Per Se: A Young Diner at a Young Restaurant

In my brief stint as a fine diner (with Charlie Trotters, Seegers and now Per Se under my belt) I have reached the following conclusion about fine dining. It goes like this: fine dining is like death.

Death is quiet. So is fine dining. Death is peaceful. So is fine dining. Death is infinite. So–it frequently seems–is fine dining.

Forgive my over-extended metaphor, but the reason so many people declare a fine dining experience to be “spiritual” is that it creates a sense of order: it says, with its confluence of waiters and busboys and hosts and hostesses, that there is a system out there, an ordered system, and that you are part of it. You are the star of it. We are here to make you well.

A good restaurant, then, creates this spiritual aura without alienating their customers. We want that sense of Divine inspiration without the formality of a temple. My dismay at Charlie Trotters version of fine dining is that it was too much a self-conscious religious experience. Charlie Trotter prostletizes. Thomas Kellar–I can say after tonight’s Per Se dinner–offers forth. If you want to call it religious, go ahead, but that’s not the point. Thomas Kellar isn’t prostletizing, he is sharing.

I went tonight to Per Se with my parents. This, I worried, would be a dangerous formula. My mom likes to deconstruct a dish pre-service, ordering everything on the side; my dad fears any food that doesn’t start and end with “steak and potatoes.”

My fears were unfounded. But first, the arrival.

In case you’re not aware, Per Se is located in the Time Warner center at Columbus Circle:

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Apparently there are secret elevators that take your right to the restaurant, but we went the pedestrian way with the riffraff. Making our way up to the fourth floor, my mom declared: “I don’t get this place. It’s just a shopping mall.”

“A billion dollar shopping mall,” I offered, to no avail.

Finally, on the fourth floor, we approached the mighty blue door of Per Se.

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Would I be wrong to point out the religious implications of a fierce intimidating door separating laymen from Nirvana? And how ironic that the door itself doesn’t open: you go in through the glass sliding doors on either side.

Once inside–in case you forgot where you were headed–chrome letters spell out the restaurant’s name:

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We were greeted by jovial hostesses who rather tactfully asked us if we had a reservation. It became apparent why when a couple in shorts and baseball caps staggered in after us and asked if they had any tables for tonight. Clearly, these hostesses were having to deal regularly with well-meaning mall-goers who figured that Per Se was Time Warner’s version of The Cheesecake Factory. “Sorry ma’am,” the hostess said kindly to Lady Baseball Cap, “We have nothing available tonight.”

Meanwhile, my mother began admiring the floor. I recalled an article that said Thomas Kellar tore up the floor three times until it was perfect. I took a picture for your pleasure:

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I also admired the floristry. Everywhere there were beautiful flowers that gave off a lovely aroma:

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Mom and I posed for a picture in front of the hostess stand:

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Then we were taken to our table.

Here’s where our night hit its first roadbump. The table was on the second tier, in a corner, by the bus station. It felt like the worst table in the house and probably was. I was facing a wall and mom and dad were facing the window, but not gladly. We were pretty far away.

“Should I say something?” asked mom.

Dad and I nodded. She called over a waiter.

“You know,” said my mother, with her coquettish charm, “We’re really not happy with this table. Would it be possible to sit near a window?”

I was pretty sure they would apologize and refuse. But I was wrong. We were quickly moved to a window table, with a gorgeous view of Columbus Circle and the Southwest tip of Central Park.

“Thank you so much,” said my mother.

We began to admire the flowers on the table.

“These are beautiful,” said mom, “I’ve never seen flowers this pretty that weren’t fake.”

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We began by ordering cocktails. I went with the waiter-recommended champagne cocktail with orange bitters:

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Mom ordered a cosmo and sent it back because it was too watery.

Dad was contented with a giant glass of gin and tonic.

Mom examined the wine list:

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She marveled over its reasonableness.

“I can’t believe how cheap some of these wines are,” she declared.

We went with a 2002 Napa Valley Neyers Chardonnay which proved tasty and wildly efficient: it lasted quite fully for the whole meal.

Here I am reading the menu as the sun goes down:

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The waiter returned and listened amused as we all ordered the same thing: Chef’s Tasting Menu with Foie Gras for the second course (the only choice we had to make).

Mom and Dad posed for a picture:

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After which our not-on-the-menu appetizers arrived: the French Laundry famous mini-ice-cream-cones with salmon tartare:

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The insides were filled with creme fraich, and taken as a whole they were a textural and flavorful delight.

Next up was the “Oysters and Pearls” (the waiter gave me the menu so I can report accurately on each dish’s contents): “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Iranian Ossetra Caviar.

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This was a really nice dish. Everything worked well to complement everything else (a recurrent theme throughout the night). The “sabayon” tied everything together.

Next, was the “Peach Melba” / Moulard Duck “Foie Gras Au Torchon” Frog Hollow Farms Peach Jelly, Pickled White Peaches, Marinated Red Onion, “Melba Toast” and Crispy Carolina Rice:

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This was such pretty presentation and all the flavors carried. I really liked the combination of peach and foie gras, another testament to liver’s secret inner-candy life. The Melba toasts ran out and they were quickly replenished.

After which (or before which? I don’t remember) we were served a lovely bread roll with two types of butter:

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“Those look amazing,” said my mother. “I don’t normally eat bread, but here it goes.”

I won’t lie: she was a little disappointed, but mostly because it wasn’t warm. Otherwise she–plus dad and I–scarfed them right up.

Next up was: Filet of Atlantic Halibut Cooked “A La Plancha.” Extra Virgin Olive Oil Braised Fingerling Potatoes, Roasted Spring Garlic and Arugala Pudding:

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This most reminded me of Charlie Trotter’s. Very elegant, very professional, but almost drab in its perfection. This one didn’t really do it for me.

After which there was the “Noilly Prat”: Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster “Cuit en Sous Vide.” Carmelized Fennel Disc, Crystallized Fennel Chip and Sauce “Noilly Prat”:

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This was really nice. I declared the lobster to be incredibly tender, my mom declared it to be incredibly tough.

“You’re cutting it the wrong way,” explained my dad to my mom. She was cutting it vertically instead of horizontally.

“Oh,” she replied.

We all chewed gladly.

Then came the Pan Roasted Cavendish Farms Quail: “Puree” of Spring Onions, Apple Wood Smoked Bacon “Lardons” and Wilted Dandelion Greens.

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I thought this was exceptional presentation. The sauce on the plate seemed incredibly expert. And the quail had perfectly crisped skin and a ton of flavor. Quite impressive.

After which there was the Elysian Fields Farm “Selle D’Agneau Rotie Entiere”: Braised Shoulder, Fava Beans, Golden Chanterelles, Roasted Crosnes and Lamb Jus.

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This, our waiter/interpreter explained, was lamb. My mom bit in first and said–quite shockingly: “Needs salt.”

“Mom,” I declared heatedly, “You can’t ask for salt at Per Se! That isn’t done!”

Assuming the fault was with my mother and not the lamb, I took a bite and instantly agreed. It needed salt.

Well, a few bites later I realized that there were depth-charges of salt unequally distributed throughout. Was this on purpose? Not sure.

And that was the conclusion of the entrees.

Then the cheese course: “Charolais”: “Gelee de Pomme Verte,” Satur Farms Red Beets and English Walnut Short Bread:

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Here was my big moment. I am a certified cheesephobe, indoctrinated by my dad in the art of cheese hating. My mother has always been slightly more tolerant–sprinkling her salads with feta and bleau. Here at Per Se I took the leap and almost enjoyed my Charolais. The beets surely helped. But I would be a liar if I didn’t say it tasted like a foot.

We forced my dad to take a bite and his facial expression was worth its weight in Charolais. He’s still trying to get the taste out of his mouth.

That was followed by the Pineapple Sorbet with Braised Pineapple and Coconut Cream:

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Refreshing, but not earth-shattering.

Next up was earth-shattering: “Tentation Au Chocolat, Noisette Et Lait”–Milk Chocolate “Cremeux,” Hazelnut “Streusel” with Condensed Milk Sorbet and “Sweetened Salty Hazelnuts” and “Pain au Lait” Coulis.

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Here was the great equalizer: we all kvelled in unison. Our trilateral “Mmmm”ing disturbed many a table. But it was that good.

We were then inundated with unordered, grudgingly welcomed desserts. The men were presented with yogurt, figs at the bottom:

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The women (my mom) received creme brulee:

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We found this Matriarchal dessert division to be deeply upsetting.

“I wanted creme brulee,” said my dad sadly.

The waiter instantly obliged and all was well.

I felt on the verge of bursting.

And then there was more: “Mignardises.”

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The macaroons were outrageously good. So were the candies. I felt my insides begin a protest: “NO MORE!”

And then there was more. Chocolates!

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A white flag waved from within. I snapped up one chocolate, popped it in my mouth, and called it a night.

And now before my forced conclusion, a brief note on the bathroom.

Per Se has 16 tables plus a large private dining room. There are two one-stall men’s rooms and therein lies the problem. I have a tiny alcohol-affected bladder that forces me to the bathroom two to three times per fine dining experience. Tonight, each time I went, there was someone leaving just as I walked in. This gave the restaurant zero time to clean up and, unfortunately, bathroom maintenance became an issue. There were non-flushers (blech!) and the towels ran out. I was none too happy.

But, that aside, Per Se was a great fine dining experience. I agree with those who say it’s still getting its leggings–we had a waiter present a course and forget his lines halfway through the presentation of what he was serving–but that will come in good time.

For my own purposes, I lump Per Se in with the other fine dining Deathstaurants. It’s an experience–like seeing God–but I’m not ready to see God. One day, sure, but for now I’ll stick to youthful exuberance. Who’s up for fondue?

Emperor Balthazar, Doth Thou Have No Clothes?

When Restaurant Magazine listed its Top 50 Restaurants in the World this year, Balthazar placed 40th. This came as a surprise because I had been to Balthazar once before and didn’t love it. Was I missing something?

After watching a play reading this morning at Juilliard, I hopped into a Death Cab (this guy was literally out to die) and met my parents in SoHo. Our reservation was at 1:30, so we killed some time shopping at the trendy stores.

Check out this trendy Prada store, for example. The manequins are arranged like school children in an Ayn Rand novel:

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Here’s dad with a skeleton:

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And here’s a really cool product at the MOMA store: stainless steel soap to get the garlic and onion smell off your fingers:

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At 1:15ish we made our way over to Balthazar, and here’s mom before going in to claim our table:

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Meanwhile, Lisa arrived eager to gorge with us:

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The place was a’buzzing. Balthazar is a happening lunch spot, and today–Saturday–I think the mix was equal parts tourists and equal parts regulars. The interior had the look and feel of a French bistro (I think that’s the point) and everyone looked accordingly continental. Our host even looked a little bi-coastal, if you know what I mean.

Here’s the scene:

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We sat down near the back and felt like worker bees on the outskirts of the hive. Our waiter had a proper French accent and a horrendous birthmark on his face. We won’t hold that against him.

We proceeded to order a $12 basket of bread:

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It turned out to be my favorite part of the meal. The croissant was wonderful, as was the chocolate bread with a real piece of bittersweet chocolate inside. And the sticky bun, which we saved til the end, was indeed lip-smacking.

It went downhill from there. But, to be fair, it may have been my ordering. Because we’re going to Per Se tonight (we leave in 30 minutes!) I wanted to eat light. So mom and I ordered soup and salad: shrimp bisque and the waiter-recommended Balthazar Salad.

Here’s the bisque:

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It was watery on the top and had zero flavor. As I worked my way down, though, it got more flavorful until at the bottom it actually tasted good. Maybe I should have stirred?

And the salad:

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This was the real disappointment. It tasted like nothing. There were some interesting elements: the asparagus, the hericot vers, the sliver of cheese. But it had no character, nothing memorable about it. In fact I’d like to extract the memory completely from my head. Dr. Bunsen, if you’ll please.

[ZAP!]

Whatever did I have for lunch today? I can hardly remember.

Lisa, on the other hand, chose a winner—-a brunch time waffle with berries:

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If only I hadn’t alread had a waffle at breakfast.

The scenery was pretty nice:

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Although my dad mocked the lighting. “This is one of the best restaurants in the world,” he said, ” and they have lights like that?” The lights looked like insect killers. It was a decent point.

I won’t be so daring as to call Balthazar a fraud or a charlatan of a restaurant. I’ll simply say that both times I’ve been I’ve been less than impressed. Maybe it’s a matter of ordering the right thing but that doesn’t make sense because if it’s on the menu at the world’s 40th best restaurant it should taste great no matter what it is. Those are my thoughts. And now for Per Se!

Lunch at Fresco

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Fresco is a sprightly Italian joint on Madison Avenue where powerplayers and fans of the Today show come to dine. Fans of the Today Show because Fresco’s owner, Mrs. Scotto, and her family are frequently guests with Matt Lauer and Katy Couric. In fact, my parents just one week ago spotted Katy Couric while lunching at Fresco. It’s like the fine dining equivalent of standing outside the Today Show studio with a large piece of poster board that reads: “CARLOS IS MY BABY DADDY!”

Well, that’s not fair. The food is fantastic. When I spent a summer at NYU with my friend Dana, we went to Fresco during restaurant week and had a fabulous 3-course lunch for $19.99.

Alas, this week isn’t restaurant week but we had our fair share of terrific dining.

First we shared a mozarrella salad–my mom added the onions (she’s an onion maven)–and it tasted great, especially since the mozarrella is homemade!

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We also shared a crabcake which was very good, though not as great as the best crabcake ever at Bacchanalia (which has permanently ruined any other crab cake for me):

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For our entrees, mom and dad shared a pasta with rock shrimp (not pictured). And I had a big fat plate of risotto with duck confit:

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The risotto didn’t have a ton of flavor, but with the confit it became a delightful combination: the risoto saucy and savory and the duck salty and rich. I only ate half, though, because I felt my insides start to inflate.

For dessert we shared a decadent brownie concoction that sent spoons and hearts flying:

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And then we had a nice visit from Mrs. Scotto, who made the rounds and spent an exceptional amount of time at our table. She is a lovely woman with a humble air that would make it easy to forget she owns one of the most successful lunch spots in New York. Mom suggested that I get a recipe book which Mrs. Scotto brought over and autographed:

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She then posed for a picture with my dad:

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Their chemistry was so compelling, that they ran off together leaving my mother and I shocked and silent. We dabbed at the remaining brownie bits and left our table, directionless and alone.

Another successful meal at Fresco!

The ‘Oberts Family at ‘Cesca

[First, please notice the addition of a new category: Eating New York! Yes the time has come ladies and gentlemen. Only three months away before I move from Dixieland to Yankeetown. Oy can hoydly wait.]

As you may recall, last week my parents declared their love for ‘Cesca. They told me I had to go when I came to New York this week. Then they decided to come with me. And so tonight we went to ‘Cesca.

‘Cesca is located on the Upper West Side and is creating quite a stir there because up ’til this point, the Upper West Side had a bit of a sagging food culture. Now, apparently, business is booming. With this and Tom Valenti’s other pad, Ouest, Upper West Siders are eating like never before. Tonight we joined them.

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The first thing to mention about ‘Cesca is the jovial, relaxed atmosphere. We walked in and right away the hostesses started to banter with us. I don’t recall the exact content of the bantering, but let me tell you: it was really good banter.

The walls are a rather soothing creme-colored with Medieval Times chandeliers hanging from above.

The bantering hostess led us to our table, near the back. We passed the wood-burning oven on the way:

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The table was a half booth, half table situation. So mom and I sat on the booth side:

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Dad sat on the table side (notice the Medieval Times chandelier in the back) (and why’s that guy got a napkin on his face?):

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Our waiter came over and proved to be a good combination of knowledgable and fun. He put up with my mother’s inquiries of “what, honestly, is the best thing on the menu? Tell us the truth.” He revealed his amor for the pancetta-wrapped liver.

“Ugh,” said my mother.

My dad shook his head.

But I felt a tingling of inspiration. Did I not just challenge my readers to try food they hadn’t had before? (See The Upper Left Corner). Should I not now test my own capacity for the foreign and exotic? I quickly jumped at the opportunity and said: “I’ll have that!”

Mom and dad rather timidly ordered swordfish.

But first there were starters. Mom and I shared a scallop risotto with what might have been the best scallops I have ever tasted:

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Notice the dark golden brown crust at the top of the scallops? They were perfectly caramelized. Both sweet and salty at the same time. I loved them.

Dad got the mozarella roasted red pepper salad he got last week:

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Nice, but meager compared to our scallops.

The plates were cleared. Time passed. And then the moment of truth.

Mom and dad got their swordfish (not pictured).

And I got my liver:

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Now for those of my parents’ generation, there’s nothing really shocking about liver. A staple of my father’s childhood, liver and onions doesn’t send a chill down his spine the way it does mine. And of course Jewish people–myself included–will occassionally tackle chopped liver (which, admittedly, IS good). I do have an anti-liver fanatic grandmother who, whenever someone orders chopped liver, announces with vigor: “Liver’s an organ meat!” Which, apparently, means that it will kill you.

But I’ve never eaten just a cooked liver, let alone one cooked with pancetta. I am a brave soul and I am here to tell you that: the pancetta part made it ok. I think just the liver itself would, as Grandma Cassandra predicted, kill me—not for its fatty content, but for its gamey body-part-tasting flavor. I mean it’s a flavor I could get used to, I suppose. But the pancetta–crispy, flavorful, almost sweet–masqued the liver’s bad qualities and amplified its good qualities. Plus the polenta was creamy and went great with the liver sauce. All in all, I’m glad I took the leap.

[My dad interjects: “What do you call a small piece of liver?” Anyone? Anyone? “A sliver.”]

For dessert we shared a marscapone cheesecake which was really nice and really light:

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That sauce you see is bitter orange and it was a nice complement.

I can’t say that I loved my meal at ‘Cesca. I just really liked it. I wouldn’t run back there kicking scissor kicks in the air, like I had to do in my 6th grade production of “Oliver” during “Consider Yourself.” That I wouldn’t do. All in all I’d give it a firm, well-deserved ‘B.

Oh Babbo, My Babbo: An Epic Poem

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And then the bread of crusty crust

sparking such debate

Lisa saying: “Eh, it’s ok”

And me saying: “It’s great!”

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The waitress steered us brave and clear

through a menu tough and tricky;

A pasta here, an entree there

and “God, not that, it’s icky!”

Beginning with an autumn salad,

Lisa declared: “It’s warm!”

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Mint Love Letters graced my plate;

Their function quashed their form.

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And then the entrees landed fast

our mouths screamed out: “Oh Looky!”

Lisa had the pumpkin lune

complete with grated cookie.

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I, in turn, enjoyed the duck

a full-on flavor attack;

when the waitress asked: “How’s everything here?”

I could only answer: “Quack, quack!”

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Our table cleared, we took a leap

two desserts that we would order:

chocolate hazelnut for Lisa

with a caramel chocolate border.

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I, of course, partook of lemon

crostini to be exact;

so tart, so sweet, my soul complete:

our dinner’s final act.

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Blissful was our countenance,

our faith in life all mended;

We left on wings of glory

Forsooth! My New York trip has ended.

Babbo Bathroom Review

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Fittingly, the last in our series of New York Bathroom Reviews belongs to the best: the Babbo bathroom was a bathroom-goers treat. Decorative flowers, a lovely smell, and a unique, quirky space: the Babbo bathroom has it all. There are very few bathrooms that evoke a desire to stay, and part of me–completing my task–seriously considered taking up residence right there atop the toilet. But alas, I returned to Lisa, and completed our meal. A little piece of my heart stayed behind, though. I should probably see a doctor about that.

Grade: A+

It’s ‘Wichcraaaaaaaft!

I carry a pocket Moleskin notepook in, of all places, my pocket. Matisse and Hemingway did too. At least that’s what it said on the Moleskin advertising material.

I have had my Moleskin notebook for over a year now. This is rather disappointing since my Moleskin notebook is filled with my ideas. Since the book has only like 100 or so pages, that means I’ve only had 100 or so pages worth of ideas in the course of a year. And I write really really big. Inspiration, therefore, strikes only rarely.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I occasionally use my Moleskin–only occasionally!–for trivial, of-the-moment data. No, not shopping lists (necessarily). But last time I came to New York, I displaced my ideas for a page of famous New York dining spots for me to check out. Some of them I dug up on Chowhound.com and others are very well known. One of those places was Craft.

Craft is a very famous, rather challenging fine dining establishment on 19th street. I say challenging because my parents went to Craft with their friends and were so challenged that they left after their appetizers and went somewhere else.

I walked by there today and checked out the menu. It was challenging and expensive and I was only looking for lunch.

Then I peeked in next door at CraftBar. This is a more laid back little sister of Craft, but still it looked a little intimidating. I didn’t want to sit at a fancy bar for lunch.

Giving up, I set my heart on a bagel at Ess-A-Bagel on 1st–a far walk. And yet as I started my walk, I noticed a third Craft establishment: ‘Wichcraft.

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I stuck my head in. Pretentious? No. Challenging? No. Actually, it was rather welcoming.

They had a nice selection of fancy sandwiches, soups and breakfast foods. The prices were comparable to Alon’s Bakery in Atlanta which, admittedly, is a bit pricey but Alon’s is not Craft-affiliated. And seeing as Tom Collichio (the famous Craft chef) is such a well-respected food figure, I figured I’d give it a shot.

I went with the soup and sandwich combo. Soup choices were: tomato or lentil. I went with tomato. Sandwich choices were a bit more challenging: proscuttio, a weird tuna one and another weird one. I went with proscuttio

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The soup was tasty, though it had a certain Old World taste I couldn’t quite place. The festering finger of Christopher Columbus? The sandwich was good–it tasted of quality, though it wasn’t something I would pine for one day in a rocking chair in my nursing home. But, all in all, I’m glad I went.

Amma (New York)

If you are a restaurant and you want to piss me off, here is what you should do. Send a waiter over to my table and have him say: “Would you like sparkling or flat water tonight?” Then, when me and my companions say “flat,” have the waiter return with a large bottle of water. Have him pour water until our glasses are full and then, when the bottle is empty, have him open a new one and continue filling our glasses. Then, to guild the lily, have him charge us $12 on the bill for two full bottles of what may as well have been tap water.

This was our experience tonight at Amma, an otherwise very good, very expensive Indian restaurant on 51st between 2nd and 3rd.

First, I met up with Ricky and Lisa outside Lisa’s office next to Radio City Music Hall.

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We walked down 51st towards the Home of Overpriced Water.

Finally, we reached it and Ricky and Lisa posed outside.

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Then we encountered a problem.

“How do we get into this restaurant?” asked Lisa.

We attempted the left side, the down side, the up side, until finally we ascended the stairs on the right side. Entering the dimly lit room, the owner approached us as if we were a band of vagabonds there to deflower a virgin on the bar.

“Can I help you?” he asked nervously. I have a very intimidating gait.

“We have a reservation,” Ricky said.

He looked us up and sat us in a corner. No one puts baby in a corner.

Already, the room was rather oppressive. It was uncomfortably silent, and waiters and servers and other non-identified employees stood like secret security agents in different corners of the room.

We unintentionally ordered our expensive water and then ordered our food. To start, we ordered a trio of samosas: peas, potatoes and chicken. Soon, a waiter brought out a plate and we cut each in half.

“Which is the chicken! Which is the peas! Which is the potatotes!” worried Lisa who is a vegetarian.

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“I think they’re all mixed together,” I declared sadly.

Lisa frowned. Ricky and I devoured the samosas.

Then a waiter came out with a plate. “Samosas!” he said.

“What did we just eat?” I asked.

“That was spinach and potato (something),” he answered.

“Oh,” we answered.

He placed the plate down.

“Which is the chicken! Which is the peas! Which is the potatoes!” worried Lisa.

The waiter pointed out the chicken and Lisa cut into the peas.

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They were very good.

Then our entrees arrived. Mine was delicious. Mine was lamb with an apricot fennel stuffing.

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Lisa was a little less enthused about her saag (with spinach and chickpeas). She says now: “I thought it was good at the time, I told you it was good at the time. The restaurant itself is what pissed me off. The prices of things and the fact that they don’t serve you rice, that’s what i didn’t like about it. I thought the food tasted good, though.”

And so there you have it. And now for the most important part…

AMMA BATHROOM REVIEW

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As you can see, the Amma bathroom is quite lovely. I particularly liked the flowers and the zesty citrus handsoap. I did, unfortunately, burn my hands on the incredibly hot water (my fault for not turning on the cold early enough, but still) but overall this bathroom has a lot of character.

Grade: B+

Gotham (New York)

Dana and I met our freshman year of high school in Trigonometry with Mrs. * who, by all accounts, was certifiably insane. There was the time, for example, that Mrs. * threw a chair across the room or, more peculiarly, stormed out of the classroom in a fury, slamming the door eight times against the wall and splashing water-fountain water on her face.

Dana and I connected quickly; her father and my father were both dentists. She then took me on as a project, much like Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. At the time, I was wearing jean shorts and champion t-shirts. She introduced me to the mall, and the preppy world of Banana Republic and J. Crew.

That summer, she and I went for a 6 week program at the University of Michigan. Our Michigan summer is a blur, but we followed that up the next summer with 6 weeks at UCLA. The high school years were dotted with adventures in cars, Proms, class trips to Europe and Billy Joel appreciation. The summer after our first year in college (we went to different colleges), we discovered New York together.

Living at NYU (across from Washington Square Park), our summer was spent hiking along Madison Avenue, or exploring SoHo, waiting in the TKTS line and stalking Woody Allen and Harrison Ford (our celebrity heroes). Whether getting caught in rain storms or being blessed by Hassidic rabbis, Dana and I fell in love with New York that summer.

And then time and distance kept us apart. We saw each other two or three times, and then there was static. She went on to Cardozo Law as I continued at Emory Law. We really hadn’t spoken in what must have been 5 years when I heard from her a few weeks ago. We struck up an e-mail exchange and spoke on the phone for a few hours. We made a plan to meet today at Gotham for lunch since it’s across the street from her law school.

I got there, as I always do, way too early. I snapped a picture of the outside:

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I walked around the block a few times. It was during this walk that my love for the city resurfaced. In the course of one block, I saw a group of people petting an adorable dog, a homeless man coughing up a loogie, and two cab drivers having a fight. The first one said: “You are a piece of shit!” And the other one, perhaps not really thinking before speaking, retorted: “You are a piece of ass!”

Finally, I returned to Gotham and saw a familiar figure approaching with a red umbrella. Her fingers lifted and signaled hello. I ran to greet her.

“Well hello!” she sang.

“Hey!” I sang back. We hugged.

We walked inside all smiles. We decided not to check our coats.

The interior was asutere without being intimidating. Huge lamps covered with fabric hung from the ceiling. A mock statue of liberty stood in the corner.

“Roberts, party of two,” I said to the maitre’d.

“Very good, sir,” he said, “right this way.”

We followed him to our table; an elevated two-top by the bar.

I sat facing the door and Dana faced the back.

“So!” she said, “tell me everything!”

“Well, let’s see…”

We caught eachother up on eachother’s lives. Then the waitress approached. She had an icy quality with a hint of warmth, like one of those sports balms.

“Good afternoon,” she said, “Welcome to Gotham. There are two additions to our menu today. The soup is…”

We listened attentively.

“Would you like tap or bottled water?”

This always gets me. If they use the word “tap,” it’s like they’re judging you. “Do you drink from the tap like a dog, you filthy animal?”

“Tap is fine,” we said.

We examined the menu. A Prixe Fixe lunch was available for $25.

“That sounds good,” we decided.

The waitress returned. I ordered the soup, the duck and the cake. Dana ordered the salad, the duck and the cake.

“Thank you,” said the waitress.

A bread boy brought bread.

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“Mmmm,” said Dana, “this bread is good.”

We caught up some more. We even gossiped. And then our first courses arrived.

Here is Dana’s salad (fennel and apple with walnuts):

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Here is my soup (potato and leek puree with lemon oil, spinach and toast with goat cheese):

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We tasted each others. Mine turned out the winner. “Yours has more flavor,” said Dana.

The plates were taken away. More catching up was done. And then the entrees arrived.

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I think we were both surprised. I think we expected a duck breast; instead we got duck pasta.

“I was expecting something different,” said Dana.

“Ya,” said I.

We tasted and it tasted fine. Not spectacular.

We talked while chewing about things past, things present, and things future.

“I think you’re going to love New York,” said Dana, between bites.

“I’m excited,” I said, between chews.

We finished our entrees. They were taken away.

Finally, the waitress returned with dessert. Chocolate cake with tangerine sorbet.

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“Mmm,” said Dana before even tasting.

“Mmm,” I agreed.

We scarfed down some cake; Dana ordered tea, I ordered coffee. The waitress snapped a picture of the two of us:

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Finally the check came. The meal had come to an end.

“This was fun,” I said.

“Ya,” said Dana.

We made plans to hang out again Sunday. We left without paying the bill. Just kidding.

I walked Dana to the subway and continued back here to write up this review. Now I have to digest quickly and make room for our 6 pm dinner at Amma. Boy, this New York Spring Break dining adventure is hard work!

In any case, it was great to catch up with Dana. Sort of like a VHS tape that you stopped watching 5 years ago and popped back in again. Except now it’s a DVD. And its hair is straighter.

BONUS BATHROOM REVIEW

As part of my New York dining adventure, I will (if the opportunity presents itself) photograph and evaluate the bathrooms at New York’s finer dining institutions. Today, we evaluate the bathroom at Gotham:

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I think this bathroom was disappointing. The countertops were green marble, yes, but the overall feel was one of a museum. There was no pleasant smell; even the soap didn’t smell especially good. The faucet was too high and caused water to splash on me as I washed my hands. The towels were nicer paper, but not anything glorious. All in all, the Gotham bathroom was underwhelming.

Gotham Bathroom Grade: C