Thursday, May 8, 2008
By the time we arrived in our comfortable, yacht-like room at the Essex House, Bob and I were too tired to go wandering the streets in search of slices. It was raining cats and dogs, and the street along the park looked desolate. I called down and asked if the hotel restaurant had available tables.
"Is it casual or formal?"
I had not taken the time to research our hotel very thoroughly. I was too busy debating delis and figuring out museum schedules. We stumbled into South Gate, Kerry Heffernan's restaurant (and former location of Alain Ducasse). You might guess this place was not exactly what you would call casual.
I knew we were going to hit a lot of restaurants, so I asked if I could take the menu as a keepsake. The server raised an eyebrow, "Would you like a pen to take notes? Are you...?"
I said, "Oh no, but I have a friend who always asks me what I ate and I can never remember all of these gastriques and things."
After the server left, Bob asked, "Are you pretending to be a rube?"
I was tempted to say, "With you in that shirt I don't have to pretend" but I secretly enjoyed how comfortable Bob was in his Mike Watt plaid in such a swank restaurant. Especially since he was seated next to a man who was wearing a bowtie unironically.
An amuse bouche arrived, and I said, "Oh! An amuse bouche!" I've experimented with different pronunciations, but no matter how I say it, servers always seem pleased and never correct me. Maybe it's because I get so excited, like a child pointing at a zebra and yelling, "Horsie!" The salmon tartare with olive tapenade was delicious, which surprised me because I am no great fan of raw fish. In spite of that, I was pleased too see there were also cheese gougere.
Bob started with the smoked char. The presentation was almost too precious. It was cold smoked, like lox - it was interesting to try fresh savory.
My foie gras was ingenious. Nicely charred and custardy, the meat sat in a sauce of rhubarb (sorry, that's rhubarb coulis - I don't want you to think I'm a rube). Fresh rhubarb was carefully cooked to match the consistency of the foie gras. As the daughter of Canadian farmers, I have cooked more than my share of rhubarb, and it is no mean feat to get rhubarb to that point without it breaking down. The dish included tarragon-preserved kumquats. Although the taraggon flavor was lost, kumquat was a perfect match for the foie gras. A crisp coated with pistachios jutted out jauntily - but it was not a crisp. It was like a flatbread, but wasn't a flatbread. When the chef came around to greet the tables, I asked him about it and after a little "who's on first" confusion about my crisp not being crisp, he explained that it was a Middle-Eastern crepe. And something about eggs. I had no idea what he was talking about. There was a time when if I read all of my cooking magazines and FOOD sections, I could keep up. You could not stump me. But now I sometimes watch Top Chef and I don't know what the hell they're talking about. Maybe it's time for me to up my game. Or maybe it's a good thing to not know everything; perhaps it makes me slightly less insufferable.
There are a few drawbacks to my uber-sensitive palate. I balk at gamey, fishy and bitter flavors. Bob revels in these things. And so he loved the oven roasted lamb loin that I found too lamb-y. The spring vegetable and lamb cassoulet accompaniment fell flat with a watery sauce, no sausage, and edamame in place of beans. I don't normally order hangar steak because of its toughness, but I was seduced by the short rib ravioli. I was right - the hangar steak was a little too tough, and the ravioli were sheer heaven. Angel's breath in a sheet of pasta that was light as air. I wished I had an entire plate of just the ravioli. The chianti vinegar reduction and onion soubise were lovely.
For dessert, I angelically ordered the cheese plate. When they set the table, they arranged the silver with the tines of the fork pointing towards me. I'm sure that is proper for the cheese course, but it still felt vaguely threatening ("In my country, that means you are marked for death.") Then my best intentions fell by the wayside as I ate the drunken goat, triple creme and camembert with slice after slice of rustic bread. Bob ordered the mille feulle, which I immediately deconstructed. Sometimes I just can't help myself. The chocolate sheets were of high quality, but unremarkable. The chocolate quenelle was kind of bland, but the banana layers were spectacular. I wished there was more of the banana cream, and the bottom layer was simply fresh bananas topped with broken bits of bruleed sugar. Eaten altogether, the layers worked together perfectly. Oh, there was also a nice banana ice cream quenelle and banana powder. I wondered what it would be like to snort banana powder, and decided it was time for me to turn in.