Al Pacino's Jewish Younger Brother Mounts The Stove...
On a recent visit to NYC, I had an opportunity to catch up with an old friend whom I've known since childhood. I can say with a smile that he is definitely a foodie geek, spending hours online discussing the latest 'iteration' of sourdough starter, and other burning issues that seem to strike at the heart of the New York City food scene, including where to secure a fifty-pound sack of Damerera Sugar, or twenty pounds of Benton's bacon. He is plugged-in, and knows not just where to get the best five-for-a-dollar dumplings in Chinatown, but how to secure a reservation at Waldy Malouf's or David Chang's latest clusterfucks (Kitchen Table at Beacon, and Ko, respectively). Occasionally, he is asked to have his picture taken at a well-known restaurant, or makes reservations at hot restaurants for friends who don't have the connections to get in (even if they're famous and he's not). And he regularly accompanies a very well-known dining critic to dinner, one who trusts his opinion about all things 'hip'.
So when I mentioned I would be passing through from Miami on a Saturday night, with the possibility of having just one meal in New York, I was tantalized by which James Beard Award-winning chef he was going to suggest, which Chef's Table, which open kitchen, which STAR would I be writing home about? “We're having a Farmer's Market meal at John's House,” he told me over the phone. “Let me see if I can get you in.”
I hadn't heard of the place, so I muttered, “Huh? Where's that?”
“In Brooklyn,” he said. “Cobble Hill, actually.”
I hadn't really heard of anything in Cobble Hill lately, but then I AM in Miami, where people come to get tan, not fed. I keep up with the food scenes in most major cities, though, but my last trip to Brooklyn, maybe five years ago, was to a little restaurant called Sample. “Is it near Sample?” I asked.
The tone of derision on the other end of the line was gratuitous, palpable, and yet, a necessary welcome to New York. “It's my friend John's house,” he patiently explained. “We all go to the farmers markets, get the best stuff, and then cook it all in his big-ass kitchen.” Then he added, “You moron.” I guess being out of NYC for a couple of years can really slow down the reflexes. Welcome home. I'm a moron.
The charming house in Brooklyn does indeed have a great kitchen. Chef-envy equipment, yes, but most importantly in New York, plenty of room to move (once the dog settles down, anyway). And that's key when you have four guys whirring about, all of whom need you to get the fuck out of the way while they cook; even as Don's girlfriend Kathy takes pictures; Mitch's wife Alison slumps at the counter like a contented cat, pouncing on some spicy sopressata and other salumi/sausages from Faicco's Pork Store on Bleecker St; Jeannie, who shares the house with John and dog (and shakes her head lovingly when he brings out his 50-pound sack of sugar), wonders aloud about the very important wine pairings (I hear Dr. Loosen's name bandied about); and Sam's GF Kay, from Kansas, is troubled by her 8:30 AM church service, where she will be performing as a professional singer. (And there's me, of course, just generally in the way.) This is after the first cocktail, which in true, Modern Mixology New York cocktail bar fashion, is a strong, but very smooth Jack Rose, made with barrel-proof Applejack (John and Don are the Monday night bartenders at the wickedly popular, (but somehow smoothly sane) 'underground' PDT (Please Don't Tell) cocktail bar that you enter through a nondescript, unmarked phone booth).
And that's when the rest of us (non-cooks) settle in for a long night of pleasure. I don't know how else to say it. There are few things that measure up to the joy of watching friends cook together, and meeting some new friends, while embarking on a great meal. The talk is not always of food, or wine, but the focus is always on the food (and drink, of course). Like John's first course of Scallops, which are ceviche-style, but are really more like crudo, as they have bathed in the chili oil, blood orange zest, and green and red jalapeño and serrona peppers for just a short period of time. The presentation is beautiful, if you can imagine all the bright colors of this dish, and the scallops taste sweet, with the crunch of the peppers highlighting their smooth texture. They are served alongside John's Negroni-infused cucumber slices; and if you can get your head around that one, and you realize that this was just an amouse-bouche, albeit a big one, you know that this had to be an incredible eating experience.
While I was lounging around, getting into some heated Miami versus New York rhetoric (I let NY win), and crunching on some marinated favas and olives, I watched as Sam, one of three opera singers in the room, prepared his crab and salmon roe ravioli, all the while booming out banter. John and Mitch, with arms duly outstretched to hold the long homemade dough, looked like they were kids holding up yarn for Grandma. But they were unbowed. In fact, there was an incredible energy throughout the evening. As one small course after another seemed to fill our bellies, the wine, and, particularly, for some reason, Don's 'Benton's Bacon'-flecked gougères, actually seemed to expand our hunger. Or maybe hunger isn't the right word. More like desire. Desire for Sam's ravioli served with pea shoots in a miso butter. And a dry Chablis...a wine picked out and fretted over by Jeannie, John's wife, who mastered the pairings over five courses, right up until the final Caramel-Crisped Apple, and the four cheeses (yes, dessert AND cheeses).
But I was quickly awakened from my reverie by the dog barking-perhaps he was as startled as I was by the flames in the kitchen, as John suavely (man, that guy was relaxed) ignited the mushrooms cooking on the stove with some George T. Stagg 140 proof Bourbon, and then cooked the Long Island Sea Bass, which was destined to top some creamed leeks and the flambeed, Bourbon-ized yellow oyster mushrooms. These were crispy-skinned fillets, and John had spent some serious and unexpected prep time tweeezer-ing out tons of pin-bones, to the delight and comfort of everyone else, who gave the cook a roar of approval (in fact, if I remember correctly, there was much roaring that evening). The non-stop butter-basting (really more like bathing) didn't hurt, either.
Next up were a trio of gnocchi's, hand-rolled by Don; and all that after he had squeezed out dozens of the gougères from a pastry bag. The man is all about the dough. With girlfriend Kathy taking pictures of his speed-work, Don rolled out Beet, Butternut Squash, and Ricotta dumplings, with bright purple and yellow colors blazing. There was Sage Butter for the beet, Sausage Ragù for the melting ricotta, and the butternut squash gnocchi's were served with foie gras bits and sauteed in foie gras butter. Charlie Trotter be damned, sometimes there is nothing quite as fine as foie gras, unless it is fuckin' foie gras butter, which, oddly, did not taste 'buttery' at all, but almost gamey. Wine was drunk, a Sauternes, perhaps? A 1995 Cabernet? A Chablis, another white Burgundy? It all starts to go hazy here.
And that's not good when the final savory course is the Four-Hour-Braised Boneless Short Ribs, which I watched Mitch peel from the bone that same afternoon. Parenthetically, I hereby nominate Mitch as Honorary Jewish Mother of the Year, 2008. “So, you want to get your hands dirty picking up a bone? Of course not. Let me do it for you. Enjoy your friends.” But seriously, served in a reduced Red Wine Sauce, made from the thick pan juices and finished with Fresh Horseradish, over Celeriac and Yukon Gold Potato Purée, this dish could satisfy the hunger of millions (and probably has). Its old-fashioned-style flavor, from slow cooking at low temperature, starts from the tender meat closest to the bone, and emanates out to the meat's crust. It is also toothy enough to satisfy texturally. Chews good, if you know what I mean. And the humble glazed carrots are surprisingly sugary. “The simple, quality carrot. That's all it is,” says Mitch, who has begun to look somewhat glazed himself.
Everyone's humming, it seems, as the food and drink and good company have buzzed us all into an unseasonably warm winter evening. And although I ended up making it back to NYC for a few more meals after this one at John & Jeannie's home, this was the one that I remember most fondly. And as we waited for the taxi back to Manhattan, a curious quiet overwhelmed the group. Except for John, of course. He was doing the dishes.
(Courtesy Miami SunPost www.miamisunpost.com/archives/2008/04-03/040308bites.htm Photos (good ones) courtesy Mitch Weinstein...Video, and blogger-blurry photos are my responsibility...)
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