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2005
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17-sashimi of tuna avocado daikon and ponzu.jpg

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Asiate, 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 objectives up 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 Per Se and Masa) 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 too short as long as I can enjoy that duck dish again.

 

     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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