Thursday, February 26, 2009

What I did during the Top Chef finale

February 26

Tom Colicchio spent the night of this season’s Top Chef finale at Pier 60 on the Hudson River, at the annual C-CAP benefit. I know because I saw him there. I took his picture and spoke with him briefly, too.
Someone tried to introduce us, Rita Jammet, maybe, or Drew Nieporent, but we’d already met.
“Sure, I know Bret. He likes to say very mean things about me,” he said.
He was referring to my attack on Top Chef, a show that I barely watch but whose fans get on my nerves by showing up at food events and being the idiotic groupies that they are.
Well, that some of them are. Most of my friends watch Top Chef and they’re not idiotic groupies at all.
I sort of tried to explain myself to Tom, but he just smiled and graciously waved it off, in the way that you do when you don’t really care when someone quibbles with you, or when you’re Tom Colicchio and the ramblings of a little guy like me matter not a whit in your life.
At any rate, I took a picture of Tom, third from the left, along with consultant and cookbook author Pamela Morgan, Gotham Bar & Grill chef Alfred Portale, and Rita Jammet, who with husband André owned New York landmark La Caravelle for many years. Now her son Nic is a partner in Sweetgreen, a fast-casual salad and frozen yogurt shop in Georgetown. She said they’re adding new units at Dupont Circle and in Bethesda, Md.
The C-CAP benefit is one of the great events of the New York food scene. It’s an excellent cause — funding and nurturing at-risk students pursuing careers in culinary arts — and so many of the city’s great chefs and restaurateurs show up rather than sending their minions. The food is great, the crowd is fun, and even the wine is usually pretty good.
So I caught up with Ben Pollinger at Oceana, who has a newborn at home, so congratulations to him, and Marc Murphy of Landmarc and Ditch Plains — he says business at Ditch Plains in particular is booming, especially the bar.
Marcus Samuelsson saw me fussing with my camera, so he took it from me and took quite a good picture of me and Wylie Dufresne (that’s us on the right; Wylie’s in the apron, I’m the little gnome over whom he’s towering).
Drew Nieporent’s hoping this will be his year at the Beard Awards. I think he’d particularly like Corton to be named best new restaurant. Drew’s also on the long list of semifinalists for Outstanding Restaurateur, but he said he didn’t much care about that, and that everyone on that list would be a worthy winner.
A C-CAP spokeswoman told me they wouldn’t be discussing how much money was raised this year, but rather stressing how great it was that the whole chef community participated in the effort. She didn’t correct me when I assumed that that meant receipts were down. Of course they’re down. Business is lousy.
One fine dining chef did tell me he was starting to see light at the end of the tunnel — that after an abysmal January saved only by restaurant week (or really fortnight), some people are gradually shifting back from the cheap-o prix-fixe menus and ordering with a bit more gusto. After all, New York still does have a large moneyed class, and they can only refrain for so long from drinking deeply from the cup of life.
Tony and Marissa May were at the event, and they said construction on SD-26, the successor of their recently closed landmark restaurant San Domenico NY, was coming along.
Michael Lomonoco of Porter House introduced me to his longtime chef de cuisine, Michael Ammirati, with whom he’s worked since they were at Windows on the World, as he handed me a slider.
Michael's on the right in this picture, and that’s not ordinary schmootz on his forehead; yesterday was Ash Wednesday.
Oh, speaking of sliders, I had a tiny pork belly slider from Aureole, where Chris Lee is the new executive chef. Chris wasn’t there when I was, but I got to the party late as NRN’s culinary pages closed last night and I, naturally, had to stay until they were ready to ship.
Still, I had plenty of time to nibble my way through the C-CAP festivities and still make my 9pm reservations at Inakaya.
It’s a Japanese robatayaki place near Times Square (in the New York Times building, in fact), part of a Japanese chain, and I think it very much belongs in Times Square. It’s a gigantic space with a lot of yelling.
Yelling — or at least speaking with great enthusiasm and gusto — is par for the course in proper Japanese restaurants, where it’s customary for everyone on staff to greet you with a hearty Irrashaimase! when you arrive. It’s terrifying when you’re not used to it, but then it becomes kind of sweet.
They similarly yell to you when you leave.
But at Inakaya they yell about everything. If you order something, the server shouts out the order and the guys preparing the food behind the bar repeat it. It kind of reminded me of Cold Stone Creamery and the way they all have to sing with great enthusiasm anytime someone drops something into the tip jar.
I loved the guys behind the bar, dressed in loose-fitting garments that allowed them to nimbly climb around and reach for ingredients on display as they needed them, like acrobatic elves. Then they'd use long wooden palettes to deliver the food to you. Sometimes they would shout at you to tell you what it was, but sometimes they’d just say something to the effect of “here you go, sir.”
Yes, very Times Square.

What I ate at Inakaya:
grilled eringi mushroom
grilled shishito pepper with grated ginger
grilled ginkgo nut
grilled skewer of chicken thigh
marinated scallion in miso vinaigrette
wakame in chef's special vinaigrette
dried stingray (served with a side of mayonnaise)
red bean ice cream
And I drank some sake and a dark beer called Asahi kuronama, or “black draft.”

To finish off this blog entry, here are some guys with tattoos, from the culinary staff of Union Square Cafe. On the left is chef tournant Louis Opoku. Executive sous chef T.J. Steele is on the right.

No comments: