Friday, March 26, 2010

From Low To High

For dinner last night, I joined friends in the east village for dinner at Northern Spy Food Company, named for the famous local apple. And boy, do they do local. Not only does Northern Spy sell farm-to-table dinners, but they also sell, as a part of a shop in the restaurant's rear, everything from local soup to nuts.

To start, we shared a raw kale salad with clothbound cheddar and kombucha squash, a fatty pork pate with nose-clearing mustard and a lightly dressed arugula salad, and a side of white beans cooked with more cheddar. Dinner included a sandwich of crisped chicken thigh with a poached egg and chimichurri sauce, a flatbread panini of ham/cheese/mustard/pickled onions, and a pan-seared fillet of black bass served on a bed of nettle and watercress. The former two impressed, while the fish was tasty enough, if not quite inspired.

Dessert included a slightly undercooked slice of apple pie accompanied by a perfect scoop of almond ice-cream and, my personal favorite, a raisin-heavy square of carrot cake with a pure half-inch of piped cream cheese frosting. The candied ginger on top, though a nice tough, was completely unnecessary; I would have eaten the frosting with or without it.

As for our non-alcoholic tipples, we enjoyed ciders from Red Jacket Orchards. For me, a concord grape and apple, for one of my friends a light-colored Fuji. Northern Spy is downright inexpensive and worth the schlep to Alphabet City for a pretty little market meal.

So compare that with today's lunch, which began as an unambitious trip to Eleven Madison Park for the restaurant's "two courses, $24" lunch. Sometimes, I'd rather just eat the ham sandwich. Two courses (per person) turned into six (per person); we were spotted, and sent four courses apiece, all on the house. Lunch began with a miniature olive baguette as well as a sourdough version. Amuse bouche were tiny savory macarons, one celery, one filled with foie gras. Then: uni custard with bay scallops and apple in the hollowed shell of an egg; a "cappuccino" of lemongrass, curry, and langoustine; a salad of shaved and blanched market greens with a red wine vinaigrette--asparagus, pea tendrils, multi-colored carrots, sugar snaps, baby lettuce; radicchio with buffala mozzarella and pickled persimmon; deep-fried veal sweetbreads over toasted fregola in a rich meat broth; fresh linguine tossed in butter and served with shredded king crab and herbs; a square of crisped halibut in a broth of mussels and chorizo; par-cooked salmon with daikon; pork belly and (regrettably overcooked) loin with gorgeous spring onions and salty-sweet rhubarb; lamb sausage, belly, and loin in a broth of paprika and jus. For all that? Fifty-eight buckaroos. Total.

Dessert is a la carte, and who knows how we had the room for a mango linzer tart, pine nut and ricotta tart, and slice of chocolate caramel pie. But we did--or so we thought, until I rose after lunch, sick to my stomach. Dinner desserts are composed plates, but our tarts came with a savory vanilla creme fraiche, not exactly the winner of the afternoon. The petit fours, more macarons, probably put us over the top. The different types included pink peppercorn, chocolate/banana, toasted coconut/chocolate, peanut butter/jelly, sesame/green tea/kumquat, poppyseed/lemon, and grapefruit. Wine is expensive, but varied, but get too carried away and you'll find yourself miles from that check of $24 per person. Luckily, there wasn't too much room for more damage this afternoon. The compositions at EMP are some of the most beautiful I've seen in any dining room, anywhere. The market salad alone would probably have encouraged me to come back, during fairer weather. But lunch is the way to go, if you're willing to skip the calories of dinner. Otherwise, you're sure to break the bank.

Northern Spy Food Company
511 East 12th Street
New York, NY 10009

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Farm To Table

My family and I were supposed to visit Blue Hill at Stone Barns on Saturday night for my sister's birthday, but inclement weather relegated us to a pot-luck dinner in my bedroom instead. Luckily, the incredibly generous and accommodating staff of BHSB allowed us to switch our reservation to Sunday instead, and even pretended not to hate us when we showed up a half-hour late (we literally got stuck behind a bulldozer).

Blue Hill at Stone Barns can probably be credited for bringing California "farm-to-table" cuisine to metropolitan New York, even though the restaurant is in Westchester. Their sister restaurant, in the west village, sources most of its food from the Westchester working farm, and both spots have been doing so for some years now, starting well before local restauranteurs touted the virtues of heirloom tomatoes. So there.

As is customary at Stone Barns, we began the evening with a bit of local produce. Winter may be ending, but root vegetables still abound. Our amuse bouche began with baby carrots and bok-choy, both lightly salted. Next came deep-fried salsify and proscuitto, a tiny shredded vegetable tart, caramelized onion bread with whipped lardo and cottage cheese and butter and carrot salt, roasted beet sliders, chilled carrot soup, and a plate of coppa and speck. We opted for the five course menu rather than the eight course ordeal, the first of which was a lovely beet salad--red and golden--atop pine nut butter and served with greenhouse greens.

To underscore how much Stone Barns caters to the whims and wishes of its guests, I point to our wine selection. My father no longer drinks, which left only two adults, one of whom was driving. We didn't want to invest in a bottle and we don't really share similar wine tastes. My stepmother told Thomas, the Stone Barns Wine Director, that she prefers buttery chardonnays, like Kistler's "Les Noistieres." Presto: a bottle of the wine appeared at her side, with the friendly invitation to drink as much as she liked. That hundred-dollar bottle of wine cost us a mere $25.

As for me, I allowed Thomas to serve whatever he saw fit. That meant a 1989 Ehrhard riesling from the Rheingau, followed by a ribolla from Movia (a Slovenian cult wine), and a 1998 Brunello di Montalcino. With dessert? A 1979 Pedro Ximenez Sherry. All this for--you guessed it--another $25.

But back to the food. Beets gone, waiters arrived with round glass pyrex dishes containing one large Maine sea scallop and a cream broth with fennel, celery, octopus, mussel, and rock shrimp, a superior take on chowder. Our egg course, enjoyed by four of us, was an egg-circulator egg in a broth of mushroom and broccoli. One stab to the egg yielded orange runny yolk. Before the course, our server had brought to us a glass basket of different colored eggs from the farm's hens, some of which gleamed green and blue, the color specific to breed.

My father hates eggs, so he had salt-baked rutabaga instead, kind of like the best sweet potato you've ever had. Entrees were slabs of pink Berkshire pork, brined in something sweet, like cider, and served with more of that tender baby bok-choy.

Dessert arrived in waves. First, honey with tofu and bergamot; next, chocolate mousse with apricot jam and frozen raspberry cream; finally, moist carrot cake with fromage foam, cream cheese, and vanilla ice-cream. They put a candle in my sister's cake and brought petit fours of chocolate, yogurt marshmallow, and sesame candy. Stone Barns remains one of the most worthwhile meals in New York.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, NY 10591

Thursday, March 11, 2010


On Monday, I went to Locanda Verde, where I've been wanting to eat for a while. Reviews from friends have been mixed. Last week, one friend told me not to order any of the pastas, but that the antipasti and secondi were worth a try. Saturday, a different friend disclosed the opposite. "The pastas are fantastic," she said. Well, whatever.

The dining room is massive and it was incredibly loud, even for someone like me who has worked in far louder environments. We sat at 9:30 and I expected that, for a Monday, the crowds would be dwindling, but that wasn't the case. In fact, our food came so quickly, it was clear they were pushing our table for yet another seating. Rushed would be the polite term for how the evening went.

To start, we ate steak tartare with cornichon, walnut, and a quail egg. The steak lacked salt and the bread was a bit thick and eggy for the meat. The star of the evening came next, blue crab and jalapeno crostini, spicy and salty and briny and perfect. The sausage and pickled ramp crostini were nice, too, though the pickled ramp receded a bit into the background.

Pastas were good but not life-changing. The rigatoni with lamb and ricotta and mint tasted bright and fresh and somewhat reminiscent of the love letters at Babbo. But the "grandmother's ravioli" was a disappointment. It was billed as ravioli filled with pork and beef, but it could have been filled with anything; the prevailing taste was that of the sauce, a fresh tomato and basil that would have made a more appropriate compliment to a less-complicated pasta. In all that tomato, I couldn't taste even a hint of meat.

For dessert, we ordered a lemon tart, the filling of which mostly tasted of lemon meringue pie. Buttermilk ice-cream was nothing to turn one's nose up at, but the real winner was the flaky pie crust. Karen DeMasco uses lard in her crusts, which is probably the secret to foolproof flakiness. Our server offered biscotti as a petit fours, but we waited longer for our check than we had waited for any of our four courses. Perhaps I would feel better about the experience if the "get them in and get them OUT" mentality hadn't been so completely pervasive, but we were finished with our meal in a scant hour, certainly not my idea of a relaxing evening.

Locanda Verde
377 Greenwich Street
New York, NY 10013

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pork Barrel

I was looking for a dinner spot that wouldn't break the bank and, more importantly, could accommodate me and a very pregnant friend. So we headed to Ardesia, where my friend (who happens to be the chef) agreed to hold a table for us. Ardesia is equal parts wine and snack bar. The most expensive menu item--the duck banh mi--weighs in at $14, assuming you don't count the plate of all house cheeses, which is $30, but a lot of food. That makes the spot cheaper than Casellula, though no less enjoyable.

We ate Brussels sprouts topped with fried shallots and tasting of something bring, possibly fish sauce. They were perfect, as was the skewered garlic shrimp, four to a skewer, eight to an order. Pork belly bites were cubes of fatty pork atop sweet apple, richness and salt matched by lean, crisp fruit. Surprise! The duck banh mi boasted a glorious layer of liver pate, along with the usual suspects of pickled vegetables and cilantro and the unusual suspect of cured duck.

Next up: bacon lardon, white bean, and frisee salad, but this bacon was fattier and thicker cut than normal salad bacon. And then, tiny house-made cocktail sausages, served with crusty white bread and spicy mustard, a vast improvement over the sticky barbecue sauce ones my grandmother serves in her ancient chaffing dish (no offense, Grandma). Two cheeses--both pasteurized for my preggy friend--were served with candied lemon and bread.

Chef sent dessert on the house. Three open-faced s'mores came atop what amounted to tiny gingersnap cakes--an homage to the graham cracker. The marshmallows, bruleed, tasted better than any traditional campfire. Finally, a square sandwich, wrapped in wax paper, announced our final dessert: a cookies n' cream ice-cream sandwich on chocolate cake. The alternate flavors, we later learned, were peanut butter and vanilla.

The nicest decor detail? The backs of the bathroom doors are painted with blackboard paint and there are nubs of chalk in the bathrooms for high-end note-writing, nothing like those bar bathrooms of yore. Also, to keep you company, a real, live goldfish swims in his glass bowl on a stool in the corner of the loo. No worries, Mr. Fish isn't on the menu. Ardesia is a restaurant for meat-eaters, with only a spare nod to marine life.

510 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019