October 13, 2008 | BITE: My Journal
You Can Go Home Again/Home Is Where the Meatloaf Is

Cozy little Home beckons from Cornelia Street. Photo: Steven Richter.
Cozy little Home beckons from Cornelia Street. Photo: Steven Richter.

         It can be unnerving when you pass by the house you grew up in and see the new people have repainted or cut off the bay window. That sort of emotional trauma wasn’t the only reason I postponed venturing down to the Village to check out the new deal at sweet little Home. I hadn’t been by since that night in March 2003 when chef David Page and his wife Barbara Shinn opened the first bottle of red from their new Shinn Estate Vineyards on the North Fork.

         I read the place had dimmed in their absence till a former partner bought them out and wooed Ross Gill, the chef de cuisine under Page, back to the kitchen. They’ve spruced it up, but not with a vengeance erasing memory. Banquettes are against the wall and a small bar. It’s the no-reservation policy that has kept me away. These days, taxis are too expensive and time too precious to race downtown without a guaranteed table. But as I came out of Pearl Oyster Bar up the street a few weeks ago, I noticed the place was only half full. I decided I would gamble.

Bacon and cheese add crunch and umami to chopped vegetable salad.  Photo: Steven Richter.

         It’s one of those magical balmy nights last week and our friends wait beyond the kitchen, through a narrow passage into the backyard “garden” with strings of lights and the vintage iconography of fire escapes overhead. A stage set far from the financial battering of the day. In tiny letters I can see with my flashlight, the menu promises, “A sustainable dining experience” with “produce, fish, meat, cheese and wines from local artisan sources.” The mantra of the moment. Alas, the waiter is less sustainable, disappearing without a glance our way then finally, nonchalantly, acknowledging our efforts to get his attention. As my friend Vicki observes, “He’s the opposite of the waiter we hate, the over-attentive, 'I’ll-be-your-server-tonight,' interrupting every two minutes.” Indeed, he’s cool and doesn’t need to know if we love what we’re eating.  We decide we rather like that self possession.

In a season of great scallops, these are exceptional.  Photo: Steven Richter.

         Sipping a glass of Shinn’s very pleasant Merlot, I am happy already. The thick dark soup of the day, three-bean with big chunks of meat, could be hotter, but it’s wonderful. The trio of small crab cakes have a cayenne mayo zing and the chopped salad (bacon $2 extra) with cumin vinaigrette has admirable character. All week the Road Food Warrior has been on a clam-and-corn chowder binge (there being so few days left for corn and roses). Home’s bacon-flecked “porridge” is the winner. Four large dayboat scallops – perfectly cooked - preen on parsnip puree with arugula and cranberry bean salad. Meaty chunks of cinnamon-cured duck breast with wild mushroom fricassee give heft to that bird. Chorizo-studded macaroni and cheese comes in a black cast-iron skillet just as it did in the days of Page-and-Shinn. And the cod is rarish, as requested, slightly-too-salty but wonderfully al dente greens with a purée of sunchoke. Have you noticed? Sunchoke is the flava’ of the week.

The large skillet of chorizo-studded macaroni is enough for four. Photo: Steven Richter.

        The pudding tradition continues too, smooth and lush with soft-whipped cream in a coffee mug. I choose butterscotch over chocolate in memory of my mom’s butterscotch pudding, Royal brand, of course. (Got to give my mom credit. She never used instant.) And to Home’s credit the photo on the bathroom door is Julia Child and James Beard, everyone’s family.

        I’ll venture a guess why Home isn’t full these days. Suddenly, all we can see is how much we’re spending. It’s like posting calorie counts actually makes even the plumpest people think about calories. Frankly, even in 1992 I thought $13 to $17 for entrees seemed a shade grand for the improvisational mood of the place. Now, starters from $7 to $13 and entrees $18 to $23 can boost the tab for two to $120 with just two glasses of wine, tax and tip. For some, that might still sound like a typical night on the town even on ever-so-cozy Cornelia Street. But for traders on a forced vacation and freelancers with assignments frozen, afraid to open the latest report from Ameritrade, that can be forbidding.

20 Cornelia Street between Bleecker and West 4th Street. 212 243 9579


Bouley Wrestles a Monster Menu

The faux Klimts give Secession its name and its schnitzel. Photo: Steven Richter.

         A rowdy shout of “We want our food!” from a table of upper-crust East Siders that startled the room opening night Tuesday at David Bouley’s new Secession fired up bloggers when Eater.com linked to my item in Short Order. As the tony crew headed toward the exit, Walter, the maitre d', ran up to apologize. “It’s our first night.” But it was only when a relay of runners raced out of the kitchen toward the almost-deserted table that most of the secessionists ungruntled and sat down again.

        “Elegant upper East Siders?” quarreled one Eater blogster. “What's so elegant about shouting, ‘We want our food’ like a bunch of drunken frat boys? Sounds like ‘moneyed,’ but certainly not ‘elegant’. Anyone with a shred of class would have spoken with the maitre d', not yelled out to the entire dining room. Boorish behavior is not a signifier of elegance, but of trash.”

        Another suggested I should focus on food and atmosphere, not gossip. Do my readers really want me to be the only food site breathing to ignore a juicy tidbit?

        Well, here’s how it was. There were long lulls between courses at our table too and farm league service lapses. I got the feeling the waiter might have been Shanghaied earlier in the evening walking down Hudson Street when he slowed to peer in the door. He certainly didn’t have two clues about the menu to rub together.

        And David Bouley has been thinking much too much about this menu while standing at the range and flipping burgers at Bouley Upstairs across the street. He promised it would offer everything he loves to eat. Indeed, the handsome brasserie-style broadsheet is all over the place with dizzying options under too many rubriques: “Oysters and Clams,” “Grilled Brochette,” "Steamed Shellfish,” “ Classics,” “Grill,” “Roast,” “Fresh Pasta,” “Fry.” (The missing plurals are Bouley’s). And it’s troubling that swordfish or skirt steak is $21 but pastas cost $21 to $25.

Spaghetti with clams in a big green puddle is not very Italian. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Bouley is the emperor of dither. He can slow down even an experienced kitchen with his obsession for perfection. And maybe he pushed to open Secession too soon because he needs to get it on track so he can move Bouley from its West Broadway perch to a new space across Duane Street on whatever timetable obsesses him. Sometimes it’s fair to talk about food the first night as a reliable preview of what might come… but not on this wobbly first night. I didn’t see much influence of Cesare Casella on the spaghetti with clams in a sea broth. I didn’t try to grab a peek inside the kitchen but in my mind, I could imagine Bouley himself grabbing pots and pans, trying to drive an entire line of elephants and camels and trained bears into the circus tent singlehandedly. His chicken livers were rare as ordered but I like my own, caramelized and really rare, with a plop of crème fraîche. I’d recommend the profiteroles, admirably sauced, and the banana passion fruit parfait with espresso granité. The “New York Times #1 prize-winning chicken” with lush potato purée was the winner of this dramatic too-early outing.

        I’ll be back if only to see whether or not Bouley can wrestle his menu into submission. The man loves to cook.  That’s increasingly rare among star chefs. And I can’t wait to see what he’s planning “in his gut,” as he puts it, for his extravaganza across the street.

30 Hudson Street between Duane and Reade Streets. 212  791 3771


Meatloaf Days, Foie Gras Nights    

Memories of making do in earlier depression days. 

        The day after I announced a contest for the best penny pinching ideas to save money on food and dining out, financial pundits who had been urging cutting back were stunned by a paralysis in spending. Not wanting to go against the tide, I offered a second prize for the best eating scheme to get big dollars flowing. True to the tightwad trend, my correspondents seem mostly intent on saving. My sister-in-law confesses that whenever she visits her mother three blocks from the Indiana state line, she crosses over to gets groceries (no taxes) and gas (50 cents cheaper). Sorry Mary. Family is not eligible to win. And brother Jim’s defiant vow never to give up getting his coffee flown from Montana and Hawaii may be using up her savings. Rhea Albert, self-styled “Queen of Coupons,” seeks prix fixe menus in Manhattan –“I had a $13 lunch at Roberto Passon yesterday, split crabcake and a Caesar with my friend, then salmon with spinach and great cheesecake for dessert. No coffee. We walked two doors away for 65 cent “Senior Citizen” coffee at Mickey D’s.” At home in suburbia she reads all the supermarket flyers, marking sale items and money-off coupons, then plans her route to three or four stores early Sunday morning. “There are no lines and I can get the Sunday papers at the same time.” (How about gas, Rhea?)  She suggests Perdue Oven Stuffers baked with roast potatoes and onions in a pan and crumbed cauliflower on the side as a one-dish meal that lasts her three nights.

Financial losses already threaten feeding the hungry in New York.

        My friend Hermine is a careful eater to start with.“If I needed to save money, I would quickly eliminate the big calories and consider that losing pounds and inches is even better than saving the bucks,” she writes… that way I save on clothing and I can still fit in my favorite pants. I skipped dinner last night and went to the gym this morning and feel better and more affluent already.” (Sorry, Hermine, as a friend you’re disqualified to win.)

        Che Florio, my aerobics trainer, is borderline ineligible but she’s so passionate about cutting back on eating outlays I have to declare her the winner. She’s been living for more than a week out of what’s stashed in her freezer. She now leaves the house with only $5 a day – leaving all credit cards behind. She makes her own decaf latte with skim milk-plus and a touch of cocoa powder. When she’s seized with an undeniable need for Starbucks, she drinks green tea. “It’s only $1.60 instead of three or four dollars for a fancy coffee. So I’m awarding Che a dinner for two with me and Steven at Celeste.

        By the way, you don’t have to be on a thrift jag to love my Danish Meatloaf Recipe. Hope you’ll try it.

        And for her fantasy of extravagance to jump start the city’s stalled economy, the winner is Cheryl Greenhill, who suggests a recreation of
Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s $4000 diner at Chez Denis in Paris thrilled and outraged.
Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey's infamous 1975 $4000 meal at Chez Denis in Paris, complete with 31 courses and great wines. “In this age of economic downturn, I am certain all of the scrutiny and public outcry about such decadence would be recreated too. The great part, of course, would be having two women dine in such opulence as opposed to two men.”

        Were you born yesterday? I'll fill in the details. In a Channel 13 auction American Express offered to pick up the check for a dinner for two anywhere and Claiborne, then the venerated Times critic, took advantage of his winning bid to fly to Paris with his pal, chef Pierre Franey. In a five-hour event at the now defunct Chez Denis, the two men managed to spend $4000. Craig’s critique of the meal – he didn’t love everything - opened on the front page of the Times. From endless caviar, parfait of sweetbreads and individual tarts of quail mousse served with a 1918 Chateau Latour, to warmed Belon oysters in the shell served with beurre blanc and a 1969 Montrachet Baron Thénard, to gratin de homard in a red sauce “heavily laden with truffles” and a Provençal pie of rouget, to ortolans en brochette with a 1947 Lafite Rothschild and… many dishes and wines and hours later… cold glazed charlotte with strawberries and an 1865 Calvados. Craig’s report outraged Times readers and even the Vatican and the Pope chimed in, calling it “scandalous.”

        Ms. Greenhill fantasized doing her dinner at Alain Ducasse in the Plaza Athenée in Paris but agreed she could also happily do it in New York in the kitchen skybox at Daniel, watching the ballet of servers and chefs, drinking from “the insane wine list.” Obviously she couldn’t get the same endless truffles and unlimited caviar or 31 courses with such rare spirits for a mere $4000, given inflation. And it’s forbidden now to serve ortolan, a small downy bird from the bunting family that we early foodies loved to eat. Tradition involved draping a napkin over your head to catch the juices and then popping the bird whole into your mouth, leaving only the beak. Also, if Ms. Greenhill did have the money and pull to get Daniel’s skybox (reserved mostly for friends or Citymeals-on-Wheels auctions), a $4000 tab might seem a yawn given a $20,945 diner at Gavroche in London in l997 and who knows how much frittered away at wine sport marathons these days around town.  Wouldn’t it be fun if Warren Buffett decided to give a chunk of cash to Citymeals and reserve the SkyBox to join Cheryl Greenhill and me in this fantasy? I’ll take notes on  his stock tips.



Cafe Fiorello

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