top 100: seäsonal

lobster bisque amuse

I’ve grown accustomed to the two variants of service one often experiences dining out in New York City: the cold, icy reserve of a server who takes himself (and the chef’s food) very seriously and the overly obsequious waiter who hopes to share with you his or her personal favorites and be your friend. Such extreme parameters often come in for a bit of jest at the table, but they are important: service sets the tone of the meal, letting you know whether you’re expected to either sit up straight and pay attention or find the time to chat amicably about every plate after it has been cleared. It may be part of the game that comes with eating out, but at least you know the rules at the start. What I cannot abide are mixed messages. A perfect case in point occurred recently at Seäsonal, a very well-regarded Austrian restaurant on a dim midtown block just south of Central Park. Greeted warmly by the host, I was escorted promptly to my table with a list of cocktails and wines by the glass. After settling in, the host returned to take my drink order and a subsequent question about one of the wines led to the arrival of the sommelier, who clued me in on the flavor profile of a Zweigelt I was considering and promptly poured me a tasting. A savory, spicy red, it was exactly what the weather – and the promise of rich Austrian cuisine – called for. And then I sat and waited. And waited. And waited some more, expecting a menu to eventually arrive. It did not. (As a table in front of me were handed cocktails, menus, placed their order, and started to dig into an appetizer all in the time that I sat there quietly contemplating my wine, I felt just a bit slighted.) Eventually I decided to ask for the menu. Later, I had to ask for a waiter to come take my order. At the end of the evening – I bet you saw this one coming – I had to ask for the bill, too. The warm embrace of the opening salvos at Seäsonal promised a certain kind of evening: friendly, considered, comforting. The reality of the experience, however, proved much the opposite. In truth, the front of house didn’t so much change the rules of the game as forget about them – and me – entirely. Which is honestly a shame because Wolfgang Ban and Eduard Frauneder’s kitchen is as thoughtful and considered as I had hoped. Pearls of cucumber enlivened an amúse of creamy lobster bisque. Meaty pork belly, or schweinebauch, paired with earthy kale and sweet potato, was brightened by the clean zing of grapefruit. A carpet of butter-toasted pumpernickel crumbs proved a perfectly addictive foil for a creamy soft poached egg over tender lobster meat. Kaisergulasch more than lived up to its imperial sounding name: silky veal cheeks in a densely flavored sauce of peppers and paprika came crowned with fried capers, citrus zest and the requisite dollop of sour cream. Add to that a side of pillowy soft, buttered spätzle and I was in hog heaven. Or make that veal heaven. The only culinary misfire occurred with the arrival of a soggy-bottomed apfelstrudel. Much more successful was the kaiserschmarrn, a crumbled caramelized pancake with apple compote that I could eat over and over again. It’s a breach of the diner’s contract to have to go searching for an exit strategy when you should be rightfully allowed to wallow in the afterglow, secure in the knowledge that eventually you will be discretely urged to settle up and move along. So let me take a moment to wag a finger in the face of Seäsonal: the next time an urge for schnitzel hits, I’ll be eating at the bar.

pochiertes ei




top 100: momofuku ssäm bar

Yes, it’s loud, crowded and incredibly cramped even by New York’s standards – and the byzantine reservation system is almost enough to cause you to throw up your hands and arrive hoping for a random cancellation – but in the end there is no denying the crazy-delicious nonchalance of what comes out of the kitchen at Momofuku Ssäm 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’s 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 Momofuku does have, however, is a culinary curiosity that asks you to either jump on board or get left behind. If you’re at all accustomed to the preciousness that too often comes with fine dining, this is an insouciant antidote and the gastronomic equivalent of a thrill ride. My table of eight started small with raw bites of striped bass flecked with pungent slices of kumquat. Spanish mackerel followed, cut with black garlic, lime, and a quixotic scattering of strawberries. Stimulated we moved on 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, which 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 Ssäm arrives: a whole Niman Ranch pork shoulder slow roasted for eight hours in a brown sugar and salt rub. Ssäm is Korean for enclosed or wrapped, and the pork comes with bibb lettuce for wrapping, along with white rice, kimchi, ginger scallion sauce, korean bbq or ssäm sauce and a dozen oysters on the 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 similar to lardo. In the bo ssäm 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 might approach 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 from watching your table mates as they experiment with assembling and eating their carnivorous creations. (tip: the messier the better) Ultimately the bo ssäm turns into an epic 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.  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, I couldn’t 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.


live blog: restaurant iris


Lest you think Memphis is little more than barbecue, biscuits and yardbird, I’d like to turn your attention to Restaurant Iris – a sterling example of what owner/chef Kelly English has coined “progressive Southern” cuisine. The beautiful thing about that phrase is how perfectly it encapsulates the essence of what chef English is doing: farm-to-table cooking rooted in honest Southern traditions. Which means that of course the salad has a bacon component – yet it’s lardons of artisanal pork belly from Alan Benton’s local smokehouse. (If you don’t know Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the miracle of their mail order.) And the lettuces are a peppery local arugula, dressed with grilled scallions in a ginger-soy vinaigrette. Topped with crispy “croutons” of sweetbreads – a bit of genius – there’s nothing outwardly Southern about this dish, yet the counterpoint of tastes and textures is undeniably comfort food at its most refined. Shrimp and grits might be a classic of Southern cooking but it, too, transcends expectations in the hands of chef English: the coarse-grind Delta grits are closer to polenta, bathed in tomato broth au pistou that’s thick with the taste of the sea. A refined dice of andouille adds just enough heat to prickle the palate while six meaty Gulf shrimp top it off as regally as a crown roast. When it comes to dessert, I’m not at all surprised there’s a cheese course on offer. (It’s at this point that I berate myself for not indulging in the degustation menu.) As if the food were not enough, Restaurant Iris also has an ideal genteel setting: an intimate Victorian house on midtown’s Overton Square. Marked by exceptional service (a waiter drove to my hotel to return an accidentally left-behind credit card) and stellar cocktails to boot (the Sazerac sings) Chef English will upend everything you thought you knew about Southern dining. And masterfully so, I might add.


memorable meals: klee

Most animals  – as you’d expect – are bred for their meat, but Mangalitsa pigs are bred for their intensely flavored, supple fat.

Virtually extinct by the latter half of the 20th century, the breed was resuscitated recently in Hungary and can now be procured in extremely limited quantities (apparently they slaughter only about two pigs per week) from a farm in New Jersey – to my knowledge, the only breeder of Mangalitsa in the US.

Klee, a European American brasserie in Chelsea happens to be one of the lucky restaurants with an occasional porcine supply.   And as seen here, Chef Daniel Angerer puts it to stellar use in one heck of a pork belly entree.  A sliver of meat is buttressed by a solid two-plus inches of silky fat and skin.  This is like the kobe of fat:  meaty, creamy, you can chew it like a room temperature stick of butter or just let it melt in your mouth.  It’s counter intuitive, to be sure, but wow, the flavor is outrageous.  Klee serves it with braised red cabbage and a rutabaga puree – two strong flavors that stand up to the richness of the belly.  A bottle of spiky Austrian Zweigelt made a perfect accompaniment to what I’d call a one-off wintry treat.


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