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