I apologize for my silence. I’ve been on the road.
In the last month and a half, I’ve crossed this continent four times, bouncing between New York and San Francisco, San Diego and Burlington, Vermont, with trips to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia and Lake Tahoe on the side. I crossed the border to Canada for a day of eating in Montréal, and twice into Mexico for street food in Tijuana and a crawl down Baja California to Ensenada, where the annual vendimia (wine harvest) celebrations were in full swing.
There’s too much to cover in one post, so let me start at the beginning: New York.
There was a nasty (and very untrue) rumor circulated among my friends by my buddy Adam of A Life Worth Eating that I, a sheltered Midwestern boy, was afraid of venturing outside of Manhattan to the outer boroughs. Of course he was joking, but as punishment for his prank, I made him take me on a tour of Brooklyn and Queens. Boy, did he take his penitence seriously. Within an hour of landing at LaGuardia, we managed to hit two coffee shops, both in Williamsburg, and downed a lobster roll each in Red Hook. In the subsequent twenty-four hours, we had kimchi bulgogi and naengmyun in Flushing, grilled cheeses at midnight in Astoria, bagels and schmear the next morning from Greenvale Bagels in Greenvale (Long Island), and polished off mounds of shellfish and crustacea on the deck at the recently opened Brooklyn Crab later that afternoon.
I returned to Brooklyn a couple of days later for a radio interview with Michael Harlan Turkell at the Heritage Radio Network. The studio is inside of Roberta’s Pizzeria, where M.H.T. and I shared the first of two lunches after the show (the second included a terrific fried chicken and biscuit sandwich at the wonderfully named Pies & Thighs in Williamsburg).
And just to prove a point, I returned to Brooklyn for a third time with my friend Bobby Schaffer, who flew in from Chicago to eat with me. We found excellent pastries at Bien Cuit (I must return for the bread), key lime pies at Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, and bean-to-bar chocolates and tasty cacao-infused rum inside the handsome Cacao Prieto “factory,” which, like everything else in Brooklyn, looks spotlessly curated by hipsters, vintage fixtures and all.
I love New York.
For me, it has become a home away from home, full of friends to see and places to eat. There are emotional attachments to revisit, and new ones to be made.
It was a hot week in the city. And a wet one too. I’ve never seen a subway station turn into a waterfall before.
Bobby is a pastry chef (at Curtis Duffy’s upcoming Grace). So, during his stay, we toured some of my favorite places for sweets. We went to Otto Pizzeria three or four times, for gelati. Theirs remain a benchmark.
There were canelés (sadly, soggy) and croissants at Dominique Ansel, and a box of Ladurée macarons, finished with some coffee on a bench in Central Park.
Bobby and I had lunch at Del Posto, to taste Brooks Headley’s desserts. Among many, there was a delicious demitasse of salted cashew ice cream and nectarine sorbetto, and that fantastic eggplant and sheep’s milk straciatella dessert that I fell in love with last time. Actually, the whole meal was spectacular – my best one there yet. I can’t wait to find out what Headley is cooking when he comes to Kansas City in November.
We celebrated my friend Mango In The Sun‘s birthday at il buco alimentari over some delicious short ribs. Pete Wells raised a lot of eyebrows when he awarded this packed eatery three stars in The New York Times. But, you know what? Any more, solid cooking coupled with competent – and friendly – service goes a long way in my book too. It’s sad, but true. Afterwards, we cleared out Nancy Olson’s dessert menu in the tavern room at Gramercy Tavern with some Champagne. I returned a few days later to spend an afternoon in Olson’s kitchen making strawberry shortcake. (I probably watched more than I helped.) Her biscuits are fantastic.
And I couldn’t let Bobby leave New York without trying Marc Aumont’s desserts at The Modern. I think we ended up clearing out his dessert menu too, in addition to that amazing chocolate cart they wheel around at the end. (I particularly love the cacao nib florentines, and Aumont’s chocolate-whiskey ganache, which he serves in miniature toothpaste tubes. It’s boozy.)
Bracingly tart lime granita helped break the richness of a slice of peanut butter ice box pie at The Dutch. There were also curry-sugar dusted donuts beside a bowl of butterscotch pudding. All of this happened after a full dinner there, our second one that night. The first one was an abbreviated tour of Wylie Dufresne’s new tasting menus at wd~50’s bar. Actually, Bobby and I only had one of Dufresne’s dishes – short rib with rye spaetzle. The rest of our dinner there was comprised of desserts by pastry chef Malcolm Livingston II.
Twice I ate at George Mendes’s aldea on this trip, once, for a special dinner with Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food. Alex, if that fresh corn polenta’s not in your new cookbook, it should be. It was flavorful and tremendously comforting.
I also ate on Columbus Circle twice. First, lunch at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s flagship in the Trump International Hotel and Tower, where every visit comes to me like Christmas morning, full of excitement and wonder. As I’ve done in the past, I just let the chef order for me. And, always, there are new dishes that impress. This time: a crunchy salad of sugar snap peas in remoulade, veiled in scallop carpaccio and dusted with matcha. There was texture. There was sweetness. And, there was acid. It was beautiful.
A few days later, I returned to Columbus Circle to eat at Per Se in the Time Warner Center with my friends The Wizard of Roz and Mr. R.B.I., my first visit to that restaurant since Eli Kaimeh took over as chef de cuisine. Among the twenty-some courses Kaimeh sent out were a buttery twirl of tagliatelle topped with a generous shaving of black truffles (these, from Australia were particularly impressive in flavor and aroma), and 100 day dry-aged wagyu beef, cooked en vessie (in a bladder), an opulent “pot roast.” The cooking was flawless – and, if I dare say, more flavorful and dynamic than my previous two meals under Jonathan Benno – and the service was exemplary. But nothing impressed me more than when I looked up to see my friend and college teammate, Jin Ahn, at my side, presenting a plate of foie gras. Formerly a captain at Per Se, now general manager at Jungsik, Jin had been invited by the staff to reprise his role – a brief, cameo reappearance at Per Se – to surprise me; and, on his birthday, no less. Doubt not the lengths to which Thomas Keller and his staff will go to surprise and awe.
Matthew Lightner opened atera under a tremendous amount of press and pressure.
His restaurant, a seventeen-seater in TriBeCa, is stunning, a dark jewel box with a generous horseshoe counter wrapped around the kitchen. It’s almost theater in the round.
Lightner presented over a dozen dishes, many frozen, a few I’ve seen elsewhere (was his “razor clam” not a near-replica of Rasmus Kofoed’s at Geranium in Copenhagen?), and some, alarmingly over-salted (was this a sloppy overreaction to Pete Wells’s review in The New York Times, published two days before my dinner, in which the critic suggested that Lightner’s flavors lagged behind the novelty of his food, much of which has been made to look like a piece of nature? Based on the dishes I was served, I would agree with Wells.).
But my meal at atera was not without highlights, which included some delicious and satisfying dishes in the middle, like a meaty morel, stuffed with boudin and coated in pine nut gravy, and a “savory hazelnut toffee”-glazed nugget of veal sweetbreads so tender that it pushed the line between raw and cooked.
Desserts were wonderful as well – all of them, actually – especially a wedge of peach topped with a sunflower toffee ice cream molded to look just like the fruit’s pit. And the cocktails here are pretty great too, including clear “milk punch,” the milk having been curdled and strained to leave all the flavor and creaminess without the fat.
New to me on this trip were DBGB – burgers at brunch on the Bowery – and Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village, where I shared a half-dozen oysters, a titanic fried skate sandwich, and a lobster roll with my friend Meatless McNair. (Good luck at Emory, my friend! Make every minute count.)
I had never eaten at Hearth either. So, when I happened to sit down next to its chef and owner, Marco Canora, at the Ideas in Food dinner at aldea, I decided it was time to go. My friends and I arrived at Canora’s kitchen counter just as he was beheading a suckling piglet. Following a round of crackling, there came fava beans with grilled bread, chitarra with seafood and pistachios, and a pretty little strawberry shortcake sundae.
I couldn’t imagine a lovelier cap to my time in New York than a quiet dinner at home. And, since my friends Pipsqueak (a.k.a. Gavin Kaysen), Mango In The Sun, and I were leaving New York together on the same night flight bound for Roanoke, Virginia, Gavin offered to rustle up some dinner at his place if I’d bring dessert. He: truffled potatoes, asparagus with sauce gribiche, chicken roulade, and an arugula salad with roasted carrots and avocado. Me: gelati from Otto and cleverly re-gifted booty from Per Se.
In Roanoke, Gavin, Mango In The Sun, and I we were joined by Gabriel Kreuther (chef of The Modern in New York City) and Grant Achatz (chef of alinea in Chicago). Together, we were shuttled to The Greenbrier, the historic, sprawling resort nestled in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. Unimaginably colorful – Dorothy Draper, the original interior designer of The Greenbrier, known for her dynamic juxtaposition of bold colors, once declared, “Color is magic.” – The Greenbrier is called “America’s Resort.” Our nation’s history is etched on its walls, and hidden beneath it – literally.
Once an emergency relocation facility for the U.S. Congress in case of nuclear threat, The Bunker at The Greenbrier – built 700-some feet into the hillside beneath the hotel – is now home to the official practice kitchen for Bocuse d’Or USA’s competitor, Richard Rosendale, executive chef of the resort (he oversees more than a dozen restaurants on property), and his commis, Corey Siegel, an apprentice in The Greenbrier’s culinary apprenticeship program (alumni of the program include Rosendale and Michael Voltaggio).
This was an official Bocuse d’Or USA training session. For two full days, coaches Kaysen, Kreuther, and Achatz met with Rosendale and Siegel, tasting dishes, planning platters, and scheduling future training session. This was the first of a few trips that I’ll be making to The Greenbrier to document Rosendale’s progress and training on behalf of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation.
There were early morning workouts, breakfast meetings, morning meetings, and afternoon meetings. The daytime was devoted to business. But at night, we had fun.
Since I was asked to document everything at The Greenbrier, I was pleased to record our evening bowling sessions. Gavin Kaysen has a peculiar bowling method he calls “The Nasty.” I got it on tape. (Gavin also taught his moves to Grant Achatz.)
For obvious reasons, photographs of Rosendale’s food can’t be shared with the public. You’ll have to wait until the competition, which takes place in late January of 2013 in Lyon, France, to see what he’s cooking. But, from what I’ve seen, I’m hopeful that Richard Rosendale and Corey Siegel will be the first Americans to mount the podium at the Bocuse d’Or.
From The Greenbrier, I headed to the west coast. I’ll save that story for another post. In the meantime, I leave you with a list of restaurants that I visited on this segment of my trip. Until I find time to write about these meals, you’ll find the photos from them hyperlinked below.
aldea (Manhattan) (once, twice)
Bien Cuit (Brooklyn)
Brooklyn Crab (Brooklyn)
Cacao Prieto (Brooklyn)
Del Posto (Manhattan)
Dutch, The (Manhattan)
Gramercy Tavern (Manhattan)
il buco alimentari e vineria (Manhattan)
Jean Georges (Manhattan)
kesté pizzeria (Manhattan)
Kum Sung Chik Naengmyun (Queens)
Modern, The (Manhattan)
otto enoteca pizzeria (once, twice, thrice, a fourth)
Pearl Oyster Bar (Manhattan)
per se (Manhattan)
Pies & Thighs (Brooklyn)
Queen’s Kickshaw, The (Queens)
Red Hook Lobster Pound (Brooklyn)
Roberta’s Pizzeria (Brooklyn)
At Home: Kaysens (Manhattan)
Prime 44 West
Photos: A misty morning at The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; grilled cheese at midnight, The Queen’s Kicksaw, Queens, New York; The Heritage Network studio, Brooklyn, New York; Nancy Olson in her kitchen at Gramercy Tavern, New York City; Alex Talbot and George Mendes at aldea, New York City; atera, New York City; Marco Canora at Hearth, New York City; The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; Richard Rosendale preps as Gavin Kaysen, Grant Achatz, and Gabriel Kreuther watch, The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; Corey Siegel, Gabriel Kreuther, Monica Bhambhani, me, Grant Achatz, Gavin Kaysen, and Richard Rosendale at the bowling alley at The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.