Postcards from the Edge
Restaurant tips for Harlem's newest tenant; a legendary Moroccan oil; extreme sushi in Chicago; a renowned London chef comes to Virginia; a radical Paris wine bar.
Memo to Bill
TO: William Jefferson Clinton
FROM: The Editors
Congratulations on your decision to lease office space in Harlem. We do, however, feel compelled to warn you about your new neighborhood. While Harlem is rich in history, churches and Democrats, it's also a dietary minefield. A slew of new restaurants has opened recently, serving the best Southern food Harlem has seen in years. You are no doubt aware of the peril such restaurants can pose for the older, less active ex-President. So with your permission, we'd like to offer a list of addresses to avoid. In fact, you might consider eating most of your meals in Chappaqua.
1. Bayou Most dishes here are fairly innocuous, at least for Creole food. But watch out for the fried oysters, served on buttery spinach and topped with slabs of melted brie. You'd have to jog for miles to erase the calories in one oyster--and you get four to a plate (308 Lenox Ave.; 212-426-3800).
2. Miss Maude's Spoonbread Too This place is trouble, sir. Trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P that stands for Pork Ribs, Potato Salad and Pecan Pie. Miss Maude's has one of the best fry cooks in Harlem, too, so the chicken and catfish are browned to an irresistible crisp (547 Lenox Ave.; 212-690-3100).
3. Amy Ruth's We know you've already eaten here, so perhaps it's wise to adopt a been-there/done-that attitude. Otherwise you may find yourself working your way through all 12 chicken-and-waffle combinations. Or sitting by the cake stands at the counter, contemplating one more slice of that treacherous coconut cake (113 W. 116th St.; 212-280-8779).
4. Jimmy's Uptown Like early retirement, Jimmy's is a mixed blessing. Pro: It's got a virtually fat-free tuna seviche. Con: It also offers Harlem's first foie gras. Pro: There's a dance floor where you can work off your dinner. Con: That dance floor is filled with attractive young women. But temptations of that sort aren't within the purview of this memo, so we'll let you make the call, Mr. President (2207 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Blvd.; 212-491-4000).
Driving into a valley town in southern Morocco, I witnessed an unforgettable sight: tiny black goats clambering up the branches of gnarled argan trees to get at the fruit. Later that day, in a ramshackle stall in the souk, I learned how the fruit is harvested, sun-dried and cracked to reveal a nut that's then toasted and ground into a paste that releases a voluptuous oil. Argan oil tastes of nuts, toast and ripe olives; the Moroccans work it into couscous and salad dressings, pour it on tagines and combine it with honey to make amalou, a concoction they spread on bread for breakfast.
Now New York chefs have taken up argan oil. Gerry Hayden of Aureole drizzles it over roast baby lamb stuffed with dates and lemon confit. Philippe Schmit of Orsay sauces a pistachio-crusted snapper with argan oil and a vinaigrette of caper berries and blood orange juice. Mediterranean-food expert Paula Wolfert has been a fan of argan oil for years: This recipe is from her Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. When the oil was scarce in the States, she advised substituting walnut oil; now you can make amalou with the real thing (available from Todaro Brothers; 212-679-7766).
The Living End
At Heat, a sushi restaurant near the El on the edgy side of Chicago's Old Town neighborhood, moray eels, rockfish and flounder peer out at diners' legs from tanks below the bar. Up above, sea urchins nestle on smoking clouds of dry ice. They are the tragic players in an ancient Japanese drama known as ikezukuri (roughly translated: prepare live). Sushi "so fresh it jumps on your plate" is a cliché, but at Heat it is literally true. Executive Chef Kee Chan and his crew serve seafood while it's still alive and squirming.
Nobu Matsuhisa introduced ikezukuri to American diners in Los Angeles a few years back, but Californians did not welcome the tradition. Protests and bomb threats from animal-rights organizations forced Matsuhisa to drop all his live offerings except one, lobster sashimi. Chicago, historically a carnivorous town, has proved more receptive. Everywhere I've gone for the past month, people want to know if I've been to "the place that gives you sushi that's still flopping around." The curious wander into Heat in droves to gawk at the saltwater aquariums outfitted with a $10,000 air-compression system for oxygenating the final residence of many a fish and crustacean.
Chef Chan insists that the taste of live sushi is unparalleled. When a fish is killed and refrigerated before serving, he claims, its natural oils seep into the flesh and give it a stronger, more pronounced flavor. To taste sashimi as it should be, I embark on the ikezukuri adventure. Pushing aside the intriguing menu of nonliving delicacies (glass-eel tempura, baby abalone, and the Sake Shirako Shooter, a sake-and-cod-sperm cocktail) in favor of far fresher delights, I order suzuki, or Florida sea bass.
Chef Chan proudly presents a clear plastic box containing suzuki-san himself, freshly plucked from his tank. Chan leaves, then returns moments later. Suzuki-san is a skeleton of his former self: Glistening slices of sashimi encircle his twitching head, fins and tail. "Still moving!" Chan exclaims. I ask how the fish are put to rest. "It's like an operation," he says. "We make a thin slit in the tail, and the fish passes out from the shock." Then the fish are skinned and filleted--without gutting, he explains, to keep violence to a minimum.
Next come a briny giant orange clam and a pearly North Atlantic scallop the size of a golf ball, each sliced and returned, quivering, to its respective shell. The peak of the meal, though, is ise ebi, a clawless spiny lobster. It arrives sashimi-style and in its carapace. After I have swished the meat in a mixture of Heat's own soy sauce and fresh wasabi, and eaten every last slice, the chef takes the plate away, only to come back bearing the cut-up carcass and its roe in bowls of fragrant miso broth. A dramatic two-course dish, well worth its $52 price tag.
Chan slays up to 10 kinds of seafood each night. Other chefs are said to be readying copycat versions, but for now, Heat is the liveliest sushi bar in town (1507 N. Sedgwick St.; 312-397-9818).
The Unfiltered Truth
Le Verre Volé, a tiny, friendly Paris wine shop and bar that opened a year ago in the newly trendy neighborhood near the Canal Saint-Martin, doesn't seem like the setting for radical ideas. So I was totally unprepared for my first sip of Prieuré-Roch Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire. This unfiltered, unsulfured wine tasted more like it had been siphoned out of an aging barrel than poured from a bottle. Unlike similar wines I'd tried before, the flavor was fresh, with lots of great fruit, rather than complex and deeply extracted.
Seated at one of Cyril Bordarier's four small tables, I learned more about what he calls vins naturels. Bordarier, who is 32 and studied wine at the Université du Vin in Suze-la-Rousse, told me about his favorite rebel winemakers: in the Loire, Pierre and Catherine Breton; in the Beaujolais, Yvon Métras; in the Rhône, Michele Laurent at Domaine Gramenon and the team of René-Jean Dard and François Ribo... all disciples of wine guru Jules Chauvet. A négociant in the Beaujolais, Chauvet feared that chemical-based agriculture was wiping out the all-important influence of terroir (the character that the soil and climate of a place impart to its wines and foods), which spurred him to reject techniques like filtering wine and adding sulfur to it.
The noninterventionist approach to winemaking, while contrarian, is not exactly new; wine consultant Michel Rolland has famously advocated it for years. But Rolland's wines are rich and concentrated. The lively, uncomplicated wines Bordarier champions are something else entirely.
Bordarier's passion for terroir extends to every item on his short blackboard menu. Each has a pedigree: boudin noir and caillette (a pork sausage with Swiss chard and herbs) from local charcutier Joël Meurdesoif, andouillette from Thierry Daniel in Troyes, delicious cheeses and butter from Jean-Yves Bordier in Saint-Malo; even the chewy baguette comes from a nearby baker, Jean Hautecoeur. After four hours, when we finally ended our afternoon with Joseph Landron's experimental Muscadet from the Loire, I felt like Le Verre Volé had been around for decades. It may be a newcomer, but it has an old soul (67 rue de Lancry; 011-33-1-48-03-17-34).
New Maestro in Town
For years, Ritz-Carlton Hotels called each of their luxury restaurants the Dining Room and left it at that. But recently, in deciding to overhaul that rather generic approach, Ritz-Carlton hired 27-year-old Fabio Trabocchi to relaunch the restaurant at its Tysons Corner property in McLean, Virginia. So who is this boy who merits a restaurant with a real name--Maestro--and a $1.5 million renovation?
Well, Trabocchi won a Carlton London Restaurant Award as Best Young Chef of 1999 for his cooking at Floriana, whereupon British Vogue pronounced his food "already legendary." When I asked a British restaurant hound about him, she swooned: "Oh, Trabocchi! He's a genius! Where is he now?"
Having now sampled a preopening lunch, I can confirm that the Brits did not exaggerate. Trabocchi's food is soulful and passionate--not simple, not pretentious. A steamed dorade stuffed with sea urchin featured a porcini custard and a triangular shard of crisped skin; it looked as if Frank Gehry had seized the plate. A spiced and roasted mallard came in two unfussed-with parts: the rich confit leg with a honeyed pear, and the breast (hallelujah, it was well done!) with tiny, Armagnac-marinated cherries. There aren't many reasons to go to Tysons Corner, but trust me, that duck is enough (1700 Tysons Blvd.; 703-506-4300).