Wednesday, August 13, 2014

NYC Restaurant Week 2014: The Leopard at Des Artistes

Quelle horreur. How many times will I have to remind myself not to go to a place that just looks fancy? The walk to The Leopard at Des Artistes through the stunning Upper West Side was the only memorable part of that entire lunch experience. 
We were drawn to the restaurant from the multitude of reviews describing the beautiful murals. If a restaurant’s walls are all you’ve noticed, well, that’s your first red flag.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough of a deterrent for us on that particular day.  Red flag number two was that we had no problem changing our lunch reservation from 11:00 to 12:00 to 1:30 and would’ve likely been able to continue switching it as spots were open around the clock. Quelle surprise, we thought. (By the way, I think the restaurant is actually Italian, but I don’t care enough to check.)

 I didn’t have enough fingers to count the amount of waiters that buzzed around us wearing uniforms that were part hospital, part line-cook. The uniforms seemed to all be one size, leaving some women nearly swimming in theirs, and some men inadvertently resembling cabana boys.  Of course, this was part of the restaurant’s attempt at eliciting a feeling of the bourgeois, gallery-esque environment instilled in it originally by the admittedly stunning murals, which I can only assume were originals. 
 The dining experience started with this: I had asked to see the drinks menu. I was told the drinks menu is “very tiny” and that it’s better for me to just think of a drink I would like and they’d make it.  I then responded that I couldn’t really come up with a drink (and price?) on the spot, so let’s just forget the whole thing and I’ll stick with water.  I was then offered the drinks menu.  I had now decided against everything, and refused the drinks menu. I was asked if I was sure. I said yes. That’s just how the leopard goes.

We were quite confused with the lunch menu.  For starters: salad, soup, or…a selection of muffins and scones. The latter clearly suggested the beginnings of a brunch, however, like those ‘choose your own adventure’ Goosebumps books, you had to be careful not to choose the wrong starter, for the main course would wildly deviate from the original path and lead you into the purgatory awkwardly situated between brunch and lunch.  The only brunch-esque option for the main meal (should one choose the muffin and scone starter) was what was described to me by waiter #92 as “poached eggs on tomato sauce in a skillet”.  At that, I briefly looked around to ascertain that we were not at Montana’s Steakhouse but at an upscale boutique restaurant in a highly unaffordable part of town.  Option Number Two from the mains section was a bowl of spaghetti.  That’s it, that’s all.  The third and last option, which threatened to pull us out of our brunch mood, was a burger and fries.  We opted for the aforementioned selection of pastries, followed incongruously by the burger and fries. Then, we proceeded to observe the patrons around us receiving their bread and olive oil amuse-bouche, as we were repeatedly regaled with tap water refills.  Apparently, our ‘choose your own adventure’ began on a bad note: future diners beware – if you order pastries, you do not qualify for the complimentary ‘while you wait’ bread. 
Our eleventh waiter was very upset/serious and refilled our waters with a furor that challenged our drinking skills. As he poured and poured, his shirt climbing to his forearms, all I wanted to say was “Where the f*ck is our free food?” Seriously, who punishes a customer for having chosen a bread-like starter?

The first course arrived quickly- a trendy, pleasant take on airplane food.  As can be seen in the photograph below, when they say mini, they mean mini.  A freshly-made inexplicably dry muffin, a soft, buttery croissant, a dry stone-like thing with black stuff in it (perhaps it is ze scone?) and a slice of hard bread akin to the one Jesus broke. To compliment said spread: a glob of actually delicious orange marmalade, and a ball of butter.  Out of this meal, I would half-recommend the croissant, maybe. 

Objects in photo are much smaller than they appear

 The entrée arrived a short while later.  To be honest, I still cannot believe what I saw: it was literally just a burger and fries.  No plate decoration, no edible flowers, no funky relish…just a patty with cheese and onions, and a tomato and lettuce topping.  Oh, and for that extra je ne sais quoi, I was presented with a garbage tomato.  The part of the tomato that has the hard green stub in it was literally sliced off and placed directly on my plate.  To compliment les frites, a delightful bowl of ketchup was placed by my plate, with a spoon tucked in. Wow much upscale so class…this ain’t like those other restaurants I’m used to, where we smear ketchup with our thumbs.  
The hamburger tasted like a hamburger. The bun, as you can see, was slightly burnt. The fries tasted like fries. They were slightly overcooked and I really can’t think of anything else to say about them because the whole meal was just so blah. There was nothing interesting about them, nothing inventive, exciting, nothing particularly delicious.
Nothing that would deserve the hoity toity awning outside of the restaurant, nor the stainless steel leopard erected proudly on the center windowsill. Oh, and let me just add that this hamburger and fries combo normally goes for $26 here. ORDER UP!

Note green item inside tomato 

In a last-ditch effort to exercise some much-deserve status (isn’t that what visiting upscale restaurants is all about? To act like you’re a really important person who deserves to be there?) I waited for the aforementioned sad/unimpressed eleventh waiter  to ask us how we were enjoying things, to point out the piece of vegetable garbage that was on my plate.  I pointed at it and elegantly described the “green thing that is typically thrown out” but the waiter did not react.  “It’s just that it’s really hard…and green..” I shed my really-important-person status and cowered under my own description. The waiter, without answering me, walked away and into the kitchen, emerging moments later with a little gold plate and tiny gold fork.  He pricked the tomato with the fork and deposited it like a velvet shoe upon the golden plate, and walked off. He then returned with a replacement tomato and deposited it just as gently atop my slab of lettuce. He did not look happy. No "sorry about that", no "here you go!"...just a Le sigh of disappointment, because apparently it was too much to ask that I not be fed refuse at a pretentious upscale establishment.  Edit: I later discovered that the fries definitely warranted the $26 price tag on account of the inventive 'rosemary' status. Come to think of it, I did spot a single leaf of rosemary at the bottom of my plate. I had assumed it was an insect, but this makes much more sense.

Dessert arrived shortly after, awaking me from my food coma (but not that kind of food coma). For those who do not know what a Crespella is, it’s a pancake.  That is, indeed, what we received: a pancake folded over custard, topped with a passion fruit sauce. The pancake tasted light and fluffy – like a pancake should- and the passion fruit sauce was oh my God I am so bored of this description and I don’t think I will make it to the end okay let’s keep trying. The passion fruit sauce was exactly as you would imagine passion fruit sauce. The custard did not deviate an ounce from what you’d expect from custard.  It really wasn’t bad, for what it was, but again, when you go to a place with such a high reputation, a place that took the time to participate in such an exciting culinary event and normally charges you fifteen arms and legs for a meal, you expect something a little more interesting. Then again, I imagine the quality of the regular cuisine deviates wildly from what we were treated to, as the pancake isn't even on the regular menu. Saved the Aunt Jemima for us, ah s'pose.

I still can’t help but feel that this is the kind of place people go to just to be seen in.  Sometimes a reputation precedes the quality of the cuisine, and maybe they’re riding on that, coupled with the superbly painted murals on the walls. I personally will never again set foot in this restaurant, because I feel my time and empty stomach were wasted on mediocrity. However, I don’t doubt that business will continue for them, given the healthy patron demographic comprised of ex-gallery owners and confused diplomats, happily scooping their runny eggs from their tomato-filled skillets. This is truly the first time in my life that a leopard has disappointed me.

Could I just see your mural menu, please?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

NYC Restaurant Week 2014: David Burke Kitchen

You can tell a lot about a restaurant by what they offer you to eat while you wait.   Some give you a variety of buns, while others give you a warm basket of rye. At David Burke’s, a small metal bucket was placed on our table. In it: a bunch of crisp grapes, pickled artisanal carrots, and eloquent cracker sticks. This reminded me of an interesting idea he mentioned in one of his cookbooks, about not using matching dishes to present his food. Instead, he mixes textures and colours to create an architectural structure that plays up the nature of the dish being served.

We started with lobster dumplings and fried octopus.  The dumplings, surprisingly, tasted like lobster. I’m used to crab cakes tasting sort of like white fish, and seafood ravioli tasting like mashed flour.  What I found interesting about this particular dish was that the lobster made its mark on the palette. The divide between lobster and dumpling dough was well-defined, and the dumplings had a very homemade texture – soft and just structured enough to hold the lobster in place. 
The octopus legs were crunchy, which I found took away that awkward ‘monster of the sea’ after-taste to have the food break apart so quickly with each chew. The crunchy texture made them seem almost candied, in the most perfect brulée way.  The octopus was on a bed of pickled vegetables, and though I’ve never been a huge fan of beets, of course the pickled pieces of onion and beet completely won me over.

Next came the pork.  Thin medallions, cooked until just surpassing ‘rare’ status.  I don’t often find pork so tender when not of the pulled variety, so I was surprised at both its texture and flavour. To the left of the ribs was a layer of pulled pork sandwiched between two biscuits. I found the biscuit a bit heavy and overpowering the ratio.  I could do without the top piece of biscuit.  Of course, the pulled pork inside was perfectly seasoned, had a soft texture as it should have, and left a beautiful oily mark on the bottom biscuit which was great for soaking up the remaining sauce.

The heritage pork was my favorite part of the meal.  A soft piece of pork, tenderly falling apart with each swipe of the fork.  The hearty piece sat on a bed of gnocchi-like pasta in a creamy mushroom sauce, and was adorned gently with a few slices of truffle. A comforting, all-around delicious meal, and while not incredibly inventive, it was simply done right and made us feel happy.

For dessert, we had the coconut trifle and chocolate hazelnut crunch bar.  The coconut trifle was, in my opinion, a bit of a miss.  Layers of heavy whipping cream separated thick biscuit-like coconut sponge, which lacked the inventiveness and intricacy of the rest of the dishes.

Luckily, the second dessert made up for it completely. The chocolate hazelnut crunch bar was of a texture somewhere between mousse and ganache.  Rich, loud in cocoa flavour, and with a pleasant nutty crunch, I can’t imagine anyone not loving this.

The berry coulis that danced around it on the little plate was a great sour counterpart, and ending the creative journey was a yellow raspberry- a perfect reminder of what sets David Burke apart from other chefs:  it’s never as simple as it sounds.