Thursday, August 21, 2014


I have a crush on a girl.  Her name is Claudette.  I wouldn't go so far as to say I have a crush on the chef herself ("Not that there's anything wrong with that"), but executive chef Koren Grieveson had me at first bite.  Granted, her appeal was wasn't at all hindered by what I might qualify as the most lovely restaurant in New York, especially in day light, but also as the dim of evening sets in.  I even liked the fanciful font of the menu, multi-colored scrolls of calligraphy.   My tablemate was less enthusiastic, his eyesight perhaps not quite as acute as the lights ebbed towards a shadowy twilight, but the abundance
of flickery votives and low-hung lamps mollified some of that.  And our waiters did too, for they could not have been more congenial and helpful, witty and gracious.  This is a very polished staff,
more so I'd say than their more informal sister restaurants Bobo and Rosemary's, that might be slightly more trendy-casual.   Claudette, while just as inviting and welcoming as her brethren, has a certain coquettish charm.

I bonded with our waiter, and certain other members of staff, waiting for my friend to arrive.  There is a lot of staff at Claudette, and they perform some impressive choreography navigating the cozy space and tightly packed tables.  There's not a lot of elbow room here, and the noise levels attest to that, but there is also a certain airiness that abounds, facilitated by the floor-to-ceiling bay windows flung open onto Fifth Avenue.  The pale color palette and frondy vegetation that decorates the room makes it feel more like a
resort in the south of France than the former home of a mediocre Thai transplant from Vegas (R.I.P. Lotus of Siam).  But Carlos Suarez and Mark Barak have spiffed her into shape, and Grieveson holds up her end impeccably.  I started
 with a bowl of tender, warm cauliflower florets doused in a flavorful mustard oil flecked with dill and partnered with burstingly fresh cherry tomatoes.  I started out missing the dense chew that rewards this crucifer roasted, but then the flavors grew on me, a vibrance and purity in the simply dressed vegetables, neither hot nor cold- just Goldilocks perfect.  I could've been just as content with any of the offerings from du Jardin, or else one of the more diverse hors d'oeuvres, featuring interesting
 combinations of dynamic African spices with seasonal ingredients.  We also tried an  fois gras appetizer special, tumbled with more of those impeccable tomatoes brightening the bacony richness of the fois, crisped on the exterior and almost melting like a meat meringue inside.

I was torn between most of the entrees, an eggplant wrapped red snapper, the signature bouillabaisse topped with puff pastry, or a meaty hangar steak with panisse spiked with chili.  Instead, I took a small(ish) plate of  charred baby octopus from les FRUITS de MER (sic), reassured by our server that it was an ample portion.  True enough, and heartily flavorful enough even if it hadn't been so substantiative.  The tip-toes of the tentacles took on a profound char, crisped as black as ink, and the meatier portions displayed that optimum firm but tender texture. all ensconced beneath a shroud of verdant parsley and yes, more tomatoes: but fruit this good doesn't get redundant.  I rounded things out

 with a side order of grilled eggplant smothered in yogurt and tahini, and sprinkled with toasty sesame seeds.  The eggplant had a plush, luxurious texture and a smoky char from the grill- not tasting oily although I'm sure it probably mopped up its fair share, as this absorbent nightshade tends to do, but it only added to the decadent flavor.
Chicken tagine was a complete meal in itself, arriving with due pomp in its festive lacquered tagine.  Grieveson uses thighs for ultimate tenderness, teaming them with a stewy concoction of nutty bulgar and knots of swiss chard strewn with orange segments and slivered almonds, fresh mint and aromatics.  Typically tagines are cooked and served in their namesake vessel, but for safety's sake as well as the logistical bounds of a bustling New York restaurant, she prepares the tagine in conventional pans and then transfers it the respectively cooler, more manageable pottery, which does retain heat well, keeping our meal warm 'til the final bites.

I forgot to inquire whether Chef Grieveson is also in charge of the dessert menu, but whether she is or she isn't, the Lemon Tart we shared is thus far the best dessert I have had all year.  Its perfectly buttery crust yielded to the fork, but held its sunshine yellow lemon curd with grace.  The curd was just that perfect balance of sweet and tart, creamy without gooeyness, and firm but not gummy.  Four plump blackberries macerated in rosemary nestled within, as well would I have were I a blackberry.  It is one of those I'll-just-have-one-bite desserts that morphs into a shameless-licking-of-the-plate kind of things.
 No lesser a masterpiece was an off-the-menu treat of chopped strawberries, simply sprinkled with almonds and served in a bowl coated with toasted marshmallowy meringue.  It conjures up the nostalgia of campfire-toasted Stay-Pufts with the freshness of the most pristine market berries- quite perfectly summer in a bowl.  There are few restaurants I go to that I really anticipate revisiting, especially with a change of seasons.  Claudette, on the other hand, is a girl worth a second date.

24 Fifth Avenue
Tel: 212 868 2424

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