Monday, September 1, 2008

Hindsight is 40/40

Where were we? Oh yes, the devious machinations of Denise's mind. I have been gently hounded by more than a few guests at Black Trumpet in recent weeks, some pleading for more details of the birthday getaway, some merely inquiring as to its outcome. For those few but devoted readers, I hereby give you the potentially anticlimactic details you seek:

The hour-and-a-half plane ride (on JetBlu of course, though I fancied it the last flight of the Concorde), smooth and snack-free, featured two notable occurrences.

First, the details of our secretive dinner plans were unfolded with methodical iciness by the ice queen herself. We were to dine at Blue Hill. Not Momufoku. Not Per Se. Not any of the other obvious choices of spectacular food spectacles in New York. But Blue Hill. How could this be, I wondered? The name--unethnic, unpretentious, unheard of--evoked more mystery in its simplicity than the manifold and multihued veils of Sheherazade. Sort of like Black Trumpet, I suppose. It turns out, that was the point.

The second thing that happened on the plane was a seemingly random but not insignificant moment of foreshadowing: the balding head of a familiar male figure occupied the paperback-sized flatscreen on the seat in front of me. In a sit-down one-on-one interview with a New York Times editor, Michael Pollan gesticulated and opined on issues probably near and dear to me. Because I hadn't sprung for the cheap headphones, I had no idea what the talking heads were talking about. I really admire Michael Pollan. That's an understatement.

Allow me an explanatory digression here. Fifteen-plus years ago, Michael Pollan wrote a few essays and reports in the New York Times that made me cut clippings, something I swore I'd never do based on overexposure to parental newspaper scraps as a child. Since then, Mr. Pollan has written at least two books every human being should read. Botany of Desire, published I think in the mid-Nineties, takes a fascinating and well-researched look at four plants that have changed the world. It's a great and awakening read on its own; I recommend it to everyone. But his most recent effort, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is a must-read not only for its entertainment and literary value, but also for the timely and imperative message it wields, thankfully without a moral-heavy hand. It asks questions I have often pondered, and proposes some interesting methods of addressing these questions. The questions themselves are too heady for me to address in a silly chef's blog, but I hope people try to glean a few good ideas from Mr. Pollan, who has obviously put more thought into where food comes from and how we as Americans view the meaning of what we are eating than anyone we are ever likely to meet. End of digression.

So, after landing, shuttling by subway to the bottom of Manhattan Island, and surfacing with our bags somewhere on or near Canal Street, I--feeling completely oversaturated by surprises--ascended the escalator in the best-kept secret of all New York hotels to find Denise's sister, Cheryl, and her husband, Alan, hiding in the lobby behind newspapers. NOTE: this final surprise may not seem to all readers like the ideal twist in a surprise fortieth birthday party, but I need to make it known that my South Carolinian sister- and brother-in-law are the best dining companions you could ever ask for. They moan and gesticulate over bites of food. They laugh and cheer and fist-pound and celebrate food at the highest level of human appreciation. Alan, being of good Irish storytelling stock, spins a fine filthy yarn to boot, while Cheryl exudes the joie de vivre of a smitten American lass in the greasy grasp of her first Parisian lover. A little graphic, but it's true.

Being too early to check in, we hit the streets in search of Singaporean cuisine, of course. On the plane, Denise had mentioned that our first meal was up for grabs, unplanned, my choice. So I had picked Singapore, a challenge that could only be met by New York and Singapore itself. Five or six blocks into Chinatown, after walking and letting our hunger build to a man-size pique, I spotted a place called Singapore Cafe or Cafe Singapore, I can't remember. We ate a lot at around 2:00, many plates of incredible food, paired with Tiger Lager, Singapore's underappreciated contribution to the world of beer. The usual Indonesian suspects--fish cakes and satay--made an appearance at our table, but two stand-outs were the spicy strips of inexplicably bouncy and crispy squid and the dry curry-rubbed beef dish we ended with. Everything was perfect, and we all agreed it was an auspicious start to our eating our way through the Big Apple.

After walking off lunch, we shopped and napped and prepared for the next round, The Monday Room, my choice for a between-meals meal with lots of good wine. The Monday Room is an L-shaped dark little bar tucked behind the host stand of one of NYC's trendier restaurants, Public. Backstory: Denise and I had strolled down Elizabeth Street on a trip to the city just before we opened Black Trumpet and discovered a Renaissance of restaurants that reminded us of our little brick block on Ceres Street. Public was one of those restaurants.

In The Monday Room, we were treated to profound wine knowledge, our server being more versed in wine than most sommeliers. We ate some wonderful food, not least of which were the fresh chopped radishes with sea salt that arrived shortly after we did. Denise opted for the Premium Flight of white wines, which culminated with a Pouilly-Fuisse that knocked her socks off. I enjoyed a manzanilla sherry with snail ravioli followed by foie gras and numerous wines which were all delivered with a story, presumably true. Our very good friend Jay, a sousaphone-playing, hula-hooping lawyer, joined us to enrich our experience even further.

We barely had time to do a quick change at the hotel, sip a bottle of wine Cheryl and Alan had brought, and get out to make our 10PM reservations at Blue Hill.

Perhaps as a sort of shot in the arm, Denise had chosen a place in New York, the indisputable cultural capital of the New World, that most closely resembled (both in philosophy and in appearance) our own humble bistro in Portsmouth. On the plane from Portland, as I read the printed material she had downloaded, I learned of a chef named Dan Barber who attempts to source all his ingredients from his own farm just upstate from the city. I learned of a guy who has achieved something that many of us chefs only dream of.

We arrived on time at Blue Hill to find a bottle of sparkling wine from Long Island waiting for us. Evidently, Denise's exhortations that the surprises were done bore no resemblance to the truth. It turns out that Tom and Scott, great friends and owners of Lindbergh's Crossing, had bought the bottle as a surprise of their own. Tricky devils, those two. Meanwhile, we were informed, our staff--headed by Julian, our wine steward and resident good guy--had pitched in for a bottle of wine and, upon learning that they were trumped by Tom and Scott, opted to put their contribution toward our meal. Incredibly sweet and thoughtful.

So, we sat down and were treated to a truly wonderful server who asked our permission to remove the menus from our table. "Chef Barber," she explained, was "in the kitchen and would like to cook" for us. So away went the menus. Shortly afterward, we forfeited our wine list as well, effectively putting the sometimes-awkward ordering process entirely in the hands of the chef and the delightfully conversant and upbeat wine steward. The latter walked us through a few of her pilgrimages to wine regions, many of which resulted in unusual bottles on her list. We were impressed and at times wowwed with her selections.

As far as the food goes, suffice to say Chef Barber celebrates the purity of seasonal ingredients like few (if any) chefs whose food I've eaten. Our first bite, multicolored and textured tiny heirloom tomatoes impaled on nails and warmed with a hint of salt, was the very essence of tomato. We moved on to fresh-shucked lima beans in a pork stock reduction that I will dream about for a long time. Turkey, cooked sous-vide, was unlike any turkey I've tasted. Every flavor was buoyed by the very essence of itself--I don't know how else to put it. We chefs can get bogged down in technique, sometimes relegating the vitality and complexity of a single fresh ingredient to the background. Shame on us for that, and good for Chef Barber understanding the full profile of each product he works with.

Somewhere in the middle of our meal, I looked at the table next to us and noticed the muted talking head from our plane ride. Michael Pollan and what appeared to be his family were enjoying a meal much like the one the chef had prepared for us. I mused about how my idolatry had evolved in twenty years. Here I am, sitting down to my fortieth birthday dinner, gazing in adulation at a tall, bespectacled man with a mortician's build and pallor. No Robert Plant or Harrison Ford, this Michael Pollan, but as good a hero as a man at forty can have, I'd argue.

After the meal, we thanked the chef and walked out into the night many blocks back to our hotel. The next day, we sipped espresso in Little Italy, took in an exhibit of human corpses where the Fulton Fish Market used to be, and then lunched at Balthazar, still the institution it deserves to be.

On the way out of town, we picked up our poodle-in-law from doggy day care, packed into the minivan and headed back to our New England world, but not before stopping to pick up some bagels for the kitchen crew.

This is how I spent the forty hours of my fortieth birthday. I am incredibly lucky to have such a wickedly clever wife. Thanks to all who contributed their own skills of deception to this process.