October 25, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Seeing Red at Bar Basque (CLOSED)

Our captain delivers paella, seafood impeccable, enough soccarat for all. Photo: Steven Richter.       

        Give Jeffrey Chodorow credit already, please. The guy is the matador of restaurateurs. You could ask, what has he done since China Grill and Asia de Cuba? Or, you could ask, what hasn’t he done? He is fearless and undaunted by the public’s discontent with Mix, whiney objections to 1000 swords hanging from the ceiling at Kobe Club, dancing fish at Wild Salmon and a run of bad karma. Who could have predicted Rocco Di Spirito would dissolve like an over-soft meatball, on television no less? The Chowd is back again at the Eventi Hotel with a bacon bacchanal, pasta on a flatbread, and egg rolls at FoodParc, whipped up by Eddie Schoenfeld at street level, and Bar Basque, a celebration of the Spanish revolution, put together by Terry Zarikian on the second floor.

        Bar Basque has serious ambition with a hot young vibe. It’s as high-stepping in attention to detail as Daniel and Jean Georges, but for the Momofuku crowd. Spanish star chefs will be rotating through as guest toques. The night we came by, Daniel Garcia of Restaurant Zortziko in Bilbao was in residence, offering a six-course tasting menu with squab five-ways and roasted apple ice cream with liquid cheese for $89. But we stuck to the house menu, curious to see what resident chef Yuhi Fujinaga could do. And mostly we were wowed, starting with the amuse of truffled sheep’s milk in a pastry cone, pintxos of mushroom croquetas and slow baked piquillo peppers. Some are hot and some are not and the challenge is - there is no way to know.

Not just stunning but delicious too, mackerel with a salad corsage. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Stylish cuts of mackerel in escabèche took us all by surprise, its market salad with a vinaigrette made from the crisp Basque white wine and olive oil of Txakoli, almost as thrilling in its elegance as the fish. Calamari two ways - fried and a la plancha - to drag through rivulets of squid ink and garlic aioli, had its own little salad too.

The Chowd butters us up with a first-rate charcuterie gift from the house. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Quite frankly we couldn’t get enough of the oxtail “ravioli,” small squares of crisp bread enclosing the meat set in a small puddle of red wine reduction with an herb salad as spicy as Jennifer Lopez. There were just two and we were four – it proved tricky to divide each cube in half neatly. Not that anyone had suggested we share. It’s just our way of eating. The battered fried egg on olive oil crushed potatoes with peppers and Serrano ham in a cheese broth was easily divided. Besides, we’d already devoured the kitchen’s offered charcuterie, savory rounds of chorizo, lomo (pork loin) and salchichon (a mild sausage), as well as acorn-fed Fermin Iberian free-range, dry-cured ham, a perfection of texture and savor, so discreetly salted. I tried to remember a French or Italian ham I liked better.

         The Chodorow/Zarikian vision here is as ambitious as the food. Big squares and small ovals of elegant white bone china from Fortessa on the bare marble tabletop, ample starched white napkins, a knockoff of the French Laguiole knife – “Fortessa too” - our well-prepped captain responds to our query. “It had to be red and red was only available in acrylic,” she apologizes. And we are definitely not seated on backless cubes of wood in the let-them-eat-cake –and-get-out-of-here arrogance of David Chang’s design schemes.

Yes, the room with the help-yourself-wine tasting machine is very, very red. I like it.The photographer does not.  Photo: Steven Richter.

        I must say I’m not exactly thrilled eating with the baseball game over my shoulder on the Jumbotron hanging outside over the courtyard below. I chose the seat with my back to the screen – the men at the table don’t even try to hide their sideways glances. But we are seated on the glass-wrapped terrace with its retractable roof and there’s no escaping the Technicolor blur I see reflected in the glass I’m facing. The terrace was originally meant to be the lounge. But halfway to reality, maybe after a blog described the design by Blade Runner’s Syd Mead as wacky, “like a big red spaceship cafeteria,” the lounge got moved inside with the bar, the wall of whiskey, and the machine that dispenses wine by the glass. Yes, it is very, very red. I find it sexy, glamorous, James Bondian. And I like the blue tech code in the borders at the elevator.

Chef Yuhi Fujinaga, French and Spanish trained, worked at Eightyone.Photo: Steven Richter.

        It’s good that we only ordered three entrées – especialidades – because our host sends out a whole delicately grilled sea bass with fennel, artichokes and crisped ham, as a fourth. The suckling pig is a disappointment. Under a cloak of perfectly crisped skin, the big square of meat is dry and stringy, though I love the clever risotto alongside, a rubble of potato dice and mushroom. Better choices are glazed veal cheeks on rich potato purée lapped with red wine sauce, and the paella served in its baking pan – the seafood miraculously not overcooked and rice waiting to be scraped from the bottom – the obligatory soccarat. Still if I had my way I’d lock up the truffle oil.

A whole fried egg with potatoes, peppers and ham in cheese broth. Photo: Steven Richter.

        For research sake, we decide to order one dessert (all reasonably priced at $8). Of course it will be “Bacon from Heaven.” It is very yellow, a rectangle of custard made from caramel and a thousand egg yolks. “But do you taste bacon?” I don’t. It is certainly as rich as foie gras and luscious, but we’ve been robbed.

         “There is no actual bacon in it,” our captain agrees. “That’s just the name.”

         “But it’s false advertising,” I cry. “It says ‘bacon’. You have to rewrite the menu.”

         I must warn you. The menu is not being revised. “Bacon from Heaven” is what they call it in Spain. A metaphor. Here’s a price alert too. Cocktails are $11 to $15. Entrées: $28 to $39.

Sweet prawns, calamari, baby mussels, tomato-garlic sofrito and aioli: Photo: Steven Richter.

        Except for a few pig issues, possibly balanced by the marvelous charcuterie and jamon, I loved this meal. True, this was just one visit. It could be that we ordered what we knew we would like. A friend who had dinner one table away the same evening was not impressed. Of course he is French and the French are not known to be open-minded. I’d love to taste more – I would love to indulge in a visiting Basque chef’s tasting menu (they will rotate every other month).

Most nights you’ll find Jeffrey and Linda Chodorow at the bar. Check out the game on the Jumbotron across from the terrace. Photo: Steven Richter.

        But if I’m not racing back it’s because entrées at $28 to $39 are not my everyday dinner prices. Meanwhile I send a hug to the tough-skinned Chowd for his eternal optimism, and, at Bar Basque, serious ambition. He’ll probably need a few cheers. The critics have had him on a choke-leash since he took out a full page ad in the Times attacking the reviewers and defending his Kobe Club. He wouldn’t need to be paranoid to think the food press has something against him. And Zack, the son, is also rising. Will he be tarred by the same brush?

        Eventi Hotel 839 Sixth Avenue between 29th and 30th Streets. 646 600 7150. Breakfast daily and breakfast buffet 7 to 11am. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6pm to 11pm; Friday and Saturday 6 pm to midnight. Bar open Sunday to Thursday. 4 pm to midnight. Friday and Saturday 4 pm to 1 am.

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