August 18, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Allegretti Means Lively, but Slower than Pesto

Our captain says Allegretti customers love veal rumstek with vegetable confit. Photo: Steven Richter
Our captain says Allegretti customers love veal rumstek [sic] with vegetable confit. Photo: Steven Richter

        Alain Allegretti may have opened his doors Monday short a chef or three in the kitchen, but he's a pro after all - that adorable baby-face makes him look deceptively junior.  Forced to find his tempo with just a strong chef de cuisine, he was ready Thursday for Hillary and Bill with Chelsea and her boyfriend - the foursome a giant presence, an elephant in the modest, low- ceilinged room, Secret Service contingent parked at a separate table. “The President knows me from Le Cirque, of course,” Allegretti explains. “And Chelsea lives in the neighborhood. We are making a big buzz in the neighborhood.”  From their smiles, he is sure they were happy. The Clintonfest almost makes up for the critics swarming Allegretti too soon - and for cooks who didn't even bother to say they weren't showing up. At least the sous chef, veteran of a year in the kitchen of El Bulli, came in long enough to whine, “It's too tough for me.”  (Click here to see more).

        That the fallout of stress doesn't show in the food he’s dispatching from his kitchen a night later when I arrive with friends is impressive. Everything is sunny, clean, full of Provençal flavor and perfumed with intimations of Nice. Boldly fragrant soupe au pistou captures summer with a huddle of carrots, celery, turnips, haricots verts, green peas, cranberry beans and zucchini in a pesto pool with a poached egg traveling on top. Seafood soup is lush and rich with croutons to dip into a saucer of rouille parked alongside and then dragged through the soup. Perugina sausage with sweet peppers, onion and potato is a hearty starter that pleases a hungry pal.  And The Road Food Warrior's savory tagliolini with baby cuttlefish and cherry tomatoes bound in almond pesto - a table favorite - would make a fine first course for two.  Only the too tough octopus disappoints.

 Simple, well-lit with serious stemware, tablecloths on padded tables. Photo: Steven Richter

        A crunch of toasted almonds is a surprise note in the toss of fennel, Yukon golds, Niçoise olives and green-tomato basil broth to spoon on top of diver sea scallops. Already a customer favorite, the captain informs us, is milk fed veal “rumstek” (the hind quarter the French call “quasi”). I ask for it as rare as possible and it shows up pink (milk fed means it's young, after all)
Tagliolini with cuttlefish and almond pesto. Photo: Steven Richter
and delicious, sitting on a mix of gorgonzola, rosemary and veal jus. I'm sorry to report that I've had better chick pea fritters (panisses Niçoise on the menu), at Jean-Georges’ of course, and most recently a week ago at Eighty One, though a side of Allegretti's is certainly priced right at $6.  Our chocolate-fixated friend dismisses the Grappa chocolate fondant with ricotta almond sorbet as not quite chocolate enough. That leaves more for me.

        Alternating at the welcome podium, sommelier Megan Flinn has the striking looks and carriage of a runway model, and more to the point, real authority on grapey issues. Most of the staff, right down to the busboys, have solid moves - folding napkins, delivering extra silver, dispensing splendid olive and pesto rolls in classic style (though neglecting to offer seconds).  Alas, they all talk too much for my taste. “Welcome” or “So nice to see you” would be less annoying than “How are you tonight?” Not once but four times.  “Are you still working on that?”  is no substitute for “May I clear?”  And a repetitive chorus of “How are you enjoying everything?  Is that to your taste?  Are you finding it superb?” feels like a slow drip on the top of my head.  Still, my friends are so pleased with the food, they forgive everything and think I'm just too crabby.  Crabby?  It's my job.  I'm a restaurant critic, after all.

        Meanwhile, in rhythm with the inflationary times, this bistro's prices are too lofty to make it an everyday hangout.  If you follow one of the pricier appetizers ($10 to 20) with the $38 halibut or the $34 veal (instead of cod at $25) plus a $10 dessert, dinner for two could run $170 with tax and tip and a pleasant $48 Côtes de Rhone from a striking list with very few bottles at the low end.

Veggies from the farm to the fragrant pistou with a poached egg on top. Photo: Steven Richter

         The chef-owner has said he will delay using the wood-burning oven till he's beefed up his team. “This is my first restaurant.  It's my baby. I know I'm going to be judged,” he says. “And I have to be ready. Most cooks these days just go for the money and the health insurance. One in a hundred has a real passion.  A small new restaurant can't compete with Daniel or Le Bernardin.” Is he too demanding? I ask.  After all, he prepped in France's militaristic tradition at Le Chantecler in Nice and Alain Ducasse's Louis XV in Monte Carlo, before moving into Sirio Maccione's red hot orbit at Le Cirque 2000 and on to Atelier at the Ritz Carlton. “I am tough,” he admits in a tone that says tough is normal.

        Are you willing to purée chickpeas and deep-fry basil? A career is waiting.

46 West 22nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 212 206 0555 


I Can Feel You Morimoto, But I Can't See You

Morimoto’s toro shtick: stylish, flashy and let’s just admit it, delicious. Photo: Steven Richter

        I never really gave Morimoto a chance.  I loved the look of white drapery and scrims between tables but was not moved by the food in an early tasting after it landed behind a bright red noren, the curtain outside signaling the entrance in a bold steel façade (Iron Chef, indeed).  I was so unimpressed I didn't even type my notes and never returned.  An artist friend joining us tonight hated the décor, “That isn't drapery,” he said of the white billows I like, “that's corrugated plaster by Tadao Ando.  He should at least have made sure the ends meet.” He, too, never gave the food a chance.  We decide to grant Morimoto-san his belated due. It's a summer Monday and I have no problem at all booking a table for three at 8 p.m. for a “Mr. No One.”

        We're early and the hostess doesn't want to seat us till our “party is complete.”

        “We'll wait at the table,” I say.

        “But it's not our policy.”

        “We'd like to sit now,” I say.

        “Will he come soon?” she asks.

        Silly girl.  This party is always late. “Well, of course, it's almost 8.  Our date is for 8.”

 The sushi bar through glass and scrim. No sign of the Iron Chef. Photo: Steven Richter

        I am amazed when she leads us past a miserable little cul de sac of forlorn tables to a prime scrim-enclosed table. I would have put a snarly bitch like me in the farthest corner. Perhaps she senses that I would stamp my feet and make a scene if she sentenced us to Siberia. Of course our friend is late, so I study the menu, looking for a penny-pinching solution amidst the $28 toro tartare, $37 lobster, $39 surf and turf, and Japanese Kobe at $20 an ounce.  Our good buddy strides in, forgetting our nom de forchette at the check-in desk and looking a bit discombobulated till he spies us in our catbird perch.

        “The chef is doing a fabulous $120 omakase tonight,” the captain offers.

        “Oh. Is Morimoto here?” I gaze through the blur into the kitchen seeing only non-Morimoto silhouettes.
His answer could easily be true.  “Oh yes, I've seen him occasionally passing through.”

        The three of us have much to catch up on. But we really have to order. I hand our pal the open menu. “What do you want?” I ask.

        “What do you think?” he responds. “I'm avoiding carbs.”

        “Well, then you choose.”

        They are both leaving it to me.  And why not?  I’m usually so bossy no one has much choice anyway.

        “Maybe the $120 omakase is the way to go,” he says.  “It sounded great.”

The house gets points for slivers of tilapia in fashionable dress. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Hmm...yes.  I guess.”  Toro tartare, lobster, sushi, wagyu. I have to admit we could easily spend much more free-ranging the menu. The tasting it is.  The weight lifts from my shoulders, the juicy gossip begins.  And then, what a surprise. the generous parade of pretty dishes is actually splendid. The tuna tartare pressed into a flat wooden box with a shovel to scrap it over stripes of condiments - wasabi, crème fraiche, avocado, chive, crunchy pebbles of rice cracker - that seemed so stupid when Morimoto opened - is actually delicious, as are slivers of tilapia with onions and tomato in a lively vinaigrette. A filet of sockeye salmon, definitely too cooked for me, nests against a hill of micro greens, dressed with a yuzu potion (overdressed, the would-be carb-avoider suggests). A lineup of sushi - fatty tuna, fluke, salmon, striped bass, snow crab - lacks the thrill of just-made-before-your-eyes-by-a-sushi-sensai. But I forgive an oyster on the half shell in a too-sweet puddle for the voluptuousness of oyster and foie gras with a dab of uni in a custard riding tandem.

        A miniature macaroon filled with red bean paste and green tea, poured at the table and stirred with a long bristled brush by a blond Adonis is “to clear the palate” for entrées side-by-side on individual platters. He knows how cute he is.  He knows he is a fabulous stirrer.  Marvelous lobster “épicé,” tingles with garam masala, to be cooled if desired, with lemon crème fraîche that tastes more like dessert. And scrawny ribbons of beef draped over marvelous sweet potato chunks make me think of the emperor in his underwear. I can't remember if our captain called it Kobe or wagyu, but the paper-thin squiggles of meat are more symbolic of luxury than luxurious. Sweet potato cake and red bean ice cream is the dessert the ghost of Morimoto has chosen for the evening, not that the combo is unpleasant.  Just that the big bowl of fabulous sorbets graciously substituted by the captain at our friend's request make us wish we'd asked for the same.
A pride of sushi.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Between courses we agree that the subtle asymmetric white lines on the sumptuous grey lacquer table are quite splendid even if the surface is badly scratched. Though I love seeing the room blurred by the glass and scrim between tables, our artist chum says it makes him feel dizzy. We agree you could panic trying to figure out how to get into the bathroom. (The door slides.) And I'm afraid the faux drapery is a mess, sloppily pieced together with unsightly gaps.  I wonder if architect Ando has ever stopped by and looked up. It’s almost midnight when we step through the billowy red curtains and Morimoto is almost full with the last wave of hot looking people who keep arriving. If the economy is hurting, I guess this crowd finds Morimoto a soothing band-aid. No, we never did see him.

        How are the upscale neighbors doing across Tenth Avenue? We wander into Del Posto, where only a few tables are still occupied, then walk half a block to Craft Steak where the soaring rooms, dark and handsomely designed, are deserted except for one occupied table. We grab the first two cabs headed toward the Del Posto doorman blowing his whistle furiously. If I didn't already feel very rich having left behind $340 for our share of the bill at Morimoto, standing in this Tenth Avenue triangle of cuisinary ambition would do the trick.

88 Tenth Avenue between 15 and 16th Streets. 212 989 8883. Morimoto’s discount “Restaurant Week” lunch continues till Labor Day.


Fat Is Good

        If you contemplate our town's piggish crush on pig, or the compelling reign of steak on our p
lates, you'll think there couldn't be a better time for Jennifer McLagan’s love letter to Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes (Ten Speed Press). I try to imagine the in-house debate that put raw untrimmed lamb chops on the cover instead of, say, brown butter ice cream or even cooked lamb chops.  Of course, they couldn't use the photograph of spicy pork cracklings or duck fat biscuits. Too scary.

        Fear of fat, even the fear of being fat, may fade if we can only adopt the serenity with which McLagan confronts fat and how to cook it. Is it possible we would be a nation of fewer plumpies if we ate more lamb chops and less macaroni and cheese?  If only all Americans could afford lamb chops. I've not tried a recipe yet though I'm intrigued by bacon mayonnaise, less so by crackling brittle.  Still there's a strong message here: “Fat is indispensable and delicious.  We should celebrate it, cook with it, eat it, and enjoy it without guilt.”   I'm working this out with my trainer. Click here to buy Fat.


I'll Always Have September Gourmet

        I wish I could have taken Gourmet's wide-ranging ode to Paris with me when I went in July but the September issue, jam-packed with favorite addresses from chefs and food writers and the editor herself, an amorous embrace arrondisement by arrondisement, is just out now.  The unabashed passion begins with Ruth Reichl's five page “Letter from the Editor: The Last Time I Saw Paris.”  I read it reliving my own youthful first flirt with the magical city, remembering the heat of a man's hand caressing the instep of my foot in my favorite black suede Joan Crawford fuck-me shoes while waiting for a table at Lasserre.  Ruth writes of “yearning up at the house where Hemingway once lived” and haunting Shakespeare & Company, “as if by staying long enough I might make Joyce or [Gertrude] Stein appear.” I am reminded of the icy mornings I woke up in the unheated Rue du Fleurus bedroom of the cute architect I surely was attracted to even though the big draw was that he lived in the same building as Alice B. Toklas.  And I smile.  How simple Paris was then.  September Gourmet is definitely a keeper.