Scarpetta, Beverly Hills (December 2011)

Having enjoyed an expectation-exceeding meal at Scarpetta earlier this year, I decided to return, in no small part to savor another bowl of spaghetti and polenta, but also to see if everything was as delicious as I remember. It is. 

Upon being seated, we were greeted by Ashley, a friend and server, who knew I’d only be in town for a few days and wanted to make sure my experience was memorable by incorporating several off-the-menu items into our ten-course dinner. Ashley’s faultless service was reinforced by a charming Florentine named Fabricio, while Chef Freddy Vargas did his part in the kitchen.

We started off on a (mostly) familiar note, a fish preparation that included–from left to right–(1) yellowtail with ginger oil and pink Hawaiian sea salt, (2) a roulade of tuna brimming with preserved truffles and crunchy carrots and (3) ono tartare with radish, pickled cucumber, chives and finger lime.

After the disappointing tartare just days earlier at ink., I was glad to have that memory cascaded over by a carpaccio of Wagyu beef garlanded with an uni vinaigrette, potato crisps and shaved white truffles.

Another delicious repeat was the creamy polenta topped with truffled mushrooms, though this iteration benefited from the addition of shaved black truffles.

Moving to a slightly lighter offering, next came an impeccably seared sea scallop with tiny triangles of parsnip, parsnip purée, bloomsdale spinach and a thyme-truffle reduction.

All three of the pasta courses–(1) spaghetti with tomatoes, basil and a slight piquancy from red pepper flakes, (2) a squid ink-laced stracci with lobster, tomato and basil breadcrumbs and (3) spinach-imbued tagliolini with dungeness crab, chili, shaved black truffles and an emulsion of egg yolk, pasta water and preserved truffles–proved to be a veritable dissertation on upscale rusticity as the pleasantly toothsome-textured noodles equilibrated with delicious condiments. 

For the penultimate savory course of the evening, we were treated to another off-menu item: pan seared turbot with almost impossibly sweet cippollini onions–both whole and julienned–and a salsify-cippolini sauce.

And to finish, yet another off-menu dish: a yielding coriander-crusted venison with yam purée, cherries and chestnut spatezle.

The trio of dessert–from left to right, (1) a flourless chocolate cake with burnt orange-caramel gelato, (2) deconstructed apple crostata with crispy brioche, caramelized apple and cranberry compote, and (3) date pudding with caramelized banana, pomegranate and oatmeal-banana gelato–delivered just enough sugar to balance the cavalcade of well-seasoned savory courses. 

Content and sipping an espresso, I concluded that somehow Scarpetta managed to become even better, and I cannot wait to return to take Chef Vargas up on his offer to sit at the counter and allow him to personally cook for us all night.

Advertisements

ink., Los Angeles (December 2011)

Having been deprived of even moderately creative restaurants for four months, I was most excited to try ink. After parrying the hostess’ attempt to cram us into the corner section of a banquette, we were eventually seated at a commodious four-top and met by Jessica, our gregarious server for the evening.

A number of menu items piqued our interest, so we went ahead and ordered fourteen of the sixteen savory dishes and three of the four desserts. To start, the kitchen sent out elegantly plated carrots with coffee-cardamon soil, a hint of curry and coconut milk ice quickly followed by Dungeness crab encased in charred avocado garlanded with whipped fish sauce studded with mushroom crackers and a diaphanous fluke crudo with romaine, lemon oil, radish and cubes of fried Caesar dressing.

The next set of plates included, (1) a satisfying salad of kale, Asian pear, burrata, pumpkin seeds and imperceptible yuzu, (2) fried pig ears atop house-cured lardo, which was draped over Brussels sprouts and apple, and (3) pleasantly elastic giant squid spaghetti with hazelnut-ink pesto, basil and piment d’espelette.

With one delicious plate after another up to that point, I suppose the kitchen was due for a dud, and they delivered: under-seasoned beef tartare with hearts of palm, sea beans and sea bean chimichurri, all of which was overwhelmed by the outwardly scene-from-Scarface snow of horseradish.

And then, swinging the pendulum entirely in the other direction, out came the two tastiest dishes of the dinner: (1) compressed Jidori chicken with crispy waffles, hot sauce and smoked maple syrup redolent of campfire marshmallows and (2) poutine of braised lamb neck, chickpea, yogurt curds and chive purée.

The next three plates, alas, were middling: (1) octopus sitting on cream of chive-studded dehydrated potato, black olive oil and lemon purée, (2) a nicely cooked sea bass in a saffron-mussel broth marred by plastic-y shishito peppers and kelp pasta and (3) an overbearing charcoal oil-laden plate of pork cheeks, leeks and a cannelloni of macaroni and cheese.

 

For the final two savory courses, we enjoyed sweetbreads with purple cauliflower, capers and smoked raisins and a robustly flavored, Maillard-succored skirt steak with tamarind BBQ sauce, turnips, turnip purée and crispy potato cylinders.

 

Transitioning to dessert, all three–(1) “peanut butter, milk chocolate, coconut,” (2)”apple, créme caramel, burnt wood sabayon, walnut,” and (3) “grapefruit curd, avocado, cilantro sorbet, charred, maple-lime”–were delivered at once; if I were to summarize my feelings about the desserts with a monepic, it would simply be “Yum.”


Eating at ink. almost invariably begs for comparisons with Red Medicine. Regarding the food, both restaurants challenge patrons’ reference points but also suffer from the occasional pratfall. On the ambiance and service fronts, though, advantage ink; it’s manifestly quieter, while also retaining a sense of humor (e.g. see the picture of Tony Hawk relieving himself above the toilet) and isn’t nearly as beset by hipster insouciance.

Daniel, New York (July 2011)

“A human being,” George Orwell wrote, “is primarily a bag for putting food into.” Perhaps I took Orwell’s quote a bit too seriously with my four-and-a-half hour dinner at Daniel, but it would be the last three-star Michelin meal of my trip. Going into the meal, I had a slender familiarity with Chef Boulud’s food, having eaten at his now shuttered DB Brasserie in Vegas and having watched his thoroughly edifying show After Hours. Slotted as the 11th best restaurant in the world this year, Daniel is often thought to have one of the grandest dining rooms in the country and is talked about as the place where other chefs go to celebrate.

Arriving at the Columbus Circle subway station, I unsurely navigated the one mile walk over to Daniel. Upon entering, I was first met by an older woman who tended the coats; she gave me a once-over, as if I had entered the wrong restaurant due to my lack of sartorial ambition, and when I told her I was here for dinner she pointed me toward the check-in stand where I would without wait be taken to a seat in a corner on the outer perimeter.

I was next met by Julian, an ectomorphic Frenchman, who would be my server for the evening. He began to explain the menu, “there is a three-course, six-course and eight-course tasting.” To which I replied, can we possibly add a few items to hit ten? Julian’s eyes took on a preternatural sparkle and inaugurated what would become a sodality-like interaction. He went to the kitchen and came back telling me the chef was going to do fourteen courses. Having agreed to a Lucullan path, I also opted for a partial wine pairing, which amounted to nine glasses.

With the order placed, out came the amuse. From left to right, there’s a thin slice of smoked salmon with beets, a beet mousse with granny smith apple, a piece of beet cured fluke and finally, closest to the lens–and the first lagniappe–an oceany pungent oyster en gelée with lemongrass.

While I abstained from bread, I acceded to having slices of garlic-parmesan and raisin-walnut placed on my plate both of which went untouched (Julian and Miguel, the primary runner, noticed and omitted bread from the cheese course).

For the first course, the kitchen started off with a duo of terrines: Sauternes-poached foie topped with marcona almonds and a squab with bok choy and five-spiced turnip; I thought one too many textures masked the quadrilateral of squab, but the foie was appropriately creamy.

Next, a nitid chilled corn soup with piquillo pepper, chive oil, mussel broth, sable fish and Iberico ham followed by a fusillade of fish courses: (1) ceviche of tai snapper with celery, North Dakota caviar, radish, a soft pile of sea urchin roe in a cucumber-fennel-celery broth, (2) trio of hamachi, including a confit with sorrel, watercrest coulis and hearts of palm, a tartare with Northern Lights caviar in a lemon-omani tuile and cured in Bergamot with snap peas, (3) red wine braised octopus both in a salad and tempura-fried with feta, cilantro, piquillo oil, capers and almond (all of which boasted beautiful textures), (4) phyllo-crusted Scottish langoustine with yogurt, cucumber spaghetti and lime vinaigrette, (5) King salmon with black olive mosto oil, oregano, sauteed spinach and zucchini involtini filled with squash blossom and tomato marmalade, whose sweetness equilibrated the nicely salted fish and piquant oil.

At that point, nearing my wine threshold, I decided to get up and try to walk off some of the crapulence, realizing I couldn’t continue at the same rate.

When I returned, the fig leaf-wrapped baked black bass with syrah sauce, fennel custard and viscid figs was placed in front of me; it was coup de foudre, inducing wondrous horripilations. This is the best fish dish I’ve eaten to date, tout court.

While not quite as decadent as the rabbit offering at La Folie, this trio–saddle, leg roulade and chop with rabbit jus, carrot puree, grilled porcini, bulgar wheat and cilantro–proved satisfying, and to my surprise, the lean cuts stood up to the untimid dramatis personae.

Transitioning to the heartier meats, out came a trio of veal: sweetbread, cheek and tenderloin with pepper oil and eggplant caponata. Just as I was bracing to introduce my knife to the veal, Chef Boulud appeared out of the corner of my eye and walked up to my table and said, “you’re doing a lot of courses tonight!” We chatted about agricultural policy for a bit before he wished me a bon appetit and allowed me to get back to the triadic indulgence in front of me.

Ending the savory courses with a duo of baby lamb, it was the saporous shoulder meat encased in a parmesan cracker that bested the saddle. The accoutrement included baby asparagus and lamb jus, of course, as well as cous cous coated in asparagus purée. I’m happy to report that this was one of the best pieces of lamb it has ever been my pleasure to eat: intense while remaining tender, deep and with the flavor of an animal that has lived a good–if abridged–life.

The cheese course, which included harder offerings (per my request) from sheep, cow and goat’s milk, was among the best amalgams I’ve experienced. Julian suggested I start at six o’clock and work my way through the plate clockwise; after sampling each, it was the vinegar-washed rind from Hudson Valley that stood out among its peers.

I found the gradual temperature diminution from the warm lamb to room temperature cheese to chilled dessert especially well-planned. For the first dessert, the pastry station started off with a blackberry napoleon and a chilled vacherin alongside stipples of blackberry purée.

And then, for what I thought was the valedictory course: toffee and mascavado ice cream and a frangible cyclinder filled with brown sugar biscuit and Haitian coffee cream. Upon setting down the plate, Julian asked, “do you want a little scotch to make you happy?” No, I told him. Instead, we agreed on coffee as a digestivo.

With my plate clean and my plate being cleared, I asked Julian if it’d be okay to go for one last stroll before mignardises, to which he responded, “pastry has one more dessert for you,” and it turned out to be the most delicious of the bunch: a horchata ice cream, silken rice-based “angel hair pasta,” a puffed rice cluster and an edifice of chocolate and hazelnut.

I was reaching full capacity at this point, but Miguel had other ideas, bringing out well over a dozen warm madeleines, petite fours–a lemon verbena macaron, raspberry pearl tart, chocolate hazelnut cremeux and three others which I was too full to taste–along with coffee, peanut butter, passion fruit, lemon verbena truffles.

 

Despite my best efforts to get him to nosh on some of the sweets with me, Miguel politely declined; in the course of our confab, he commented, “That’s the best meal I’ve ever seen anyone eat here.” I said, “Well, that’s great to hear, but Mike Isabella’s over there, and I’m sure he’ll be eating very well tonight.” Miguel responded assertively, “he won’t be eating as well as you just did.”

Having finished all of the food I was going to, the maître d’ walked me back to the kitchen to meet Executive Chef Jean François Bruel. Immediately after introducing himself and shaking my hand, he asked, “what was your favorite dish?” “The bass,” I said enthusiastically, “it made me question whether I should ever cook fish again.” I continued to heap on the complements as we talked about food for the next fifteen minutes (for whatever reason, I felt far more comfortable among the cooks than I did in the dining room among the beau monde). And we agreed, at extraordinary establishments like Daniel, it’s about trusting the staff and submitting to the kitchen, knowing they will deliver a world-class experience. 

With all of its twists and turns, dinner at Daniel reminds me of the long and winding sentences with which Nabokov seasons the pages of Pnin; at first, one is inspired to write. When one views the corpus of accomplishments in their entirety, the thought soon veers toward, “why bother?”