Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tom: Tuesday Dinner: ...What about Tom: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Dinner?

… and Saturday and Sunday?

Part One: The Dream

If Anthony Bourdain whetted my appetite for the culinary world, and Michael Ruhlman and David Kamp helped me navigate my way amongst the field’s top players, it’s Tom Colicchio who continues to reinvigorate my interest in food each week. Every Wednesday night on Top Chef, I watch contestants fall over each other trying to impress this well-respected chef’s chef. Blue eyes blazing, serving up contentious zingers like, “The venison’s already dead, no need to kill it again,” or indignantly declaring, “If we were to stand up and leave right now, we would not even get a goodbye!” Tom Colicchio… well, he exudes enough sex appeal to make a girl go mad, really.

Or her boyfriend go mad. “That bastard,” poor Otto whispers to the television set each week when he catches me dumbly grinning into the screen. He’s partially to blame. Before Otto surprised me with a romantic Christmas dinner at Craft, I sometimes thought Colicchio came across a trifle portentous on T.V.—who was this multiple James Beard winner anyway, who delivered his highfalutin edicts from the safe haven of Judges’ Table? Who dared talk down to gentle, amiable Ariane about her deviled eggs and use of cookbooks as another means of exploring cuisine, but then sang the praises of Jacques Pepin’s La Technique?

Once we ate at Craft however, everything changed. Otto and I both experienced one of the finest, most magical dining events of our lives. Who was this Tom Colicchio indeed, who really was capable of delivering such perfection? My admiration suddenly knew no limits.

Because his romantic gesture backfired, Otto was now stuck watching Colicchio every week (or, watching me watch Colicchio each week) knowing not only was I swooning, but realizing he too swooned—for succulent beef short rib, pillow-like gnocchi and buttery chestnut ravioli.

“It’s not like he’s saving lives or anything,” I heard him mumble one night.

Then this story broke.

Around the time Joan Nathan went on record to say, “Tom Colicchio saved my life,” was around the time I wondered if Chef Colicchio actually cooked in any of his restaurants anymore. This guy had a lot on his plate (no pun intended): a hit show, multiple press engagements, nationwide Craft locations… If he was in the kitchen, he was expediting.

It was a crazy notion, but I kept coming back to the same question: was there any chance I could get a meal whipped up by Tom himself? …Tom and those newly-minted life-saving hands?

Part Two: Reservations

When Frank Bruni’s article on Tom: Tuesday Dinner appeared, it was the first I had heard of Craft’s private dining room (immediately adjacent to Craft), which transformed into an intimate restaurant every other Tuesday evening where Colicchio himself would prepare a 10+ tasting menu for the few diners lucky enough to score reservations.

It was exactly what I had been hoping for.

But, as it turns out, deciding you want to go to Tom: Tuesday Dinner and trying to get in are two entirely different cuts of meat.

The reservation line (singular) opens Tuesday, 10 a.m., roughly one month prior to the desired reservation date. For instance, because I wanted a reservation on Tuesday, March 17th, I would have to mark February 3rd, 2009 on my Outlook Express calendar as the date to bombard the phone line. Once the tables were full, the phone line would close, and everyone would re-queue for the following engagement, two weeks later.

Given most of the population works on Tuesday at 10 a.m., the time was not without its difficulties. However, on February 3rd, I dutifully brought my cell phone to work, figuring hitting re-dial over and over wouldn’t pose too many problems for the office.

At 9:59 a.m., I fished my cell phone out of my bag, head hunched low in my cubicle, and began dialing the number to Tom: Tuesday Dinner. ‘Who else would mark her calendar to call on a Tuesday morning at 10 a.m.?’ I thought confidently, hitting “Send.” In response, the phone rang 36 times, then disconnected me. I frowned. When I hit re-dial, I got a busy signal, once, twice, three times. No message system, no re-assurance I was the next caller in line. Just a maddening, resounding beep.

Twenty minutes in, I started to feel conspicuous with a cell phone to my ear, as co-workers walked purposefully by performing their work-related functions. The office was dead-quiet. I began to despise the person who had decided that the only time to make a reservation to the hottest dinner in town was 10 a.m. during the work week. “This is b.s.,” I thought. My cell phone agreed, beeping that the battery was running low. I hit “Send” a couple more times half-heartedly.

The line rang.

I bolted upright. I glanced down at my phone and my excitement transformed to horror when I saw that the battery registered only half a bar.

On the other line was Elena Silva, the official reservationist for Tom: Tuesday Dinner. Barely. Voice echoing, she cheerfully thanked me for calling. I urgently interjected, “Elena? Hello! I think my cell phone is about to die—can I give you another number?” My phone beeped again ominously.

“Hello?” Elena said, “I can barely hear you—it’s a bad connection.”

“Elena?” I said again, this time much louder. My co-worker Suzanne eyed me curiously.

“Another number?” Elena said, very far away, but understanding. “Go ahead.”

I gave her the number, and she promptly read it back to me. Two of the digits were wrong.

“No, no!” I all but shouted. I looked around, embarrassed, and tried to lower my voice. “It’s three five,” I hissed.

“Nine?” Elena asked.


The line went dead.

I blinked, not even believing what had just happened. I frantically glanced at my office phone. It remained dark.

I buried my face in my hands, crestfallen. When I looked up, Suzanne gave me a sympathetic look.

About five minutes later, my office line rang. It was Elena—she had figured out the number. Suddenly, I was set for a table for two on March 17th, 8:00 p.m. I hung up, and looked at Suzanne, this time my smile broad. I told her of my triumph.

“That’s fantastic!” she said enthusiastically, yet a bit confused. “But I thought you were trying to win tickets to a concert or something.”

Now I was the one who was confused. Clearly, I just had.

Part 3: Tom: Tuesday Dinner

Stepping into the private dining room of Craft (a separate door right next to the Craft restaurant, accessible from the street,) is like entering a movie theater mid-screening. First you pass a surprisingly roomy reception area, and a small bar that juts out to obstruct views from sidewalk traffic. The lights dim, and clean white light shines from the open kitchen—bluesy, soulful beats are the soundtrack, and on “screen” is the immediately recognizable shaved head of Tom Colicchio, who, on the night of our visit, is bent over a series of colorful plates, three to four chefs bustling in close proximity.

Talk about a wow-factor.

Otto and I sit at a table right next to the open window, and are completely transfixed. Otto forgets Tom Colicchio is his arch-nemesis and strains his neck to get a better look at our first course, the Caviar “Vichyssoise.” Diners around us are enjoying their meals, but are also copping copious stares of Tom, who is intent in his work. There is an attractive woman dressed in plainclothes also in the kitchen, and she is watching Tom intently, concern evident in her face.

Our amuse bouche appears, caviar paired with horseradish crème fraiche and a cracker. We exclaim over the beauty and savor the bite, knowing we are in for a spectacular evening. When we look up, Colicchio is sitting down, drinking a Coke.

Otto stares. “Isn’t it kind of early for a break?”

The attractive woman kisses Colicchio goodbye, opens a sliding wall from the kitchen to the main dining room, and leaves the restaurant.

Colicchio is still sitting. When he gets up, he also slides open the wall, and enters the dining room. Otto and I sit up a little straighter in our chairs. When he’s on the floor, we notice he is wearing shorts and some serious-looking braces/bandages around his knees.

He leaves the dining room.

I turn to Otto in dismay.

Our second course appears. I eat my salmon pastrami somewhat dejectedly. Many diners around us are already on their dessert courses. Perhaps 8:00 dinner reservations don’t get you a full dinner with Tom, I consider.

By the end of the third course, Otto points out Colicchio’s return. “Maybe he feels like cooking again!” he says brightly.

After about 20 minutes in the kitchen, which includes a cell-phone call, Colicchio disappears once again. This time, he’s gone for 10 minutes, and returns on crutches. Any disappointment from Otto and me is now replaced with concern. Something’s not right.

Around our sixth course, many of the front tables have cleared. Tom again comes out from the kitchen with his crutches, but this time, stands by the open window literally arms-length from Otto, and casually chats with his chefs. Diners who have finished their meals approach him, and for the first time, we see Colicchio smile broadly. “Thank-you’s” and small talk abound, and there is an openness and a genuineness about him. Diners leave grinning ear to ear.

Otto and I are finishing our remarkable liver confit, when I make eye contact with Colicchio, who is now standing by himself. He smiles and moves closer to our table.

He warmly thanks us for coming. We ask about his knee, which we learn has been operated on only two weeks prior. “My doctor told me I shouldn’t be on my feet right now, but I know how much everyone looks forward to this,” he says, motioning around him. “I didn’t want to let anyone down. Normally, I’m in the kitchen the whole night.” His voice is almost apologetic. He mentions his wife (the attractive woman from earlier in the evening), who delivered painkillers, and how the drugs had made him feel a bit ill. As he relays this story, a woman approaches and hands him a flashing cell phone. We motion for him to take the call, but he quite naturally puts the cell phone in his pocket, and continues to chat, never once looking at it. I can see Otto developing a man-crush after this courteous act. We inform him that every dish has been superb. Despite being in obvious pain, he looks happy. We chat for quite a while: about Top Chef, our favorite dishes, Craft.

Before he leaves, I ask if it’s possible to get a photo with him at the end of service. “Of course!” he says. “Let’s do it now!”

A class act, that Tom Colicchio. Meeting him was actually more exciting than meeting Bono. Colicchio even stopped our photo mid-pose, saying he thought the bright light from the kitchen would shadow our faces. He suggested moving next to a darker wall and we got a marvelous shot.

…What’s that?

….You want to hear about what we ate?

Part 4: Tasting Menu

Before I present our radiant tasting menu, I’ll address the bill: there were no surprises, or hidden costs. Otto had tap water. I had a glass of cranberry juice, which I don’t believe was even charged. The bill was $150 each, plus tax. Adding tax and tip, we each spent $204. Was it worth it? We arrived shortly after 8:00 p.m. and left at 10 to midnight. We met Tom Colicchio, who turned out to be one of the nicest, down-to-earth, humble guys Otto or I have ever met. We watched him cook. We ate like kings and sampled food of such high a caliber, I fear I will never taste it again. It’s a night we will remember for years to come.

Tom: Tuesday Dinner’s March 17th Tasting Menu, with pictures!

1. Caviar “Vichysoisse”
A delightful amuse bouche. Loved the horseradish crème-fraiche and the salty burst of caviar. Is there a better way to start a meal than caviar?

2. Salmon Pastrami
Breakfast in a bite: smoked salmon, with an egg fashioned into a cracker. Lovely!

3. Langoustines
Colicchio actually hobbled by our table during this course—Otto had to kick me before I noticed. I was too busy marveling over the red pepper tapiocas in the silky, coconut broth which were giving this dish an unusual gummy pop. And the langoustine—so succulent and buttery! Very interesting Thai flavors going on. Probably my favorite dish of the evening.

4. Cod Poached in Olive Oil
Delicate cod in parsley sauce, with a tangy, fiery red sauce on top. Didn’t love the socca, a flatbread made of chickpea flour, but did enjoy the accompanying green chickpeas. The snail on top of the cod was worrisome (I can’t wrap my head around the texture of snail), but it ended up being good, too (tasted like garlic!). This dish was beautiful to behold, and while most elements shined, it was probably the least successful dish of the night, just in terms of personal preference.

5. Roasted Scallop
If this dish came out sans endive marmalade and pistachios, I still would’ve been in bliss. That’s the beauty of Colicchio. He can coax the natural flavors and textures out of any ingredient to make it the best you’ve ever tasted. The scallop melted in my mouth. I thought the flavor combination sounded familiar and on further research, realized Top Chef contestant Elia made a very similar dish in the Season 1 vs. Season 2 battle.

6. Liver Confit
There was liver. There was foie gras. There was garlic ravioli. There was…. Tom Colicchio standing right next to our table. I don’t remember much about this dish other than it was excellent. I do recall Colicchio pointing to it and saying that the woman next to us deemed it her favorite dish of the evening (to which I eloquently responded, “Uhhhhhehhhallllgeeeeeshreh?”)

7. Gnudi
Oh, gnudi, how I love you. I don’t know exactly what you are—a ravioli, a gnocchi or the dumpling of all dumplings—but you were luscious and you were my second-favorite course of the night. … and what’s that you’re packing underneath those shaved black truffles? A raw egg? Oh, gnudi, you saucy minx!

8. Baby Pig
I don’t think I realized I was eating baby pig until now. I’m re-typing “Baby Pig” from my autographed menu (a personal touch Colicchio includes on each diner’s menu), and it’s dawning on me that I ate Babe. What’s worse is the realization that I’d eat him again. I’m not sure what that circular, intestine-looking thingee is in the center (was it the intestines?), but it was the richest part of Babe. And mostarda gave him a sweet, syrupy glaze.

9. Corned Beef Cheeks
We were hoping for some kind of Ode to St. Paddy’s Day on the menu, but didn’t expect Colicchio to so boldly showcase this modern take on “Corned Beef and Cabbage.” But there it was, the braised cheek tender and sweet, presented as the final savory course, spot-on in robustness. Scalloped potatoes were served in Craft’s signature cast-iron skillets and were creamy and slightly smoky. Another favorite.

10. Mango Yogurt Smoothie
After something as decadent as corned beef, I thought I couldn’t possibly eat another bite. Of anything. Then our servers placed two simple shot glasses before us, filled with ice-cold mango yogurt, topped with fresh mangos and cilantro. The yogurt went down smooth, and had a pleasing, slightly grainy texture. The cilantro cleansed my palette; the mango added sweetness—simultaneously! I suddenly felt like a million bucks and was primed for more dessert. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this dish for that sensation.

11. Chocolate Caramel Torte
Chocolate cake after a 10-course meal? Surely too rich! Cake paired with a refreshing, tropical passion fruit sorbet and light wispy, Earl Grey Cream, however, cancels out the cake (kind of like eating negative-calorie celery) and adds pure deliciousness.

Our little mignardises, presented with the torte:
These were some sort of s’more cookie. Delightful.

Folks, if you want the high-quality pictures, check out the Tom: Tuesday Dinner Web site. A plethora of photos from each dining engagement are posted there (along with the menu) which are light-years better than any I could take, but at least with mine, you can see that the food wasn’t just gussied up for the photos (it’s a good representation), and you can truly get an idea of what a diner experiences.

And what did I experience?

Move over, Craft. Tom: Tuesday Dinner was quite simply the happiest, most memorable, most delectable dinner of my life. Colicchio can rest easy knowing his biggest competition is himself.

Tom: Tuesday Dinner
47 East 19th Street
New York, NY
(212) 400-6495

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Soma 107: Promising

Before I discuss Westchester’s new gem, Soma 107 in White Plains, I want to mention that yes, I am currently writing up my visit to Tom: Tuesday Dinner. It’s taking longer than I expected, and I’m not entirely sure when it’ll be ready. But I’m working on it, folks! As a matter of fact, I intend to work on it some more, right after this post. In the meantime, here’s a report on the lovely dinner I enjoyed this past Sunday.

In a nutshell: great food, horrible pictures at Soma 107—my apologies. The dining area, while aesthetically agreeable, was dark. Dark restaurants are a pet peeve: I enjoy sitting in a dimly-lit room to eat, but appreciate a brighter bulb over the table to showcase the food, so I can engage a meal with all of my senses. I'm wary of restaurants that use poor lighting to mask old, limp, or rotting food, but this is clearly not what was going on at Soma 107. So crank those bad boys up a notch! If I wanted a better look at my Charred Baby Octopus ($13), it was simply to behold one of the best dishes I’ve had in my life:
Gene Lum, owner of Lum Yen in Mamaroneck, snagged well-respected James Cawley, most recently chef de cuisine at MacMenamin’s Grill & ChefWorks in New Rochelle (now Don Coqui & ChefsWorks), to head up Soma 107’s kitchen. Cawley’s CIA background and internship in France were immediately apparent in the quality and complexity of his sauces. The octopus came with pickled red peppers, red onions, and a creamy, garlic kim-chi scallion vinaigrette. Unexpected flavors and textures made this dish sing. Octopus is in no way rubbery when prepared correctly, and ours was perfectly cooked—the charred finish was absolutely divine. I will remember this dish years from now. It was that good.

Killer sauces were also the name of the game in two of our entrees, the Togarashi Spice Dusted Ahi Tuna with Cashew-Cilantro Jasmine Rice, and Miso-Soy-Hijiki Vinaigrette ($30)
…and the Cedar Plank Roasted King Salmon with Asparagus-Oyster Mushroom Saute, over Thai Red Curry Sauce ($28)
No question the tuna was the superior dish. Strong, robust flavors, and a comforting, nutty rice all balanced together to create something unique yet immediately familiar. Is this what chefs are referring to when they say food has soul?

The salmon, by description, sounded powerful, but the cream sauce was delicate, with only a hint of curry. All elements were again perfectly executed, but I think the salmon might’ve benefited if it were a tad more crisp, just to add some texture.

Our final entrée was the Applewood Bacon Wrapped 8 oz. Filet Mignon with Roasted Poblano Mash, and Sweet Corn Relish ($38)
Here’s where I’ll address prices at Soma 107. They’re high. All around. I don’t mind so much when I see a chef passionate about what he does, with food that is so inspired. But when you’re approaching $40 for a dish, I start getting demanding. I start craving knock-my-socks-off innovation. Here we had a tender filet, sweet syrup permeating the meat from the applewood bacon—a good dish and well-executed. Do I think it was worth $40, regardless of the quality? Give me more of that $30 Ahi Tuna while I make up my mind.

For dessert, we shared an Apple Filo Napoleon with Butter Rum, Ginger Caramel Sauce, and Vanilla Gelato ($10)
Again, $10 in my book is too high for apple pie, and I found the dish on the dull side. To be fair, my companion absolutely adored it.

Servers were eager to please and friendly, if not a tad scattered (one server disappeared for so long that Mr. Lum dropped off entrees himself; dishes were also repeatedly placed with the wrong diner), but I’m sure these kinks will be ironed out quickly (service is already light years more personable than zombies at BLT Steak).

A fine meal, albeit expensive.

Soma 107: I’m rooting for you!

Soma 107
107 Mamaroneck Avenue
White Plains, NY 10601
(914) 682-6795

Monday, March 9, 2009

Grant Achatz: Where's Your Movie?

Chef Grant Achatz, photography by Lara Kastner, courtesy of

Nora Ephron is putting the finishing touches on a movie about Julia Child called Julie and Julia. Meryl Streep plays Julia of course, but the movie also stars Amy Adams as the lesser-known Julie Powell, a woman who in 2002 began blogging her daily cooking experiences following each and every one of the 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

This is a movie I will surely see, but it got me thinking: Why aren’t there more movies about chefs? A chef certainly sounds more interesting than Greg Kinnear starring in a movie about inventing the intermittent windshield wiper.

Come to think of it, chefs sound a lot more interesting.

In his memoir Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain witnesses a chef shagging a just-married, obliging bride on top of a 55-gallon drum outside of her wedding reception while her unsuspecting groom dances on the other side of the Dutch door. Mario Batali recently took to the stage of a crowd of 400+ in his trademark orange Crocs, and called certain members of an audience “weasel f---wads” paying no mind that the crowd also included the King and Queen of Spain. Masa Takayama charges $350 for a tasting menu, and serves a good portion of his courses raw. Gordon Ramsay calls fellow chefs “f---ing donkeys” and expects a response of, “Yes, chef!” Anthony Bourdain ate the beating heart of a cobra.

Not only are chefs interesting, they boast a work ethic not unlike those found in ER doctors. They put in obscene hours and bear harsh conditions in the name of perfection. They obsess. They operate with little to no sleep. They rarely call out sick and never show up late. In The Seasoning of a Chef, Doug Psaltis recounts unpaid double-shifts at Manhattan’s best restaurants on his “off” days, catching his only shut-eye on the train ride back to his regular cooking gig in Long Island. Eric Ripert relies on 24 surveillance cameras to achieve quality control in Le Bernardin’s kitchen while he is away, knowing it’s his only surefire way to maintain his 3-star Michelin standards from year to year. Thomas Keller knows that a great chef never takes short-cuts at the expense of quality: a fava bean, for instance—each and every one—should be meticulously shelled and peeled before cooking, because to do so after might cause discoloration.

Fascinating, no?

So where’s The Grant Achatz movie?

Michael Ruhlman’s magnificent book The Reach of a Chef first introduced me to Achatz. Achatz is the current chef and owner of Alinea in Chicago, arguably one of the finest restaurants in the world. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and went on to work for Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, and Ferran Adria at El Bulli (for certain the most famous restaurant in the world). It was at El Bulli where Achatz became a disciple and proponent of molecular gastronomy (think hot gelatins, nitrous oxide, and foaming and liquefied foods), and went on to apply these principles to his own restaurant, Alinea.

In 2006, Gourmet Magazine named Alinea the Best Restaurant in the United States. Patrons were treated to ever-evolving, multiple-course tasting menus, where dishes resembled exhibits from the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Diners experienced flavor combinations and textures familiar before only in REM sleep.
More fascinating than Achatz’s resume or surreal gastronomy, perhaps, was his decision to continue operating Alinea when he lost all sense of taste in his tongue.

In 2007, while Achatz was enjoying much-deserved success and critical acclaim, he was diagnosed with advanced stage squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth (tongue cancer). “Treatment” involved removing most of his tongue, which would limit speech and make eating incredibly difficult (tasting was a pipe dream). Without immediate treatment, Achatz was told in no uncertain terms he would die.

Achatz refused to accept invasive surgery that would strip him of taste. Using the same work-ethic he applied to his restaurant, he sought options to keep his tongue. Most specialists told him there were none.

Persistence led Achatz to the University of Chicago, where he took part in a clinical trial involving chemotherapy and radiation, treatments not normally advised in head and neck cancer patients. Weeks after the radiation, Achatz completely lost his sense of taste. Through it all, Alinea never shut its doors, and Achatz continued to work, conducting his own Ninth Symphony every night in his kitchen, relying on loyal sous-chefs, and his own sense of sight and smell. His restaurant continued to garner accolades and wow diners with complex and mind-bending dishes.

In December of 2007, Achatz announced his cancer was in full remission. His taste is slowly returning (anybody see him on Top Chef this past season?).

[In D.T. Max’s article “A Man of Taste” published in The New Yorker in May, 2008, Achatz addresses the “Beethoven of the culinary world” analogy, offering up a thoughtful, heart-wrenching response.]

I was about to get on my soapbox and list all the reasons Achatz should have a movie: his extraordinary personal story; a career set against the most exciting backdrops in culinary history; the beautifully weird, sexy, unsettling food he creates (a cinematographer’s paradise). Just look at this image from his cookbook:
Then I was going to throw some directors out there: David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, David Cronenberg—just think what these geniuses could do! As for actors, it’s a shame Christian Bale went all “La dee da dee da” on us (although he’s ripe to play Gordon Ramsay, now, yeh?), but then there’s always that James McAvoy fellow, or even, as my friend suggested, “that hot little boy from Twilight.”

We even have the “blogger” angle: hip, spunky Carol Blymire, who worked her way through the entire French Laundry cookbook with no culinary background, and is now onto Alinea. (Her blogging is as hilarious as her project is mammoth).


As I was planning on saying all of the above, a friend (the same one who gave me a copy of Kitchen Confidential) sent me the following link:

My first thought was someone had hacked into my computer and stolen my brilliant idea.

But then I just rolled with, “Right on.”

Achatz will actually be starring in this film, directed documentary-style by R.J. Cutler (The War Room). I unearthed a quote from Achatz in about the upcoming project: “There’s the Gordon Ramsays and Anthony Bourdains who show the underbelly of restaurants, but to have a film and sit down for an hour and a half and show you the triumphs and the failures, I think it can be really exciting. It’s something I would like to watch. But I’m a little biased.”

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Le Figaro: All About the Croque Monsieur

Was in Greenwich, CT, yesterday enjoying the wonderful weather and the frenzied lil dogs dragging their owners down sidewalks. Near the Greenwich Cinema is a charming restaurant called Le Figaro; Otto and I went in for a quick bite to eat, but stayed for a full-blown meal. The interior is so decidedly 'Parisian bistro' without being cheesy or overdone, I was instantly captivated.

Here’s a quick look at what we ordered:

First, we split the Salmon Tartar served with capers, eggs and chives.
This was a refreshing way to start our meal, and the perfect size for splitting. There was an abundance of lemon in the dish--not overpowering--which helped the salmon keep its wonderful, vibrant coral color. Good dish.

Next, I ordered a shrimp risotto cooked in lobster bisque with mussels.
This was nice too. The risotto was cooked perfectly, and I appreciated the generous serving of mussels. I thought the shrimp were a tad rubbery and bland; the dish actually might’ve benefited from leaving them out.

I know I’m a little short on detail. I didn’t have my notepad with me, and wasn’t planning on writing up our visit. But I really do need to mention the sandwich Otto ordered, the Croque Monsieur ($11), served with some delectable shoestring fries. Have a look:
I’ve only had one other Croque Monsieur in my lifetime, in Montreal. It was pretty lame; served cold, not grilled (the indignity!), with some ham and cheese, on white, processed bread.

As you can see from the picture, Le Figaro ain’t playin. I’m not dissing the other dishes we ate, because they were fine, but this simple sandwich is where it was at. Otto said it reminded him of the countless Croque Monsieurs he had ordered from outdoor vendors in Paris: smooth, savory Gruyere cheese; thick, syrupy ham; served on grilled bread and fried in butter, with another slice of bubbly Gruyere on top. This was the ultimate comfort food.

For dessert, Otto and I split a very rich, dense chocolate cake, with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.
This was also very good. I don’t care for sweet chocolate; I’m only interested if it is bittersweet or dark. Luckily, Le Figaro’s cake reminded me in taste and texture of David Glass’s Ultimate Chocolate Truffle Cake, one of my favorites. I still prefer David Glass’s, but this received high marks.

I look forward to visiting Le Figaro again. Neither the appetizer nor my entrée were home runs, but definitely enjoyable-- the salmon tartar was actually pretty great. I particularly loved the bistro’s authenticity and ambiance (many of the staff were French). But the service, along with that delectable Croque Monsieur, was where Le Figaro soared.

Le Figaro
372 Greenwich Ave
Greenwich, CT 06830
(203) 622-0018

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Tarry Lodge: Mmm Mmm Good.

Did you ever have a meal that just made you happy?

My mom and I were both extraordinarily happy after an impromptu lunch at Tarry Lodge last Friday. Our server Dan told us we were downright giddy. But that’s what happens when the planets align, and you get something better than what you had originally planned.

You see, my mom and I had taken the same day off, partly to take advantage of the last of New York City Restaurant Week (extended until the end of February). Our plan involved lunch at Café Boulud, and later in the day, snacks and goodies at Momofuku Milk Bar.

The weather had other plans. The thermometer registered 12 degrees Friday morning. I opened an email from my mom.

“We’re going to freeze our asses off,” she wrote.

That’s how we instead found ourselves at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s hopping new Italian Trattoria, Tarry Lodge, opened in October 2008 in the heart of Port Chester. We called ahead and yes, the hostess assured us, as long as we were willing to wait until 2:00 p.m., they did indeed have a table that very day.

We arrived promptly at 2:00 p.m. My first impression was that the restaurant seemed to be winding down—I don’t know if it was necessary to make us wait so late in the day; the downstairs was quiet, and the second floor was almost empty. Nevertheless, it looked rustic and comfortable, and we were happy to be there.

On to the deliciousness!

First up, our friendly and knowledgeable server Dan appeared with complimentary focaccia bread and lightly seasoned olives: very good.
Here’s our antipasti:

Farro with pomegranate and mint: $5

Shrimp with grapefruit: $8
Tarry Lodge’s antipasti dishes are updated regularly. For instance, if you look at the online menu, farro is currently paired with charred corn, and the shrimp is served with pickled watermelon. I say thumbs up for keeping the menu seasonal and using what’s fresh, but what a tragic shame that I can’t go back to Tarry Lodge and order both of those antipasti plates exactly as they were served that day. I mean, what a mind-blowing way to start our meal.

It might not look like much, but the shrimp were perfectly cooked, with a grilled, smoky flavor and a slight kick. The grapefruit kept the dish refreshing and zesty, and the shaved fennel root added a slight crisp (the fennel root has a very neutral flavor; stalks are what give off that licorice taste). What else was in there? Not much; perhaps some olive oil, honey, salt and pepper. The complexity was in knowing how to balance the flavors and let the ingredients shine. The farro was prepared simply as well: it was served room temperature, and had a hearty snap, with pomegranate rubies sending little splashes of sweetness to our tongues.

Our antipasti was going to be a tough act to follow. “Don’t worry,” Dan assured us. “The best is yet to come.”

Indeed, Dan. Indeed!

BEHOLD, the guanciale, black truffle, and sunny side egg pizza!!! ($14)
This pizza was every bit as sinful and decadent and preposterously delicious as it looks… and then some. The first bite was heaven. The crust was thin and crisp with a slight char, while the top was this soft, milky richness. The guanciale, essentially an unsmoked Italian bacon (it’s made by drying pig jowl meal for three weeks), added sweet fullness, the truffles added earthiness, and the sunny side egg, well…

“No, no, no,” Dan said, shaking his head, feigning exasperation. “You gotta really work that egg in there!” He took a spoon and began spreading the yolk aggressively around the pizza. He surveyed his handiwork, satisfied.

Rest assured, this pizza was just all sorts of crazy, crazy ludicrous deliciousness. Go ahead and order it for yourself. You’ll see.

Pumpkin and sage ravioli in brown butter accompanied our pizza: $15
Dan mentioned that some pastas on the menu are homemade, while others aren’t, so it’s prudent to ask before ordering (who wants to come to a Batali and Bastianich restaurant and order pasta that isn’t homemade?)

The ravioli--one of the homemades--was a fine choice. The pumpkin was sweet and rich, and the sage had a soothing, calming effect on a cold day. Wonderful flavors, but I don’t know if it could compare to the pizza… I don’t know if anything could, really.

My mom and I were both full beyond belief when Dan floated the dessert question, but I was curious if Tarry Lodge could pitch us a perfect game. I asked for the pannacotta with grapefruit sorbet, and even though they had just run out, Dan went into the kitchen to see if he could rustle one up (Escoffier, take note!). Meanwhile my mom, who had just proclaimed to Dan how full she was, waited until he was clear across the dining room before she bested her inner demons and shouted that she would in fact like a flourless chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream and blood oranges.

A wise choice. Look at these bad boys!
“This is a very good restaurant,” my mom murmured completely unnecessarily, as she ate her chocolate cake.

Yes, that chocolate cake, hands down, was the best I’ve ever tasted. I don't say that lightly. It was the BEST. Similar to a soufflé, with an almost pure chocolate goo core and a slightly crisp crust—this dessert soared. The pistachio ice cream was also perfection.

My pannacotta was paired with grapefruit sorbet and candied fennel root. While the grapefruit/fennel combination worked well in our earlier shrimp dish, it did nothing to compliment the pannacotta, which was extraordinary all on its own.

Guess what, guys? There is a new restaurant in town—a place that understands what it takes to make people happy. It’s affordable, it’s creative, it’s comfortable—I simply cannot wait to return!

Tarry Lodge
18 Mill Street
Port Chester, NY 10573
(914) 939-3111