November 16, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

The Truffle Economy Heats Up

Star chefs Grant Achatz of Alinea and Thomas Keller orbit in the kitchen of Per Se: Photo: Lara Kastner
Star chefs Grant Achatz of Alinea and Thomas Keller orbit in the kitchen of Per Se: Photo: Lara Kastner

        And yes, the demitasse of Thomas Keller’s sea urchin soup, ambrosial indeed with its lick of Meyer lemon, is not as hot as it might be in the opening salvo of the $1500 per person dinner at Per Se Tuesday evening. I know why now after reading Pete Wells’ masterly view from the kitchen ( conjuring Chicago Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea wielding small scissors to trim stray strands from furled tofu skins that will stand up “like a pen” in a black “inkwell” of a dish. I imagine Keller “looking loose and relaxed,” and Per Se executive chef Jonathan Benno, “a coil of purposeful tension,” directing the warming, the rewarming and the last minute warming-yet-again of the soup.  A case of too many cooks cool the velouté?       

Uni velouté, caviar on sunchoke puree, prawn with yuba and amazing stuff on vanilla bean. Photo: Lara Kastner 

            From my view as a guest in this assemblage of mostly raving foodies, the pause after we have settled at tables does seem overlong. I’m not tipsy enough to overlook the small flaw in the luscious velouté. I’ve avoided the bubbly for more than an hour of champagne reception to mingle and take notes – getting to know the two retired New York City school teachers whose children paid for their dinner, greeting wealthy old friends who agree it is obscene to charge $1500 without a share for charity, “But who could have predicted the economy would be in freefall now?” I have to force myself not to take seconds of Keller’s BLT lamb sandwich or his signature salmon in a mini-cone, wanting to savor the promised twenty courses in Olympic eating form. One taste is enough to get the joke of yuzu “meringues” and intricate little “cheez doodles” of the evening’s co-conspirator, teamed for this once-in-a-lifetime experience to mark the near-simultaneous launch of their two heavyweight cooking tomes, Achatz’s Alinea and Keller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. The evening is also a kitchen reunion, especially meaningful for Achatz, recently emerged from a near-lethal bout with throat cancer, a chance to cook again with the mentor and father figure who hired him to work at the French Laundry in 1996 when he was 22, mostly because he wouldn’t stop sending resumes. 

        From Wells’ play-by-play, I can appreciate Achatz’s instructions to the servers: “Overall, with my food, you have got to introduce it with a smile. You’ve got to have fun with it. If you’re uptight about it…I’m not trying to insinuate that anyone here is uptight…”

Keller’s butter-poached lobster mitts with abalone and abalone mushrooms. Photo: Lara Kastner

        Sending out the first eight courses four at a time seems prudent, a way to get us all home before dawn. It’s 8:20, at last soup’s on. This mostly foodie congress is primed to be wowed. Osetra caviar tops Keller’s sunchoke purée scented with almond oil. Achatz’s coconut custard with coriander to suck off the top of a vanilla bean is actually pleasant. The sticky prawn-coated tofu skin is, how shall I put it?… interesting  (code word for thoughtful…but do I really care?).  I notice I’m not the only puzzled bouche at my table of passionate foodies. They are discreet. After all, these two chefs are heroes, possibly even gods. And my companions are poised to be delighted, eager to know more about each wine that’s poured, asking servers to repeat the ingredients. And they try: “You lift the little wax dish to your mouth and slide the food out, as you would with an oyster shell,” one instructs. Yes, $3000 a couple is a lot of money to spend, especially now, but they agree with Keller.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

        Truffles in four divertissements provoke sighs and exclamations. “This alone is worth everything,” says someone. Truffle-infused custard with a black truffle ragout, white truffle shavings on a sensational celery mousse, a hot-potato-cold-potato challenge, and the Chicago chef’s black truffle explosion. “You must pop that into your mouth whole,” the captain warns “or it will squirt.” After the sea urchin soup and this sublime provocation, I could stop right now.

        Chestnut-baked potato, quince and smoke come next, just before Keller’s luscious foie gras galette. I want to like Grant Achatz’s food. Truly I do. I don’t want to seem uptight or an incurable old fogey. But perhaps I am. Making something edible out of unlikely components or something inedible out of a classic – like Achatz’s lamb with fennel and Pernod alongside a hot rock covered with coffee grounds, dried citrus peel and spices, three of them in three bowls on the table – “coffee-scented air” is no guarantee of pleasure. A giggle isn’t enough. I want to be surprised by adventure in texture and flavor. I want to be bowled over by an explosion of flavor, transported by scents and savor beyond imagining. When Keller says “oysters and pearls” and sends out pearls of caviar, I smile and bask in that delicious notion. And I’d embrace the notion of coffee air with a smile if only the lamb tasted wonderful.

Chamomile gelatin gift-wrapped turbot is a pretty gift from Chef Achatz. Photo: Lara Kastner

        The chamomile gelatin underneath and wrapping rather bland turbot with what looks like dehydrated salmon roe – actually saffron-tapioca dried and fried is a puzzle to me.  So I’m grateful that Timesman Wells is there to record Achatz’s philosophy behind the dish. “I love fennel. I love saffron. I happen to like chamomile. So let’s throw it all together and hope it works.”  Midway through one waiter surrenders. “There’s a lot more going on in that dish but it would take too long to explain,” he says, slipping away.

        Any bruised sensibilities revive with some real food: Per Se’s wonderfully meaty grilled “calotte de boeuf,” that’s the cap of the rib-eye, from Snake River Farm (presumably the Valhalla of Cow-dom) with such earthbound delights as Yukon Gold potatoes and four itsy Tokyo turnips from the French Laundry garden.

        Everyone at my table, me included, is amazed that butterscotch-drizzled bacon with bits of thyme stuck on it is actually tasty. It arrives suspended from a stainless steel bow (as in bow and arrow). That’s what Achatz calls it a bow. I have the cookbook on the floor behind me with instructions for hanging bacon. Actually, I just dropped it on the arch of my foot and it hurts, damn it. I’m guessing it weighs eight or nine pounds. It’s gorgeous and at $55 you get your money’s worth. But if you like to cook barefoot, as I do, you mustn’t while channeling Achatz. Crocs won’t be much protection either.

Luscious sweet potato “fritter” must be eaten off a burning cinnamon stick. Photo: Lara Kastner      

        After blackberries with tobacco and kola nut, there is the sheer genius of buttermilk sorbet from Diane St. Clair’s cows – last time I was at Per Se there were just four cows and their butter was reserved for Chef Keller. There are eight now, the server reports, the latest named "Keller." Roasted pecan crumble is just that, a crumble to spoon up with a whiskey sour coulis. I’m afraid no one at our table can wade through spice cake dust with rum, persimmon and carrot by guess who. But sweet potato with brown sugar to suck off a stick of cinnamon burning at the far end is downright good.

       Several tables have emptied even before the bacon. Foodists have to catch the train back to Dutchess County or find their way home to Tribeca. So I see many chocolate bon bons left behind. Somehow I manage to finish all four of mine as Keller and Achatz lead twenty cooks out of the kitchen to a roar of applause. The wealthy friends who thought a $1500 dinner without a charity involved was obscene stop me as I head toward the exit, “We have changed our minds… It was wonderful, extraordinary.” 

        At the door, Per Se staffers are handing out the two massive volumes in a sturdy shopping bag. I can tell I won’t make it out the door. I do bicep curls with eight pound weights four days a week but after 20 courses, four chocolates and four hours at the table, I simply cannot tote Alinea and Cooking Sous Vide with one arm. Dividing the loot into two shopping bags does the trick. I make it to a taxi only slightly straining both rotator cuffs.

        Was it once-in-a-lifetime? More so on paper perhaps than in the eating. I don’t think I was hostile. I tried to be open. Possibly I would have been disarmed if $100 from each paid ticket had been designated for Citymeals-on-Wheels. But among those who paid, rich and very rich and not rich at all, there seemed to be an almost innocent joy, in some cases, ecstasy, a thrill that they’d been bold enough, rich enough, fast enough to land seats at this sold-out event to be reprised at Alinea and then at the French Laundry, already sold out too, Keller reports. “How can you say how much it was worth?” a young realtor mused the next morning when I phoned.  “If you went to a concert and it was Mozart who played…” He paused.  “It was a religious experience.”

        To read my first take on the evening on Grub Street (NY Mag), please click here.

        To read Pete Wells' report on the New York Times Diners' blog click here.

Ali Baba. No, Not That Ali Baba.

The smiling waiter at Ali Baba (not ours alas) totes entrees. Photo: Steven Richter

        I had high hopes for Ali Baba’s Terrace, a two-month old offshoot of Ali Baba on East 34th, a spot I didn’t know existed, where, I hear, fans line up for tables every night. “If you want a deal, Ali Baba is it,” said the appellate lawyer, cookbook collector, self-described “senior foodie” on my right at the Per Se devotional. As details of her cuisinary detours and gourmande obsessions spilled forth in bursts of enthusiasm during the pauses between courses, I felt sure I could trust her.  

        And I really owed my friend Ava and her husband Tom a good dinner. As freelancers the two of them are experiencing more free and less lance, so they watch every dollar now as we split the bill in restaurants. “I’m tired of paying $100 for awful food,” she grumped after a particularly ordinary meal on Cornelia Street.  I tell her Ali Baba is guaranteed – almost.

        Our fourtop is waiting – there is no line at the newish uptown branch – although it’s too cool for a table on the palm tree-lined roof terrace above. We’re cagey tonight, ordering just half a dozen meze to start, planning to flee if we’re not happy. Our waiter is clearly bored, if not hostile, even before our tentative order. He swings by with a small giveaway, three olives in a Petri dish, later dropping off chunks of bread for two of us without breaking stride. A passing busboy is dispatched for at least one more olive, delivering a proper olive pileup and more warm, puffy bread to dip into the fabulous oil. Our meze sampler arrives one or two plates at a time, portions for four to share, mostly $6.95 or $7.95:  lively patlican salatasi (eggplant salad), a generous soup bowl of cacik (delicious homemade yogurt with chopped cucumber, mint and dill), first-rate acili ezme (spicy mashed vegetables with a walnut crunch), and iman bayaldi, the stuffed eggplant whose name, translated, records the iman’s delight.

Impeccably fried calamari comes with Ali Baba chef’s garlicky secret sauce.Photo: Steven Richter.

        For Ava and me, passionate fans of Turkish food... for the four of us who have followed the Turkish vagabond-chef Orhan Yegen on countless gastronomic hajes, each bite is a confirmation of the everyday wisdom that can be harvested at $1500 dinners. We clink $8 glasses of wine and order a second round of meze. Three scallops wrapped in Turkish pastrami at $10.95 are a mistaken detour. But char-grilled octopus salad sings with flavor. And the house’s impeccably tender fried calamari reflects what very light breading and careful frying can mean – the remarkable flavor of calamari comes through. 

        Entrees are rarely as satisfying as the meze in the city’s Turkish restaurants. At our favorite, Beyoglu, I tell friends to order meze and a shepherd’s salad and forget main courses, although the Road Food Warrior has no complaint about the lamb chops as long as they’re rare. And in Istanbul I had nicely caramelized minced lamb kebabs (usually too cooked) and fine hunkar begendi – braised lamb chunks on charcoal-roasted eggplant purée - that made me feel tradition might survive a rash of trendy fusion in Turkey. Indeed, Ali Baba’s hunkar begendi is not bad at all, but we’d have been happier without the listless lamb “shish” at $18.95. And one fourth of the rich, warm, not cloyingly sweet, cheese-filled kunefe pastry is enough to satisfy the craving for dessert.

        At the next table a man from Kurdistan assures us this is the best Turkish restaurant in New York. “I drive here from Garden City for dinner every night,” he confides. “All the rest are not really Turkish.”

862 Second Avenue at 46th Street. 212 888 8622


Lifestyle Fooding on First Avenue

Meze stretch across our table at L’Ybane, an import from Nice. Photo: Steven Richter

        As you can see from the Road Food Warrior’s photos, all the meze we are sharing one evening at the very stylish L’Ybane are gorgeous, garden-like still lifes. Lined up in the center against the bare black field of our table, they seem to promise a green world of sophistication. Indeed, rice served alongside a brochette of minced beef surprises with its rich savor. But something is missing in the carefully fried chickpea fritters, vegetarian moussaka, arid little meatballs and stuffed grape leaves. It’s all good or good enough, fresh and somehow clean-tasting, but not wonderful. Flavor complexity is what’s missing, even seasoning, exactly what might draw us back to Ali Baba’s "Ugly Betty" versions of similar dishes.

        L’Ybane, settled bravely in two wings embracing a building entrance (less than a mile uptown from Ali Baba’s Terrace) by Nice-born Al Rineh, is the New York seedling of the stylish wine bar and restaurant he left behind tended by his younger brother. “Lifestyle fooding,” it says on the sleek black menu. “Authentic Mediterranean food reinvented.” 

        The place is young. Our server is earnest and very pretty. But we are somewhat neglected at the far end of the aisle in the narrow space with a blaring plasma television set into the wall nearby. Why? we ask. “A customer wanted it.”

A delicious hodge podge of salad in a pita crisp at L’Ybane.  Photo: Steven Richter.

        I finally get up and hike toward the kitchen to ask if someone can send us more pita for our spreads and dips.

        Prices are gentle here too – generous servings of meze mostly $7 to $9 – or $60 for 14 different mezzes, “the royal assortiment,” easily enough to serve three or four. Beyond the eccentric floor plan, everything here looks so good, I suspect it will find an audience in a neighborhood that needs more restaurant choices. Leaving, we stop to watch the owner deliver monumental profiteroles to the next table. I might be persuaded to go back myself one evening in hopes the kitchen kicks up with a little more daring and to see if that towering dessert is as good as it looks.

1136 First Avenue between 62 and 63rd Streets. 212 826 1111




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