May 8, 2015
The most elegant Japanese lady (and I use that word advisedly) urged me to try Donguri on the upper east side. It's not a part of town I often eat in, and last night, looking for a place near hospital row I suddenly remembered how much I liked the last meal I had there..
It's an odd restaurant for New York. The small room is spare without being modern, and it lacks a single spark of chic. Looking around, the word "dowdy" comes to mind.
But there is nothing frumpy about the food. The menu is small, prices high. But everything they serve is seasonal, considered, and of extremely high quality. It made me think of a few small restaurants I've visited in Japan.
To start, a lovely little round of homemade tofu. Creamy. Cool. As spare and unapologetically itself as the restaurant itself.
And ankimo – monkfish liver – the foie gras of the sea. Chefs often try to disguise the faint fishiness of the liver, concentrating on the smooth luxurious texture. This ankimo is as suave as any I've eaten – but it revels in its piscine nature. No disguise here.
Next came that sashimi plate at the top. Totally lovely. And finally what was, for me, the piece de resistence: donburi of sea urchin and yama imo, the wonderful mountain potato. It's a tangle of textures – smooth, slippery, a bit of bite – and extremely opulent flavors. This is not a dish you'll find very often in New York – but then Donguri does its best to forget what is waiting just outside the door.
May 6, 2015
Ramps are the first green vegetable to emerge from the ground each year, nudging aside dried layers of last fall’s leaves. This past weekend, when they appeared, the first swatch of green in our relentlessly brown landscape, the mere sight of them made me happy.
Yesterday, walking in the woods, I literally fell into a patch of ramps. All at once I saw them everywhere, whole clusters dotting the slope of the hill. I pulled out my penknife and dug little moats around each bulb, willing them to pop off their roots. (It's important to leave the roots behind so the ramps return next year.) Before I knew it, I had gathered dinner.
But what to do with them? Standing in the kitchen, washing ramps, I considered the usual suspects. Pasta. Pizza. Pesto. For an extremely versatile vegetable, ramps are too often relegated to the same old recipes. Then I remembered the first time I ever tasted ramps. It was in the Ozarks, in the seventies; we ate them simply fried in bacon fat until they had caramelized into something surprisingly decadent. That! I thought. I'll make that.
I used guanciale instead of bacon. Then I added a couple of fried eggs and a thick slab of toast. It made a lovely- and almost free – dinner for two.
Ramps with Guanciale Lardons
1/2 pound ramps, cleaned
Dash olive oil
1-2 ounces guanciale
Salt and pepper to taste
Clean the ramps well, trimming off the parts clinging tenaciously to the dirt they grew in. If yours have roots, remove them. Separate the bulbs from the leaves.
Slice the guanciale into thin pieces, no larger than a fingernail. Heat a pan over medium-low heat, add a splash of olive oil and toss in the guanciale. The goal is to render the fat from the jowl evenly without allowing it to crisp or brown; what you want is the rich nutty flavor of the pork without the taste of char. If you sense your guanciale is beginning to brown, cool the pan with a splash of water. It should take about 6 minutes to render the fat, moving it about the pan from time to time.
Remove the guanciale from the pan, leaving a teaspoon or so of that delicious fat behind. Turn up the heat and add the ramp bulbs. When they become translucent, in a minute or so, add the leaves. Let them dance about the pan a bit, and just before everything begins to wilt, remove the ramps to two plates, making a little nest of each portion.
Add a bit more fat and fry two eggs in the same pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and gently place an egg on each ramp nest.
Savor this slowly, knowing that this is a fleeting flavor. Ramps will soon be gone, and they won't return until next spring.
May 1, 2015
My friend Nancy blew into town yesterday, raving about the food she ate in Israel. In her words, "every meal was jump up and down delicious." I've never heard her so excited.
It seemed like the perfect time for a trip to Bar Bolonat.
I was captured with the first bite: fried olives with labneh. Utterly irresistible. Crisp, salty, smooth, rich – all in a single bite. Why have I never had these before?
I loved the fluke ceviche too, a tangle of flavors that went swirling through my mouth. The fish was smooth and plump, the green strawberries added an acid note, the pistachios a frizz of nuttiness.
Eggplant: how did they coax such sweetness out of the vegetable? Each little length of eggplant was a soft, sweet pillow.
These ravioli are filled with eggplant in an entirely different mood: smokey and mysterious, it's the yang to the other's yin. These two dishes confirm that eggplant truly is the chameleon of the vegetable world.
But my favorite dish was this Yemenite shrimp curry, perfumed with coconut and accompanied by a sexy little round of malawah, the seductive Yemeni bread.
Bar Bolonat is dark, casual and clamorous. Lunch the next day could not have offered a greater contrast. To me Jean Georges is the loveliest place to lunch in New York, a calm airy light-filled oasis that is just loud enough to feel lively while allowing you the luxury of quiet conversation. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be. Especially when lunch starts with this caviar confection.
Potatoes. Tapioca. Chives. And mounds of caviar. Pure, irresistible luxury.
We also had one of my favorite dishes, which has been on the restaurant's menu since day one. Take a bite and you understand why. Caramelized cauliflower. Scallop. Caper-raisin emulsion. Heaven.
The meal stretched on, each dish an essay on the power of great cuisine when you're in a restaurant run by a talented chef at the top of his game. At $48 for a prix fixe lunch that ends with tiny macaroons, a plate of chocolates and hand-made marshmallows, it's hard to think of a more effective way to feel happy, pampered, special.
But of everything I ate in this twenty-four hour odyssey of eating, this dish was my favorite.
And it's at my favorite new restaurant. Upland is the perfect New York place of the moment. Urban. Lively. Relaxed. Casual. And the food is fantastic. The razor clams were topped with new green almonds (served as I've never had them before, sliced horizontally, fuzzy shell and all), green onions and lemon. In my opinion the long lithe clams have never tasted so delicious.
We also had this impressive construction of burrata, cured tuna and blood oranges. The ingredients played beautifully together, creating wonderful harmonies in the mouth.
Then there was this mushroom, which was like nothing I've had before. This ziggurat of hen of the woods mushrooms resembled a sculpture more than a food. It had been crisped, then plonked onto a bed of cloumage, a simple, creamy curd of a cheese. I found myself dreamily pulling off one little section after another, mesmerized by the texture.
These quail, with their cool bits of onion and green strawberries were also a joy to pick up and eat with your fingers. A fine end to a truly impressive meal.
Three restaurants. Three moods. Three different ways to enjoy spring in the city.