Today was day 2 of hippie-chef little brother’s (LB) visit to NYC. We spent the day wandering most of Manhattan, from Zabar’s down through Central Park, down to Times Square, then down to the village/Chinatown/Little Italy/Soho. Good times, good food. Bought a baguette at Fairway and devoured it in the park with a burrata that I bought yesterday on Arthur Ave. Stopped at Centro Vinoteca and talked politics with the bartender while enjoying a quartino of a Bastianich rose (LB had a gin and tonic with a splash of ginger ale – wtf?). Went to Russ and Daughters and shared a pastrami smoked salmon and horseradish cream cheese sandwich on a bialy. Chilled at an outdoor café on Mulberry with a couple of cocktails. Walked up Bowery and stopped into Bowery & Vine for a tasting – three fairly good whites and a fabulous cocktail made with white wine, St. Germain liqueur and a splash of club soda. Finally, after all that, it was time for Degustation.
As soon as we walked in, we could see that we were in for a unique food experience – the place is about the size of my living room, with about 18 bar seats around a “kitchen” that is about half the size of mine (just a grill, a fryer, a couple of burners and several prep areas). However, despite the tinyness, we could see that the chefs were pumping out some awesome looking food. We looked over the menu and briefly considered one of the tastings, but they asked that the whole party participate and we didn’t want to be locked into having the same dishes – we figured we’d get to try more stuff if we each ordered separately. The 5 course tasting was 4 dishes from the regular menu plus a dessert, but the 4 dishes they had chosen weren’t the most interesting ones in our opinion. There are only 12 dishes on the regular menu (plus they were offering a new foie gras special). The 10 course tasting was mostly improvised, with a few courses from the regular menu. The waitress suggested that we order 3-4 dishes per person, but we decided to go with five each (knowing that we would probably skip dessert). I am sorry to say that I can’t remember everything that was on the regular menu, but we did sample most of it – I think the only things we missed were the crudo sampler, the Wagyu beef flank, the lamb loin and one other thing from the “starter” section – maybe a salad of some sort.
LB started with the “Tortilla,” I got the “Croquetas.” I wasn’t expecting anything too exciting – I mean, it’s a croquette, right? Wrong. I broke through the crispy outer crust to find an oozy, silky center – a blend of béchamel sauce, goat cheese, apple bacon and onion. There were 4 of them on the plate and I could have eaten approximately 163 more. Fantastic. LB’s “Tortillas” were actually tiny little potato packages with a poached quail egg inside, topped with a thin slice of piquillo pepper. These were also delicious but since he only got two, I only got a tiny bite. BTW, both of these dishes were very attractively presented, as was the entire meal – I’m not going to comment further on the presentation, but suffice it to say that everything that we were served was absolutely beautiful.
For our next course, I ordered one of the signature dishes – a poached egg with Serrano ham, chorizo foam and rice cracker-crusted asparagus. I am not a fan of runny eggs, in general, but this was delicious. The crispy crust around the asparagus soaked up the egg yolk to great effect – it stayed crispy but also got chewy (kind of the way Fritos do in Frito pie). The foam added just the right touch of sausage richness without the substance. LB had the grilled red snapper with avocado puree, which was lovely but not a standout in the context of so much fabulousness. The fish was perfectly seared and served with a smear of avocado and a little citrus relish – at any other restaurant I would have been thrilled to receive such a perfectly cooked piece of fish, but here it was just a little meh.
Next up: wild mushroom salad with lamb bacon and Swiss raclette for me, grilled octopus for LB. Two more winners! There were both grilled and deep fried mushrooms of several varieties served atop a few dollops of “raclette,” which was actually more of a mornay-style sauce than actual raclette. The lamb bacon was crisp, but melted in the mouth. LB’s octopus was exceptional – extremely tender, and served with a couple of condiments, one of which was octopus mayonnaise. The chef explained that they make a confit of octopus, and then use the oil from that to make the mayonnaise. It REALLY tasted like octopus, which kind of freaked me out if I thought about it, but it was fascinatingly tasty.
By this time, the chefs and wait staff had obviously noticed that we were seriously into food and intensely interested in everything coming out of the kitchen, so they sent us an extra course, which was part of the 10 course tasting – an eggshell filled with soft scrambled duck eggs and duck bacon. Again, I am not a fan of soft eggs, but again, these won me over – they had the texture of soft polenta, almost, and were studded with tiny chunks of intense cured duck meat. I now believe that all animals should be made into bacon. LB liked this but thought it more appropriate for a brunch dish. Whatever. If it’s that good, I don’t care what time of day you serve it.
My next choice was the rabbit with white bean parsley puree and fried artichokes. LB thought this a bit pedestrian until he tried the puree – it was perfectly silky, with a great herbal kick and plenty of garlic. It accentuated the flavor of the rabbit loin beautifully. The artichokes were coated with an amazingly thin and crispy coating – still not sure what it was, but it was fabulous. LB had quail with porcini mushrooms and pine nuts – the sleeper hit of the night. I was expecting plain grilled quail and mushrooms with some pine nuts scattered about. Instead, they made a butter out of the pine nuts that was satin smooth and impossibly rich, served alongside marinated, grilled, juicy, crispy, delectable quail. Not sure what was in the marinade, but the pine nut butter brought everything together perfectly. It was the best quail I’ve ever had, bar none.
For our final course, we both chose the foie gras special, with sherry-date consommé and watermelon pickle. Oh. My. God. In. Heaven. I was totally unprepared for the reaction that my entire being would have to the first bite of this dish. Tears came to my eyes, it was that good. I had to put my fork down and allow my body to process what I can only describe as a food orgasm. Luckily, LB was having the same reaction so he wasn’t too embarrassed by my behavior. The foie was perfectly seasoned and seared, in a shallow pool of the most delicious date flavored liquid imaginable, with julienne strips of watermelon pickle and micro greens strewn about. The sweet date flavor with the rich fatty foie was perfectly offset by the fresh crunch of the watermelon. The date consommé became more and more amazing as the foie melted into it – I scraped the bowl as clean as I could with my spoon and would have licked it clean if I could have. Truly, words cannot do this dish justice. No other foie I’ve ever had even comes close, and I would have to say this is one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten, EVER, anywhere.
Now, I would have been MORE than happy to end the evening on that note, but the kitchen wasn’t done with us. After I had had sufficient time to recover from my out-of-body foie experience, they brought us yet another course (from the 10 course tasting menu) on the house. I was served crisp pork belly with grilled scallion and mushrooms, LB received grilled squab with beet-ginger puree. The pork belly was wonderful – fatty and rich with an awesomely crisp layer on top, and the grilled scallions (plus a green sauce that I couldn’t identify and some other things) were delicious. I was wary of LB’s dish because I DETEST beets. I mean, HATE them. This puree, however, would make a convert out of anyone. It was sweet and earthy but without that characteristic nasty “dirt” flavor that beets usually have, and very spicy from the ginger. This was yet another inspired meat/sauce pairing, as the beet complemented the squab perfectly. The squab itself was tremendous – the breast pieces were perfectly rare and tender, the leg and wing were grilled crispy and tossed with some type of lemongrass business that also went well with the beet puree.
We were much too full to consider dessert (yes the plates are small, but if you order five courses you will have plenty of food), so after chatting with the chef (he and my brother hit it off and bonded over their favorite restaurants in Chicago) and the manager about how awe-inspiring everything was, they brought us the check. Which was also awe-inspiring, because it was $116 (without wine). ONE HUNDRED SIXTEEN DOLLARS. Seriously??????? We had seven courses each of some of the greatest food I’ve ever tasted for half of what you pay for ONE person at Per Se?????? This place is quite possibly the best value in all of NYC – it’s certainly the best value I’ve encountered. The total WITH a bottle of wine and tax was only $164. Unbelievable. Everyone needs to go eat here before they catch on and start charging what they’re worth, because they could EASILY double their prices for that food quality. Also, the service was impeccable. The one quibble I had was that the AC was set to a fairly low temp and blowing constantly – I realize they probably have to do that because the grill would heat up the tiny space in a hurry if they didn’t, but I hate drafts when I’m eating because they tend to cool off my food too fast. Even with the small plates here, some of my courses were pretty cold by the time I got to the end.
While I realize that it’s sort of apples and oranges, I can’t help but compare Degustation to Momofuku Ssam, since we ate there the night before. Sadly for Momofuku, there is NO comparison. We spent almost exactly the same amount of money ($20 more at Degustation), but the food was LIGHT YEARS apart. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who suggested Degustation – LB loved it and obviously, so did I!