June 7, 2004
One thing Denise Felix, a Haitian expat and the owner of Kombit Bar & Restaurant, wants the uninitiated to know about Haitian cooking is that it’s anything but fast food. To make a good lambi (conch stew), for example, you’ve got to pound the fiesty mollusks into submission, then simmer them carefully in an herby, tomato-based sauce for several hours, lest they come out like rubber. Likewise, griot (crisp cubes of pork) are marinated and boiled before they’re fried, and like everything at Kombit, they’re cooked to order and served with rice, beans, and plantains. Even the piklis, the fiery condiment that looks deceptively like coleslaw, takes time. “I’m making piklis now, on Monday, to serve on Saturday,” says Felix. “And, of course, my eyes are burning.”
279 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn
Chance is easily the glitziest restaurant on Brooklyn’s understated Smith Street. The plate-glass windows are tinted, the stainless-steel bar fronts a “bubble wall,” and the host wears his French cuffs and slouchy suit with a certain panache. Even the chopsticks are silver-tipped. The menu, though, which bills itself as French-Chinese fusion, is a work-in-progress. “We have two cooks in the kitchen,” says our waitress. “One French, one Chinese, and they don’t understand each other.” Thus the clear-cut division between straightforward Chinese fare, like Peking duck or scallops in XO sauce, and here and there a French dish like rack of lamb with a “shallot sauce à la Pierre Gagnaire.” In time, the twain shall meet: According to the host, the search is on for a head chef, “to create the fusion.”
223 Smith Street
Eats, Shoots, and Leaves
Melissa Chmelar studied photography in grad school and cooking at the Cordon Bleu, and five years ago—somewhat inevitably—she started catering photo shoots out of her apartment. Since then, Spoon Catering has grown big enough to spawn a takeout storefront, Spoon, adjacent to its commercial kitchen in the studio-saturated Flatiron district. Open weekdays for breakfast and lunch, the picturesque shop features fresh, springy salads, like baby spinach with feta, cherry tomatoes, and sweet peas, and sandwiches along the epicurean lines of prosciutto with fig jam and arugula. There’s also enough cookies and tarts to fuel countless coffee breaks, and specials are plucked straight from the catering gig du jour.
17 West 20th Street
This Little Piggy
A Williamsburg chef makes his Manhattan move.
We worried when we heard Zakary Pelaccio was leaving funky, laid-back Williamsburg for the meatpacking district, where scene tends to trump cuisine. But except for smaller portions and higher prices, the new 5 Ninth isn’t such a far culinary cry from the late, lamented Chickenbone Café. Pelaccio’s up to the same inventive Asian-influenced tricks, only with upmarket ingredients like foie gras and lobster. Even though his baseball-capped presence, a familiar sight behind Chickenbone’s bar, has been banished to the elegantly spare townhouse’s basement kitchen, his playful spirit is palpable in deeply flavored dishes like peas and bacon, a sort of deconstructed pea soup with a raft of rich, unabashedly fatty pork floating on a puddle of pea pods and purée. Despite the chic, sleek clientele, pork is a major 5 Ninth motif—it graces everything from Pemaquid oysters to the “jelly belly,” a cutesy combo of slivered jellyfish and succulent pork belly. “Silky fried chicken,” a delicious if deceptively named bowl of impossibly moist slices of poached breast, benefits from crispy bits of chicharrón-like fried skin and creamy, peppery southern-style gravy; boiled peanuts drive the Dixie point home. Noodles Raja Chulan is upscale Asian comfort food: chewy rice noodles and lobster morsels adrift in a sublime sour broth. The oversize, moist, and meaty whole fish of the day is a giant of an entrée; in comparison, a dainty, tasty goat special looks like an amuse-bouche (fill up on the spectacular Shanghai noodles with black-bean sauce that come with it). More conversation piece than dessert, the durian cream pie looks innocent enough beneath its salty coconut crumble, but the aroma, akin to an extremely ripe Limburger doused in kerosene and abandoned in a gym locker, quickly shatters that illusion. Feeling brave? Try a bite. It’s a taste you won’t soon forget, no matter how hard you try.—Robin Raisfeld
5 Ninth Avenue
at the bar
Although foam may be fizzling as a culinary trend, edged out by the much more versatile “air” in Ferran Adrià’s kitchen, clever cocktailists are picking up where cutting-edge chefs left off. At Vento, Eben Klemm, the drinks czar for Stephen Hanson’s B.R. Guest restaurant dynasty, caps his new Paradiso (Lazzaroni amaretto, eight-year-old Bacardi, and fresh sour mix) with a frothy emulsion of fresh white-peach purée, white pepper, and limoncello for a delicious cappucinolike effect.
675 Hudson Street
object of desire
For devotees of Mallomars, summer is the bleakest season. The monolithic Nabisco isn’t impervious to seasonality, oddly enough, and since the delicate chocolate-sheathed cookies can’t withstand the heat, they’re distributed only from October through April. Happily, a worthy facsimile can be found in the interim on the cookie plate at Amuse, where pastry chef Gilat Bennett and Claudia Fleming collaborate on a likeness. It’s close enough to satisfy connoisseurs like David Black, Fleming’s literary agent, who tried to persuade her to tackle them as pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern. “They didn’t seem serious enough to make there,” says Fleming, who’s finally come around, thanks in part to a personal connection to the popular confection. “My dad was a Mallomar fanatic,” she says. “I was the Oreo girl.”
108 West 18th Street
Delouvrier and Ducasse: Can this marriage be saved?
My affluent restaurant-fan pal, famous for his exuberance, tucks into the chef’s offering—a supernal crayfish pea stew with a tickle of foie gras. And moans: “Oh, my God, it’s sublime.” I can barely contain my own whimpers of joy. “I want to hate everything,” he says, “but damn it, I can’t.” Last time he lingered at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, he got billed $90 for champagne aperitifs offered by the maître d’. He’s still smarting. I’ve hardly been the No. 1 fan of the jet-stream-riding robo-genius myself. But the marriage of Christian Delouvrier, exiled four-star hero of the late Lespinasse, and France’s star-spangled Ducasse, both native to southwest France, is like a tonic in this freshly refined room. Not every gambit knocks us out, but we’re happily stunned by the brilliant complexity of sea scallops with tomato, and by a masterly weaving of acid, bitter, and sweet in a lemon marmalade with ribbons of date under foie gras. A mannered suckling-pig lite will disappoint Delouvrier’s piggy pork fans, but not the luscious stuffed squab or the splendid halibut, shellfish-tossed and tinged with almond butter. I must be brainwashed by sticker shock at Masa and Per Se just steps away, as tonight’s $700 tab for three seems—gasp!—almost reasonable. I’ll hijack a venture capitalist to finance my return.
155 West 58th Street