Archive for August, 2009

Parlor Steakhouse: Beating Expectations in a Neighborhood Known to Dash Them

August 25, 2009

Yorkville offers all the charm and culinary vibrancy of a suburban strip mall with none of the convenience.  Given the dearth of commendable comestibles, any new restaurant is good news:  Things can’t get worse.  That said, there are a few standouts in the area.  None merit a taxi ride for outsiders but several save residents from having to take one.  Parlor Steakhouse has definitely joined the latter club, alongside Spigolo, Café D’Alsace and Sushi of Gari.  Below are the five most notable subpar and superior items from their non-steak menu.  As far as fatty cow goes, Parlor is a full service flesh palace, but I’ll save that discussion for another review.

1. Nicely Twisted Tomato Salad:  Gorgeous grape tomatoes in beautiful color and flavor array topped goopy gorgonzola spread.  Good, bad and ugly all in one bite.   Big textured salt crystals and a fruity olive oil helped hold the blue cheese flavors at bay.

2. Bold and Beautiful Yellow Tomato Gazpacho: On an August night that needed it, this soup was liquid air conditioning.  Well balanced flavors—they nailed the tart, sweet—and nice to look at.  Even more refreshing than the salad.

3. Magically Moderate Mac and Cheese: Not as rich as Michael Jordan’s, but also not as likely to induce late night fat sweats.  Price and portion in total concord.

4. Scalding Swill:  This was a sad end to a swell swill.  Room temperature in August is no way for a Pinot to exit this world.  At first taste I thought they’d deglazed a pan with it, except then at least I would have gotten some butter and beefy flavors.

5. Carbonized Cookie Platter:  Reheated storeboughts were hot, dry and lousy.  If you’re going to make me pay pay to play for ersatz petits fours, make them good.   A sorry  end to an otherwise excellent meal.


Alinea Conquers Spain (Or at least Spain’s Top Food Critic)

August 12, 2009

After reading a recent editorial by the famed Spanish food critic Rafael García Santos on the twilight of the Spanish Culinary Vanguard, I decided to browse his restaurant guide, Lo mejor de la gastronomía, to see who still makes the cut.

Like most readers of lists, I sought out the parts most pertinent to me, namely the few and far between American selections.   Therein I found Thomas Keller—Per Se, not the French Laundry—was up pretty high, a step above Pierre Gagnaire in fact, with an 8.5 on a 10 point scale.  Wylie Dufresne’s WD~50 also had a solid finish finish at 8.0.

Most notable however was Grant Achatz’s Alinea at number 2, with a stunning 9.5. He was, in fact, but one spot behind Ferrán Adrià’s El Bulli.  The answer to the question of what Adrià will come up with next may come not from his devotees in Spain but those working abroad.

If some argue that Argentina is a European country located by a quirk of God in South America, then Achatz is making a convincing case that Chicago is a small Northern Spanish town located by a quirk of God in Illinois.

Blowout at Blue Smoke : A Restaurant Week Winner

August 10, 2009

Fancy restaurants don’t usually succeed on the restaurant week downgrade.  They grit their teeth and toss out salmon and chicken that we grit our teeth and eat.  Yes, the toilet paper and linens are the same at Jean George, the Modern and elsewhere during RW, but the food almost always looks and tastes like the catering version of the real thing.

So why ask upmarket to go down when it’s so much easier for downmarket to go up? Abundance and variety are easily added. Cheap subs for expensive ingredients, however, are hard to hide.

With that thought in mind, I headed to Blue Smoke for a delightful feast at a relatively low price point.  Barbecue is all about making the most of cheap meat, so I had no fear of rubber salmon or chicken.  My optimism was amply rewarded.

Yes, there were some duds amidst the delights, but I’ll definitely be back.  Below are five picks and pans from the meal.

1. Too tart yellow tomato gazpacho with pickled onions: Way too tart, vinegar heavy to point of pain.  Also, a bit one note in the flavor and color departments.  An herb or two on top and a slick of olive oil could have fixed the problem in an instant.   Gazpacho is a very easy dish to make look good and a pretty easy dish to make taste good.  This was neither.  Since the chef was out front interviewing prospective employees, I will have to lay the blame on the sous chef.

2. Succulent short ribs: The meat was beautifully cooked.  The ribs were tender, flavorful and kept enough textural contrast to keep each bite interesting.  It tasted like those “mountains of beef” ads make you think beef should taste, kind of like getting a cup of coffee that tastes the way it smells.  N.B.: Lose or replace the succotash type base of brown sauce, lima beans and corn.  It added little to the plate.

3. Superb shortcake with blackberry ice cream and whipped cream: The highlight of the meal.  Moist steaming center on the shortcake with snapcrackle crust.  Best I’ve had in years.  Super ripe fruit was unexpectedly intense in flavor.  A bit of lemon in the cream balanced the tastes beautifully.  I’ve been to Blue Smoke a dozen times, but this was the first visit when dessert was the best part.  Like Otto, Blue Smoke has finally added sweets worthy of its savories.

4. Delaminating lemonade: Housemade isn’t always a good thing.  As overtart as the yellow tomato gazpacho.  I can’t imagine this teeth tingler was made by the same pastry chef who put together the shortcake.  Next time I’ll get an IBC root beer and damage my dentition at a more deliberate pace.

5. Superlative service: Not many people were eating at 3:00 when I arrived and none were dining solo and boozeless.  Neither feature stopped my server from being as attentive, friendly and competent as she would have been to a sixtop slugging Barolo and house bourbon.

Closing thoughts: The deviled eggs are too good to resist ordering even when faced with a plentiful RW prix-fixe.   They aren’t that filling, and they are that good.  Next time, I’ll add a “supplement” to my tasting menu.  I’d do the same with the toasted ravioli, though only if I had the fish special instead of the short ribs.  Even gluttony has its limits!

Blue Hill: Conscientious Calvinist Cuisine

August 10, 2009

I’ve been coming to Blue Hill since it opened, and I have always admired the ambition if not always the results of Dan Barber’s continual searching and reinvention.  There was a citrus phase, which was delightful during the lemon period but not so much when grapefruit was predominant.   And there was a time when asparagus was a little too ubiquitous.  On my last few visits those distortions were gone.  Local and seasonal no longer meant lapses into monothematic and monochromatic menus.

That said, it’s been a while since I’ve checked in, so I thought it was time this summer, when I’m using neither the season nor the weekend as verbs, to head to the island flagship.  I was especially keen to do so after enjoying Barber’s vegetable dish at this year’s C-CAP benefit.   He put together a striped beet dish with a horseradish cream that was visually stunning and tasty, a platonic ideal of Borscht.   If he could do such things with vegetables in February, I could only imagine what he’d have of on offer in July when things were really in season.

Hoping to get the widest spectrum of tastes, I opted for the Farmer’s menu.  It was by no means a disappointment, but it was also by no means a delight.  An opening amuse of oil slicked snowpeas, tomatoes and carrots on a bed of nails was whimsical in a retro-Inquisition chic/Grant Achatz house made tableware sort of way, but it didn’t taste good enough to justify the presentation. This was an Alinea-style setup without any payoff.

A followup series of spreads with Olive Garden type breadsticks was the most generous and hearty dish of the night.  The pork fat was tasty, as was the ricotta and the house butter.   Unfortunately, it was a last ditch burst of flavor before blandness and boredom set in.

Lobster on a bed of tomatoes didn’t make the case for the combination, which is usually a no-brainer.  Neither had much flavor and neither benefited from the pairing.  A much talked about chicken course was best for its broth but lacked the succulence of Bouley’s sous vide version—which Barber should know well—or the simple heartiness of a dozen roast chickens on offer elsewhere in the City.   It didn’t take Curnonsky’s maxim of food tasting of itself far enough.  The result, like much of the meal, was a course that tasted like high grade spa food.

No red meat followed the chicken—lamb, ostrich or beef could have done wonders for giving some weight to the end of the savory progression.  Rather, we went straight into what were somewhat deceptively labelled “desserts.”

A strawberry canneloni—more like a fruit rollup—continued the diet feel as did another unmemorable entry.   Here again, a single addition could have solved the problem.  A chocolate or caramel based dessert could have brought much needed closure to the meal and left me with a sense of the kitchen’s generosity.   Instead I felt a subtle nudge either to go take a jog or to go eat a few slices of lardo pizza over at Otto.

Additional thoughts: Food service was warm, intuitive, knowledgeable and flexible. Wine selections, especially a Loire sparkler and a semi-oxidized Alabariño were interesting, appetizing and well-priced.  Wine service was also well thought out with one exception: one person at our table stopped drinking after a certain course but was still charged the full pairing price, something I’ve never seen happen before.

Conclusions:  Avoid the tasting menu and enjoy excellent food.  Tasting menus have become tourist traps at far too many upscale restaurants.  People think they’re getting a greatest hits but end up with safe selections meant to offend no one—kind of like cruise ship fare—and excite almost no one.  The best, riskiest and most interesting selections were all on the a la carte menu, and that’s where I should have made my choices.

Sticking to my intuitions rather than handing over the reins to the chef, I could have pieced together a meal worthy of my memories of Blue Hill past.  Barber is a  man who cooks his own food and writes his own articles, which makes him 1) a rarity and 2) an artist and advocate worth supporting.  Next time I hope to get a better taste of his talent.

Jim Lahey’s Co.: A Wallet Whapper Worth a Walk But Not A Taxi

August 10, 2009

Jim Lahey has a great publicist.  What he doesn’t have is a great pizza.  His cheese and tomato sauce are pleasant enough on his margherita pizza—a good margherita is the litmus test for a good pizzeria like a good vanilla ice cream is for a gelateria—but pleasant doesn’t cut it at this price point or at this level of customer expectations.  Further, cheese and sauce are more about good shopping than cooking.

The real mark of mastery and the real story here is supposed to be the crust.  Not a surprise when the owner made his name baking bread at Sullivan Street Bakery.  Lahey’s turns out to be fine but nothing to start a blog war over.  On a pair of recent visits, the crust on my pizzas was inoffensive but also uninteresting.  There was not enough textural variety or taste intensity to make me want to continue past a second hunger-sating slace.  In short, nothing close to the New Haven coal oven canon of Frank Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern where pot bellied pie heads order extra rounds of pizza like beerbellied barflies order extra rounds of drinks.

A few pros: Décor is a step up on the ratty old pie houses of Wooster Square and its environs.  Beer and wine by the glass are well selected and not quite punitively priced.  Finally, service at Co. is warm and competent.  The staff skews young and male and sort of looks like a  Midwestern JV football team.  Not quite Danny Meyer land but also a far cry from the surliness of Sally’s.

Conclusions: No reason why this shouldn’t be a local favorite.  No reason why it should be a citywide phenomenon. I’m not saying they need a gimmick like Beau Jo’s Colorado style supercrust for after meal honey dipping—though I’d love to see one here—but something needs to be added to the mix to make Co. a magnet for Metro Area pizza pilgrims.   Next time you want to head on a pie pilgrimage, save your money for Metro North tickets and head north.