Friday, September 30, 2011

Fine dining

Recently, my lovely wife and I were invited to a friend's birthday party. A real adult thing. Sure, we know the honoree and her husband because of our kids (their eldest son and daughter have roughly the same ages, interests, and locations as The Boy and Q), but this night out was kid free.

The 16-person dinner was held at the restaurant Blue Hill, a city satellite of a full-on farm, 30 miles upstate in Pocantico Hills, that grows its own everything. Blue Hill New York lounges in the garden level of an old row house near Washington Square, a space once occupied by a speakeasy.* The couple had reserved the restaurant’s "Garden Room," a remote, lovely space just back of the compact kitchen and a row of waitstaff queued like planes waiting for the runway at LaGuardia. When we arrived, a slight (thoroughly non-farmer) waiter butlered hors d'oeuvres of raw and remarkably sweet grape tomatoes from a white bowl, and rows of lettuces, vivid miniature squashes, and carrots sprouting greens from a line of nails in a foot of barnwood. They were obviously proud of their ingredients, and rightly so.

The rest of the tasting menu didn't disappoint either. Each dish (beets, poached eggs, lamb — they kept coming) reacquainted us with how good food in New York can be, with the possibilities of gustation when really talented people dedicate themselves to it. The time itself was just as delectable. We all knew each other in different degrees and ways, and in between bites and wine sips, everyone talked around their kids as much as about them, working instead on the unknown and forgotten. One of the party was off to her 20th high-school reunion the next day, which, predictably, triggered ripples of recollection of once big events and looks that now to our older selves appear proper sized and ludicrous.

The meal closed with small scoops of rose hip ice cream on a plate as big as a shield. Dots of fruit complemented the ice cream, and together we determined they were strawberries. It was as if each berry had been delicately peeled or buffed lovingly by an angel or anyway cooked super slowly right up to the point of collapsing into the idea of strawberries. When all the dishes were empty, we hugged and kissed and wished well and caught a ride with friends home to our kids who had been asleep for hours. A truly lovely evening.

My wife and I don’t go out adult-wise all that much, and under our usual metric, the Blue Hill party easily banked us about six months' worth of big-person time. But then more good friends that we don't see often enough invited us out to join them and another couple for a birthday dinner. How could we not go?
This time we went to Le Cirque, a New York fixture from the 70's, the kind of place where the menu items come sourced with creation dates and chef names. My wife had been to Le Cirque years ago when the restaurant was still in the Palace Hotel on 50th and Madison, when she was still at a large law firm, and when firms like hers still used the city’s finest menus as recruiting tools. I remember her bringing home this delightful chocolate stove, complete with two miniature pots filled with some kind of fruit reduction.** We both thought the whole thing too pretty to eat, and we stashed it in our miniature West Village freezer until the cold burned the flavor out of it.

Le Cirque now occupies a grand chunk of the Bloomberg building's bottom floor on East 58th Street. The interior manages to look simultaneously modern and old money (which it is). But when our seats were ready, we passed through the curved dining room to a lone table in the kitchen. My wife and I knew we were there for the chef's tasting menu, but we didn't know we'd be in sight of the chef while tasting it.

Unlike Blue Hill, Le Cirque's kitchen was massive and populated. Directly behind our table ran a long stainless steel counter, and for hours we watched the chef and sous-chefs assemble and wipe drips off the rims of dishes that waiters took out, shot-put style, on heavy silver trays. The guy off to our right spent the night piling parsley-flecked fries into bowls that went, along with beautiful sliders, to people who were sadly not us. Still, our meal — all six courses — was its own revelation of hard choices: lobster salad or raw tuna with clementines, foie gras ravioli or lobster risotto, scallops layered with slices of black truffle the width and breadth of half dollars, Wagyu beef or baby chicken.***

Our dining companions were old friends from our first days in New York 18 years ago, and it didn't take long for us to eat away the time that had passed since we were last together. We remembered ourselves before and after kids and asked each other whether we preferred making to eating good food. (Myself, I'm almost always taken with process over product, and I particularly appreciate the mysterious alchemy of kitchens.) And we drank lots and lots of wine chosen for us by a woman with a French job title.

We completed our recent menu of fine dining experiences with our anniversary dinner. We celebrate our anniversary each year with a family night out at nice place, and this year we went to Kittichai, an upscale Thai restaurant in the Thompson Hotel in SoHo. Our kids love a good restaurant almost as much as we do (and The Boy, given his ever sharpening eye for design, probably even more so), and my wife and I genuinely enjoy their company. The space was super cool, all provocatively bottom-lit golden silk and teak, and in the center of the main dining room, a pond with candles on lily pads circling magically and endlessly. Orchids were everywhere, including the one that garnished Q's puckery lime drink and, later, her ear. We ate ourselves silly again, this time short ribs in whiskey barbeque sauce, chicken in green curry, chili-smoked hanger steak, and Valrhona chocolate cake served in a banana leaf. By the end, only the creased leaf was left.

After Q and The Boy took their time marveling over the rows of orchids in jars at the restaurant's entrance, we staggered out into the day’s last light. At first, we wanted to walk home along the river and the sunset, but on our way west we saw that with just a little wait we could catch a bus home. Q cradled three orchid blossoms and The Boy talked lemongrass and longbeans as the bus made its way back to our own kitchen, the one with the red stool that helps them participate in the doughs and the dishes.

And if I had room for another dessert, I might have a little of the two "Le Cirque" Stove Cakes still sitting on the top shelf in our fridge.

*Funny that so many restaurants claim to occupy former speakeasies. Exclusivity and myth power New York as much as anywhere else.
**Originally conceived of and crafted by the deliriously skilled chocolatier Jacques Torres.
***Okay, everyone opted for the beef over the chicken without hesitation or regret.

1 comment:

teahouse said...

Sounds like a lovely culinary adventure!

I've actually boycotted Blue Hill because its owner, Dan Barber, was really rude to me when I spoke to him during a recent event. He also spoke derisively about the "idiots from New Jersey" who invade his restaurant and eat all of his lovingly prepared haute food. Seriously. So while I've heard wonderful things about the place, I can't bring myself to give him any money...