Friday, January 27, 2012

Happy Italian

For years, I have been meaning to eat at tiny, rustic, romantic Il Buco on Bond Street. But the place almost never has a reservation available. So imagine my surprise when I snagged a prime table during the busiest part of the evening, one half of a communal table under shelves of ceramic bowls and hanging copper pots. It might be one of the loveliest dining rooms in New York, with its dim lighting and candles and Tuscan feel. I remembered a trip to a ski chalet in the Valley d' Aosta and bowls of warm polenta. One of the greatest compliments I can pay Il Buco is that it took me back to Italy.

But then, the food. I had limited expectations, but a mackerel crudo blew me away. It was salty and spicy and thick, without even a tinge of the fishiness that mackerel so often imparts. It arrived on a puree of sunchokes. We cleaned the plate. Ditto for a creamy burrata with paper-thin persimmons and a juicy Mangalista pork sausage over toothsome white beans with mushrooms.

Then: a handmade pasta with thick strands of rabbit and parsnips that tasted exactly like my mother's chicken soup, in the best way possible. The noodles came just al dente, the rabbit rich and earthy. I would go back for seconds, but Il Buco's dinner menu changes nightly.

Porchetta did not disappoint, either. Sliced thin and served with a plume of crispy skin, we ate through the tangle of salty Swiss chard and the accompanying beans with as much gusto as the meat itself. The first time I saw porchetta was at an open Tuscan market, where a man sold it sliced directly from the pig and where, in the summer sun, I ate that meat with my hands from a wax paper wrapping. Il Buco was an experiment in recreating my fondest Italian memories.

Finally, the creamiest panna cotta I have ever eaten arrived, decorated with a splash of balsamic vinegar. A grape cake with creme fraiche and almonds tasted of a holiday cake my grandmother used to make. For these things, I would go back again and again.

Il Buco
47 Bond Street, #1
New York, NY 10012

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Terrible Twos

Well, maybe not terrible. But not great, either. I hit the East Village twice this week, once for a pricey meal at Hearth and once again for a steal at Apiary, even though we splurged on wine. At Hearth, we ordered a massive charcuterie board for a staggering $45, but most of the offal offered was a little too livery for my taste. By the time my delicious quail appetizer arrived--over a vinegary bed of grains--I was almost too full to enjoy it. A spatlese riesling to begin left me wanting more great wine, but a premier cru Burgundy disappointed, as did a dormant 2000 Bordeaux suggested to me by an enthusiastic sommelier. My main course--a selection of meats of which I can only clearly recall a smooth and lovely tongue--was too rich and ineptly composed. I couldn't figure out how to eat it or what to compare it to, besides a hard-up pot au feu. I had wanted the spaghetti and meatballs; next time, I'll go with my gut.

Donuts were average. I left very disappointed and a little broke. Apiary broke my heart a little less. Our seven-course tasting included a bright and clean tranch of hamachi, served with micro greens and hearts of palm. But, like so many of the following courses, it was undersalted. Hake had a perfect crust and came in a creamy pool of razor clams and potatoes and bacon. Papparadelle with rabbit and tomatoes and basil was toothsome and satisfying, even if it defied the season a little (who garnishes with fresh basil in January, anyway?). Sweetbreads, though overcooked, came bathed in a sticky, salty, and sweet sauce and over a fine puree. Duck was perfectly cooked, but the accompanying cabbage had no seasoning whatsoever.

A composed cheese plate offered three cheeses, fruit bread, and a trio of honeys. It was nice, sure, but a little basic for a full course of seven. And the chocolate lava cake was reductive, as was the overwrought and chewy apple puff pastry provided at meal's end.

But Apiary has an enviable wine list, something it has in common with Hearth. Both lists can bring a person closer to Bordeaux with some funk and age than any of New York's other prize places. A 1982 Prieure-Lichine was actually in our price range, believe it or not. And so we escaped tough puff pastry on the back of old Bordeaux. Next time, maybe I'll stick to the bars at both haunts.

403 East 12th Street
New York, NY 10009

60 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10003