December 17, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

My Tasting Highs of 2012


After Chef’s Justin Smillie’s short rib, you’ll think you never tasted one before.



Rocket Ride at Il Buco


          Friends with pull reserved us the family table and insisted they would order exactly what we should eat at Il Buco Alimentari, set out in a former lumber warehouse. It seemed easier to acquiesce and then maybe add on a few dishes. We shared the platter of salume, whipped ricotta fluff, a saucer of crispy artichokes with preserved lemon, bison tartare and the grilled sausage with charred garlic scapes.  I added the crocchette de baccala (“No. No, not that,” the know-it-alls protested, but everyone loved it). With six of us, there was really just a nibble apiece, especially of the tiny quail.


Fine lasagnaette, other pastas, are just a warmup for the rocket ride at Il Buco Alimentari.


          The starters and even the first-rate and strikingly al dente pastas – cacio e pepe, lasagnette with rabbit sauce, and the busiate with almond, anchovies, capers and tomatoes -- proved to be just the warm-up to the rocket ride.  We’d been gathered to worship the spit-roasted short ribs – a giant slab of blackened ends, fatty fissures and juicy tendrils of meat, gift wrapped with green olives, onion petals, walnuts and horseradish, a tangle of bitter and sharp and sweet. Chef Justin Smillie was rolling up his knife case and heading toward the door when we grabbed him to say Bravo. I’m hopelessly smitten. 53 Great Jones Street between Bowery and Lafayette. 212 837 2622.  




Invention at Crave Fishbar


Chef Todd Mitgang reinvents fish cookery at Crave Fishbar.


          I can almost guarantee that no other chef has ever put together a bluefish salad with quite the same tangle of greenery as the smoked fish “bouquet” at Crave Fishbar.  In four decades of grilled red snapper you could knock me over with a dill feather if you discover a fish decked out with the passion for greenery and verve of Chef Todd Mitgang’s.  Still this chef’s run-amok excess doesn’t seem to detract that much from his triumphs. It might seem that the fish -- John Dory, the fluke, fresh flounder from his friends in Montauk -- is not so much the point as the jungle of green and vegetables on top. 


          And it’s the greenery that stands out – the roasted tomato, parsley gremolata, lardo and breadcrumbs I waded through to find beautifully poached local flounder in July -- or the choy sum leaves, ginger and smoked oyster sauce elevating local hake to the best-dressed list. He’s billing the hake as ramen now: pasilla chili-glazed with grilled king oyster mushrooms and Chinese water spinach.  Then there is his signature vinegar-touched fried chicken with roasted baby peppers and Adirondack cheddar (a classic you can count on). 945 Second Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets. 646 895 9585




It’s the Fish that Stars at Le Bernardin.


Le Bernardin’s briney sea medley with urchin and caviar still haunts me.


          I always feel very special and rich at Le Bernardin in my front table next to Woody’s. I feel especially rich when someone else is treating. On this most recent August evening, I was not expecting much after disappointments at two previous meals. The menu evolves with the seasons and sometimes a choice may prove to be a bit too safe. Yes, the wines were especially rich this evening and I might have been feeling a littlebuzz.  But the kitchen could do no wrong.


I definitely have a weakness for the sticky sweetness of raw clams this fresh.


          Shaved geoduck clam and smoked edamame mousseline in a wasabi citrus emulsion under a hill of Osetra caviar launched the celebration. Caviar can do that. But it was the silken stickiness of flash marinated sea scallop with sweet and sour grapes and a thrilling jalapeno-yuzu vinaigrette that set off a shiver of wow. There was more caviar salting a medley of exquisite sea creatures nuzzled in a creamy yuzu and sea urchin touched custard. But it was the double smoked bonito broth against that sweetness that rocked.


          I almost always have wild salmon for a third plate here but tonight, I fixed on arctic char. That powerful truffle smell hit my nose – truffles in summer? Yes, from Australia. I paused to enjoy the fork play. Then the softness of the fish, cooked on one side, against the earthiness of peas, favas and mushroom duxelle nuttiness filled my mouth. I tilted the plate to get a sauce-spoonful of the buttery lettuce liqueur. An after-shock, yet another oh-my-god moment. And hastened to share so I might be invited again.155 West 51st Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. 212 212 554 1515




My Atlantic Grill Swoon


Atlantic Grill’s bacon studded creamy fresh corn polenta is worth the 2000 calories.


          Friends met me at the Lincoln Center Atlantic Grill (an advertiser) one Sunday. I knew I would start with the spicy tuna roll. I always do. We shared the evening’s special spicy crab roll with plum too. But I wasn’t really in the mood for fish as they were. I ordered a chopped salad and then, among the sides, noticed creamy lobster corn polenta with bacon. Corn pudding. It was the end of the summer. I’d spent most of summer in the city and I just couldn’t get enough corn. I thought I would share it of course. But first…a taste. The lobster was remarkably delicate, just cooked, lush and tender. The fresh polenta pudding was wildly rich, a luscious buttery swamp seasoned with curliques of bacon. Two thousand calories, I guessed, and worth every one, but I figured I’d live longer if I shared it. 49 West 64th Street between Broadway and Central Park West.  212 7897 4663




The Mediterranean Distilled


These meze with Boulud Sud’s many breads are a must but the Harira soup is a high.


          I loved the adventurous sweep of the Mediterranean reflected on the menu when Boulud Sud opened and was a bit disappointed when certain dishes evolved – dumbed down to please the locals. What happened to the chicken thigh tagine with lemon confit and preserved olives? Never mind. I’m there at least once every other week, often after a movie.  I’m stuck on the Mediterranean meze – red lentil hummus, and baba ganoush with a couple of crumbly falafels, perfect to share with a friend. The house baked breads pile up, lavash and focaccia, irresistible.


          I might have octopus with Marcona almonds on almond purée or a half portion of pasta to follow. But lately, I finish with the Harira soup. It’s what Moslims might have at sunset to break the fast of Ramadan. The broth tastes like a velvet night sky, as exotic as the Jemaa-el-Fna square in Marrakech. It’s full of juicy lamb dumplings and vermicelli. I suppose I could share it too but I don’t. I finish it all. 20 West 64th  Street between Broadway and Central Park West. 212 595 1313.



Wong Goes Whole Hog


I want to put together a big enough party to order Wong’s Balinese Whole Hog Roast.


          I’ve never spent an hour or two at one of Wong’s postage stamp size tables without a swoon or three. I always start with the shrimp fritters and manage to work in the lobster egg foo yung somewhere along the way. But this particular high came at a “Balinese Whole Hog Roast,” celebrating the house’s first birthday. I’d been invited by Simpson Wong.


          At first I tried to save myself for Porky. But then, much to my surprise I actually liked the pig ear-and-Asian pear salad. I couldn’t resist elegantly skinny scallion pancakes. Sweet potato shoots in Sambal Belacan and sautéed water spinach made me feel virtuous. Then came fried rice with Chinese sausage and mint leaves, prelude to a large platter of pig delivered by Simpson’s talented second, Blake Joyal.


          Was it the best pig I ever had, the moistest meat, the crispest skin? It’s hard to say when in the cosmic throes of a delirious moment, how would I be able to swear? If you are laying exhausted in the arms of a charismatic lover, can you really focus on comparisons?  I managed to find the appetite to taste the roast pork ice cream in a tartlet of bacon financiér. I think it was wonderful too, but at that point I probably couldn’t be trusted. Wong planned to make the Balinese Whole Hog a regular Sunday event for $30 plus tax and tip, but Sandy extinguished the lights on that deal. For now if you’re five or six you can order a pork butte, and for 20 people he’ll do suckling pig. 7 Cornelia Street between Bleeker and West 4th Street.




France on Second Avenue 


With Christien Delouvrier at the range, La Mangeoire is a French country outpost.


          For 28 years, La Mangeoire played a Provençal game and did well enough. But now Southwestern master Christian Delouvrier is running the kitchen and the house has redefined itself as French Country. You’ll always find the chef’s mythic crusty chicken for two piled atop greasy frites.


          I’ve been sending friends for perfect foie gras --lush pink under a tiara of blonde fat, a perfection of poaching. Now I’m told it’s only offered as a special, fortunately right now is the time as a celebration of the holidays. Spread some on toast. Close your eyes. You are in France.


The chef’s complex cassoulet with lamb and pork is definitely my favorite.


          Alas, Delouvrier’s masterly cassoulet of Castelnaudary -- with lamb and pork, pork sausage and tarbais beans – that had us mewing and keening last winter, only returns in January.  Shouldn’t he be serving it right now? If I was in charge of the world, cassoulet would arrive on the shortest day of the year, December 22.


          There was yet another high the night we booked craving chicken and discovered that a big party at the next table had requested kidneys.  Fortunately Christian had bought more than enough to prepare that retro classic. We got a portion and a half to share – big globes still pink inside on the traditional mustard sauce. I can’t say it was one of those textural shocks that bring a gourmande to her knees.  It just said you can be young again in Paris. 1008 Second Avenue between 53rdt and 54th Streets. 212 759 7086




Diabolicaly Delicious


Lobster embedded in tetilla cheese is scary rich. So far I’ve survived for encores.


          I keep going back to Empellón Cocina. There is always a blissful shock or two, new  since I first  succumbed to the fine tweedy crisps of Lauren Resler and the chef’s remarkable guacamole studded with bits of pistachio. That first night it was Alex Stupak’s dark meditation on roasted carrot, muddy, almost diabolical, like a bad dream but bold and luscious with pickled carrots discs on yogurt. The shock of perfectly cooked Ruby Red shrimp, delicately touched by heat, and tucked between curls of masa crisps and sea urchin mousse forced me to taste again to be sure.


          Taking friends to discover the place months later, I discovered something myself: the umami of barely cooked lobster with fried tomato, Yucatan style, in a lava of melted Tetilla cheese. Sweet, fatty, tangy. Just this past week, I found myself mesmerized by a row of salsas arranged form cool to hottest habanero – tasting first one and then another and again. If Faberge had been a chef, he might have designed sauces this complex. 105 First Avenue, between 6th and 7th Streets. 212 780 0999




Neta: Expecting To Be Amazed


Nick Kim’s splendid omakase whims at Neta distract me from the kitchen chaos.


          I finally got to the prime spot at the blond wooden counter of Neta. What a crowded kitchen, I thought. Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye on the sound system. Far from classic sushi bar serenity. Then the chaos faded into background buzz as I surrendered to uni on  soft, slippery yuba. Spanish mackerel with its skin seared and the flesh raw, then sprinkled with shredded daikon and tempura flakes, a touch of shiso, a hint of ginger, drew gasps, one from each of us.


          But it was the scallop, barely seared in garlic soy butter, then tossed with foie gras and more sea urchin, that almost knocked me off my seat. As I wrote in BITE that week: “It’s like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison came to your birthday party and knew just what you wanted, you spoiled brat”


          The house’s popular salmon tartare in crisped rice cake with bonito waving above is plebeian by comparison, yet mighty fine. Just looking at tits photo makes me want to go back. 61 West 8th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 505 2605




Chengdu on My Mind


Hot and spicy crispy shrimp in the shell are what you want to eat at Legend


          I kept coming back to Legend, trying to score a happy hour $5 margarita (if you order by 8 pm).  I came for the hot and spicy crispy prawns with peanuts and sweet pepper crisps. Shells on or off? The waitress asks. “On,” I say, poised to eat these fat critters shell and all.


          Legend isn’t easy. There are several hundred items on this clutzy menu, some of them sounding like they come from a central chop suey canteen in the Midwest. But it’s clear the emphasis is on the torrid, “New Style Sichuan Food,” is the category to harvest, and a special list of Chengdu favorites. But even focusing doesn’t always work.  We sent back a slog of dan dan noodles one night. I suggest looking around to see what the next table of Chinese regulars is having.


          That’s how we discovered authentic Sichuan fish filet in red sauce with islands of sweet tofu served in a giant mixing bowl – marvelous, worth the trek all by itself. At a third tasting, a tub of “authentic Chengdu fish” ordered blind off the menu, is equally beguiling. It turns out to be delicately poached tilapia – in a clear broth with pickled mustard green and wilted pea shoots on rice noodles. 88 Seventh Avenue South between 15th and 16th Streets. 212 929 1778




After Dark at Jean Georges


A roller coaster ride of astonishment at Jean Georges includes Ruby Red Maine shrimp.


          Jean-Georges in the back room is my lunch hang. You don’t need to read between the lines to know I think it’s the sexiest spot in the city and sensory astonishment is almost guaranteed. I’ve fallen in love there quite often. I didn’t really know dinner even though shadowy and candlelit, being so much more expensive. But with a devil-may-care Daddy Warbucks like my host tonight, I can be totally wanton, open to whatever sorcery the kitchen delivers on the $108 prix fixe. (It mounts with the extras, wines of special heritage and alms to ensure the same welcome next time.)


          A layering of mozzarella with tristar strawberry in balsamic and black peppercorn oil. Fluke sashimi and melon in miso. Wild watercress sorbet with crème fraîche and green almond. It’s just the amuse and already my taste buds are staggered. The olive oil-slicked voluptuousness of scallop carpaccio gives me shivers.


          Of course, I’m an easy pushover for Maine Ruby Red shrimp with sea urchin and green chili in a garden of pansies. Gently cooked lobster in a toss of gnocchi, with favas and ramp butter is remarkable too. By the time it arrives, I don’t remember that I ordered lamb. I’m a little high on the wine too. But the quality of this lamb, brilliantly rare, with a smoked chili glaze, is yet another fugue for the senses.  It’s not Jean-Georges in the botox of daylight but it trumps all expectations. 1 Central Park West between Columbus Circle and 61st Street. 212 299 3900




Unabashedly Inauthentic


Elegant and earthy lamb chops with unseasonal vegetables triumphs anyway at RedFarm


          The kitchen sent them out: Eggplant and smoked salmon bruschetta. I probably would never have ordered the dish, I am so focused on chef partner Joe Ng’s dumplings at Red Farm. An unlikely pairing – eggplant and cured salmon – but in fact, super sensuous and lush. From now on, I have to have them every time. And the new lamb pot stickers are marvelous too. “Unabashedly inauthentic,” partner Eddie Schoenfeld says of the menu.


          Just when our foursome has eaten more than enough, the kitchen sends out small lamb chops, on a toss of white and green asparagus and corn. Corn in November? Ng says he found it in his Brooklyn market. I seem to be the only mouth still standing.  529 Hudson Street between Charles and West 10th Streets. 212 792 9700




Eating It All at En Japanese Brasserie


No jokes about eating sperm please. Just taste them tempura’d at En Japanese.


          “Now we have sperm tempura,” says chef Hiroki Abe with a naughty smile.


           “I’m not sure I’m going to like this,” I warn my companion at the counter of En Japanese Brasserie.  He made me eat squid intestines once and I have never totally forgiven him. Chef Hiroki Abe sets the dishes in front of us: two amorphous battered bundles with a fried shiso pepper in the middle looking like a you-know-what.  I let mine cool for a minute, then I nibble a little and finally pop a cluster in my mouth. It tastes rich and satiny, like brains.  One of my favorite sins.  They pack so much cholesterol. Probably sperm does too. I sit there happily stunned. I’d rather not know. 435 Hudson Street between Leroy and Morton Streets. 212 647 9196






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