[Pink Pig Time Machine by Wilfrid: March 24, 2008]
I suppose the best way to understand this week's entry is that ten years ago I was single, and I had a very welcome visitor staying with me. She deserved nothing less than Lespinasse, then probably the most expensive restaurant in Manhattan.
In those days, Gray Kunz was at the helm, established as a bona fide superstar among New York chefs: at the level of Boulud and Bouley, but somehow a more remote, exclusive figure.
Oh, this was when Mario was still in the kitchen at Po, and David Chang was probably still at school. It's been a bumpy ride for chef Kunz since he abandoned this temple of haute cuisine, featuring a brief spell at Spice Market, the launch of the much-heralded but ultimately disappointing Café Gray, and now the delicious food wrapped in a curious proffer of Grayz. And he left Lespinasse ten years ago.
I am only happy I caught him in situ, for what remains in memory as the finest dinner I've eaten in New York, and one of the best in North America. My notes from '98 can't do it justice: I was writing then, of course, for the benefit of my diary and not in anticipation of producing a review.
Many readers will remember the jewel-box setting of the restaurant, a lozenge surrounded by gilded pillars (the shape remains at Adour, but the palette, the overall feel is quite different). The amuse was glazed barley with accents of ginger and chestnut.
The appetizer, I remember, almost made me cry. It played that mysterious Proustian trick of flashing me back to some forgotten taste of childhood - an experience perfectly captured in the movie Ratatouille. Why, I couldn't say, as I'm sure there was nothing in the dish actually reminiscent of 1960s Essex.
A ballotine of foie gras, quail confit, a raspberry coulis (really?) and pot-fermented rice. It was the latter component, pungent and musky, which lifted the dish to some mystical level without disturbing the precise balance.
The next course reflected the mid-European impetus in Kunz's cuisine. Rabbit, stuffed and served in a "Stroganoff" (yes, cream and tarragon) sauce, with house-made pasta. Classic, impeccable.
My dining companion couldn't risk her wasp-like waist with dessert, but we were brought, anyway, a set of petits pots, delicious little colored pots of cream, the flavors of which went sadly unrecorded. Chablis, Chambolle-Musigny, and a check which was staggering in those innocent days - from memory it was over $400.
It's the Manhattan meal I would most like to eat again.
A good deal of nightlife packed into the week too. Cabaret at Don't Tell Mama's (some of the same performers appear there to this very day; should I laugh for them, or cry?). Comedy at Catch A Rising Star. This excellent club in the 20s, west of Seventh Avenue, was located in premises which had once - I remember - been a very good tapas bar, long before there was any interest in tapas bars.
It was ideally designed for comedy or cabaret. A bar in the front, a great performance space with tiered seating in the rear. Cocktails, food. In the past, I'd seen the great Lypsinka here. Now it was running a mix of stand-up and one person shows. Jazz, too, at Zinc Bar, and on Friday night I apparently danced till dawn. Foolish boy.
The only other culinary moments in a busy week were a crab cake sandwich at the Brooklyn Diner, and a pulled pork sandwich at Stingy Lulu's. The latter joint, on St Mark's Place near Avenue A, will bring back memories for some readers, I have no doubt. A drag bar/diner in the spot where Hop Devil Grill now sells its wares. I kind of knew the owner through a highly improbable connection.
But from the sublime to the desperate. Next week, Minnesota ho! again.