New York: Top 10 Oddball Dishes That Work

imageIt all started in the Lower East Side back in 2003 — before the skinny-jeaned hipster invasion — when now-celeb chef Wylie Dufresne opened wd-50. Melding science and food, the molecular gastronomer has since inspired many to experiment. Of course, not everyone’s into mad food science, but most chefs like to get a little edgy somewhere on the menu. ● Cookies @ Momofuku Bakery Milk Bar (East Village) – David Chang could get a vegetarian hooked on pork belly, so imagine what the man’s dessert spot can do with a cookie. Among the most drool-worthy: cornflake-marshmallow-chocolate chip, corn, blueberry cream, and compost cookie (so fabulously odd that the chocolate chip, pretzel, potato chip, coffee ground, and graham-cracker crumb-concoction is trademarked). ● Onion soup dumplings @ Stanton Social (Lower East Side – You’ll just have to focus on its deliciousness and put aside the fact that there’s enough cheese in this dish to give you a cholesterol problem.

● “Ragu with Odd Things” @ Commerce (West Village) – The name says it all. The “odd things” in this hearty, tomato-based dish refer to oxtail, trotters, and tripe. ● Fried apple pie @ Smith’s (Greenwich Village) – We’ve got fried pickles, fried olives, fried asparagus … we’ve even got fried mayonnaise thanks to Wylie Dufresne. So why not apply pie? Plus, it comes with cinnamon whipped cream. ● Solids (edible cocktails) @ Tailor (Soho) – Who wouldn’t want to get a buzz from gin fizz marshmallows, white Russian breakfast cereal, and absinthe gummy bears? ● Foie gras & hibiscus beet borscht gelée with blood orange @ Corton (Tribeca) – The smooth foie gras torchon — encased in a thin layer of hibiscus and beet gelée and served, moon-shaped, with a salad of beet gelée and blood orange — is just one of the many lusciously innovative options at this prix-fixe-only spot. ● Spicy cayenne hot chocolate @ SalonTea (Upper East Side) – In addition to supposedly speeding up your metabolism and improving blood circulation, it aids in digestion; this sure beats the garlic, celery, and beet concoction from the local health store juice bar. ● Frozen desserts @ Fabio Piccolo Fiore (Midtown East) – Anyone who watches Iron Chef on a semi-regular basis knows that nothings gets the judges more excited than ice cream and sorbet experimentations. Taste for yourself what they’re ooing and ahhing about at Fabio where the rotating flavors include fig and honey, cucumber, rosemary, cactus berry, pineapple mint, tomato vanilla, and goat cheese. ● Hamburger spring rolls @ Delicatessen (Soho) – Burger + flaky dough + condiments…could there be a more ingenious combination? ● Eggs benedict @ wd-50 (Lower East Side) – Dufresne has long touted eggs benedict as one of his favorite dishes, so it’s little surprise that his innovative take on the classic stands out: two cubes of deep-fried hollandaise sauce with toasted English muffin crumbs and two columns of egg yolk, each covered with a crispy bacon chip.

Rioja Restaurant Week: Spanish Sauce on the Cheap

imageFrom April 26 to May 2, New York’s getting an obscure holiday — Rioja Restaurant Week. It’s like Normal Restaurant Week, but instead of being inspired merely by New Yorkers’ inherent desire to eat fine foods on the cheap, it throws oenophilia into the mix. La Rioja, an autonomous region in northern Spain, produces a full range of wines … rosés, reds, whites. Riojans claim their wine pairs better than any other in the world, and to prove it, they’ve set up a bunch of deals with a few participating restaurants all over Manhattan to get the word out.

For example:

● A 25% discounted bottle of Rioja at Stanton Social, Veritas, and The Mermaid Inn.

● A $50 prix-fixe at Chinatown Brasserie, Tailor, and Flex Mussels.

● Call for changing Rioja specials at Lure (where you can also use your BlackBook iPhone app to get a sweet happy hour deal), Smith’s, Las Ramblas.

Industry Insiders: Danny Abrams, Average Diner

We’ve all got recession fever, but no other business is feeling the heat quite like the service industry. While most restaurateurs are agonizing at empty tables and fleeting sales, Danny Abrams — co-owner of Smith’s and head honcho at The Mermaid Inn — has been enjoying the perks of a flourishing eatery with a new executive chef (Doug Psaltis, formerly of Country, The French Laundry, and Mix) and a creative menu with comfort-foodie fare. Abrams tells us how he started out in the business, the ways in which the landscape of New York restaurants is changing, and why being a nice guy and an “average diner” have put him at the top of his game.

Smith’s is now in its second year; you recently installed Doug Psaltis as executive chef. What’s that been like? I’ve never had this kind of radical change. Bringing in somebody who has pedigree and has experience is something new for me. I just like working with a professional chef. Sometimes, you know, finding a good chef, or finding a good partner, is like finding a girlfriend — you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs. Sometimes you go through a few people, and you meet a bunch of people, and they all speak well, they speak a good game, but when it comes down to producing a great product and running a professional kitchen … it’s rare.

Doug’s only been there for a few short weeks. How’s it going? It’s a process. We’ve definitely seen progress on our end. Our regulars have enjoyed the changes that we’ve made. Bringing Doug certainly has gotten some interest for Smith’s. We’ve made a lot of progress and some great strides in a short amount of time, and I just expect it to get better and better.

What are some of your favorite things off the new menu? I love the beef tartare. A lot of the times you get beef tartare and it’s a little bit mushy, and I think the way Doug cuts it, it’s a little bit chewy and chunky, which I like. I love the chicken and grits.

You’ve done really well with serving comfort food classics in New York. Starting out as a restaurateur, was this the kind of food you wanted to serve? Well, I will say that I try and build restaurants, and I try to work with food that I like to eat, and I’m a pretty average diner. So if I like it, other people will like it. I don’t really like to reinvent the wheel.

And how did you get started wanting to be a restaurateur and working in the service industry? I was a bartender for years, and I opened my first bar in 1991, and that did well. Then, I opened a dance club, and that did well. Then, we opened a place called Prohibition on the Upper West Side; I opened a restaurant called Citrus, and luckily, that did well. So, I went from bars and clubs and kind of jazz lounge environments to wanting to be in the restaurant business. The first real restaurant that I opened was the Red Cat, on 10th Avenue. I got a taste for being able to provide an environment that people enjoyed and a product that people enjoyed.

When you started out with that first bartending gig, did you know you wanted to be in the service industry? No, I just wanted to make some money and have enough to go out and have fun.

It seems like a lot of people who end up in a career in the service industry, besides chefs and restaurateurs, don’t always start out with that goal in mind. What about this line of work’s so appealing to so many people? That’s a great observation because a lot of people that wound up in the restaurant business didn’t really plan on it. They didn’t go to college for it, they didn’t think when they were a kid, “I can’t wait to grow up and be a restaurateur,” or, you know, run a hotel or something like that. There’s something about the romantic aspect of it, where you’re kind of the host of the party every night, and there’s something really interesting about providing an environment where, at the end of a long, stressful day in one of the most difficult cities on the planet, people can come and let their hair down and enjoy what you’re providing.

You’ve worked in the service industry since 1986. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen, especially in the New York restaurant landscape? The biggest change is peoples’ expectations, which have been heightened, and there’s so much more competition for your dollar. In the past, if you provided one or two of those elements, they could still kind of have a good experience.

And now? Right now, everything has to gel: The service has to be great, the environment has to be great, the product has to be great.

Is this kind of economically and fiscally conservative dining continuing as a trend? We’re going to get through this. I think that it’s cyclical, and I think that the first quarter of ’09 is going to be the most difficult quarter for the recession. It’ll shake out some of the operators that got in for the wrong reasons, or thought they could get by without providing the service that people were expecting.

What’s exciting that’s going on in food right now, to you, in New York? The big trend I see is the fruition of very small, chef-driven restaurants. The days of opening a $5 million, 200-seat extravaganza have certainly fallen by the wayside. If you see the success of restaurants like Perilla and Market Table, and places like that — Franny’s, in Brooklyn — there’s been a lot of owner-operated, chef-operated restaurants, as opposed to restaurateur-operated restaurants, and that’s really cool.

Examples? You get a chef like Joey Campanaro from The Little Owl, who is at that restaurant all the time trying to make it better, and coming up with great food and great ideas, and Mikey Price from Market Table, who’s putting in 16 hours a day, really watching over his business, and that’s great; that’s getting back to the spirit of opening a restaurant.

When you’re not at your restaurants, where do you like to grab a bite? You know, I’m lucky — between my girlfriend and I, we have four restaurants, and we often go to the restaurants that we own. I do like Market Table, Mikey does a great job. I like Little Owl, I love Perilla.

And again, I had such an amazing meal at Smith’s, I can’t even tell you. Everything was on point, just proficient on all levels. I’m really glad you enjoyed it, you know, that makes me feel great, and it just reaffirms that working with Doug has been the right choice. That’s great, I appreciate that, really. Be sure to tell all your friends.

Industry Insiders: Doug Psaltis, Comfort Chef

Doug Psaltis, the newly installed executive chef and partner at Smith’s — Cindy Smith and restaurateur Danny Abrams’ (The Mermaid Inn) Greenwich Village American bistro — explains what “comfort food” is to him, why he left high-end French cuisine for chicken and grits, and whether or not he’d rewrite his (fairly controversial) book, given a chance.

How’d you end up at Smith’s? I come from a background of formal French training in a lot of high-end restaurants in Midtown Manhattan. The last restaurant I was at: executive chef at Geoffrey Zakarian’s Country here in New York. It had a café downstairs, fine dining upstairs. I was overseeing that project from the beginning through the first two and a half years, and it was great. It was a fantastic run and a great challenge for me, and really one I enjoyed. The upstairs dining room was something that followed in a lot of the training I had of working with the Atlantic House before, for five years, working for a period of time with Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.

What happened when you left Country? That really was something, the dining room at Country, a great opportunity for learning, and it was a great place for me to really express some very classical, very formal dining technique and experience with the team that I had there for me. But leaving there, my first thoughts were, “Wow, I want to open up something bigger and grander.” And then, as time wore on, and I began to travel and see things, and think, you know, I reflected back that I’m a pretty young guy still, I’m 34, I love hanging out in casual places, I love going to Paris for the finest of meals, but I also would like to broaden my audience and who I cook for.

What’s important to you as a chef? The level of performance is something that is really important for me. I love expressing myself through food, and I love the medium of having a place that’s small enough to be able to control, but large enough in volume that we’re all happy with the pay. So, a restaurant like Smith’s is something that really excited me, because it’s downtown and has its own class and sophistication. But it’s small enough that I can really wrap my hands around it, and have fun with it, and kind of steer it in different directions as the week goes, as the days go. The most important thing is to comfort people. It isn’t to do a double-cooked pork chop, and do all the trimmings of an American comfort restaurant, but it’s to lower somebody’s … or to get rid of some … predetermination for somebody, and to really make them feel confident when they see a menu and they say, “Oh, chicken and grits, I know what that is,” as opposed to, you know, “French chicken with Anson Mills grits,” and things of that nature. So the whole intention of the menu, and I don’t know if “dumbed-down” is the correct phrase, but to really get rid of the intimidation factor, and things like that, and really allow them to look at something, be able to understand it, and order it.

Speaking of which: There’s a huge Southern influence on the menu. You cooked high-end food for a majority of your professional career. Where does that come from? I’m a big fan of Americana, a big fan of Southern food and barbecue, and things like that, and from growing up in New York, and working in my grandfather’s diner, there’s a lot of food like that that I really enjoy. My brother, who is a literary agent, eats my food as often as anybody, if not a lot more than anybody. And he had a chance to eat my food at (Alain Ducasse’s) Mix in New York, and at Country, and he was like, “Just cook what you cooked at Mix.” At Mix we had a dish on the menu that was called “Fresh Chicken with a Spiced Gravy” — it pretty much was a gumbo. So, I was like, you know, that’s a dish that I haven’t done in a while, but the flavors were great, and I had it from there. So, the down-home stuff, and the Southern stuff, you know, it comes from that.

With the economy trending downward, and the (literal) appetite for fine dining going with it, do you think the appreciation for these kind of less-intimidating, comfort-food dishes is going to be wider? I really do. I think good cooking is one thing people are really looking for. And I think right now is a point where everybody reaches for honesty; honesty in things you come to love, whether it’s your old sweatshirt and your coach on a Saturday as opposed to hitting the town hard, etc. People are definitely looking for that, and I think that honesty and integrity, and straight-forwardness in cooking, I think, is where people are at right now.

What’s your ideal meal? What are your favorite things you’re cooking at Smith’s right now, for you to eat yourself? My ideal meal is with my family, you know, to be eating the grilled squid that’s on the menu here. I’d definitely be having the beef tartare as well. I think I would love to have the chicken and grits. That would be my ideal meal. Yeah, I’d need the smell of the grill, the bread rubbed with garlic for the tartare that’s hot, you know, the fried cornichons with the tartare, that might inflect some humor, for me. And the chicken and grits served on a cast iron plate, and the gumbo sausage on there, and the gravy, and it’s moist and it’s delicious, and it’s spicy and it’s sweet. Those are things that really would comfort me, and they do tend to be comforting food here.

Who else is cooking in New York right now that you’re excited about? What Michael Anthony does at the Gramercy Tavern. I think he has a great connection to its food and what he does with it. You know, I love what they’re doing at Robuchon, which I know is a big thing, but I just love the execution of what they do there, I think it’s fantastic. And also I think what Michael Psilakis has done at Kefi is really incredible. I have a lot of respect for that as a restaurateur, and I think he’s phenomenal how he presents Greek flavors and reintroduces them to people.

You’re coming on as the second chef at Smith’s. What are you going to bring to the table there that is going to make the restaurant survive? Well, I’m not too familiar with the first chef. From what I understand, his food was great, and the way he did his business was great. I think what I do a little bit different is … good enough experience, and knowledge, and a strong drive. I think what’ll make this restaurant survive and will make it really great is the time I put in. And it’s not just on the food, it’s the whole service, to make it a complete restaurant, and to make it a place where you’re going to get great, great food cooked by people who care. I’m fortunate that the staff has been with me, especially in the kitchen, for at least, you know, six years — less for others, maybe four for my dishwasher and my sous chef — and we have a lot of joy and a lot of excitement in what we do. That’s going to be passed along to our guests to make it a very special place. You know, one of the things that I was interested in doing, that might have been done different here in the past, was lower the price point, and make it a place that’s really a neighborhood place, and be as friendly as possible, which is really something that Danny Abrams strives for.

Final question: it’s been four years since The Seasoning of a Chef came out. It was pretty controversial. Would you do the book again? If you had the chance to do it over, would you do it differently? I would do it again, for sure. Would I do it differently? There’s probably a lot of things I would change. It was the first time I went through the process of working with editors, and things of that nature. I thought the advanced reader copy that came out jumped the gun, and I didn’t really get a chance to see before it was printed. So, yeah: I’d do it differently.

New York: Top 5 New Haute/Homey Mashups

imageThe city’s choicest new restos roll out parlor-style welcomes …

1. Allen & Delancey Romantic, dimly lit rooms; red velvet, old bricks, dark walnut. Getting very fancy on old Delancey, you know. 2. bobo A Boho-Bourgie dinner party in a vintage Village brownstone. 3. Smith’s Simple black and white space serving Nouveau American to a smart crowd.

4. Eletarria Eclectic Central Village charmer for those nights you’re desperately craving tilefish with beets and cinnamon. 5. Shorty’s.32 Diminutive chef Josh Eden under-promises and overdelivers at this low-key neighborly hang.