Sunday, June 25, 2006

Le Bernardin: Defining Haute Cuisine

155 West 51st Street
New York, NY 10019
(212)554-1515
Chef Eric Ripert
Lunch weekdays
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Le Bernardin on Urbanspoon

Last tried: August 2007

While all of the preparations were as lovely and well-executed as ever, the menu felt a bit formulaic on this last visit, with every single course being some form of seafood served with a variation of sauce poured tableside. Although Le Bernardin continues to be among my favorite restaurants, I must admit that I missed the chef's creativity and flair from previous visits. (Eric Ripert made several promenades across the dining room during the course of the evening, similar to Jean Georges Vongerichten stepping into a well lit corner of the dining room at Restaurant Jean Georges as if to announce, "see I'm here!" Physical presence, though, means less than the manifestation of the chef's personal involvement in the menu-- as I learned from Charlie Trotter's.)

Previously tried: June 2006

Even without the numerous wine stewards walking around the dining room with silver tastevins hanging around their necks, the atmosphere at Le Bernardin feels quite old world. The light caramel-colored wood that dominates the decor looks comforting and bright, rather than sleek, dim, and modern. Quaint little glass bowls filled with floating flowers and candles decorate the tables covered with thick pink-cream tablecloths. Service is also quite formal, although I have found it to be more form over function on occasion-- for example, the captain whisking away my first course upon seeing that bread and butter had not yet been delivered to my table, so that same dish sits on the side table across the dining room while runners scramble to follow the proper serving sequence, or a server being scolded to replace the burnt out candle in my flower bowl with a fresh new arrangement even though all I am waiting for is the check. But the food at Le Bernardin! Eric Ripert's cuisine is so pristinely divine that I would still go back there even if all of the servers went on strike and I had to serve myself.

Of course food at this level comes at a price. On my last visit, the Chef's tasting menu (six courses plus two dessert courses) was $155 per person with an additional $140 for wine pairing), the Le Bernardin tasting menu (five courses plus two dessert courses) was $130 per person with an additional $85 for wine pairing, and the four-course menu with a la carte selections from the "Almost Raw," "Barely Touched," and "Lightly Cooked" plus dessert was $105 per person. For either the Chef's tasting menu or the Le Bernardin tasting menu, the same must be ordered by the entire table. I always opt for the Chef's tasting menu since it is a compilation of the best of the kitchen's offerings, as it should be but not necessarily so at every restaurant (except for once when I could only get a reservation time that was too late in the evening to be able to do the Chef's tasting menu). If circumstances permit, I will also always indulge in the wine pairing. As magnificent as the wine list is at Le Bernardin (including a number of 1982 first growth Bordeaux and 1990 grand cru Burgundies), the flavor profiles of the food are so refined and finely calculated that I would rather defer to the expertise of the sommeliers-- the tastevins are not just for show.

To start, I received an amuse bouche of lobster claw topped with parmesan foam bathed in a shallow pool of cold cucumber soup. (Note: If you show up a few minutes earlier than your reservation time and order a drink at the bar while waiting for your table, you will receive a plate of savory, buttery parmesan fillo twists-- try not to eat them all as they are filling and you will want to save your appetite.) Lobster for an amuse! The parmesan foam was extremely delicate with just a hint of the nutty and creamy scent and flavor to highlight the tender bite-size morsel of lobster. The cold cucumber soup was refreshing and soothing, adding a contrasting accent of freshness to the other rich elements. This beautiful starter led right into a transcendent terrine of foie gras as the first course, served on top of a buttery brioche round and topped with dashi gelee and accompanied by a tiny salad of hijiki seaweed and micro watercress greens. To pair, the sommelier presented a 2002 Domaine Blanck Riesling from Alsace. The dashi gelee was quite rich and savory, which worked well with the creamy foie gras (actually I tried this same combination, except with yuzu added to the dashi, by the indomitable Jean Georges Vongerichten which was not as successful as this incarnation). Although I could not noticeably detect the taste of the orange zest dusted on the plate, every element of the dish and the wine complemented one another seamlessly.

Just when I was thinking that nothing could taste better than that foie gras, the caviar tagliolini arrived. A delicate mound of Batali-worthy al dente pasta noodles with a creamy but not-too-thick carbonara sauce, mixed with bits of pancetta and topped with a perfectly cooked quail egg whose runny yolk broke across the grey salty pearls of Osetra caviar. I nearly died at how amazing this tasted. What to pair with this amazing dish? A full and oaky California chardonnay, 2002 Tantara. Despite being from California, this chardonnay had nice acidity and fruit to balance the richness of its pleasantly woody notes and paired quite well with the sublime pasta.

The next course was an olive oil poached escolar topped with fried shallots, served in a saffron lemongrass emulsion with microscopically thin strips of scallions floating in the golden pool of broth, garnished with mildly pickled cherry tomato wedges and sweet-tart white grapes. The succulent fatty fish in the sweet-sour-savory emulsion was intoxicating, as was the white bordeaux paired it-- a 2000 Smith Haut-Lafitte.

The next two courses were also fish, gradually increasing in intensity of flavor and the accompanying sauces, starting with monkfish. Three single-forkful size pieces of perfectly pan-fried, tender monkfish with a chorizo-albarino sauce, topped with diced zucchini, red peppers and onion and accompanied by "patatas bravas," roasted potato wedges decorated with alternating red and white stripes of fiery pepper coulis and mayonnaise. The only tiny imperfection was that one of the potato wedges was slightly undercooked and still crunchy but with the incredible spicing and sauces, this minor flaw was barely noticeable. Spanish ingredients executed with French precision, making the American diners all quite happy. The final fish course was barely cooked, still translucently bright orange wild salmon, with a sauce of morel mushrooms, asparagus tips, peas, and truffle butter, finished tableside and poured on top. It took all my restraint not to grab the little copper pot from the server in which he had mixed the sauce in order to lick the remnants before he took it back to the kitchen. With the monkfish, I had a 2001 Tardieu-Laurent Hermitage blanc. With the salmon, I was given a choice between a 2002 Meursault and a 2002 Domaine Daniel Rion Nuit St. Georges. The Meursault was nice but the Nuit St. Georges was killer, especially with the morel mushrooms and truffle butter.

The final savory course was Ripert's version of surf and turf: on the left side of the plate, a small square of pork belly with juicy almost-confit consistency meat underneath crispy salty skin, decorated with microbasil and parsley, and golden-brown pan-fried pieces of skate wing fanned out on the right, like angel wings. The pork and skate wing were accompanied by a gingered squash mousseline and a sauce of brown butter jus of soy and sake, tomato, shallots, and Belgian endive. What to pair with this unusual and delightful combination? The earthy 2000 Domaine de Longue Toque Gigondas was just the ticket.

Unlike so many restaurants that excel through the savory courses only to lose steam with desserts, Le Bernardin continued to carry its lofty level of culinary excellence through the final two courses. The "Egg," contained milk chocolate pot de creme, in the consistency of soft-boiled egg (reminiscent of the famous Arpege egg, a variation of which is also offered by David Kinch at Manresa), with maple syrup on the bottom, topped with caramel foam, and sprinkled with Maldon salt crystals. Eaten out of the brown egg shell with a tiny spoon, it was rich yet delicate, and the sweet-savory combination of the chocolate, maple syrup, and salt was spectacular. To conclude, I received a small scoop of yuzu-green tea ice cream, topped with crispy caramelized rice bits, candied grapefruit, and a thin triangle of sugary, crunchy meringue. The flavors were clean and well-balanced, yet surprisingly sweet and satisfying. With a glass of 1999 Domaine Disznoko Tokaji Aszu (5 Puttanyos), both desserts were perfection.

So this is what Michelin three-stars tastes like ...

Babbo: Living Up to the Hype

110 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10011
(212)777-0303
Chef Mario Batali
Executive Chef Frank Langello
Dinner nightly

Babbo on Urbanspoon

Tried: May 2006

Even though I am a huge fan of Mario Batali (Molto and Iron), I was skeptical about trying Babbo. Given Mario Batali's television schedule and the proliferation of his restaurant empire, can Babbo really be any good?

The first impression that struck me when I walked in the door was a feeling of festive abundance. The restaurant was crammed full of people from the foyer to the bar to the dining area, with servers bustling along the narrow spaces in between boisterous diners, transporting wine glasses and large platters of food. There were towering flower arrangements at the bar and at the large wooden table in the center of the dining room, where wines were decanted and also set aside in between service. No one seemed to mind that the tables were so close together you were practically sitting on top of your neighbor, and every single seat along the long bar was filled with people enjoying dinner, while those standing nearby eyed their seats and plates with envy.

Upon being squeezed into our table, we received an amuse bouche of mini bruschetta, smeared with black olive tapenade and topped with crunchy whole chick peas, drizzled with sweet extra virgin olive oil and tart balsamic vinegar. Although my personal preference still leans toward the traditional tomato-basil variety, the bruschetta was crunchy, nutty, salty, and lovely. As we polished off the bruschetta, the sommelier helped us navigate through the thick binder of wines, landing on a magnum of 1997 Ciabot Berton Barolo, quite reasonably priced at $175 (around $100 retail), and it was one of those barolos whose elegant perfume is so intoxicating, I could just sit and sniff it indefinitely (but of course we drained it pretty quickly).

Babbo offers an eight-course tasting menu (six courses plus two desserts) for $70 per person and an all-pasta tasting menu (seven pasta courses plus dessert) for $64 per person. Because either tasting menu is required to be ordered by the entire table, our dining party opted to proceed a la carte. From the antipasti ($9-$16), we ordered sardines with lobster oil and caramelized fennel and a charcuterie plate consisting of lardo, olives, beef tongue, pickled hearts of fennel, and prosciutto. I am generally not a fan of beef tongue, but Babbo's version, which looked and tasted like slices of sausage, was not bad. This was also the first time I ate lardo straight. It tasted like thin slices of, well, fat but had no discernible flavor. Although the warm melting texture was pleasantly interesting, I am not sure I need to repeat that experience.

What I would like to repeat, as soon as I can get back into Babbo, are the pastas. Of the nearly twenty different pastas on the menu, ranging from $17 to $25, I was only able to sample the three-mushroom garganelli, pappardelle bolognese, and half-moon ravioli, called "lune," filled with sweet potato and sage. The elastic texture and shape of the pastas seemed to blend in with the flavors and accompaniments of each different dish until you could not tell where the pasta ended and the sauce began. The wide ribbons of chewy pappardelle captured generous amounts of the rich and meaty Bolognese sauce, with bits of carrots adding sweetness. The handkerchief-shaped garganelli pasta intertwined with the fragrant mushrooms and olive oil to create an ethereal taste that was indescribably rich and savory, not to mention perfectly matched with the earthy barolo we were drinking. The lunes, on the other hand, were sweet and delicate, with a hint of amaretti accentuating the opulence of the sweet potato and sage filling.

I was not quite as blown away by our selections among the Secondi ($23-$33). The skirt steak with asparagus and salsa verde was too salty and overpowered by the barbecue seasoning. In contrast, the osso bucco with saffron orzo and chestnut gremolata was underseasoned. Moreover, both meats were a bit tougher than I would have liked, particularly the osso bucco, which required all too much effort with a knife.

Babbo came back strong with desserts (all $12 each). The gingerbread and chocolate biscotti were well balanced in flavor and sweetness, with just enough crispy crunch to be satisfying, and the almond meringue melted in my mouth dispersing delicate and nutty almond butter flavors. The saffron panna cotta was creamy and jiggly in exactly the right way, with the rhubarb sorbet providing a delightful sweet-tart accent.

Next time, I plan to force everyone to do the pasta tasting menu with me. After reading Heat by Bill Buford, describing the madness, genius, and energy of Mario Batali, I may even want to try Del Posto.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bong Su in Bloom

311 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415)536-5800
Chef Tammy Huynh
Dinner nightly

Last tried: June 2006

Bong Su on Urbanspoon

Expanding on the success of Tamarine, Anne Le and her chef aunt Tammy Huynh have unleashed their talents in creating a second upscale Vietnam restaurant in the Bay Area, this time in San Francisco's South of Market district. The formerly generic space at the bottom of a large apartment complex that used to be Max's Diner on the corner of Third and Folsom has been converted to a lush, sexy, and cosmopolitan restaurant and lounge, with enormous stone scultures imported from Vietnam, silk and satin fabrics swathed over windows and walls in shades of taupe, caramel, eggplant, and coffee, and large communal tables made of bamboo along the center of the long corridor in the dining room. In the back of the spacious bar area is a vast wine cellar behind glass walls, containing a beige stone buddha sculpture in the center surrounded by rows and rows of bottles bearing impressive labels.

As good as the restaurant looks, the food is even better. While maintaining some of the classic favorites from Tamarine, such as the melt-in-your-mouth-tender shaking beef, the Bong Su menu offers its own line of sophisticated yet hearty Vietnamese dishes from North, Central, and South Vietnam. A substantial number of menu items may also be made vegetarian upon request.

Among the dishes listed as starters ($7-$16), the Goi Kampachi, a sashimi style dish garnished with transparently thin slices of jalapeno peppers and fried shallots in a light drizzle of chili-lime fish sauce, was delicate yet packed with flavor. Despite the kick of spice and the accompaniments, the sweet, creamy flavor of the kampachi shone through, and the fish was as fresh as you would get from a top notch sushi restaurant. The Hue rice rolls, described as stuffed rice flour crepes, were actually more like soft dumplings filled with ground veal and woodear mushrooms. The translucent rice flour shell is chewy, sticky, and mildly sweet like Japanese mochi, and imparts a rich and starchy texture, complementing the richness and earthiness of the slightly salty veal and mushroom mixture inside. Eaten solo, the rice rolls are creamy and luxurious. With the accompanying sweet chili sauce, they become spicy and intense. With the kampachi, General Manager William Redberg paired the 2004 Setzer Gruner Veltliner from Weinvertal, and for the Hue rice rolls, a tart-sweet 2004 riesling from Reingau. Having assembled the expansive yet well-articulated wine list for both Tamarine and Bong Su, Redberg knows the cuisine and the wines inside out, and his quiet expertise makes the sublime dining experience at Bong Su complete. (Sommelier/Maitre d' Peter Greerty, who recently joined Bong Su from the Ritz Carlton Boston, will be conducting Asian wine pairing seminars, but to date I have only tried the pairings by William Redberg.)

The riesling also matched beautifully with the duck wraps-- tender and moist five-spice duck confit with diced mango and cucumber, rolled in bitter mustard greens, flavored with a sweet hoisin type sauce. The honey roasted, five-spice quail stuffed with sweet sticky rice, shiitake mushrooms, and scallions, is also listed among the starters, but is hearty enough to be an entree. In fact, this dish was served after the appetizers and soups on both of my visits. Given the strong spices and the opulence of the quail meat, this sequence made more sense in the overall presentation of the meal. If you can, select all of the dishes you would want to try from the menu, then leave it to the kitchen to course out the meal then ask William Redberg to do a wine pairing. This takes some time, especially with the somewhat inexperienced serving staff, but worth the wait and time. With the quail, Redberg selected a 2003 Rousanne from Carneros. The honey-apricot tones of the wine highlighted the spicing and flavors of the quail exquisitely.

Among the soups/salads/noodles, priced between $11-$16 each, I tried the Ha Long Bay soup, Kobe beef pho, and the crab garlic noodles. The garlicky glass noodles were pleasantly chewy, and the large chunks of crab meat, expertly extracted from the shells and claws, were tender and soft. Beware of the giant pieces of ginger, which are difficult to visually distinguish from the crab meat chunks in the low lighting. For me, this dish was too garlicky, and I could not really taste the crab among the strong garlic, ginger, and peppercorn spicing. The Ha Long Bay soup, on the other hand, was balanced and lovely. The crab asparagus wontons were elastic on the outside, soft and creamy inside, and not the least bit overcooked (unlike most wontons or dumplings in soups), and the broth of lime, coconut milk, chicken stock, and cilantro was delicately spicy and sweet at the same time. I could not think of a single thing that would make this soup better-- until I had it with a sip of the pear sparkling cider, Bordelet Granit, that Redberg suggested. The effervescent sweet pear was an ideal match with the crab, the coconut milk, and spice.

The dish that haunts my memory and makes me yearn to go back to Bong Su is the Kobe beef pho. Owner Anne Le said she has been searching the Bay Area for good pho and decided that the only way she was going to get the kind she remembers from Vietnam is to have her aunt make it. It seems Chef Huynh shares the same obsessive perfectionism and attention to detail as her niece. The clear beef stock infused with cilantro, basil, star anise, cinnamon, and fennel, poured over the mound of fresh, crunchy white bean sprouts and thin slices of jewel-red Kobe beef at the table, creates an intoxicating fragrance that is better than any aromatherapy I've ever experienced. The hot broth wilts the sprouts slightly and cooks the beef slices to a melting tender medium rare, resulting in a soothing and satisfying soup that tastes as incredible as it smells. Redberg then unleashed his magic touch with a 2004 Grenache Rose by Paul Jaboulet. Who knew that a Cote du Rhone rose would match so perfectly with pho?

For entrees ($17-$26), I tried the Alaskan black cod glazed with a sauce of caramelized molasses, garlic, black pepper, and onion, the grilled pork chops marinated in soy and lemongrass accompanied by deep-fried taro cakes, and of course I can never forego an opportunity to have the shaking beef with watercress salad. The cod tasted virtually identical to the miso-glazed black cod ubiquitous in most Asian restaurants, but could hold its own with the best of them (and I have not yet tired of that dish even though it is everywhere.) Although tasty, the pork was rather chewy, like the barbecued pork in Chinese pork fried rice, and the flavor was quite similar as well. I was more intrigued by the deep-fried quenelles of taro that accompanied the pork, which tasted like whipped sweet potatoes surrounded by a crunchy panko crust. Among the side dishes, do not miss the mushroom medley, a mixture of hon shimeji, crimini, and shiitake mushrooms in a five-spice sweet soy-flavored sauce and the Empress Rice, sticky rice flavored with garlic, fried leeks, ginger, and topped with fried quail eggs.

Desserts and service are the two areas where Bong Su could use improvement. The tapioca was mushy and had none of its characteristic chewy pearliness, and the sugary flavor was unbalanced. The star fruit was unripe, hard, and sour. The service, while friendly and well-intentioned, seems like they are still in training. On my first visit, the server had a difficult time remembering the names of the dishes being served, never mind the intricate garnishes and ingredients, and even forgot part of our order. On my next visit, the server, while being very enthusiastic about our request for wine pairing with the food, forgot all about the wine and proceeded to serve the courses. (Fortunately Redberg smoothly rectified the problem by bringing over the pairing for the first course then proceeded to pace and sequence the rest of the courses with the appropriate wines.)

But that Kobe beef pho ...

Friday, June 02, 2006

Getting Spoiled at Restaurant Jean Georges

1 Central Park West
New York, NY 10023
(212)299-3900
Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten
Chef de Cuisine Mark Lapico
Lunch weekdays
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Jean Georges on Urbanspoon

Last tried: May 2006

After dining at Restaurant Jean Georges, I got the distinct impression that you could not work there unless you can read customers' minds and anticipate their every wish. Of course, seamless coordination of every step of wine and food service is a given. Perhaps Jean Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller have an elite service school set up somewhere where they train their respective staff under some sort of culinary navy seal program.

To give a small example of their attention to detail, when I asked about a particular wine among the pairings that I really enjoyed, the wine director gave me the label off the bottle, embossed in a plastic cover. (At the end of the evening, he gave me all of the labels for each of the wines in the wine pairing that way so that I would have them all, just in case.) At no point in time did my eyes ever search the room to locate a server to ask for anything, as they unobtrusively took care of every detail without hovering. No one ever asked, "is there anything else I can get you?" because whatever I may have needed or wanted was brought over or cleared away as soon as the desire crossed my mind. The level of service at Restaurant Jean Georges highlighted the level of the food, creating a thoroughly pampered dining experience.

The Jean Georges menu offers three options: a three-course menu, with each course to be selected from eight a la carte choices in each category, plus desserts, at $95 per person; a six-course signature tasting menu, plus desserts, at $125 per person; and a six-course seasonal tasting menu, plus desserts, also at $125 per person. The tasting menu is not required to be ordered by the table, so we decided to try all three menu options. (Note: The portions are not diminutive although not large to the point of sacrificing elegance of presentation or flavor.)

To start, we received an amuse trio: an espresso cupful of white asparagus soup with a layer of raspberry vinaigrette at the bottom; a sourdough crouton topped with peekytoe crab confit, lemon mustard dressing, and daikon sprouts; and a single forkful of charred fava bean "salad" with pecorino vinaigrette. These contrasting flavors and textures, spiked with the tanginess of raspberry, lemon mustard, and pecorino, danced in my mouth as I moved from through each amuse. The amuse transitioned beautifully to the first course-- a liquid scrambled egg served in the shell with the top quarter shaved off, topped with vodka whipped cream and caviar. Not quite as mindblowing as the sherry cream egg with chives at Manresa, but still fabulous, and I loved the combination of the rich chicken egg and salty fish egg served inside an egg shell. The other first course was just as tasty-- a miniature toasted buttered brioche sandwich with a quail egg yolk inside, topped with caviar and dill. Thankfully the dill, which I usually find overwhelming in most contexts, provided just a hint of pickly scent and flavor, which brought out the grilled cheese-like taste of the brioche egg sandwich, and the caviar added a dimension of vibrant saltiness to this very rich taste.

Next came a crudo of translucent white snapper decorated with muscat grapes and a buttermilk ranch emulsion, topped with chervil, tarragon, thyme, and a bit of Thai chile. The fish was sashimi fresh and could easily be eaten alone, but the sweet grapes, the creamy rich sauce, the earthy and minty spring herbs, and the zingy kick of spice from the chile were delightful and harmonious together. The other raw dish, hamachi with grapefruit sorbet and jalapeno emulsion with grapefruit zest, was not quite as successful. Each of the elements by themselves were superb but together the sweet and buttery flavor of the hamachi got drowned out. I was also not crazy about the crunchy crystals of maldon salt on top, which was pretty to look at but unnecessary.

To pair with these first series of courses, the sommelier picked out a half bottle of the most amazing gewurztraminer, 2004 Domaine Paul Blanck from Alsace (which I plan to look for and acquire for future consumption, aided by the handy label he gave me to keep). The citrus, floral, mineral, and honey flavors of the wine were perfect solo and also paired well with the egg and seafood. With the next series of courses, he served a 2004 Condrieu by Les Chaillets, another impeccable selection.

Although I am still in recovery from multiple overdoses of seared scallops from the late 90's, Jean Georges' version, served with charred cauliflower bits and a nutmeg balsamic emulsion, was exquisite. I must admit, however, that I was still more in love with the cauliflower bits that were almost creamy inside the charred exterior (normally I am not particularly fond of cauliflower) than the scallops. The foie gras brulee with candied pistachios, sour cherries, lime zest, and white corn gelee was technically flawless in execution. The flavors matched, the textures were interesting, and the combination unique. Yet I found myself missing the comforting familiarity of a plain terrine or a seared slice of oozing foie gras with a crispy exterior. As a subsequent course, I did get that seared foie gras I was craving, along with a fabulous glass of 1999 Chateau Rieussec Sauterne. The dashi-yuzu foam, although lovely alone, did not quite work with the foie gras, but the dried apple pieces provided desired sweetness and chewy texture.

The following courses, asparagus with asparagus puree and morel mushrooms in hollandaise sauce, and garlic soup with fried frogs' legs, were both immaculate. The sauce on the bright green asparagus spears, a combination of morel mushrooms, hollandaise sauce, and pureed asparagus puree was so incredible that I sponged my plate clean with bread to soak up every bit of it. The garlic soup was soothing and flavorful, without being overly rich, and the aroma of fresh spring garlic mixed with the scent of butter and cream wafting up from the steaming bowl was hypnotizing. The frogs' legs were tender and moist inside and fried to a perfect golden crisp on the outside, flavored with exactly the right amount of saltiness to accompany the soup. After I ate every piece of meat I could extract from the bone and licked the garlic and spices off my fingers, I was presented with a sterling silver finger bowl filled with warm rose lemon water, along with a fresh linen napkin.

With the next series of heavier seafood courses, the sommelier served a 2003 1er Cru Pommard from Domain de Courcel. Even though I am generally not fond of the 2003 vintage for Burgundy (most are too sweet and extracted, like many California Pinot Noirs), the opulence of this wine actually worked quite well as a pairing. The poached Scottish cod with buttery purple potato fondant and charred eggplant topped with roasted garlic and crunchy bits of levain croutons, with a streak of poblano pepper puree providing an accent of tart spiciness, was hearty yet refined. The moist and creamy tenderness of the arctic char was emphasized by the slice of crispy, salty fried skin placed on the side like a potato chip. With roasted porcini mushrooms, diced jalapeno peppers, and garlic, the arctic char was an explosion of flavors and textures that miraculously blended together like they were meant to be. (The only wine pairing I was not crazy about was the 2002 Domaine Clusel-Roch Cote Rotie paired with the squab described below. I have yet to taste a 2002 Rhone wine I have really liked, and this one was no exception, with unbalanced acidity and lackluster fruit.)

The last series of savory courses consisted of turbot, poached lobster, roasted veal tenderloin, and broiled squab. The turbot was pleasantly firm and meaty, and the accompanying zucchini and tomato dice with jurancon sauce, reminiscent of lobster bisque in flavor, was simultaneously refreshing and rich. The lobster, poached in butter and served with fresh pea shoots in a lemongrass fenugreek broth, was enhanced by a light dusting of dark orange, salty dehydrated lobster roe on the plate. The veal with meyer lemon, however, was less impressive than the other dishes. The lemon tended to overpower all of the other delicate flavors, including the veal and the snow peas. We ended on a high note with the squab, which was tender, juicy, and well-spiced with a mixture of cumin, cinnamon, and curry. The slice of seared foie gras on top of the squab and the miniature corn pancake with sweet pear puree on the bottom were likewise incredible, with each individual component prepared perfectly and combined skillfully in flavor and texture.

At this point, we had to raise the white flag. We had been too greedy in our attempt to eat through the menu to be able to follow through with desserts. The server nonetheless insisted that we take a package of petit fours and Jean Georges chocolates to go.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Smooth Engines of WD-50

50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002
(212)477-2900
Chef Wylie Dufresne (formerly sous chef Restaurant Jean Georges)
Sous Chef Mike Sheerin
Dinner nightly

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Tried: May 2006

Interesting. That word sums up the dining experience at Wylie Dufresne's WD-50.

Like the food, the atmosphere at WD-50 exudes casual chic. Opaque lamps shaped like wine bottles hang across the bar, and the decor is otherwise sparse and minimalist, including the unisex restrooms with a trough sink. Several rows of dark wood tables line the long, rectangular dining room, with a large window at the far end opening into the kitchen. The low lighting in the dining room in contrast with the bright lights in the kitchen made the expediting window look like a large television screen, with all of the characters on-screen dressed in white with identical vertical black-and-white-striped aprons.

Upon being seated and presented with menus, we received a basket filled with thin crackers that were so tall they almost created a vertical barrier between diners. The crackers were actually flatbread made from crushed sesame seeds and were so thin that I could practically see through them. As I munched on these delicately salty and nutty crackers, I observed the dishes being served at adjacent tables-- not difficult as the tables are set so close together, it almost felt like everyone was seated along a long communal table-- and noted that the a la carte dishes were quite sizeable. Our group opted for the tasting menu (twelve courses for $105 per person; $55 for wine pairing), which is required to be ordered by the entire table.

Napkins? Refolded when diners left the table. (I have an OCD thing about used napkins being refolded when diners leave the table during a meal. While I realize that it is an accepted and even expected practice in more formal dining establishments, my personal preference is to not have soiled napkins touched and refolded by a server. As an alternative, some restaurants replace napkins when diners get up to visit the restroom. In one place, I have even seen silverware being replaced as well as the napkin, which is a bit overkill, even for me, but I was impressed.)

The first course was a smoked oyster with a strip of rhubarb, topped with lilyroot puree and decorated with a mustard microgreen. Although I generally prefer oysters fresh, the smokiness worked with the sweet and tart rhubarb and the tiny bit of bitterness from the mustard green. Next came a faux fried egg. The egg white was a cardamom coconut gelee and the yolk was a carrot ginger jelly, which broke open in similar consistency to a real egg yolk. Topped with fresh ground pepper, it looked and (sort of) tasted like an egg. A glass of cava rose was served with these intriguing starters and matched both quite well.

The next course was a terrine of foie gras shaped into a cylindrical disk, resting on top of what looked like a mound of bright green sand and decorated with candied olives. The sand was actually crushed, dehydrated peas. The server instructed us to cut the terrine across the center first before eating. As I sliced into the terrine, a dark red viscous liquid oozed out. The center had been hollowed out and injected with liquid cherry. Fun with food. The sweet cherry worked well with the terrine, but the foie gras was somewhat bland and not otherwise noteworthy. I found myself enjoying the candied olives more than anything else. The green pea soil was visually interesting but rather tasteless. The pairing, a non-vintage madeira, was a safe choice.

Following the foie gras, we had a shrimp "cannelloni," which looked like a miniature egg roll. Both the cannelloni and the filling were made of shrimp, with the "pasta" shell made of mashed, steamed shrimp. The cannelloni was served with a chorizo sauce and accented with micro-red Thai basil. A glass of 2004 Oregon pinot gris provided the right flavor profile for the elements of this dish. As with the foie gras, I was more entertained by the concept than the taste, which was fine but not exceptional. The texture of the shrimp was a bit gummy, and I would have liked the chorizo sauce and spices to have more presence in the dish. Also paired with the pinot gris was a deconstructed BLT, Wylie Dufresne style. The "B" was a thin slice of beef tongue, the "L" was a sprig of green herb, and the "T" a tomato-molasses marmalade, accompanied by deep-fried cubes of mayonnaise. This is probably the only time I have ever enjoyed beef tongue, as the thin slice had none of the slick, slimy texture I normally associate with tongue. The deep-fried mayonnaise I absolutely loved-- how twisted and lovely.

Next came a miso soup with shiitake mushrooms and finely diced scallions, showing that when it decides to, this kitchen can execute basic flavors flawlessly. Tiny squeeze bottles with red caps, which looked like kindergarten glue bottles, accompanied the soothing, milky beige-brown soup. They contained liquid sesame tofu, intended to create instant noodles upon being squeezed into the soup. The noodles failed to form, as the soup was not hot enough and the soup bowl too small for this chemical equation to work successfully, but the flavors were still quite pleasant. The 2002 Rosso di Montalcino by Sassetti Livio that was paired with the soup, however, did not work. Against the Asian flavors in the soup, the wine tasted tart and bitter. The wine worked slightly better but still fought with the next paired course-- smoked eel with peanuts, snow peas, peppers, caramel foam and lime salt.

The last savory course, duck breast with spaghetti squash, dotted with bits of ricotta and cocoa nibs and tied together with a black vinegar gastrique, was the best flavor combination of the evening. The spaghetti squash, acting as sweet and mildly crunchy pasta noodles with the creamy bits of ricotta, and the rich duck meat highlighted by the intensity of chocolate and black vinegar gastrique were fantastic. The 2004 vin de table from Yves Leccia was also a nice match.

Of the desserts, my favorite was the corn bread ice cream, which tasted like cold and creamy sweet corn bread. Having these familiar flavors and textures in a new context was a delightful twist. The dehydrated bits of corn caramel brittle on top of the ice cream tasted like a black-tie version of Cracker Jacks. The second dessert was a cashew tonka bean brulee with pine nuts and cherry sauce, dusted with dried powdered cherries. The brulee was not quite sweet enough and cherry sauce a bit too tangy but the overall taste combination was still quite pleasant. The last dessert was a smoked chocolate ice cream with caramelized banana, topped with Guiness foam. Although the chocolate and stout combination was better executed at Silk's in San Francisco, this was still an outstanding dessert. To conclude, we had red beet jellies served on a black slate slab. The soft, sugared jellies quivering on the black slate were still warm to the touch and dissolved satisfyingly as soon as they touched my tongue.

While it is probably the best "scientific" cooking restaurant I have tried, I could not help wondering what Chef Dufresne's cooking is like when he is not "experimenting." (In the interest of full disclosure, the chef himself was only there for a short period the night I tried WD-50; apparently he had surgery for appendicitis the day before but still came in, as he does every night according to our server.) Although I quite enjoyed his novel creations, I must admit my brain was more entertained than my tastebuds.

Ambivalent About Momofuku

First, am I the only person who thinks "Momofuku" does not mean Lucky Peach or refer to the name of some obscure ramen person from...