Monday, October 24, 2011

Sifton; Offline

The New York Times
18 October 11


THE restaurant was Chinese in theory, with Continental accents, and wedged into a basement in Midtown. There was foie gras in the dumplings. The music was the sort one hears in elevators in cities far from home. One of my guests happened to be a dead ringer for the actor Matthew Broderick.

“I have waited on you many times,” the waiter said to him, excitedly.

“No, I don’t think so,” my guest said.

“Oh, yes, I understand,” the waiter said. “You wish to be quiet about yourself, I see.” The waiter pointed at me. I had just coughed a half-eaten dumpling into a napkin and was drinking water to get the taste out of my mouth.

“Like him! He cannot say who he is, either!”

Such is the life of the restaurant critic for The New York Times, a job I have held for the last two years. (On Monday, I joined the newspaper’s national desk, as editor.) Every night, dinner with friends, colleagues, sources, readers, acquaintances made on airplanes or on the road. And every night the possibility of greatness, or despair.

Between the two poles, I experienced an unrivaled view of New York’s dining scene.

All criticism is argument. Mine has been from the start that restaurants are culture, and that there is no better perch from which to examine our shared values and beliefs, behavior and attitudes, than a seat in a restaurant dining room, observing life’s pageant in the presence of food and drink.

What follows is an accounting of some of the highlights I experienced, as well as some of my favorite images and experiences at the opposite end of the scale. (Chief among those: Nello Balan spitting into the daffodils set out in front of his restaurant on Madison Avenue. So “Game of Thrones”!)

Sometimes I was recognized by a restaurant’s staff. Once, at the Four Seasons, a diner pointed me out to Julian Niccolini, who is one of the restaurant’s owners and its voluble host. Mr. Niccolini gaped as if he were a character in a Dickens novel, then appeared to turn into Groucho Marx, then disappeared from view. Within seconds he was at my shoulder, complimenting the women at the table, insulting some Daily News reporters across the dining room, and showering my pasta with shavings of truffle, unbidden. It began to grow thick, as snow does on the sidewalk. Some may have fallen on my shoulder. Oh, how he laughed.

Other times I dined in blissful anonymity — or at any rate with something uncomfortable on my head. I ate well and poorly in both situations. But every night I counted myself lucky. For those who choose to eat in restaurants, there is no city with a greater diversity of culinary excellence than New York.

Three nights in April: one in a comfortable booth at the Dutch, Andrew Carmellini’s terrific pan-American clubhouse in SoHo, where I ate crabmeat dressed in bloody-mary sauce, a rib-eye steak and some apple pie; another at a sticky table at La Joya de Ceren on Rockaway Beach Boulevard in Queens, where a fried pork chop came flanked by pupusas, rice and garlicky beans; and a third at Masa, the sushi temple in the Time Warner Center.

Masa is the most expensive restaurant in New York City. Masa Takayama, its owner and operator, is the reason most people book seats at the bar. But for me, it is Takahiro Sakaeda, one of Mr. Takayama’s lieutenants, who is Masa’s great draw. Smart and engaging, as much an instructor and artist as fish cutter or chef, Mr. Sakaeda used kinmedai and orange clam, tuna sinew, lime and Himalayan salt to etch that April night’s meal into my memory, where it remains among my favorite ever eaten.

The next evening: sweetbread tacos with maitake mushrooms at Empellón in the West Village. (Not bad!)

It wasn’t all airlifted Japanese grouper and huge lobes of foie gras, though, out there on the restaurant trail. Sometimes the job was a grim, depressing business, enlivened only by comedy.

Take an abysmal meal I had one night at Hotel Griffou, a warren of rooms below a town house on West Ninth Street: nasty, brutal and short. Worst of all was an entree of chorizo-stuffed squid that tasted of rubber and sawdust, as if it had been fashioned at a sex-toy factory. My guest pushed at the thing with his fork. It repelled his efforts. It was the first and only time as restaurant critic for The Times that I did not at least try to finish my food and experience a full meal. (There is now yet another chef at the restaurant.)

Instead, my guest and I hustled over to the John Dory Oyster Bar, where April Bloomfield cooks a similar dish, but brilliantly. My guest was nervous from his earlier experience. But when he bit into the food, his eyes went wide and he started to woof that way that people do when they want to talk and they want to keep eating at the same time because it is so delicious. I felt a surge of love for the city that can provide such antidotes to misery, and so easily.

Speaking of, here is a fruit of eating 700 or more meals in restaurants that generally have extensive wine lists put together by people who know about 700 times more about wine than you do: When considering what to order, ask for the sommelier. (At the John Dory, she is the cheerful, energetic, wicked and trustworthy Carla Rzeszewski.)

Sommeliers are as rare and amazing in the general population as albino squirrels. They taste and smell things in wine that are only obvious to others once they have been told about them. They know vintages and grapes and earth and humidity as some know baseball statistics or the provenance of antique model trains. And far more often than not, what they offer in return for your mild interest is information and guidance about amazing, unfamiliar and exciting wine — often of a sort that you have never even heard of, much less considered.

The king of the game, Chris Cannon, who ran the cellars and the floors at Marea, Alto and Convivio, is not currently in a Manhattan restaurant. But among the best and most helpful who are: Michael Madrigale at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud; Josh Nadel at the Dutch; and Emilie Garvey, now of Ai Fiori, formerly of SHO Shaun Hergatt. They sell by teaching.

One of the most interesting and enjoyable is John Slover, the antic wine director at Ciano, Shea Gallante’s haute-rustic Italian restaurant. Not for Mr. Slover the occasional bit of advice about this Barbaresco or that petit Chablis. Instead, wine service at Ciano has something of the quality of a trading floor, and Mr. Slover stalks it with all the attention and fuzziness of an approachable lion. He has hustle and flow. He teaches by selling.

Not all restaurants do. At Roberta’s in Bushwick one night, looking for a wine to pair with a salad, before the arrival of a pizza, I asked the server for advice. “Red, maybe?” he said. “Or white?” (I went with beer.)

No matter: the meals I had at Roberta’s were probably the most fascinating, thought-provoking experiences of my professional dining career. Most notable: an aged duck I had as part of a tasting menu that the restaurant’s chef, Carlo Mirarchi, offers at the restaurant two nights a week. It was as close to cheese as fowl, rich and unctuous and tangy, and it captivated my senses in such a way as to neatly encompass both art and vice, risk and reward. It looked like an abscess, frankly. It tasted like godhead.

Other dishes that will haunt my memory include the spinach garganelli that Mark Ladner cooks at Del Posto, and the stuffed rotisserie duck available at Momofuku Ssam Bar only by reservation (it took me two months of trying), and the wild mushrooms you get at Craft, glistening with butter. There was a lentil soup at Veritas. A plate of pork ribs at Fatty ’Cue. A small pile of shaved razor clams with caviar at Le Bernardin.

I can call up the flavor of the split-pea soup at La Grenouille just as some can see a turkey and remember what Thanksgiving smells like. Likewise the veal chop at Ai Fiori, with its sweetbread choux farci and sauce Périgueux; and the chili lobster at Marc Forgione (with Texas toast!); and the barbecued fish at Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan; the lamb ribs atDBGB; the codfish fritters with lamb ragù at Recette; the chicken adobo at Purple Yam; the crisp pork belly at Daniel — all my friends.

Restaurants are about so much more than food, though. They are about the mood created by the people who run the space. They are about experience.

I sat one winter’s night in a tall seat at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. Cesar Ramirez, the restaurant’s chef, was that night cooking primarily for a group of six regulars led by a gregarious Westchester retiree originally from East New York. He dominated discussion at the counter as the smart guy can at the sports bar. This might have been uncomfortable. It was not. And at meal’s end he offered everyone in the place glasses of a 1948 port he had brought along. (Chef’s Table has no liquor license.) Michele Smith, the elegant manager and sommelier-without-portfolio, poured it out as if it were molten gold.

“To Cesar,” the man said, toasting Mr. Ramirez. “Been following him tight since he was at Bouley.”

But the best meal I had on the job? It was in the garden of Frankies 457, on Court Street in Carroll Gardens, on a summer evening with my wife, my children and my brother. We had what everyone always has at Frankies: crostini and some romaine hearts, beets, cold rib-eye salad, cavatelli and sausage and brown butter, meatballs, braciola marinara. The kids hovered while the adults talked family over cold red wine, and a little breeze moved through the trees, and around us other people did the same.

There was bread as we needed it, water, more wine. The food was simple and elegant. The children behaved as they do when they are starving, and in love with what they are eating. Nothing was wrong. Everything was right. It would have been nice if it could have gone on forever.

Cheers, sir.

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