Village Voice — May 16, 2012
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Eats
Tejal Rao

The Sweet Taste of Success

Pastry chef Elwyn Boyles conjures desserts in the sky

Know this: Every time you wave away the dessert menu without even looking at it, a cook’s heart shatters like a pane of burnt sugar. Every pastry chef dreams of hitting us with their bill of fare while we’ve got an edge of hunger and dignity, and the light in our eyes hasn’t died, but instead he has to deal with us at the end of the evening. If he’s to woo us, he must do it when we’re full, perhaps a little drunk, willing (maybe) to split a slice of cake among ourselves but often preferring to skip it altogether for just a coffee and the check, please.

Elwyn Boyles, the soft-spoken Welshman in charge of Per Se’s desserts, is one of a handful of pastry chefs living the dream. Boyles joined Per Se four years ago and received enough requests to create sweet tasting menus that he rolled one out officially in the restaurant’s salon about two months ago. On the fourth floor of Columbus Circle’s glassy mall, those five courses can change completely from one day to the next ($65, includes service).

What stays the same is the harmony, beauty, and precision of the plates. If there are soft cubes of champagne mango, you could use them to square a corner. If there are quenelles—scoops made in the hollow of a spoon—of clean coconut sorbet, they are egg-shaped and pretty and fit for staring. For those cynical about indulging in successive plates of sweets, Boyles puts a lot of thought into tweaking menus that won’t rush at you with sugar.

He reaches easily for savory ingredients like salty olives and fennel and carefully balances out plates with herbs and acidity. A wobbly cup of poached Swiss meringue filled with mango puree, for example, is accompanied by an intensely tannic cloud of white tea and lime-brightened coriander ice cream. It’s a descendant of île flottante— that classic French stodge of poached meringue on eggy custard—and a crowdpleaser, despite its edgy-sounding flavors.

Per Se is part of Thomas Keller’s great culinary empire, which he established in the 1990s beginning with the French Laundry. He’s now considered one of most successful and well-respected chefs in the world, and for a tasting menu at his fine dining restaurants, you must make reservations far in advance and be ready to drop hundreds of dollars a person. So besides being a spotlight for desserts, the new tasting is an awesome loophole—a special occasion that can be enjoyed spontaneously, without over-the-top splurging, at one of the best restaurants in the country. In short, a deal.

And you must enjoy the show. The clientele is well dressed and fairly indistinguishable, and there is almost guaranteed to be a woman, earlobes heavy with gold, walking through the salon to the dining room, whose age it will be impossible for you to guess. 40? 70? 100? The dessert tasting doubles as an affordable ticket into the city’s science- fictional theater of money. The salon itself is pleasant, masculine but vaguely anonymous, like the lobby of a newly renovated hotel. There is seating at a counter and more at a handful of tables, including a coveted one by the window, from which you can loom over the hot-dog stands and taxis of Columbus Circle if that is your thing, while spooning up cold crystals of sake granita, which glitter like a stolen diamond necklace. The granita tops “sake and strawberries,” a curvy trifle of strawberry compote, vanilla ice cream, and shortbread that is nostalgic, gently sweet, and full of melting, contradicting textures—it is an almost childish pleasure to wreck its layers.

Nerds will relish the happy little reminders throughout that this is a Thomas Keller joint. A melt-in-your-mouth bite of encased rhubarb ice cream mimics the size and shape of a gougère, that elegant cheesy poof that begins the savory tasting menu. A sweet, parallel-universe cornet—the amuse-bouche famous for kicking off meals at the French Laundry—involves a delicate black-sesame tuile, yuzu-flavored crème fraîche, and pineapple. And like its more famous salmon counterpart, it’s a fragile, lovely thing that gets you in the mood to eat.

“Coffee and doughnuts,” the superstar French Laundry dessert that predates Boyles’s tenure at Per Se, is unaltered: two warm, cinnamon-sugar-dusted beignets with cold coffee semifreddo. It doesn’t fit neatly among Boyles’s own dishes, which tend to feature many more components, but it’s a favorite of his and of so many pastry chefs for its simplicity. More importantly, “coffee and doughnuts” is a wonderful example of how, if we let it, dessert can become an essential part of dinner. It’s a taste of a sweet icon that, like some of Per Se’s clientele, might also be immortal.

Counter Culture

By Robert Sietsema

Swallow Some Nettles!

The locavoric folks behind Egg open a new Williamsburg spot

When Williamsburg’s Egg cracked open seven years ago, it was at an auspicious time. The local and sustainable movement was in full swing, comfort food as a dining ideal loomed large, and the immediate neighborhood had nothing like a conventional diner where you could get an eggs-and-bacon breakfast— mandates the new restaurant handily fulfilled. Formerly considered low-end, eggs (like hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza) were ripe for glamorization. Science chefs were turning them into wiggly blobs, and news had recently arrived that the free-range product was virtually salmonella-free and lower in cholesterol. Egg couldn’t lose.

The place started out sharing space with a hot doggery and served morning breakfasts with a Southern bent highlighting stone-ground grits, country ham, homemade sausages, and baking- powder biscuits in addition to ova. It eventually went all-day. Later, Egg added a lunch menu featuring fried chicken, hamburgers, pimento cheese toasts, and fried-oyster sandwiches.

Inevitably, a more ambitious additional restaurant was called for, and it arrived recently in the form of Parish Hall, located a few blocks southwest of Egg on North 3rd Street. As befits its somber moniker, the space is whitewashed stark white like a country chapel, outfitted with raised tables and backless stools. As with pews, the seating keeps you wide awake and sitting upright. A bar in back dispenses invented cocktails, some with Brooklyn themes. Named after the bay where the Brooklyn Navy Yard now sits, the Wall about ($11) features Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin, Bittermens Commonwealth Tonic Liqueur, lime, soda, and a dash of celery salt. Like most Parish Hall cocktails, it’s blessedly unsweet. The short wine list is generally pricey, but there’s a nice red Côtes du Rhône at $30, and a good selection of borough beers, including Sixpoint Resin and Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace.

Continuing the gastronomic principles of Egg, the ingredients at Parish Hall are mainly local and seasonal. In fact, many are sourced at owner George Weld’s Greene County farm in the Catskills. The menu has a mountain theme, too, as seen in the Alpine breakfast (originally called the Slide Mountain breakfast, name-checking the highest peak in the Catskills): slow-cooked egg, charcuterie, cheese, Anarchy in a Jar jam, and raw vegetables. Like many a mountain slope, the menu seethes with nettles, the weed used to torment Christ. Don’t worry, when cooked, the sting is neutralized, and the noxious leaf turns into a nice, mild pesto. In an early bar menu, it was smeared on toast with crushed broccoli rabe. The same pesto more recently appeared modified with flaxseed in a duo of grilled lamb rack and shoulder. The reformulated pesto now has the texture of hand cream. Nifty!

This being spring, fast-growing radishes and other root vegetables, pickles, and mushrooms remain important parts of the chef’s arsenal. Underground salad ($11) is a colorful moraine of parsnips, red butter radishes, carrots, beets, and nuts in a mild dressing that accentuates the earthiness of the fixin’s. Over the first weeks of the restaurant’s existence, recipes have been flexible: At first, appetizer strips of barely seared Long Island fluke ($14) were accompanied by sunchoke puree and pickled onions, later by kohlrabi and beet chips. Indeed, Parish Hall’s small-plate options overwhelm the four or five entrées ($21 to $24) usually available, which include skin-on sliced chicken with shallots and nettles, tilefish in green garlic broth, and an especially tasty duck breast with braised leeks.

Egg’s original imperative hasn’t been foresaken. The dinner menu at Parish Hall boasts several interesting preparations— including a soft-boiled egg with ham crumbs in a smoked-parsnip slurry—but the eatery really comes into its eggy own at brunch. At that meal, a pair of over-easies with brilliant orange yolks burst upon a wonderful “red flannel” hash of baby fingerlings, cubed beets, and corned lamb, while a sandwich of soft-scrambled eggs boasts three slices of lamb bacon so smoky, you’ll think there’s a fire in the building next door. The brunch bill of fare also offers dense corn flapjacks with Empire State maple syrup and oatmeal with roasted root vegetables. Can you think of anything healthier?

There have been a few things that didn’t work. A so-called Connecticut oyster chowder ($10) overwhelmed its creamy base and bivalves with obtrusive pickled vegetables, and a starter called “bread and butters” presented itself as three nearly indistinguishable whitish blobs of cheese and butter half-melted on a rough piece of roofing slate.

But these are minor cavils. Much of the food at Parish Hall is brilliant. And who doesn’t like to subversively scarf eggs around dinnertime in a temple of locavorism while scrambling your brain on strong cocktails?

Fork in the Road

LAST NIGHT

Rong Hang, Right Time

TWO YEARS AGO, I spent a couple of weeks checking on the state of Fujianese restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown. There were particularly rich collections along East Broadway and on Eldridge Street, and I must have visited a dozen. My crew and I received a warm welcome in all of them—except one.

I was attracted to Rong Hang— just north of the corner of Eldridge and Canal—not only because of its comparatively sumptuous premises and expansive Fujianese menu, but also because of the name itself. But when I tried to enter, my friends and I were turned away in halting English with no explanation.

A few days later, I returned with two native speakers of Chinese, one expert in Mandarin, the other in Cantonese. Fujianese is a dialect distinct from either, but with more in common with Mandarin. Nevertheless, it was my Hong Kong friend who ended up speaking with the restaurant’s front-desk person.

But once again, we were refused admission. As on the previous occasion, the place had some filled tables, but there seemed to be room for many more diners. My Hong Kong friend, who was even more flummoxed than the rest of us, took the extreme step of getting her mother in Seattle on the phone, and putting her on with the restaurant’s greeter. A heated discussion ensued, of which we could only hear half.

The result was the same, and the mother later reported that she couldn’t persuade the Rong Hang employee to seat us and was given no convincing reason.

Last evening, as two friends and I were strolling along Eldridge Street, stopping occasionally to eat fried dumplings, we passed Rong Hang’s bright yellow awning, and I repeated the story. “Let’s go there,” one of my companions said enthusiastically, perhaps desiring to have the experience of being refused entrance to a restaurant.

I quickly assented, and before we knew it, we were sitting at a splendid table with a view of the fish tanks. We ordered and drank beers as we waited for the food to arrive.

The dish perhaps most beloved of Fujianese was magnificent. Lychee pork, I must hasten to explain, contains absolutely no lychees. Rather, it’s nuggets of pork braised in red rice-wine lees and then fried with mushrooms, pea pods, bamboo, and other vegetal ingredients.

We also had a fine casserole of frogs legs, which contained big squishy muscles as well as smaller bony pieces, to be chewed like chicken feet with care and determination.

The place merits another visit because the menu is vast. But going there with friends, I’ll always wonder if we’re going to be admitted. Rong Hang, 38 Eldridge Street, 212-625-8999 ROBERT SIETSEMA

GOOD STUFF

The Best Soba in NYC

THERE’S NO DOUBT the Age of Ramen is upon us. You can get ramen noodles on nearly any block in some neighborhoods, including at least a dozen places in the East Village alone, where you can pay up to $20 for a bowl with a choice of myriad toppings and configurations. The other Japanese noodles—soba and udon—have long been laying low, hiding out as it were. But this might be about to change.

The wildfire popularity of Cocoron has proven that soba might be making a comeback among diners quite literally fed up with ramen. Of course, the disappearance of Honmura An, a long-running Soho soba restaurant so obsessive that the noodles were made in a little shack a few feet from your table, left the soba throne empty.

While ramen is made with wheat flour, soba is made with buckwheat. The grain has more in common with American wild rice than with wheat, and it takes great skill to make soba. The dough is rolled out using a series of ever-smaller dowels, which were proudly displayed at Honmura An. The test of a great soba noodle is at what point it breaks as the uncooked noodle is bent. Soba noodles are slightly darker than ramen and have a “tooth,” or texture.

Soba is often eaten cold with a soy-based dipping sauce. The noodles feel cool on the tongue, and wasabi mixed into the sauce (or dabbed on the noodle, which is the more authentic way) adds tang. After you’ve consumed the cold noodles, a pot of hot water turns the dipping sauce into a warm soup. Eating soba is a ritual, while eating ramen is just sucking down starch.

At comparative sleeper Sobakoh, the homemade soba noodles are superb, but there’s one that beats all the others: inaka soba, which costs $3 extra. It’s made with three kinds of organic buckwheat flown in from Canada and made into noodles on the spot. This soba is darker since it uses whole grains and has a toasty flavor; the texture is less smooth than regular soba, which is made with buckwheat flour. Served cold and dipped and slurped in a broth that contains a little yuzu, the inaka soba is irresistible. Sobakoh 309 East 5th Street, 212-254-2244 ROBERT SIETSEMA
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