June 17, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Blanca: Counter Indicated



Fiery Calabrian sausage is stuffed inside agnolotti. Then a blizzard of summer truffle.  


          Eating Osetra caviar on parsnip cream from a crystal saucer with a small mother-of-pearl spoon at the rarified Blanca. Classy opening but strangely sweet. Cardoon with pickled strawberry kumquat and lovage. Original, yes. But you haven’t got me yet, my friends.  


          I was in a major sulk all day. Who eats dinner at 6 pm?  I don’t care if it is Blanca, the supposedly brilliant $180 counter experience at Roberta’s in Bushwick. What is this 6 pm seating? Have we been bad? I haven’t eaten at six since I was in a high chair. That means leaving my house in a hired car at 4:45 and if we’re lucky -- if it’s not raining, if Obama is not raising money somewhere below 42nd Street -- maybe we’ll be on time. 



In the crystal saucer: Osetra caviar on parsnip cream to eat with a mother-of-pearl spoon. 


          Granted, the four of us were eager to crash Blanca and our pal Brandon said he would get the rez. Six weeks later Brandon reports that it didn’t matter that he sort of knew someone. He still had to call repeatedly, a month ahead, and be abused over the phone. It better be good. He’s still smarting. 



A crackling armor, exquisitely fried, for a miniature soft shell crab.


          I crunch into the luscious armor of the lilliputian soft shell crab. That’s more like it. Simple as can be. Perfectly fried. Forgive me the photo is blurred.  I am shooting fast, without a flash. Apparently, no smart phones or cameras allowed. So far, no one seems to notice. Sweetbreads with alder pine. Alder pine. Good for a waterfront cabin. Pretty cheeky for Bushwick. No competition for a sweetbread at Jean-Georges. 



Roberta’s has become a complex compound since my first visit to the scrappy shack.  


          I went to Roberta’s once.  That was long before most New Yorkers found reason to seek out Bushwick. It was a scrappy-looking place with great pizza. I can still remember the sweet, oozing fat of the lamb ribs. I wanted to go back, but it got so hot so fast I gave up. Now the chef, Carlo Mirarchi, devotes himself to Blanca, this fast-paced, demanding side show out back, working alongside three cooks. Pastry chef Katy Peetz is the tattooed lady in the bandana.


          Wilford and I arrive early. I’m amazed to see that Roberta’s has grown into a small village. Inside, the greeter assigns a woman to walk us to the tented bar out back where we can wait until our foursome is assembled. I start to protest that it’s warm and I’ll wait where there’s air conditioning. But I tell myself to stop being a pill and shift into a positive mood. I want to be open to ecstasy.



This is the view of the giant tuna head from my swiveling tufted stool at the counter. 


          Now another camp counselor in shorts leads us through the garden to a big, whitewashed shack. Wilford can bring his Tom Collins along. How relaxed, I think. Not like Brooklyn Fare. There is a smiling welcome from a woman standing behind an old-fashioned turntable with piles of LP records. That’s the tattooed sommelier. Twelve cushy upholstered seats on tall stools swivel at a counter that frames the big, kitchen-theater-stadium. We are led to a corner, under a giant fish head. I notice a hunk of marbled meat sitting on the countertop a few feet away. It could be plastic, but I think it’s real. What is the point? Another hour of aging at room temperature, maybe. 


  The sommelier is polished and intimate, especially gracious after the toppled white wine glass. 


          A server brings Dutch cider. I take a sip. I don’t expect dinner…I expect a thousand tiny tastes. Twenty surely, or maybe 25. Between snatching photos and scrawling notes, I forget to count. Dinner at Brooklyn Fare was like a sentence to solitary confinement. This is friendlier. The cooks acknowledge our presence. I see smiles. Not the stern silence of the cooks at Momofuko Ko. The two men in our group have brought special wines, not minding the $40 per bottle corkage fee. We’re drinking a fine Riesling.



A quartet of assertive crudo: needlefish, sardine, bonito, cobia. 


          Surprise. This plate looks like food. Four curls of fish. Bonito. Sardine. Cobia. I start with the needlefish because I like its fresh, firm texture, but I wish these cuts were not quite so warm.  I think that’s shaved celery root on the oysters, and more caviar. There is just-made tofu. Then sea perch -- actually a beautiful plate with asparagus snippets and leafy greens. My camera shudders. Was that the moment when a voice cried out: “No cameras please?”  Somewhere in the parade comes a heads-on shrimp with smoked paprika aioli.  



I think that’s shaved celery root and more caviar on the oyster. 


          Thick noodles (the hand-rolled pici of Tuscany) with porcini mushroom are smartly al dente but ridiculously few. Are the razor clam what make the dish wildly salty?  I hear excited outcries all around me at the first bite of agnolotti stuffed with nduja, the soft and fiery pork sausage of Calabria, buried in a fuzz of grated parmesan and summer truffle. The house seems to have accepted that my swift camera shots are not disturbing.



Two coils of pici pasta with marvelous porcini are almost a tease.


          Buttermilk gets poured on salt-roasted blue and sweet potatoes. That’s exciting too. And so are the crab legs stuffed in their shells with tomalley and sake lees. A doll’s teaspoon of carrot sorbet in a nuclear green puddle of wheatgrass juice arrives as a palate cleanser. “A nod to the juice fast craze,” my friend Lauren observes.


          “Should we take a seventh inning stretch?” I ask.  Brandon gets up, walks to the front and puts on a record album, 70s Motown. “Songs in the Key of Life,” by Stevie Wonder. For him, it’s vintage. For me, it’s nostalgia. 



  Just pork and a duo of radish slices, not particularly moving. 


          Now we’re moving on to meat. While I was distracted, the hunk on the counter disappeared.  But pork comes first, pink, with a duo of radish slices and grated lemon peel. Then a dish of butter is served, “made from yogurt curd,” we’re told, swiftly followed by toast. Homemade bread. Odd timing. Funny how you just go along with it. I like the buckwheat walnut bread. I’m starting to long for dessert.  The sommelier has bad news for Wilford.  His expensive red wine is corked. Sport that he is, he orders a lush $120 Bandol to make up for the loss. 



What can I say? I love the buckwheat walnut bread better than the pork.


          There’s a pause. We watch as a cook carves huge birds with great brio. Are they ducks? “Sasso chicken,” says the server, with green garlic in a sorrel sauce. A fatty, chewy farm chicken cut in chunks, still wearing patches of crusty caramelized skin. I’m guessing the ginger granita with cucumber sorbet and a lick of salt on top, comes after the beef. “Dry-aged beef,” announces the waiter delivering a slice of rare meat, a chunk of fat, garnished with spring onion and an onion flower.



The firm and flavorful country bird with patches of caramelized skin, hits the bull’s eye. 


          I could not have imagined a cheese existed too powerful and assertive for me.  But tonight’s La Tur, a rustic fluff of sheep and goat from Piedmont takes me by surprise. Soft, earthy, tangy. Bitter, almost medicinal. I pass my portion along to Brandon. He and Lauren are wild about it. 



Another triumph: Aged meat cooked rare, a chunk of fat, spring onion, an onion flower. 


          With the yam cream and banana sorbet, the sommelier pours a sweet wine as her apology for knocking over Lauren’s white wine.  We’re sipping her gift with citrus cake, tarragon gelato and pickled rhubarb. Bored as I am with macarons, I have to taste this mescal-spiked rendition. And the ginger gel.  Since the men have offered to pay for the wine and corkage fee, the share for Lauren and I, with tip is, $236 each.



Citrus cake, tarragon gelato and pickled rhubarb, then a mescal macaroon and ginger gel.  


          At the reception table, we stop to congratulate Mirarchi.  He is clearly exhausted. There are warm farewells from the crew. The street outside is dark, deserted. Someone has called a car service for us. The driver wheels through darkened Bushwick. It is quiet. The three of us are digesting our thoughts. I realize I am feeling disappointed. Haute Hipster, some criticize. Three stars from Michelin.  “Everyone was wonderfully friendly. Warmer than I expected. For me, there are simply not enough oh-my-God moments,” I say.


          "I agree," says Wilford,  for that much money, I’d rather go to Jean-Georges. You’ll be my guest.”


261 Moore Street near Bogart Street. 646-703-2715, By reservation online only at 11 am, 30 days before the date of the reservation. Dinner Wednesday and Thursday 6 pm, Friday and Saturday, 4:45 and 8:30 pm. 


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


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