June 21, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Todd English Down Under

See the dance of the chefs building shellfish towers at the raw bar. Photo: Steven Richter
See the dance of the chefs building shellfish towers at the raw bar. Photo: Steven Richter

        My pulse races as I descend the escalator in the Plaza Hotel and turn right into a discreet arrival zone that leads cleverly, dramatically, to the “Todd English Collection at the Plaza Food Hall,” a gathering of everything America loves to eat by the charismatic chef mogul from Boston. I’m excited. The oral personality wants it all. Where to begin? The Raw Bar. The Pizza Station. Something from The Grill. Handmade dumplings from Asian Notions. Sweets to take home. Each station with counters in architect Jeffrey Beers’ handsome design is devoted to a different style of cooking. Grab a seat anywhere, if you can find one. Lunch is intense, tourists and Manhattan’s early responders.  A server arrives with a collection of menus stapled together.

A server will take your order at any counter for a dish from any station. Photo: Steven Richter

        Perched for lunch on a tall stool at the seafood station with a food magazine editor that first week, the two of us are wildly choosing one from column A (noodles), one from column C (sliders), another from G (salads), and H (sides).  Two runners are piling the dishes all around us and a stash of extra paper napkins.  “Stop!” I cry. “It’s too much.”

       “I didn’t realize you wanted that in courses,” the waiter apologizes. 

       Hopes dim with the first taste of the smart-looking chilled soba salad topped with thin tiles of tofu – bad airport food – and  slow cooked pork dumplings served in the steamer – bad mall food. “At least bad mall food is one step up from bad airport food,” says my companion. 

      I’m not emotionally prepared for English’s riff on the Caesar: grilled travasano[sic] with garlic and parmesan, soggy and bitter from the raddichio trevisano in defiance of the classic romaine crunch, though I’m hungry and eating it anyway. But the chef’s namesake TE Sliders – three juicy little burgers with cheddar, lettuce, tomato, fried onion and sweet mustard relish – are marvelous and just $10. Indeed, many of these choices on smallish plates seem shockingly cheap, from $1.50 for a Woodbury clam on the half shell, to $6 for tapas or grilled asparagus, to $10 for a pizza, to $32 for the rib eye.

Word is getting around that the grilled lobster salad is a must. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our neighbors, two vibrant New York dames of a certain age are exclaiming over the grilled lobster salad, recommended by the diner on their other side. This counter juxtaposition breeds instant intimacy. One offers each of us a small taste. It’s amazing. Silken lobster. Not overcooked. Should we order our own? Too full. Too late. Our macaroons in five flavors have arrived with a chocolate cupcake that even a cupcake denier like me is happy to eat. 

       “Have you been to Ma Peche?” our neighbor asks. “You must go. It’s fabulous. And the Limelight Market? It’s startling to see what they’re selling in that old church that used to be a disco. Go soon,” she urges. “I didn’t see a lot of customers. Who knows how long it will last.”

Eat in, carry out, order room service or a picnic to go. Photo: Steven Richter

        For those determined to find the escalator, it seems the subterranean feeding concept is a winner. I watch a party of four sharing a grand raw bar sampling at $42 per person.  And even though their hotel is a mile away, the San Francisco couple on my left is visiting for the second time. “We love it.  We’re tasting different things.”

“Tuna Two Ways” for just $15 is big and surprisingly delicious. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Sorry, we don’t take reservations,” I’m told on the phone, “But dinner is not as crowded as lunch.” She’s wrong tonight when I return with the Road Food Warrior for dinner. I’m already cranky, being forced to march half way around the hotel after finding the 58th Street entrance locked. The chow hall looks like Saturday night fever in Toddville. Unless we want to sit at The Grill – I imagine it will be hot and smoky – there are just two empty seats left in the house - at the end of the Raw Bar. Perfect, a chance to spy on the action, chefs fetching ice, wrestling with oysters that don’t want to open, assembling the ingredients for a Moroccan-spiced prawn stir fry. And we have chairs at a lowish marble counter, not the usual bar stool, nice for the knees. 

Gyros and sliders come in threes, perfect for a ménage à trios. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now I know to ask for service in two waves, bizarre as it seems to be juggling Italian pizza with lamb gyros and a sushi roll. Of course I don’t expect ultra serious sushi but a surprisingly generous length of  avocado-wrapped “Tuna Two Ways” is first-rate. Cuts of bluefin wrapped around spicy tuna are enrobed in tangy orange sauce with a gentle after-burn. The long oval pizza with sweet Italian sausage, aged provolone and roasted tomato sauce is excellent too – the dough impressively blistered, bubbled, scorched and full of flavor.  And I’m wild about the mini lamb gyro, meat freshly sliced from a leg of lamb (“Can it be rare?” I asked, and it was), with tahini yogurt and ribbons of minted cucumber salad.

All-round champ: The Italian, bubbly, scorched crust, rustic toppings. Photo: Steven Richter

        Too bad we’re not a ménage à trois because sliders and gyros come in threes. I like the buttery $21 grilled lobster salad, petite as it is, propped on a circle of brioche, though there’s a claw and chunks of properly cooked tail mixed with bibb lettuce and mustard dressing. For $8, I can have the Rhone Syrah in a small carafe – easily two glasses worth. And the anemically marbled cheesecake on chocolate crumb crust satisfies my guy’s fetish for cheesecake.

Executive chef Mike Suppa has seven years of experience with English. Photo: Steven Richter

Either we’ve stumbled on the better choices or the team is getting its act together. English tells me he’s been there almost every day since opening (though not on my two visits). The executive chef here, John Suppa was his right hand for seven years at the W on Madison and 27th Street. “Are you enjoying everything?” he asks us and our neighbors in a lull, flexing the self portrait of his toqued self tattooed on his right arm.  “Are you from out of town?   Compared to the classic food halls of the world, Berlin’s KaDaWe, Harrod’s in London, the vast international maw of Takishimaya in Tokyo, the Plaza Food Hall at just 6000 square feet is like a Reader’s Digest Condensation. But I’m sure we’ll be back, probably after a movie, stalking a couple of seats. And a quick lunch or a leisurely tasting of the pop hits, or a preordered picnic to carry into the park or up to your apartment will seem very appealing in this fickle and hungry town.

One Central Park South. 212 986 9260. Sunday through Thursday 7 am to 9 pm. Friday and Saturday 7 am to 10 pm.

Personal Disclosure: Both Todd English and Ed Brown were among the star chefs cooking at Silver spoons, the recent 25th Anniversary Celebration of chef gatherings in the Rockefeller Center Garden as a tribute to James Beard for the Benefit of Citymeals-on-Wheels.  Beard and I co-founded Citymeals and I am the board chair. English will celebrate the Plaza Food Hall opening at a reception to benefit Citymeals June 30.


Ed’s Home on the Range

Raw hamachi with the cool perfecion of the sushi persuasion. Photo: Steven Richter

        Some chefs can barely wait till the important reviewers toss their stars so they can pass the whisk to a chef de cuisine and go out to dinner. Others feel a responsibility for what comes out of the kitchen and stick around calling the orders and designing new dishes or at least check in between jet flights to global outposts.  Some chefs actually like to cook.  Ed Brown loves to cook. Taking a clue from Tom Colicchio’s Tuesdays at Craft, he has launched Ed’s Back Room Dinners, Tuesdays at Ed’s Chowder House.

The chef himself cooks for Ed’s Tuesday Backroom Dinners.  Photo: Steven Richter

        The deal is a steal at $55 for a six course tasting with a maximum of 25 guests, $40 extra for optional wine pairings. (Yes, I must note that Ed’s ad pops up on my website but I cannot ignore an advertiser when they are clever or good). Four of us sign on for the second Tuesday. As soon as we arrive captains pour Prosecco and a waiter passes crostini swathed with fresh peas on ricotta, and later a second amuse, calamari on tomato confit with garlic, hot chili, pressed flat parsley, salt crystals: small bite, huge explosion.

       A Long Island oyster called Naked Cowboy topped with a plop of grated green apple alongside a lemongrass-marinated watermelon juice shooter starts the official tasting followed by thick slices of exquisite raw hamachi in a puddle of ginger milk, white soy and yuzu.  A bouquet of butter poached spring vegetables -- cauliflower, radish, turnip, peas  -- outshine an undistinguished soft shell crab.  Is it too late in the season? 

I ask for my salmon “rare but not cool” and that’s how Brown cooks it. Photo: Steven Richter

       My faith is restored by the delicacy of thin skinned ravioli stuffed with New Bedford sea scallops and foie gras in a tangy puddle of yellow wine sauce that follows. And the salmon, cooked on one side, skin sauteed to a savory crackle, voluptuously rare, with wilted arugula and aged balsamic, is a triumph. I could skip dessert:  buttermilk panna cotta with ginger granité in strawberry consommé.  A seriously tart lemon sorbet would do the trick for me. But next morning the crumbed mini blueberry muffins from the gift bags are wonderful with my espresso and I take the salt water taffy to my trainer.

Some chefs can’t wait to escape the kitchen. Not Ed Brown. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I’m sure the wound is still raw from the loss of his own Restaurant EightyOne after less than a year of trying to outwit recession pinch-pursing. Installing EightyOne’s maitre d’ and executive chef John Miele here is a measure of consolation.  But the real healing begins with cooking again. “I did every dish myself,” he tells me next day.

44 West 63rd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. 212 856 1288. Tuesdays at 7:30 pm.

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