The B train was the subway from hell – stopping for at least 5 minutes between each station so that an air of claustrophobic desperation began to fill the car. I emerged, at last, to pouring rain, and trudged grimly down Houston Street, late for our big family reunion dinner.
But the moment I walked into the cozy dark warmth of Estela, it all faded away. This is a happy place, one that manages the special magic of restaurants, cocooning you in a little bubble during the time that you are there. It is, I might also mention, the most perfect place I’ve ever found to feed a small crowd. The table in the alcove in the back, which seats ten if you don’t mind squeezing, makes you feel part of the festive room and somehow also private. It was, in fact, a perfect night.
We began with these oysters in a yuzu mignonette. How could they possibly be anything but wonderful?
I’ve always loved the restaurant’s icy chunky beef tartare. Laced with crisp little bits of sunchoke it is a dance of many textures, and a joy to eat.
Mussels in escabeche on toast.
Burrata in salsa verde on charred bread. This is the only dish I had reservations about; the salsa takes the cheese to its complicated acid side when it really yearns to be sweet and simple.
This, on the other hand, is the opposite: the edgy bitterness of endive is tempered with a rich, round filling of walnuts, anchovies and ubriaco cheese. It’s one of those dishes that stops you in your tracks, and makes you taste it thoughtfully, again and again.
I’ve always loved Estela’s fried rice, dark with squid ink, dense with romesco and utterly irresistible. It would have been my favorite dish if the two that followed had not been so intensely delicious.
Those are mushrooms on top. Hiding shyly underneath are little pecorino-laced ricotta dumplings of such ethereal lightness the mushrooms seem necessary, the only thing that keeps them from floating off the plate.
Sadly, at this point my family tired of holding the candles up to photograph the dishes, so I can’t show you the wonderful steak that came next. But trust me when I say that although it was just a few bites, this was memorable meat, the kind you so rarely find anymore, flavored with the unmistakable taste of age.
There were desserts of course, all lovely, and the evening rolled merrily on. It was a terrible shock to go outside and find the rain still coming down, the traffic terrible. Having spent a few sheltered hours in Estela, the return to reality was hard to take.
“I love this restaurant,” said Rita Jammet when we ran into each other at Le Coucou.
That is not a recommendation I take lightly; Rita and her husband, Andre, owned the much-lamented La Caravelle, which was in its day one of New York’s most appealing restaurants, and her son Nicolas is one of the founders of Sweetgreen. Rita’s got her eye on both the past and the future, and that’s pretty much what you get at this impressive new restaurant.
The vibe is young and buzzy; there’s real energy in this beautiful room. (How did the designers manage to make a room in an old hotel on a gritty almost-Chinatown corner look like the rural chateau you’ve always longed to own?) But while the room looks of the moment, the food could not be more classic: this is a loving look backward to a vanishing France. It is a country of cream, sweetbreads, caviar and lobster, the France of sole Veronique. The food is so delightfully nostalgic that by meal’s end I found myself wondering when the cigar box was going to appear.
The chef, Daniel Rose, is an American who went to University in Paris, studied cooking in Lyon, and opened a couple of wildly popular but modest Paris restaurants. Taking on a restaurant as large and ambitious as this – in New York – was a bold move. It’s risky to judge a restaurant on a single meal, but I’d say he’s returned in triumph.
There was butter with the bread. But there was also this fantastically flavorful whipped mangalitsa fat.
Those oysters at the top, slightly warm, were so deliciously bathed in seaweed butter.
A crepinette of chicken, topped with plum and a few fine slices of foie gras. If Marie Antoinette ate sausage, this is how she’d want it cooked.
As a tripe lover, I found this preparation, which masked the barnyard quality of the meat, slightly annoying. People who don’t like tripe, however, will be charmed. A tender chew (this is no ordinary tripe, but the lining from the stomach of a wagyu steer), it tastes like a beautifully breaded cutlet.
Daikon, masquerading as sauerkraut. Crowned with caviar. Irresistible.
Quenelle de brochet – one of the glories of classic French food – beautifully executed in an intense lobster sauce. The brilliance of this was the clear intensity of the sauce, and the way it played against the airy subtlety of the quenelle. It’s hard to imagine there is anyone who would not fall instantly in love.
I’m so happy to see sweetbreads emerge from obscurity. Of all the innards, these are the most amiable. More texture than flavor, when expertly cooked they make you feel as if you’re eating clouds. Rose’s version inserts a touch of tomato into the usual tarragon cream sauce, which adds a perfect little zing of acid.
Le tout lapin – rabbit served in three different preparations. I envision this bringing back a fashion for bunny. This is the rolled saddle, toped with various inner parts.
More rabbit hiding down there.
And the legs, cooked into a broth.
Very embellished rice pudding (and to my mind not up to the famous version at L’Ami Jean). But the seemingly modest piece of fruit, below, is replete with mystery and the perfect way end to a meal.
The menu is, in many ways, an homage to Lyons. The wine list roams the world, but the French entries are especially interesting. We drank a de Moor Chablis – a deliciously flinty expression of Chardonnay, from a famously organic producer – and a Saint Peray from the great August Clappe.
Finally, a note on the service. How wonderful to be in the hands of professionals. And how rare, in a brand new restaurant. Like everything else at Le Coucou, it’s old-fashioned in an extremely modern way.
I’ve always liked Andrew Carmellini’s cooking, and when friends suggested dinner at Little Park, I leapt at the chance. But I was worried too; The Dutch is one of the most clamorous restaurants I know, and I wondered if we’d be able to hear each other talk.
Not to worry; Little Park is decidedly calmer. And the food is extremely amiable.
I started with
yellowtail, cured in mescal with a topping of green tomato and jalapenos. It was generous and very satisfying.
I liked this kohlrabi salad, which was punctuated with figs, hazelnuts and roasted garlic.
An interesting take on the classic tuna carpaccio
But my favorite dish of the night was the plate at the top, a charmingly simple tangle of tomatoes, pasta and summer squash.
Little Park isn’t the sort of restaurant you go home to dream about – but it will leave you very satisfied, and eager to come back.
“Can you talk to me about tablecloths?” a reporter asked last week.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I’m writing the history of tablecloths, and I thought you’d be able to address trends in restaurants.”
Sorry; wrong woman. Tablecloths, it turns out, are one of my blindspots. I must have written about them, but no tablecloth ever left a lasting impression on me.
Still, thinking about the once ubiquitous white tablecloth (or the occasional red checked one) left me considering how much restaurant design has changed in recent years. A leisurely leaf through this Manhattan Menus Guide (published in 1980, edited by Marjorie Cohen, Carol Stanis, and Jane Warwick), was a reminder of many old favorites. The menus are fairly predictable (think rosemary chicken, steak bordelaise) ……
….but the pictures of all those empty dining rooms was something of a shock. How different our restaurants once looked!
Here’s The Algonquin; I was twelve by the time I got there, and the Round Table crowd was long gone. What I remember best is that the waiter served amaretti with my parents’ coffee, and then dramatically set the wrapper on fire and tossed it into the air. It flamed furiously, fizzled quickly, and simply vanished into the aether. I was charmed.
The stark simplicity of Tamura, across from The World Trade Center. (I never had the pleasure).
Lutèce. My mother always longed to go there, and it was one of the first places I took her when I finally had the money. I can almost picture the lovely Andre Soltner standing at our table, discussing the menu in his endlessly gracious manner.
Tavern on the Green: Another favorite of mom’s. (She could never resist a circus, and in the hands of Warner Le Roy that’s exactly what it was.)
And finally, the pool room of the Four Seasons in the Seagram Building, one of the most famous dining rooms of all time. The Four Seasons is still open, but if you want to check out that superb space this may be your last chance. The restaurant changes hands in five weeks.
For eleven years Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonos have been pondering that question.
So if all you’re looking for is a delicious dinner, their flagship, Alinea is not the place for you.
In the years since they launched their first restaurant, they’ve opened others.Next, The Aviary and most recently Roister.But their main playground has always been Alinea, and when they closed it for a complete renovation, everyone with an interest in the future of restaurants wondered what it would now be like.
The answer: more theatrical.
You understand this most forcefully if you opt to eat in The Gallery, walking into an elegant dark room lit by ornate candelabras.A communal table? you think.Did I really sign on to eat with strangers?
But you gamely sit down – after all, you’ve bought into the experience – and watch waiters set beautiful little ice sculptures filled with fancy tidbits – caviar, truffles, crab, egg custard – while the maitre d’ circles the table pouring glasses of 2002 Bollinger RD.It’s pure luxury.
Next you are invited into the kitchen for cocktails, where you eat a deconstructed pickle and watch an arcane drink get whipped up on this antique contraption (“There are only thirty in the world!” Grant says happily).
And you file back into the dining room. Or a different dining room? In your absence, the set has been struck and the stage completely rebuilt; the long table and its candelabra have vanished, and small tables now float through the room. Your party has become a private one. This is disorienting in the best possible way; an announcement that this evening may be delicious, but it is going to be about a lot more than food. Fasten your seat belts.
It’s quite a ride.One of the cast – it’s hard to call this revolving troupe of servers anything so prosaic as waiters – appears with a beautiful little bowl filled with what looks like crinkled sheets of paper.
As he covers it with hot broth the aroma of just-picked corn fills the air and the paper begins to melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. Now they are supple sheets.Noodles? You wonder. Not quite. These are made of scallops, and they’re pure magic in the mouth.Even better are the little rolls of crisp nori that go crackling into the mouth to reveal a filling of creamy scallop mousse.
Up next: “Yellow.” Curry. Mustard in many guises – oil, seed, etc. Egg yolks. All wrapped around a bite of sweet potato and folded into flower petals.
“Eat this fast!” says the master of ceremonies, ladling a hot Parmesan dumpling into the bowl, where a little bubble of yellow tomato soup sits waiting.It’s all hot and cold, smooth and crisp, a little circus of the mouth and about the most playful dish you can imagine.
Behind you, a bowl bubbles merrily sending the scent of citrus wafting through the room as you watch a little mountain of yuzu foam breath above white asparagus cream laced with lychee and shards of lily bulbs.There’s more here:a lemon-scented bite of apple.
More citrus, this time topped with Ayu, the delicious firm fish that is a harbinger of spring in Japan, sitting on a tempura tangle of tiny fish.“It’s too beautiful to eat,” said the woman at the table behind me (she had, it turned out, flown in from Tulsa just for dinner).
But I noticed that her plate went back empty.
This little purple sculpture (blueberries and Lapsang Souchang tea), is a hiding place for morels – big fat ones – coddled in cream. What I liked even better was the onion composition on the side; onions finally get their due!
A mescal moment – which I forgot to photograph.I was so enthralled with the theater here, the way one server passed by with a cloth and handed it off like a baton, then smothered the fire sending the scent of pinon and other woods in the air,
that I neglected to take a picture of the Mexican flag chicken that came with this, or the little mescal-drenched bit of pineapple served on a colorful skull skewer.
But then there was this – to paraphrase Clifton Fadiman,lettuce’s leap to immortality. A humble leaf gets pride of place; draw back the crunchy curtain to find a little scrap of beef cheek nestled underneath. On the side, a slice of melon, magically transformed into something approaching a liquid.
Lamb, lamb neck, black garlic, blackberries. The most straightforward dish of the evening.
And then this: the Alinea version of a Reuben sandwich which involves, among other things, black truffles, crisped rye, cauliflower and gruyere.
With the meat courses gone it’s time for dessert.
And there are a few. Rhubarb, strawberry, anise and campari, all deconstructed.
Next comes the now classic edible balloon, which comes with complete with squeaky voice…..
And finally one of the actors climbs up on a chair….
removes a painting from the ceiling and the entire troupe comes tumbling out, like clowns emerging from a circus car, to dash around the dining room splashing food onto your plate, painting it with colors and flavors, constructing dessert. Fruit, chocolate, cream, crunch – it’s a crazy, wild, halcyon delight, more Cirque du Soleil than Paul Bocuse, and a delicious way to end this raucous experiment in eating.
What is a restaurant? Alinea’s answer is that a restaurant is a place that feeds your brain as well as your body.