I’m in Chicago for the Printer’s Row Literary Festival. Great event.
Had dinner last night at Sun Wah, home of the famous Duck Dinner (see above). It’s a casual barn of a place filled with huge families enjoying terrific food and having a wonderful time. Lots of birthdays, celebrated with the clanging of a gong.
We ate a ton of food: wonderful ong choy, great tripe, clams with black bean sauce, bittermelon and beef, congee…. But it’s the duck that’s the main event.
Bentonville Arkansas (yes, the home of the Waltons of Walmart), is a big surprise. This is a fantasy of small town America as imagined by the very rich. The people are lovely, the streets are clean, the trees are green, the schools excellent. There’s a farmers market in the town square on Saturday, and one of the most beautiful museums in the world, Crystal Bridges, which is not only free but open until 9 at night.
And there is food. Really good food. I spent a single day there, eating as much as I could. But I need to go back; if you love art and food, this is a very good town.
I began with dinner at The Hive in the very hip 21 C hotel, whose lobby smells so enticingly of wood smoke you are drawn, irresistibly, into the restaurant. One of the dishes that emerges from the wood-burning oven are these spectacular clams with citrus, chili and breadcrumbs – a rural interpretation of the usually urban clams casino. Loved them.
I loved quail with strawberries too….
But what completely won my heart was hominy with mascarpone and parsley. It’s an homage to the polenta with mascarpone that Judy Rodgers made famous at Zuni Cafe – a dish so rich and wonderful it reminds you that you’re glad to be alive.
Lunch was at Crepes Paulette, a little cart in the center of town that is achingly popular. The line stretched on for 45 minutes. Le Jardin was worth the wait: the buckwheat crepe was filled with melted cheese, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. Even on a 100 degree day, I ate every bite.
Dinner at Eleven at Crystal Bridges was another impressive meal. It started off with the most wonderful ceviche with avocado, fresh greens and more of those fragile, fragrant local strawberries…..
went on to whisper thin slices of beef carpaccio…..
and a sprightly pea soup with bee balm and smoked herring.
The main course, this lovely composition of risotto, quail stuffed with sausage, ramps, and peas….
was followed by an equally artful dessert.
Because this wasn’t nearly enough food to fill a day, we ended up at The Pressroom late at night for drinks and snacks. Fanny Bay oysters, flown in from Seattle, were briny, clean, pretty as orchids and gorgeous in the mouth. As for these spicy shishito peppers with their little crumbles of crisped garlic – they were just pure fun..
The evening ended with those fried pig tails at the top. Crisp and succulent, the sweetness of the peaches framed the natural richness of the pork.
I can’t think of a more perfect little morsel to munch while drinking cocktails on a sultry southern night.
“Can we discuss your meal?” asks the head maitre d’.
It’s a bit after you’ve been seated, but not before the Champagne cart has come sidling up to the table, aimed at seduction. And not before you’ve opened the little gift box sitting so innocently on that creamy tablecloth. Inside you discover two little black and white cookies. These are not sweets: take a bite and your mouth fills with the savory pleasures of Cheddar and apple. And we’re off!
There are choices to make, courses to consider. Still, when the man mentions asparagus will be one of them, he neglects to note that it will arrive in its own private air-filled pig bladder.
And when the pig bladder is burst open what is revealed? One single, perfect spear.
Oh, and did I mention the black truffle that managed to sneak into the sauce?
Luxury is very much on offer. To begin: a beautiful wooden tower breaks apart to reveal oysters (Widow’s Hole) on a bed of ice, sprinkled with caviar. Another tier holds little rye crisps encircling a puree of morels….
another produces fava bean croquettes topped with various pickled vegetables and, most wonderful of all, spring radishes and peas to dip into whitefish salad popping with tiny pearls of roe.
And then there is more opulent caviar:
served with tiny English Muffins and corn and ham-infused Hollandaise. The notion? You create your own little Caviar Benedicts. Eggs, in other words, and eggs.
None of these courses, of course, were considered courses. The real meal is about to begin. For starters you can choose the most beautiful fluke you’ve ever seen, marinated in grapefruit and perched on a bed of bright spring peas. On top? An Easter bonnet made of tiny sprouts, sprigs and blossoms.
On the other hand, you might have chosen foie gras instead of fluke.
And you would not have been the least bit sorry.
Lobster’s up next, a perfect little claw, poached in butter and served with two intense sauces: one lemon-drenched, the other made of the lobster’s own juices. On top, a punctuating bitterness of dandelion.
Now that asparagus, with all its attendant pomp and circumstance.
And then the main courses:
This intensely aged beef was, hands down, one of the finest pieces of meat I’ve ever indulged in. Just a couple of bites, but the flavor resonates in your mouth long after the steak itself has vanished.
This duck , glazed with honey and lavender, was no slouch, but what I particularly appreciated was the rhubarb; crisp and cinnamon-scented, it is rhubarb reverently treated as a vegetable instead of the usual fruit.
On the side, the a remarkable morel custard, like the most extravagant chawan mushi you’ve ever encountered:
Potatoes showcase the many faces of the worlds most versatile vegetable. On top, the crackling regal magnificence of pommes Anna; underneath, the soft rich friendliness of potatoes cooked in cream.
Then there was cheese, not an ordinary slab, but sly little muffins hiding a warm nugget of Camembert baked into the middle. It was accompanied by two little spring compotes – rhubarb and sorrel – to slather on the top.
And then desserts – strawberries,
and finally Baked Alaska, which exploded into flames.
One of the great pleasures of dining at Eleven Madison Park is watching the light fade in that big, windowed room.As twilight falls the atmosphere changes dramatically giving you the sense of being in a theater where you are privileged to be on stage.
Tonight, just as the sun sank away a passerby leapt up to press his middle finger against the window. He was not visible, just that prominent finger.I was probably the only one who saw it, but in that moment he broke the fourth wall, brought reality crashing into the restaurant.
It made me ask myself, again, if luxury dining is something to feel guilty about, and I sat there for the longest time, pondering that question.
It is, admittedly, an idea that is rarely far from my thoughts. But at this moment, sitting in that comfortable seat, surrounded by solicitude as course after course of lovingly prepared food was presented for my pleasure, the question became especially acute.
There are no easy answers. We each indulge in luxuries of one kind or another – art, travel, theater, clothing, private schools – each ask ourselves if we should not be spending the money on others instead of ourselves.
But this is the main thing I took away from that wonderful dinner: if you’re lucky enough to celebrate the occasional meal at Eleven Madison Park, you had better revel in it. Because being blase here is just not okay.
Preserved egg yolks may be the new Parmesan. This is the presentation at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. While most restaurants don’t offer you choices ranging from duck egg yolks to unborn chicken eggs or a chile-preserved sort, many seem to be preserving egg yolks and grating them over various dishes. It’s part of the big chicken revival sweeping the city. Chicken, in many guises, is New York’s trend of the moment. (Consider, for example, the chickens at Lowlife and Le Turtle. Not to mention Le Coq Rico, the totally chicken-centric restaurant, which I wrote about here.)
While exploring chicken mania, I went back to my favorite ramen place, Toto Ramen, to see if I still think their chicken-based broth is the best. And yes, I’m still in love with the deep, rich but clean flavor of this satisfying bowl. Worth the wait.
Rambling around the city, munching on birds, I stopped in at Decoy to try the Peking Duck. Oh my! This is wonderful duck – the skin flaking off in crisply satisfying sheets, the flesh luxuriant, tender. The accompanying pancakes are warm floppy little disks, lightly freckled from the pan, a perfect foil for the opulence of the bird. There are scallions, of course, hoisin and cucumbers too. If you like duck, you’ll love this one.
And while we’re talking about Stone Barns, here are a few highlights from that most wonderful meal, including the single most persuasive argument for kohlrabi I’ve ever encountered. An infant creature, refreshing in all its crunchy glory, was served with an oniony puree of vegetable and a single dollop of jam.
Just-picked asparagus seemed intent on shaming those imported imposters that lack all flavor.
In one of the best lines ever written about food, Clifton Fadiman called cheese “milk’s leap to immortality.”
That’s how I felt about the roasted beet at Agern.
These are vegetables that have been deeply understood, in the best sense, by the chef. It’s as if Gunnar Gislason knows what tubers dream of, understanding that carrots, weary of their simple orangeness, long to be considered complex. He knows that kohlrabi resents being shunted aside, beets are convinced they’re destined for stardom, and pine needles yearn to show off their sweet side.
To experience Agern at its best, you have to suspend disbelief and enter Mr. Gislason’s world. This is not familiar food; it is a wild ride into unexpected territory.
The meal begins gently, with a clear subtle broth that dares to whisper; it is so subtle you have to concentrate. And then, yes, there it is, the taste of the ocean, the taste of the forest, gently mingling. The chef is demanding your attention, warning you to eat slowly and with concentration.
Like an image emerging from the mist, an oyster appears on pine needles, echoing the flavor of the broth, bringing it into focus. As bracing as cold water splashed in the face, this is like tasting a memory.
Next there are a series of tiny vegetable tidbits, little trumpets shouting flavor. The combination of a tiny fresh, sweet carrot and a hefty slice that’s been dried and dehydrated is the most memorable carrot experience of my life. The celery root and parsnip are equally intense, little nuggets of vegetable power.
Then there is the contrast of the robust potato bread, all satisfying crackle and crunch, the substantial yang to all that vegetable yin.
Raw slices of scallop mingle with maitake mushroom, the crunch of daikon, the crackle of sunflower seeds. Scallops are normally retiring creatures, but here they become sassy, daring to strut their stuff.
Another surprise: you expect beef heart tartare to be scary food for Vikings. Not in Gislason’s hands; this is the most delicate of dishes, little scraps of heart hiding behind bright green leaves. The timid little morsels are overwhelmed by the crunch of the vegetables, the sweetness of mayonnaise and that scatter of sumac.
And now here is the beet leaping toward immortality with the help of a little creme fraiche, the bracing sourness of sorrel, and the heat of horseradish. The chef himself comes out to urge the sweet salt-roasted orb out of its rock salt crust, as if to underline his respect for the dish.
Somewhere along this journey various breads appear – one more delicious than the next – along with this presentation of butters. On the left, butter touched with buttermilk. On the right, whipped lamb fat with lamb cracklings.
Cod, with potatoes, fennel fronds and nasturtium leaves is lovely, but the most ordinary dish of the night. Eating it I thought, oh, this is the chef trying to fit in. It’s a dish you might find in any good French restaurant.
Lamb, however, is another tour de force. The meat, both braised and roasted, with dandelions, Jerusalem artichokes and dill, is a reminder that the chef is from Iceland (where Gislason was chef at Dill).
Rambling to a close, we end on a little ode to pine: leaves and nuts strewn with skyr granita. You can almost feel those pine trees grinning.
Agern isn’t cheap: the prix fixe menu is $145 (tips included). The restaurant is the brainchild of Claus Meyer, one of the partners in Copenhagen’s Noma, and the word is clearly out in Denmark. The night I was there the restaurant was filled with tables of handsome Danish men eating this food with appreciative gusto. So here’s the question: will New Yorkers respond to this fascinating food in the same spirit?
I hope so. This is just the beginning. I can’t wait to see what happens next.