October 6, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

The Whole Enchilada: Le Restaurant

Sea urchin mousse with jelled dashi, sea lettuce and yuzu with honey pearls in uni sauce.
Sea urchin mousse with jelled dashi, sea lettuce and yuzu with honey pearls in uni sauce.

          I’m shocked to see All Good Things, the intimate upscale market cum café in a sweeping old industrial space, looks a lot more like Wobegone, Wisconsin tonight than Michelin-kissed-in Tribeca.  I must say I’m surprised. Le Restaurant in the cellar had just won that Michelin star two days earlier. I guess I’d expected to encounter a bristling avant-garde  of our town’s fickle foodist hordes swarming for tables.

The upstairs bar and café tables draw locals to All Good Things every night.

          Launched in September last year by interior designer Kyle Wittels with chef Ryan Tate, a veteran of Savoy, the ambitious mini market opened with high hopes and a collection of artisanal vendors. Then, one by one, Orwasher’s and Blue Bottle and Nunu Chocolates disappeared when customer traffic proved scanter than anticipated. 

Owner Kyle Wittels saw that Tribeca lacked a gourmet specialty food market.

          By then, the menu served at café tables and at the bar had inspired a three day-a-week $100 chef’s tasting prix fixe in Le Restaurant below. My former Personal Assistant, the passionate foodie mouth behind Knives! Camera! Action! “Lifestyles of the Fabulous and Foodist” had eaten here and loved it.  We often agree, although she’s more open to audacity and experiment than I.

It’s relaxed at a two-top with a peek into the kitchen action as the tasting unfurls.

          So I agreed to join her for the tasting Thursday night, just the two of us. I sipped about a third of a first-rate Negroni at the upstairs bar before we took an elevator (rather than the starkly handsome steel stairs) to Le Restaurant. I didn’t make any snide remarks about that name -- the laziness, the jokiness, or was it a certain cheesy indifference.

Agreed, theyre small but perfect, these sour cream-caviar potato chip sandwiches.

          I was not wrapped in a Velcro cloak of Okay-Show-Me, as I might have been at Momofuku-Ko and Brooklyn Fare. Six “no choice, no substitution” courses at $100 in this no frills room, the two of us at a casual four-top wrapped in butcher paper with a partial view of the kitchen, did not have a frisson of the reform school discipline (“no photos please”) that I felt till things warmed up at Blanca.  Come to think of it, six courses and a few amuses for $100 is actually rather pricey. (Wine pairings, $70). Plus plus plus, if you count drinks and tip, but it’s not $300 or $500. That’s disarming too.

Bacon and apple Madeleines are an amusing conceit, if only they were a bit more moist.

          I’m sad to see only one other table occupied, a noisy five from a food club on a Thursday, the city’s big night out. For the two of us, facing the gleaming white tile and stainless steel of a partial kitchen view, rather than the handsome bare brick and the vast windows looking out to the garden of the near-empty room, is action enough. My hearing is dulled by too much disco dancing in the 70s, so I could barely hear the 80s music.  It’s for the staff, Chef Tate confides, and the sound varies according to who chooses.

          Still relishing that long Negroni, I stop to pop a very tiny first amuse into my mouth – sour cream and a dab of American caviar between two small potato chips. A tiny dab.  Yet, what’s not to love? 

Is it fuddy duddy of me to expect the egg shell to come propped in a dish of some kind?

          Casual, relaxed, that’s all to the good in my book.  Even so, I must say I can't quite believe my eyes when the waiter, delivering corn custard in an egg shell with sorghum, popcorn and huitlacoche pearls, sets the naked shell right on the naked butcher paper on our otherwise naked table.  How laid-back can you get? Well okay. It’s luscious too, better than the bacon and apple madeleines, touché Escoffier, smaller and not as moist as Daniel’s, if I can pick a nit.

I’m totally won over by just sliced bread warm from the oven  and house-cured butter.

          The bread that comes next, four large slices on a board with marvelous house-cured butter, sweeps all doubts away. The glorious olive rye miche, is still warm from the oven, sliced by the waiter and brought to the table seconds later. I almost never use butter, but I can’t stop spreading this fragrant stuff, speckled with shards of Maldon salt, on all of one large slice and part of another.

          Next the chef’s homage to sea urchin grabs my attention. There are tender discs of dashi gelée on uni mousse wreathed with sea lettuce in a dressing of yuzu honey pearls. More sea urchin in the sauce.  Did Chef Tate know I was coming? He seems to be playing my favorite themes.

Crisped salumi and peppers escalates the sweetness of barely-cooked mackerel.

          There is a reasonable intermission after the near-ecstatic uni confrontation, and then  Campari-infused tomato arrives, with grapefruit segments in two hues, a feta-stuffed grape tomato rolled in dehydrated tomato powder mixed with fennel pollen, and the crunch of pequeño cucumbers.  Does it seem like a lot of effort for one modest course, even an encyclopedia of contemporary food trends on a single plate? Relax. It’s delicious.

          I laugh when the waiter intones,  “barely cooked mackerel” with a flippant “red peppers and deli meats.” We ask him to identify the deli: Sopressata, finocchio sausage and Mangalitsa ham. These crisp fried flutters act as salty counterpoint to the ethereal fish.  Delivered at a sublime moment of just-barely-gelled. Exquisitely cooked foie gras follows with “ summer fruits” – slices of raw peach and pear -- and a sheer sliver of housemade raisin nut bread. You can dab at the pistachio powder on the plate with your finger, but you don’t have to.

Bright green romanesco cauliflower adds a smart bitter note to wild striped bass.

          I’d read some early blogs that suggested the chef’s whims could be annoyingly esoteric. Monkfish tripe? “It’s pretty popular,” he had told one critic. One dinner featured roasted radishes with fried chicken skin and tapioca followed by yucca coated with squid ink and oysters in savoy cabbage with something called celtuce from the thistle family and creamed coffee. From tonight’s populist leanings, I figure Tate has caved a bit.

Perfectly fine veal loin with fabulous fried salsify and soy beans sits in squid ink sauce.

          “Striper,” announces the waiter, growing more languorous and familiar as the evening stretches. For me, the wild striped bass is a tad too cooked, but the romanesco cauliflower makes a pleasingly bitter accent and looks dapper indeed on swirls of black olive sauce.

          The veal strip loin with soy beans, chanterelles and squid ink, is the only serious disappointment, despite its winning stick of deep-fried salsify. Veal in the end remains pretty much non-committal.

As instructed, we roll cheese chunks inside a sorrel leaf, then dip it into huckleberry jam.

          As a stand-in for salad, a sprawling leaf of raw sorrel bearing clots of ricotta and goat cheese looked a bit clutzy. Then the server suggests rolling it up and dipping it into marvelous huckleberry jam. At that point, it is brilliant. 

Flower petals flutter over raw pear and peach slices with almond cake.

          Almond cake with parsnip ice cream, espresso dust and tendrils of calendula followed.  My companion loves the parsnip ice cream and I do not. But that’s a small predictable hiccup – possibly generational.  Melting chocolate, a dark and serious 72 percent cocoa bar from Valrhona, chases the root veggie taste.

Ryan Tate was nonchalant about his Michelin star till he joined the great chefs on stage.

          The chef comes out. I congratulate him on the Michelin star. He hadn’t thought too much about it, he says, until the awards ceremony when he realized he was standing on the stage with Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud. “That’s when it hit me.”

          I didn’t say I’d loved the evening. I try not to say much. And I didn’t voice my hopes that  the Michelin star has landed soon enough to keep All Good Things going.

Seriously bitter chocolate is a classic finale, as the waiter brings a hand-written menu and the check.

          At some point before dessert, a late foursome has arrived.  “Now you have the whole enchilada,” says our waiter, delivering a hand-written list of what we’ve eaten on bright pink construction paper. We pay our check, $247 with tip. It is only as we walk up the steel steps that I smell the smoke from the wood-burning oven. And it isn’t till next morning that I notice we’ve not been charged for our three glasses of wine.

102 Franklin Street between Church Street and West Broadway. 212 966 3663. Thursday through Saturday 6 pm till 1 am. Check in with the bartender upstairs. All Good Things Market, Coffee Shop  Monday through Sunday 7 am till 9 pm.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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