I’ve been campaigning for Country for a while. My parents didn’t want to go because a hotel concierge advised them against it, but I won the battle last week when they came to town. It was a rainy, ugly Wednesday night and Craig and I made the journey from Brooklyn to meet my parents at Country’s home in the Carlyle hotel on 28th and Madison. Upon entering, we were both way impressed with the digs. “Whoah, awesome,” said Craig (that’s a direct quote.) Here’s a blurry bad picture of the hotel lobby:
Finding the restaurant took some work. We went to the bar downstairs and thought it was just a bar but, upon asking the hotel clerk, we were told that it WAS the restaurant bar. So we went back to the bar, snuck around the corner and discerned that this downstairs part was the low-key restaurant (Country has two restaurants) and upstairs was the fancy high-end version where we’d be eating.
And sure enough, upstairs we found my parents at at a table. The room was pretty empty. Our table had a tall white candle on it. A hostess took our coats and our umbrellas and pointed us in my parents’ direction.
At the table, we were quickly presented with “gifts from the chef.” These were cheesy gougeres and crepe towers topped with creme fraiche and caviar. When I snapped this picture something remarkable happened:
I have been doing this blog for almost three years. Only once before has my picture-taking attracted the attention of a chef or owner and that was at Fresco (a place I don’t like but that my parents and Katy Couric do) where the owner’s son asked me to stop taking pictures. On this night at Country, my first food picture of the evening attracted the attention of a man named Ali.
“Excuse me,” he said, a few minutes after my picture. “But you can’t take pictures of your food.”
I gulped and apologized. “Oh,” I said, “I’m very sorry.”
There was a beat, he laughed and then said, “Just kidding!”
We laughed and then there was an awkward pause.
“If you’d like to meet the chef later you can,” he said.
“Oh great,” I said. “I’d love to do that.”
And so Ali walked away and it took me a moment to process what had happened. The best parallel I could get was a term of art I learned in writing school; that term of art being “hang a lantern.” Ali hung a lantern on my behavior: instead of ignoring it, he addressed it. And I decided right there and then that this was a really admirable way to deal with a food blogger or, as is very likely in this day and age, simply someone taking pictures of their food to post on the internet later. I felt positively encouraged.
“You should definitely meet the chef later,” said my mom.
“I will,” I said. “I have his book.”
The chef, Doug Psaltis, wrote a controversial book called “The Seasoning of a Chef” (you can read Meg’s review here). In it he apparently pulls back the curtain on many of New York’s most beloved chefs. His tell-all apparently led to a falling out in the chef community: Mario Batali retracted his blurb. I got a copy from his publicist when it came out and I never got around to it. But now that I’ve met him I’ll certainly pick it up.
Anyway, back to Country. I’ll say it up front: the food at Country is awesome. I mean, for the love of God, look at this bread:
How could a restaurant be bad that gives you bread like this? This bread should be illegal. It’s mammoth, it’s a marvel. You must worship this bread. BOW BEFORE IT!
Then there was a frog’s leg amuse bouche:
Craig and I dug right in (the garlic sauce was top notch) but mom and dad were squeamish.
“Oh come on,” I said. “It’s not going to kill you.”
“I hate to say it tastes like chicken,” says Craig. “But it tastes like chicken.”
I convinced my mom, at last, because the sauce was a garlic sauce and my mom (like the rest of my family) lives for garlic. She took a bite, made a face, and put it down. Days later she said she wouldn’t forgive me for making her eat a frog’s leg. “I couldn’t sleep it bothered me so much,” she said, dramatically.
Now, for the first course, as if you weren’t convinced about the food, behold this dish, its title copied directly from the menu: “Oeufs Au Plat, sweet shrimp, garlic cream, lemon confit.”
Ok, so I did flip through Doug’s book (after writing the first part of this post) and in it there’s a confrontation with Thomas Keller when Doug does a stint at the French Laundry. Doug complains that Thomas puts too much emphasis on beauty and not enough on flavor. (He says Thomas was taken aback by this critique.) Here, as you can see, beauty is an element but so is the flavor. The strange combination of egg and garlic and shrimp and lemon works a strange alchemy in your mouth: it comes together, like ying and yang, as one.
Next up was a pasta course: “Matsutaki Mushrooms, Risotto, Caramelized Onions and Lime.”
These mushrooms, the waiter told us, were right in season and extraordinary. I’ll admit their extraordinariness may have been a bit lost on me, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. The risotto was a bit too piping hot: I really burned my mouth on the first bite. But once it cooled down, I liked its subtle balance of flavors. And those mushrooms did, eventually, grow on me. (I mean that literally: I have mushrooms on my arms!)
Dad wants me to show you his scallop (he gets mad if I don’t photograph his food):
He didn’t give me a bite so we have to trust his word that it was a good scallop.
And now, finally, the entree: “Berkshire Pork, chestnuts, stuffed lady apple, xeres(?) vinegar”:
What a nice dish: different cuts of pork mixed in with various sweet elements, working together in harmony like children in a Coca Cola commercial. I liked this and I liked the presentation, it was really pretty.
I forget what everyone else had because I’m so vain, I probably think this post is about me. DON’T YOU DON’T YOU
But next up was a pre-dessert palate cleanser:
What was this? I didn’t write it down. Oh yes, now I remember, my dad’s dream: a chocolate brownie with mint ice cream. My dad loves mint chocolate chip ice cream so this was something right out of one of his fantasies. [So, for that matter, was this picture he took recently with Pamela Anderson:
Don’t ask. They were in L.A. She said yes.]
The dessert I ordered, on the other hand, may have been snatched from somebody’s dessert nightmare. Look at this GIANT MONSTROSITY:
It’s called Pithivier, it’s a giant almond cake, and no it wasn’t all for me. They bake a giant one, bring it out, and then slice it, tableside. I was convinced that when they sliced it 4 and 20 blackbirds would fly out. Or a chef. But instead it was a clean, neat slice of almond cake dressed with various toppings, like whipped cream, ice cream and apricot preserves. I truly enjoyed it. They even gave us some (a ton! because there was so much leftover!) to take home.
And now comes the moment where Ali taps me on the shoulder and says if I want to meet the chef I better do so now because he’s going home. So I arise from my spot at the table and follow Ali into the kitchen. It’s funny to shift worlds: from the austerity of the dining room to the locker room like reality of the kitchen. The waiters I’d watched before carrying large silver platters of duck were now dressed in jeans and filling out papers on clipboards. In the midst of all this, was a young guy talking to an older man.
“That’s the chef,” said Ali. “I’ll introduce you.”
I thought he meant the older man, but no, it was the younger man. Doug Psaltis is only 32. Can you imagine being at the helm of a restaurant like this at 32? But Doug is and he was really gracious and nice when I met him. I told him what I did and he didn’t roll his eyes and say “A food blog? I’m wasting my time on a food blog?” Instead, he gave me a tour of the kitchen. (My dad had the waiter snap this picture, how embarrassing!):
Here Doug is showing me the rotisserie where they cook all their birds. Then he turned me around and showed me the grill where they grill the pork, the flat surface where they cook everything else.
“Awesome,” I said. “So does it make it difficult that this is an open kitchen and everyone’s watching?”
“We had to make some adjustments,” he said, smiling. “But we made it work.”
Then I asked him to pose for a picture because I didn’t know what else to do. Here he is, the young maestro:
Young maestro is, in fact, a phrase that captures what I liked best about Country. When I was back at the table and everything was being cleared away, the check being paid, I noticed how young everyone was. Most of the busboys were in their early 20s, and our waiter–a knowledgeable and helpful guy named Brandon (who, at the end of the evening, asked for my website address and who may be reading this now: hello!) was also very young. This, I discovered, was not only a young restaurant in age (it’s barely a year old) but a young restaurant in spirit: there was an energy that I really admired and that made me want to go back.
Craig, afterwards, admitted that he found the service to be a bit much. “I felt like everyone thought I was on the verge of yelling,” he said. “Like they dealt with us as if they expected to be yelled at. And all those silver platters and trays… it was a bit much.”
But I don’t think Country can be faulted for honoring tradition. There’s a time for silver platters and fanciful service; and if you’re young and want to experience that sort of thing, Country is a place that won’t make you feel small for wanting to live big. It’s a good once-in-a-while-on-a-special-occasion sort of thing. So when you are ready to experience Silver Spoons together* with your friends and family, Country’s the place to go.
[* I am awarded 5 points for my 80s sitcom reference. Thank you.]