Thursday, March 29, 2012


Cafe this time. The scene is vastly different from that of Daniel: a bustling, busy dining room with men in suits at every available table. Our server bills it as a "neighborhood restaurant," but that's probably only applicable if you own an 8 million dollar townhouse on Park. Which, I determine by a quick glance around the room, some of these guys do.

Our amuse bouche is a tiny, hot arancini filled with black truffle. It does its job. Bread service, like that at Daniel, is precocious and I convince myself to stick to just one roll this time around. Spring has finally sprung, which means ramps and white asparagus and snap peas. I start with an appetizer of thick white spears with a scotch egg and creamy unpasteurized cheese. A take on Hollandaise, our server tells us. Another appetizer of artichoke tortellini was as delicate as the version served ten blocks downtown. A midcourse of foie gras torchon was a minor misstep--too much liver and too little accompaniment. It begged for something more crunchy than the measly helping of rhubarb batonettes and pistachios that dotted our plates.

An entree of truffle-stuffed squab was crispy and delicate and medium rare and came with two tiny empanadas filled with ground offal. The highlight of a duck entree--a breast over black rice--was a confit leg in a rich sabayon. It could have functioned as its own appetizer. Roasted radishes with sugar snap peas were bathed in a sauce that also tasted a lot like Hollandaise.

A cheese board was fine, with no real memorable touches. What was memorable, though, was a dark chocolate mousse with brandied cherries. I could have skipped the rum bananas and the gratis almond biscuit with raspberries and mango entirely. It was a precious meal, and from the looks of things, the Upper East Side appears to be doing quite well, indeed.

Cafe Boulud
20 East 76th Street
New York, NY 10021

Friday, March 23, 2012


It has been a week of worldly food adventures and I have stayed away from my computer too long. Alas, I come to you, dear reader, with a post about my week's dalliances.

On Tuesday, it was down to TriBeCa for Jewish food, Kutsher's, an import from the Borscht Belt. It's a quirky, often fun take on Jewish classics: crispy latkes served with creme fraiche and caviar; pillow-light meatballs in brown gravy; a pickle platter of sours and half sours and green tomatoes; airy halibut gefilte fish, not suspended in gloppy goo. A take on a traditional Jewish meat platter is a thing of beauty, with fatty duck pastrami, chalk-less chopped liver, soft tongue, and even softer corned beef. Served with brown mustard and rye, it reminded me a little too much of deli lunches set forth by my paternal grandmother, back when we all still congregated at her plantation in New Jersey.

A matzo ball soup was light and fluffy, nothing at all like the sluggish specimen my own grandmother makes. But entrees took a less enticing turn. A roast chicken for two was depressingly dry (and in this respect, maybe the restaurant nailed my family's home cooking dead-on). Kreplach were gummy and filled with walnuts, a contrasting texture that I couldn't seem to make work. Duck schmalz fries were a gimmick and tasted like regular fries. The black and white cookie sandwich served for dessert was rock-hard, closer to shortbread than the yellow cake I love so much. A rainbow cookie ice cream sundae was strangely gelatinous, appealing only to me and not to the rest of my dining crew. But a chocolate egg cream brought our table back to 1950s New York and the soda fountains that have long since stopped pouring. So at least that was a resounding success.

My Wednesday meal could not have been more different from Tuesday's. At Kajitsu, the vegetarian Japanese restaurant in the east village, I ordered an eight-course tasting menu, known as this month's Tanenoko Special. Think you can't be satisfied by vegetables alone? Think again. The meal was mostly stunning, undone only by one clunky course. Plum sake to start was cold and sweet and served on ice. Coasters were made from tiny slips of paper, or embroidered pucks of cloth. A carafe of a junmai daijingo came in a cold metal pourer with delicate etched glasses and, later, green tea arrived in handmade ceramic pots.

We started with a salad of spring vegetables--fiddlehead ferns made their first seasonal appearance--in a salty soy gelee. It was delicate and beautiful and important tasting. So, too, was a kohlrabi soup with a grilled patty of something unidentifiable. Creamy and rich, it made the absence of meat unimportant. Next: a bento box of contrasting items. Here, a piece of smoked taro on a skewer. There, a single Brussels sprout with bean paste. Spring scallions and white wood ear mushrooms in a mustard miso, served over a lime. A plum dipping sauce. Magnificent.

Our soba course was springy and chewy and perfectly seasoned. On the side, we were offered scallions and wasabi paste and three perfect bamboo shoots, still toothsome and fried in hot tempura batter. Our "main" course was an unfortunate misstep: phyllo-wrapped gluten with no taste or texture; a weird-tasting worcestershire sauce; tasteless grilled cabbage; snap peas over a deplorably underseasoned parsnip puree. The plate's only star was a mix of glass noodles and mushrooms and leeks cooked in a corn husk.

But a clay pot rice dish brought us back to center, with its sheer delicacy. It was studded with bamboo shoots and accompanied by one of the finest tastes of the evening, an umami-filled red miso soup with mushrooms and a tiny side of pickled Napa cabbage and daikon. Dessert was a mochi filled with red and white bean paste and wrapped in a strange and interesting pickled cherry leaf. Then, tiny candies, one in the shape of a cherry blossom, the other not identifiable, served with two hot mugs of frothy green tea. It was a breathtaking meditation on the importance of putting vegetables in a starring role.

Kutsher's TriBeCa
186 Franklin Street
New York, NY 10013

414 East 9th Street
New York, NY 10009

Monday, March 12, 2012

Going Dutch

Much to my surprise, The Dutch, Andrew Carmellini's SoHo hotspot, actually had a table for two available around 7 on Sunday night. The man certainly does know how to create a buzz. Wine list: adequately priced. Service: forgettable. Food: delicious, but way too much for what you get. Take, for example, a delicious fried oyster bun, served with mayonnaise and lettuce. Five dollars, and the thing isn't even a little bit shareable. A plate of chicken wings? Nine dollars. For three wings.

But about those wings... They were crispy and delicious and spiked with honey and dill. They reminded me entirely of southern fried chicken and not at all of the Buffalo variety. In a larger serving, I would have happily eaten this chicken for my main meal. But alas. No such option exists.

Peel and eat shrimp were sweet and salty and just barely cooked--I've never had better. A plate of French fries didn't disappoint, either, and a juicy medium-rare pork chop was lathered in smoke and spice and sugar atop a bed of baked butter beans and bacon. Say that sentence twice. It was the kind of chop that impels you to pick the bone up and chew through until everything is gone.

But what I really wanted more than anything--what everyone hails as the holy grail of The Dutch--was the pie. I ordered lemon meringue. The curd was good. The meringue was cloyingly sweet. I liked the addition of poppy seeds, but the crust was anything but fork-tender. Bad batch? I have to believe that the pie itself was not the best example of what the place turns out; if it is, I have serious concerns about critics everywhere.

And then there was the bill. Way high for an incomplete meal. Chef, isn't it still a recession?

The Dutch
131 Sullivan Street
New York, NY 10012

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sunset Pig

Back to northern California, this time for a full week. After A. picked me up from SFO, we drove directly to the Mission for pizza and French pastry. At Delfina, we ordered a sausage and red onion pie, which was pleasantly crisp and nearly as good as the best Neopolitans we get in New York. A plate of roasted cauliflower was lacking some texture, owing to mise-en-place that had been held for too long, but the roasted flavor--nutty, nearly charred--redeemed the textural issues. Warm marinated olives, bathed in oil and heated lemon zest, made for a perfect non-appetizer. Minutes later, we walked down the block to Tartine Bakery. In the past, I have only hit Tartine at night, and by then they are always out of their famed croissants and cakes. But not today. In fact, the case was even filled with open faced crostini with ham and cheese and local asparagus, a perfect lunch for someone who hadn't just eaten. Instead, we ordered a double pain au chocolat, so named for its size, roughly the size of a human hand. It was flaky and buttery and piped with just enough chocolate, a perfect example of pate feuilletee done right.

For dinner, it was off to the venerable Zuni Cafe. A fritto platter was little more than hyped-up onion rings with the occasional flash of fried fennel, but the light batter and accompanying lemon wedge could do no wrong. So, too, with the pillowy gnocchi and crunchy Caesar salad; at Zuni Cafe, it is okay to order the dish you would most likely see anywhere else. Chicken for two really should have been billed as chicken for three, but never mind. It was moist and crisp on the outside and brightened by a vinaigrette that soaked into torn baguette under the bird. The pork chop we ordered, as a result, fell to the wayside, nearly uneaten, though we plowed happily through a tier of salty shoestring fries. For dessert, a play on ile flotante--moist meringues--and a chocolate cake did not last long.

By sunset the next night, I was up in Napa Valley, where I stopped in for dinner at Michael Chiarello's Bottega in downtown Yountville. My "onion soup" was mushroom dominant and complimented by a sunny-side-up hen's egg. It was surprisingly inspired, as was a pasta course of bucatini with whole prawns. I ate the sweet heads, too. I shared a spring risotto--asparagus, spring onions--with a thin paillard of lamb as well as a fun take on chicken marsala. Mushrooms were the theme of the night, appearing in nearly every course. Ricotta donuts, in folded newspaper, arrived hot and were gone before the check appeared.

Then, it was time for lunch at The French Laundry, where we were escorted into a private stone room with a window to the wine pull. Two amuse bouche: gougeres and salmon tartare coronets. And then the parade began. A bowl of caviar, garnished with flowers and candied kumquat, masked a perfect bone marrow custard beneath. Our salads of hearts of palm were garnished with cucumber, red ball radish, avocado, micro mizuna and a black sesame puree. Cobia was a thick fillet, cooked medium and served with conch, a warm corn fritter, celery leaves, and a tomato cream. The largest sea scallop I have ever seen nestled against radishes, beets, Nicoise olives, and poached baby fennel. The duck may have been my favorite, with a full half inch of fat atop a sous-vide puck of meat, a flawless ball of sauteed spinach stretched taut, sunchoke cocottes, and a mandarin orange sauce. By the time the veal, a thick filet with a short rib raviolo on the side, arrived, I was too full to finish the carrots or black trumpet mushrooms bathed in Sauce Bordelaise. Cheese stuffed with truffles was nearly overkill, though I ate it all, including the fried potato croquette and pickled ramp. Sherbet, made from yogurt and served over pomegranate seeds, honey, and granola, was satisfying and reminiscent of breakfast. And dessert in the theme of Meyer lemon, with Oregon huckleberries, poppy seed ice cream, and a brown sugar custard, brought just enough acid to the table to prevent me from feeling the weight of my own excess. Finally, our server brought a coffee semifredo with foamed milk on top and a plate of beignets. To go, she packed six different chocolates and three tins of sugared shortbread.

But by dinner time, I was ready to do it all again, so my friends and I headed to Redd Wood, the new Napa pizza place. Can a person really ever get too much pizza? Or wings, for that matter? We did order wings, of course, big fat ones that were a good Buffalo replica (very very spicy, crisp, doused in Frank's Red Hot), even if they came without the requisite blue cheese and carrot sticks. Flash fried Brussels sprouts were very delicious, but fat spears of asparagus swimming in oil and mint and lemon juice and marked with the appropriately dark remnants of a grill, were not to be outdone. Bucatini in red sauce with guanciale made me remember how much pork fat adds to a dish. And the pizza? For California, it was surprisingly good: crispy, chewy, etc. We got a plain pie, my nod to the pizza gods, as well as a white one with sausage. For dessert, we indulged in a butterscotch semifredo with whipped cream.

Pre-race day brunch took place in downtown Napa at the Oxbow Market, where we found the Kitchen Door, a restaurant tucked into the back. I ate McDonald's style fries--my favorite--and a livery, crunchy, salty and sweet duck banh mi. Back in Carneros, we ate an early dinner at Farm: a half portion of the Maine lobster risotto with al dente kernels of rice, and a full portion of chicken, over butter beans.

When the race was over, all bets were off. I went directly to the Boon Fly Cafe for fresh donuts, each the size of two half dollars. Then it was off to ad hoc, Thomas Keller's family style joint in downtown Yountville. The menu is set and changes nightly and on this particular night we were treated to a salad of warm butter beans with escarole and bacon, a rack of pork over mushrooms and skinny asparagus, and creamy polenta with a bacon and tomato compote. A cheese course came with pickled fennel and then, for dessert, the largest tiramisu I have ever seen, served in a cast iron serving dish. The meal, in its layered simplicity, may have been my favorite.

On our way back from Calistoga the next afternoon, we stopped for California burgers (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and special sauce), a half bottle of Shafer Merlot, a Cherry Coke and garlic parsley fries at Gott's Roadside, where we sat at picnic tables in the sunshine. And then, for our final Napa Valley meal, it was back to Yountville for bone marrow in a grenobloise sauce and a rib-eye for two over trumpet mushrooms and a baked macaroni and cheese at Bouchon. For bistro fare, it does the trick, but only if you're willing to fork over a pretty penny in the process.

Back in San Francisco, with twenty-four hours left of west coast fun, I hit up Mission Chinese, where, in my excitement, I vastly over ordered. Tiny clams in black bean and garlic sauce were pretty and perfect. Spicy cucumbers slicked in oil provided requisite crunch and cooling. The food was spicy--even fatty pork belly needed a thin cucumber salad beneath it and a dish of tofu skins and bacon benefitted from the chewiness of pan fried rice cakes. Cumin lamb came on the bone, and scented the entire dining room. A rich soup of brisket and broth and wide noodles was simple and sumptuous. Crisp chicken wings came in a light dusting of star anise. It was a winning meal, by every stretch of the imagination and left us with just the right amount of leftovers. For dessert, we trekked to Humphry Slocombe for Vietnamese coffee ice cream and brown butter ice cream with butterscotch and amarena cherries.

In the morning, before my flight, I took one final trip to the Mission for Dynamo Donuts, one chocolate rose (like a perfect specimen of the northeastern classic chocolate glazed donut) and an apricot cardamom. The donuts are small enough for a two-per-visit indulgence. The diet starts now.

Delfina Pizzeria
3611 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Zuni Cafe
1658 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Bottega Napa Valley
6525 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Redd Wood
6755 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Kitchen Door
610 First Street
Napa, CA 94559

The Farm at The Carneros Inn
4048 Old Sonoma Highway
Napa, CA 94559

Boon Fly Cafe
4048 Old Sonoma Highway
Napa, CA 94599

ad hoc
6476 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Gott's Roadside
933 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574

Bouchon Bistro
6534 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Mission Chinese Food
2234 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Humphry Slocombe
2790 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Dynamo Donuts
2760 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110