Of all the noisy restaurantsÂ in this abominably loud city to Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch must go the dubious distinction of sporting the most inexplicably ear-splitting acoustics. While the decor is a pleasingly comfortable homespun ode to American earnestness, the decibel level makesÂ it a little like dining on the verge of the BQE or trying to eat in the mosh pit of a rock concert: you live in fear of being bumped from all sides because honestly, there’s no way a group of ordinary humans could be THIS LOUD. I want to make the font larger, the bold bolder, the caps more capital to emphasize just how loud the hive is because even for a Saturday night in Soho it is VERY, VERY LOUD! Â And that takes away from the food, I fear, which is pretty darn delicious from soup to nuts. As twilight gently envelope a momentarily quiet corner window table we start with Jersey asparagus because – smelly pee be damned – ’tis the season for asparagus. (In food fetish circles mid-May generally marks the time ramps relinquish their crown to the noble asparagi) Fragrant, toothsome, adorned with the slightest hint of tarragon and the buttery yolk of a fried – versus poached – egg, it’s like eating stalks of spring: verdant, earthy, and above all, vital. Steak tartare is equally alive, the beef tasting of its grassy diet and topped with white anchovy and a piquant dollop of caesar salad. A dozen New England oysters follow: meaty Massachusetts Peter’s Point and Rhody Matunucks thick with brine. Maybe it was the first round of cocktails – for me,Â The Last Oaxacan, a smoky mix of yellow Chartreuse and pineapple infused Mezcal; an aromatic blend of Thai basil, kaffir lime and vodkaÂ for my partner in crime,Â the Cassia Blossom – or the first bottle of Trimbach, but it’s at this point I notice we are speaking quite loudly while leaning in across the table to listen to each other. When main courses arrive we pay significantly more attention to our plates because it’s a losing battle trying converse at aÂ sufficientÂ volume while not shooting torpedos of food at the person across from you. It’s a taste-a-palooza, however, so we’re bothÂ happyÂ to shut up and dig in. I’ve got five plump sea scallops glazed with bacon jam, jalapeno and kumquat. It’s a smoky-spicy-citrus trifecta that makes me want to shout “Yahtzee!” Across the table, my friend has a bowl of tarragon-roasted chicken with morels and charred leeks. The earthyÂ smells perfume the table like narcotics and we happily pass plates back and forth inÂ silence,Â like a joint shared at the beach – as oblivious to the noise asÂ theÂ crash of the surf. It’s a happy spell of satiety that’s cast, made even better by dessert – an ethereal banana cream pie that makes me yearn for summer. In fact everything this evening, save the noise, has been soÂ seasonallyÂ focused that it has me looking forward to what might follow: summer corn, blueberries,Â andÂ sea bass; autumn lamb, apples, and winter game. Chef Carmellini, you can cook for me anytime. But could you find a way to keep it down just a bit?
There arenâ€™t many powdered substances you can buy by the gram and sniff for pleasure. While staying within the law, that is. Columbian Asparagus, an avant-garde – and tongue-in-cheek – creation from the culinary wunderkinds at Londonâ€™s Bubble Food, is one of them. Although the recipe remains a closely guarded secret, Bubble FoodÂ´s Michael Collins will admit to putting the vegetable through a variety of scientific processes in order to concoct a product that confuses the senses and ignites the imagination in true molecular gastronomy style. â€œOnce inhaled, it delivers a unique sensory experience,â€ is all Collins would say, giving away little. The low acidity of asparagus makes it one of the few foods suited to this type of treatment. And while the team discovered that it could work a similar magic on both peas and beans, someone wisely decided that a toot of Bean Blow didn’t have quite the same cache as white stalks of Snow White. Yet another uncanny coincidence: Colombian Asparagus costs around $80 per gram. No word, however, on what all those lines of asparagus will do to your septum.
If you’ve yet to get your fill of the spring’s bumper crop of asparagus, rush over to Dan Barber’s farm-to-table temple, Blue Hill, where the tender green shoots are not only predictably shaved into a salad but also pureed into warm soup shooters and sandwiched between two corn-infused madeleines like hip veggie sliders.
What happened to Todd English? Once considered the boy wonder of Boston, he was heralded a generation ago for his modest take on rustic Mediterranean cuisine at the 50-seat restaurant, Olives.Â In the ensuing decades, however, Chef English has seemed more concerned with cementing his reputation as the King of Hotel Dining:Â Olives New York at the W Union Square, Bonfire at Boston’s Park Plaza, Olives Las Vegas inside the Bellagio, Fish Club at the Seattle Marriott, Olives Aspen at the St. Regis, Todd English’s Tuscany at Mohegan Sun, Disney World’s Blue Zoo, Riche in the New Orleans Harrah’s, The Plaza Food Hall by Todd English, and most recently, Olives Biloxi at Beau Rivage Resort and Casino.Â You’ve got to give the man credit for branding, even if in the process his food has suffered.
Case in point: Ã‡a Va by Todd English at the new Intercontinental Hotel in Manhattan’s theater district seems designed for tourists who want a New York-style dining experience yet are afraid to leave their hotel.Â (Not as safe as it sounds given the grisly corkscrew murder that recently took place upstairs.) Connected to the hotel’s lobby, the main room feels less like the advertised brasserie and more like an Outback Steakhouse with the lights dimmed low.Â Now, I’m personally very much a fan of flattering lighting, but what’s a diner to do when it’s too dark to read the menu?Â Luckily the bright screen on my companion’s iPhone did double-duty as a flashlight, otherwise, I’m afraid, I was either going to have to ask for the menu in braille or task the server with a dramatic recitation.Â Even with the glare the menu looked promising, however, stacked with modernized classics tweaked just enough to seem exciting without being necessarily adventurous: crispy oysters ‘escargot style,’ shaved asparagus salad with asian pear in a mushroom vinaigrette, braised short ribs and sunchoke-lobster fricasse, lobster ‘profiterole.’ If only the execution was as meticulous as the copy-writing. Crispy oysters are indeed, crispy. And tasty, too. Yet it’s evident that what the chef means by ‘escargot style’ is an avalanche of garlic and butter so extreme as to mask the mollusks. This dish would work just as well with any absorbent material.Â Bread, for example; or kitchen sponge.Â Mealy disks of Marcona almond panna cotta aside, a shaved asparagus salad fares much better.Â Fatty short ribs are a passable plat du jour with sides of garlic spinach and a hash of sunchokes, so what’s the point in scattering chunks of flavorless lobster on the side?Â And since we’re mentioning flavorless lobster, I bet you can guess how well the disappointingly cold profiterole turned out.
It takes an amazing amount of drive (and talent) to get to the point where you can call yourself a Celebrity Chef with a straight face.Â Todd English has more than earned the right to do so, but at what price his culinary soul?Â Ã‡a ne pas.