new york in winter part five

from here we strolled back down along the eastern edge of the park. it was almost time for dinner in midtown. our final destination was l'atelier de joel robuchon in the four seasons hotel. this is one of a small string of these restaurants across the globe, designed to offer a less formal setting in which to partake in this legendary chef's craft. centered around a pearwood counter seating twenty guests at high stools overlooking the kitchen, it is a beautiful room across from the bar of the hotel. after a slight misstep on the part of the hostess, we were shown to our seats at the counter and greeted warmly by our waiter.

the visible kitchen is mostly for show and is decorated with stunning arrangements of fruits and vegetables in glass vases and bowls. it is done up in black lacquer with red accents, everything polished to a high gloss. the blond wood of the counter is set with black rubber placemats, red water glasses, signature chargers and futuristic silverware.

we decided that a series of small plates was the way to go, rather than traditional appetizers and entrees. we wanted to be able to taste as many different things as possible--plus the fact that we had already had a good-sized lunch. our amuse-bouche was once again a verrine, this time layered with foie gras and port gelee. the bread basket proffered wheat rolls, black olive focaccia and the most perfect miniature baguettes imaginable.

the first plate was a tower of roasted slices of zucchini, japanese eggplant and tomato, layered with buffalo milk mozzarella. this was dressed with a summery little basil sauce. nothing spectacular here (i.e. no luxury ingredients), but the elements were all perfectly cooked and seasoned and clearly assembled with great care. next we were presented with a gold leafed charger onto which had been lain a geometric oblong of smoked foie gras and lightly caramelized eel. atop this had been showered shavings of black truffle, while the plate was decorated with precise lines of finely ground pepper and and dollops of cream.

we had both wanted to taste the langoustine, but had only ordered one serving, figuring we would just split it. the kitchen generously sent a second plate of it, much to our surprise. i tasted mine first, biting through the incredibly thin shell and the basil leaf beneath it, into the sweetness of the shellfish's flesh. it was simply astounding! i resisted the temptation to slap drew and cry out, "this is the best thing i have ever eaten!" i just sighed and stopped to savor the experience instead. moments later, i was smacked out of my reverie by drew, having the exact same reaction. this dish was truly transporting....unlike anything i have ever eaten in my forty-some years. the only garnish was a dab of intensely colored basil puree, and even that seemed superfluous.

what followed was a plate of classic vitello tonnato. the paperthin slices of veal were rosy pink and fork tender, napped with a luxurious, creamy tuna sauce and sprinkled with a few pearls of capers. the rim of the plate held a lightly dressed half of a baby romaine heart, which offered the textural contrast needed to make this plate of richness not seem overwhelming. we also tasted an onion tart, the base of which was the just the barest whisper of crisp puff pastry. topped with meltingly sweet onions, tomatoes and some fresh field greens, it also benefited from a dusting of black truffle shavings.

the plates cleared away, the silverware removed and our placemats wiped down, we were ready to think about dessert. we started with a complimentary pre-dessert of grapefruit gelee, a fresh raspberry and lychee syrup. then we were given another complimentary plate with a nage of fresh fruits, all cut into the tiniest, most perfect dice imaginable and plated with lemongrass broth and a scoop of basil lime sorbet.

next came the desserts we had actually ordered...bracingly sour pink grapefruit supremes, garnished mint sorbet, two different creams, lemon foam, cubes of elderflower gelee and a shard of frosted sugar-glass inlaid with sliced almonds. it was absolutely stunning to look at and even more rewarding to taste. the other dessert was a warm souffle of yuzu plated with a quenelle of raspberry sorbet. as in the case of the the vegetables and the langoustine, there was nothing inherently special about this dish. it was in the execution and presentation that we glimpsed perfection.

we lingered with the last drops of wine (an outstanding 2001 chateauneuf du pape) and our cups of coffee, which were presented along with a caramel and seasalt filled chocolate. the sadness at being at the end of this meal (and the end of my visit) was mitigated by the knowledge that this one would rise into the pantheon of some of my best meals.

new york in winter part four

fast forward to the next morning (mostly because after all that wine, i barely remember hailing a cab) and our lunch at jean-georges in the trump international hotel. set on the ground floor of the building, in a high, bright space with tall windows, the room is an oasis of calm in the frantic setting of columbus circle. the lunch menu is set up in an unusual format: the dishes are all in one long list (apps, soups, salads, fish and meat) and diners choose any two dishes from that list for a fixed price. additional plates may be ordered at a nominal extra cost. desserts are on a separate menu. we chose to stick to just a simple, three course lunch with a half-bottle of wine.

our amuse-bouche was actually a trio here. a soup spoon holding a softly poached quail egg with shaved asparagus; caramelized grapefruit with shaved pecorino; and a tiny verrine of bacon broth with a slice of radish. these tastes seemed to speak strongly of winter, while offering a hopeful hint of spring. the breads were absolutely outstanding as well, and included sourdough rolls and thick slices of country rye. the butter was served under a tiny silver bell, with a separate little mound of sea salt to be added at our discretion.

our starters included a luxurious butternut squash soup, gently poured tableside into a beautiful square bowl whose interior had been arranged with a landscape of diced roasted squash, black trumpet mushrooms and delicate green sprouts. the other choice was a dark green salad of roasted brussel sprouts, avocado and pistachios in a mustard vinaigrette, garnished with a few perfect leaves of arugula.

next came our entrees, beginning with a boned, lightly smoked quail garnished with asian apple pear and candied tamarind. the other dish was a pair of sweetbread "lollipops," where the meat had been lightly floured and sauteed, and then speared with a "handle" of licorice root. this was served alongside a smear of meyer lemon puree and a meltingly tender grilled pear half.

we asked for a visit from the cheese board to finish the savory part of our experience. from the two dozen or so options, we chose a stunningly ripe and rich epoisses; a fragrant, unctuous delice de bourgogne; and a hard sheep's milk cheese from spain with a drier texture, whose name was one of those unpronounceable combinations of too many consonants and not enough vowels that trips up even the most well-versed polyglot. these three cheeses were served lightly toasted walnut raisin bread, pecan halves and a dried fruit jam.

now we were ready for something sweet. the desserts were all two-part affairs...we chose the citrus and chocolate versions. the first was a bowl with grapefruit supremes, candied tangerine peel, shredded jicama "noodles" and a citrus broth, over which was spooned a drift of limoncello granita; flanked by a miniature chocolate poppyseed cake with a spoonful of meyer lemon curd and a dusting of halvah powder. the chocolate plate featured the chef's molten-centered chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream, paired with a teeny-tiny panini made from chocolate brioche slices, taleggio cheese, a bit of black olive and a drizzle of gianduja. while the first part of this pairing has become a cliche, it was rewarding to eat the original version that has spawned so many, many, many imitations. the chocolate sandwich that accompanied it was a revelation...one that i hope goes on to become as ubiquitous as its partner.

we were then offered coffee and the most adorable plate of mignardises, including peanut butter and jelly chocolates and wee little macaroons, which we had packed up to go. we were also offered homemade marshmallows, cut dramatically from a glass serving jar at the table.

we left the restaurant and walked up through central park, nothing the many thousands of daffodils poking through the dead leaf cover from last autumn. ultimately, we made our way to the metropolitan museum of art. with no real purpose in mind, we spent time in the newly re-opened greek and roman sculpture gallery first. the sheer number of works is astonishing, especially when you consider how old all of these objects really are. we sailed through the impressionists and the modern rooms, ending our brief visit back in the main lobby, which is an amazing space all on its own.

new york in winter part three

our next reservation was deep in the lower east side. we found ourselves at the restaurant with loads of time to spare. walking back west a bit, we stumbled across the newly opened hot spot allen and delancey. we shook off the rain and settled into the bar for a cocktail. drew had his usual knob creek and i was introduced to my new friend, christiana vodka. distilled in norway from trondelag (!) potatoes, it was as smooth as silk. fortified with a bit of liquid courage, we dodged the raindrops and headed out to dinner.

wd-50 was our destination. this is one of the temples of the new "molecular gastronomy," most reverently practiced in spain at el bulli, a spot currently considered to be the best restaurant in the world (if such a designation is possible). the chef/owner here is one wylie dufresne, who along with pastry chef alex stupak, is turning out unusual, quirky, perhaps even whimsical dishes that often barely resemble the ingredients from whence they came. you'll understand as we progress here.

we settled on the 12 course tasting menu along with the wine pairings. we were presented with a basket of paper-thin sesame "bread" to start. after several handfuls of that, we had it removed so as not to fill up on it. the first plate was thin slices of horse mackerel, served raw with mole lentils, cacao nibs and lightly cooked leeks. this was paired with a gruener veltliner sekt brut with a bit of sparkle to it. all in all, not too unusual of a start.

next came a plate of pizza pebbles with pepperoni emulsion and shiitake mushroom chips. this was where we started to worry. while the flavors were interesting enough, and the visual was certainly appropriately confusing (pebbles? they looked like kix cereal), the texture was not great, in that the pizza lodged itself into our molars with the force of cement. drew and i looked at each other warily, knocked back another slug of sekt and hoped for the best.

the next course seemed to see the ship righted again. entitled "knot foie," it was foie gras which has been combined with hydrocolloids (look it up) so as to become a tender ribbon with enough tensile strength to be tied into a loose knot. this was then garnished with kimchee puree, raisin emulsion and crisped rice. visually arresting, it was also downright delicious. this was paired with a ginjo sake from japan's nagano prefecture... it offered the sweetness of the traditional accompaniment of a sauternes.

what followed was a tartare of hamachi, plated with edamame, asian apple-pear, tahini with sake lees and a vibrant grapefruit and shallot marmalade. the fish had been briefly seared before being sliced thin. the wine here was a viognier from oregon, again positing sweetness against the richness of the fish.

the following plate was one of the best of the night. entitled eggs benedict, the presentation looked nothing like you would expect from that moniker. the egg was only the yolk, poached in a plastic tube and deposited on the plate as a "log." speared with a crispy, ultra-thin chip of canadian bacon and served alongside english-muffin-dusted cubes of deed-fried, molten hollandaise, this dish was a resounding success.

a pair of seafood dishes were to follow, begining with a warm crab tail coated with sesame seeds and served with soybean noodles and cinnamon scented dashi. with this was proffered another white wine, a cantinamatta from italy. the acidity in this one really worked well with the richness of the crab.

next came a bowl with cubes of cuttlefish, butternut squash, chamomile and orange, with a brushstroke of toast oil on the inside of the bowl. there was nothing wrong with this dish, but it didn't resonate in the way that some others did that night.

for our final savory course, we were presented with a red wine...a 2005 rhone from france. this was a big, earthy wine that was perfect with our meat dish. thin slices of lamb belly, cooked to a divine crispy/chewy stage, could best be described as lambacon. plated with crispy chickpeas, black hummus and "cherried" cucumber noodles, this dish was another knockout.

well we were really in our cups by this time. we had a cocktail in us, along with 5 small glasses of wine, none of which i had actually finished. this meant a table crowded with glasses and plates. somewhere in the background we heard a cheer go up. shortly thereafter yet ANOTHER glass was placed in front of us. it turns out that as we had been dining, the restaurant received a new review from the new york times, taking it from two stars to three! free sekt all around the house!!!

there was no stopping us now. the pre-dessert was a tube of wintergreen parfait, plated with walnuts, chartreuse gelee, avocado cream and a curlicued walnut tuile. although i am not a fan of wintergreen, this dish really worked for me. there was no wine paired with this, but the extra glass of sekt seemed to go perfectly.

the next dessert was a killer combination of a toasted coconut cake, carob emulsion, smoked cashews and a super browned butter sorbet. this was an amazing plate that i could have easily doubled up on. this was paired with a silky sweet late harvest riesling from new zealand.

then came a ribbon of soft white chocolate on a plate with toasted malt and white beer ice cream. creamy, smooth, unctuous and downright sinful. and served with yet another wine! forgive me please for not having any recollection of that vintage! lastly we were offered coffee and a small plate of petit-fours....chicory ice cream coffee (sort of like a frozen truffle) and a "bag" made from sugar, filled with crunchy chocolate bits.

this meal was certainly one of the most unusual i have ever had. (you can see some other people's pics of the food here.) the service, while less formal than any of the other meals we ate, was topnotch in a friendly, american style that completely won us over. add to that the excitement of the third star and we had a recipe for an outstanding evening. i walked out to the kitchen after we were done to congratulate the chef. he commented to me that coming from cleveland was a long way to travel for dinner. i reminded him that the trip to three stars was a long road as well.

new york in winter part two

we were up late the next morning, so i dashed out for coffee and some breakfast pastries in the neighborhood. after our usual morning gabfest, we got cleaned up and headed down for a walk around midtown. we took a look at the recently opened new york times building. there is a fascinating installation in the lobby, entitled "moveable type." i could not stop looking at it as it cycled through several incarnations: numbers, words, sentences, maps, etc. it all became strikingly personal when a sentence from frank bruni's review of dovetail popped up on the screen directly in front of the two of us: Did Mr. Fraser need both of those sidekicks for the venison? not only was this about a restaurant we had just visited, but about one of the dishes we had eaten.

at noon, we stopped in to le bernardin for lunch. we had such a great experience at lunch here a couple of years ago that we decided to try it again. after being greeted and seated next to some enormous flower arrangements (the glass vases of which were filled not only with water, but yards and yards of crinkled cellophane!), we finally were able to choose our food. a visit from the sommelier led us to an austrian wine--a gruener veltliner. this varietal is popping up on menus everywhere and it was an excellent accompaniment to our meal.

first to arrive at the table was the restaurant's signature salmon spread with lightly toasted, paper-thin slices of baguette. it is rich and smooth and slightly smoky and is always something to look forward to. Our first courses came shortly thereafter. drew's appetizer was a composed salad of thin sliced salmon carpaccio with a jalapeno emulsion and watercress sprouts, presented with toasted pain de siegle. mine was a warm "crabcake" of peekytoe lump crabmeat topped with shaved cauliflower and ringed by a dijon and creme fraiche sauce. these were both absolutely luscious!

next came the entrees...a delicate piece of codfish, sauteed and served atop a bed of curry lentils, finished with a tandoori broth and a spoonful of yogurt. there was also a perfectly cooked chunk of pan-roasted red snapper, set atop a complex tomato chutney and garnished with miniature pappadums. despite the french name and tone of this establishment, chef eric ripert is clearly embracing more international influences. both of these dishes really sang with flavor.

unable to choose just two desserts, we narrowed it down to three. a thin slice of star anise poached pineapple, topped with a warm almond financier and pineapple buttermilk sorbet; miniature panna cottas, served with a brunoise of tropical fruits; and a vibrantly colored, delicately flavored blood orange sorbet, accompanied by two petits galettes brettonnes. afterwards came our coffee service and a napkin-lined basket of tiny almond madeleines and pistachio financiers. as we got up to leave, it began to rain so we hopped in a cab and headed down to chelsea.

we spent some time at the fashion institute of technology, viewing their show of gowns by the fabled madame gres of paris. it featured more than seventy of the legendary designer's pieces, many of them loaned or donated by some of her most famous clients. they were, and are, just breathtaking.

in keeping with our theme of beauty, we headed across town to the morgan library and museum. housed in j.p. morgan's (formerly) private library on madison avenue, we looked into a pair of shows there that could not have been more different. the first was a collection of renaissance drawings from michelangelo and his contemporaries, on loan from the uffizi in florence. across the hall we viewed a collection of photographs by irving penn. taken over the course of sixty-plus years, they were all of artists and writers and all in black & white. both groupings spoke to us in different ways, but both were simply exquisite.

from here we headed to the east village to check out my old neighborhood. we checked out my old street (barely recognizable!) and the places we used to go to drink, eat and dance. almost all of it is changed over to something else now. without looking at the street signs, i would have been completely lost. we accomplished a bit of shopping, stopped in for a coffee and a piece of cake and then wandered some more.

new york in winter part one

scheduled on a regional aircraft out of hopkins, i knew before i left for the airport that the plane was less than half full. but i dutifully arrived the full two hours early, checking in and confirming that my flight was on time. once i got through security, i scoped out the gate, only to see that my flight had been delayed by an hour. when i asked, they told me the flight might be cancelled, but if i were willing to run i could catch an earlier flight...AT THE OTHER END OF THE AIRPORT! despite being dressed in my best suit, i dashed through the terminals and made it with seconds to spare.

drew and i stopped first for a glass of wine at cavatappo wine bar, around the corner from his house. then it was off to our first meal, at dovetail on the upper west side. a quick cab ride through central park brought us to the discreet doorway of this relatively new restaurant, created by chef/owner john fraser. after stints at the french laundry in napa valley and at taillevent in paris, he figured it was time to strike out on his own. it was on my radar because despite being open only since december, it had received 3 stars from the new york times last month.

our coats were whisked away and we were seated in a simple, spare room with wooden-topped tables and exposed brick walls. we decided on our food, chose a bottle of wine and we were off! our amuse-bouche that night was in two parts: a chinese soup spoon piled with vodka gelee, caviar and fried capers; alongside it lay a cube of raw tuna rolled in shredded parmigiano-reggiano. this was presented along with the house bread...an insanely delicious warm cheddar cornbread.

our first courses included a deconstructed muffaletta sandwich, (see it here) featuring a slice from a pressed roll of salami, ham and cheese; fried lamb's tongues, caper mayonnaise and slivers of olives and peppers. our next choice was a salad of brussel sprout leaves, serrano ham, pears, manchego and a truffle-laced cauliflower cream, garnished with sunflower seeds. these were both new to us, so they proved to be interesting. we also enjoyed a salad of winter lettuces, starring frisee and raddicchio de treviso, sprinkled with sultanas, hazelnuts and cubes of roasted butternut squash. the hazelnut oil in the sharp vinaigrette brought a bit of warmth the the plate.

our entrees were more familiar, although both of them offered new twists on old favorites. drew chose a loin of venison (yes, i do mean BAMBI) served with sauteed cabbage, chestnuts and a sweet potato puree topped with rosemary marshmallows. my choice was beef two ways: a cut of sirloin, remarkable mostly for being unremarkable, garnished with king trumpet mushrooms and pearl onions and served alongside a small square of housemade pasta layered with meltingly tender shreds of beef cheeks. this "lasagne" was intensely rich and made me long for a larger serving of it as an entree...i could have skipped the steak.

we ordered dessert and coffee, the latter of which, sadly, came first. this was a disappointment and an error in the service, we felt. the desserts were a mixed bag. drew's choice was a peanut butter and chocolate concoction (resembling a kitkat bar) served with frozen milk ( a lean ice cream) and raspberry coulis. it seemed rather pedestrian, especially opposite my choice of a brioche bread pudding topped with bruleed banana and served with buttermilk sorbet and bacon brittle. you read that right...BACON brittle. this really put this dish over the top!

with our check we were given a pair of rather forlorn looking pate de fruits in an odd flavor combination: sour cherry and beet. although we had a gracious server, he was not as familiar with the menu as we would have hoped. all in all, it was a pleasant experience, but we left wondering how they had earned three stars so quickly while other restaurants that had been open for years still struggled to get just two.
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