Monday, April 25, 2011

Winner, Winner

Double dinner. I had back-to-back dinner dates for a change. Usually, I am either in the kitchen or ordering pizza to my one bedroom, but not this weekend. On Saturday night, I ventured out west to Cookshop, a haunt I haven't haunted since it first opened a number of years ago. Cookshop was one of those restaurants that did locavore and farm-to-table before it was really cool, so it was interesting to refresh my perspective. The eaters I dined with were hardly adventurous, so we didn't test the limits of the Cookshop kitchen. I wanted the special boudin blanc, and the steamed littleneck clams, and the tongue salad, but instead we got a blistered ramp pesto pizza, tiny biscuits filled with sliced country ham, chicken wings served manchonner-ed and doused in hot sauce and sesame seeds, a butter lettuce salad in green goddess dressing, and two crostini smothered in chunky cheese. The pizza was a standout, reminding me a little of the Franny's pies in Brooklyn. The wings were tasty enough, as were the buns. I could have skipped the boring salad and crostini.

My companions seemed a little put off when I ordered the rabbit milanese, but it tasted the same as any milanese does, a shroud of crunch and fry over a thin piece of barely detectable meat. It was served off the bone and over a salad of wilted greens and a warm, creamy, mustard-heavy potato salad. The three together reminded me of some of the most simple and most satisfying meals I ate in Milan. Dessert was warm and fuzzy, too, though the flavors of the three we chose were a little too closely related. A chocolate and vanilla ice cream sundae was almost ennui-inducing, though tasty. A fluffernutter pie of chocolate and peanut butter tasted a lot like the creamy banana pudding, also filled with peanut butter. I would have opted for the sour cherry sorbet to finish, but my companions had no interest. Cookshop is a place that still puts out tasty food, even if it doesn't push any real culinary boundaries. Sometimes restaurants don't need to.

For Easter Sunday, I went in a different direction, to the ocean at Imperial No. 9, Sam Talbot's chic and sustainable seafood restaurant in SoHo's Mondrian Hotel. My friend from school works in the kitchen and so we, a party of seven, dined like little queens. We ate through the entire menu with the exception of three items, mostly because the kitchen supplemented our order with an abundance of free food. Deep fried oysters in cornmeal and served with strips of fried ham and a sweet tomato relish were a definite winner, as was the restaurant's version of the iconic Marea dish, lardo and sea urchin. At Marea, there is too much to eat in a bite and the weight of the toast obscures the delicacy of the fish and fat. Imperial No. 9 uses a slighter approach, putting less on the plate and using a thinner piece of bread. It's well-executed, even if the idea has been pirated. Raw fluke would have been better without the frozen accoutrement. Cauliflower fritters were gooey on the inside, but they pretty much fell apart as I dipped them in my yuzu sauce. Raw tuna came Hawaiian poke-style, cloaked in sesame oil and mustard oil and served, unnecessarily, with buttery grilled bread. But the flavor of that fine tuna competed too nearly with the pea shoot salad drenched in Miso. In fact, a lot of the restaurant's dishes taste too alike, in one way or another.

Take, for instance, a fantastic dish of Israeli cous cous, cooked creamy and served with roasted acorn squash and an immersion circulator egg. The texture of the cous cous most nearly resembles well made risotto, but the egg was redundant, appearing in nearly the same form in a dish of plancha-cooked shrimp and blue corn grits. That dish was good, too, and probably needed the egg more than its predecessor, since the grits, picked up with maple syrup, edge toward the sweet. Sesame and black vinegar and garlic are everywhere, coating the tuna and the salad and also the plancha-cooked king crab claws. It is heavy-handed at times and lacking the nuance so necessary to preparing good seafood. The best of the fish entrees was seared diver scallops with littlenecks and pork belly, a nod to my own New England heritage. The worst dish of the evening (besides the two foods I dislike: octopus and roasted beets) was a culotte of beef, not particularly tender, lacking sauce, and served with tiny, underseasoned hockey puck potatoes. A spicy cucumber and Napa cabbage kimchi brightened my mood a little, but it was an exact replica of the version you find in Koreatown, and nothing beyond that. Roasted squash and apples were delicious, if a month out of season by now--we should have been far into asparagus and ramps and favas and peas and morels, but those gems were nowhere to be seen.

And by the way, the menu--confusing, expensive, and hard to read. Appetizers aren't separated from entrees and prices reflect no real difference, so you don't know the size of your dish (and dish sizes tend toward the excessively small) until they arrive. A $32 plate of king crab claws would have fed a half of a hungry person. That tuna poke rings in at over $25, as does the uni-lardo appetizer, which we received gratis. The wine list is overpriced but there are discernable bargains, like a $60 bottle of Bethel Heights pinot noir from the Willamette Valley. And cocktails, though not cheap, are tasty enough. I drank the No. 1, a mix of sparkling wine, simple syrup and "cucumber foam." It went down easy, if a little too easy. Desserts, surprisingly, were inspired and avant-garde. Two tiny chocolate tarts with caramel filling and sour cherry puree were a delicate dance of rich and restrained. Frozen lemon tartlets made with fresh edible flowers and graham cracker crusts were perfect palate cleansers after warm and dense chocolate chip cookies and chocolate peppermint cookies. A deconstructed banana pudding was hard to understand but easy to eat, a mix of marshmallow ice cream and flambeed bananas compressed into frozen squares. Salted caramel ice cream arrived in a bowl filled with popcorn powder, just as El Bulli as it sounds. Those desserts game gratis, too, along with glasses of Moscato d'Asti.

We received a thirty percent discount because my friend works at the restaurant and the kitchen took off nearly half of what we ate and drank, so the meal came to an astonishing $100 per person, a steal for what we got. But that price tag doesn't accurately reflect the true cost of eating at Imperial No. 9, which would easily break your bank if you let it. It seems Sam Talbot hasn't quite found his stride yet. The menu needs editing and the flavors need more definition. As for those prices, well, it's SoHo.

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