Monthly Archives: April 2016

Faro

If Stefon was going to do a segment on Spring’s hottest restaurants in NYC, the jokes would all be riffs on the names of obscure pasta shapes. Over the course of the last couple of months, it seems like all that has opened up, and all that hearts are palpitating over, are restaurants rooted in Italian cuisine with pasta-heavy menus. There have been at least four to five notable openings, almost all from chefs (such as well-knowns Mario Batali and David Chang) and restaurateurs who are experienced and successful.

But a pasta moment in New York? It’s unexpected only because it’s not overly exciting. That’s not to say not delicious, just not very challenging or unique given that if you want to do either with a new restaurant, New York is probably a place to do it. Well, maybe not, given that chefs are regularly leaving because of the high cost of living and doing business here. And in terms of innovation, LA seems more hungry to be the leader that way.

Because pasta is always loved and forever comforting, it could be speaking to New Yorkers’ need for the easy and the known. Donald Trump on the political scene is enough to scare anyone toward a pot of Kraft Dinner. The prospect of years without the L train. The blah-ness of De Blasio. The death of adopted son David Bowie. The restaurant gods maybe see that New York could be in need of some carb comfort? That is, pasta might be the surest bet for the bottom line?

Most of these new places are just much too much to get into at the moment, so a friend and I stayed on trend but went to a not-as-new Italian restaurant in Bushwick: Faro. Early reports after it opened last year were all favourable, but given how easy it already is to get decent pasta in this city, a longer train was a deterrent to visit earlier. Recently, Faro started doing a chef’s table pasting tasting, which definitely made it more attractive. If only because it would allow for getting a better sense of the kitchen and be more special.

The tasting includes five pasta courses, two appetizers, and dessert for $85. When we began, I was slightly worried about value and satiation, as the appetizers were portioned more like amuses. They functioned like them, too, in that a few bites were enough to get my appetite going, but more than that would have been overkill. All worries about leaving hungry dissipated once I saw that the pasta portions were roughly primi-sized, plenty of food when multiplied by five. That didn’t stop me from asking for bread, though. Especially when it was coming hot from the oven in front of us. I don’t think we were supposed to get any, but they did not charge us extra.

For a pasta tasting and for a restaurant that specializes in homemade pasta, I think that we received a decent variety. The texture of the fresh pasta in all cases was good: not too soft or doughy, a nice chew, demonstrated skill in the shaping. However, I feel that I was a little bit disappointed in the promised flavours. If I had closed my eyes throughout, I would have thought that they were all based on the same ingredients. The gnocchi dough didn’t have any ricotta tang, I didn’t taste any allium in the maharrones, and most disappointing, I did not taste the salty sea in the strozzapreti. But this does not mean I didn’t enjoy the tasting. I very much did. I just didn’t get caught up on what the pasta was supposed to taste like and focused on how well the sauce worked.

Although the sweet pea agnolotti was easy to love, I think my favourite was the gnocchi dish. Well-cooked morels can be such a treat, but I became enamoured with the grated, cured egg yolk . Salty, yes, but with real body, more than even grated cheese. But now I remember taking a forkfull of maharrones with guanciale and wonder if that was my favourite. The sheets of fazzoletti with sugo pushed you away from the expected pappardelle, and I liked that, even if it meant I didn’t get to twirl any pasta that night. And yes, the strozzapreti was the least successful not only for the lack of tasting any squid ink but also because the sauce didn’t come together. The skate was great, well seasoned and tender. But the pumpkin seed pangratto only really added crunch, and there was too much of it. With the lack of expected punch from the pasta, its overall taste was flat.

Dessert was excellent. The girl “who doesn’t like chocolate” and “doesn’t like cake” does have soft spots for cakes that are chocolate and those made with olive oil. The modest little log of a cake was dense, moist, and just rich enough. I could not have been more happier that it was served with both ice cream and whipped cream—in a spoon-friendly dish, hooray! And I’ll take a drizzle of olive oil over a drizzle of caramel or chocolate any day.

The tasting has one seating only on Friday and Saturday nights, and it can accommodate up to six people. I was surprised that we were the only two taking part that night, but I guess it’s still new. People go to Roberta’s with the expectation that a night might get spendy, but I don’t think Bushwick is generally equated with $85+ destination dinners. Our isolation in the tasting meant that we got to chat a bit more with the executive chef, as he served us each course. As we only were presented with a written menu of our tasting, we asked if our dishes were normally on the menu or unique to the tasting. He said that all of our dishes were on their new Spring menu, but that normally, the tasting menu is completely different, much more interesting and exciting.

That was one sentence too many. I would have been and truthfully am, completely fine with the fact that we sampled a nice range of the everyday menu. But to be told that other guests have received dishes that were more interesting—suggesting better—was not what I wanted to hear. Whether it was meant as an apology or an encouragement to come back, it didn’t work successfully as either. What it did work as was more of an explanation for the fact that we got a less interesting menu because we were the only two taking part that night. It likely would have been more expensive for the restaurant to get special ingredients for only two people instead of six. I get that, but it would have been better to be ignorant of our “lesser” menu. It did not taint my experience, it was just slightly unfortunate. I would do the tasting menu again not because I’d expect a more exciting menu, but because, overall, I had a good experience with the menu I received.

Local beets – Radish, pickled strawberry, lavender yogurt

Mackerel crudo – Caper, cornichon, Dijon

Sweet pea agnolotti – English peas, pea shoots, mint oil

Ricotta gnocchi – Ramps, morels, fava beans

Green garlic maharrones – Guanciale, broccoli, Calabrian chile

Squid ink strozzapreti – Olive oil poached skate wing, pumpkin seed pangratto

Fazzoletti – Spring lamb sugo, pecorino

Chocolate olive oil cake – Black pepper and butterscotch ice cream

Gabriel Kreuther

This year, I had my Newyorkiversary celebration at Gabriel Kreuther. With a space right across the street from Bryant Park, GK would be my return to “Midtown Fancy” for the anniversary. But what does fancy even mean anymore? You can easily wear sneakers to Momofuku Ko or Blanca but easily pay more than you would at many of the more stiffer, starched tablecloth places uptown. With online reservation systems, anyone can secure a table anywhere (except maybe not at The Polo Bar), or at least I like to think so. Thus, it’s open season for eating where you want if you have the cash, even if your annual income is less than that of your server. The lingering attachment to saying fancy—real talk synonyms: expensive, snobby, prohibitive—might be in the perception (cool versus conservative) with respect to any number of aspects: decor, clientele, or style of food. But this begs the question, whose perception? That person who lives in my head and hints that I might not be worthy of such places. As I said recently to a friend, I’d bet my life on the fact that my farm-raised grandmother, who has always lived on the wrong side of the tracks, would be more impressed by the apparent ease with which I enter a place like GK than the university degrees that enabled me to get to this place and point in my life. Fancy means something to her, and it will always be hard for me to let that go.

Yet despite its white tablecloths, its perches for purses, or the army that takes care of you, Gabriel Kreuther is a comfortable environment that serves excellent Alsace-influenced food (remember Alsace-Lorraine from European history lessons?). Insecurities push me into feeling like the 99%-er in a room full of magnates, but the warmth from a staff member or the effect of a few sips of bubbles can make those feelings quickly disappear. And when I looked around the dining room from my ideal banquette seat or eavesdropped on patrons close to me, I only stood out for being alone, not because I was a tumbleweed who rolled in from Dirt City. Feeling insecure about eating somewhere fancy is the same as feeling insecure about dining alone: Get over it. Enjoy your dinner. No one is paying you any mind.

But enough about my mental health. The food…

Blue cobia sashimi with salty fingers, uni, bonito gelee, green apple vinaigrette, and chive oil

The standard dinner menu is a three-course prix fixe plus dessert. The savory menu is divided into four sections, of which you choose one dish from three of them. I have no immediate plans to return or become a regular, so in the spirit of #yolo, I paid a supplement to have one dish from each section. Up first was this sashimi (well, second, as the pretty multi-part amuse bouche is found on my Instagram). The fish was sliced thick enough to let me appreciate the taste of the cobia, yet thin enough to pick up the vinaigrette, which I thought was nice and bright and not too acidic. The dollop of uni was a treat, and the gelee provided the salty touch.

Crispy sweetbreads roasted in duck fat, with honshimeji mushrooms, pancetta, and pasilla

For scale, the sweetbread is probably slightly smaller than a light bulb. I’ve never eaten one so large before. I was slightly nervous at first, as I learned to like sweetbreads because they reminded me a little of chicken nuggets. Interior tenderness is great, but I kind of avoid looking too closely at it. So, I was slightly (irrationally) worried that this interior might be, I don’t know, rare? More obviously like a gland? But there was nothing untoward about it. It was perfect. Cripsy/tender, sitting in a decadent rich gravy. Perhaps my favourite course.

One of the dishes that the chef, Gabriel Kreuther, brought to this restaurant from his previous position at The Modern was a caviar and sauerkraut tart that I could have chosen for this course instead. I have never been to The Modern, and I know it was was a much-loved dish. Some days I regret not trying it, and on others, I’m glad I stuck with having food that he’s making at this moment in this new endeavour.

Herb-crusted Hawaiian mero with melted young leeks, Bouchot mussels, and pimiento nage

I didn’t know what mero was, and I don’t remember what my server told me. I think she said it was a flaky, mild whitefish. But meatier than cod. The magic in this dish was that under that cap of herb crust sat some plump mussels. The presentation did not translate perfectly to eating as you end up with a detached crust, mussels, and fish instead of something more harmonious as you work your way through. It all tasted good both individually and when taken together, but I thought it the weakest savoury course I chose.

Niman Ranch pork tenderloin with morcilla crumble, pear, and grain mustard jus

A thick piece of juicy, pink pork complemented by some sweet and savoury elements. The morcilla could have been more assertive, but the kitchen may have made that choice so as not to push those who may be fearful of blood. The bottom layer of that rectangle on the right was some sort of thick pear puree, which worked really nicely with the pork.

As two critics mentioned the cutlery, I couldn’t help but pay extra attention to it. Long and lean, they made you extra aware of your technique. I loved using them, but I think only because I aim soley to employ Continental style for eating. I think if you preferred American style, you might find them awkward and cumbersome as you made your switches.

Savory kugelhoph with chive creme fraiche

To be clear, critical praise led me to GK, but what sealed the deal was reading that there were three bread services. The first was the most eye catching, but I think my least favourite. As it’s too much like a muffin or cake, the kugelhoph’s texture is not my favourite. And because like a cake or muffin, the dough would have some sort of fat, it was a bit greasy. The creme fraiche is then an inspired choice as a topping because of its lightness, but I much prefer a yeasty, drier crumb where I can control the added fat.

Baguette with cultured butter

Thus, I obviously loved the more classic second service.

Buckwheat rosemary roll with whipped lardo

But I really, really loved the last service. The roll was nutty and fragrant. The earthiness of the herb and grain went extremely well with the creamy, salty, and spiced pork fat. I want tubs of GK lardo to be made available in grocery stores soon.

 

Palate cleanser – I don’t remember what it was

Classic – Caramelized apples, vanilla ice cream, and caramel cremeux

I think I’ve said before that despite always wanting dessert, fancy desserts aren’t overly exciting to me. Give me a thick slice of pie over tuiles and quenelles. Thus, I chose the “classic” option that referenced a tarte tatin. It was good, not too sweet and well-portioned, but my ice cream particularities were obviously irked by the plating of ice cream on a plate. *BOWL*

Mignardises

 

Pure Thai Cookhouse

With the overwhelming number of good things to eat in this city, I find that I rarely become enraptured by a single dish because there is always something just as good or better for me to try. You know, kind of like how women will say that it’s hard to get men to commit in this city because the boys always have an eye out for someone better to come along? Pizza cravings aside, I’m ready to steady date the Ratchaburi noodles, also known as ba mee moo daeng, at Pure Thai Cookhouse in Hell’s Kitchen.

Ratchaburi crab and pork dry noodles – Handmade egg noodles, roasted pork, lump crab meat, yu choy, scallion. With fried egg and pork cracklins.

Steamed beef buns – Slow braised beef brisket, cucumbers, cilantro, sesame plum sauce (on the side)

Appetizer special of the night – Grilled squid

A belated catch-up on a Saturday night meant we did our best to avoid a quick 15-minute noodle feast, despite how the restaurant’s small space and wait for a table encourage such behavior. The appetizer section doesn’t offer any surprises. One out of two we ordered would be the beef buns, as my friend had never tried them. While I wasn’t expecting baos at a Thai restaurant, tender braised meat in a carb vessel are hardly disappointing. I appreciated that the sauce was on the side for my control, as many such buns can become a drag when oversauced.

Pure Thai runs a couple of daily appetizer, entrée, and dessert specials, and our second starter was the calamari special, simply grilled and served with a spicy fish sauce dip. My friend ordered the beef noodle soup entrée special, which had a particularly aromatic broth. My knee-jerk reaction is to compare our bowls to Vietnamese cuisine (bun, pho) because that is what I’m more familiar with, but obviously the smarter thing to do is acknowledge the cross-cultural connections and how cuisine can migrate and shift through immigration and influence. Sometimes I’m too hungry to be smart.


Noodle special of the night – Brisket and beef ball noodle soup