November 30, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Picking Up the Pieces

This Alex Gottfried photo for a New York cover was rejected as “too glamorous”
This Alex Gottfried photo for a New York cover was rejected as “too glamorous.”

        Not everyone gets to read their obituary in the New York Times. Indeed not everyone gets a premature obituary in the Times. So I guess it was a triumph of sorts. I got fired and the paper of record actually cared. Friends from around the world saw the story and sent bracing words. I read it Wednesday morning with my heart pounding. Not exactly what I would have written myself but hey… almost totally kind. It was kind of a hoot. And a revelation. I never knew any editor objected to my choices of restaurants to review or chefs to pedestal. I just blithely danced away thinking if it interested me, the foodie audience would care and if I loved it, most of you would love it too. That same incurable… shall I call it confidence or vanity? 

            I do wish my critics and chroniclers weren’t quite so hung up on how many chefs or celebrities I bedded. (Funny way of putting it. Like who bedded whom?) But then clearly I brought that upon myself by being quite candid in my memoir. I thought it was amusing that I got led into the bedroom by the young and adorable Elvis Presley fifty years ago because I just happened to be the only woman in the hotel room at the moment of his between-concerts horniness. And that he asked me to order him a fried egg sandwich afterward.

        The fact that I didn’t have the character to resist romantic dalliances with chefs while a restaurant critic has always seemed unprofessional and risky to me. But there are no secrets in the tight little food world. Oral personalities, you know. I thought it best to confess before I got outed. But if you consider that there were just three chefs and three restaurateurs in 40 years of reviewing restaurants, it doesn’t strike me as an addiction or a felony. I think it sounds as if I wasn’t trying hard enough.

        I say thank heaven Timesman Glenn Collins in his reportorial vigilance was able to reach Michael Batterberry, the venerable historian of America’s dining revolution, creator with his wife Ariane of Food Arts and before that, founders of Food & Wine magazine. He put my unexpected forced retirement into historic perspective. “It’s as if they removed the lions from the library steps,” he said. Dearest Michael. And a toast to Robert Lape too for testifying that I haven’t lost my tastebuds or my bite.

        I promise you won’t see me dancing with the stars.

No Lipstick on This Pig

A daunting assemblage of pig at the revised Irving Mill. Photo: Steven Richter

        There are pig people and no-pig people. Personally, I don’t encounter many who are neutral about it in my crowd.  When it comes to pigging out, it’s us and them, those who avoid pork out of faith, health, animal activism or fear of the unknown. It’s not that they won’t find sustenance on the menu at Irving Mill. I say, go in good health. Have the eggplant and ricotta bruschetta, the fluke crudo. Try sunchoke and hazelnut soup with grilled endive, the loup de mer with quinoa, walnuts and soy beans. I could easily go for the aristocratic chicken for two from Four Story Hill farm myself if I weren’t so distracted by so much porky creativity.

        All three of us are swept up in Chef Ryan Skeen’s porcine obsession. “Oh God,” cries Ava. “It’s all pig. I’m having the pig ear salad.” Alas, we will not be tasting that cartilaginous crunch with radicchio, escarole and poached egg on top. It’s been "eighty-sixed", the waitress informs us ruefully as if to say, “And don’t blame me.” I look around the room with new respect – Is this a pig ear salad crowd that’s beat us to it? I wonder.

Irving Mill plans to add new art and more color to this vast sweep of room. Photo: Steven Richter

        I never got to Resto where Skeen plumbed his fetish. But now he’s stepped into John Schaefer clogs at Irving Mill.  And overnight, the place has gone from Gramercy Tavern-lite to urban barnyard. Spicy pulled pork sandwich – two little sliders on soft potato buns – are frankly the least of it. But deep-fried minced pork toast – think shrimp toast in Chinatown – with creamy egg salad and a lick of caviar on top is weird and wonderful. Falling off the bone salt and pepper ribs, first marinated in soy and chili and lime, then braised, fried and propped up in a soup bowl are merely marvelous.

        We must taste the house burger too. Already iconic on the food blogs, it’s a gently formed chunk of chopped flap steak larded with fat back, running-red-rare, under a melt of cheddar in another soft potato bun. In the bowl riding alongside, fingerlings make slightly soggy, puffy little fries and there’s a choice of ketchup, mayo and mustard. 

        The Road Food Warrior’s pappardelle with a sauce of rabbit, roasted tomato and fabulous black olives only seems to be a relief from the porky theme but it’s not, given a sprinkle of guanciale (cured pig jowl). It desperately needs more noodles to qualify as a pasta. And after the greediness of our warmup, my charcroute plate seems remarkably daunting. “I asked for the smaller $22 size,” I tell our savvy and agreeable server.

        “You got it,” she says, setting down a tray with grainy  mustard, crème fraîche and violet mustard (with the flavor and tint of wine must).

        “You sure someone didn’t just throw on a few extras?”

        “No, that’s how it comes,” she insists.

The delicious rabbit pappardelle  needs more pasta and less soup.  Photo: Steve Richter

        Of course I have to taste a bit of everything – that’s my job (even if New York isn’t funding my research anymore).  I start with a cut of boudin blanc and the mini blood sausage (a special passion of mine, best indulged in measured amounts, alas). And with scholarly precision, sample a melting bit of pig’s head, some pork shoulder, some meat torn from one of the ribs (another taste to test consistency never hurts). My favorite is the pig’s foot, boned, breaded and fried into compact wantonness. Even a side of kale is lush, cooked in wine and shallots rich with butter. Indeed, the macaroni and cheese with pork rinds is the only serious disappointment. It’s not the pork rinds I mind. Pasta ears in cheesy sludge is not my idea of macaroni. 

Don’t skip dessert. Treat yourself to banana parfait and apple fritters. Photo: Steven Richter

        What we all need now is a trot around the block but I feel obligated to try at least one dessert. A butterscotch blondie ice cream sundae with hot fudge, bourbon caramel and spiced walnuts seems to embrace enough sweet endings to tell the tale. “Fabulous” is the headline. And since Suzanne Riva, one of the three partners has spotted me, apple fritters and banana “cream pie parfait” has been forced upon us. Pastry Chef Michelle Duran's remarkable apple fritters – packaging whole circlets of apple with cinnamon ice cream, seem to deem her for stardom. And the banana parfait with roasted banana ice cream, coconut macaroons, vanilla custard and chocolate layered into a glass is even better. Suddenly it seems criminal to leave any behind.

        I find myself recalling a table of women at La Côte Basque years ago, sharing a dessert and then spilling water on it to discourage a rupture in discipline.

        I definitely have unfinished business at Irving Mill. The partners are planning more artwork, more color, a more contemporary look. As if I needed an excuse to come back beyond the lamb cassoulet with leg, loin and belly, possibly also bacon. Brunch begins this week too, and Skeen is mulling all the porky favorites plus baked eggs with truffle and pork caviar, an oyster BLT, and cream of wheat griddle cakes with huckleberry jam. I like the way his brain works.

116 East 16th Street between Irving Place and Park Avenue South. 212 254 1600

I’ll Bring the Turkey

Host Ed Schoenfeld contemplates Jacques Torres’ brilliant bird. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s not unusual for a New Yorker transplanted from somewhere else that friends are my family, the essential “we” of me, as my real family is scattered across the country. For the past few years our “family" has joyfully let Eddie Schoenfeld choreograph and cook our Thanksgiving dinner. This year Eddie and wife Elisa expanded the congregants to three tables. Eddie did wings and drumsticks only, which was perfect for this mostly dark meat crowd. Elisa crowned an eclectic feast with prunes in port and crème fraiche, evoking memories of long ago great prune finales at Restaurant Troisgros.

        Jacques Torres had asked if I would like a chocolate turkey. “Take it to your dinner,” he said, “and tell everyone it was made by Jacques Torres.” Late Wednesday afternoon, I stopped by his shop half a block from my office. The bird was huge and gorgeous, sculpted in dark chocolate, and actually looked like a three-dimensional Audubon. My guy and I had to take a taxi for fear someone would bump into it on the subway. At Eddie and Elisa’s I hid it in a closet so no innocent guest would sample the noggin before its debut. After dinner I set the gobbler on a beautiful Meissen platter and delivered it to Eddie. A few of the guests stood back awed. I had to break off the first piece. “Jacques Torres,” I said. 

        “Oh, of course, Jacques Torres,” someone echoed. Each small bite led to a second. Unlike all commercial chocolate turkeys I ever tasted, this one was made from chocolate worthy of Jacques Torres.

285 Amsterdam between 73rd and 74th Streets. 212 414 2462

Honor Thy Pasta

Dinner at Fiore always starts with a grilled thin-crust pizza... Photo Steven Richter 

        For forty years my life has pretty much revolved around dinner (with time out for dancing, sex and falling in love) so why would it change, especially at this, the foodiest time of the year?

        On Saturday night we drove with friends to our beloved Fiore in Williamsburg, just four of us. We hadn’t been since late June when our good pals took their car and moved out to the lake for the summer. In Brooklyn no one seems to know I’ve been fired and I don’t have to be brave and pretend I’m okay. A hug from chef-owner Roberto Aita could be simply a welcome back. He puts us at a table against the door to the garden, right behind where he stands directing the kitchen from the pass-through. A waiter recites the specials. “Is it okay if I do a few antipastini for you?” Roberto asks.  We nod.

It’s difficult to resist the hill of fried calamari and zucchini at Fiore. Photo: Steven Richter 

        It is wonderfully distracting to focus on pithy issues like whether Hillary should agree to become secretary of state and what we’ll do with Bill. We sip Roberto’s recommendation for a red by the glass, Negroamaro from Puglia, and discover we agree Hillary will be brilliant and half of us think Bill will behave. Two of us think Bill is the jewel in Hillary’s crown.

        Roberto himself delivers the grilled pizza al formaggio with two cheeses, tomato and black pepper, really crisp and a nice happy medium between refined and abundant. Ava and I are planning to share the mushroom and roasted butternut squash salad – back on the menu now for autumn. And then it arrives, a plate for each of us, different than last year.  Frisee makes it lighter. Roberto sets a bowl of intensely sauced braised baby octopus on the table and returns with a mountain of fried calamaretti and zucchini to a few groans. We had dared not speak its name but confess that we had all contemplated and rejected it – all that fat. Mere putty in the hands of fate, we devour it. As always, Tim seems pleased with a generous portion of fish, orata tonight. The Road Food Warrior sticks with his eternal favorite bucatini amatriciana. And Ava and I share the fine seafood pasta special.

        As usual, no one wants dessert after the too-generous portions and extras that arrive in you-can- go-home-again style. But of course a trio of desserts descends. Chocolate and almond cake. A lemon tart. And smartly tart lemon sorbetto that turns out to be the perfect last taste.

284 Grand Street between Roebling and Havemeyer Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 718 782 8222