August 11, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Ed Brown Finds His Groove at Eighty One

Calamari a la plancha doesn't look like much but sings with surprises. Photo: Steven Richter
Calamari a la plancha doesn't look like much but sings with surprises. Photo: Steven Richter
 

        I’ve been wanting to try Ed Brown’s $42 bar and early bird prix fixe at Eighty One and tonight, with tickets for Hair in the Park, seems ideal.  We’re early enough to eat in the dining room but I like eating at a bar – it feels sexy to me.  Since we’re about to step back 41 years for Hair -- a time when everything felt sexy…yes, it’s perfect.  I’ve been hearing a lot of raves for Eighty One recently, three times last week alone. “Amazing meal,”  “Michelin three star food,”  “My new favorite restaurant.” This last from an Upper Eastsider who eats out eight nights a week, just as we do (although he can afford it).

        The bar is walnut and well-lit. The chairs have backs and swivel.  But it’s the skinny, fiendishly-addictive house-made bread sticks rolled out on a hand cranked pasta machine that clinch the deal. I study the prix fixe “Ode to Summer” choices and the house’s á la carte menu (appetizers $14 to $19, entrees up to $39).

        “Any chance I can have the heirloom tomato dish on the prix fixe?” I ask the bartender.   Chilled cucumber soup, fluke crudo or the summer bean salad are offered, but I must have the tomato prize my savvy friend Naomi nominated for Michelin Valhalla.

Luscious summer tomatoes in a “soup” of astonishing flavors. Photo: Steven Richter
 

        “You can order anything on either menu á la carte,” he says.  Which is clearly not what I meant.  But I get the message.  No substitutions on the prix fixe discount.  Next thing I know, we’ve abandoned the bargain and wantonly throw darts at the menu. As I noted, bars are sexy.  Inhibition fades.

        And yes, Naomi is right.  I loved Ed Brown’s food from the first tasting he did for the magazine press at a partner’s home months before opening…but now he’s taken an obsession with product, a passion for layers of flavor and the look of the season and hit a new high. Every chef talks about seasonal…but Ed Brown’s dishes look like a raid on a farmers market. And everywhere, carefully scattered crystals of salt add shocks of pleasure. Tomatoes come in every size, every color, red, yellow and a sensuous purple with a small plop of tomato sorbet, little fluffs of ricotta and basil dressed with olive oil, a dash of sherry vinegar and tomato water – the two of us are spooning up the last drop of that heady soup.  (And we don’t have to ask for a spoon as I so often do, even in restaurants that ought to know better).

        Baby calamari from Montauk a la plancha look like nothing much at all on the giant white plate, hiding a nest of potato puree, but they get a kick from chorizo, garlic chips and pimentón de la Vera (hot smoked chile powder from Spain). Yes, after some time we’ve been spotted and from the kitchen comes a middle course we haven’t ordered. My bowl is full of foam…a sure way to tickle my exasperation.  So few foams add more than a bubble bath look to a dish.  But I push the froth aside to get a bite of foie gras and tenderest scallop chunks under a gossamer won ton noodle, and the tang of a sauce made with straw wine (from grapes partially sun dried on the vine or straw mats) comes through only slightly lightened by the buzz of aeration. It’s brilliant. Steven’s classic ravioli stuffed with essence of zucchini and a dash of ricotta served on a slice of tomato sauced with roasted garlic puree in chicken stock is more earthbound and merely delicious.

Near-sashimi hamachi sits in a summer garden.  Photo: Steven Richter.
 

        “I’ve told the kitchen you’re going to the theater so they can pace your next course,” the bartender informs us. Steven is studying his watch and calculating the distance through the park as his wild hamachi arrives, seared on the edge, rare as he asked, in a garden of greens, with baby clams and morsels of green tomato, cucumber, and squid.  If you asked me, shall I do all that to hamachi, I would have said…please no, spare the hamachi. But the total effect is dazzling. The two of us share the big fat chickpea fries served alongside, perfect with my grilled short rib (from the prix fix menu), a generous rectangle almost hidden beneath a marvelous salad of beans - haricots verts, pole beans, runner beans, wax beans. Crushed zucchini mixed with ricotta nests below and somewhere there is the sharp zap of a pertinent celery leaf.  Can we make it to the theater?  Now it’s not about time but overeating. If only I could roll down a hill to the Delacorte...

        The house is filling up now with what look to me like locals from this affluent neighborhood. What are they doing in town on a summer weekend?  Perhaps I just imagine that the entire zip code moves to the country in summer.  Brown comes out to greet them.  He admits he is amazed by all the Saturday bookings.  “It was so quiet in July,” he says, “I worried about how we would pay the bills, but suddenly, I’m seeing a full house.”

        Our quick meal at the bar costs $132 for two with tip, one drink, no dessert (and the gift of the mid-term ravioli.).  Yes, it’s expensive. If you’re feeling pinched or threatened, been downsized or deleted, it’s not going to become your three nights a week habit. But discover how wonderful the food has become and you might decide that in its category, it’s the place you want to be again and again.  Want to read my early tasting?

45 West 81st Street between Columbus and Central Park West 212 873 81 81

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Steve Cuozzo Is Adorable But Allora Is Not

        I never miss Steve Cuozzo food rants in the Post.  We often agree and we’re annoyed by the same annoying behavior.  So when I read his ode to Alorra, a new restaurant in his neighborhood on July 9, I made it a point to go.  I was drawn to check out what he described as adorable, strange, perplexing and often wonderful.  I figured I could handle “strange and perplexing” if it was wonderful enough.

        A new venture for Salvatore Cora and his wife (he’s a partner in Bocca and Cacio e Pepe downtown), Allora is indeed hidden behind construction trailers and dumpsters just as Cuozzo warned.  But the door is thrown open to the street once you wind your way in past the barricades and slither by a foursome having a good time at the bar.

        I can handle the bright green floor, the green painted panels holding sconces that look like giant jet earrings and bright green chairs – these days we are grateful for chairs with backs, not to mention padded backs.

        Indeed, the chilled tomato and strawberry soup might have been wonderful if the chef had settled on avocado chunks or almond slivers rather than both. And the fried mussels floating in the bowl seem to have wandered in by accident from some other plate.  That gazpacho is definitely close to goodness if not greatness. And I promise, my taste buds are not compromised just because the tables are so close.  After unavoidable eavesdropping, our neighbors even offer us tastes. They loved the lavender-crusted swordfish and their filet mignon with jasmine tea potato puree in caramelized soy sauce. And I assure you that my mood of rejection has nothing to do with the noise creeping up as the room fills and the party at the bar finds it necessary to scream.

        I have a game companion too. She is eager to try beef tartare with mango just to taste its Dijon mustard sorbet.  Given my natural prejudice against mustard sorbet I am surprised to discover that this not too sweet version actually adds something to the tartare. The fusilli in arugula pesto with parmesan foam is pretty good too, a huge portion, too much for my size 2 pal, who eats all of the foam.  Alas, the fried spaghetti in light tomato and basil sauce that Steve described as resembling a Chinese bird’s nest is exactly that – as crunchy as those fried noodles you get with soup in cheap Chinese restaurants. I send it back for a half order of tonnarelli with langoustine and fava bean pesto just to give him and the chef a decent benefit of the doubt. Well, never mind.  Though the noodles are only a tad soggy and otherwise delicious, the langoustine is mysteriously grainy.

        It’s always a joy to find a restaurant in your neighborhood you are happy to fall into. I understand, Steve.

307 East 77th Street near Second Avenue. Now closed.

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Down South Uptown – Peach Tea and Grits

 
Madaleine Mae is exactly what a neighborhood restaurant should be. Photo: Steven Richter

        My office is just a block from my apartment. I can be so lazy, there are days I forget to comb my hair.  I love meeting friends for lunch in my neighborhood – and when there just isn’t time to indulge in the seductive thrills of Jean Georges in the back room, I often make do with the egg salad sandwich on multigrain bread at Fairway Café. But now I have Jonathan Waxman’s Southern café just a few blocks uptown. Madaleine Mae is exactly what a neighborhood restaurant should be. It’s open all day. Breakfast is served from 8 in the morning till 5 pm. There is a kids menu and booster chairs, real fabric napkins, and biscuits…irresistible dividend.

        The sandwich board outside says only: “Cheesy Sign. Cheesy Grits”

        As in “The Manchurian Candidate,” my mind surrenders to the brain-washing sign.  I must have cheesy grits. And for $9 I can have them with scrambled eggs. It costs $1 extra for a biscuit (I got them to hold the strawberry butter). It takes two tries to get really soft scrambled eggs. Maybe I didn’t explain well enough what soft is the first time.  Really soft, barely gelled…like curdled hollandaise. I offer to go out to the kitchen and do it myself.  But, no. They want to accept the challenge. On the second try they are sublime. A lot of eggs.  A whole mess of grits.  I leave as much as I can force myself to leave behind.

        My friend likes the idea of breakfast too.  He orders an egg white soufflé omelette with mushrooms, cheddar and roasted tomato ($13.95). I throw in another $1 for my peach tea refill.  We consider the blueberry cobbler with discernible longing. Thirty years ago, when we started having occasional lunches, we would not have hesitated.  Wiser is okay, but older is awful.

461 Columbus Avenue at 82nd Street. 212 496 3000

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