I’ve been home for nearly a week; Denveater, however, seems to be suffering from jet lag. I’m thinking the cure’s a whirlwind trip down memory block (lanes being few & far between in the big bad city), just oohing & aahing & drooling at all the highlights.
Bon Chon’s 1 of the 2 New York chains that has put Korean fried chicken smack in the eye of the urban culinary map over the past couple of years. The 2nd-story space on 5th Ave. is suspiciously louche—primarily a lounge, it may look sleek in the dark, but by day it looks like a lawn-furniture floor show, not least for the fact that our server clearly could have been a part-time model.
Then again, the signature spicy chicken looks like just the snack for kicking it poolside. Tasted like it, too—moist, greasy, slow-burning, with chilled daikon on the tongue like an ice cube to the brow.
Small plates are generally the stuff of the casually convivial—your tapas bars, your enoteche, your izakaya. Opening as an extension of the Boston Wine Festival in the Boston Harbor Hotel a few years back, ultramodern Meritage is an exception among elegant exceptions, with what amounts to a DIY pairing menu composed of small plates categorized by the types of wine they’d go best with (e.g., light whites, robust reds, etc.).
In short, it’s not the kind of place you’re supposed to lean back in your chair, thump your gut & bark, “Man, I’m backed up.” But after 3 courses each featuring the likes of foie gras, ostrich & sweetbreads, plus
an amuse bouche of exquisite wild mushroom broth with a diamond touch of truffle oil, plus also an array of sweets like this caramel-filled chocolate cup with the check,
what would you say? Exactly. (In fact, you’d say something even coarser—I know you! Come on, you can tell me.)
Picking a highlight’s a toughie, but I find myself oddly leaning toward a dish I wouldn’t have ordered had it not come recommended: the pan-seared diver scallops with corn & chardonnay cream—a sweet, sweet field-&-sea-breezy surprise.
Without marvelous chef & consummate host José Duarte in the house (he was off leading a culinary tour of his native Peru) to ply us with off-menu nibbles & knock back a little wine with us & pick the Director up off the floor & swing him around (José’s a long tall guy), Taranta just wasn’t the same. Moodwise, that is—foodwise, it was as stellar as ever. Since the Director called shotgun on my eternal fave, the signature yuca gnocchi in green lamb ragù spiked with chicha de jora (Peruvian corn cider),
I more than made do with a special of porcini ravioli with, um, smoked pancetta in parmesan cream?
I kinda don’t remember, having been well into our 2nd bottle of wine as I was. I just remember it was amazingly delicate & precise for being so rich & messy—a nifty, typically Duartean paradox.
From Boston’s Little Italy (i.e., the North End, my old nabe) to New York’s: it was nearly 1am, cold & drizzling when the Director & I, stumbling starved in the dark streets surrounding our Soho hotel after making an obligatory appearance at a midtown work event, accidentally landed on the doorstep of Da Gennaro, the only place through whose lit windows we could still see diners lingering. (Maybe the city that never sleeps finally OD’d on Restalex?)
As we approached to ask if they’d serve us, we caught a glimpse of the cooks & servers all digging into their staff meal & almost turned away. But the owner beckoned us in, & though we caught the flicker of dismay in one dark young gent’s eyes, it vanished as he smiled kindly, waited on us calmly & even encouraged us to take our time when we assured him we were trying to hurry.
For that grace-imbued reason alone, the whole meal couldn’t have tasted better. Though stereotypically ginormous (trust me, perspective aside, it was twice the size of Taranta’s counterpart above), our gnocchi with pesto
was atypically painstaking—sparkling to mine eye like unto
shards of a malachite geode,
each dumpling—chunkling—actually wafted upward to the bite. They were so light they’re actually still floating around my brain cavity, I think.
But the ultimate find was the dipping oil that came with the bread.
I’d have loved to see the seething vat in back—the line cooks must be high 24/7 from the sheer everlasting stench of years of batches of garlic, parmesan & red pepper–clogged olive oil. If that sounds pejorative, it ain’t. Hell, I’d have loved to skinny-dip in that vat. I’d love to have never come up for air. (Meanwhile, of course, parsley smoothed it all out a little.)
We were so heartened by our intimate little experience that we returned the next, our last, night in town. Was it that good, objectively speaking? No. Were we fully aware it wasn’t that good, objectively speaking? Sure. Would we go so far as to call it a tourist trap? Not me; I wouldn’t. In my book, tourist traps manufacture hospitality while spitting out edible formulas people with gullets where their palates & senses of poetry should be can regurgitate. This place was suffused with genuine heart—not a perfectly calibrated hand, to be sure, but genuine heart. If I’m wrong, then I’m a staunch sucker.
On that note, fuck highlights, here are the lesser but still lovable dishes we downed:
Mozzarella in carozza (we ordered spiedini, but this is what we got, it was halfway to dawn, they were technically closed, who were we to complain, especially about accidentally getting fried cheese with olives?)
Antipasto di mare—so garlicky it was almost bitter, so lemony it was downright sour, both in the best way
Ciao, Signore Gennaro. Fino a quando si ritorna.
And ciao to you, too, MC Slim JB, who led us so debonairly through downtown’s secret catacombs; Kimberly, with the giggle that never ceases to cheer me; Honor, who chose brain freeze over leaving half the contents of her chilled cocktail glass (that’s my girl!); Beth, who led me down the righteous path of high-noon debauchery; & so on. I’ll see you soon.