Wednesday, November 27, 2013


I first had ventured out all the way to Brooklyn (!) to try Carlos Ignacios' food when he was at Isa.  Or rather, I tried to go - precisely the day the restaurant closed and he parted ways with them for good.  In fact, I was with the same chef that night as was my company at Estela, and we were both excited to finally get to taste Ignacios' food, especially given the accolades whirling about amongst the fooderati.

Estela is a vigorously seasonal restaurant, drink-oriented with a heavy emphasis on flavor- heavy flavor, in fact.  Respectively, what we experienced this night is that Ignacios' food is much better partnered with a selection of tipples rather than a traditional menu.  The assertive seasoning can sometimes kick you upside the head, compounded one dish after another.  But thoughtfully selected and paired with a beverage, individual dishes themselves are robust and exciting.  Using a literary analogy contributed by my dining companion, even if each chapter of a story is poetically and artfully composed, sometimes the overall book doesn't really work as a whole.  This is precisely how we felt at Estela, although there were some arguably wonderful chapters throughout the night.

Our server suggested a Riesling over the local, unfamiliar Edelzweiker I was curious about, but after sampling both, I went with my initial choice.  His atypical riesling was a powerhouse to be sure, boldly flavorful and gripped with acidity, but especially given the chef's intensity, the milder, more subtle wine played better with the food than would have such a profound glass.   I did, however, sense a smidge of disdain by our server for overriding his suggestion, but that might've been my imagination.  But when we started ordering, I distinctly mentioned two dishes I most certainly wasn't interested in trying: it seemed easier to eliminate the less appealing dishes in favor of the myriad ones that tantalized.  And sure enough, the kitchen brought out BOTH the dishes I had blacklisted.  I cannot be sure that this was intentional, but it struck me as odd, as well as confusing.  At any rate, it's never terrible to get an extra dish or two to get a better idea of what our chef is up to, especially when you're dining with someone with a more open palate than one's own.

Mussels escabeche

Beef tartare
So out came mussels escabeche, of which I was initially averse imagining raw mussels, but of course, shellfish need to be steamed to emancipate, so these plump specimens weren't scary at all, and actually quite wonderful .  An unexpected fellowship of carrots and a divers of leafy parsley upon a sturdy crostino smeared with goat-cheese, creating bright, pickly, crunchy, juicy, plush mouthfuls whose simplicity belied it's intense flavors.  Beef tartare was the other taboo I specified that arrived all the same, but after the success of the mussels, I even dared a bite.  I'm still not to the point where I'd order that myself, but the meat was so tender, cool, plush and flavorful, I'm not certain the dish could be done much better.  Scooped onto thick slices of

fresh, crusty bread, it made a winning (if filling)
 beginning to our repast.  Actually, had there been a soup or some other light appetizer, I
might've ended right there and called it a meal (if I were a normal person).

Kohlrabi, persimmons, cheese, hazelnuts
But normal is not par for my course of dining out, and besides, the best was yet to come.  A refreshing salad of crisp, sliced kohlrabi and Fuyu persimmon, juicy and toothsome to bite, came shrouded in ruffles of fossa cheese and bedded in crunchy toasted hazelnuts.  Which illustrate a recurring theme with Ignacio:  cheese and nuts.  Cheese and nuts, nuts and cheese in practically every dish, which is hard to argue with in individual compositions, but the monotony wears thin- or actually, thick- heavy and ponderous- after awhile.  This was a lighter execution, for sure, with the raw produce, but an omen of things to come.  For example, a
Endive, anchovy, cheese, walnuts
Brussels, pepitas, blue cheese
 salad of snowy endive featured walnuts for the nuts and ubriaco rosso for cheese.  A salty slurry beneath imbued with anchovy contributed an oceany umami, amping up the intensity of an otherwise lighthearted salad.  A smaller plate of tender roasted brussels sprouts got a pungent creamy blue,  pepitas (technically seeds, yes, but with a definite nutty flavor profile) here, along with a dusting a crisply fried onion bits.  I actually adored this dish, but in conjunction with the other plates it lost some of its novelty. One can only take so much cheese and nuts.   (Maybe you're not supposed to eat so much food?  But it's a restaurant.  This would seem contradictory).

Sheep's milk dumpling, mushroom

Mains escaped nuts for the most part, but cheese was certainly integral to rich sheep's milk dumplings, swathed with raw mushroom sliced so thinly they melt on your tongue like communion wafers.  These plump pillows oozed with resounding cheesiness, so the earthy mushrooms were a welcome counter to their
Spiced lamb ribs, cilantro, honey
Cod, chanterelles, turnip
 richness.  Lamb ribs were off-puttingly fatty for my taste, too gingerly spiced, and with a sweetness that would've leant itself better to a leaner cut.  Cod with chanterelles and turnips was the most approachable dish, exquisitely balanced and satisfying, while not  particularly revolutionary.  Given the amount of food we ordered, I inquired about perhaps taking what was left to go, to which I received a look of disdain from our server that would rival Blue Steel.  I mean, if I want day-old dumplings, who is he to deny me?  But apparently he could Yeah, they might not be premium the day after, but it is irresponsible to waste food.   So I forced a couple more bites of cod so at least that fish did not die in vain, but I felt vaguely belittled by his scorn, and not just vaguely gipped.

Two eggy desserts were offered, a flan and a chocolate panna cotta if I remember correctly.  We didn't get them: I had topped out at around the dumplings.  We happily ordered mint teas upon which to sip, enjoying the energy of the packed room (as well as needing some staid digestion time).  Estela is a hot-spot of the moment however, and soon enough the g.m. approached us with a gallantly suave offer:  he would love to buy us a drink at the bar, if we wouldn't mind relinquishing the table to waiting diners.  I thought that this situation could not have been handled better.   If only our server had inherited his grace.  We declined his offer in favor of a stroll in the crisp wintery air- better for burning off a little of the hearty fodder, anyways.   Luckily, it was the dishes the worked and the manager's dextrous handling of table turnover that I will remember- I'll lump our ignorant waiter with the excess of nuts and their accompanying cheese as forgiveable aberrations.

47 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10012 (212) 219-7693

Saturday, November 16, 2013


I like to let a place settle in before risking a meal there, and since I've never even been to either or any of Danny Bowien's other places ( here in the city, or the original in San Francisco), I wasn't planning on being the guinea pig here at all.  It really wasn't even on my radar yet but for mentions in the press... heck, as of writing this, it's still not even technically OPEN yet.  But that's all basically moot, 'cause Bowien and company have hit the ground running, and if my meal at Cantina is even marginally indicative of what this man is capable of, a mission to Mission Chinese Food just jumped to the top of my list.

There was concern as to whether he could pull off Mexican given his Asian credentials.  But he IS from San Francisco (Mexi-central), and seems to have embraced their dexterity with the cuisine effortlessly.  The crowd that night was almost as awe-inspiring as the food to come: fellow Californian Alice Waters was in the house, bi-coastal superstar Andy Ricker, global phenom Rene Redzepi, New York celebri-chefs Frankies Castronuovo and Falcinelli, and Jean-Georges vet and t.v. sugar-boy Johnny Iuzzini.  He had some top shelf tastebuds to impress.  I can only imagine they all were.  There might not be such a celebrity line-up when you finally score your table among the only thirty seats offered at any given moment, but then again there might be.  Bowien has accumulated quite a following after the success of MCF, and  has become something of a celebrity in his own right.

First thing to hit the table were thick-cut crunchy tortilla chips made in house, their hearty, corny aroma wafting from the paper-lined cup.  Tortillas are made on site; you can see them rolling off the conveyer belt through the window to the spacious kitchen.  The kitchen actually takes up about 50% of the real estate - but then, there's important work being done here.   The rest of the room glows with neon, colorful lacy flags adorn the ceiling, and a dazzling floor of imported Mexican tiles conclude the sensory assault below your feet.  An energetic soundtrack bolsters the mood even further.  The energy is palpable, and it translates throughout the space and the cuisine.  Like those chips: hot, thick and salty- perfect vessels for a bright, zesty salsa flaunting bits of char on juicy chunks of red and green tomato.  Just enough are provided to titillate your appetite, and although you'll want more, save room for everything yet to come.  You'll want to try as many things as possible.

Grilled Romaine
Menu's still not up online, but from memory it's broken up into small, appetizer plates, tacos, mains and sides.  I'm not one to judge a scallop and beef heart ceviche, but my dining companion deemed it a little underseasoned: mostly it went uneaten.  Grilled romaine had a haunting, spicy punch that took its time to hit.  It was a little watery, and although served with a lemon wedge certainly already had all the acid it needed without any additional spritz.  Things immediately looked up with a novel egg dish: a soft scramble studded with pert rings of strikingly red chile and a blanket of unctuous caviar, straddled by a generous swath of uni all
Eggs, eggs and gonads.  And skin.  On a tortilla. With chiles.
piled on top a tortilla.  Diaphanous shards of weightless chicharrones imparted their
salty crunch when crumbled into the steaming egg.  Or eggs, that is.  Or egg and eggs and gonads.  Whatever.  Visually stunning, and none the less so on the palate, I'm guessing the foodie press is going to love this one.

Lamb Taco

On a more traditional note, tacos are ordered individually, so we chose one lamb and one mushroom, which were two of the best things all night.  Lamb shoulder was meaty and rich, with hardly a trace of gamey lanolin, and roasted into crunchy chunks and tender morsels mixed together underneath a scattering of cilantro, chunked tomatoes and smooth Mexican crema.  Another featured earthy hongos, flavorful enough on their own that with the toothsome, fragrant tortilla it needed little adornment.  Pickled charred cauliflower is a perfect accompaniment to a whole roasted chicken (for two, or more), itself also brined, rendering its flesh brilliantly tender,
Whole roasted chicken
snowy white under the bluish toned lighting.  The magnificent bird is served on a bed of porridge-y rice, its chewy, creamy grains studded with meaty chunks of pork, sweet golden raisins and a smattering of fragrant mint leaves.  Paired
Pickled charred cauliflower
with the
 lettuce and/or cauliflower, its a shareable dish that could feasibly serve up to four.

So far, no sweets.  We took it upon ourselves to offer up a bevy of suggestions in keeping with a Mexican theme, but even if fried ice cream does end up on the menu, I'm not sure I can take credit (however much I'd love to).  I'd certainly be happy if it did.   (Churros were being tossed around as an option.)  Thing is with Bowien is that with his incredible talent and cross-continental success, he's as humble and accomodating as anyone I've ever met.  His only problem here might be getting people to leave.  With the tight quarters, turnover could be an issue: it's not the kinda place you want to dine-and-dash.  I could've stayed there all night,
 nursing one of their speciality cocktails (a mellow vodka based tipple with yuzu and mint was as good a stans-in for dessert as it was an apertif), grooving the tunes, watching Jenny McCarthy projectile-squirt mustard onto a hotdog in front of the bustling open kitchen, and basically enjoying the show.  Because dinner at Mission Cantina isn't just a great meal- it's a bit of a party.  So while Jenny won't last, Danny Bowien most certainly will.

172 Orchard Street
No Phone or Website Yet.
Opens November 20.