Saturday, September 14, 2013


As much as I admired SHO Shaun Hergatt in the Setai Hotel, Juni, Hergatt's latest project, is much more up my alley... as well as being a lot closer to my alley. That puts it, however, on an unlikely stretch of south K-town in the east of a no-man's-land restaurant desert, but not far to the west is Michael White's impeccable Ai Fiori, slightly south Bloomfield's the Breslin and the Dory, then Maysville (despite my abysmal review, appears to be attracting quite an audience), and a host of others.  Thus, chef Hergatt's main obstacle may be to bridge that small stop-gap over Fifth Avenue, because already, in just it's first months of existence, the food itself is almost entirely above reproach.

Juni is billed as a seasonal, vegetable-inspired fine dining, but to me it wasn't so gung-ho
in its vegetable focus as I might have liked.  The dishes are inspired by thoughtfully curated seasonal produce, but they aren't proportionally founded by it.  Of course, most people's idea of plate constitution would coincide seamlessly with his, but I suppose I had a imagined a shift towards a more Michael Pollan-esque, veggie-centric plating strictly from my interpretation of the website's mantra.  Execution, however, was quite succinctly faultless, and the flavors coaxed from flora and fauna alike are nothing less than masterful.  Our waitstaff was almost exclusively Southeast Asian, sometimes requiring a bit of struggle to comprehend past some heavy accents.  But they are attentive and willing, if their graciousness does seem a bit forced: just like Pete Wells at Betony, I'm not sure my purse needed a footstool.

We began with two vegetable-based starters, a corn soup and a garden salad. The cool soup glowed creamy-yellow through a glass bowl, misted with a pulverized freeze-dried egg and a delicate popcorn tuile.  I'm not sure how much it mattered, flavor-wise,  that the egg was from Feather Ridge Farm at this point, as it was separated white from yolk, and desiccated into a fine, pearly dust and a rich eggy crumble.  But it does illustrate their commitment to conscientiously souced ingredients. The Chef's Garden salad was a true showcase of exquisite greens: lovely, tender leaves, translucent discs of radish, and ribbon-thin furls of summer squash hardly needed
 a dressing (although the mustardy daubs and nutty stanchions of almond "sand" complimented their freshness deftly), and added a sunny punch of color  upon bright white porcelain.

I'll admit a tinge of regret for not throwing caution to the wind and ordering the main course offering of arugula-pine nuts-steel cut oats-lovage oil.  For unless it was simply a salad bequeathed with some manifestation of oatmeal, I'm deathly curious to see what this dish might be all about.  However, I wasn't in the mood for a bowl of porridge, nor just another salad, so either option paled in comparison to a crispy skinned branzino.  And when I say crispy, I mean Crispy.   Whether you're supposed to or not, I normally remove the skin from any fish, but these filets were so expertly seared that the crispy edges of skin might have been the best part.  Not to disparage at all the flavorful branzino it was attached to, which came divided into two pieces balanced akimbo upon slender, sweetly steamed carrots.  Flounces of delicate herbs and peppery nasturtium blooms and leaves made the dish look as lovely as it tasted,
 atop a delectably buttery pool of lemon essence and more carrots, this time pureed into thick dollops. Rich pork tenderloin paired with earthy quinoa and an exuberant herb emulsion, deeply vegetal aside two medallions of succulent meat and a brick of salty confit belly.  I'm
not one to normally order pork, but this was an exceptional dish, and the tiny, upturned beech mushrooms, mild cippoline onions and sprigs of dandelion greens and micro-lettuces gave it fresh, summery appeal.

An interesting dessert paired an unlikely trio of grapes, walnuts and mustard, although that latter component was only present as tiny micro-mustards greens, as far as my palate could detect.  Less to impart flavor than for the novelty of a crucifer in a dessert, and continuing the prevalence of produce throughout the menu.  It featured a variety of juicy grapes- some tiny and green as spring, others ebony-black like orbs of onyx, and crunchy red globes full of juice.  Luxurious walnut ice cream compounded the crunchy caramelized nuts hidden throughout, freshened by  a clear, fruity verjus  added
 tableside.  A chocolatey concoction surrounded a scoop of malty, milky ice cream with an artful scaffolding  of spun chocolate, which mirrored the golden filigree decorating the plate.  Fanciful striations of tart plum puree led back to a quenelle of lush sorbet balanced with a diaphanous wafer of crisp pistachio.

All this whimsy, flourish and color is demanded to counter the subdued room, especially as it was relatively unpopulated on my visit.  The color palette is beigey and bland, at least from the vantage point of our table, although livelier paintings are mounted on a far wall, but only visible from a tour around the room.    A somewhat melancholy arrangement of dried magnolia branches would be smartly substituted with a more colorful array, at least until the tables begin to fill themselves with happy diners.  A this point the sparse, minimalist decor seems to be anticipating an influx of guests, as I'm sure is Hergatt himself.  And with food this expertly and thoughtfully prepared, I'm sure they will.

12 E 31st St
Tel: (212) 995-8599

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Even dining with a native Italian, I didn't quite come to understand exactly the meaning of "spasso" until I Google translated it.  Perhaps as the restaurant is counting on traffic from passersby, "spasso" means walking.  And although it is easily within walking distance from my house, I still hadn't been in in the two years or so since it opened, despite it receiving accolades from a trusted source (read: chef).   On a balmy summer night, one not too muggy nor too hot, Spasso presented itself as a optimum destination for an al fresco meal.  Hudson isn't such a busily trafficked stretch by automobiles, so even though it is the street-facing patio in front was that which provided the outdoor seating, it was pleasant to watch neighbors bustling by and other hungry diners on their way to the myriad great dining establishments in the area.

We began with a Boticelli, a refreshing watermelon cocktail of white tequila, pummeled watermelon and a bit of bubbles, garnished with an slice of the melon ample enough to justify its nomenclature.  A cocktail to begin is a good idea if you need a little pre-prandial softening up, for at least if our pours of wine were normative, they are less than generous with the vino.  The sauvignon blanc reached maybe an inch and a half up into the goblet: a meager pour of an ultimately pretty decent wine.  We evolved later to a chardonnay, but alas, same dimensions.  Both glasses together probably added up to a single normal glass of wine. At any rate, the sauvignon well complimented our appetizers,
 especially my summer vegetables with farro and herbs.  A summery hodgepodge of peas and beans and beets and carrots tumbled amongst the chewy, nutty grains and legumes in a lightly acidic
 vinaigrette, sprinkled with chervil.  It could have perhaps used a touch more salt (of which there is none a table),but  our second appetizer more then made up for its lack of salinity:  tender tentacles of savory grilled octopus lost some of the flavor of the premium cephalopod to the kitchen's heavy hand with the salt, but swapping bites of the two different dishes actually achieved quite a symbiotic success.    Rustic bread is densely crusted and soft of crumb, provided upon seating and more upon request, if necessary.  A fruity emerald e.v.o.o. is alongside for dipping.

A primi was big enough for a main, although typically in Italiy it would serve as a mid-course.... and this place seems pretty authentic.  We chose a special of the evening, slinky black strascinati smothered in a novel bolognese made with ground squid instead of meat.  Given the Italian aversity to cheese with seafood, it was adorned with a crunchy veil of pangrattato instead of parmesan, which contributed a textural benefit without departing from tradition.  The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, the sauce was lusty with peak-season tomatoes and fresh garlic, and the bowl consequently swabbed clean with the remainders of our bread.   From secondi  we ordered a trio of seareed scallops, their golden tops so brilliantly bronzed so as to achieve a rich,
 crisp crust, while retaining the ideal tenderness of the remaining scallop below.  Dainty steamed carrots nuzzled into a puree of more of their own, scattered with bright edamame and a flutter of delicate fennel fronds.  Garlicky green beans as a side were a tad undercooked, and suffered a bit from oiliness, but a side dish is a good idea given the sparsity of the plates.  Perhaps opt for the broccoli rabe, or another vegetable side that vary seasonally.

Desserts offer as many choices as the main menu, so it'd be unlikely one couldn't find something to tickle their sweet tooth.  Ours was handsomely sated with a creamy vanilla panna cotta smothered in jammy blueberry compote, bursting with prime, whole berries.  The custard was dense, more like a light cheesecake than a flan, which was riveting under the lively berries.

With the abundance of marvelous Italian restaurants in New York, Spasso presents itself more to me as a superb neighborhood option rather than a destination, although some of its dishes really do shine.  It boasts typical New York prices that are maybe not quite supported by its very relaxed and casual service... illustrated best, I think, by our skimpy pour.  But I can't really find anything specific to fault here either, and there is a lightness and effervescence in the cuisine and the atmophere here, that might leave you in fine form, perhaps, to go a spasso for post-prandial tour of the vibrant West Village.   

551 Hudson Street
tel.  212.858.3838

Friday, September 6, 2013


I never would've thought to put Paul Liebrandt in a hotel kitchen, but this man seems to be able to make anything glamorous.  A striking change from his recently departed Corton, The Elm is comparatively dark and industrial, located in the King & Grove Hotel on the periphery of Williamsburg.  So far, he seems content there, but perhaps this is due to his predicted brevity of stay.  Always forward thinking, he may be contemplating his next project just as The Elm is beginning to take root.  So get here while you can.   The Elm provides a welcome relaxation from the formality of Corton, but the latter is where Liebrandt shines.  That said, most of his glowing talent translates very, very well at this latest venture.

The room is interesting to observe, with long, craning light fixtures arching from the walls, and cleverly constructed tables, made up of wooden slats labeled for the trees from which the wood was derived.  We were welcomed with a tiny, savory olive financier: moist and rich to provoke the appetite, but sized of a button mushroom so as not to kill it.
And then  a small crock of crudites:  shaved, sliced or whole-leafed,  some pickled and some fresh, coiled atop an olive aspic and creamy tuna belly puree that was a little fishy for my tastes, but cool and redolent of deep ocean.  Menus are as simplistic as they could possibly be, divided into sections of provenance:  Raw, Sea,  Land and Share.  I have to say, the share dishes appear to be some of the more interesting looking ones, but they also limit the amount one is able to sample.  And $48 dollars for what we consumed as a two-person appetizer is on the way pricey side- and this one is just vegetables.  Although to say "just vegetables" is erroneously dismissive: these are blatantly not just any vegetables.    I inquired whether they were Farmer Lee's; the quality was at least commensurate.  But no, his are "too expensive"- these are sourced locally and discerningly, and the most rapturous, pristine dirt candy I've
met.  A heavy iron casserole arrives, dwarfing the Lilliputian varietals within.  They say there are roundabout fifty different vegetables in this melange, raw, roasted, steamed, sauteed.  I thought I might try to see how many I could identify, but I lost my count quickly among this delicious cornucopia.  A plate is presented with a funny face made up of condiments: a superb house-made ketchup, a intensely herby puree, a winking eye of crisp Asian pear, and a
pursed mouth made of bitter, candied lemon peel.  It was fun to destroy the face to anoint different bites, although frankly the bites didn't really need improvements.  Furls of stripey chioggia beets, buttery nuggets of marble-sized potatoes, a rainbow of carrots, tender baby lettuces, bubble-sized poppino mushrooms, juicy Ur-tomatoes, lustrous heads of grilled
 baby romaine, tiny immaculate turnips, ruffled matsutake, thick ribbons of zucchini, cross-sections of buttery roasted cauliflorettes, miniature trumpets of golden chanterelles, all scattered with delicate edible flowers.  Savory rice cracker wafers, light as air, floated above, then broken, dissolved to incorporate into the melange below.  It is astounding how delicious such a simple preparation could be, the novelty of each precious, unique bite resulting in a magical sensation of discovery--  child-on-Christmas-morning caliber magic.

A sauce to finish the duck.
Progressing to more substantial fare, we tried the slow roasted duck from Land, with pickled plum and toasted honey... how you toast honey I know not, but it doesn't much matter... because Paul does.   They like the tableside finishings, so it was bequeathed with a fragrant reduction, pooling around the duck.   Its nutty, sweetness tamed the puckery-tart plums, which cut the
 richness of the dense, spiced meat.    From Sea we chose a skate in brown butter with capers, but the classic preparation is here divided and conquered: the tender, ropey flesh of the fish cooked so gently the fibers melt with the pressure of your fork.  A brown butter vinaigrette (also presented a table)  is dispersed in disparate daubs.  It flashed of bright acidity above a bronzed, nutty depth, studded with plump golden raisins and deviantly zesty capers.  A scattering of Marcona almonds lent a textured crunch, and tiny orbs
 of warmed, vibrant yellow miniature lemon cucumbers burst like plump, taut water balloons.  Daubs of mustardy pureed cauliflower and more roasted florets (gleefully, as these were some of my favorite tidbits from the Summer Garden). It was a tough choice between that and  a swiss chard agnolotti with lobster, corn and shishitos, but I've zero regret.  In fact, as is so rare with me, there are many dishes that would lure me back to The Elm:  the Chicken "Kiev style" or the Turbot with summer beans from Share, and scallop gnudi or the "Flavors of Bouillabaisse" from Sea, but I'm sure with the ardent seasonality of The Elm those dishes will have morphed into something more autumnal by the time I might return.
The only dish that I was not flat-out thrilled by was the summer beets with tomato aioli and XO sauce.... unfortunately, the xo didn't translate so much into a kiss as into a wallop of dried fish flavor, trouncing the tomato aioli and the perfectly marvelous baby beets, even when scraped judiciously from their surfaces.  I suppose if you like mackerely-type things, though, you might find this appealing?  But as summer is coming to a close, it may not be even a question worth pondering, seasonally labeled as they are.

Onto sweets, the Eton Mess was anything but messy.  Perhaps less so than at Corton, but the plating at The Elm is still precise and meticulous.  This dainty cupola of brown butter meringue held a delicate violet creme, slathered in syrupy, idyllic tristar strawberries crowned with a diaphanous berry foam.

Peaches & Cream was a stellar combination of voluptuously peachy gelato refreshed by ginger infused basil grantita: this could cool your soul in even the hottest, muggiest New York summer afternoon.  Juicy slices of orchard peaches added structure, with a cinnamony swizzle stick of buttery pastry aside.

  But the show-stealer came again in a shareable portion: an unassumingly named Red Summer Fruit Tart arrived with white-gloved pomp, on its own little cake stand and glass cloche.  It lived up to every morsel of its hype: a buttery layer of shortbread cookie was sprinkled with shards of intense white chocolate underneath a dense layer of custard and ample forest fruits.  Perhaps not all red, but all scrumptious- the Platonic ideals of blueberries and blackberries, strawberries and raspberries.  Lemon confit meringue crowned the masterpiece along with mystifyingly soft cubes of subtly citric lemongrass marshmallow.  The check was accompanied by two housemade chocolate, thinly shelled in profound dark chocolate encompassing a creamy peach center, as well as two fruit gelees.  After the abundant meal, all this may have been gilding the lily a touch, but when a guy's got the Midas touch, he might as well roll with it.