I like to cook, but I wouldn’t know the difference between a bearnaise and a béchamel. And the only things I strain are stock, pasta and kidney stones.
But I do like to serve people good ingredients properly cooked, with all the hot stuff arriving at the table well-seasoned, caringly prepared, and simultaneously steaming. Roasted whole fish. Baby back ribs, soft and smoky sweet. Little blue crabs in black bean sauce. A Pierre Franey, “sixty-minute gourmet” recipe for linguine in clam sauce that I’ve doctored to the point where it encourages overeating. Lobster in, well, lobster sauce. Broccoli rabe broiling hot, with still a bit of a crunch, in lots of garlic. Baked potatoes with crunchy shells and rice that lets you feel each kernel.
There are times, though, when my significant other and I like to eat out. Usually, we do it in Manhattan where we live on the edge of Chinatown which is full of little places where they do a few things really well really cheaply. Henan province spicy big plate chicken over hand-pulled noodles. Shanghai mouth-searing soup dumplings, and rice cake with preserved vegetable and pork. Sechuan dry sauteed chicken with three kinds of pepper, mung bean noodles with spicy and peppery sauce, and sauteed cured dry bean curd with garlic shoots. And, of course, there still are a few little places in nearby Little Italy and Noho that offer similarly carefully prepared pleasures at similarly low cost; weekend-only chorizo con pappas at Habana, and to-die-for sauteed chicken livers in wine at cheap, crowded, no-reservations, cash-only, get-there-by-6 p.m.-or-suffer, Bianca.
But being relatively mature adults, we do have an abiding wish for someplace that serves good solid western food. Appropriately seasoned meals served hot and kindly, for a modestly exorbitant fee: $8-$12 for appetizers, $18-$30 for mains. Someplace we can call home. You’d think that wouldn’t be a tall order, especially since we live at the intersection of no less than four neighborhoods known for up-and-coming restaurants: the Bowery, the East Village, the Lower East Side, and Noho.
But finding our home restaurant has been tricky; in fact, it’s been kind of like dating, with the first date going what you think is very well, only to find . . . . By this I mean that auspicious-seeming first suppers that have us convinced we’ve found “our place,” repeatedly yield to second suppers that are so bad that they’re our last. It’s as if the first night our cook is “Jacques Peppin” Jekyll, and the second night it’s “E.coli” Hyde.
There’s Zoe’s on Eldridge Street, literally around the corner from us. Small. Eponymously named for its owner and chef who, generally, presided over lunch and dinner. When we finally made our way there, we had a wonderful dinner of chicken on the bone flattened to the grill and cooked crispy and juicy, and bucatini in a velvety, sea urchin sauce. The second time, the salmon was cooked to cardboard and the pasta was practically unsauced. Ditto re Gentlemen Farmer on Rivington, literally two blocks away. Tiny and barely wide enough for a server to pass its single line of tables, our first night was beautifully-seasoned venison atop boiling hot, creamy, parmesanny mashed potatoes, and a wintery, meaty stew. The second night everything was luke warm, undercooked and underseasoned. The exact same pattern occurred at Ken and Cook just across Bowery on Kenmare, and L’Apicio on Second Street just across Houston.
Does anyone know what gives?
Perhaps it’s a function of us not being drinkers, one for health reasons, the other because he’s an alcoholic. Drinking, I sort of remember from my last time, over ten years ago, sort of takes the edge off any kind of critical attitude towards what you’re putting in your mouth, unless, of course, you’re a mean snot when you’re drunk, which I wasn’t. But it seems to me that adding a bottle of wine to one of these already-overpriced tabs would exacerbate rather than anesthetize our dissatisfaction.
Then I thought that maybe it’s a Lower East Side thing. Sort of a culinary version of the neighborhood’s reputation for a laid back, don’t-sweat-the-details approach that lends itself to restaurant management techniques that eschew following recipes, quality control, basic principles, like serving hot food hot. But that theory hit the skids when we dined at Tom Collichio’s new place near our home in Montauk on Long Island’s East End. After a very decent (yet overly supervised by a battalion of staff) meal at his NYC option Collichio & Son, we had a positively laughable diner at his Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton. It took us five minutes to find the entrance door. Staff, though the place was almost empty, paid no attention. We were served warm, unseasoned food. And, appropriately, at the end, they gave us a ridiculous take-home present of 4 ounces of some strangely-shaped hard pasta. (Who cooks four ounces of pasta?)
Turns out, the “curse of the second meal” also is alive and well in Europe, where we just spent a couple of weeks. We had a positively divine meal at the acclaimed restaurant in the Parador de Granada (located in a medieval convent in Granada, Spain’s Alhambra, amidst fourteenth century, magical Moorish gardens and palaces). The fried broad beans, seafood paella and roasted octopus were to die for. The second night, though, the warm kid goat stew could have been anything (even chicken), and the baked fish was cold and almost raw.
So is this a curse? Abject disappointment lurking just beyond signing the credit card receipt for the first, fantastic meal? Condemned to wander from restaurant-to-restaurant in a wilderness of one-night restaurant stands, knowing that the first, wonderful meal only presages subsequent disasters?