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.

Friday, August 6, 2010

MACAO Trading Co.: A Transporting Experience

New York is a city that applauds itself for seeming inescapable: you get here and can't leave (want to or not), are endeared to it from a visitor's perspective, can't really replicate the New Yorkedness of it anywhere else, or you can't afford to stay here, but neither can you afford to move. It's these times when a restaurant like Macao Trading Co. is the most appealing. Located on the cusp of TriBeCa and SoHo, upon crossing its threshold it immediately feels like a red light district of East Asia, circa 1940s. And the food is no less transcendent, evolving from the talented hands of the Employees Only family and world-renowned chef David Waltuck of ex-Chanterelle prowess, to the capable hands of head chef Joshua Blakely.

Even if there wasn't (and I think there was), one pictures low-slung ceiling fans slowly pushing around thickly tropical air (it wasn't; it's perfectly cool and comfortable), with silk-clad women of dubious repute skulking in banquettes (there weren't those, either, but there were some perfectly lovely girls in silky blouses and shorts), and smoking long, cinnamon colored cigarettes (obviously, also absent given its ban seven years ago). Still, you feel that way. There are globes and buddhas, maps and valises, all beckoning you towards another time and place. The menu is a conglomerate of Asian and Portuguese inspired dishes, probably stemming from traditional recipes with a modern twist and some American tempering. And despite the sultry surroundings, food is served "family style", although with big appetites or a propensity for doggie bags, you could also wing it individually. Whatever its roots, most of it is delicious. We started with a dozen oysters, meaty specimens from Washington state. Inarguably fresh, but big enough to require a little coaxing on the way down- and they all went down. Jade dumplings, on the other hand, were a bit on the heavy side, though of good crab and shrimp flavor erupting from a jade green wrapper. Grilled Hawaiian blue prawns were sauced in a kicky garlic refrito joined with chopped, roasted cashews for crunch. Fresh lime juice sparkled in the dressing of a watercress salad, crunchy with shaved fennel and endive, slicked just enough to render the greens manageable with chopsticks, without being too slippery. Platters, plates and bowls are an eclectic mix of various china patterns, with colorful borders that charmingly frame unpretentious presentations. The African stew of organic chicken is a whole small bird, expertly braised in a redolent curry with a subtle nudge of coconut, bits of shredded spinach and smattered with whole leaves of fresh cilantro. Five meaty diver scallops nestle in a Malaysian style curry, heartened with toothsome bits of country ham and strewn with slivers of crisp pea shoots. For a carnivorous option, we opted for the Creekstone Strip (kudos on the sourcing, boys), a daunting 16 ounce slab cooked exactly to our
specification, and paired with chili-flecked braised kale that impregnated some of its spice into the meat's juices. We really
didn't have to be finishing all of this, in terms of sheer hunger, but it really wanted to be eaten. Even the side dish of dry fried green beans, plump specimens of the most brilliant green hue, which could've been cooked a tad more (when I see "dry fried", I think of a more tender, desiccated treatment) but flecked with such tasty bits of chili and peanuts, was licked clean. In fact, the restaurant was Point B after having attended a small wedding ceremony, where a gloriously gluttonous cookies and cream ice cream cake sacrificed itself for the cake-cutting ceremony, so dessert was an antipasto to the meal at Macao. There are some simple dessert options at the restaurant, (the fried milk with honey citrus salad sounded especially tempting), but with bellies full in inverse order, we settled with finishing off our lovely second carafe of summery Spanish rose, and reentered the reality of a swampy New York summer evening, that somehow, consequently, seemed perfectly wonderful.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Il Matto: Revisited

The term "crazy" is madly overused as of late. It has come to mean just about everything.... busy, excessive, stupid, disorganized, messy, or the superlative. At 281 Church Street, it takes on a different sense: aside from being the a play on the chef's name (Matteo Boglione) as well as his nickname (The Madman), the craziness here translates into a whimsical sensibility that permeates the restaurant. The room is spacious and stark, but riddled with a distracting rectangle of white and red track lighting, giving a slightly disco feel. An enormous mural of an abstract octopus, graffiti-style, covers the south wall, and an eclectic mix of mismatched banquettes, rough-hewn wooden chairs, and sleek, white plastic tables contribute a sense of playful schizophrenia, echoed by the flip-flopped font of the restaurant logo and menu lettering. The room seems to give permission not to take things too seriously, but once service begins, there is some seriously good stuff going on here. Opened by the very Italian chef and his team of very Italian Italians, the food is no traditional spaghetti pomodoro, but that doesn't mean it lacks sincerity. This guy is doing whatever he wants to do, which, in most cases, leads to laudable results.

The menu showcases a bit of artistry itself, scribbled with illustrative caricatures of the mascot octopus, seasonal vegetables and featured ingredients. A perfect example of Boglione's strength is a parmesan panna cotta, a creamy rich custard of pungent parmesan napped with a sugary crust underneath a drizzle of reduced balsamic and melty wad of carmelized onions... an unexpectedly savory concoction disguised as a creme brulee, which, despite its substantiative ingredients, sits rather lightly in its little white porcelain cup. It is a marvelously decadent spoonful (or four). Similarly, a soup of mozzarella di bufala is poured into a rich moat around a playful tomato granita. I found waiting for the granita to melt into the soup was optimal- if not, the icy texture fought a bit with the creamy broth. But once integrated, and plonked with a crunchy frittura of lightly crusted artichoke and a basil crouton, its a warrants an audible moan of pleasure (which one might actually hear too, because noise levels inside the dining room cater to conversation more than cacophony). But everyone knows cheese tastes good, so a wonderfully earthy croquette of artichoke shows he can do more. Mysteriously lacking much of anything to hold them together, the earthy green orbs are basically pure artichoke, with a slightly crisped exterior holding them together, partnered with creamy dollops of ethereally light ricotta, the plate zig-zagged with a brilliant sauce of saffron and summer truffle. Okay, so we haven't fully escaped the realm of formaggio, which again finds itself (this time soft pillows of fresh mozzarella) in an arugula salad with gigantic porcinis and more
truffle. There is also a hearty grain salad of farro, artichoke, tomato and pecorino, which is text-book healthy but also surprisingly addictive. Nutty kernels of farro (an ancient grain also known as emmer wheat) find fast friends with earthy artichoke and salty cheese, freshened up with minced tomato.

Main courses continue on their novel path. Gnocchi (typically made of potato), are formed from a base of pate a choux, which renders them the softest, smoothest, meltiest gnocchetti you've ever had. Granted, the nero di seppia that flavors them gives them somewhat of black licorice gumdrop-appearance, but eyes closed and spooned up with thick crabmeat ragout, you won't have a chance to make that mistake. Fazzoletti are big enough to warrant two bites each, and generously stuffed with more mozzarella di bufala, sauced with tomato and capped with half-moons of fried eggplant. This is another forte of the chef.... he, admittedly, likes his frittadini.. Not once did I get a sodden or greasy morsel, however, as he has somehow mastered the technique of frying things into a state lighter than the original (now if he could just fry away the calorie count...).

Secondi-style mains were hit and miss, although I hear some of these kinks
have already worked themselves out. The filetto di manzo (filet mignon) with shockingly undercooked, although the bone marrow sauce and accompanying spears of asparagus were perfect, so I'd guess a few more minutes on the fire would atone all sins. So, too, I found the Ventresca di Tonno, although I
assume that in this case it is more my deviant preference of tuna cooked through than the chef's error. However, this didn't hold forth as my favorite dish, anyways; none of the components appeared to have much to do with one another, too much fried (both the artichoke slices and the cotechino... I mean, really, breading and frying sausage??), although the eggplant cream was memorably tasty. There is a noticeable paucity of vegetables for my taste as well, where dirt candy is more likely to find itself battered or decorative, or surrendered as a sauce. Better (and more vegetabled!) was the olive-crusted capesante (una "p"... inside joke), with char-grilled golden beets and meaty
porcinis, and a tableside addition of milky almond foam smoothing everything together. I actually didn't need the olive crusting on the scallops, though, as it came across a little muddy, with only mild olive and more sawdust flavor, and the dish would be just as great (or greater) without it. Best of all, however, was the filetto di maiale: a fork tender cut of juicy pork (what am I becoming, Frank Bruni??) with a crazy good fonduta di parmigiano
(there we go) and juicier still grilled peaches. The pressed spinach salad was neither pressed nor particularly interesting; it could have done with a quick saltato in padella, or perhaps a little more time underneath the "press". Whatever that might have accomplished.

Dolci are limited, but fantastic. A few of the tipples from Christina Bini's ace cocktail program could easily fill in as a dessert, too, expanding your options. The Pasolini, a Cat in The Hat frappe of raspberry and ricotta with frangelico and brandy would contend any of the listed dessert options. That said, a molten chocolate cake was flawless, a syrupy, gooey cocoa puck oozing into a pool of milky cream. No, not mind-blowingly creative, but sinfully good. Better even than that, though, and probably the prime example of Boglione's skill and creative whimsy, is a millefoglie di melanzane: sweetened discs of baked eggplant layered with a vanilla custard and puffy nuggets of crispy almond brittle. Maybe this is where you make up for the lack of greenery in your dinner, when you can finesse a dessert of blue-ribbon caliber out of a vegetable. Which might seem a little crazy, depending on your definition.