Wednesday, July 14, 2010

FLATIRON CHEFS: July 13th at Madison Square Park

I happened to have been working out in Summit, NJ (of all places) the day of the 13th, and some convoluted travel arrangements had me taking the ferry back to midtown around 4pm-ish. Swampy day that it was, the ferry was actually a refreshing little jaunt, and before launching I spied two girls in Ciao Bella! Gelato t-shirts, one pink, one blue. I coyly inquired if they were giving out free ice cream. One replied "Yeah.. well, in a way: we're at the Celebrate Flatiron Chefs at Madison Square Park tonight. You should come!" To that, I kicked myself for one more event I failed to note. (I mean, I can only wear so many hats, and thus far, this one isn't paying any bills.) However, not fifteen minutes later, my Knight in Shining Armor, my great friend Doug Friedman popped up on my caller i.d., having an extra ticket for the evening's affair. Would I like to come?? WOULD I!?? I mean, I couldn't miss reuniting with my Ciao Bella friends, now could i?
At any rate, rushed home to rinse off and change togs, and sped two long blocks east to the park. Tented and fenced off, I found Doug who whisked me through the gates. Now, compared to Meatopia, the crowd was diminiutive. But then again, the tickets were $160 to $200, compared to $25 to $150, so do the math. But Madison is my favorite park (I still cannot forget those chrome trees), so not only was the cause well worthy, the offerings were all-you-can-ingest. So let the ingesting begin.
First up was Pranna, featuring a green bean and mango summer salad with grilled chicken. Lots of crunchy peanuts and a citrusy curried dressing on the vegetables made the salad perfect for the uber-humidity , with big chunks of tender, umami-rich soy marinated chicken beneath. In fact, almost all the portions were more than ample; some I felt a little guilty about tossing half of, just so I'd be able to try as many different things as possible. Case in point: April Bloomfield's world-famous, world-class lamb burger. I requested mine well-done (one can capacitate these types of personalizations when one is lucky enough to know the chef, and the General Manager from The Ace Hotel where her restaurant,
The Breslin, is housed) which luckily shrank it an iota, but it was still about as big as an average sized take-out burger, though substantially smaller than what she serves in the restaurant. And she deserves to be smiling, 'cause this burger is as good as all the fuss about it. Even cooked to medium, the meat was juicy and flavorful, with a crusty, salty char, crisp red onions and smooth white, feta, all taken that one step higher with a kicky cumin mayo daubed on the side. Another friend in attendance had the tell-tale drips stains blotted on his white t-shirt: those you can wear as a badge of honor.
There were actually far too many burgers in attendance, from the stellar Breslin burger to an embarassing appearance from 230 Fifth. Not that that place is really about the food, but someone should've known better than to try to measure up with April in the house, and Shake Shack actually adjacent. (In fact, coordinator's of the event might note that a little menu diversity might be encouraged: there were a few two many burgers in the house.) Thankfully, my hero, Dan Kluger from ABC bucked the burger trend with a poignant little salad: tiny micro-lettuces and sunflower sprouts, purslane and carrot greens in a creamy vinaigrette, two small but meaty roasted baby carrots, enriched with cool slices of avocado and a smattering of sunflower seeds thrown in for crunch. Honestly, I can't rave any more fanatically about what this guy is doing right now.
Seamus Mullen wasn't present, but Boqueria offered it's typical meaty fare, much of which was reminiscent of that served at Meatopia. They had a promising gazpacho, too, but in the end disappointing: colder, its flavor might have improved, but with the inescapable steaminess, it was far too sweet, too smooth, and just not great. Alain Allegretti actually convinced me (ME!) to sample his tuna tartare. Admittedly, it was surprisingly delicious, a crunchy cucumber slice supporting a tiny crisp galette bursting with lavendar scented tuna. The fish was mild, the concoction was delicious, although the concept of raw fish (especially on such a steamy night) kept me at a single bite. Rickshaw Dumpling Bar had two different dumplings to offer, both tasty. A thickly creamy puree of edamame was in one, soused with an herby yogurt sauce, and another chicken variety, drizzled with a soy saucy sauce. These tasted better than they photograph, and were a nice addition of Asian flavor. Cabrito brought in the Mexican (and the spice!) with a kicky stewed pork flagged with a thin slice of jalapeno as an alert of oncoming heat. Not overly spicy, though, and the flavor of both the meat and the sauce shone through before the afterburn of chili.
No. 7 Sandwich put out a lovely little (not that little) heirloom tomato sub, the bread a lovely chewy wheaten torpedo smeared with crave-worthy pickled ramp mayo and sprinkled with feta. Great summer sub, and a nice diversion from the other burger sandwiches so prolific. Tabla's
roasted corn chat salad would've been a perfect accompaniment to this for an entire vegetarian mini-meal. Juicy kernels of early corn, charred in spots, with Indian flavors punched up with pickled watermelon and dried mango. This was actually one of my favorite tastes, but I've never been disappointed by Floyd. I ruefully missed out on his kulfi chipwich that everyone was raving about, but word has it that they'll be for sale from the sweets cart in front of Tabla in the following days. Wrapping up the savories of note was one I forgot to photograph, and even hesitated to try; it just sounded so heavy and rich for the daunting heat and humidity. But Missy Robbin's somehow made arancini stuffed with sausage and cheese palatably light, simple in flavors but still robust, with a silken texture that seemed too delicate to hold together the chewy grains of rice, but miraculously did. Darling little presentation, too, each egg-sized orb stuffed into its own little brown paper bag. That would've made for some happy lunch sack back in the day.
Bridging the sweets and savories was a perfectly refreshing melon parfait (again from Eleven Mad.), incorporating creamy, foamy, crunchy, sweet, salty, juicy all in one tiny little cup. It somehow tasted virtuous and decadent simultaneously, and I'm not sure how she did that, but I am sure that I ate THREE of these. When something is that good, there is always room. Which left little room, however, for Hill Country's Cowboy Cookie Pie, but literally even famished I think I could've only taken one bite of this super-sweet morsel. Little pie crust cup with chocolate and peanut butter chips, and flakes of coconut glued together with a sugary white frosting. It would probably make an excellent treat at Girl Scout camp, but it kind of made my teeth hurt.
SD26 should have been my birthday destination (the 26 from the day of my birth in June, then a D for me, and I'm still trying to figure out to work the S into the justification), so I was anxious to try their balsamic panna cotta. I had been to the old San Domenico twice, and it never knocked my socks off as it was purported to be capable of, and sadly my panna cotta wasn't an exception to my prior experiences. The custard had a good flavor, but was far too firm as to actually require chewing, and the balsamic too heavy on top without enough strawberry to freshen things up. But at that point, too, I was probably at or (way) above capacity in terms of food intake.
There were a deuce of previews present, as well. Cesare Casella was representing for the opening-in-August EATALY with Mario Batali, with a big spread of prosciutti and salumi in fair Salumeria Rosi-style. Also showing face was Hill Country Chicken outpost, although I never did see if they had fried up any drumsticks that night. But as long as the fireflies turn out en force next year as they did that balmy night in Madison Square Park, it bodes very well for Flatiron Chefs 2011, with nothing left for want, and a few things left to look forward to.

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