top 100: recette

I’d been dreading this moment since I started the Top 100 project. Mind you, I knew it would arrive; I just never imagined it would arrive so quickly, the subtle realization that as it is in the theater, each night’s kitchen performance is unique – and that remains an essential part of the thrill. Some nights the stars align, defying explanation – let alone codification – to deliver magic on a plate. Other nights – blame the full moon or just an off night – the effort is strenuous and entirely respectable, if not necessarily worth a standing ovation. The meal I eat tonight – despite a restaurant’s striving for some degree of consistency – will rarely, if ever, be the same meal you eat. So let’s just leave  it at this: the stars did not align at Recette the other night. That’s not a knock on Jesse Schenker’s food, which is urbane and thoughtful to a fault at times. (You could do a whole lot worse in this city, believe me) Yet I arrived expecting something ineffable.  What was served was pretty. But for a $300 price tag, entirely too practical.

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top 100: telepan

As a long-term resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time turning up my nose at the dining options available on the other side of the park. For many years the Upper West Side was primarily the redoubt of cheap Chinese restaurants and hand-scrawled signs offering free box-wine with dinner. At a push there was Zabar’s. If you wanted a proper sit-down meal that didn’t involve a Kosher pickle you went downtown – or headed east. Reluctantly I’ll admit to having held on to this East-West bias for far too long. Times have indeed changed. The area surrounding Lincoln Center has blossomed and – dare I say? – makes my old ‘hood seem downright stodgy when it comes to fine dining. Case in point: Telepan. Earnest, honest, market-based cooking tucked into an unassuming side street brownstone – this is the type of restaurant you’d love to make your local if only the price points were as demure as the setting. There’s nothing outlandish or extravagant about the kitchen save Chef Bill Telepan’s devotion to seasonality. The homemade mozzarella is unlike any you’ve ever tasted: a shiny boletus cap that’s part cheese, part saltwater taffy. No workaday caprese, it is served atop peppery spring arugula and toasted green garlic with (appropriately enough) crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. A country pate “sandwich” arrives with house-made pickles, citrus chile vinaigrette and toasted triangles of brioche. Jumbo Maine sea scallops are seared to perfection. Cleverly presented on discs of fingerling potato, the toothsome mollusks are accompanied by the last of winter’s reliable veg, cauliflower and kohlrabi. A meaty filet of halibut replaced the advertised wild striped bass the other night because that’s what was fresh in the market. With wild mushrooms, spinach and sunchokes it made for a substantial entree. It’s at this point I was glad to have ordered a la carte and not done the recommended four-course tasting. While the cuisine might be nouvelle-inspired, the kitchen is clearly at the mercy of a Jewish mother who thinks you’ve gotten too skinny. Perhaps the coming spring menu will lighten things up a bit with a lithesome selection of shoots and leaves – I was hoping for the first ramps of the season myself –  but until then my best advice would be to pace yourself.  Because  the food is that good. And dessert is mostly worth saving room for. I would have loved a more significant (and less decorous) contribution of meringue in the Meyer lemon meringue pie, but the gooey puddle of sweet and tart – heightened by supremes of blood orange and grapefruit – made for a fragrantly pleasant palate cleanser. Wait, let me contradict myself: the pie crust and merengue were unnecessary. A big bowl of that custard topped with a sprig of mint would have enabled the less-than-sober scene of my licking a bowl in public. I have no such suggestions when it comes to the cheese board, however. Okay, maybe just one: there’s four pieces of cheese, Chef; please train your waitstaff to be able to identify which is which. That said, I can’t think of a finer quartet of artisanal cheeses outside of a Terence Brennan cave. The Smokey Blue out of Oregon’s Rogue River Creamery is alone worth the price of admission. Lightly smoked over hazelnut shells, it completely altered what I’d come to expect out of a traditional blue, like Roquefort or Fourme d’Ambert. At once pungently fecund and heady with smoke it tasted of the end of winter – and the burgeoning spring.

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cock a doodle doo

Marcus Samuelson’s new Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, is a mix of soul and comfort foods under the spell of neighborhood traditions as well as the chef’s vaunted Swedish and Ethiopian backgrounds. That means Fried Yard Bird soaked in buttermilk for three days then served with hot sauce and a shaker of berbere, the Ethiopian spice mix.  A trio of cheeses – gouda, cheddar and comte – spike the hearth-baked mac ‘n’ greens.  Black vinegar cauliflower is served cold, enlivened by sumac, toasted pine nuts, and a brush of vinegar that borders on molasses.  Smoked collards get a surprise bite from the addition of mustard greens and kale.   In short Samuelson pulls off an impressive balancing act, contrasting the full-fat flavor that makes comfort food so satisfying with an unexpectedly appetizing dose of Scandinavian bitter (or the sharp tang of African heat) The only mis-step comes during desert:  lemon sorbet was too-tart an accompaniment to the otherwise pillowy sweet potato doughnuts dusted with cinnamon sugar. Velvety-rich Black and White Mud in a chocolate wafer crust, however, was much like the rest of Red Rooster:  something to crow about.

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