By Ted Kruckel Posted June 3, 2011, 2:02 PM EDT
NEW YORK I pride myself on being counterintuitive, so when New York’s first heat wave arrived with Memorial Day, while everyone else was obsessing about beach bodies and the Hamptons, I decided to leave the east end, drive to the city in a 98-degree fry fest, and strap on a major feed bag.
I started with Taste of Summer, in a massive tent erected near Central Park’s Naumburg Bandshell, which benefited the Central Park Conservancy. After sampling fare from the better half of the 40 participating restaurants, I raced downtown, bloated, sweaty, but yearning with excitement, to the 10th anniversary celebration with Daniel Boulud for his DB Bistro Moderne and the requisite six-course meal.
Somebody has to taste all this food and give you ideas about what to serve besides grilled chicken this summer, don’t they?
I love the Central Park Conservancy. I covered their ladies’ hat luncheon last year and was amazed at how huge and successful it had become since I had last attended. But what is really amazing is to learn that this auxiliary ladies’ lunch group, founded by women who were protesting the decay and neglect of the park’s features, now generates revenues that cover nearly 20 percent of the park’s annual $37.4 million budget.
Because they need to make a lot of money, most everything they do is on a pretty grand scale, and this benny was no different. Dozens of participating restaurants. More than 1,000 guests. A V.I.P. tent for high rollers sponsored by Danny Meyer and the Union Square Hospitality group. There was a silent auction, nicely styled with glass cylindrical candles, that seemed to go on for an acre. A giant wooden dance floor was set off by a lounge at each corner. And to combat the heat, they installed an army of giant fans. Now, I often complain about tents and how warm they get (why don’t they ever have vents at the top to release the captured heat?), and on this night, almost nothing could really beat the heat, but I must give props to organizers. These fans were blowing up a storm. (And blowing out all the votives, an additional help. If it is over 90 degrees in Central Park at 4 p.m., don’t light hundreds of votive candles at 6:45. Just don’t.)
One exhibitor, Bridgewater Chocolate’s Jennifer Pascal, had thrown dignity to the wind and simply piled store-bought bags of ice around her trays, replacing the dinky cooler packs she had wishfully begun with. ’Tweren’t pretty, but the chocolate (which can start to melt around 63 degrees) was still solid. “We’ve been doing this for five years. It’s been hot before, but nothing like this,” she admitted.
Okay, let’s get to work with the eating, shall we? Four of the first 10 dishes I tried were different variations of seared tuna. Note to self: Seared tuna over? The best was by super-pricey Mexican restaurant Maya. Their tostadas de atún were the perfect size, a tiny bit of spice on a crisp and easy-to-eat chip. The worst (sorry, guys) was by Ed’s Chowder House. Their grilled tuna escabeche came on one of those croutons that is herbed and buttered and then baked within an inch of its life, so overly crunchy it hurt the roof of my mouth. I think if food hurts you, that’s a bad thing.
Thalassa served a giant scallop cured in olive oil over caviar mousse. The delicate scallop had just enough bite, but I would have cut them in half. Zucchini fingers with cucumber yogurt sauce were a little spicier, but the combination was a perfect hot-weather one-two punch. Need to visit Thalassa.
I guess Laurent Tourondel is gone from BLT Market, but his name remained on the menu; they served salmon and shrimp ceviche in a steep clear cup with a nifty little fork. The giant slice of jalapeño on top scared me a bit, but the effect was great. That is, until the chef told me it was wild West Coast sockeye salmon.
After watching a heartbreaking episode of Nature a few weeks ago, I figured I’d ask: “What’s your policy on serving wild-caught sockeye?” The sous chef wisely sensed trouble and responded, “That’s a good question … what I can say is our restaurant is part of Ritz-Carlton, and they have sustainable food sourcing policies, and this dish falls within those parameters.” Well, that shut me up temporarily, but really, folks, after you watch that show I think you’ll agree that wild-caught American river salmon needs to take a break while we let these fishies try to replenish their stocks.
Need to speed this up, I have a dinner downtown. But quickly: Carlyle Hotels’ braised-then-fried short ribs cubes looked great and sounded sinful, but the result was chewy-chewy. And Asia de Cuba’s skewered lemongrass chicken reminded me that chicken breast on skewers on a grill almost never works—it gets tough so quickly.
In the V.I.P. tent it was all Union Square/Danny Meyer joints. Their hard-time lemonade with a thyme sprig on ice was spot on. Gramercy Tavern’s shrimp and sugar snap pea was a tiny bit bland, but the perfect ripeness of the peas carried the day. Since pastry chef Nancy Olson was on hand, I had to try her German chocolate cake with coconut and pecan, and it was super rich and gooey. The Modern had a quail terrine over fennel and grapefruit salad and a diver scallop rosette with celery remoulade, plus some sort of gooey dessert. All very ambitious—they seemed to always have the longest line.
I wanted to buttonhole Danny Meyer, but I never saw him. If I had, I would have asked him: Since you do these things all the time, do you have the restaurants coordinate with each other and complement each other’s menus, or is it a free-for-all?
Finally, my wristbands are snipped and I am free. Two different people approach me right outside the tents and ask me for my wristband (throwing events in Central Park has its drawbacks; some other time I’ll tell you about the annoying loony at Strawberry Fields who was messing up everyone’s John Lennon memorial photos), so the snipping all of a sudden made sense.
A taxi deposits me at 44th Street in front of DB Bistro Moderne, and I am whisked into the back dining room. The drive has afforded me just enough time to check out Adam Platt’s 2001 New York magazine rave review, sending me back in time to the launch of the restaurant.
The first event took place before the place was furnished. The walls had just been painted red (and didn’t yet have their milky finish), so there were stanchions preventing guests from getting marked. The occasion was a book party for Margaret Russell, then at Elle Decor, hosted by Martha Stewart, and disorganized by me. Chef Boulud wrote a column for Elle Decor called “Daniel’s Dish,” so I put the arm on him and his ubiquitous and charming PR lady Georgette Farkas to let me in first. It was a huge success, and then the restaurant opened and within days, it was an even bigger smash. But it was, and still is, the kind of place where people can walk in unannounced and they squeeze you in.
In his talk, Daniel explained the vibe. It is a mixture of a truly casual, modest bistro like the ones he knew in his birthplace of Lyon, with the spirit of the streets of New York.
Everyone talks about the DB Burger, and they should; Adam’s review explains why beautifully. Priced at $27 at the launch (Daniel seemed sure it was $28, so I’ve linked to that first review for him to check me), which seemed like a princely sum then, and now at $32, this little piece of luxury is nearly a bargain. It’s chopped sirloin filled with red-wine-braised short ribs, foie gras, and black truffle served sliced in half on a Parmesan bun. It is served with a chic silver font of pommes soufflé, which despite Jacques Pépin’s perfectly reasonable demonstration—which I’ve taped and watched 20 times—are nearly impossible to make.
But there is so much more. A Provencal vein, perfect for this time of year, reveals itself in a turbot with pistachio crust over ratatouille, paired with a Bandol Rose (Chateau Pradeaux, 2010), as well as in grilled sardine over a tomato tarte tatin on a plate dotted with Taggiasca olives.
DB Bistro Moderne has had only four chefs de cuisine since the launch, and all were on hand to assist in the menu. This was one of those nights that feels very special and that you know you are lucky to be a part of. It was organized by the event folks from UrbanDaddy, whose Kate Winser has promised to call me and tell me more about her clever operation.
Should I be embarrassed to admit eating all this food in one night? I deeply am and would do it again in a heartbeat.