November 13, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

Small is Big at Grayz, Supper at Compass

 Crisped red snapper has that signature Gray Kunz acid balance and a tiara.
 Crisped red snapper has that signature Gray Kunz acid balance and a tiara.
 

        I’m not going to start this by dissecting Gray Kunz in hopes of somehow divining his motivations.  I’m going to start with Thursday’s rare and magical lunch at Grayz.  We were a trio of consenting gourmands.  The chef burst in, spotted us, did a Swiss doubletake – that means a doubletake I didn’t actually see. Rather I barely felt it.  Then he shook each of our hands. An air kiss for Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan, his supplier. Nod of recognition for Andy Arons from Gourmet Garage.  Snappy, very proper handshake for me. Then he bustled off.

        “Would we permit the chef to create our lunch?” the captain asks a moment later.

        What fool would say no?  Yes. Yes. Yes.  With that the plot unfolds. Doll-size measures of food in a series of fussy little carriers and doodads that would be a cinch to poke fun at if they did not accessorize delicious food, with a master’s taste and obsessive inspiration. Is it just a wee bit tortured?  Maybe a twist or two, but after all in this country torture is legal.

         And it was not that Gray Kunz interrupted his day to improvise a special feast for a trio of notable mouths.  Everything we ate came from the fall lunch menu. Indeed, beginning Wednesday November 14, Grayz will offer a three course tasting lunch for $40.

        The cuisinary acrobatics begin with a foamy green lentil potage, bits of chanterelle and dried saucisson under its arguably redundant froth, just enough soup in the small cup for a fleeting thrill.  A nibble of foie gras edged with lentil stew comes alongside. In a sure Kunz signature, balsamic vinegar gives the touch of acidity that cuts through the fat.

        Perhaps our teeny rectangle of crisped New Zealand red snapper is an abbreviated version of the usual $25 entrée since our tasting also includes the short rib croque monsieur on toasted cibatta (we had demanded it) with just a sensation of cheese, a garnish of pickled vegetables and tamarind chutney (that acidy tang again) as well as a corsage of duck parts in a terra cotta crock -- the braised leg, two slices of breast, savoy cabbage, and whole cranberries, again the acid that cuts the butter. 

        “I am slowly slowly segueing my way into fall,” Kunz tells me later as we discuss acid balance. "The more I go
 
 Grayz door is discretely hidden.
in my career, the more acidity I’m longing for,” he says sounding like the meticulous, philosophical chef that he is. He is deeply into crosnes these days too. I admit I did not recognize those odd little tubers as that potato-like flavor I found in the stew of vegetables in the bottom of the crock. The chef’s favorite Union Square farmer grows crosnes from seeds Kunz brought him.

        Chefs who stalk the market cannot resist autumn quince. Grayz cuts the fruit into small flower shapes that lurk in his quince soup with a miniature oval of vanilla ice cream added at table. It sits beside the house’s version of apple crumble, lots of crumble with apple jack ice cream and vanilla mousseline in an espresso cup.

        Kunz never does what I want him to. Just because he’s one of our town’s most gifted cooks doesn’t mean he has to abide by my fantasy, but that doesn’t mean I can’t grump about his wayward wanderings.  I wanted Café Gray to be a café with food I could afford to eat twice a week, not an occasional drop in for $80 truffle pizza.

        His idea that the grand sweep that was once the airy Aquavit should be divided into claustrophobic spaces for small plates fans and private parties may make financial sense. But I’m not into lounging or small plates…I especially hate sharing offerings that cannot be divided. We were pitiful, six of us, trying to divide one admittedly delicious weisswurst and a sensational house baked pretzel into six pieces one evening.  And I was annoyed that the spoons holding oysters Rockefeller could not be dislodged from the spoon rack meaning one must pick up the shell with one’s fingers.  Though we did all sense the momentousness of the occasion and drank a toast to our oysters and to Nelson Rockefeller who died in a moment of joy next door.

        Maybe I was just cranky because we sat under a huge exit sign and our table looked straight at a brightly lit kitchen door and we suffered a parade of customers trudging by from a tour of the atrium.  If they all book their bachelor parties and bar mitzvahs, I’ll be wrong again.

13-15 West 54th between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 262 4600

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Little Lambsey Divey At Compass

New pastry chef Brooks Headley deconstructs key lime pie.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Still in a cocoon of shell shock from a screening of  “No Country for Old Men,” I tally four votes for lamb burgers and we all head for supper at Compass.

        In the dizzying merry-go-round of chefs dancing through the kitchen here, the fries may change from railway ties to free-form slivers, even the room may change – once very red, now sedately tamed and half blue -- but the lamb burger has never ceased to satisfy that urge for “too much right now.”

        “Would we like to sit in the lounge or the dining room,” the maitre d’ asks. The lounge is sexy for two but we opt for the intimacy of a table. And if I didn’t notice the extra hug of service, the nubbin of foie gras with too sweet apricot jam on toast as a welcome from the chef confirms someone knows I’m me and has decided to make a big deal of it.

        Our pals, new to the Compass lamb burger are impressed. It’s the first-rate lamb burger we know and love: juicy, rare, with its disc of goat cheese melting on top and tonight, crispy thin fries and just $14.  The room is emptying.  Dylan and Al Green join us on the sound system.

 
 Huckleberries in syrup and sorbet set off pastry chef's key lime gambit.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Though I don’t think there is anything quite so satisfying as defying mortality with a good overdoes of fat and salt and sugar…I couldn’t even imagine dessert.  The usual corner of my appetite that likes just one bite of sweetness or a chocolate before bed was paralyzed.  We ask for the check.

        But suddenly spoons and forks are hitting the table. Our eyes widen..there is a groan or two but I notice no one protests. We have seen this drill often. Forget about skipping dessert…the kitchen will not have it.

        Suddenly I remember: Compass has a new pastry hand, Brooks Headley. A veteran on the Washington D.C. scene, he decided Compass with its many demands -- the house baked breadsticks and biscuits, its catered parties, the take-home goodie bag – was a place to make his New York City mark.

        Spoons dip into his Easter bonnet pretty plates.  Yogurt panna cotta with intensely green green apples, tart Granny Smith sorbet and crumbles of an Italian cake called Sbrisalona. I do get annoyed when a favorite dish gets deconstructed by some trendy cook, but I don’t mind these squares of key lime tart with huckleberries and huckleberry sorbet and triangles of crisp pastry.  It’s that irresistible. Having surrendered already, I must taste all the baubles on the mignardises plate – passion fruit sour patch gels, chocolate dusted marshmallow cubes, chocolate mint mini cupcakes.

        How clever this management is. It’s impossible to leave Compass in a grouch.  When the waiter and busboys gather round and hand out bags of gift-wrapped caramel-laced coffee cake, two little cakes per person, you have to smile. Tomorrow morning’s usual kibbles and bits can not possibly whip this competition.

208 West 70th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenue 212 875 8600

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How Sweet It Is

I’ll be there getting high on chocolate at a late night dessert party Friday to benefit The Food Bank of New York City and Share Our Strength. The sweet bacchanal runs from 9 p.m. till 1 a.m. at The Waterfront, 269 11th Avenue (between 27th and 28th Streets.). Desserts by the city’s top pastry chefs and Food Network stars will be served with champagne, as a kickoff for a 2008 NYC Wine & Food festival planned by the Food Network, Southern Wine and Spirits of  New York and Food & Wine magazine.  Tickets are $200 from www.nycwineandfoodfestival.com

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