September 24, 1984 | Vintage Insatiable
What’s Hot, What’s Not: The Young and the Listless
“The Whole of Nature…is a conjugation of the verb to eat,” wrote the Anglican prelate William Ralph Inge. And nowhere is the verb so passionately conjugated as in the Emerald City on the Hudson, where the victors in the competition to engage our appetites drive Rolls-Royces and the losers surrender, dreams dashed, and go back to waiting tables for someone else.
Ghosts of feedery schemes that flared and flickered and sputtered out in the narrow duplex at 154 east 79th Street may dance in the house’s mesquite fumes. But none was launched with the cuisinary chromosomes and pedigree of Jams. J-A-M for Jonathan-and-Melvyn. At the grill is Jonathan Waxman, at 33 an elder statesman of the new California cooking, a translation of France’s nouvelle cuisine that he and Michael McCarty nurtured and ripened at Michael’s in Santa Monica. The proper grown-up English schoolboy at the door is Melvyn Master, whose nose has led him through a career in wine to this bold venture.
Jams opened noisily. Highly touted. A Best Bet. Not an acoustic tile anywhere. These gastronomic virtuosos who can divine the scent of success even before Con Ed hooks up the gas were huddled at Jams’ tables from day one, screaming to be heard above their own din, delighting in the exquisite salads and mesquite-infused flesh of fish and bird…choking in the runaway smoke of the grill. They toted their own wines and barely murmured — much less cried ouch! — at the greedy tab.
In those first days the kitchen had its fits and starts, and the staff were so full of themselves and their triumphs that they could be rude or flip, even a bit arrogant. The less starry-eyed and those amply endowed with free-flowing loot grumbled. “Minimal and miniscule” was the plaint. With what Jams calls “first courses” likely to run as high as $14, “main courses” mostly $22 to $25, and desserts at $6.50, modest nubbins of fish or a child’s portion of bird on giant plates (the same costly crockery that frames the mythic minimalism of the great Swiss chef Fredy Girardet) can seem rather stingy.
And now, with the bar licensed to pour and the excellent wine list one would expect from a host with Master’s connections, it’s not easy to escape Jams without spending $125 or more for a complete dinner for two – three courses, a modest wine, coffee, tax, and tip.
It’s certainly not plush you’re paying for. A kind and generous friend tells me this is “California relaxed elegance.” To me, it looks rather tentative, undone, the exposed kitchen its only dramatic statement, though borrowed canvases and tailored blinds have brought it together. Now, happily, acoustic panels have blurred the noise to a modish decibel level (still intense, but you no longer have to shout). And $22,000 worth of brand-new black pipe carries the smoke up, up, and away.
These days, the serving crew (men and women alike), in preppy cords or khakis, shirts, and ties, navigate with grace and enthusiasm and competence. And those pricey California salads from the daily-changing menu can be sublime. Delicate medallions of lobster in a buttery glaze with niblets of corn, all on a toss of precious greens (including an odd herb Jonathan identifies as purslane). Velvet nuggets of American foie gras are a sweet foil to the pungency of bitter greens or fried dandelions. The inevitable goat cheese is a sensuous melt in a nest of field greens, chives, and chive flowers. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are matched with pine nuts and Smithfield ham,
And discerning mouths catch the taste of balsamic or sherry vinegar, rich nut oils, and crisp grilled chicken thigh oozes fresh goat cheese, deliciously flavoring still more field greens and quickly sautéed squash blossom. Oil-and chervil-scented lamb, rare and warm, sits on a thin cake of crisped potatoes, with a flourish of radicchio. There is tender homemade pasta swirled with goat cheese and asparagus or studded with scallops and golden caviar in a Chardonnay cream sauce. Any two of these starters could become dinner for a calorie counter or penny-pincher.
There are still disappointments: The edge of the swordfish is too toughened on the grill. At times, the munchkin vegetables -- baby beets and miniature turnips, slender unpeeled carrots, prepubescent squash -- are cooked a jot too little for my taste. The entrecote, an undistinguished cut of beef, is so scant that one might describe the dish as French fries with a small side order of steak. But the fries are truly splendid. And timid eaters can relax in the knowledge that not every dish on the chic eating circuit requires goat cheese or radicchio. The mystique of the free-range chicken escapes me. Here the bird is small. It may be tough. All I see is the price ($20). Entrees – lamb, pigeon, veal saddle, quail, pompano, red snapper – are most often grilled, most often delicious, simply sauced. perhaps with orange butter, vinaigrette, or lime-and-cilantro-perfumed oil.
Pastry man James Brinkley whips out more than a dozen tarts and cakes each day. Too lazy or greedy to narrow the choice? A tasting sampler – slivers of six or so goodies -- is one solution. It’s supposedly $6.50 per person, but two of us were charged $12 once and $20 a second time. Some of the cakes are overly fussy, though the lemon mousse confection is tangy and good. There are splendid fruit tarts and several variations in chocolate. But the ethereal high is Jam’s version of crème brûlée in pastry, a voluptuous cream under a crackling sugar glaze with a gingery after-kick. 154 east 79th Street
Lightening strikes La Colonna
What a giggle it is, the lightning strike of success in Manhattan. To walk into a vast box of a room about as big as a high school gym and see almost everyone you ever read about in People magazine, and maybe even everyone you know (if you’ve been in People magazine). That’s how it was at La Colonna when our “Fast Track” tracked it (March 12, 1984). The beautiful-teeth crowd had found it. Overnight, the jetset whatnots and chroniclers of tephemera were settled into what was once just another downtown warehouse inventively transformed – by wit and money – into the ruins of Pompeii seen through rose-colored glasses.
Noisy? Yes. Cleverly so, just the cacophony level this crowd needs to know it’s in the right place. Less clever are the banquettes that divide the room: the unless you lurch upward and stare, they block your view of Lee Radziwill, Mick Jagger, and Mr. Chow, and the ripples of rich Greeks.
It was not very noisy this summer. Maybe a mass exodus to Saint -Tropez and the Hamptons had swept La Colonna’s fans to sea, or – worse – perhaps fickle hearts had them drifting to the next lightning strike. Fall will tell. Meanwhile, the kitchen has steadied. If you’re careful and lucky and don’t get dizzy at those stratospheric prices, you can eat well at La Colonna. You’ll probably drop $100 for a complete meal for two, and it’s easy to spend more (appetizers are $5 to $11, pastas $10 to $14, entrees up to $16, sweets $4 to $6), especially if you ask for “half an order of risotto for two,” and find yourself eating two full orders at $28.
Friends tell me they like the pastas here. I find them pallid, unthrilling, even tough, except for one evening’s special, tagliarini with duck. For me, green gnocchi with Gorgonzola is a treat, but these doughy little thimbles of potato and farina are not everyone’s taste.
There’s nothing seriously wrong with the carpaccio (I find it tasteless, and it’s so thin it’s sheer), but an unlisted appetizer of crisply al dente vegetables in rich olive oil is infinitely more exciting. And the insalata trentina brings nicely dressed radicchio with celery under a salty roof of Parmesan shards – powerful and delicious. One insalata, the vegetables and the risotto (one portion or two) could make a duo of epicures quite happy. And with a $15 Chianti Classico Nozzole and a couple of espressos, you’ll beat the bank here.
One evening, the special stinco di vitello, proves to be slices of veal so tough, gristly, and fatty I never get the courage to try it again. But when I ask for fish “undercooked,” it arrives the way, definitely edible (though once the red snapper is a bit over the hill). Calf’s liver won’t be rare (it’s cut too thin), but it’s tender and tasty, though the polenta with it has no character at all. And what do they do to rice in La Colonna’s kitchen? Rewarm it in oil?
New this fall is a midnight-to-3 a.m. supper menu – pizza, pasta, and frittata – all dishes $10. 17 West 19th Street
Jean LaFitte, Predictable and More
A better cusinary anthropologist than I could tell you precisely how many long – lived French bistros lurk within blocks of Jean Lafitte on West 58th Street a few doors east of Sixth Avenue. They, like Jean Lafitte, serve homey bourgeois cooking with scattered nouvelliste notions. Even the old fashioned French waiters will seem predictable and familiar. And yet Jean Lafitte, an outpost of the Demarchelier empire, has an extra energy, a special freshness. And the neighborhood has definitely embraced it. I have a friend, a recent expatriate from Paris, who lunches there daily. He feels at home. At night, the mirrored walls reflect Manhattan’s odd couples and pilgrims from Central Park South and possibly a table of women in costumes that suggest mischief or perhaps a snack stop before dancing at Club A. If the wood paneling an Art Nouveau accents remind you of La Goulue or La Gauloise, you may notice that Jean Lafitte is not so stylish, the lighting less than kind to your eyes.
But the bistro fare can be pleasing: tangy herring with zesty potato salad; a splendid cold beef salad (its only flaw a too acidic dressing); sweet, shiny gravlax; and, at lunch, a magnificent chef’s salad with chicken, avocado, endive, radicchio.
Steak tartare is tasty, too, as is chicken simply roasted off the bones with thyme and rosemary (though I would prefer it less well cooked). Scallops marinated in coriander- scented vinegar or poached with lobster sauce, and an evening’s special cod, crushed and broiled on a bed of tomato, are good to eat, but the boeuf Jean Lafitte boiled short ribs served with boiled vegetables and horseradish and mustard sauce, is sublime.
There are no sweet triumphs at the end, just a good-enough hazelnut parfait, a clumsy fruit tart, a very sweet white-chocolate mousse, and sorbet that may be very icy. With appetizers at $3.75 to $12.50, entrees $12.50 to $19.50, and desserts $4.50 and up, a complete dinner for two might run $80 or more.
Perhaps it would be wise if Jean Lafitte dropped the nouvelliste touches and went with its strength – fresh, honest bistro cooking – and found a nice French grandmother to do its desserts. But perhaps great desserts don’t really matter. The neighbors seem to like the food just the way it is. Jean Lafitte, 68 West 58th Street
Manhattan Ocean Club: The Ultimate Fish Story
There’s no mistaking what Allan Stillman had in mind when he spent more than $1 million transforming the old site of Thursday’s with its suspended disco balcony, into the Manhattan Ocean Club. He was spinning Manhattan’s ultimate fish story, aiming for an elegance and style not usually fund in our town’s seafood institutions.
So there is marble underfoot, bleached wood tables on copper pedestals, antique dessert carts with roll-up windows, applied architectural punctuation – columns topped with cast –iron eaves scavenged from old New York buildings and looking oddly out of place – and, behind glass, a fortune in pottery by Picasso. Green is the accent here: in the graphics of the giant menus (prices inked in green daily), edging the crockery, stemming wineglasses (never mind that these were meant for Mosel wines, dear…they’re green) as a still life is enchanting. And the food isn’t all that bad – if you can accept undrained lobster, overcooked shrimp and fish, floury onion rings, none-too-fresh swordfish, and a decidedly unpleasant lobster salad in toughest cantaloupe. But it’s not easy to forgive such flaws at these prices: appetizers to $11.50, entrees $16.50 to $29 (vegetables extra), desserts $4 and up. (At $68, Dom Perignon is an astonishing bargain.)
The details are admirable. Excellent bread and irresistible sesame crisps arrive, and a shot glass of periwinkles to tug free of their shells with a toothpick (they’re just like the tiny snails at the great Parisian fish house le Bernardin, except that those snails are peppery, and their age is not suspect). Fish is wheeled to you like a patient etherized upon a table, a waiter without hope, at least in the beginning, at the controls. Nervous? “Swordfood,” he calls it, and says “excuse me” each time he sets a glass, a fork – anything – on the table. The staff seems a bit more seasoned now. But the lemon-pepper shrimp, so sublime on an earlier try, isn’t seasoned now. The mussels have such a strong sea taste I’m not daring enough to brave a second bite. Tough clams mar a decent chowder. Sole ordered underdone is not, and it makes no sense at all to hide tasteless chopped tomatoes underneath it.
A bid to reproduce Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish simply tastes singed. But the Ocean Club crab cake is an aristocratic patty, nothing but crab with a tangy mustard sauce, and the swordfish en brochette is deliciously moist and tender – rare, as requested. The desserts do not match the magnificence of their antique chariots.
From the gossip I hear, Allan Stillman has not yet abandoned his dream. He’s still trying for the perfection eluding him here. It would seem so simple: fresh fish meticulously stored, carefully cooked, artfully sauced, with occasional fantasy detours and wicked desserts: a kitchen to equal his well-thought-out wine cellar. Can he do it? A fortune is riding on that question. 57 West 58th Street
When Steak Alone is not Enough
Considering the bad press for red meat these days, it’s astonishing that New York steakhouses thrive and multiply. All credit is due to the Incurable Carnivore. Still, I’m not sure that great hunks of not seriously distinguished sirloin are enough to draw the steak connoisseurs to Manhattan Café. True, it lacks the sensory insult of the Palm – the noise, the bustle, and the push. With its dark wood, hunter – green corduroy booths, and window eye on the street’s passing parade (79 Ukrainians just marched by, protesting I’m not sure exactly what), it’s cozier than the austere Christ Cella. And First Avenue downwind from Maxwell’s Plum is certainly prime real estate, rife with prime appetites.
Carnivores may not be that fussy about bottled artichoke hearts passing as “artichoke vinaigrette” (allegedly abandoned now), or “pate maison Strabourg” no sprightlier than liverwurst (grounds for defamation – of – character suit by Strasbourg and sensibly no longer on the menu), or onions tasting refried, or mushroom soup that might be canned (except that canned would be surely be better), or no – taste shrimp, or acrid blue – cheese dressing. But they do expect “rare” to mean rare and not medium. (It looks rare to me, “ the waiter insists. Is he color – blind?) And they want steak that is aged and flavorful, not bland and mealy.
The pea soup isn’t terrible – I just doubt I’d recognize it as a pea with my eyes closed. The giant portion of red snapper is guilty f only three crimes: It has no discernible savor, it’s not fresh, and it’s overcooked. And the seafood gnocchi taste of iodine. What a surprise, then, to find some triumphs. Crisp cottage fries and onions that are really good when fresh: home fries singed but delicious: and a meaty roast – beef hash, crusty ad rich, with two runny fried eggs – a lovely brunch. With appetizers from $3 to $12, entrees from $14 to $28, and desserts from $4.50 to $7, to a complete dinner for two could run $90.
Manhattan café, 1161 First Avenue, near 64th Street
Budding Talent at Roxanne’s
Roxanne’s really won me. The bright new bistro was hailed here (March 26, 1984) as a “modest little atoll of taste” on a homely stretch of halfway – gentrified Eight Avenue, a stage for the creative notions of an inspired chef. Inspired, the chef, Gina Zarrilli, left. After an uncertain interlude, Richard Malanga, her second cook, took over. With summer’s balminess, owner Roxanne Betesh opened her small, enchanted garden and began to serve lunch, attracting business duos from nearby publishing houses and lovers in varying stages of commitment. Three good reasons to reassess. And so I watch champagne in slim flutes and, hours later, icy poire brandy in snifters pass by en route to the umbrella-shaded trysters, their languor suited to the cook’s pace.
It is slow. Noon and evening, with or without Malanga at the range, the kitchen can creep. But happily, this handsome chintz-draped, smartly tiled, flower-graced oasis is an ambitious as ever. Malanga, though not as sure nor as brilliant as his predecessor, has creative ideas, often delicious in execution, but sometimes less thrilling in fact than in contemplation. All the invariables of the New American Cooking are here: radicchio and field greens, goat cheese and elegant pastas, homemade sorbets and warm vinaigrette, the perfumes of lime, fresh herbs, walnut oil, and pungent coriander.
Tomato-and-basil flecked vegetable flan in a pedestrian crust is really more like a quiche, and it’s good, with a spicy after-bite. Pizzette, a small pizza supposedly strewn with sautéed tomato, peppered goat cheese, olives, and anchovies, tastes less lively than might be expected. But the calzone – proscuitto, ricotta, and mozzarella in an elegant, far from classic pastry wrap – is zestier. Salmon cooked rare, as requested, is splendid glazed with lobster butter, and a lunchtime halibut is fresh and nicely cooked, too. Deftly herbed chicken has been too long on the fire. Clams, tomatoes, and capers flavor fine green and white noodles.
The new menu for autumn offers seasonally provoked variations on many of these notions – crabmeat and leek-studded flan; salmon with a mélange of leek, fennel, and parsley; and a gratin of potatoes and artichokes and Beaujolais sauce gracing the lamb.
With appetizers $5 to $8, entrees $10 to $24, and desserts $3.50 and up, three courses or two with coffee and modest bottle from a very fair wine list might run as low as $70, tax and tip included. In today’s flyaway feeding inflation, that’s moderation, and you may be willing to overlook the stumbles to encourage passion and energy and budding talent at Roxanne’s. It’s not as exalted s it was, but it’s still very special. 158 Eighth Avenue, near 18th Street, V.
Something About Gotham
Not in my memory have I received as many complaints about a restaurant favorably reviewed (April 30, 1984) as I have about the Gotham Bar and Grill. Neglectful service and indifferent kitchen were the chief complaints, but one reader found the oddly varied menu “aimless and confused.” (I felt amused and beguiled by its “wildly cross-cultural” eccentricity.) It seemed to me there was something wonderful for almost any appetite, though I warned that the kitchen was not up to the demands of the menu. My affection for “Jerry’s enormous hamburger” with frizzles of onion, “greasy but divine,” was especially disputed by two correspondents. One ordered it rare and got it well done. The other found that the only thing enormous was the price.
Returning on a night the owner was absent, we waited only briefly for a table (readers reported long waits, rude welcomes), were not pleased with our waiter’s smart- alecky manner (there is a indeed a certain lack of discipline in the dining room), found the chopped chicken liver still oddly chunky but richer with chicken fat, the Ceasar salad still too tame, the burger cooked as commanded but unseasoned, the vegetable slaw inedible, onions more glorious than remembered, the lemon tart not quite acid enough, and the divine butterscotch sundae skimpily sauced, its homemade coffee ice cream unpleasantly grainy.
For me, the Gotham’s design beatifies the vast warehouse space, and I still find the menu’s diversity winning – but too early accolades can breed conceit and rudenss. What the Gotham needs is tough, candid, constant guidance till the kitchen reaches consistent quality. 12 East 12th Street 212 620-4020
Not long after this review, a chef named Alfred Portale was hired by the Gotham. And the rest is history.