Saturday, April 19, 2014

NARCISSA

Pretty great for a joint named after a cow.  Narcissa is a "beautiful and feisty" bovine living at the organic farm upstate where this seasonal-produce focused mecca sources much of its fodder, and Michelin starred chef John Fraser finds inspiration more in her surroundings than her species (she, herself, is a dairy cow, anyways).  While there is a luscious ribeye on the menu, there is a palpable concentration on flora rather than fauna, carrots stealing the spotlight in a vegetarian take on the classic Beef Wellington, for example.  But it is by no means a vegetarian restaurant: all ingredients are given their due respect, and coaxed into their most delectable possible iteration.

I think our waitress wanted us to indulge in a cocktail, and indeed the menu of libations is celebration of the season.  The wine list is commensurately strong... and long, tending a bit pricey, although there are some options in the mid-forty dollar range.  But I come to a restaurant not to drink, specifically, but to eat, and the spectrum of temptation on this menu is so vast, I feared compromising my appetite with tipples.  For a veggie-focused restaurant, this food has a LOT of punch.  Flavors are as robust as any steakhouse's (if not more so),  and there is creativity and verve at every turn.  Housed in the new Standard Hotel in Cooper Square, the bar scene is just a thumping as it MPD cohort.  Make your way past it and there is the option of a more serene dining room to the right, and an open-kitchen annex to the left.  Given the choice, I would've kept to my left, but not knowing (and not having been given an option) we were guided to our table in the dining room, which did overlook a nice garden behind (although it didn't seem to be open yet, or else the early spring evening was still just a bit too chilly for an outdoor repast).  But it was sunny, and the colorful globe lanterns and tangled plants were nicer to observe than graphic mural covering the wall behind me.

Starting off, we got the much-hyped roasted beets, which lived up in every way.  Personally, I don't get roasting beets in their skins... all the "roast" gets slipped off when you peel them and all that's left is beet.  Not to fault the beet!, but at that point, it's hardly different than boiled, whereas roasting them already peeled, as Fraser smartly does, results in a chewy, voluptuous sphere that puts its skin-on cooked brethren to shame.  So sweet and dense, the pleasant sour of thick yogurt spiked with zesty horseradish is a masterful foil, brightened with a verdant drizzle of herb-infused oil, and lightly steamed,
fluffy bulgar to complete.  Paired with wedges of the grainy house-baked loaf and farm-fresh churned butter (perhaps it is Narcissa's?) provided to each table, a diminutive appetite might be able to call this lunch.  Hungrier souls treat it as a salad, like the rotisserie-grilled sweet potato slathered in a tangy jerk-spiced sauce atop a bed of crunchy lettuces sluiced in a peppery vinaigrette.  A mild tofu aioli tamps some of the residual heat, but a alternating bites had varying amounts of zip.

While that Carrots Wellington was intriguing, I wanted to try some more of the non-vegetable fare, although Fraser has more than proven his prowess with any manner of flora or fauna at Dovetail, his other restaurant located on the upper west side.   But I haven't been there in quite awhile, and Narcissa's scallops had my name written all over them.  Replete with those marvelous harbingers of spring, fiddlehead ferns decorate each fat scallop, their turgid earthiness magnified without cooking. The scallops were meaty and moist, flanked by tender golden beets, these steamed, halved and perched upright against parapets of delicate spaghetti squash.  Giving the whole dish oomph was a pickly green garlic relish that added brightness and dazzle to this consummate springtime dish.  I was less impressed with the branzino, which was faultless but unexciting.  Simply filleted and piled with shavings of fennel and leaflets of
 arugula, it was also riddled with some unexpectedly prickly pinbones.  Better off with a roasted hake with artichokes or curried black bass, if you're swimming piscine, or else catch the roasted chicken with the last of the winter truffles before it loses its hibernal coat.   Speaking of
coats, supergreen spinach was shrouded beyond recognition under a layer of miniature, herbed potato chips, but underneath that crunchy strata

 hid a steaming tangle of lightly creamed spinach
amped up with garlic-sauteed leaves as well, thus creating a double-whammy of spinach on spinach.... supergreen, indeed.


I was jonesing for Stumptown, but their coffee is Intelligentsia- a laudable grind, but instead we tried two or the Locusts on Hudson specialty teas: the Harvest and the Farmer's Tea, both blends of indigenous weeds, herbs and plants grown on the farm.  The mellow Farmer's was my favorite: milky oats and hops giving it a smooth, toasty flavor.  While the shiny silver individual pots in which the teas are served are comely, they needed to steep it a little longer or add a lot more tea (not actually tea, technically, but tisanes)  as both cups were much too weak at first pour for our tastes.  Actually, I they should just fill the pots a little less, because a full one resulted in three cups, which is a really excessive for an after-dinner sip.  A smaller pot brewed stronger would be preferable, and would've stood up better to our gorgeous little apple-huckleberry crisp topped with a cool scoop of sour cream gelato.  The combination was a good segue winter-into-spring, introducing springy berries to the homey warm apples, crusted thickly with sweet, buttery oats.

It will be nice to see how Fraser unfolds Narcissa through the seasons.  I'm imagining, as good as it is now, it will hit it's peak as does the growing season.   I'm not a cow nor a narcissist (argue with that as you will), but I'm happy to say Narcissa suits me just fine.






Wednesday, April 16, 2014

ALL'ONDA

There is nothing vague about all'onda, despite this being the literal translation of the phrase.  More befittingly, onda means "wave", and on the rain-saturated evening on which I visited, the watery theme carried throughout the evening.  A Venetian influence is All'onda's focus, but I wouldn't have felt ethnically shortchanged had any of what we tried showed up in any manner of seafood-centric restaurants, especially with the winks of Japanese popping up throughout the menu.

After checking soggy umbrellas, we were ushered upstairs to a simply designed room, featuring subtle nautical elements, but nothing too contrived.  Two-top tables alternated slate finishes with wooden ones, and the larger tables featured booth seating with neat, grey-blue back cushions that were suspended from an elongated rod alongside the wall.  Floor-to-ceiling windows showcase the West Village sidestreet, and despite the murky sky, the dining room benefitted from set of sun, where the room took on a shadowy, seductive allure, now the black-and-white photograph of an undulating pool making more sense, the curly willow
 branches casting interesting shadows from their perch.  The waitstaff could use some spriffing up to this sensibility: they are too casual in both demeanor and affect.  Comfortable shoes, I know, are requisite in this line of work, but psychedelic iridescent hightops and sloppy gym sneakers are unacceptable, detracting from the subtle elegance of the decor and cuisine.  It was surprising, especially given restaurateur Chris Cannon's involvement, a master of fine service and hospitality.  Our waiter was pleasant enough upon engagement, yet offered few unsolicited congenialities.  He did provide a wine list, handsomely bound in a lightweight, flexible wood cover, which offered a great variety in provenance, varietal and pricepoints, with helpful, thoughtful, if a little too-clever descriptions.  Glasses could be had for $8 (dubbed "quaffable") on up to $19.

And of course, the food menus, so full of temptations its a wonder the flimsy binders could constrain all its temptations.  Beginning with cicchetti, an assortment of bites and snacks ranging from olives and nuts to polenta chips with a whipped cod puree, a tweak of the Venetian classic.   We took the carrots from antipasti e crudi, which included both raw and cooked vegetable and seafood, for the most part.  The carrots, for their part, weren't categorically Italian at all, nor Japanese,  but that should not detract from their magnificence.   Roasted carrots with yogurt seem to be the vegetable darling of the moment,
and these lived up to the mania.  Cumin-spiced and burnished to tender sweetness, their untrimmed ends rendered chewy as dried fruit, with a sweetness nearly as intense.  The crisped fronds atop attained an ashy smokiness, which countered sweet, steamed ribbons and pure, creamy slather of whipped ricotta below.  A drizzle of spicy-sweet ginger vinaigrette completed the masterpiece, both visually gorgeous and supremely good.  Easily big and flavorful enough to share, if you can stand to.





Credit: allondanyc.com
Pastas reflect Chris Jaeckle's pedigree: he is a Michael White alum,
 and this comes through profoundly in the vast array of housemade noodles.    A fragrant tortellini in brodo
Credit: allondanyc.com
 sold itself on its perfume alone, an intensely heady broth, clear but deeply bronzed, afloat with buxom pouches of plump tortelli.  
 Thick bucatini furled amongst themselves in a unctuous sauce rich with uni, dusted with a coat of spicy bread crumbs.  Each looked better than the next.


Onto secondi: it was hard to deny myself the  braised short ribs for two, a lusty slab lacquered in in thick tomato mostarda, so dark and dense it looked like a humongous piece of chocolate cake.  But with just the two of us, the shareable dish would've been limiting.  Instead, a monkfish filet enjoyed a similarly glossy patina, its ebony derived from luscious squid ink, black as the plate upon which is was served,  in contrast to its snowy flesh and pale, golden bed of nubby polenta.    Skate got sauced, too (I get why I loved this place), graced with a bold, savory veal reduction, which masked it every-so-slightly fishy

 flavor, atypical when this species is at its freshest.  But it was subtle, and forgivable, given all the other wonderful things going on on this plate, from the tender jujubes of sweet beets and pillowy, miniature semolina dumplings, to the surprise cameo performed by crisped, feathery maitake mushrooms.    With these, menu fulfilled my Four-fecta of Favorite Ingredients : brussels sprouts, skate, beets and mushrooms.  I couldn't have been more pleased.

Ah, because yes.   I had not yet mentioned the brussels sprouts, which showed up suspiciously verdant... so much so that I feared that unsettling bitter crunch of a raw epicenter.  Much to my relief, the color was deceiving, as the quartered sprouts were cooked well through, nutty both themselves and their topping of roasted pistachios, enriched with saucy cider vinegar touched of honey and subtle nudge of curry.  The broth that remained below them would regally have anointed any remnants of the deliciously crusty bread, had there been any left in the basket.   Jersusalem artichokes shared their splendor, again doubly nutty- this time their own earthy flavor paired with a braise of brown butter punched with the umami of soy and capers.  Jaeckle has mastered umami, whispering it from every possible source and using it to the best advantage.

Dessert exists, but deterred by Pete Wells, we opted against the sort of mundane-sounding selection of gelatos, an affogato, a chocolate tart.  The only intriguing one was the fernet branca panna cotta, but well... we had been forewarned.  Instead, we opted for one of their fine teas- a whole pot was even a lot to imbibe after such a filling repast.  But it was a lovely mint-tinged infusion, and I'm not one to waste. So we ventured out into the soggy evening, the rains having subsided, but the cool dampness felt now like a comforting onda carrying us out with contented bellies. 








Monday, March 24, 2014

CALLIOPE

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the chefs have left the building."  Or so I found out by an unfortunate post-prandial informative.  Calliope is a pretty-but-pretty-typical French bistro on a comely corner of the East Village, distressed mirrors and a white-washed tin paneled ceiling.  My friend (chef and food critic) and most reliable resource had gone on and on about this place- and I had actually attempted three times to go, foiled by a full house with no availability, or private parties.  But on this winter-into-spring evening, the charming reservationist said he "could squeeze" me in, which I might have taken as indication of how we were going to be treated.  But he was so genial and pleasant himself, the simple reservation-making process actually redoubled my anticipation of the restaurant itself.

So I arrived earlier than my dining companion, and was seated at what might be the best seat in the house, mid-room and in full view of the well-designed room as well as passerby traffic of the bustling St. Marks annex.  Inside, the tables were beginning to fill with a somewhat mature crowd, but most seemed like regulars or neighborhooders, who probably appreciate a slightly more refined destination amongst the classic grit of the East Village.




A complimentary plate of crisp radishes and oily

anchovy toast greeted us, but that's the only bread you'll see throughout the course of the night.  There may be some upon request, but that didn't occur to me until I was 7/8th of the way through my main, where I was wishing I had a crust with with to finish up my entree.  As soon as emptied, that dish was whisked away without promise of refilling.  This became a theme for the night: the plates recaptured literally before completion, which makes me think that "squeeze" was that they needed that table back in an abbreviated time frame.  This is NOT the way to handle such a situation.  If you want to compound reservations, notify your diner before confirming that the reservation can be had, but the table needed back by X o'clock.  Information is everything.  Do not just seat a party, and then bulldoze through the courses.

These courses I speak of, are numbered One though Three, the first of which perhaps qualify as snacks: oysters, rillettes and the like, but the
offerings in Two aren't much different: soup, mussels or an octopus salad, all at similar price points, so I didn't quite get the distinction.  At any rate,  my salad from Two was a simple mix of farm lettuces, sprinkled with a tangy crumble of feta and a squiggle of creamy dressing, topped with matchstick scallions.  Big enough to share, but might have benefitted from a spritz of freshly ground pepper, which was neither a table nor offered.  The busboy actually hovered over the table, waiting for me to fork the last leaf before relieving us of the salad plate- I replaced the salad fork upon the plate in his hands as he turned on his heel.  Honestly, there is nothing wrong with leaving an empty plate in front of a diner for a moment of consideration... unless, of course, the clock is ticking.


 Category Three gives us the entrees: a classic steak frites, a lusty sounding roast chicken stuffed with cabbage, and a cheeseburger with Vermont white cheddar.  Somewhat more novel was a lamb's neck ragu, stewed down to pure winter comfort, atop house-made pappardelle: wide, floppy ribbons with just the right amount of chew. I went for a seared halibut, which was a perfectly just-cooked filet crisped golden on the edges, strewn with translucent discs of radish and shreds of fennel.  A thick puree of celeriac spiraled
 underneath, studded with a few sweet golden beets, good enough to warrant a clean plate, although no awards.  Plates, as you might notice, are a little sparse, so a side dish is probably a good, if not requisite, idea.  There was only one cooked vegetable, the other would've been redundant salad of watercress, or housemade pickles- which I think of more as a garnish- or starches: frites or fingerlings.  Instead, the grilled
 radicchio wouldn't have normally been my first choice, but it stood up nicely, the charred edges contributing smokiness to the bitter leaves, a tang of lemon and zip from a scattering of chili flakes.

I was torn between finishing with a pear tarte or the tropical fruit pavlova, and I fear I opted in the wrong direction.  But I was trying to mix things up, whereas my go-to tendency would've tipped the scale towards pear, I clung to the ephemeral promise of spring, and went for the lighter pastry. Nubs of grapefruit and sliced kiwi partnered with pineapple just kissed by the grill, anchored in a cloud of whipped cream atop the coconut pavlova crust, which was toasty and biscuity and paired well with an inky cup of La Colombe.  Still, it missed a little cohesiveness, although perhaps that was more a lack of cohesiveness with the persistent winter temperatures than the actually dessert components themselves, which would have boded better with an elevated mercury.

But basically, there was nothing technically wrong with our meal (with the service, yes, but the food, not really).  All the same, I couldn't help but wonder, throughout the course of the evening, where any of the sparkle was.  The recommendations and reviews I pocketed outshone my experience so vastly, I had to wonder if I had severely mis-ordered, or if it was just an off night.  But my own pride in not checking my phone constantly shot me in the foot: two unread emails in my inbox held the crucial information: the husband-and-wife chef team had apparently departed just over a month prior, and with them seems to have taken all the ado.  While the emails said "Don't go!" I might soften that admonition somewhat: don't go out of your way to go, but if your near and destination-less, you could do much worse.



  84 EAST FOURTH STREET
NEW YORK, NY 10003
(212) 260-8484

Calliope Restaurant NYC

Sunday, March 16, 2014

ORIENTAL GARDEN

Pretty bleak.  May be more appealing at nighttime.
I think it's pretty rare that a Chinatown Chinese restaurants is recognized by the Guide Michelin, so that was my lure, rather than any familiarity with its chef.  Although famed chefs like David Bouley and David Chang name it as their top picks for dim sum.   Zagat has it on par with Joe's Shanghai, a far-too-popular tourist destination.  So to, the brusque, aggressive demeanor of the staff: I'm not sure if this is part of the show, or just a you-get-what you pay for type of arrangement, but it seems pretty ubiquitous amongst Chinatown joints.  At any rate, it contributes a modicum of energy to the bleak ambiance, even if it is one of unsettling tension.  You'll reach the dining room at Oriental Garden through an entryway lined with fish tanks.  Its focus is seafood, and some of the freshest you can get in New York comes via the Chinatown conduit.  Live shrimp scamper frenetically across the bottom of one aquarium, and large, slothful grey bass frown lethargically in an adjacent one.  Once you enter the room, the only smile you'll encounter is that of the maitre d', who despite the fact that I was the first to arrive, ushered me to a table- that is, he basically  commanded me to be seated, although I think I would've been more comfortable waiting till my guest arrived.  The rest of the staff exudes as facial expression similar to that of the bass.  At any rate, the room was pretty sparse at this strange dining hour of three o'clock on a weekday.  Only one tableful of five Asian businessmen and another group of four filled two of the tables.  Oriental Garden is conveniently open nonstop from 10am to 10:30pm, dim sum offered until 4pm.  And if my experience was the norm, you will be accosted with dim sum before your tush even hits the seat, so if you're not going that route, just turn it down a couple three times and she'll quit harassing you.  On the other hand, if you do want dim sum, it comes out rapid-fire, but get ready to ask multiple times for what it is lurking in her little wicker steam basket, because the English descriptions are virtually unintelligible.




The dining room is generic ugly Chinatown stark.  The red and gold Michelin Guide indicator on the door outside is more intriguing than the red and golden dragon wallhanging, but there are some nice poems written in artful Chinese characters that can entertain and educate a bit if your at a loss for conversation until your food arrives.  While dim sum is provided instantaneously, ordered food takes a touch longer.  Pots of tea are set in front of you as soon as you sit, so
you can nurse away your hunger pangs with the complimentary brew until more substantial fare arrives.


  From a lunch prix-fixe menu I chose a veggie soup, filled with bright vegetables in a salty chicken broth, scorchingly hot.  Peas and bean sprouts afloat, carrots and broccoli sink underneath.  Nothing spectacular,
 but a pleasant, warming little bowl.   And speaking of warming, beware of the stuffed eggplant: this innocuous-looking plate of nightshades ensconces such searing temperature it actually scorched my dining companion's lip.  I guess the peel insulates the incendiary flesh, tamping any steam, so the heat
only releases when punctured... and then, watch out.  Better enjoy a couple bites of dumpling as your eggplant cools, since they arrive just edibly hot.  The shrimp dumplings, illustrative  of the

 freshness of their seafood, barely contain the flavorful pink shrimp inside their thin wrappers.   We also ordered a pork version, but were served the shrimp-and-pork combo instead, which may have been even better than the shrimp alone.  The superior quality of the shrimp made it not too regrettable a misstep, although a bit redundant.  A generic-but-serviceable saute of Chinese vegetables were super-fresh, tender-crisp and just slicked with that mild clear gravy, I guess of chicken broth and cornstarch.  It boasted mostly emerald pea pods and water chestnuts- those nutty, crisp little discs so rare outside of Chinese cuisine, that I find such an exquisitely anticipated treat.  Perhaps a little heavy on the baby corns, though, which I'm quite sure are enjoyed by just about no one.  After this, and a few rounds of dumplings, the eggplant had cooled enough to taste.  It benefitted from a spike of soy sauce, which enriched the silken, oily flesh to contrast
with the meaty shrimp stuffing.  It gave the impression of lightness, but I'm sure the spongey vegetable's flesh had absorbed an inordinate amount of oil, as it is prone to do.  To no avail though, as the rest of our meal was restrained enough to afford us a little extra indulgence here.  So much so, that we actually wanted to order some more dishes, but the soup dumplings we desired need to be ordered forty minutes in advance, which seemed inordinately long at that moment.  So we cleaned off the rest of
 the fluffy steamed rice and called it a wrap.

The spartan surroundings and laughably gruff service doesn't really invite lingering, anyways, and there were no apparent desserts to be had: not even orange wedges or fortune cookies.  Slthough I'm sure if we were going to spend more money,
they'd be happy to accommodate (note: Cash and AmEx only, so be prepared).

Our little lunch wasn't the most astonishing meal I've ever had, but it seemed indicative of solid preparations, fresh ingredients and reliable quality.  I'd definitely return to explore the dinner menu, which looks more expansive on all levels.  The little laminated lunch menu we were given didn't seem to offer a quarter of what is listed online or on the dinner menu, but using this repast to test the waters, I'd hesitate not at all to revisit this Garden.









14 Elizabeth Street
Between Canal & Bayard
New York, NY 10013


(if there's a phone number, I couldn't find it, but if you do, good luck in communicating if you don't speak Cantonese/Mandarin)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

THE CLAM

Choosing The Clam was the ultimate example of following the chef.  I was, as I always am,  bequeathed the single-handed responsibility of choosing the restaurant, as is too often the case. Day-of, at five pm on a Saturday night: less than ideal.  My to-be dining companion was of absolutely no help whatsoever (his only contribution was suggesting a no-name Taiwanese-Mexican fusion conveniently located in Greenpoint??...) , so I finally remembered to follow my own advice, recalling chef Mikey Price of Market Table had recently opened a new joint down in the nether West Village.  And not only that, chef Joey Campanaro of The Little Owl has his hand in it as well... so technically I followed TWO chefs there, chefs I love.  Located close to both,  The Clam opened up about a month ago.  Like its siblings, its a sweet, cozy neighborhood kind of place, featuring not just  the freshest seasonal and market-driven resources of the Atlantic seaboard, but  focusing specifically on clams- one of Price's favorite ingredients.   But not to worry: the menu isn't exclusively clam-centric.  There is quite enough diversity in the menu to please the masses, and everything is masterfully executed.

The pearlescent ceiling.
Pearls come from oysters, I know, not clams- but the slightly convex ceilings tiled in luminous mother-of-pearl perpetuate the nautical theme, and give the room a soft glow reflecting the brightness of the open kitchen and the abundant candles flickering from
Fancy Clam Chowder
 tabletops.  There's a lot of light exuding from the kitchen as well, in addition to finery which it is concocting within.  There is, predictably, an impressive raw bar which offers up seasonal delicacies like whichever oysters are at their peak, or, befittingly, littleneck clams "on the halfie."  Clams are a component of a third of the menu entries, from a rich, snacky little dip to an entree-worthy spaghetti & clams topped with spicy gravy and sided with salad.  There's a luxurious clam chowder, served in a
wide, shallow bowl featuring two humongous in-shell clams in a silky-rich broth, plus more clams and tender chunked potatoes floating within.


 Not to constrain ourselves strictly to seafood, I chose a dish of roasted carrots from the seasonal vegetables menu, which made for a brilliant starter salad .  A butter lettuce salad with cheddar, apples and pumpernickel is listed on the appetizers menu, but these seemed more up my alley.  And they were- a rainbow of roots roasted tender and wallowing in a thick, spiced labne sprinkled with toasty pumpkin seeds.  I thought Daniel Humm had the Midas touch with carrots, but Chef Price is giving him a run for his money.


Aside from roasted Bell & Evans half chicken, whose accompanying hot lettuce with hen of the woods and radishes almost made me order it, the entrees are purely ocean-derived.  My Block Island swordfish retained it signature meatiness which is normally achieved on the grill, but the heavy golden crust belied its treatment from a searingly hot flattop- that, and a generous dose of fat.  Oh, but it came to a marvelous end, the bronzed exterior

 yielding to its flavorfully firm flesh, a bed of anchovy-tinged lacinato kale enriched with daubs of smooth Meyer lemon aioli.  Not to be outdone, a whole winter flounder boasted its own crisped skin, a pretty substantially sized fish, stretching the length of the plate atop a slurry of beluga lentils and roasted butternut squash anointed with a nutty, herbal pistachio pesto.    Speaking of nuts, there were an absolute blizzard of them in the roasted brussels sprouts with chunky bacon, so much so that the uneaten remainder would've amounted to a legitimate bar snack.  I'm not sure, either, what they were doing in there to begin

with, but they neither detracted substantially nor enhanced the sprouts, easily extricable as they were.  Eaten with a fork, they were sort of hard to impale, anyways, so the amount that made it into alternating bites was enough.  The dish would probably be better off without them, for a worthy, bacony roast of sprouts they were.





Capping things off, I wish I would've gone for our charming and attentive bartender's (who doubled as our waiter, eating at the bar as we were) recommendation of the chocolate and banana cream pie, but not being so much of a chocolate person, I went for the the apple & cranberry crisp.  It was good, without too much cranberry, and the perfect proportion of nutty almond crumble atop, but it wouldn't win many awards.  Maybe the island coconut lime bread pudding, with minted pineapple and rum creme anglaise to shake off the winter blues?   In all other respects, The Clam certainly makes strides to do just that.  The amicable service, the cozy environs, and the substantially nourishing fare all come together kind of like a big hug.  Which isn't something you'd necessarily expect from a Clam, but Price's food goes a good stride beyond expectations.




420 hudson street ny, ny 10014  212.242.7420 f. 212.242.8420




Saturday, February 8, 2014

UNCLE BOON'S

It speaks realms as to how good Uncle Boon's  is for catapulting me out of the sour mood I amassed waiting for table... or actually more precisely waiting for my friend that made it so that we had to wait for a table.  And honestly, the wait wasn't that long, but since they do not (understandably) seat incomplete parties, waiting for my tardy second half  (who had disconcertingly left for the restaurant before I did) mounted my irritation.  There're no reservations at Uncle Boon's, but that should not give you reservations about going.  Head in on the early side of things and you can circumvent too extenuated of a wait- although they'll prove your wait worth your while in the end.

Dark and cavernous, the room was already bustling by seven, but there were tables to be had.  Had my  dining companion exhibited any sort of punctuality, we would have been seated instantaneously.  Instead, we suffered a bit of a wait: there is the option of giving your number to the receptionist and while away your time at Sweet & Vicious next door, if that's up your alley.  Otherwise, we stood outside in the refreshing briskness until it got a little too brisk, and then transferred inside for the remainder to join the bump and grind of the vivacious bar scene.  Our fifteen minutes passed and the receptionist notified us that after another ten our table would be ready, then ushered us into a cozy back room (watch your head on that chandelier) and into a comfortable crimson leather booth.

Even longer longer than the wait to be seated was the amount of time it took to decide what to order: pretty much everything looks outstanding.  We decided on a few dishes, figuring we could always add more.  But the one thing that really bugged me is that in the small-plates dining format, one dish should not have to sing
 acapella in wait for something else to come out and accompany it.  Some stellar grilled baby octopus arrived first, but five simple cephalopods on a plate seemed a little stark.  They were immaculate, to be sure, their bulbous heads tender, but inflected with the beachy char that incinerated their delicate tendrils to a crispy end.  All the "Charcoal Grilled Goodies" are served with a bright lime, chile and garlic dipping sauce that would taste good on pretty much everything except maybe chocolate mousse.  But they were lonely, and it took forever for more of our orders to arrive, which was a serious demerit in my
 book.   After a spell, we were bequeathed a deceptively beige dish of traditional crab fried rice, that seemed less fried than a moist and pliant pilaf, rife with enormous chunks of mild crab meat and scented with lime and generous tufts of cilantro.  Cilantro is Boon's parsley: it's on pretty much everything and improves pretty much everything.  Although the crispy duck leg in soy anise broth was hard to improve upon.  Duck, not being my favorite protein, was lean and fall-off-the-bone tender, and the broth was so profoundly delicious it begged for a more efficient method of consumption, but we made due with the wide

 soup spoons.  I also had to wonder why more things don't use duck broth, although the flavor was decidedly richer and deeper than ubiquitous chicken broth.  Caramelized tangerine added a toasty, sweet tang to its umami-richness.




Sauteed water spinach with garlic, yellow soybeans and chilies made a fantastic counter to the fried rice, although it arrived halfway after we were done with it.  You get a lot of it as a side
dish, easily shareable by two if not more, which might be deceptive from its price tag of six dollars.  Alternatively, broiled bay scallops in a chuu chee sauce screamed out for plain white rice, its creamy, coconut-thickened curry tamping the intensity of its fire, but once it came forth, it came on like a

 bulldozer.  Spicy water spinach isn't the best counter for its forceful heat, but we hardly needed to order rice with the abudance of comestables already on the table.... except for that strangely enough, we weren't really unthinkably full.  In fact, as the scallops arrived, my companion (not such a fan of their spiciness) decided he still had room for another dish, and we couldn't resist the crispy skate, given its designation as a Traditional Celebratory Food.  Uncles Boon's does feel like a celebration.  Although it took so long for the skate to arrive that the rest of our vittles finally hit their destination, and we were hardly hungry enough to even make a dent in the ruthlesslessly funky concoction.  The wild ginger sauce, bean sprouts and herbs were overshadowed by pungent fermented cabbage and a tangle of miniscule, potent baby mackerels, with their crooked little inch-long bodies and macabre, jaw-dominated heads, although they were conveniently cordoned off to the side in order to be able to nudge them into forkfuls to taste (for which mine needed little).  Slithery rice noodles buoyed the fish above the brashly seasoned broth.

 tangy and pungent in that mysteriously briney Southeast Asian fashion, garnished with a halved, hard-cooked egg whose yolk was almost candied to a brilliant yellow.  I'm not sure what this dish celebrates, but its no typical American holiday.  It's exotic and foreign, like the pagan roots of Halloween.  Intriguing and tantalizing, if not necessarily something you'd want to eat every day.




As for dessert, on the other hand, the warm, bruleed tapioca pudding IS something I could imagine consuming daily- or at least frequently.  I'm not sure I've ever had a warm tapioca, and this treatment with its candied brown-sugar crust contrasted an earthy, porridge-y flavor, enhanced by a smattering of fresh, ruby pomegranate seeds.  A slightly less sweet version would be a respectable breakfast, and we had stayed so long it was about to become that.  Boon's is a fooderati's hotspot, but it retains a homey coziness above all that buzz: literally, a boon on all fronts.






      7 Spring Street 
      tel. 1(646) 370-6650