November 3, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

The Pow of Cow at Center Cut / eGullet King Eats Korean

Slow roasted Berkshire bacon, clams casino and house-baked brioche are hits at our table. Photo: Steven Richter
Slow roasted Berkshire bacon, clams casino and house-baked brioche are hits at our table. Photo: Steven Richter

         Jeffrey Chodorow’s stylish and expensive Center Cut at the Empire Hotel might be seen as the same irrational exuberance that’s on display in Sunday’s New York Times in an ad for a  $3,995 Chanel tote. Excuse me if I’m dizzy and blindsided by too many end of the world sightings. After all, that ad in the prime upper left hand corner of Page 2 suggests there must be someone to buy that bag. And what should Chodorow do?  When he first signed off on this vast and lavish segmented space that wraps around the second floor with starched floor-to-ceiling curtains creating a certain coziness, who could have known we might not have survived a few nasty foreclosures and come out fat and rich on the other side by now? By the time reality left the city reeling and Chodorow’s minions were training the staff to make crepes Suzette at $18 for two while doing comic shtick, it was too late to downscale to meatloaf or turn the place into an Automat.

Vulvesque center cuts of agate are embedded in the bar. Photo: Steven Richter

         So here it is, one flight up, looking out at Lincoln Center, hoping that opera fans and concert goers come flush and order à la carte for appetizers at $9 to $19: jumbo pink shrimp from the raw bar at $5 each and steaks up to $41 for Rossini (a 6 oz. Brandt organic beef filet with seared foie gras and Port glace de viande).  Who knows how many millions of dollars went into New World Design Studios' period airs, wonderful photo blowups taken from backstage at the opera, Venetian sconces, calligraphy scrolling everywhere, even embroidered on the tufted leather banquettes (where alas, the too-high tabletop makes me feel like 6-year-old Eloise sitting with the grownups).

Glazed Korean short ribs come with scallion-vegetable pancake. Photo: Steven Richter

         Chodorow is sitting at the bar admiring its luminescent vulvesque inlay of agate on a night most of the 190 seats hold friends and family and the crepe Suzette cart bursts into flames in a marathon of Kircshwasser. As usual, he looks well-fed and delighted, most especially with himself and his vast and growing feeding empire.  He recites his openings in just the last few days, Almond, West Branch, and Center Cut. A Miami Asia de Cuba is in the works. And he just did a quick turnaround to Las Vegas, where Rich Melman, the “Lettuce Entertain You” legend of multiple restaurants crowned Chodorow with the 2008 Richard Melman Innovator of the Year Award for Restaurant Hospitality Magazine. Danny Meyer and Todd English were the two previous winners. No wonder he’s thrilled.

        A full army of Chodorow brass is out directing the flow. Returning a few days later to taste more dishes from an expansive menu, we discover how well-drilled the servers are. As an answer to a query, ours gives a talk on the sustainability of oysters.  His lecture on retrieving oysters from the sea humanely and why all Center Cut lobsters weigh a pound and a half is threatening to the comfort of my species. Impressive as he is, I must interrupt.

Corn in Manchego cream, dangerously rich, impossible to resist. Photo: Steven Richter

         A lot of thought has gone into Center Cut’s menu, possibly too much. Signature cocktails ($14 to $17) bow to the opera theme, like the “Isolde,” with bourbon and muddled strawberries, too sweet for me, and the “Center Stage,” with premium tequila and bruised sage leaves.  Here and there steak house tradition has been deconstructed (ghosts of V Steakhouse not withstanding). But the voluptuous explosion of salty brioche bread rivals BLT Steak’s beloved popover. We’re overdosing on it during the longish wait for first courses. Not unexpected with such an ambitious menu and Executive Chef Bradley Day whipping a new team of cooks into shape.

Mustard crusted Colorado lamb has three size options and homemade mint jelly. Photo: Steven Richter

        But the Road Food Warrior and I love rich slow-roasted Berkshire bacon atop beer-roasted onions, a sane $12 and enough for two or three to share. When it’s hot enough, the golden potato and white truffle cream soup will be delicious. Crispy
Organic 12 oz. strip steak. Photo: Steven Richter
shoe string potatoes in a shot glass come with the soup, I can’t imagine why, but no harm. Fine clams casino, a generous toss of Caesar salad, as well as a plump cut of first rate foie gras alongside a jar of Concord grape compote are also shareable. I even rather like the inverted French onion soup over Gruyère cheese fondue. And the marvelous five-alarm Waygu chili with corn bread crisps and sour cream strikes me as a perfect late supper for $15. If I was in a penny-pinching mode, I’d have it instead of a steak, hoping someone at the table would insist on rich-as-Croesus roasted corn with Manchego cream or hash browns I could share (from sides at $7). And the Road Food Warrior would come back for the Korean style short ribs in ginger-honey-sesame glaze with scallion and vegetable pancake.

        Naturally raised meats, free-range birds and sustainable seafood as a theme may not disarm bomb throwers whom Chodorow rubs the wrong way – he’s too rich, too successful, even with his periodic stumbles, too undiscourageable, in this case, too behind the times.  But if you’re simply hungry and not worried about maxing out multiple credit cards, this is a place to luxuriate in Brandt beef, intelligently offered in a 6 or 12 oz. size, a strip for one or two, a 28 oz. T-bone for two at $56, Flintstone beef ribs, roast chicken, delicious hot smoked King salmon or seared Chilean sea bass with apple currant slaw.  On opening night lobster thermidor piled on spaghetti-length ziti that wasn’t quite cooked definitely needed another think.

        A $39 prix fixe for two courses available from 5 to 7 p.m. and after 10 p.m., a choice of both soup and salad followed by an entrée (even steak) with a side, and oversize house made cookies to go, is definitely a deal before or after theater.

        Remembering legendary restaurateur Joe Baum’s defiance of the rule in the Flaming 50s, “those who can, do and those who can’t, flambé,” Center Cut’s dessert pyrotechnics may seem amusing or ridiculous, even with the price of fuel, incredulous.  Still, one evening’s crêpes Suzette are sensational – I can appreciate them -- tasting a small corner, even though crêpes are not my thing.

“No need to call your cardiologist,” says our server melting butter. Photo: Steven Richter

         A few nights later, our friendly irrepressibly sustainable waiter announces, “The best part of the evening is the chance that one of us will ignite ourselves on fire.” I challenge him to Bananas Foster. “The show is about to begin,” he announces, wheeling up the cart.  “We start with butter.  It works for Ina Garten so it will work for us.  Butter gives us a nice base for sugar. We don’t really need our cardiologists.”   I could do without waiter shtick myself, but no doubt some will be amused, possibly even cardiologists. Alas, this stale-ish hunk of flambéed banana bread is a clunker.

        There is inevitably a moment to leave well enough alone.

44 West 63rd Street between Broadway and Columbus. 212 956 1288


Buddy, Can You Spare a Breakfast?

You don't have to be Italian to be a Jewish mother. Photo: Steven Richter.

         Could Bond 45 become a Broadway Power breakfast scene? Surely only divas sleep till noon these days.  Where the Zeigfeld Follies once strutted and the man’s suit with two pairs of pants became iconic, Shelly Fireman hopes Bond 45’s new breakfast menu will do box office business.

         No surprise. Suddenly restaurateurs across town are looking to breakfast as a way to offset dwindling revenues. Tom Valenti’s just launched West Branch opens daily for breakfast and Jonathan Waxman’s Madeleine Mae serves breakfast till 5 p.m.

          Bond 45’s Italianish $19 special includes fresh juice and croissant, eggs any style,  housemade Italian sausage or pancetta bacon, scalloped potatoes and a pot of coffee, a decided discount on typical hotel tariffs. Fireman’s frittate are not exactly the thick layered omelette we know from Marcella’s days. It’s looks more like a pizza – thin, crisp-edged and piled with stuff – sausage and buffalo mozzerella or proscuitto, spinach, fior de latte and mesclun.  There’s even an egg white numero – with vegetables.

154 West 45th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenues, 212 869 4545


Deep Into Korean Eats with the eGullet King (CLOSED)

Small giveaways called banchan are traditional.  Fabulous braised short ribs on the right. Photo: Steven Richter

        In 40 years of eating for a living (just for fun before that), I have braved a thousand Asian dives, noodle shops, and sumptuaries here in New York, dared street food, night markets, and wielded jade chopsticks in sky-high palaces in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and South East Asia.  What, I wondered, could I possibly learn from Asian Dining Rules (William Morrow) by Steven Shaw, a founder of the wildly popular eGullet web site and food writer who came to be intrepid long after me?  Perhaps, I thought, there’s meat here for newly hatched gourmands and the reluctantly adventurous, not yet brave enough to jump into Vietnamese or Cambodian or even an all-you-can-eat buffet in some cellar in Chinatown.

        I read here and there in the book, jotting down Shaw’s hot address on Allen Street for the $1 dinner of fried dumplings and succumb to the man’s obvious passion as demonstrated by how far he’ll go – all the way to Ridgefield, New Jersey, to “the parallel universe” of Super H Mart, the Queen Mary 2 of Korean markets with its multiplex digitalized food court.  Finally I emailed asking if we can meet for dinner one evening so I can see close up how to plumb the mysteries of Asian feederies using his book.

Asian explorer-author Steven Shaw reigns at Do Hwa.  Photo: Steven Richter

         That’s how we come to Do Hwa, six of us, me sitting between Steven and his wife Ellen (as smitten with Nepal as we are with Paris and Venice). Just by choosing Do Hwa, where he’s spent time in the kitchen, Shaw gives us a post-graduate course in everything he knows about Korean restaurants. Unlike the dauntingly foreign Korean canteens in the West 30s that he dismisses with venom, Do Hwa coddles the neophyte and satisfies the demanding. Everyone speaks English and the products are superior.  “I watched the boxes come in from Wild Edibles,” Shaw tells us.

Wednesday is mother My-ung Ja Kwak’s turn in the kitchen.Photo: Steven Richter

        Besides, having Shaw himself, we are living the book. Owner Jenny Kwak Lee has come in on her night off just for him. (Rule 1: Get to know the staff.) He lets her order for us. (Rule 2: Find out what that restaurant does best). Wednesday is Lee’s mother’s night in the kitchen so, yes, we should have the soup.
Click here to order Asian Dining Rules now.
(Rule 3: Ask a Korean what they like.) It’s a kitchen where only women cook, the quietest he’s ever been in, reports the Road Food Warrior, returning from shooting mom, Myung Ja Kwak at her stove.  Lee was 19 when she dropped out of the Parson School of Design to open Dok Suni in the East Village. At a time when the city’s Little Korea catered strictly to Koreans, Dok Suni – Korean for "strong women" – lifted the mystery. Quentin Tarantino, a regular there, invested in the family’s move to a more sophisticated spot, all black with a collection of Korean artifacts, on Carmine Street.

        But first timers don’t really need Jenny Lee. All the staff speaks English and is poised to help. Besides, what we’re eating is basically the house’s $32 tasting for four outlined at the top of the menu.  At $36 per person, that includes a bottle of soju (distilled from rice or other starches, a little sweeter than vodka). The men are drinking beer but I’m happy with a properly tart margarita.

        Because it’s Shaw who’s asked for her suggestions, there are a few additions from the happy hour list and some extra entrées. Too much food, to be frank. But a chance to taste and decide what we’ll have next time. If we were in Korea, customarily everything would hit the table at once, but Jenny has us eating in manageable waves. Marvelous slightly crisp pancakes of seafood, scallion and chili peppers, and a second round with vegetables make a disarming prelude, though I don’t care much for the sesame glass noodles. But I do love the slightly rubbery rice cakes slipped on skewers alongside ribbons of beef rib meat, carrot and pine mushroom. The same rice cake batons are even better in a spicy chili pepper sauce with vegetables and chunks of hard-cooked egg (DukBoki).  Kalbi Jjim are braised short ribs barbed with chili-heat and a hint of ginger served with chunks of carrot.  There is also a big bowl of what Shaw describes as a Korean version of Japanese chirashi: rice and vegetables studded with chunks of raw tuna and salmon to be stirred up with chili sauce. Pan-grilled black cod has been simmered in soy and garlic to be served with a ruffle of salad.  Mom’s sea kelp soup with beef arrives in the next wave.

A crispy Korean pancake with vegetables launches the feast. Photo: Steven Richter

         Then come seven little dishes, the classic banchan (appetizer giveaways)  you’d get right away on 32nd Street, Shaw advises.  “Here they arrive later.  It’s like not being served bread the minute you sit down. More elegant.”  Tonight there is kimchi, broccoli florets, poached squid with a spicy sauce, fiery chunks of radish kimchi, stir-fried fish cakes, spicy spinach and, for each of us, a bowl of traditional home style rice with beans. And if you’ve prepped on Shaw’s text or come with a Korean chum, you know that refills on banchan or rice are always offered.

I’m won over by rice cakes threaded with spareribs, carrot and mushroom on skewers. Photo: Steven Richter

        Barbecue – wonderful rich boneless beef short rib and slivers of pork - takes center stage in the third wave. Normally Shaw would insist on cooking the meat himself, according to his treatise, to be sure the tabletop grill is really hot, that it gets a flavoring wipe with a cut onion, and that only a few slices are cooked at one time so the marinade runs off, allowing the meat to be caramelized, and no one feels rushed. But his wife is in the power seat near the grill and Ilona, our server, a graduate of Peter Kump’s professional cooking school, she informs us, is eager to handle the chore.  It’s easy enough, she says, since most of us want our beef rare.

Our server Ilona glazes the marinated pork half way through its cooking. Photo: Steven Richter 

        Now comes the moment for the ssam (object of veneration for Momofuku fans), the wrap of lettuce and leaves of perilla (milder than shiso).  Rice and condiments go into the ssam too. “A delicate, minimalist object, with just a little bit of filling,” the book instructs. “Don’t hesitate to use the wrappings and spices.  They will bring more,” Shaw adds.

         “Korean food is so full of mystery,” Shaw notes. “There’s so much there. I learned something tonight from not doing the cooking myself,” he compliments Ilona. “You spread the sauce on the pork toward the end of the cooking so it got that glaze.”  Cinnamon, ginger, a few drops of bourbon.  He sighs. “This place is not on anyone’s list.  Nobody says we’ve got to get into Do Hwa this week.  Think how much buzz Momofuku gets. This is so much better.” Indeed, dinner has been a revelation. I remember some years ago walking out of Hangawi, a much-touted vegetarian spot on East 32nd Street, and leading my faithful guinea pigs to Asia de Cuba desperate for something to satisfy our hunger. So I may not have mastered Korean overnight but I know where to find a genuine taste of Korea now.

55 Carmine Street between Bedford and Seventh Avenue South. 212 414 1224




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