Thursday, October 16, 2014


Piora, I had waited for you too long.  But thankfully, its quality hasn't ebbed one bit since it's opening about one year ago, where it was received with accolades from pretty much every reputable New York publication.   It has remained, however, a bit under the radar in the larger restaurant scene: it's team is comprised of an inarguably talented pool, but there are no Batalis, Meyers or Colicchios involved.  This, I feel, gives it a somewhat "hidden treasure" appeal, and the overall experience reinforces that nicely.

The restaurant has an elongated format, following extended bowed lines on the wall past the mottled marble bar into a subdued dining room.  The leather-covered tables and low, glowy lighting offer an air of calm; the paned glass wall in the back looks out up on a leafy thicket, giving the impression that we've been transported far from the bustling city which has given that restaurant such applause.  This dreamy mystique was somewhat interrupted by our waiter, who, though competent as he was, greeted us as if he was reading off a teleprompter, awkward and formal.  He was stiff, scripted, creating a a palpable tension certainly discordant with the room, although his genuine smile went leaps and bounds to ameliorate this.

We bypassed the very tempting Monkey Bread simply for budgetary reasons.  The recommended path of menu navigation dictates an appetizer plus entree per person, and a pasta course for the table.  But at these prices, the bill was escalating significantly without the addition of some eight dollar yummy rolls. While I'm sure they were, and almost order them for the name alone (family joke).  Soon after ordering, a small shot glass of soothing squash soup arrived compliments of the kitchen, sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds... a teaser that of fall that has yet to fully arrive in New York kitchens.  It had a cool creaminess as well as nourishing heft, making quite a perfect little intro.  Our appetizers arrived not long thereafter, still clinging to end of summer's glory: Green Peas
conjured up nostalgia of the pea trifecta I marveled at from years past at Telepan.  Piora's version featured toothsome whole peas, just barely steamed, paired with a smooth pea sorbet studded with a chiffonade of pungent nepitella- a minty herbal leaf I order whenever I get the rare opportunity.  Sturdy stems of pea shoots formed a tendriled shroud- not as tender as their younger sprouts, but lovely to behold.  Amberjack Crudo was similarly gorgeous: furled ribbons of zucchini and its blossoms nestled between planks of the unctuous fish, smoothed out with a puree of avocado, and crushed peas with just a hint of char.   And while the Scallop appetizer was just as visually stunning, it could've looked like the homeliest haggis and still have won my heart.  It was also big enough to have served as a modest entree, and in retrospect I wish we would've gone that route, for while all the entrees were notably
 wonderful, this appetizer and that crab pasta (I know, I know.... I'll get to it)  were worth returning for... like, nightly.  It wasn't even my order: I was somewhat wary of the chicken skin component, but in the most brilliant treatment ever effected with chicken skin, it was fried and pulverized into a salty crisp crumble, dusted over the fat scallops wallowing in a thick puree of sweet summer corn.  Add in perfectly braised chanterelle mushrooms and I was suffering some severe (read: fatal) order envy.  Not that my peas weren't delightful, but this was phenomenal.

And then, finally, we get to our midcourse. and unnecessary and pricey as though it was, it was thirty-five dollars of wonderful.  Black garlic bucatini slithered sexy around earthy maitake mushrooms flecked with racy little rounds of scarlet chili- all of that just a glorious set for the true star: abundant clumps of pristine Dungeness crab... more than you need, perhaps, but rarely is there a "too much" involving Dungeness.   There would've been enough to share even had we a fourth tablemate.  

Entrees might have been a little less exciting, but no less solid.  There are but four to choose from, so we were able to sample 75% of what was on offer.  Halibut was simple and lovely, bronzed on top and served in a golden tomato consomme to match.  Squash blossoms and melted eggplant celebrated the grand finale of late summer harvest, creating a laudable, if not exactly revolutionary dish.
 Medallions of succulent, rare lamb riffed on its classic pairing with mint jelly bringing it into modernity with sprightly leaves of novel mint marigold.   Braised miniature artichokes alternated with the mild lamb, and a thick puree of green garlic cut through any residual, subtle gaminess.  The most substantial entree, a thick cut heritage pork chop, was also the harbinger of fall.  Heavy grill marks deepened its rich flavor, the sweetness of fig and apple combining to enhance meaty drippings that pooled
 beneath the chop.  A delicate furl of soppressata crowned the dish, gilding the piggy, so to speak: an artful pork-on-pork coupling.

One of the dishes that had plied me to Piora to begin with was a rhubarb pavlova dessert; this was unfortunately long gone, due to Piora's adamant seasonality.  The option that we regretfully bypassed this evening was a delectable sounding lemon verbena panna cotta with raspberry and sweet corn-  a last hurrah to summer.  The other dessert options, equally tempting, nodded to the shortening days: a fig custard with hazelnut and a truly Thanksgivingy sweet potato semi-freddo with pecans and marshmallows.  Alas, dessert was not in the cards, but I can't really complain one whit with the hand
 that we had been dealt.  The brainchild of Chef Christopher Cipolline and proprietor Simon Kim, Piora showcases an immaculate balance between the soulful intensity of ingredient-driven Italian with the elegant precision of Asian technique.  Even the name, which means "to blossom" in Korean, could be a an Italian word, in its pronunciation and melodic quality.  In its menu you won't find particularly Italian nor Korean dishes- not necessarily even ingredients.  Instead, the team celebrates the finest ingredients of whatever provenance, and so creates the inspired brilliance that blossoms from Piora.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Blenheim glows just like a restaurant on the cobbled streets of the west village should.  It beckoned as I past by one night,  having already dined elsewhere, but an enthusiastic waitress popped out to greet us warmly, reinforcing the atmosphere of the restaurant.  With her disclosure of the chef's pedigree, Blenheim simply demanded a visit.  Ryan Tate comes most recently from Tribeca's Michelin-starred Le Restaurant, but his time at New York institutions Cookshop and Savoy can be seen in his execution, combining his earthy Michigan roots with the sophisticated gilded edge brought by fifteen successful years in the industry.  Thus, the cuisine reflects a midwestern simplicity and farm-to-table authenticity derived from its namesake farm in the Catskills, buffed to a precious, polished sheen that mimics the alluring glow that attracted me in the first place.

It is the farm-philic rusticity of the restaurant's appearance that provides its appeal, some of which is lost in overwrought presentation and elevated pricing.  I wish it could've clung a bit more ardently to its bucolic connection than its Michelin one, although to their credit,  I think they have achieved precisely the ambiance they envisioned.  The walls are hung with an array of antique farm implements, various tools and tchotchkes create an organized rural clutter.  The menu is a bit scattered as well, a long list of intriguing possibilities in a loosely progressive order, but it leaves a bit of interpretation up to the diner as to how to format a meal, but a well-informed waitstaff is gracefully on hand to assist.  A simpler, but even pricier option, is to go with the chef's tasting menu at $95.   The smartest tactic might be the $45 prix-fixe, which we were not made aware of, unfortunately, because in retrospect this seems easily like the most cost-effective approach.
 Although going that latter route would've deprived me of my first course first choice- a roasted beet composition dusted with bronze fennel (even the spices have precious metals) and tiny leaflets of marigold that presented more prominently in the menu description than they did on the plate.   The beet were intentionally positioned like a planet at aphelion: as far away from me as possible, pushed to the distant periphery of an extremely large, otherwise empty platter.  Maybe it's to provide a workspace for combining, like the empty rectangle beneath a Sudoku: Tate's food requires a bit of effortful coordination.  Perfectly balanced bites are not achieved without snips and swipes at leaves and sauces.  A tiny smudge of black currant bavarois plus a spring of greenery atop a beet combined for a truly successful amalgamation of
flavors, but sampled independently can result in the spectral ends of the assertive-to-bland flavor scale.  Similarly, a portion of Tasmanian sea trout supplied three fat planks of the oily fish, adorned with orbs of roe and spherifized mustard, nasturtium leaves and blossom puree, and seabuckthorn crisp and cloud.  Yes, Blenheim has foams and spheres, clouds and ash.  This, I suppose, it what justifies its prices, but there the element of d.i.y. combining isn't as welcome.   I would prefer, at these price-points, that the integration of ingredients be taken care of for you, by Mr. Tate.  I suppose it has to do with the artistry of plating, though, which is admittedly attractive.  Both appetizers we tried were enhanced by the complimentary bread provided, my favorite of which was a nutty flax cracker (notedly gluten-free) that was lovely with my beets, while a sturdy cheese roll held up on its own.

Scrolling down the menu arrives at more substantial plates, although there is no distinguishable break to differentiate starters from mains.  Prices are the best indicator of size, and they escalate chronologically. So my entree of roasted kind trumpet mushroom could've served as a large, shareable appetizer or small plate, but I was content to keep it to myself.  The spatzle that accompanied benefitted from a bit of maillardization, giving the tender morsels a crisp-edged nuttiness that the mushroom, which was just simply steamed, would've also enjoyed.  Fanciful wisps of crisp fennel floated on dollops of anise-hyssop foam, which dissolved a mild sweetness into a savory compote of sauerkraut bedding the dish.   Monkfish arrived as three small medallions (someone forgot to remind the kitchen that this
"poor man's lobster" could be portioned a little more generously for its $26 price tag).  Mustard greens and seeds were more abundant than the fish, although it was deliciously moist and flavorful for what there was of it.

But Blenheim is a fancier restaurant than I had made it out to be, perhaps even more than it makes itself out to be.  Deceived by rusted-out milk jug lamps and unfinished, distressed wood paneling, the menu is decidedly more gilt and finery.  Even on menupages, it's $$ (out of four) ranking wants it to be a more affordable restaurant than it turns out to be.  That said, West Village real estate will do that to a price tag.   Anyways,  I'm projecting, at this point, what I wanted Blenheim to be as opposed to what it is.  Although a little more precious than I had presumed, it is still a masterful execution of farm-to-table cuisine.   Just make sure to tuck in your best flannel.

283 W. 12th St.

New York, NY 10014