Asad Raza's following post inaugurates our official Friends of Probably Awkward guest blogging series! Our dear Mr. Raza has a multitude of talents, among them making (and then feeding me) vast quantities of food products, completing his dissertation in English literature, writing a monthly column over at the blog that he co-founded, 3 Quarks Daily, and extolling the virtues of Stanley Kubrick. He also contributes to Tennis magazine -- you can read one of his great pieces here. From his base in his rent-controlled Nolita apartment he wreaks havoc in only the best, most articulate, and food coma-inducing ways. Also, if you would like to challenge him to a game of ping pong, please contact us here at probablyawkward [at] gmail [dot] com; there's a good chance he'll kick your ass. Without further ado...
In today's restaurant culture, it often seems to me, the experience of eating in a restaurant only provides grist for the real chewing, which happens later, mostly on the internet. Food websites, blogs, chatrooms, and photostreams meticulously track the rise and fall of every new eating establishment, industry player, neighborhood and design firm. Is there any doubt that following the restaurant scene and its star players has become a new American sport? (Steinbrenner=Chodorow? Keller=Federer? Batali=Shaq?) Rapid and rabid attention to every last detail of eating out is now the rule: let's call it gastromania.
All this is, of course, generally to the good. Extreme competitiveness has led to vastly better dining options all over the United States. But let's be honest: it has also led to a certain amount of bloat: sometimes it gets tiring to go to restaurants to follow the fortunes of AvroKo or to revise your official opinion of the service at Danny Meyer joints. Sometimes you just want to eat well--and other times you're hungry for six courses of unselfconscious brilliance in a setting that's actually relaxing, instead of three small plates of overthought comfort food surrounded by crowds of Top Chef-obsessed chatterboxes. You want to eat well but calmly, as a gastronome but not a gastromaniac. Well, I have a solution for you: Chanterelle.
Chanterelle, you'll recall, is the extremely acclaimed restaurant that pioneered haute cuisine in the burgeoning days of Tribeca. Now regarded as belonging to that venerable category, the New York institution, the place has settled into middle age in restaurant terms. This is a time when many places have lost a chef or two, begun serving sub-standard food, or, most commonly, continued to depend on a retinue of dishes that were trendy once upon a time but now scream "1990!" like brunch at the Odeon. In other words, they were cool once upon a time. The best middle-aged restaurants, however, operate with a mixture of continuity and innovation, conviction and sustained excellence.
Now is the moment to let you know that Chanterelle is firmly in the latter category. I was lucky enough to be invited to indulge in a chef's tasting menu last week. Full disclosure: because I was eating with the co-author of the forthcoming Chanterelle cookbook, we were served a tasting menu of great variety, each "course" comprising several dishes. But I have checked the menu and every dish we ate is included there. Our meal was also free. We were served six excellent wines with our meal, but most were fairly inexpensive to the paying customer.
Here is the most common contemporary formula for restaurant success: take a celebrity chef with six other venues, place him in an overdesigned space full of "drama," emphasize the cocktails and the mood music, and cram people together to increase the volume and heighten the buzz. In every way, Chanterelle is the reverse: a chef, David Waltuck, who cooks there every night; a tastefully understated room whose loudest feature is displays of cut flowers; a spacious layout in which it's impossible to touch anyone at the neighboring table; and no music..
That last element ensures that you'll have a conversation with your tablemates. And it will probably rollick and meander the way conversations over great meals do, because the restaurant isn't constantly tapping you on the shoulder to remind you how brilliant it is. It doesn't need to, because the food pretty much says it all. Unlike the majority of restaurant food in our heavily insecure city, there is no compulsion to add a trendy ingredient to every course just to make sure. It's not that the food isn't up to date, or fully aware of the range of tastes with which our postmodern palates are familiar. Waltuck and his staff's cooking transmits confident maturity, rather than desperate shilling. And it's given to you in an environment that allows you to savor it, without all the crowding and cacophony that is supposed to make you feel lucky even to have a table in other places. As it turns out, getting to eat top class food in a beautiful room without any inconveniences at all is the real luck.
<< The Chanterelle Tasting Menu after the jump. [HT adds: I really recommend that you click through -- it's pretty extraordinary and envy-inducing.] >>
Chanterelle Tasting Menu
September 26, 2007
Curried Crab on Shrimp Toast
Deviled Quail Eggs with American Caviar
Vegetable Spring Rolls with Tamarind Dipping Sauce
Crab on shrimp showed a wry way with combinations, and was both amusing and very tasty.
Lobster Gazpacho with Avocado Mousse
Terrine of Muscovy Duck and Duck Foie Gras
Bread with two butters: French salted, and Harleyville PA unsalted
Everything we were served with this course was more exciting than the descriptions. The gazpacho had a deep, toasted flavor that made me wonder if there was paprika in it, but Waltuck said it was the combination of tomato and sherry vinegar. If so, that combination is fairly magical. Also, the unsalted butter from a small farm in Pennsylvania was superb.
Grilled Seafood Sausage
Sea Scallops and Foie Gras Dumplings with Mushroom Broth
Cannelloni of Collard Greens with Pot Liquor and Bacon Wrapped Oysters
This course came with a remarkably flavorful sake (almost too flavorful, for me, but well matched to the food), and included one of the most famous Chanterelle standards: seafood sausage, which managed to taste like a brilliant and fresh idea: powerful oceanic flavors compacted, with zing provided by the vinegar of beurre blanc. Special mention should also go to the pot liquor served with the oysters, which was lip-smackingly good.
Wild Striped Bass with Braised Potatoes, Herbs, and Bottarga
Grilled Turbot with Lemongrass Cream and Basil Puree
The presence of turbot, a favorite fish of mine, was particularly exciting, as was the white Bordeaux from Chateau Chantegrive. The fish's sauce isolated the taste of lemongrass, so often one element in a Southeast Asian ensemble, to understated effect.
Seared Duck Breast with Mint and Lapsong Souchong Jus
A superb red wine from Austria, a Fischer Gradenthal from 1997, highlighted this course for me. The sliced duck breast harmonized with it in that special way of which only great sommeliers are capable.
This was a mind-blowing cheese course, even exceeding the large cheese course I had at reigning champ Artisanal a few weeks back. The wine served with it was a Papatonis, made from the Agioritico grape, and was unusual and unusally powerful, the better to stand up to the truly remarkable range of cheeses we were served. Memorably a cheese made with thistle rennet from Lisbon, a pecorino covered in macerated juniper, and a Brillat-Savarin that put most Brie to shame (was it raw-milk?). There was also something superb resembling a Rochefort whose name escapes me now - and my notes from the fourth hour of the dinner and beyond are strangely scrawled and incomprehensible.
Madagascar Vanilla Almond Cake with Plum Port Ice Cream
Fig and Huckleberry Tart with Fig Leaf Ice Cream
Muscat Poached Pear
Chocolate Tasting: Melted Chocolate Beverage, Frozen Chocolate Hazelnut Bar, Chocolate Beignet, Dark Chocolate Meringue
To finish off the Greek leitmotif, this frankly excessive dessert course was paired with a 1999 Samos Anthemis, a sweet wine from an island near Turkey with a wine production history dating to 1200 B.C.(!) Highlights for me were the fig and huckleberry tart and the chocolate beverage, but really, I found my palate simply overwhelmed by new flavors by this point, so I concentrated on the wine, which was somehow richer and darker than many more floral dessert wines.
A selection of delicious cookies and some espresso rounded off the meal and sent us back to the normal world of rubes. As my friend Steve wrote to me later, "Clearly tasting menus are the way to eat. However, I'm not sure what to do with that information." Indeed.
- Asad Raza.