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/

The Blue Duck Tavern: Exceptional Food, Exceptional Service

This is the part where I give you all the excuses for the lateness of this post, such as the fact I was down in DC for the weekend (hence the Chesapeakean restaurant review), or that the movie I worked on, EPIC, is coming out this week (go see it — it’s a fun family movie, it’s beautiful, and it’s even got Beyonce in it. Seriously, what are you waiting for?). But enough of that. You’re here to read about food, so let’s cut the chit chat.

I spent this past weekend in DC with my immediate family — a lovely, if brief family reunion that largely revolved around the meals we were eating. I’m starting to discover the unexpected downside of amateur food blogging — a lot of my friends and family expect that I’ll write about whatever restaurant we happen to be in. Obviously this isn’t a real burden (children starving in Africa, etc), and a fair amount of the time they’re right, since I don’t eat out all that often (pretty much just the once a week that feeds this blog). So when my oldest brother Charles, the DC resident, suggested the Blue Duck Tavern for dinner on Friday night, the rest of my family turned to me and said “so you’re writing about this for your blog, right?” With all eyes on me, I had no choice but to oblige. Hopefully this review lives up to their expectations.

 

First Impressions:

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

 

The Blue Duck Tavern is located in the Park Hyatt in the Foggy Bottom Neighborhood of DC. The hotel’s architecture seemed focused on clean lines, big windows, high ceilings, and metal, but the interior of the restaurant featured more rustic touches like plain wooden tables and chairs, and a lovely bricklaid outdoor patio with a fountain. The restaurant serves American cuisine with a focus on farm-to-table ingredients cooked in classic styles, like braising and roasting.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

 

One of the most interesting elements was the open staff pantry and kitchen which connects the bar area of the restaurant to the dining room. During our meal I saw various staff plucking herbs and vegetables out of the pantry, and got to briefly watch my dessert being assembled. My 3 year old niece loved being able to watch the chefs at work (especially when they were scooping ice cream).

Dessert in progress -- can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

Dessert in progress — can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

 

BDT gets extremely high marks for service. I wasn’t planning on eating at any place fancier than a Chipotle, so I found myself woefully underdressed for our dinner, rocking jeans and a Penn Class of 2010 sweatshirt (go Quakers!). However, our wonderful server Mike and the rest of the staff treated us just as politely and attentively as any of the more finely coiffed diners. It might have helped that we were dining pretty early, around 5:30pm, but I’d like to think that BDT just prizes itself on exceptional customer service. Certainly they bent over backwards to accomodate us, from giving my niece “plain twisty noodles on a plate” (her direct quote) to switching my drink order from a glass of Riesling to Viognier (a great, underappreciated white wine variety if you ask me). Throughout the entire meal Mike was happy to explain any piece of the menu and offer his recommendations on serving size and side dishes. It was a level of service I’ve only encountered at the highest level of fine dining, but here was paired with a more low key approach that fosters a sense of high caliber family dining.

 

The Food:

Just like the service, the food at Blue Duck Tavern is straightforward and well-executed. This is not the realm of modernist gastronomy — you won’t find any foams or maltodextrin, just farm fresh ingredients cooked in classic fashion. Since there were 8 of us ordering, I was almost overwhelmed by the variety and multitude of dishes we tried, so my commentary might be somewhat limited. There’s also the problem unique to my family that we all eat unhealthily quickly, so snagging a taste of everyone’s dish requires catlike reflexes.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

 

Our meal started with a we’ll-show-Olive-Garden endless bread basket of white and multigrain sourdough, served with fresh butter. I preferred the multigrain, which was chock full of various seeds and had a great toasted, rye flavor.

Mike informed us that the best strategy at BDT is to plan on a family style meal, since many of the entree portions fall on the generous side. With that in mind, we each ordered appetizers — ending up with groupings of the Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, the Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad, and the House Smoked Trout.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a delicate presentation that belies the richness of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a rustic presentation that belies the delicate balance of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart came with goat cheese and bitter greens, and was pretty much a decadent quiche with a buttery, flaky crust. The chard and the greens helped to temper the richness of the goat cheese, and I appreciated the contrasting bite of the onion. Although I had assumed this would be my favorite appetizer (plying me with cheese and pastry is like offering Buster Bluth several flavors of juicebox), I actually ended up liking my salad more.

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The Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad — crunchy, creamy, and making me rethink my position on brussels sprouts.

The Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad was served with walnuts, parmesan cheese, and a creamy dressing. It was salty, with a strong parmesan taste, but nicely balanced with by the inclusion of  apple pieces for sweetness. Garlic croutons, radicchio, walnuts and the parsley added texture to the dish, so it was alternately crunchy and soft, depending on your bite. I don’t usually like brussel sprouts, but the combination of flavors and textures, plus the delicious dressing made me scarf it down.

The Smoked Trout -- not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

The Smoked Trout — not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

It will come as no surprise that my least favorite appetizer was the Smoked Trout, served with potato salad, ramps, and spiced pecan. As I’ve mentioned previously, I am an embarrassment to my family and my heritage with my distaste for smoked fish (luckily I have the Jewish guilt gene in spades). However, I found BDT’s smoked trout more mild — the dominant taste coming off less briny and smoky and more fresh fish.  The dish came with a creamy sauce and new potatoes that were soft without being mushy.

 

We supplemented our main course orders with several sides to share. The Blue Duck Tavern is one of Charles’s favorite restaurants in DC, so he had plenty of suggestions for slam-dunk side dishes. Based on his recommendation, we ordered the Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, the Hand Cut Triple Fries, and the Creamy Stone Ground Grits with Red-Eye Gravy. For entrees we got the Braised Beef Rib, the Wood-Fired Wagyu Culotte of Beef, the Buttermilk Poached Chicken, the Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops, and the Wood Oven-Roasted Baby Vegetables. Oh, and our plain twisty noodles of course.

The Braised Beef Rib -- a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

The Braised Beef Rib — a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

Consensus was that the Braised Beef Rib was the prize dish, although iconoclastic rebel that I am (not), I actually like the Wagyu more. The Rib came with housemade steak sauce, and was cooked to the point of falling-apart tenderness. It had a strong beef flavor, slightly smoky. I’m going to play the Momma’s girl card and say that in terms of brisket, I either like my mother’s sliced brisket (a Seder requirement, natch), or the more intense smoky and flaky BBQ brisket (in NY, Dinosaur BBQ serves my favorite, although there are some new competitors I need to try).

The Wagyu Culotte -- better than a lot of cuts of meat I've had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte — better than a lot of cuts of meat I’ve had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte was served with a charred onion vinaigrette, and it was a wonderfully flavorful piece of meat, cooked perfectly to medium rare and slice thinly. My own personal entree was the scallops, but if I had the chance to go back to BDT, I would probably opt for the Culotte as my next choice.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops -- fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops — fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

As a sucker for scallops (they’re hands down my favorite seafood), I was absolutely delighted by my order. The menu lists them as coming with spring vegetables, sea beans, and bacon, but I’m fairly certain the bacon was only used to cook the scallops in. Overall it was a very light, but satisfying dish — the scallops were cooked to the perfect texture, soft but not rubbery, and the bacon added a rich, salty flavor. The most prominent of the vegetables were peas, which I’m pretty ambivalent about in general, but here were elevated again by the dish’s sauce, a thin, bright liquid that made the veggies shine.

Speaking of veggies, the Wood Oven-roasted Baby Vegetables was a solid, if not particularly exciting dish. It was served with fresh herbs, Meyer lemon and crispy garlic, and I was excited to see a fiddlehead fern or two throughout the farro. I found the farro a bit too crunchy — I like my farro to have a little bit of firmness to it, but I almost thought the grain was actually wheatberries instead (I am an obscure grains nerd — let’s talk about millet!).

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken -- beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken — beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Poached Chicken was the most disappointing dish. Poached in buttermilk and served with preserved lemon and pistachio spring fricasse (according to the menu — I’m actually not really sure what those three nouns mean collectively), it seemed to have the potential to have a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures. Unfortunately, while poached to the right soft consistency, the meat was relatively bland in flavor. The chicken was also the largest portion, which seemed like an attempt to make up for the lack of spark in the dish.

The Wild Mushrooms -- no Beecher's Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

The Wild Mushrooms — no Beecher’s Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

Luckily the side dishes more than made up for the lesser entrees. The wild mushrooms were sauteed with garlic and parsley and served with olive oil croutons, leaving them delicate and well-balanced in flavor, with the earthy mushroom taste balanced by the sharper garlic. It’s hard to top the mushroom tart I had at Beecher’s, but Blue Duck Tavern’s rendition had significantly more depth of flavor than the average side of mushrooms at a steakhouse.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries -- at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries — at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT fries were possibly the thickest cut steak fries I’ve ever since, cooked three ways before arriving at our table. The triple baked technique yielded a crisp outside with a thick, starchy center. Although I’m a big fan of thick cut fries, I actually found the crisp to starch ratio too heavily weighted towards the less-cooked innards. BDT serves their fries with a garlic aioli (this seems to be a common pairing these days), but I’m more of a plain jane ketchup gal when it comes to my taters.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits -- the stealth side that stole my heart.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits — the stealth side that stole my heart.

The dark horse side dish Creamy Stone Ground Grits ended up being one of my favorite components of the whole meal. Incorporating smoked gouda, full kernels of corn, and the espresso-infused Red-Eye gravy, the grits had a smoky, earthy flavor punctuated by the richness of the cheese and sweet corn. The use of espresso in the gravy helped to deepen the flavors, much like the addition of hot coffee can elevate a chocolate cake. I tend to lean to oatmeal when I think of porridges, but maybe it’s just because I hadn’t had grits like these before.

 

Let’s be frank with each other — everyone was expecting this meal to end in dessert. With my family, turning down a proffered dessert menu is a suspicion-inducing faux paus (What do you mean you don’t want some dessert? Are you all right? Let me feel your forehead.). Fortunately, the Blue Duck Tavern, in true reverence of American eating, happily indulges our national (and familial) sweet tooth. It was actually hard to pick between the assortment of cakes, tarts, pies, cookies, and homemade ice cream and sorbets, but we ultimately decided on Milk Chocolate Banana S’mores, Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream, and Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel. It was especially hard to turn down the La Colombe Espresso Creme Brulee, which magically manages to combine both my favorite coffee (La Colombe is a Philly-based company) and my favorite non-chocolate dessert. Guess I’ll just have to add that to my return trip order.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat's Milk Caramel -- a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel — a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

 

The ice creams were delicious — the Chocolate Brownie had a strong dark chocolate flavor, and the Honey Vanilla was mildly sweet and mostly tasted of fresh vanilla bean. I’m not sure what the goat’s milk base added to the caramel, but it was still a lovely accompaniment to the vanilla ice cream.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S'Mores -- an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S’Mores — an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

 

My personal order was the S’Mores, which I shared with my mother. The dish arrived as a giant homemade marshmallow atop a milk chocolate and banana mousse mold, with graham cracker crumbs and bruleed banana pieces on the bottom, topped with a cruncy banana chip. The mousse actually had a very mild milk chocolate flavor, with the freshness of the banana really shining in the dish. The marshmallow was just melted enough to keep it’s shape as my fork sliced through it, but remained sticky and gooey as it mingled with the different pieces of the dish. Upscale, but homey, BDT hit a homerun with this dish in both flavor and execution, serving as a perfect indication of the overall vibe of the restaurant.

 

Final Thoughts:

My meal at the Blue Duck Tavern was a fantastic experience, from start to finish. The quality of service, the unpretentious yet meticulous decor and cooking, and the diversity and freshness of the foods offered left everyone at my table satisfied, from grandchild to grandparent. It’s pretty impressive that a restaurant my brother Charles, who avoids most vegetables, considers a favorite, also offers a multitude of vegetarian options that are just as thoughtful and impressive as their carnivorous fare. BDT was strong from the complimentary bread basket to the final bite of dessert, but perhaps more impressive was the deep knowledge of the staff and their willingness to accommodate any and all requests. Here we were, a party of 7 and a toddler, a few of us verging on shlubby in appearance, and to Mike and the rest of the staff we could have been the Rockefellers. Each person we interacted with was professional, courteous, and never aloof. If you visit the Blue Duck Tavern, count on a lovely dining experience, well-curated for the palate and with a personal touch. I know I’ll stopping by next time I get the chance. I’ll just make sure I leave my sweatshirt at home.

The Blue Duck Tavern

24 & M STREETS, NORTHWEST, WASHINGTON, D.C.

http://www.blueducktavern.com/gallery/blueduck/home.html

The Cellar at Beecher’s: Underground Dining, Top Floor Food

With the floral arrangements and questionably humorous Hallmark cards of Mother’s Day still nipping at our heels, it seems only fitting to take a moment to talk about my own mother. I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a mama’s girl. As the youngest child and only girl in my family, I suppose it’s pretty understandable. Once my mother got over the mania that came with being able to finally buy dresses and Osh Kosh jumpers galore, and I got over my intense resistance to wearing anything without pant legs (I had three older brothers — a bout of tomboyism was inevitable), we settled into a strong relationship that has supported me and shaped me immeasurably ever since. Now I could go and explain how my mother’s work as a writer has enabled me to pursue my own creative projects, or how her openness and generosity (we rock a huge First Seder guestlist) has informed my politics and worldview, but let’s be serious. For this blog I’m going to talk about how my mom taught me to love food.

I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that strove to eat dinner together every night. Because of this, my relationship with food has always been deeply connected to the ideas of unity and community. As we’ve all grown up, exploring new foods and restaurants has become almost a tradition in my household, from tasting menus to new sweet shops (my mother is an unrepentant chocoholic, and my father loves ice cream — surely this explains a lot about me). Not to mention the fact that when all her children were fully grown, my mom finally got the chance to cook dishes outside of the Venn Diagram of hot dogs/tuna fish/taco night. While I’ve certainly enjoyed some of the more refined dishes she’s made for my visits home, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the classics that graced our table while I was growing up.

One such staple was macaroni and cheese. Very, very occasionally we would have the Blue Box Kraft version, which I appreciate for its place in Americana (and for its blatant ploy to ensnare dino-obsessed kids like myself with its mascot Cheesasaurus Rex). But my mother’s homestyle mac is a different beast, and much preferred, in my opinion. First things first, my mother employs the larger penne or rigatoni noodles, to better soak up the cheese sauce, which combined Velveeta, American and cheddar cheeses. On top went a few single slices of American cheese, baked to a deep brown crust that nearly verged on burnt. Presented in the same ceramic bowl on each occasion, my family became immediately divided into two camps — those who preferred a serving with the crunchy top, and those who desired the softer bottom layer. My mom’s mac and cheese was tender, saucy rather than gooey, and to this day is my optimal version of mac and cheese.

In all my years of mac and cheese consumption, I have tried plenty of excellent varieties, from lobster to buffalo to truffle. But I had never encountered anything similar to my mother’s rendition. That is, until last week, when Jacob, Mike and I made our third Cheeseplorational inquiry to Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in the Flatiron.

Aw yeah, it’s time to talk about cheese again.

First Impressions:

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

I used to work in the Flatiron District, so I’d passed Beecher’s many times before ever stepping inside. The top floor is occupied by the cheese store, where you can try samples of their cheeses and accompaniments, as well as purchasing smaller snacks and takeout versions of the mac and cheese varieties they sell in their restaurant. There is a small cafe upstairs with seating, which offers views down into the industrial metal vats where some of the cheese is made. This glass-enclosed area takes up nearly a third of the store, and can even be viewed from the windows outside, so passersby can see Beecher’s cheesemongers hard at work.

Inside on the first floor -- you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Inside on the first floor — you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Downstairs in The Cellar

Downstairs in The Cellar

Down a quick flight of stairs near the entrance you’ll find The Cellar at Beecher’s, the small lounge and restaurant that offers lunch and dinner menus. The overall atmosphere of The Cellar is restrained yet playful. At the back of the room is a small bar that offers beer, wine, and specialty cocktails (whimsically named for historical personalities connected to the building Beecher’s is housed in). The rest of the tight space is taken up by armchairs with low tables, a larger communal table, and the more common two-tops and four-tops. It’s dimly lit, except for the highlighted paintings on the wall which feature animal and cheese related puns. Much like Murray’s Cheese Bar, I appreciated the sense of whimsy to balance out the intensity of the hip-lounge vibe.

Nothing like a good food pun to whet your appetite.

I like my animal themed paintings like I like my cheese — slightly nutty.

There are only a dozen or so tables in total, and despite our dining on a Monday night, the place was full and bustling. Although I had my eye on one of the neat booths built into the wall, the three of us squeezed into a table technically meant for two. As I glanced behind me, I suddenly realized the brick walls of the lounge were broken up by glass cases of cheese wheels on display. It turns out The Cellar is also where Beecher’s ages its “Flatiron Cheese,” a variety exclusive to the New York location. Talk about a good omen.

Close enough to touch.

Close enough to touch.

The Food:

Both Mike and Jacob had already been to Beecher’s several times (in fact, Jacob lives right around the corner, and one can only resist the siren call so often), so they warned me to stay away from the wine list. Luckily, I was in the mood for something lighter, since I was about to coat my tongue in curds and whey, so I opted for an Allagash White, one of my favorite summer beers. It ended up working perfectly with the meal, refreshing without being assertive and clashing with the food.

Jacob had been talking up Beecher’s “World’s Best Mac and Cheese” for months, so obviously that was the first item we ordered. We then made our way through the small but diverse menu, picking the Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad, the Mushroom Tart, and the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. When the food arrived, our waitress had the unexpectedly Tetrise-seque challenge of finagling all the plates onto our already crowded table of glasses and cutlery. While Beecher’s certainly gets credit for cutting down on our wait time by squeezing 3 people into a two-top, it ultimately made things more difficult for the service and our dining.

The Burrata and Anjou ... Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata and Anjou … Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad came with sprigs of basil, sea salt, and several pieces of toast. I’d call it more of a deconstructed crostini than a salad, since the bread and burrata dominated more than the basil greens. (Or maybe I just have an overly provincial definition of salad in these wild days of culinary experimentation.) Regardless of naming practices, I found Beecher’s take on burrata to be much more successful than the one we tried at Murray’s Cheese Bar. The plate was presented with alternating slices of pear and burrata, which made it relatively easy to assemble (it would have been even easier if the kitchen had just done the work themselves, but I understand the impulse to avoid toast soggy with fruit/cheese juice. Gross.) The cheese was a little firmer, largely keeping its shape when lifted onto the bread. and the interplay of the crisp, sweet pear with the burrata cut through some of the richness of the cheese. The basil and sea salt worked to keep the dish savory, leading to a real progression of flavors across the tongue with each bite.

The Mushroom Tart -- handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart — handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart proved to be the unexpected hit dish of the night. Again, the menu’s description was a little misleading — Beecher’s seems to like deconstructing traditional presentations, so what actually ended up on our table was basically a stew of shiitake, crimini, and portabella mushrooms slightly overlapping a singular piece of pie crust. The stew was so intensely mushroomy, I was in fungus heaven, with rich wine-infused flavors that verged on a Marsala sauce. The mushrooms were tender but still had some heft to them, reminding me of the base for a mushroom bisque just before it’s been pureed. As for the crust, it was actually most reminiscent of a biscuit in texture, more crumbly than flaky. I liked the crust, but I would have been just as happy with just a bowl of the mushrooms. I went back for seconds and thirds, and found that the flavors were even more heightened when combined with the creamy sweetness of the sauce from the mac and cheese.

The lady of the hour -- "World's Best" Mac and Cheese.

The lady of the hour — “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese.

Speaking of, the “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese, although sporting a rather ostentatious name, turned out to be pretty damn delicious. As I mentioned earlier, I was struck by how similar Beecher’s approach to the dish was to my mother’s — using penne over elbow macaroni, with a white cheese sauce that was creamy rather than sticky. Beecher’s didn’t fully broil the top, which I was perfectly fine with, as a lifelong member of the pro-mac-underside club. I believe Beecher’s uses their flagship cheese, a cow’s milk variety of white American cheddar, mild with just a hint of tang that is barely detectable in their Mac and Cheese. It was served in a basic oval dish, and I appreciated the homestyle approach, not only for nostalgic reasons, but for how it fit into the overall vibe of The Cellar — down to earth but still informed. Based on the few cheese-centric restaurants I’ve been to, it seems like the each of the waitstaffs really love working at their restaurants. I can’t blame them, I’m pretty sure I’d be plenty happy surrounded by cheese and wine all day.

The Cheesemonger's Five Cheese Plate -- a strong showing with some highs and lows.

The Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate — a strong showing with some highs and lows.

Last, but far from least, was the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. In the chaos of trying to fit all of our dishes on the table, our waitress accidentally neglected to tell us which cheeses had been monged for our enjoyment. We managed to flag her down a few moments later for the full details. While I grabbed a takeaway menu on my way out of Beecher’s (including the cheeses offered at The Cellar), Artisanal still holds top prize for literally giving us a guide to our cheese plate. So based on my slightly hazy memories and the menu, here are the cheeses I believe we tried, clockwise from the top right: Pt. Reyes Cheese Co., Original Blue, cow, CA; Vermont Creamery, Bijou, goat, VT; Holland’s Family Cheese, Marieke Gouda, cow, WI; Cowgirl Creamery, Red Hawk, cow, CA; VT Shepherd, Queso del Invierno, sheep & cow, VT.

Like Murray’s the cheese and accompaniments were set out on a slate board, separated by pairing. I really liked the attention to detail that came with the pairing of each cheese with specific item, rather than giving us “some things that generally go well with lots of cheese.” The only general addition was the crackers, which were perfectly pleasant if unremarkable in flavor. Of the cheeses, the only one I’d tried before was Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, during a vacation in Napa a few years ago. I was very excited to see it on the menu, since it was one of the best cheeses I tasted in California (yes, my vacation involved a lot of cheese — no one is surprised), and remains one of my favorites to this day. I’ve had trouble finding Cowgirl’s products here in NY, so discovering that Beecher’s carries at least Red Hawk was fantastic news. Here’s hoping they have some other varieties as well.

Red Hawk is a rich cheese, smooth and soft to the point of being somewhat spreadable without being runny. It has a salty, earthy flavor, it was paired excellently with a grapefruit marmalade.

As with my previous cheese posts, I was happiest with the really funky cheeses, so I thought the Original Blue made a strong showing. This cheese is a pretty bold blue, so I’d recommend delaying your hot makeout sessions unless pairing it with Listerine. Perhaps in acknowledgment of a blue cheese lover’s likely singledom, Beecher’s chose to pair itwith fig jam, which showed up twice on our cheese plate (more successfully here than with the gouda).

The Marieke Gouda was a nice compromise between the attributes of young and older goudas. It had the buttery, caramel flavor of and older gouda, but was slightly softer than the chunky, dry and hard aged variety. Apparently, this cheese just won top prize at the 2013 US Championship Cheese Contest, and while I enjoyed it, I think I personally prefer the super-aged, crusty crystallized and crumbly type of gouda. The Marieke was also paired with the fig jam, which I didn’t think did much for the cheese.

The Queso del Invierno was my least favorite — I found it too mild in flavor. There was nothing bad about it, but I thought it really worked best as a vehicle for the candied nuts that were paired with it. I’m a little surprised, because it was the only cheese made of blended milks on our plate, but I could see it working best grated into a salad, or even to bolster the flavor of a macaroni and cheese.

My favorite cheese of the night was the Bijou Goat Cheese. It’s semi-soft to soft cheese, similar in texture to Red Hawk, holding its overall structure but featuring a paste-like interior. It had that grassy, goat cheese flavor with a good tang and some underlying sweetness, and came with honey with some honeycomb mixed into it. The honey perfectly complemented the cheese, heightening the sweetness while allowing the pungent goaty taste to still shine through.

Final Thoughts:

Now that I’ve been to a handful of cheese shops and restaurants in New York, I feel like I’m starting to zero in on the features that matter to me the most. While I still think that Artisanal had the best cheese plate and service, my meal at Beecher’s was more enjoyable on a dish by dish basis. A common thread in my most positive restaurant experiences (at least on this blog) is the low-key tone of the restaurants. I’d rather have a fun dining experience at a place with mediocre food than feel uncomfortable at an overly pretentious restaurant that serves the best Chilean Sea Bass you’ve ever tasted. The Cellar at Beecher’s took the cute milk-puns on the wall at Murray’s Cheese Bar and filled their lounge with it. The best part is that they’re not immediately apparent — a glance at the paintings might lead you to think they were generic art prints, but if you stop and actually look at them, you realize how silly the content is. The Cellar has the veneer of cool and classy, but underneath is the soul of the cheese nerds who want to share their curdly passion with you.

I’m bound to go back for the mushroom tart alone, but Beecher’s also offers a few more adventurous types of mac and cheese on The Cellar’s menu (curried cauliflower anyone?), so I’ll have to try out these parallel universe versions of my mother’s dish. If you’re game for a little tongue-in-cheek humor with a strong menu of cheesy delights, check out The Cellar. After all, I can’t invite everyone to my mother’s house for mac and cheese, so you might as well get the next best thing.

The Cellar at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese

Corner of Broadway & 20th St.

http://www.beechershandmadecheese.com

Review: Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, or Cheese Bar Hunger Games — May the slice be ever in your flavor

Although you’d never think it from the things I write about, when I’m not stuffing my face with Megastuf Oreos or jelly donuts, I do attempt to eat relatively healthily. Yes, those Trader Joe’s frozen dinners and canned soups do come into the picture from time to time, but most weeks I cook lunch to bring into work, and aim to eat dinner at home as often as possible. As a consequence of both shallow pockets (beans = cheaper than chicken) and a growing love of fresh produce, I’ve kind of become a part-time vegetarian. Yes, I do love me some meat, but if push came to shove, I think I could survive without hamburgers or fried chicken. Veganism, however, is a whole other story. Sure, I could say goodbye to a rack of lamb or a Thanksgiving Turkey, but give up omelets? Pizza? Ice cream? Or worst of all, cheese? Sorry, PETA, it ain’t happening.

With that in mind, it will come as no surprise that my dairy-dependent friends Mike and Jacob and I would choose Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro as our next dinner event. After all, it was Artisanal’s Cheese of the Month Club that inspired our gustatory pilgrimages in the first place. So last week we decided to dine in and see how this cheese-inflected restaurant compared to Murray’s. Worst case scenario, we’d end up with more than enough of our daily calcium requirement.

2013-02-18 18.56.37

Despite the Park Ave address, Artisanal is really just around the corner, on 32nd street.

First Impressions:

Unlike the restaurant offshoot of Murray’s Cheese, Artisanal has operated a bistro along with its fromagerie for over a decade. Located just off Park Avenue in the Flatiron/Murray Hill borderland, the restaurant is fairly unassuming. In many ways Artisanal’s aesthetic is the complete opposite of Murray’s Cheese Bar: while Murray’s was all casual white kitchen tiles and lactic-pun filled chalkboards, Artistanal is fashioned in the classic French bistro style, draped in red and yellow, with wicker chairs, leather banquettes, and elegant murals on the walls. The waiters were all dressed in crisp white shirts and black slacks, and were very friendly but professional. While Murray’s is small, noisy, and crowded, Artisanal was airy and bustling but discernibly refined in tone. I imagine that you’d be expected to shush your kids if they were being too rowdy in Artisanal.

Inside Artisanal -- note the mural along the back wall.

Inside Artisanal — note the mural along the back wall.

If Murray’s cheese bar is the young and hip, industrial kitchen American cheese club, Artisanal is the older Continental cousin who is more reserved, old-fashioned, methodical and professorial. The plus side of this is that the staff at Artisanal is eager to educate their diners about all aspects of the menu, from wine pairings to cheese varieties. Artisanal actually has quite an extensive menu of inventive takes on classic French cuisine, from Duck Bourguignon to (of course) cheese fondue. I was tempted to try several entrees, but resolved to hold out for another visit. We had come for cheese, so cheese it would have to be.

Food:
We opted to go for a couple of small plates (ostensibly for some greenery and balance, but who were we kidding) along with the “Plateau” — a board of meats, cheeses, and assorted accompaniments.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi, with a medley of vegetables. Look how big each gnocchi (gnoccho?) is!

Butternut Squash Gnocchi, with a medley of vegetables. Note how big each gnocchi (gnoccho?) is.

To start we had the butternut squash gnocchi, which were far from uniform in size, but unilaterally delicious. They were soft in texture without being mealy, and managed to achieve the smooth caramel flavor of butternut squash without veering into high levels of starch. The gnocchi came with a medley of roasted vegetables, including brussel sprouts and wild mushrooms. As it happened, we had chosen roasted root vegetables as our other starter, so there was a welcomed abundance of veggies, at least for me. The root vegetable side included potatoes, carrots, turnips, and more wild mushrooms, and all were well-seasoned, full of salt, pepper and oil while retaining a crisp bite. And given how fungi-forward I am, I was delighted by the double dose of mushrooms. I find it odd how much I relish well-made vegetables these days, but I suppose in the scheme of things, I could have far worse obsessions (cough cookies and candy cough).

Roasted root vegetables -- straightforward, but very well executed.

Roasted root vegetables — straightforward, but very well executed.

But let’s get to the main event: the Plateau. It arrived on a long wooden board, with a pile of charcuterie on one side, the selection of six cheeses in the middle, and a variety of dried fruit, walnuts, berry gelee, and a small piece of fig cake. In contrast to Murray’s Cheese Bar, there were no crackers provided, although we were offered unlimited refills on the complimentary bread basket (which featured 3 types of bread).

Our overflowing bread basket.

Our overflowing bread basket.

Our waitress was very kind and patient throughout the course of the meal, answering all of our questions and offering advice on the type of cheeses we should try and how we should plan our meal. An additional charming bit of good service was the fact that the fromager provided us with a marked menu from the cheese counter, which specifically noted which cheeses he had selected for us. Our six cheeses ranged from mild to intense, and included one of Artisanal’s special “truffle cheeses,” which we opted for at an additional cost. The “La Carte Des Fromages” menu was a wonderful resource, separated by animal of origin which is shown through an adorable heading featuring a little goat, sheep, cow or combination.

The Plateau -- rom bottom right counter clockwise: Camembert, Tomme De Savoie, Garrotxa, Trifulin, Holzige Geiss, and Roquefort.

The Plateau — from the bottom right counter clockwise: Camembert, Tomme De Savoie, Garrotxa, Trifulin, Holzige Geiss, and Roquefort. Not to mention the pile of charcuterie, sliced apples and pears, walnuts, fig cake, and strawberry gelee. Whew.

Although I love eating and learning about the vast multitude of cheese types, I’m actually not very good at breaking down and articulating the differences between individual cheeses. I’m going to attempt to go through my lows and highs of the Plateau cheeses, but my comments will probably err on the side of “um, cheesy and delicious!” rather than “oaken in quality, with a buttery mouthfeel.” For now, I can only aspire to that level of pretentiousness.

– Camembert (French cowsmilk, classic, soft cheese, very creamy and rich, earthy flavor): My least favorite of the bunch, probably because it was the most familiar cheese for me. I understand the reasoning behind including it — you want to have a more basic cheese that grounds the plate and gives the diners a “safe choice.” But as it happens I prefer the less assertive nature of Brie for my soft cheeses, and since I’ve had plenty of Camembert before, I was a little disappointed we weren’t trying a more exotic variety (some sort of American cousin, maybe?). There was nothing bad about this Camembert, but nothing that made it particularly memorable.

– Tomme De Savoie (French cowsmilk cheese — milder, little firmer, described as “nutty, stout”): I discovered when I got home that Tomme De Savoie is actually on my “Cheeses to Try” list (ugh, yes, I am that person. I know, I can’t stand me either). It was a little bit more of a palate cleanser, less coating of the tastebuds than the stronger cheeses on the board. This allowed the accompaniments to shine a bit more in combination with the cheese. For example, when paired with the strawberry gelee, you got a great contrast of sweet jam and the nuttiness of the cheese. Had I been offered the Tomme De Savoie on its own, I probably would have given it a stronger review, but it got a little lost in the funky fray of the stronger cheeses.

– Garrotxa (Spanish goat cheese, semisoft): Garrotxa was actually one of the cheeses featured during our Cheese of the Month Club, and I remember enjoying it then (especially because of the unusual name.) It was also on the nutty side of things — the menu describes it as having “hints of hazelnuts,” but again I found I preferred it when spread on bread or mixed with the fig cake, rather than savoring it alone.

– Roquefort (French sheepsmilk cheese, soft, creamy, strong  tangy flavor): As I think I mentioned in my Murray’s review, I’m learning that I really love flat-out “smells like feet,” in-your-face, assertive cheeses, so any type of blue cheese is A-okay with me. This Roquefort was pungent, and paired well with the walnuts, green apples and pear slices which balanced out the tang. When tasting cheeses I find I want a cheese that will linger on your tongue a little while, and this sample did in the best way possible. Definitely of a higher quality than your average Gorgonzola crumbles.

– Trifulin (mixed milk cheese with Black Truffle, semisoft): Although I really enjoyed this cheese, I’m struggling to identify what made it so good. Perhaps it was the richness of the Black Truffle in it. It was decadent and very creamy, but milder in flavor than I expected. Honestly, if you hadn’t told me it featured truffles, I would never have been able to pick them out. But at the time I was eating it, I couldn’t stop taking more pieces. This might have been a case of enjoying the novelty and the experience of eating something rather than favoring any particular flavor.

– Holzige Geiss (Swiss cheese, semisoft goat cheese): The neat thing about this cheese is that it is wrapped in tree bark as it ages. This is no holey Swiss cheese, my friends — it had a strong flavor with a heavy, creamy quality, and a salty kick. I found myself coming back for more again and again. It spread great on the soft french bread, and lame as it might be to say, I honestly believe the bark infused it with a “woodsy” quality. It had the kind of smokey earthiness I’m drawn to in stronger cheeses. Maybe it’s the earthy, mushroomy quality that I like (geez, this blog is like “Number One Oreo and Mushroom Fan” these days). I’m going to look for this one again — hopefully they sell it at Fairway!

The board also included some charcuterie and cornichons. I only tried a small piece of the meat, but it seemed to be very delicately cured and cut — not so assertive with the pickling flavor. I appreciated the variety of meats offered, although I suppose they could have been more deliberately plated. It was interesting the way that Artisanal sort of walked the line between reserved European aloofness and a little messier American eagerness. Maybe the Plateau is the perfect symbol of their interplay between serious cheese devotion and little more freewheeling food fun.

Of course we had to have dessert -- Warm chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream.

Naturally, we had to have dessert — Warm chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream.

Of course, all this food was not going to stop us from getting dessert. We finished off the meal with a warm chocolate tart, which was almost like a lava cake in terms of the oozing dark chocolate inside. It came with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream and a biscuit tuile. Since this is the third time I’ve had salted caramel ice cream in the past couple of months, clearly the salt/sweet/chocolate combo is becoming very trendy. For this ice cream, the caramel flavor itself was not as strong as the saltiness, but I was okay with that given the sweetness of the chocolate tart. There was also a semisolid chocolate sauce which seemed to be made of possibly unsweetened chocolate — it did cut some of the richness of the other parts of the dish, but in a distracting way that detracted from the overall dessert. Ultimately, as good as the tart was, after the variety of flavors we’d had from the cheeseboard, it was hard for the dessert to really stand out. I think I would have appreciated it more if I had ordered a more traditional meal, but given the richness of the Plateau’s offerings, the chocolate tart was pleasant, but not anything to rave about.

Final thoughts:

I think what impressed me most about Artisanal was the attention to detail shown throughout the meal. From our attentive waitress who patiently dealt with all of our questions (how good is this dish? Is this enough food? What’s a truffle cheese?), to the clearly marked rubric for our cheeseboard, to the never empty bread basket or water glass, I came away from my meal feeling like my experience as a diner was the top priority. Yes, you’re paying slightly more than you would at Murray’s, but that surcharge goes toward quality service and frankly, better food. I would say that if you’re looking for some wine and small bites, Murray’s is a fun place to try out. It’s more casual, which caters to those who either don’t care as much about cheese education, or those who are knowledgeable enough to recognize names and types of cheese and make selections on their own. Artisanal falls in the middle of that spectrum, reaching out to those like myself who are only just figuring out the difference between Raclette and Roomano, and appreciate a little guidance. Artisanal also wins points for offering a dessert menu that I’d actually want to eat (of course this goes into personal preference, since I’d clearly rather have cheese as a main course rather than a dessert. No apple pie with cheddar for me, please. The only dairy I take with my pie is ice cream). Overall, I’d recommend Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro for a nice lunch or dinner, whether you’re a cheesehead or just looking for a slightly nouveau take on French cuisine. Settle yourself in for a classy, but down-to earth meal — rest assured that you’ll be taken care of.

Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro
2 Park Ave
http://www.artisanalbistro.com