The Year of the Cucumber: Part III

A New Generation of Eaters
[This is the final post in a three-part series. See also "The Year of the Cucumber: Part I: Could I Be a Full-Time Eater?" and "The Year of the Cucumber Part II: It’s Just Food"]

On September 14 (2009), I was fed a seven-course meal by Alexandre Gaulthier, from La Grenoullière in France, because he was cooking as a special guest chef in New York at Momofuku Ssam Bar.

Momofuku, which means “lucky peach,” is a small group of restaurants (Ko, Ssam Bar, Noodle Bar, and Milk Bar) headed by David Chang, a chef who has been repeatedly named one of the best and most exciting young chefs in the last few years. Ssam Bar is a small and in the East Village section of Manhattan.

Chang and the Momofuku team arranged for four guest chefs—Pascal Barbot from L’Astrance, Iñaki Aizpitarte from Le Chateaubriand (which apparently was canceled due to problems with chef Aizpitarte’s visa) David Kinch of Manresa, and Alexandre Gauthier of La Grenouilliere—all more or less on unofficial hip watch lists, to come to New York and cook at one of his restaurants. The event was dubbed the “Four Fucking Dinners,” and by some absurd luck of the draw, I got a seat at Ssam Bar. (A fifth dinner was held at Wylie Dufresne’s WD~50, with guest chef Michel Bras cooking alongside Dufresne and Chang.)

My friend and fellow gourmand, whom I call Googly, found an Easter egg on the Momofuku web site before the reservations for the event had officially opened and got two seats. He sent out an email to a handful of friends who are all serious eaters asking who would like to join him—first come, first served. I just happened to be online and checking my email when he sent the note, and I replied instantly.

The fact that Chang, Gaulthier, and the other chefs are seen as young, hip, and up-and-coming cooks is significant. Of all the things that were different about this meal, the most striking was how unpretentious it was.

It was fun.

Service and the servers themselves were integral to the atmosphere. The wait staff was exceptionally tuned in to making the experience something novel, something that was of the highest esteem but marked a new era, or marked the coming of a new generation of fine dining patrons. We were eaters eating great food, not fine dining people. This wasn’t my grandmother’s or mother’s idea of impeccable service; this was my ideal.

There were many differences from a typical high-end restaurant that created this unique experience. It’s easy to put my finger on the more prominent ones, like the music or the fact that half the diners shared a communal table. Others were subtle, but the small differences in culmination meant something.

For instance, our server, who also poured the wines (though I don’t think he was technically a sommelier), spent time with us, and chatted casually yet sincerely about the food, drink, preparation, and ingredients. His body language didn’t say, “Now I shall pour you some wine.” It said, “Hey, I’ve got this wine I’d like to share with you.” It was like the difference between doing things by the book and doing things according to the intended sentiment or toward the goal, without having rigorous instruction on how to get there.

Another example: When we asked whether the “cup of seawater” was indeed water from the outdoors, or whether it was just a brine made from sea salt, he said, “Oh, no it’s not really seawater. The chef told us earlier, ‘You know when you go to the beach and the waves splash you and you get a mouthful of the ocean?’ That’s what he was after.” A by-the-book answer might have been, “The chef has prepared a solution of sea salt and water that mimics the saltiness of the Atlantic.” One response is stuffy. The other is just people sharing ideas.

The Lowly Cucumber
On the seven-course tasting menu there were two courses that featured cucumber. Featured! Cucumber wasn’t just an ingredient; it was the star of the plate in one case, half a giant pickling cucumber, grilled, with taramasalata, and lead supporting actor on another, a cylinder of slow cooked turbot and an equally sized and shaped peeled cucumber. Seven courses, and two of them are cucumber. It’s the kind of thing that should make you say, “What is the chef doing?”

I used to not be crazy about cucumbers. As a kid, I never saw a salad that didn’t have them, and in the summer, my mom would fan sliced Kirbies, always Kirbies, always with the skins on, alongside slices of beefsteak tomatoes, served with a cup of Hellman’s mayonnaise and black pepper for dipping.

When I was old enough to have to stock my own refrigerator, I bought cucumbers out of habit, the requisite Kirbies at first, but later waxy cucumbers, which were sometimes cheaper, and English cukes when I didn’t feel like peeling the waxy ones. After a while, I got tired of cucumbers, but I didn’t stop buying them. That would have seemed wrong. Instead, I started seeding them, slicing them into spears, dicing them, marinating them, doing whatever I could think of to make them different.

By this spring, I had had enough. I stopped buying them. And yet, every time I opened the vegetable crisper, I’d find one, or half of one, that Boyfriend had bought to put in his lunch salads to take to work.

One day in late July I went to my CSA distribution and learned I had to take home a pound and a half of cucumbers. Sorting through the box, I noticed these were Persian cucumbers, long and slender with soft, light green skins. There were ribbed, and I’d say they were phallic, but in reality, they were much smaller.

I came home hungry, and as I put the groceries away, I wiped off one of the cucumbers and bit it in half. It had a crisp snap. It was juicy, but not waterlogged like so many waxy cucumbers. It was refreshing. I sprinkled some salt on the bit end and, crunch, took another bit. This was not a cucumber as I had known it. I felt like every cucumber I had ever eaten had suddenly been wiped from memory. A complete and total do-over.

Appreciating a simple and unadorned thing, like a cucumber, or a pear, or an oyster, is to me the mark of a matured and educated palette.

Now, having had that perception-changing experience, I think about cucumbers the way some people talk about pears. A good one is stupefying. Anything less than a good one makes my expectation for how good they can be at all plummet.

So here I was at a very expensive dinner (with wine pairings, $170) faced with two cucumber dishes that I could only hope would be revelations.

The Dinner
Tasse d’eau de mer: cup of seawater, black sea bass, oyster, chervil, basil
The raw fish, raw oyster, and gentle herbs were a joy to my mouth. By far, this was my favorite dish. I adore crudo.

Cornichon grillé: grilled pickle, tarragon, taramasalata
The pickle was barely pickled, if at all, but wonderfully firm and warm and topped with a paper-thin slice of lardo. Fresh tarragon was a lovely touch, and the taramasalata was remarkably not too salty (by it’s nature, it’s generally quite salty).

Gnocchi de pomme de terre: potato gnocchi (Yukon gold), lemon, comfrey, parmesan
Due to an abundance of butter, this was the most French Italian dish I have ever eaten. The richness of the butter was counter-balanced by a strong lemon overtone, perhaps a bit too strong, although together, they rubbed out any bitterness from the greens.

Cuisson douce turbot: slow cooked turbot, cucumbers, dill
Like two long tongues, the shape of the turbot and cucumber were striking. Dill came in the form of, what I can only guess was a fresh and sprouted dill seed, clinging to the cucumber.

Poulet Rôti: roasted chicken, trout roe, romano beans
When the poulet rôti arrived, I saw two two-bite-sized pieces of chicken, which looked poached due to the whiteness and uniformity of color, a glistening of sauce, a few green beans, and two or three miniature potatoes (note: I emailed Chef Gauthier to check, and he has confirmed it was miniature potatoes and green beans), a single elongated leaf, and a crisp disc of something balanced on top. I had a moment of anxiety upon not hearing the server clearly. “Did he say toro?” I asked my friend? Was that what the golden chip was, a smoked and dried sliver of toro? My eyes were wide and my mouth had dropped a little.

Googly just looked at the paper menu. “No. Trout roe.”

But where was it? There was no roe on the plate!

Then, I cut into the little pouch of chicken and out spilled brilliant orange eggs, like a change purse with golden coins inside.

Intermezzo: honeycomb
A honey man traveled from table to table and cut a chunk of real honeycomb for each person to suckle. This was dynamite honey made more enjoyable by the act of pursing one’s lips, giggling it around in the mouth, and sucking the honey from the comb, then chewing the comb, extracting every drop of sweetness, and finally pulling it from the mouth, reminiscent of secretly getting rid of chewing gum in school.

Prune d’agen: plum, maple syrup sugar
Prunes are so very French, though I would have liked for the chef here to have done more to compose the dish. The cooked, halved prunes were splayed across the plate with a smear of custard, which was grainy.

Glace badoit menthe: peppermint and Badoit (brand name) sparkling water sorbet, berries
The final dessert definitely cooled my palate, but it positively popped with fresh peppermint, chopped and left in. A very enjoyable texture and flavor contrast was a panna cotta next to the quenelle of sorbet, and fresh raspberries.

What Makes Having Dinner a Good Time?
The food at this dinner was great, but then again (as I note in Part II of this series), it’s just food. It’s the stuff we eat every day, often three or four or five times a day.

I went home that night very late for a Monday, and a little tipsy, but genuinely happy. There had been nine wines with the pairing, plus one non-wine digestif (Fernet-Branca—definitely not for me), plus an extra pour or two, courtesy of our gracious server who noticed that I didn’t care for the Frenet-Branca and said, “Let me bring you something else. I have some sparkling Muscat.” We lingered after paying the bill, and he poured a little more.

Wine lubricates not just the conversation, but also the soul (a word I almost never use). I tend to get a bit irked when I hear it, but people constantly tell me how much more fun I am when I drink. As much as I wish it weren’t the case, I loosen up and become a much more free person after two glasses of wine.

Dinner conversation doesn’t have to be about one’s day, one’s job, one’s boss, one’s to-do list. Meeting new people doesn’t have to involve answering the question, “What do you do... for work?” These are the typical conversational topics of Americans and other Westerners.

However, dinner conversation doesn’t have to be this way. It can be about how it feels to let down one’s parents by dating someone of the wrong race or background (not me). Or it could be about fear of failure. Or it could be about how the loss of flirting feels after being in a monogamous relationship for years.

Let me assure you, for me, wine loosens something other than just my tongue, allowing me to have these kinds of conversations. And I need them, not every day, but sometimes.

Not long ago, I saw the documentary film Man on Wire about Philippe Petit’s goal in the 1970s to string a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York and walk it. At the end of the film, I declared it my favorite movie ever. I fell in love with it for many reasons, though a big one is this: I am envious of cultures in which peoples’ lives are filled with true emotion, not just measures of career success.

The amazing feat that Petit accomplishes matches the enthusiasm and love with which he talks about the act. In the movie, he is brilliantly animated when he explains how he spent years preparing to walk the wire. When he describes the set up, how he and a small team of people banded together to arrange their tools and rigs, illegally and secretly, to string the wire between the two towers, he speaks as if he were still in that moment, still trying to get away with something that could, potentially be thwarted.

Even Petit’s girlfriend from that time, Annie Allix, looks back 30 years and has the same welling of emotion when she talks about her former boyfriend walking the wire. So do the other Frenchmen involved in it. However, the Australian teammate and the American ones talk about it differently. Their voices don’t rise and move to tell the story. They don’t pour forth as much expression unreservedly.

Anyone who knows me will agree that that is not me. I do not speak emotionally, even about the things that matter most. People are more likely to call me steadfast, critical, judgmental, hardnosed, or unsympathetic. I am not an emotional person, but it’s a quality that, when expressed by an entire culture, commands my envy. There’s something magical about a group of people who treat others warmly and without reservation, who talk about their ideas and their feelings and relationship more than they talk about their jobs. These cultural differences can only be learned through traveling widely and interacting with new people.

The closest I ever come to acting with the same generosity of emotion, or openness, that Petit and Allix do, happens after two glasses of wine. It’s sad, and I’m sad, to know this, but it’s the truth.

I had more than just two glasses the night of the Momofuku special guest chef dinner, and perhaps my enjoyment of the whole evening was proportional.

The Wine Pairings
Marc Pesnot, Chapeau Nature (NV), France

Domaine de Montcy, 2007, Cour-Cheverny, France

Domaine Ganevat, “la Combe” Savagnin Ouille, 2005, Côtes du Jura, France

Domaine Ricard, les Trois Chênes, 2008, Touraine, France
The Reed Hook Winery, Sauvignon Blanc, 2008, North fork, NY
(the only wine more than half the diners seemed to dislike)

Belle pente, “Belle Pente Vineyard” Pinot Noir, 2006, Willamette Valley, Ore.
Domaine J. Chamonard, 2007, Morgon, France

Mas Amiel Millé, 1980, Maury, France
(aged, single vintage)

Sparkling Muscat
(off menu)

The Year of the Cucumber: Part I: Could I Be a Full-Time Eater?

The Year of the Cucumber Part II: It’s Just Food

The Year of the Cucumber: Part II

It’s Just Food

[In this three-part series, I’m reflecting on food, eating, and dining philosophies after a series of recent events (Part I) lead me to think more intensely about all of these things.]

Frank Bruni, at a book signing this week for Born Round at Barnes & Noble’s, in New York talked about how being The New York Times dining critic for four years taught him to have more respect for how difficult it is for a kitchen to put out good food. The workers are paid very little before tips, and even with tips, they don’t make much. The environment is harsh. And yet, in the city of New York alone, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of places to have an exquisite meal.

Michael Ruhlman in Soul of a Chef writes about how his respect for putting out great food has deepened, too. He watches top chefs flail and flounder fundamental cooking skills, and as a result, fail the Certified Master Chef exam. He hangs out behind the scenes an up-and-coming restaurant, and gets to know the young star chef who is wowing people on the outskirts of Cleveland, but chokes when a national food critic comes to town, announced and with a reservation, and with the restaurant footing the bill!

At first, I found myself nodding. Yes. Fundamental skills—shopping, slicing, blanching, simmering, the building blocks of cooking—are what determine whether a meal, a chef or cook, a plate’s design, a menu even has the chance of being great. Yes! People in the food service industry work in extremely rough conditions, battling heat, humidity, fire, sharp objects, enormous stress, and often, one another’s fetid attitudes. And yes, isn’t it amazing that despite all this, haute cuisine even exists?

Ruhlman finally literally lives for a few weeks at the French Laundry, easily the most important American restaurant of the last 15 years, a place that has, more than once, been named the best restaurant anywhere. Ruhlman observes the working kitchen, talks to chef Thomas Keller at length about his history and his philosophies of life, cooking, and running a restaurant.

After all this build-up, Ruhlman swoons when he finally tastes:

“a crispy medallion of calf’s brain with a celeriac puree and black truffles. (I eventually had Keller’s calf brain, and it was so good, I almost tipped over in my chair at Table Five in the middle of dinner, slowly and to the side, as though I’d been turned to concrete from euphoric surprise. … I can’t name any dish anywhere ever that has been better. That, I realize now, in contented retrospect, was the best dish I have ever eaten….)”

At some point, I stopped nodding my head and thought, wait, we’re talking about food! How can anything be “the best dish I have ever eaten”—that’s not how food and enjoyment of eating works! We eat food every single day, most of us eating four or five times a day, and there are so many factors that go into our enjoyment. How are we feeling that day, both physically and emotionally? What tastes are on our palate from earlier? How is our appetite? What’s the weather? Who else is eating with us? Where are we in the world? And most importantly, what are our expectations?

Ruhlman later does investigate the expectations of diners at the French Laundry, namely that people come in very serious and ready to drop a lot of cash, and then are given ironic surprises that break that gravity with a chuckle (the example is a piece of duck kidney hoisted onto a toothpick like a flag).

But the point is, it’s just food.

I love food, more than most people. I like eating it, cooking it, looking at it, growing it, and handling it. I like making it look and taste good for others. I like eating alone, eating with others, I like fine dinging as much as I like Peanut M&Ms. I will eat airplane food and tell the person next to me to try the cold salad because it’s actually not bad.

Last night, I volunteered at my CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture non-profit group) distribution, and I was sorting through a box of turnips, wiping the dirt from the biggest and roundest ones, and laying them uniformly in one direction. When members came to pick up their food, I wanted the turnips to be beautiful and for the people to want to eat them. I hoped the members would be just a little bit happier to see lovely turnips on display, rather than a jumbled box they’d have to pick through. Another volunteer came up to me and complimented the display. “Thanks,” I said, “I really love food.” She said, “Oh, I do, too!” I thought, “No, you don’t. If you did you would be marveling at the bok choi or fluffing the baby greens or knocking dirt off the carrots.”

So when I thought to myself, “It’s just food!” it kind of surprised me!

Part of that reaction came from guilt for and minor rebellion against fine dining and the excess associated with it, a discussion that is outside the scope of what I wanted to talk about now. (On the other hand, fine dining is not about being fed. It’s about pleasure and leisure, and a whole experience built around those things.)

In the last month, during which time I ate out half my meals, I considered more sincerely the whole experience of eating, beyond the food itself.

Any memory that takes place over more than a few hours will absolutely involve food or drink, even if you can’t remember exactly what you had. I remember a night back when Boyfriend and I first started dating when we went out after work and spent hours together. We ended up in Sausalito, where we had an impromptu picnic on the sidewalk made up of take-out food from Trader Joe’s. I don’t remember what salad it was, and I don’t think it much matters. What I do remember is the simplicity of it, the setting, sitting cross-legged on the concrete and watching crabs scurry around the rocks on the shoreline.

Nostalgia plays a huge role, of course (Proust and his madeline). Does the anticipation of nostalgia fit into the picture, too? Do we consciously think about what the memory will be as we’re creating it, as it’s happening? Sometimes we do.

When the food itself is elevated and our expectations are heightened, I think this is when we prepare in the moment to make the memory the most. Ruhlman gets at this in talking about the French Laundry, located in Yountville in wine country of northern California, which for most guests means it's a destination restaurant. Almost everyone who eats there is on vacation, has made reservations weeks in advance, and is in wine country for the gustatory experience. They want to remember this meal. They are prepping their senses, brains, and emotions to make memories.

Even in circumstances other than traveling to one of the world’s finest restaurants, and other than being on vacation, food is very often a main character in the memory as its being written, if only because of all the communal things that happen over a table, the sharing, the familial aspects, or the frequency in which we partake. Weddings, wedding engagements, holidays, moments of bonding, nights when a long, drawn out emotional conversation takes places, all very often include food memories.

Why? Because it’s always there, never more than a few hours away. It’s food. It’s just food.

[In Part III, the final post of this series, I’ll give an overview and mini review of the “Four Fucking Dinners,” and explain why I've chosen the title "The Year of the Cucumber."]

The Year of the Cucumber: Part I

Could I Be a Full-Time Eater?

I’ve been spoiled in the last month with too much of a good thing: amazing food. The last week of August, I had a five-course meal and $50 bottle of wine at Convivio, Michael White’s rustic Italian restaurant in the lavish Tudor City section of Manhattan.

The following week, I was in London and Oxford, U.K., for a graduation ceremony and a wedding, and while showing Boyfriend’s family around Borough Market, I stole away for a few minutes to grab a slice of ginger lemon cake from Konditor & Cook, which had a soft and sweet fondant on it that left me stunned and wondering how it was pulled off. Was it just fondant? Was it marzipan? How did it seal in all the moisture from that cake without breaking down?

Later that night, a party of eight of us had dinner at my favorite London restaurant, Mangal Ockabasi, a Turkish grill with a free BYOB policy. I ate chicken, flame-grilled on skewers, served in a clay pot with yogurt, butter, and torn bread, which softens in the yogurt and becomes something entirely new.

The following night, at the wedding reception at Kellogg College in Oxford, we dined in a long room with floor-length windows on one side, bathing the balsa wood-colored room in natural light. Seated at long communal tables, a hundred people, plus me, ate a multi-course supper of succulent lamb chops, glazed golden carrots, wilted garden ramps, warm rolls with English butter, and more and more.

Just as soon as Boyfriend and I returned from the U.K. and I declared a week-long moratorium on eating out, I got an email from the travel editor of a food magazine in London, asking if I would like to be considered for a writing opportunity. I would have to suggest 10 places to eat and shop for food-related goods in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. Jumping at the chance, I realized that I would have to verify the food at a few newer places that I had heard were very good, that I had planned to eat at some time in the next, oh six months or so, but had not to date actually visited.

On the flights to and from London, I read Frank Bruni’s new book, Born Round, a memoir of sorts about his tumultuous relationship to food and how he struggled with his past when he became the dining critic for The New York Times. Bruni describes the job as requiring him to eat out at least six days a week, often for not only lunch and dinner, but sometimes two dinners.

Bruni also describes the pressure of dining out at the city’s finest restaurants while trying to not be identified by a staff who specifically know to look for him. A coincidence that I found enormously hilarious is this: When I was in London, I met up with at least 20 people whom I had not seen in about a year, and not a single one of them recognized me. My hair has grown long and curly. During the day, I had contact lenses, and at night, I put on a newer pair of glasses that this group had not seen before. Friends from Sardinia, Sicily, South Africa (the graduates all attended a fiercely international program) all greeted me with a warm smile before finally raising their eyebrows, giving me two kisses on the cheeks, and saying, “Ah, oh! Jill! I didn’t recognize you!”

The last coincidence was that I had just been in London and now had the opportunity to write about food for a primarily British audience. I had literally just spent five days immersed in London’s food culture, refreshing my analysis on what makes the British dining scene and its national eating habits unique.

As all these thing converged—reading Bruni’s book, eating in London, landing a food writing article for a London magazine, and being unrecognizable to friends, which meant perhaps I had an innate advantage to becoming a food critic—I was invigorated. I would go out and eat all over Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, making sure that I really did recommend the best places based on recent evaluations. It would be a test, I decided. Do I have what it takes to be a full-time eater?

I really did take it seriously.

I had lunch by myself, on different days, at Hill Country (I don’t recommend it) and Island Burgers and Shakes (I do recommend it). Boyfriend joined me for dinner at Txikito (I am desperate to go back), followed by oysters from Lobster Place (bargain) in Chelsea Market on the same night. We included a friend in our trip to Co. (fancy pizza), followed by beers and a shared burger and fries at The Frying Pan (fun, a resuscitated boat!). The next day, we brought my sister, who has a budding palate for good cheeses, to Kashkaval cheese and wine bar (inelegant, but cool in its own way), then left her behind to see the Hudson Hotel bars, where we did not buy a $17 cocktail, but we did peek at receipts left behind on the tables, and took a good long gander at the terrace, bathrooms, and lounge rooms.

Again with Boyfriend, I took teensy bites of two signature Morimoto appetizers (precisely executed food) while watching the sushi chefs work like surgeons as they sliced and prepped octopus arms, and admiring the grandeur of the restaurant’s interior design. We left by 7:15 to jump on the uptown-bound subway to grab a drink at Pony Bar (all beers $5) before we were due at a karaoke club for a birthday party.

I had coffee by myself at both Café Grumpy (I could have stayed all day) and Joe the Art of Coffee (excellent cappuccino). I shared with Boyfriend (by far the most congenial eating partner I’ve ever had) five different lunch and breakfast items from Sullivan Street Bakery. Later that day, when I went back to Chelsea Market, Fat Witch Bakery (specialty brownie shop) had some original chocolate brownie samples out, so I had one (okay, maybe two) of those, too. Dinner for four at Mary Ann’s in Chelsea was not really a well-planned restaurant choice, but more of a last-minute decision based on proximity, budget, and the birthday girl’s preference for Mexican food.

If you’re keeping count, that’s 15 places, 14 done Tuesday through Sunday, and 1 latecomer the following Wednesday when I had to make revisions. There were three more contenders for the article, but I had been to them all recently enough to not warrant another visit: Amy’s Bread, Daisy May’s BBQ (yummy barbecue of all styles), and Casellula (artful cheese and wine).

But wait, there’s more.

After the Tuesday-through-Sunday marathon of eating out, I had on my calendar a meal that I had been looking forward to for about a month: Alexandre Gaulthier from La Grenoullière in France cooking one of the “Four Fucking Dinners” at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar.

[I’ll continue this post with more reflections (Part II), a review of the “Four Fucking Dinners,” (Part III) and an explanation of why I've chosen the title "The Year of the Cucumber."]

Review: Convivio

45 Tudor City Place
New York, NY

Sfizi of chicken liver crostini with marsala onions ($5)

Since dining at Convivio a few weeks ago, I’ve thought a lot about the difference between 1) dishes that are inventive and well prepared, and 2) food that one wants to eat.

I’ve become part of a trio who searches out fine dining establishments in New York, sets a date, and eats at one of the city’s nicest restaurants once every six weeks or so. We went to Nougatine, along with a few others, during Restaurant Week a couple of months ago. In early summer, we set out for Harbour. And Convivio, Michael White’s rustic Italian restaurant, was our most recent affair.

Slow-poached veal tongue with egg, capers, and salsa verde

Convivio’s Location
It’s impossible to talk about Convivio without explaining its location, which despite being in a grid section of Manhattan (East 43rd Street near First Avenue), can be extremely hard to find, especially if you happen to approach it from the wrong angle. The restaurant is in Tudor City, a miniscule neighborhood, which I had never even heard of until I started reading about Convivio, that’s nearly next door to the United Nations, but is elevated from the street level on the U.N. side. If you try to enter Tudor City from the east, you’ll hit a gigantic wall. Search for the stairs, climb two flights up, and only then will you be in Tudor City.

The three of us who ate at Convivio were there for the $59 four-course pre fixe: antipasti, primi, secondi, and dessert. Another friend recommended we add on a few sfizi, or little tastes and nibbles to share, just to try them, saying the extra $4-$7 per dish was money well spent.

Fegatini ($5, shown at top), or chicken liver mousse crostini with marsala onions, was on all our minds, and when we ordered it, the server talked us into getting two portions. It was the best he’d ever had, he said, and one order only came with two toasts. Once we tasted it, we’d want at least one slice each. So be it. He was right. They were extremely rich, buttery, sweet, and heavy, and had there been more than two bites per person, it might have been a problem. The arancini, saffron risotto croquettes ($5), though lighter and served in a pale tomato sauce, lacked flavor from top to bottom.

The three of us who dine together devise a game plan as we go over the menu, making sure we each order something different. When the food comes, we swap plates, trade forkfuls of one thing for another, and scoop out mini portions onto each other’s bread plate to make sure we all try everything. A four-course meal can get a little nutty:

  • Lingua (shown): poached veal tongue, sliced into thin rectangles, with salsa verde, capers, and hard-cooked eggs

  • Polpettine in brodo (shown below): braised pork meatballs served in a deep bowl of warm broth, with parmigiano cheese, and broccoli rabe

  • Baccala Mantecato: salt cod crostini with black olives, and roasted tomato (dried salt cod soaked and cooked in milk, becoming a creamy fish spread served on toasts; it’s a wonderfully strong taste, so strong that I don’t even recall olives or tomatoes)

Polpettine in brodo

  • Cavatelli al forno (shown below): baked ricotta cavatelli, with braised rabbit, fava beans, and scamaorza, (more on scamaorza in a minute)

  • Fusilli with Neapolitan pork shoulder ragu, caciocavallo fonduta, a melted cheese

  • The third pasta dish was a special, and I’ve lost the details, but I remember it had sea urchin

Involtini di Pesce Spada (grilled swordfish rolls)

  • Involtini di Pesce Spada (shown above): grilled rolls of swordfish, pesto cetarese, sweet corn caponata, red pepper puree

  • Capesante grigliata (shown below): two grilled scallops with a few rock shrimp

  • Branzino nero: seared black bass, a bit dry

Capesante grigliata (grilled scallops)

*As we talked to our server, asked questions, and showed interest in the quality of ingredients and preparation of the desserts, he seemed to become convinced that there were a few of them we should definitely try, and so he brought us more at no charge.
  • Affogato with “super punch,” a liqueur that we were told “has sort of an eggnog flavor,” but which left all of us totally baffled

  • Fruit crumble for two (shown) with homemade gelato, served in a cast-iron skillet, a dessert which I was so excited to order and then didn’t think had any of the great qualities of a good fruit crumble at all, the crumble being vanilla inflected and thus sickly sweet and the fruit (peaches and something else) being over cooked and too soft, without any peach texture

  • Valhrona chocolate ganache tart with salted caramel and gelato—excellent

  • Chocolate lava cake (that wasn’t the name on the menu, but that’s an essential description) and hazelnut gelato

Two concoctions from our menu got me to thinking about the difference between food that is well prepared and food that I actually want to eat: the pasta with rabbit ragu and smoked cheese and the grilled swordfish rolls.

The pasta dish wasn’t at all what I expected based on the description. I tend to think of ragus as being tomato-based (with meat), but this one was all cream, butter, maybe white wine. Its flavors were condensed. All the flavors were really cooked in there. It was broiled lightly to be golden on top, giving it an even more buttery sheen. When I asked what scamaorza was, I learned it was an aggressively smoky cheese. I like smoked cheeses. I like rabbit. I love pasta. I really enjoy fava beans, especially when they are left whole—I think firm beans that are on the larger side, like kidney, cannellini, and fava, are fun to eat because they are fun to find and fun to pick up with your fingers or chase with a fork). But I tend to dislike pastas that are sauced as if, as I put it, they were meant to be had with white wine.

Cavatelli al forno

There’s no doubt that the cavatelli al forno was an artfully prepared dish, visually appealing and with wafting aromas. Maybe it even smelled too good. But the density and concentration of flavors made it difficult to eat in human-sized bites. I had to nibble my way through it, like the very rabbit I was eating, pecking and poking to find little hunks of bunny, a cube of scamaorza, or the pale hue green of a fava bean hidden among the mass of flavor. Pretty, interesting, and even well prepared food isn’t always something one wants to eat.

On the other hand, the swordfish dish was idyllically rustic, with bold flavors of corn, red pepper, and pesto all competing for my attention, layered rather than melding. It wasn’t refined cooking at its height, but it tasted good and I every time I took a bite, I wanted to take another bite.

Fruit crumble for two

How to Not Be a Food Tourist in New York

This guy's pizza-eating technique is so wrong.

I've been tasked with devising a list of tips for not looking like a tourist in New York, focusing on food. Last night I brainstormed with The Eyes (one of my sisters) and Boyfriend, though they didn't get into it as much as I did.

Here's my list-in-progress:

1. Pizza by the slice should be folded in half and shoveled into one's mouth in gaping bites. Upscale, sit-down pizzeria pizza gets the knife-and-fork treatment.

2. Eat a bagel, but don't get anything crazy, just the basic plain, or poppy, or sesame with cream cheese. Then go next door to the deli and order coffee "regular" (milk and one sugar), or "light and sweet," or "milk no sugar" or "black." Sorry, but black with sugar is not really an option.

3. Never ever eat in Times Square. See Times Square (we all know you want to), but walk west immediately thereafter to 9th Avenue to nosh.

4. It's pronounced... "RUGG-lah" or "RUGG-a-lah." And while I'm at it, it's pronounced "pie-AY-yuh" not "pie-ELL-ah" (I'm looking at you, British-English speakers!).

5. Tip $1 per drink, $2 for hand-shaken cocktails, and only with bills, never in coins! If the bartender is cute, linger a moment at the bar, then tip $5 for the round, even if your friends are going to make fun of you for liking skanky, tatoo-clad bartenders.

Favorite Recipes of Comic Book Makers

Batter Broil Baste Master 01

Tom Carroll, a writer and video game artist whom I've worked with over the years, and I have been working on a book project, which is currently being shown to publishers. The concept: Contact amazing comic book creators and ask them what are their favorite foods, then ask for their recipes.

A few handed us off to their spouses saying, "I would shrivel up and die without my significant other to cook for me. You'll have to get the recipe from her/him." Others, such as Neil Gaiman, penned a few words about the simplicity of Irish oats, taken to an extreme when fried heavily in English butter.

Cartoonist and "visual futurist" Syd Mead sent in blueprints alongside about a dozen photos illustrating how to design and construct an elaborate gingerbread castle, which he claims stood in his foyer for weeks.

The final manuscript is being polished up this week for the publisher, and I'll write an update with any good news!