March 2, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Angels Dancing on the Tip of My Tongue

 

Anthos chef Michael Psilakis cooks with fire and exuberance. Photo: Steven Richter

Anthos chef Michael Psilakis cooks with fire and exuberance. Photo: Steven Richter

        Every year about this time New York  asks its kaboodle of culinary critics to name the best restaurant that opened since the previous “Best of New York” issue.  Last year it was a snap. No brooding or back-and-forth wavering.  Both Adam Platt and I picked Sfoglia and that was that.  The small storefront kitty-cornered from the 92nd Street Y with its whimsical Miss Haversham décor was already sardining folks in and frustrating to book.  It soon became impossible. If I’m lucky, I get somebody’s cancellation every once in a while when I crave Colleen’s incomparable just-out-of-the-oven bread, the house’s splendid vegetables in clever guises, the luscious monkfish, the too-rich and buttery bread pudding.  They even let us come one evening at 10 just for dessert.

        And I take any flub personally – feeling that in my passion for Sfolgia, I have as much to lose as its owners do.  Nothing makes a New York gourmand crankier than a stumble or two at a table they waited six weeks to claim. If I am shocked and depressed by a flavorless pasta or normally adorable gnocchi afloat in an ugly excess of butter, what must the reservation-bruised first timer think?   Proof alas, that even a “Best” can have a bad moment.

Charcuterie fans will try every fatty favorite at Bar Boulud. Photo: Steven Richter
Charcuterie fans will try every fatty favorite at Bar Boulud. Photo: Steven Richter

    Anyway, it was time to choose again. I tortured myself for a week trying to decide. Bar Boulud was my first thought. I was excited by the deliciously retro notion that Boulud would bring a whole world of charcuterie to New York months ago, the first time I tasted a sample at a cocktail party catered by Boulud’s Feasts et Fêtes…and again, at a dazzling buffet he staged in the unfinished space across from Lincoln Center months before opening, when I filled my plate twice and still hadn’t tasted everything. My first dinner in the just-launched space was a tad uneven, but a lemony seafood pasta was sensational and I loved the charcuterie tasting. What if you don’t eat charcuterie? Idiot, don’t go to Bar Boulud.  It’s not that large and we covet your seat.  Yes, it could be Bar Boulud.

 

Roberto Passon favors flavors of the Veneto at Bocca di Bacco. Photo: Steven Richter
Roberto Passon favors flavors of the Veneto at Bocca di Bacco. Photo: Steven Richter

        My second thought was Bocca di Bacco, the dark and rustic wine bar on Ninth Avenue. Everything works together here to pull me back again and again. (Except perhaps the excellent bread being cut too far ahead and having to remember to bring cash, though the handy house ATM does not charge a fee.) The pleasure builds: The lively welcome at the door. The waitress that remembers you from a week ago. The cozy feel of piled stone and bare brick, massive wooden tables, rolled dish towels for napkins. Nora Jones crooning. The accessible list of wines. The mostly wonderful cooking of partner Roberto Passon.  His creamy fava bean soup has a surprise float of mascarpone.  Lush penne gorgonzola needs to be shared. The pici with string beans, artichoke and asparagus is a rare find. Yes, the gnocchi were overwhelmed by a too intense oxtail sauce. And on my last outing, someone had dared to spoil the splendid octopus by overcooking. This will be the place I go to again and again from now on, affordable and just beyond my zip code. Is this the “Best?”

  
        I consider yet another wine bar. If only my dinner at Adour had been decisively thrilling. It would have made me smile to give the Big Apple-battered Alain Ducasse a dose of self-esteem.  But the thrill of the sophisticated complexity and richness of the room, and the desserts to swoon for did not make up for a certain primness in the dishes we tasted on our only visit.  I felt most of what we ate was a product of thought, rather than exuberance or passion.

 

        I wrote a list on the back page of the little notebook I hide under my napkin in restaurants I’m reviewing:

Bar Boulud

Bocca di Bacco

Chinatown Brasserie

Dovetail

Fiore

Shelly’s Tradizionale

        And Anthos. I scribbled that in at the top in alphabetical order.  I’d almost forgotten Anthos. And I brooded and obsessed.  I  put the list away.  I brought it out again.  I shared it with the Road Food Warrior.

        “Are you serious about Fiore?” he asked.  “After one visit?”

        “Well it’s cheap and good with tonier service than you expect in Brooklyn and not that far if you know the way…and okay…”  I crossed it off. Fiore is worth a detour but not the best restaurant of the year.

Skillet cooked pasta at Shelly's Tradizionale. Photo: Steven Richter
Skillet cooked pasta at Shelly's Tradizionale. Photo: Steven Richter

    “It would be fun if you chose Shelly’s,” Steven observed. We both like Shelly and are serious fans of Fiorello and Brooklyn Diner.  And I was surprised by the delicious and original seafood dishes he and his team had brought home to Shelly’s Tradizionale from Liguria and the seashore of Tuscany, a few dishes we’d actually tasted together when we first met Shelly and Marilyn Fireman during a summer in Pietrasanta. The lobster Catalana, pastas cooked in a sauté pan, the seafood risotto, whole fish cooked “rarish” as requested, with roast potatoes.

        But the mercurial restaurant mogul had already changed the concept and look of what used to be Shelly’s New York half a dozen times. It was a chop house and an oyster bar. It was a steak house. It was an Italian steak house. Now it was a “Ristorante di Pesci,” as it says on the awning.  But awnings can be reordered.  And there’s still a cranky old man, who never smiles when Shelly’s not around, receiving guests at the front door.  Shelly himself has promised with a diabolical smile that he’s not finished tweaking. “I think it’s still a work in progress,” I said.  It could turn out to be the best restaurant of 2008 or 2009.

        I thought about Chef-owner John Fraser’s wonderful food that we’d eaten in two meals at Dovetail, its enticing Sunday night discount special, and the seeming miracle of properly-coached servers but decided the determined drabness of the room was too depressing to be my best.
 

Joe Ng shows off with a dim sum platter for our table. Photo: Steven Richter
Joe Ng shows off with a dim sum platter for our table. Photo: Steven Richter

        Why not Chinatown Brasserie?  I send everyone there for the best dim sum in town. Parts of the applied Chinoserie make me happy.  It’s the lanterns I don’t love.  And the screen that doesn’t quite cut off the swinging doors into the kitchen. I suppose it was inevitable the perfect frozen mai-tai would get too sweet.  Perhaps nothing will ever equal the virtuoso performance of Chef Joe Ng when I first discovered his dim sum mastery in Brooklyn, where lines of Chinese from every borough stretched around the block on weekends. Blissfully, we endured the crowds, the florescent glare and a long drive from home.  So maybe Manhattan and the reality of a mostly white ghost crowd doesn’t permit a constant rotation of his more than 1000 dim sum repertoire. But at the moment Ng offers almost 40 every day at lunch and nearly that at dinner, so elegant and brilliant they spoil you for most any other dim sum. The prices seem more sensible now too.  And the kitchen has been getting stronger each time I visit.   Well, is my best really Chinatown Brasserie? Or is this also a work in progress?

        No. It has to be Anthos. I love the much-maligned décor, the dark carpet, the charming repeat of the cherry blossom theme that inspired the name, the huge explosion of flowers, the chatty maitresse d’hotel making up for the seeming indifference of the usually absent partner Donatella Arpaia.  Once you put yourself in the hands of Chef-patron Michael Psilakis and his impassioned celebration of Greek cooking, I never felt anything else mattered. The generous mezze tasting, a gift of the kitchen.  The goat butter beside the usual manna of cow.  An anthology of crudas.  The transcendent sardines en escabeche with its sooty black olive swath, the sea urchin drenched Tasmanian crab alongside a bowl of shrimp in a dizzyingly intense tomato consommé (on the same plate)…the rapture of that first meal.  The goat burger on the $25 lunch. 

    Yes, Psilakis characteristically goes a step too far, an ingredient or two too many that might not spoil a dish but adds a bit of clutter. Sweetbreads with white chocolate and candied pear salad sounds like an inspiration that came on a sleepless night. But at my last dinner, the chef sent out an unexpected intermezzo, a big bowl of Greek risotto studded with crab, sea urchin, lobster and caviar. The server piled it on an uncooked egg yolk. The total was so sense-searingly sublime, I don’t recall exactly what happened afterward. Our guest cancelled her entrée. For me something weird followed, I barely recall, but it didn’t matter. Not for a minute.  That’s why it's Anthos.

Unforgettable risotto at Anthos. Photo: Steven Richter
Unforgettable risotto at Anthos. Photo: Steven Richter

     This is what I wrote:

    "Anthos means blossom, but it ought to mean anthem, embracing as it does the fierce passion of chef-partner Michael Psilakis for the Greek kitchen: his bravura of crudo, raw shrimp “cooked” in a thrilling tomato elixir, crab finding its soul mate in sea urchin. Yes, such manic creativity can boil over, and it sometimes does. But then a transcendent uni-touched seafood risotto appears, and excesses are forgiven."

    Read the critics' choices as they appear in New York.

***

In Search of the Best Black and White Cookie

        An Insatiable Critic reader wants to know where to find the best Black and White cookie. This cookie is actually more of a cake frosted with half moons of white and chocolate icing, “like someone has sat on a cupcake,” according to the New York First Company.  This is not one of my myriad of food obsessions – perhaps it’s a New York thing I’m immune to because I grew up in Detroit. 

    Of course the whole country now knows the Black and White cookie because it was explained on Seinfeld. “Look Elaine, the Black and White cookie. Two races of flavor living side by side. It's a wonderful thing isn't it? The thing about eating the Black and White cookie is you want to get some black and some white in each bite. Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved.” 

    Surely we would do anything to keep the black and white union alive.

    I went to the experts.

    Arthur Schwartz – whose fabulous New York City Food is the last word on where it all began but ignores the Black and White remembers them at Good Enough to Eat (483 Amsterdam between 83rd and 84th Streets).  Our researcher called and spoke to a clerk who said the B&W is not an everyday cookie, but an occasional special. “We only make them as the mood strikes,” she was told. Our own Insatiable Reporter Sylvie Bigar nominates the Black and Whites at Orwasher’s Bakery (308 East 78th between lst and 2nd Avenues).

    Robin Raisfeld, my co-conspirator at New York reports that she and her partner Rob Patronite used to love Jon Vie’s but since that shop closed, they haven’t investigated the remaining crop. She cites as surviving sources, Glaser’s (1670 First Ave. between 87th and 88th) and the award winning Black and Whites at William Greenberg (1100 Madison Ave. between 82nd and 83rd). 

    Eddie Schoenfeld, confessing that Black and White cookies have never been his personal passion cites The Cake Chef on Staten Island, E.A.T. (1064 Madison between 80th and 81st) – not as expensive as a black and white convertible but –  Columbia students swear by Nusbaum and Wu Bakery  (2897 Broadway near 113th St.).  Costco sells them as minis in a bucket.  Schoenfeld confesses he recently had a Costco cookie so good he didn’t buy it for fear he’d finish the package on the way home. That’s an impressive recommendation.

***

Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene





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