The Importance Bug

2008.Oct.07 Tuesday · 1 comment

in Restaurants

“When we lose sight of the distinction between our plans and the vision we are pursuing, we set ourselves up for a large dose of discouragement. A vision is a picture of what could and should be. A plan is a guess as to the best way to accomplish the vision. Failed plans should not be interpreted as a failed vision. Visions don’t change, they are only refined. Plans rarely stay the same, and are scrapped or adjusted as needed. Be stubborn about the vision, but flexible with your plan.”

– Dr. John C. Maxwell, The Seven Demands of Leadership

New York City – Who is to say a chef can’t change direction? I certainly am in no position to do so, and would certainly be a lousy example of someone “staying the course”. Sometimes, however, it’s worth stepping back from the daily fray and looking at where one has departed from “what worked” to see just how far away things may have gotten. Growth, in any profession, often means embracing that past as part of the future. Profound, no? What the hell is he talking about, I can hear it already. You see, once upon a time, there was a chef named Ed Brown who cooked at a strangely situated restaurant called Tropica, in what, at the time, was the Pan Am building. His specialty was fish, prepared and served in beautiful, simple, clear ways that emphasized the fish itself, and what surrounded the finny fellow on the plate was adornment, accentuation, amplification, if you will. And Ed was a nice guy. I met him a few times over the years, just in passing, at one food function or another.

I’m sure he’s still a nice guy, I don’t mean to imply otherwise. And he still cooks fish, and other things. But he’s “caught the bug” as one might say. It’s a bug that’s going around – on a metaphoric level, since that’s where I seem to be headed, I’m going to call it the Phyloxera Cocinas – you remember phyloxera, that bug that pokes holes in the roots of grapevines and sucks the life out of the vine, destroying whole vineyards that have firmly existed in one traditional historic spot or another, producing spectacular (or not, of course, the bug affects one and all, without regard to the quality of the final wine produced) nectars. And what does one do with a phyloxera infected root? One removes the root, and grafts on new roots, hoping that the combination of new roots and old vines will… take. Our metaphorical bug does much the same thing – it causes well grounded, talented chefs who produce delicious, delightful food, to go off and play with chemistry sets or pretend that instead of a Polish grandmother they had a Malaysian one… hmmm… I think the metaphor is going to break down around here, but you get the idea.

There’s a media frenzy out there that goes ga-ga at the mere mention of a new ingredient, a new technique, a new flavor combination, and the further afield it is, the more they applaud. And those solid, happy chefs who’ve been producing all that wonderful food that everyone enjoys suddenly start to feel left behind, no longer of note, perhaps even a little sad. And so they start over. New roots, new branches, new results… you see where I was going with all that nonsense above, right? So, back to Ed, and his new restaurant, 81, at 45 West 81st Street. He’s got the bug, I can see it, I can feel it… I didn’t talk to him when we had dinner there the other night, it was just palpable the minute I saw the place, saw the menu, and no question, when we started in on the food. Like I said, he still cooks fish, and other things, only… now they’re the adornment, the accentuation, the amplification – it’s become about the sauce, the technique, the special ingredient. [Closed]

Now, that’s not to say his food’s not good. It still is. The man can cook. But there’s a certain element of muddle, of mixed message, of… grafted rootstock. Oh drop the metaphor already, they say… fine, let’s get on to the restaurant, shall we? The space is dark, with lovely earthtones, interesting tile patterns, bits of wood and metal hither and thither. The bar is dominated by a huge piece of sheet metal with a hole cut in it, the hole containing an open box lined with distressed velvet, lit by a pinspot, and containing, itself, on a small pedestal, a bazillion dollar Lalique crystal bottle of 55 year old Macallan scotch which they officially sell for $1,200 a shot. The rest of the bar is sort of pushed aside for this monolith. A shame, as the rest of the bar is actually quite nicely appointed and stocked. Our bartender, a chatty Cathy sort, nattered on about the scotch while preparing a couple of well made martinis. Our water was served as well – from Scotland you know, the exact same water used to make Gleneagle scotch, apparently. Do make note, please.

The parade of dinner dishes started off with “the first amuse bouche”, a term that our bartender defined for us, just in case we didn’t understand it, then he headed off into discourse about his birthday party. But we were still stuck with “a scallop cigar in straw cream”. Straw? Really? Straw? One couldn’t taste the straw, though I’m sure we were meant to, and no doubt I could write at length about the faint perception of its flavor and all that, it was just clear we were meant to be impressed by its use. The “second amuse bouche” arrived – that’s when you know you’re in a place that’s “important”. They have two amuse bouches. This one, a dollop of burrata, that fresh mozzarella related cheese I’ve gone on about in the past, served with a “pesto of pistachio and basil” – quite good actually – as we were treated to a monologue on how burrata is made by our now ever-present bartender (the monologue, not the cheese). Our choice of wine, a 2005 Saint-Joseph from J.L. Chave, one of the few wines below the $70 mark on the list, yielded up a repetitive series of interruptions about the young man’s personal favorite Syrah, blended with a touch of Viognier, which we really must try some time….

81 - grilled, stuffed squid
On to appetizers, a trio – a chilled, lightly smoked corn soup, in and of itself pure, flavorful, and delicious, not really needing the bits of lobster perched in the center, and certainly not the temperature contrasting (and somewhat soggy) mini-eggroll of peekytoe crab that was served on a separate dish placed at its 2:00. A pair of small squid, beautifully roasted were stuffed with a chorizo and herb filling to mixed results – I thought the filling too salty and overwhelming for the delicacy of the squid, though I was outvoted by my dining companions, the plural taking into account the bartender who, other than when making drinks for waiters to cart off to diners in the dining room, was now telling us about his aquarium setups at home. Clownfish, apparently, are the way to go. Green something or others are too prone to kill the Oscars… or perhaps the other way around. Our third appetizer, a duck pate, quite good, served up with a delightful little stoneground mustard preparation and a bit of salad – classic, and it worked, in every way.

81 - cod with piperade and olive oil potatoes
81 - olive oil poached duck

Only a duo of main courses – a lovely cube of perfectly cooked, silken textured cod placed above a tasty olive oil mashed potato… oh, wait, no, “lightly crushed”, I’m sorry, I misspoke, the potatoes had not been mashed, they’d been lightly crushed. I did get the olive oil right. The piperade, an overly assertive pile of peppers and onions on the side was, simply, a mistake. We got into a conversation about creating a different dish which was only momentarily derailed by our hovering barman’s assertion that “you’re talking about brandade, that’s what it’s called you know, and it’s made with salt cod, not fresh” – he continued on obliviously about the process of salting cod while we returned to our conversation. We learned about his new puppy and its toiletry habits while we moved on to the excellent olive oil poached duck breast, served up with a toasted quinoa crust – that had the bartender off to his notes about the dishes, to come back and pronounce that quinoa, in case we were unfamiliar with, was a South American cereal grain. We returned to the plate and finished off the duck while he went on about it.

Desserts began to arrive, including a “palate cleanser” of concord grape soda with a float of some sort of ice cream – at which point we were having to restrain each other from reaching across the bar and slapping the bartender silly while he explained the purpose of a palate cleanser. An excellent blueberry corn pudding – really a fancy breakfast muffin – was on target, other than the two artfully placed pieces of caramel popcorn that simply cried out to be noticed. The pumpkin custard with its various foams and grape sorbets and such was a mess from my perspective – the pumpkin flavor so subtle as to disappear beneath the onslaught of accompaniments. A quintet of petits fours was served – just in case we weren’t yet sure how important of a place we were in – four chocolate bits that were of little interest, though there was a nice fruit jelly with a touch of something spicy in it.

So, where I’m left, sorting it all out and trying to ignore the intrusion of the bartender, which no doubt had an influence on the perception of the meal, is with a series of dishes, each of which had an ingredient or technique that was “the key”, something to be noted, and clearly, even though he was over the top about it, something the staff are trained to point out, just so’s you don’t miss it, you know? It let’s you know that this is serious, important food, not just dinner. But here’s the thing – it was well cooked, well prepared, with, perhaps, a few missteps, but despite the best efforts of one and all to shine a pinspot on it and serve it up on a pedestal, it was… just dinner. At $150 a head…. And while I know one can never go back, I must admit, I miss the Ed Brown I knew at Tropica.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

dan September 2, 2009 at 14:05

Just interesting to note, a little short of a year later, from today’s NY Times:

The new rule is simple: “Customers want excellence and indulgence at a really low price,” said Ed Brown, a 46-year-old chef, who instead of sulking in the $2 million dining room of his high-end restaurant Eighty One, on West 81st Street, aggressively reinvented everything from its menus to its cost structure. Average check costs are now $29 lower there. He recently unveiled a grill room offering salads, chicken wings and a $9 chuck-and-brisket hamburger.

Glad to hear! Now, about that bartender….

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