Tuesday, September 9, 2014

WALLFLOWER



photo credit: Thomas Schauer
Wallflower wants to be your friend.  But contrary to the mousey loner that can't find a dance partner, the Wallflower has everything going for it.  From the moment you are warmly welcomed by the attentive staff to some notably fine grub, this West Village newcomer has no reason to be shy.


The restaurant is so named as to welcome wallflowers, shrinking violets, pansies, and any other floral alike.  All welcome, so to speak.  Thus, on the night I visited, the tables were attended by an audaciously Harajuku-styled couple, an awkward, fidgety pair on a first date and a table of jovial neighborhooders well into their golden years.  I can't imagine a prototype that would clash in these environs.

The cocktail menu introduces the restaurant's concept well.  The drinks are complex and novel, with quirky names, and not one of which I didn't want to meet.  The food is similarly appealing and seasonal:  the menu is relatively succinct and somewhat bereft of vegetation: there are no side dishes on hand, nor was a request for additional veg accommodated.  But that was really the only snag, and easily overlooked as the evening progressed.
Corn, truffle, cherry tomatoes

Wallflowers apparently have an affinity for crudo and charcuterie, categories that are so popular these days.  You could easily make a meal from those options alone, but my preferences lie elsewhere.  Thus, I began with the Market Salad, which had way too much dressing for its not-enough greens, which were riddled with charred pole beans, tart red currant and thin planks of pecorino.  Had they added twice greenery, the problem would've resolved itself, as well as bulked up the skimpy salad.  It was tasty enough despite its meagerness, but the dressing overpowered.   Chilled corn soup, on the other hand, had nary a flaw, a mellifluous golden pabulum infused with summer truffle, halved cherry tomatoes and fresh kernels lurking within.
Market Salad








Scallops, maitake, corn, purslane







Continuing on a corn-and-mushroom  rampage ('tis the season, after all), four bronzed sea scallops huddled in a bed of corn featured big brushes of ruffly maitake mushroom- a dish I would easily return for (I even considered doing so the very next night).  The maitakes had a meaty woodsiness, the corn sweet and crisp, a combination as intoxicating as the summer sun filtering through fragrant forest pines.  A pork
Pork, turnips, mustard, cherries
 entree arrived startlingly rare, but it was a full-flavored cut, a tender and juicy as it was pink.  The umami-rich jus was perked up with luscious, garnet cherries and mustard, creating a thickly sweet counter for wedges of pleasantly bitter turnips, simply steamed to tenderness.


Brioche, peaches, vanilla gelato
Desserts options consist of just three, and all had a subtle breakfasty quality that was cozily appealing.  There was a coffee pot de creme and yogurt panna cotta, but we chose the brioche with roasted peaches and vanilla ice cream.  It was a perfect example of why I hate brunch, but precisely why French toast should be relegated strictly to dessert.  This divinely buttery little toast boasted sugar-crisped edges up against a perhaps scanty quantity of peaches, which didn't taste so much roasted as just peeled, but they were a fruity, fresh contrast to the luxurious brioche, and well-lubricated by a dairy-fresh milky ice cream scooped on top.  It was decorated with tiny little violet flowers, as precious as the restaurant itself.  As was mostly everything at Wallflower, a restaurant you will definitely want to mark onto your dance card.










235 West 12th Street
No phone
info@wallflowernyc.com












Thursday, September 4, 2014

AI FIORI: Revisit


At some point, I missed the memo that Ai Fiori had morphed into a midtown Marea.  My first visit to Ai Fiori was during winterier months, but if anything you'd think that mid-summer would foster more peak-season produce inspiration.  Instead, it seems to have planted a fishing bug, as well over 50% of the menu now contains some oceanic element, six seafood entrees as opposed to just five variant other protein sources.  Not that
 there's fault in that, but I thought that was more Marea's job.  Ai Fiori, "among the flowers", was supposed to concentrate on the ephemeral seasonality, most of which I associate with seasonal produce from the field.  Wasn't it?

Nothing has changed in terms of affordability, however.  Milking its prestigious address in the Setai Hotel as well as the celebrity attained by its chef, Michael White, puts dining at Ai Fiori in the same ranks as the spendiest eateries in the city.   We chose dining a la carte as opposed to the $94 prix-fixe or the $130 tasting menu, but this was simply a gauged on a style preference, as regardless which mode you select, dinner here will set you back.   I think the most unsettling moment of the evening happened early on, perhaps setting the tone.  I wanted to enjoy a nice glass of white along with my dinner, but unfamiliar with any of their by-the-glass offerings, I enlisted our sommelier, who was very affable and enlightened, so upon his description, I chose the most appealing- which happened to be the least pricey.  He countered with an offer to provide tastes of all, normally a benevolent gesture.  But since I have a pretty low vino-capacity, I approved of the first sample he bequeathed, which, of course, happened to be the priciest.  Which would've made more sense had it been the mildest vintage, but instead if was the most robust.  Which you would normally save 'til the end in a tasting,  but I feel like they wanted to push the most expensive option.  I can't be certain, but when I noticed (quite after the fact), it left a lingering bad taste in my mouth, which is unfortunate, because the Antoine Creek viognier itself certainly did not.

I hope they began every format with the luscious little bite of summer that arrived in the form of a golden corn custard, flecked with fresh tomato and juicy whole kernels.  In retrospect, I wish an enlarged version would've been offered as an appetizer, because of the options that were, my top choice was the Insalata di Pomodori, but I couldn't justify $22 for tomatoes.  Heirloom, to be sure, gussied up with some stracciatella, but at $4/lb at the Greenmarket, some slicing and dressing does not constitute a 450% markup.  Instead, I took my starter from the Contorni menu, a welcome addition to the menu that didn't exist of my first visit.  Cauliflower described as pan-roasted tasted pre-steamed maybe fired in the oven afterwards,  having none of the tell-tale chew and toasted florets of a dry roasted vegetable.  It had a watery quality, and its mild anchovy-tinged salsa verde  tasted most prominently of butter.  Pastas display White's most celebrated fortitude, however, and can be ordered full-size as a main or in half-portions to begin, which was our tact.   Plump,
eggy  agnolotti stuffed with meltingly tender braised veal were topped with shreds of kale and nutty sunflower seeds, sauced in a corny sugo perfumed with fragrant black truffle- a lovely combination of summery elements amped up with the luxury of veal and truffles.   Masterful.








Maybe we should've stuck to pastas as mains, but I took the opportunity to do a direct comparison to my maiden voyage here, ordering again the butter poached lobster that I recalled so rhapsodically- a dish that has apparently attained signature status.  While still visually appealing, the most recent rendition lost some its allure without the memorable sauce Chalon, this time paired with a meager quantity of garden beans (a total of four beans halved, I believe) and breakfast radish.   I also neglected to request a fuller cooking as I did before, and this time accepting its slightly gelatinous texture... but I wish I wouldn't've.  I honestly don't get the whole undercooked fish thing: I go to restaurants to see how well chefs cook... not almost cook.  Leave the translucent fish to sushi fans, and please get my seafood to flake-point.  Its squash-based sauce wasn't as alluring at the Chalon, either, but it could've been due in part to the undercooked crustacean at hand.  The Branzino was given accolades from our waiter, who was extremely personable and helpful, but this fish
 , too, failed to thrill me.  Crisp-skinned filets balanced akimbo over an olivey tomato ragout, upon which balanced a sizeable calamari stuffed with pearly fregola.  It was just that, robustly flavored sauce and well-seared fish, but somewhat more rustic and less special than the gold-rimmed chargers and white tablecloths demand.  The thing I was most looking forward to was another contorno, this time a wild mushroom saute.  But it never made it to our table, somehow being lost in the shuffle of ordering.  One server we addressed about its absence flatly stated "You didn't order that" with a very rough, heavy accent.  Not ideal, and not true, but most importantly, not how you handle the situation even if it were true.  Regardless, it was too late at that point to add it to the mix, so I'll forever lament the missing funghi.

Contrary to the savory dishes, the desserts were actually more attractive in person than their menu descriptions.  I recalled pastry chef Robert Truitt from Paul Liebrandt's beloved Corton- some of the most deliciously memorable and gorgeously plated sweets I've ever enjoyed came from his hand.  We decided upon the Vacherin, playfully crowned with a wavy pane of rhubarb glass balancing atop a scoop of gelato.  A thin plate of white chocolate separated this from plump raspberries and their accompanying sorbet,
sprinkled with a sandy sesame crumb.  We were also treated to another similar concoction layering raspberries, whipped cream and custard over buttery cake, this time topped with a crystalline
 disk of pure, clear sugar- not so much flavorwise, but a curiously gorgeous  bauble to behold. A small quenelle of strawberry sorbet sat off the the left, further differentiating two.  I can't really outrank one over the other: they were both lovely and delicious, if not outrageously dissimilar.

What was dissimilar betwixt my two visits to Ai Fiori was the current version seems to have lost its depth and vim.  There wasn't so much a thing to elicit disappointment so much as a lack a signature Michael White bravado.  He's a big man, to be sure,  but he's also made a big empire.  And maybe even his largesse isn't quite enough to support AltaMarea's sprawl.









400 5TH AVENUE 2ND LEVEL • LANGHAM PLACE  
212.613.8660

Friday, August 29, 2014

CONTRA

I think I was lucky not having read Pete Wells NY Times review before visiting Contra.  Really, not knowing a thing about it at all.   I was invited last minute, by a group of trusted chefs and related fooderati, and at any rate, I hadn't any time to do any research to find out about this enigmatic little nook at which I would dine.   Suffice it to say that I went in without any expectations, and consequently, enjoyed myself exponentially more than all of my dining companions.  Contra (which, according to the hostess, means "against" in Spanish.  As it does in Italian, French, Portuguese, English... so kinda, uh... yeah.  Duh.)  wants to be a groundbreaking argument against convention, but instead comes across as pretty normal dining experience, only that there is a set menu which changes nightly, so no choices to be had.  Contra has a website, that is either dysfunctional or just inoperative, but regardless, you'll not glean a lot of information about the place from it but the address and phone number.   Similarly, you'll enter into a shadowy room once you get there, then be seated at an imposing, glossy wooden table with a simple menu card at each place setting.  Few or no concessions are procurable for finicky diners or fragile constitutions: picky people might be better off elsewhere.  But
despite the name, Contra doesn't really defy convention (as I interpreted the name to imply) in any sense besides the strict menu (relatively affordable at $55 per person).  It wasn't particularly thrilling, either, although everything we had was pleasant, solid, and at times notable.

With no ordering to do, we were quickly bequeathed first with a piping hot loaf of bread ($3 extra, and worth it) with a crumbly, moist density and gorgeous golden crust- almost biscuit-like in texture.  It was uniquely leavened, attaining a subtle sourness much gentler than a San Francisco-style sour, a tangy nuance balanced with buttery sweetness.  And that was even before
adding a swipe of the lusciously creamy whipped butter that accompanies.  Typical or not, the courses which ensued were not insurmountably voluminous, and thus abstaining from the bread for appetite conservation would be vigorously discouraged.  I seriously considered stashing the unfinished half-loaf in my purse, although considering the company I was keeping, I thought that might be.... frowned upon.    A lively salad arrived quickly to distract me, anyways, a lovely composition of salty brined cucumber, pleasantly acerbic plum, and translucent layers of onion that were cleverly charred, just on the edges.    Intrinsically bread and salad,  although expertly done, our meal thus far wasn't exactly contra- anything.  In fact, it was much in keeping with recent years Scandi/Nordic fervor that continues to be a hot ticket.

We continued with the fish course, a sous-vide pollack (my tablemates couldn't resist noting that this is the stuff of mass-produced frozen fish sticks) festively adorned with frondy sprigs of dill, sharing the plate with tiny, halved grilled cabbages and exceptionally large, al dente spring peas.    A creamy, lemony sauce washed over the plate beneath, but other than that the flavors were singular, elemental.  The plate was gorgeously composed, the fish steamed just to the cusp of doneness, the vegetables tender and flavorful, but it wasn't revolutionary in any aspect of its construct.   A mild white fish with green vegs and lemon: we could have been anywhere.  And then, at least, arrived the conversation piece of the evening: the (very minimalist) menu described it simply as beef, beet, dulse.  Our waiter informed of us a change, however: the beef had been substituted with lamb (or so I understood).  The profuse scatter of weedy herbs and garnet slices of beet obfuscated the meat initially, and not being a very avid carnivore, I focused on cutting into the very rare medallions, which required a lot more effort than I would've liked.  After a few bites, I surrendered.  I enjoyed the oxalis and beet much more than the meat, which was pretty tough and not particularly
flavorful, aside from the well-seasoned exterior.  One of my tablemates remarked, postprandially, that she hadn't really enjoyed the veal.... wait.  Veal?  I thought it was lamb.  And another chimed in, that no, we were both wrong- it was venison.  Honestly, I couldn't tell.  It didn't taste like much of anything, and dueling it with a laughably dull knife was more of a challenge than it was worth.  Still now, to this day, none of us know what we ate.  It was some indeterminate red meat, which is pretty sad given the company I was with, and their respective professional palates.

Thick in the fog of the mysterious prior course, we began a barrage a finishers, starting with an off-the-menu cheese plate that was probably the most innovative course of the night.  It was simply a warmed plate, dusted with a flurry of grated cheese studded with a crumble of crunchy Corn Nut clones.  Now I'm not much of a cheese course fan, nor did the order of serving this make sense to me, but I have to say , a couple of swipes off this communal plate was pretty yummy.  I mean, melty cheese and corny crunch: it was the most elegant stoner food ever.  And then came a palate cleanser of strawberry (changed from honeydew) and chamomile, but it was so ridiculously oversized that I actually thought it

 was a sub for dessert.  It was fascinating to watch the frosty strawberry shell drizzled with olive oil melt into weirdly biological configurations, sort of like a slo-mo globular lava lamp- revealing a cool, gently sweet chamomile-inflected gelato within.  It was fruity and smooth, and in a smaller portion would've been an apt palate cleanser, or else a nice component to some light gateau or meringue or something.  But it wasn't dessert.  Dessert came in the form of a blueberry granita shrouding a novel potato gelato, slightly salty and dense, a lovely foil to the sprightly fruit ice.   But wait, WAS that dessert, or another palate cleanser?  By now, our palates were immaculate
 (maybe one of these prior to the meat course could have rendered our taste buds sharp enough to determine the animal that died for our meat course).  Because hence arrived another dessert, although this granola-y little concoction would've been more welcome as a breakfast option at this point, as a fourth dessert course was simply superfluous.  That said , the yogurty ice cream would've melted away before morning, and the nutty granola crumble did prove rather tasty with its toasty honeyed notes.



In the end, aside from the mystery meat, there wasn't one dish I wouldn't been satisfied with in a traditional a la carte format at a well-serviced,
attractive restaurant.  Perhaps I'm being too picky here, allowing my companions' expectations to rub off on me, because there wasn't anything technically wrong with anything but just that one dish throughout the course of the night.   It was just all a little lackluster given the  young pedigreed chefs behind the whole ordeal.  Jeremiah Stone (Isa) and Fabian von Hauske (Noma, Favriken).  They might've done well to stay at those establishments a little longer to gain their footing.   If they're gonna keep in this game, they need to iron out the the substantial wrinkles in the service (protracted lapses between courses, and maybe that one enunciation issue) and consider a little less frantic variability in the menu until they can perfect the offerings.  Although I have to say, given its relative affordability for this quality of cuisine, playing the guaranteed new-experience-every-time card might be the trump that provides meaning to the restaurant's name.





138 Orchard Street
 (212) 466 4633 











Wednesday, August 27, 2014

1200 MILES

1200 Miles is named after the geographical distance between Provence and Algiers, but the menu's particulars were as far removed from anything even remotely African as is my own Scandi-Euro heritage.  Aside from the chermoula accompanying a tea-brined chicken entree, I honestly couldn't discern a single indigenous ingredient from that region, nor much that was particularly French, either.  The decor could be interpreted is nouveau harem chic, but even that's a stretch.  The room expansive and industrial, metal fixtures, eclectic mirrors,  and sturdy shelving abutting white tile-work prevail.  The bar was boisterous when we visited, but pretty much keeps its noise to itself, allowing the dining room a little more serenity.  There is also an additional section towards the back of the dining room,  a space which can be cordoned off by an opaque white sliding door,  for more seating or even a private dining space.





The menu features quite a few of those de riguer inescapable ingredients like avocado, little gem lettuce and pancetta- all that have little to do with France or Africa, but not offensive in and of themselves.  Overall the execution of the food is sound.  A beet salad with which we began was quite winning- sprinkled with just a dusting of crumbly goat cheese, the beets got the spotlight, ensconcing  chunks of onion roasted so intensely that they took on a similar sanguine hue, attaining a sweetness that mimicked the beets and enhanced the umami effect of the cheese.   Even the fluke crudo, whose fish was a little sloppily cut, fared better once it made it onto the fork, the cool, translucent slices of fish mild and succulent, and a Christmassy garnish of minced herbs and tomato somewhat placated the bumbling presentation.  Underneath,  disproportionately ample wads of guacamole seemed indulgent, although made for a decent spread to go along with the the complimentary bread basket.  And that bread got a lot of mileage, because wait times between courses were arduous.  In fact, the service as a whole is pretty juvenile- they are pleasant and amicable, but a little bumbling and nescient





We both went piscine for our entrees, although the menu is fairly diverse, with the obligatory chicken/pork/lamb/beef and one vegetarian options, here a black garlic fettucini with summer vegetables.   A meaty steak of bluefish exhibited its prominent fishy funk atop an ample succotash of sweet Long Island corn and diced padron pepper, a novel pesto of verdant asparagus crowning the dish.    Crispy skate wing did indeed retain its crispiness even surrounded by the thin herbal broth that so threatened to besog its perfectly golden crust.  In fact, the skate might have been the best cooked piece of skate in recent history, retaining its unique texture so often lost in excessive breading or sodden with the underlying broth.  It somehow transcended the physics of osmosis, keeping crisp and firm even as the deceptively verdant, but bland,  broth began to infiltrate its crust.  Propped up on
 chopped tomatoes and cucumbers along with citrus segments, it could've used a more complex accompaniment, even if just roasting those tomatoes or grilling the orange and cucumber, which would've contributed a nice charred flavorful and a tenderness to the vegetables to complement the fish.

Braised kale made for a winning side dish, cooked just to a toothsome tenderness but still retaining a bit of firmness, as well as its earthy viridity.  Enriched with pancetta and
 caramelized onions, it's not a pristinely virtuous dish, but it easily satisfies on all fronts: health (greens!), harmony (balance of flavors) and hedonism (mmm.... bacon).  It paired really nicely with the skate, too, rich enough to balance its the fresh citrus, and giving it a needed boost.



I forfeited my dessert preference of any of the three options other than what we got:  a warm almond cake with berry coulis, a summer plum tart, a panna cotta with vin santo and berry sorbet... and of those would have been exponentially more interesting than the generic chocolate espresso parfait my tablemate chose.  But although I had been satisfied, even happy with the food, nothing thrilled me so much as to render continuing research on dessert absolutely vital, so I let him get what sounded good to him... (I'm sometimes... rarely- but sometimes- generous that way).  And it was just fine, a dense coffee-inflected chocolate pudding, the best part of which was the fluffy chantilly, which tasted of fresh dairy just gently sweetened.  It found a happy partner in the subtly bitter Illy espresso, an Italian classic that was well-pulled and strong.  

1200 Miles is a really decent eatery, much better than some of the others in the zone if you're in the neighborhood in need of sustenance.   If it was 12 miles, or even 1.2 miles away from you, you'd probably find a better restaurant in transit.  But in that it's only 3342 feet from my house, 1200 Miles was worth the distance.











31 West 21st Street •
 • 212.510.8722




Monday, August 25, 2014

ROOT & BONE

Root & Bone is founded by Jeff McGinnis and Janine Booth, a duet transplanted from the highly acclaimed Yardbird in Chicago to create this quaint little eatery in Alphabet City.  It has assumed the address of the dearly departed Mama's Food Shop, and they apparently incurred every single one of those nefarious, chronic obstacles faced by new restaurateurs endeavoring upon opening up a new place in this fair city.  At least according to Chef McGinnis: keep an eye out on Eater.com for a potential story detailing this.   Unfortunately, it couldn't've happened to a nicer guy, too.  But getting this guy up and running might have daunted another enterpreneur, but the soul that evidences itself in the cuisine drove the partners to forge ahead, and much to our benefit, this fantastic, unique, and sort of magical  restaurant was born.

The space reminds me a bit of Portland Ned Ludd, another favorite of mine.  Air plants suspend from invisible filaments, and humble sprigs of evergreen balance country blossoms paired in bud vases-
 a novel and eye-catching combination.  There are crystal decanters repurposed into gorgeous sparkling chandeliers, hanging above the pass.   In fact, there is something interesting and curious in almost every nook, from a wishboard hung with tiny, hand-scribbied tags from customers, to random marrow bones skulking around in corners.

I entertained a vague fear that such a restaurant name might render things too gimmicky, but instead, it seems to translate into food grounded in authenticity.    The root, thte bone, the core, the heart.  Not so literal as I imagined, although there certainly was a proliferation of tubers and bone dominating the menu, as well as around the room.  But after settling it, the conviviality of atmosphere and sincerity of the food made it feel anything but forced.

Knowing the prominent heft of the menu, I began as lightly as I could, but no less pleased with the outcome.  A Sprouting Garden Salad was no plain mixed greens: big leaves of butter lettuce cradled bright cherry tomatoes, whimsical slices of candy cane beet and peppery radish, shreds of sugar snap peas and furls of cucumber, topped with crunchy veggie chips and nutty benne seeds (like sesame).  Keeping the country theme, it was big enough to share and dressed in a perky lemonade vinaigrette, creating quite a fantastic salad, and serving to open up the appetite for the so-much-more yet to come.

You can't miss Root 'n Bone's fried chicken: strictly gauging from the notoriety of Yardbird, you know this bird's gonna be delicious.  And live up to the hype it did, sheathed in a dark, crunchy-crisp crust shimmering with a lemony tartness balancing the sweet tea brine.  The meat within is moist, succulent... a lip-smacking combination, enhanced by a Tabasco-spiked honey which achieves that ultimate trifecta sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy, tender...  wait: tri?  Try hex.. hect.. octofecta?   There's so many good things going on with this bird it's hard to keep count.   Order it with it a cheddar-topped buckwheat waffle and
 you'll be lucky to be able to waddle out on your own volition.  That probably goes for two of the meatier entrees as well: braised short rib meat loaf  with mashed potatoes or a bone-in pork chop with bacon and brussels, but since I planned on walking myself home after dinner, I would have to exhibit some restraint.   I could've been easily tempted by the local catch with its melted tomatoes and succotash, but it happened to be salmon this evening (not a fan) and so the decision was easy for the Skrimp & Grits, which I had my eye set on anyways.

These grits were something for the annals, densely textured and as corny as all get out: they were creamy in the way a thick Greek yogurt is compared to Yoplait.  They would support a spoon impaled upright into their golden depth, their flavor just as profound.  Surrounded by a moat of Brooklyn lager jus and studded with salty shreds of Edwards Virginia country ham.. and I haven't even gotten to the bounty of sauteed Gulf skrimps (sic) (I forgot to ask why they're skrimps instead of shrimps, but I'm guessing it's just a playful colloquialism) and tangy bits of pickly red
 onion.  And not that we needed even a modicum more of food, I needed to try me some roots, so we got 'em.  A roasted rainbow of carrots and beets, sweet enough on their but augmented with house-made raisins, then covered in crispy thick-cut root chips, like those from Terra, but better.


Speaking of not needing more food, you could easily fill yourself without any help from the Bakery department, but you shouldn't, as it's ovens are firing on all cylinders.  I've read fabled reviews of Grandma Daisy's Angel Biscuits' ethereal lightness, but I didn't find them this way at all.  Maybe the "angel" in the name skewed perception, but for me, these hearty rolls brandished a flakey heft, most probably fabricated with lard or shortening, masterfully doughy counterparts to a dollop of fresh rhubarb preserves and lashings of butter.  Not light, but definitely heavenly.  And their sweet, piping hot cornbread served with sweetened buttermilk cream (which deserves a blog unto itself) and more of those jammy preserves could almost stand in for dessert.  Of a delicate and light crumb, I actually like my cornbread a nubbier, denser and less cakey, but of this style, it is an ideal rendition.  The aforementioned waffles, which did need to weighted down by the slab of cheddar to stand up to the hearty chicken, present a novel combination of the earthy buckwheat and sharp tang of cheddar, especially teamed with a shot of boozy whiskey maple syrup: Atkins would SO not approve.  

I rued not having room for dessert: we did not, in fact, even look at the dessert menu, somewhat lessening the pang of despair.   But glimpsing back on the online menu (make sure to go to rootnbone.com, NOT rootandbone, which, like handynasty  .com vs. .net, provides two considerably different phenomena) now, I see their strengths continue celebrating the baker's proficiency: desserts are cakes and pies galore.  It might behoove them to throw in a cobbler or even a fruity sundae: after biscuits, pone and waffles, additional breadstuffs are hardly what the average eater is left wanting.  I could've easily been plied with the lure of some berry crumble or even peach pie, but at least given coconut or carrot cake, banana cream or Missippi Mud pie, skipping dessert was significantly less traumatizing.   Certainly, every aspect of their philosophy has been achieved:  

"Soul nurturing, conscientiously sourced, farm-fresh ingredients.
A craftsman's ethic coupled with artistic culinary thought.
A tribute to the timeless recipes and traditions of a rural America and the warm embrace of its hospitality."

And while its neighborhood environs suits the restaurant to a T, I'd get a frequent fryer card if it only wasn't so dastardly far out on the outskirts of Alphabet City....





200 East 3rd St.  1.646.682.7080


Saturday, August 23, 2014

BARCHETTA

I love Alain Allegretti, but I did not love Promenade des Anglais, so I can't feign much disappointment when Dave Pasternack of Esca fame took over that fickle space just west of London Terrace.  What is was before Bette (which was fun) I don't recall, but it has eclipsed through its fare share of owners.  Here, now, it seems to be in good hands.




Barchetta is not such a grand departure from Esca, it keeps to the west, it keeps its Italophilic nature, and most of all, it keeps piscine.  Barchetta, meaning " small boat" in Italian,  is a fairly large restaurant itself.  In the daylight, it looks brisk and nautical, but come nightfall, all luster is lost as they seem to have a heavy hand with the dimmer switch.  And there's nothing to hide here: it's a beautiful space with lustrous wooden floors and tables, handsome finishing and simple lines.  It fancies itself a rustic trattoria, but the interior (and the prices) fancy themselves much more... fancy.

Like Esca, the steep trajectory of the price points can quickly vault you into expense account territory.  Pasternack has a knack for sourcing the most immaculately pristine local and sustainable seafood, but this comes at a price.  The crudo offerings hover just below the twenty dollar mark, and these are fairly small appetizer portions.  But even the produce doesn't escape the dizzying dollar signs: a simple heirloom tomato salad is eighteen dollars, although this wonderously juicy rainbow of  varietals quickly distracted from any penny-pinching tendencies.  Each fruit performed its own unique tomato profile, visually arresting shades of shocking vermillion, jade green, sunny gold and illicit maroon splayed like modern art underneath a toss of fresh, mild arugula.  A modest slick of liquid goat cheese added an
 earthy depth and enhanced the fruit's tart, nuanced sweetness.   Another appetizer, an evening's special salad featured superbly crunchy fried clams tumbled with  peppery greens and a mustardy cream dressing.  Bellies and strips alike touted shatteringly crisp coats, but not so heavy as to mask the fat, minerally mollusks within.   Charred octopus is a hefty starter, easily big enough to serve as an entree.  The fat, furling appendages of the cephalopod are garnished with Tim's peppers, thick, smoked rings of crimson that impart a zesty kick to the spiced-up tentacles.  Waxy, dense potatoes are halved oblong underneath, tamping some of the spice and rounding out a repeat-worthy dish.

Primi all feature seafood elements but for the cavatelli with mozzarella and basil.  All the others keep the oceanic theme, from subtle shavings of bottarga to hefty chunks of local lobster.  Of the eight Secondi, only three are land-based, giving those with weak sea legs options, but the point of Barchetta are the beasts of the sea.
  Pasternack likes to extol the whole fish, offering specimens simply roasted with minimalist accoutrements.  A whole black sea bass is presented ceremoniously on a scaldingly hot metallic platter, only to be whisked away and fileted (deboned on request), and
 redelivered, its snowy white flesh bursting away from its fragile skin.   Underneath, a raft of crispy potato slices complete an utterly basic, elemental preparation that couldn't be more simply satisfying and expertly done.  It's certainly not revolutionary, but there is a serious exuberance in the simplicity.  A rotation of seasonal Contorni are on hand, but on this occasion only one was vegetable, the other more potatoes (of which we had had enough) and another of sweet corn (which I consider a starch).  So for true vegetables' sake, the most appealing of the three was the summer squash, described as green and yellow but arriving all yellow (the sprigs of green visible in the photo are shreds of basil).  They were well-roasted, simply seasoned, enough for
two.  Nothing more to rave about than that, but so is most of the cuisine at Barchetta.  It is optimally sourced, supremely fresh and always perfectly cooked.  If that isn't enough to whelm you, probably seek out another destination.  What you pay for here (and you do pay significantly) is the pureness of product: if you desire the thrill of creativity, find another little boat for your dining voyage.

But before we disembark, one last course beckons: that sweet little arrivederci  of dessert.  We chose a seasonal crostata del momento, which was peach, and the peach of, this evening.  It was a lovely momento to enjoy, the sweet peaches roasted down to a tender chew, with a buttery pastry crust imparting its own caramelized density- each bite putting up just a bit of fight before dissolving like bruleed sugar, a fluffy vanilla bean gelato adding a cool dairy element.  This, like most dishes at Barchetta, is nothing that hasn't been done before.  But thankfully, Chef Pasternack does it very well, and if your pocketbook can foot it (or fin it) it's well worth the plunge.





461 w 23rd street at 10th avenue
(212) 255-7400