January 25, 2011

Gascony tradition, fruits of the sea: Laurent Manrique in the kitchen at Millesime

Chef Laurent Manrique is back on the scene, and New York is lucky to have him in the kitchen at Millesime in the Carlton Hotel. He’s landed with a salty splash at this airy seafood bistro, where his impeccably prepared dishes have the feel of instant classics. Manrique—ex of the Michelin two-star Aqua and Campton Place in San Francisco, and Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel—still has one foot firmly planted on the West, and for him, preferred coast. He oversees Café de la Presse and Rouge et Blanc wine bar in San Francisco, and makes the cross-country commute regularly. His executive chef at Millesime is Alan Ashkinaze, formerly executive chef at the Warwick Hotel and chef de cuisine at the Waldorf Astoria.

At Millesime (formerly home to Country), unpretentious red banquettes and lighting reminiscent of a nineteenth-century gaslit brasserie are sandwiched between the building’s original Tiffany domed ceiling and its tile floors. The vibe is casual, though the expert service is anything but. Manrique wanted an unpretentious seafood place where patrons would feel free to enter in flip-flops, and where the menu was honest and straightforward. “Right now,” he told us at our dinner last evening, “this is what I feel like cooking.”

A dozen carefully sourced oysters from both the east and west coasts (Big Rock from Cape Cod, Shibumi and Hama Hama from Washington State among them) started the evening off in a lipsmackingly briny fashion. Manrique disguised silky squid as corkscrew pasta in his trompe l’oeil “calamars carbonara,” and coated it with a smoky bacon, parmesan and cream sauce. The grilled Caesar salad, a joint invention of Manrique and his good friend and fellow Buddhist Eric Ripert, gave a lift to this tired menu staple with the addition of meringe beaten into the dressing, and a topping of smoked cod, caramelized onions and a drop of lime. But the pièce de résistance had to be the lobster pot au feu for two, involving a two-pound lobster, seafood sausage (it tasted like a more refined, French variation on Japanese kamoboko fish cakes), a bouillon of deep character and some dynamite condiments: a tarragon-infused béarnaise, seaweed aioli and salty pickled sea beans. The simple fish dishes, which you can order grilled or griddle (here called plancha) roasted, come with likewise perfectly executed sauces; the lemon mousseline is ethereal, almost dessert-like.

True to his Gascon roots, Manrique offers homemade Armagnac prune ice cream and toasted brioche—my favorite dessert, although I would never turn down an offer of his bracingly astringent orange custard topped with caramelized orange slices, or a caramel and espresso pot de crème twin set.

92 Madison Ave. at 29th St.
The Carlton Hotel
(212) 889-7100

January 24, 2011

Of saints and sardine tins: Lynne Block's port-a-shrines

Last month I blogged about tree decorator extraordinaire, my neighbor Lynne Block. A few days ago, she invited me to her apartment to take a look at the religious shrines she makes out of sardine and other tins. Little did I know that without even leaving my building, I was in for a trip to an apartment-size cabinet of curiosities, and the lair of a true folk artist.

Lynne’s double-unit living space, which she shares with her husband and bestselling crime author Lawrence Block, is bursting at the seams with the booty of their world travels (over 140 countries visited; they lost exact count a while ago), including collections of crystals, masks, paintings and ceramics. As she led me through the apartment, one room gave way to another, revealing a cache of her husband’s Edgar Awards, bedroom walls coated in opulent, gold-flecked paint, and a hallway with a canopy of shimmering, gauzy fabric and shiny stars. It occurred to me that Lynne could have had a successful career as a set designer had she wanted to.

Her expressive eyes and silver-streaked hair bring to mind Anne Rice, only more beautiful; in fact the two share roots in New Orleans. Lynne lit out immediately after graduating from high school with $40 in her pocket, did odd jobs and taught herself bookkeeping. Despite over 40 years spent living in Greenwich Village, her apartment--especially the room dedicated to her shrines and altars--exudes the moss-covered, gothic perfume of New Orleans. Against one wall of the south-facing room, an elaborate, multi-tiered and heavily embellished altar display drips with angels, saints, masks, rosary beads and other religious objects, presided over by paintings of sacred scenes and crosses.
On the opposite wall, Lynne has installed a more austere, eastern-style shrine. The pile of rocks sitting at the foot of the Japanese tansu cabinet is composed of one specimen from each country that she and her husband have visited.  A head of Buddha, a statue of Ganesha, and a photo of the Dalai Lama share the tansu with an assortment of other eastern relics and one visiting western saint.
Lynne’s hand-made shrines blend in seamlessly with the antique artifacts on the western shrine: Her Paul the Hermit’s garment of palm leaves is made of tiny, lustrous green beads; the arched edges of the tin cover are beaded in amber to resemble the gothic arches of an altar. In another tin, the messenger angel Gabriel, index finger in air, is half-revealed behind the tightly wound, rolled-down top of a sardine tin, (these old-fashioned tins with key openers are harder to come by these days, notes Lynne). Much better than my snapshots of Lynne’s Port-a-Shrines, as she calls them, are photographer Jim Coyle’s examples on Flickr, “Private Altars.” (All of the shrines pictured in that album, except for numbers 373, 378 and 383 are Lynne’s. The others were made by a friend in homage to hers.)
This tinfoil-embellished shrine is titled "All Hearts Are Sacred"
The Port-a-Shrines came to life first in the late 1980s when Lynne and Larry took to the road for two years to drive across the country. They made a pit stop at a writer’s colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. While Larry wrote, Lynne gathered all the materials she needed, and began making her shrines. The impulse to make them, she says, came in part from the fact that she was raised by nuns in a New Orleans orphanage, in a building that was eventually turned into Anne Rice’s doll museum. One of Lynne’s jobs during her seven years at the orphanage was to take care of the chapel.

“I think everybody should have an altar, a small sacred space for photos of loved ones who are gone, or who are far away at the moment,” Lynne told me.  Suddenly, and with great clarity, I recalled the small Buddhist shrine my grandparent’s kept in their bedroom, with a picture of my great-grandmother, and the offerings of food and drink that they prayed to and changed daily. It’s funny how it took years, and a messenger from another culture, place and time, to make me fully understand the significance of that other small, sacred space.
Lynne reached into one shelf of the altar and held out an antique ivory bobbin that she bought a decade ago in England for her granddaughter. Factory girls used to inscribe these with the names of boyfriends or with their own names; this one bears her granddaughter’s name, Sara, who is 23 now and about to embark on her grown-up life.  “It has lain on the altar all these years, soaking up good energy,” says Lynne. “I’ll give it to her when we go on her graduation trip in the spring.”  

January 3, 2011

Hunting for traditional Japanese osechi foods at New Year

Nippon Club Chef Hideki Yasuoka's osechi box

For a fun assignment, I spent part of last week on the hunt for Japanese New Year’s osechi box sets. Osechi refers to the various traditional Japanese New Year dishes that expats pine for when the end of the year rolls around. There’s always konbu-maki (seaweed rolls tied with strips of gourd), kamaboko (fish cakes), and soy-simmered tazukuri (anchovies), among many other dishes. Way back when, Japanese women spent days preparing these dishes, to be eaten by the family and guests who dropped by during the three-day celebration of the New Year. In order not to have to cook during this festive period, and to ensure the food stayed fresh (these were pre-refrigeration days), dishes were highly salted, and usually quite sweet as well.

Today, many young people would rather not eat the traditional foods, preferring freshly made sushi, sashimi or western food instead. Since supermarkets, department stores and restaurants all make and sell osechi boxes, the number of home cooks who prepare the whole feast from A to Z has diminished as well.There are still plenty of people who crave osechi, it seems, even if they don't want to go through the laborious process of making the dishes themselves. I saw this House of Japan item reporting strong sales in high-end osechi boxes in Tokyo this year, ranging in price from 30,000 to 205,000 yen (about $370 to $2,500).

Here in Manhattan, I discovered that several restaurants and Japanese grocery stores, including East, Restaurant Nippon and Katagiri (the oldest Japanese grocery store in the U.S.),sell osechi boxes to go. Hakubai restaurant in the Kitano Hotel serves a New Year osechi meal to customers in its dining room.

Plastic versions of New Year's kagami mochi (rice cakes) for sale at Katagiri

One treat was viewing and sampling the artistic osechi boxes created by chef Hideki Yasuoka of the members-only Nippon Club. I’ll let my picture of Chef Yasuoka's delicious masterpiece (above) do the talking for now. If you want to read the full account, you’ll have to wait a year, when my Edible Manhattan story on osechi appears, with much better photos by Max Flatow.