March 19, 2018 | BITE: My Journal
Tom Valenti Finds Himself, or Maybe Not
We start with good chicken liver mousse to spread on toast. The toast is hard the first time, okay the 2nd time.
“What am I doing here?” Tom Valenti asks himself, by way of greeting me at Oxbow Tavern. “I was so happy fishing and kayaking and living my life.” He grins and then, watching me write it down, catches himself, “This is good. It’s good to be back again.”
The sculpted front, originally Victor’s, remains, with oxen on the side, this male beauty at the door.
The partners of Cafe Tallulah, on the corner that used to be Victor’s Cafe, had proposed that Valenti buy them out. Instead they’ve partnered. He’s in charge of the new production. They’ve not touched up the worn floors or fussed with the space. The Beatles romp endlessly on a screen over the door. The 60 seats and the long bar are full and turning most nights. Once he felt the menu and kitchen reflected his casual concept, he began making rounds of the room most evenings in his navy chef’s tunic.
I encourage Chef Tom Valenti to sit for a while and tell about his recent journey from Le Cirque to Oxbow.
As our tablemates arrive, the chef excuses himself to tend the action in the subterranean kitchen.
“I’ve got to get back to my subterranean nightmare,” he announces. “It’s a terrible kitchen. They had to dig out eight feet of earth to make room for a hood.” That means complicated plates are a challenge. He spends the day making stews like coq au vin and ragout of braised pork with pastina that only need to be warmed in the evening. Sorry, that pork is disappointingly soupy and bland.
We might start with this mushroom tarte flambee and other small plates and finish with sandwiches.
So there is onion soup “gratinee” and oyster chowder, braised tripe and a tomato-y minestrone saffron soup with rock shrimp and tubetti. “There is always someone that appreciates tripe,” he notes. That can be braised in white wine far ahead and frozen in portion size.
I’ve been tasting deviled eggs a lot these days. I’m sorry to say Oxbow’s are less-than-thrilling on this first visit.
What saves these slightly primitive fried rock shrimp is a wonderfully fiery chili potion for dipping.
A mix of starter dishes is perfect for our table to share: A fragrant free-form mushroom tart flambée. Chicken liver mousse to pile on garlic toasts. Crispy rock shrimp we’re dragging through a peppery hot chili aioli. The deviled eggs could have more personality. The onion sauce served with great house-made chips does not measure up to Lipton Onion Soup dip memories. It has more oomph a few nights later.
No debate. The chopped endive salad with bacon, Roquefort and pistachio is a joy. We’ll share it.
That’s not the usual frisée aux lardons salad. It’s a brasserie classic Valenti picked up in his Paris days, frisée tossed with thin string beans, Parmesan, crisp artichoke leaves and mussels in mayonnaise. Chopped endive, with a lot of crisp bacon, Roquefort and pistachios, makes an excellent salad to share.
The Salmon gravlax with trout roe and crème fraîche on chickpea pancake is a Valneti signature, justly so.
There must be burrata. Oxbow’s is served with mushroom-truffle puree and grilled bread. Lemon mousseline and caviar jewel the tuna crudo. Happily for me, he reprises his signature salmon gravlax with trout roe and crème fraîche on a chickpea pancake and I don’t mind splitting it with my dinner date.
On our second visit, the onion dip is more powerful, more worthy of these excellent homemade potato chips.
Oxbow’s vox populi ambition is definitely a retreat from Valenti’s brief and surprising challenge in the kitchen of the swooning La Cirque. I never got a chance to see what he would deliver in the rarefied air on East 58th Street. Not that he hadn’t toiled in fancy kitchens. After all, he’d spent early career years in the kitchen of Guy Savoy and was a sous chef to Alfred Portale at Gotham Bar and Grill. But Le Cirque needed a miracle. Sadly, there was a cash flow problem and Valenti quit just before the doors closed. In retreat at his house in New Jersey, phone calls offering career options, more or less real, interrupted his fly-casting.
It seemed to me that Valenti had lost interest at Ouest after winning West Siders early on.
But Oxbow is a homecoming. “Valenti has long been a hero of the Upper West Side, our Buffalo Bill,” I wrote in Settling the West in 2009 when the chef was doubling at West Branch. “Braving the far outer steppes when Broadway was all retail and coffee shops, he gave us Ouest, one of the city’s best casual restaurants. ‘Cesca has never been the same since he left.”
The hefty croque monsieur with Gruyere and Canadian bacon works well with a fourth of each of us.
West Branch was an American brasserie for the people, offering something for every appetite, an eclectic mix of sandwiches and entrées ranging from crispy fried quail and fish and chips to a grilled strip at moderate prices.
The $23 tavern burger with caramelized onions and Gruyere is good enough and come with excellent fries.
I can imagine stopping by just for the crisp fried chicken sandwich with sauce gribiche and a salad.
That’s what he’s delivering at Oxbow now, except prices have gone up. His $24 tavern burger and a fabulous $18 crispy fried chicken sandwich with a flavorful sauce gribiche both come with a small toss of greens or fries. I ask for the potatoes crisp and dark.
I ordered double pork chop medium-rare-to-rare and it came pale pink. My pals were willing to eat the edges.
Triangles of seared tuna are set in chickpea puree with red pepper coulis and a swirl of black olive relish.
Entrées, many “simply grilled” from $24 to $35, include Canadian salmon, California squab and a brace of quail. I order the pan-roasted East Coast halibut to be “slightly undercooked, but not rare or raw” and it’s perfect, glossed with a few tender greens and mushrooms, sprawled on cauliflower puree with rivulets of black olive relish. If only the $24 organic half-chicken, boned and served in one piece, wasn’t so dry.
Panna cotta fans will be pleased to discover this passion fruit version.
Friday evening. I let my companion choose dessert. “I’m a fool for panna cotta,” he says, taking the first spoonful of the passion fruit custard. Limited by his space constraints, Valenti has arranged to buy most of the pastries from a French company. That makes me sigh. I want to imagine him making a deal with a local bakery, or even a neighboring civilian.
None of us needed dessert after so many small plates but we finished off the chocolate cake anyway.
While we hesitate, weighing the implications of dessert on our first visit, Valenti sends a quartet of sweets: the panna cotta, an odd French-toast tart with vanilla ice cream, a maple milles feuilles with slivered almonds (also with ice cream), and rich chocolate cake.
The chef buys most of his desserts from a French company, including this milles feuilles with slivered almonds.
Valenti’s first job out of culinary school was signing on to cook 200 meals for a family and promising never to repeat a dish. Many New Yorkers fell in love with his lamb shank at Alison on Dominick and followed him to Cascabel. He took time to help Tony Goldman at Greene Street and did a stint at Butterfield 81. Many starts and stops, some slights, lease issues, escapes, personal trauma.
Yes, there is chicken, “simply grilled,” a little too dry one evening, but not deserving this blurry photo. Sorry.
“Many strains on knees and back and central nervous system,” he sums up the journey to Oxbow. Now he’s 59, “not as old as I look,” he insists. And he’s in charge. Look for him to greet you, or find him sitting at the bar.
240 Columbus Avenue on the NW corner of 71st. 646 490 4075. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 pm to 10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 pm to 11 pm, Sunday 5 pm to 9:30 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 2 pm. Lunch beginning April 2 11 am to 2 pm
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