May is typically a crazy month for New York food writers, as restaurants rush to open and promote themselves before Memorial Day comes and everyone leaves during the weekends, no one dines out, no events are planned and I can try to lose some weight.
O.K., that was an exaggeration, even for typical years. But now anything goes, really, and either in spite of the lousy economy, because of it, or maybe for other reasons I don’t know about, restaurants here seem to be promoting themselves with more vigor than they have in years. I have some really spectacular-sounding parties coming up: Gourmet’s hosting a preview of the new Aureole, The Four Seasons is turning 50, The American Pork Board is hosting a lunch at the New York Stock Exchange (feel free to comment, especially about that last one, below).
And in the past couple of weeks I’ve received two (2) invitations made out of aluminum. I hadn’t seen one of those since before 9/11, when ridiculous overspending on things like aluminum invitations was the norm. Really, it was.
The May, 2000, opening of the Tribeca Grand hotel comes to mind.
Here’s a little excerpt from the story I wrote about it:
Invitations were ... sent out to rich and influential movers and shakers as well as to plenty of models, dancers, actors and folks who just looked great in black. A good 2,000 of them braved the rain to witness the launch of this new haven for the young and fashionable. They ate 6 kilos of Iranian osetra caviar.
Now that was a good party.
Speaking of 9/11, The Tribeca Grand, which is about 10 blocks from Ground Zero, became something of a refugee camp at that time as it provided temporary housing for displaced families in lower Manhattan. Rob Miketa, the chef at the time, responded to the need of the displaced children for grilled cheese sandwiches by warming the naan he had on hand for a mezze platter (bread purveyors were having trouble getting south of 14th Street — you might remember that lower Manhattan was cordoned off for a number of days) in butter and stuffing it with cheese.
(Rob, a fellow Coloradan — from Pueblo, of all places — now lives in Belgium, where he works as a private chef).
The past month or so has in some ways felt kind of September 10th, which is weird, because people are broker and gloomier than I remember them being, and businesswise, May has been pretty bad for a lot of restaurants here — worse than March and April by many accounts. Perhaps not as bad as January. But of course it depends on the restaurant.
At any rate, they’re keeping me busy, from a Cinco de Mayo dinner at Cabrito (which was packed, by the way — I mean four or five people deep at the bar packed — with people who seemed to think they absolutely needed to have Mexican food on that day), to the opening of a wine bar on the outskirts of the Meatpacking District called Entwine (the sommelier moonlights as a wine equipment merchant, meaning they have state-of-the-art technology for their wine-by-the-glass program), and George Mendes’ new restaurant, Aldea (which I already wrote about). Rink Bar opened at Rockefeller Center, too, but it does that every year.
I had a really extraordinary dinner at Eighty One with a group called the International Academy of Gastronomy, an organization I’d never heard of before. They had declared chef de cuisine Juan Jose Cuevas “Chef of the Future” and were having dinner there to celebrate.
Juan made something the likes of which I’ve never eaten before. It was a horseradish sorbet topped with a "granola" made out of dehydrated root vegetables, which sounds like a stupid, nasty-tasting dish, but it was, in fact, delicious and hard to figure out, in a really fun way, with bright, refreshing and very tangy sorbet and crunchy little vegetable cubes, served as an appetizer.
The dish got a round of applause at the end of the evening.
I also had dinner at Dirt Candy with its publicist, Philip Ruskin.
Dirt Candy’s a vegetarian restaurant, but at the moment has just one tofu dish (served crispy with a vegetable ragoût and a kaffir lime beurre blanc), because the whole point of the place is that vegetables are delicious — the candy of the earth. Hence the name.
So we ate the requisite jalapeño hush puppies with maple butter, and the portobello mousse that chef Amanda Cohen has submitted for PETA’s foie-gras substitute competition (Amanda herself is not a strident PETA-file, but that doesn’t mean she can’t enter their contests), a Greek salad with preserved lemon mayo, golden beet pappardelle with yogurt, pistachios and honey, and stone ground grits with a tempura poached egg.
Among the desserts we had was a popcorn pudding, served in a mason jar.
Serving food in mason jars is all the rage these days, by the way. My colleague Elizabeth Licata recently wrote about it.
I also had a Beard House dinner, as guest of the Denver Five, which meant I all but missed a drunken not-quite orgy at Pranna celebrating World Cocktail Day (May 13). It looked like it had been a good party, and it was still plenty full when I got there, but conversation was difficult due to the general drunkenness.
It’s a funny thing about professional drinkers. They can remain just on the edge of speech-slurringly drunk for hours without quite falling over the edge into oblivion. It’s very impressive.
Some cocktail experts, in fact, maintain high levels of sobriety much of the time, because it’s not like you have to guzzle a cocktail, and a wise drinker doesn’t shy away from water, either. I mean, it’s not like they’re drinking competitively.
And then last Sunday I finally made it down to Tommaso restaurant in Brooklyn, the 36-year-old restaurant of my new friend Thomas Verdillo, an opera singer, wine expert and aficionado of medieval symbolism. The private dining room is perhaps worth the trip to Dyker Heights just to look at the mural of a medieval Italian countryside, with unicorns and scarabs and other symbols of the day.
On the door back into the main dining room is a quote from Dante that I love. No, it’s not "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," you rude, cynical bastard. It’s
Segui il tuo corso
Lasciare dir le genti
which means, "Follow your own path, ignore what people say.”
Tom would like more people to know about his restaurant, of course, and to head out to Dyker Heights to eat there, but he already gets a fair share of press (some of it’s posted on the restaurant’s web site, if you’re curious), and the people I’d have him contact to check out the place already seem to know about it.
“Oh yeah, Tommaso’s. That place is great! It’s been around forever,” is what they tend to say.
Soon-to-be-former New York Times critic Frank Bruni included it in a round-up of old-school Italian restaurants, and he described the food as being kind of existentially dusty — good for people seeking culinary nostalgia rather than adventure. That might have been true then, in 2006, but Thomas has done a fair amount of innovation, although it seems to me that he still stresses traditional dishes over avant-garde ones. He travels regularly to Italy to learn about the food of his ancestors — he recently added a Roman pasta dish to the menu called caccia e pepe, straight up spaghetti with Parmesan cheese and black pepper, mixed at tableside into a sauce using a smidgen of pasta water.
Tommaso’s likely to get some more attention soon. Comedy Central’s Michael and Michael recently filmed there for their new series.
What I just wrote about was not, of course, all that I’ve done since the Beard Awards, but some things in life should remain a mystery.
Not what I ate at the Beard House, though.
What the Denver Five fed me:
Ahi tuna-lobster rolls with charred jalapeños, kumquats and ramp salsa
Wild pheasant confit-filled tamalitos with apricot-güero chile jam
Braised chile-cured White Marble Farms pork belly with huitlacoche, duck egg salad and tomato-ancho chile sauce
Korean barbecued foie gras with corn shoots, cilantro, coconut rice fritters and nori-infused caramel
Mont-Marçal Brut Rosado Cava NV
Sweet and crunchy softshell crab with pork and adzuki beans, ginger ale ramps and chinese garlic mayonnaise
Oriel Palatina Riesling 2004
Crispy Hawaiian moi with roasted Olathe corn, Pueblo asparagus, lightly smoked trout salad, and truffled kabayaki dressing
Stonestreet Upper Barn Chardonnay 2006
Colorado lamb albóndigas with heirloom bean chile verde, smoky duck chorizo, nopale–fiddlehead escabèche and duck cracklings
Oriel Courant Côtes du Rhône 2003
USDA Prime New York strip steak with dinosaur kale–wrapped veal cheeks, smoked goat cheese–potato flan and morel jus
Martin Ray Reserve Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
Honey-caramelized apples with chocolate crème chiboust and saffron cream
Santa Julia Tardio 2007