Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Reinventing yourself

February 2

My friend Ben Weinberg blew into Denver in 1982 like a force of nature. The gregarious 17-year-old high school junior from Minneapolis was instantly popular. He made the soccer team, became president of our youth group chapter, and had bright and pretty girlfriends.
The way he tells it, his friends from back home would not have recognized him. In Minnesota he had been shy and bookish, but the mid-high school move to Colorado gave him a chance to reinvent himself, and that’s just what he did.
His success thrilled him. I remember him telling me so after he was elected president. I was delighted, too, as Ben was my idol — he was popular and two years older than I, and yet he deigned to talk to me — and it seemed I had chosen wisely.
We lost touch, as you do. Ben’s life took a circuitous route, but he found himself in corporate law and then financial planning. He hated it.
So a few years ago he reinvented himself again. Taking an approximately 93 percent pay cut, he quit his financial planning job and started work in a wine shop.
Since then he has achieved reasonable success as a wine writer.
Last week he was sitting across from me at Zereoué, giddy as a 17-year-old who had just reinvented himself. He was being put up at the Waldorf=Astoria to attend an Italian wine conference, meeting all the big national wine writers and tasting as much Barolo as he wanted.
Ben’s not my idol anymore, because I’m no longer 15, but I’m still delighted.
Amos Zereoué, the owner of the restaurant we were in, had to reinvent himself, too, as he used to be a professional football player — a career with a limited time span. He bought the restaurant space that once housed Frère Jacques (13 East 37th St.) and reopened it as a French restaurant called La Gorge d'Or.
Generic French food wasn’t working for the place, so he closed it and reinvented it, renaming it Zereoué, and adding themes of his native Ivory Coast into the food, décor and music (Zereoué was raised on Long Island, but he’s originally from West Africa). My buddy Chris Shott over at The New York Observer wrote about the restaurant being reworked last June, and since then, the place still hasn’t gotten much press or business.
Slowly the food has gotten more and more West African, which surprises me, because there’s very little West African food in New York, and what of it there is in Manhattan is mostly north of 115th St., and I pay attention to West African food. It’s had a special place in my heart since my Ivorian friend Fatou cooked it for me.
And yet I didn’t know anything about Zereoué.
The food there is pretty West African. It’s toned down spice-wise, to be sure, and tarted up a bit in presentation, with little domes of rice and attieke instead of heaping piles of it, but it’s still distinctive enough that there’s nothing like it for miles and miles around.
Ben said it was the best meal he’d had on this trip to New York.

What we ate:
Sautéed calamari with red pepper Ivory Coast sauce
Duck spring rolls drizzled with a sweet sambal glaze and served with mixed greens
Beet salad
Aromatic crushed eggplant stew served with a white fish in an Ivorian sauce that I should probably describe better than that
Kedjenou: chicken stew in a peanut sauce
Crème brûlée

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