July 16, 1988 | Vintage Insatiable
Trio Con Brio
“…At the new Maxwell’s Plum, the gaslights still twinkle, and the latest hopeful at the range is impressive, full of rich shocks…”
There has been a colorful parade of chefs tap-dancing into Maxwell’s Plum with major hoopla only to exit with a whimper. Well Maxwell’s is no cinch. The first of our town’s grand cafes, Maxwell’s was for years impresario Warner LeRoy’s golden egg. Hamburgers to fuel the mating scene at the bar financed indulgence in the grill, and the sweet sixteen was sweeter under a flourish of balloons. Where else could you sup in such an exuberance of fairyland clutter?
One day, grand cafes broke out like a rash all over town, and Maxwell’s languished as neophilic hordes sniffed off after the next craze. Torn between work-horse chefs who could feed 600 mouths a day and the sometimes fragile new American stars trained to grill a kiwi but unable to feed more than 200, the kitchen sputtered. Gossip has it that a much-heralded import walked in, announcing she would speak English only, provoking a small exodus among the house’s Spanish-speaking workers.
Enter the newest hopeful at the range: Geoffrey Zakarian, a loudly ballyhooed graduate of the Culinary Institute with credentials from Le Cirque, ‘21’, and assorted famed kitchens of France. The gaslights still twinkle. New storybook stained glass dazzles. The zoo that once dangled everywhere is now tamed and anchored to the walls. Deep-red cherries ring the new white tablecloths. And hooray-the 75 cent charge for the house’s addictive, cakelike bread is no more. Alas, the bread isn’t nearly as good; at times, the pumpernickel rolls are actually stale.
Early as it is, Zakarian is impressive, full of rich stocks: creamy ravioli carbonara scented smoky bacon, potato skins, oozing butter (with sour cream, grated Swiss, and bacon bits for the overkill), crispy onions strings, heavenly wood-roasted chicken with petals of fried celery root, meltingly rare sea scallops caramelized along the edge, and a potentate’s dream of sundae. What glorious gluttony.
The chef can be quirky. Or was he off the night some tasteless soul tossed goat cheese into his venison chili? It will take a tighter rein to make sure his wonderful pizzas don’t get sent back to the kitchen because someone forgot to cut them. And I’m not sure if the fatigued salmon-and-scallop terrine is a mistake or if it simply sat too long in some hidden corner. It may also take a while before the serving crew is whipped into shape. Our waiter one evening seems slightly spacey, as if a spark plug has come loose.
This late-night supper is a series of disappointments. Too much dressing with too little pizzazz on a mixed green salad. That artless chili. Double-chocolate mud cake that is curiously anemic. But a thick, peppered salmon steak on a nest of braised cabbage is so sublime, I am encouraged to return.
We are six people now, tasting everything, loving the giant bowl of corn chowder with oysters afloat, and good black bean soup with an island of sour cream. Asked to do a pizza without cheese, the kitchen delivers a crisp, tasty disk with tomato, garlic, and basil. After too many wimpy versions of gravlax, this lusty, thick, fresh-tasting salmon is a revelation with its toasted slices of buttery brioche.
Tonight’s tuna steak is a stunner—seared at the edge, just warm at the core, served with roasted cloves of garlic, barely wilted spinach, and tomatoes, slow-roasted to intensify their savor. Thin filets of bass-grilled with skin on, arranged in the spokes of a star over stir-fried vegetables, make a handsome still life. Tooth-pick thins of deep fried leek fall like onions scattered with peppers and eggplant across pungent greens in seared-lamb salad. Soft-shell crabs seem overwhelmed by the macadamia-nut mélange they’re buried in today. If Zakarian has a weakness, it’s not knowing when to stop, especially when it comes to salt.
It wouldn’t be a LeRoy venture if desserts weren’t extravagant. Tonight’s special banana –chocolate confection fits the rule. Napoleon layered with strawberry-studded cheesecake in berry coulis is celestial and sweet. The apple pie (with apple ice cream) is mushy but nicely tart in a spectacular crust. With the bill, reality intrudes. Though the two might share a pizza and dessert for a pittance, with entrees up to $27, it’s easy to spend $100 for two, all included.
Zakarian’s style could win back New Yorkers to this wondrous rococo palace. How sad it would be to abandon Maxwell’s Plum in it’s latest incarnation to the tourists and the courting bridge people who never fell out of love with it’s innocence.
Maxwell’s Plum, 1181 First Avenue, at 64th Street (628-2100). Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays till midnight. Brunch, Saturdays noon to 5 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. A.E., C.B., D.C., M.C., V.
I’m not in the mood for Jonathan Waxman. But “this is the new Jonathan Waxman’s,” the Rocky Mountain Sybarite insists. “Cheaper Prices. Jonathan is back.”
“Forget it,” I say. “I tried the new Jonathan’s on Sunday. They didn’t even know how to warm the bread. It’s hopeless.”
The R.M. Sybarite wavers. He’s as fussy about his stomach as I. “We owe him one more chance,” he finally decides. “For how wonderful he can be.”
So off we go. Saturday night. The new Jonathan’s looks exactly like the late, lamented Jams: the same bare floors, and rattan bistro chairs, the same slightly uncertain minimalism, the same confident crowd that gives this Zip Code such unbearable cachet. Pinch-nosed blondes in throwaway back with pearls, their leather-cheeked bedfellows, some bi-coastal meteorites, a healthy sprinkling of mellowing hippies. And it’s noisy as ever.
Melvyn Master’s English-choirboy face is gone. Indeed, there is no strong charisma in the dining room. But Waxman is juggling whisks in the outback. Impossible to keep the Rocky Mountain Sybarite out of the kitchen, especially if it’s open. He catches the chef cranking up the cassis sorbet. “Too bad that’s not a margarita,” the R.M.S. mourns.
Minutes later, two frosty purple shakes arrive-cassis sorbet and tequila, a drop-dead margarita. “Call it a Tornado,” I suggest, sipping slowly so as not to let critical faculties blur…after all, wasn’t I the one who said restaurateurs who give margaritas away can serve swill and make us love it? But Jonathan needs no hocus-pocus tonight.
His every move hits the mark. Four plump, quivering scallops, gently crusted in a glaze of Sauternes and olive oil, wreathed with crisp fried parsley. A crowd of cornmeal-crumbled squid to dip in a spicy chipotle mayonnaise. Tuna, perhaps a shade overdone for my taste, and a forest of tick, green, flavor-rich asparagus in savory vinaigrette. Perfectly cooked mahimahi banked by a hedge of fennel with a staccato of chopped tomato and slivers of basil. On the side, a la carte, a mountain of irresistible shoe-string fries. We couldn’t be happier.
And when the check comes there’s not a murmur. Prices have been cut from obscene to mildly outrageous—that is, about the going greed rate around town. With entrees all under $20, two might tuck away three courses for $90, wine, tax, and tip included.
Is it possible the same kitchen could have been so listless just six days earlier. That desultory Sunday I’d written off Waxman’s forever? Except, of course, it was not the same kitchen—it as Jonathan’s without Jonathan. Perhaps another visit will tell the tale.
Now, with a dose of lemon, the Tornado (cassis season only) is even better—luscious tonic on a hot summer eve. The same shiitake-tossed angel-hair pasta that emerged a soggy swamp that Sunday is perfect tonight. Two crispy burrito packages of duck with black beans are wonderful. And the goat-cheese salad is a reminder of what California taught New York—how to mix greens, the sweet, the pungent, and the tangy.
As for the grilled salmon the tuna, the mahimahi—I can see Jane Brody grinning. All that perfectly cooked seafood, the olive-oil burnishing, and the bounty of superlative vegetables—fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, crunch fennel, and a logjam of baby carrots. A brace of ginger-scented quail stand on their heads in a thatch of fries. And slices of meaty duck breast ring a mash of potatoes and leeks.
Without our asking, the ultimate seduction arrives—a sampler of desserts on two separate platters: tiny rhubarb tartlets and cherry turnovers, cookies and almond brittle, ice cream, wedges of devil’s food ice-cream cake, and a “Heath bar tart” with crumbles of praline on top.
A chastened Waxman is home again—grilling and frying in top form—but he’s still in demand on the Great Chefs Aerial Circuit. Perhaps in time he’ll find a crew that can fake his presence. Till then, I’ll settle for the evening at Jonathan Waxman’s.
Jonathan Waxman, 154 East 79th Street (772-6800). Open daily 6 to 11 p.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.
Once it was a cafeteria, and Jerry Joseph as a picture-framer. Now a few mirrors in lime-painted wood, fresh red leatherette in the booths, votive candles, and a burst of lilies at the bar have turned a truck drivers’ hangout on Prince Street into Jerry’s, a spunky contender for modish effects.
Are those the adorable mooncalves of the night lumbering into the newest green pasture? Or are those good-looking clusters—beautiful men and boyish women, hunks in cutoffs and shirtless overalls, nymphs in lamentations of black—merely the avant-garde of the neighborhood, thrilled to find good food at bargain prices (soups and salads $3 to $4.95, entrees $8.50 to $15.95)?
I’m exceedingly grumpy tonight because no one warned that the liquor license has yet to arrive, and I’m too lazy to run out for wine. But the arugula-endive-and-goat-cheese salad and a quick fix of fettuccine (with four gently cooked shrimp and a saltiness of Parmesan ad sun-dried tomatoes) chase the blues. A hefty ration of juicy roast chicken with diced cloves of garlic, and luscious chili-rubbed pork lion with spicy mayonnaise and avocado to fold into a big flour tortilla fuel a growing contentment—especially when the chicken costs just $8.95, the pork $1 less.
True, I prefer salad tossed, not arranged. The white meat of the chicken is a shade too cooked. And the tortilla would be easier to handle served on the side (the accompanying greens could be dressed too). But at this ratio of pleasure to price, quibbles seem to fade.
Returning one evening, we are especially pleased with the fresh taste of simple tomato-and-eggplant soup, good tortellini--green and white—with a peppery-hot vodka-tomato sauce, carefully cooked Hawaiian silver snapper in a coriander pesto, and sliced steak, fat-streaked ad full of flavor, with decent French fries. Avoid pork loin with brandied plums—unless you have a fetish for tough nubbins of meat drowning in sticky-sweet sauce.
Our waitress doesn’t seem unduly disturbed when we point out that no one at our table got the customary side dish of vegetables and crunchy roast potatoes, but the titanic cuts of splendid German chocolate cake, and rich, almondy pear tart may be her apology.
Jerry’s, 101 Prince Street (966-9464). Open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturdays noon to 9:30 p.m., and Sundays noon to 5 p.m. A.E.