Had brunch and dinner there last Sunday. Having eaten at the original in Charlestown twice, I was looking forward to the NY version. In my experience, Todd English's mixture of Tuscan, Mediterranean and French regional cuisine (with a mishmash of everything else thrown in for good measure) made it one of the best restaurants in the U.S.A. Not best as in Jean-Georges or The French Laundry, best as in "best casual."
English is a master at deconstructing classic European regional cuisine and reconstituting them in a modernized version. His rethinking of choucroute as a double smoked and grilled double cut pork chop atop a bed of cabbage with large cubes of bacons (lardons gros?) which have been braised in cider with various mustards drizzled across the top is as compelling to think about (providing you have eaten your fair share of choucroute) as it is to eat. On another occasion a "Steak Frittes", a extremely charred and woody tasting rib eye was served atop a bed of fries that were crispy and laden with parsley and a delicious gravy that was light enough to keep it all from becoming too gloopy.
So last Sunday when my sons and I needed a place to have brunch before shopping for baseball mitts at Paragon, there was Olive's directly across the street from where I parked the car. Seeing people in the window meant that they were serving brunch (they don't in Charlestown) so in we went. Now brunch isn't the most thrilling meal but the menu appeared to be fairly adventurous. Peanut Butter Pancakes and Semolina and Polenta Porridge with Banana Brulees were some of the more adventurous choices. Your writer went easy (this was after pigging out at East Lake Buffet the night before) and had an open face egg white omelet topped with Canadian bacon, asparagus and drizzled cottage cheese. It was pretty tasty (for an egg white omelet) but let's face it, even with the green asparagus and pinkish bacon I was eating "white food." While tearing away at my omelet the idea of having dinner there the same night came upon me. My kids were going to Roslyn to see a friends band play a gig. So I walked up to the hostess and inquired about a table. 30 seconds later I had a table for two at 8:00. Gee I thought you needed to reserve a month in advance? Turns out not on Sunday nights.
I invited a friend to dinner and I arrived right at 8:00. I came armed with a bottle of 1985 Armand Rousseau Chambertin Clos de Beze, a recent import from London. Turns out that Olive's offers a $25 corkage fee. That is comparable to what other restaurants in the area charge. My table was ready (a point in their favor) and I did the first thing I always do when I sit down, I asked for a wine list. Olive's in Charlestown has a list that I can only describe as "undistinguished." When I was there last July I struggled to find something acceptable. Now this was a list of a different color as it was pretty well stocked with choices from every region in the world. Somewhere during my skimming the list my friend arrived and a few minutes later we had ordered a half bottle of 1997 Trimbach Gewurztraminer Vendages Tardive to go with our appetizers. Although my choice seemed to make the sommelier happy, he showed up five minutes later with bad news. The wine had been stored at cellar temperature and wasnt cold enough to serve right away. It would have to be chilled down. Okay, demerit number one. It was now a race as to whether it would be cold enough in time for our appetizers. I knew in my heart it wouldn't (is it ever when this happens?) but I just shrugged it off. He poured me a smidgen before he threw it in the ice bucket. Yum it was tasty. I had this bottling in Ampuis, France back in January when it was served after a dozen of us liquidated fifteen bottles of top Rhone wines and it held it's own amongst that company.
About five minutes later our appetizers arrived. I had ordered the Foie gras served three ways. A small Foie gras flan, a slice of Foie gras that was served with a similarly sized slice of quince and a espresso cup filled with a cappuccino of Foie gras that had tiny cubes of Foie gras and apple laying at it's bottom. Foie Gras flan is the signature dish in Charlestown where it resides on the menu as it's own first course The miniature version served here does a good job maintaining the flavor and spirit of the original. English should get more press for it because it is one of the best warm Foie gras presentations anywhere, including France. Unique Foie gras dishes are hard to come by. They usually are just quickly sautéed slices of liver whose pans are deglazed with something like port and then they are doused with the reduction. Maybe a slice of sautéed apple or some grapes get thrown into the mix. But this version is well thought out and the flan sits atop some vinegary red onions, the type served with onglet. It gives the whole thing a nice puckery tang. The sliced/quince combo seemed tasty but I have to admit to not remembering the exact spicing but it trended towards the Middle Eastern. English is opening (or has he opened) a place in Tel-Aviv and has incorporated a number of eastern Mediterranean influences into his cooking. The cappuccino was sort of a little Foie gras soup. Having had those funny milky soups filled with tapioca and melons the night before, this was uncannily similar in texture if not in taste. It would have made a perfect Amuse Bouche by itself but it complimented the other preparations well. My friend had the lobster falafel with cucumber and humus dipping sauces. What seemed like it would work conceptually sort of fell apart on the plate. Although tasty, the problem lied in the lobster meat being a bit tough and stringy for the chickpea breading. While being a good combination of flavors, I think it would work better if the lobster meat were cut up before being breaded ala Chinese shrimp balls. Sometimes towards the end of this course the wine finally chilled down and was a fine compliment for both dishes.
I had been pining all day for a steak frittes. My sons had frittes there for brunch and they were of the highest caliber. All day I was imagining a big pile of them next to a dry-aged NY Strip steak that was perfectly grilled over some exotic wood. But it was not to be as they were serving a bunch of mushy cuts of beef that were being served with mushy potatoes. So I did something I don't normally do, I ordered the tuna loin, which turned out to be a filet mignon of tuna. It was prepared well, browned to a crisp on the outside and sushi rare inside. A pile of lightly breaded and fried calamari was placed on the top of the tuna which itself sat on a bed of some wilted greens. On the side was a small pool of white polenta in a pool of mild curry sauce. Now considering that tuna doesn't really have a lot of taste, it's more about texture, if you managed to get all of the ingredients in your mouth at once there was lots of flavor. Not bad for tuna. My friend had the red wine glazed short ribs. I have already gone through my short rib phase thank you. That happened right after my lamb shank phase. Now I hardly ever order either because they are too rich, having braised in a sauce for anywhere between 2 1/2 and 4 hours. But this version was different. It appeared to be baked, not braised (maybe they par-braised it) and the red wine glaze seemed applied like a wipe is in BBQ. So while the meat was fork tender, it wasn't sitting in a pile of glop. Instead it had a rosy hue like Chinese style spareribs would have.
The Rousseau was from the elegant school of Chambertin. It really needed an hours worth of air in a decanter to show its stuff. Mature Burgundy is so difficult to assess in advance. Sometimes it needs decanting, sometimes it's perfect out of the bottle and sometimes the wine is shot. That could be the story for three bottles out of the same case. But this bottle was quite enjoyable with the food and I now have a vantage point on how to approach my remaining bottles. I had the passion fruit flan for dessert and it was well, passion fruit flan.
So after all of this seemingly positive prose, I am now going to tell you why I found my experience disappointing. First, I found the decor to be generic, especially for a restaurant in NYC. During the meal I had looked around the room and commented to my friend that we could be in Anywhere, USA. Maybe a nice version of it but anywhere still the same. The second thing was that all of the food was served at too cool a temperature for my taste. I happen to like my food hot. Every single dish was on the tepid side. I found that odd especially because at the original location the food comes out steaming hot. I mean that literally. But my final and biggest gripe has to do with how English has decided to expand his business.
If a chef wants to have a dozen restaurants and get filthy rich, more power to him. But a great chef has to have a an atelier, a place where his cooking is practiced at it's highest level. The French chefs are good examples of what Im describing and chefs like Guy Savoy and Michel Rostaing operate haute cuisine restaurants as well as a number of casual satellite bistros. Jean-Georges and Joachim Splichel do likewise in this country. But English has taken a different tact and the quality and scope at all of his branches are theoretically the same. The first thing one notices here is that the menu is less complicated than the menu in Charlestown. He seems to have sacrificed his strongest suit, the explosive way he combined flavors and textures for simpler preparations that must be easier to manage when supervising multiple locations. It turns out this isnt true just in NYC. On comparing notes of my visit with a veteran of the Charlestown location I was told me that the menu there has been simplified as well, so much so that she hardly goes anymore.
Now dont take my criticism to be that I didnt enjoy my meal. I did and I would return for another swipe, especially to partake of some of the gems on that wine list. But I cant contain my disappointment for what might have been had the goal been different and English had decided to create a showcase for his talents. Then he could have raised the expression of his cooking to its highest level and his other locations would logically become just simplified versions. But instead we just got another location in the chain, where despite his best efforts, it is still just another link in the chain.