August 1, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

Bread & (No) Tulips

Cherry tomato, white anchovy pizza. Top: lardo, egg, pickled radish. Photo: Steven Richter
Cherry tomato, white anchovy pizza. Top: lardo, egg, pickled radish. Photo: Steven Richter

       “Where are the tulips?” we cry. It’s too beige and lonely in the basement of the Giraffe Hotel. Bread & Tulips could use some color. I personally feel cheated.  “Where are the tulips?” I ask the waiter.

        “They’re not in season,” he replies.

        “But they must be in season somewhere.”

        “We try to be local.” He responds with pride and finality, as if that explains everything. Never mind that the brick oven stove sending out artfully singed pizzas is from Modena. Surely the taleggio makes a significant carbon footprint, adding wild richness to the marvelous polenta, delightfully lumpy, a rustic grind from Anson Mills, which the five of us are speedily spooning up. And the tellicherry pepper on the pizza? India, sir. Oh, never mind. I’m getting used to restaurant mantras that are more well thought out than the food. 

Chef Benjamin Lambert butchers pickles, bakes, expedites pizza. Photo: Steven Richter

       But as the evening unfolds, I discover that is definitely not the case here.  It seems that what chef Benjamin Lambert is up to is determinedly ambitious.  He’s doing it all, desserts and bread (the focaccia with black olive bruises), remarkable breadsticks, pickling, curing, butchering. That’s him tonight, seconding the pizzaiolo at the pie station just behind us.

Giraffe Hotel basement looks like someone’s rec room. Photo: Steven Richter

       If the lack of tulips has dampened expectations, we’re all pleasantly surprised by the rustic free-form pizzas, crisp and sturdy with excellent flavor in the blistered dough – both the heirloom cherry tomato pie with white anchovies and wild watercress, and one with lardo, sorrel, farm made ricotta and a farm egg.

Meatball mysterioso with sweet and sour eggplant.  Photo: Steven Richter

       Our five are sharing meatballs too – soft and complex, tucked into a divided dish alongside sweet and sour eggplant with chopped pine nuts -- I can taste the pork in the mix.  “Actually, it’s pork, lamb and beef with Roman coriander, also known as black cumin,” the chef tells me later.

Got to admire the mind that created this unique fritto motley. Photo: Steven Richter

       Then the fritto misto arrives like a mushroom cloud, ballooning out of its shiny Charlotte mold, provoking cries of astonishment. What is it?  What’s that floating on top? “Pig’s head,” someone cries. “Yes, cuchifritos!” I second the diagnosis, an expert from my apprenticeship at Breslin and the Cuban diner Coppelia.  Actually, it was the tin mold that inspired Lambert to design the dish. “It just looked like it should be holding a fritto,” he thought when he unpacked it.

Crumbs and corn add crunch to razor clams in maccharoni alla chittara. Photo: Steven Richter

       In the history of mixed frying I cannot imagine anywhere a more exotic gathering: chickpea panisse, green tomatoes, homemade sausage-stuffed olives, shishito peppers, pickled zucchini blossoms.  And that cloud on top, it isn’t anything piggy at all.  It’s beef tendon, boiled, dehydrated battered and fried. My sole complaint, the lemon aioli could be sharper.

        The offerings are strictly limited. Just three pizzas and “to follow” as the menu puts it, two pastas, a fish, a vegetable misto, three meats, $17 to $29.

I love the chewiness of the handrolled trofie pasta and fine lamb ragu. Photo: Steven Richter

       Both pastas are brilliant.  The lamb ragu spooned over Lambert’s elongated hand-rolled trofie noodles reveals its complexity in the mouth with mint, scallion and pecorino, an alchemy of lamb saucing. The maccheroni alla chitarra is firm as it should be, with razor clams, corn, torn basil leaves and toasted crumbs.

        We consider ordering the smoked pork shoulder with a farm egg and dandelion greens or black sea bass with coco and fava beans in a seafood broth. But we’ve eaten so much and exclaimed so often (swallowing our own hot air) that the notion is voted down.  “Shouldn’t we at least try a foie gras and rhubarb crostini?” I ask, to no avail. 

        Lambert moved through kitchens at Le Cirque, Picholine and Town before moving to Washington D.C., where he most recently chef’douevre at Nora’s, America’s first certified organic restaurant. He’s absorbed in details that may not show, like grano arso – scorched flour. Toasting the flour gives a nutty taste to his trofi.. And he looks to a non-profit co-op in Lancaster, PA. for products he can’t find in the greenmarket just five blocks away.  Water is treated and bottled in house, still or sparkling for $4. Me, I’m a City tap water addict.

It’s the big fat cherries that stand out on the chef’s semi freddo. Photo: Steven Richter.

       Desserts are anti-climactic. A rather modest chocolate tart with hazelnut mousse sits on a crust of crushed chocolate feuilletine. The giant red cherries stand out for their voluptuous perfection moored alongside a semifreddo of egg whites and cream studded with toasted nuts and dried fruits.  Milk for the $2.50 coffee comes in a white china cream bottle. A precious touch matched by napkin-draped sconces, in a space without soul. Oh, sorry. The waiter says the chairs are 60’s Knoll.

        Are there enough food fanatics to trudge down stairs for Lambert’s remarkable cooking?  I only tasted once. It’s only three weeks old. The house is serving small plates in the rooftop garden. Lunch was to begin in late August. Will it hold up if the audience he deserves can’t find the way?  I was ready to return the next day.  I’ll be back for sure. I’ll bring my own tulips.

365 Park Avenue South between 26th and 27th Streets. 212 532 9100.