Skip to content

Posts from the ‘French’ Category

Three Letters

When I heard “70’s French Truck Stop,” my first
thought was Restaurant Madrid, a ramshackle diner along the route between Quebec City and Montreal with monster trucks and
dinosaurs in the parking lot, even though that's French-Canadian, not French French. My second thought was "that's
likely bullshit," though to be fair they did temper their vision with "vaguely." (I had similar thoughts when The Third Man
was described endlessly as inspired by the Loos Bar, a description I
wouldn't have questioned if I hadn't just been in Vienna and knew better. I
also see I'm not alone in my grumbling.)

I still wanted to see what Three Letters was about,
if only because Clinton Hill is a little new restaurant-deprived. I was not
alone in my curiosity. At 7pm on a Saturday there was already a half-hour wait
and by the time I was seated it was getting a little traumatic (many of the same people
were still waiting for tables by the time we vacated). Buzz, they have it.

Meanwhile, The Wallace, just a ways down Fulton is
always empty and now a daily deal staple (couples on both sides of my table,
British, deeper-middle-aged and not impressed with Three Letters, and the two younger men who liked
things fine, mentioned this dichotomy, one to me intentionally, the other overheard) which makes me feel bad because the food at the Wallace is
solid and the newlyweds who run it seem earnest. It's just not a cool place.

Perhaps its the bar with a good number of seats and lots
of inexpensive snacks, including everyone's must-have: pickles, as we're now
all living in a "fried pickle environment." (About those pickles–I
got into an elevator conversation with coworker I've never really spoken with
before and it turns out she lives nearby, had gone on opening night and took issue
with what was described as fried pickles on the menu being fried pickled
vegetables, not pickled cucumbers, i.e. how the average American thinks of
pickles, and got condescended to by the bartender when asking about it.) The
prices don't hurt; the most expensive thing on the menu is $18 and bottles of
wine topped out at $45.

Three letters venison rissoles

Rissoles are like savory turnovers, and stuffed with
venison are not wildly dissimilar in concept to Do or Dine's fawntons. Served
with a smoked cherry jam, the $4 hors d'œuvre is one of those aforementioned
bites that could be fun to nibble at the bar.

The smaller dishes had more appeal on paper, though
I didn't get to fully test out this theory. Moules poutine, mussels, fries and
gravy, came from the kitchen in a steady stream, landing on what appeared to be
every table but ours (yet still made it onto the check–we were scolded for not
saying anything about not receiving it sooner). So, not all French French,
after all.

Three letters chicken st. james

I never order the roast chicken, but thought I'd
test out a basic, here called Chicken St. James and accompanied by grilled
broccoli and a potato gratin, described as pommes alene. I got nervous when
warned that it was "cooked to order" and would take 20 minutes, since
I would expect everything to be cooked to order. I remembered why I don't order
roast chicken unless it's pollo a la brasa: it's really boring.

The food, overall, is just ok. I'd rather eat at a
French truck stop in France, but I wouldn't discourage anyone in the vicinity
from stopping by (it's really a neighborhood restaurant, not the destination it
was being treated as). I would go back if someone suggested it. I don't know that they will. The service
could use a little softening around the edges, despite the allowances I can
make for a super-slammed opening weekend.

Three Letters * 930 Fulton St., Brookyn, NY


Crêpes du Nord

I don’t make a habit out of eating two crepes for lunch, but if a near-stranger with a gift card for a restaurant across the street from my office offers to share their bounty, I don’t say no. I’m up for food blog blind dates.

Crepes du nord proscuitto crepe
I enjoyed a buckwheat crepe similar to what they serve at Bar Breton. The grains add heft to the soft pancakes and make the meal feel healthy even though it’s filling. I feel the same way about soba; even though I prefer udon the brown pleasingly gritty noodles just seem more angelic nutritionally. Mine was served open-faced, filled with ricotta and topped with a handful of arugula and slices of prosciutto. Though a few dollars more than I normally allow myself for lunch (this one was $11 but many are $8-$9) a savory crepe could make a nice sandwich alternative and certainly beats a BMT (yes, I’ve been known to frequent the Subway, a few storefronts down the street).

Crepes du nord chicken crepe
You know this is the country herb chicken because they put a few meaty clues on top.

Crepes du nord cloudberry crepe
Since I was double-creping it, I went simple with a triangular (these are not buckwheat, as you can probably see) pancake drizzled with a cloudberry syrup and a dollop of cream. Lingonberries, cloudberries, gooseberries…all foreign and indiscernible to me. Of course, I can tell a raspberry from a blackberry from a blueberry by taste, but cloudberries in this form? I could only describe the flavor as sweet with the smallest amount of tartness.

A sweet crepe filled with chocolate, probably Nutella, was the first thing I ever ate in France so I always associate the folded-like-a-napkin treats strongly with the cuisine (never mind that Crêpes du Nord is billed as French-Scandinavian). And that sounds far more pretentious than intended.

Whenever someone mentions going to France as a kid, it shifts my opinion of them, and not always for the better. Tony Bourdain, who I’m lukewarm on anyway, loses me when he drops childhood visits to France into his shows. I’m currently reading Rob Sheffield’s Talking to Girls About Duran Duran and I was like “what?!” when I hit the chapter where his family takes a road trip across Europe. It’s hard to paint yourself as an awkward teen with crappy jobs when you get to go to France, Italy and Spain for the summer. And sure, European Vacation was about rubes abroad, but in reality with only about 30% percent of Americans owning passports, traveling to France with kids is not only a luxury, it’s a rarity. I can only think, “Wow, you had a charmed childhood and wealthy, open-minded parents.” I feel the same about where-to-take-the-parents round-ups that suggest Daniel and Minetta Tavern. Sorry, you're getting Totonno's and East Buffet.

I did stay with a family in Nerac, France, so-called melon (the only food I won’t eat) capital of the world in July 1989. I couldn’t swing a full year or even a semester abroad, but I was serious about saving up for my month and got my first job, bussing tables for $3.35 an hour at Hunan Garden, on the same strip as Skate World and Donut Barn. Even though I ended up being kind of bored and miserable in the countryside (I wanted the romance of Paris, duh) and ultimately getting parental financial assistance (which I’m still surprised happened) the 31-day-trip was one of the wisest things I did in the ‘80s. And despite numerous trips to Asia and other parts of Europe I’ve never returned to France and currently have no inclination to (right now, I’m toying with San Sebastian or Lima) because I hate idealized Cartier-Bresson/Amelie stereotypes. The Japanese have learned not to idealize (seriously, you have to read about “Paris Syndrome”) and so should we all.

As to Crepes du Nord, I would return if I could sneak out of the office for a late lunch and take advantage of their two-for-one 4-7pm happy hour. Drinking during the work day is a luxury I’ve managed to resist so far, but 2011 may be the year I cave. There’s nothing uncivilized about an occasional midday glass (or two) or wine, right? Oh dear, now I’m starting to sound French or something.

Crêpes du Nord * 17 S. William St., New York, NY

M. Wells

Between servers ignoring tables speaking English (i.e. us), snickering about my cleavage—and the bizarre last straw—finding a screw in one of our dishes, my experience with foodie-approved Au Pied de Cochon was unappetizing to say the least. I would never return unless I felt like being hazed like an outcast in a high school cafeteria.

So, when I heard about Au Pied de Cochon by way of Long Island City, my first thought was "These fuckers?" Ok, ok, M. Wells turned out to be the project of just one chef from the Montreal restaurant and his wife. Innocent until proven guilty.

M wells coffee

And the gussied-up diner ended up being completely charming despite my aversion to brunch, or more accurately brunchers. I think one of its saving graces is the isolated location, despite being right across from midtown with a 7 stop feet from the front door. There was a small crowd when we arrived around 1pm, and we probably could’ve gotten a table within ten minutes but opted for two empty stools at the end of the counter.

M wells doughnut

I didn't even mind the languid pacing—I had my coffee (Oslo, not Stumptown) and wasn't in any hurry. However, the dense, cakey doughnut brought over to buffer the lag between ordering and receiving our food was appreciated. 

M wells escargot & bone marrow

I'll order anything involving bone marrow and was curious what how escargots bone marrow with shallots and red wine puree might be presented (I'm not one of those customers who asks questions). Tight quarters with nearly everything on display, we happened to be sitting across from a prep cook so I could see this dish being composed. A bone halved lengthwise gets dotted with pink and gray blobs, then heaped with breadcrumbs and parsley, ready for the broiler. Crispy and unctuous, this preparation felt like a tiny luxury rather than the purist, fatty style more typically served.

M wells pickled tongue

The pickled pork tongue was a last minute extra, and I'm glad I squeezed it in. The tongue was tender, almost pot roast shreddable, and wonderful with the flaky housemade (the worst word but accurate) soda crackers and sharp mustard. None of it was much to look at on the plate, but this is exactly the kind of spartan snack I'd love to come home to after work.

M wells egg sausage sandwich

I did not partake in the already renowned breakfast sandwich on a housemade (there it is again) English muffin. I'm just not crazy about breakfast sausage; I think it's the sage. Then again, my sense of taste and smell could be off because I kept getting a very mild whiff of durian throughout the meal, and it turned out it was coming from this handheld meal. Weird. James declared the sandwich better than what he churns out on his completely unnecessary all-in-one mcmuffin making gadget. A win for M. Wells.

M. Wells * 21-17 49th Ave., Long Island City, NY


? There is that rare state you sometimes achieve while dining where everything gels, the food makes you happy, so too the company. Everything just feels right. You might not even notice the people around you, what they ordered, said or are wearing because you’re in a private bubble tuning out the world around you. Sometimes the feeling is teased out from fine dining, though it could just as easily rise from a plate of tacos. This intangible joy was not achieved at Corton.

This wasn’t surprising considering the disconnect between glowing critical reviews (mostly from the cusp of 2008/2009) and dismayed internet comments. I wanted to side with the professionals. Possibly because this was my Valentine’s Day gift, appropriately celebrated two days past the holiday. High expectations.

And when I learned this was where we were going, I immediately thought better against taking photos, invoking a never verbalized 2010 resolution to just enjoy my food, savor without the need to blog it. But I brought my camera just in case. It’s not easy going cold turkey.

Corton amuses

Amuses. Ricotta was involved. Something made the muffin-puffs on the left green.

Corton butter

Butter. The green speckled slab was flavored with seaweed.

Corton second amuse

Another amuse. The first but not the last of aspic-like textures. I think the crumbles were homemade Grape-Nuts.

For wine, I was interested in trying an Alsatian Riesling (plus, with a $145 tasting menu I was hesitant to dip into the triple-digit-plus white Burgundy even if I wasn’t the one paying) and we chose the 1999 Domaine Clos St. Landelin "Vorbourg" Grand Cru. It turned out to be the last bottle and was corked, at that. Instead, we were given an off-menu 2007 J. Meyer Grittematte.

Corton uni, black konbu gelée, caviar

Corton uni, black konbu gelée, caviar part 2

Uni, Black Konbu Gelée, Caviar

Many of the dishes came with sides, which was sort of unusual. The algae-colored uni creation was placed front and center with the caviar vessel placed to the right.

Corton foie gras, smoked beet, blackberry, plum kernel oil

Corton foie gras, smoked beet, blackberry, plum kernel oil part 2

Foie Gras, Smoked Beet, Blackberry, Plum Kernel Oil

This, and one of the semi-desserts came with their own bread. The compressed beet, blackberry disk looked like a sausage.

Corton spider crab, parmesan spaghetti, cockles, meyer lemon

Corton spider crab, parmesan spaghetti, cockles, meyer lemon part 2

Spider Crab, Parmesan Spaghetti, Cockles, Meyer Lemon

The squiggles were presented with a crab shell covering them like a dome. The carapace was quickly whisked away.

Corton atlantic turbot ‘saveurs du terroir’

Corton atlantic turbot ‘saveurs du terroir’ part 2

Corton atlantic turbot ‘saveurs du terroir’ part 3

Atlantic Turbot ‘Saveurs du Terroir’

The truffle-flecked fish formed into a tube, was a highlight. I also liked the use of a swampy green palette throughout the meal. This course went totally wild and was made up of three components.

Corton squab, torte, pine, madras, date purée.CR2

Corton squab, torte, pine, madras, date purée part 2

Squab, Torte, Pine, Madras, Date Purée

This is when the evening took a wrong turn. We had been seated next to a VIP who seemed to be a youngish chef and his wife/girlfriend celebrating a birthday. They were also doing a tasting and were neck and neck with us on courses, except each round they received was more amped up and laden with extras than ours. Big corner booth, truffles shaved tableside and so on.

That’s the way the world works. I understand. (If I were to show up in someone else’s corporate library, maybe they’d share a Lexis-Nexis password with me or something. Us professional researchers, total soigné treatment.) Grant Achatz explained the tricky balance of serving both mortals and VIPs in The Atlantic last year. “Sorry sir, you are not special enough to enjoy that creation.”

I began to take a photo of the ravioli, no one had even glanced our way up until this point, and the guest at the nearby table started doing the same with his cameraphone. Immediately, a woman who I assumed to be the manager, rushed over to me. “If you are taking photos for Flickr or Eater, the chef doesn’t allow that.” Only those two? I internally sassed. “We can provide press photos,” she added. Interesting angle, the image controlling. I was aware that Paul Liebrandt might be a bit of a killjoy, but I never imagined that would translate into a deflation of my own dining experience.

Nothing was said to the VIP. I don't begrudge them, but the scolding began to feel more acute with so much specialness being showered inches away.

This brings up a gazillion issues…or two. Spending $500 doesn’t entitle you to be a wild, food paparazzi douche but does it allow some degree of digital freedom?  Rube-like as it is, taking photos of my meals gives me memory-preserving pleasure, small amounts, granted, but how harmful is it for diners to indulge their dorky tendencies?

And then there is the matter of food blogging and the pathological reliance on photography. I wrote about what I ate in 2000 text-only and no one cared. I write about what I eat in 2010, illustrate meals with pictures and slightly more people care (though I think that has more to do with blogs being mainstream versus a decade ago).

I’m not naturally inclined to take photos of anything, food included. On my first visit to Asia in 2003 I only took 11 photos (pre-digital). My last trip to Asia I took a still-restrained 226. Tomorrow I leave for Bangkok and anticipate topping this. Photo-documentation is the new norm. When I took a cooking class in Oaxaca over Thanksgiving, nearly every single student from college kid to retiree had expensive, professional DSLRs and video cameras.

It is tough because who reads about food anymore without visuals? It’s all skimming and ogling, not about words. Can you name a popular photo-free dining blog? It all depends on what a food blog is for. Do people post photos as trophies, proof that they ate someplace exotic, expensive or popular? To make themselves seem more interesting based on their dining habits? I started cataloging where I ate as an offshoot of my ‘90s online diary, just a self-absorbed way to detail the day-to-day. Comments didn’t exist yet, it wasn’t about creating community. There were message boards for that. Only the few people who cared about me would even possibly care about what I was eating. At some point this shifted in a surprising way and strangers did start gaining audiences of other food-crazed strangers. One-upmanship emerged, scoops, personalities, social media experts. And now there is a glut.

I’ve been trying to extract myself from that genre for ages. The photo, caption, photo, caption blahness. I think this will be the last of my tasting menu shot-by-shot write ups. But if I knew how to create a compelling never seen before style of food blogging, I would do it. That’s the type of innovation that could keep you in Corton tasting menus every night of the week.

There were three more dishes, the desserts, to arrive. Even though at the time the Brillat-Savarin, Black Winter Truffle, White Chocolate was completely overwhelming, it’s the only item I ate at Corton that I thought about later. I was just thinking about the creamy wedge of dairy like a savory piece of birthday cake with a thin layer of truffles in the center where the frosting would be, a thin half-dollar circle of also creamy, déclassé white chocolate as garnish (and God, no, I won’t say it was “haunting”). There was a little piece of brioche as an accompaniment. This uncomplicated but luxurious bridge between sweet and savory was my favorite.

Marcona Almond Palette, Mandarin, Fennel, Tamarind and “Baba Bouchon”
Bitter Chocolate Crème, Yogurt Crumble, Muscovado Caramel followed. By the time the final chocolate course arrived, about three hours after being seated, I was antsy and ready to leave.

You may have noticed that I’m barely talking about flavors. I honestly can’t remember them. I kind of lost interest after the camera incident but I might be losing interest in high end dining overall. I rarely leave feeling satisfied, just kind of shoulder-shrugging and flat. I want to appreciate unique and fleeting experiences without fetishizing them.

Corton * 239 W. Broadway, New York, NY

SHO Shaun Hergatt

Anyone who has partaken in Restaurant Week more than once quickly realizes that it’s generally not worth it. In the past I’ve always ended up ordering off the regular menu, and now I rarely bother at all. It’s actually very easy to determine whether you should bite or not—is it an expensive restaurant or not an expensive restaurant?

Wildwood bbq 3 little piggies A few friends recently wanted to eat barbecue and none of us had been to Wildwood. Did we want to spend $35 apiece for an appetizer like fried green tomatoes, an entrée such as spare ribs and a chocolate molten cake when “Three Little Pigs,” a porky triumvirate of thick bacon, pulled pork, spare ribs and two sides (I chose baked beans and collard greens) was enough food for two meals and cost $21.95?

SHO Shaun Hergatt, on the other hand, is a mysterious (literally—it’s been covered in scaffolding for eons and has that ‘80s Shogun black lacquer, red accents, land of the rising sun vibe) upscale restaurant that I walk by every single day but have never felt compelled to visit. I know the chef is Australian and that he uses lots of imported exotica and gets flogged in The New York Times for being tone deaf and pricy when that’s not really true.

$69 isn’t an outrageous dinner prix-fixe, the Restaurant Week $24.07 lunch was a bargain and would not be a rip off at its normal $35. My own hesitation stemmed from the Wall Street location and odd placement in a maligned condo with my favorite tagline: The Setai. There’s no word for it in English. I associate the neighborhood with work, not leisure.

Sho shaun hergatt petuna farms ocean trout tartare

I had never heard of Petuna Farms, the purveyor of this ocean trout, and that is because it’s in freaking Tasmania. I’m totally un-locavore so the tartare and roe suited me just fine. I love seeing kalamansi on menus; I seriously thought it was going to be a break-out citrus in the mid-2000s but the Filipino fruit never made the mainstream jump like yuzu. The limey broth was tart, perhaps a touch too mouth-puckery, and slightly bitter in a grapefruit manner. The trout was rich enough to take it, though.

Sho shaun hergatt hibiscus & acacia honey glazed long island duck

The hibiscus-and-acacia-honey glazed Long Island duck was served with an apple cider vinegar sauce, brussels sprouts, turnips and a gelatinous cube that I wanted to say was beets based on color but wasn’t particularly beety. In both dishes the equation was unctuous+tart+bitter.

Sho shaun hergatt butterscotch parfait candied honey crisp, green apple sorbet

I’ll order anything butterscotch and was curious how they meant "parfait." Clearly, this was a modern scattered dessert not a composed chilled treat in a tall glass. The tawny poof looked like a marshmallow but was cold and creamy like ice cream, fluffy. Honeycrisp apples were used for sweetness while the sorbet was pure green apple. More of that tartness. This more like an apple crisp than a parfait.

I rarely talk wine, but if you are curious I had a glass of Lachini Vineyards 2007 pinot gris, then returned to work and saw Eric Asimov had just written about Oregon pinot gris being kind of boring. True enough, I had already forgotten what my wine tasted like 15 minutes later.

Sho shaun hergatt mignardises

If I had a personal chef I would like small, powerfully flavored portions of food for lunch every day instead of my usual light, soul-crushing soup or salad.

SHO Shaun Hergatt * 40 Broad St., New York, NY

Sue Perette

1/2 Sue Perette, a play on superette, and possibly an homage to JOE'S S PERETTE down the street, home of famous prosciutto balls and missing letter U signage, recently opened on Smith Street in the former Café Dore space (which used to be a crepe place that I ate at back in 2001, way before I knew anything about Carroll Gardens and rapidly got a lesson in the laissez-faire, children run free local parenting style that wouldn’t be tolerated in Sunset Park where I was living at the time). At least it’s not another Thai restaurant.

Periodically I feel like a bad person for my lack of enjoyment in living in a desirable neighborhood and then resolve to try new things in hopes that I’ll discover something to make me excited about Carroll Gardens. It’s yet to happen. Sue Perette, thankfully, didn’t add to my negativity, though.

At 7pm on a Wednesday, I was surprised that we were the only diners, and remained so until the very end of our meal when three groups slowly trickled in. I pegged Smith Street as an early bird zone considering that if you stroll around after 10pm on a weeknight you can literally hear crickets. A lot of passerbys did peek in the window and at the menu posted out front. I, myself, am hesitant to take a chance on an unproven restaurant with entrees over $20. Price could be part of it. Also new Wing Stop across the street might be more mid-week speed for many.

Sue perette bread

While a bit nondescript in looks, Sue Perette is more personable than generic–you know, the Luluc’s and Bar Tabacs of the strip. It’s one of those rustic, canning jar, no fear of lard restaurants. In fact, bread is served with both butter and pork fat.

Sue perette pastifret

I didn’t know that until after I ordered pastifret, a pate-rillettes hybrid, or else I might’ve thought twice about all the congealed white porcine products I would be ingesting and chosen something healthier. The creamy soft meat was served with traditionally sour accompaniments: pickled onions and cornichons.

Sue perette double duck

The menu is brief and not radical in any way;  it’s French country cooking that doesn’t stray too far afield. I tried the double duck, a crispy rare breast cut into thirds atop scattered Brussels sprouts leaves glossy from chunks of confit. My original plan to only eat half and save the rest for another meal didn’t work out. One, despite the richness, I still wanted to eat the whole portion, and two, duck is never the same after reheating, there’s no way to preserve the skin and keep the meat from overcooking and turning livery.

I might be inclined to return and cobble together a meal from the snack section of the menu. The Brussels sprouts with duck confit can be found there served minus the breast. Polenta fries with parsley aioli also sound like they have potential.

We passed on dessert and had a nightcap at Brooklyn Social Club instead. Part two in my quest to ignite the flames of Carroll Gardens passion. I did like my Brooklyn (I just like rye—I wasn’t going overboard in borough boosterism) but I wouldn’t go so far as to say love.

Sue Perette * 270 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY

Le Relais de Venise

Le Relais de Venise is responsible for cutting my lunk-headed
attempt at banning sugar, starch and alcohol from my diet for the month
of August three weeks short. I am weak in the face of golden skinny
fries and inexpensive red wine. $20 bottles of drinkable Bordeaux? I

Relais de venise exterior

Locations already exist in London, Barcelona and Paris, where the restaurant originated. I can’t put my finger on why…well, maybe the maid outfits the all-female servers wear combined with a blind Francophila (I’ll never forget the story about Japanese tourists in France being so traumatized by rude treatment they had to go into therapy)
but I can see Japanese loving this place. And from what I understand
the no reservations policy creates line-ups in other cities. No such
thing on an early Friday evening in Midtown. This could be the result
of the office-heavy location, lack of awareness or possibly because New
Yorkers don’t like their steak soft and sauced.

Relais de venise salad

you will be ordering steak since that’s the only entrée on the menu.
The $24 prix fixe includes a salad with a mustardy tarragon dressing
and walnuts and steak frites in two portions. This quirk is intended to
keep the food warm; plates are kept at side stations atop little
flames. It could also induce panic to Americans accustomed to big fat
slabs of meat rather than a fan of rosy protein that could fit into the
palm of your hand.

I do prefer minerally beef with fatty rims
and charred exterior, pale pink inside, but I can appreciate non-aged
sirloin as well. I’d take this over Outback Steakhouse, you know, just
for chain comparison. Oddly, medium-rare is not a choice. Degrees of
doneness start at bleu, go up to rare then jump to medium (let's not
talk about well). We took a chance on the medium, banking that it would
be on the rare side. It was.

Relais de venise steak frites

sauce is butter rich, herby and possibly flavored with liver. That
sounds a little odd but there was an unmistakable offal funk in the
background. I actually preferred the sauce with the fries, which were
perfect in their golden yet still pliable form.

Relais de venise interior

is swift. Despite only a handful of the tables being occupied in the
spacious corner restaurant, courses came quickly. Our seconds were
brought before we had polished off our firsts. My barely eaten fries
were topped off and made equal to James’s pile that had a deeper dent.
Advice to fried potato gluttons: the more fries you initially eat, the
more will be replaced.

Relais de venise cheese plate

dessert list was surprisingly long. We opted for cheese since I was
still operating under the delusion that I was detoxing (though I’ve
gone soft on alcohol, bread and potatoes I do restrict my sugar) and
fat is preferable to me than sweets. Comte, brie and a blue of some
sort were a nice finish. For only a few bucks more you can get a glass
of port with your cheese but we still had wine to carry us through.

don’t have a good feeling about this location and the concept seemed to
confuse many who walked up to the window menu with only one meal
listed. But it’s definitely worth at least one try even if you’re not
in the immediate neighborhood.

Le Relais de Venise * 590 Lexington Ave., New York, NY


Times Square is tricky for dining, most would say avoid it altogether, but sometimes it's just not worth fighting. There are out of town guests who enjoy being shown what makes NYC special—whether it's finding a platter of Filipino sisig that they can't get where they live or wowing with high caliber multicourse tasting menus or hip neighborhoody places that cure their own meat—and then there are those who would be perfectly happy eating anything, anywhere as long as it’s within a reasonable walking radius of their hotel, and not exorbitantly priced or a mob scene. It's not about the food, you’re just trying to catch up. Though if it were up to me, I'd walk way west to Pam's Real Thai or Tulcingo.

My grandma (I can’t say grandmother because it just doesn’t sound right even though it reads better. I could really go all out and type the more phonetic gramma, but that’s a hideous looking word) has never indicated any interest in French bistro food, but Maison it was. Two-blocks from the Sheraton and no wait on a Friday night are good enough for me. I don't know what suits her taste because I rarely make it back to Portland and she's more likely to take a cruise to New Zealand then come here. (I really need to learn some lessons from Oregonians like how to live on social security and babysitting jobs yet travel regularly. I do think that living in RV's and mobile homes, as other immediate family members do, certainly sucks less of your income than renting in prime Brooklyn, no secret there.) She has only visited NYC once before, along with my mom and sister in 1998, the year I moved here. I recall a positive experience with Sixth Street Indian, grumblings over Zen Palate (my sister's influence) and me losing my shit because they went to Tavern on the Green without me and when I got off work to meet them, bought me a Subway sandwich and told me to put a sock in it. I didn't have the good dining sense to yet realize I may have been better off eating the damn footlong and shutting up.

Maison charcuterie

Maison's charcuterie plate was better than a Subway Club® and the wooden plank overflowed with a larger selection of meat than I’d expected. It’s doubtful anything was cured or aged in house, but the smoked duck and pate wedges were particularly winsome.

Maison steak frites

I didn’t break any new ground and ordered the steak frites. Frankly, the best part was the fries…and the herb butter. The meat wasn't so flavorful. Sometimes I just should order a plate of fries if that's what I want. The leftovers did make a good breakfast steak sandwich the following day.

For the record, grandma ate penne with chicken and James had steak au poivre. I did not snap photos because I was trying to be restrained.

The service was surprisingly friendly and accommodating. I always assume that if you work in Times Square you must be cranky from dealing with tourists all day. Maybe I’m just projecting. No rushing, I was able to sip my second glass of Shiraz in peace. It’s also worth noting that Maison, like its relatives L’Express and French Roast, is open 24-hours in case you find yourself starving on Broadway and W. 54th in the middle of the night.

Me & grandma This might be what I look like in 38 years, though I don’t imagine my eyes will turn blue. Grandma also told me to give up my growing out my gray hair nonsense. No need to age yourself prematurely but I’m still continuing my experiment. I can’t stop yet.

Maison * 1700 Broadway, New York, NY

Jean Georges

1/2 There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to Valentine’s Day restaurant choices in my household. Last year I was surprised with bizarre, unromantic, now-shuttered Crave while this year during widespread economic gloom and doom, I was treated to Jean Georges. No complaints, here. And knowing my aversion to gimmickry, reservations were made mid-week rather than the 14th proper.

We went all out (though not so with wine, an apply-pear-ish 2001 German Riesling that I did not pick out but enjoyed) and ordered the seven-course signature tasting menu. I’ve never eaten at Jean Georges before so sampling classics seemed like the way to go. Honestly, I would’ve been fine with the $98 three-course prix fixe (I was curious about the Jordan almond-crusted duck breast despite reading about the dish being too sweet in more than one source. I love candied savories, though.) but James seemed hell bent on the egg caviar, which came with a $25 supplement charge with the lower-priced option. In his mind, this was thriftier because you were getting more food and not paying for extras.

Jean georges amuses

A shrimp egg roll and tiny Boston lettuce leaf, chicken broth spiked with meyer lemon and salmon with what I swear was said to be kumquat though I don’t recall tasting it and see no evidence of said fruit in this photo. This trio summed up what was to come: flavors that were sharp while remaining refined overall, heavy on the salt and acid with the occasional tiny nod to Asia.

Jean georges egg caviar

Ah, the eggs topped with eggs. The insides are an insanely creamy blend of egg, vodka and crème fraiche while the saline caviar adds a nice popping texture to the smooth interior layer. I never would’ve ordered this a la carte but I now understand why it is a classic. Total food porn.

Jean georges scallops, cauliflower, caper-raisin emulsion

Sea Scallops with Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion was actually the first course I would’ve ordered off the prix fixe because I was picturing something delicate and sweet. Oddly, this wasn’t dried grape sugary in the least but tart with a sauce that tasted of curry and mustard (but very well may have contained neither).

Jean georges garlic soup with thyme, frog legs

Young Garlic Soup with Thyme and Sauteed Frog's Legs. I didn’t feel the urge to dip the crispy appendages into the vivid, strongly seasoned broth (that salt and acid I was talking about) with my hands as suggested but did appreciate the warm water finger bowls strewn with rose petals that followed.

Jean georges turbot with chateau chalon sauce

Turbot with Chateau Chalon Sauce is another type of dish that would never occur to me to order. Just too simple. But of course that’s not true at all. The fish was poached to just-right firmness, the wine-based sauce was rich and buttery yet completely light and the miniature cubes of zucchini and tomato added fresh interest (despite not being quintessential February produce).

Jean georges lobster tartine, lemongrass fenugreek sauce, pea shoots

Lobster Tartine with Lemongrass and Fenugreek Broth and Pea Shoots might have been my favorite. Of course I was amused by the presence of fenugreek, now the official culprit of the NYC-area maple syrup smell. Here the subtle natural sweetness paired well with an equally restrained lemongrass flavor and enhanced the pure meaty hunk of lobster and claw. The orange sprinkles around the plate tasted like dried, pulverized shrimp though I imagine it was lobster-derived.

Our server sauced most of these dishes tableside, spooning mine from a silver vessel first. I did notice (as did James) that I tended to get more, which resulted in less for him. I received about 75% of this wonderful sauce and made sure not to waste any by using crusty rolls as edible sponge. James had white plate peeking through the bottom of his peach-colored pool.

Jean georges squab onion compote corn pancake foie gras

Broiled Squab, Onion Compote, Corn Pancake with Foie Gras was the final savory course. Normally, at this point I might be feeling a bit overstuffed but the portions were sensible (the lunch at Robuchon a Galera nearly killed me and there were fewer courses) and I was still excited about what was yet to come. This was the richest dish of all, dark meat spruced up with five-spice, sliver of preserved Meyer lemon and a warm nugget of foie gras. What’s a tasting menu minus foie gras?

I didn’t realize there were two schools of thought on a squab’s degree of doneness until watching this week’s DVRd Top Chef (obviously, I couldn’t simultaneously watch while enjoying this meal). I would say that this version leaned more towards done than rare. Not that it was overcooked, no nitpicking from me if I were a TV cooking competition judge, I just don’t recall seeing much pinkness. It was also impossible to extract all of the meat from bones with a knife and fork. More finger food.

Desserts could be chosen from four themes: winter, apple, caramel or chocolate. Just the night before I proclaimed my love of all things caramelly over chocolate (just like with shoes, purses and babies, I don’t understand where chocolate’s stereotype as a lady obsession comes from) because I enjoy making pointless declarations aloud.

Jean georges caramel dessert

Obviously, I chose caramel. From the top left: Chocolate Pop, Coffee-Cardamom Ice Cream; Vanilla Soda, Liquid Caramel Sphere; Warm Caramel Tart, Crispy Olive-Hazelnut Praline, Caramelized Bacon; Caramel Curd, Dehydrated Sponge, Roasted Pineapple Sorbet. The gooey blob in the front was my favorite. Yes, you can still win me over with bacon, and the also savory olive component added extra intrigue.

Jean georges winter dessert

This is a poorly photographed example of the winter dessert plate. All I remember is that there was a concord grape snow cone, a beignet and something meringue-marshmallowy and that this plate of treats looked more soft and comforting than mine.

Jean georges candies

I was just talking (ok, Twittering) with a friend who was impressed by someone she knew who’d recently received a dessert and candy course (at The London, it turned out). I, too, was wowed by such sweet overload at Robuchon a Galera, my first and recent encounter with this practice. You’re not going to find such overkill if you only ever go out for pizza and veggie burritos, I’m afraid.

I suppose technically these are mignardises not simply candies, but I’m American not French. The mini macarons didn’t taste terribly distinctive from each other. I think they might’ve been chocolate, strawberry and coffee. The gelees and chocolates were nice but the marshmallows—cranberry, vanilla and banana—were most impressive being cut with scissors from a coil tucked in a big glass jar wheeled out on a trolley.

There’s a place in hell for people who don’t eat their sweets. Is it just more refined to leave them on the plate like most of the diners finishing around the same time we did? I’m a freaking diabetic and I still ate mine (justified by only eating Wasa crackers, mushroom soup and oatmeal leading up to dinner, ugh, that sounds so beige and Eastern Bloc). I did manage to save the two take home gift chocolates until the following day.

Jean Georges * 1 Central Park West, New York, NY


After hearing that Patois, one of the Smith Street pioneers, was closing this weekend, James made reservations for Friday. Of course, now it seems that they will simply relocate across the street, but at least I had the opportunity to try one of the many eateries along South Brooklyn’s restaurant row that I normally walk past without a glance.

And Patois was very much what I expected: charming in a rustic cozy way (who can resist a roaring fireplace in the dead of winter?) with serviceable food. I can see why a French bistro would be something to celebrate in 1997. Now, there’s a lot of competition. Restaurants in this Gallic vein can be found all over Smith Street (Provence en Boite, Café Luluc, Robin du Bois, Bar Tabac) and environs (Jolie, Pit Stop, Quercy).

Patois pate

The slab of pate (on the right) was creamy, spreadable and more memorable than the coarser country-style slice beneath it. The accompaniments–cornichons, grainy mustard and tart vinaigrette–were all sharp, almost too much so. A stronger sweet component would’ve added balance. And now that I'm looking at the photo, I realize there are blobs of what must've been a fruity syrup yet I don't recall tasting it at all.

Patois steak frites

I loved the fries in my steak frites. The medium-rare beef was also well cooked. The only detraction was the cornstarch-thickened poivre sauce. We were sitting next to a drafty windowed door (completely my own choice. I initially liked the less hemmed in corner table. It wasn’t until we got settled that I realized how much of the frigid air was seeping through the wall behind me) so it didn’t take long for the thin peppery sauce to cool off, exposing a gluey consistency. Not that this deterred me from taking home leftovers.

Patois financier

The financier was larger than I had expected and not overly sweet. The insides were springy and studded with bits of melted chocolate, the outer edges golden and firm. What sold me was the scoop of coffee ice cream, though. I tend to choose based on extras not the feature.

Everything at Patois was perfunctory but lacking in small harmless ways. I left without a strong feeling one way or the other. I’ll be curious to see how the new location will differ, if at all, though I don’t know that I will return in the immediate future. It might be worth it for the mid-week prix fixe.

Patois * 255 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY