New York, New York, tasted on May 7, 2004 — On the one hand I
am deeply wedded to the idea of chefs going deep and not flitting
about from cuisine to cuisine, or borrowing elements from another
cuisine they don't deeply understand to "dress up" their own food
and make it "interesting". On the other hand, even though I know
better, I often hope against hope that a fusion restaurant will have
found a way to combine elements from two cuisines that is deep,
original, and coherent. And for some reason, one of the favorite
regions to borrow from is Asia. Maybe it's the contrast with typical
European ingredients and flavors, and maybe the fad is over (though
I don't think so) but so many chefs throw in a sprinkle of Asian
dishes/ingredients that it almost goes unnoticed. And this
brings us to
Asiate which clearly states its fusion
front - French and Japanese. It's location also makes a statement. A
kissing cousin to the high end restaurant row at the Time Warner
building in Manhattan (with
Asiate has stiff competition.
The building itself is gorgeous. There's also some
distractions if you happen to arrive early for lunch or dinner. These
include the insanely well stocked WholeFoods supermarket in the basement,
the Williams Sonoma with the aggressively helpful staff, the Mandarin
Oriental Hotel, and the Dean and Deluca serving
Doughnut Plant doughnuts in the middle of the Borders bookstore.
Despite all the "fanciness" the staff at Asiate was
super welcoming. Right off the bat they saw the camera and encouraged us
to take pictures - "take pictures please". Most restaurants
don't mind (I've only ever been told not to take pics at two restaurants
and one eventually relented). But the waiter at Asiate was even
encouraging which was nice. He also saw how we were ordering, lots of
dishes to share and immediately understood we were doing a tasting, to
which he was amenable. Nice. It's hard to imagine, but some restaurants
get nutty when you go off the predictable path. Finally, to set us in
the right mood some Nori and Gruyere Gougeres arrived from the kitchen.
It was funny as they looked like they might be hard, but they were in
fact quite soft. They had a super interesting flavor which was deep with
an almost barest bitterness. All told they had some major umami. The
Sourdough Roll with Black Seaweed had decent nori flavor. When you ate
the roll at a normal or fast pace it tasted like "grilling" on the roll.
But when you slowed down and placed the bread at an angle against your
tongue you really tasted the seaweed essence of it. It's funny that this
should make a difference, but time has proven (at least to me) that
slowing down when you eat lets you enjoy the flavors of high quality
food in an entirely different way than you might be used to. It's very
very important. If you're going to the trouble to eat well, why not slow
down and enjoy it.
Next up was the
Crab Salad with Green Mango, Pomelo Vinaigrette. I've had this dish before in a
different and simpler form. This one was pretty decent, though more "uhngehpatchked"
(my grandmother's word for messed with more than it should be). But the
dusting of sumac gave this version a unique and interesting tone. The
Grilled Prawn and House Made Pasta en Papillote with a Shellfish XO
Sauce was met with mixed reaction from me and
Alex. Basically the shrimp
was too mushy. That said, the sauce was delicate yet had some strong
ginger notes which were enjoyable. The noodles had a rustic homemade
texture and were very good.
At this point I noticed a theme starting to emerge.
Typically I eschew dishes where there's a lot going on. Not because of
that fact, but because it's typically an indicator of seeming insecurity
on the part of the chef. It's like their inner voice says "the customers
won't recognize the value of this perfectly cooked piece of fish so I
have to add a whole bunch of crap to it so they think can see all
the work that went into it as opposed to tasting how much time we
spent making it great." And then of course the extra crap on the plate
becomes the crutch as why bother working hard to make the main
ingredients superstars when nobody will be able to see them much less
taste them given all the other stuff on the plate. And while there were
a lot of things on each plate, I felt like the chef was mostly making it
work. Daniel Boulud has this particular skill in spades. Even though
there were a lot of elements to each dish, for the most part the food
was delicate and interesting. The ingredients were harmonious instead of
jarring distractions. The mustard seeds and ikura on the
Sashimi of Tuna, Avocado, Daikon Radish Salad, and Ponzu Sauce were
notable examples of interesting combinations working out well.
After the tuna was
Polenta Crusted Scallops, Etuvée of Clams, Seasonal Vegetables,
Coconut-Lemongrass Broth. The scallop coated in polenta was super
neat. The scallop itself was super juicy and
light. The dish was also helped by the coconut broth which on its own
made for a delicious soup and was nice in combination with the scallop.
Finally we had the
Pan-Roasted Muscovy Duck Breast, Haricots Blancs, Duck Prosciutto, Black
Pepper Sauce. And I knew with this dish that
amid all the fusion, the chef was able to really feature a main
ingredient when it was called for. The duck was no exception. It was
clearly the star of the dish with a laser focus. The duck was slightly gamey in
a good way. It was juicy and strongly flavored with a seared seared
texture and bacony flavors permeating its sausage-like presence.
Accompanied by a perfect
and light almost fruity jus which was studded with spicy cracked peppercorns,
this dish was simply awesome.
Asiate started out with me wondering if it could
overcome the standard assumptions someone might make: 1) fusion
restaurants rely too much on fusion and not enough on flavor, 2) dishes
with lots of elements are usually cover for people not trying hard
enough, and 3) where the rent is really high, restaurants spend more
time worrying about atmosphere than food. Yet, I found none of those to
be the case. While I did find myself a little too low in my banquette to
reach the table comfortable, I'll gladly assume it's because I'm just
as long as I can enjoy that duck dish again.