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

kaiserbulasch

apfelstrudel

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amuse bouche

At the suggestion of a friend who also happens to double as a local San Francisco restaurant critic, I made it a point to visit Bouche in the gastronomic wasteland of Union Square. I’m very glad I did. Convenient to an evening’s theatre plans, Guillaume Issaverdens’ unassuming hidden California-French bistro proved a welcome surprise of seasonal food amid charming surroundings. Tucked into an upstairs corner with views through mullioned windows the restaurant has all the rustic allure of a Loire farmhouse. A bottle of one of those wines you almost never find on a domestic wine list only reinforces the illusion. (Domaine Auchere Sancerre Rouge, as refreshing a spring red as you’re likely to ever find) Expectations henceforth were felicitously met: a deliriously good duck confit with beet puree and walnuts arrived under a bouquet of radish and spring greens. Sauteed calamari lightly dressed with mushrooms and citrus made a refreshing, less intense companion and foil. Lamb shoulder balanced the difficult task of tasting earthy without being too fatty or filling an entrée. (chickpea puree instead of potato was a clever deception) And a Proustian nod to the marinated salmon; one of those dishes I will be able to recall years hence. Delicately smoked slices of ruby red salmon come coiled atop a bird’s nest of crispy egg noodle, floating on a bed of creme fraiche. Nestled inside the nest: a perfectly poached egg. Creamy, crunchy, salty, smoky, the liaison of flavors and textures is heady, if not downright erotic. After this, dessert seems altogether unnecessary – what I really want is a cigarette.

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when life hands you blueberries

Regular readers might recall my virgin attempts at pickling earlier in the spring.  Having just consumed the last of the pickled ramps some three months after the experiment – with a really nice piece of aged goat cheese – I can honestly say that it turned out to be a great way to extend the life of those ethereal spring onions.

The newly empty canning jar, however, turned my thoughts to wondering what’s in season right now.  Blueberries, which a week ago were as expensive as semi-precious stones, are suddenly everywhere and cheap as chips.  They’re bursting with sweet berry flavor, too – which means this long hot summer has kicked the growing season up a few weeks.  I’m thinking crumble, pie, cobbler; but more urgently I’m thinking I don’t want to turn on the oven.  Eventually I figured out that using the cook top I could make a syrup, which would not only be more in line with my attempts at seasonal preserves but also a significantly less intense dose of heat infusing my already overheated apartment.  And yet again, like with the pickling, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy the whole affair turned out to be:  5 cups of berries mashed up with 1 cup of water and simmered for 20 minutes.  Drain through a sieve and reserve the liquid, discarding the solids. Rinse the pot, adding two cups of water, two cups of sugar, the zest of a lemon and bring to a medium boil.  Add reserved berry liquid, a few tablespoons of lemon juice and cook for one minute.  Remove from heat, let cool, then discard zest and pour into bottles.  Voila!

In addition to these two bottles, which should last for six months in the fridge, I got the accidental benefit of some fresh jelly, too.  “Leave to cool,” you should know means just that:  let it cool down and then pour into storage containers.  I on the other hand left it to cool for most of the day.  As a result when I finally checked up on my syrup a gelatinous skin of jelly about an inch thick had formed  across the top.  It tasted intense and looked eminently spreadable, so I put it in a jar for later.  The syrup, I am happy to report, is rich, thick, and bursting with a concentrated ripe-fruit flavor. Now I’m craving pancakes, as well as musing on all the  items that will get the blueberry treatment in the coming months.

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