Saturday, April 19, 2014


Pretty great for a joint named after a cow.  Narcissa is a "beautiful and feisty" bovine living at the organic farm upstate where this seasonal-produce focused mecca sources much of its fodder, and Michelin starred chef John Fraser finds inspiration more in her surroundings than her species (she, herself, is a dairy cow, anyways).  While there is a luscious ribeye on the menu, there is a palpable concentration on flora rather than fauna, carrots stealing the spotlight in a vegetarian take on the classic Beef Wellington, for example.  But it is by no means a vegetarian restaurant: all ingredients are given their due respect, and coaxed into their most delectable possible iteration.

I think our waitress wanted us to indulge in a cocktail, and indeed the menu of libations is celebration of the season.  The wine list is commensurately strong... and long, tending a bit pricey, although there are some options in the mid-forty dollar range.  But I come to a restaurant not to drink, specifically, but to eat, and the spectrum of temptation on this menu is so vast, I feared compromising my appetite with tipples.  For a veggie-focused restaurant, this food has a LOT of punch.  Flavors are as robust as any steakhouse's (if not more so),  and there is creativity and verve at every turn.  Housed in the new Standard Hotel in Cooper Square, the bar scene is just a thumping as it MPD cohort.  Make your way past it and there is the option of a more serene dining room to the right, and an open-kitchen annex to the left.  Given the choice, I would've kept to my left, but not knowing (and not having been given an option) we were guided to our table in the dining room, which did overlook a nice garden behind (although it didn't seem to be open yet, or else the early spring evening was still just a bit too chilly for an outdoor repast).  But it was sunny, and the colorful globe lanterns and tangled plants were nicer to observe than graphic mural covering the wall behind me.

Starting off, we got the much-hyped roasted beets, which lived up in every way.  Personally, I don't get roasting beets in their skins... all the "roast" gets slipped off when you peel them and all that's left is beet.  Not to fault the beet!, but at that point, it's hardly different than boiled, whereas roasting them already peeled, as Fraser smartly does, results in a chewy, voluptuous sphere that puts its skin-on cooked brethren to shame.  So sweet and dense, the pleasant sour of thick yogurt spiked with zesty horseradish is a masterful foil, brightened with a verdant drizzle of herb-infused oil, and lightly steamed,
fluffy bulgar to complete.  Paired with wedges of the grainy house-baked loaf and farm-fresh churned butter (perhaps it is Narcissa's?) provided to each table, a diminutive appetite might be able to call this lunch.  Hungrier souls treat it as a salad, like the rotisserie-grilled sweet potato slathered in a tangy jerk-spiced sauce atop a bed of crunchy lettuces sluiced in a peppery vinaigrette.  A mild tofu aioli tamps some of the residual heat, but a alternating bites had varying amounts of zip.

While that Carrots Wellington was intriguing, I wanted to try some more of the non-vegetable fare, although Fraser has more than proven his prowess with any manner of flora or fauna at Dovetail, his other restaurant located on the upper west side.   But I haven't been there in quite awhile, and Narcissa's scallops had my name written all over them.  Replete with those marvelous harbingers of spring, fiddlehead ferns decorate each fat scallop, their turgid earthiness magnified without cooking. The scallops were meaty and moist, flanked by tender golden beets, these steamed, halved and perched upright against parapets of delicate spaghetti squash.  Giving the whole dish oomph was a pickly green garlic relish that added brightness and dazzle to this consummate springtime dish.  I was less impressed with the branzino, which was faultless but unexciting.  Simply filleted and piled with shavings of fennel and leaflets of
 arugula, it was also riddled with some unexpectedly prickly pinbones.  Better off with a roasted hake with artichokes or curried black bass, if you're swimming piscine, or else catch the roasted chicken with the last of the winter truffles before it loses its hibernal coat.   Speaking of
coats, supergreen spinach was shrouded beyond recognition under a layer of miniature, herbed potato chips, but underneath that crunchy strata

 hid a steaming tangle of lightly creamed spinach
amped up with garlic-sauteed leaves as well, thus creating a double-whammy of spinach on spinach.... supergreen, indeed.

I was jonesing for Stumptown, but their coffee is Intelligentsia- a laudable grind, but instead we tried two or the Locusts on Hudson specialty teas: the Harvest and the Farmer's Tea, both blends of indigenous weeds, herbs and plants grown on the farm.  The mellow Farmer's was my favorite: milky oats and hops giving it a smooth, toasty flavor.  While the shiny silver individual pots in which the teas are served are comely, they needed to steep it a little longer or add a lot more tea (not actually tea, technically, but tisanes)  as both cups were much too weak at first pour for our tastes.  Actually, I they should just fill the pots a little less, because a full one resulted in three cups, which is a really excessive for an after-dinner sip.  A smaller pot brewed stronger would be preferable, and would've stood up better to our gorgeous little apple-huckleberry crisp topped with a cool scoop of sour cream gelato.  The combination was a good segue winter-into-spring, introducing springy berries to the homey warm apples, crusted thickly with sweet, buttery oats.

It will be nice to see how Fraser unfolds Narcissa through the seasons.  I'm imagining, as good as it is now, it will hit it's peak as does the growing season.   I'm not a cow nor a narcissist (argue with that as you will), but I'm happy to say Narcissa suits me just fine.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


There is nothing vague about all'onda, despite this being the literal translation of the phrase.  More befittingly, onda means "wave", and on the rain-saturated evening on which I visited, the watery theme carried throughout the evening.  A Venetian influence is All'onda's focus, but I wouldn't have felt ethnically shortchanged had any of what we tried showed up in any manner of seafood-centric restaurants, especially with the winks of Japanese popping up throughout the menu.

After checking soggy umbrellas, we were ushered upstairs to a simply designed room, featuring subtle nautical elements, but nothing too contrived.  Two-top tables alternated slate finishes with wooden ones, and the larger tables featured booth seating with neat, grey-blue back cushions that were suspended from an elongated rod alongside the wall.  Floor-to-ceiling windows showcase the West Village sidestreet, and despite the murky sky, the dining room benefitted from set of sun, where the room took on a shadowy, seductive allure, now the black-and-white photograph of an undulating pool making more sense, the curly willow
 branches casting interesting shadows from their perch.  The waitstaff could use some spriffing up to this sensibility: they are too casual in both demeanor and affect.  Comfortable shoes, I know, are requisite in this line of work, but psychedelic iridescent hightops and sloppy gym sneakers are unacceptable, detracting from the subtle elegance of the decor and cuisine.  It was surprising, especially given restaurateur Chris Cannon's involvement, a master of fine service and hospitality.  Our waiter was pleasant enough upon engagement, yet offered few unsolicited congenialities.  He did provide a wine list, handsomely bound in a lightweight, flexible wood cover, which offered a great variety in provenance, varietal and pricepoints, with helpful, thoughtful, if a little too-clever descriptions.  Glasses could be had for $8 (dubbed "quaffable") on up to $19.

And of course, the food menus, so full of temptations its a wonder the flimsy binders could constrain all its temptations.  Beginning with cicchetti, an assortment of bites and snacks ranging from olives and nuts to polenta chips with a whipped cod puree, a tweak of the Venetian classic.   We took the carrots from antipasti e crudi, which included both raw and cooked vegetable and seafood, for the most part.  The carrots, for their part, weren't categorically Italian at all, nor Japanese,  but that should not detract from their magnificence.   Roasted carrots with yogurt seem to be the vegetable darling of the moment,
and these lived up to the mania.  Cumin-spiced and burnished to tender sweetness, their untrimmed ends rendered chewy as dried fruit, with a sweetness nearly as intense.  The crisped fronds atop attained an ashy smokiness, which countered sweet, steamed ribbons and pure, creamy slather of whipped ricotta below.  A drizzle of spicy-sweet ginger vinaigrette completed the masterpiece, both visually gorgeous and supremely good.  Easily big and flavorful enough to share, if you can stand to.

Pastas reflect Chris Jaeckle's pedigree: he is a Michael White alum,
 and this comes through profoundly in the vast array of housemade noodles.    A fragrant tortellini in brodo
 sold itself on its perfume alone, an intensely heady broth, clear but deeply bronzed, afloat with buxom pouches of plump tortelli.  
 Thick bucatini furled amongst themselves in a unctuous sauce rich with uni, dusted with a coat of spicy bread crumbs.  Each looked better than the next.

Onto secondi: it was hard to deny myself the  braised short ribs for two, a lusty slab lacquered in in thick tomato mostarda, so dark and dense it looked like a humongous piece of chocolate cake.  But with just the two of us, the shareable dish would've been limiting.  Instead, a monkfish filet enjoyed a similarly glossy patina, its ebony derived from luscious squid ink, black as the plate upon which is was served,  in contrast to its snowy flesh and pale, golden bed of nubby polenta.    Skate got sauced, too (I get why I loved this place), graced with a bold, savory veal reduction, which masked it every-so-slightly fishy

 flavor, atypical when this species is at its freshest.  But it was subtle, and forgivable, given all the other wonderful things going on on this plate, from the tender jujubes of sweet beets and pillowy, miniature semolina dumplings, to the surprise cameo performed by crisped, feathery maitake mushrooms.    With these, menu fulfilled my Four-fecta of Favorite Ingredients : brussels sprouts, skate, beets and mushrooms.  I couldn't have been more pleased.

Ah, because yes.   I had not yet mentioned the brussels sprouts, which showed up suspiciously verdant... so much so that I feared that unsettling bitter crunch of a raw epicenter.  Much to my relief, the color was deceiving, as the quartered sprouts were cooked well through, nutty both themselves and their topping of roasted pistachios, enriched with saucy cider vinegar touched of honey and subtle nudge of curry.  The broth that remained below them would regally have anointed any remnants of the deliciously crusty bread, had there been any left in the basket.   Jersusalem artichokes shared their splendor, again doubly nutty- this time their own earthy flavor paired with a braise of brown butter punched with the umami of soy and capers.  Jaeckle has mastered umami, whispering it from every possible source and using it to the best advantage.

Dessert exists, but deterred by Pete Wells, we opted against the sort of mundane-sounding selection of gelatos, an affogato, a chocolate tart.  The only intriguing one was the fernet branca panna cotta, but well... we had been forewarned.  Instead, we opted for one of their fine teas- a whole pot was even a lot to imbibe after such a filling repast.  But it was a lovely mint-tinged infusion, and I'm not one to waste. So we ventured out into the soggy evening, the rains having subsided, but the cool dampness felt now like a comforting onda carrying us out with contented bellies.