Tuesday, January 30, 2007

No, Tony wasn't there...

Last Wednesday, I had dinner at Les Halles, where they inducted R.W. Apple and Peacock Alley chef Cedric Tovar into their Choucroute Hall of Fame and simultaneously kicked off their eighth annual choucroute month. Previous hall of famers include one of my all-time favorite food writers, Jeffrey Steingarten, inducted in 2005.

Tony Bourdain did not make an appearance, but we had a pretty good time without him.

The event was great fun, attended by a few people I was honored to meet, including Andre Soltner, the legendary Alsatian chef, and Bryan Miller, the former New York Times restaurant critic. I will admit that I couldn't quite forget Ruth Reichl's descriptions of Miller in her latest book, Garlic and Sapphires, where she takes him to town a bit on his reception of her as his replacement at the Times.

In any case, it was a wonderful evening, and you can read all about the musings it prompted on Alsatian food in New York over here!

A preview:
Les Halles is a brasserie firmly rooted in Manhattan, so their choucroute menu is appropriately reflective of our belief in variety, featuring not one, not two, but four kinds of choucroute. Choucroute garnie, the kind most people think of first, is simmered in pinot blanc and comes with smoked pork, pork and veal sausage, and mustard on the side. Next is the aforementioned choucroute poisson, with smoked herring, fish sausage, scallops, and salmon caviar. Of particular interest to many foie-loving eG'ers, no doubt, is the duck choucroute, with foie gras, duck breast, confit...and choucroute royale, with a little bit of everything, the choucroute itself simmered in champagne.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Yes, more pasta!

Yesterday for lunch, I made an old favorite: pasta with amatriciana sauce. I first had this dish at my favorite spot for Upper East Side Italian, Paola's, which is right around the corner from my apartment - literally - I don't even have to cross the street to get there.

Traditionally, amatriciana is a sauce served with bucatini, a kind of thick, hollow spaghetti. The sauce is made with guanciale (cured pork jowl), plum tomatoes, red onion, and lots and lots of crushed red pepper. I make it with Schaller and Weber bacon, and, yesterday, with some oddly-shaped short pasta I found at Williams-Sonoma.

The sauce takes less time to make than you'll spend getting your water to boil and your pasta to cook, so next time you have 15 minutes on hand, why not give it a go?

Bucatini all'Amatriciana alla Queenie
Serves 1

1/4 pound bucatini or spaghetti
Kosher salt
1/8 c. slab bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 tsp. olive oil
1/4 small red onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, sliced
2 small plum tomatoes, chopped
Crushed red pepper, to taste
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated, to taste

Set a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. When the water reaches a boil, add salt and the pasta.

While the pasta cooks, heat a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat and add the bacon. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is crisp and had given off most of its fat. Drain all but one teaspoon of the bacon fat from the pan and return it to the heat.

Add the olive oil, red onion and garlic, and cook over medium-high heat until translucent and fragrant. Add the tomatoes and continue to cook, stirring frequently. Add crushed red pepper to taste - the dish should be spicy.

As the pasta cooks, spoon a little of the cooking water into the sauce, which should be kept at a simmer. The sauce will thicken (thanks to the starch in the water). When the pasta is cooked to al dente, drain it (do not rinse) and add immediately to the skillet. Toss the sauce and pasta together for a minute or so over the heat, then remove from the heat and add the cheese, stirring to combine.

Serve immediately.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bar Room at The Modern

Midtown Manhattan is a bit of a culinary wasteland. There, I said it.

"No, wait!" you'll protest. There's the Four Seasons, the venerable La Grenouille, Lever House is fabulous - and I suppose you're probably right, so long as you're dining on an expense account. And if you're not, lunch near my office at 52nd and Madison tends to be a salad from one of the many Pax locations which dot the area - or, if you're feeling indulgent, an $11 wrap from Fresco on the Go (oh, the gluttony).

But, hark, my friends - from the distance there approaches a beacon of light - The Bar Room at The Modern. What's that? No, no - it's not smoky, it's not dark, and it's not a place for a burger and a pint. It's one of the most exciting developments in mid-priced Midtown dining in...well...a really long time.

My first meal at The Bar Room, back in November, was a delight. I'd been hearing about the place for months on eGullet, but hadn't made the two-block trek from my desk to its door. When my friend Aimee called and proposed we meet for lunch somewhere between our two offices, I decided the time had come.

From 53rd Street, you enter the restaurant through a double set of sleek glass doors, walk through a glowing white foyer, and emerge at the host stand. Your coat is taken gently from you, and an extremely snappily dressed host escorts you to your table. The room itself is all gleaming mirrors, blonde wood and black leather, and is dominated at opposite ends by an illuminated photographic mural of a leafy wood and three stainless steel paneled pass-throughs to the elegantly shining kitchen.

The Bar Room's space is larger than that devoted to The Modern, its more formal and more expensive sister, from which it is divided by a frosty white glass panel. While the dining room is hushed and looks out on the sculpture garden, the Bar Room is bustling, the patrons craning their necks for views of one another's food.

And what a view it is. The menu is comprised of three stages of small plates. On both visits, I've had two savory plates and coffee; on my most recent trip, this afternoon, I also had dessert. This was more than enough food for me, but then the plates vary somewhat in size, so those with larger appetites may consider an additional round.

The standout dish during that first meal was one we both ordered - the roasted garlic gnocchi with wild mushrooms, sage, and crispy sweetbreads. It's a wonderful dish, an example of the things I love most in my food - contrasting textures bound together by the subtle coordination of their flavors, both bold and delicate. I often find gnocchi to be big, clumpy and doughy, but these are diminutive, delicate and light. The fried sage leaves disintegrate on your tongue, leaving behind a hint of their woodsy flavor. The sweetbreads are in tiny pieces, breaded in something lighter even than panko, and fried. Their crispness cuts through the toothy dumplings, and the whole dish is bound together by a rich mushroom gravy. It's a bit like the forest, in fall, on your plate.

Today's lunch started with a tarte flambee, a traditional Alsatian thin-crust tart topped with creme fraiche, lardons, and onions and cooked in a pizza oven. This tarte flambee reminded me distinctly of the ones I sampled in Alsace, unsurprising given that The Modern's chef, Gabriel Kreuther, was born and raised in the region and attended culinary school in Strasbourg. The crust was delicate and thin, almost cracker-like, topped with a thin layer of the cream and smothered in onions and bacon. It distinguished itself with a generous amount of black pepper, an element that works as well in this creamy bacon dish as it does in a carbonara. It was fabulous, and huge - the three of us all had a couple of slices.

Duck confit called out to me from the third stage, and I was not to be disappointed. Its skin seared almost to the point of burnt, the meat was falling off the delicate bone in juicy, tender pieces. The accompanying frisee salad was dressed in a vinaigrette that tasted alternately of fruit and shallots, and the lyonnaise potatoes on the side hid a small mound of caramelized onions as sweet as the juice in the dressing.

And, finally, dessert. I ordered the beignets, which garnered singular approval from our lovely waiter. No small plate these - five palm-sized beignets arrived at the table, accompanied by a small scoop of maple ice cream, caramel, and mango marmalade. Freshly made, piping hot, covered in sugar and cinnamon, they went best with the ice cream and the caramel, though the marmalade was a lovely shade of yellow and certainly livened up an otherwise brown plate. Sadly, I could not finish the plate of beignets, only managing three, and that last one was a doozy. This is a dish meant for sharing.

Wine at lunch makes me sleepy, so I have not yet had a chance to read through the wine list - I'm told it's superb, and plan to go as soon as I can to see for myself.

9 West 53rd Street
Between 5th and 6th Avenues

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I scream, you scream, we all scream for...Fage?

I really, really love spaghetti carbonara. I love how salty the bacon is is, and how the creaminess of the sauce is punctuated by the freshly ground black pepper, and how the sharp scallions I chop up and throw in cut through the rich, pungent cheese and the delicate eggs. But it's not exactly the kind of thing you can have every night without feeling more than slight guilt about the whole thing.

Which is why last night, when I was futzing around the fridge, trying to figure out what else to toss into the rapidly boiling pot of spaghetti (leftover roasted brussels sprouts and some braised garlic already sitting at the bottom of the bowl, waiting to be tossed), all I wanted was cheese and eggs and bacon. But then my eye alighted on my 17-ounce container of Fage fat-free yogurt.

As much as I love carbonara - that's how much I always hated plain yogurt. Bland, flat, and almost sour, it was worse than cheese. And I HATED cheese.

But then, about six months ago, someone on eGullet clued me into Fage - the fat-free version is thick, creamy, adaptable, and remorse-free. I eat it with granola, with slices of honeybell, with brown sugar, but it had never occurred to me to use it in a savory dish.

I tossed a couple tablespoons with the hot pasta...the result? All the creaminess (well, almost), none of the guilt. Sold!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Death & Company

For your consideration this evening, as an example of how seriously New Yorkers consider each drop before allowing it to pass their lips, I offer two recent trips to a fantastic new cocktail bar named (for the Dashiell Hammet novella) Death and Company.

Tucked on an otherwise residential block in the East Village, it's the latest outpost of New York's burgeoning cocktail culture, a place where the drinks are as well thought-out as a meal at one of the city's better restaurants.

The room is dark, the ceiling low, the bar a slab of white marble cutting through the kerosene-lit gloom. Modern-baroque chandeliers hang suspended over two round booths on either side of the door, the windows behind them shuttered to preserve the speakeasy feel.

The drinks are as glamorous and languor-inducing as the decor; in two visits last week, I managed to sample eight different drinks, each creative, most delicious. My favorite of all was the Fancy Free, a rye whiskey drink with maraschino liqueur, Angostura and orange bitters, served on the rocks and topped off with an orange peel squeezed to release its essential oils and flamed with a match to caramelize its sugars.

Alerted as I was to D&Co's existence by the online culinary society eGullet (full disclosure: I am a volunteer staff member), I would be remiss if I didn't point you to their ongoing discussion of the bar. I'll leave you to peruse their reactions to the buzz and the B&T clientele it's generated while I head to the kitchen to recreate the Fancy Free.


433 E. 6th Street
Between 1st Avenue and Avenue A

And so it begins...

Last night, I went out drinking with my friend Faith. Safely ensconced at the bar, where huddled over pints of Smithick's we avoided the arctic Manhattan air, we got around to talking about morality. A bit heavy for a Saturday night on Third Avenue, but Faith got me thinking when she described her recurring vision of New York: a giant, hulking head eating everything in its path; a model of consumerism; a place that exists only to ingest - the ultimate in Americana.

I didn't disagree with her, though I argued that one thing that sets New York apart from most cities is that its reputedly unabashed commercialism isn't so unabashed after all; most New Yorkers I know are constantly searching for meaning in their consumption, hoping to infuse every moment not spent in the office with a sort of holy significance, a justification for the way we work, work, work to earn the money to pay our ridiculous rents.

This search, I think, is a great deal of what fuels New York's long and ongoing obsession with food. Restaurants, farmers' markets, gourmet grocery stores (such as Eli's Manhattan, above), and kitchenware emporia are our new cultural status symbols; a spring morning spent searching for the batch of perfect ramps at the Greenmarket in Union Square is as respected a pasttime as an afternoon spent at the Frick. Dinner in New York is entertainment, both high and low, in and of itself; who needs a movie when you can watch your host brulee their creme or enjoy the shocking heat and vibrant color of a meal at Sripraphai?

I'm sure there are New Yorkers who don't give a hoot about their food - I just don't happen to know a single one of them. Moving to New York seems to transofrm even stalwart meat-and-potatoes types into Thai food-loving, wine-collecting participants in the city's vibrant, all-encompassing food scene. It may just be that in a city of more than eight million people, there actually is something for everyone, culinarily speaking.

Through this blog, I hope to share some of my own enthusiasm for and experiences in this foodie paradise with all of you. I'm hardly an expert on anything, but I'm an eager amateur, and my excitement, I hope, will be contagious.
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