Saturday, May 4, 2013


Trust no one.  No one but the chefs... and subsequently, me.  I had it from two (now acknowledged as extremely unreliable) sources that L'Apicio wasn't "all that", and had thus sort of taken it off my list.  Then I ran into Joe Campanale, the beverage director for the quartet of Epicurean Management restaurants in the city, who assured me it would be worth my while.  So I headed east, to that unlikely little cusp of
the East Village on the Bowery that has become quite a dining mecca: Freeman's Alley, Peels, Pearl & Ash, etc., etc.   Their first restaurant, dell'anima, made a top ten list of mine that provided my first baby steps into the exploration of gastronomic New York.  Their second, L'Artusi, is named after the historic tome of the art and science of eating well, Italian-style.  L'Apicio, too, is a culinary book, this one from the 18th century which featured the first use of tomatoes in pasta sauce.  Had I known this, I would focused my ordering more intently on the primi, but having experienced chef Gabe Thompson's expertise elsewhere, I just went with ordering whatever sounded good.  And lots sounded good.... and luckily, everything that sounded good lived up to its reputation.

We started with a nibble of savory flatbread crackers served with a plush cloud of whipped ricotta refreshed by a tangy muddle of jammy rhubarb confit... ahh, 'tis the season.  The dessert-averse (those that might finish a meal with a cheese plate instead of a sweet, might find this a fetching finale).

 Next up, another harbinger of spring prevailed in an appetizer of  juicy, svelte asparagus, grilled with bold evidence of char into a supple tenderness, easing languidly across the plate to rest their tips in a luscious, caper-flecked lemon aioli surrounded by tufts of frisee.  Grilled endive
was tempting too, although this version was just-seared to retain its crispness, and having a current fetish for endive braised mushy within an inch of its life,  I went for the warm mushroom salad instead, featuring chewy morsels of shiitake amongst more frisee.  Chewy slices of shiitake nestled with nuggets of roasted hazelnuts underneath a dense veil of shaved parmesan wafers, forming a haphazard igloo-like dome over the salad.

There are over a dozen pastas and four polenta preparations, more than half of which I'm guessing involve tomatoes in their saucings.  Now that I know from whence L'Apicio is derived, a return visit would involve a bucatini with shrimp and ramps, or perhaps polenta with rabbit cacciatore- maybe even the untomato-ified gnocchi with morels.  The variety is expansive.  But thus far, our samplings had been strangely un-specifically-Italian.  Not incongruous, in the least, but just as suitable at perhaps a New American or even modern French as an Italian named after the institution of classic red sauces.  Anyways, we continued on in just that vein, with a special LaFrieda burger.
His signature blend of beef was shrouded with a melty slice of pearly  Fontina and scattered with pickled shallots.  It is quite possibly a perfect burger.  And on the side arrive a boat-load of home fries, these more of the French-Canadian bear-trapper ilk than any little skinny steak-frites-esque french fry.  I wouldn't have been surprised had they been clad in flannels and sturdy suspenders.  Their exterior was rustic, crunchy, salty, and the insides sweet and tender- smooth as mashed potatoes.  All this, served with a dense salsa bianco which was anything but bianco and much too thick to be categorized as salsa.  Instead a dense creme fraiche stained ruddy with copious amounts of dried peperoncini  and chives, delicious on the fries, on the burger, by the spoonful...   I digress.  On a lighter note, the sauteed

 halibut was sauteed a little too vigorously, leaving the filet a bit tough and at odds with the delicate herb brodo and bright ribbons of shaved raw vegetables that adorned it.  Had the fish been more gently cooked, it would've harmonized with
its subtle accoutrements.  Instead, the sturdy filet could've held up to heartier bedfellows (perhaps even that red sauce?)
 It wasn't too disappointing, however, because it arrived simultaneously with a side of brussels sprouts with speck.  These were so decadent, fried to a deep russet and studded with thick chunks of meaty bacon and crispy leaves of sage, that they would've been hard to pair with that fish executed properly or not.   I decided to fixate on the sprouts, and the slightly overcooked fish took second hat.  These are snacky sprouts.. eat them more like potato chips, less like a virtuous vegetable.  They share the nutritional profile of the former, but a few bites are sure tasty.

Polishing all that off left little room for more than a green tea for my dining companion and and a short espresso for myself-  until I saw that Vanilla Semifreddo with rhubarb and orange cake on the menu.  You wait eleven months out of the year for rhubarb, so once a night, when the opportunity presents itself for twice, is not enough.  This might be my favorite dessert I've had since Jansen Chan's ethereal apricot souffle I was fortunate enough to experience at the old Oceana.  I didn't even think I liked souffle until that.  I know I liked semifreddos, that wonderful temperature purgatory 'twixt frozen and tepid, a consistency neither here nor there but simultaneously exactly as it should be at the same time.  The moist round of orange cake sat beneath the vanilla pillow crowned by a small orb of rhubarb sorbet, all surrounded by a tangy moat of  rhubarb compote, perfectly portioned and brilliantly satifsying: creamy and luxe yet fresh and vibrant.  This is the stuff sugar plum fairies dream of.

Was it particularly Italian?  Maybe not the meal I had, no... delicious though it was.  The room is  spacious at least as big as both dell'anima and L'Artusi put together. It's decor, with glowing, laser-cut orbs and lofty bouquets, could easily suit the cuisine of either nation.  And it was busily full, as it should have been for food this good.  You can easily put together an Italian repast at L'Apicio, or bend it New American like I did.  But regardless of its denomination, you'll be having a fine, fine meal.

13  East First Street
tel.  1.212.533.7400

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