August 20, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

Wakiya First Bite, Fabio Déjà vu, Fresno’s Patio

A dry ice fog settles over the mango puddng at Wakiya.  Photo: Steven Richter
A dry ice fog settles over the mango pudding at Wakiya.  Photo: Steven Richter

             Wakiya burst on the scene as a favored contender.  Talk about powerful blood lines. Sired in the mythic design stable of Ian Schrager as a magnet for his born-again Gramercy Park Hotel, Nobu Matushisa is its Godfather and the smiling sun-tanned face of Nobu’s Richie Notar jockeys the Toot New York crowd.  (When your power and your bank account are more recognizable than your face, you want to have someone at the door who knows their Dun & Bradstreet.)

            With the wisdom of earlier trials by fire around the globe, Wakiya was to open slowly. By the time I arrive chef Yoji Wakiya has already jetted home to tend his Toyko empire but the big back room here is still closed while the kitchen steadies. Tonight’s drama unfolds in what strikes me as a narrow and awkward alley dressed up like a private Pullman car with Victorian era brocade and leather.  Red silk fringe peekaboo dividers make it a challenge to see and be seen. Will these be the royal banquettes? I wonder how nomadic narcissists will like that?

            In January I’d eaten at Yoji Wakiya’s Chinese Guest House, a precious jewel box with its hanging bird cages and fancy French porcelain in the Asaka neighborhood of Tokyo. At first I thought my guy and I would have to sell our Tumi roll-ons to cover the bill but then I realized we could swing it with petty cash since we don’t crave shark’s fin and abalone. There were moments of pleasure and a little Barnum & Bailey touch of table-enveloping steam from dry ice with dessert.  Not bad for Chinese food in a Japanese translation, I remember thinking.

            And that’s what I’m tasting tonight in the sunken dining room across from Gramercy Park: Pretty good Shanghai soupy buns, except the waiter doesn’t tell the table how to eat them without tearing the skin and losing the soup inside. And the spicy beef salad looking very kaiseki-like in its measured portion. I’m taken with the idea of offering four mini portions of Peking duck with exquisite lacquered skin and some slivers of meat to wrap in four diaphanous crepes for just $18. (Of course, we are getting the Notar fuss and I can assure you our crepes come from the kitchen guaranteed last-minute.  So I have no defense when a Sinophilic friend complains the duck meat and crepes he got were dry as cardboard.)

It's a Szechuan joke. A thousand peppers, a nibble of chicken.Photo: Steven Richter 

            “It’s Chinese food Nobu style,” says my savvy Chinese friend.  “It will be a big hit. Because everybody loves Nobu.”

            “But what about us?” I protest.  “What about we foodies who miss the great years of Chinese food in New York…we hate those tasteless overcooked scallops in the steamer with the tea poured over hot rocks – four scallops for $32.”

“Forget you,” says my friend.  “For those design girls thin like a stick they’re going to think Japanese, no fat. Very trendy. Food will be perfect.”

Some of this Chinese food is actually Chinese, my friend assures me. So the sophisticated Chinese fans of Nobu will be impressed too. And a dish as modest as XO fried rice is surprisingly voluptuous though the XO flavors are strangely muted.

I don’t mind the wafting fog of dry ice in the pot below that Barbie-size dish of luscious mango pudding I’m eating with an espresso spoon. What can I say if the fiercely obsessed design master Ian Schraeger thinks a blast of fog is amusing?

Anyway, Chef Wakiya must jet back now and then per contract --- his trained militia of wokhands will rotate every three months to remain legal -- and that’s good, my wise Chinese friend observes.  “Master Chinese chefs fleeing the Cultural Revolution brought Chinese food to Japan from Shanghai.  They taught a generation of Japanese chefs to cook Chinese. And the Japanese chefs are very disciplined.  Not like the Chinese cooks.  Chinese chefs have been fleeing China for years coming here.  But no Japanese chef wants to live here.  They just want to do business and go home.”

            You see what you can learn when you stop talking for a few minutes?

             Gramercy Park Hotel, 2 Lexington Avenue at 22nd Street. 212 995 133       


Déjà Vu with Restaurant Girl At Fabio’s

Breaking bread at Fabio Piccolo Fiore with Restaurant Girl. Photo: Steven Richter

 I pitied the dapper mâitre’d at Fabio Piccolo Fiore as he trailed behind a very annoyed Restaurant Girl, aka Danyelle Freeman.   “But you’re here?” she cried, striding to our table, clearly exasperated.  “I’ve been sitting and waiting…”

 “It’s my fault,” said the culprit. “It’s my fault I didn’t bring her to the table.  I just wanted to look at her beauty a little longer.”

Good try but no mozzarella.

 Yes, I have a little thing going with Restaurant Girl.  She’s sweet and cute, wonderfully enthusiastic, bravely unironic…and unlike most guppy food bloggers, she seems to respect her elders, if I dare say.  “You’re my mentor,” she tells me. “My inspiration.”   She’s been generous on her website too, with a Q&A timed to the publication of my memoir Insatiable. I’m happy to reciprocate. You’ll find her raspberry-chocolate granita in my !0 minute recipes on “Favorites” with a link to her big fat highly successful website.

So she is my website mentor too.  I want Google to love me like it adores her.  Danyelle and I don’t always agree on what we’ve tasted together. She was mad about the cheese-topped fries “all blissfully bathed in a thin, but deceptively rich gravy” at the Inn at LW12 in the meatpacking quarter.  I swooned over the cheese melt part, then lost my appetite when I came to gravy slog at the middle.  But that’s fine. We can disagree.

Tonight Danyelle is sounding brave but is clearly rubbed a little raw by her fellow bloggers’ snarky response to the news that she’s landed a restaurant column in the Daily News.

 “They don’t have to be so mean,” she says, settling into a chair in front of Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of La Bella Ferroniere, one of the stunning giant photo-shopped  blowups of women by Italian painters, which is definitely the best thing about the restaurant. Leonardo’s babe looks like she eats.  Danyelle is suspiciously thin for a restaurant critic in a summery cotton halter dress.

“They say I can’t be a critic because my photograph is out there. I don’t think you need to be anonymous.”

“I think you do,” says her mentor.

“They can’t bring in a new chef,” she argues.

“But they can insist the chef come in if he’s on his day off. Jean Georges is always appearing in immaculate whites whenever I wander in – anonymously – to one of his restaurants. Let’s order and get it over with,” I beg, my usual optimism snatched away by the déjà vu of the menu.

Restaurant Girl has no hope at all for this restaurant but she had agreed to come when we couldn’t find an alternative that we both wanted to review.  Our worst suspicions are confirmed by the clunky sesame-paved breadsticks in the basket.  We have wandered into a time warp.  Fabio has got himself a squeaky clean new restaurant with a menu from the sixties.  Yet the place is full.

 “Chicken entrées at just $14 must certainly help,” I offer.

“It’s just around the corner from all those office buildings,” she notes. “These are expensed dinners.”

So there’s hope Fabio. This is America, the fast food nation.  Not everybody knows what they’re eating.  Nor cares.

230 East 44th Street. 212  922 0581


Fresno is a Suburban Pleasure

On an August weekend my Easthampton hosts are willing to drive out to Montauk for dinner but are loathe to enter that crawly motorized snake that inches toward Bridgehampton.  Fresno, on the right side of the tracks but the wrong side of the Easthampton train station, is certainly not on my mind.  But my pals love the food and will often slip in weekdays before a movie for the cannonball $25 prix fixe.  (You must arrive by 6:32 p.m.)  We make the crucial turn…we’re in suburbia.

I’m not expecting anything much at all even though Fresno is owned by one of the partners from Red Bar and Beacon (two spots I like) with managing partner Michael Nolan from the Miracle Bar and Grill where Bobby Flay made a name.  Actually, low expectations make a good aperitif.

 Sure enough, we are all recognized, my friends as regulars; me as me.  Out comes shrimp tempura with chopped cucumber and papaya salad in a tangy passion fruit vinaigrette, gift of chef Gretchen Menser, a veteran of the kitchen at Nick & Toni’s. What are the odds that shrimp will not be overcooked in an American restaurant?  Amazingly, these are not.  And the saucy salad is too good to leave even a few drops on the plate. Menser does an admirable Caesar salad too, with fried polenta croutons and shaved pecorino pepato and her warm goat cheese salad with spinach, beets and candied walnuts is layered to look like a 1920’s evening hat.

I’m wary of farmed salmon but “Scottish salmon” sounds trustworthy.  It’s rare as I requested, and warmed through (a trick not every kitchen can manage), smartly paired with baby bok choy, black rice and coconut-kaffir lime curry. Seared striped bass from Montauk is cropping up on local menus, here with white beans, organic sweet corn, pancetta and a saffron broth.  At $32, it’s the only item on the menu over $29.  The four of us are sharing my guy’s big and very decent burger and good enough fries.

  Desserts are all unfashionably gussied up with confectioners’ sugar.  I thought the addiction for that white powder was passé. Still, the lemon curd is fine under the sweet excess. But it’s hard to fully appreciate the black pepper-studded biscuits of the berry shortcake with all that white snow. Our host -- for whom a day without chocolate is scarcely worth living -- devotes himself to the warm, runny chocolate cake with its Nutella fluff heart.

By the way, penny pinchers who can’t make the 6:32 p.m. cut-off, will find that same benevolent prix fixe at the bar all evening most nights of the week.

    8 Fresno Place, Easthampton. 631 324 8700


My Not So Amused Bouche

Heartbreak at Lobster Roll aka Lunch.  Photo: Steven Richter

            Is it asking too much of a beachside landmark not to abuse the lobster?  Over the years the Lobster Roll aka Lunch on the Montauk highway has had its ups and downs. I’m not talking about the fried clam strips; deep-fried clam strips are what they are -- grease and salt -- so no complaint.  If you order them, you deserve them.

No, it’s today’s lobster roll.  Earlier this spring we could have sued for an excess of celery but the lobster itself was good and abundant. This time the lobster claw tasted like cardboard; the too tiny lobster bits are overcooked and maybe even elderly.

I know it’s the season of madness.  The place is jumping and maybe it feels like there’s no time to taste each new batch of lobster salad as it gets tossed. But someone ought to.

1980 Montauk Highway, Amagansett. 631 267 3740