Saturday, May 29, 2010

ABC's of J.G.: ABC Kitchen

The cavernous reaches of ABC Carpet and Home brim with an eclectic mix of new and old, reasonable to astronomically priced, and every possible textile known to mankind. Within it's sprawling, barn-like interior, Jean Georges has found an apt haven for his latest venture, a farm-to-table, local-seasonal dining hall with many of the same attributes, called, simply, ABC Kitchen. This is one of few of Vongerichten's establishments that forgoes using his name in any manner in the nomenclature, instead adopting the title of this iconic New York City shopping destination and simply adding the designation of a kitchen to differentiate it from store. It is, also, a humble name, and ABC (of all Vongerichten's restaurants), is an unpretentious display of fine ingredients and uncomplicated execution, quite reminiscent of the store itself.

That's not to say that the food is simple and predictable... quite the contrary. But it is those things, relatively speaking, for J.G. The dining room unfolds behind the first floor of the store, through glass doors and past a dimly lit bar. Exposed concrete pillars support a wooden beamed ceiling, from which filament bulbs suspend on uncovered cords. There are charming miniature bud vases on each table filled with a few simple sprigs of seasonal flora. Sleek white chairs contrast with the rural decor, adding a hint of modernity which will be reflected in the menu as well. All the flatware, glassware, and dinnerware are a mismatched hodgepodge of lovely china you might have found pieces of in your grandmother's dining room. There is music wafting above from somewhere, indecipherable above a somewhat cacophonous noise level, and the partially exposed kitchen reflects a glow from the wood burning oven off the steel hoods and countertops. In front of that stands a heavy wooden table bearing the fruits of the market, and what will soon appear upon your plate.

ABC's menu is a smattering of options: you can eat almost any way you please, from small plates to sharing large ones, a classic multi-course meal or perhaps just a pizza and some sides. These will change so frequently that the menu I had found online was already obsolete, despite the restaurant only having been open for a matter of weeks. But this shouldn't dissuade anyone. There are ample choices, and really nary a dud in the mix. Chef Dan Kluger (New York native) masters what J.G.V. mapped out. A lemony scallop carpaccio with just a tiny kick of horseradish is as fresh and summery as an ocean could produce. The first dish order were the I fiddleheads I spied on a neighboring table, and their nutty, vegetal brilliance was only nudged with a little butter and salt, served with a thick wedge of lemon, but really held their own without it. Equally brilliant was a bowl of roasted beets, slightly tangy with pickled ramps and nestled

into a bed of thick yogurt. A sprightly mix of slivered snowpeas on leaves of endive with more lemon (citrus is a prevalent flavor) and perhaps a little too much parmesan was still a bright and refreshing little salad.
What read on the menu to be a most decadent and sumptuous morel and wild mushroom pizza with farm eggs and a salty crumble of cheese was actually the most lackluster dish sampled. The crust was just a little thick, the mushrooms just a little
past their prime, and all of the aforementioned somewhat wanting of a sprinkle of salt (at the table in a precious white porcelain dish and a spoon so tiny and cute it just about breaks your heart). In all honesty, perhaps on it's own with a glass of rose it might've been a decent pie, but it just didn't stand up to the level of the rest of the cookery. A peekytoe crab toast, on the other hand, was almost looked over, and despite it's austere description, was quite a gluttonous crostino of heavily buttered, super crusty and chewy sourbread toast, generously mounded with sweet, fresh lumps of peekytoe joined by a smooth aioli flecked with chives. It was an outstanding dish, and too, could serve as a meal in itself, maybe with a side of those fiddleheads and a glass of gewurtztraminer off the extensive wine list.

Main courses showed just as much opportunity. There were four fishes, a chicken, a pork, a steak and a burger. We stayed piscine (which is fairly typical for me) with a chili-spiked black seabass, served with buttery-fleshed red potatoes and jalapeno flecked spinach. The crispy fish skin was just elevated above the broth to preserve it's integrity, and the snowy white fish flaked effortlessly into the robust broth... a masterful dish. A silken halibut filet was steamed just past what Eric Ripert would deem cooked enough (which I never think is quite enough) to what might be the mostly perfectly cooked piece of fish I have ever had. It was buoyed up by an thickened broth of pureed asparagus, dotted with silky chunks of cool avocado and meaty quartered shiitakes. I do think mushrooms lose a lot when served in broths, but this is a negligible shortcoming. A generous flush of lime zest completes the green backdrop for the halibut's pristine white flesh.

Though bursting at the seams, I cannot pass up rhubarb when it presents itself, and the buttery shortbread crust and perfectly tangy compote below did not disappoint. Even the espresso was magnificent; a roasty, bold but smooth tasse pulled short and strong, a three sip finale to end an almost flawless meal.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mary's is a Pearl, Pearl is a Diamond

Mary's Fish Camp has been on my list for ages; I've been to Pearl Oyster Bar (its nemesis) a couple of times, and it is absolutely perfect for what it is, tries to be, and wants to be. Mary's, too, has that same bare-bones fish shack vibe, and definitely whisks you out of the city on a summery seabreeze. The menu is printed and plasticized, but the specials and the wine are quaintly scribbled on big chalkboards on two walls, which avoids any neck craning. We ended up here on the very last day before Mary would morph into her spring menu, so while some of the dishes didn't quite harmonize with the season, there were some of my favorite ingredients amongst the offerings, so I can't complain.

Starting with a beet salad (with some unmentioned, unpitted black olives lurking amongst the beets as a potential tooth-shattering dental liability)
was a nicely robust salad, if slightly on the oily side. Unnecessary, with unusually delicious fried chickpeas and thin shavings of ricotta salad... that extra oil could have been negated. Conch beignets, on the other hand, weren't greasy at all, but frittering out such a nice novel seafood always seems a mild tragedy. Served with two tiny slices of key lime (which would've been muchly more appreciated in two thick wedges), which also spiked a luscious aioli.
My entree, a last hurrah of winter, was a gorgeous piece of skate,

lightly breaded and soused in a balsamic brown butter, would've been exponentially more welcome on a nippy fall day than the first steamer of a NYC summer, but even so, it was supremely good. Perched atop a very generous pile of leafed out brussels sprouts leaves and less successful puree of garbanzos, this dish was big enough for two, paired with weightier starters and maybe a veggie side to split. Speaking of side dishes, the grilled vegetables that can pair with the whole fish offerings (of which there are many) were a simple grill of fennel, tomato, summer squashes, onion and eggplant. The onion was undercooked, leaving it a little harsh, but otherwise a solid (if not particularly memorable) side. Again, this is of shareable proportions.
The signs of spring popped up on the dessert menu. There was a tempting key lime concoction, and an enormous hot fudge sundae, but I couldn't see anything but the strawberry shortcake, after what has been a rather trying and lengthy winter. For me, shortcake should only be one thing, although is often subbed out with spongecake, pound cake or (worst of the worst!) angel food cake. But this one was it: the perfectly flaky buttermilk biscuit, with crunchy granules of coarse sugar crusting it up, a wonderfully ungummy strawberry jus and big slices of berry, sandwiching a barely sweet chantilly. It was second only to my mom's. You'll see by the photo that digging in began before I remembered to take its portrait.
So back to the title, I really enjoyed Mary's. I think Pearl's execution is slightly more finessed, but honestly, 'twixt the two of them. you'd have to struggle to err. I know there is a long summer ahead (technically we're not even there yet), but know for a fact I'll be looking forward to that skate reappearing on the menu come fall.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Minetta Tavern

Admittedly, I am not a steak kind of a girl. It's all well and fine, I have no problem with a good, conscientiously raised, grass-fed piece of meat, I just prefer other proteins. Bruni, Ozersky and Sifton can have all the T-Bones and pork belly they want, Jack Sprat-esquely speaking. So perhaps that was my first misstep in visiting Minetta Tavern, because honestly, it's really little more than an uber-sceney steakhouse. Not that there's anything wrong with that. And frankly, none of the food was bad- it was mostly quite good. Good, not great, and for a place you have to call three weeks in advance for a rezzie, frankly I was expecting a tad bit more. Plus, our waitress suffered a bit of a breakdown prior to even receiving our appetizers, so I can't say I'm buying into all the rage.
We ordered after lengthy perusal of the menu. It's not hugely descriptive, but since our waitress could offer little more than "oh, it's very nice" when asked about a particular selection, we're lucky we made out as well as we did. I ordered a seasonal asparagus salad, served on an exceptional ricotta mousse with a lemony kick and an abundance a marcona almonds. Lovely, although not exceptionally generous. My companion went seasonal, too, with a soft shell crab sautee with fiddleheads and morels (of which I stole all I could get my fork into). That was okay, because his steak was big enough for two (the Flatiron... not the ribeye for two). Ordered medium rare, it arrived barely that, with a slick, salty crust and a(n underdone to my taste) juicy, if not exceptionally flavorful, flesh. My cabillaud en papillote was much skimpier, and REALLY scant of any of the vegetable components ( I was really looking forward to the honshimeji). Lucky for that, I did order a side of spinach. Fresh, garlicky, sauteed spinach. Described as such, arrived as such. Nothing deleterious, nothing exceptional.
The biggest disappointment, however, was our wine escapade. I am NOT that well-versed in wines. There are a handful which I most normally appreciate, and those I remember by name. Of course, none of those were on the list. So I asked our charming waitress what she might offer, given my entree selection, preferred varietals, and a smattering of adjectives: juicy, fruit-forward, not oaky, floral, not too acidic and green were a few I usually toss out. She said she'd bring me a taste of the chardonnay to see if I liked it; I said that sounded perfect. It was oaky. It was minerally. It was not my favorite. So she said, turning on her heel, that she'd just bring me a sauvignon blanc (to taste, first). I swear she brought me back the same glass. Before I could even get a word out, she gauged the expression on my face, whisked the glass, the bottle and her attitude as fast away from our table as she could, straight over to the maitre d'. Who, glancing back at our deer-in-the-headlights/what-the-hell-just-happened expressions, must have correctly ascertained the situation. He summoned the sommelier (most obviously what our waitress should have done to begin with), and he most charmingly offered to bring five glassed of tiny pours to determine one I'd like to drink. How can you turn that down? Now, after tasting the first two, I'd already had probably more than I would've drunk from any glass I'd ordered anyways, and the third was a passable (from what I could even taste at that point), lovely pink rose. I told him I'd just have a glass of that... it was fine, it was perfect. He really wanted me to continue on with the flight, but honestly I think it was all starting to taste the same. He began to turn away to fetch a full glass of the rose, when he returned, and said he'd like to leave the Choice #4; he thought I would really like it. So, with my full glass of rose accanto, I smelled the #4. Citrus, floral, grassy perfume arose from the glass, and a juice bite hit with the first sip. Now THAT was my wine! A Cayuga from upstate (who knew?).
After all of that, and the rest of the perfectly serviceable meal, we had pre-ordered the souffle' (Grand Marnier), which presented itself big and eggy. It was... perfectly serviceably.
Of all the components of my meal at Minetta, that Cayuga (and the sommelier) took a starring role.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vongerichten's Bargain Basement Lunch

This should be on every one's to-do list. 29.00 for two courses (which is an ample lunch... they don't skimp out on the portions), but give up another 14.50 for an extra course and this may be the most decadently cheap splurge ever. We began with the house amuse-bouches: a warm squash soup with lime zest oil (slurpable!), hamachi crudo with a celery remoulade (which masterfully accomplished the cool/crispy/creamy trifecta), and a happy little multi-grain toast with a smear of grainy mustard and a breakfast radish dusted with fleur du sel. The menu has a dish for any one's palate... I adored my warm asparagus salad: five thick spears atop of mix of leaves, an amped up hollandaise and little slivers of mushroom. Really wonderful, and generous. There's a skate dish in a sauce Chateau Chalon (a mustardy yellow champagne sauce that is soup-worthy), for which they unexpectedly subbed out with turbot. Had it been my dish, I'd be admittedly miffed (skate is my favorite) but since it was my companions, and he was actually happier, I'll let it slide. My shrimp with mousseron were the least appreciated, perhaps, but would make a solid app. The problem with it as multi-faceted, the first of which it seemed too skimpy for a main, but moreover, the mushroom crust was non-committal: neither buttery-crust crumby enough, nor mushroomy. A bit like some random passed appetizer at an open-bar cocktail party (although if it was that, it would've been nice enough). And to be perfectly honest (see? there I go) the shrimp were a bit.... shrimpy A second course of snapper with a buttery, umami-rich sauce (there we go with the sauces again... make sure to use the spoon), heavy with cipollini, grape tomatoes and fingerlings had a lovely, peppery, nutty crust (although slightly sogged by the steam) which gave it such a pleasantly multi-layered flavor profile.
The desserts, room or no room, cannot be skipped. Rhubarb (a top ten list favorite of mine along with that skate) finds itself nestled underneath a gorgeous custard in a buttery crust, whipped into a sweet-tart foam flecked with tiny candied bits, and paired with it's favorite partner in crime, the strawberry, in a thick and cool melba-inspired soup. The vanilla ice cream that comes with the molten chocolate cake should be sold in bulk- it's that good. And if only for the surprise in the almond
galette beneath the kumquat-topped matcha semifreddo, I hasten to mention it as well. (And if you like green tea, the texture of that semifreddo is intrinsically a green tea-gasm).
Really, there wasn't a misstep in the house.
Oh, wait. Yes, there was. The restroom have the WORST possible system of hot and cold faucets... perfectly akin to those you find in the worst of airplane lavatories. You can never get the right balance of hot and cold, and end up freezing your fingers or scalding them off. Which is the absolute opposite, most thankfully, of what happens on the plate under Jean-George's watchful eye. Who was, in fact, present that very evening. Who says you'll never find the toque in the house?

Il Matto: il giorno dopo

So it wasn't a dinner after all... press-centric soft opening (aka miniscule passed apps at 23h00 and a very, very open bar). That said, what was offered was surprisingly palatable. The space is completely unfinished. The bathrooms downstairs are the only thing practically done (besides a conspicuous absence of waste baskets & t.p., and a very sticky operation on the water faucets). To taste were a tuna tartare with mango and avocado, a simple and earthy farro salad with artichoke and grano, and the grand finale, a stunning parmagiano creme brulee with carmelized onion atop. This, while obviously a luscious little calorie bomb, was not brutally rich: just light enough to make you keep wanting more. And more. If this is any indication of what is yet to come (the restaurant proper should be open in less than two weeks, although given it's current state, that would seem ambitious), I think Il Matto will be un grosso successo.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tonight: Il Matto

Okay, here's something: tonight is dinner at Il Matto, at the former Arqua space in TriBeCa. I never dined at the old one (tried a walk-in once, but to no avail), but the chef is hanging in there. The menu's not out yet; it looks like I'll be one of the first to sneak a peek. Arqua (and it's sister restaurant, Petrarca) get decent reviews across the board on various websites, so I'm guessing it won't be entirely disappointing, even if this will be a premature evaluation.