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All New, New York: Ancien Regime Restaurant, Avenue B Spice Shop & More

 

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There’s nothing like a change of scene to give you a fresh perspective: New York’s Central Park, viewed from the 28th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel.

It’s always tempting to recreate the past.

Years ago, a friend’s mother died unexpectedly.  A tiny strawberry blonde, she was lovely and lively, and ruled her husband and two grown boys with a hand of steel artfully concealed in a lace glove. Very southern.

All three of her men adored her.  Completely.

So no one was surprised when her husband made a nostalgic trip to San Francisco, the city where they’d spent their honeymoon.  I’ve often wondered if he looked for her in the rolling afternoon fog from the Top of the Mark, or wandered the noisy streets of Chinatown, hoping to find the vanished shop where she had gazed upon an embroidered silk nightgown.

Did he stay in the same hotel where they’d spent langorous afternoons in the sheets? Did he again ride the cable car down California Street, remembering, always remembering how his heart swelled when she smiled at him?

Surely it was the saddest trip imaginable. The familiar landmarks were there, but everything had changed—she was a ghost and he was alone.   He came back, of course, but as Thomas Wolfe observed in his final novel, you can’t go home again.  My guess is that time passed all too slowly until they were reunited.

I was thinking about this in New York last week.  I’ve never really accepted the fact that we don’t live in the center of the universe anymore.  On return visits, I pretend it’s still home.  My pace quickens, and my internal radar takes me unerringly to the house on East 11th Street where we once lived, if only to see the wisteria in bloom. People and places are gone—Siracusa, where we ate squid ink pasta and Serendipity almost fell down the basement stairs, the good-spirited Italian butcher on University Place who always had a slice of cheese for Angus, and sadly, my sister- and brother-in-law, who in so many ways were the quintessential New Yorkers.

But recently I’ve become restless. Faded memories are fine, but honestly, there’s no way to recreate a former life.  And why do it?  Isn’t New York the city that never sleeps?  The one that continuously reinvents itself, at least in the details? Couldn’t I discover a few new places to go, things to see, people to meet?  Couldn’t I shake it up?

B helped, as he always does: so interesting to discover that your husband has secret yearnings of his own.  We looked at paintings of the Amazon River on Park Avenue, and had a three-hour lunch in a French time warp. I tapped into Tibetan medicine (discovering where I’m out of balance) and even found a spice shop that I could visit everyday.

Not everything was a great success—notably the hot, hot, hot rotisserie everyone is raving about—but there were enough wins to stop with the sentimental journeys and loosen up. So here are five of my favorite discoveries.  None are brand new—one is actually 50 years old—but all are new to me –and maybe to you.

1. The Pleasures of the Ancien Regime:

After the rotisserie debacle, B hauled me over to Le Perigord, a classic French restaurant on East 52nd that he adores.  The moment we walked in I could see why we had come. The peachy colors, soft light and gorgeous roses on every table make everyone look marvelous—and there’s Georges Briquet, the owner and maitre d’, who could be Gerard Depardieu’s roguish older brother, beckoning you to a table once reserved for Henry Kissinger.

 

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By now you’ve guessed that Perigord is a throwback.  All the way to 1964, in fact.  Tableside service of Dover sole and quenelles of pike are not exactly on the hot list for most foodies. So this lovely restaurant has become a secret clubhouse of sorts for those who appreciate three-hour lunches with sublime French food and civilized service in a beautiful room where the sun filters gently over white linen tablecloths.

Who are these patrons? Mostly they’re regulars, like the tall, elegant brunette dining alone who polished off four desserts, or the portly gentleman who stripped for action, removing his jacket before sitting down to a mammoth plate of Fisher’s Island oysters. A man with deep pouches under his eyes complained to his red-headed Russian companion, “I’ve had a busy morning. Phone, email, phone, email.”  She stroked his hand soothingly.

Lunch occurs in a leisurely fashion.  First you consult the menu while enjoying a glass of Taittinger.  Will you have Homard a la nage de coriandre or Turbot a la croute de Comte, sauce champagne?  What about Carre d’agneau roti a la croute de thym frais?  Decisions, decisions. Then you consult Georges, who says you’ll begin with a cold artichoke, petals spread like a flower, filled with a dollop of thick, creamy vinaigrette, and some of those glistening mollusks.  “We only have one kind of oyster,” he winks.  “So you know there’s nothing hiding in the refrigerator.

 

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After the hors d’oeuvres, a waiter delivers a single plump squash blossom, stuffed to the point of bursting with black truffles, mushrooms, and finely chopped zucchini. It is possibly one of the most luscious morsels I’ve ever eaten.  (Calm yourself: B had a blossom all to himself.)

 

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Our entrees were to be found nowhere on the menu.  For me, a pristine hunk of sautéed halibut in a Dijonaise sauce so delicate that it seemed to hover around the fish. And for B?  The Three Kings, a robustly flavored dish beloved of the fans of offal:  sautéed veal liver, kidneys and sweetbreads.  (Our friend Cedric nearly wept with envy when he heard about this course.)

To drink: Chateau Redortier Beaumes de Venise 2007, a deliciously ripe, medium-bodied Rhone selected by Georges.  “You will love it as much as your husband,” he whispered. Yes, I did.

 

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Le Perigord’s dessert trolley is famous.  There’s tarte tatin, raspberry tart, chocolate mousse (and chocolate mousse cake), amongst the delicacies on offer.  But the sweet that won my heart was oeufs a la neige, literally “eggs in snow”—evanescent puffs of egg white, lightly touched with caramel, adrift in a pool of crème anglaise flecked with vanilla seeds.  It’s a classic French dessert, totally out of fashion—much like the restaurant.  I can’t wait to go again.

Le Perigord, 405 East 52nd Street. Phone: 212.755.6244

 

2. Modern Seed Cloud Chandelier:

I went looking for a chair and found a light fixture.

Ochre, a London-based shop specializing in luxurious contemporary furniture and light fixtures, has long been on my short list. Every winter I dream of pulling up a velvety wing chair (or maybe a sofa) in front of the fireplace on frosty days—but the question is, what chair?  Like Goldilocks, I’ve tried them all, but not one has been right.

 

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Photo of chair and chandelier from ochre.net

Ochre’s chairs, I regret to report, were lovely to look at, but uncomfortable to sit in for more than 30 seconds.  What made me pant with desire, however, were the exquisite light fixtures in the Seed Cloud series.

Each “seed” consists of a “solid cast bronze bud” that houses a clear glass drop illuminated by LED.  The marvelous thing is that the buds can be combined in almost any configuration that you desire.

This  cascading fixture is made of 112 buds and is 98-1/2 inches high.  I can see it in a Moroccan-style sitting room, dangling over a kilim-covered ottoman with four comfy chairs upholstered in exotic fabrics pulled up around it.

 

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But I was also inspired by this rectangular cluster lighting up the desk in Ochre’s Soho outpost.  It would be perfect over a long refectory table—or a glam kitchen counter.

 

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And I could be very happy with long strands of buds illuminating a big window—in our case, a window opening to a view of the woods.  It would be beautiful whether the view was winter bare, or verdant as it now is in spring.

All it takes is a little imagination, a good electrician and, oh yes, a big budget. I seem to remember a price tag of $27,000—or was it $33,000?  Perhaps we could have one or two buds hanging in splendid isolation?  Or maybe I should just keep looking for that chair.

Ochre, 462 Broome Street. Phone: 212.414.4332

 

3.  A Small Dose of Tibetan Medicine:

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But first, outward-facing hellebores.  After a decade or more of assuming that all hellebore flowers faced down, as if gazing at the earth, I noticed that the glorious pink hellebores in the planters outside the Rubin Museum’s front door faced forward.  Some with turned up faces almost looked me in the eye.  It looks as if they may be the new Pink Frost variety from Skagit Garden’s Gold Collection.  Note to self: Let’s try them! If Pacific Northwest hellebores can thrive in New York, maybe they’ll survive the attentions of our springer spaniel.

Do you know the Rubin?  It’s one of my favorite small museums.  Devoted to the art of the Himalayas, it’s located in the old Barney’s building on 17th Street, though thanks to a major redo, you’d never recognize the former temple to high fashion.  Founded by Donald and Shelley Rubin, philanthropists who began collecting Himalayan art in the 1980’s, it is the place to see stunning paintings, sculptures and textiles of Tibet and the surrounding regions.

 

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Detail of an 18th or 19th century medical painting from rubinmuseum.org

Right now there’s a remarkable show, Bodies in Balance, devoted to the history and precepts of Tibetan medicine.  I loved the gilded healing  Buddhas and many hand drawn diagrams illustrating the ways to diagnose and cure ailments such as diabetes and heart disease. And I learned that the auspicious myrobalan fruit in our own medicine Buddha’s hand—he’s from Burma, not Tibet, but there’s lots of overlap—will cleanse the body’s channels and bring the three vital forces or nyepaswind, bile and phlegm—into balance.

Let’s face it: we all love questionnaires that tell us about ourselves. Over a lunch of tangy roasted beets with watercress and saffron shrikhand, or sweetened yoghurt, I penciled in the answers to questions like “Do you prefer spicy, bitter or salty foods?” and “In what colors do you dream?”  The bottomline:  I’ve got lots of bile but am a bit short of wind and phlegm.  Naturally, all that bile comes from eating and drinking too much.

So I went back to look at the display of detoxifying “precious pills.” Wrapped in blue cloth, these tiny bundles contained purified turquoise, coral, pearl, three kinds of myrobalan fruit, two kinds of sandalwood and musk.  Just the thing, it appears, for the over-consumption of too much food and drink. Of course, I may have to visit Tibet to try them…

The Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street. Phone: 212.620.5000

 

4. Truffette, or SOS Chefs:

How did I not know about this amazing Avenue B spice shop? It’s got everything I adore: exquisitely fresh spices and rare provisions, a souk-like atmosphere, and an irresistible Tunisian proprietress with so much magnetism that I found myself on her doorstep twice within 24 hours.

God forbid Atef Boulaabi should open a branch anywhere near us.   As it is, I may have to beg, borrow or steal a Lower Eastside pied a terre just to indulge my new addiction.

The secret of the shop’s success is Atef herself: a warm, generous merchant whose passion for spices and exotic flavors is utterly contagious. She launched her business 19 years ago with just six products—truffles and dried mushrooms—which so delighted one local chef that he teasingly nicknamed her Truffette.  These days, the phone rings constantly with calls not only for hard-to-find mushrooms—blue foot, hen of the woods and hon shimeji are on hand this month—but also for fat white asparagus, sea beans, mossy fiddle head ferns, and the first ramps of spring.

 

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Up front, floor to ceiling shelves are packed with premium spices and globally sourced salts, including timut, a mild, super-citrusy Nepalese relative of the Sichuan peppercorn, and a mellow blue salt from Iran that pairs well with foie gras and truffle-infused dishes.  (Are you picking up the chef vibe?)  On the counter, next to a plump black and white cat snoozing in the sun, are big jars of black limes and  ”parasols” made of dried cumin stems which Atef describes as “nature’s toothpicks.”

In the back, shelves of elixirs and other distillates—banana, cinnamon and jasmine waters, for instance—keep neighborhood mixologists busy inventing new cocktails. Atef, who learned to distill essences of spices, fruit and flowers in Tunisia, makes them the old fashioned way in a big copper still perched high on the rafters.

What else?  Vinegars flavored with star anise, cloves and maple sugar; heritage beans, grains and flours; and behind a locked grill, costly Iranian saffron and gorgeously fragrant vanilla beans from Madagascar and Tahiti.  Pickled fennel seeds, Italian Calabrese chilies and dill pollen are just the tip of the spice berg (sorry, I couldn’t resist).  “Useful products” include stuff like elastic powder and spherifier alginate for molecular gastronomy fiends.

SOS Chefs is a spice dream come true—just ask  Daniel Boulud, Gabrielle Hamilton, or any of the chefs in Danny Meyer’s empire. But it’s also a treasure trove for home cooks who want to walk on the wild side. Watch for more in my next post.

SOS Chefs, 104 Avenue B. Phone: 212.515.5813

 

5. Gauguin, & Roasted Carrots with Pickled Mustard Seeds

My visit to the Museum of Modern Art was strangely rankling.

 

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Gauguin’s Mata Mua (In Olden Times) from moma.org

The reason for going was to see Gauguin: Metamorphoses, a much-heralded show on view until June 8. I’ve loved Gauguin’s sensuous, vividly colored Tahitian paintings all my life, and this was a chance to see a few of his best known works alongside 120 rarely exhibited prints that incorporate imagery from his paintings and sculptures.  It was fascinating to see these rough, “primitive” works on paper—including woodcuts from the Noa Noa series—in which the artist experimented with ink color and pressure to achieve mysterious, often nightmarish effects.

But let me also say how dissatisfying it was to see Gauguin’s works displayed in a series of sterile, airless, rectilinear rooms which happen to be painted the same grey blue as our powder room at home.  The prints and paintings practically pulsate with madness and desire. I longed to have all my senses engaged: to hear the sound of birdlike voices and rain falling on leaves, smell the perfume of the pandanus leaf and wet, fertile earth, feel warm, humid breezes on my skin. And I couldn’t help but think of the pleasures of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, where galleries flow into each other at odd angles, where pools of light illuminate the darkness, and where you might hear gentle high-pitched chanting as you gaze at a New Guinea funeral pirogue.

I get the idea that art needs to be seen without cultural references to be appreciated for its own sake, but MoMA’s tedious display of Gauguin’s works managed to turn the extraordinary into the banal.

 

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I recovered my equanimity at The Modern, the widely praised Danny Meyer restaurant on MoMA’s ground floor.  It’s a civilized venue with white tablecloths and an untrammeled view of the sculpture garden.  And the food is quite good, especially the slender roasted carrots drizzled with mustard seed pickled in balsamic vinegar, served atop sheep’s milk yogurt.

It was enough to make me shake off my fit of pique and go shopping for a peacock plate at Bergdorf’s.

The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street. Phone: 212.708.5400

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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