Friday, February 5, 2016

THE EDDY


An eddy is an aqueous vortex of activity:
 in fly fishing terms, it's the sweet spot to hook a catch.  With this in mind, The Eddy in the East Village couldn't be more aptly named.   That a tiny, humble little nook of a restaurant can create food this sophisticated, imaginative and compelling is nothing short of astounding. Chef Brendan McHale's
 food brandishes dazzle that its modest surroundings might belie.  Fancy enough to offer a tasting menu, but cozy enough that servers seem like friends.  Granted, the prices are steep for this neck of the woods, but the culinary eddies of

excitement created in this kitchen prove the price points are more than merited.

King Rodney
Strange Visitors
 If you're not one to pair cocktails with dinner, certainly come for drinks on a separate occasion.  Whimsically named and concocted, they're worth a trip in and of themselves, although at around fifteen dollars each, these a special-occasion tipples.  Try the refreshingly extra-terrestrial looking mezcal-based Strange Visitors, or the sweetly bold King Rodney.





The menu is divided into untitled strata, starting off pricey and waxing even more so.  But beef tendons are puffed magically into crisp clouds, anchored by a dollop of dill-inflected creme and smoked trout roe that burst with subtle salinity, are like nothing you've ever tasted. 
Chewy sunflower-rye toasts affix cool, plush pillows of uni, delicately oceanic, with ricotta whipped to ethereal lightness and brightened with a shoyu mignonette.   Butter poached Barnstable oysters go down, well… like butter, a garlic-smacked savory granola spritzed atop adds a nutty crunch.

  And these are just snacks.  They may be the menu's fireworks, but the next tier (probably considered appetizers) sports a hamachi and mushroom escabeche which is no less delightful.  Firm yet delicate slips of rosy fish wallow in a tangy, zesty cure that balances brightness and intensity no less miraculously than Philippe Petit.  Crispy sunchokes, more
 sturdy than crunchy, form a substantial salad, earthy and dense with sweet slices of crisp pear in a luxurious bed of gently peppery robiola. 





As plates grow larger, some of the creativity might wane, but the quality in no less profound.  A  crisp-edged filet of cod flakes luxuriously into an earthy puree of sunchoke, with toothsome cubes of  Japanese turnips and a luscious bonito butter provide a wink from the east.  A magnificent grass-fed ribeye heralds unrivaled beefiness, coated in a alluring salt rub, and sided simply with crushed fingerlings and a charred bulb of romaine squiggled with a creamy
 dressing.  A side of charred cauliflower, unmissable in its own right, also serves as a wonderful side dish for the meat.  Or on its own.  Or for breakfast.   (I digress.)  It's charred sinfully black, anointed with a verdant gremolata piqued with pimenton.  Try this dish to turn a cauliflower-phobe into an afficionado. 




Though the cardamom panna cotta is so popular they can't seem to remove it from the menu, a ginger cookie compilation with citrus and coconut sorbet didn't live up to the rest of the meal.  It was weirdly plated in that aphelion style, all off to one side and for no good reason.  Better off to go for a Bedrock Fizz from the cocktail list, a fruity gin-based tipple, sweet with brandy and cream… and topped with real Fruity Pebbles.  Because The Eddy isn't above that kind of playfulness: and they can back it up.  



342 East 6th Street
1.646.895.9884


















LA CHINE

Fresh off a two star review from the New York Times, La Chine should capitalize on the momentum.  I feel those two stars were more encouraging than enthusiastic, especially after visiting: the restaurant has a lot of things going for it, but it also charges a lot of money for the experience.  And I'm not talking about a lot of money "for Chinese food".  I mean it is a very pricey place, with entrees in the thirty to forty dollar range.  Granted they are served family-style and are quite generous, but most people seem to order (as we did) in a more Western fashion, in keeping with the stylistic modernity of the restaurant.  There's really no reason for it to be family-style, and the elegance of the space would benefit from serving it with fancy Western aplomb.  Moreover, they might be able to soften the price points.





But I get ahead of myself.  We are here, in this calm, warmly lit room.  It will not entirely transport you from the fact that you are in a hotel, but firstly it's a grand hotel, and secondly, the room is attractive.  An immense satellite-shaped chandelier centers the room which is otherwise simply adorned.  Our server was young, but agile, attentive and informative.  Perhaps he was more cautionary than need be in certain aspects: he seemed very concerned that we might order something that overshot our spiciness quotient, but there was but one dish that we tried that night that really packed much punch at all.  Yellowtail
 sashimi (for lack of a better word), was endorsed by our server over the other of their Raw Bar options.  The rosy slips fanned out like a flat pink dahlia in a pool of ruddy Szechuan pepper oil, tiny rings of vermilion chili harbingers of heat.  The fish was sturdy enough to hold up to
 the assertive sauce, which would've overwhelmed a more delicate variety. The soups are the one thing not facilely shareable.  One bowl, one spoon, and while there's enough to divide with another mouth, it lacks the necessary utensils- unless you're okay sharing that, too.  We chose the Chicken Cloud Consomme, mostly for its morels, which were few and far between.  Its eggy "cloud" was more a dense cumulonimbus than wispy cirrus, but the clear, golden broth itself is deep and satisfying, enriched with aged yellow wine and profoundly chickeny stock.

Crispy Spanish mackerel was a showstopper, arriving with the pomp of a glass cloche which releases a plume of woodsy smoke encasing the meaty hunks of fish.  Surprisingly, the aggressive frying of the fish did not compound its fishiness, but it exhibited almost a jerky-like texture.   Its flavor was gently oceanic, kissed with smoke and
 soy.  The most winsome component, however, was the exemplary pickled Napa cabbage.  Absolutely delectable kimchee-esque slabs of slippery cabbage, slicked with tahini for an unexpected nuttiness.  The earthy brightness made this accoutrement exceptional on its own, and elevated the dish to memorable success.

The entrees we chose were less superlative, though that might've been avoided had I paid more attention to Well's review: he specifically panned the two entrees we selected. Such an evitable error = menu regret.  Our versions, however, were at least impeccably fresh, although the overall impression was both lackluster and only marginally Chinese-tasting.  The most interesting component of the black cod was the Chinese wild fern snuggled under the pillowy fresh fish.  It is an intriguing vegetable, similar in texture and appearance to spinach but with a subtle celery or lovage flavor.  Our hyper-spice conscious waiter swapped out its scallion-ginger-soy sauce as specified on the menu for a purportedly zippier preparation, which turned out to be a savory chutney-type paste...
flavorful  enough, but was strangely bereft of any of the spicy zip is was supposed to be providing.  Likewise, the X.O. sauce that pooled beneath the five hulking scallops in their elongated canoe of a dish looked dark and mysterious, but tasted like a generic brown sauce with a hint of tang- again, no chili-pepper spiciness despite our waiter's precautions.  Plus, it was too thin to really cling to the scallops, and humongous as they were, the flavor had zero chance of penetrating their heft.  They actually performed better the next day (such a big portion was unfinishable solo), as they had a chance to marinate overnight in their seasonings as leftovers.  Plus, the pea pods benefited from a little extra cooking as well.  The cod, on the other hand, was an easily manageable portion for a single diner, so portion size isn't always consistent, either.




The wok-fired cauliflower is cumin-heavy (which I liked, but my tablemate found excessive), flanked with thicks slabs of fatty pork belly (which my tablemate liked, but I found excessive).  The florets might be a touch greasy, but the dish is highly grubbable.  That adjective isn't what I imagine for a $16 side dish, but still, tasty is tasty.  Purer are the pea shoots, soy-slicked and glistening green, although notably un-seasonal in the thick of January, and likewise waxing spendy.  That said, to their credit, they capitalize on the super-local honey that the Waldorf-Astoria cultivates
 right there on their very own rooftop, care of New York's finest beekeeper, Andrew Cote of Andrew's Honey.  Glazing that aforementioned pork, and a very springy
 sea bass dotted with asparagus tips and enoki mushrooms, I wish it could've trickled down into the dessert options, although the pink pearl vacherin was a highlight of the evening even without it.  Gorgeously presented, it recalled Paul Liebrandt's masterpiece from Corton (of yore).  Two spiraling meringues sandwich a tangy passionfruit mousse aside a smooth lychee sorbet.... squiggled underneath was a strange pool-noodle of unidentifiable gelatin, the tasted more of plate than anything else.  The luminous pink pearl that hallmarks the dish is certainly eye-catching, but quasi-inedible, a waxy sphere of wan white chocolate whose only redeeming quality is it loveliness.  It's a pity that too many of the dishes sort of share that assessment. I agree wholeheartedly that New York could use some fancy-shmancy Asian cuisine that is precisely what La Chine is aspiring to- I just don't think it quite gets there.

 






At the waldorf astoria
540 lexington avenue lachine@waldorfnewyork.com
212.872.4913

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

SHUN LEE PALACE

Shun Lee Palace offers genuinely Americanized Chinese food, of a quality better than your corner hole-in-the-wall, but with prices that are certainly more on par with standard New York dining as well.  You can eat very well here, especially if you can disregard the dated and aged decor (its cousin further west is somewhat more modern in appearances).  Service is swift and smiling, if slightly clownish in ill-fitting, military blue busboy uniforms.  Mostly their English is serviceable, and some speak quite well, enthusiastically deciphering the menu and weeding out food allergies and sensitivities, for which the restaurant is astoundingly conciliatory.

As for the food, nothing we had wasn't perfectly tasty.  Nothing was particularly challenging: even the heat levels are rather subdued on dishes marked spicy, but given their concern with catering to individual circumstances, I'm quite sure they'd amp it up if you asked.  That said most dishes are flavorful enough, and since we were eating banquet-style, there were more than enough examples from every quadrant of the menu. And there are certainly novelties beyond chow mein: we started off with a raw jellyfish salad which isn't on the regular menu.  Makes me
 wonder if there's not one of those Chinese-only, save-all-the-good-stuff-for-the-natives type version skulking around outside the reach of the average New York patron.  But that was all right with me on this count: admiring the decorative orchid was as close as I come to eating raw jellyfish.  I was a big fan of the shell-on shrimp, however, served with dense little hillocks of rice stuffed with sausage and a tangled tuft of ribboned green onion.  Vegetarians comforted in a Buddha's Delight, a hodge-podge of cubed vegetables and tofu to wrap up in crispy leaves 
of  iceberg, a salty, zesty plum sauce aside for dipping.  Baked lobster with ginger was a highlight, and one of their specialties.  Hacked into shell-on chunks glazed with a black bean sauce and zippy ginger, I could've done well with just this and the platter of garlicky bok choy and giant shittake mushroom caps.   Even though I love eggplant, I was less thrilled with Shun Lee's Schezuan version, basically a one-trick pony with Hunan heat and little more.

But a nourishing broth of black chicken was surprisingly alluring.  The dark-skinned carcass just floats there, unceremoniously, in its rich golden juices, but the meat unprecedentedly tender and imparts such profound flavor that its uncomeliness is swiftly dismissed.    Smooth, chewy Dan Dan noodles finally punch with some heat- their "two-chili" designation living up to its prophecy.  A crispy whole sea bass had a one-chili spice alert, but it was relatively tame... nor was it necessarily sea bass.  I asked the waiter what type of fish it was, suggesting sea
 bass, but he said no- even thought there was a sea bass on the menu- and he couldn't come up with a more accurate alternative, either.  But that's all right.  Whatever fish it was was fresh and flaky, ideal swabbed with daubs of the ruddy coating of sauce studded with green onions and tasty fried bits.

And being a "fine dining" restaurant, actual dessert options present themselves aside from a simple fortune cookie and wedge of orange (not that there's anything wrong with those).  These are fried bananas or a candy apple fritter, mind you, or a sweet tapioca rice.  We tried the Shanghai crepe with red bean soup.  I'm not sure if the crepe was filled with chocolate or bean- it was more sugary-sweet than anything, but the crepe was thin and pliant, the sweet soup of red beans cool and earthy.   A chewy mochi-esque dumpling floated above, the small beans lilt to the bottom for texture.   It paired well with the warm cups of weak tea held over from dinner.

So is Shun Lee.  It's a deftly executed array of mostly familiar Chinese food, fresher and more intriguing than take-out, and with some gems on a menu it would take a lifetime to get all the way through.  For big parties or big wallets, Shun Lee offers a certain cache.  And if your just in search of an upgrade from your neighborhood joint, they do, in fact, deliver.



155 East 55th St
T: 212.371.8844







JOSEPH LEONARD

How I could have been recommending this place as one of my favorites for the amount of time (read: YEARS) since I had first eaten there is reprehensible.  Not visiting monthly, really, is questionable.  Despite the diversity and abundance of Manhattan's dining scene, Joseph Leonard remains at the top of my list since it opened.  It has not fallen short in any manner; in fact, if anything, it is even warmer, more
 welcoming and more delicious than the first time.  The name comes from the owner's grandfathers,
and like a grandpa's embrace. you'd just as soon stay in it for a long as possible were there not some obvious practical constraints in doing so.



Their infamous sandwich board alone propped outside the entrance draws crowds- it is a constantly changing institution of cleverness, sometimes poignant, usually funny, occasionally crass and always unique.  Whoever writes on that thing I want for my best friend.  The menu here is similarly chameleon (and endearing),  vacillating with the tides of market and season, capitalizing on the very best, and in fact, besting the fundamentals it puts into use.

Reservations, on the other hand, are less accommodating: they don't take them.  So we get there early... who cares.   I love just being there, and you'll have more time to appreciate the sign.    And luck has it that an early table is not too difficult to procure- like all places, its that prime-time dining hour that invokes painfully long wait times.  But we were seated swiftly, our waiter familiar and friendly.  I think this is the only place where it actually seemed right that our server introduce himself by name.  It does feel, in fact, like your dining with friends, so you should be at least that familar.  The chef's name, by the way, is Neal Duffy.  He's not the same guy that was there when I first was, but his talented hand maintains the bar just as high.


To begin, our server (Aaron) tried to nudge us towards a beet salad special I'm sure was stellar, but there is a Caramelized Cauliflower that is sort of signature dish that we opted for instead- although frankly we should've gotten both.  It's one of those can't-take-it-off-the-menu kind of dishes.  Florets both raw and roasted are tossed with capers and a mustardy vinaigrette bonding the two harmoniously.  The  raw bits keep the dish from being too rich, and add crunchiness along with the fat pine nuts piled atop.  I can see why it stays on the menu, but at the same time the roasted winter squash or a chicken soup with limas and kale sounded just as wonderful.  We split this as an appetizer (they divided the portion for us, charmingly), although I could've easily taken it down solo.


That just left me hungrier for my octopus, though, so I was happy when a feasibly appetizer-sized portion turned out to be generous, and pooled in thick stewed lentils bolstered with falling-apart tender shreds of braised oxtail.   An herbacious vinaigrette brightened the dense stew, flickered with a bright mince of verdant green olives and tufts of frisee, lending freshness. It
 wasn't so big, though, to keep
me from stealing bites of my tablemate's swordfish, which arrived shrouded in a slippery cloak of pleasantly bitter radicchio, sluiced in a pepperoni gastrique, lively but not spicy.  Peeling back the sturdy leaves revealed a thick cut of juicy fish, anchored in sweet butternut squash pureed to a luscious viscosity.  Perhaps the highlight of the night was a side of roasted brussels sprouts (I know: I'm biased) riddled with sriracha.  Then again, the bias may not really be necessary to appreciate these: my companion tried to replicate
 the dish at home the very next day.  But as restaurants do, they're not so easily copied as initial appearances.  Assuming there is salt and probably butter involved, these were more than just roasted sprouts and a squiggle of hot sauce- the other elements are the intoxicating mystery of the kitchen.





Desserts offered just three options: a salted caramel pudding, carrot cake and the chocolate tahini tart, which won me over with its "toasted fluff", bruleed dollops of marshmallow cream surrounding the dense puck of sesame-tinged chocolate.  Cool slices of brown sugar bananas offered a bit of levity, although for me, the proportions of fluff and 'nana could've been increased three-fold to the size of the tart.  As it were, the fudginess was a bit overwhelming.

www.josephleonard.com
But none of this lessens the virtues of Joseph Leonard.  We sat at that table, licking the last drops of pomegranate molasses from the plate, for far too long, knowing our highly coveted two-top was in utmost demand.  But our server didn't rush us off, just like a good grandpa would never kick you out even past his bedtime.  We finally forced ourselves up and out even though the mood just encouraged us to linger longer.  It's all right: Joseph Leonard will be there for me again, and it won't take me nearly as long this time for me to get back to them.



170 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10014
646.429.8383



Wednesday, January 13, 2016

DIVERSION/PDX: KACHKA

So THAT'S what all the fuss is about.  It's been on like, EVERYONE'S hit list for the last year-ish or so, but somehow the menu (combined with some unfortunate Russian preconditioning) was making it hard for me to believe Kachka was all that.  My loss, until now.  All that press is for good reason.

Kachka is a simple dining hall, with deeply striated bare wooden floors and benches, not particularly comfy metal chairs and Russian banners and artifacts hung on the walls.  Our server arrived promptly and enthusiastically to help us figure out the menu, his  pronunciation of the Russian words convincingly accented, despite his plaid-flanneled, blue-blooded American appearance.
"They trained us well", a conscientiousness that applied to everything at this restaurant, from borscht to nuts.

"Will we be drinking?" is the first issue to address, and your answer should be in the affirmative.  Vodka is part of the fun here, although the food holds its own so deftly  that sober consumption has its own merits as well: your call.  

And although we didn't get the borscht (theirs is a lusty concoction bolstered with short ribs, and the menu purports that it's "nothing like the stuff in the jar from the store"),  we got our share of beets in the Herring Under a Fur Coat, a dish that every review of this restaurant raves about.  We couldn't not try it, despite it's sort of unappealing list of ingredients.  How they managed to make herring, potatoes, onions, carrots, mayo and eggs along with those beets into the delicacy that they do is astounding.   There is a cool lusciousness about it, tangy zips from the beets and creamy sweetness from pureed carrots.  The herring element is subtle, adding a funky brininess rather
 than the potential signature fishiness.  Another cold zazuski is the Moldovan eggplant, a tangy compote of the vegetable roasted with prunes and tomatoes, like an oliveless Russian caponata, served with warm triangles of chewy, fresh-baked lavash for scooping up.  It sweet and sour with a flutter of freshness from parsley and mint, fat toasted pinenuts atop for crunch.  It would make a most excellent picnic dish or an accompaniment to cold roast chicken, or here, with a selection of smoked treasures (mussels, steelhead, etc.)  from the Fish Board.    Hot zazuski are heartier: this is where the borsch shows up, as well as a crispy beef tongue.  Kachka doesn't cater to delicate palates, although there have evolved some more concessions to them on the menu than when they opened.  That said, Mushrooms Julienne might sound daintier than they are in execution,
arriving in a scorching clay cauldron cloaked in Litovski cheese- a chewy, stringy relative of Edam that wonderfully enriches the varied assortment of fungus below.  A crispy-chewy lattice of spaghetti-thin julienned potatoes nested the cast iron pan like the soccorat of a perfect
paella underneath juicy, salty mushrooms cloaked in a thin layer of oozy melting cheese: this is what poutine wishes it was.

Dumplings constitute their own section of the menu, served classic or pan-fried, and with a choice of fancy garlic broth.  We skipped straight to mains, choosing Chicken Tsimmes that included dumplings in it so as not to miss out.  A
gargantuan plate of stew it is, the tenderest hunks of stewed poultry, and an avalanche of carrot knobs ample enough to bring any faltering vision back to 20/20 in a snap.  The dumplings themselves ("by way of the shtetl"... the menu itself is very amusing) are toothsome and plush, creating a dish I can't describe any better than they do: "like if your Kentucky grandma were actually KGB."  My grandma wasn't from Kentucky, definitely wasn't KGB and never fixed chicken stew for me at all, so Kachka right then and there endeared itself to me for eternity.  I toiled decide between the pan roasted trout and the rabbit in a clay pot, but since I normally order fish, and I was already SO out of my element here, I rode the tide of novelty and went with the bunny.  I am SO glad I did.  Braised in smetana, a Russian sour cream, it suffered none of the gristly boniness that sometimes afflicts rabbit.  The meat, just gently gamey, fell easily off the bone into rich creamy gravy studded with porcini mushrooms
and tart, dried sour cherries.  Four potato cakes called draniki orbit this deliciousness, elevating the humble tuber from peasant food to a remarkably decadent disc, fried crunchy on the edges, tender and chewy inside, much like those beneath the mushrooms.   I couldn't come close to finishing all four, but they suffered not at all held over a day later, a wonderful accompaniment for eggs scrambled with some of the leftover mushrooms.

I had to save some of the food to eat later, so as to ensure even a modicum of appetite for dessert.  The food was so satisfyingly original to me that I wasn't missing the opportunity for the full experience.  Full I was, already,  but what harm could a little lingonberry parfait do?  It is probably the lightest of the options, discernibly, layering farina mousse with delicately floral rosewater whipped cream with the pureed lingonberries topped with crunchy candied pumpernickel nuggets.  You had to scoop deep to colligate all the elements successfully: the berries on their own were too acerbic.  I might've been happier with sour cherry vareniki or apple ponchiki (so fun to say), or most likely, the Bird's Milk Cake with amaretto and chocolate.... 'cause, you know.  It's Portland.  Put a bird on it.









No reservations for parties smaller than eight, but if your party is of that size, and
"you are running late, please don’t hesitate to call us at 503.235.0059.  Lenin waits for no one!
Спасибо!
Team Kachka "
720 SE GRAND AVENUE