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we went to town last week (looong)

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we went to town last week (looong)

Caitlin McGrath | Apr 10, 2003 06:28 PM

Last Thursday, my co-hound treated me to a birthday dinner at Town. This was, for both of us, the best expensive meal we'd had in a long time. From aperitif to petit fours, it was pretty much delicious. This kitchen is all about excellent raw ingredients cooked with much care.

My kir royale was perfectly balanced; enough creme de cassis so you could taste it, but not too much to interfere with the champagne. The bread was also very good, particularly the "French baguette" - actually a roll, but with the crust, chew and complex flavor of an excellent baguette. The amuse bouche was a spoonful of corn and lobster salad with lemongrass emulsion. The lobster was more an accent than a main ingredient, with the predominant flavor and bite being about eight sweet, crisp kernels of corn. Don't know where they got such tasty corn out of season.

My first course was seared scallops and scallop sausage over some braised green cabbage and onion. The texture of the cabbage was good, with just a slight crunch, but it was oversalted and I didn't detect any onion flavor. This was immaterial, though, because the scallops and sausage stole the show. The two scallops were fairly large, perfectly cooked, and very flavorful. The "sausage" was actually what I'd guess was a poached mousse, cooked firm enough to be
sliced, but silky in texture. It was flecked with tiny bits of herb, but the flavor was the essence of scallops, and the soft texture a nice contrast to the firm meatiness of the scallops themselves. Co-hound had roasted quail with onion marmalade and foie gras fritters. The quail had super-crisp skin, with very tender, flavorful meat cooked to medium.

He followed with the organic ribeye and beef ribs with "sweet garlic marrow." The marrow had been removed from the bone, mixed with the garlic, and replaced in the end of a rather tall section of bone for a somewhat dramatic presentation. Co-hound said it didn't taste like much, though. He wasn't concerned because he is not a big marrow person. The steak itself was a different story. Three thick slices, cooked exactly as ordered, each perched atop a piece of rib meat off the bone, which was long-cooked and tender. Co-hound pronounced the the meat excellent and very flavorful. (I should note that he's not a fan of strongly-flavored cuts like hanger steak and beef cheeks; this was not strongly flavored in that way, but had very well-developed flavor for the cut.)

My main course was duck steak with soba pilaf. This dish is mentioned in nearly every write-up of Town that I see, and rightly so; it is perhaps the best duck preparation I've ever had. It came as two fat slices of duck breast about an inch thick (thus, "steak") with dark brown, very crisp skin and almost all the fat rendered out. Inside, it was a thoroughly pink medium rare throughout, and amazingly, exceedingly tender. I mean, this was as tender, if not more so, than the best, most carefully prepared, well-done roasted ducks I've had, whereas seared duck breast can be a bit of a workout to eat. And it had a lot more flavor than the breast usually does; in fact it was the tenderest and best-flavored duck I've had anywhere. The soba pilaf was a buttery saute of large-grain (i.e., Israeli) couscous made with buckwheat flour. It was quite tasty, but the duck had pretty much my full attention. I've been thinking about it ever since, wanting to know the method used to get that crisp skin and extreme tenderness (it didn't taste as if it had been brined) and where they source their duck.

Even before we were presented with the dessert menu, we knew we'd be ordering the chocolate-filled beignets. The menu has a dozen or more desserts divided into categories (like chocolate, frozen, fruit), plus several cheese plates as an alternative for which there is no supplement charged. If we hadn't already chosen the beignets, we'd have had a hard time choosing among the four or so other chocolate desserts; a sourdough chocolate cake served with a vanilla malted was especially intriguing. There were three beignets, served fresh and hot in a folded napkin. Each was about the size of a mini-muffin (and they looked as if a mini muffin or tartlet pan had been used to form them). They were wonderful, oozing with molten bittersweet chocolate once bitten into. They were accompanied by a dome of
something frozen that was a cross between mousse and ice milk in consistency, with a milk chocolate and slightly malty flavor (I don't remember the term used on the menu). This was plenty tasty, but I'd have preferred to swap it for a few more beignets, since we were sharing. Our second dessert was a lemon-themed trio of sherbet, charlotte, and "seet and sour" panna cotta, which wasn't flavored with lemon, and I believe was made with buttermilk (for the sour). The sherbet was very good, as was the charlotte, a small piece of lady finger-like base topped with a cloud of ethereally light lemon mousse. We enjoyed this a lot, particluarly the charlotte, but it runs a definite second to the lemon trio served at Eleven Madison Park.

Petit fours were excellent: a demitasse cup of candied hazelnuts that co-hound, who generally doesn't care for nuts, gobbled up; candied orange peel; and intensely flavorful blackcurrent and apricot pates de fruits. The three-course prix fixe is $68, plus a $4 supplement for the beef or butter-poached lobster.

Our waitress was rather aloof, but service was generally quite smooth, with one lapse: we weren't given a wine list. As far as I can tell, this was just a slip and not some insulting judgment made (after all, I had ordered an alcoholic aperitif). I didn't end up asking for the list because I was planning on ordering one glass for myself, not a bottle. When our orders were taken, I told our server that I wanted a glass of wine to go with the duck. She proceeded to name three types of wine, without mentioning vintner, vintage, or price. This was pretty surprising, and something I expect only in my neighborhood Italian joint with $8 pastas, not at a high-end place like Town. Since, as I noted, otherwise the service was smooth, I was unwilling to let this taint my meal. So despite this one issue and the couple small things lacking in deliciousness (oversalted cabbage, underflavored marrow), we felt that we had a thoroughly wonderful meal. You probably noticed the overuse of the word flavorful in my description of our dinner; as I said at the top, Town clearly uses top-notch raw ingredients - from where, I don't know (the menu's not the kind that notes who produced the goods) - and cooks them with great finesse. The accompanying sauces and so on were all very good, but they were used with great restraint and always served on the plate rather than on the food, allowing the main ingredients themselves to shine, something I appreciate even more after the fact.

I want to mention two caveats about Town: When full, the dining room is quite loud. There is a balcony bar
overlooking the dining area that generates a lot of noise, and the suede on the walls and 30-foot ceiling do nothing to damp the sound booming around the tall overhead space. Co-hound and I are both fairly soft-spoken, and we had to raise our voices to hear one another, even though we were seated on adjacent sides of the table rather than across from one another. Also, the tables against the banquettes that line the walls, which include most of the two-tops, are quite close together; I could have reached over to the next table and snatched the plate of petit fours left untouched by its recently departed occupants (I was tempted) without rising from my seat. On the other hand, the massive proportions of the room somehow make the seating feel less cramped, and the general din prevented others' conversations from intruding on our aural space. These detractors won't keep us from wishing we could afford to return more often than will be possible.

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