Wednesday, July 23, 2014

CHERCHE MIDI

Shane McBride was tapped for Keith McNally's new incarnation of the old Pulino's space, although he unfortunately takes Fridays, the night I came in, off.  The room and the crowd is recognizable from its prior state, somewhat whitened and lightened up, but the arching ceilings, packed tables and teeming bar endure.  The reservation was tough to come by, procured over a week in advance and chosen only because it was the earliest available table not at 5pm or 10pm.  McNally has that kind of
 following, though, especially perhaps now that Pastis is shuttered (temporarily?  We will see.)  From what I assess, McNally opens a place and the masses will follow, but does the food measure up?

I'm more familiar with McBride running in meat-centric circles: our initial encounter was at his highbrow chophouse called 7Square, which was fantastic but short-lived.  The next time I saw him was at Craftsteak, which morphed into Colicchio & Sons, where its namesake owner took over and changed focus of the place.  With that, the dishes that shine from the broad-based French menu at Cherche Midi are the steak-ier ones.  The menu itself is diverse, and our waiter cute and friendly if a bit unpolished, had some daily specials to offer as well.  He stuttered nervously through them, but needn't have been so jittery: he got through with flying colors.  We chose one of them to try, a fat, fresh crabcake perched atop a summery succotash of juicy corn kernels and bright cherry tomatoes, enriched by a creamy sauce and a flounce of fresh-cut herbs.  It was crisp of coat, packed with fresh, mild crab, and big enough to serve as a light entree (perhaps with a selection from the side dishes), or as a substantial starter as it is intended.  It wouldn't be out of place at a steakhouse, so its success made sense.

A beet salad is a similar mainstay, but this version was less successful, although the locally sourced beets made a striking splay of color on the plate.  Oily to a fault, the thinly sliced rounds suction-cupped somewhat to the plate, although flopping the discs into parcels to include a pistachio, a frond of chervil and a flabby slice of bland brebis  made eating the dish a little more fun, if not very exciting.  Another appetizer, the pan-roasted fois gras was definitely not my style, but it was most definitely his.  The seared crust took on a salty, crisp bacon-like quality, the fat lobe oozing its melting fat into a delectable warm compote of
poached rhubarb, its tangy character absolutely crucial in cutting the voluminous fat of the fois.  A small buttery brioche vaulted this diminutively sized dish into a caloric monstrosity, but for afficionados of duck liver, there may not exist a finer presentation.  My tablemate pondered ordering a second: strictly against any sage doctor's order.

Had I recalled McBride's carnivorous resume, I might have opted for one of the four meatier entrees- our neighbor's burger next door looked enticing: a prime rib blend with bacon marmalade, roasted mushrooms and aged French gruyere, just to keep things from looking too American.  But it was a warm summer day, made all the more obvious by the blinding setting sun reflecting in a blaze though the unshaded windows (if you visit Cherche before the sun has set, either opt for a west-facing table or bring your sunglasses to protect your retinas until the couche de soleil.)  The sunlight alone was bright enough, but with all that white tile and signature McNally bistro mirrors, it threatens to burn green glowing floaters into your vision.  

As for my entree, my love of skate steered me toward his bone-in version, served with an onion-fennel soubise, which bordered on soggy.  The flavors were good, if muted, but the effect of the dish felt restrained, as if he was hesitant to put as much punch into a seafood dish as I know he does with his meats.  The wing pulled easily off the bone, and its edges feigned crispness, but instead most of the crunch came from delightful tiny croutons sprinkled about the dish along with a smattering of emerald chives.   It wasn't any bit a disaster, but it wasn't particularly astounding either.  We toyed between a side dish of shallot-roasted mushrooms and the whole roasted cauliflower, and were guided toward the latter.
Now this was an interesting dish:  from the picture, you can see it is smothered in its sauce gribiche- which would typically be extremely heavy.  But in a strange turn of whimsy, the sauce is vegan, formulated from lentils, but retains a rich enough feel to turn the humble vegetable into a  indulgent-feeling treat.   Sauce'll do that to you: a good sauce atones many missteps.






Speaking of sauce, our raspberry souffle was probably good enough without it, but the puffy, powdered-sugar dusted confection was cleaved tableside, and anointed with a cool douse from a small pitcher of cream.  The warm souffle enveloped the cream as it integrated into the fluffy custard.  I couldn't decide whether the best bites were the toasty, marshmallowy cap or the jammy  bottom, where tangy bits of raspberry swam in a  juicy syrup.





So despite the francophilic inclinations, I recommend thinking of Cherche Midi as a steakhouse.  It has all the makings of one if you order accordingly, and this is where you will find McBride's work at its finest.








 282 Bowery

New York City 10012
(212) 226-3055


Saturday, July 19, 2014

CIRCO

This wasn't my first time to Circo, nor will it be my last.  It was, however, a visit experiencing Circo at the top of its game:  Chef Alfio Longo balances the rusticity of his upbringing in a small town outside of Florence with a worldly resume of cooking experience, creating an ingredient-driven Tuscan menu that showcases elegant but soulful Italian cuisine.    Their summer al fresco veranda opens up ontp the relatively quiet side street of 55th, making it an absolutely ideal destination during this so-far mild summer.  To be sure, I've never had a bad meal at Circo, but now with Chef Longo at the helm, it seems to have really hit its stride.  Circo is beautiful restaurant inside, its whimsical circus decor complemented by the immaculate attention to detail from its proprietors, the gracious and iconic Maccioni family.  But on one of the few gorgeously temperate summer evenings that New York offers up every season, a table outside and a new summer menu elevated the experience even further.



I don't know what was more beautiful: the twinkling lights glowing through the chilled blue water goblets, or the velvety blue sky just starting to show a handful of faint summer stars.  But soon a bubbling glass of prosecco would arrive with its own kind of sparkle, and a basket of warm focaccia and crisp, spindly breadsticks.  We started with the Mare Nostrum, a substantial composition of exquisitely fresh octopus and squid grilled a la plancha, garnished with sweet, pristine halves of cherry tomato and arugula fronds, the plate daubed with colorful, flavorful sauces and a striking contrast of squid ink.  A small crostino, crisp

 and buttery, held a garlicky mince of sauteed clam, providing a perfect sampling of the fruits of a Tuscan sea.



Circo offers an impressive array of housemade pastas, and knowing it would be hard to choose from between temptations, also for the option to select any two varieties plated in half-portions.  Thus, I tried pillowy, milky cheese ravioli draped with market-fresh zucchini blossoms and abundant shavings of luxurious, aromatic white summer truffle.  Alongside sat a fat pici tinted with squid ink: voluptuous, thick-twisted noodles sauced in savory, chili-flecked seafood ragu- a lusty and robust tangle of flavor.


Sticking with the light, summery theme, we finished off with a salt-baked, whole orata, moist and flaky, dressed simply with a drizzle of verdant Tuscan olive oil and a splay of pungent capers and minced herbs.   An array of perfectly cooked grilled vegetables kept company on the plate: toothsome, sweet fennel, nutty zucchini, a zesty cipollini onion and fruity red bell pepper among them.  This is the kind of dish Milos across the street serves to its fawning masses, but of poorer quality and at twice the price.  Circo's version is simplicity at its finest.


While I wasn't sure I needed dessert after all of that, the masterpiece that arrived- just a single cannoli with a perfectly round orb of tart blood orange sorbet- was so whimsically decorated and artfully plated that it felt fit for royalty.  Which, in perfect keeping with any and all of the restaurants of the Maccioni Group, is how this night left me feeling, too.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

GATO

Much to my sister's disappointment, Bobby Flay was not in the house.  She had read that he was notably present in the kitchen since it's opening, and he had been... up until a very flattering two-star review from Mr. Wells.  That said, he's got his little kitty (Gato means cat in Spanish) up and running like a well-oiled machine that seems to be simply purring even in his physical absence.

We were warmly welcomed, seated immediately.  The room was pretty full when we arrived, and just got fuller and fuller as the evening progressed, the bar seeming to reach maximum capacity and boisterous energy penetrating all corners.  The noise level isn't for the faint of ear: conversation can be arduous if you're hesitant to raise your voice a bit.  But all this bustle kind of adds to the festive atmosphere.  After all, Flay isn't known for white tablecloths and tuxedoed waiters, and his food is just as kick-back and punched up.  There are a lot of items on the menu, making it tough to decide for a deuce although magnificent for big groups.... or big appetites.  Our first dish was the roasted octopus: my tablemate and  I both assess that chefs have really mastered the cephalopod.  I feel like historically I was served either chewy rubber or fishy mush, but I haven't had a bad octopus dish anywhere in recent

 history, and Gato's is no exception.  It's a marvelously fat tentacle, roasted fork-tender and wallowing in pools of ruddy sour orange and vibrant oregano sauces, topped with two mild padron peppers and shards of thick, meaty bacon. Surf and turf and fruit and veg.... and this was just one little appetizer.  Next up, some veggies kept our appetites from topping out too quickly: perfectly charred broccolini boasted feathery toasted florets and tender, sweet stalks.  This sometimes bitter vegetable confuted that unfortunate tendency, and its bed of crunchy corn and buxom cherry tomato halves gave it a
dose of bright, summery appeal.  Its relative, roasted cauliflower, was profoundly richer, roasted to a buttery bronze and saturated in a bold, salty agrodolce spiked with capers and judicious sprinkle of fruity pepper rounds, which although the menu states as padrons, these little vermillion  beauties had to be some other kicky variety.   This was the first dish that made me glad that although Flay has spread his wings far and wide, he has not yet achieved the ubiquity of commercialism that would require him to post nutritional information on his menus: I would fear the caloric impact of that cauliflower.  But even more than that, the crispy potatoes are a force to be reckoned with: their crunchy-fried, thick
 parmegiano-crusted coating must have measured half the girth of each chunk of spud, heady with smoked paprika and capped with the rich, golden yolk of a poached egg.   I would ply this against any fast food offering in terms of RDA sticker-shock; it should come with a defibrillator, an NC-17 rating, and at least three other people to share it with.  Although as excessive as it is, it's also really profoundly tasty: all things in moderation, and for this dish, that means quantity.  'Cause in creating it,  Bobby forgot to use any moderation at all.


Plunging onward, we tackled a few of the entrees, and the paella lives up to the hype: that soccarat rivals any I've ever had, rendering the lack of any of the classic ingredients like chorizo or clams completely irrelevant.  Tangy, vinegary bits of tender kale, chewy morsels of wild mushroom  and immaculately
crispy baby artichokes had every bit as much flavor as that iconic Spanish forcemeat, and with
another egg, poached and whisked into the ensemble, it wanted for nothing.  Our waiter was impeccably helpful, gracious and amicable, and while he was probably entirely correct in steering us towards the lighter dish of orata grilled under a slurry of piquillo pesto, I was left full of curiosity about the buzzed-about rabbit stew with carrots and fregula sarda, but just as full in appetite to prevent doing anything about it.



Because also this was (yet another!) birthday dinner, Gato graciously provided a blue and white striped candle for my blackberry crostato with rhubarb gelato.  I regret to say that my taste buds may have been partially blitzed after the onslaught of salty, savory, spicy and sassy food, but the blackberries were plump and juicy and the cool rhubarb gelato whispered subtly as it melted into the buttery crust, sparkling with sugar.  Nobody sang me the birthday song, but there was a festive soundtrack bumping throughout the course of the night, making things feel enough like a party.  And Bobby should proudly be celebrating with Gato, too: the Iron Chef wins again.








324 LAFAYETTE ST
NEW YORK CITY 10012 
| P: (212)334-6400














Monday, July 14, 2014

THE PAVILION

I was thrilled to experience the food of Wayne Nish soon as I heard he was to be the chef at the controversial new restaurant reopening in Union Square.  But perhaps some of the controversy rubbed off on him, and prior to its debut, Nish and the restaurant had already parted ways.  I would like to think that some of his influence survived, however, for much to my surprise, the food at The Pavilion was surprisingly good, despite them not really having a designated chef, so far as I could tell.  Our server imparted the name of the man in the kitchen, but it rang no bells and I can find no mention of him on their website, so I'm assuming it's a capable cook taking Nish's contribution and running with it.



And on an atypically temperate summer night,with the bonus of a lively, cooling breeze, there are few more desirable outdoor dining destinations than this renovated atrium of The Pavilion in Union Square.  Personally, dining outside for me in New York is exponentially more appealing in theory than in practice.  You either have noxious exhaust fumes, raucous passersby, revoltingly thick humidity, unpredictable temperature swings, and less attention from servers that are prudently investing the majority of their efforts inside where the air is cool and dry and clean and the atmosphere just all together more civil.  But we hit the lottery that night given all the possible variables, and the palm-frondy, airy dining room was absolutely as attractive and comfortable as is could ever be, and with an open table for two available, to boot.

Getting a table was sort of a crapshoot, too, because despite attempting to secure a spot via Open Table (malfunctioning) and calling (incessant rings unanswered), we showed up sans reservation.  We were seated quickly enough; the restaurant was maybe 70% full.  Offered a cocktail, one summery mojito for the gentleman, which seemed in good keeping with the environs.  I opted for wine, and our waiter suggested one of their three roses by the glass.  I chose a Gruner instead .... but he brought me the rose anyways.   I sincerely think he just misheard my order, but he queried "I thought we agreed on the rose??", while I didn't agree on anything... I had simply ordered a Gruner.  At any rate, he whisked it away somewhat brusquely, but them probably realizing there was no benefit in my duping him, realized it was an honest miscommunication and returned with the correct beverage and a gracious apology.  But it was an odd little kerfuffle, and was unfortunately not the only misstep throughout the course of the evening.

The menu itself is well-rounded, although a little less produce-centric than I had expected given it's proximity to the city best farmer's market.  The side dishes offered only a spicy kale as a vegetable: the others were all potatoes and macaroni.  We began with wild mushroom crostini, which seemed the easiest of the bunch to share.  Which would have been true had the Italian been correct, as crostini is plural and implies two or more little toasts, i.e. perfectly divisible.  Instead, what arrived was a crostinO: one big piece groaning with mushrooms and mantled with a fat, organic poached egg- it's golden yolk oozing from atop into the pools of olive oil and balsamic.  Not an insurmountable misnomer.  I had a knife.  But since we had specifically chosen it so we could each have a crostino, the error struck me.  Also, the strangely orange truffle butter that accompanied it off to the side in its own dish was not only superfluous (I mean, where are you going to put truffle butter on this already decadently composed app?) but wholly forgotten until they took the plate away, and then I saw that strange little crock, untouched.  Oh, well.  It was delicious and adequately lubricated, with zero need for more anything, let alone truffle or butter.   With this, our waiter said our entrees would be arriving soon.

A little less than one lifetime later, our waiter reappeared with another crostino.  I mean, maybe that's why the menu said crostini: you get one crostino and then a half an hour later, another one?  No: it was simply another fuddled maneuver, either intended for another table or someone didn't check our completed order off the list.  Normally, most places would offer it as a freebie, since technically I think it has to get thrown out once it was set on our table, but instead our confused server asked if we were sure we had already had our appetizer (yes, I'm pretty sure I already ate that), and he retracted like a puppy, tail between legs.  Two lifetimes later, our entrees finally arrived.  Suffice it to say that the attractive surroundings became increasingly imperative as the service verged on buffoonery.  Thankfully the food, too, wasn't a disappointment to have waited around for.  Hanger steak arrived perfectly medium as requested, just barely pink to the middle and grilled to a flavorful crust.  A lip-smackingly saucy bordelaise pooled beneath around a bed of chive-flecked mashed potatoes, which may have not been the summeriest of dishes, but with the lethargy of service, an evening cool had settled and it seemed perfectly befitting of the clime.   Both entrees came bedecked in a bale's worth of sprouty garnish: this
 seemed the most vigorous nod to greenmarket produce.  My snapper was deftly sauteed, and surrounded by a liquidy coulis of haricot, which somewhat masked the quality (or lack thereof... who knows?) the peak-season vegetable, but roasted radishes and sunchokes (also somewhat of a surprise, since the menu stated "artichokes" and while I expected real ones, the Jerusalem variety were not disappointing, and made no mention whatsoever of radishes).  The coulis was bright and vegetal, the tubers earthy, and the snapper fresh and supple.   Really, the food itself leaves little to complain about.

The dessert menu is extensive, under the charge of Terri Dreisbach.  I passed over the coconut mousse with black sesame cake and rhubarb despite my adoration of piefruit, because on the contrary, I'm not such a huge fan of coconut.  The buttermilk and berries are what convinced me of the summer berry verrine, a glass coupe showcasing ripe raspberries and blackberries atop creamy buttermilk panna cotta.  A nutty crumble of of almonds and a cool scoop of pistachio gelato topped off the concoction, with enough diverse elements to keep your attention as the gelato melts into the pudding and the fruit juices assimilate into a creamy, fruity slurry that beckons until the glass is empty.

With the tragic closing of Union Square cafe nearby, I think The Pavilion will help pick up some of its slack.  While on no level is it the same caliber restaurant as was Danny Meyer's and Michael Romano's iconic establishment, this new Pavilion, for what it is.... for WHERE it is, is an altogether pretty enjoyable spot.





20 Union Square West
New York, New York  — 10003
212-677-7818
Located at the North End of Union Square Park at 17th Street






Saturday, July 12, 2014

BACCHANAL

I was happy to hear that chef Scott Bryan has a new home after his departure from the  lovely Apiary: I really liked that place.  Prior to that he was at the helm of Veritas, a laudable and elegant restaurant that was probably under recognized for its entire existence.  Bacchanal continues his wine-centric culinary expertise, where his wonderful ability to balance light and bright with touch of luxury shines, here deep down on the gritty cusp of the Bowery.

The room simply designed, raw and garage-y but with touches of whimsy, like the fanciful scrolls on the ceiling connecting the wiring between suspended lamps and twinkling, sparse lighting.    While it is scarcely windowed, something in the lighting or the openess of the room and exposed concrete, make it feel like a party being thrown in an abandoned warehouse.  But when the food arrives, Chef Bryan's culinary artistry shines through beyond the capacity of any house party.   As a result of this, I'd wager Bacchanal is here to stay.


Summer 2014
Despite the deep and vast wine list, we both started with cocktails, mine the wonderfully seasonal Summer 2014, blending absinthe, sherry and aquavit with snap peas, lemon thyme, and verjus, which although my tablemate likened it to "drinking salad", it appealed to me immensely.  It was a tad too sweet:  perfection would be achieved if we could take the sugar down a notch, and if my dining companion thinks it tastes like salad, well, he shouldn't be dousing his greens in simple syrup either.  Their Old Fashioned with a boulder of smoked ice would've knocked my dad's socks off; actually, I would recommend Bacchanal for cocktails alone, the drink menu is so broad and appealing.

But that's to stray from the real genius of the restaurant: Bryan's food. We started off with the refreshingest of refreshing chilled corn soup, tumbled with halved cherry tomatoes and subtly bumped with zesty roasted poblanos, an immaculate balance of sweet and earthy, tang and heat, with a crunchy slurry of plump, fresh corn kernels hovering underneath the smooth, basil-flecked surface.  Toying between the fennel & crimini salad and an appetizer of roasted beets, our server steered me towards the latter.  The dense, sweet beets hid underneath a tumble of frisee, and although the beets-and-chevre
photo credit: Katherine S. of Yelp
combo is nothing new, this one hit all the right notes, adding precious marcona almonds for a nutty crunch and heft.  I suppose I sort of wished for a cheese variant, or some novel tweak, but this was a flawless rendition of the classic, if not much different from many great examples you may have tried.


Our waiter passed by frequently, dispersing a noticeable number of annoyingly cliched scripts, like "how does everything look?" and kept offering his "help" with everything from additional beverages to Anything in General, etc.  I guess if you notice someone is saying something too often or it inspires discomfort, there's something to be worked on.  And the service was attentive and friendly: ours just needed to polish his verbage.  But by the time we were "helped" to our entrees, all linguistic woes were forgotten: both plates we tried were outstanding.  The Test of a Great Chef, the roasted chicken, was all out
perfect.  The meat was so tender and flavorful it could've been spooned, the polenta underneath that is intended for a spoon as creamy and corny as the grain allows.  I kept stealing chanterelles from my tablemate's plate (this was his entree), defending myself by offering him a few manilas from my cod.  Not that I wanted to sacrifice many of the plumply meaty clams that bedecked my plate, but those mushrooms in that madeira jus were just magnetic.  And the clams were plentiful, as well as the hunk of Atlantic cod sizable enough to fulfill protein requirements on its own.  Bronzed to a golden crust, it luxuriated in a buttery, garlicky broth, thickened with a dense white bean puree than dissolved into the rich saline broth,  just screaming to be swabbed up with hunks of the fresh, chewy slices of excellent, thick-cut bread provided.  Both entrees had such
profound umami qualities that my mouth is watering all over again just writing this.  Bryan isn't testing the spectrum of inventive gastronomy here, but what he makes tastes really, really good.  I mean REALLY good.  I was glad we had gone veggie in our appetizers because there aren't any sides listed on the menu, but somehow the table aside ours had a dish a fat, grilled asparagus topped with fricasseed mushrooms... where did those come from??? Our waiter sheepishly replied they were a special of the night, but theirs had been the last portion, and although one might try to avert my attention from roasted vegetable matter anywhere in a forty-foot vicinity, you'd be unsuccessful.  The lucky table that snagged it actually offered me a spear, but I (my unadvisably mannered side) politely refused, regretting it to this day.  It looked outstanding, though.


To console myself for the minimal veg, we opted for a fruity dessert of peach tart tatin with creme fraiche ice cream and caramel, although the empting assortment of dessert-worthy cocktails was commensurately tempting.  But the tart was  impressive, profoundly caramelly and heavily dusted in confectioner's sugar.  The puff pastry fought the fork a little too assertively, overwhelming the intensely peachy peach slices and their small dose of ice cream- I might tweak the proportions of this dessert somewhat, but the flavors were spot-on.   As was the case with the entire meal at Bacchanal: in terms of Tests of Great Chefs, Scott Bryan passes magna cum laude.






146 BOWERY
NEW YORK, NY 10013
646.355.1840

Thursday, July 10, 2014

HAN DYNASTY

If you're searching for the scintillating burn of the legendary Sichuan peppercorn, there're worse places to hunt out than Han Dynasty.  And if you're searching for Han Dynasty online, make sure you go to HanDynasty.net, not handynasty.com, which focuses on  an entirely other type of scintillating burn (or so I hear).    Han Dynasty is one of those bare-bones Chinese restaurants like those in Chinatown, lauded for it's cuisine leaps and bounds beyond its atmosphere or ambiance.  It's noisy, fairly unattractive, but bustling and apparently pretty popular.  The waiters all don t-shirts with a (10) printed on the back, which is indication of spiciness on the menu (I thought it would've been funnier if the individuals could have each chosen their own number, but maybe that would've been a little too familiar).  At any rate, the owner purportedly disdains any dish that is not followed by a number.... you're "allowed" to order a (1) , but not any of the options that are not heat-ranked at all, according to Han Chiang.  Which is actually unfortunate, because for my tastes, while the spiciness fluctuated, all the numbered dishes tasted far too much the same.

But that's what Han Dynasty is all about, the Sichuan peppercorn- that iconic spice of the Sichuan region of China that is actually not a pepper at all but a relative of the citrus family, which explains its nuanced floral quality.  There are other, "real" peppers circulating about, though, from fresh, sliced jalapenos to dried red chilis, and so the numbers on the menu should be heeded.  We started with an interesting cold appetizer of spicy crispy cucumbers (6), the crispness not a result of the deep-fryer as one might assume, but the natural state of the refreshingly cool chunks of cucumber doused in a peppery red gravy, most of which remained at the bottom of the bowl by the time we finished.  Had I more ambitiously spooned up sauce with cuke, it might've even pushed into (7), but if you apportion it conservatively, the dish can hover around the (3) or (4) level, a more prudent ingress than searing off all your taste buds before you've even been presented a bowl of rice.

The wrappers on the won tons in chili oil (4) might help tamp some of their heat, keeping the flavor of the little porky parcels spritzed with green onion more focused on their porcine innards and their slippery-thin wrappers, pulled taut to seal out the sweetly spicy oil, so you can dab it on to taste.   And then arrive those legendary Dan Dan noodles (8), to which I cannot honestly conceal my bafflement as to their almost cult following.  I swear that were packaged spaghetti- I detected none of that mythological chew of a hand-pulled noodle.  Dumped with a mound of ground pork, some spice and funk, but

 honestly I didn't eat enough of them to even come close to determining whether they approached near maximum spiciness.  Nor care.  They looked like a wan spaghetti bolognese, skimpy on the sauce and a one-trick-pony flavor.   Granted I'm no Chinese cuisine authority, but I expected a little more complexity from such a hyper-popular dish.


So despite our proprietor's recommendation, scanning the other tables surrounding us illustrated a preponderance of the green beans with minced pork.... a dish with no number.  But they were tasty beans, sizzled tender and shockingly vibrant in color, especially in comparison to all the shades-of-reddish-brown dishes we had visited up to this point.  At any rate, by now I've already surmounted my personal annual pork consumption quota, but the little meaty bits that clung to alternate beans added a great meaty richness to the vegetable.  Coincidentally, our rice arrived
with this dish, although it belonged aside the Dry Pot Style (10) Shrimp (all of the Entrees can contain your choice of protein, although unlike the Panda Expresses of the world, Han's options often include lamb and rabbit).  The beans didn't need the rice, but if you got one of the dried chili pieces in your mouthful of shrimp, bell pepper, lotus, bamboo, black mushroom or celery, the Dry Pot did.  Here, you must eat with caution, slowly allowing your saliva to present the sizzling bits slowly and incrementally to the back of your palate so as not to shock your throat into a spasmodic gasp and your tear ducts to spout
rivaling the force of a fire hose.  Eating carefully, though, you won't scald your uvula, although I do think this tasting-on-eggshells takes away some of the joy of Chinese food, some of which is so satisfyingly scarfable  But this was a (10), and I made it through with only a couple retractive pauses.  The rice is wonderful, fragrant and clumpy- just as functions best with chopsticks.

No dessert... not even fortune cookies or orange slices, which to me is a little disappointing.  I like Chinese food a bit for the ritual, and other than the absence of ambiance and bustling utilitarian-style service, Han Dynasty didn't really satisfy me in terms of why I go to a place like this.   A little bias may have settled in, given the burgeoning chain this Dynasty is becoming- and lord knows I tend far, far from chains.  I guess for meat and heat, Sichuan-style, it has a chopstick up on the competition.  And hey!   Maybe I just prefer Cantonese.







90 3rd Avenue (between 12th & 13th St), New York, NY 10003 
tel. (212)390-8685  


Monday, July 7, 2014

THE GANDER

Jesse Schenker is one of my favorite chefs in the city, and not only because of our rhyming surnames.  His other establishment, Recette, in the West Village, is one of the most wonderful, slightly off-the-radar gems in the city, quaint and intimate, but lively and refined.  The Gander, on the other hand, is a substantially larger restaurant, having taken over the old Alison Eighteen space, with
exponentially more satisfying results than Alison ever got.  The sprawling room is a little bland and subdued, in muted greys and greens:  the kind that relies on a roomful of happy diners to augment its appeal, as opposed to newcomer Claudette (review, hopefully, imminent), which is so pretty inside you almost don't want to mar it with humans.  Unfortunately, this late afternoon  midsummer lunch found the dining room practically empty, but for one other table of two.  That said, our server said it was an anomaly: that they had been very busy lunch AND dinner, and deservedly so.  At any rate, we had the full attention on the chef, and the results were pretty much flawless.

I chose The Gander for my birthday lunch mostly because of my pure, raw admiration for Schenker, but also because their lunch menu is not wholly dissimilar from the dinner one.   It's not just an afterthought conglomeration of salads and sandwiches like some places offer, seemingly out of necessity.  So we began with a gorgeously verdant chilled pea soup, an aqueous, thin broth rife with vegetality and the ballsy punch of raw green garlic, which congregated at the bottom of the bowl with toothsome bits of al dente peas, adding texture and variance to each spoonful.  A lovely little borage
flower adorned the top like a delicate culinary corsage- an already  pretty soup now ready for prom.  Her date would be meaty slices of hearty roast beef stuffed into a soft, whole grain roll along with some punchy sauerkraut, mustard and mayo to compliment generously layered slices of cooked-to-order meat.  The sandwich came sided with a cone of expertly crispy, pale golden fries: the kind to which McDonald's aspires, but attains only mythologically.    I know I usually go for fish in terms of the entree, and there was an attractive sea trout with celery root and lentils.... but there was, too, this Roasted Elf Mushroom that grabbed my attention and wouldn't relent (there seems, too, something magical about eating an elf on your birthday).  The plate arrived with not only elves,
but a hodgepodge of various bronzed fungi atop a lightly crunchy, brightly sauteed bed of cabbage, all of which was anointed tableside with a fragrant
sherry broth.  There are house-made Parker House rolls available upon request: steaming buns of buttery gold bedecked with crystals of salt, which are perfect accompaniments for the brothy saute.  And speaking of accompaniments, Schenker's side are mandatory, as he performs valiant feats of flavor with his vegetables.    The grilled asparagus with the green garlic was smothered with the incinerated allium, its pungent
with the incinerated allium, its pungent bite tempered into an earthy, ashen mince.   A wedge of cauliflower was baked rotisserie-style
 under a crust of mild lemon zest, and less-mild anchovy and capers, where if you got a bite of sizeable piece (which were prominent)... well, you'd know it.  I preferred the roasty edges that were more nutty than fishy, but the silvery bits do add a lusty complexity.

Our waitress, having but one other table to attend to, gave us cursory check-ins throughout the course of our meal, but she was a little cold and unwelcoming.  Perhaps just an off day, or maybe she just didn't like us.  But I hope she's in a better mood when you go if you get her.  She did convince us to stick around for dessert even though our lunch time allotment was dwindling down; it was a celebratory occasion and all.   But if you've already leaked that the kitchen is going to send out a no-longer-surprise dessert, it wouldn't hurt to inquire the  recipient's taste preference.... especially when the menu touts such delicacies as creme brulee semifreddo with bacon and caramel! and most enticingly. a poppy seed angel food cake with rhubarb, berries, lemon and cloumage, of all things.  How dare they deny me cloumage?  'Cause what IS cloumage, you ask (I did)?  Why, it's a unique, fresh lactic curd from Shy Brothers, that despite my profound desire for all and every component of this dessert, this intriguing cheese made me even more bitter that what was sent out as my Birthday Cake was a generic little mocha concoction, although to be fair, it was fine for what it was, and the fresh whipped cream upon it was notably delicious.    Also,  a pink, stripey birthday candle really atones for a lot.  I'm sort of kidding here: most people generally like chocolate and coffee- I'm just not most people.  Whereas I think I could've dedicated an entire blog post to that rhubarb and cloumage ensemble.   Additionally, what could've gone better with the magic, the elves, the marvels of Schenker's artistry than cake named after angels?





   15 West 18th Street
   between 5th and 6th Avenue
   tel  212.229.9500


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