December 22, 2008 | BITE: My Journal
Being Good Is Not as Bad as It Sounds
Good and good for you: Fluke tartare with spaghetti squash, Asian pear and mustard oil.
My congenitally negative mindset already disliked Rouge Tomate as soon as I got wind of the premise. Healthy? Always scary. Remember raw food? Market-driven? As if most chefs worth their weight in press releases aren’t market driven these days. Locally sourced? So what else is new? A menu that adheres to the principles of Sanitas Per Escam (SPE), “health through food,” expressed in its long winded charter, with a fulltime registered dietician? Puhleeze. Did restaurateur Emmanuel Verstraeten come all the way from Belgium hoping to sell New York a new cult? And isn’t East 60th Street just off Fifth Avenue an unlikely temple for some contempo macrobiotic sprouting? And in this financial bog. Come and go in good health, I thought.
Rouge Tomate’s Brussels sprouts leaves salad conquers my crankiness.
So I am already predisposed to dislike it even before I tried to wrench open the unyielding front door on that sprawling space where Nicole Fahri used to be. I couldn’t. It was simply too heavy. And I didn’t feel any happier when I found myself required to walk a glass bridge with no railings to reach the welcome desk. I don’t usually have issues with heights, but I suddenly worried I would fall…or jump. Then I had to tax my arthritic left knee walking downstairs because the elevator was “not in the best place.” And then the three of us – my women friends and I – had to send for our coats from the checkroom because of a draft.
I did love the paintings of trees masking the windows – a Bentel & Bentel design signature – and even the pool filled with cranberries (as local as cranberries can be). But vast expanses of blond wood and pale leather chairs are too airport-moderne for me and the light through latticed wall makes me dizzy when I turn my head too fast. Like Cary Grant in Spellbound.
What I’m leading up to is, given all those annoyances, it takes a few minutes to notice that the food is mostly good; indeed, very good. It starts with a fennel and pine nuts tidbit amuse and sensational whole grain bread kept warm in a napkin to top with a spread of cranberry bean and arugula, bread replaced again and again (while one of my friends rejects her glass of red wine, complaining, “I don’t care if it’s organic or biodynamic or sustainable, I just want a plain red wine that is drinkable”). I’m not the only one being cranky.
The chef wraps black cod in rice paper with Napa cabbage, kohlrabi and ginger.
It could be because it feels like we’re sitting forever, given the wine issue and the draft complaint and the coats being delivered downstairs, that we manage to gobble up seconds and thirds of bread. Even after the splendid Brussels sprouts salad arrives – leaves tossed with Berkshire prosciutto, balsamic and hazelnut – a certain discontent lingers. That sliver of silken ham is reassuring, as if to say, we may be finicky healthniks here but we’re not fanatic. Nothing about the poached egg atop a crusty potato cake with mushrooms, fines herbes and sherry vinegar screams “healthy.” It is merely delicious. Perhaps there’s something a bit restrained about the Jerusalem artichoke and cranberry bean soup with a few mussels, pepper cress and crispy garlic, but it has more to do with whether or not you really like the flavor of that “artichoke.” A starter of squab and faro salad with apple, endive, pomegranate and pumpkin seed vinaigrette makes a fine entrée. The guinea hen is impressively moist and I like the Long Island Pekin duck with quince, dates, fregola and a hint of that Moroccan spice mix, raz al hanout. There are vegetables, sprouts or micro greens everywhere.
Farm-raised rabbit with chestnut puree, apple and celery root and tarragon.
The only thing that strikes me as unhealthy, given the tight purses of the time, are the prices, appetizers $12 to $19 and $24 for Nantucket scallop tartare with a plop of American caviar, and entrées $21 to $34. This is only hours after I’d been prematurely retired by New York magazine and my friends are picking up the check. But when the bill comes in at $80 per person (three glasses of wine, one dessert), no one objects to me paying my third.
I doubt any of us will be back, but looking at the crowd – very East Side, with a certain Ralph Lauren look, and a vibrant young woman exiting behind her pregnant stomach, I can definitely see a following for this certified healthy shtick. I was about to post my lukewarm response with a positive advisory for certified wellness-seekers on this site when I got a call from a friend – arguably more into disciplined eating than I – touting a fabulous new discovery: Rouge Tomate. “You love it?” I ask, confused. “You like that room?”
Okay, take two. We agree to meet for lunch. After all, I decide, the eating life is not just about delicious excess. An obsession with excess demands interludes of discipline if one hopes to survive.
Caramelized banana Napoleon with roasted banana sorbet and hot cocoa.
I still can’t open the door. A manager hustles over to help. And I still step gingerly on the glass walkway. We are seated in a booth overlooking the café, opposite a klatch of Upper East Side matrons who show no signs of needing to economize – what would be a sign? Run down heels on those Jimmy Choos? Last year’s Gucci bag? Paying in cash because Daddy confiscated the plastic? There are three different parties lunching below, our waiter reports. And three more holiday celebrations between five and dinner. I guess the lava of despair has yet to lick everyone in this zip code. Unlike American Express, laying off 7,000 and then canceling not just this year’s Christmas party but next year’s too.
Our waiter used to work for my lunch date and probably he recognizes me because not long after the unforgettable bread with a dip of caramelized onion, shallot and crispy kale, the chef sends out oysters on the half shell with pomegranate mignonette and crispy ginger and a portion of fluke tartare laced with spaghetti squash, Asian pear, mustard oil and seaweed plus a VIPdollop of American caviar. Sounds bizarre but it’s wonderful. From a trio of daily specials, both lobster gumbo with rock shrimp, and American black bass salad with arugula, fennel and marmalade of apple and grapefruit sing with flavor and crunch. Only the warm duck flatbread is lame – six ingredients in search of purpose on a cracker. I’m always on a Nantucket bay scallop kick when these sweet little nuggets are in season although they can be priced like jewels. Tossed with florets of heirloom cauliflower and foraged mushrooms on cauliflower purée with a slightly salty sherry sauce, they’re $28 at lunch.
It took Chef Jeremy Bearman a while to get comfortable without butter and cream.
Ever hear of cauliflower mushrooms? That’s what they are, the chef tells me afterwards by phone. Chef Jeremy Bearman, a veteran of Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas and Daniel’s DB Bistro Moderne, admits he wasn’t sure he was the chef for this Belgian guy determined to produce food without butter and cream “in a serene environment,” as the press release puts it. They met. There were tastings. He and the pastry chef worked with the nutritionist to be sure each dish fit the SPE’s 85 page charter where “thoughtful, well-executed cuisine is married to authentic nutrition.”
“At first it was difficult building a dish. Not using butter. Not using cream. Not using a fryer. We might use a little oil to fry some ginger. But the oil cannot get too hot or be used more than twice.” Fat-free buttermilk and yogurt take the place of cream. “If I put prosciutto on the plate, I wouldn’t put parmesan. I wouldn’t do duck and sheep’s milk ricotta. There has to be a certain amount of vegetables and fruits in every dish. A certain limit to calories. A limited amount of refined sugars, maple syrup and honey…” That ban on sugar is what makes the poached fruit and its stone-ground oat crumble taste prim and anemic to me. The only moment of real deprivation.
Strange as it may seem to mac 'n' cheese hounds like me, there is a whole foodie following out there. “We have a lot of regular customers already,” Bearman reports. “They feel the flavors are clean. They can see the quality of ingredients. I eat this food most of the time myself since I’m almost always here… The restaurant itself is certified green.” And I guess for the good of the country, we should all be getting greener too.
10 East 60th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. 646 237 8977
This endive salad with roaring forties bleu is big enough to share. Photo: Steven Richter.
It took me a long time to catch up with Casellula, a crowded, noisy little cheese and wine bar near the theater district that opened in May last year. But our good friends, Bob and Susan, have claimed it as a favorite hangout and can get someone to hold a table for them in the aggressive first-come free-for-all. Wedged into a tight little corner, the Road Food Warrior and I love almost everything we taste – most memorably the sensational mac and cheese, a luscious melt of Fol Epi, Comté and goat with bacon lardons and caramelized onion. But I’d be back just for the grilled cheese sandwich with green tomato. As at most wine bars, you can spend a little or a lot here but it would be friendlier if there were a few more wines under $45. We ease into the cheesy theme with honeyed ricotta and hazelnut crostini – four on a plate, and a tiny saucer of buffalo-mozzarella-stuffed peppadew peppers rolled in speck.
Ricotta crostini and mozzerella-stuffed peppers are a good warmup. Photo: Steven Richter.
Happily my friend Susan also orders the endive and roaring forties blue cheese salad so I only have to share my fabulous tall stack of leaves with savory blue cheese, Macademias and slivers of pear, with Steven.
The truth is Casellula with its funkily charming cheese cupboard and passionate fromager Tia Keenan dispensing the cuts – satiny, stinky, tangy – is the yang to Rouge Tomate’s yin. Everything is stuffed, blanketed or polka-dotted with cheese, milk, cream or eggnog. As much as I shrink from too-passionate denial, I’m not sure how often mortal arteries of a certain age can wallow in this cholesterol paradise.
Casellula’s is a grilled cheese sandwich gone to heaven. Photo: Steven Richter.
Needless to say the “pig’s ass” sandwich – pulled pork by any other name – comes with 5 Spoke Tumbleweed cheese and Fol Epi as well as pickles and chipotle aioli. I would like the short rib sandwich without the calcagno cheese tinged beef jus poured on top – horseradish aoli with roasted tomato and onion would do it for me. I also think spilling Meadowbrook farm cream all over the chocolate cake spoils it – a big dab of crème fraîche is more to my taste. And brown sugar short bread cookies to dip into eggnog are equally unappealing.
Fromager Tia Keenan helps you choose from her couturier cheese collection. Photo: Steven Richter.
Possibly once you’ve committed yourself to slow death by sublime curdery, you might just bypass desserts and stick with Tia Keenan’s cheese plate, five good size chunks for $30. Choose your own or let her choose, each cheese has a tagalong: a jam, a honey, pesto, pickled ramps or a caramelized onion. Keenan, a small woman looking fragile in a oversized uniform stops to greet her beau, the chef sommelier from JeanGeorges, but she interrupts their whispers to organize our cheese constellation, one fresh, one bloomy, one cooked and pressed, one washed and one blue. Having dipped too many pecan shortbread cookies into the eggnog trying to figure out why I’m not moved, I can’t imagine even tasting cheese now. But you know… if one is a professional, one rallies. I sometimes think if I only have one artery left let me give it to cheese. The hazelnut truffle seemed like a sublime dénouement to a life-enhancing adventure but I’m afraid goat cheese truffles are too goaty for me.
401 West 52nd Street between Ninth and Tenth. 212 247 8137