December 27, 2007

Two Days in Manhattan

Last week, my wife and I had the rare opportunity – rare for us, that is – to spend not quite two days in New York City.

The trip, ostensibly to see the (still) undefeated Pitt men’s basketball team take on (the no longer!) undefeated Duke men’s basketball team (you da’ man, Levance) at Madison Square Garden, almost didn’t happen because of various familial illnesses. In the end, however, it did happen, although not quite as I had planned – said plan almost strictly revolving around food.

Most of the details of the trip are, as Dr. Evil once opined, inconsequential. One worth noting is that my intention to eat a Neapolitan-style coal- or wood-fired pizza never materialized, primarily because of my own stupidity and indecisiveness.

The other is that, of the two exemplary meals we did have, the stars were the appetizers. Here some details are necessary.

Market Table

The first meal was at a restaurant called Market Table in Greenwich Village, a well-regarded eatery that has ties to an even more highly regarded restaurant called The Little Owl where I tried, but failed, to get a reservation.

We arrived, amazingly, at 10:00 p.m., the exact time of our reservation, despite the basketball game running long because of overly intrusive referees and one (incredible) overtime period.

We had hardly eaten all day and, truth be told, neither my wife nor I were in ideal gastrointestinal condition for a meal at a fairly high-end restaurant. But we were in the Big Apple, and had no intention of letting a little GI distress interfere with well-researched plans to enjoy culinary delights.

My wife ordered the bacon-wrapped scallops, hardly a unique appetizer, but one that came highly recommended (via Chowhound's Manhattan board) nonetheless. I went with the gnocchi with short ribs. This read like a heavy appetizer and probably not the ideal choice given the situation. In the end, however, it was the best decision I have made in some time.

There is no picture to be had because our digital camera was resting idly in our valet-parked car at the hotel, which means it was, for all intensive purposes, out of reach until our departure on Saturday morning. And it was too dark for my camera phone to provide anything more than what resembled a pasta apparition.

In any case, a picture would not do this little plate of wonder any justice: light, perfectly chewy petite gnocchi, with little shreds of succulent short ribs and tender escarole chunks in a savory “parmesan broth” that I would have poured down my throat if I were sitting at my own dining room table.

My wife agreed that, although her scallops were excellent, the gnocchi were beyond exceptional. Which led me to actually vocalize the question:

Will this be a case in which the entrée will, for no fault of its own, be a letdown?

I had just eaten what was, in my estimation, one of the most wonderful things I have tasted in a long time. By that measure, how could it not?

As it turns out, the entrée, a mammoth braised lamb shank (accompanied by a gruyere gratin and some braised escarole), was quite good. Excellent, in fact. But it did not exceed the gnocchi.

In the lamb shank’s defense, I was already feeling full by the time it arrived. Remnants of a nasty, cruel flu-like illness were still lurking in my chest cavity, and, as a result, I had eaten so little over the past two weeks that I had lost two pounds without a lick of exercise. Also, we had already downed two-thirds of a bottle of red by the time the lamb arrived.

The lamb shank was incredibly flavorful and tender, pieces effortlessly dropping from the bone with only a slight prodding from my fork. The flavor, in fact, was too intense. The dish was so rich that I had to take each lamb bit with a little gratin and escarole to tame it. Even with this workaround, I ate not even a quarter of the lamb shank, apologizing to our waitress for letting so much food go to waste and cursing the fact that our hotel room had no refrigerator.


The next night we had 8:45 reservations at another well-regarded restaurant, August, run by an alumni of Mario Batali’s uber-famous Babbo (yet another place where 3 weeks was insufficient lead time to obtain a reservation!), Tony Liu.

The star of August is the wood-burning oven, which is where a majority of the dishes on the sparse, but intriguing, European menu are cooked. This includes, not surprisingly, the tarte flambé.

The flambé begins with a light, crisp, flavorful (dare I say perfect!) crust accented by just a little char. It was the perfect delivery vehicle for seriously luscious caramelized onions and bacon and red cabbage, all sitting on a bed of crème fraiche. Again, here we were, faced with a welcome dilemma, that the entrée could potentially be a disappointment following such a wonderful starter.

Our entrees were both well prepared. My wife had the whole oven-roasted orata and I had a really interesting (“interesting” in the best sense of the word, not the backhanded insult kind of way) baked farro pizzichi pasta, which had bits of speck, red cabbage, and a healthy dose of sage. These were new flavor combinations for me and were truly enjoyable. But my dish, at least, was not as good as the flambé. The orata was quite remarkable, but if I were forced to choose, I’d probably have another flambé.

I’m still kicking myself about the pizza. And I’m still dreaming about that gnocchi.

* Statue of Liberty image from Ellis Island Foundation Statue of Liberty picture page.

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