If there is one thing that 20th Century modernism taught us about art and literature it is that form is substance. Thankfully, modernist literary criticism and art seems not to apply to food. The most beautifully constructed and architectural dishes can and do taste like crap, and the visually inedible is often delectable.
I went to Town tonight, ate too much bad Indian food at a wedding for 400 in Dallas over the weekend, and started off eating at Sugiyama on Thursday night, hedging my bets in case the rest of the weekend food wise ended up being a shipwreck (it was, hedging your food portfolio with something tried and true is generally a good idea).
Sugiyama is my very expensive standby for the best Japanese kaiseki omakase that NYC has to offer. It sure as hell ain't cheap (125 a head before tax and tip if you don't drink), but Nao Sugiyama doesn't mess with you either. Whatever is on the menu is fresh, seasonal and most of it has been flown in from Japan either the day you are eating it, or a day or two beforehand. Unless you spent 1 good decade eating out in Japan, chances are you will encounter something you have never seen or eaten before (and good luck remembering the name, unless you scribble as you eat). For vast quantities of money, and if you sit at the bar, Mr. Sugiyama (Bodhisattva) serves and essentially prepares everything you eat in one form or another. Good luck getting the same service at Jean Georges. In my opinion, all the money is worth it. The place is not perfect. His cooked seafood, usually grilled dishes aren't in the same league as the often strange and gelatinous concoctions he makes ahead of time or slices at the last minute, but few meals are perfect. But that flaw apart, I find eating there my idea of Heaven. The man makes culinary miracles with fresh fish and a few ingredients and particularly with water. And if learn as you eat is your cup of tea, then have fun and pay up.
Thursday night's highlights included a hell of a lot of fugu (blowfish, yup that stuff that's 1 minute and your dead toxic if not cut right), which he said was very fresh at the moment. Anyway, onto the food.
Started with monkfish liver pate (good but sort of one of his stock dishes) accompanied by a gelatin with raw fugu, fresh mushrooms rendered gelatinous via the fat obtained with fugu skin. This sounds more exotic and interesting than it actually was. Soft and nice but not profound.
Next came strange assortment of zensai with various ingredients including the usual shrimp so fresh its like a Koan (enlightenment: so this is what shrimp actually tastes like), as well as a bizarre water chesnut that was really good.
Third was blowfish sashimi. To die for. When he says something is really fresh, he doesn't lie. I can't really describe except to say that it was slightly springy and very fleshy and not at all like fish.
Next came sashimi. One raw squid that was to die for, one piece of toro that was excellent, some white fish that was very good and then only (pity) sea urchin that blew my mind. When uni is decent and fresh, its sort of like small fruit meats butter. Fifth was grilled lobster and roe that was grilled and only OK.
Sixth, a sushi/whatever is fresh long plate of strange items. Grilled eel in mirin was so good he offered another piece and I accepted. Then the strange stuff. A seaweedy/fish salad came wrapped in half a fruit that looked like a cross between a tomato and a pomegranate. The salad was good but the fruit was a fresh Japanese winter vegetable that was wonderful and unlike anything else I have ever tasted before. Also served up was more fugu sushi, and this wacky Japanese root that had been boiling for hours on the stove. Sort of bitter gourd. Interesting, but not me. Then there was this innocuous looking piece of smoked salmon sushi just sitting there. I left it until last because it looked so damn innocuous. Wrong! I mean come on, we all eat smoked salmon all the time. Its great stuff, but it pretty much tastes the same. I haven't been to Norway, but I have had smoked salmon in Scotland and Nova Scotia and I will be damned if I can tell the difference between what is offered up at Gourmet places in NYC and the yocal stuff. This little piece of smoked salmon melted in folds over your tongue in smoky softness. I really can't say enough about this one damn sliver of salmon. It was like the most delicate kiss. Unreal.
At this point the mind is boggled and the stomach is full, so you get the usual and relatively indifferent rice and miso soup.
Oh, one thing I forgot to mention was the usual Bodhisattva miracle with water. The 4-5th dish was this simple tea pot that has mushrooms and many green and unknown vegetables in it. OK, so you think you are just eating broth until it lights up your mouth with memories from past lives you never knew you had. What he does with water is for me always transporting-visions of pearl diving and eating clams with Kyushu fisherman over an open fire in the 14th century. I mean it, this shit starts popping into my head whenever he serves up his soup. Every time its some bizarre and wondrous thing that looks so simple but tastes smoky, citrusy and like the sea all at once.
I won't describe the endless bad catered food I had in Dallas, except to say that to break vegetarian monotony I went to one steak and seafood joint that had killer bread pudding for desert. Nate's Seafood and Steak if you are ever in Dallas. Steak mediocre, crayfish only OK.
Made it back to NYC late afternoon, and figured I had to prolong the weekend with one more trip out before heading back to boring CT, where I live. I usually head to Café Boulud because its local and I know its strengths (any meat main course is killer, particularly venison or pork and their soups are murderously good, avoid fish dishes: only OK to my mind). There aren't that many places open Sunday night that feel like celebration so I headed to Town, which I have heard much about, but never tried.
Town has excellent wines by the glass. I tried 3 reds and they were all strange and wonderful. The décor is sort of modern hotel chic. Another version of the W hotel chain, sort of modern hip, soft but decorous. I actually started thinking about the décor for a while in these trendy places. This décor, the same stuff you find at Aquagrill in another incarnation, really doesn't exist in any other space except hotels and restaurants. Who would choose to live with big beige colored pillows on the walls because they absorb sound and look nifty, or wants dangling pieces of square and round glass around them all the time? Its not to say that all décor or interiors should be domestic (far from it), but it came to my mind that there is a kind of interior decorating that only exists in restaurants. Something perhaps not profound that had never occurred to me before.
Food was creative American that I found relatively unmoving. But I have to confess that I have a rather strong Japanese food bias at the moment. In the last 6 months I have eaten at Tabla, Jean Georges, Cello and in fact the majority of NYC's other "best" French, American and Italian restaurants, and with the exception of Babbo, which was so good I went back the next night, have been disappointed or at least culinarily completely unmoved. Town gets slotted right in with the rest unfortunately. Strip away the décor and the food was merely good. Started with two appetizers. Octopus, potatoes and lemongrass broth (shrug, just didn't quite work and the octopus was tough, not springy as it should be). Potatoes didn't quite belong. A for effort, C for taste. Second appetizer was quail with fresh greens and friend fois gras. Everything only OK individually, but quite good in combo. Main course was grilled steak medium rare with potatoes (recommended by server), boring. Oh well. More Western food disappointment. Guess I will keep trying. Going to Paris in Feb, perhaps that will cure the Western food blues.