How I Gained Six Pounds At Jean-Georges

My brother is outraged that I don’t weigh 1000 lbs. “How much do you weigh?” he asked me the other night when he was over. “160,” I said and he gave me a look that said: “Yeah right.”

“Yeah right,” he said. “There’s no way you weigh 160.”

On to the scale I went and I weighed only slightly more: 162. My brother was not pleased. “Your scale is broken,” he said and walked away to get dressed.

We were on our way to celebrate our parents’ 32nd anniversary at Jean-Georges. This was a long-planned, much looked forward to engagement. Jean-Georges is still pretty new to our family–we’ve only been there twice before. Both times were spectacular and this time would be no exception. The only difference is, I’d never weighed myself before eating there. And as you can see by my weight afterwards, the result is frightening!

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That’s right: I gained six pounds in one meal. SIX POUNDS. What went into my belly? Was it worth it? Why don’t I belong to a gym?

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Que Pasa, Bar Masa?

You may recall that last week my parents sent me a gift certificate for Williams Sonoma in celebration of my 27th birthday. I decided to parlay this gift certifiate at the Time Warner Center location since the one in Chelsea isn’t as lavish and I wanted the full lavish Williams Sonoma experience. On departing for the Time Warner Center, I decided to go hungry (this was lunchtime) because I knew that the Whole Foods there has lots of seating and a more eclectic buffet/salad bar than the one near me.

Yet, when I arrived at the Time Warner Center, a new thought dawned on me. “We’re having a lavish day in honor of my birthday,” I said to myself. “Why not ride the escalator UP instead of down and check out those fancy places on the 4th floor.”

The 4th floor houses Per Se and Masa, two of the most expensive restaurants in New York City. It also houses Bar Masa, Masa’s more accommodating offshoot. Would I lunch here for my 27th birthday? Look at the green curtain, it is so enticing:

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I studied the menu outside. The seasonal sushi selection was $35. That is very pricey for sushi, but–at the same time–this would be sushi made under the umbrella of the so-called greatest sushi maker in New York. Anthony Bourdain described his trip to Masa as a religious experience; maybe Bar Masa wouldn’t be religious, but perhaps it’d be secularly transcendent? Plus I had birthday money in my pocket from other sources, why not blow it on some excellent sushi?

My mind was made up. I entered the facility and a kind hostess showed me to a table in a long row of booths. That’s all Bar Masa is: a bar and parallel to the bar, on the other side of the room, a row of booths. I sat at a booth, a couple of old ladies sat further down to my left, and a young heterosexual couple sat two over to my right. This young heterosexual couple involved a domineering man who ordered for the woman, spoke the entire time and drank lots of beer. The woman had my pity.

But she did not have my sushi. At $35, I couldn’t spare a piece–this is what your money gets you at Bar Masa:

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Very fresh, indeed. Real wasabi: awesome. But earth-shattering? No. Just very fresh, very enjoyable. Maybe it’s good I went here because if this is what the real Masa is like, at $500 a pop, I’d be sorely disappointed. This is like the test drive before buying the Mercedes. And now that I’ve driven it, I’m going with the Camry. [I’ve never been a car person anyway.]

Actually, in the world of sushi, you can have Mercedes quality fish for Camry prices at Tomoe Sushi in the Village. James Felder exposed me to this place and it remains my favorite place to get sushi in the city. For half the price of Bar Masa’s sushi sampler, you get one at Sushi Tomoe that’s just as good and served in a warmer, more bustling environment.

Bar Masa is very calm. So calm, in fact, that when it came time to pay I forgot to sign the check. The waitress had to chase me out.

But before that happened, I let her talk me into dessert, and I’m glad I did. For $5 (a steal!) I enjoyed this grapefruit granite:

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As simple as it was, it was truly excellent. Fresh grapefruit slices adorned the slightly sweetened grapefruit ice. This inspired me to buy two grapefruits yesterday which I plan to juice, sweeten, freeze and scrape into a granite I can call my own.

As it was, though, I won’t be enjoying Bar Masa’s granite again any time soon. For a lavish birthday experience, it was memorable, but for a New York sushi-eating experience you can do far better.

How The Ouest Was Yum

Ok, it’s not “The Ouest” it’s just “Ouest” but I still like this post title. I hope you do too. If you don’t, please write an essay of 500 words or less explaining what frustrates you about it and send it, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, to: “WHY THE TITLE BOTHERS ME” PO Box 2423626 Pasadena, CA 19119.

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Ouest is on the Upper West Side, or The Upper Ouest Side depending on how cutesy you want to get with the spelling. It’s owned by Tom Valenti who also owns ‘Cesca which my family really enjoyed the few times we ate there. Ouest appealed to my parents because of the celebrity-spotting opportunities it afforded. Steven Speilberg was spotted there by my friend Ian a few months back.

It was raining the night we went to Ouest. We walked in and at first it seemed really small and cramped. But when the host led us to our table, the place opened up like a repressed alcoholic on a drinking cruise. The place is like a cross between Medieval Times, an old speakeasy and someone’s basement. My parents loved it.

There’s a great energy about Ouest. It feels very exclusive but also very welcoming. At the table across from us I was convinced I saw Judy Davis. In fact, I’m 96% sure it was Judy Davis. Judy Davis: if you are reading this, will you confirm if you were there? Thanks!

The food at Ouest, like the food at ‘Cesca, is surprisingly brave and interesting. You’d think that a popular, trendy Upper West Side joint might try to appeal more to the masses, but the menu was strange enough to get me very excited. I started with…oh shit, my salad’s not listed on the menupages menu. I’m pretty sure this is a smoked sturgeon salad, but if anything it’s a smoked fish with that spiky lettuce and bacon bits:

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Inside that circle of smoked fish is a poached egg, and when my fork pierced the skin, the yolk dribbled out and coated the leaves and the bacon and turned this appetizer into a masterwork. I was very wowed and very happy.

Meanwhile, mom had the “Cauliflower Custard with Poached Lobster, Trumpet Royale Mushrooms, Leeks & Basil.” Normally I don’t take pictures of other people’s food (well, except for the previous post) but after tasting some of this, I had to take a picture—which explains why the dish doesn’t look so composed:

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What a weird concoction! But a very satisfying one: the creamy cauliflower custard creates a sea in which lobster and mushrooms swim, and it’s your job to pluck them out and gobble them up. This was like a really rich, really decadent version of Lobster Bisque where the bisque’s not a bisque, it’s a custard. Mom and I fought over this.

Dad had salmon gravlax on a chickpea pancake. He liked it.

For my entree, I horrified my mother and had “Rabbit three ways: roasted leg, bacon wrapped stuffed saddle & confit with green olive, preserved lemon and white corn polenta.”

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My friend Jordan had a pet rabbit in college and so I was more mindful than usual of the animal I was eating. But the Thomas Keller story from the French Laundry cookbook came to mind: the one where he slaughters all those rabbits himself to make himself experience where his food comes from, to never be wasteful. I thought I wouldn’t be wasteful and I’d eat the rabbit. And it was mighty tasty: it tastes like (ok, ok, don’t kill me for the cliche) but kind of like chicken, if a bit blander. The condiments really help.

Mom had lamb and dad had chicken and we were all very happy.

Then, for dessert, we shared an espresso parfait that was truly out of this world with layers of panna cotta and caramel and chocolate and espresso; there was biscotti on top and a big sesame tuille. Is that a tuille? I just called that tuille but maybe it’s not a tuille:

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All in all we loved our meal at Ouest and so did Judy Davis. At least she seemed to enjoy it: she left with a smile. The food’s risky but familiar, comforting but not cloying. Oooh! I just did my first restaurant review “cloying!” It’s my favorite word that food critics use that I never use: cloying. The food at Ouest is not cloying and therefore, you should eat there. Thank you.

PS I just looked up the word cloying and it means “overly sweet.” Maybe I didn’t use it right after all. I’ve totally lost my food critic credibiltiy. Like I ever had credibility!

If I had a hammer, I’d hammer Cafe Gray from 2 stars to 3

Some people have it in for Frank Bruni. Like Jules at The Bruni Digest. She has it in for Frank Bruni. Her masthead says: “This blog is predicated on the suggestion that every Wednesday, in the Times Dining Out section, Frank lays a huge faberge egg of hilarity.” Her blog is really funny and I like her use of pictures. I am going to bookmark it now. (Adam bookmarks “The Bruni Digest.”)

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t really have it in for Frank Bruni. I don’t love him, I don’t hate him. I don’t really know him. As far as his reviews go, they get the job done. From many accounts, it’s not a fun job, really. Sure you get to eat out all the time and write about it but according to accounts by William Grimes, Ruth Reichl and Amanda Hesser it’s pretty exhausting. Constantly scrutinizing and getting scrutinized, it’s a bitch. Just ask Paula Abdul.

So my one bone to pick with Bruni concerns his review of Cafe Gray, where I ate with my mom on Thursday night. In the review he acknowledges the greatness of the food: “the best of the food here is fabulous, and the menu as a whole is a pleasure-packed testament to Mr. Kunz’s nimbleness of imagination and execution. Producing an unclassifiable cuisine, he does sly, multifaceted dishes and straightforward uncomplicated ones. He nuzzles up to Italy and to France, flirting all the while with India and Thailand. His principal compass — maybe his only one — is the most valid and valuable of all: what tastes great.”

Yet Cafe Gray gets marked down because of the design. “But there’s something off-kilter about Café Gray, something disorienting, and that layout is a big part of it. I can’t think of another restaurant in this city that so wantonly wastes such a potentially pleasant panorama. The open kitchen forms a broad, taunting moat between the dining room and the windows, one that brims with enough hardware and human activity to block specific portions of those windows and, at least at night, blot out any general sense of the cityscape beyond them. Café Gray has minted the passive-aggressive restaurant design.”

I agree with this to a point. It is kind of nutty that they blocked the windows with the kitchen. If you’re unlucky enough to be seated far away from the kitchen, as we were when they first sat us, you feel like you could be in any crowded, loud, overpacked restaurant. Of course mom had us moved (Mizz Heidi rarely accepts the first table she’s given, especially if it’s a shitty one) and we were sat right next to the kitchen so we could see the view.

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I loved our seat: I got to watch everyone cook. And there was Gray Kunz weaving in and out of all the chefs, keeping tabs on everything. Gray Kunz, for those not in the know, was the chef at Lespinasse, the four star restaurant in the St. Regis hotel that Ruth Reichl waxes poetic about in “Garlic and Sapphires.” He’s not a big guy and he has a friendly jolly way about him. But he also has a serious expression that he employs while he’s in the kitchen. And in the context of shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” and books like “Kitchen Confidential” (which I temporarily put down to read more of Calvin Trillin’s “Tummy Trilogy”) it’s remarkable to see a kitchen so efficient, with everyone getting along so well. Of course all the chefs are on stage: they know everyone’s watching them. But still, the kitchen seemed to be a happy place.

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And now for the food. Here’s the thesis of my review: the food at Cafe Gray is 3-star food, not 2-star food. Let’s start with the bread:

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I can’t tell you what made this bread great. Was it the individual basket and paper it came served in? Was it the way it was hand-sliced by a man working right over my shoulder? Or was it because it was hot and nutty and delicious? I think it was all of these things.

Now forgive me, I don’t remember what was in this amuse:

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I know there was mango and a parmesan crisp. I don’t remember what else but I do remember thinking it was delicious and refreshing. Have I lost credibility?

Thank God for Menupages. Mom and I shared two appetizers. I ordered the Crisped Lobster Tail with cold pearl noodles, ginger and lemongrass.

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This was terrific though, I must admit, not terribly memorable. If you asked me what appetizer I had at Cafe Gray, I would have forgotten but for the picture and the menupages menu.

Not so with mom’s appetizer: Pasta Fiori with tomato concasse, thyme & rosemary.

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This is one of the dishes Bruni highlights in his review. It’s really beautiful, even in the picture. Bruni writes: “But I also had more subtle, intellectualized creations, including a pasta appetizer in which two broad, thin noodles lay under and over a much fatter tomato concassé, the ratio of starch to sauce turned on its head.” It’s true: once you cut into that, a rich and bright tomato concoction pours out. It was terrific.

My entree rocked hardcore:

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That’s the famous Braised Short Rib of Beef with soft grits & meaux mustard sauce. The beef was so tender not only could you cut it with a fork, you could breath over it and it would fall apart. Mom had some fish that I didn’t take a picture of. It was also very good.

And then there was dessert: this must have been new, because it’s not on the menupages menu. It’s like a parfait of chocolate and espresso, I think, and bits of candied orange. Does it matter what’s in it, really? Just look at it:

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So the food at Cafe Gray is pretty terrific. It’s familiar and yet wildly exotic. It’s a perfect place for mom and I to go and love a meal: mom loved the decor and the scene and the food and I mostly just loved the food. Maybe the star system is whack because at the end of the day the only question a reader wants to know is “should I go there or not?” If you’re looking for a ritzy gourmet dinner that’ll cost a pretty penny but excite your palate, I say go Gray. Ask for a table near the kitchen and keep your eyes peeled for this guy:

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He’s pretty talented.

Family Feeding Frenzy: Katz’s, Lever House, D.B. Bistro Moderne, and a Return to Jean-Georges

Maybe it’s the Jew in me (“Let me out, you putz! It’s hot in here!”) but I feel guilty about the meals I’m about to share with you. Guilt–am I the only food blogger who feels guilty about eating good food? Maybe because it’s all so decadent. But I can shift the blame to my parents–as we already know, my parents are decadent eaters. I’m just the lucky bystander who tags along and eats what is given to me. All I crave are the simple things—a ripe tomato, a slice of cheese. It’s my parents who forced this upon me. What you are about to see happened totally against my will, I was dragged along, kicking and screaming…

Ok, you’re not falling for it. So my parents spoil me when they come to visit (at my urging), even more than I spoil myself. And in the spirit of spoiling myself before they came, I took Michael (my brother, you met him in the last post) to Katz’s deli on Thursday to experience New York’s best pastrami:

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Michael was dubious at first—as we got off the subway on Houston and passed 2nd avenue, he tried to divert us to the 2nd avenue deli. “I want a waitress!” he said, when I told him that Katz’s only had counter service. But I persisted and he came and sure enough Katz’s does have waitresses if you want (although our experience leads me to suggest that you just do the counter service, our waitress was pretty inept). Michael was completely converted by Katz’s pastrami. “Mmmm,” he said. He’s not someone who relents easily–he might have pretended, for example, to hate the pastrami to win the fight about 2nd Ave. Deli being better–but he did no such thing. He enjoyed his pastrami and agreed it was the best in New York.

We also shared potato latkes which, too, were excellent:

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And just to get the gluttony ball rolling, I took him afterwards to Doughnut Plant (it’s not a far walk away) to experience New York’s best (and most interesting) doughnuts. He had the Vahlrona chocolate doughnut on the right, I had the orange on the left:

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Naturally, they were terrific. The coffee was pretty good too.

Now then: my parents arrived. Here they are with Michael in an artistic shot at Fresco:

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I didn’t document our Fresco meal for three reasons: (1) I’ve done it before; (2) the meal wasn’t very good (it was fine, not great), and (3) for the first time ever in my history of doing this site, a manager asked me not to take pictures. I think it had less to do with taking pictures of food than it did with the flash irritating their celebrity customers. They shot themselves in the foot, though, because, as we all know, this site is a powerhouse in the food world, and one bad word from me and…and…

Moving on.

For lunch Friday we went to a giant in the world of corporate business lunches: Lever House.

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A few years ago, Lever House made a big stir when it opened. Here’s where the players came to play, where titans–Masters of the Universe–came to nosh on Cobb salads and grilled fish, signing contracts, fiddling with cell phones and pulling the Levers (get it? Levers? Lever House?) on the slot machines of capitalism. (I am a genius! What a great sentence! Ok, no.) Anyway, now I wonder if Lever House is a little past it’s prime—if only because our power lunch was only impressive in one regard: the architecture.

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Isn’t that a cool doorway? That’s how you enter Lever House. The room has a honeycomb theme—people sit in little honeycomb pods surrounding the less interesting tables in the middle. We sat at a less interesting table in the middle. We kept our eyes peeled for celebrities and power brokers, but didn’t see any. (Last time my mom was here, however, she saw Michael Eisner.)

The food?

Eh. Ok, it’s perhaps my fault that I let the waiter talk me into this pheasant terrine:

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I must confess that the image in my head of “terrine” was not what was brought out on the plate–but that’s ignorance on my part, not the waiter’s. With that said, though, I’ve had terrines I’ve really enjoyed (like this one at Cafe Bouloud)—and this one tasted gamey and unpleasant. I was not a fan.

Then for the entrees, I ordered halibut which was nice and fine, and dad ordered risotto “with no cheese.” Dad hates cheese. So when they brought the risotto covered with cheese, I martyred myself and switched with him. Here it is:

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The glum lighting mirrors the glumness of the risotto. It had no real flavor base. The cheese was nice, there were mushrooms too–but this risotto was a loser. L-on-its-head loser. Like “I took you to a Remington party and you paid me back with puke” type loser. (Ya, Heather, I went there.)

But the dessert. Lever House almost fully redeems itself by way of this dessert:

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Milk chocolate coconut cake with coconut sorbet. It was really delicious–I loved it. (Shared it with Michael who did most of the gobbling.)

Moving on, then, we go to the next day. (Friday night we saw Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” which was really impressive in that Billy worked really hard—only, (and this could totally be a generation thing–we of the age of irony and self-awareness) I found it slightly shlocky and emotionally manipulative, though I have no doubt for him he’s being as raw and honest as he could get in live performance. I just wish he didn’t paint himself so cleanly. (With that said, though, he’s a great performer. The pantomime bits were terrific.)) (We ate in Joe Allen’s afterwards and saw (as guaranteed by my post on Joe Allen’s where I say it’s the best Broadway Star-Sighting place after theater) B.D. Wong. Yes, he’s a star, isn’t he?)

Lunch Saturday. We went to D.B. Bistro Moderne. This is a great pre-theater place (we were going to see “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which was a lot of fun): great location and great food.

Normally, I don’t take pictures of other people’s dishes (I don’t have the space for it to post all these pics) but Michael’s clam chowder was outrageously beautiful:

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Couldn’t that hang in the MOMA?

The way lunch works there is you can get an appetizer and an entree or an entree and a dessert. You who know me know what I did. So for my entree I chose Atlantic cod with porcini dumplings, vegetables “paysanne” and a garlic-parsley broth:

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It was marvelous (and also the best picture I took all weekend.)

For dessert, I jilted my tablemates (they all opted for appetizers and were not entitled to desserts) who love chocolate. I of the fruit-dessert persuasion had Tropical Fruit Soup with ginger-vanilla bavarois and pink guava sorbet:

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Not surprisingly, I had the whole dessert to myself. If you eat with my family and want a whole dessert to yourself, order a fruit dessert—they won’t touch it.

Now then, we come to the greatest eating moment of the weekend. I began this post by pretending that I am just a happy bystander of my parents food-love, that their gourmet outings are in no way influenced by me–but that’s not entirely true. I think somehow (and this could be complete megalomania on my part) this site and my newfound food “authority” have somehow seeped into their consciousness (mostly my mom’s–she who makes the reservations) and that their former tendency to eat big family-style meals at Italian theater-district places like Carmine’s has been displaced by a respect and awe for the finest things in life, pointed out by me in my journey towards gourmet enlightenment. So whether it’s my influence or her own self-will, my mom made a reservation for the four of us at Jean-Georges Saturday night, because she loved it there the last time. I did too and anticipated it with great excitement.

We were not disappointed.

Jean-Georges is the best restaurant in New York. I will qualify that statement only to say that I haven’t been to every restaurant in New York, but I have been to many, and several of them were 4-stars (Per Se, Daniel.) Jean-Georges, however, is the best that I can imagine a restaurant to be—it’s a magical dining experience. The room is enchanted, the service outstanding, and the food exciting, surprising, and luscious. It’s just dazzling.

We started with an amuse bouche of (and this is from memory, so forgive me): pear with caviar, chicken broth with olive oil (and this chicken broth had a kick to it), and tuna(?) hamachi with something on it (sorry):

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Last time we did the Jean-Georges tasting menu. This time we ordered from the left side of the page which allows you to choose an appetizer, a middle course, an entree and a dessert. This worked out perfectly.

For my appetizer, I had the sea scallops, caper-raisin emulsion and cauliflower:

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These were TOO good. And the sauce—what a crazy perfect combination. Capers and raisins? It works. I’d like to recreate this dish at home sometime like the folks do at Gothamist Food. Maybe I can put them on the job.

For my next course I ordered foie gras because it’s the sort of thing I NEVER eat on a regular basis, I only eat it on very special occassions and this was one of them. It came with another thrilling combination: peanuts and a cherry sauce. All-American foie gras?

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Seriously, this is why I love Jean-Georges. Who would think to combine peanuts and cherries on LIVER? And it works–I swear, these things are radical food revelations that happen in your mouth. It’s like having eyes in the roof of your mouth that have slept for 26 years that suddenly and miraculously open up. (Ok, that’s a gross image.)

For my entree, I had the duck. But first, look at this man carving a pineapple:

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This was happening at the table next to us. I swear (and I kid you not) he did this for 45 minutes. He carved this intricate design into it and then sliced it and it was beautiful and theatrical and had everyone staring from around the room. Where else does this happen? Nowhere, I tell you, nowhere!

Now my duck. Oh my God.

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Look at the top of my duck. What do you see? Looks strange, right?

They’re almonds but they almost taste like an almond brittle–they fuse with the skin and make this crazy, crispy, candy-like crust. I was in heaven. (I should state here, though, that my dad and brother–who were also at this table–ate their food with mild interest and very few spurts of joy. Dad, who also had the duck, found it “too sweet.”)

But my middle name is “too sweet” so this was perfect. It had a honey wine sauce that accented everything nicely. I loved this dish.

Then there was (drumroll): dessert.

Oh, dessert. Dessert at Jean-Georges. If only I’d asked for a menu I could identify everything! There were four choices: a chocolate menu (which, boringly, mom, dad AND Michael opted for), a citrus menu, an apple menu and an exotic menu. I chose (at the waiter’s suggestion) the exotic menu. I was glad I did:

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I can’t remember what everything is (I’m sorry! I know! I failed you!) but my favorite was on the lower left: there was passion fruit in it and I love passion fruit. Otherwise, on the upper left is pineapple upside down cake, on the upper right some kind of sweet fruity soup, and on the lower right a banana dessert with ice cream. Do I really need to tell you how terrific it all was?

Once again, Jean-Georges won our hearts and minds (at least mom’s and mine) and I left feeling bloated, sick, and all the better for it.

Today, I ate as little as possible—eggs, toast, a burger that served as lunch and dinner, and then, just now, oatmeal. Tomorrow begins my return to the gym which I may or may not blog about. If this was the last “hurrah” it doesn’t get much better than that. Mom, dad and Michael are back in Florida so I’m safe for a while. Until their next visit… happy vicarious eating!

I Ate At Jean-Georges

Look, I’m not a restaurant critic. It takes a great deal out of me to write my pseudo-restaurant reviews. I’m pseudo-foodo. Not the real deal. I just like sharing either my (a) enthusiasm or (b) disappointment. So let me share my enthusiasm for our meal last night at Jean-Georges. It was wonderful. Put into context–with Per Se and Charlie Trotter’s in the backgrond–Jean-Georges was surely the best. The flavors were exciting, the room formal but not stuffy, and the presentation beautiful. Plus, we didn’t feel overstuffed at the end. What follows are some pictures from the meal to give you an idea. I didn’t photograph each course so as to enjoy the experience more. It’s my suggestion that if you come to New York seeking a 4-star dining experience you go to Jean-Georges. You won’t be disappointed.

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Amuse Bouche (If I remember correctly (from left to right) sashimi with radish and mustard, fig on a spoon with tamarind paste beneath, yogurt on top and olive oil, and tomato gazpacho):

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Egg Caviar:

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Young Garlic Soup with Thyme, Sauteed Frog Legs (Mom was grossed out by the idea of frog-eating, but I liked it—“tastes like chicken”):

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Courses I didn’t photograph:

Sea Scallops, Carmelized Cauliflower, Caper-Raisin Emulsion, Grated Nutmeg

Turbot in a Chateau Chalon Sauce, Tomato and Zucchini

Lobster Tartine, Lemongrass and Fenugreek Broth, Pea Shoots

Broiled Squab, Onion Compote, Corn Pancake with Foie Gras

Then dessert. You have a choice of one of four dessert flights: Chocolate, Rhubarb, Local Berry or Strawberry. I went with local berry:

[Chocolate-Cherry Linzertorte, Sour Cream; Raspberries, Lemon Verbena, Framboise Sabayon, Warm Alond Cake, Blueberry-Tarragon Compote; Cherry-Berry Soup, Yogurt Glace, Sesame Tuile]

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Mom and dad chose the chocolate:

[Jean-Georges’ Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream; White Chocolate Mille-Feuille, Praline, Almond Gelee, Plums; Bitter Chocolate Parfait, Citrus, Meringue; Thai Iced Tea, Tapioca, Chocolate-Coconut Milk Cream]

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There were also homemade marshmallows:

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All in all, a splendid dinner. Well deserving of that fourth star.

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?

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.