Tag Archives: foie gras

Caviar for the 99%

caviar-wikipediaThere is a dish you can eat in a cellar in Brooklyn that is a work of art, and also soulful. It costs $12, and will fill you up.

That dish is Mekelburg’s salt-baked potato with crème fraîche, black caviar, and smoked black cod.

You may think it’s not for you because caviar is a token of luxury, in a city where you finally understand you cannot afford luxury. You may assume the roe must be inferior and the dish somehow a sham, because the really good stuff wouldn’t cost $12, not even as a dollop on top of a potato. Ignore your thoughts, though, and just eat the thing: a huge potato completely covering a small plate, with unctuous, salty bits of smoked fish around it (and, you will discover, thoroughly veined in a little network inside it, like eggs or seeds).

That fish is smoked sable, what “black cod” is called when it’s at home. Ashkenazi Jews of a certain age know sable as the best thing to put on a bagel, so much better than lox it’s not funny. On top of the potato is a creamy mound of crème fraîche with a huge load of unusually buttery, unsalty, even fruity-tasting caviar on it. There is softened butter with dill (and more bits of sable) around the edges of the plate. Together, the potato and sable and only-slightly-sour cream and caviar make up a food that mixes Jewish and Gentile, the feeling of being cared for by one’s mother and the delights you can get when you go out on your own into the world. How that plate brought together salt, sweet, fat, sophisticated, homey almost made me cry.

It’s an odd time for eating out in New York. The places most likely to be reviewed by critics are restaurants where entrées cost $30 and tasting menus cost $100 and more. They are tiny food-temples and shiny mega-boîtes where most of us can’t go even if, by normal US standards, we are “upper income” — little palaces where, we, reader, certainly can’t eat if we are what the government calls either low income or middle-class. (Note that $55,575 is the median household income in the United States; median household income in the city is $67,201.) Reading the reviews has become an exercise in tantalized frustration: breathing in paragon writer Pete Wells’ description, in the New York Times, of the grated frozen foie gras appetizer at Momofuko Ko, you could be forgiven for feeling like the orphan cousin not invited to the party. “A cook behind the counter would rub a frozen cured brick of it across a Microplane held above a bowl with pine nut brittle, riesling jelly and lobes of lychee, showering them with falling pink flakes of airborne pleasure.” (The liver is part of the $195 tasting menu for lunch or dinner, the only way that you can eat at Ko.) The other spots in critics’ reviews – restaurants like Cosme and Blue Hill and even Contra and The Spotted Pig — are not for us, either, unless we’re in the top 5%, or interested in acquiring a load of debt that will cripple us.
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Bad Fancy New Nordic

new Nordic food

Karen’s orange fish roe tacos were delicious, but they were each the size of my pinky (which is smaller than most women’s). The two miniscule tacos came, strangely, on an enormous branch of pine, looking as though a Christmas tree had been torn from the woods and hacked up to add a festive touch to our mid-May table.

It did add drama to our dinner. And each tiny taco was indeed pristine and lemony in its tiny shell, though the smoked fish that was supposed to be the main attraction consisted of dollhouse-sized bits and could barely be tasted. (These so-called “smoked fish tacos” are $14.) But when you’re still hungry after three courses, who needs drama?

My own appetizer, foie gras and langoustine ($19), puzzled me because it was not appetizing. To those of you who say it serves me right for eating force-fed duck, you’re probably right. But I was surprised that somehow Acme Restaurant, Noho base for the “new Nordic” cuisine that is currently the world’s most chic, had managed to make foie gras that wasn’t at all silky or luxuriant, and to make langoustine (a smaller, delicate, delicious European relative of the lobster) that tasted like nothing. The foie gras, which in terrine form at least tastes to me like liver that has somehow been made perfect and even addictive, didn’t taste like much of anything, either. It did have a discomfiting, slightly wet texture. The only element of the dish I could really perceive with my taste buds were the white walnuts scattered throughout the other two foods, which tasted just fine. Did I mention we were splurging at ridiculous risk to our solvency for my birthday dinner?

I’ve always loved pricey restaurants, though increasingly, I am not sure why. I grew up working class, and the first time I entered a rich people’s restaurant, at age 14 in Truro, Massachusetts, I wanted to go back again and again until I was mentally stuffed with the beautiful garden setting and the silver breadbasket from which the waiter haughtily lifted out, for each member of my family, a single slice of bread with his silver tongs. (My father, bless him, to the waiter: “You can just leave the whole basket on the table, ‘ cause we’re gonna want more.”)

That restaurant, at least, had delicious entrées. (Thirty-seven years later, I can still remember the best bluefish I have ever eaten.) But at Acme, my entrée, Cast-Iron Duck Egg with peas, garbanzo beans, and spinach, was only as tasty as something I myself might throw together at home on an indifferent night. It was much less satisfying than that dinner I might cook at home because of its wee size ($14). There was one, count ’em, one fried duck egg on the child-size cast-iron skillet delivered to me on a bed of hay. (The bored, clearly suffering waitress did not want to to answer our questions about the food, but finally told us, gritting her teeth, that the hay had not been used to add any flavor to the dish, but was merely decorative. In a telephone interview, a manager, Charlie Smith, informed me that the hay was visually intended to “evoke a duck laying an egg in a bed of hay.”)

For the rest of this review in Gay City News, click here.