got with it was just as outstanding, a rare occasion where the lack of caffeine seemed to be made up for by the depth of flavor.  After such a successful dish, I wondered had I ordered better, like going for that signature roasted chicken he made so famous here, and lives on at Barbuto, perhaps I could've experienced a more satisfying Jams.  Those who have fond recollections of the original might benefit from the nostalgia they could to apply to this new version, but more likely Jams will thrive on hotel guests, the restaurant desert of the area,  and midtown foot-traffic familiar with Waxman's celebrity.  And they won't be disappointed, but a native might find themselves a lot happier heading downtown where his talent  never needed reintroduction.







1414 Avenue of the Americas tel.  212.703.2007




Tuesday, August 30, 2016

LA RUTA DEL TORO IBIZA/Plaza del Toro











Since it's a cross-continental flight to Portland anyways, I can't be too upset that I hit Plaza de Toro's final summer party of the Ruta del Toro series, "culinary experiences where we share food and explore Spain"....  and have a really good time doing it.  The Ibiza-themed fete called for white apparel and a predilection for dancing, encouraged by Barcelonian DJ Bruno Homedes.   The chefs were imported from Spain as well, dazzlingly handsome
 ones with tanned skin and tousled hair.  At the helm was chef Juanjo Canals teaming with Toro's executive chef, John Gorham, who took it upon himself to manage enough of the cooking to liberate these guapos to circulate the crowd so I could at least introduce myself.



Which was a highlight of the evening, but the true magic appeared on laden platters passed about by enlisted Toro staffers.  Refreshing shots of scallop ceviche were served in hollowed out limes and shrouded in a tangy, diaphanous foam.  Ceramic crocks of a lusty shrimp and lobster potage tasted of rich summer tomatoes and a warm ocean breeze, loaded with tender chunks of fresh seafood.  This made a nice little meal-ette with a zesty insalata russa, plump with potatoes and peas, propped up on a cracker-thin wheaten toast.   The prize-winner, however, was a super sexy squid ink risotto, its glass cup leaving nothing to the imagination.  The blackened rice was chewy, creamy and saline, crowned with a tiny, shatteringly crisp octopod, deep-fried to chip crispiness.  It was hard to flag this one down, as they seemed to disappear off the serving trays as soon as they departed the kitchen.  I think in that kitchen, they intended the whole roasted pig to be the star of the night (but only because they didn't realize how awesome the risotto was...)  And truly, that pig was

spectacular.  Its rich meaty juices trickled off the tender hunks of flesh and saturated the fragile toast below.  Topped with a rich crema and a tangy melted cherry tomato, the toast had no hope of survival, succumbing to the juices of the meat, fruit and cream and just creating a luscious finger-licking delight of a mess. 



And it didn't end there, because the DJ was still spinning, sangria kept flowing, and no dinner party is complete without dessert.  So, in accordance with the abundance of the tapas, there were also many of these.  A party-sized hero of brioche was filled with sweetened whipped cream and sliced into two-bite sammies.  Key lime tartlettes cupped the tangy curd in buttery pie shells, spritzed with tiny flounces of whipped cream.  The best was a dense bread pudding, drizzled in icing and moist as could be underneath an oven-baked crust that maximized everything Maillard every hoped to describe.  An array of house-made chocolates spilled out over the buffet table as well, their liquidy caramel centers spurting out from delicate dark chocolate shells like the jets of soapy foam from real Ibiza parties.... which was pretty much the only thing that was missing from our slightly tamer PDX version.  So, until next summer, Toro. 






Friday, August 26, 2016

DIVERSION/PDX: SUPERBITE

I haven't been to a restaurant with this much vim in what feels like forever.  Greg Denton (of Ox acclaim) opened up this eclectic newbie just months ago, and has been rolling with a full house since Day 1.  No surprise, really, given the popularity of Ox and Kask, and also an easily accessible,  prime address smack dab in downtown Portland.

Superbite accentuates the ingenuity of the Portland dining scene, creating a menu sectioned into Bites, Plates and Platters, where the bites are truly one to two bite super-bombs of flavor, plates run in the tapas profile, and platters could be shared by three or four appetites whetted by a sampling of selections from the former.  The room is as bright as the restaurant's prospects, paved in stunning tiles whorled with cobalt and white and lit with glowy pendulous bulbs that come into effect after the sun sets, which was pretty late on a breezy, balmy summer night.  It is also as lively in its noise level, a boisterous din that seemed to elevate throughout the course of the night, as the atmosphere morphed even more festive and celebratory as the evening progressed.










Service is chipper and congenial, but significant lapses in attentiveness occurred on several occasions, where the staff seemed either distracted or lackadaisical, but in either case, inattentive.  We ordered a extraordinary wine (Loureiro-Quinto do Ameal- Vino Verde '14)  but it took an arduous, anticipation-heightening while to arrive.  Noticeable bouts of thumb-twiddling surpassed between courses, and flagging down a server for a question or even our check at the end verged on an animated display of acrobatics.  So to was the wait before our first Bites, although also well worth it.  The first
 thing to hit the table may have been the best dish of the night, an onion ring filled with artichoke custard and heaped with Dungeness crab.  If this was offered as a Platter, I would've taken it.... aye, a true Superbite, in every sense.  I couldn't decide between the mushroom offerings, but at just $3 and $6 dollars respectively, I got them both.  The cheaper one was kinetic: a single grilled shiitake glazed with sauternes hovered over a porcini-dusted
marshmallow.  Sweet and savory and salty, intensely umami, and thankfully, too tiny to share.  I wanted four.  But the guajillo-braised trumpet quickly stole my attentions, saucy and piquant, enriched with little dollops of avocado puree.  The flavor-
packed "gravy" from this bite was supreme swabbed up with the fresh, softly chewy Little T baguette, who's real highlight itself was the ur-butter butter with which it was served, flecked with crystalline shards of glittering salt.

The oddest thing that happened all evening, however, was a gift: our server had, as is due protocol nowadays, inquired of allergies and aversions, to which I imparted that none of the table ate raw fish.   So when the kitchen sent out a Plate of albacore tataki, which was described as "seared" but if the fish felt the heat of the stove for more than a nanosecond I'd be surprised.  For all
 intents and purposes, it was the one thing we said we didn't want.  That said, carving off the done-est edges slathered with in a jammy blueberry kosho and superlatively crunchy frizzles of onion were
really most excellent.  And the third diner at our table decided it was cooked enough for him and cleaned the plate.  Peculiar blip, however, with such a vast menu to choose from, and although obviously you can't look a gift horse in the mouth, there were so many dishes on the menu I wanted to try (such as the saffron cuttlefish noodles or the halibut brandade fishstick) that it was harder to appreciate the generosity.


A Plate of snap peas and lobster mushrooms with corn was quick to soothe any woes, however, rich with dashi butter but freshened with all that produce and wisps of shiso.   This one is a must-order.    Corn and mushrooms featured 
prominently in a bibimbap-style polenta Plate, the nubby, hyper0corny porridge surrounded by an array of tasty condiments: salty petals of thinly sliced speck, gripping, rough-cut green olives, tangy roasted cherry tomatoes and pungent curds of parmesan.  Roasted cauliflower with sesame and tobiko was big, and more than flavorful enough to satisfy, but it was still just vegetable, maybe best as a shared side or compliment to some of the heartier Bites and Plates.  One of example of these were the BBQ beef shortribs, a bit fatty for my tastes, served with a dense Ecuadorian potato pancake studded with sharp
 Vermont cheddar and and flurry of cilantro-flecked greens atop.  We didn't venture upon any of the Platters, much more of a commitment at the $42-$78 dollar range, but of course these are shareable and actually pretty reasonably priced.


 A return visit (which now seems inevitable) would definitely include those, and perhaps as a concession to cost we might forgo dessert, none of which inspired the same excitement as the savory courses preceding them.  Actually, the Stout syrup egg cream accompanying three bite-sized raspberry turnovers was magnificent, and I would recommend this dessert just for that.  The jammy little berry pockets were intensely raspberry-y, but they tasted just as you thought they would, and the additional caramel corn drizzled with creme anglaise was amusing but superfluous.  Baked Cana de Oveja seeped out a little too greasily, slicking excellent blackberries with a coat they would've been better off without.  The interior of the puck of cheese was creamier, pairing better with the berries, but by the time I got to it I was too filled with grilled cheese to really appreciate it.
 Probably I would've been better off with the
Viridian peach sorbet float with prosecco, but with the lovely Vinho Verde from dinner it would've had stiff competition for sipping superiority.

Speaking of which, we selected that wine from a frugal standpoint, allowing the somm to guide us between two of the lower priced bottles, which were still not cheap.  Bottles in the $40+ range are sparse, and skyrocket into triple digits from there on.  Luckily, what we chose was really one of the highpoints, but there deserve to be more accessible bottles on such a quirky menu.  In retrospect, you might be better off going with the draft glasses, which look at least as if not more interesting. But this is a minor snafu in comparison to my enjoyment of Superbite as a whole.  It totally lives up to its name: pretty damned super in every sense.   So super, in fact, it seems to have knocked it's own dot off it's "i".





 527 S.W. 12th
tel.  (503)222-0979
Reservations for parties of six or more






































Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Portland vs. New York

So this is gonna be controversial, but I think, on the whole, Portland's food is way more exciting than New York's. There are great things, OBVIOUSLY, in both cities. But what Greg Denton is doing at Superbite, with Andy Ricker as probably the best Thai chef in the country, Jason Francis French's basically instigating the whole wood oven fired cooking craze, Toro Bravo is still my favorite Spanish, the national acclaim for The Pigeon, the brilliant authenticity of Renata.... I really think Portland's bar is higher. Sssooooo....... what do YOU think?

Monday, August 15, 2016

DIMES

I was a late-comer to Dimes, a kitschy little eatery that was all the rage when it over on the remote cusp of Chinatown and the Lower East Side- where streets have names of Presidents and the topography is utterly foreign.  It's just a matter of time, though, 'til this obscure zip code becomes a coveted one, with the continuing, incessant, insidious developmental sprawl.  On an average night, lines outside Dimes still warrant substantial wait times, and I'm not one to play that game.  So we went early, and were lucky with a combination of un-prime-time dining and prime, weekend beach-weather where the hoards were probably still flocking the shore instead of occupying the table I would've been waiting for them to vacate.






Bright and elemental describes both the food and the decor.  The stark, white-washed room is broken up with blocky primary colors, vibrant cobalt and classic fire-engine red, and the menu is a short-list of hot-item healthfoods and trendy ingredients: we've got kale and quinoa, wheatgrass and avocado, but Dimes is in no way puritanical.   There's still pulled pork and indulgent cheeses, so you can take things either way.  On the healthier side, we started off with The Big Salad (Elaine Benes would've been proud), a big bowl of fresh leaflets mounded with roasted shishitos and kernels of corn in a kicky charred lime vinaigrette.  Not quite hearty enough for any entree, it was still to big for an individual appetizer but ideal to share between the two of us.  There are also Small Plates, from which a sourdough Maitake Toast  or Grilled Halloumi with Romesco probably
would be a much better choice than the Magical Vegetable Pot, but I was lured by the possibility of some bewitching prestidigitation. 
The only glimmer of a crystal ball in this tiny cup of produce, however, was the glass crock in which it was served.  Basically just a visually striking strata of beautifully

jewel-toned vegetables, they were much more interesting to conceive than to consume.  Raw, shredded cabbage and fennel layered with ribbons of zucchini and mango were pretty but plain, and frankly didn't even compliment one another very well.

Roasted Cod
Mains were significantly more interesting, however.  And generous.  Served in colorful bowls, a flaky plank of roasted cod draped itself over a pert barley risotto, fragrant with lime and amped up with kicks of jalapeno.  Its green hue and creamy texture come from a smooth mash of avocado and yogurt, caching tender half-moons of gently sweet, starchy plantain.  It tastes healthy, but nourishing at the same time, and not just a little indulgent.  Another dish featured tender hunks of coconut-poached salmon over generous spools of soba studded with sea beans and  eggplant.  There were two vegetarian options on the roster as
Coconut Poached Salmon
 well... well, actually just one.   A Spiced Quinoa actually took it all the way to vegan, but then the Black Rice listed just below appeared vegetarian until you got to the bonito garnish- a tricky little addition to an otherwise PETA-friendly concoction.   Not that I care, but it seemed odd (why not just nutritional yeast or something?).  Other large plates included that Pulled Pork mentioned above, a Lebanese-inflected chicken, a modest portion of steak, so carnivores are not neglected. 




I think we chose poorly selecting dessert, whereas in retrospect I wish I would've opted for the flowery fruit soup, but instead I was lured by yuzu towards a roasted plantain and avocado gelato concoction, not quite summery enough for the steamy climes outdoors.  But not only that, it was a little flat and one-dimensional, not to mention autumnal, where there are months still to go before sweet potatoes become relevant.  The black lava salt atop the gelato was a nice touch, though.

Most of Dimes attention comes from the brunch crowd, but all of its menus have a breezy, healthful appeal.  I'm not sure it's quite up to all the hype, but it's definitely a fun little adventure in which to partake.  In short, Dimes is certainly worth a few of your dimes.




 49 Canal Street
Phone 212-925-1300

CAFE ALTRO PARADISO



It's cool and lofty, airy and light, as well a paradise should be.  Cafe Altro Paradiso opened up under the esteemed Ignacio Mattos, well known on the scene for his other popular New York restaurant, Estela.  An early table for two was easy enough to procure, but the spacious room filled quickly, living up to the buzz it has been cultivating.  We sat comfortably near the back where a horizontal window, stacked with heavy white porcelain plates waiting to be filled, offers a peek into the kitchen.  Even with the dining room sparsely populated, the activity within was lively, busy toques prepping for the rush soon to come.  An artistic wine bottle
rack looms above the window, colorful foil-wrapped corks creating a geometric patterns in reds and blues and gold.  The menu reads deceptively simplistic, but there was nary a dish that we tried that didn't provide some unexpected, delightful element that defines, fundamentally, the reason we dine out.

And this is a menu that boasts variances daily, according to the gluts and paucities of the market.  So a midsummer's  day found fat sugar snap peas prepared in the uber-trendy "cacio e pepe" mode.  David Chang fashions Nishi's ceci e pepe with it in mind; traditionally, it is a garniture for sturdy spaghetti.  At Paradiso, peas are the culprits.  Brilliantly green, they appeared to be raw, but Mattos plates them warm, barely steamed to tenderness, blanketed in a shroud of shaved pecorino cheese.  I didn't perceive much pepe, but the dish was fantastic even its dearth- Paradiso must have a great source for produce with these succulent, thumb-sized beauties as prime examples.
 There are half a dozen or so pastas to choose from; we chose plush ravioli filled with squash and ricotta, slicked in butter and topped with verdant fronds of nettle and toasted pignoli.  Primi prices range in from $21-23, a little on the pricey side but there is a soulfulness and depth in these, and all Paradiso's cuisine, that warrants the cost.









Part of the value is the ingenuity: almost every dish offers an element of surprise.  Such was the warmth of the peas, and for an entree of roasted hake, the thick filet came assertively seasoned and anointed with a colossal silken blob of luscious aioli, the rough chopped tomatoes alongside featured warm, chunky almonds, unroasted, that had an earthy, nutty quality I initially mistook for somehow pleasantly under-cooked legumes.  They didn't crunch so much as yield their firm texture against the warm tomatoey stew.  This is a must-order dish. Another fish entree, the whole roasted
 branzino, was rife with pin bones which were a little tricky to pick out, but well worth it when you achieved a juicy, fleshy hunk of fish to eat with the accompanying pan-roast of golden corn kernels, nubby, chewy barely and tiny
 chanterelles.  The combination somehow elevated each component until both the plate of grains was licked clean and the skeleton of the fish bared.





We finished with a peach "tart tatin", unconventional in both its choice of fruit and pizza-like consistency.  Slivers of peach fanned over an almondy puff pastry were thin enough to attain a slight chewiness, naked as they were to the heat of the oven.  I wished they would've had a little more jammy peachy flavor, but it's been a tough year for peaches (even the Greenmarket has allowed for a certain percentage of imported ones to compensate for a late freeze that decimated crops)  There wanted a little more peach either in quality or quantity to make this a rave-worthy or crave-worthy dessert, but the barely sweetened, milky whipped cream tasting profoundly of fresh dairy heightened the pleasure factor immensely.

Paradiso keeps things simple, but not so much that you think this is stuff you could cook at home.  There was something unexpected and nuanced in every dish that upsets convention and keeps things provocative.  Everyone has their own idea of paradise, but Ignacios' has something special that couldn't leave any savvy soul disappointed.



     234 Spring Street
     tel. 646.952.0828