Friday, January 9, 2009

Health Food?

On Wednesday, Frank Bruni reviewed Rouge Tomate, the Belgian import that recently opened in the former Nicole Farhi space on 60th Street.  Rouge Tomate has a lot of things the traditional New York restaurant does not.  They have a mission statement, for one.  The Belgian charter S.P.E. (Sanitas Per Ectam, or Health Through Food) is threefold, placing an emphasis on the sourcing of food, the preparation of food, and the so-called enhancement of food.  Foods are seasonal and local; S.P.E. cooking techniques eschew the use of butter, trans fats, anything highly caloric; final dishes are presented keeping in mind the highest nutritional value of the dish.  

I had been invited to attend the Rouge Tomate friends and family in the fall, but a scheduling conflict had prevailed.  I promised my manager buddy that I'd return once the restaurant was on its feet, and last night seemed perfect, given that the heavy-hitting reviewers have done their damage.  Bruni awarded Rouge Tomate one star on Wednesday, marveling at the restaurant's interior but writing less enthusiastically about the food.  

I'm going to have to disagree. 

It must be said that the restaurant is spectacular to look at, even if the servers-wearing-red concept is a little too midtown modern.  Billowing red curtains open into an enormous space with clean lines, blond woods, beige banquettes, high ceilings.  The rooms--both upstairs and down--feel airy and almost Asian in their execution.  No wonder this used to be a clothing store.  

Drinks are served at a curvaceous bar by bartenders who tailor their drinks to their guests' needs.  I ordered a drink called the P.S.T., a combination of pumpkin juice, sake, celery juice, and cucumber.  My friend ordered a blood orange cocktail, which, the bartender informed us, only contained an ounce of alcohol.  "You look like the type of person who wants more than an ounce of alcohol," the bartender said.  "Can I add some vodka to that for you?"

Why in a million years would we say no?

The food will make you forget about S.P.E. or the fact that a three-course meal at Rouge Tomate cannot--and this has been mathematically tested by the Rouge Tomate lab people who create dishes according to the charter--exceed 1,000 calories.  As my friend reminded me last night, the pan-seared skate at Bar Americain, a single entree, weighs in at a whopping 2,700 calories.  So three courses for under 1K is no small feat.  

Amuse bouche for the night consisted of a tasting of beets, a sweet beet puree, a beet gelee with spicy horseradish foam, and a beet tartar.  The market potato and farm egg feels weightier than it is.  A slow poached egg, runny at the core, tops a thick potato pancake.  A side of meaty foraged mushrooms steps in for bacon/sausage/another unidentifiable breakfast meat.  There's no toast here, but if your egg yolk remains on your plate after the potato is gone, there's always the multigrain bread, served with a caramelized onion and crispy sage spread to sop it up with. 

Yellowtail crudo has the consistency of ceviche and is garnished with mung beans, mangoes, and kefir lime juice.  The cleanliness of the dish speaks to the restaurant's belief in good product.  A midcourse of bass blew us away.  Skin-on black bass sat atop a cauliflower puree with miniature heirloom cauliflowers, slivered almonds, reconstituted raisins, and grapes.  The dish more than made up for the fish we ordered for our entree, a disappointing black cod that was a thing of beauty to look at and less exciting to eat. 

Rice paper and a triptych of basil leaves decorated the cod, which arrived in one of the most gorgeous platings I've ever seen.  Baby turnips, crosnes, napa cabbage, and kohlrabi danced colorfully around the cod.  Unfortunately, the dish was bland and undersalted.  When I raised the point at meal's end, my friend assured me it was coming off the menu sooner rather than later. 

We had rabbit, too, the "farm raised fleischnacke," three wheels of rabbit served with celery and crisp apple.  The rabbit was rich, a combination of white and dark meats.  Chestnuts provided textural contrast.  It seemed impossible that this dish could actually be healthy.  

Before the arrival of our desserts, we were presented with two cold and perfect glasses of fresh pineapple juice, our "palate cleanser."  Desserts, a caramelized banana topped with chocolate sorbet and served with a banana cake and hot chocolate with fresh marshmallows, certainly didn't taste like spa food.  The hot chocolate more closely resembled very good pudding, a drink my friend deemed "too rich" for her blood.  Finally, forgettable pistachio crepes came with unforgettable sheep's milk semifreddo, tart and Pinkberry-ish and topped with slices of ruby red grapefruit. 

In the spirit of full-disclosure, I'll say the following: Rouge Tomate is expensive if you're going in cold.  I was presented a three-course wine pairing (2007 Thierry Germain Saumur-Champigny Rouge, 2004 Chateau Lalande-Borie St. Julien, 2005 Edmunds St. John Syrah) on the house.  Also on the house were our cocktails ($12 apiece), our bass midcourse, and our two desserts.  The bill came to $95, which, for two people and the amount we consumed, was virtually nothing.  But to eat here regularly and to eat well would cost a pretty penny. 

That being said, if I were a very wealthy woman who wanted to eat well without gaining weight and without concerning myself with the details of self-imposed nutrition, I'd be at Rouge Tomate at least once a week, eating that farm egg and potato over and over again. 

Rouge Tomate
10 E. 60th Street
New York, NY 10022

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