Friday, December 31, 2010

Market Fresh

The food at Market Table reminds me of most of the other food coming out of New York kitchens these days--seasonal, homey, ingredient-focused, and lacking a little bit of fire. That's ok. Sometimes you just need a tasty meal and, for me, last night was one of those times. Anyway, who could pass up sitting in such a pretty little restaurant, with its floor-to-ceiling windows facing snowy Carmine Street, with its colonial Christmas wreaths on the doors and windows, with its string of precious little white lights running up the bar's central wood column? I love Christmas as much as any Jewish girl ever could and I love sitting in a warm and glowing restaurant on a December night wrapped in a soft sweater and a wisp of red wine.

Speaking of wine, the Market Table by the glass list isn't deep, but it is thoughtful. I had an inexpensive (by European standards) Corbieres from the south of France, followed by an Olga Raffault Chinon, one of my long-standing favorites. It was a little young and not as dirty as it gets with age, but I appreciate any restaurant that sells a Chinon by the glass.

And so, the food.

My hamachi crudo starter came with the obligatory sliced fruit--in this case, julienned pears. The dish hit all the right notes, with clean acid and sweet fruit and a slight hint of the ocean, but it was a dish I had tasted before on another night in another farm-to-table restaurant. No spark, no fire.

Next came a generous pork porterhouse, bone-in, cooked to a perfect medium and topped with a red onion and vinegar slaw. The meat was surprisingly underseasoned, forcing me to reach into our complimentary bowl of Maldon salt for some pork triage. It helped. The meat itself was leaner than I had expected but still possessed of the perfect texture of well-cooked pork. The creamy, cheesy spaetzle underneath, dotted with fine leaves of Brussels sprouts, went down easily indeed. So did the crispy, crunchy Old Bay fries with their horseradish ketchup (which really tasted of nothing but cocktail sauce). And so did our two scoop gelato finish, a rich dark chocolate and a nutty bourbon pecan.

It all tasted good and I left nothing for the waiters to scrape into the bins out back, but I still have to wonder if good tasting food is enough anymore. Maybe I miss the fire.

Market Table
54 Carmine Street
New York, NY 10014

Saturday, December 11, 2010

In Season

I don't have too many opportunities to discuss restaurants that I believe to be nearly perfect, but last night's dining experience, at Seasonal, was one such pleasure. I started off on the wrong foot at a table too near the door and hostess stand and without wine or cocktail list for ten minutes before a lanky manager arrived to quench my thirst. From there, the night could have gone sour, but it didn't, not by a long shot. To start, K. and I ordered cocktails made with Sekt and apricot nectar and elderflower. Next, I flagged our thickly-accented server-manager-type and asked for a bottle of 1992 Spatlese riesling from Germany, a surprising steal on an otherwise expensive list. Recognizing my pedigree from my pick, my new manager friend sent, to start, a glass of J.J. Prum.

I should have known from the amuse bouche, a sliver of cured fluke that should speak for all raw fish everywhere, that our meal would sing. We wanted to eat three courses and began with a soft-poached egg, which came with rich lobster knuckles and pumpernickel crumbles and hen of the woods mushrooms. It was delicate and earthy with a touch of salinity from the sea, a stark comparison to the rich pork belly, adorned with silken quince and honey. The belly itself was fork tender, a pink plume of meat that can so often disappoint, rose to the occasion.

Next, a midcourse of consomme with rock shrimp and bone marrow and cubed rutabaga. I didn't know it would be such a pristine show-stopper, elegant and flush with contrasting textures. The bone marrow, no more than an inch wide, would have been fine on toast, but in the clear soup, bobbing around like the world's best butter, it inspired.

The house sent a second midcourse, fried veal sweetbreads with an accompanying cream of celery root, a sliver of onion, a leaf from a blanched Brussels sprout. I was relieved at its arrival--the dish was one I had wanted to order when I had originally considered my options. With our extra course, our manager returned to bestow upon us mystery glasses of wine, on him. I guessed Gruner Veltliner, from its crispness and aroma of green apples and was rewarded with a nod.

And then our entrees arrived, pillowy veal wiener schnitzel with lingonberry jam and soft, creamy, salty scalloped potatoes. On the side, a cucumber salad, cut into ribbons and slickened with mayonnaise, provided crunch. Cheesy spaetzle sent my stomach over the line into deeply full, even though it teemed with vegetables. Still, I had room for a recommended dessert: kaiserschmarrn, or dough dumplings that are pan fried and coated in sugar and spice and served with sliced apple compote on the side.

132 West 58th Street
New York, NY 10019

Friday, December 10, 2010


Last week, I stumbled into a nearly empty Sorella, a pity on a Thursday night. Only a block away, Mary Queen of Scots, the LES newcomer who denied us a table, was filled to the gills with hipsters and mock foodies, leaving poor Sorella to fend for herself. Why would anyone pass up the dense, generous beef carne cruda, or the slick pici with its economical pool of creamy sauce? What misinformed eater would have chosen an overdone burger over the flash-fried and bacony Brussels sprouts, or the potatoes with speck that arrived crusty and lacquered with mayonnaise in the style of fine patas bravas?

I couldn't say. I felt sad for the lonely, crispy, salty, herbaceous breadsticks, which assuaged my hunger before our food arrived. My sweetbreads were a touch overcooked, but their crust--it must be cornmeal--lingered. Even our desserts, scoops of gelato laced with chocolate and caramel and banana and a host of other secrets belied a restaurant that should be remembered and isn't. The food is delicate and modest in its portions. There are no disappointments, aside from the spare following. I hope they keep their doors open through another long winter.

On to other sprouts. In Astoria, on another cold night, I found myself at Vesta, a wine bar with Italian inclinations that opened a year or so ago. Upon first glance, one might think their pizzas a hair too large, but the crust is cracker-thin and so the slices go down easy. I could have used more blue cheese and less sauce on my pie of blue and caramelized onions, but never mind. The fusilli, while too large a portion for sure, came with crisped sweet Italian sausage and a sauce that boasted an old Italian secret: starchy cooking water from the pasta pot. It was a stick-to-your-ribs bowl perfectly suited to the weather. The grass-fed rib-eye is a steal at $25. I would have liked to have sliced it myself, but never mind. It came rare, as ordered, and well seasoned, which says something about the diligence of the kitchen.

For dessert, I allowed the server to talk me into Baby Jesus Cake, which is really just a toffee steamed pudding adorned with fresh whipped cream. My server was right; I was glad I had listened.

95 Allen Street
New York, NY 11201

Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar
21-02 30th Avenue
Astoria, NY 11102