Sunday, December 12, 2010

FISH TAG: Two Chefs with One Stone

A real-feel temperature of 19 degrees and fifty-seven city blocks wouldn't keep me from following Michael Psilakis to wherever he hangs his toque. His departure from Anthos (and Upstairs) was as heart-breaking as his pairing with Ryan Skeen at Fish Tag is exhilarating. Psilakis' "divorce" from Donatella Arpaia as they parted ways to embark upon their own projects resulted in his dissociation with the revolutionary Anthos, the restaurant he made famous for not only its novel take on modern Greek food, but also his irrefutable and unwavering genius in the kitchen. I have eaten foodstuffs that I don't even LIKE, that in his hands are transformed into gustatory miracles. Thankfully, at Fish Tag, that experience is duplicated. Psilakis paired with Ryan Skeen, sort of a wild child of the industry, who has made more of a notorious name for himself than notable. Just like Psilakis, though, I have enjoyed everything Skeen has had his hand in, although obviously I never had to work with him. But so he's got an unwieldy streak; so many geniuses do. At any rate, the two chefs, for whom I have not one, single derogatory comment to make, neither culinarily nor character, have joined forces in an unassuming little nook of a place sandwiched between the stoops of two Upper West Side apartment buildings. Quite easy to miss but for the handsome metal fish suspended before the front window, and a facade harkening up some of Psilakis's Greek roots.

The restaurant's name comes from the price tags tacked to the tails of local market's finest selections. The menu is not just fish-centric, it is all-out, back-and-forth, upside-down and right-side-up maritime. There are only two dishes that don't feature fish, a Greek "Spoon" Salad and a lamb burger, something to which I, personally, would only entrust to Michael himself, or else April (Bloomfield), and though we didn't order it, I'm sure it is worthy, if for whatever reason you end up at Fish Tag... but you don't eat fish. We started with another salad instead, a briny mix of traditional Greek salad ingredients (cucumber, tomato, olives, onion, pepper and feta) plus charred dandelion greens and thinly sliced radishes. For me (an olive nay-sayer), I could've done without the kalamatas, but the salad was still tasty in spite of them. And this one included several tail-on, head-on, shell-on (eyeballs and legs and antennae on!) deep fried shrimp.... the ocean's brilliant answer to the potato chip. An even better salad, however, is the Chicory, Wild Arugula and Bulghar one, a hearty (huge!) mound of the greens and the grain, plus a fantasy mix of bell peppers, breakfast radish, thinly sliced fennel bulb, big chunks of chewy dates, roasted pistachios, smoked almonds, and just a touch of finely minced green olive. Its beauty transcends the plate to palate, bound together only by the juice pomegranate and the heft of its ingredients. Another fantastic starter is the Bacala & Skordalia Brandade "Melt", a crusty slice of thickly cut, rustic bread slathered in a creamy, garlicky skordalia and rich brandade, then topped with some tart and toothsome confit tomato, a rich daub of smoked eggplant puree and capped with a generous shaving of kefaloteri cheese and delicate leaves of baby arugula. I could've easily called it quits after the bulghar salad and the sumptuous crostini "melt", but the food was so good my imagination as to what else he could come up with was going wild, even as my appetite was waning. Smoked octopus danced just beyond the edge of tenderness to a achieve a hearty density capable of standing up to the pungent chorizo, bitter rapini and earthy king oyster mushrooms. I would have had little more of the lemon that was mentioned on the menu to have shown up also in dish, but sincerely, that is really nit-picking.

On to the big stuff- although the menu is not broken down into traditional divisions, and there are starred dishes who's primary component (a fish or crustacean) can be ordered simply grilled with a side of rapini and potatoes. But I'd recommend letting the chef(s) do their jobs and ordering straight from the menu. A simple grilled striped bass with lemon and capers is flawless, the flesh moist and skin crisp, and kissed with an exceptionally fragrant spritz of lemon. But there are more exciting preparations to be had. Dense medallions of sturgeon are topped with a generous dollop of its own eggs, propping up ruffly fronds of celery and translucent slices of radish. Roasted beets are both pureed and smeared beneath the fish, and flank the dish in big chunks anointed with a smooth
horseradish cream. Museum-worthy platings reinforce the composition of flavors here.... these dishes are GORGEOUS. The one dish we had, however, who's appearance slightly belied its grandeur was the sheep's milk dumplings. These ethereal gnocchi, pillow-soft (I'd always read that, but I'd never experienced the bliss of an definitive example), full of mild, milky flavor, nestled in a thick cheesy, gravy brimming with tender bay scallops just barely bigger than
pearls, generous morsels of the freshest blue crab, and vivified with a gentle breath of aji amarillo pepper to add a hint of sweet heat. I'll eat my hat if Ryan didn't have his hand in this one. This dish is coming in on the tail end of the year, but if it doesn't top the list of 2010's Best Dishes, I might quit this "job". (I'm kidding. I wouldn't do that. I'd just know all the list-writers are incompetent and that I should have been them.) It was so good, I seriously want it again. Right. Now. The one dish I am horrified to admit that I was just this shy of having enough gumption to order was the branzino stuffed with headcheese. I was derailed by that filling, but as it was described, wrapped in caul fat and served with mushrooms confit... well, somebody get it and tell me how awesome it was. I'm sure I missed out.

No desserts here (nor had we room). But somehow a little dish of chestnut and fig gelato seemed so suitable that we ordered it anyways, along with tiny cups of impressive espresso.. sometimes you just have to fling your belt off with wild abandon. That's how Psilakis and Skeen seem to approach their cooking (and perhaps their lives), and you'll be all more content because of it. They may not be predictable, but let them do their thing. They'll blow your socks off.

222 W 79th St, New York 10024
(Btwn Amsterdam Ave & Broadway)

Phone: (212) 362-7470

Friday, November 26, 2010

EATALY: Mangia!

I visited EATALY for the first time on opening day: the day when the line spilled out onto 23d street and wrapped around the corner up 5th Avenue. I happened upon Cesare Casella (one of the collaborators), who gave me a nice little guided tour as to how the different sections worked, from the very preciously priced groceries to the in-house vegetable butcher to the individual ingredient-centric restaurant "stations" and the full-service one, Manzo. Only Manzo accepts reservations, and since we were simply dropping by after a lovely round of cocktails at the newly opened John Dory around the corner, we opted for a stint at Le Verdure (the vegetable spot) followed by entrees at Il Pesce (for fish). And despite the somewhat contrived name (although it is accurate to the phonetic pronunciation of the country by its natives), nothing at Eataly feels forced or gimmicky at all.

The hour was later than their typical busy rush, somewhere after eight o'clock. We were swiftly seated at Verdure and put our names in at Pesce to be transferred after the first course. While this worked out swimmingly for us, a prime-time attempt of the same could allow for some unappealing waits and an undesirable lapse in between plates. But if you're quite aware of how the seating functions and you're cool with that, it shouldn't be too much of a problem. As it were, a few lingering shoppers browsed the aisles for tiny bottles of ten dollar pistachio cream or imported hand-made fettuccine asciutta, but weren't at all distracting or irritating as might be the case earlier in the day when the joint is as packed as their imported sardines. They actually contribute a sort of vibrant energy to the hall, making everything feel a bit festive. Our waiter perpetuated that feeling, welcoming us with a sincere smile, a sort of dashing charm and an effortless knowledge of the menu and specials. He wasn't Italian, but obviously the Italians in charge schooled everyone rigorously so that when it got to this point, the bella figurawas as natural as spaghetti and marinara.

Onto our food, which was unerringly much better than I was expecting. The Verdure menu is extensive, especially considering that most of the options are not only vegetable-based, but vegan, thus containing no dairy, egg or even honey (the latter is something I will never understand completely, but that's somebody else's blog). There are salads and soups and roasts and grills, so in order to experience a bit of the variety, we went with the Piatto Misto, which boasted a trio of salads and a small cup of the soup of the day (ours happened to be a hearty minestrone heavy on flavor and chickpeas). Raw Brussels sprouts, one of those things one might make a joke about eating, worked here, leafed out and paired with crunchy sweet strips of red pepper and ribbons of carrots so thin that the bright store lighting shone right through. Next to that was a fine farro salad of cold grains, lightened with leaves of radicchio and frisee, and dressed in an invisible but robust vinegary dressing. Third was a melange of root vegetables roasted to a meaty chew atop a bed of baby lettuces that could've used a little more punch in the vinaigrette themselves, but the tubers picked up much of the slack. A stuffed squash with lentils and a cauliflower and cardoon gratin looked worth returning for. (There is the option of pairing the latter with shavings of white truffles for a mere $67. That would make an $80 side dish... a little out of my budget, but 'tis the season, to be fair.)

We held off on beverages to enjoy a glass of wine with our entrees at Il Pesce. The wine and beer lists are extensive and unique to each "department", thoughtfully matched to complement the foods and flavors on their menus. We opted for a Langhe Arneis, a very uniquely flavored wine with a huge nose, honeyed but crisp and perfect with fish. Memorably good. I don't think it was just luck for us that it went so well with our entrees. A grilled striper, simply adorned with capers and lemon, nothin' fancy, was crisp-skinned and pure-fleshed. Since the secondi are served true to Italian style, they are alone on the plate. There are daily contorni to fill out your mains. We chose a lovely roast of cauliflowers, which came an eclectic farrago of purple, white, green and golden types, roasted deeply to char the nutty florets and tenderize the stalks. Veggies get assertive here, which is how I like them. They're not shy with the e.v.o.o., especially not when they're blessed with the imported abundance at hand from the grocery.
A spiedino, also varies daily, continued my string of good luck with squid. The tenderest of tender tentacles and a few meaty shrimp comprised that day's skewer, served on a bed of nice, bitey arugula. We could've done dessert (and well you can, with an ample selection of pastry and dolci to be had at La Pasticceria, or one of the unctuous gelati from La Gelateria (interestingly, made from a local dairy's milk, which seems prudent). But it was getting late... too late for gelato, in fact, which closes at 10pm. And despite being tempted by the display and the rich Lavazza which can be had to accompany, dessert got skipped, mostly due the late hour. But also, for reasons yet not determined, because our waiter came back with the bottle as we were midway through our mains, after our glasses were nearly empty and refilled them both. I tried to intercept his pour by saying we hadn't ordered the bottle, but he winked and smiled and said that this one was on the house. Charming, in true Italian style.

200 Fifth Avenue (at 23rd Street)
Phone Number: 212-229-2560

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Northern Spy Food Co. Could Try a Little Harder

I keep straying from my modus operandi here. I get swayed by places that are doing what I like them to do- the prettiness of the book cover, and forget that I'm to focus on the author (so to speak). And sometimes they live up (in those cases, bless them.) But I ended up at Northern Spy Food Co., a restaurant I've actually been wanting to get to for months (Alphabet City! So far!!) and it unfortunately reminded me of why I did name my blog as such; there's a reason to put your faith in a trustworthy cook.

Not that Northern Spy is all bad. Or bad at all, really. In fact, there is some very tasty fare to be had amidst the rustically designed dining room. Outdoor park-style benches and folding chairs sidle up to small wooden tables with paper napkins and unremarkable utensils. Our waitress had the lovely glow and smooth skin of a country maid, but was about as nice as the gristly barn-hand. My companion noted that she greeted us with a phatic inquiry of how we were doing, but failed to even give us time to proffer a response. I kept waiting for her to soften up and be as nice as the space demanded, but either she was having a bad day or it just wasn't in her. Either way, it didn't help the overall experience.

The menu boasts the locals and the sustainables (the website has a list of their purveyors), and many of the dishes share a lot of the same ingredients, so you'll want to plan a bit what you order so as not to get too much of the same stuff over and over again. We started with a freekeh "risotto", a young wheatberry not dissimilar to barley, perfectly cooked to retain its nuttiness and toothsome chew, and bound in a cheesy cream sauce rife with chunks of zucchini and kabocha. The earthiness of the grain and the heft of the veggies balanced the undeniable richness of the mascarpone; this was one of the better dishes. A chiffonade of kale with crunchy roasted almonds, pecorino and clothbound cheddar (they are big on their clothbound cheddar), is nothing more than a sum of it's parts, and maybe even less so. A hefty pour of oil and abundant shaved pecorino dressed a rather enormous pile of raw kale, which hid some roasted almonds, curds of cheddar and a couple of cubes of delicata squash, but a lack of salt or acid rendered it simply ho-hum. Plus it was very difficult to fork up as the kale wouldn't quite succumb to the tine of the fork, but slipped off if you attempted a scooping method. City Bakery does a similar version of this salad, using all of the above ingredients minus the cheddar and some of the oil, and plus slivers of red onion and a sprinkle of salt... and it is exceptional. It can be done, it's just not up to snuff here. You might be better off with the kabocha squash soup which smelled heavenly bypassing our table for the next in the hands of our surly-ish waitress.

Mains tend even more rustic: good sturdy autumnal fare with two pork dishes, a chicken, a fish, and a vegetarian dish. The latter, polenta with wild mushrooms and two sunny-side up eggs sounded (and looked) simple but delicious, but wasn't one of our waitress's top recommendations, so we opted instead for the daily catch (striped bass) and a special of olive oil-poached

squid and mussels with beans and carrots. The bass (skin-on) was pan-seared, nice and flakey with a perfectly crisped skin. Yummy melted cipolline onions, puree of celeriac and some chunks of that root roasted. There was supposed to be some fennel in there somewhere (the bulb? the seed?) but I failed to detect it anywhere. But, it was a nice dish. I've just been having such good luck with squid lately that I was excited for this dish, but it didn't live up to my expectations. The squid was a little fishy, the beans slightly undercooked and overwhelmingly salty to boot. The mussels were the only exception... plump and meaty little specimens much fresher than their tentacled brethren, which were initially almost a deterrent to ordering it (mussels aren't my absolute faves), but saved what there was of saving in an otherwise disappointing dish. A side of green beans (these were the only real vegetable side. A request for a portion of brussels sprouts that were on the menu accompanying the Hudson Valley pork was denied, stating that it wasn't even worth asking the chef... he would not do it. This is not Le Bernardin, my friends, and I was not asking for truffles. They are little cabbages. This did not seem to be an extraordinary demand. But apparently, it was.) were tasty, though, if a bit too oily, but bright green and kicked up with some sauteed onion and pungent anchovy. Nice beans, but they'll never make up for the loss of the sprouts.

Desserts are stronger. There was a lovely little coupe of pumpkin mousse capped with a caramelized tuile of pecan, a cheesecake, cookies, tarts and pies. We opted for the latter, a lattice-topped apple with vanilla ice cream and some

superfluous oat crumby-dusty stuff atop. A solid pie (an good crust, thick, but flaky and buttery and crunched with big crystals of sparkly coarse sugar) fulfills all pie expectations, proportionately more crust than filling, if you like it that way. It could have been warmed, howver, and in retrospect the mousse was probably more interesting. Rich, intense coffee arrives in heavy white porcelain mugs from Strongtree, Hudson Valley's small-batch roaster of organic, heirloom beans.

We snagged the last two top upon arrival; the restaurant was full and stayed so throughout the course of the evening. Full enough that when one of the other waiters tried to navigate an armful of coats to check in back that she gently brushed our waitress's head with the errant sleeve of a parka, drawing visible ire and a vigorous roll of the eyes from her. She was such a pretty thing; such a disposition did not become her. But that's kind of how I felt about the restaurant itself. Despite the 23 in Zagat and a nod in the back listings of Edible, I can't give the accolades I had hoped. I so much wanted to love it! But no matter my admiration of their aesthetic and responsible sourcing, if the foods not up to snuff I can't become a follower. Some of the energies of doing the right thing need to be diverted into the preparation. That's not to say that if I ever found myself in the far reaches of Alphabet City needing sustenance that I wouldn't give it another try (perhaps stick the the meatier options? Or balk our server's suggestion and go veggie?), but from that visit I couldn't justify the voyage.

Oh yeah. The chef is Nathan Foot. Next time I will be aware of THAT first, and the rest should follow.

Northern Spy Food Co.
511 East 12th Street (between Ave. A and Ave B)
tel. 212-228-5100

Monday, November 8, 2010

Kin Shop: Harold's 2.0

It seemed a fitting destination spot since our post-prandial plan was to go see The Social Network, and Chef Harold Dieterle is not my real life friend- but he is my Facebook friend. Kin Shop, his new Asian-hawker food style restaurant, is also conveniently located near enough the theatre we were attending, so we went for an early meal before the show (an easy enough walk-in at that early hour). The popularity of food celebrities right now made it that such an attempt a later hour might've been impossible, as the dining room filled up briskly after the approximate seven p.m. chime. I wish I could say that it was because of the food, but despite some stellar dishes, I experienced more kinks with the menu than hits. That said, I think this is a perfect example of why experienced, published (read: paid) food critics wouldn't proffer a review without at least two revisits, because it very well may have just been a circumstance of poor ordering that left me with my lackluster appraisal. But since I am not one of those, my appraisal is as follows. It's more difficult to critique a place when you are in fond admiration of its creator (see earlier review of Perilla), but also helps no one to gloss over the faults as I found them. Anyways, I think the hallmark of a good chef is to take the criticism as it is doled and at least consider it, even if it's not coming from a Bruni or Sietsema. Like I said, I can only judge with the tongue that came along with the head I was born with.

Kin Shop has only been open a month or so at best, so perhaps its still working out some of its kinks. The name means both "to eat" in Thai as well as a nod to it's kinship and proximity to Dieterle's first restaurant, Perilla. The room is a painted a watery cool, lovely, with paisley-esque murals in muted shades of teal and seafoam, heavy grey marble counters and white-washed exposed brick framing a brightly lit, steely open kitchen. The staff is gracious and welcoming, friendly if not overly helpful on some of the more technical issues. It was nice to see the chef himself attending to some of the diners (probably friends), and inspecting many of the dishes as they made their way out of the kitchen. However, it might have behooved him to have actually dirtied that stark white apron with a bit of hands-on, because despite the notable prettiness of presentation, much of what we tried had glaring flavor flaws that could've been easily amended had he been taking a greater part in their production rather than noticeably attentive to his Blackberry.
But let's not get off on the wrong foot, because some of what we had was remarkably good. The eponymous Kin & Tonic cocktail was a perfect riff on the classic, novel with the addition of cucumber, cilantro, and splash of St. Germaine, but not sweet as to render itself a combative pairing with food. Our first dish was by far the best, an order enthusiastically encouraged by the very personable bartender. Squid Ink and Hot Oil soup arrived fragrant and steaming with a glistening inkiness that would rival the first few weeks of the BP Oil spill. And its effects on your lips and tongue (while transient) are no less impressive. This might not be the best dish to order on a first date if your are a little self-conscious about your appearance, but as long as that's not an issue, but taste is exponentially more subtle than the appearance. The ocean-salty black-as-sin broth punched with garlic buoys generous rounds of tender squid stuffed with a brisket forcemeat. A fine mince of water chestnut sinks to the bottom but spoons up to catch crisp julienned green beans that both give a little crunch to the silky broth and morsels of seafood. The menu denotes spiciness with an asterisk for an offending dishes, but this one just kisses the brink of heat making you take enough time with each spoonful to appreciate the sexy farrago of
flavors. It also served as the saviour to a flop of an eggplant dish, which found tough chunks of mostly undercooked, totally underseasoned vegetable coated with tiny "rice pearls" which looked and tasted a lot like toasted millet, but unfortunately less nuttiness. A very nice looking dish (it reminded me of how tiny nonpareils give a shimmery delicateness to confections), but if you've ever tried raw eggplant out of curiosity, it's not something you'd look forward to repeating. That said, if you threw the whole lot into the squid soup… well, suffice it to say I kind of wish I'd've just done that.

The menu boasts quite a few curries and noodle dishes, but there was a seabass braise with matsutake mushrooms that sort of hollered out at me, so we opted for that as a main, as well as the Phuket grilled shrimp (priced per piece). There was no way of knowing that "wet curry" meant soup-style, and after the squid ink soup… well, that's a lot of liquid. The broth also robbed the fungi of all their personality, making them spongey little floaters swimming in a bland stock bobbled with some out-of-place chunks of juicy rambutan and a characterless hunk of fish that had a fairly nice flake going for it, but little else. Plus, I don't want to pay $26 for that much water. Perhaps all the salt, umami and funk got used up in the side dish of Asian greens, which were tasty enough as long as each bite included a hefty hunk of waterchestnut, but much too salty without. To me, though, saltiness is forgivable; I prefer the slight err to the saline side than pasty insipidness. Again, dump those greens in with the fish and the balance is achieved. This much reformatting, however, cannot be expected of the diner, nor such serendipitous order-pairing. Each dish passed underneath Dieterle's watchful eye, but you can't taste the flavors with your cornea. It's too early for him to get sloppy and expect to glide along on the wings of his notoriety. The prawn was a big meaty sucker, but somewhat overcooked to toughness, and again a little salty. The nutty sauce served in its own little white porcelain pitcher aside, redolent with floral peppercorns and a hint of fishy funk, with a nice squeeze of lime countered a little of that, but shouldn't have had to. Dessert list is a pretty minimal proposal, with only one real constructed dessert (a passion fruit steamed pudding) and a smattering of sorbets and ice creams with appropriate Asian flavor profiles (galangal, kaffir lime, Thai iced tea, etc.).

The possibility does remain, however, that we just ordered poorly. Some of the restaurant's flaws reminded me much of the old John Dory, soon (as early as tonight?) to reopen in its new location near its kin, The Breslin at The Ace Hotel. The former Dory suffered from an excess of flavor, saltiness and heft in too many of the dishes, making individual meals difficult to navigate. While certain plates provide a sort of gluttonous delight, their powerful flavors often fight with one another. It suffered its fateful demise, in my opinion, because of those faults, but as I hope its reincarnation proves, is not an unsalvageable concept- just one in need of some revamping to figure itself out. So it is with Kin Shop, which I hope will remedy its current missteps and emerge the stronger sibling as a result (and avoid painful relocation such like the Dory). Dietere's got it in him, he just has to make sure he's guiding the ship and not just going along for the ride.

kin shop
469 6th avenue
between 11th st & 12th st
1 212 675 4295

Monday, October 11, 2010

PEELS: It is Very Appealing

And then there are the times that you don't follow the chef, but things still turn out swimmingly. That's not to say that I ended up at Peels entirely by happenstance: the team is from Freemans,of which I am extremely fond, and the location is much more conveniently situated than it's brethren. In fact, the impossible-to-miss marquis lighting cries out in a a flashy, carnival-bright kind of way- you can almost imagine it starting to blink like a pinball machine on tilt- while the restaurant itself is rustic and understated. Welcomely, though, the signage is a beacon to the delights within.
We arrived early under hurricane-threatening skies, uncertain whether Peels followed Freemans discouragement of reservations. But the place was relatively empty (unsurprisingly for the hour and clime) so we were seated immediately upon slightly too high bar stools at a long wooden communal table, with convenient purse hooks on the opposing wall (love those hooks, even more so when they are underneath the table). The floors are dark, the woodwork white-washed, a long bar spanning the length of the room, and for the first time in ages, the rare, concealed kitchen. The magic was happening, this time, behind a pair of jaunty swinging doors.
And speaking of jaunty, the waiters sport an eclectic mix of stripey shirts and flower-print vests... and apparently pretty much whatever else they want. The bartender had her hair in a funny droopy loop on one side, and it's this kind of whimsical nonchalance that kind of sets the stage for the menu. At a glance, nothing particularly earthshaking. The descriptions are, in fact, fairly minimal. Had the food arrived with such a lack of pomp, we were in for some severe disappointment. In fact, I was here with my sister from San Fransisco, and I intentionally chose somewhere I thought would be nice and buzzy. Since the crowd was thinner than Donald Trump's combover, I was a little tense. But as soon as the poblano corn soup showed up in its cute little squat tureen, the perfume alone alleviated all my concerns. The broth was thinner than I'd expected, but the flavor so rife with corn and riddled with little pungent, pickley things that it more than compensated. And that was even before the powerful kick of the poblano made its delayed introduction... a glorious, smoky afterburn with some serious turbocharge.

Making our way through the menu was a little sticky, though. Peels has only been open for a month and a half, and our waiter pronounced himself a newcomer on the already new scene, although was oddly training another waiter who followed him adhesively throughout the entire evening. To his credit, he never answered a question he didn't know. To his fault, he didn't know a lot. This resulted in myriad trips back to the kitchen to ask what the chef's name was (Preston Madson)/what his market vegetables were/what the fruit was in the crisp/etc. But he was genuine, and helpful, and just-the-right-friendly so as to make up for the lack of polish (hopefully his trainee won't think that's standard run-of-show). Plus, he looked cute in his funny yellow rose vest.

The standout dish of the evening (of the year?? I'm
NOT kidding!) was another app.: Montauk squid a la plancha with padron peppers, lime and cilantro. Again, not so much to go on, and I guess I was expecting a simple grilled squid with a bit of peppery salad. But this squid, this squid was so expertly grilled and then formed into a sculpture so beautiful you might wonder if Madson apprenticed under Chilhuly. The tentacles were perfectly tender and meaty on a bed of gently peppery roasted padrons, who's sumptuous juice pooled below into a zesty, umami-rich sauce, sparked with lime and cilantro. With this, Peels established itself as not only cool-because-it's-Freemans' cousin-cool, but just downright awesome.

Prices are mid-range, but portions aren't skimpy, and the flavors robust. The fresh fried chicken is a rather enormous portion of poultry (the menu states "birds", but I'm pretty sure that there is only a substantial piece of one on a single plate at any given time), with a full ear of roasted corn and chunks of juicy watermelon. This is one of those last-hurrahs of summer kind of dishes, and on a stormy night of a calendar tumbling into fall, it probably won't be around much longer. Maine Diver scallops, however, given their flexible
garniture of market vegetables (which after consulting the chef, turned out to be a warmed melange of barely cooked fennel, carrots and radishes) should stick around, and the highlight is definitely in the seafood here as opposed to the salad beneath. A nice, bright little farrago of fresh veggies, but nothing to write home about. The scallops, though, were seared golden, napped with a tangy-rich confit of yellow tomato jam, and six big ones in number, which could be worth a note to Mom. Or at least enough to share one whole one with your sister across the table.

I like how this place seems to celebrate Americana without kitsch or gimmicks. America's kind of struggling right now, right? So it's a good reminder that there's still a lot to be proud of here, be it patchwork quilted cotton vests or the abundance of sweet corn, okra, local seafood and charcuterie, grassfed-beef and cave-aged cheddar. But the Eton fool was enough to pull
me out a Norman Rockwell calendar, a marvelous rendition of the English pudding of scrumptious summer berries (black and blue- too bad it wasn't called a Bruised Fool), crushed meringues, plush yogurt mousse and lemon verbena ice cream. After all, if we were going to channel in the British for the final note, we might as well grasp at the last vestige of the summer's harvest as well. This was a fantastic decision (although the warm fruit crisp sounded tempting as well).

The name of the restaurant provides the only remaining uncertainty. Even the waiter (add this to the list) didn't know, but on this one he couldn't find out, either. I like to think it's like the "nose to tail" of market produce, like "core to peel". Or peeled down to the essence, all riff-raff filtered out and only the good stuff left. The other option might be that is like a peeled off cohort of Freemans. At any rate, I'm not much for repeat performances in regards to restaurant visitation, but I can definitely see myself back here, all things considered.

So I guess I am following the chef here too, after all.

325 Bowery (Corner of 2nd St.)
New York City, NY 10003

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bad Things Happen When You Break Your Own Rules

I'm supposed to follow my rule, which is to follow the chefs, but sometimes I get distracted. Of course, sometimes it is inevitable, like when my friend invited me to a restaurant re-opening that really was really better off shuttered. Planet 212 in Chelsea, who's room is disturbingly incongruous, with loud music and vacant servers, and such choice items on the menu as scallops with mushroom ravioli atop a heap of mashed potatoes (are the channeling "Big Night"?). It was just one bad dish worse than it's antecessor. The room is gaudy and poorly lit, revealing Christmas-light simulations of Siamese decor and offensively pink walls, as well as dark, shadowy nooks. The chairs are uncomfortable and the servers don't know what the hell is going on. (We had to ask the owner just to get the check, after five inquiries to various waiters came to no good end.) Plus, they skimped so much on the alcohol in their juicy-juice cocktails that you couldn't even achieve an improved perspective via beer goggles. Hopefully, their re-opening openness won't last long.

My next misstep ensued from being drawn in by The Smile. More aptly, it should be named The Yawn. If your mom in Nebraska cooked this well, you might be content. But in a restaurant, especially one in this city, you've got bigger britches to fill. The room is darling, mostly repurposed and salvaged furnishings, rustic wooden tables/floors/ceilings, and dried flowers and a homey hodgepodge of painting and bric-a-brac. But that's where all the fun ends. We began with a bright little salad of
shaved fennel, black radish, pomegranate and goat cheese, which was no better than a simple sum of it's parts- the radish was bitey but not particularly tempered by the crumbles of mediocre cheese, and the fennel wasn't particularly sweet (our waitress defended this explaining the end of its seasonality, which was also given as the reason that despite it being listed as a side dish, braised with preserved lemon, it was not available as such. She said it was a typo, but in that they did HAVE the fennel, it was a pretty lame excuse). Instead, we turned our attention to a side of roasted broccoli with garlic butter and brown sugar. My mind conjured up images of oven-charred florets roasted into nuttiness, sparked with a kick of garlic and the caramelized sweetness of brown sugar. Instead, what arrived was six steamed florets, cooked just to the point of optimum nutritiveness, I am sure- like how you cook it at home because you know that's what is best for you, but was in no way roasted, and not what I go out to eat. Furthermore, if there was any butter, garlic or brown sugar on those babies they were apportioned with a VERY stingy hand. I think on the first
spring I tasted a hint of garlic, and the last one might have been a teency bit sweet, but basically, it was six small sprigs of blanched broccoli, at about .95 a pop. I wish I could say the entrees we ordered bucked the trend, but instead, a small piece of overcooked haddock lurked inside an impressive envelope of parchment, and the mushrooms ... oh, make that mushroom (one single one... maybe two) were julienned to feign abundance, but instead ruining its texture and filching it of any flavor, like tepid soaked fungus. The spiced tomato sauce with the lamb meatballs was laudable, but the the meatballs could have been pretty much any ground protein, bereft of any distinct lambiness, or really much flavor whatsoever.

There are desserts to be had, but nothing that looked very inspired. A brownie with gelato, berries and cream, or an actually quite repugnant sounding Nutella and brie baguette. None of those sounded like they would encourage more of smile that we already weren't sporting, so we simply called it a night. And now I reiterate to myself to reason I follow chefs and not just whims... to leave The Smile without a smile is no happy feat, indeed.

30 W 24th St
Phone: (212) 727-7026

26 Bond StBtwn Lafayette St & Bowery
Phone: (646) 329-5836

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

BRAEBURN: A Choice Apple in the Big Apple

I've been following this chef, literally, for over five years. My first encounter with him was thanks to his pastry chef at the time, my friend Bill Yosses, who has since gone on to the lofty position of White House pastry chef. Yes, he makes Barack's apple pie. Those were the days when grocery chain Citarella was also a restaurant, which then was renamed Josephs, from which the chef, Brian Bistrong, has now gone on to open his own place, Braeburn. Just a stone's throw from the painfully trendy meatpacking district (also of yore), its aesthetic is anything but. A bucolic charm is hidden inside windows obfuscated by real trunks of slender, stripy, peely-barked birch trees and sheer white chiffon drapery. Solid wooden planks deck the walls above soft leather banquettes, the warm lighting reflected by mirrored strips,
and an enormous painting of a soft-hued farmhouse stretches across the entire north wall. Braeburn takes local seasonality seriously, and Chef Bistrong know his way around it.

I didn't detect any foams or "pearls" on the menu, but that doesn't mean Braeburn is want for innovation. The menu hints towards "comfort food", but is much more refined and sophisticated than to be constrained by that overused nomenclature (I mean, honestly, what good food isn't comforting?) It starts of with h'ors d'oeuvres, which span from an open-faced corned beef short rib mini-wich, with a juicy slab of the tenderest meat piqued with saucy little cornichons on a quaint square of rye, to a warm, juicy, tempura-battered cherry tomato that literally bursts out from its crisp golden crust, gently smudged with a creamy basil aioli. These are tiny bites, and well worth sharing. Appetizers top out with the warm Rhode Island squid salad. It's a warm, messy tumble of frisee and grilled squid, flecked with chunks of piquillo pepper and meaty grilled ham, gently flavored with green olives and lemon, flawed only by a slightly heavy hand pouring the oil (which can be overlooked). It's quite a salad, rustic and elemental, in a somehow complex and sexy way. Chilled zucchini soup (hot salad, cold soup) is a sumptuos, velvety emerald puree of local zukes, heaped with sweet lumps of crabmeat and dusted with a toasty, curry-like spice. The flavor is sensuous yet verdant, rich yet delicate, almost fluffy in texture, with a luxurious mouthfeel. A supremely good soup.

Skate was on offer, and as my go-to fish, it got to-ed. Lightly crusted and perfectly cooked, the wing did suffer from that unfortunate fate of being served in a broth, thus sogging up the whole ordeal within moments. The fish is perched high enough
atop the mound of vegetables upon serving, but eventually succumbs to the dampness below. The flavors are excellent, though: a vinegary salad of crunchy cucumbers and breakfast radishes spiked with mustard and chili oil for pep make a superb counter for the mild fish... had it the bowl been drained of it juicy liquid. (Am I the only person that notices this all-too-common occurrence?) A robust concoction of roasted lobster shells, chorizo and spring onions make for the hearty broth with roasted seabass, however, and without a crisp crust to maintain, the two complement one another without issue. In that I often order fish, an assertive preparation is most heartily appreciated from time to time. In fact, maybe I AM the only one who notices the broth debacle, because my dining companion preferred my skate (in fact, quite raved about it long after the fact), and I his bass, in the rare instance of a mutually gratifying plate-swap. The best entree, however, you might have to plan a little bit for. Wednesday's special (Braeburn offers daily specials with seasonal availability, but this one should hold strong through winter) of buttermilk fried chicken is a negamaki-style thigh bundled around a spring onion, and bound in its shatterably crisp skin. The meat is so tender and juicy it virtually melts, and the skin fried so crisp it practically follows suit. Beneath this masterpiece lies a savory little nest of collards and black eyed peas, a southern nod, perfectly executed. Too bad, in fact, that this isn't offered as side dish, because the Chinese broccoli we ordered was less successful: slightly acrid tasting which was helped not at all by lemon and chili, a texture a bit gristly and fibrous. It tasted much like scorned health food.

Desserts, on the other hand, are brilliant, and tend toward decadence, if anything. A humble peach cobbler might be the best one I've ever had (you might recall how it saved the day after an abysmal meal at Yerba Buena Perry?), akin to that of Vandaag, but with gently floral nudge to the crumbed topping and a more traditional, but equally delicious buttermilk ice cream swathed atop. Similarly homey is the Southern banana pudding, a luxurious custard with slices of fresh banana topped with a thick, creamy chantilly, and swirled throughout with a ribbon of rich caramel. This is no Jello pudding cup. Depending on your tastes, the "Almond Joy" is another riff on a classic, but while inarguably two-bite bliss, cleaning up the whole thing might require enlisting the entire dining room. It is, how would you say it... substantial. And by that I mean a bit leaden, but if chocolate and coconut is your thing, it'll knock your socks off.... it is a zenith of the two.

Upon departing, the charming waitress doles out a small plastic pouch of two little chocolate cookies. I always love the party favor, and although these biscuits aren't particularly memorable in and of themselves (Well, maybe you're supposed to eat them on the way home, but given how Braeburn puts out, it's more likely than not that you're gastro-pacity will pretty much be maxed out. At any rate, as I consumed them a day later, my position stands.), but I also doubt that you'll need much badgering to conjure of up fond recollections of your repast at Braeburn.

117 Perry Street

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

VANDAAG: A Dutch Corton. Or Momofuku. Or just a great restaurant.

"Vandaag is today!" the website proudly states. Today in Dutch, that is, probably one of the more pronounceable words in the language (and intelligible even if you can't quite get the guttual throat-clearing intonation at the end). And you should go, today, because the food here is just as exotic to the New York dining scene as is that language to your average Yankee. Today's market specialities, put in a Dutch context, are what drives this menu. We get Phillip Kirschen-Clarke channelling his mentors from WD-50 and Corton, but livening things up with Northern European nuances and a more rustic downscale, downtown vibe.

The room is airy, spacious, neat. Not quite stark, but uncluttered and streamlined, like good Dutch architecture. Fantastic shade-stripped wire lamp "chandeliers" drop from the ceiling and add a glow to a cool lines of the dining room. Simple graphic signage from the Netherlands appear throughout the space. There isn't a lot of frilliness around, but the menu shines with unfamiliar ingredients and creative flourish.

Ingredients you would associate with the region abound, but are put on the plate in ways you never even thought to think of. Wild arugula, grassy and full of bite, is paired with beets (classic), but flavored with bitters and shouldering
a rather enormous plank of slab bacon, of which the fat, even, is superbly meaty. I'm not a huge proponent of offal (of all the possible things to eat, sushi and offal are most definitely below the bottom of my list), but I had to try the lamb sweetbreads here, just tempted from the scent. Golden crisp on the outside, and tenderly juicy "meat".. err, organ?, these little ovine frittered critters are a must-have. These morsels are nestled in with crunchy grapes and pale leaves of chicory, and a few flecks of fiery Holland chiles (don't sequester all of them to a single bite), to counter their richness, which is tantamount. You could easily share this appetizer to guarantee room for following courses, whereas the lighter beets are probably better off hoarding.

The best entree I tried was the big bowl of little neck clams. Again, I guess I usually don't think of clams as a main course, but what the heck- I already broke my offal rule, so just roll with me. These shellfish are heartened by a substantial broth enriched with aquavit (keepin' it Scandinavian), parsnip frites (think moules et frites), allepo pepper (add some kick) and vanilla (mellow things out). All united, they sang together. The shells made lovely little vessels with which to ladle up the broth, most of which I stole from its primary
orderer. My entree of silver ribbonfish was described by our waiter as a "flaky white fish", which is most definitely is not. Splayed languidly across the plate, you might mistake it for an errant piece of chrome. It is THAT shiny, but definitely more the texture of a meaty sturgeon, and eel-like in proportion. They are certainly something to see: And while it's not my favorite fish ever, it was tasty enough, well cooked, and it's mustardy sauce paired well with the accompanying potatoes. The curly shards of fried carrot, however, tasted stale, and of old oil, all of which but the first bite were left on the plate. Come fall (fast approaching), novel ingredients now on the menu like mead, wit beer, pickles and mustards are going to turn even more appealing. Like in the side of dandelion greens, slightly fibrous from undercooking, but deliciously anointed with genever (a Dutch gin) and native gouda, make for some tasty greens. Also our dessert, a superlative peach crisp, was spiked with lambic and napped with a nutty oaten layer, but the real highlight was the curry ice cream, probably inspired by a peach chutney, that melted its sweety-savory richness into the luscious baked fruit like a silky cloak from a far-off land.

Speaking of far off lands, the lavatory, although requiring that unideal trip downstairs to visit, is one of the city's best loos: spacious, uncluttered, clean as a whip, with lovely lemony liquid soap and amusing pictures upon the shiny, forest green tiled walls. A broad wooden counter spans one side below a huge spotless mirror, and lighting you can alter to obtain a personally flattering level light. You'll look great, at least in the restroom, and while your dining upstairs, (while I'm sure the lighting is equally forgiving), the last thing you'll be thinking about is how you look.

VANDAAG 103 Second Avenue

Monday, August 16, 2010

CHOPTANK: Safe From the Chopping Block

Since Le Bernardin is way out of my price range (and I'm not expecting to get proposed to in the foreseeable future), I sought out a protege of One of the Great Ones (Eric Ripert) as a more bill-friendly destination. Matthew Shaefer jumped ship from the Michelin-starred seafood mecca to The Mermaid Inn (see review here), and now partnering with Josh Morgan in a steakhouse-style fish joint that swaps out the bovine for the piscine.

The heavily planked walls create the feeling of a swanky ship's galley, hung
with nautical maps, serene portraits of maritime
captains (I thought this one-> above our table, bore a striking resemblance to Mayor Bloomberg, although my dining companion begged to differ), and postcards from seaside vacation spots. Rough brown paper rolls out over the table tops (most of which were full that evening), so bring along some pens or crayons and create a masterpiece while you dine. The vibe here is easy enough to allow this to be an inoffensive pasttime. The menu is pretty easy, too, and full of simple classics and some craveable renditions. They'll start you off with some excellent, Old Bay-seasoned, uber-crunchy potato chips, but bypass the weirdly pink crab dip, which is a sturdy block of crab-flecked cream cheese, tasty enough in and of itself, but far too dense to hold up to the chips, which are fine on their own. There are much better things to eat on the menu anyways, so save your appetite. For turf's sake, pickled turnips and crunchy roasted pecans decorate lightly dressed leaves of bitter arugula for a pretty summer salad. A meaty roast of foresty mushrooms
are flecked with humble dandelion greens and enriched by a golden, melty yolk just waiting to release its richness into the fungi.

Hinting toward the surfier side of things, white gazpacho (an increasingly available albino version of the classic) is a smooth puree, mildly sweet with almonds, bobbing with an ample toss of fresh crabmeat and amped up with tiny pools of spicy chorizo oil. For the most part, portion size and preparation give a nod to the "Chop" aspect of the name, while ingredients are focused on the "Tank". Schaefer definitely does not follow in the delicate footsteps of The Ripper, who is notorious for precious finesse and mi-cuit cooking style. Here, the flavors are robust, with very little horsing around- and if anything, he tends to overcook things. Skate, however, was sauteed to a crispy golden brown, and refreshingly NOT served in a soggifying broth that is practically omnipresent with this species for some dumb reason. The edges had a bit of crunch, and the large wing with drizzled with a savory caper brown butter.. no surprises, no flaws. The undercooked spaetzle on the side was somewhat oily and flavorless, however, but I was happy enough with the fish to dismiss it without much impact. Plus, we had a lovely side of juicy, plump green beans that tasted of my mom's garden to pick up the slack. Just steamed haricots with a hint of lemon and butter that you could eat with your fingers (well, at least we did. Emily Post said it's okay.) A broth worked wonders with the seabass, on the other hand, in another gutsy preparation with savory blackeyed peas cooked with smokey bacon, joined by several cockles whose shells were useful in ladling up both broth and beans. Here, even more of the soupy base would've worked. The skate worked perfectly with an exquisite riesling - the Gotham Project (apparently this Gothamite was what they were creating it for.. I really loved this wine) from North Fork, slightly tart, juicy and honeyed, and the bass went well with a wheaty, hoppy beer.

Desserts change daily, and are on the traditional side, mostly tweaked cookie, cake and ice cream deals. We were gently tempted by a couple of the offerings, but bellies were really full enough not to require it. Speaking of appetites, they do an All-You-Can-Eat crab feed, served with market sides and steamed 'taters, which I WOULD be tempted to return for. But there seems to be some price disparity, however, because I've seen it advertised for $50, while on the website it states $65... which I'd say is about $20 too much, unless you can REALLY get your claws out, and crab in.
Gives crabmeat stuffing a whole new meaning.