Birthday Humble Tart: Dinner at Narcissa

The entrance to Narcissa, tucked back behind the hotel's more casual restaurant.

The entrance to Narcissa, tucked back behind the hotel’s more casual restaurant.

 

I’ll hit a month at my new job this week, and one of the biggest lessons so far has been how little I actually know about food. I suppose it’s all relative (aren’t most things in life?), since I probably know far more about the ins and outs of animation than my new coworkers. But here I am, very much an amateur enthusiast, surrounded by people who have worked in kitchens and front of the house, who can list grape varietals like the names of their nieces and nephews, and could discern a julienne from a brunoise simply by touch. It can be a little intimidating at times, but I generally try to operate with an awareness of my own ignorance. I’d rather be surprised and delighted by something new, rather than rely on incomplete information to make decisions that may prevent discovery.

 

This all came to mind when thinking back on my recent birthday dinner at Narcissa, a popular farm-to-table restaurant in the Standard East Hotel. When I mentioned to my brother where I would be dining, he said “oh, I guess California cuisine is your favorite, then?” I hemmed and hawed (I hate picking favorites), trying to qualify what appealed to me about Narcissa’s menu (the emphasis on vegetables, the seasonal quality, the unconventional flavor combinations), claiming that it was somehow totally different from the delightful birthday dinner I had at Barbuto last year. But what I really should have said was “maybe.” The truth is I didn’t know the definition of California cuisine (here’s what Wikipedia has to say), and even with a bit of Googling I wouldn’t put all my favorite eggs in that particular basket.

 

Eh, enough dithering about known unknowns (ain’t that a timely idiom?). Regardless of categorization, I had another fabulous birthday dinner with my parents. Narcissa is certainly a buzzed-about restaurant in NYC right now, and it was lovely to have it live up to, and then exceed the hype.

 

First Impressions:

 

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A view into the open kitchen at Narcissa.

As I mentioned above, Narcissa is located in the Standard East Hotel, which reopened last year after extensive renovations. The entrance to Narcissa is tucked back behind the more casual restaurant, Cafe Standard, which has sidewalk seating. Narcissa has outdoor seating as well, but it’s made up of a small patio behind the dining room, creating a little oasis from the bustle of the city. I imagine it’d be lovely to sit out there in the sunshine (especially now that the restaurant is serving brunch).

 

The unexpectedly angular dining room at Narcissa.

The unexpectedly angular dining room at Narcissa.

Once you make your way past Cafe Standard, you’re greeted with a doorway surrounded by greenery and topped with a placard that reads Narcissa on a background of rolling farmland. The restaurant sources many of its ingredients from the farm Locusts on Hudson, where the eponymous cow Narcissa lives. Step inside and you’ll find a large open kitchen immediately to your left, maybe half of the size of the whole dining room. I beat both of my parents to the restaurant, and enjoyed watching the cooking and prep in action. To the right is the bar and dining room, decked out in soft white, golds, light woods, and blue-and-yellow striped banquettes. There seemed to be a prevalence of diagonals, from the square space of the room distorted by acutely angled windows, to our table which was not round, but actually octagonal. This lends a modern air to the casual elegance of the decor, which otherwise is kind of rustic chic — wooden/wicker chairs, no tablecloths. The bar area is sizable in itself, taking up about a third of the dining room space, staffed by at least two bartenders at a time to handle the orders of the dozen seats at the bar, collection of tables nearby, and the customers in the dining room.

 

The staff was friendly and charming from the get-go, offering plenty of advice on cocktails, and ever ready with refilling our (perplexingly tiny) water glasses or fetching us more bread. Throughout the meal our waiter explained each dish to us, even identifying components when we were confused, and even snuck us a few extra treats by the end. My mom was intrigued by the Buttermilk Ice Cream included in the Summer Sundae, but we passed on ordering it, so our waiter brought a tiny sample of it with dessert, alongside the Sundae’s pineapple sorbet. This, combined with the speedy, yet never pushy, service (we were out of there within 2 hours), helped to set a festive and exploratory mood. Plus, I always get a little bit of a kick out of dining at places where they refold your napkin for you — it’s the type of silly decadence that makes eating out an “experience.”

 

 

The Food:
After doing my requisite research and soliciting suggestions from a coworker, I came to my dinner at Narcissa armed with a post-it note crammed with dishes. The bad news is that, as a restaurant focused on seasonal ingredients, many of those items hadn’t made the transition from the Winter to the Summer menu. The good news is the ones that really mattered did, and with a little deliberation and negotiation, my parents and I settled on a repast covering a whole host of both highlighted dishes and unknowns. We decided to start with the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets, the Crab Salad, and the Potato Gnocchi, then I ordered the Lacquered Duck Breast, my mother got the Maine Scallops, and my father chose the Steamed Black Bass, along with a side of Supergreen Spinach for us all to share. Dessert (aside from our ice cream/sorbet sampler) was the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart and the Apricot Tart Tatin.

 

Complimentary bread served as a boule already sliced into quarters. Fresh butter that is barely needed on the fresh herbed sourdough.

Complimentary bread served as a boule already sliced into quarters. Fresh butter that is barely needed on the fresh herbed sourdough.

Our dinner began with a small boule of complimentary herbed sourdough bread, sprinkled with rosemary and served with a side of soft butter. The bread was crusty and crackly on the outside, with a whole wheat interior that was airy and chewy. I was more than happy to eat a piece on its own, though I have no complaints about the creamy fresh butter accompanying it. The bread was also exactly the right type of solid dough to sop up the remaining sauce from the gnocchi after we’d torn through the appetizer’s contents.

 

 

Potato Gnocchi -- delicate bundles of starch just begging to be popped one by one.

Potato Gnocchi — delicate bundles of starch tucked underneath shaved parmesan.

Speaking of, the Potato Gnocchi (fava beans, ramps, parmesan) was a solid, straightforward dish, perfectly fine but paling in comparison with our other hors d’oeuvre. The individual pieces of pasta were excellent — delicate little pillows of potato that managed to be chewy without being gummy — and I felt these were the best component. The rest of the pieces were certainly fresh, with the whole fava beans adding a summery brightness, but the broth and the cheese proved a bit too salty for me, and brought down the overall impact of the combination.

 

 

The Crab Salad -- a case for the value of hearts of palm.

The Crab Salad — a case for the value of hearts of palm.

If I hadn’t been told to try the Crab Salad (blood orange, hearts of palm, hazelnuts), I probably would have made the mistake of passing it by on the menu, simply because up until this point in my life, I’ve never met a heart of palm I liked. Now thanks to Narcissa, I think I might give them another go. This is a salad in the sense of chicken or tuna salad — hunks of shredded dungeness crab meat stuffed into a petite pot with an overhanging lip, mixed with sliced hearts of palm, pieces of chopped blood orange and hazelnuts, and plenty of sliced basil and parsley on top. The crunch of the nuts and the hearts of palm paired well with the softer textures of the crab and blood orange, and the addition of citrus acidity is always great with seafood. This dish was not a flavor bomb by any means, more about the combination of the ingredients than a hearty slap of crabmeat. My mother was underwhelmed by it, but I thought it was a light dish with a combination of acid, herbs and briny seafood flavors to wake up my palate before the heavier entrees.

 

 

Forget Boston Market's chicken, Narcissa's Rotisserie Beets prove rotated roasting is hardcore delicious.

Forget Boston Market’s chicken, Narcissa‘s Rotisserie Beets prove rotated roasting is hardcore delicious.

Although I enjoyed the Crab Salad, the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets (bulgur salad, apples, creamed horseradish) were one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. This is one of the dishes that has gotten a tremendous amount of buzz, so I went in with fairly high expectations, only to have them blown to bits by the real McCoy. Now I should be up front and offer a disclaimer: because I’m an old lady at heart, I’m really into beets. Like eggplant level of love for them. So if you’re not a beet fan, you might not have the revelatory experience that I did, but I would be shocked if you still didn’t enjoy the crap out of this appetizer. As the name implies, this dish shows off the rotisserie oven that Narcissa is known for, with the beets roasted to a blackened crisp on the outside. From the photo you might think they’re crusted with something, but it’s actually just the charred exterior, creating a crunchy shell that holds a supple, deep violet beet flesh inside. Not surprisingly, the flesh is super-giving, your fork gliding through it. The bulger, apples and herbs add some bulk to the dish, all of which is served on a pool of creamed horseradish sauce. Once again, I found myself face-to-face with an ingredient I largely avoid. Horseradish means one thing to me — maror (bitter herbs) at Passover, where it’s sandwiched between two pieces of matzoh in an obligatory ritual I’d otherwise opt out of. But here the bite of the horseradish was softened by the cream, retaining enough power to counter the sweetness of the caramelized beets and raw apples chunks. Overall, it was a great showcase of the skill of the kitchen — taking something as mundane as beets and elevating it through basic techniques. This is actually a perfect example of what I love about the recent turn towards giving vegetables their due — maybe it’s because I’m becoming a lame-o adult who actually loves eating well-prepared veggies, but I think people in general would change their minds about brussels sprouts or beets if given the opportunity to have dishes like this one (or simply being exposed to better cooking options than just the pile of steamed vegetables sitting on your plate at Outback).

 

 

The Maine Scallops with somewhat muted lobster butter.

The Maine Scallops with somewhat muted lobster butter.

There was only a little bit of downtime before our entrees arrived. I had been tempted by both of my parents’ choices, since the dish I had eyed from all the reviews, the lamb loin, had not made it onto the summer menu. So once I had that out of the way, I zeroed-in on the Maine Scallops (asparagus, green garlic, potato puree, lobster butter), but that was my mother’s top pick, so I went with my other menu kryptonite, the duck breast. Her dish came with four sizable scallops, seared to an exquisite golden-brown on top, but still a pale off-white on the sides and interior. They were melt-in-your-mouth smooth, not really seasoned beyond basic salt and pepper. The lobster butter, which my mother had been especially excited about, seemed to be located in the sauce underneath, and had a surprisingly subtle flavor. I had expected it to be more like a bisque with a real lobster tang to it, but I can understand the restraint given the delicacy of scallops — you don’t want a taste as recognizable as lobster to overpower the main component of a dish. This entree seemed to be the most classically executed and plated dish, so the vegetables were straightforward but well-cooked, with shaved slivers of asparagus and a silky potato puree, and greens that the menu lists as green garlic, but I thought looked like fiddlehead ferns. Then again, what do I know, I’ve never actually tasted fiddleheads, so I couldn’t discern a difference based on flavor.

 

 

Our side of Supergreen Spinach, which cannot be accused of false marketing.

Our side of Supergreen Spinach, which cannot be accused of false marketing.

We also shared a side order of the Supergreen Spinach (potato chips). You can’t see it in this picture, but the dish totally lives up to its name — we’re talking Incredible Hulk bright green. The potato chip topping was a cute play on the common steakhouse sides, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I think it wasn’t particularly memorable outside of its gamma-irradiated hue. Just solid creamed spinach, and nowhere near as innovative a use of potato chips as the incorporation into the Cod Brandade at Picholine.

 

 

The Steamed Black Bass -- so good it inspire musical theater references.

The Steamed Black Bass — so good it inspires musical theater references.

My father’s Steamed Black Bass (french curry broth, eggplant, toasted almonds) also looked great to me because of the accompanying items (as I believe Julie Andrews sang, curry, eggplant and almonds are a few of my favorite things). I thought the plating of the dish was just gorgeous, with the fillets sitting firmly atop the little hill of vegetables, just slightly bowing to show how soft the flesh was. You don’t think of steaming as a particularly exciting cooking method, but here it prevented the skin from becoming too soggy while the fish meat was easy to flake away with your fork. Unlike the scallops, I thought the sauce defined the taste of the dish. The curry had a strong flavor without real heat to it, and the fish and eggplant pieces soaked it up easily. The toasted almonds mirrored the nuttiness of the curry, and gave a nice crunch to an otherwise pretty soft dish. I think I would have been plenty satisfied if I had ordered this dish, but having now tasted the duck, I’m going to struggle to try other entrees if I return to Narcissa.

 

 

The Lacquered Duck, a dish now in my lifetime hall of fame.

The Lacquered Duck, a dish now in my lifetime hall of fame.

The Lacquered Duck Breast (parsley root, melted leeks, rhubarb) was hands-down my favorite dish of the night, and no joke, I’ve been actually thought about this dish several times in the weeks since my birthday dinner. I adore duck, and this might truly be the best duck I’ve ever eaten. First things first, it was a massive duck breast — this duck had Double D’s, and was clearly very well fed. The “lacquered” crust (which Google tells me just means a sweet glaze that lends itself to caramelization and the appearance of a lacquer-like sheen) was shiny and gave the skin a crunchy, crackly texture, and its sweetness enhanced the gamey flavor of the duck meat underneath. There was a much appreciated hint of tartness from the rhurbarb, which was echoed by the acidity of the melted leeks, which were almost like a puree in texture. I’m not sure how great my breath smelled after finishing the leeks, but I thought they served a similar purpose to the horseradish sauce in our beet appetizer — the bite of the ingredient softened by its preparation. Cutting into the breast revealed a cross section of medium rare and bloody meat topped by a full layer of fat sitting just below the crust. I felt like I do when there’s a bit of fat on steak, and I tell myself I should just cut it off and avoid it. But what can you do when it’s an integral part of the duck breast makeup? So I demolished it. The dish also came with what I thought were parsnips, but now realize was actually parsley root, which looks similar but is less sweet, again a very interesting and intelligent strategy when paired with the delicious but sugary glaze on the breast. This dish was relatively simple in its components, but really unlike any preparation of duck I’ve had before, and I can’t get over how addictive the combination of the duck meat and that glaze was. I would seriously go back to Narcissa for the beets and the duck alone.

 

 

The Apricot Tart Tatin, visually stunning but too sweet for my taste.

The Apricot Tart Tatin, visually stunning but too sweet for my taste.

The desserts certainly didn’t lower the overall level of the meal, but they were just more pedestrian compared to the earlier standout dishes. I think my dad was a big fan of the Apricot Tart Tatin (goat milk ice cream, pepper caramel), but I ultimately found the dessert cloyingly sweet. I enjoy the traditional apple tart tatin, and I do like apricot and apricot-flavored things generally, but here the apricots were almost like ovals of marmalade in their consistency, completely cooked down and syrupy. The best part of the dish was the pepper caramel, which I’d vouch is superior to salted caramel. Rather than enhancing the sweetness through salt, I think the pepper provides an interesting contrast that confused my tongue a bit. Not to harp on one point, but it was the same deal as the horseradish sauce and the melted leeks, where a bit of savory flavor made me stop and think for a second about what I was eating, how all the components came together.

 

 

The Bittersweet Chocolate tart, an exercise in tempered sweetness.

The Bittersweet Chocolate tart, an exercise in tempered sweetness.

No surprise that the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart (curry-roasted bananas, espresso ice cream) was a little more up my alley. The outer shell was crisp, looking almost bruleed on top, and inside was a dark chocolate mixture somewhere between a molten lava cake and mousse. The sweetness was tempered in every element of this dessert, from the selection of a darker chocolate base for the tart, to using the bitterness of the espresso to tamp down the gelato’s sugar, to adding curry as a savory element to counter the caramelized bananas. Despite my prior misgivings over espresso gelato at Osteria Morini, I really liked Narcissa’s version, which I felt has less of a burnt tone to it. Add in the Oreo-like cookie crumbles strewn throughout the dish, and I was more than happy to blow out the candle and let this dessert cap off a remarkable birthday dinner.

Final Thoughts:

 

What impressed me most about Narcissa was the deft handling of a variety of preparations, from the more classical techniques and flavor profiles of European cuisines to more unusual takes on American dishes. My parents and I had three radically different entrees and all of them were stunning in their own regard. They really ran the gamut, from the playful and elegant plating, to the provocative pairings of savory and sweet — themes that were echoed in every course of our meal. With a lovely atmosphere, attentive service, interesting cocktails, and a progressive menu of fresh, seasonal farm-to-table food, I would strongly recommend Narcissa to anyone looking for an American restaurant with a global eye. Perhaps that’s even one definition of Californian cuisine?

 

Speaking of, I owe my brother an apology — on Narcissa’s own website, they claim to “marr[y] the clean flavors and impeccably-sourced ingredients of California cuisine with new techniques of roasting, rotisserie and slow-cooking.” So count that as yet another reason to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. Or rather, to stop talking and start eating.

 

Narcissa

21 Cooper Square (between 5th St. and Bowery)

http://www.narcissarestaurant.com/

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Vatan: An All-You-Can-Eat Cultural Vacation

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — one of the things I love most about food is the way it brings people together. I often get asked about my favorite restaurants, or the best thing I ever ate, and I struggle to come up with answers, because most of my favorite meals are memorable because of the company I had while eating them. I’ll never forget my birthday dinner at Barbuto, because my family was there to pass around plates and encourage me to take a picture with Jonathan Waxman. I’ll always recommend Pike Place to visitors in Seattle because Dan showed me his favorite stalls and forced endless quantities of fresh fruit on me. And amazing as the steak at Peter Luger was, what made it special was the anticipation by the bar with my friends, and the collective moans as we dove headfirst into meaty glory (and that schlag, oh boy).

My recent dinner at Vatan is another perfect example of the joy of sharing a new experience. It reunited most of the Peter Luger crew for another group gorging, this time on vegetarian Indian food, and once again the most memorable thing for me was the happy joking that devolved into studious silence as we got busy stuffing our faces. Is Vatan the best Indian food I’ve ever had? No, it was pretty good but not life-altering. But is it a restaurant I’d recommend? Absolutely, because from the decor to the service, Vatan is about the experience of the meal itself more than the food on your plate. Come in with an empty stomach and some buddies, and you’ll definitely have a great time.

 

First Impressions:

I heard about Vatan from a couple of coworkers in my carpool, who raved about the stomach-stretching piles of Indian food available to you as a prix-fixe, all you can eat dinner for a mere $30. They warned that it would be kitschy, and not to be dissuaded by the “Epcot India” decor. That particular description proved immediately apparent as we approached Vatan. The restaurant sits right on the divide between Curry Hill and the brotown epicentre of Kips Bay/Murray Hill. It’s located on 3rd Avenue, off the main Lexington stretch of Indian restaurants, and just next door is a bar/restaurant featuring an open air rooftop overflowing with drunk twenty-somethings on the warm night we visited. Next to that, it’s hard not to view Vatan’s exterior as over-the-top, featuring a large sign, tiled panels, terracotta awnings, and a large sculpture of an elephant. And that’s got nothing on what it’s like inside.

 

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan - note the painted clouds in the sky.

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan – note the painted clouds in the sky.

Entering the restaurant you’re greeted with two floors of Indian fantasy, from the ceiling painted powder blue and dotted with clouds, to the fake Banyan trees “growing” out of the walls, to thatched-roof enclosures where the dining tables sit. Oh, and don’t forget the giant statue of the Hindu god Ganesh in the recessed area of the back wall. We were seated upstairs, under a row of thatched roofs at a Western-style table, but across from us (and downstairs as well), there were a few low tables that required removing your shoes and sitting cross-legged (I was actually a little bummed we didn’t get to sit there).

 

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs, where everyone mugs for the camera.

The staff is dressed in what the back of the menu describes as “ethnic garb and jewelery  … traditionally worn during the festivals and fairs in India,” regardless of ethnic background (most, but not all of the servers appeared to be of Indian descent), and everything (except the surprisingly cheap wine) is served in beaten metal containers. With the exception of dealing with our check (and we were all using credit cards, so it’s not surprising), the service was speedy and responsive, our server taking the time to explain all the dishes and replenish any items we wanted more of. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at Vatan’s menu.

 

The Food:

Meals at Vatan are split into three courses — an appetizer thali, entree thali, and dessert and chai. You have the option to order “refills” of any item you encounter, from a second bowl of rice to another full course of appetizers, at any point in the meal (feel like more samosas while drinking your chai, no problem). Thali, which means “plate” in Hindi, refers to the Indian version of a smorgasbord, where a variety of dishes are served all together in small bowls (katori) on a metal tray (the “thali” itself). I had my first thali at the Curry Hill South Indian restaurant Anjappar, which is only a block from Vatan, and highly recommended (although you order a la carte there). This style of service is perfect for someone like me, who loves sampling lots of different dishes. Given the wide variety of foods I encountered at Vatan, it would take far too long to cover each and every item, so I’ll just highlight a few stand-outs.

 

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that's to come.

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that’s to come.

Meal accompaniments -- red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Meal accompaniments — red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Our dinner began with a small bowl of puffed lentil snacks in different shapes and sizes. I suppose you could reorder these as well, but I’d caution against it, given the deluge of vegetarian options coming your way. Upon seeing our appetizer thali, I honestly believed I’d be able to take down several helpings, but all credit to Vatan, these were deceptively filling portions. Along with our thali came the accompaniments for the entire meal, with red and green sauces of different spice levels, raita yogurt sauce, pickled vegetables, and tiny slivers of fried garlic (which I tucked into in full vampire-defense mode).

 

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson:

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson. Clockwise, from top left: Chana Masala, Samosas, Muthia (steamed flour with spinach), Ragda Patis (potato cutlet in white bean sauce), Khaman (puffed cream of wheat flour cakes), Batatavada, Mirchi Bhajia, and Sev Puri.

The appetizer thali was a rectangular steel tray, almost like a fancy TV dinner tray. Our server noted which of the items included would be spicy, to give us a sense of what level of heat to order for our entree. For example, in the middle of the tray were Mirchi Bhajia, “fried hot peppers with Garam Masala,” that certainly lived up to their description. Since I’m determined to improve my resistance to spicy foods, I gamely took a bite of the pepper, at first pleasantly surprised by the snap of the vegetable against the soft fried exterior. Maybe I was actually getting better at this, I briefly contemplated, before the heat exploded in my mouth on the backend. Thankfully, the Sev Puri (potatoes, garbanzo beans, yogurt, and chutney filled in a crispy bread) was located just next to the hot pepper, so I could douse my tongue in the cool yogurt. I did end up ordering a second round of one spicy item, the Batatavada (fried potato balls in chickpea flour batter), which I loved dipping into the Chana Masala (garbanzo beans with onions and coriander) and the red chutney. And of course our table opted to get more Samosas (triangular savory pastries filled with spicy potatoes and green peas), since it’s hard to resist the allure of crunchy puff pastry with a lightly spiced and creamy interior.

The "entree complements" of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

The “entree complements” of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

Already feeling slightly overstuffed, we were soon faced with the entree thali, this time a circular steel tray like the one I had at Anjappar. Emboldened by my love of the Batatavada, I had opted to go for medium spice over mild, and I am happy to report that I actually enjoyed the small kicks of spice I stumbled upon throughout the course. I may not be downing sriracha left and right like some people I know (coughDianacough), but hopefully I’m making progress towards not trembling in fear of the occasional jalapeno in my food. The entree course also comes with a set of “entree complements” for the table, featuring Pulao (boiled white rice with peas), Kadhi (soup with yogurt and chickpea flour in authentic spices), and one of my favorite items of the whole night, Khichdi (lentils mixed with rice and assorted vegetables). The Khichdi had a texture close to mashed potatoes, softly melting in your  mouth, except for the random bite of a piece of vegetable. Our server suggested pouring a bit of the Kadhi on top of the Khichdi, which upped the richness another several levels, although I think I prefer the lentil-rice on its own. I’m actually tempted to look up a recipe and see if I can make it at home — although Vatan is vegetarian, I could see this going great with a roast chicken or steak.

 

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali.

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali. Clockwise, from top left: Chole (chickpeas cooked with tamarind and garam masala), Ful-Cobi, Bhaji, Batakanu Sak (potatoes cooked in a mild red gravy), Puri, Papadam, Toor Dal, and Kheer.

The entree thali had a number of dishes that seemed to be regional iterations of my usual Indian food orders, like the Bhaji (sauteed spinach and corn), which reminded me of Palak, or the Ful-Cobi (cauliflower and green peas sauteed in a savory sauce), which didn’t seem super far off from Aloo-Gobi. Considering how most of the dishes were new to me, it was nice to see the familiar shapes of Puri (puffed whole wheat bread) and Papadam (thin lentil wafers) — no one is surprised that Maggie is well-versed in regional bread types. Although I stand by naan as my number one Indian carb of choice, Vatan’s mini-puris were probably the best I’ve come across, small puffed domes of dough, slightly sweet and though very airy, considerable enough to scoop up the curries. It is also worth mentioning here that aside from the singular spoon give to handle the Toor Dal (boiled lentils cooked with Indian spices), you’re largely expected to tackle the dishes at Vatan with your hands. It makes me curious about the prevalence of eating utensils worldwide — is it largely a western phenomenon? Where did the fork come from? (Clearly this is a case for Edible Inquiries!)

While I enjoyed the items in my entree thali possibly even more than those in the appetizer round, I only ended up reordering one dish (partially due to my stomach nearly exploding, but mostly because of taste) — the Kheer (rice pudding with saffron and dry fruits). Kheer is hands-down one of my favorite desserts in the world, because it combines my love of rice pudding (old lady, remember?) with the slightly unexpected savory flavors of saffron and cardamom. Vatan’s version was stellar, with a heavy dusting of cinnamon on top, the cardamom and saffron present but only lightly applied, and the texture dotted with rice grains but not too clumpy. My favorite variety of Kheer also has pistachios in it, but I couldn’t fault Vatan for leaving it out of their recipe, since generosity was certainly in abundance across the board.

 

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner -- Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner — Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

We finished our meal with a round of dessert, miniscule when compared to the previous courses. A small dish of mango ice cream and a petite ceramic mug of Masala Chai (Indian tea cooked with cardamom, ginger and milk) were placed in front of each person. A digestive aid and breath freshening mixture, called Mukhwas, was served for the table. Mukhwas is a mixture of seeds and nuts, and I tried a spoonful, but found it overwhelmingly flavored with anise, which I just can’t stand. Looks like I’ll have to go to my good ol’ American Tums for digestive relief. Ever my father’s daughter, I dutifully ate up my mango ice cream, although I opted to end my meal with my Kheer refill and cup of Chai. I love drinking the straight-up black tea versions of chai, so having it with milk was a real treat, and takes me back to senior year of college, where I harbored a semi-worrisome addiction to Starbucks Chai lattes. We all got two cups of Vatan’s Masala Chai, and I added sugar to the first cup, but found after gulping down my Kheer, I actually prefered the unsweetened Chai for my second cup, which allowed me to pay more attention to the nuances of the spice mix in the tea.

 

Final Thoughts:

 

I feel as though I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg on my meal at Vatan. There are just too many elements to explore, from the various levels of heat in the dishes, to the worth of reordering specific items, to how to properly strategize your meal as a whole. Regardless of the minutiae, however, I would recommend Vatan for both native New Yorkers and visitors. Sure, you’re getting a little bit of schtick, but no more than the surly song-and-dance you’d find at Katz’s (and maybe just a teensy bit more than the Brooklyn brusqueness of Peter Luger). And for all the over-the-top decorations and costumes, you get more than your money’s worth of well-cooked food. Having never been to India, I can’t speak to Vatan’s authenticity in its recipes, but for a casual lover of Indian food, I was pleased with the familiar flavors and delighted by the items I was trying for the first time. Vatan is definitely a great spot for large groups (it seemed like there were several families celebrating special occasions), but it never got too raucous on the Saturday night we were there. So limber up your jaw, loosen your belt, and buy a ticket on the Ganesh Express to Vatan — there’s an endless train of thalis calling your name.

 

Vatan

409 3rd Ave (near 29th St.)

http://www.vatanny.com/

Must-have Misnomers at Market Table

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As I mentioned previously, Top Chef is my reality TV guilty pleasure (well, that and Chopped, Unique Eats, and The Voice, which is the worst because I’m begrudgingly supporting Carson Daly’s career). One of the common criticisms lobbed at “cheftestants” on Top Chef is the misnaming of dishes, i.e., calling something a risotto when you used cauliflower instead of rice and orange juice instead of broth and your Italian grandma would have no idea what the hell you made. Generally, I agree with Padme and Tom — when cooking at that high a level, you know the definitions of dishes, and you should acknowledge that your experimentation can be “inspired by” a certain dish, but don’t call a club a spade and expect to get away with it. There’s an expectation created by the title of a dish on a menu, and unless you’re going to a Wylie Dusfresne’s molecular gastronomy lab/restaurant, a dish’s name should not be a disguise. Call me pedantic, but the judicious application of some quotation marks would make this all easier.

I bring this up because of a recent lunch I had at Market Table in the West Village. Now the meal I had there was great, and I’d like to go back given the seasonality of their menu, but as you’ll see, their naming conventions probably wouldn’t have passed the Colicchio rule of thumb.

First Impressions:

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

Market Table is owned by the proprietors of the popular restaurant The Little Owl, and is actually located just a few blocks away from it, on the corner of Carmine and Bedford. The corner space is actually the old location of the NY legend Shopsin’s (now in the Essex St. Market), and you can tell it’s a prime spot, with two full walls of enormous plate glass windows. It’s a very homey, open environment, with dark black leather banquettes and small wooden tables in two-and-four top layouts. The decor evokes a neighborhood restaurant with just a bit of flair — exposed brick walls and wooden beams above them, a tree trunk serving as a the host stand, and a wall covered in shelves of wine simply begging to be opened.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

My mom had come in for a mother-daughter lunch, and we arrived basically right when Market Table opened at 11:30am, so the restaurant was fairly empty, and our service was fast and efficient. However, by the time we left, the small dining room had filled up substantially, and our waitress was running around a bit more, making it clear that Market Table lives up to its neighborhood staple aesthetic.

The Food:

Market Table’s menu is made up of seasonally-driven fare, based on (big shock) what’s available at the market. Since we were lunching on a national holiday (MLK Jr. Day), they were offering a few brunch specials, like pancakes and a scramble, but we opted to go full-on lunch. My mother got the lunch special, a Shrimp Salad Sandwich with Old Bay Fries, I chose the Roasted Vegetable Falafel, and we got an order of the Quinoa Hushpuppies to share, based on Jacob’s recommendation (he suggested Market Table in the first place, having been several times).

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Our meal started with a complimentary hunk of french bread, served with olive oil and sea salt. Market Table gets extra points for including the sea salt, which offers another layer of flavor and highlights the quality of the olive oil. The bread was light and airy, and biting into it, I wondered if it was sourced from the nearby location of Amy’s Breads, just down the way on Bleecker.

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The Shrimp Salad Sandwich, plated for a real French fry lover.

Our dishes landed on the table before we had even made a serious dent in the bread. I’ll start with my mom’s Shrimp Salad Sandwich, which had an unpretentious presentation to match its straightforward name. The sandwich was nicely plated, if a little less composed than my entree. The sandwich itself was dwarfed by the small hill of Old Bay fries next to it. Now, speaking from the context of a lifetime of Jewish deli visits, I think the bread-to-filling ratio on the shrimp salad was weighted a little too much on the bread side, but you could argue that the salad presented here was composed of higher quality ingredients and not bulked up by a lot of mayo. Once again, I was impressed by the bread — the whole wheat roll was soft and tender where it soaked up the juices of the shrimp salad, but never to the point where it became too soggy to stick together. As for the salad itself, sizable, crunchy chunks of shrimp were plain to see among the pieces of celery and tomatoes, and the taste of shellfish was the dominant flavor in each bite, not too muddied up in the seasonings or mayo. A little lettuce, slice of fresh tomato, or onion might have bulked up the sandwich for me and added a bit more textural contrast, but overall I thought it was a solid lunch entree. Given my french fry affinity, of course I was a big fan of the Old Bay Fries accompanying my mother’s sandwich. I actually wanted them to pile on more of the Old Bay — my parents are originally from Baltimore, and I’ve had my fair share of heavily seasoned spuds by the Chesapeake Bay. Market Table’s iteration featured medium-cut fries, crispy and crunch on the edges, with that soft starchy center that I’ve waxed rhapsodic about way too many times on this blog. They were certainly generous with the fries, but I think the dish is a little unevenly proportioned — a small side salad, or just a larger sandwich would be a more justified lunch dish than the fry-dominant version we were served.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er "Falafel" -- delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er “Falafel” — delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The only negative thing I have to say about my Roasted Vegetable Falafel (cucumber, feta, arugula, tzatziki, chili) is how it was named. As I mentioned at the head of this post, you create an expectation for the diner when you use a known foodstuff as your dish’s title. Falafel immediately brings to mind chickpeas, a crisply fried outer coating, and a flavor ranging from totally bland (I’m looking at you frozen falafel) to vibrantly herby like the falafel I found in the Tel Aviv shuk. However, what arrived at my lunch was a very loose interpretation of “falafel” — a baked mixed vegetable patty, closer in my opinion to a Mediterranean-influenced veggie burger than any fried chickpea ball. Naming aside, the entree was elegantly presented, the large, bright green patty resting on a small pool of tzatziki, divided from a light Greek salad by a wall of sliced, fresh tomatoes. Overall, the bright colors and clean lines made it an immediately visually appealing plate. Breaking into the patty, I would guess there were peas, carrots, and maybe some onions in the mix. It proved firm without being dry, and I really enjoyed the mishmash of heat from the chili powder and the cool parsley and cucumber from the tzatziki. Despite my lingering reluctance to eat feta (generally it’s too briny for me), the variety used by Market Table was mild, adding a little salt and chew in the face of the soft vegetable patty. The salad was similarly well-executed, the arugula and parsley offering a component of bitterness to round out the plate. Ignoring my griping about the name, I would highly recommend ordering the Roasted Vegetable Falafel if you’re looking for a lighter, but satisfying dish (especially if you plan to go to Big Gay Ice Cream afterwards, like my mother and I did).

The Quinoa Hushpuppies -- a northern twist on Southern Living?

The Quinoa Hushpuppies — a northern twist on Southern Living?

I really enjoyed how unusual the Quinoa Hushpuppies (with capers and lemon) were. Once again, Jacob’s recommendation was spot on, although you could quibble about the authenticity of the Hushpuppy appellation, since I’m pretty sure there’s nary a corn molecule to be found in this fritter. Market Table continued its theme of ample portions with this side dish, featuring close to a dozen oblong pups for my mother and I to split. The hushpuppies weren’t wholly made of quinoa, as I had initially imagined, but rather were made with regular all-purpose flour mixed with whole cooked quinoa seeds, flecked with chives and cooked to a golden brown. This gave them a pleasantly brittle exterior that broke through to a chewy middle. The accompanying dipping sauce was possibly my favorite part of the side — some sort of chipotle aioli, with a nice kick to it that warmed my tongue without making me reach for my water glass.

Final Thoughts:

For all my complaining about how things are named, Market Table did deliver on service, fresh ingredients, and inventive cooking. In fact, I think the weakest dish of our lunch was the most conventional, my mother’s sandwich. Although the Quinoa Hushpuppies and my Roasted Vegetable Falafel were far from what I expected when I read them on the menu, it was a pleasant and satisfying surprise to receive. Perhaps the lesson here is that unless you’re playing for bragging rights post-season on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live, a little diner deception isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Does it encourage a customer to think outside the ordering box, or does it invite disappointment and criticism? I leave it for you to decide, but in the meantime I’ll be heading back to Market Table for those hushpuppies, regardless of whether they’d pass muster down South.

Market Table

54 Carmine St. (corner of Bedford)

http://markettablenyc.com/

More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

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I’m definitely one of those people at restaurants. The talkers, the incessantly curious, the somewhat (hah) neurotic individuals who need to ask the waiter at least one question before ordering. I try to restrain myself from veering too far into obnoxious territory, but the truth is, my main motivation is curiosity. I may have previously studied the menu online, but when I get to the restaurant, I’d rather know what the staff who have seen the food cooked, and maybe even tasted a dish or two, think. Of course we may not have the same preferences, but the level of the server’s enthusiasm can speak volumes about the overall quality of a dish.

I write about service a lot on Experimental Gastronomy because I think it’s a crucial part of the dining experience. It’s part of the difference between a vending machine or a fast food drive-through and an actual restaurant where you interface with real people. That’s not to say that I expect white napkin service everywhere I go — sometimes a friendly smile from a coffee shop employee is all I need. But the best experiences are those where you feel like you’re in good hands, especially in unfamiliar territory, like our helpful waiter at Tamarind, or the extremely accommodating and generous staff at Barbuto. I bring this up because of a recent meal I had at Sembrado, one of the many new taquerias popping up in the East Village. Sembrado has a lot going for it, from location to the high pedigree of the chefs behind it. Despite all this, I found myself underwhelmed by dinner there, a bit at sea when facing down the menu. The food had a lot of potential, and to be fair, I might have just hit a bad shift. But at the end of our dinner, Jacob and I felt there was something missing, some pep or spark to elevate the meal, the lack of an unspoken element that might just have been a personal touch.

First Impressions:

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Sembrado is a new taqueria from Danny Mena, previously of Hecho en Dumbo (where I once ate a great dinner), and featuring ice cream sundaes from Fany Gerson of summertime favorite La Newyorkina. Tacos seem to be the new hip food trend in the City, with shops popping up seemingly everyday (Tres Carnes, Otto’s, Mission Cantina, Taquitoria, to name just a few). Just a few blocks from Stuy Town, Sembrado has a rustic aesthetic, riding the line between industrial and hipster chic with some deliberately placed decorative flares, seen most clearly in the contrast of the exposed brick walls and back wall mural that seemed to be a psychedelic take on a fractal.

Overall, the space is pretty tight, dominated mostly by the bar/kitchen, the remaining area filled with two and four tops. Jacob and I stopped by after seeing a matinee at the Public Theater, so we came in at an off-time, 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. There were a few people at the bar, but we were the only people dining at that time.

Food:

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

After seating us and bringing around tap water, our waiter handed us the menus — long pieces of paper lined with boxes for you to mark (how many of each taco you want, if you want cheese added). Our waiter explained that the menu was typical of the items you’d find at any taqueria around Mexico City (slightly gussied up, of course — or at least hopefully so with New York City pricing). That meant traditionally-sized tacos that should be tackled with the strategic ordering of a variety of small plates.

Since we were eating during happy hour, we opted for the slightly discounted guacamole ($2 off dinner price), then started down the list of appetizers, tacos, and other assorted dishes. We ended up with the Tacos Al Pastor, Bistec, Pollo, Hongos, and Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana, along with the Bistec and Nopal Costras. And because through rain, sleet, hail or snow we order ice cream, Jacob and I split one of Ms. Gerson’s El Sundaes to finish out our meal.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole arrived in a small bowl framed by homemade tortilla “chips,” which upon the further arrival of our tacos, were revealed to be the house tortillas fried to a crisp. Because of this, the chips were very fresh, although because they were uncut, I felt the chip-to-dip ratio was uneven, requiring us to eventually ask for a refill. There was a deceptively ample amount of guacamole in the bowl, which I had initially viewed as skimpy for the normal $9 price tag. However, it was one of my favorite parts of our meal (I’m sure partially because I am an avocado fiend). This recipe was smooth, pebbled with tiny chunks of avocado, and though there were no tomatoes in it, it had a strong bite from the onions and cilantro. Jacob and I had a nice moment with our waiter, lamenting those unfortunate souls for whom cilantro tastes disgustingly soapy. When used liberally in a dish like this, cilantro really just brightens all the underlying flavors.

Topping options -- three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

Topping options — three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

In advance of our tacos, our waiter brought out a funky vessel holding four different condiments — three types of salsa and a mix of freshly chopped red onions and peppers. The salsas varied in heat and smokiness. One of them was made with a bit of beer, which lent a subtle malted flavor. My favorite was the really smoky salsa (top right in the photo), which reminded me of barbecue sauce, but Jacob preferred the milder beer-infused one on the bottom left. Unfortunately, this is where the trouble starts. When we were served these condiments, and then our tacos soon after, there was no instruction or suggestion of how to pair the two. Given the myriad combinations given five tacos and four condiments, a poor East Coast Jewish gal like me didn’t even know where to start. I ended up mainly dipping my chips into the salsas, because I didn’t want to ruin my experience by dousing a taco in the wrong sauce.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Because of this, I ate my tacos largely in their natural state, with just a bit of lime juice squeezed on top. For all of the varieties, the consistency of the tortillas was excellent — fresh, pliant and chewy, serving as an stable vehicle without distracting from the fillings. As for those, well, some were more successful than others. My least favorite was the Bistec (all natural flatiron steak), which arrived chopped and fully cooked, flying solo in its tortilla. The meat was a little on the dry side, and while I like steak as much as the next person (perhaps more, considering my ecstasy at Peter Luger), I much preferred the Bistec in Costra form, with the fat and salt of the cheese to contrast with it. The Pollo (all natural free range chicken breast) fared slightly better, the small chunks of meat juicier and flavored with a nice marinade. I would have preferred a little more char on the chicken, but perhaps my dissatisfaction was due to my own neglect of the salsas near me — a little smoky salsa might have elevated the chicken or steak. The Hongos (grilled portobello mushroom with epazote) was also served relatively plain, although the addition of epazote (a Central American herb) gave it another layer of flavor. Of course my love of mushrooms is a given at this point, and portobellos are a top tier variety for me (don’t get me started on Hen of the Woods #mushroomnerd), so it’s not that shocking that of the unadorned tacos, the Hongos would win out.

Pescado del Dia taco -- flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana taco — flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Both the Taco Al Pastor (spit grilled marinated pork, onions and cilantro) and the Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana (grilled market fish — fluke that day — in a classic Mexican salsa of chile serrano, tomato and onion) had a little more complexity in their preparation, and I thought this made them the best of the bunch. I’ve always avoided ordering tacos al pastor before because I mostly avoid pork, but I’m glad I tried it at Sembrado, since it ended up being my favorite taco. It seemed as though you could taste the long, steady spit-roasting of the meat, which was juicy and had a smoky, almost mole-ish flavor. (Wikipedia research reveals that the rotisserie style of cooking was likely introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century).  The fluke tasted the freshest of all the tacos, especially when the acidity of the tomatoes and the heat of the jalapenos hit my palate. Again, the addition of toppings here really filled out the profile of the taco, making it more memorable than the plainer steak and chicken.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada -- Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada — Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

If I’m being honest, I think I prefer the slightly more casual menu at Oaxaca Taqueria. Without a bit of a tour guide on how to experience more authentic Mexican cuisine, I’d rather have the decisions already made for me with established combinations. So at Sembrado, I found myself enjoying the Costras (crisp caramelized cheese atop flour tortilla) more than the tacos. The Costras, which were pretty much open-faced quesadillas, just seemed more fully realized as a dish. Plus, who doesn’t like caramelized cheese? As I mentioned earlier, the Bistec shone a lot brighter in Costra form, its funky umami serving as a nice base for the cheese. But I especially liked the Nopal (grilled cactus pad), an ingredient that I’d seen before on menus but never tried. Like the fish taco, you could taste how fresh the nopales were, and I liked the way the vegetal flavor cut through the richness of the cheese.

We dabbled with getting a few more items, since all of these servings were palm-sized and split between two people, served as a relatively light dinner. No surprise, we quickly tossed aside any notions of further nutrition in favor of diving headfirst into a giant sundae. El Sundae has its own paper menu full of potential add-ons. You select vanilla, strawberry, or horchata ice cream as your base, select your preferred toppings, elect a salsa (Mexican hot fudge or goats milk caramel), choose si or no on whipped cream, and decide if you’ll shell out the extra $3 to make it a brownie sundae. Alas, Sembrado was out of vanilla on our visit, so we ordered the horchata ice cream, topped with Nueces Garapinadas (piloncillo candied pecans) and Chocolate (Mexican chocolate bits), covered in both “salsas”, whipped cream, and heck yeah we’re having the brownies.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

Well, the sundae we were served was pretty good, but there were a few stumbling blocks. I’ve only had horchata in its traditional form a few times, and found it to be like watered down rice pudding, but as a thick and creamy ice cream, it was a solid substitute for the vanilla, and a not too sweet base for the rest of the sugar-overloaded components. I’ll take whipped cream in any form from udder to pressurized Reddi-Whip can, so I was more than happy to chow down on that. As for our salsas? Well, the hot fudge was nowhere to be found, but the caramel sauce was sweet and syrupy. Much like with my dessert at Blue Duck Tavern, I’m not sure how one discerns goats milk caramel from plain ol’ cows milk, but I really enjoyed Sembrado’s version when combined with the candied pecans. In fact, the nuts and Mexican chocolate bits were very helpful in providing a bit of textural contrast, since much like the hot fudge, our brownies were mysteriously absent. I’m sure my vascular system was relieved to be saved that extra peak of blood sugar, and in the end we weren’t charged for them, but I was a little disappointed to miss out on what could have been a tremendous brownie sundae.

Final Thoughts:

There’s a concept in psychology called “choice anxiety,” which posits that though we think we want as many options as possible, in truth, people quickly get overwhelmed by having to make too many decisions. It’s similar to the Millenial “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out” — presented with a long list of choices, we often just opt out all together. We may think all-encompassing personal agency is the most satisfying route, but what we’re actually looking for is limited power, a dip in a pool just deep enough to let us kick a bit without fear of sinking.

I couldn’t help but think about choice anxiety after my dinner at Sembrado. Overall, it was a good, but not great meal, successful in some elements but a letdown in others. I can’t place all the blame on the service, either. Our waiter was friendly if a little removed from the situation, but I think part of the problem comes from the space Sembrado occupies on the casual/fine dining ladder. It seems to be riding a sort of middle ground — a little too expensive to be the kind of neighborhood taco joint that revels in its oil and fried fat content, but clearly trying to be more casual than the elevated Latin cuisine experiences I’ve had at Hecho en Dumbo or La Esquina. For the relatively uninitiated taco consumer, Sembrado’s menu can be overwhelming, prompting numerous questions — how many tacos should I get? What’s a good combination of tacos? Should I get cheese on some? All? None? I’m not saying Sembrado should abandon their check-off menus in favor of the hegemony of an executive chef’s tasting menu (I actually rather like the paper menus), but they might benefit from the addition of a section outlining some suggested combos. Creating a starting point for your diners gives them somewhere to jump off of, and admits that not everybody may be as in the know about authentic Mexico City tacos. Maybe I’m in the minority for wanting to learn while trying new foods, but for us curious culinary enthusiasts, Sembrado would stand out more if it were willing to teach.

Sembrado

432 E. 13th Street

http://sembradonyc.com/

A Birthday Brush with Foodie Fame: Seasonal Italian at Barbuto

Despite working in the entertainment industry, I still have a tendency to get a bit starstruck. Back when I worked at a talent agency, if I encountered a famous actor or musician, I would attempt to “play it cool.” In my case that meant avoiding all eye contact, and keeping the conversation to a polite minimum to avoid swallowing my tongue. One of my more embarrassing moments was loudly complaining to the receptionist that I had just missed seeing David Alan Grier, only to look over at the nearby waiting area and see the man waving pityingly in my direction. Cue my natural-born talent to blush intensely, and a hurried exit back to my desk.

Nowadays I work in production, so my exposure to celebrity is much more limited. I’d like to think that I’ve matured into a more capable human being in the face of the famous, but a chance encounter last weekend revealed that I’m not as chill as I’d hoped I’d become. I was out for a birthday dinner with my family, and as the gal of honor I chose the restaurant — Barbuto, down in the West Village. Why pick a seemingly random restaurant that’s been around for 10 years? Enter foodie origin story! Obviously I’ve always loved eating (and dessert), but my fascination with cooking and chefs didn’t really start until I got into Top Chef. Specifically, Top Chef Masters, season two, way back in 2010. Watching the chefs conceptualize and execute these amazing dishes made me curious to try expanding my own palate a bit. Of all the contestants, the chef that produced the most rapturous salivation per episode for me was Jonathan Waxman. I remember watching the season and marveling that I wanted to eat literally every dish he made. So when I discovered he had a restaurant in NY earlier this year, I locked in my birthday dinner immediately.

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Little did I know that, 10 years into the run of his restaurant, Mr. Waxman is still intimately involved in the day to day life of Barbuto. About half an hour into our meal I turned to see the chef casually strolling amongst the tables, dressed in a polo shirt and chef’s pants. Our fantastic waiter, Matt, told us that Waxman (or “Papa,” as the staff calls him) comes into the restaurant nearly every day, and approves the menu via email if he can’t. On his second turn around the tables, while checking in with various diners, he paused by our table. I was overwhelmed by the moment, stuttering out a hello before my mother announced it was my birthday. Feeling I couldn’t let the moment pass, I asked for a photo. Sure thing, replied Mr. Waxman. And with shaky legs I stood up as the inspiration for my food fascination casually placed his arm around my shoulders. The resulting photo, featuring my stunned, ecstatic expression can be viewed at the end of the post.

That event in itself would have made the night, but, in an abundance of riches, our dinner at Barbuto turned out truly tremendous. So now that I’ve gushed enough about the chef, let’s get down to the dishes!

 

First Impressions:

The view from our table towards the entrance. Note the garage doors pulled up to the ceiling.

The view from our table towards the entrance. Note the garage doors pulled up to the ceiling.

 

Barbuto is an upscale, casual restaurant, a fact that is immediately apparent from the architecture of the space. It’s literally a converted garage, the front walls of the restaurant in actuality garage doors that are rolled up into the ceiling in the summer, leaving the restaurant open to the cool evening air. There is sidewalk seating, but our table was still technically indoors, right by the front of the dining area with a clear view of Washington Street and access to the open air. The back of the restaurant features an open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work, and one of the two spaces for private parties is located right by the kitchen (a smaller room behind the bar is also available). The overall attitude of the restaurant is laidback and unpretentious, the industrial elements of the original garage mingling with smaller, homey touches — from white tiling on the walls and bar to simple wooden tables and wicker chairs.

Chefs at work in the open kitchen.

Chefs at work in the open kitchen.

 

The Food:

 

Our server, Matt, was extremely friendly and happy to answer any and all questions we had about the menu. He explained that each menu is dated in the corner because it is constantly changing — in fact, one of his favorite dishes appeared for just one week before fading into the mists of time. As the remaining members of our party arrived, Matt suggested that we might get the most out of Barbuto’s Family Menu. Basically a chef’s tasting menu, the Family dinner covers the four courses listed on the menu, plus individual desserts for each guest. The chef selects from the list of antipasti, primi, piatta unici, and contorni, and they are more than happy to accommodate any allergies and special diets. In our case that meant no pork, no unpastuerized cheese, and options for a vegetarian (I know, we’re high maintenance). Matt was obliged with nary a blink of his eyes, and off we went on our Italian adventure.

For the sake of not overwhelming you all with the massive quantity of dishes, I’ve picked out some of my favorites for the night. I didn’t take as many notes as I did for Blue Duck Tavern, partially because I was still flustered from meeting Jonathan Waxman, and partially because I was determined to be in the moment for my birthday dinner. So here’s a not-so-quick rundown of some of Barbuto’s best bites:

 

Antipasti (Appetizers)

The Family Dinner generally comes with salumi, but we opted out because of the heavy pork contents. Instead we were presented with the Ravanelli (local radishes, roasted garlic butter & toast), the Insalata Spinge Pietra (sea beans, fregola & podda classico), the Insalata Crudi ( asparagus, carrots, watermelon radish, pecorino & bread crumbs), and the Insalata Stagionale (radicchio, baby romaine, capers, fava beans & anchovy). All four of these dishes were fresh and delicious, but I’m going to focus on my two favorites — the Insalata Crudi and the Insalata Spinge Pietra. I will say, however, that my brother Sam mopped up as much of the garlic butter as he could, and my father was all over the anchovy salad. So clearly there were a mix of opinions for favorites.

The Ravanelli: radishes with garlic roasted butter and toast.

The Ravanelli: radishes with garlic roasted butter and toast.

 

Of course I forgot to photograph one of my favorite dishes of the night — the Insalata Crudi. The dish is composed of ribbons of asparagus and carrots, with small slices of watermelon radish mixed in and crisp pecorino and breadcrumbs sprinkled on top. The salad features tri-color carrots, so I had my first purple carrot experience outside of Israel. Overall, it was a light salad, even with the cheese coating the vegetables. The saltiness of the breadcrumb/pecorino topping meshed well with the fresh moisture of the vegetables. As a big fan of carrots, asparagus, and cheese, I found myself taking seconds and thirds of this salad. With clear but not domineering flavors and a brightness from the produce, this is a great way to start a meal.

The Insalata Spinge Pietra --     don't be put off by the succulents, it's delicious.

The Insalata Spinge Pietra — don’t be put off by the succulents, it’s delicious.

 

I found the Insalata Spinge Pietra intriguing because it used a number of ingredients I had never seen before. The only thing I immediately recognized on the plate was the arugula. Matt explained that sea beans are a type of succulent, or plants that tend to retain water in arid conditions (like cacti). Up close they resemble the lovechild of green beans and broccoli rabe, with long stalks and smaller branches coming off the sides. The sea beans have a natural saltiness reminiscent of the ocean, but in the way good shellfish tastes briny, not in a mouth full of sand way. The other two items, the fregola and the podda classico, turned out to be Sardinian varieties of familiar ingredients. Fregola is a semolina pasta similar to Israeli couscous, and podda classico is a sheeps and cows milk cheese with a nutty, tangy taste. It was an assault of flavors from salty to bitter to sweet and tangy, and I really enjoyed discovering these regional ingredients.

 

Primi (Pasta)

The Risotto alla Primavera --  solid, but missing the speck.

The Risotto alla Primavera — solid, but missing the speck.

We were served two dishes for our pasta course — the Risotto alla Primavera, and the Gnocchi con Carote. While the risotto was well executed, I felt like it was somewhat one note. Generally the asparagus, peas and basil are complemented with speck, an Italian sausage, but it was left out of our dish. While I’m generally not particularly interested in cured meats, here I think the potential salt and bite of the speck would have lifted the dish.

The Gnocchi con Carote: Is there a way to win a lifetime supply to this dish?

The Gnocchi con Carote: Is there a way to win a lifetime supply to this dish?

One of the dishes that kept cropping up on reviews of Barbuto was Waxman’s take on gnocchi, and when it arrived, I understood the reason why. Gnocchi is my favorite form of pasta, and when I see it on a menu, I feel compelled to order it, so I was delighted that it came with our dinner. The Gnocchi con Carote is served with with baby carrots, sugar snap peas, and Parmesan. Each tiny pouch of potato had a slight crust, cooked in what tasted like brown butter, which added a delicate nuttiness. Those same tricolor carrots were chopped and cooked down to a creamy softness, while the sliced snap peas were still crunchy, keeping the dish from falling into a monotony of texture. The overall taste of caramelization was decadent, but for a gnocchi enthusiast like me, I would gladly have eaten the entire family style plate.

 

Piatta Unici (Entrees)

Manzo ai Ferri: The silkiest skirt steak I have ever tasted.

Manzo ai Ferri: The silkiest skirt steak I have ever tasted.

If it seems like my family had already been served several mountains of food in our first two courses, prepare yourself for the main attraction. Our entree course came with the Pollo al Forno, the Manzo ai Ferri, the Platessa alla Plancha, and a vegetarian fregola and chickpea dish. I’m going to focus on the chicken and the flounder, but I will say the Manzo ai Ferri (prime skirt steak, chickpeas, and roasted shishito peppers) was supremely cooked. It was the kind of melt-in-your-mouth steak that is so rarely achieved in steakhouses, thinly sliced, perfectly medium rare and absolutely luscious. And although I wasn’t about to chow down on some peppers, spice-wimp that I am, when eaten with a piece of the steak, the kick took it up a notch.

Pollo al Forno: The famous signature chicken from Jonathan Waxman. Far from bland, same old chicken -- this bird is full of herbs and spices.

Pollo al Forno: The famous signature chicken from Jonathan Waxman. Far from bland, same old chicken — this bird is full of herbs and spices. You can literally see how juicy it is.

The Pollo al Forno is guaranteed to be a part of each Family dinner at Barbuto, so I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call it the restaurant’s signature dish. In fact, it’s described on the menu as “JW Chicken & salsa verde,” the only item specifically touting the Waxman’s initials. Luckily, like the highly regarded gnocchi, this dish also lived up to my lofty expectations. The chicken was roasted and seasoned with tarragon and oregano, creating a crispy skin and plump, tender meat underneath. Despite the salsa verde (a green sauce of herbs, anchovies, capers, vinegar and oil) served on top, I felt the tarragon had the strongest presence. It was the kind of roast chicken that reminded me that chicken is not just a safe bet. Here was a relatively straightforward dish, without any fancy new techniques or exotic ingredients, and it was just superbly done, putting that buttermilk poached chicken at Blue Duck Tavern to shame. Interestingly, I managed to snag a small piece as leftovers, and the chicken actually reheated wonderfully. I think I actually enjoyed the dish more a few days later because I got to focus on the flavors of the chicken alone, rather than amongst the inundation of delicious entrees that I had when dining at Barbuto.

The Platessa alla Plancha, a darkhorse entree, but actually my favorite of the night.

The Platessa alla Plancha, a darkhorse entree, but actually my favorite of the night.

Somewhat surprisingly, my favorite entree of the meal was the Platessa alla Plancha (flounder, garlic scapes, and capers). I probably would never have ordered it for myself, so hats off to the Family Menu for the come from behind winner. While the fish itself was nicely cooked and flaked off easily, what made the dish for me were all the accompaniments. The garlic scapes (which, for the uninitiated like me, are the curling tops of garlic plants) had a sharp, strong garlic bite to them, which heightened the sweet apple-ish sauce underneath the fish. I found the combination utterly addictive, and though the rest of my family thought the sauce was a little cloying, I repeatedly had helpings of the flounder over the steak. Much like the seabean salad, I found myself excited by the discovery the scapes, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find them on other menus, or even cook with them myself. Oh, and in case you wanted to be hip to the lingo, apparently in the farmer’s market world, scapes are the new ramps (oh the ups and downs of the trendy vegetable scene).

 

Contorni (Sides)

The Verdure: chili-flecked kale, escarole and chard with garlic. A little too hot for my tastes.

The Verdure: chili-flecked kale, escarole and chard with garlic. A little too hot for my tastes.

A quick word about the sides for our main course. We had the Verdure (market greens with chili flakes and garlic) and the Patate (potatoes, pecorino & rosemary). The Verdure was made up of kale, escarole, and chard, and like many of the dishes at Barbuto, had a fair amount of black pepper and chili seasoning. It reminded me of the spicy kale I ate at Cafeteria, and while it certainly mitigated the bitterness of the greens, I can’t say I’m really into this fad of lacing salads with peppery heat. I think I prefer my sides to complement my meal, and the addition of heat makes the vegetables stand out too much for me.

The Patate: gimme all the potatoes, please.

The Patate: gimme all the potatoes, please.

The Patate, on the other hand, was right up my alley. It was as if the chef interbred roasted potatoes and french fries, making a starchy mutt that my family wolfed down. The potatoes were cut into thick chunks, leaving a soft but starchy interior surrounded by a cheesy, rosemary-infused, deep fried crust.

 

Dessert

Dessert: Tiramisu and chocolate pudding. And a birthday candle, of course.

Dessert: Tiramisu and chocolate pudding. And a birthday candle, of course.

Last, but not least, we’ve got dessert. With all the variety of dishes, it was a little surprising that every person in our party was served the same dessert. Luckily, it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because that dessert was fantastic. Waxman has worked with the same pastry chef for the past 16 years, at both his restaurants and his cookbooks, and it’s pretty easy to see why. My plate arrived with a scoop of chocolate pudding and a small square of tiramisu (with a birthday candle in it, of course). Our waiter explained that the chocolate pudding is always on the dessert menu, but the tiramisu is a dessert exclusive to the Family Dinner. After the family size portions of the rest of our meal, I actually appreciated the relatively modest dessert plate. It was the perfect amount of sweetness to finish the meal, but keep me from feeling too overstuffed.

Tiramisu tends not to be one of my favorite desserts, but this was probably the best tiramisu I’ve ever had. Instead of the typical lady fingers, there was a delicate sponge cake separating the layers of airy mascarpone and whipped cream. The wine and espresso flavors were very subtle, highlighting the cocoa more than standing out on their own.

But man, the chocolate pudding was just unreal. Sweet milk chocolate with a prominent cocoa taste, it was thick and creamy, nearly to the point of being a mousse. I could have eaten an entire bowl of this — it simultaneously evoked the nostalgia of Bill Cosby Jello pudding packs while showing you how much of a difference quality natural ingredients can have with even the simplest dessert. It was the perfect representation of Barbuto’s menu and overall vibe — fresh food that is familiar but also gives you pause. You wonder why all gnocchi isn’t cooked in brown butter, why more restaurants don’t serve seabeans, and why this chocolate pudding isn’t being sold in large vats at Stop ‘n Shop.

 

Final Thoughts

From start to finish, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better birthday dinner. I got to make of a fool of myself fawning over a celebrity chef (who fortunately was incredibly down to earth and forgiving), I got to try new ingredients and new flavor combinations, and I ended the night with a mouth full of chocolate. I know I’ve said this several times before, but what truly made this a memorable meal was the service at Barbuto. From our eager-to-assist waiter Matt, to the busboys who truly knew the components of each dish they were serving us, to of course Papa Waxman himself, we were treated with respect and endless amounts of accommodation. Barbuto is worth visiting for the food, but perhaps even more so for the friendly, easygoing, but thoughtful vibe — yes, they care about the food they serve, but they’re also thinking about who’s on the other end of the fork.

Me and Chef Waxman

Me and Chef Waxman


Barbuto

775 Washington St (Corner of W. 12th)

http://www.barbutonyc.com