February 17, 1992 | Vintage Insatiable

Quilted Giraffe: Japan Noshing


        "…The Quilted Giraffe may be the most exciting restaurant in town. And if you're Japanese it looks like a bargain…"


      Remember the casual Quilted Giraffe? You could pop in for caviar or wasabi pizza or meatballs and mashed potatoes from the ultimate grazing menu at flagrantly uncasual prices. I found the 2002 chrome diner in the toe of the AT&T monument icy, but loved the food, and wished the place had been disarmingly named the Arrogant Quilted Giraffe. Then I lost touch. The earth turned. Wall Street crumbled. The Second Avenue Quilted Giraffe and its high-tech annex melded into one. Rumor had it that Barry and Susan Wine now thrive catering the Japanese.


      Crass commerce, you surmise? Never. It's love. Most men go through a mid-life crisis, abandoning careers and exchanging wives. Barry Wine begins the decade as a new man, practically Japanese, and the Quilted Giraffe may easily be the most exciting, most accessible Japanese restaurant in town: just Japanese enough for the Japanese, not too ethnic for the less-than-adventurous New Yorkers. If you're Japanese, it looks like a bargain.


      Did critics find the Quilted Giraffe pretentious, the welcome indifferent if not haughty? No more. Reality can be humbling. Even the chrome seems warmer now with a scattering of flowers, decanters, lithographs, even tablecloths masking most of the magnificent granite tabletops (the Wines couldn't bear to cover them all). The sommelier and captains in jaunty epaulets and polka-dotted bow ties snap to like clockwork but seem to be stifling a smile as they ask, "Would you like chopsticks?"


      God or even Buddha is in the details. The ultimate brass salt shaker, weighty as a butcher's mallet. The silver water pitcher, so heavy waiters here need no steroids to build their biceps. The giant plates in Necco-wafer pastels that echo the Chippendale crown of the building-- now being face-lifted by Gwathmey Siegel for Sony, the new owners. "The Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey Sony, the Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman Sony."


      If you think back, even in the golden-oldie days of the Quilted Giraffe, when nouvelle-cuisine-stunned foodniks worshiped the haute mess as if it were High Mass, Barry Wine did have a sweet, slightly self-mocking wit. Remember how he walked through the restaurant introducing one and all to the "hairy vegetable" he'd just discovered in Chinatown? Remember the mustard ice cream? (Or perhaps that was serious.) Though he didn't invent the beggar's purse -- a delicate crêpe filled with caviar and a dab of crème fraîche, then tied with a chive string -- he certainly put it on the map. Now he amuses himself serving the beggar's purses ($50 extra for five on the $45 dollar lunch or the $75 dinner) impaled on tall silver candlesticks. The challenge is to eat them without a fork, fingers, or chopsticks as a waiter snaps a photo for the album of great moments Wine keeps at the bar.


      Have I lost my sense of humor? Did I ever have one? We'll have our beggar's purses on a plate, please-- recession purses (no supplement) stuffed with a juicy crunch of cabbage, turnip, and bacon. Feeling wary, even a bit prickly, we try to order. Pleased to see us again, Wine ignores the menu and proceeds to woo us with outtakes from his $80 version of a Kyoto-style tasting lunch "served on porcelains, pottery, and lacquer from our special collection…[to be] eaten with chopsticks to protect the dishware." Prickles fade. Lunch is dazzling, a series of sensory explosions, as astonishment of textures and flavors, beautifully mounted, at times hilarious.


      "If I were going into Chapter 11 tomorrow, I'd choose this for my last meal," one of my companions announces. For Madonna, Wine does nine courses of sublime vegetables. With Warren Beatty, he plays a game: Find the fake food hidden somewhere on the plate. For my friend, it's "Hello Bob" written in Chinese mustard on a plate of foie gras and wild greens. (He can write "You're charming" and "Love at first sight" in Japanese characters, too, he boasts.) And then, proof the eighties are not totally dead, a princely ration of fresh black truffles on buttered pumpernickel.


     There are tiny squares of wasabi-tuna pizza (transcendent tuna), voluptuous baby octopus with potato chips and radish sprouts ("the bubbling sea" is the chef's interpretation). The day's shipment from Japan includes buri, "grown-up yellow tail," Wine explains, served first as sashimi with dots of red pepper beside a little lava box of soy, and later grilled with a small fish in its mouth on buttered soy sauce ("Your lunch is eating lunch," he observes).  Have Nantucket scallops ever been more silken? These swim in a pool of lime butter. Costly Kobe beef arrives, a small square for each, spectacular meat layered with Wine's version of Korean kimchi -- thins of jicama and raddichio, faintly pickled, beside fried beet sticks. Even my fussiest food-friend, pampered darling of the great European chefs, is purring now.


      And every vessel is different. Tempura-battered troutlings line up in a giant wooden bowl next to a nest of peppery fried chick-pea noodles and a lemon dipping sauce. Minimally grilled lobster and "potato risotto," encircled by a moat of butter lurk in porcelain wearing a lobster sketched in blue. An azure glass oval with grooved bottom holds slices of tongue, tangy mustard leaves, bits of crisped tongue fat, and two sauces, each element in its own indentation. We share a portion of splendid duck confit with spiced lentils, and miraculously moist chicken breast with wild mushrooms and mashed basil-scented potatoes. Zen triumphs.


      No one is the least surprised that desserts are exhilarating too-- the intensely chocolate ganache with hot fudge sauce, a quintessence of lemon and lemony fig cake, perfect sorbets in cranberry soup, a lagniappe of truffles and must-not-miss cookies.


      If you grew up with Barry and Susan Wine, as I did, you'd see America's gastronomic coming of age in their scrapbook. A Detroit-born lawyer, he began cooking in New Paltz as an amateur in the best sense of the word, in thrall to Julia Child. From patchwork-quilt giraffes and innocence upstate to the written-in-French menu at the restaurant's debut on Second Avenue and an early crush on nouvelle cuisine, we traveled the same latitudes. On a first trip to Japan in 1985, the Wines fell in love with Japanese dining. "I realized what we called nouvelle cuisine was in fact very Japanese," says Barry. "The small portions on big plates, the emphasis on what's fresh in the market, the taste of food unmasked. It was nouvelle. It could have been Kaiseki -- the ritualized progression of tastes that accompany tea with a capital T." He was hopelessly smitten. 
"I didn't know in a cultural sense what it meant to be Japanese, but I realized that is what we'd been doing." In seven visits, he'd stalked the great potters of Japan, and the first little Kaiseki dishes the Wines brought home have given way to rarer treasures.


      Now on an average evening, almost half of the Giraffe's customers will be eating the $135 Kaiseki dinner ($80 at lunch) or a $110 tasting ($65 at lunch). Wine's increasingly sophisticated Japanese following are full of compliments. "I see you are showing the mountain in fall with a river between," one might say, Wine reports. "And maybe I did, on an unconscious level." Then, too, he gets an occasional poke: "This plate is upside down" or "You can't use earthenware, only porcelain, if you want to call it Kaiseki."


      Yes, it's like eating in a time warp. But apparently there are still Quilted Giraffe fans untraumatized by the nineties, loving hot and cold house-smoked salmon, rack of lamb with pumpkin-hazelnut mash ($7.50 supplement). A down payment of $400 or so will cover uncontrolled excess.


     Barry Wine dreams of sitting on a mountain in Japan contemplating it all. Morgan Jacobson, his disciple in the kitchen, is being groomed for that day. "You should see me in my Samurai costume," Wine says, digging out a photo. He giggles. As a Samurai, he is awesome. This time, I suspect, he is serious.


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