Sunday, March 20, 2011


It could be considered irresponsible journalism to go to Maialino and NOT order the suckling pig. But pig is pig, n'est-ce pas? And a restaurant had better be able to stand on more than just its trotters to successfully endure the current economy with such aplomb. Plus, it's a Danny Meyer place. Expectations were high upon arrival merely for his reputation.

And really, any anxiety is unfounded. The room strikes the perfect balance of farmhouse elegance, with blue and white checked tablecloths peeking out from beneath starched white linens. A bit of porcine paraphernalia decorates the walls, but subtly so, with line drawings of butchery maps and quaint framed illustrations. More than a pork-centric restaurant is Maialino an intrinsically Italian one. The menu titles are in flawless Italian (a first), and described in user-friendly English. The descriptions are not deceptively minimalist, either; they are simply accurate. Chef Nick Anderer relies on provenance and quality of ingredients instead of pomp and foam. The kitchen doesn't seek to thrill, nor does it disappoint.

The menu is subject to major seasonal- even daily- variations, so there are some write-ins on the menu, as well as specials described by our waitress. We tried two different salads, both excellent, but the celery, fennel and piave fresco was exceptional: juicy and refreshing ratcheted up with pungently flavored shreds of ripe cheese and the roastiest of hazelnuts. The other, duet of radicchios (Castlefranco and tardivo) shared their team colors of rich burgundy
and pearly white with dripped jewels of aged balsamic reduction and paper-thin shavings of pecorino. Both are laudable salads, but if you need heartier fare there is a wide array of salumi, locally sourced and imported to secure the best of the best. The fritturas looked exquisite, too: one vegetarian with beets and artichokes and such, the other spliced with offal, sweetbreads and cauliflower.

The pastas we sampled were hit and miss, falling hard on both ends of the spectrum. The Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe was salty, cheesy decadence. Not too creamy or heavy, but a salty tangle of noodles showcasing an uber-cheesiness ratcheted up with fragrant black pepper. Spaghetti con le Acciughe, while it
looked strikingly similar to the tonnarelli, was utterly flavorless, aside from the taste of perfectly cooked pasta and, well.. that was it. There wasn't much evidence of anchovies, and especially in contrast to the saltiness of the tonnarelli, not much seasoning at all. The filone cracklings just sort of added a bland crunch, and also annoyingly stuck to my teeth.

Secondi exhibited none of those flaws. Even though we didn't order the suckling pig, peeking at (and smelling) our neighbor's entrees confirmed it expertly done: salt-crusted skin perfectly crisped on the edges, giving in to a toothsome chew towards the center, and

tender, juicy meat that practically flaked like steamed cod. Speaking of which, the baccala in guazzetto flaked just so, a hefty
chunk of pristine white cod, whose mild flavor complemented a robust tomato sauce, rich and sweet with capers and pignoli, and nice little kick of peppery heat to finish. Storione alla griglia was simply that: a deliciously meaty steak of sturgeon plated with buttery crowns of roasted romanesco. No frills, no complaints.

Perhaps the most delicious things all night, though, was the funghi trifolati, which uncoincidentally was always a favorite of mine when I was living in Italy as well. These mushrooms are an absolutely perfect example of how a sautee of fungus should be. First of all, there a nice mingle of different varieties: hen-of-the-woods, shiitake, cremini, and chanterelles. Anchovies in the mix further amp up the umami factor, and white wine gives a nice little zing of freshness. I really could've eaten a big bowl of these (perhaps dumped on that flavorless spaghetti!) for a perfectly handsome repast. We tried the broccoli rapini as well, which was almost as wonderful. It had all but a smidge of bitterness cooked out of it, while retaining a nice bite along with the smoky char of high heat.

There is a really tempting dessert menu on hand as well (along with a strong cheese menu), but a prior engagement had us hustling out the door senza dolci. (I want to add that throughout writing this little synopsis, I've had to forcefully restrain myself from writing in Italian. The food is so purely Italian, so authentic and heartening, that it inspires the use of its language of provenance even just thinking about it.) Missing these was somewhat tragic, because I was really intrigued by the Torta Sbrisolona: a roasted pineapple crumb cake with verjus-rosemary sorbetto that sounded sublime. There're classics, too, like Torta della Nonna, and affogato in addition to a full cheese board. These could warrant a return just for dessert. trip. But that did allow us to sneak out that evening still in time to catch a glimpse of the SuperMoon, a rare occurrence that won't happen again until 2029. Ah, scusami... SuperLuna. Like so many things, Anderer's cooking included, it just sounds better in Italian.

2 Lexington Avenue

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beauty & Essex

The name of this place is as indulgent as its food. Rolling up at dusk on an early spring evening, blazing yellow lights scream out from the brick facade like an "EAT HERE" sign outside a 1950's diner. You enter through a faux-beauty shop facade, and through a pale blue painted door an entirely different scene unfolds. And what a scene it is. This is, undeniably, the hot-spot of the moment, where bodies dressed to be noticed cram shoulder to shoulder from the bar to the dining room and beyond. I'm not sure anyone of note actually WOULD come here, but necks are craning and heads swiveling not to miss one if they did. Upstairs, the bustle continues, and without advance reservations, the best you will do is to enjoy the full menu in the lounge or bar (both are actually livelier and more situationally appropriate than the actual dining room, which is a bit subdued)... unless you acquiesce to the dreaded 5:30 or 10:45pm.

After a bit of confusion as to where we might be settled, we ended up on the second floor (the lounge, I believe) on squishy velvet divans with knee-height mirrored tables. This is less comfortable than a proper dining table, but it had a much more buoyant atmosphere there. The room is as dressed up as its
patrons, ropes of pearls loop from the ceiling and mirrors everywhere reflect fluffy white feathers, flickering votive candles and preening girls in tottery shoes. And it is loud. Even without the screeching laugh of the girl in the far corner, the music is thumping, glasses clinking and conversation requires diaphragm support to be heard. If reading up to this point has you intrigued, keep going. If not, please dine elsewhere. The food, for what it is, is quite decent in a yummy, grubby way, but if the sceneyness is going to cause any vexation, the vittles aren't going to be worth the effort. There are some flounces on the menu, but for the most part the cooking is pretty straight-forward.

They started us off with a little amuse of Caesar salad-topped crouton which did amuse me- tasty enough as it was, the complimentary gesture seemed a little upscale for the environs. We ordered quite a bit (probably too much), but thus got a pretty good feel for what the kitchen is doing. The menu starts of with varied raw options from oysters to tartare. Next up are designated "Jewels on Toast", of which I think the Caesar thing could've qualified, but wasn't listed. These, and the "Accessories" side dishes try to enforce the beauty parlor theme, but not that successfully, thus rescuing it from excessive kitsch. Charred shishito peppers are a huge mound of emerald beauties, well seasoned but inconsistently cooked. Some are still raw inside, others perfectly shriveled, but there are enough of 'em to share with at least two other eaters. There is another untitled category witha mishmash of option, including lots of little starchy and fried things: spring rolls, General Tso's monkfish, and oysters with bacon-braised spinach and apple, the oyster in which was all but undetectable amongst the crunchy breading, and the spinach had the flavor cooked right out of it. That said, had you not known the ingredients, it was a tasty little morsel (as such friedy-fried, saucy little tidbits so often are).

Under this same heading fell what we ordered as entrees, though I can't figure out why a Flintstone-sized portion of baby back ribs didn't qualify for "Prime Meats", but anyways. It arrived three hulking chunks of super-sauced meat, so tender as to
fall completely off the rib with just a nudge of a fork. Besides them on the wooden plank was a tower of concentric tempura onion rings, which were pretty wonderful in terms of onion rings. The meat's cloying tangerine barbecue glaze, on the other hand, disguised any flavor it may (or may not) have had, but made for some amusing finger-licking antics for an innocent bystander. Branzino a la plancha was three diamonds of skin-on fish, plated with a silky potato puree surrounded by a hedonistically rich moat of bone marrow gravy, a nod
to its gremolata component, a typical accoutrement of osso bucco. The fish, narrowly filleted as it was, surprisingly escaped overcooking with a edibly crispy skin and tender flesh. Paired with ... oop, pardon me... accessorized with some roasted brussels sprouts made for a solid meal. The sprouts are tossed with bits of roasted tomato and anointed with a lemon-thyme butter, but not excessively so. You could still appreciate the veg itself. There was supposed to be pancetta in there as well, but I couldn't detect it. Simply Roasted Mushrooms are pretty delicious, too, although heavily saline- but this place isn't about nuance and panache. The ambiance provides enough of that. It's more about assertive flavor and crowd-pleasing food: nothing too overwrought or fussy, nor requiring too much of the diner's attention that might distract from people-watching and conviviality.

Wrapping things up, we took our Halle Berry-look-alike waitress's suggestion of the black bottom butterscotch pudding. Its arrival in a dainty glass bale jar was deceiving. This stuff is so dense that the crisp little biscuit-shaped spoons that accompany it don't stand a chance. It's not immensely sweet, nor tremendously butterscotchy, but with the rich layer of pure fudge below, cheesecake-like density and ample size, it'd be hard to finish even with four people. You could try, though, with a cup of their mediocre coffee to go with, and still feel pretty content. For any of its missteps, Beauty & Essex still has a lot going for it. Who says that sometimes its not just about a pretty face?

Beauty & Essex
146 Essex Street

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Ripper Strikes Again

Last night, I lied. I specifically stated, in situ, that dinners like these... these extravagantly-wrought, expensive, prix-fixe productions are those that I really prefer to endeavor upon perhaps once a year. Okay, biannually. Or whatever... like- seasonally. Yes, four times a year would be sufficient. Otherwise, I really like a meat and two sides (so to speak). But it HAD been awhile, and thus, I was due.

The invitation popped up quite our of the blue. I was reassured by my invitee that there was no ulterior motive: no proposal nor nefarious attempt to impress. Just a chef from out of town, who'd always wanted to go to Le Bernardin, and me, the ambitious appetite with an attenuated pocketbook. I've met Eric Ripert, admired his work, his reputation, his philosophy. Heck, I have even eaten a bite of orecchiete from Marea off of his own fork. But to Le Bernardin I'd never been, until last night. I have to admit, first impressions were a bit of a let down. The room looks a bit dark and dated: I'd be surprised if they weren't up for a renovation in the near future (probably depending on global economic recovery). Heavy on wood and a bit hotel-esque, I suppose I expected a room more magnificent. But as I would find out, the cuisine more than compensates.

I had narrowed down my choices preprandially online, an attempt to mitigate some selection anxiety. (I didn't trust myself on the spot.) My companion took the easy out, opting for a chef's choice prix-fixe, which luckily also included many from my list. But I had too many snuffed out that could've been disappointing to miss, so I bravely chose my three. Having surmounted that hurdle, the first dish to arrive was independent of our direction, anyways. An amuse-bouche of sweet prawn perched upon a puree of spaghetti squash (interesting annihilation of the unique stringiness of the vegetable, but a deeply squashy flavor persevered, as well as a few shreds for texture, and the puree was really frothed to almost foamy proportions). There was an enigmatic nuance of what I proposed might be chorizo (my friend suggestion citrus), but whatever it was perfectly complemented what was decidedly the sweetest and most delicious shrimp I have ever relished. It set the bar (at Olympic-gold levels) for the rest of the repast.

Le Bernardin sits in the no-man's-land of midtown, easily missable to an unknowing passerby. The street-side windows are swathed in opaque curtains, and a nondescript charcoal grey awning hoods the turnstile entrance. But as soon as those doors
usher you inside, a hostess appears as if from out of nowhere, relieving you of coats and umbrellas, and somehow too, it feels, of your wordly concerns. From that point on, you rest in Chef Ripert's able hands. Especially so if you opt for the chef's choice or seasonal tasting menus, but equally so if you want to make a few decisions yourself. Despite the breadth of the menu, it is virtually impossible to err. It is, however, recommended you stick to the piscine side of things. My first (and only) misstep, was indulging my vegephilia by ordering the cauliflower "couscous" with roasted seasonal vegetables. Not that is was bad, per se, but it was #1) quite as described, and #2) relatively forgettable. The warm salad of seasonable vegetables was't warm, the cauliflower mince below was reminiscent of sauerkraut, and it just didn't sing. It didn't capitalize on the sweetness of vegetables by roasting them, instead relying on the contrast of raw and fried, but to no significant end. From the Simply Raw category came a signature dish of thinly pounded tuna, suggestively shaped and swathed over a plank of rich fois gras and flecked with shaved herbs. I could elaborate on the yonic metaphor of the dish's composition, but I'll leave this to your imagination.

Things were getting more exciting as the second courses arrived. The chef selection (which had also made my cut) was from the Barely Touched section, charred octopus with fermented black bean and pear sauce vierge: a play of salty funk and fresh sweetness. The tentacles themselves was a tad overcooked, giving it the tiniest bit too much chew, but overall the flavors of the dish played winningly off each other, at times melding and harmonizing and others bobbing off one another like a perfectly choreographed ballet. My second was a sophisticated poached turbot with wild mushrooms and spiced squab jus with a black truffle custard. The latter was served in
a separate porcelain urn, sizable enough to suggest a bonus course by itself. The collop of fish appeared even pearlier in color against the fulvous broth, rich in meaty aroma from the squab, and with the luxuriant addition of the black truffle custard became a truly remarkable plate. I was pretty happy, too, spooning up heaps of smooth, eggy custard into my mouth by itself, and my friend was jealous as the perfume of the jus and truffles wafted towards him.

He got me back, though, with our third courses (both of which arrived from the Lightly Cooked segment of the menu, which definitely harbored the greatest number of temptations for my own tastes). Hiramasa (yellowtail kingfish) was served in a plank, sliced diagonally like a small pork
tenderloin, and just as hearty and flavorful. Served aside a redolent truffled risotto with spring vegetables and more truffles in a buttery emulsion beneath, it was my turn to drool over his order. (Luckily, my arm is long and my spoon unfettered.) However, I don't feel like spring has quite arrived, and neither does Mother Nature. Thus "spring vegetables" consisted of a carrot dice and some leafed out brussels sprouts, which spoke to me more of mid-winter than the onset of Daylight Savings Time. Despite the misnomer, is was a scrumptious and luxurious dish, comfort food of the highest echelon. My choice was a paupiette of skate and langoustines, prodigious enough to make me think I might actually make out with leftovers, but so exquisite to eat that I couldn't restrain myself from consuming every last morsel. The skate, so often crusted and sauteed, was left unadorned, simply pocketing a single, impossibly tender langoustine, and gently baked like a mammoth, piscine calzone. Tiny, artfully curled pickled radishes reclined atop, and small shiitake mushroom caps orbited the fish, buoyed by a brown-butter tinged dashi broth, which reminded me forcefully of a dish I had a winter's past at Bouley (although there the fish was a simple filet of halibut), but more balanced in flavor, simultaneously more delicate and more decadent. It was a dish that disallowed any ordering remorse.

Michael Laiskonis is in charge of the sweet side of things as our meal edged to a close. We were counseled in our dessert selections: it is that difficult to choose. We opted for "Citrus" and "Black Sesame-Cherry". Menu descriptions, both sweet and savory, are minimalist. They are succinct lists of the dish's main components, so as to adequately suggest a flavor profile without giving away all the bells and whistles. Thus, a lime "parfait" arrived as a rectangle of puckery Key lime pie topped with juicy grapefruit-tequila sorbet, and crowned with a disc of crisp meringue. Dotted about the plate were kisses of avocado puree and mint: lilliputian flavor enhancers which also served as playful embellishment. The most intriguing part of the second dessert were the pair of cherry spheres. From a distance, they looked like slick, glazed Bing cherries, but in actuality were a puree of three different cherry varieties, magically gelatinized into fruity yolks that burst like Tidal Wave gum (but that tasted of the Platonic Ideal of cherry). Black sesame presented in a panna cotta, sludgy in color but profoundly nutty in flavor and smooth as cream on the palate, and in a tiny pain de Genes, which normally features almonds, but black sesame pinch-hits in a small cake beneath the orb of mandarin sorbet. Still yet followed a small plate of gourmandises, which we were instructed to enjoy from right to left: a tiny, cream-filled profiterole, a white chocolate demi-tasse filled with nuts and caramel, a burnt-sugar, custard-filled brioche that tasted of France, and milk chocolate dome filled with salted caramel. That is, if my memory can be trusted after all the glorious indulgence of the evening (doubtful). Which brought me to ruminate on my statement that began the evening, when I truly believed that a dinner like that, rife with pomp and decadence, would be sufficient quarterly. Instead, there are so many dishes left undiscovered, so many wonderments about a novel sauce, an unexpected pairing, an unfamiliar ingredient that was in one of the dishes I didn't try, that I would go back in a heartbeat. I suppose that is the mark of a truly great restaurant. It's certainly not a "been there, done that" attraction. Odds are against having serendipitously chosen the sole trifecta of superlative dishes, and the appetite's imagination begins to wonder what other tricks Chef Ripert might have up his sleeve. You know, for the next time. Should the opportunity present itself.

Le Bernardin
155 W 51st St
New York, NY 10019

(212) 554-1515

Thursday, March 3, 2011


I hate it when I can't decide where to go for dinner. This was one of those nights, and so I embraced my motto (follow that chef!) to its fullest, in an almost unprecedented revisit to an old favorite- and a chef who is definitely worth following around. Bill Telepan opened his eponymous restaurant about five years ago, an elegant farm-to-table establishment humbly decorated in subdued hues of soothing green and ivory, small flickering votives and oversize photographic murals of seasonal produce. I was last there an unforgiveable two years ago, but I still cannot forget the elements (nor the taste) of spring pea trio I enjoyed: spring pea ravioli, pea pancakes and a pea puree with tiny pea tendrils to garnish- a tribute to the quintessential harbinger of spring.

Here now, in the lingering persistence of winter, the menu challenges the paucity of produce and celebrates what there is still available. Ordering can be done a la carte, but it is penny-wise to opt for the four course prix-fixe at just $55 (especially when any two selections hover around the mid-forty mark), or five for $65 (wine pairing additional). Speaking of wine, the list (a heavy, metal-bound tome) is broad and diverse, with descriptive flavor profiles, geographical groupings and a special list of seasonal recommedations by sommelier Samuel Clifton. Telepan's wine list has received Wine Spectator's Best Award of Excellence four years running, so there are more than ample pairings for the exquisite dishes on hand, as well as guidance if you need it.

We began with a signature dish, house-smoked trout on buckwheat-potato blini. I'm not a huge fan of the appetizings, but the trout was lush and fresh, and the pancake below flavorful of buckwheat but tender from the spud. I loved my simple winter vegetable salad, conveniently chopped chicories, radicchio, shaved vegetables and apple. Generously portioned, as well, making the blini look pretty scrawny, but I was happy to share, mostly because I was anticipating my next course with gusto: a fallen polenta souffle with white corn hominy, shell beans and mushrooms. I wasn't as thrilled with its outcome as I had hoped. The polenta paired better with the sautee of collards beneath it than it did with the hominy and bean succotash: those made for heavy bedfellows. I wished the souffle was more souffle and less fallen, or that mushrooms featured more prominently in the succotash to juice things up a bit. Better (and vigorously comensating for any dearth of fungus) was the open ravioli: a delicate sheet of tender pasta laden with abundant mushrooms, flavored by nutty parmesan and a soft, farm-fresh egg who's golden yolk impregnated the dish with silky richness. This might be winter's incarnation of that spring pea trifecta.

Entrees were similarly inspired: expertly prepared, gorgeous to behold, and flawlessly flavored. Two plush diver's scallops perch atop a mound of unctuous egg linguine, perfumed with the sweetness of Meyer lemon and a kick of bitterness from broccoli
rabe. Better still was my striped bass: a compact hunk of meaty fish crusted golden on top and strewn with a savory tangle of sauteed wild mushrooms. Tucked underneath lay a nest of tender spinach surrounded by a moat of sunchoke puree, generously flecked with snipped herbs, culminating in quite a succinct little masterpiece on the plate.

Desserts were less groundbreaking, but not disappointing. There was a special contribution from a regular customer called Mildred's Cake: a fruitcake-esque concoction updated by pastry chef Larissa Raphael and paired with a buttermilk ice cream and a dollop of orange marmalade. We opted to see what Larissa could do on her own, though, with one order of caramelized
apple profiteroles, and one lemon cake. The profiteroles themselves were slightly tough, and the apples could have used a bit more fire to soften and caramelize them into dessert worthiness, but a lovely burnt sugar tuile added a playful touch and a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream really placated any shortcomings. The lemon cake arrived a dense little pudding redolent of citrus, crowned with spears of bitter orange zest and a subtle lime-flavored ice cream. The juiciest of pink grapefruits were chunked and dispersed about the periphery, like spritely little bulwarks protecting the cake from your fork. They wouldn't, however, survive for long. Both are delightful desserts, inarguably, but lack any unexpected tweak or depth of flavor that would have catapulted them into a higher realm. Pretty, though. A selection of Cookies & Confections is a shareable melange, featuring a delicate square of coconut cake, a sinfully rich chocolate truffle, and a variety of homey cookies and biscuits. Coffee is exceptional, though, coming from the humble Porto Rico Importers in the West Village.

Our waiter, however, provided my singular issue with the evening. While the service was gracious and attentive, our waiter had a grandiose air of theatrical disaffectedness; I'm not sure he ever once made eye contact with either one of us. He recited the special of the night with a sort of bored pomposity (repeated verbatim to the table next to us), as if he really DID wish he was performing that evening in the role that Harvey Weinstein stole right out from under him. It just didn't fit the warmth and elegance of Telepan, and was actually a little distracting. That takes away from what Telepan, and Bill himself, really is: a master in the execution of farm-to-table dining, elevated for discerning audiences, which retains the grace, charm, and humility of the farmer himself.

72 West 69 Street • New York, NY 10023 • 212.580.4300