A.G. Newsletter #9: Barbuto, Annisa & Eleven Madison Park

Hey Subscribers,

I think my parents are trying to kill me. You laugh, but these things happen (haven't you read any ancient Greek tragedies? Like "Medea"?) Those ancient Greeks used swords and spears to kill their children; my parents use food. They're fattening me up and then they're going to sell me to some weird cult that eats fattened gay Jews while watching "The Sound of Music." I'm serious!

Last night, for example, we ate at Barbuto, Jonathan Waxman's famed restaurant on Washington Street between West 12th and Jane. You may have seen Chef Waxman on "Top Chef Masters": the other contestants call him "Obi-Wan" for his calm, Jedi-like manner. That's reflected in his food which is, at first, deceptively simple. Like this salad of shaved asparagus and shaved carrots:




Sure, it's not meticulously arrayed or covered in a foam, but in its beautiful simplicity it positively screams "IT'S SPRING!" Wonderfully balanced, refreshing, lovingly dressed---this is the salad of a master.

But the thing to get at Barbuto is the roast chicken. In Frank Bruni's review from 2008 he wrote: "The chicken is Rule No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 of eating at Barbuto. It's Rule No. 4 as well."

As I Tweeted last night (follow me on Twitter here!) the chicken lives up to the hype:




Look at that perfectly bronzed skin, the slick of oil and chicken fat on the bottom of the plate, the herbs strewn over the top---this is a chicken by a guy who knows how to make chicken. And since I make a lot of chicken too (like the spatchcocked chicken I wrote about last week) I know good chicken. And this was good chicken.

(Minor quibble: the breast was slightly dry. Again, that's a minor quibble.)

Craig had this crazy black fish that had teeth in its mouth and cucumbers on top:





He enjoyed it, but certainly didn't refuse my drumstick when I caught him eyeing my chicken.

The dessert wasn't notable but it was still good--a semi-fredo sundae & a cherry crostada:





I love that they put basil on top of the ice cream on top of the crostada---what an unexpected but totally inspired choice: again, the work of a master.

Another master (from last season of Top Chef Masters) who's finally back on the scene is Anita Lo who recently re-opened her beloved West Village restaurant, Annisa. For those who follow New York restaurant news, Annisa burned down last year after an electrical fire. I'd been there once before with friends and loved it so much I urged Frank Bruni (NYT restaurant critic at the time) in my post to upgrade it to 3-stars, which would've made Chef Lo the only female chef in New York with a 3-star restaurant (I'm pretty sure that would still be true.)

Well, I don't want to jinx it, but I'm pretty Chef Lo's time has come. The new Annisa is better than before; the room is lovelier, there's a great energy among the staff (I almost got bowled over by numerous attractive servers on my trip to the bathroom) and the food... the FOOD! It's outrageously good.

I knew it would be after reading Adam Platt's review last week in New York Magazine. The guy's a grump (he hates everything!) but this, he loved.

The room was dark, so forgive these pictures. The first thing that came out was this amuse bouche of brandade in a mini-tart shell:





Smooth and silky, this classic blend of fish and potatoes was sublime. And that was only the first bite.

For my appetizer, I had the BBQed squid that came with edamame and something beany that I couldn't quite figure out...




You see those red things on the plate? What would YOU think they were? Some kind of beans, right?

Wrong! They were boiled peanuts. It wasn't until they took my plate away that I remembered what they were (I'd read the description on the menu). The pairing of boiled peanuts with edamame was truly inspired--the textures were so similar and complemented each other so well. And the squid itself was absolutely packed with flavor.

For my entree, I had the chicken breast and pig's trotter:





I'm not sure where the chicken ended and the trotter began (the two were so seamlessly integrated on the plate) but I can tell you this: each bite was like the best bite of chicken skin you've ever had. It was comforting and surprising all at the same time.

Finally, for dessert we had the beignets with salted butterscotch:



Be careful! That salted butterscotch will squirt all over you if you don't bite your beignet carefully. The butterscotch is so good, though, you'll be licking your shirt to get more.

We also shared the Meyer lemon poppy seed bread pudding:




This was, hands down, the best bread pudding I've ever had in my life. I'm not even a big fan of bread pudding, but this? This had a crackly, almost creme-brulee like top, infused with lemon and buttery and creamy at the center. It was, truly, to die for.

Heed my words here, if you live in New York, you like eating out and have some cash to burn, get thee to Annisa. It's still slightly under-the-radar: once the word gets out, you won't get in.

Finally, my mom and I went to Eleven Madison Park on Tuesday. The place is totally transformed since the last time I was there (with Craig on our first anniversary). It's since been upgraded a star, making it one of the only four-star restaurants in New York.

Based on our Tuesday dinner, it deserves that title. The room was big and warm (though still a bit corporate); the service was attentive, helpful, accommodating (my mom didn't like where they sat us, all the way in the back, so they moved us to the front). And the food is even better than how I remembered it.

Unfortunately, once again, I took blurry, bad pictures (this time, on my phone.) (For better pictures, click that previous link). So here's the famous array of little bites at the beginning:




One of those things is a carrot marshmallow, which was a wild experience to eat.

I started with another aspragus salad (two asparagus salads and two chicken entrees in this post, if you're paying attention):



This one's on a totally different end of the spectrum than Jonathan Waxman's. Where his was simple, this was elaborate. His got repetitive, this was never boring. Still, I enjoyed both equally for very different reasons.

For my entree, I had the bouillabaisse which was straight-forward and lovely:



The broth was rich and intensely flavored---it really showcased Chef Daniel Humm's core skill set, his ability to render a classic dish well.

Finally, I finished with another classic French dish--a simple vanilla souffle:





There was nothing revolutionary about it, but it was definitely satisfying and good.

And then they offered these macarons, some with unusual flavors (pink peppercorn, peanut butter and jelly):



But despite all the wonderful food, I really have to say that the thing that truly blew us away at Eleven Madison Park was the bar! These bartenders were the hardest working, most dedicated bartenders I've ever encountered at a restaurant. One female bartender explained, as she shook her shaker vigorously, that she was trying to emulsify the egg white---"and if I don't get it right, I'll pour the drink back in the shaker and do it again."

The guy who made our drink (we both had the same drink) set upon an elaborate ritual to bring it together. I don't remember exactly what the drink was, but I remember him tearing off bunches and bunches of mint leaves, muddling them with a weird muddler and, finally, crowning the whole thing with a dome of chipped ice. It was a staggering thing to watch and an even better thing to drink:



If you go to Eleven Madison Park, go early and grab a drink at the bar first. You won't regret it.

So. After looking at all those pictures and reading about all that food, you've gotta admit: my parents are trying to kill me, aren't they? But if I'm going to die, there are many worse ways to go...I'm sure of it. I really can't complain.

That's it for this week!

If you enjoyed this newsletter and you have friends who you think might enjoy it too (especially friends who live in or are heading to New York) forward it along and tell them to sign up here. It'll be the best decision they ever made.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Hope you have a great week.

Your friend,
Adam (The Amateur Gourmet)

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