Letter from the Editor: Precision and Soul in New York City Vol: 66

August 4, 2010
Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno, CEO and Editor-in-Chief

Rising Stars and beyond, our 2010 tastings reiterated how New York is a patchwork of dining concepts, strong enough to withstand the corrosive effects of a recession. Our 2010 New York Rising Stars are proof. We’ve seen delicate, intricate shojin kaiseki, bare-bones authentic Piemontese cuisine, and polished expressions of farm-fresh seasonality in fine dining. We’ve tasted pastry that’s playful and high-concept at the same time and drank cocktails that balance broad-shouldered structure with exquisite balance—all evidence of the endless possibilities within the New York food scene.

But even within the great variety we encountered, two phenomena stood out in the whole experience, sometimes even on the same plate. This year in cuisine in New York City was, above all, about precision and soul—the two outstanding elements in this metropolis of food and drink. Only in a city where the bar is raised higher, where discipline is taken for granted and imagination is on constant alert for new ideas, could precision and soul be so present in cuisine.

Precision—meaning technique, discipline, and a fine-tuned sense of aesthetics—is the standard of New York’s fine dining scene, a standard that seems to refine itself every year. But soul—the feeling and warmth that emanates from a plate of deeply satisfying cuisine—is the spirit that keeps the industry animated.

New York fine dining is the standard bearer in precision of execution, and this year it was informed by local products accented with items from a global pantry. At Park Avenue Spring, Craig Koketsu celebrates the season with fresh morels and asparagus in an umami-rich Scallop Veloute. At the new Oceana location, and equipped with his own custom-designed kitchen, Ben Pollinger wisely puts the product first, keeping his seafood menu fresh and elegant but still vibrant with touches of curry, Meyer lemon, and lingonberry.

Shaun Hergatt of the eponymous SHO—likely the first of a mini-empire in his future—uses riberries from his native Australia to accent a dish of Colorado lamb. The natural eucalyptus and tartness of the berries, as well as their surprising bean-like texture, enhance the naturally complex aromatics of the meaty, tender lamb. And award-winning sommelier Emilie Garvey is an ideal match for Chef Hergatt’s cuisine, pitting the complexity of Old World and a few outstanding New World wines against the menu’s intricate flavor profiles.

Chef Gregory Pugin is putting his own modern stamp on the Veritas tradition of precision and indulgence, with dishes like Lemon Marinated Langoustine with Osetra Caviar and Belvedere Vodka Geleé. Sommelier Ruben Sanz Ramiro pairs from the restaurant’s enviable wine list with enthusiasm and a strong sense of harmonies. And sommelier Amanda Reade Sturgeon went outside the box with her creative pairings at Dovetail, proving that pairing possibilities are only as restricted as the wine list.

But even in New York, a town known for its indulgences, there’s room for restraint. Chef Jeremy Bearman and Pastry Chef James DiStefano of Belgian-import Rouge Tomate are working with a staff nutritionist to create dishes worthy of fine dining that won’t make a mark on diners’ waistlines. A key factor in their success is the precision of those techniques and flavor combinations that keep us from missing the usual cream, butter, and salt backbone of traditional upscale cuisine. Bearman’s Asian Black Cod with Winter Bean Stew is so rich—you’d swear you can taste bacon—that we barely remember we’re being “good.”

But even in this era of restrictions—nutritional and financial alike—we’re still sastisfied by an abundance of soul, dishes with less refinement but a special kind of magnetism that keep your fork going back to the plate. We’ve seen it in Brooklyn aplenty, where even fine dining outposts like Ryan Jaronik’s Benchmark and Noah Bernamoff's Mile End are producing everything in house. Bernamoff's house-cured pastrami will have you heading out to Boerum Hill with alarming frequency; Jaronik, young and eager, is running everything at his Park Slope outpost, from the cocktail menu to desserts.

Andrew Pressler at Zak Pelaccio outpost Fatty ‘Cue in Williamsburg is serving big hunks of barbecue that are infused with exotic flavors like tamarind, curry, and daikon, meaty and full of soul. Carlo Mirarchi of Roberta’s is doing much more than pizza at this funky (but seriously food-forward, from its menu to its kitchen garden) Bushwick outpost, with dishes that pair Santa Barbara sea urchin with meaty testa and creamy stracciatella. Kevin Adey at Northeast Kingdom makes a Bushwick Banh Mi that features pig’s head with foie gras mousse, cilantro, mint, and pickled vegetables for an outstanding collision of casual street food with sophisticated flavor profiles.

Brooklyn may have the market cornered on the house-made, grass-roots variety of culinary soul, but we found an abundance of the warm, gooey stuff in Manhattan, too, notably in upscale versions of ethnic comfort foods. Snir Eng-Sela of Commerce serves up an Israeli Working Man's Breakfast, a Middle Eastern reincarnation of the egg sandwich made with hummus, soft pita, and the bright snap of fresh parsley. Abe Hiroki of EN Japanese Brasserie is serving up sophisticated incarnations of traditional Japanese comfort food—the kind of cuisine your Japanese grandmother would make, in a stone or clay pot, with fresh tofu and simple accompaniments. Mixologist Gen Yamamoto—someone who we’ll be keeping a close eye on—compliments the chef’s approach with cocktails that are simply composed and exquisitely balanced, like his Tomato Jam, Lemon Juice, and Vodka.

While chefs may tend to end up in one camp or another, our pastry tastings showed a surprising mixture of precision and soul. Technique-oriented pastry cannot survive without precision, but as New York pastry chefs become masters of their crafts—a necessity in this competitive market—their imaginations are increasingly open. Jansen Chan more than measures up to the sophisticated standards of Oceana, but desserts like his creamy Nectarine Horchata and Lemon Balm Broth assure us that this is one young chef who’ll freely draw inspiration from all over the map.

At Marea, Heather Bertinetti relies on precise execution for her modern Italian desserts, but the chef lets her whimsy come through now and again—and we hope, more and more—with elements like a savory zucchini tempura, tart yogurt gelato, and fried polenta with raspberry sorbet. Jennifer McCoy at Craft comfortably straddles precision and soul, putting out desserts that are both sleek and playful, polished and personal. Her Crème Fraîche Panna Cotta with Celery Soda and Lemon Sorbet pits the savory snap of green celery against delicate panna cotta, with a wash of lemon sorbet to cleanse the palate.

Next, we’re making final decisions for our Washington, DC Rising Stars, so keep your eyes open for our picks. And we'll be in Houston and Chicago this fall, so reach out and give us your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists we should check out.

As always, we love hearing from you! Be sure to become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and keep up with me on Foursquare to stay posted on where I’m going and what I’m eating.

Antoinette Bruno