Saturday, August 29, 2015

DIVERSION/PDX: AVIARY

Portland-style: keeping a bird on it.  Funny, with Gabriel Rucker's Pigeon and Little Bird, Roost, and Pok Pok (oh, wait... that just sounds like a bird's cluck), Aviary fits right into the scene.  At least an in name.  And in cuisine, it shares its philosophy with such marvels as Smallwares and Expatriate with an Asian-bent, but at its heart, Aviary pulses around the glories of the Pacific Northwest.  I was intrigued, too, by its chef, Sarah Pliner,  that spent time at Aldea, Aquavit and Alain Ducasse: she seems to be keeping up her A-game with Aviary, on every level.

You'll pass through a small veranda with outdoor seating, far enough off of Alberta and enclosed by the walls of the courtyard to avoid any vehicular nuisance.   Still, we chose an inside table, just next to the kitchen pass which is high enough to protect trade secrets but open enough to see busy, toqued heads bustling about their work.




Our waiter was patriotically Portland: mustachioed and tattoed, easy-going and amicable, dashing, and most importantly, super knowledgeable and helpful.  He was well-versed in wines and coaxed us toward a local blend from the Columbia Gorge which was slightly pricier than the Txakoli we were intending, but a great bottle- strikingly voluptuous for a white, perfumed of melon and citrus, still dry but with a residual sweetness.  He kept it on ice for us, refilling without a lapse, but never hovering.  And as soon as our food order begin to arrive we didn't any assistance: this food speaks for itself.

Even with such a seasonal menu that changes frequently, there were a few additions to capitalize on some market treasure of the day.  From these, we chose a tempura maitake which was big enough to share amongst the three of us: Aviary is intended to be small-plate style, but you can do the app/entree thing too.  We probably overdid it on tempura, as our green beans were prepared the same way, which made for a bit too much deep-fry mid-August.  The crispy sleeves slid easily off the beans, however, a little lighter that way.  Gently imbued with green curry and spritzed with a ruddy sesame salt,  they are decidedly flavorful enough in their own right.  The tempura of the maitake was clingier, the craggy, porous texture of the mushroom gripping
 its golden crust like it just knew how good it tasted inside of it.  Slathered in lemon cream, it was no Jenny Craig mushroom, but the balance of chewy, crispy and creamy, the contrast of rich and earthy in the mushroom, and the lightness of lemon in the decadent cream made an ace combination.  


Another vegetable was one of my favorite dishes of the night: two beautifully halved Japanese eggplants were coated in tiny beads of crispy puffed millet and splayed over a tomato-miso puree (double-umami!!) spiked with aji amarillo. Not only was it original, it was over-the-top delicious and visually arresting.
 Rivalling this for the best dish of the night was the Warm Vegetable Barigoule, which reminded me of Paul Liebrandt's vegetable appetizer from The Elm, sadly no longer with us.  Here, tiny little gems of produce in a salty fennel-fragrant broth, much more rustic than Liebrandt's, and bulked out with a moist, fluffy black olive cake, spongy like a dense mousse, a dollopo of thick goat cheese and a crisp honey tuile.  The elements had the artistic compostion of a dessert, but ate like a garden party celebrating summer's finest. 















As the menu progressed, portion size definitely expanded but the prices remain moderate, peaking at $22.  The short ribs was short of nothing: a full plate of deliciousness, gravy included.  A generous hunk of spoon-tender meat
topped with chunky shiitakes lolled in its miso-enhanced juices, a thick puree of taro root alongside.  A fresh slaw seasoned with zesty yuzukosho kept things from getting to heavy, summery as it was.  Petrale sole furled the delicate filet around itself and a firm shrimp mousse, creating a thick plank crusted with golden brioche.  It's friends, wads of steamed nettle and lilliputian chanterelles, were so far on the opposite side of the plate that the fish would've missed them had it not been for a delicate sauce flavored with xiao xing   (a little alcohol can assuage many problems).  And then
 there was the charred octopus, which may have looked a little scant compared to the short ribs, but packed so much flavor and chutzpah into those vinous blackened tentacles it more than made up for its stature.  The thick "shoulders" of the arms were tender and meaty, but it was the crispy tips, chewy and savory as a seafaring bacon, that won me over.  They tangled around perfectly cooked, gently bitter stems of broccoli raab flecked with red pepper flakes.  A molten ricotta pudding tamed any latent heat, oozing out of its semi-solid state with the prod of a fork to fuze with a rich red curry jus, spattered haphazardly over the plate.  I am in love.

After all of the creativity, we kept things simple for dessert, although fancier options can be had.  Brilliantly strawberry-y strawberries flecked with black pepper propped up a pair of thick, buttery shortbreads softened with freshly whipped cream.  Between the three of us, it allowed for just a few pleasant bites of sweet to finish off a memorably excellent repast.  Like the array of birds one might find in an aviary, Portland Aviary showcases the best characteristics of my favorite city.














Thursday, August 27, 2015

DIVERSION/Bellevue: DIN TAI FUNG

One floor up in a shopping mall in Bellevue.  One door over from Lucky Strike arcade and game pavilion.   One hour long wait.  One Michelin star.

Din Tai Fung is the Taiwanese mini-chain of superb dumpling purveyors that began as a cooking oil retail store in 1958, burgeoning into a full-service restaurant in 1972, and has now flourished in ten different countries.  Their specialty is the dumplings, and to enter the Bellevue location you'll pass the glass-enclosed station where a team of several focused individuals roll and wrap the dough into their compact little purses. They hardly break to recognize the captize audience of wait-listed diners-to-be, menus in hand, to decide from the lengthy list of selections as their table is readied.  You'll have plenty of time to decide: this place is popular and waits over an hour are the norm.  If you're anything like us, it could take you the full duration to decide upon fillings and accoutrements .


Obviously the dumplings are their raison d'etre, but nothing here is an afterthought.  Vegetables are fresh and well-seasoned; spinach is garlicky and broccoli a toothsome emerald.  Hot and sour soup sang
both characteristics emphatically- notably hot in both senses, the temperature furthering emphasizing it sassy tang.  Shreds of tofu and mushroom augment the viscous broth, while sprightly flecks of green onion bob atop.  Little icons help illustrate potentially controversial attributes of menu items: a small cow or pig denotes its meat component, and a red chili warns of heat.  The soup had its fair share of fire, for sure, but it was nothing demonic.

c/o DinTaiFungUSA.com
We had to try the most popular dumpling- DTF's pork  XiaoLongBao.  There are quite a few techniques for eating soup dumplings.  I prefer the whole-hog (no pun intended) tactic, but this always runs the risk of de-skinning the roof of your mouth.  You can nip a tiny puncture in the wrapper and unleash the juices into the wide porcelain spoons, or else cut into it pre-, but then you lose all the treasured soup.  However you manage, these are supreme renditions of the marvel.  Super porky but ungreasy, the skin just supple enough to withhold its fillings and surrender to your teeth.  Each one is pleated with a minimum of 18 folds, sealing in its flavorful filling and creating the perfect density.   I was REALLY tempted to get the truffled pork variety, but it seemed a bit blasphemous in the face of a Michelin starred Taiwanese, so I kept to the classics.  But shrimp and gourd could've been equally delectable.  Soup dumplings, flavorful enough on their own, are served with separate crocks of soy and black vinegar, recommended by our waitress to use in a respective 2:1 ratio, but even at my table there was variance from 1:4 to 4:1, so tailor to your own liking.

From "Noodles & Wontons" (each dumpling shape has a different name) we tried the Vegetable and Pork Wonton with a Spicy Sauce.  The wontons are of the crescent-shaped variety, slicked in a spicy vermillion oil studded with fried bits of onion.  I think I liked these more than the famed soup dumplings, but then again, I'm all about sauce.


Unlike your typical Chinese or other Asian joint, Din Tai Fung offers dessert, but we still had a long haul of a drive ahead of us, and after the hour + long wait just to be fed, I'm afraid the clock was ticking.  Plus, the sweets are more starchy delights: from cakey filled buns and intriguing XaoLongBao stuffed with sweet taro or red bean paste, to sticky rice concoctions variously flavored.  If I ever make it back to a Din Tai Fung, where I might find it, I'm definitely hitting that sweet taro XaoLongBao.  While that Bao probably wasn't the one that clinched the Michelin, it's still piqued my curiosity.  Until then.




700 Bellevue Way NE #280
Bellevue, WA 98004
Tel: (425) 698-1095















Tuesday, August 25, 2015

SESSANTA

John McDonald strikes again, keeping his focus downtown by taking over the old Kittichai space at 60 Thompson Street, and enlisting Chef Jordan Frosolone to reign over this new Sicilian in the Village.  I couldn't find an immediate translation for "frosolone", but I'm leaning towards fra sole, which would translate to "between a big sun".  I like this, accuracy notwithstanding, and it segues nicely with the number of untraditional spellings throughout the menu, which may just be attributed to quirks of the Sicilian dialect.  I never made it here when it was the popular Thai restaurant of yore, so I can't compare the room, but at Sessanta (adopting the easy nomenclature of the street number in Italian), it's hard to forget you are dining in a hotel.  Stripey wallpaper in ruddy
reds and browns coordinate with a red tiled floor, but somehow there is still an office-y boxiness to it.  An eclectic mix of art
hangs on the walls, some Italo-centric, some graphic and colorful.   But it gives you something to admire until menus arrive: that, along with the very attractive clientele that Mr. McDonald always seems to attract. 
 So the room gains appeal as it fills up, the lighting soft and warm so everyone looks even better.   A large skylight framed in frondy plants also breaks things up... and made we wonder how it was possible since the rest of the hotel rises above the ground floor restaurant.  But a little welcome appetizer arrives from the kitchen to distract me: a crunchy, toasted crostino topped with a warm, stewy compote of
summer squashes and eggplant, plush and sumptuous under a dusting a pungent parmesan.  Nothing revolutionary, but perfectly balanced and rich enough to warrant an  amuse-sized portion.  Ditto the steamy potato-cheese croquette: its crisp-fried exterior just substantial enough to encase its gooey, cheesy innards.  These are the kinds of things you want more and more of, but with dinner to follow are better kept in diminutive portions.

A salad of baby kale and romaine is moistened with just enough dressing to render the greens toothsome, shrouded in a feather-light grating of zesty pecorino nerello.  Chef is very conscientious of his cheese usage: there are dozens of unique Italian formaggi gracing different dishes, each paired thoughtfully with its cohorts, instead of just throwing parm on everything.  The pecorino here served as an assertive counterpoint for paper-thin, mild radishes and tender sweet beets cloched underneath.   A gorgeous fritto misto barely ensconced the variety of shrimp and vegetables in crunchy gossamer shells - even the lemon wedges were battered and fried, rendering them mild enough to munch along with everything else, bursting in your mouth with a gentle, tamed citrusiness.

On the other hand, there is nothing gentle about a deceptively light-sounding Schiaffuni Raviolo, with its baby leeks and zucchini.  I imagined this resulting in a summery, bikini-friendlier pasta dish, but the bright succotash of produce occluded an enormous noodle pocket, fat with cheese-amplified cheese, stretching oozy and luxe between forkfuls, bedecked with a fine dusting of more grated cheese, and topped with frico (more fried cheese).  It was fantastically tasty, for the few bites I could manage, but I bowed out before even conquering it halfway.  I had to wonder if this might now be more successful shrunken and doled out like the bruschetta and croquette, a mini-version amuse.

For an entree, secondo-style, I couldn't decide between meat and fish (the veal marsala read like the classic, appealingly so.  And our waiter recommended the branzino as a most popular item, but it felt a little "safe").  So I went for the two-birds-with-one-stone option: a surfy-turfy grilled swordfish served over pulled pork shoulder, some artichoke and carrot thrown in for good measure.  The fish was cut thick like a T-bone, and just as juicy.  The braising juices pooled deep below, begging for a starchy component to take advantage them, so I commandeered a bread basket- three slices of which just handled the overflow.  I think a thickened, gravy-er version might have worked better to prop up the fish over such a brothy sluice, although a very home-grown, round carrot nub and chunky artichokes did their part.  I'm a huge proponent of keeping the flesh above the fluid, so as not to sog things up.  But the flavors were outstanding: salty, meaty, umami-y.  And the sparsity of vegetables called for a side order of
something leafy: there are five sides listed on the menu, but only two seemed appropriately vegetative.  I went for the chard with garlic and lemon, which just edged out roasted zucchini with pignoli and mint (might've been a better choice, actually.  The chard was great, but now I'm curious about that squash, whereas with the chard I pretty much knew what I was getting myself into, tasty as it was).  Starchier options included roasted corn (complete with  more cheese), shell beans slicked in oil, and rosemary potatoes.

On the sweet side of things, desserts are pretty standard dessert-y with Italian elements.  Aside from cannoli,  flecked with chips of chocolate and pistachio, a chocolate pudding with salted cookie crumbs and candied cashews, or a rhubarb crisp with creme anglaise could have been on pretty much any menu.  They do have a cookie plate of assorted Sicilian specialities: Sicilians like their biscotti nutty, so there are versions with almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios or sesame.  All in all, Sessanta performs solidly.... I'd rank it much higher than it's street number out of a hundred, for sure.  And with Frosolone's sensibility, I'd say that the best is yet to come, with the heartier ingredients and appetites of fall and winter just waiting for his expertise.




60 Thompson Street
tel.  212-219-8119
info@sessantanyc.com










Saturday, August 22, 2015

INDOCHINE

Here is a classic.  I was sort of begrudging having to dine here: Indochine is a way-back, play-back has-been with nothing new (right?) to offer, and I didn't even recall it being that magnificent to begin with.   But I did remember the room, which hasn't changed a wink.  Enormous bouquets of palm fronds and lilies dominate the decor, shadowed by leafy fronds painted in green on all the walls.  It is dark inside, which wasn't so much alluring and moody as just plain dark.  But once the food came out, I lost any misplaced misgivings.  Indochine is still (as good as it ever did!) putting out some really fine cuisine.


And they were swift of service as well.  We came in a slightly larger group than anticipated, and an extra table leaf was brought in without a hiccup to provide adequate elbow room for our party.  There wasn't really even a blink before our drinks were ordered and served: a mojito was brisk, balanced and refreshing.   The wine list had my sort-of-obscure favorite (Picpoul de Pinet) as well as three others that I also love, so it was almost hard to decide (were it not that Picpoul is so fun to say).  Luckily too, it paired perfectly with the bold Vietnamese flavors.   And bold they are, funky and fishy and times, tart and piquant.  The Lotus Salad comprised all of those elements, with the freshness of cool bean sprouts and tender shrimp.  It had a gentle latent kick,
hitting only after a few chews, as if to remind you it wasn't just an ordinary salad.   But even Indochine can't escape from the ubiquitous kale salad, ebbing from some of the more trend-setting restaurants, but their version was solid.  Roasted seaweed and crispy shallots augmented the nuttiness of the toothsome kale, which was shredded into a pleasant tidbits easily managed with chopsticks.


My favorite dish by far (by FAR!) was the grilled eggplant.  Eggplant so often suffers from its sponge-like attributes, becoming so laden with grease that all of its vegetative benefits are almost annihilated.  But Indochine keeps it pure by grilling it assertively, so that the flavor comes
 from a smoky char and a bright kick of coriander and cilantro nudged with sesame and soy.  Each halved plant is portioned into bite-
sized squares, so delightful and easy to eat I had to effortfully keep myself from filling up on
this dish alone (we ordered a lot).  Fresh little summer rolls of shrimp and chicken showed up simultaneously, and they stack up neatly, served with a thick, zippy peanut sauce for dipping.   Little fried rolls of vegetables and chicken were more finger-foody treats,
 crisp and not too greasy- lightened further wrapped in crunch-tastic leaves of iceberg lettuce and a refreshing seasoned vinegar.  A crispy bean curd salad featured tofu more chewy than crispy, but tossed with a fetching salad of pea and corn shoots, could easily serve as a vegetarian entree.   The real clincher in the salad is the corn shoots: lovely, slightly sweet, nutty leaves, pale yellow and tender... and (in my opinion) sorely underutilized.  I hope to see these elsewhere now that they're on my radar- so
 far, the corn shoots and the eggplant dish alone would warrant a return to Indochine (or an ingredient search on menupages.com).   Tightly wrapped Steamed Vietnamese ravioli (ravioli? Really?  They're not even remotely ravioli-shaped: can't we just call them dumplings?) arrive in woven baskets, their lids open with a burst of fragrant vapors (the blur in the picture is not poor focus, but a thick waft of steam).  They are stuffed with more chicken and shrimp, this time adding shiitakes to keep them from being too similar to the summer rolls.  The fragrant tuft of steam is an enticing harbinger, and crisp fried onions atop contribute a nice allium crunch.  Vegetarian Stew is the non-meat-eaters concession: it's a fine, light curry of myriad vegetables in a ruddy broth, but lacked much depth.  And as proof that brussels
sprouts (much as I adore them) have no place in Vietnamese cuisine, these woefully undercooked ones lurking below the surface should be left to more familiar stomping grounds, bobbing like raw-ish green buoys, astray in foreign waters.    Slippery shiitakes were the highlight here: all the other vegs could've used a little more stove time.





The most popular dessert at Indochine is the roasted wrapped in sweet rice, alongside a cool puddle of thin coconut milk tapioca.  It's a little starchy and dense for me; I preferred the tapioca element to the dense, sweet rice, but for a bite or two held enough appeal.  A toasty sprinkle of sesame benefitted both sides.

The menu has changed little since it's opening in 1984, but even after three decades, Indochine is one of the few New York institutions that seems to be retaining its popularity (and moreover, its ability to keep up with the cockamamie real estate situation in this fair city).  I guess as long as it keeps up what it is doing, in combination with reliable quality and the nostalgia of the experience, with any luck, Indochine could probably survive to celebrate a golden anniversary.













Monday, August 17, 2015

ON VACATION!

I'll be back soon, with posts about the new place Sessanta and an old classic, Indochine.  And also highlights from the Pacific Northwest... but in the meantime, feel free to browse around some older recommendations and let me know what you think!  Happy Summer.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

THE CLOCKTOWER

Find the humongous clock hovering over Madison Square Park and it will lead you to The Clocktower in the Edition Hotel.  Although it's not technically in the tower (one flight up from the hotel's lobby), it's a befitting name, conjuring up associations with the iconic Westminster clock Big Ben, and the clubby eatery is rife with British nuance, from fish and chips to staffers pronouncing the Queen's English.  The chef is a true Brit as well, Jason Atherton, who has earned
 a Michelin star at his former
 restaurant in Sheffield.  There is definitely an old boys aesthetic inspiring the food and decor, but Atherton's talent lends modern and creative touches to the standards.  It would be a very picky client who couldn't find something to delight upon the menu.  And even before you have to choose anything, a piping hot loaf of mild sourdough, quartered, graces the table, good enough on its own but heavenly with lashings of a thick, buttermilk-whipped butter, pure and white and meltingly creamy.

And speaking of clubby, the cocktail list takes inspiration from that of the nighttime variety.  Some have funny names and clever riffs on industry standards, but our neighbor's sported an unexpected garnish: two illuminated glow-sticks looping above, which definitely emphasizes a playfulness at hand.  While the food is seriously good, Atherton is not taking himself or the rigors of fine dining too seriously.
 

Our young and dashing waiter was exceptionally attentive and charming, putting up with my friend's cheeky incessant banter with the grace of an old soul.    The sommelier, commensurately helpful, conveyed his savvy with a crisp accent to assist us in finding a brisk Gruner that paired marvelously with our first plate.  Scallops and cauliflower, both richly bronzed in a nutty brown
butter laden with bright capers and golden raisins came three to the plate, making it ample enough to share a bite without compromise. A spring leaf salad (although we are headstrong
into summer) was almost sizable enough to halve, but the tasty tumble of greens with striking ribbons of stripey carrot ribbons and toothsome raw artichoke made itself easy to finish on my own, in its lightly lively in its citrus dressing.

The menu rallies between buoyantly playful and sophisticatedly modernist.   An "old fashioned bucket of oysters, bits and bobs" is, in actuality, an architecturally striking seafood tower, much more elegant than its description.  There is a mac and cheese, but here it's no side-dish noodle: fortified with tender, slow-cooked ox cheek and wild mushrooms, it is a substantial entree.    Dover sole, on the other hand, was the classic rendition.  A special that night, the delicate fish was deboned a table and anointed with a luscious brown butter and more capers.  But at $54, it had better be good, right?  Other than lavishly sauced, it is served unadorned, so although there are no side dishes listed on the menu, our waiter happily offered a selection of roasted vegetables, haricot verts or two different potato preparations, upon request.  I opted for the vegetables (I suppose I was expecting a standard summer array of eggplant and zucchini), but instead what
 arrived was fennel, onions and potatoes, which I love but was admittedly not expecting.   I also felt like had I wanted potatoes, the two other options would've sufficed, so I felt a little force-potatoed.  But the fennel and onions were caramelized to a tender sweetness, and the little knobs of potato deliciously waxy and dense, so not a huge issue.  Additionally, my seared halibut had a bounty of produce: a crown of bristly little greens, carrots both roasted and pureed, and morsels of delicate chanterelles.  It also had an abundance of milky pink peppercorn sauce.  Both of these things made fine accompaniments with the impeccably fresh, tasty filet, but the flavors fought one another, making little sense in composition.  There was enough fish to go around, however, alternating bites daubed in sauce and ones paired with vegetation.  Looking at the bright side, it was like having two dishes in one.

Finishing things off, my tablemate was jonesing for the pistachio souffle, but our meal had been a lengthy one already, and that guy required another twenty minutes, as souffles do, from ordering, so we opted for the "strawberries and cream", which definitely showcased pastry chef's Sebastian Rouxel's roots from the French Laundry.  It was a novel composition on the plate, a trompe d'oeil custard slicked over with a glossy strawberry aspiclooked like a cool  fruity soup until your spoon broke its surface, revealing the creamy vanilla custard beneath.   An olive oil cake, light yet firm, soaked up the juices of a pert verjus sorbet, lip-smackingly tart and vibrant with prime summer berries.  Another sweet arrives before the check: a quaint tin box filled with various confections.  A plush, sticky strawberry marshmallow, crisp and melting
 dark chocolate covered toffee, and (my favorite) a burnt sugar caramel, sweet and toasty with the perfect level of chewiness.  They won't pull your teeth out but definitely offer up a bit of resistance.  At least they won't pull out good, strong American teeth.  Those Brits, on the other hand.....









5 Madison Avenue (east of Madison Square Park at 24th street)
tel.  1.212.413.4300