A proper pint of Guinness, thick slices of brown bread, and half a dozen Carlingford oysters at PJ O’Hare’s. This is what I think of when I hear the phrase ‘holy trinity.’
I mean, duh; just look at this beautifully wild and windswept landscape inÂ a little spit of a town called Inverness, halfway up the Northern coast of Cape Breton Island. The region’s Gaelic roots are made obvious in towns throughout the province: Antigonish, Argyle, Truro, Oxford, New Glasgow, Berwick, Colchester. Nearby Prince Edward Island might be known for its mussels but this coastline hasÂ me thinking about the prospects for a different kind of mollusk: oysters.
Yes, it’s loud, crowded and incredibly cramped even by New York’s standards – and the byzantine reservation system isÂ almostÂ enoughÂ to cause you to throw up your hands and arrive hoping for a randomÂ cancellation – but in the end there is no denying the crazy-delicious nonchalance of what comes out of the kitchen at Momofuku SsÃ¤m Bar. It’s everything you’ve heard about and more: inventive, intelligent, insidious, and best of all, indifferent – which I mean in the best way possible. David Chang’sÂ kitchen doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass for what’s fashionable or trending. (My god, they don’t even have a Twitter account, if you can believe) What MomofukuÂ does have, however, is a culinary curiosity that asks you to either jump on board or get left behind.Â If you’re at allÂ accustomedÂ to the preciousness that too often comes with fine dining, this is anÂ insouciantÂ antidote and theÂ gastronomicÂ equivalentÂ of a thrill ride. MyÂ tableÂ of eight started small with raw bites of striped bass flecked with pungent slices of kumquat. Spanish mackerel followed,Â cut with black garlic, lime, and a quixotic scattering of strawberries. Stimulated we moved onÂ to what I like to think of as the steamed bun course: thick slices of meaty-fatty pork belly, cucumber rounds and hoisin stuffed into what looks like fluffy tacos; a plate of crispy, seasonal pickles; and BBQ buns,Â whichÂ turn that same slice of belly into a wholly different sensory experience: crispy pork, crunchy coleslaw and creamy smoked mayo colliding with finger licking results. Before the main event we downshift to a simple plate of ham. I’ve written about Benton’s hardcore bacon before yet lo and behold, the humble pig reaches its fatty, flavorful – and refined – apotheosis in a plate of paper-thin slices of Benton’s Smoky Mountain ham which dissolve on the tongue like the porcine equivalent of angel wings. And just when you think things couldn’t get any piggier, the Bo SsÃ¤m arrives: a whole Niman Ranch pork shoulder slow roasted for eight hours in a brown sugar and salt rub.Â SsÃ¤m is Korean for enclosed or wrapped, and the pork comes withÂ bibb lettuce for wrapping, along withÂ whiteÂ rice, kimchi, gingerÂ scallionÂ sauce, korean bbq or ssÃ¤m sauce and a dozen oysters on theÂ half shell. While you’re encouraged to eat it however you please, there is an art – and a pleasure – in going whole hog. Take a buttery leaf and spread it with a little of each condiment. Using the provided tongs grab a hunk of the tender meat, sprinkle with a little rice, toping with a raw oyster, wrap and devour. Yes, you read that right: top it with a raw oyster. A really good medium-sized oyster has a mouth feel similarÂ to lardo. In the bo ssÃ¤m that creamy, colloidal texture – along with the spiky mollusk brine – elevates the simple wrap into a salty-sweet, juicy pocket rocket of porky goodness. You mightÂ approachÂ the enterprise with a bit of gustatory hesitation but trust me, you’ll soon be shoveling it in with gusto. A good part of the fun also comes fromÂ watchingÂ yourÂ table mates as they experiment withÂ assembling and eating their carnivorousÂ creations. (tip: the messier the better) Ultimately the bo ssÃ¤mÂ turns into an epicÂ battle of the wills: man versus pork. I’m full and yet I keep eating and picking and wrapping because yes, I have no self-control, but also because it is that good. Â Collectively the eight of us did some serious damage and still, the pork shoulder won hands down. (I took home a solid five pounds of leftover meat.) Stuffed to the gills it was difficult for anyone to fathom room for desert, yet when the waiter mentioned that pastry chef Christina Tosi was experimenting with an off-menu treat that night, IÂ couldn’tÂ resist insisting on one for the table: pancake cake, layered with raspberry jam and miso ganache, glazed with maple syrup and served with a black pepper butter sauce and strips of bacon. A seemingly playful send-up of breakfast, it was sick come to think of it. Sick and oh, so right.
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?
If you don’t believe it possible that any single establishment could embody the look, attitude, andÂ (un)consciousness of an era, look no further than Le Cirque. In the go-go 1980’s Sirio Maccioni’s restaurant at the Mayfair Hotel wasÂ where the elite came to meet and eat. On any given evening you might find the Nancy’s (Reagan, Sinatra, and Kissinger, if you have to ask) cheek by jowl on a red leather banquette alongside European royalty, assorted movie stars, Jackie O, and an editor or two from Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair furiously scribbling it all down. It wasn’t, however, solely about the intermingling of the power elite – it was also about the food.Â David Bouley, Terrance Brennan, Jacques Torres, Sottha Khun, Bill Telepan, and Geoffrey Zakarian all spent quality time in the kitchen at Le Cirque. And itÂ shouldÂ be remembered that underÂ Daniel BouludÂ the restaurant ascended to four-star status, repeatedlyÂ regaled by the New York Times. Few people would argue that asÂ theÂ 20th century drew to an optimistic close Le Cirque epitomizedÂ not onlyÂ everything a restaurant should be but also everything a city could be.Â Today – despite the bonfire ofÂ manyÂ an interim vanity – much of what made it great remains. For one there’s the impeccable white-jacketed service fronted by the most hospitable hosts in town. You are welcomed like an old friend – more to the point, an important friend – into one of the more elegant dining rooms in the city. The ceilings mightÂ soar double or triple-height but the mood is nevertheless cozy and intimÃ©e at a banquette overlooking the room. Le Cirque may have lost some of its buzzworthiness and fallen out of favor with the Page Six set but the air remains rarefied. IfÂ anything, the diminished spotlight only serves to focus the attention squarely where it belongs: on the food, which I’m happy to say succeeds from the first amuse to the final petit four. In between, aÂ half-dozen meaty Blue Point oysters on the half shell are causeÂ for celebration. So, too, a restrained rectangle of foie gras with quince jelly. The fish is impeccable: both turbot a la plancha atop olive oil crushed potatoes and john dory in a rich bouillabaisseÂ broth make for satisfying main courses. And I dare you to find a desert to trump the ethereal Floating Island. UnderÂ theÂ toque of Executive Chef Olivier Reginensi there remains a handful of oldies but goodies like lobster risotto, diver scallops with black truffle in puff pastry, baked Alaska and Chateaubriand for two, but for the most part Le Cirque has gracefully found its feet in the 21st century,Â moving beyond thoseÂ flashy holdovers from another era – society swans included.
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.