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Meetups?

How did I miss this? I read through the etiquette section!

Thanks for pointing me right. :)

--Peter

Mar 09, 2008
Peter Wells in Site Talk

Meetups?

Jim, it's Peter Wells, from Burke and Wells, long-time Chowhounds, I hope you remember us.

I searched through the site and couldn't find anything about meetups. I reach out to you and the CH moderators here because I'm not sure where else to post.

I'd love it if each board that represented an area also had a board listing invitations to or news about meetups. For instance, we're in New York City now, and I'd LOVE to make my once-monthly eat outing (yeah, I'm on a psycho strict diet!) something special. I'd like either to pick a place and toss out an invitation to hounds, or peruse invitations that might be open in the area to join.

Is there a way to do this using the site? Perhaps it's here somewhere and I missed it? If it's part of he Area Board itself, the enormous turnover and new threads push such things down so fast I haven't been able to see them.

If you're familiar with Meetup.com, that's the sort of thing that I was considering. If CH wanted to do it on its own, that'd be very exciting too.

So that's my feedback! If this belongs elsewhere, such as "not about food" or something, feel free to move it.

Thanks!

--Peter

Burke & Wells
peter@tunecore.com

Mar 05, 2008
Peter Wells in Site Talk

Spotlight on a Bespoke Meal (long)

[Hello hounds! Pardon our long silences, we're on very strict diets (I've lost 70 pounds, Burke has lost more than 100!). But we took a break to have a great meal outside of our new home in New York City, so here's a review. Enjoy!]

I never knew the word until I met Burke. "Bespoke" comes from tailoring: the great British suit makers of Savile Row are called bespoke tailors, because they offer a "we make it specially for you" service. It dates back to when a bolt of cloth would come in on a ship from China or India or even from a particularly quality clothier in the Americas or Europe--you can't have a suit made out of THAT cloth, it's already spoken for; it's bespoke for the noble who ordered it. The term came to denote a tailor who makes a suit specifically to you. Not only do they use the particular bolt of cloth you spoke for (though actually holding the whole cloth is far less common these days), they measure you, cut to you, fit to you, sew to you, adjust to you, until you've got something unique, utterly designed to be perfect for you. It implies the highest quality, but that's not necessary. If your suit is bespoke, that simply means it's absolutely yours, to your request and your requirements and physique.

Burke chose this weekend's resort because they were the only one who offered a bespoke meal service. It's uncommon, despite the fiercely competitive luxury resort market, because you put the kitchen in a risky situation. People have strange requests, and though bespoke doesn't equate to slavery (you can't command them like servants, you can't demand something they're unequipped to attempt), people will expect weird things. This kitchen, for instance, was heavily French and American. What if a guest wanted a dish you have to prepare with a high-BTU wok? What if someone plans to abuse the system, requesting outrageous ingredients that cost a fortune? Sure, they'll just tack on an extra charge, but the likelihood is failure to a kitchen scrambling to fulfill ill-conceived requests.

Most of all, requests take the choice, the freedom and the chance to experiment out of the hands of the chef. These chefs have great pedigrees and huge salaries, they can probably cook anywhere, in the greatest kitchens in the most sophisticated cities; alienate them at your peril. Force a chef like that to bow to diet-mad, risk-averse and simplistic demands and the chef could pack up and leave, taking his/her crew and throwing your resort or restaurant into chaos. Get a reputation for bad food and you might as well close up shop.

Our first night we arrived too late to request a bespoke meal, so we sampled their normal fixed menu (one or two choices, it's a small operation, like most resort kitchens). They pulled off a very nice meal, with pork nicely braised and roasted, about what you'd expect (Berkshire pork in the Berkshire mountains, hardly a surprise). Lying in bed at night, I imagined simply saying to the chef, "I've always wanted to try filet a la Rossini (with truffles and foie gras)," but such a request basically turns the chef into a high-end short order cook, forcing him to make what we want, rendering the rest of the menu hard to integrate. I also considered telling the chef, "Well, we like X and Y and Z, surprise us," but that's not much fun for the chef either: sure they have creative control, but then, hey, if we want what the chef wants, why bother with bespoke, just order off the menu! There are a lot of traps with bespoke ordering, in suits or meals or anything.

So I hatched a plan and ran it past Burke. We'll feel out the chef a little, but offer him (turns out ours was male) a theme, a freedom, but a restriction. We did our research, we know this chef worked for Ducasse, for Boulud, in the grand French tradition. I figured he spent years learning how to master the elements of French cuisine, only to find no demand for it: these days of cholesterol fear and fat phobia, who orders a bernaise or perigord sauce? With gastronomes pushing menus to include freeze-dried tomato powder and white asparagus foam and super-fusion anti-courses like salmon ice cream appetizers and bacon lychee mousse desserts, who will make use of a French chef's skills? Who cares about a fine brunoise of vegetables (think super-fine dice, hard to pull off unless your knife work is top-tier), or a perfectly thickened gravy, or a properly sauteed carrot? We figured Chris would be itching to stretch those muscles again. What chef wouldn't be chafing under the restrictions of fashion? Who wouldn't like to buck trends for once? The next morning, after breakfast, we spring our surprise:

"Chef," I told Chris Eddy, executive of their kitchen, "I have a plan I've been fantasizing about for years. I won't request any specific food, you know what's fresh, what's available, what's good, I trust you. What I want is a style, a chance to enjoy a time long gone."

I sit up, and so does he. This isn't normal for someone who asks to speak to the chef to request a meal. Usually he gets the same old demands for a steak, or an I'm-dieting-no-fat-please or the only-meat-and-potatoes thing.

"You studied with Ducasse and Boloud," I go on. "You know the great French tradition. Take me back, before molecular gastronomy of these days, before the microgreens of the 1990s, before the tiny portions of nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s; show us old school, the cuisine of Escoffier, the great cooking of the 19th century which is out of fashion and no one does. Give us liver and offal, give us pate and slow poaching, give us butter and cream and the five mother sauces--dine us like the fashionable rich of 1890."

"Oh my God!" he cries. "You're like the un-guest! I never get a chance to do this! How many days are you staying? Why didn't I know you were coming earlier!"

I wish I could describe in words the light in his eyes when we laid out our plan. He blinked, his mouth hung open, he nodded so much I thought he might get dizzy. The only thing that bothered him was that he had only one meal to cook for us: proof positive we'd touched a nerve. So to honor his efforts, here is what Chris cooked for us that night.

AMUSE: Poached mackerel en gelee. These days, what's more declassé than Jell-O? Gelatin is boring. It's flavorless. It's got a long shelf life, it's got nothing special to it except a jiggle to entertain the kids. But for decades, even centuries, gelatin was so hard to manufacture, so difficult to prepare, so subtle in flavor it was prized by kings. "Aspic" was the choice of the ruling classes in Europe. You had to boil and reduce and boil and reduce the knees, ankles and hooves of horses to extract it. You had to filter and cool it properly or it would get cloudy. You had to take all that collagen and turn it into gelatin and mold it and melt it and reshape it. That's why foods "en gelee" ("in jelly") were the most high-class. So Chris poached small fillets of mackerel fish and overlaid them with aspic, real aspic. He even served it with tiny, perfect cubes of carrot, showing off knife skills. This is a dish that would never be served anywhere--a museum piece of a dish. It was heaven. WINE: A lovely pino gris whose name I failed to catch.

PRIMI: Butternut squash risotto with veal demiglace. A nod to local ingredients and a display of risotto skills. Risotto requires patience: you take the rice, you cook the raw, dried grains in garlic and oil, then you stir, add stock, stir until the rice absorbs the stock, stir, rarely stopping for more than a little while. It gets creamy, as the starch granules that rub off the grains of rice plump ("gelatinize"), creating a thickness. But you have to keep the grains tender and never so far as mushy. It's a chance to prove the chef cared enough to make a simple dish great. And there was nothing but the risotto, no shrimp or meat or anything. It was acting like the first course, the pasta course if this were an Italian meal (probably since the amuse was a fish). For richness, only a generous drizzle of demiglace, the reduced stock of veal that takes hours to make and is the very foundation of European cuisine. WINE: The pino theme continued, with a nice noir whose name I wished I'd caught.

FOWL: Wild pigeon. Here was a throwback to the landed gentry of the previous century, with a locally shot bird along with a crouton. Wild game needs a sweet balance, so he threw in some sultanas (think big raisins) soaked in wine. The crouton (think toast dry to the point of a long thin cracker) had a paste on it made of the bird's liver. This was country eating, hopelessly out of fashion, and astoundingly delicious. Why don't people order this anymore? WINE: A St. Emilion with a lot of berry and some tannins, a fine foil for the bird.

CARNE: Boeuf mode. You should call it beef "a la mode," but over the last century that's come to mean "with a scoop of ice cream," so now you simply call it "fashionable beef." The "fashion" in this case was a long, slow braise of an already tender fillet, served with a wine and stock reduction. The meat has no sear (that was considered low-class in the 1890s), but tender to the point of collapse. It came simply with a carrot, a celery stalk and a cipollini onion: an in-joke, because those are the three aromatic vegetables that form the base of all stocks. It was the chef playing with us, giving us a garnish we'd only recognize because we understood the basics of continental cuisine. The flavor and texture of this beef defy description. I love a steakhouse as much as anyone, but there are other things you can do with a fillet besides broil it, and for decades this was how the educated palette demanded beef. I'm stunned no one requests it any more. WINE: A surprise from Oregon called "Ancien," a real winner!

INTERMEZZO: Campari granité. You can freeze almost any alcohol with a little sugar and scrape at it with a fork so it forms not blocks, but small crystals. That's a granité (think granite, stone), and in this age of cheap and efficient sorbet and ice cream makers, it's a dying art. Ours was refreshing and light as a citrus snowfall.

DESSERT: Three in one. A small chocolate souffle and raspberry mousse were classic but not extraordinary, but the third was a bow to the pastry chef's inventiveness: a consomme of citrus fruits (think a broth that's somehow sweet) and a ravioli made of a wonton skin that had praline (thick caramel paste) inside. What a joy! Coffee and petit-fours rounded things out. WINE: Half a bottle of Rieussec 2002, and you'll always make me smile with a sauternes.

The real important element we took from this meal had little to do with 100-year-old French cuisine styles. We learned, once again, that art and craftspersonship require an active consumer, not a passive one. We worked hard as we wanted the artist to work, and we approached the artwork itself as a collaborative effort. That makes all the difference, in a suit, a meal, a painting, a building or a concerto. But it needn't lie with new art only: viewing a Picasso or a Van Gogh is a collaborative venture as well. Bring to the experience as much as you demand from it, and together you get something far greater. In that way, life itself is bespoke.

--Peter Wells
peter@tunecore.com

a Burke and Wells review

The Dining Room at Winvian
Litchfield Hills, CT

Mar 03, 2008
Peter Wells in General Tristate Archive

Ideya, "Latin Bistro," SoHo: a Burke and Wells Review (long)

I hope I didn't give the impression that Ideya was some sort of super discovery. There were no real weak spots, the plantain chips and salsa were a relief from the usual nachos, and the flan was really top notch. Given that, and the good quality of the rest of the meal (especially the braises), I found Ideya a good place.

I think the dialog format of this post conveyed more excitement than it should have, as I was trying to capture the moment of discovery--that doesn't always reflect on an "objective" summation of the quality of the food or even the whole experience. It's a limitation of the format I was experimenting with. I'll drop it in the future, it doesn't do what I want it to do.

Thanks!

--Peter
peterwells@mac.com

Feb 12, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Ideya, "Latin Bistro," SoHo: a Burke and Wells Review (long)

This one was an experiment in dialog. Fun, but I don't think it worked all that well. I probably won't try it again. Burke found it forced, and I think he was right. Oh well!

But the restaurant was fun and really did have a killer flan. I'll go back for that flan any day.

Thanks, nice to see you again Deenso!

--Peter
peterwells@mac.com

Feb 11, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Ideya, "Latin Bistro," SoHo: a Burke and Wells Review (long)

"How long a wait, Peter?"
"Two and a half hours."
"What!?"
"Blue Ribbon is very popular, Gary."
"But it's almost eleven at night!"
"I'm not waiting nearly three hours, let's go somewhere else."

We walk down West Broadway.

"French?"
"Not in the mood."
"How about pasta, lots of Italian places."
"Ooh, hey, a 'latin bistro,' looks interesting!"
"What's it called?"
"Ideya. Seems friendly, full but not packed, music but not pounding, price is right, let's try it!"

We're seated right away.

"Decor is nothing fancy, but look at these drinks."
"'Best mojito in NYC,' eh? I doubt it."
"We're not driving, we live here now, go have one! I'm having a virgin drink, a pineapple baditos."
"What's a baditos?"
"Dunno. But it looks fruity and tropical and frothy. I'll skip the rum."

Drinks arrive.

"This *is* a darn good mojito!"
"Oh yeah? Try this."
"Oh man, Peter, your baditos wins. It's what an Orange Julius wishes it was."
"Best pina colada I've had in ages, only it's not."
"I love how you get an old wine bottle full of water."
"I love these plantain chips! Totally try one."
"Light, crispy, golden, salty but not too salty, you're right! And they're way better with the salsa."
"I don't like salsa, Gary, you know that. It's too hot for me."
"You'll like this one. Try it."
"It's...fresh! Crispy, not burning, flavorful!"
"I saw on the menu, they sell it by the jar."

Appetizers arrive.

"What'd you get?"
"Tuna. They call it 'Atun Dominicano'--it's seared tuna that's been marinated first in anise. This cocoanut rum sauce is a fine accent. It's very good. Not killer, but good."
"Taste this duck, Gary."
"Duck?"
"Yeah, its a braised duck leg in an orange and chocolate sauce, matched with stewed onions and leeks. It's called 'pato de chocolate' and it totally rules."
"Wow, tender, falls off the bone, rich, citrus bright, deep with the hint of cocoa, very nice!"

Entrees arrive.

"This chicken in rice is okay. 'Puerto Rican-style rice'? I suppose. It's good, fresh, not greasy, but I'm not knocked out."
"You should have had the braised short ribs, Gary. I win again. Check this out: 'Costillas de reyes,' braised beef short ribs, roasted sweet potato, beet salad and orange gravy."
"Orange again? Wasn't there orange in your duck appetizer?"
"Yeah, but this is different, and it's exceptional! The meat is tender, and has that amazing mouth feel you only get from gelatin. The vinegar in the pickled beets is a perfect offset."
"Alright, you take the prize. But I'm going to win dessert."

Desserts arrive.

"You'll have a hard time beating this, Gary: churros with hot cocoa."
"Forget it, I win."
"But these churros are crispy outside, tender as a daydream inside!"
"I win."
"The cocoa isn't sweet, it's spicy and warming!"
"I still win."
"Gary, stop saying that, this comes with MINTED whipped cream, the perfect foil to the fried dough, and again, not too sweet!"
"I win anyway. Try this flan."
"Flan? You win with flan?"
"Try it."
"Oh my god. It's the best flan I've had since...since...
"Yes...?
"Since Gordon's home made at the San Francisco Chowhound gathering in Golden Gate park!"
"Correct."
"But that was the greatest flan EVER!"
"This is close. It's creamy, not too sweet, not too eggy, dark but not bitter."
"They took the custard to just that right spot!"
"Must have pulled in still undercooked and let carryover finish it."
"Hard enough to do at home, let alone in a busy kitchen. Yes. Okay. You win. But not by much!"
"I like places where it's hard to tell who ordered the best thing, because it's all so good."
"Absolutely! This 'latin bistro' is a winner. Good food, a few standouts, no real weak spots--"
"And right-priced. Tip brings us to about $90 for two, but that was three courses each, and drinks."
"We have to remember to come back sometime! Nice location too, in Soho."
"What's the address again?"

Ideya
"Latin Bistro"
349 West Broadway
Soho
New York
phone: (212) 625-1441 (delivery)
Open 7 days
http://www.ideya.com

--Peter Wells
peterwells@mac.com

A Burke & Wells Review
http://www.burkeandwells.com

Feb 10, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Patisserie Claude's Croissants-What's Wrong with ME??!!

Well, I had one, but it was at 4:30 in the afternoon, it was the last one, sitting there forlornly. It was only okay, but hey, what 10-hour-old croissant can carry a standard? I ate it out of its misery, but I won't judge Almondine's mettle by it.

So...no! I have not had a REAL Almondine's croissant yet. When I do, I'll report back.

--Peter

Feb 04, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Patisserie Claude's Croissants-What's Wrong with ME??!!

We also spent a year in Paris, and we agree. Burke and I found Claude's croissants heavy and bready. Perfectly fine, really, but not croissants. The greatest plain croissant we've ever had was at Boulangerie Madame in the 6th in Paris. We stood on the corner and wept while we ate them. That's not figurative language, we actually wept. Claude isn't in the same league.

I hope to find a great croissant on these shores, and since we now live on the same block as Almondine here in DUMBO, I have high hopes!

--Peter Wells

Feb 04, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Coq au Vin and Cassoulet

We've been residents of New York City for two weeks now, but have yet to find a standout coq au vin or cassoulet.

This is shorthand for "where are the really good brasseries," since any place that can do either or both of these is probably standout in every other way.

Burke and Well miss Paris! Can you help?

--Peter
peterwells@mac.com

Jan 29, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

Ah! Probably. I've never written for Gourmet. :)

Thanks!

--Peter

Jan 23, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

Gosh, Brownie! I've never written for Gourmet or any other major magazine or publication. I'm flattered you even mistook me for such!

But I'll write about bacon again, if you want. Just for the cholesterol.

--Peter

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

You're quite right, Bob! I only gave the board a cursory glance before reviewing, with all the chaos of moving in. So much to digest here in New York (pun intended).

--Peter

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

My gosh, It's been so long, I've forgotten! Which bacon article was this? Was it In Praise of Cheap Bacon?

Thanks, and stay in touch!

--Peter

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

How about a DUMBO get-together? I can already say that Rice is just peachy!

Keep us apprised? Thank you! Great to be here!

--Peter

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

Thanks, Nosher! Your site has been on our RSS feeds for a while now. So much to learn!

--Peter

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

You mean you're roasting four ducks, but serving three. One must be reserved for Burke and Wells, who are likely to appear at your windowsill and steal it away.

See you soon!

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

Thanks, Jen! Nice to see you all.

Stay in touch!

peterwells@mac.com

--Peter

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

What a lovely thing to say! Tell me what hospital you're in, I'll sneak you some lox. I lost both my parents to cancer, most recently my father, part of the dark days I alluded to. If I can lend a hand, just say the word!

Get better quickly, we have lunches to lunch!

--Peter

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

Thanks, RW! Nice to be back. We just fired up our pae, as Melanie found. Got to polish it, then populate it, yes. Much to do!

Are you in NYC? Share your favorites!

--Peter

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

You must visit when you next come to NYC! Just give us some time to unpack the boxes. The crytal is already out, as is the wine. Priorities, don't you know. :)

--Peter

Jan 22, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

Lovely to hear your voice again, Melanie! Next time we're in the SF Bay area, and we long to return, let's gather for a feast!

--Peter

Jan 21, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

We've missed you, hounds! Rather, we've missed contributing. It's been a strange time for us, peregrinating about the world, in plenty and poverty, always with Chowhound to guide us, but rarely giving back the way we ought. What would we have done without Melanie Wong in San Francisco, or Limster guiding us through our lean Boston years? Our three seasons in Paris and Florence were an unrivaled joy, but the times thereafter were lean. On the plus side, I learned to cook. On the minus, we fell out of the habit of documenting our food lives.

All that's about to change. We took a chance, founded a new company, and it's taken off! We've settled in an enormous loft in DUMBO, with New York beckoning us across the East River. We will venture out from under the blue steel and stone of the Manhattan bridge, eager and a little intimidated at the sheer number of choices before us. Not to fear: Jim Leff calls this town home, and a lot of others just as brilliant, so we're jumping in with all four feet.

This is our first meal after a long fast, so let's gorge on a double review: Brooklyn and Manhattan, jacket required and casual upscale, very good and truly great--River Café and Jovia.

This is our seventh day in our new home, and we're still surrounded by boxes. We've managed to unpack the bed, some kitchen gear, the floor lamps and our good clothes. We can't cook in the chaos, so we eat out: we've already scoured DUMBO and will write about some finds here, but Friday night was our first attempt at a top-notch meal. We choose River Café, the fine-dining boat conjoined to the Fulton landing dock under the Brooklyn Bridge. I knew from the Chowhounds Outer Boroughs board that this was a high-end destination with few negatives and excellent views, so Burke and I shook off the mothballs and walked the few blocks form our new Washington St. home down to the shore.

River Café manages a forest of flowers in the dead of winter, perfuming the walk to the <i>maître'd's</i> podium. The very lovely, elegant young woman eventually hung up the phone and asked us if we had a reservation. We did. She directed us to walk further in to the host's podium. We passed the portholes to the small dining room, where they graciously gave us a window seat, after I asked.

The views are stellar. I mean that--the East River sparkles like stars around the whirling galaxy of Manhattan's lights. At 8:30, with the water taxi making its final run, the bridge looming over the window, you can actually feel the city tugging you into its orbit. We may be new to New York, but I suspect those choice tables by the window at the River Café have the best sea-level view you can find.

Burke and I started with cocktails. My vodka gibson (ah, my Mother's favorite, ordered in her memory) boasted five onions and all the subtlety of an anvil. Burke's vodka martini had more character, but he didn't coo over it. We split the two bread choices; I had the white bun, Burke had the semolina roll, and both were fine, with the butter at proper temperature and firmness (you can judge a restaurant by how they serve their butter). A significant jump up, the appetizers were very tasty, from Burke's buffalo steak tartar (quail egg, capers, onions, cognac <i>gelée</i>) served unmixed and awkwardly mushed together on your plate between your silverware. You could tell it was buffalo, more lean and quite tasty. My seared tuna with <i>foie gras</i> and truffles was excellent, with a spectrum of textures: the outside of the <i>tournedos</i> of bluefin had a sear so narrow they must have been rolled across a hot surface like thick quarters on edge; the tuna was <i>maguro</i> fresh and the <i>foie gras</i> silky, while the truffle scent bound the dish. It was very, very pleasant, and the menu, gratifyingly, failed to call it <i>"a la Rossini."</i>

For mains, my rack of lamb with puréed potatoes and sausage may be the best executed I've had in years, though in a conservative, unsurprising way, presented in a circle of mint mustard sauce and <i>jus</i>, the Frenched bones interlaced like the fingers of an earnest penitent. Burke's crispy duck breast was flavorful and tender, but not absolutely outstanding, with a cute and crunchy <i>croquette</i> and not particularly crispy skin.

Dessert was the most revealing part of the evening. Burke's sticky toffee pudding reinvented sweet-soaked cakes for us. Warm, warming, sweet without being treacly, I stole a few bites because it was irresistible. The pistachio ice cream sandwiched between two thin cookies made a nice counterpoint, but that pudding stole the show. It relied neither on alcohol nor spice, letting the magic of cake and syrup work on our tongues. It's the part of this meal we'll remember.

But my Chocolate Marquise Brooklyn Bridge, though amusing and cunning, felt tired--a joke that was probably fresh and relevant when River Café opened, but more by-the-motions now. The solid chocolate caissons and spanners looked thrown together, the cake and chocolate cream constituting the span had a skin on top, as if the dessert had been prepared by the score hours before and finished later. I don't begrudge a partial pre-assembly, that old restaurant trick, but it can backfire on you if there are fragile elements to the dish. Presentation and whimsy can't wow you past carelessness.

This was a quibble: you don't write off a fine meal like this because of a little leathery skin on a smear of chocolate chantilly, but when we walked out, $250 poorer (with a 20% tip and only one glass of wine), we felt a little let down. Why? The food was almost universally excellent, the servers followed all the rules (replacing and folding napkins when we went to the restrooms, swapping silverware between courses, offering an <i>amuse</i> of perfectly delicious portabella soup and a finale of chocolate caramels with the check), but there was nothing warming or welcoming to the experience. Nothing magical. We were just two more patrons, expecting a fine meal and accepting upon delivery. It felt like a Fine Restaurant. But that's what we wanted, that's why we put on our good jackets (required), that's why we paid our bill, yes?

Today, the day after, Burke and I spent an afternoon sighing over antiques we can't afford at the Winter Antiques Fair at the Armory on Park and 67th. This was our first trip into Manhattan since moving into Brooklyn, and what a delight! Like true first-time New Yorkers, we got lost on the subway. Who ever heard of a station where you can board the downtown side of a train but not the uptown? F to the 6, and then no way to ride the 6 uptown? This system will require further investigation.

We made it to the show, and afterwards braved the 5-below wind chill along Lexington arount 5 o'clock, looking for a place to eat. Just off 62nd, I spied a cheerful red awning and we ducked in. No drown of flowers here, just a long bar in modern leather and dark woods, neat little leather chairs and tables marching along the wall to the host's station.

"Hi! We just walked in, do you have a table for two?"

The young women here were all smiles, not nearly as elegant, but brighter, less studied, and more engaging. "Just a sec," said one, "I'll axe around. Do you mind eating down here, by the bar?" The dining rooms were clearly up the stairs behind her, but the bar looked cozy and was empty (even on a Saturday night), and those leather chairs with the tiny lumbar pillows seemed mighty comfy, so we decided to try it.

Our server for the night was Michelle, who tended the bar. She was friendly, open, cheerful, the very antidote to the cold outside. I was curious about the ultraslim breadsticks at the bar, she brought us over a bucketful (literally a small champagne bucket, very cute).

"Are you having bread tonight?" she asked.

"Oh yes!" I nodded.

"Good! I have to ask, with everyone still low-carbing, I get turned away from the table so often and with such horror that I run away, scared."

"Well," I mused, "Perhaps they're vampires and you're serving garlic bread?"

In fact, it was rosemary buns warm from the oven, with crusty <i>peccorino</i> cheese and salt, moist and delicious, not at all greasy. We tore through two of them before holding back, lest we fill up before the <i>primi</i>.

I decided to risk starting with the soup. This soup was a revelation: celery root <i>purée</i> with an ale base, served over steamed mussels and heightened with a perfume of mint. Yes, mint. Swirled with aged balsamic and served dramatically in a porcelain bowl with a lid, the taste was unlike anything I've ever had. Creamy, but not heavy, the ale giving warmth and character, the meaty chew of the mussels and over it all that soprano of mint! It really taught me something about soup. Next time I make my favorite butternut squash soup with sage and apples, I'm going to try adding some beer, or maybe shellfish. Who knows?

We gushed to Michelle, who told us the staff was anxious about it: we were practically the guinea pigs, first to ever order it. This was their first day offering it on the menu; Michelle and the staff were in back tasting it just minutes before, getting familiar. We assured them it was a fine, fine addition. We were still talking about it when the pasta arrived.

Burke's <i>papperdelle</i> with black olives and mushrooms had that long, wrinkly glory that spoke of real hand-made pasta, and my <i>bucatini alla matriciana</i>, in a fantastic red sauce meatened up with braised veal cheeks, was bathed in a cloud of truffle aroma and flavor. Red sauces are my enemy, almost always watery or twangy with too much acid, but this one was thick and rich and perfectly seasoned. The pasta itself kept its integrity, thick, spaghetti-like, but hollow and very long, far less heavy than it looked. We were in heaven.

The <i>secondi</i> kept the score at its near-perfect level, with Burke's venison dazzling in a blazing crimson beet sauce over root vegetables and a side of perfectly sautéed broccoli <i>rabe</i>. The alarming red color reminded us this was game, and savage even in its subdued state. Tender, fresh, perfectly seasoned once again, it banished the chill outside, a perfect winter dish. My braised short rib was done to perfection, the red wine in which it was cooked seeping in to the marrow. The cheese-studded rough grey <i>polenta</i> cradled it in heavy luxury, too enormous a portion to eat. A knife was provided, but utterly unnecessary, either for me or for Burke.

By now we were giggling with happiness, still alone in the bar area, becoming fast friends with Michelle. Then Eben Copple, the executive chef, came out to talk to us. Tall, with a small bristle of facial hair, he reminded me of Duff from Food Network's <i>Ace of Cakes</i>, and he had the same amused, down-to-earth attitude. He didn't schmooze us, he talked to us, which is rare anywhere. We asked his help on dessert, and he instead sent out Jennifer, the pastry chef.

Jennifer was as kind and friendly as the rest of the staff, taking us through the dessert menu with bashful pride. Burke opted for the <i>budino di cioccolata</i>, described intriguingly as a chocolate pudding with smoked fudge.

"Smoked fudge?"

"Well, yeah," Jennifer confessed. "I don't actually smoke it. I add Lagavulin scotch to it, gives it a smokeiy taste."

Burke chose that, he's a scotch fanatic (has a bottle of Lagavulin all his own, in fact). I opted for the <i>torta di limon</i>, which Jennifer said was an attempt to recapture a dessert her mother used to make with Cool Whip and Jell-O. Sounded like food from the heart, so I ordered it. Then Michelle came by. "Jennifer just asked me for a couple of martini glasses," she whispered to us. "I think you're getting something special."

Jennifer returned with palette cleansers: quince paste under a small scoop of tangerine <i>gelato</i> and a crush of pistachios. "I think quince paste is underutilized," she explained, setting the elegant glasses before us. "I made this myself, the old fashioned way. It took three days, but I've been hugging the jar ever since." She ought to go into business producing it. I love quince paste, Burke and I have it with stilton whenever we can. But this was another revelation! Softer, fresher, without the grainy harshness of the slab you pull off the dusty shelf of the specialty food store. The citrus of the tangerine ices married with it, brightened it, even the sprig of parsley (!) matched perfectly, an herbal note and more green to go with the pistachios. What a way to chase down the fat and gelatin of braised short ribs.

Dessert managed to top even that. The lemon tart was light, refreshing, not very strong on the lemon, gentler, so the sage came through on the crust and on the fried sage leaves on top, a perfect compliment to the candied lemon wheels and the sugared walnuts. Burke's chocolate dessert, served in a near globe of glass, was a heart of darkness. Chef Eben Copple stopped by again.

"That <i>budino</i>, that's just retarded delicious, isn't it?" Yes. Yes it was stupid delicious. Michelle came by with two free glasses of <i>muscato</i>, a sparkling muscat like a <i>spumanti</i>, just right to cut through the wonderful sweetness. The conversation, the feeling of familial cheer, our secret-but-in-plain-sight demesne near the bar, all these complimentary goodies, the evening was already magical.

Jennifer reappeared. "I brought you some biscotti for your espresso," she smiled. "And some nougat." I doubt anyone in the upstairs dining room got quince paste and <i>gelato</i>, complimentary <i>muscato</i> or free cookies and nougat with coffee. We dipped and delighted, the warm, cozy air surrounding us.

Michelle left the bar long enough to take us on a tour of the upstairs, with its twin dining rooms, private table and more. Downstairs, we toured the kitchen, where Chef Eben couldn't resist offering us sips of olive oils he was tasting, trying to find the right one. "You gotta try this Olive Verdi," he poured. "It's really green." It was.

We got our jackets and were already bundling up when we realized we hadn't paid yet. I was free to tip extravagantly, because the whole bill was $143, not much more than half of what we paid at River Café, but ten times the experience.

Back home, I checked Chowhounds for reviews of Jovia. Seems Chef Josh DeChellis used to run the show, and few Chowhounds have been by since Chef Eben took the reins. I don't know when the switch took place, but something must have happened between adam's Chowhound review of Sept. 15, 2006 and today--perhaps they hit their stride, because our meal tonight was nothing short of magical. There was no <i>foie gras</i> on the menu, true, and no re-worked steak tartar prepared table side; no jacket was required, and though full, they happily took a walk-in. By most every measure, including price, Jovia isn't in the same league as River Café.

But Chowhound isn't about the luxury of the ingredients or the dent in the wallet. Chowhound is about that barely-definable something, that magic that makes an experience "chowhoundish," be it a two-dollar hot dog or the latest befoamed microgreen at the three-star temple. The tip for Chowhounds is to go to Jovia on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday when Michelle is there and sit at the bar tables, and give with your enthusiasm and your heart. You will get it back double.

In the end, there was nothing wrong with the River Café, but I wouldn't call it a Chowhoundish experience. New York promises to be a fruitful field, and I want magic out of everything, from the morning <i>croissant</i> to the warm bag of peanuts I hope to score at a Mets game (or MAYBE a Yankee's game, but don't hold me to that). Further, both Burke and I are on Weight Watchers, and on Monday, when this week of debauchery ends, we will return to a healthy diet. That won't stop us from exploring every food corner Greater New York has to offer. I know Chowhound will be here to guide us. We'll be here to report our findings.

Thanks for the welcome, New York City. You already feel like home.

--P. Wells

A Burke and Wells Review.

River Café, 1 Water St., Brooklyn, NY 11201, (718) 522-5200

Jovia, 135 E. 62nd St., New York, NY 10021, (212) 752-6266

A Burke and Wells Review

Jan 21, 2007
Peter Wells in Manhattan