December 17, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

Life After Bouley at Bar Blanc...Comfort at Bocca di Bacco

 Domino black and white has a romantic feel at Bar Blanc. Photo: Steven Richter
 Domino black and white has a romantic feel at Bar Blanc. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m trying not to think Bouley.  I want to walk into this Friends and Family tasting at the very spiffy Bar Blanc and simply love the slow-roasted rabbit and sweetbread salad or not.  (A last minute email from media-wrangler Steven Hall listed it among the highlights of his dinner the night before).  But it’s hard not to look for spiritual signs of a chef I have found both brilliant and delusional over the years, given the trio of David Bouley stalwarts united as owners here: Bouley, GM Didier Palange, Kiwon Standen  his operations director, and Chef de Cuisine Cesar Ramirez, lured from Tru in Chicago to Danube, then Chef de Cuisine at Bouley and finally to Executive Corporate Chef at Bouley’s Test Kitchen.

        But ghostly images of the good boy/bad boy chef Bouley vanish as I am instantly captured by that anticipated salad, tenderest rabbit – actually a bit pink – tossed with sweetbreads, sheep’s milk ricotta, and baby greens. Exquisite textures that astonish.  What reads like an unholy assault on Big Eye tuna sashimi – marinated elf mushrooms, black onion miso, ponzu, black truffle dressing and crispy burdock – hits the taste buds with intriguing complexity. The burdock crisps, like fried noodles, are especially pleasing.  I expected chefs everywhere to abandon truffle oil when the Times exposed it as sheer chemistry a few months ago, but whether or not an actual truffle has ever been near this dish, I taste a remarkable earthiness playing off a citrus tang.  And everyone at the table is raving.

        Oxtail consommé with bits of oxtail custard and root vegetables, as well as a jumbo pan-seared scallop with orange zest coulis and shallot chutney come off well too.

        In the stretch between courses (pacing is rarely smooth pre-opening, after all) there is time to appreciate the sophisticated play of black and white – white wall, black wall, white leather banquette, black chairs, niches for carafes and clusters of amaryllis. It’s also too soon to condemn the awkwardness of just-hatched servers except perhaps as it contrasts with the grace of the hosts.

A bravura combo: Big Eye tuna, burdock crisps, black onion miso. Photo: Steven Richter

        Chef Ramirez has won us with preserved tomatoes and white wine sauce creating a tangy chorus for delicately cooked salmon, his delicious braised lamb shoulder lasagna and a happy gathering of milk fed pig (the roasted belly and pig head terrine) scented with cinnamon, star anise and orange. But the five small veal tortellini in onion veal jus seems a bit mingy for $19. Portions do flirt with our town’s supposed affection for small plates.

        If there are any bonus babies left, they will not mind starters from $12 - $18 and entrees $26 - $36, with pastas slightly less pricey and available to start or middle, and $12 desserts. That’s special occasion pricing for me. But don’t try pinching pennies by skipping the Asian pear parfait -- dip your spoon way down to hit all the layers – mascarpone, fruit, pear sorbet and truffle honey.

        All three stood by Bouley. “He’s a survivor,” as Standen observes.  “I learned everything from him. He always had the highest standards.  He pushed everyone to do better. It was not about cooking for himself, no not at all. It was about pleasing the customer.”

        Coming out of the Bouley hothouse, Ramirez wants to call his cooking “creative French.” I want to quibble.  What is French about burdock and aged pecorino?  What shall we call this sophisticated global mish-mash? Ramirez was raised born in Mexico and raised in Chicago.  He’s cooking in New York. If Bouley is American – he is in my book - Ramirez strikes me as another New American chef…inspired, as this tasting suggests, maybe gifted. We shall see.

142 West 10th Street between Greenwich Avenue and Waverly Place. 212 255 2330.


Bocca di Bacco: Comfort in the Mouth of Bacchus

  Rustic warmth at Bocca di Bacco wine bar. Photo: Steven Richter

        You might be in the hills above Lucca.  You could be downtown. “You feel you are in Brooklyn,” says our chum, the wine-maven Josh Wesson.  “That’s a compliment, of course.”

        But this rustic retreat of wood and stone, bare brick and cement, with its sturdy iron-braced wooden tables is, astonishingly, quite cleverly, most conveniently for us, built into Ninth Avenue just a block from the new Alvin Ailey building…steps from ambitious new high rises. 

        We have fled to Bocca di Bacco in hopes of restoring sulking spirits after a desultory tapas tasting at Sangria 46. It’s not that I didn’t know Sangria would fail us.  I knew as soon as the street barker drew us in from the parade of transient tourists – timid, wary - scanning menus on Broadway’s Restaurant Row. But still, I hoped.  I knew as soon as I saw the painting on red velvet and the Martian crowd from Toledo and Queens.  But still I hoped.  I knew as soon as they brought the bread, warmed, under a napkin, tasteless as chewing on a diaper. It must be a challenge to find bread that boring in New York these days.  And still I hoped.

        We order a pitcher of red sangria – as good as most - and agree to give the place a try. Crispy fried potatoes in aioli are not bad at all, but goat cheese on tomato bread, the stodgy chorizo-studded tortilla and the hapless squid make me feel the apocalypse is near.

        “Roberto Passon has a new wine bar,” Josh reminds me.

        Yes. I liked Passon’s food at a long-ago dinner.  Now all around us at Sangria the tables are filling – this place will be fine tonight without us. The barker has scored a woman’s hockey team. He escorts them inside grinning triumphantly as we leave.

        “I can see by the bread this place is going to be good,” Wesson says as we settle into Bocca.

  I'll be back for that lush penne gorgonzola with peas. Photo: Steven Richter

        Indeed, it’s first-rate bread, but alas, cut hours ago and already stale.  I ask for some fresh cut but our waitress, apologizing for her “not-so-good accent,” says there is no more bread left uncut. Running a restaurant is not kindergarten, I think. You not only have to put out for superior bread, you have to know how to keep it fresh.  Maybe this won’t be so good after all.

        But it is.  It turns out to be a professional restaurant with a warm welcome, serving real food, homey food in generous portions at affordable prices. Octopus deliciously grilled with celery and red potato salad. Sardines in saor, vinegar marinated with pine nuts, raisins and ribbons of onion. “As good as Sicily,” Wesson judges. As good as Venice, I’m thinking.

        “This is soul food for honkies,” Wesson enthuses.

        Quizzing the sommelier, Wesson has chosen a good wine, Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, for just $36. When he decides it’s too warm, the house quickly arranges an ice bucket.  Do they have a non-alcoholic beer, we inquire. It seems they do not.

        “Would they mind if we go out to buy our own?” Wesson asks. No, not at all. But they have already sent someone out to buy a six pack.

        Even if we weren’t jollied by the sweet reason of it all, the penne with gorgonzola would be a perfect mood elevator. We are sharing a generous $13 portion – the pasta properly al dente and lush with peas and walnuts. We’re too full now to even think of entrées – gently priced at $20 or less.  Profiteroles, handsomely striped in chocolate drizzle, provide just enough gelato, just enough chocolate to close out the evening’s double bill on the right note.  We will definitely be back.

        Good news flash:  Bocca di Bacco now takes the American Express card.

828 Ninth Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets 212 265 8828. Lunch and dinner seven days a week.

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