I still remember that cod dish” said Cresci 10 days after our very long and large meal at Le Bernardin, where we had made plans to visit together more than a year ago but finally had the occasion to do so, him to celebrate his new job and me with my upcoming move. We chose Le Bernardin because we both share a love for the TV show “Top Chef” and an admiration for one of its frequent guest judge, the restaurant’s chef-owner Eric Ripert. While some of the chefs sometimes seem overly cocky or self-promoting, Chef Ripert always seemed down to earth, thoughtful and serious about his craft. Plus the food at his restaurant just looked so picture-perfect that we had, had to try it at least once.

Oyster flight

Oyster flight

Since it was a special occasion, we splurged on the chef’s tasting. An amuse of poached oyster with mushroom/truffle emulsion teased the palate with an initial metallic taste of oyster ending with a rich earthiness courtesy of the fungi. After that a generous tasting of 6 kumamotos, not particularly big but fresh and sweet, each topped with a different gelee in a progression from mild to robust flavors.

Egg - Caviar

Egg - Caviar

Next a simple but decadent dish, a poached egg topped by pearly grains of osetra caviar, much sweeter than the more commercial and less expensive variety. Love the contrasts of texture between the liquid silk of the creamy yolk and the pop of caviar roe in the mouth.

Scallop

ScallopThe scallop dish with goat cheese was probably the dish that made me think, but also probably my least favorite. Even though the scallop was seared ultra-rare, I tend to prefer my scallops raw. The emulsion was also kind of weird and eh...Halibut

A simple dish of poached halibut then served with a light gingery broth showed off the pristine piece of fish. A mix of cooked turnips and raw radish halves, the ginger base and black sesame seeds took the dish on an Asian route, very pleasant although not too exciting for my palate.

Cod

Cod

The next course though, and those afterwards where all winners. The cod finally arrived, perfectly pan fried with just a light crust. The servers poured the squid ink sauce table side with a flourish, but even before the sauce even hit the plate, I could smell that briny, minerally iodine scent characteristic of the sea. Bright orange pepper puree artistically dotted around the plate provided not just color contrast, but sweetness and tied in beautifully with the lightly pickled rounds of pepper arranged on the fish. Like the best piece of fish and chips declared Cresci. I couldn’t agree more. The side of roasted pepper stuffed with rice and squid was ignored as we eagerly dove into the fish, wanted to dredge bread across that addictive sauce.

Surf and Turf

Surf and Turf

 

 The sauces at Le Bernardin are impressive, and the anchovy based sauce that came with the next dish, the famous surf and turf was truly beautiful, rich and complex with just a faint whiff of anchovy. The sauce paired well with both meat and fish, cutting the richness of the marbled sliver of seared kobe and the rich and fatty escolar. But the star was the sauce, definitely a sauce I would gladly eat on its own. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when they serve a dish with my favorite vegetable, the eggplant, here presented fried and dusted with a light sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon.  

Fromage Blanc

Fromage Blanc

 Which brings us to dessert. Here’s a good place to also talk about the physical restaurant and service, which have been oft-maligned as charmless and cold respectively. True, the restaurant rather resembles a corporate dining room especially with the suited diners looking as though they are cutting deals whilst dining, and would not be my top 10 picks of romantic spots to eat in the city. The service while correct, is not as negative reviews have portrayed. Both the sommelier and servers were very happy to answer queries and engage in conversation. In fact, just before our pre-dessert amuse of fromage blanc arrived, our server and I launched into a short but spirited discussion of the light, tart cheese, and she made arrangements that Cresci and I got to taste different preparations of it. True to spirit, Cresci enjoyed the honey and walnut version while I practically devoured the girlier, strawberry version.

Egg

Egg

Later, as we were munching our petit fours and sipping coffee, I made a passing remark about pastry chef Michael Laisokonis’ egg dessert. Moments lately, it appeared magically, in its full chocolate, caramel, fleur del sel glory on our table. Yummy! Of course, not to give the actual dessert short shrift, we enjoyed a decadently chocolately mousse paired with a chicory flavored ice-cream that tempered the sweetness of the chocolate and gave the dish an added herbal licorice dimension. I love simple desserts and appreciated how the chef didn’t mar the composition with too many components.

Chocolate Chicory

Chocolate Chicory

We walked out happy, heavy and with the memory (aided by a menu) to last for a while.

Le Bernardin

155 W 51st St (Between 5th & 6th Ave)

www.le-bernardin.com

 

 
Advertisements

Want to make a guess where I was last weekend?

There was a wedding on a sandy beach, azure waters and blazing heat. There was also a lot of fruit drinks and saltwater snails to eat. Snails with meaty flesh and pink shells by the name of conch.

Got it? No? Ok ok….

I was in the beautiful Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies for Katy’s lovely albeit steaming hot outdoor wedding where Katy ended up dancing in the swimming pool in full wedding regalia.

After the celebrations, I then turned my attentions towards conch eating. In an island where 90%+ of foodstuffs are imported, conch is perhaps the only export Turks and Caicos boast of having. In fact, there is so much conch on the island that there is a commercial farm on the island of Provo (population 22,500), and an annual festival regaling the wonders of the chewy, crunchy, shellfish-like meat.

conch salad

conch salad

Of all the dishes I tried, conch salad was probably my and the other girls’ favorites. The chewy and mild meat, when served on a pretty half conch shell, tossed with spicy jalapeno, shredded vegetables and tangy lemon made a a very refreshing appetizer and entree, especially in 90+ degrees.

conch fritter

conch fritter

Conch’s pretty tasty fried too as I found out, whether mixed into a tasty cayenne spiced batter (albeit too heavy on the batter)…

curried conch

curried conch

or pounded flat, crusted and fried like schnitzel cutlets, sitting in aromatic pools of mild curry sauce.

conch crepes

conch crepes

While the previous conch dishes had a tropical sensibility about them, cream smothered conch crepe – the 2007 conch festival winner – was definitely continental in nature. Mushrooms and red pepper coulis added earthiness, while fresh green scallions saved the dish from being overly heavy. Conch was also served in a rich creamy chowder flavored with bacon at the wedding, giving the New England clam chowder a run for its money.

In case one was wondering what else I ate, the answer is not much. Being carless on the island made us instantly captive on the resorts, where we were subjected to better than average but still institution hotel food. When my other options are hamburgers and such, I choose conch. Suffice to say, I  was all conched out!

claws on bar While lobsters are not all that readily available during the winter months, we blessed city dwellers do not have to wait for the warm summer months to satisfy any lobster craving. Instead, as I found out, all we needed to do was to pay a visit to this place.  

Francisco’s Centro Vasco is an old school restaurant ostensibly serving Spanish food, but it is more commonly known to its diners as the lobster shrine. Everything reminds you of the lobster, from the neon signage outside, to the plates with little red lobsters printed on.  Regulars would advice novices like me not to order anything but, and judging from the paella Gerrie and I shared (in an attempt to order something else but lobster) they were quite right. The rice was inoffensive at best, packed generously with seafood but a little wet and lacking in flavor, “like what’s served in the dormitory cafeteria” according to Justin. The lobster (which happens to be about almost every plate on every single table that night, nevermind the substantial menu) thankfully, was as good as touted, and even in the winter months does Francisco Centro Vasco manage 1.25 pg lobsterto source fresh shellfish, ranging from petite 1.25 pounders to 15 pound monstrosities done two ways, boiled or broiled with cheese. The truly gigantic lobsters that have met their maker in the restaurant are honored with their massive claws hung from the ceiling.

At some point in my life, I might want to try eating a giant shellfish. However, given a 15 pound lobster is likely to be over 60 years old, it seems like a travesty to be devouring a grandpa lobster. So I was content with the petite lobster (starting at MP, or $23 last weekend) I shared with Gerrie, which for its size yielded a significant amount of succulent meat. The guys on the table attacked their 2.5 pounders, never flagging in their enthusiasm to crack, pry, dip into melted butter and munch. We supplemented our lobster diet with grilled alaskan king crab legs, buttery and juicy. Oh yes, and we did eat our food wearing silly little plastic bibs, but they helped save a few shirts, as those crabs and lobsters can be very juicy, too juicy in fact when they start squirting liquid. Along with our entrees were some sides, including green beans, home made chips, yellow rice, bread and salad, all pretty mediocre with the exception of perhaps the chips that were at least mostly crispy. Thankfully we didn’t have that much stomach space for them anyway.

Besides the rest of the menu, one does not go to Francisco’s Centro Vasco for the decor, old and slightly shabby, with ample kitsch factor (the claws check, the seascape murals check), nor for the service, which was silent but efficient. We opted out of dessert, the choices being rather uninspiring, but if you did want dessert, flan would always be a good choice in a spanish restaurant, and it definitely would not set you back by much here.

Its safe to say that after this weekend, I am pretty lobstered out. But in case you were craving lobster, Francisco’s Centro Vasco’s a pretty good bet that you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Francisco’s Centro Vasco

159 W23rd St (Bet 6th & 7th Aves)

http://www.franciscoscentrovasco.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

 oyster bar

Lunch at the cavernous Grand Central Oyster Bar -in the bowels of the train station- is quite a decadent affair, especially when lunch involves a few raw oysters. Some old wives’ convention mandates that oysters are best during months with “R” in it, ie summer months are not oyster-friendly, but I seriously can’t tell the difference. What I do know is that the half-dozen I ate on Columbus Day, at the very atmospheric bar manned by no-nonsense oyster shuckers were large, meaty, cold and briny. At $2-4 per piece, they were expensive but not out-of-line, and the variety is enormous, possibly the largest in the city. Ignoring the traditional accompaniments, I happily slurped them down with just a spritz of lemon while watching the cooks handle the very cool panroast device, powered not by gas or electricity but through steam pipes. Some thick cream, broth and oysters in that machine makes for an ultra-creamy and cholestrol laden meal.

Sandwiches are lunch-only items, and the cheapest things on a generally over-priced menu besides the oyster stews and panroasts. Unfortunately, the fried fish sandwich was unremarkable, with soggy batter on a bed of limp iceberg lettuce and quite a bit of tartare sauce. Regardless, go there and have some oysters, with maybe a beer to wash things down. It might just make your commute a little easier to bear.

 Grand Central Oyster Bar (www.oysterbarny.com)

89E 42rd St (Lexington and Vanderbilt Aves)