October 9, 1992 | Vintage Insatiable
Hot and Sweet
To my taste buds, Arizona 206 never quite recovered its edge after Brendan Walsh decamped. The kid from the Bronx had reinvented Southwestern cooking. Was there ever a cowboy or Indian who even dreamed of Walsh's venison black-bean chili? Tough trick to follow. So what delicious shock to wander, by whimsy, into a once-favorite haunt, unprepared for the roller-coaster thrills of a gifted new chef in the kitchen.
First, the squawks. The chill wind of neglect: no greeter at the podium. A hefty tariff - $5.50 - for ale on top. No sign of the grilled-scallion flatbread quickly ordered at the bar. Being settled a bit painfully into a plaster niche - well, this cramped, fake-stucco pueblo outpost was never really comfortable, no matter how many cushions were piled up.
And then... a chorus of flavor. And absolute concerto of chilies. First a tickle, then a punch - a sneak attack on the nose, a crushing pow to the brain, an explosion in the mouth. Who's in charge? Leonard Bernstein, back in the uniform of General Schwarzkopf?
Introducing David Walzog, just 26, who is not without misses, but dizzying in his triumphs. Tender pan-crusted scallops with roast garlic on a field of spinach, with pumpkin-seed pesto. A duplex construct of roasted red snapper in a broth perfumed with pickled shallot and serranos beside a grilled onion stuffed with orzo salad. Juicy ancho-glazed baby chicken on wilted beet greens, with roasted garlic and beets and balls of yam, lardons adding a smoky flavor to the faint sweetness of the sauce. A dumb little bird transformed.
There are some flubs. The skate, with its luscious roast-corn-and-mushroom salsa and giant caper berries, is stringy, too long on the fire. The vegetable relleno is fine, but not nearly as stirring as tequila-cured salmon with tomatillo sauce and salmon roe - a sight to see in its checkerboard dress with an Indian headdress of nature-painted lettuces.
Look familiar? Cuisinary kultur vultures may recognize the influence of Alfred Portale. And indeed, Walzog prepped at the Academy of Gotham Bar & Grill, after a stint on the line at Lola and before moving on to Washington, D.C., to open Mark Miller's monster-huge Red Sage. But this is not a pupil emptily aping the master. Walzog's signature is all his own. More feathery greens and woody wild mushrooms with a boost of cuitlacoche (corn fungus - don't let that scare you away) fanning out of a carved-potato vase accessorize a very good sirloin. There are flying saucers of crisp-fried sea-salt-and-cumin-crusted tortilla and otherworldy plantain crackles, seasoned with cumin and ancho chili... no whisper of grease.
If I had my way, these heavenly chips would be a gift of the house, along with the excellent bread from another Santo family enterprise, the bakery at Chez Panis. Wouldn't hurt, considering that entrées run $19 to $28 and a free-spending duo could easily invest $120 to $150 in three courses - a bottle of sturdy Ridge Zinfandel, tax, tip, and bar tipple included. Of course, lunch is more gently priced, and there's still a $19.92 prix fixe - for, perhaps, duck confit with buckwheat sourdough pancake, followed by chipotle tagliarini with clams and chorizo and a cherry pecan sundae with chocolate ancho ice cream - and early birds can dine any night of the week from 5:30 to 6:30 for $24.92. Discounted tabs in the café (yet to feel the Walzog touch) are another option.
In pondering success and failure in the restaurant world, I've often thought about the power of a strong margarita. Drink one or two, and everything tastes great. That first dinner, with its irresistible shrieks and cries and murmurs (being the critic doesn't mean you're a model of dignity or hopelessly jaded), has me worried. Perhaps the alcohol flow has confused sensitive taste buds. Blame the Road Food Warrior for deciding he needs an Ultimate Margarita as digestif with his dessert - the margarita granita, a supernal slosh of citric bliss ablush with strawberry puree. To save the Warrior from himself, guess who drinks half?
But lunch, cold sober, confirms the verdict. Noontime's pulled chicken and green-chili pizza with wild mushrooms and jack cheese is as pleasing as nighttime's goat cheese, squash, and watercress on flatbread from the bar menu. Mild red mole adds spice to barbecued pork tamales. And a complex lemon-chili vinaigrette graces the lobster-squid-and-scallop salad. More seafood: The time red snapper, clams, and shrimp swim in a haunting fish soup with nutty bits of posole. Rare-tuna slices ring a pile of gaufrette potato chips lapped all around with olive and red chili vinaigrette. Everywhere, he-man lunchers tuck into peppered steak on a first-rate Ecce Panis rol, one side smeared with chipotle, the other with black bean puree, parked beside a mountain of red chili onion rings.
A cinnamon tostada tilts like a stylish hat atop mango ice cream and tropical fruit compote. Cajeta (caramelized goat and milk that tastes like butterscotch) tops a banana sundae with cinnamon ice cream. The day's sorbets sit in pale-green honeydew soup. And even if you're not nuts about coconut or breakfast, you'll marvel at the pleasure quotient of coconut flan with honey-glazed shredded wheat. I promise.
Arizona's on my mind.
206 East 60th Street. Now closed.
Follonico: Alan Tardi Gets a Room of His Own
No one would have been surprised if Alan Tardi had picked up a disabling case of postadolescent Oedipus complex. Tardi was barely visible bossing the kitchen at Le Madri during the mothers-of-invention brouhaha, and the jet-setting mamas got all the press with their fabled home cooking. But Tardi emerged unsmothered and stable, eager to realize his dream - a room all his own, not too fussy, not too formal, not too funky, with a wood-burning oven where he would perform marvels of savory roasting.
And here he is, around the corner from the Flatiron Building, at Follonico. Don't be misled. It's named for a hill town in Italy, not an act of love. And it's only somewhat Italian - more in spirit than by the rulebook. Already Tardi has tamed the oven's flames, turning out spectacular basil-perfumed baby chicken, elegant pizzas and piazza bread, and an absolute imperative: roasted autumn vegetables. Sweet caramelized strands of onion, cubes of butternut squash, carrots, turnips, celery root, whole cloves of garlic, whatever the market offers... a $4 side dish, so good we're eating it like popcorn and ordering another. I defy even a vegephobe to resist.
Karen Bussen, at the dining-room command post, is the smiling welcome, bustling about with warmth and authority not just because she is the chef's significant other but because she's a professional, making up somewhat for the rawness of the serving staff. The dark-wood paneling is welcoming too; the tables, eccentric in that they are unset, bearing only napkins in wonderfully silly rings - a sunflower, an acrobat. But the light is harsh - a votive candle on every table would help - and the walls cry out for an art consolation.
As soon as you are nibbling the homemade bread sticks or focaccia, you'll stop looking at the walls, I guess. And you won't need schiacciatta with rosemary, but don't be too proud to mispronounce it anyway, and divide this crisp pizza bread along with antipasto: baby octopus and black polenta, grilled wild mushrooms, greens with a hint of truffle oil, or a pasta that two might share - wonderful orecchiette with smoked bacon and spinach, pappardelle with braised rabbit, or a simple and perfect rendition of penne with spicy tomato sauce. Lobster, shrimp, and scallops are perfectly cooked in the ragout under a coverlet of herb-imprinted pasta dubbed fazzoletto. And what poet could resist "singing scallops" and New Zealand cockles with spaghetti – in an elegant version of clam sauce?
It takes courage these days to resist hypercreativity and the cutes. Tardi has the sure touch to make simplicity work. Given the greenmarket nearby and the computer in the office, the menu almost never looks the same two days in a row, but there may be stone-seared duck carpaccio, deep-fried baby trout, or sardines with crisp mizuma and fried capers.
Desserts celebrate the season. For now, the tart boasts figs, and wonderfully tangy plums hide under under a polenta crust that tastes like a soft sugar cookie. There is always granita - espresso one night, Concord grape the next, and fresh-baked cookies to go with a sweet Moscato or Malvasia by the glass. Orange semifreddo has a grainy texture I don't like, but the chocolate hazelnut cake is rich and dense, and pears poached in red wine come with moist spice cake. Alas, offering fresh figs in a marble leaf dish to some customers and not to others could creat unrest.
Tardi's scheme to keep entrées under $20 is working so far. Even a hungry two could eat three courses with wine and tip for $80 or so. Pastas, pizzas, and sandwiches (panini) at lunch range from $9 to $11.50. There are wines by the glass, too, and only fourteen labels on the wine list, but, amazingly, the unknown red for $16, Salice Salentino from Puglia - warm and mellow and great with this food - is superior to my usual old reliable dolcetto.
6 West 24th Street. Now closed.
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