Sunday, January 30, 2011

Preview: Recette



Recette, a small restaurant in the West Village area of Manhattan, has gotten a lot of press, but I've somehow managed to avoid reading most of it.

So when I had dinner there the other night, it felt a little like going to the movies when I know next to nothing about the film. I like that sensation. I like having a clean slate of expectations. (Note: I'm calling this a "preview" rather than a review because I don't feel like I can fully review it after only one dining experience.)

I had heard only positive things about Recette, but never in so much detail as to understand why or in what capacity. The restaurant is small. It offers a tasting menu ($75) as well as an a la carte menu of smaller dishes that aren't exactly tapas-sized, but aren't dinner-sized either. Diners ordering a la carte might want to choose at least three courses per person, although I wouldn't say the waitstaff pushes this. And rightfully so. I hate when servers tell me how much I should eat.

Between us, Boyfriend and I had six dishes:

1. a "snack" of delicate hamachi crudo with a zippy harissa aioli dolloped on the edge, and a single piece of uni balanced on top, the butter of the sea

2. autumn squash espuma, or a smooth soup that had been whipped and aerated almost into a foam, and in the middle, blanketed by soup, lay a single piece of roasted foie gras; a scattering of brussel sprout pieces added chew, and a bacon broth added tableside enveloped the whole thing with salt and depth,

3. seared scallops with coconut curry broth, cauliflower, and celery root,

4. huge "crispy" (really just deep fried) sweetbreads with escarole, capers, and brown butter,

5. ice cream and caramel over caramelized apples and a bit of almond cake,

6. pecan something or other with raisin ice cream and a few jelly batons (I can't remember exactly what was going on in this dessert, but it was frankly too much).

Locked into my taste memory forever: the soup. Boyfriend said it brought a tear to his eye.

The desserts, while good, didn't stand out to me. I like straightforward desserts with elegance. These were a bit too deconstructed and plated with too much zeal. Give me a cleanly cut slice of cake and a quenelle of ice cream. Don't balance a wafer at a 45 degree angle, draw Nike swooshes with sauce, and build a gridlock of extra stuff. I'm a firm believer that great desserts don't have to look like show stoppers. One or two embellishments can heighten a dessert, but three or four or five embellishments turn it into a flashy piece of artwork.

With drinks, plan to spend at least $75 per person for the a la carte menu. And now that I have a more clear understanding of what Recette offers and what it does well, I would love to go back for the full tasting menu.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: Terroir Wine Bar


Terroir is the perfect wine bar, and for that, there’s no need for another rave review. One Yelp reviewer said it was the reason she moved to New York. I don’t think she was exaggerating. Nearly everyone who has ever been there loves it, and those who don’t seem to be seeking a night out—not a wine bar.

Rather than gush about its ingenious list or impeccable service, let me try to simply describe what it is.

There are two locations: one in the East Village on 12th Street, and one in Tribecca. The neighborhoods are different, the spaces are different, but the menus and service are pretty close.

At either location, Terroir is crowded. Read what I’m saying: It’s not that it “can get crowded” or “sometimes is crowded.” It’s crowded.

Try squeezing into the East Village spot on a Friday or Saturday evening. I dare you.

I went to the Tribecca location early one night soon after it opened and got jostled around for 20 minutes before spying a man about to sign his credit card slip and pouncing on his table… while he and his date were still sitting at it. The entire 90 minutes my date and I had our rears parked in those seats, we were ogled like god-damned movie stars

On more than one occasion, I took a look at the East Village spot, saw backsides and shoulders pressed against the windows like a cramped fishbowl, and kept walking.

But this place is so good that I continued to try different combinations of times and days until I figured out when the place has down time.

A Quiet Time for Terroir
On a Monday evening visit to the East Village location this month at 8:30, I couldn’t believe that I had my choice of seats in a place that’s usually such a tight squeeze! The bar area seats only about 10 people, and a long table that fills most of the rest of the room seats about 20.

But by 9:15, when I swiveled my head around, a small cluster of newcomers was once again blocking the doorway while vying for empty chairs.

The following week, I returned again, this time at a little past 5:00 p.m. for happy hour. The place was practically dead. Score! During happy hour, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, a small selection of wines go for $6 a glass, and one glass of sherry is free. At their full price, most wines by the glass range from about $9 to $14, so $6 is a steal. The only grimace I made on the happy hour visit was when I picked up my glass of red and recoiled at how cold it was. I wonder if the staff pulls the bottles out of the fridge at 5 p.m. sharp.

Exploration
Terroir is about exploration.

On one of my visits, a young couple nearby contemplated the four or five mostly empty wine glasses before them as they scribbled a few thoughts in a notebook. Other couples jammed their noses deep into half-filled glasses and huffed with great oenophilia. Terroir is one of those wine bars where these serious drinker sit side-by-side with two girls having a glass of Malbec because it’s the thing on the menu they felt comfortable pronouncing. Those who want to explore Terroir deeply should have no problem returning again and again to make their way through the list of wines by the glass, and perhaps eventually, move on to some of the special bottles one the menu.

What the wine bar calls a menu (available in all its glory online) is pages and pages of scrapbooking, set in page protectors and clipped into a three-ring binder. It reminds me of the Donny Boon book Been Doon So Long, which if you’ve never seen it, ask around the next time you’re in a book store with an ample food and wine section; it’s a smorgasbord of vignettes, essays, songs, cartoons, and poems that are at times only tenuously related to wine to at all. Similarly, Terroir’s menu includes a full page (see page 29) dedicated to spoofing the lyrics of Justin Timberlake: “Red Wine in a Box.”

Service
The outstanding service at Terroir feels like it comes so easy. The people who work there clearly love what they do. I’ve witnessed with my own eyes two male servers behind the bar swirling their glasses and twirling on their toes to the music, and sniffing and slurping and high-fiving all night long. The lone woman at work that night, wearing a chef’s jacket and sober face, and pulling kitchen orders, lacked their joie de vivre as she smacked down plated paninis, but her lackluster attitude was only that way in comparison.

Waitstaff are at ease. They should be. They know their stuff. They describe wines, and then come back with a little taste. They pour generously. They don’t linger too long. They notice when a glass is empty. It’s impeccable.

Food
Some of my favorite Italian foods are dishes that are made with only three or four ingredients. Add anything more, be it as simple as olives or parsley, and it’s ruined. The beauty is finding only three things that can stand up to one another in flavor, texture, temperature, while also complementing each other. A panini with grilled raddichio, roasted red peppers, and smoked mozzarella ($11) hit the mark. A dish of roasted beets with orange segments and hazelnuts couldn’t have been simpler. It’s easy to order a little food that does not distract from the wine but is substantial enough to counter the alcohol.

On the other hand, it’s equally easy to dive into veal meatballs or a greasy snack from “fried” section of the menu and pair it with glass of something not for the faint of heart.

My only real hope for Terroir is that the happy hour stays relatively unnoticed so I now when I can find a place to sit and sip.


Terroir
Tribeca: 24 Harrison Street, New York, NY
East Village: 413 E. 12th St., New York, NY

Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: Chiyono


Yellowtail and radish ($6.50) with rice ($1.50)at Chiyono in New York

Very few restaurants beckon me to return again and again. When they do, it's a sign they've struck a balance between quality, originality, variation, atmosphere, service, and price.

Chiyono, a small East Village spot, may not appear to have much "originality," serving straightforward Japanese home-cooking, but that type of food is fairly rare in New York, and so the restaurant's uniqueness, ironically, is in its traditional style. And if, like me, you are mostly unfamiliar with traditional Japanese cooking, the arrival of each dish will come as a surprise, as the English language menu descriptions are entirely nondescript.

For example, I asked the server for more detail on the starter "yam with hot soy sauce" (pirikara-konnayaku; $4.50). Is it "hot" as in spicy or temperature? Answer: Spicy with dried chili. Is it a cold dish? Answer: No, but only warm. "The yam is... chewy," she added. The cubes of firm but gelatinous yam that arrived had been steeped in and discolored by soy sauce seasoned with rings of dried chili pepper. Tighter in texture than p√Ętes de fruits, each bite required a good amount of chewing, tasting, and savoring. Similarly, one of the specials on that same visit, yellowtail with radish ($6.50) sounds positively boring, until bowl of light and barely salty broth arrives containing a sizeable disc of braised "radish," which cuts like a cooked potato, a palm-sized portion of fish so moist and tender it gently tumbles into your chopsticks, and a single head of bok choy, all garnished with dollhouse matchsticks of ginger. For the price, I was expecting to get three conservatives mouthfuls of food, but teamed with a bowl of white rice ($1.50), the yellowtail was a modest meal in itself.

Attention to detail and quality are most apparent in the fish dishes, which is where Chiyono shines brightest. Fish and seafood are only elevated to a level of excellence when they are cooked with care, a delicate hand, and loving precision.

Saikyo-yaki (grilled cod marinated in miso; $12.25) is a star on the menu. Kaki-furai (fried oysters; $12.25)—the biggest oysters I have ever seen, available in the winter only—look like three shoes on an austere plate, with a scoop of fresh onion salad that bites through the creaminess of the bivalves. Kaku-ni (slow simmered pork belly with soy sauce; $12.50) is the only non-fish entree I have tried, and though I personally can't claim to have fallen in love with the salty, soft envy of bacon, those who think highly of pork belly just might.

Lackluster dishes are few and far between, but don't bother with either the pork or shrimp gyoza ($5.25 and $5.75, respectively). Explore the more interesting appetizers, despite their seemingly simple descriptions.

One petite woman accounts for all the service, and she is darling, if reserved. On a recent visit, my sister and I heeded her recommendation to try the homemade organic sweet potato ice cream ($6) to great appreciation.

The beauty of Japanese food for me is its understanding of balance, from flavors and textures to temperature. It takes great care for one's customers to hit that balance again and again. For its location, quality, service, and attention to detail, Chiyono is sorely underpriced—and I'm not complaining. It's part of the reason I will eat there again and again.


Chiyono
328 East 6th Street
New York, NY

Closed Mondays. Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday, and brunch on Sunday only.