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FOOD ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES The Trencherman

Finding a Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The silver lining of being slightly deflated is that you don’t roll all that far. Recently, I moved from Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, to Kensington. It’s been a slow move, carried out with a Radio Flyer wagon and those blue bags you get at Ikea, and it’s left me beat.

But I’m finished now and, boy, what a difference a few blocks make. I’ve long known it true for bagel shops that inertia and human nature dictate the one closest at hand is yours, even if it’s crummy. As Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey/Love the one you’re with.” I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by the best bagels (Absolute Bagels), pretty good bagels (The Bagel Hole), and a glint-above-average bagels (Terrace Bagels). Now, the piss-poor bready bagels of Bagels R Bakin on Church Avenue are mine. All I can do is order my egg and cheese on an egg bagel with equanimity.

Der Pioneer

A few weeks ago, however, instead of walking toward the city and a future of mediocre breakfasts, I turned toward Ocean Parkway. After just two blocks, I espied a circular sign jutting out of a glass storefront. On it was a logo, a vector illustration of a canelé. The word der was written above it and the word pioneer below. A chalkboard out front bore in wobbly chalk a pithy Mark Twain quote about life’s sensual pleasures. In the window, I saw people sitting on stools, laptops open, and a La Marzocco espresso machine gleaming. I had found home.

Der Pioneer opened in March 2017. The men behind it are Björn Böttcher, 44, and Greg Barbiero, 39. The blond one is Böttcher, obviously. The hirsute one is Barbiero. Both have impressive CVs: Böttcher, a native of Hamburg, Germany, worked for many years in the kitchens of David Bouley at Bouley, Kurt Gutenbrunner at Blaue Gans, and with Shea Gallante at Cru and Ciano. Barbiero, on the other hand, had embarked on career as a biochemist before falling in love with Italian cuisine, a pursuit he perfected first under Gallante, and then under Saul Bolton at the Brooklyn mainstay Saul. They met in the kitchen of Gallante’s now-shuttered Ciano. Both can be seen, accompanied by only two sous chefs, hard at work in the tiny glass-walled kitchen behind the front counter.

Der Pioneer’s Greg Barbiero and Björn Böttcher

The logo drew me in, but what made Der Pioneer home was the plate of franzbrötchen, swirls of buttery cinnamon dough that look like a croissant gone wild. The sight of them there in crazy glazed array was deliverance. It was Moses gazing over the Promised Land. It was Plato’s prisoner emerging from his cave. It was Offred getting the fuck outta Gilead. See, for the last three years, I’d been a Brunswick Café guy. Brunswick is a coffee shop on Prospect Park West. It was my coffee shop, and I knew everything about it. Among the known things was that the pastries were…fine. Every morning at 8 a.m., they arrived in a cardboard box from Balthazar, the same as any other coffee shop in the tristate area. And every morning there we were, me and my kids, waiting for two pains aux chocolat, one pain aux raisins, a macchiato, and two glasses of water. But you can only go so far with store-bought. After I dropped the kids at school, I’d return for a few hours, hole up by the window (outlets), and order from a desultory menu of disappointing sandwiches. Eventually the routine, as routines do, grew tedious.

At Der Pioneer, on the other hand, the pastries on the laden plates of the counter are still fresh. They will ever be so. Made just a few feet away, lemon blueberry muffins burst with lemon zest and lemon peel. The generous allotment of blueberries in the blueberry danishes nestle in a dough so flaky and light it disintegrates like an ancient text roughly treated. Since the canelés are in the logo they better be signal and, no surprise, when freed from their heavy copper molds, the Bordelais pastries are caramelized like oak on the outside but as gooey and sweet as a Sandra Bullock rom-com inside.

How Der Pioneer’s world-class pastries get made

The pastries are Böttcher’s métier and deeply personal. The franzbrötchen — essentially a combination of a croissant, a cinnamon roll, and a heart attack — are rarely seen outside his hometown, Hamburg. The savory menu, which is surprisingly extensive, comes from Barbiero and his tiny four-burner stove. Despite the name “Der Pioneer,” his isn’t the genius of the trailblazer. It’s the talent of the restorer. He takes the known and polishes it until it shines anew. Barbiero is precise in his measurements and assiduous in his execution. A short-rib hash, a diner staple, is ennobled by port wine jus and topped with a pair of definitionally flawless poached eggs. When broken, they bind the bits of potatoes and cut-up celery and carrots into breakfast manna. The breakfast burrito, which, like many of the menu items, was born from a customer request, is the size of a rolled-up Sunday New York Times. The sheer exuberance of the cheese-bound, bean-befriended, avocado-coated scrambled eggs threatens to escape the tortilla before entering one’s mouth, which would be a Shakespearean tragedy. 

Patrons at Der Pioneer’s communal table, “made from golden acacia that fell in a Thai forest.”

There is no reason the cheeseburger at a coffee shop should be as good as this cheeseburger is. The natural juices of the patty, which sits wondrous high in its sesame bun, are bolstered by oozy cheddar and the ministrations of sautéed onions and homemade pickles. In the mouth, rendered fat and char! In the hands, a slobby party! It comes with a pile of garlicky roasted potatoes that glisten as if on a rocky beach in Maine and a small side salad of enormous freshness. I guess. I just ate the burger and saved room for the hot dog, unusually long with more snap than a beatnik café and more juice than a fully charged laptop. But if you don’t feel like emerging into the swelter of Church Avenue in a food coma, go with the seasons. Summer is expressed as sweet corn and poached eggs. The corn, generously apportioned but nonetheless light, is spiced with a hint of jalapeño. A spicy aioli is artfully swooshed, fine dining style, along one side of the bowl. The eggs, again, poached as perfectly as a highly qualified candidate. A summer salad of grilled apricots and peaches, with roasted beets and pickled radishes cut into translucent coins and walnuts, is classic anti–heat wave fare. I should know. It’s 100 degrees and I’m staring at this plate thinking, “Man, I love it that they give a shit enough to form the components into an elegant crescent!”

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Since July 15, our move-in date, I’ve spent tens of hours and hundreds of dollars at Der Pioneer. I know every inch of this space. There are four outlets along the perimeter. There are five stools that line the front counter, the one facing the window onto Church Avenue. The second one from the door squeaks when you spin the wooden seat to raise (or lower) it. If you sit in the corner, you get better access to the outlets but the sun blinds you from about 9:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. There are six stools on the side counter; the fourth one in from the door is wobbly. I know because I’m sitting on it now. For a few days last week, when Böttcher was on vacation, the nozzle on the watercooler broke and we had to make do with measly carafes. Now it’s back, thank God. There’s a long beautiful wooden table that seats eight in the front but I didn’t know it was made from golden acacia that fell in a Thai forest until I asked.

Watch out for the fourth stool from the door. It’s a little wobbly

Already enough moments have passed here that I feel part of the fabric, the slow osmosis of making a new neighborhood yours. Most of the moments are small, the ands, buts, and thes that make up most of one’s life sentence. Deadlines hit; deadlines missed; coffees drunk; lunch eaten by the glow of Google Drive. But already the five-dollar words are beginning to appear as well. A few weeks ago, we celebrated my youngest son’s fifth birthday here with a single-serving raspberry gâteaux. (Well, two actually — one for his older brother because who wants to spend a birthday fighting.) Along with the delicate hazelnut dacquoise and the sacher cake, the gâteaux lurked in the display case like an escapee from a fancy Upper East Side patisserie slumming it in Kensington. So pink it could be a millennial toy, so sweet it could be a dream, a single raspberry was perched upon the raspberry yogurt mousse. A speck of gold leaf sat fluttering like a flag staked atop a summit, as if to claim that this was the land of the small triumph, the quiet victory, the vanguard of home.

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Bars FOOD ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES The Trencherman Uncategorized

Love, Longing, and Lunch on Restaurant Row

If you fold up Manhattan like an old receipt kept in your pocket, the block of 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues known as Restaurant Row is right in the middle crease. Thus designated in 1973 by Mayor John Lindsay, Restaurant Row is a little filthy, a much overlooked, worn-out, and grit-gilded stretch of sagging apartment buildings and saturnine dining rooms. It certainly is no longer what Lindsay intimated it was — if it ever was that — when he asked rhetorically, “Where else in the world, except possibly Paris, could you get sixteen of the best restaurants collected in such a short strip of land?” 

By then, the area around it was already on the decline, but the Row itself, once owned by the Astor family, was a beacon off Broadway, a strip of class that acted as the Maginot Line against the strip clubs and titty bars of Times Square. It served the tony theater crowd, and though a few blocks east the rough trade of the Deuce went down, in the dining rooms of Restaurant Row Broadway stars and politicos supped in style. Alas, of the sixteen original restaurants, many have since shuttered. Not even the most charitable of critics could call the survivors best at anything but their own survival.

Restaurant Row isn’t exactly failing, nor is it thriving. It seems to have achieved a diminished equilibrium. There are a fair number of empty storefronts, especially on the south side of the street, and a steady incursion of well-respected, well-run, but ahistorical Japanese restaurants — including Sushi of Gari, Sushi Seki, and Ikinari Steak. There’s now a nail salon, a few crumb-bum bars — not scuzz enough to be angel-headed; not class enough to be swank — and the disconcerting arrival of fast casual concepts including Bareburger and Pure Ktchn, which is, apparently, too pure for vowels. But to a remarkable and, to me, surprising extent, Restaurant Row has maintained its charms. Plural because, as I am to find out during this extended stay there, lunch charm is different from dinner charm, which is different from night charm.

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The allure of diurnal eating is the mostly empty dining room: Being this alone in New York is a rarity and a pleasure. It’s like an instant day hike to Harriman. Take Le Rivage, a French warhorse first opened in 1984 by the family Denamiel. Like most restaurants on the row, Le Rivage has a spray of menu options displayed on the sidewalk, from lunch prix fixe, lunch à la carte, pre-theater, happy hour, etc. There are deals advertised here that rarely correspond to deals actually offered once inside. Frequently, the prix fixe menus are accompanied by more caveats than a politician’s apology.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but be charmed as soon as one steps into the dining room. “Bonjour!” says a small, gray-haired, owlish hostess, “vous êtes seul?” “More than you could ever imagine, lady,” I think to respond. Instead, I do that which I hate done: I reply in the language of the cuisine of the restaurant in question. “Oui, l’enfer c’est les autres.”  

The place itself is large and low-ceilinged. The decor is grand-mère chic. There are both white tablecloths and white carpet, a rarity in this linenphobic restaurant scene. The walls sport oil colors of French country scenes, and the menu is about as by the book as Bob Mueller. Whereas at hep downtown neo-bistros, where riffs are being composed on classics like trout amandine and moules farcies, here the classics prevail. Let the youngsters have their Coltrane. This is the Rodgers & Hammerstein version of “My Favorite Things.” From the lunch prix fixe, I order a potage aux legumes; a glossy green soup, it tastes no more and no less than what it is, liquefied potato and leeks served warm. Next is a chicken cordon bleu, a dish as old-fashioned as calling the MTA the El. Though ill-served by a broiler, this version is passable. That it still gives pleasure reflects the underlying wisdom of whosoever first combined breaded chicken, a slice of salty jambon de Paris, mushrooms, and a blanket of béchamel sauce. Re-emerging midday into the crest of the August heat wave after the meal — Salut! A bientôt! — is like waking up after a bender. The sun, the people, their inability to walk properly on a sidewalk. I make it a few steps before seeking refuge in Brazil Brazil, the restaurant next door.

My favorite song, “Águas de Março”the live version with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina in which they both start cracking up, plays on a stereo in the ghost-town room. Paintings of thatch cottages surrounded by flowers on the Côte D’Azure are replaced by those of brightly colored huts in Paraty and capoeiristas mid-kick. The only other diners are a pair of elderly Brazilians and a young Brazilian tourist family. That’s a good sign. The chef here, Antonio Werdam, lives in Astoria, home to much of New York’s Brazilian population. As Le Rivage rolled down the center of the lane, so too does Brazil Brazil. This is basic shit, Brazilian food 101.

The menu starts with salgadinhos, “small salty things,” like pasteis — fried envelopes filled with salted beef or cheese — and coxinha de frango, a dewdrop-shaped fritter of shredded chicken, the kind of food you cop at the botequim lining the beach in Rio. Of the mains courses, my favorite is the feijoada, a hearty black bean and meat stew served with a cassava flour called farofa and a molho de pimenton, a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, and vinegar. One of the few well-known Brazilian dishes, feijoada often gets gussied up into some shmance deconstruction. But it’s best served on the ground level, with cuts and sausages you don’t often find except in Brazil, and in such pockets of the Brazilian diaspora that exist. Fuck virgins, when I die I want to be greeted by a caldinho de feijoada, a small pot of feijoada, with two slices of orange, a tangle of garlicky, thinly sliced collard greens, and a small mound of farofa.

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Then night falls and stagehands get ready for showtime. The tenor of Restaurant Row changes. The peckish tourists clamber off on their double-decker buses and the theater crowd comes. This lot is a far cry from the mink stoles and black-tie tales of Broadway crowds bygone, and not only because it’s so hot I sweat from folds I never knew I had. But at Barbetta, at least, some elegance remains. Barbetta, old regina of the row, founded in 1906 by Sebastiano Maioglio, an immigrant from Piemonte, and still owned by his daughter, Laura. It was in the garden of Barbetta that Lindsay spouted his mayoral cant, and it was in the upper rooms where John Jacob Astor III lived, and it is in the dining room tonight where tuxedoed waiters weave, the old-man unicorn spawn of Emmett Kelly and Max von Sydow. One is Eduardo Maglio, a sexagenarian maitre d’ from Argentina, who thrusts upon me a very large menu. Barbetta is so old it has left a trail of anniversaries behind it. It’s celebrating its 75th on the door, its 110th on the menu, and its 112th in reality.

A mix of vintage and contemporary-ish dishes, the menu is written in a florid if approachable J. Peterman style no longer au courant. “Oven baked Onion filled with a delicate fontina puree — Wow!” reads one entry. Elsewhere on the menu the diner is admonished to “Eat like a Pope!” Pope Francis’s favorite food is bagna cauda, an anchovy-and-olive sauce from Piemonte — according, at least, to the menu of Barbetta. But I figured, What the hell? Why not eat like the pope? Alas, the bagna cauda here isn’t exactly divine. There’s no cauldron in which to bathe the vegetables. Instead the sauce comes pooled atop little roasted red peppers like a cat’s mess on a carpet. An unappetizing appetizer aesthetically, it actually overperforms, as the anchovies — often underplayed unconscionably — are admirably and assertively administered. Much more ethereal are the gnocchi. According to Eduardo, they are the best in the world, but by my word it’s otherworldly altogether. Less sickle cell and more globule, and so light they would float up from the Piemonte cheese sauce if not for the scattered toasted pine nuts and thin ribbons of basil, exactly fourteen gnocchetti come in the $19 half-portion. That’s $1.35 per gnocchetto, slightly less than a minute of therapy but equally soothing. Worth it.

I bid Eduardo farewell, snoop around the coat room and a strange small sitting room with an ornately decorated harpsichord, open but unplayed, and a collection of porcelain dogs, and never want to leave. This is my place; emptiness is home. But leave I must.

Joe Allen at his regular spot at his namesake restaurant

Full, of course, but intrepid, I head to Joe Allen, one of the few spots on the block worth visiting. Allen owns not only his titular bar and restaurant but Orso, a refined Tuscan restaurant next door, and Bar Centrale next door. The vibe at Joe Allen is less historic than at Barbetta and less neglected than at Le Rivage. It’s well-populated by 8:30 p.m. I sit at the bar, reading Alan Richman’s saturnine profile of the man himself, who apparently is quite reticent, and eating a major-chord cheeseburger — nice intervals, nothing added, fulsome. I bide my time until the George Gee Swing Orchestra takes the backroom stage across the street at Swing 46, one of the slate of nightclubs on the Row. Besides the formless bars that do not warrant a mention, there’s Bottoms Up, which, unsurprisingly, is a gay bar; the Ritz, similarly gay, though less titularly so; and Don’t Tell Mama, a piano bar where I will end my night.

Swing 46 is one of those places I’ve always dismissed as a tourist trap, but as I sit at the bar alone — je suis toujours seul — I realize how wrong I was. Down with the $15 cover but not the $2 drink minimum, I’m just outside the back room, where the band plays. It’s a good enough vantage point — one can hear them rip through “Take the A Train” and “The Shadow of Your Smile” and other classics — and, as I soon find out, this is where the close-knit community of swing dancers gather to talk shop. As Tori, a third-year student at New York Law School — she wants to practice estate law — tells me, “There’s even a Facebook group called ‘Swing 46 tonight?’ ” Here, on the banquette, the dancers change from their street shoes into shiny patent leather or sparkly ones. Dancing shoes! They come to wear dancing shoes and dance with one another in the back room of a midtown jazz club. Perhaps it is that the cocktail I’m holding, a Manhattan, is large and strong, or that I’ve had a few already? I almost tear up watching the bodies sway and swing in the other room. They hold one another and twirl as the music plays; meaning, connection, joy. The musicians trade solos, but no one’s alone.

Dancers take the floor at “Swing 46”

I gotta get out of here, too many FEEELINGS, not cool to cry. And anyway, next door at Don’t Tell Mama, the pianist is already onstage and I promised myself not to miss him. The piano bar is narrow and divey, more like a dorm room than a venue: a wall of mirrors and a few rickety tables. When I walk in, the tables are crowded with a few tipsy ladies with highlights in their hair, and a couple of theater queens sitting in the front in pastel polos, and a strange four-top of hipsters staring at their phones, and me, at the bar, drinking — by this point — seltzer but tipping the bartender generously. He needs it. He’s a big dude, baby-faced, named Tommy Dose. On the black-and-whites is a guy named Paddy, goes by Paddy on the Piano. When I walk in, he’s midway through Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” Paddy relies a little too heavily on bass-note flourishes, muddying the melody, but I know the words, love the song, sing along.

Tommy is doing a brisk business in watery domestics along with another bartender. Some sixty-year-old guy who looks like he wandered in from a lower-tier country club has taken it as a personal affront that Tommy has demanded a credit card to open a tab. “I’m not going to stiff you!” he says. “I know,” says Tommy, “but it’s the policy.” The man throws a twenty down angrily. “I told you I wasn’t going to fucking stiff you.” Tommy rolls his eyes, and I wonder how many of these small shitty interactions it takes to stifle the soul of a man.

And then, from the stage, Paddy calls to Tommy, and Tommy goes to Paddy. And it turns out Tommy can sing, boy can he sing. Accompanied by Paddy, he belts out that Hozier song “Take Me to Church” in a heartfelt baritone that, mostly, eschews vampy musical theater. If I almost bawled to Ellington and swing steps next door, this is certainly too much for me to process emotionally. Tommy is so big his head almost touches the ceiling, and his voice is so big it squeezes the drunks and the dicks to the margins. He fills the room with the sound and heart. It’s beautiful, one of those moments of benediction you pray for every day in this city. I should’ve known. Here in midtown, bartenders are singers and singers are bartenders and empty rooms are temples, and crowded rooms are sanctified, and the human condition, with its unyielding need to connect, is laid bare.

A Judy Garland impersonator gets ready to take the stage at “Don’t Tell Mama”

This is what I think: You can eat much better nearly anywhere else in New York. To answer Mayor Lindsay’s outdated question — “Where else in the world, except possibly Paris, could you get sixteen of the best restaurants collected in such a short strip of land?” — the answer is in any of the current food courts or food halls that besmirch our city’s dining scene. But what you can’t get in a stall with a common dining room and free Wi-Fi is this depth of feeling, a complete immersion, an entire ecosystem. There is no other block like Restaurant Row, where dreams and desires, lunch and love, and the heartbreakingly tender chorus of the human heart are heard sung so clear. Not even in Paris.

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FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES The Trencherman

Last Call at the Coffee Shop

Everyone comes to New York to gape slack-jawed at beauty — unless, of course, you’re beautiful, in which case you’ve come here to be adored, or you’re already here, in which case, having been surrounded by both beauty and ugliness in profusion, you are insensate to it.

As a young man — not even eighteen years old — I arrived in New York in the summer of ’99, unbeautiful, suburban, and sponge-like. I was ready to be impressed. I lived in an NYU dormitory on Union Square with a flip phone, a laptop full of Napster-nabbed tunes, and a kid named Jason who snored so loudly that I at first took his wall-shaking snorts to be the subway below. We lived a few doors down from the Coffee Shop, a shimmering 24-hour disco ball of a restaurant and bar, full of stunningly beautiful, arctically cool, actually glamorous gods and demigods for whom Manhattan was Olympus and the herbed french fries they served there ambrosia. But heaven doesn’t last forever. As was announced this month, the Coffee Shop will close its doors in October.

Twenty years ago, the Coffee Shop beckoned like a shiny object does a crow. Opened in 1990 by a trio of Wilhelmina models — Charles Milite, Eric Petterson, and Carolyn Benitez — the Coffee Shop trafficked in physical, some might say superficial, beauty. The pleasingly retro dining room and bar operates under a Byzantine system of seating, no less codified than such tony redoubts as the Four Seasons, Michael’s, and Elaine’s. But unlike in those restaurants, where power was determined by wealth, position, or publishing numbers, at the Coffee Shop, beauty was the only salient metric. For an unsure nube like me, the appeal was evident. One didn’t just receive a Sesame Chicken Salad. The order of the world and your place in it was revealed. The maître d’ was God, and how we trembled waiting for judgment. 

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Alas, being all of seventeen and looking like I was twelve, I was routinely barred entrance, or else allowed passage only to the To Go podium, where I’d order a milkshake and a side of ambrosial fries, then return to my bedroom, to read of Odysseus and Nausicaa all the while fantasizing about what hedonistic fun the real-life nymphs were having but a few feet away. It turns out all my jizzy fantasies were true, as were other fantasies too nuanced and mature for my vulgar mind to concoct at the time.

When I heard of the closing, I reached out to Courtney Yates, who worked at the Coffee Shop for six years between 2004 and 2010. Yates is, as one might expect from a Coffee Shop alumna, a bona fide BP. She is not the most famous Coffee Shop employee — having only appeared on Survivor, twice — but, due to a 2007 Grub Street article, the most Googleable. Other notable alumni include Laverne Cox and — this made me flip my wig — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she was just Sandy from the Bronx. Now, Yates lives in Sugar Hill, Harlem, USA. She works as an astrologer, massage therapist, and yoga teacher, but for six years of the Coffee Shop’s prime, she was both arbiter of beauty and its prime embodiment. She agreed to meet me for dinner recently at 8:30 p.m., a time I had assumed would be peak people-watching.

A little after we were supposed to meet: “I’m on my way but, as you know the MTA is trash,” she texted. So I entered through the Coffee Shop’s glass doors alone. At once, the feelings of existential uncertainty flooded back again, after so many years. If you’ve ever walked into a cafeteria as a new student, tray in hand and lump in throat, you know the feeling. I hadn’t come to the Coffee Shop in a decade; neither — apparently — had many others, thus the restaurant’s impending closure. And yet, so ingrained was the sensation of judgment, of stepping up to receive one’s sentence from on high, that I quailed at the host stand. The gentleman — handsome, forty, flirty, fab — led me back to a two-top behind the bar, where I sat wondering what it all meant.

When she finally arrived, Yates said, a little apologetically, “Ah, #34. You’re a normal.” When I was younger, I would have been crushed. Middle-aged now, I realize, yes, I am a normal. Normal is OK. Normal is normal. Yates, on the other hand, was and is beautiful, and I wondered, as I browsed the sort of wonderfully normcore menu, how she felt seeing the world from #34.

Courtney Yates (second from right) and fellow Coffee Shop alumni gather for a staffer’s baby shower in 2013.

Though we were separated only by a small table, the delta between Courtney and I was vast. For me, the Coffee Shop was a terrifying adjudication of self-worth. For Yates, and the thousands of other model/waiters who worked there, it was the start of a glorious life in New York. “When I came here,” she said, “I didn’t know anyone.” She was a twenty-two-year-old model from Boston hired by Benitez, who was in charge of all staffing, and soon initiated into the Club of Beautiful People, a counterintuitively inclusive demographic. “Since we were all beautiful,” explains Yates, “no one was jealous or judgmental. We were like a Benetton ad.” She recounts with glee the hijinks and camaraderie of Coffee Shop survivors, who braved groping, grabbing, gooing, and gawing from the “Perve Curve,” a section of the undulating bar from which lascivious barflies cheesed on spindly waiters picking up their cocktails. She recalls the joy of the $2 staff menu and buying meals for assholes for the sole purpose of being able to tell them to go fuck themselves. “And I never got in trouble for it,” she says, still amazed after all these years.

Yates remembers the best section was the normals in the back, because it was always full, whereas the tables reserved for the beautiful and the famous — tables 6, 7, 8, and 9 — frequently sat empty. She recalls Nelly and Ashanti cuddling at table 101 in the back-back room, and David LaChapelle stopping by for brunch, like, all the time. She remembers how much she hated Susan Sarandon, a friend of the owner’s, for insisting that milkshakes stay on the menu — an item that, as any waiter anywhere will tell you, is a pain in the ass to make. “I can forgive her for coming out against Hillary,” says Yates, “but not the milkshakes.” She not only remembers her friends from the Coffee Shop, but still is friends with her friends from the Coffee Shop.

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For Yates, everything flowed from here. It was here — exactly here at table #34 — where, after telling off a drunk d-bag, she was approached by a producer from CBS to appear on Survivor, which she did, twice, once in China and once as a villain on the Heroes vs. Villains season. It was here and, more precisely, around the corner where she’d repair after her shift to drink at the Park Bar until morning. It was here where she formed the sorts of friendships that do not decay with time. Friendships with guys like Ted, another waiter, older now, who still cat-sits for her. Ted isn’t hot. He’s awesome. He’s a school teacher who lives in the Bronx, teaches English to ESL students, and, hustling, has worked nights at the Coffee Shop since time immemorial. It’s Ted, Guardian Angel of Coffee Shop waiters, who is one of those quietly necessary people who cohere bonds of friendship and bonhomie, who keep things together when everything else falls apart.

The food comes. The best that can be said about it is that it is, indeed, food. The cheeseburger is, in fact, a cheeseburger. If I had ordered a grilled cheese, I’m sure it would be that. I imagine the calamari fritto would be either fried squid rings or fried bleached pig anuses. I would eat it either way and care little. Food was always the beard at the Coffee Shop. The real feast was for the eyes. Was.

As she looked around the half-full dining room, Yates seemed nonplussed. “What I tell my friends is that death is a part of life. The space and energy of the Coffee Shop will dissipate, to pop up in other aspects of your life.” Though she hasn’t worked there for years, Yates knew almost all the bussers and food runners and kitchen staff. “They’re here for years,” she says, “but the servers aren’t. Beauty turns over fast.”  

Today there’s something noble, tragic, and just about the Coffee Shop. Its avowed insistence on physical beauty seems awkwardly out of step in today’s culture. But like a silent movie star who refuses talkies, the Coffee Shop is too proud or has too much integrity to adapt. Tables 6, 7, 8, and 9 are still reserved for the beautiful and famous patrons who will most likely never come again. Normals, like me, are still tucked, lonely, out of sight. The order of the world is preserved, even as that world disappears.

On the way out, Yates and I ran into Charles Milite, one of the owners. He’s in his fifties now, and, as with any older model, the sharpness of his features had been blotted by time. He was just passing by. He doesn’t go in much at all now. But he seemed to take the end of the Coffee Shop with a measure of equanimity and humor. “It’s going to make a great Chase Bank,” he said, flashing a sad smile that twinkled fetchingly in the hot night of a much changed city, one no longer with room for the Coffee Shop and all its beauties.

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FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES The Trencherman

Preserving Palestinian Culture, One Seed at a Time

Last weekend, Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, was on a quick stopover in New York City, from her home in Beit Jala, a small town in the West Bank, on her way to New Haven, Connecticut, a small city on the East Coast. Later in the week, she’d give a talk at the newly opened Palestine Museum US, about her mission to preserve and propagate the nearly extinct varietals of Palestinian farmers. She’d be telling the story of wheats like the Handsome Dark One; legendary watermelons like the J’adii; khyar abyad, white cucumbers of immense flavor; and Baladi tomatoes, a type known for its resiliency. Not only do the seeds need saving but so too do the farmers, whose land has been stolen, water diverted, and selves deracinated. But she was in New York and hungry, and so we ended up in Bay Ridge, at Tanoreen, one of New York City’s few Palestinian restaurants and its best by far.

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Tanoreen’s owner, Rawia Bishara, was born in Nazareth and followed her husband to the United States in 1973. In 1998, after raising two children, she opened the place with only ten seats. Bishara is an elegant and regal woman who runs the now-expanded restaurant with her daughter, Jumana Bishara. As with many Palestinians, a gentle sadness envelopes her like mist as she moves about the dining room. It is the sadness of a woman far from home, the melancholy of the dispossessed, and it diffuses her radiant smile, which glows rather than shines.

Those who know what’s what order from Tanoreen’s ever-changing menu of daily specials. That’s where we find the makdous peppers, the hybrid of Rawia’s family’s recipes and the pepper proclivities of her Latino chefs. Bright poblano and jalapeño peppers are roasted and stuffed with a traditional mixture of walnuts, red pepper, and spicy harissa. That’s where we find molokhia, a type of Egyptian mallow once eaten by kings. Falafel and hummus are on the menu, too. Though delicious, they’re 101 shit, the chicken tenders of the Levant.

Jalapeno Poblano Makdous (R) and Kibbie Cups at Tanoreen

The menu is a manifesto for the full personhood of Palestinians. “I hated how we were looked at and how we as Palestinians were perceived,” Bishara explained. “It is so wrong and there was no way to fix it but one to one. They have to see that we are not what they think we are.” What comes out of the kitchen is Palestinian home cooking — endless variants of rice and lamb, found formed into kibbie balls and stuffed into eggplants and peppers; nakanek, a homemade lamb sausage studded with pine nuts; hummus plain and hummus with beets — and that can’t help but lead the eater to contemplate the Palestinian homes with Palestinian mothers in Palestinian kitchens or, in the case of Bishara, Palestinian fathers, too. “My father always used to help my mother,” she says, on one of her table-side visits, “but he’d close the kitchen door so no one could see.”

This project of humanization has worked, within limits. “People still sometimes come in and ask my mom where she’s from,” explains Jumana Bishara, who earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies from the American University in Cairo before joining the family business a decade ago. “She says, ‘Palestine,’ and they say Palestine doesn’t exist. Well, they’re here, and they’re eating food from somewhere.”  

Jumana Bishara and Rawia Bishara of Tanoreen

Negation of the land takes a more concrete form in the work of Sansour. From her childhood, Sansour remembers the ancient terraces that turned the hills of Beit Jala into green carpets. (In fact, Beit Jala means “green carpet” in Aramaic.) “When I miss home,” she says, “I miss the sound of a rock hitting the shell of an almond,” she tells me. Sansour is a pretty woman with nut-brown eyes and olive skin wearing a white linen shirt with bright flowers embroidered on them. On the day I met her, she wore a pair of earrings from which dangled the ancient protective hamsa symbol and a hamsa necklace, and her wrists were heavy with hamsa bracelets that jingled as she pointed at one of Tanoreen’s excellent wines, a Hamdani Jandali blend from the Cremisan valley in the West Bank. “The whole area is now being confiscated,” she said, matter-of-factly. “The whole winery has been confiscated. It’s gone.”

After studying anthropology at East Carolina University and working with farmers in Uruguay, Sansour was shocked when she returned home in 2013 after years away. “All I saw was concrete, concrete, concrete. Terraces of concrete.” Gone were the beloved apricots and almond trees. The groves were replaced by a dense swarm of apartments built to accommodate the Palestinians herded off their land by the Occupation. This small ghetto was now surrounded by a ring of Israeli settlements that held the high ground of the valley, looming like an invading army. The farmers with whom Sansour had grown up had largely become day laborers at nearby Israeli-owned industrial agriculture operations. The Seed Library started with a search for the purple carrot.

Green abu samra wheat field in the village of Nus Ijbail, West Bank

“When I was growing up,” explains Sansour, as a plate of raw kibbie arrives, the minced lamb like a pink shag carpet under a sprig of mint and mounds of diced onion, “my mother would stuff these purple carrots with lamb and rice and serve it in a tamarind sauce. But when I returned, I couldn’t find the carrots anywhere.” Eventually Sansour found one old farmer who was hiding a crate of them in his trunk. “I felt like I was doing a drug deal,” she says. The farmer agreed to sell her two carrots, which she promptly planted in her family’s house, on one of the only remaining green carpets in Beit Jala. The seed of resistance had been planted.

“Stripping people’s ability to have food production was the last stronghold that would bring down the community,” says Sansour. “With each crop came a tradition, a practice, a story of who you are. So with each crop lost, it’s not just biodiversity but cultural diversity that’s lost as well.” The Heirloom Seed Library is animated by the same spirit of Slow Food in Italy and of community gardens in New York and, to some bougie-extent, of the farm-to-table movement around the country. It’s the idea that no one can be truly free if he does not have food sovereignty. So Sansour began crisscrossing the West Bank, tracking down seeds kept in the junk drawers of old farmers, and carefully coaxing them back to life.

Artasi Bean from the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library in Beit Jala.

She hunted these varietals like Alan Lomax did the Delta blues and, like the blues, these seeds were themselves the fruit of suffering and imagination, and like the blues they are divine and life-affirming. “Farmers are between artists and scientists,” Sansour tells me. “That these varieties exist at all are thanks to generations of Palestinian farmers who never stopped experimenting, never gave up on the land.” Wheats like the Handsome Dark One were bred over generations and generations. Yet it is this very humanity, this very human connection to the land, that the Israeli occupiers are obsessed with uprooting, whether by ringing the settlements with pine trees, which render the soil unarable, or with walls and fences, barring Palestinians from their ancestral villages. The anti-colonial struggle is both one of land and one of hearts. “We are told we are shit all the time,” says Sansour. “We have to be like the West to be of any value. But when you realize your grandmother and great-grandmothers developed this wheat and it is because of your grandmother and great-grandmother that the world eats cookies and cake, it’s a big shift. You begin to think maybe I’m not shit to begin with, and that is the true resistance.”

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Just then, Rawia Bishara arrives behind a caravan of striped bass, festooned with potatoes in a tomato sauce; a small plate of startlingly bright pickled vegetables; and a trio of baby squash into whose hollowed-out bodies are stuffed almonds and lamb. Great plumes of steam arise from the fish and from the squash as we cut their tender skin open. Usually simply a vessel for stuffing, these squash are unusually squash-like. They are not just a carrier but carry value themselves. The secret, Rawia says, is that these crops are grown by a Palestinian farmer in Pennsylvania according to the ancient practice of Ba’al. Ba’al agriculture, offers Sansour as Bishara looks on, is named after the Canaanite diety of fertility and destruction we know as Beelzebub, and is a farming technique in which crops grow with no man-made irrigation. Before irrigation, Ba’al was once a necessity, and now, with water in the West Bank being diverted to the settlements, it a necessity once again. But the result of this technique is vastly more flavorful, a vegetable that has had to fight to survive and through its struggle has found a way to thrive. “The idea you dare to try something in the desert is itself fucking revolutionary,” says Sansour. And the fact that you can try something like it at Tanoreen brings the revolution, the resistance, and at least a small measure of victory to Brooklyn.

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NYC ARCHIVES The Trencherman

Going Hungary: Meditations on a Last Meal

Last week, I ate George Lang’s last meal. Or rather, I had the meal Lang said would be his last, four years prior to his death seven years ago — which, as it turns out, wasn’t in fact his last meal at all. On the other hand, that one of New York’s greatest restaurateurs reached his hand out from the other side, to move a 24-year-old chef from south Florida to re-create his last meal, in all its arcane Hungarian glory, might actually mean Lang, posthumously, succeeded. It was his last meal at long last.

It was warm that night, and the sky over the East Village was the color of Meggykeszöce. Of course, I realized that only after the sun had vanished completely, and after the Eddy’s chef, Jeremy Salamon, had emerged from the kitchen bearing two glass Weck jars of the deep purple Meggykeszöce, a Hungarian sour cherry soup. The soup is of a soft periwinkle hue, viscous enough to support a scattering of chamomile flowers but not a quenelle of buttermilk crème fraîche. The chilled soup on a warm evening at the end of the hot day: gentle in color, gentle in flavor, a lullaby for the palate, going gently into the night.

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Normally, the menu at the Eddy is a synthesis of New American cuisine — more artfully wrought than much of what one finds in the East Village but not fundamentally different — with a few Hungarian touches, courtesy of Salamon, whose grandparents emigrated from Hungary and who, before he took over the kitchen, ran a Hungarian pop-up called Fond. He’d long been a Lang freak, coming across his 1971 cookbook, George Lang’s Cuisine of Hungary, in the Strand after he moved to New York from Florida. The book, and its recipes, reminded him of his own grandparents. Tonight at the Eddy, the menu was dedicated to Salamon’s hero, the man behind Café Des Artistes, a Hungarian émigré (and Magyar kitchen evangelist), a bon vivant, and — as he describes himself on the cover of his memoir, Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen “restaurateur-raconteur extraordinaire.” In 2007, four years before he died at age 86, Lang gave an interview to the Voices Nina Lalli on what his last meal would be. The menu, he told her, would include “fisherman’s soup, stuffed goose neck, sour cherry soup, layered cabbage, stuffed peppers, plum dumplings, pancakes with apple meringue, and whipped-cream strudel.”

George Lang, age 4

That article was mentioned in Lang’s obituary in the New York Times, where Salamon saw it, and the kicker was good enough to be his final word: “ ‘And then I will have what it takes to get to another world,’ he said.” Salamon made some modifications. “Goose neck is difficult to find,” he said, so instead he stuffed a poussin with a sweet chunky mixture of pork, apricots, and almonds. Lang’s rustic fisherman stew (Halászlé) was transmuted into a plank of brook trout, dotted with bottarga atop, with a burnt siena broth that was gently silky. The stuffed peppers, in Lang’s book made with traditional green peppers, were here poblanos, though the creamed wild arugula and lushly nutty walnut sauce were very much traditional. I’ve eaten stuffed cabbage for years at Veselka and Little Poland and the Stage around the corner. There they arrive on the plate like a pile of Amazon boxes the UPS guy left out in the rain, same color, same texture. They’re delicious; delicate, they aren’t. Salamon’s version, however, are tidy green care packages made of Savoy cabbage leaves, stuffed with pork rillett and paprikash wrapped neatly like some Japanese parcel left at the foot of your bed at a ryokan. Salamon’s langos were a revelation, fried discuses of dough like the best elephant ears I’d ever had, especially with the powdered sugar replaced with pecorino shavings and drizzled with wildflower honey.

Lang, at the Four-Seasons, 1964

Man, if this was Lang’s last meal, that guy nailed it. The Eddy is a small space, and a large part of it, that night, was occupied by a party of nine made up of Lang’s friends and family. Among them was Jenifer Lang, George’s widow. I was curious whether the meal her husband described a few years before his death was in fact his last meal, but didn’t want to interrupt with so morbid a question. So I called her up a few days later. “No,” she replied when I asked, “I don’t remember what his last meal was, but it wasn’t this.”

But reading through Lang’s memoir, it’s clear that the man had eaten his final meal many times over. As a Hungarian Jew, his family was destroyed by the Holocaust — both his parents were murdered at Auschwitz. After escaping a labor camp, Lang faced execution when he was revealed to be a Jew by members of the Arrow Cross militia. Saved by the invasion of the Russian Army, he soon faced persecution by the Russians, who accused him of being a fascist. Lang had been beaten and tortured and starved. He had escaped to Austria from Hungary literally hiding inside a coffin in a hearse. So before he even arrived in the United States in 1946 — on a boat, as a refugee from the Russians — he’d been born and died scores of times. This, Jenifer Lang muses, was at the heart of his insatiable appetite for this world. “After that,” she said, “he wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Despite its ur–Dad joke title and the fact that it isn’t available on Google Books, Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen proves that not only could Lang sling a sentence but that he could survive. He was a hustler, a world-hugger, a life-clinger, who had been so close to death so often at such a young age that he carried it with him always. And the funny thing is, it didn’t make him heavier. It made him lighter. That lightness of touch, the diamantine joy, manifest not only in his skill at the violin but as the visionary behind the Four Seasons restaurant and later Café Des Artistes, I think could only exist in the shadow of death.

Lang poses at Cafe des Artistes, 2002.

The last meal, as a resonant idea, seems to rest on an awareness of impending death. It’s different than just your favorite food. It’s what’s your favorite food…and then you die. It’s most famously asked of the condemned, a last twitch of humanity before the executioner sings. In those cases, a last meal is made more enjoyable, meaningful, because finality looms at the end of it. But outside of planned executions, I would wager it’s rare that we actually know what meal will be our last. My grandfather was a man of strange but deep appetites. He lived for omelettes with jelly and slices of strawberry shortcake at Shapiro’s Delicatessen in downtown Indianapolis. My grandmother sucked chicken bones, a habit she picked up when she was poor during the Depression, and grated her own knuckles into the latkes. (At least, that’s what Papa Frank told me as a kid.) Both died, paper-skinned, wafer-thinned, and intubated.

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That dinner at the Eddy was on Tuesday, June 5, the day Kate Spade died — just a few days before Anthony Bourdain, on Friday, June 8. And David Buckel died April 14 and Jeremy Safran died on May 7 and Josh Ozersky died on May 4, 2015, and Papa Frank died on June 22, 2014. I still think about all these people all the time, some more than others. What were their last meals? What will be mine?  

Tony talked to David Remnick about this on the New Yorker podcast a year ago. “My last day on Earth, if I had to choose one meal, it would be sushi. I’d be at Jiro or Masa,” he said. “Around the time they serve the omelette, the tamago, I’m ready to go then.” But, since he died in Kaysersberg, a small town in the Alsace region of France, I’m pretty sure Bourdain’s last meal was sausage and sauerkraut at Le Chambard, the small hotel at which he was staying with his friend Eric Ripert. Frankly it’s too heartbreaking to consider whether he knew that lunch was his last. I hope not. I hope his last meal was shared with his friend and that he enjoyed it tremendously. As for me, I don’t know what my last meal will be, or if I’ve already had it. If I go out on the leftover chicken kebab my kids didn’t eat from Greek Xpress, so be it. At least I fully enjoyed those dried-out cubes of charred bird for what they were.

It seems impossible to treat every meal as your last one; it seems as if that would lead to paralysis, and it might. But nodding to Lang — and Atisha, millennia before him — the thing is to enjoy the meal and let it go. Lang suffered greatly for this realization, but all this death that surrounds us might at least teach us that. The meal begins. The meal ends. Life goes on. And then it doesn’t.

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FOOD ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Remembering Anthony Bourdain, 1956–2018

Tony Bourdain died and there’s no silver lining or lesson to learn or pithy takeaway from it. Just, for me and I’m sure the thousands of people who knew him personally and the millions of other people who saw him on television, a tremendous amount of sadness that turns this sunny New York day somber.

I first came into contact with Tony in 2007, when I was an editor at Gridskipper, Gawker’s defunct travel website. We had sold a bunch of pre- and post-roll ads for his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, attached to a silly video series of neighborhood guides I hosted. After the first one went live, I got an email from a strange AOL address. It was Tony, saying he’d enjoyed them. Anthony Motherfucking Bourdain emailed me and signed his name “Tony.” I was in heaven. I’ve received and sent hundreds of thousands of emails since then. That one sticks forever in my inbox. There was no reason for him to send it except that, as everyone knows, what Tony thinks he says.

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Evidently not. Over the years, I’ve interviewed Tony a handful of times, run into him at events and parties and whatnot. We weren’t friends, but we were friendly, and in ways big and small he always offered a helping hand. A single tweet from Bourdain could — and did — make a huge difference professionally. But more than that, to me, Tony was this towering, loping beacon in whose wake I could trail. Through his television shows and books and the never-depleted feast of often profane, often profound sound bites he proffered, he made the transition from talking about food to talking about people, about what we eat to who we are. From the time I was first introduced to the angry bad boy in Kitchen Confidential, I watched as Tony became a father and an athlete, digging into his insatiable curiosity to find a deeply human and humane heart. There was still anger there, but it turned into the sharp sword of righteous outrage. He didn’t take bullshit, called it as he saw it, and, because he never stopped traveling, saw a lot of the world, the good and the bad. The last time I saw Tony, his cookbook Appetites, about cooking at home with his family, had just come out.

When we spoke, Tony was talking about the joy of cooking for his family, how he wanted to make things ahead of time and things that were easy. “You want to be at your own party,” he said.  I stood in awe of how effortlessly, or rather fearlessly, he had shed the chrysalis of anger and emerged as something new, someone healthier. But, I suppose we know now, he kept some parts unknown, too.

Death is coming fast and heavy now, I fear. I can’t help but lasso together the loss of Tony and that of Kate Spade, just a few days ago. I hope I’m not out of line to suppose that Tony probably wouldn’t have had many nice words to say about the chirpy, cheery world created by Kate Spade. It was so antithetical to his rough rock ’n’ roll personality. But if he had known Kate, glimpsed just a bit of the back alleys of her mind, he would have been kind to her, because Tony was kind, and because Tony had them too. To me, they’re together in the bardo, and my heart breaks for them that they felt so hopeless that they took their own lives. I pray for Kate and I pray for Tony, that somehow I can decrease their suffering wherever they are. But I don’t think Tony would want sacred thoughts or noble feelings. So I offer instead a very Bourdainian prayer:

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Love. Love. Love. But fuck.

 

If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, call the Suicidal Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for people in suicidal crisis or distress. Those who feel less comfortable speaking on the phone can text HOME to 741741 in the United States to reach the Crisis Text Hotline. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.

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FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES The Trencherman Uncategorized

When Dinner With Friends Shook the World

Polaroids, pay phones, classified ads, two vast and trunkless legs of stone — the past is a back catalog full of shit the internet made obsolete. Am I of the last generation who remembers what it felt like to be alone? To be in a room with no one to chat with, no one to snap at, with no hangouts and time gone slack? And if so, then is that generation the last to feel the hot-shower sigh of relief when, by the caroming of cosmic bumper cars, we find our people and realize we are not in fact alone? Today it seems so easy to connect. There are so many apps, so many platforms, so many places to log into.

If the gerrymandered channels of social media are to be believed, today’s chefs — and today’s eaters — are woven together in the warp and weft of likes, emoji, and hashtags. Never have the chefs been so united. Yet never has their unification felt so transactional.

Michael McCarty, Jonathan Waxman, Chef Dan Kluger and Andrew Friedman at Loring Place, April 23rd, 2018

On a recent spring evening at Loring Place in Greenwich Village, this state of affairs is on display. “There are probably three dinners like this somewhere in the city tonight,” says Andrew Friedman, the bright-eyed, bearded author of the new book Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession, a voluminous oral history of American chefs in the 1970s and ’80s. We are gathered in the downstairs dining room of chef Dan Kluger’s quietly bonkers-good restaurant on West 8th Street to celebrate two things.

The first is the publication of Friedman’s book. The author is an exhaustive researcher and a deliberate writer. He runs a blog called Toqueland, subtitled “Inside the World of Professional Chefs,” and has a podcast, Andrew Talks to Chefs, in which he talks to chefs. Friedman is an inveterate story collector, the Studs Terkel of the culinary world, the Legs McNeil of fine dining. His new book is a 480-page, in-the-weeds birth story of American cuisine, with all the mothers and fathers and doulas and midwives accounted for.

Menu from The Stanford Court

The second thing we’re celebrating at Loring Place is the 35th anniversary of the legendary (to some) Stanford Court Dinner, an event that, to quote Friedman’s book, “changed everything and brought rising chefs from across the country together for the first time.” The original dinner took place in San Francisco on May 4, 1983. It was organized by Michael McCarty of the restaurant Michael’s, in Santa Monica, California, with help from his chef, a young hippie named Jonathan Waxman who looked like he stepped from a Pontormo painting. Alice Waters made a garden salad, natch; Jeremiah Tower made a pecan pastry with chocolate-and-sabayon sauce; Larry Forgione, of Brooklyn’s River Café, made a terrine of smoked American fish “with their respective caviars.” The Southeast was present in the person of Paul Prudhomme, who cooked his signature blackened redfish on piping-hot skillets over charcoal grills on the fire escape, sending smoke into the San Francisco air; Mark Miller, of Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley, made quail; and two guys from the Midwest — Bradley Ogden of American Café in Kansas City, and Jimmy Schmidt of London Chop House in Detroit — stuffed a rack of lamb with greens from Missouri and made a gratin of wildroot vegetables, fiddlehead ferns, and cattail sprouts. It was the first time in the history of American fine dining that chefs so far-flung had conclaved, the first time they had poked their heads above the plains to see the other prairie dogs. It wasn’t like there was no American culinary vernacular developing. But, as Friedman puts it, standing in front of the room and conjuring up a distant past, “The coasts didn’t know much about the other coast, or care.”

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Save for the yellowed paper and serif type, the menu — copies of which are distributed tonight along with the book — wouldn’t look out of place today. The chefs, however, have aged and flourished, each having gone on to make a mark in the annals of cuisine. At the dinner tonight are the wizened, thicker versions of the young men who were part of that first dinner. Michael McCarty is here with his wife, an artist named Kim McCarty. We New Yorkers may recognize Michael’s as the feeding trough for the last of the media tycoons. Back when magazines were swollen with tumescent mastheads, it was where the top names ate, and the fourth estate liked to play a parlor game, like tasseomancy or Kremlinology, to divine the internecine power struggles of the media by observing who sat where.

Larry Forgione and Alice Waters contributed dishes to the meal

But in its hometown of Santa Monica, Michael’s has been known not so much for its crowd or courtyard but for its ambitious menu. And 35 years ago, McCarty was a young restaurateur, fresh from training in France with the idea that, fuck it, American cuisine should be celebrated. (At the time, everyone slouched toward Escoffier.) In 1981, McCarty, along with Julia Child, the winemakers Dick Graff and Robert Mondavi, and others, had founded the American Institute of Wine and Food in order to promote and — let’s face it — build a market for American product. It took two years to organize the dinner that would be called “An American Celebration,” and it fell to Waxman, McCarty’s chef, to corral the kitchen talent. Tonight at Loring Place, it’s hard to imagine Waxman as anything but the grizzly éminence grise sitting at the end of the table. But he was young once too. “We had no fucking clue if the dinner was going to be a success,” he says of his efforts at the time. “We had to send letters, that we wrote on typewriters, through the postal service!”

According to all those present, both the postal and dinner service came through. That epochal meal had introduced the 400-odd gourmets — who had paid $150 in 1983 dollars for nine courses paired with American wines (about $380 today) — to the emergence of American fine dining cuisine. More importantly, all the prairie dogs came out and saw they were not alone.

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Today, so much of what and how we eat is presaged by that two-page menu, from Waters’s nonchalant “garden salad” to the locavore organic veggie-forward forage-friendly wildroot vegetables and cattail sprouts of Ogden and Schmidt’s dish. I think all those present would agree that there would be no Loring Place, with its cheerfully resolute focus on ingredient extruded through the American culinary vernacular, without the contagion sparked that night in Nob Hill. And that would be a damn shame, because Dan Kluger has made this one of the best restaurants in New York City.

In Kluger’s hands, Forgione’s terrine is reimagined with cured salmon and foie gras; Waters’s salad becomes a salad taco — salad taco! — with a guajillo and tamarind hot sauce. “I’ve never totally loved blackened fish,” admits Kluger, so he turned Prudhomme’s blackened redfish into a brown butter–basted sea bass with a blackening spice. It sits pretty on a Dungeness crab salad. And so it goes: Miller’s marinated quail becomes wood-grilled duck with Indian warming spice; the rack of lamb becomes a loin of lamb with the Missouri greens transmogrified into a hazelnut and mustard green pesto. The fiddlehead ferns abide. Tower’s dessert arrives as a delicate chocolate mousse with shavings of candied orange. It all feels very now and tastes very good. The dinner’s title is “Food Memories Dinner Series With Andrew Friedman.” That’s a mouthful but you don’t need the memories to enjoy the flavors; you don’t need to know the roots to savor the fruit.

What’s so striking about the mythology of the evening recounted — Genesis 1:1 of American Cuisine — is how much the whole thing hinged on these chefs, working in isolation but in tandem, having found one another. And how much the difficulty of finding one another endowed the relationships with special hard-earned import. McCarty, Waxman, Waters, Tower, Miller, Ogden, Schmidt, and Prudhomme had finally found their people. They were no longer lonely prairie dogs. I thought about that, and about how, 35 years later, there’s not a motherfucker on this earth that I can’t find pretty easily. But though, as Friedman says, this type of collaborative dinner at Loring Place is common enough now, I doubt there will be a dinner like that at the Stanford Court again anytime soon. Because even though everyone is searchable, reachable, and findable all the time, now that trends are fast-moving waves and collaborations as transient as an Instagram story, being alone has never been harder but being lonely never easier.

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FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES The Trencherman

The Trencherman: Punched in the Face by the Ghosts of St. Marks

Ever wonder why a barfly sits so still? Both the question and the answer came to me at once one night last week. It’s the fear of falling over. I was sitting on a tall stool at the long bar in the narrow room. Not unlike the millions of other quiet Atlases that have done and will strike the same hunched-over pose, I was weighed down by the weight of the world. Events had knocked me off course. Nothing a stiff drink couldn’t solve, I thought, ordering one off the lengthy menu at the William Barnacle Tavern, the singular institution at 80 St. Marks Place between First and Second avenues. But the stool was high and the legs were slender and my guts were still so much in turmoil, I didn’t want to tempt fate by moving around too much. So I sat like a gargoyle and watched other people in the mirror.  

There was a lot to see and more to think about. The bar, adjoining the lobby of Theatre 80 St. Marks, is a geode in the East Village, mostly empty but filled with gems: vaguely nautical-themed, small ships sitting on shelves, next to a skull with a top hat, an Irish hand drum called a bodhran, and a stringless harp. The bartender that night, Jodie, a woman between the ages of 24 and 65, tossed off a Maggie: A Girl of the Streets vibe. There was a story there, somewhere in the eye shadow. Her rocks-and-gravel Irish brogue recalled the times when her Hibernian kinfolk filled the neighborhood, and what is now the William Barnacle Tavern was the speakeasy hideout of the king of bootleggers, a Bavarian gangster named Frank Hoffman.

Lorcan Otway of William Barnacle Tavern at 80 St. Marks Place.

So much had transpired since then and now, and in the last few months of my life, that we all — me, the block, the world, that Old Fashioned laced with absinthe Jodie pushed across the bar — were all mixed up. I ordered a hot dog from a young guy named Tristan, who occupies a phone booth–sized corner of the bar with a small service window facing the street that sells Feltman’s famously snappy Coney Island hot dogs. It was a Monday night, and there was a seisiún of Irish musicians, an informal trio who blew their fifes and strummed guitars, at a table nearby. It was a peak tavern moment. The bar’s owner, a man named Lorcan Otway, is an old Irish Republican, ponytailed and bearded with seen-it-all eyes and a famously inexhaustible appetite for telling tales of the building, about how his father, Howard, a Quaker playwright, bought it, about how Walter Scheib, an underling of Hoffman’s, took it over after the gangster split so suddenly he left a clam dinner (and $2 million in gold certificates) in the then-speakeasy’s safe. He tells stories like cherubs pee from water fountains. Always fun, always refreshing; let the words wash over you.

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The hot dog did indeed possess an impressive snap and a juiciness not often experienced this far north of Coney Island. I was just finishing the thing when Ada Calhoun, author of St. Marks Is Dead, pulled open the doors. Tall and blonde, she was by far the most glamorous thing in the place. The small bronze nymph lamp holding a red globe on the bar offered no competition. She walked toward me and offered me her hand. I’d told her I’d be the guy at the bar with the mustache. She’d said there would be many of them.

In the event, I was the only one with a mustache. In fact, besides a couple talking about how to launch a podcast, I was nearly the only one at the sparsely sat-at bar. And as for whether the mustache is an ironic hipster one, the answer is that it isn’t. There is a sincere mustache on my upper lip and it’s there to stop the tears. The truth is, and this may be a little oversharey but it is true nonetheless, that everything in my life is falling apart. Well, maybe not everything, but family life has certainly got real hinky of late. Without getting into it too much — because a) the situation is fluid and b) I’m not the only one in it — the home I thought would be mine, and the future that flowed from that happy home, is breaking apart and dissolving.

St MArk’s Place, 1936

That’s destabilizing enough. What is lost isn’t just all that one holds dear but the millions of future selves and future holdings-dear too. If JDS was listed on the stock exchange, his futures would be way down in premarket trading. And it wasn’t just that the world I had built for myself — we, ourselves — had come apart like poorly assembled Tinkertoys. It was that I, the Creator, was fraying too. I’d recently been diagnosed with borderline personality order, a mental illness affecting 2 percent of the adult population. It’s not a big deal but it’s also not not a big deal. Obviously it has thrown me for a loop. To see all the things I struggled with for so long writ down there in the DSM-5 makes me feel, I don’t know…it just makes me feel, I guess. It makes me feel that I don’t know where I end and the diagnosis begins. And so this mustache, hideous even to my own eyes, is some sort of reclamation. As a friend put it to me the other day, beards happen, but a mustache you choose.

You can see why I was sitting on that stool so still and scared. But Calhoun — who grew up on St. Marks, attending gallery openings and firework shows with her father, art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and mother, Brooke Alderson, and now lives in Williamsburg with her eleven-year-old son and husband, performance artist Neal Medlyn — has a big laugh, a warm smile, and 400 years of St. Marks in her head. Soon she was undressing time. Peeling back the layers of the years, she recalled cutting class to watch old movies in the theater next door. (Otway owns the entire building, which includes the theater and, on the second floor, the Museum of the American Gangster.) She pointed across the street to the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, recalling how a very underage Mike D of the Beastie Boys used to order there before he could even reach the bar. With casual deftness, she Enigma’d Barcade — a block west — wending backward through time until it was Kim’s Video and before that the St. Marks Bath. She can do that with nearly every address over the surrounding three blocks, presto chango–ing condos to guild halls and sushi joints to performance venues. Both her book and her conversation are studded with names and addresses that once meant something to somebody but now are words as foreign-sounding as the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Ada Calhoun on St. Marks

But Calhoun is not a nostalgist. She greets these changes with a certain cheerful equanimity. Bemoaning time past is the eternal pastime of St. Marks. “It doesn’t matter when it was,” she told me, “people always just think it was better before.” In fact, she said, you can pinpoint this time not to some unspecific era in the past but to the time they were nineteen. I stayed quiet, too ashamed to say that I too remember being nineteen and walking down St. Marks and that the street to me seemed like a gilded manuscript and that I was so full of hope and happiness I was practically floating, because she’s heard it all before. And even though she was too polite to say it, I wasn’t special then, and I’m not now.

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New York punches you right in your face with its impermanence. Nowhere in the city does this better than St. Marks, which Calhoun writes has “spun like a wheel for the last 400 years.” Nowhere on St. Marks does this better than the William Barnacle Tavern. It’s a scuzzy, numinous satori engine, the Heart Sutra of the East Village. To sit here and contemplate these three blocks and all the lives lived within them, everyone from Trotsky and Warhol to Hoffman and Scheib to the vastly more numerous whose names mean nothing to us now; to pause, letting the stories stacked on stories, born of bricks and decades, rise to a chorus; to gaze at the bar, worn smooth as worry beads by the friction of elbows, and over the bar at the mirror; to see something solid and then to realize this sense of dumbass solidity is the same feeling all the ghosts before you felt — all this is to understand that nothing lasts, or even properly is. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.

That goes for bars and blocks and buildings, me and mustaches and marriages. And nights at the Barnacle too. You think you can sit still and nothing will happen, but everything inevitably ends. There’s nothing left to do but settle up, slide off the stool, and step foot again onto St. Marks.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Amid Delmonico’s Gilded Age Splendor, Diners Party Like It’s 1899

A rude wind sweeps down the empty streets of the Financial District on a recent Monday night. Apart from the stray spray of tourists who ignore  the Bull and take pictures of the Fearless Girl instead, the neighborhood is dead. In that sepulchral stillness, zipped up in the body bag of night, Wall Street has assumed the ageless character of a corpse. Scrubbed of filth and action, she is timeless. In her presence, New York has reversed through time, her growth has crept back downtown, farmland has reclaimed the upper reaches, the rich have become richer and the poor poorer until we have ended back in the Gilded Age.

There is perhaps no better proof of terminal capitalism’s violent nature than the fact that when the markets close, and after the bars disgorge their last potbellied patrons, wrists weighed down by compensatory timepieces, Lower Manhattan heaves a seismic sigh of relief. Wall Street in the moonlight is an urchin of singular beauty, quiet and wide-eyed and heartbroken.

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The current Delmonico’s location

There is, of course, one light that remains burning well into the night. The beacon belongs to the Zelig-like Delmonico’s, America’s first restaurant and for many years its best. Delmonico’s has pop-a-moled in and out of existence since 1827, when it began as a pastry shop run by two Swiss brothers. Contrary to rhetoric and appearance, the singular building which one enters at the corner of Williams and Beaver streets today, a wedge of eight stories in a Renaissance Revival style with marble columns rumored to have been salvaged from Pompeii and which regulars regularly rub for good luck, is not the original location. A few doors away at 23 William Street, that first attempt burnt down, along with everything else, in 1835. It’s now luxury condos.

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Delmonico’s in the”The Alienist”

Delmonico’s current building dates back to 1890. It was designed during the brilliant but shortened career of architect James Brown Lord, who expired in 1902 after a snake oil salesman from Chicago named Elden De Witt  insisted on undertaking a loud renovation next door to Lord’s 54th Street home. This, according to a lawsuit of minor fame, ruined the constitution of the delicate genius, who died at age 43. The current iteration of Delmonico’s dates back only to 1998. Having survived the Gilded Age, Delmonico’s closed during World War I, then was yanked back to life in the 1930s, under the guidance of Oscar Tucci, who originally called it Oscar’s Oldelmonico. But after Tucci closed the doors in the 1970s, the space stood empty for years. That changed two decades ago when the space was purchased by a happy quartet of Croats, including the soccer star Ferdo Grgurev, which goes by the name Ocinomled Ltd. (That’s Delmonico’s backward.) Or at least they were a happy quartet of Croats until 2017, by which time, as Judge Gregory Wood wrote, quite wittily, I think, “The relationship between them has now gone to pot, devolving into this acrid stew which, after long simmering, has now come to a boil.” It was an issue of the misuse of Delmonico’s steak sauce, among other complaints, that tore them asunder. Now who knows who owns the place? As I rub the Pompeian columns, who cares? Delmonico’s is an idea more than a building. Nevertheless, this welter of now-people and then-people, and the mess of their passions, and the mass of their stories, is an apt embodiment of what history offers us as we peer back into it.

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Delmonico’s Chef Charles Ranhofer, c. 1902

Sitting on a couch near the coat check under the gaze of an oil portrait of Charles Ranhofer, Delmonico’s most famous chef who manned the stoves between 1862 and 1896, my dinner companion knows the complications of history. He’s a tall man, closing in on his sixth decade, whose spritely eyes twinkle in the low light. He wears a plain gray suit of a slightly darker hue than his hair and, between the floral carpet and rosette wallpaper, reads as an outline of understatement. He is Simon Baatz. A Londoner by birth but an American by choice, Baatz is a professor of American history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author, most recently, of The Girl on the Velvet Swing. The book — which concerns one of New York’s most important Gilded Age architects, Stanford “Stanny” White; his rape of a sixteen-year-old chorus girl named Evelyn Nesbitt; and his subsequent murder by the wealthy, mentally unstable playboy who married her — was published earlier this year. It joins a raft of recent and near-term works fascinated with the last decades of the 19th Century. But the allure seems not to be the years — which spanned almost exactly Ranhofer’s time at Delmonico’s — in general. Rather we are held rapt by how unbridled wealth and relative lawlessness of an adolescent city formed an incandescent guillotine that cuts through history today.

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Celebrating Lincoln’s birthday at Delmonico’s

Baatz’s subtitle, “Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century,” might just as well have been appended to Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist, from 1994. That book, a terribly pedantic but strangely compelling historical novel, features Depravity! Power! and Forensic Psychology! The story isn’t true, but it is true-ish, and the pages are peopled with before-they-were-famous characters like a young Teddy Roosevelt. In the book, much of the action takes place here — or here-ish — at Delmonico’s. “It is often difficult, I find, for people today to grasp the notion that one family, working through several restaurants, could change the eating habits of an entire country,” writes Carr’s protagonist, John Schuyler Moore, in one of the novel’s many Wikipedian passages. “But such was the achievement of the Delmonicos in the United States of the last century.” Yadda yadda yadda. When it came out, The Alienist was a New York Times bestseller, and it has been enjoying a revival after TNT gave it the prestige drama treatment. And not to gild the lily, but one must also mention that Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, the Aaron Sorkin of the very rich, is at work on a new drama based on the Gilded Age, called I think, Gilded Age. That will premiere in 2019 on NBC. And then there is the Gilded Age comedy — yes, one exists — Another Period on Comedy Central. The Gilded Age is back, baby!

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Delmonico’s c. 1896, as seen in “The Alienist” on TNT

I have invited Baatz here to find out why, right now, we’re so damn obsessed. But as we walk through the dining room, perhaps 70 percent full and not just by spot-’em-from-a-mile-away finance types but what look to be a real mix of in- and out-of-towners of sundry nationalities and varied age, the answer seems obvious. “I mean, look at the restaurant,” says Baatz, gesturing to the glowing chandeliers, the oil paintings depicting scenes of conviviality that line the walls like strong suggestions to have a good time, and the white tablecloths laden with heavy-handled silverware and big-belled wineglasses. And that is just what is in our line of vision; I, like Baatz, know that above us are Delmonico’s famed private rooms. Here and there, up and down, had once eaten all of America’s great men, from Mark Twain (who coined the term Gilded Age) to Abe Lincoln to Charles Dickens.

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1868 First Ladies Luncheon Delmonico’s

If once Delmonico’s was on the cutting edge of American cuisine, it is no longer. If anything, the menu — heavy as a Bible and as leather-bound as a gimp — is the back of the blade. That’s not a knock. Edges need spines just as rectos need versos. Here one finds the expected recitation of classics: a seafood plateau, a shellfish chateau, Maryland crab cakes, shrimp cocktails, and, of course, a sizable selection of steaks and chops. It’s standard steakhouse fare, an indicator of Delmonico’s vast influence, and the snatches of the restaurant’s history are worn but lightly. There are the oysters Jim Brady — fried and topped with a champagne, cream, and pancetta mixture — that the Gilded Age’s prodigal son Diamond Jim Brady preferred when he dined here with his mistress, chorus girl Lillian Russell. That sort of fuck-the-cardiologist eating is woven through the menu’s DNA. One of the four steak sauces on offer is the Newburg Sauce, a gout-inducing invention of Ranhofer’s made with lobster, cognac, and cream. Ditto Chicken a la Keene, a creamy chicken concoction whose birthplace is contested but for which Delmonico’s makes a credible claim. And, there on the dessert menu, one finds Baked Alaska, which originated here in 1867 to celebrate the purchase from Russia of Alaska. It is telling that the name of the current chef — Billy Oliva, who has led the kitchen for the last decade — is nowhere to be found, not on the menu, not on the website, nowhere.

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Delmonico’s Menu 1899

The food is solid, stolid, built to last. It’s unremarkable in a way that is not at all unenjoyable. The sea bass Baatz orders arrives, artfully placed in a bowl the size of a hubcap with a generous curl of lobster alongside it and skin as crisp as a sunbird. The crab cakes, he says, “melts in my mouth.” The OJB, alas, rest there as heavy fried pucks, but the boneless rib eye — the so-called Delmonico’s steak — comes exactly as one orders it, with a nice char that seals in the rendered fat, and brushed with butter and more beef fat on its glistening crust. Look, you’ll probably die if you have more than one in a three-month period, but fuck, it’s delicious. Mostly, though, what one consumes at Delmonico’s is a connection — however tenuous — to the past. This temple of the Gilded Age still glimmers fetchingly, seductively.

There’s something quaint and almost wholesome about the luxury here. Especially when compared to the more outré contemporary feeding troughs of the oligarchs — to places like the Grill and the Lobster Club and the Pool Room — dinner at Delmonico’s feels both virtuous and gay. And it’s hard to disagree with Baatz’s answer about our fascination. If this is what the Gilded Age was, no wonder we like it. But of course, like everything seen through the looking glass of time, beware the distortion. For this is what the Gilded Age looked like only to a few.

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Delmonico’s Dining Room

The story told in The Girl on the Velvet Swing warns against the sanding of history’s rough edges. It is the tale of how one man’s success at catering to the tastes of the Gilded Age demigods gave him cover to drug and rape a child and how, more troublingly, after a brief period in the wilderness after his murder, his reputation was revived in the mid-century. Now, viewed solely through his work, from the Bowery Savings Bank to the Washington Square Arch to the Metropolitan Club, is heralded as a paragon of virtue. Those marble facades are bones of the Gilded Age, bleached but still cursed.

Dismayingly, the book couldn’t be more timely, not just for how it describes how great men act with impunity but for how close we teeter to another Gilded age. As Baatz reminds me, if we hanker for a return to the days of unbridled wealth, when men stuffed themselves with foie gras and steak while children starved in unheated tenements just blocks away, we needn’t hanker much longer. “There’s tremendous prosperity in this country, but the prosperity isn’t spreading out,” says Baatz. He tucks into the Baked Alaska, a burnt orb of meringue enshrouding a scoop of banana ice cream. “We’re headed right back into another Gilded Age.” He pauses to lick a tuft of meringue that clings to his lower lip, lets out a sigh that is half pleasure and half resignation, and says, “Bon appétit.”

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Datebook FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Babbo in the Bardo: Life After Mario at a Village Landmark

Had I visited Babbo but a few months ago, I could have waxed poetic about how, as one enters the doors of the gracious former West Village stable house, through brocaded curtains into a hard-partying cathedral of culinary splendor, the light glows divine and the stereo blasts R.E.M. It would have been a paean to pasta, an encomium of agnolotti, a panegyric to panna cotta. Had the muse sung in me, as it sung in the New Yorker’s Bill Buford — Mario Batali’s Boswell, who more or less made the man with his book Heat! — more than a decade ago, I might have exalted Babbo and its flame-headed creator, a son of Dionysus and Seattle named Mario. Praise be unto the house built of flour and water.

It’s easy to see why Buford cast Batali as his Hemingway-ian hero. The man behind Babbo — incidentally the Tuscan word for papa — had rescued Italian food from both the red-sauce ghetto and the unambitious luxury of Il Mulino and its ilk on the other side of Washington Square Park. He had spread himself like ’nduja into the West Village with Otto and Lupa Osteria Romana and positioned himself as the profane savior of vera cucina italiana. He worked and lived and partied in the Village, zooming through the narrow streets — a big man in orange clogs on a tiny bike, half SNL send-up, half commedia dell’arte. Then came more restaurants like Bar Jamón and Casa Mono, La Sirena and Del Posto; even larger deals; television shows with Gwyneth Paltrow; television shows without Gwyneth Paltrow; a library of books; more restaurants; a piece of the Spotted Pig; Eataly, a massive Italian emporium; products from orange clogs to pasta sauces; and a production company, no joke, called Alta Via, the High Road. Mario Batali was too big to fail.

But that was then. In late December, after Eater revealed allegations of sexual harassment by the chef, Batali was banished from his own castle and Babbo entered the bardo, that cosmic Buddhist waiting room where sins and mitzvot are tallied. “Revelations,” ha! What soft-shoe self-exculpatory hogwash I find myself peddling. What was revealed wasn’t Batali’s behavior but our long-standing tolerance of it. Go back and reread Heat!, because if that isn’t a slavering apologia for a creep, written by a pie-eyed prig for the delectation of the inner men’s-rights activist that lurks in the hearts of all bourgeoisie, I don’t know what is!

In the fall, cast out too was Frank Langello, Babbo’s longtime lieutenant and chef at Babbo who, in an almost touching act of idolatry, imitated his boss’s inappropriate touching. Joe Bastianich, another partner at Babbo, has come in for censure for comments that can only be described as deplorable and, more damningly, for knowing lots and doing nothing to stay Batali’s lech. As it happens, Babbo was built on a lot more than flour and water. It was a boys’ club in which many women were viewed as little more than skirt steak, which, coincidentally, appears on the menu today, barbecued, with endives alla piastra — that is, grilled — and is, like everything I ate on a pair of recent visits to Babbo, delicious.

A portrait of the chef: Mario Batali in his NYC restaurant Otto

How do we solve a problem like Babbo? What to make of the $95 pasta tasting menu, still one of the best surveys of pasta’s promise in the city? Whither its tangle of jet-black tagliatelle tossed with crisp pancetta, and what of the sunny UES-via-Vicenza casunzei, half-moons of brightly colored ravioli stuffed with beets and topped with scallions and a peppy poppyseed sauce? Where does one cram or cache, how does one launder or withdraw the joy that comes from Babbo’s kitchen, now that the kitchen has been shown to be an ethical Superfund site? Into what secret moral pockets does one slip the floppy tricorner ravioli, stuffed with crushed squab liver and beef cheek, buried under a flurry of black truffle? Is even the straightforward pleasure of an appetizer of fresh marinated sardines drizzled with lobster oil, pinwheels of headless fillets arranged like a small fish mandala, tainted by the untoward actions of the hands of the man that made them?

With Batali gone and Langello axed, the new man in the kitchen is Rob Zwirz — a “very Zen guy,” according to the tie-wearing bartender — who came from Lupa Osteria Romana across the park. Zwirz has been well-trained. From a gustatory perspective, Babbo has lost none of its zing. Special mention must be made too of the work of Rebecca DeAngelis, Babbo’s pastry chef, who zhuzhes staid offerings like tiramisu in a perfect discus of cacao and espresso and tops a silky vanilla panna cotta with huckleberry compote. 

But I cannot speak of DeAngelis’s work without thinking of Isaac Franco Nava, a former pastry chef who was fired in 2017, hounded out by years of homophobic and racist harassment. Nava sued Batali et al. for discrimination, alleging, among other things, that DeAngelis, his supervisor, did nothing to stop it.

Perhaps because we — me! yes, me too — celebrated Batali’s prodigal persona as integral to his prodigal flavors, Babbo’s hidebound menu serves as a damning bill of indictment. Every squab liver crushed; every cow’s tongue charred or sweetbread dusted with fennel; every act of culinary bravado summons from the shadows its ballast, that inexcusable act which we chose not to see because, damn, the man knows from flavor.

Babbo in the West Village, New York.

On a recent Monday night, Babbo’s dining room was buzzing with people who either didn’t know or didn’t care that the chef de maison had been run out of town. In the most charitable reading of the situation, perhaps they had read that Batali had “stepped away” from his businesses and had assumed this put them in the clear. But to “step away” is as vague and ill-defined an act as sending thoughts and prayers. There is no legal or financial implication to “stepping away.” Mario Batali gently wafted away from his businesses, he hoochie coo’d, he saut de basqued. There are many ways to step. What he hasn’t done is divest. And what that means is that a non-negligible fraction of the monies one leaves on the white tablecloth at the end of the meal finds its way into Batali’s pocket. He is not here, but his dividends are. His sins squeeze through the tables. He is a hungry ghost.

Arguments can and have been made that avoiding Babbo — or, for that matter, John Besh’s restaurants or Ken Friedman’s or the enterprises of any of the other chefs, artists, businessmen, producers, showrunners, actors, singers, politicians, sculptors, photographers, editors, writers, illustrators, entrepreneurs that have been called out for harassment — just punishes those who have already been victimized: the employees. Surely not every member of the waitstaff or kitchen staff at Babbo is guilty. And despite glib claims otherwise, restaurant jobs don’t grow on trees. There would be real disruption to lives and families if everyone boycotted Babbo. Burn it all down and years of wisdom and genius become ash too.

But the question is: Who lit the match? Certainly not the patron who wishes to avoid supporting a predator. Batali built his foundations rotten, buried in Babbo a secret bomb, stank up the place with his moral flatulence. Our responsibility isn’t to provide sin absorption, by frequenting the place out of misguided noblesse oblige for his staff. Our responsibility is not to eat the fruit — or farfalle — of a poison tree. If Babbo fails, this is the inexorable ripening of karma, the late-onset mortalities of years of depravity. The blame, like the money, flows to Batali.

There is, however, a glimpse of how Babbo is reborn. In the Buddhist tradition, one of the kindest things one can do to a dead person is to tell them they have died. This allows them to enter more quickly into the bardo. It convinces them to unpry from this life the cold fingers of ambition, the grasping of ego in rigor mortis. I can see why Batali might dread that calculus. But his ghost haunts Babbo these chill nights, spoiling the extra-virgin olive oil and tainting the pasta. Someone should whisper in his ear that he has died. For it is time for him to go. And until he does, Babbo will remain lost in limbo.