Saturday, November 22, 2008

How To Succeed In Eating Without Really Trying (Or: How To Get In Trouble On A Friday)

Act I. Oysters (ok, clams) and Pearls.

A blustery Manhattan afternoon finds me on Cornelia Street, where I've agreed to meet an old friend for a much-procrastinated lunch at Pearl Oyster Bar. Pearl's possesses--even in the cold--the modestly adorned charm of someone's New England summer home. A long bar in the front room plays host to hungry, oyster slurping patrons while, in the back, two-tops and four-tops of West Villagers chomp away. There are, of course, the requisite photos of northern seascapes, the blackboards announcing the day's freshest market catch, the display pie. Pearl's is the kind of place that relocated New Englanders like myself visit to regain a sense of home.

A lovely Macon-Villages (clean, unoaked, and cold, not unlike the weather itself) saw us through a metal bucket's worth of steamers. If you thought clams were a summer luxury, you'd be wrong. These suckers had big bellies and the grit of the ocean (they welcome a washing in salt water and butter) and go down just as easy as the Macon.

But the piece d' resistance was, without question, the famous lobster roll, served, as tradition demands, on a buttered hot dog bun and accompanied by a side of addictive shoestring fries. The lobster meat is chunky and abundant, seasoned mostly with a healthy helping of mayonnaise and a few decorative leaves of red leaf lettuce. Ketchup and malt vinegar arrive for the condiment obsessed, but this sandwich doesn't really need it. The caveat? As my friend remarked as I attempted to bring the beastly sandwich to my mouth, this baby's really a knife-and-fork kind of deal, a slight departure from the more traditional wax-paper version you find up north.

But whoever said convenience was a deal-breaker?

Pearl Oyster Bar
18 Cornelia Street
New York, NY 10014

Act II. The Institution.

A glass of Chianti at Mia Dona parlayed itself into amuse bouche at Felidia where, sipping schioppettino, my friend and I discussed where we should actually eat. Lidia Bastianich, flanked by her minions, was just leaving as we were coming in and the restaurant showed no signs of a downturned economy. Such is the way with culinary institutions.

Thanks to a forgiving chef (I once served him a corked bottle of Torrontes at the end of a very long night), we enjoyed an elaborate plate of Nantucket Bay scallops, burrata with sturgeon caviar, octopus terrine, roasted squash with ricotta, and house-cured flatiron. We made ten thousand phone calls to other restaurants before we settled on a trip to the Bowery, even though my friend swore that she was not "a downtown person."

243 E. 58th Street
New York, NY 10022

Act III. The Fledgling.

We probably could have skipped the Pimms Cups, but they were delicious and cucumber-y, which might be all I need in a drink. Somewhere around 11 the hip staff at Double Crown sat us and a few minutes after that we were joined by another foodie, which made it more forgivable to order the entire menu, which we pretty much did.

We had crispy whitebait with chili lime (squeeze the lime over the crunchy bits), Sea Bream sashimi (decent), prawns (heads served fried and with some kind of aioli, a real treat), Pigs in a Wet Blanket (I still have no idea what that was), duck steamed buns (yum), pork rillette (double yum), braised pork belly (hackneyed, but good), miso glazed bone marrow (not as ample as the versions seen at Landmarc or Blue Ribbon), tandoori foie gras torchon (nothing to complain about here), and Singapore laksa (some underseasoned noodle dish that none of us was in love with). You would think that would have been enough for even the most gluttonous eaters but, emboldened by a bottle of champagne and a subsequent bottle of... something red... we moved on to entrees of short ribs and lamb and cashew meatballs. The short ribs were majestic and perfect, the meatballs forgettable.

For dessert, two things arrived, one with a candle in celebration of my friend's impending birthday. I remember neither, a sign either that the meal was a resounding success or, alternately, that I was much too drunk to be out in public.

Double Crown
316 Bowery
New York, NY 10012

Act IV. Redaction.

In an earlier post, I listed a bunch of my favorite eats in New York and I was reminded, in the wake of that post, that I may have made an error in my execution. I should state, first and foremost, that I give Gramercy Tavern credit for teaching me about cheese. I had never been a cheese lover before getting some post-service love at Jim Meehan's pre-PDT bar, and so that culinary door really opened to me as a result of nights spent with Bual Madeira and the cheese list. Also, I love the tavern at Gramercy Tavern because it always smells like Christmas, with the wood stove burning in the background. Their drinks do not outdo the PDTs and Apothekes of the world, but the ambience is totally top-notch.

But I was scolded last night for marking the cheese plate at Gramercy Tavern as my favorite when, in truth, the cheese list at Casellula is much more far-reaching, much more ambitious, and much more central to the whole j'nais ce quois of the restaurant. And that's just the beginning. While Gramercy serves the delicious-but-pedestrian quince paste/honey/raisin bread with their cheese, the fromager at Casellula is far more inventive. I once had the pleasure of enjoying a piece of bacon that had been cooked until crisp and then dipped in white chocolate. Sound strange? It wasn't. Actually, it was the perfect accoutrement to a briny, soft cheese.

So, for the record, Casellula has the best cheese plates in New York and although I will always enjoy nights spent at the Gramercy Tavern bar, I would never in a million years choose their cheese over C's.

To that I will add that, although it does not approach Casellula in scope or originality, the brandied cherries and black truffle honey that come with the Otto cheese plate are also quite nice, should you happen to be in the West Village and in need of some serious lactose therapy.

Casellula Cheese & Wine Cafe
401 W. 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019

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