December 2007


aquavit arctic circle

I’ve never considered the cheese course as an adequate substitute for dessert, but Aquavit’s signature dessert, the Arctic Circle does double duty. The main body of the dessert is a white puck of goat cheese parfait, frozen such that it masks any funky cheese scents, making it palatable even to non-cheese eaters. Only when it has softened in your mouth do you experience the tanginess of goat cheese. Within the cheesy puck is a molten core of passion fruit curd, its creaminess contrasting with the parfait’s icy texture. A thin tuile cookie is sandwiched between the parfait and a scoop of garnet sorbet. The online menu states it as blueberry although it tastes more like cassis. Tart and cold, with just enough sweetness to be satisfying but not cloying, this is a dessert worthy of its namesake.

Aquavit Cafe

65 E55th St (Betwee Park and Lexington Aves)

www.aquavit.org

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bouchonGood news: I seem to have found the brunch spot where I actually don’t mind paying for eggs and sausages.  

Bad news: I can’t frenquent it regularly for it is in Vegas.

The place? Bouchon, a down-market casual bistro within Thomas Keller’s restaurant empire.

Brunch started with freshly baked bread, a crusty baguette that branches into roll shaped leaves.  It comes with little pots of sweet butter, soft and spreadable, and a slightly tart and thick raspberry jam. Next comes coffee, the strongest my parents have encountered during their 2 week vacation, after a series of disappointingly bland cups of drip coffee. And endless was the pour, as our server took care that our cups were never more than half-empty.

Then came the meal, a blend of classic bistro dishes and hearty brunch stuff. My god-mother’s roasted chicken was succulent inside and crispy outside, my god-pa’s trout an austere whole fish decorated with scales of sliced almonds and a bed of crisp beans. Mum’s celery root soup was like drinking molten cashmere as the creaminess slid to the back of the throat, with the aftertaste of anisey caraway seeds. SY’s croque madame is a grilled ham & cheese sandwich gussied up in rich bechamel sauce and a fried egg, so rich you could feel instant heartburn, and second only to the monte carlo in terms of decadence. Fries that graced our table in a cone was thin, crispy, almost grease-less.

The brunch stuff wasn’t quite as exciting but still really good. Ruoyi’s french toast should be named brioche pudding instead, stuffed with apples and topped with a rich maple sauce. My father’s crab hash if a riff on corned beef hash, except with generous lumps of crab meat on top of delicately diced potatoes and two poached eggs that my father enjoyed making a dipping sauce out of, for his fluffy and eggy brioche. I looked longingly at Ying’s omelet, stuffed with diced bacon while I ate probably the most boring and least fattening dish, a smoked salmon platter for which the fish was unremarkable but the petit baguette once again crunchy without breaking my teeth, chewy without being elastic and just a little sour, the way I like it. But i undid the good with sides of coarse ground sausages and crisp bacon slices. We looked past the neighboring table, and pitied the lady who ordered granola.

The food was American in size, and seemingly too much. Somehow we managed to finish it off, but it took a while. But the pace was wonderfully languid, the service attentive and the space, a larger, more spread-out Balthazar made it comfortable to talk in normal volumes, something I’ve not managed to accomplish in the New York brunch hotspots. Of course, one had to overlook the outdoor pool facing the restaurant, where even in late December were there game and obstinate souls trying to sunbath in sub-50 temperatures. And the fact that to get out of the Venetian, where Bouchon is situated, one had to fight past the crowds at the Grand Canal shopping area, complete with Venice inspired canals, gondolas, and singing gondoliers. But perhaps that is all good, for a walk through the throngs may just what the doctor ordered after a gut-busting meal at Bouchon.  

Bouchon (inside the Venetian Hotel and Casino)

3355 Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas

www.frenchlaundry.com

Floor-length windows wrapped around the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel almost assures killer views of Central Park and Midtown. With its glamorous address, the people watching is bound to be good too. I’m glad to say that with both fronts, Asiate did not disappoint. My parents and I were ushered to a nice table flush to the window when we visited for lunch, and while the day was gloomy grey, the bird’s eye view of Central Park was still impressive. Mum also had her New York moment when Will Smith popped into the restaurant to say hi to his friends/relatives seated right beside us.  As a spot to wow, to romance, to indulge in attentive service, Asiate is an obvious choice.

But what about a place to dine? While lunch was enjoyable and a very good value at $24 for 2 dishes on the ala carte menu, or $38/28 for 2 daily bento sets, I would be hesistant to go back for the fully-priced dinner menu. Why? The food was in general, not memorable enough, and the view can only carry a place so far. For one, the restaurant, with a fusion-Asian pedigree and a Japanese chef played too often on racial conceit. Many dishes, from the India-influenced leek soup to the bland chai panna-cotta made use of Asian flavors that tended to overwhelm. My beet salad, with no obvious Asian influence, was too sweet, and the sauce lacked acid or salt to contrast with the ruby beet slices. And ironically, our favorite dishes were those without Asian condiments, such as a hearty beef short rib braised for such a long time that it just melted in the mouth, as well as the daily fish, lightly crusted, pan-fried and presented with a tangy berry sauce.

Besides Asian flavors, presentation were Oriental-inspired, but to varying success.  My father’s bento set was preciously presented in a wooden box that housed 6 separate tastes, ranging from salad to robust meats. However, it was really trying to cut into a succulent cube of beef short rib or a really nice piece of crispy duck bathed in curry sauce on a 2″x2″ plate, whereas the pair of chopsticks presented alongside the bento did not help. Try holding a large chunk ( ~4 largish mouthfuls) of meat on chopsticks and eating it elegantly. Impossible. And while I am being picky, the disposable chopsticks looked cheap next to the luxe settings.  

Still, a meal at Asiate can be very enjoyable with a couple of caveats. Recognize that one would be very disappointed to call it a Japanese or just Asian restaurant, because the approach at Asiate less clear cut than that, and more a blend of Western cooking technique but an Asian flavor palette. Indeed, I’ve had more Asian dishes at Jean Georges than at Asiate including a steamed fish dish that tastes uncannily like Teochew steamed pomfret.  Also take your time to enjoy the attentive service and the view, and soak in the ambience while you eat, for that is a big part of Asiate, possibly more than the food. That way, you too can claim a little piece of affordable luxury called the mid-week lunch at Asiate.

 Asiate

80 Columbus Circle, 35 Floor (60th St, between Broadway and Columbus Aves)

http://www.mandarinoriental.com/hotel/532000039.asp

Call it Chinese pride, but to me nothing conveys the joy of a family reunion like sitting in a big circle round a banquet table, passing rice and feasting family style. So when my parents and godparents visited me in the city for the first time this past week, I gathered a bunch of close friends to share our family meal. My choice of restaurant? Wu Liang Ye, a Szechuan restaurant with an authentic and fiery menu that can satisfy a big bunch of spice lovers who are also rather particular about what they eat. Also, Wu Liang Ye happens to be a very popular place where my office mates order from, so I thought I’d do them and myself a service by recording the details of dinner for future reference.  

Between the 10 of us, we shared:

Cold Appetizers:

wu xiang nu rou

Poached tender beef with 5-spice (8): Chilled pieces of sliced beef, poached in soy and aromatic spices was the Szechuan variant of brisket. The meat was generally lean but speckled with bits of gelatin for crunch. Best with beer, and good without too.

Steamed fresh bacon with garlic-soy vinaigrette (6): Thin ribbons of poached pork belly doused with a thick, black sweetish sauce was lusciously smooth. A generous heap of finely minced raw garlic piled on the meat strips provided a resolute heat and the strongest “garlic breath” I’ve encountered in a while.  

Julienne Jelly fish with scallion pesto (11): A little unfortunate that this dish was so bland, and the smallish portion size did not justify the price. A little deflated because Rosie and I had really loved the poached razor clams with the same scallion pesto in the specials section on previous trips.

Sliced mung-bean jelly in roasted chili vinaigrette (not on take out menu, ask for ma-la-liang-fen): Wow… the most numbing dish we ordered, where the cool, slick threads of jelly provided a foil for the intense spicyness and numbing power of Szechuan peppercorns.

Hot and sour soup (33) : A little compromised, as the soup was neither hot nor sour enough and while thick enough, was not quite warm too.

Entrees:

Camphur tea smoked duck (81): There are two duck dishes on the top of the Chef’s specialty section, roasted lacquer duck (aka peking duck) and smoked duck. Since Wu Liang Ye is not a Beijing restaurant, the former is really not a specialty and should be avoided. But the smoked duck is a Szechuan dish, and with a pleasing saltiness and very crunchy skin tastes uncannily like bacon. And bacon, my friends is always great.

Stir-fried Prawns with Yibin Spiced Chili Asparagus (88): What sets Sichuan food apart from the rest of the Chinese cuisine styles is its numbing spiciness, much of which can be attributed to a particular type of peppercorn. Our large and bouncy prawns were quickly dry-fried to retain its crunchiness. The absence of any gloppy sauce also meant that the sweetness of the prawns and asparagus could be fully appreciated, together with the “hot hot hot” sensation of the chili mix.

wu liang ye fish

Braised Whole Fish with Szechuan Chili Miso Sauce (82): A whole fish fried and then drizzled with a thick fiery red sauce. The sauce is made of chili and chinese fermented beans that are somewhat akin to miso paste, but not as smooth and a degree more pungent. The fish had nice delicate meat, while the chili sauce was great blended in with rice for a good saucy meal. It is in the genes. I love Chinese food. And in affirmation of my Southeast Asian roots, spicy is the way to go. Hence my affinity to the numbing spiciness that characterizes Szechuan food.  

Sauteed Stringbeans with Spring Bamboo Shoots (78): The tastiest and least healthy way to eat your greens is to deep-fry it, as the stringbeans in this dish are treated. Wow do those vegetables soak up all! The dish is typically cooked with minced pork, but we opted for it to be 100% vegetarian, so in lieu of the pork, the cooks fried the beans and tender bamboo shoots with minced dried mustard greens that were olive-like in their savoriness that you would not even miss the pork.

Braised Pan Seared Tofu Shitake (101): A tofu dish to round up dinner and provide my mum with some protein. A pretty standard chinese dish with tofu and vegetables drenched in a light chili-based sauce that was good on rice.

 Writing this now, I cannot believe we ate it all. But we did, and with full bellies and not a piece of stray duck left, Wu Liang Ye gets my family’s seal of approval.

Wu Liang Ye

36 W48th St (Bet 5th & 6th Aves)

Numbers next to names of dishes denote the numbers on the takeout-menu, also found on menupages.com

Katsu Curry at Katsu Hama

A girl walks home from work, where she was going to cook a bowl of instant noodles for dinner, when she walks past the neighborhood katsu-shop, possibly the only Japanese tonkatsu specialist in the city. What does she choose? What else can she choose but walk in, sit alongside other solo diners at the bar and order an extra large bowl of pork katsu curry.

The Japanese curry was unremarkable, a little thin and runny and without much vegetables in the sauce. A mound of nutrient-free shredded cabbage with a sesame-garlic dressing was mundane but offered her the illusion that dinner was not completely unhealthy.  But the deep fried pork cutlet was excellent, with juicy, slightly pink meat encased in a very light and crunchy panko crust, so crunchy it almost cut the mouth. It was good with the curry sauce but even better undressed. And while she knew the porkshop was most definitely artery clogging, the katsu was so greaseless she could not feel it. When the girl was done scraping her bowl the server asked if she wanted dessert. “Why not?”, she thought, the harm’s been done. But reason trumped impulse, and she left with her sweets. Another time perhaps, when she finally decides to stick to shin ramen.

Katsu-Hama

11 E47th St (Bet Madison and 5th Ave)

http://www.katsuhama.com/

2008’s Zagat Guide lists three and a half pages of Italian restaurants in the city, more than any other cuisine and testimony to Italian food’s popularity. But Esca, a pedigreed restaurant with a Batali connection stands out. There are no pizzas on the menu, no caprese salad, no eggplant parmigiana, no lasagne. There are no meat dishes and a solo vegeterian pasta. The menu is seafood focused, from raw crudo to pasta and grilled whole fish. Dessert is the one section with no mention of fish and crusteceans.

I crashed Gerrie’s family dinner and we shared some extra-virgin first pressed olive oil with grilled bread. “The olives were still on the trees 6 days ago”, our server assured us as he somewhat pushily sold us 2 plates. True to his word, the oil was vibrantly hued, and tasted very grassy and spicy. It was really good oil, but for $8 a dish, something I would skip the next visit.

I would not skip the pastas, for the spicy spaghetti neri I tried was brilliant, somewhat similar to the version I tried at Babbo, served with barely cooked cuttlefish that were chewy, then gluey as the cuttlefish come undone and dissolves in the mouth.

We also shared some whole fish and sides, and the seabass for two was presented dramatically tableside with a thick crust of pure white salt.  The fish, once removed from its salty coffin looked much less impressive, but was tender and very delicately flavored. The red snapper, grilled with some fennel had a nice crisp skin, but the fennel was way too salty. The sides, a bitter broccoli rabe mashed with beans, roasted potatoes and roasted squash with honey were fine, nothing more.

We ended the meal with 2 desserts, an ultra-dense cheesecake with poached fruit and a lovely plate of petite buckwheat crepes stuffed with barely sweet pumpkin puree, dusted with snowy sugar, a sprinkle of crunch walnuts and drops of ruby pomegranate seeds that added gorgeous color, texture and a bitter-sweet lift to dish, which would otherwise have been pleasant but unremarkable.

Esca is not cheap, and the prices online are stale. Also, the menu is uncompromising, and with a lot of big words, which unfortunately means the servers may seem like they are talking down to the customers. But Esca would be every pescetarian’s delight and for avowed meat eaters, a meal there might just change your mind about seafood.

 Esca

403 W43rd St (on 9th Ave)

www.esca-nyc.com