November 4, 2002 | Insatiable Critic
Who are the new star whisks in this best of all eating towns? What obsessed soul has perfected a liaison of tastes and textures so sense-shivering it makes a foodie weep? What inspired artist brings a fresh direction to what strikes us at times as culinary gridlock? When New York decided to present its Chefs Awards 2002, we determined to look beyond the chef legends, the founding fathers (and mothers), and the constellation of superstars.
In the year’s thousand new restaurant launches, we looked for the boldest. We wanted to celebrate the born-again chef and the overlooked wizard, the next heir to the pastry crown before we drowned in the ooze of a flourless chocolate cake.
Who could be the next Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alfred Portale, or Eric Ripert, the next Daniel Boulud or Nobu Matsuhisa? Who might be a driven spirit to make David Bouley seem normal and Mario Batali less molto? We asked Alfred, Jean-Georges, Daniel, Eric, and Mario. We couldn’t find Nobu . . . though we did surprise David in his cellar lab, where he was working to perfect a candied seaweed crisp he’d tasted at Spain’s ebulliently creative El Bulli.
From our critics and these masters came names with promise, including a few no one will recognize: aggressive comers, self-starters fresh from gigs in European kitchens. A few are distinct long shots. It takes more than knife skills, discipline, reasonable sanity, a rich father-in-law, charisma, media smarts, and a partner who can schmooze the clients and draft a sound business plan to make a solid landing, much less reach Valhalla.
To Think That I Ate It in Tudor City. At last, Scott Conant has the smart partners and luxurious room he deserves to make his mark. Moored in the heart of unfindable Tudor City -- a romantic cottage in a charming enclave -- he dares to cook more authentically Italian than ever, with wild-mushroom fricassee on creamiest polenta, moist roasted baby goat on "groestle" (potato pancake), and luscious baked rigatoni with tripe. Demanding Italians have watched this CIA grad grow under the exacting Paul Bartolotta at San Domenico and later at Il Toscanaccio, Barolo, and Chianti (where his food outshone everything else). Despite his matinee-idol good looks, till now Conant has always been happiest in the kitchen, even cooking on the line. But if the stars fall his way, he may learn to bask in the limelight (and do some all-important schmoozing with the customers).
REASON TO MOVE TO THE WEST SIDE
Have Lamb Shank, Will Travel. We've followed Tom Valenti to Alison's-on-what-was-that-street?, then to Cascabel on a wrong-way-one-way stretch of Lafayette. Now in clubby, laid-back Ouest on supposedly forbidden Broadway, he strikes us as even more confident in the bold flavor layerings of his oyster pan roast and braised short rib on soft polenta. "I'm touching taste memory," he says, content that the clamor for his sophisticated comfort food and a well-honed crew free him to go fishing again. Though he rubbed up against starry ambition at Guy Savoy and in Alfred Portale's kitchen, Valenti is not driven. But now that he's shown that Central Park is not the impregnable great divide, high-ambition seeds like Aix and Andy d'Amico's Nice Matin are shooting up nearby, and Valenti himself will be recycling taste memories of Italian boyhood in a new spot on West 75th. So much for fishing.
OUT OF THE SHADOW
When David Is Goliath. No need to sling more mud at David Bouley. Danube was his dream (or a lovely folly he filched from Warner LeRoy). But now insiders agree Danube is even better than Bouley itself, thanks to executive chef Mario Lohninger. We marvel at the depth of his oxtail consommé with bone-marrow dumpling, the impact of blue fin and hamachi with Key-lime pickled onion, and the lightness of cheese ravioli with summer corn and smoked mushroom. Does Lohninger shrivel whenever Bouley bursts into Danube's dining room seeming to claim credit for inventing what Mario believes is his? "I'm trying to be humble," he says. "I'm happy to be learning." At 29, the Austrian import thinks he's ready to shake out from behind Bouley's charisma. Maybe that's why, in a recent press release on the kitchen's new, less-Viennese direction, Bouley gives him a share of the kliegs.
POISED FOR THE BIG TIME
When Zen Is Not Enough. Anita Lo is off the flight path of fickle chic in her cubby of Zen serenity on Barrow Street. But her kitchen is charged with energy, and at 36, she has come into her own at Annisa -- "not a boom business, but doing well and then some." Her refined touch and flavor balance are striking, from the first white-anchovy amuse-bouche to the beguiling miso-marinated sable with silken tofu in a bonito broth, and a stunning lacquered squab with candied walnuts and tea-smoked foie gras curls. An academic who fell into cooking ("I had no choice"), Lo -- who worked at Le de Bistrot Maxim's, with Bouley, and with David Waltuck, and who did some stints in France -- chose to go small. "I wanted complete control." Now she's ready to jump to a brasserie, too, given the right partner. "I don't want to be on the line in fifteen years," she admits. "I want a life, a house in the country. Like Danny Meyer."
NEW CROWN PRINCE OF PASTRY
Go West, Young Man. At 19, Johnny Iuzzini was flipping tuile for Daniel Boulud at the original Daniel. When he decided to take a break and see the world at 28, Boulud lent him $10,000. No wonder he thinks of Boulud as a second father. Yet years later, when the top pastry toque on 65th Street walked, Papa didn't quite trust an American to head his pastry crew, which turns out the classic French sweets he dictates. Happily, Jean Georges offered Iuzzini the chance to fly. "Jean-Georges gives you the spirit of what he wants, and you just go with it," Iuzzini marvels. Desserts come in flights: Luscious chocolate caramel mousse with hazelnut succès sits beside chilled, juniper-spiced chocolate soup with Devon cream; roasted pineapple with cardamom, next to mango soup with papaya and litchi-ginger sorbet. Once a platinum-spike-haired club kid, Iuzzini has mellowed, but he's still cute enough for media exposure.
California Dreamin'. "The kids in my kitchen just don't get it," a certain chef -- and Jonathan Waxman fan -- confides of his passion for Jonathan Waxman. "They don't see what we see in Washington Park." Well, maybe our love affair with Waxman's straight-ahead, Greenmarket-driven California cooking is sharply flavored with nostalgia. We were young and beautiful and smitten by his West Coast cool at Jams in the eighties, then witnessed his Icarus flights and resulting falls ever since. (Was I alone in loving his confusing mishmash at Colina in 1999?) Now we walk into this mellow-yellow room and see his ironic grin in the open kitchen and taste the mushrooms of the moment or the mythic Waxman chicken (forgive me for noticing that it's sometimes overdone), and it seems a lot like our redemption, too.
Counting Her Zzzzz's. It takes exceptional grace to skate the fine line between fusion and dysfunction as Patricia Yeo did with her gutsy global spins at AZ. So both tongues and daggers (this is New York, after all) were poised for her attempt to double the ante at Pazo. But Yeo is not to be underestimated. Bobby Flay sensed that when he hired her at Miracle Grill right out of the New York Restaurant School: "She came with a little black dress and her knife set, smartest woman I'd ever met." (They left together to open Mesa Grill, and later, she came back from China Moon in San Francisco to open Bolo.) Her quasi-Mediterranean concept at Pazo seeks that same balance of comfort and surprise. Sure enough, after a confused start, she and her co-chef, Pino Maffeo, have kept the menu churning, upping the sensuality quotient. And Nicole Plue's visionary desserts are blowing us away.
SHAKING UP A CLASSIC
Rocking the Citadel. It's no longer a question of pumping life into La Caravelle, that often-resurrected French sixties stalwart. No. It's time to ask if the crusty old dame can survive the searing heat generated by her newest chef-chevalier, Troy Dupuy. Revel in the Escoffier classics preserved on the menu here if you wish. But then you'll miss the sense-reeling experience of Dupuy's aesthetic: the exquisite detail, the obsessive layering of tastes and textures, the spices, the satin, the crunch. As in the chef's sautéed foie gras with gooseberries and pistachios, and his seared arctic char with celery, celeriac, celery seeds, and a kick of grapefruit. Even the poached chicken is an astonishment of surreal cooking. Clearly touched by Grey Kunz, after his Lespinasse-Washington gig expired, Dupuy earned his keep with kosher catering till he found a kitchen that would take his entire team. "We're extended family now," he says.
NEW ITALIAN BRAVURA
New Toque in Town. O'erweening ambition can end in disaster, as we learned in high school from Lady Macbeth. So his pals worried about Steve Hanson -- best known for neighborhood crowd-pleasers like Ruby Foo's -- when they sensed his unabashed hunger for three stars in Fiamma. But he hooked his wagon to the right whisk in Michael White, whose food is as big and blowsy as he is. And New York loves it. Even the more jingoist Italians find him sufficiently Italian, citing his work with Bartolotta at Spiaggia in Chicago and his six years at San Domenico in Italy. "I spent eight years of my life in Europe to get that discipline," says White. "You can't believe how many cooks don't know how to clean an artichoke." There was sniping that Hanson would surely dumb him down, as one insider put it. Quite the contrary, White insists: "He was there from the beginning with his cattle prod," he admits. "But it's about letting me do everything I want to do."