Soup Kitchen during General Motors Strike, 1926
NEW YORK CORNER: Eleven Madison Park by John Mariani
by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
A Polish youngster carrying bread made from Red Cross flour at an evacuation camp in Tehran, 1943. Photo by Nick Parrino.
After days of watching the horrors people visit upon each other in the Middle East, I had a difficult time deciding whether or not to dine out at yet another fine restaurant while the world was in flames and people were trying so desperately to survive on the streets of Baghdad, Beirut, Haifa, and what seems like half of the African continent. Psychologically I had no desire to go out; professionally I felt bound to do so.
Then, while watching an MSNBC newsman reporting from Haifa, where bombs were going off in the background, I heard him say, "The people of Haifa are terrified and clinging to life, but in other parts of Israel you'd hardly know there's a war on. The restaurants are full in Tel Aviv."
There was also a report in USA Today that, while the war in Iraq destroyed many of the country's date palm trees, supplies of dates are again appearing this summer in Baghdad markets to the delight of throngs of Iraqis who adore them, not least for their supposed aphrodisiac virtues.
And then I remembered that on the day the World Trade Center was destroyed, Sirio Maccioni, owner of New York’s famous restaurant, Le Cirque 2000, called then Mayor Rudy Giuliani to ask how he might help in the crisis. Giuliani said two words: “Stay open.” That night Le Cirque did only 65 covers. Two weeks later, on a Saturday night, the restaurant served 260.
That sentiment has always carried weight with me, not only because sitting down to a meal requires the harried mind to re-focus attention on a basic human ritual but because it truly helps to return to a normal need. After hearing of a tragedy, the appetite may flag, eating may be the last thing on one’s mind, and dining seems downright frivolous. But to restore one’s appetite is to restore one’s strength, as anyone who has long been sick knows.
Six years when I heard the news that my mother had passed away overnight, I was tying my tie in a room at the Crillon Hotel in Paris, ready to go down to dinner. The news had the obvious effect of bringing me to my knees, but after commiserating with my wife, I determined that going down to dinner would be the very best thing, rather than stay in the room and weep. We went to dinner, sure that my mother, who gave me life, nurtured me as an infant, and imbued me with a love of good food, a woman who was a great hostess and loved nothing more than going out to a fine restaurant, would have insisted I do so. And so, we ate very well and drank a very fine wine, toasting my mother as she so richly deserved.
As a food and travel writer what I do for a living may seem odd (T.S. Eliot wrote, “We measure out our lives in coffee spoons,” but I measure out mine in morsels of foie gras), but, whenever I think of it as ephemeral to the great issues of the day, I am reminded of a scene in the play based on The Diary of Anne Frank, in which the family, isolated for months in an attic but still believing they will soon be out, fantasizes about the first thing they’ll do when they return to the world outside. Anne says she yearns to go to a dance. The teenage boy wants to go to a movie, a western movie! And the adults all start remembering and dreaming of a wonderful pastry shop, a good stew, a romantic restaurant with thick linen and fine wines. None, not one, declares that the first thing he wants to do is to change the political structure of Europe.
This scene made me realize not only that deprivation takes away freedoms of movement but also access to the most wonderful sights, sounds, and tastes of life--the very things we live for until they are taken away from us. Every human being on earth who has ever gone hungry thinks first of survival, then of doing something seemingly superficial--a dance, a western movie, a visit to a restaurant. For when all goes well, when the doctor cuts out the cancer, when debt is retired, when the debris is cleared away, returning to normal means returning to those things that make life worth living.
Italians celebrating the liberation of Sicily, 1943. Photo by Nick Parrino.
During World War II director Frank Capra made a series of powerful propaganda films entitled “Why We Fight,” and if seeing yet again the cheesecake photos (an interesting turn of phrase) of Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable in servicemen’s lockers seems pointedly nostalgic, that does not destroy its touching allure. “Why We Dine” is as reasonable a proposition as any other, once we survive the inevitable rigors and horrors of life that must be endured. “Animals feed, man eats,” said Brillat-Savarin, “but only a man of culture knows how to dine.”
So I carry on extolling and criticizing our world’s food culture, sometimes whimsically, sometimes with vitriol. For the importance of dining out, and drinking good wine, and falling in love under the spell of candlelight at the dinner table is to enjoy all that terrorists--especially those whose religious fanaticism seeks to deprive people of all pleasure--would seek to destroy. By indulging in life’s passions we do much more than live out our lives. We gain strength in the belief that they are part of the goodness of man.
Eat well, be well.
by John Mariani
ELEVEN MADISON PARK
11 Madison Avenue
It's been a season of replacement chefs in high-end, high-profile restaurants.
Josh DeChellis left Jovia a few weeks ago, Bill Peet exited Pair of 8's, John Fraser took over the stoves at Compass, Benny Bartolotta has brought Table XII to eminence, Laurent Tourondel helped re-vamped Brasserie Ruhlmann, Kevin Garcia is now doing a fine job at 'Cesca, and Swiss-born Daniel Humm (below), formerly of Campton Place in San Francisco, has come aboard at the six-year-old Eleven Madison Park (last reviewed here in December 2003), replacing one of my favorite NYC chefs, Kerry Heffernan. The change is distinctive but in no way alters the basic tenor of this, one of NYC's most beautiful and majestic restaurants, set within a 1930s skyscraper with 30-foot ceilings.
I had just returned from California after eight days of heavy-duty eating, yet I was thrown back in my chair by Humm's cuisine, an epiphany of creativity, refinement, and beauty of a kind I’ve rarely encountered. It is highly sophisticated food, without being in the slightest pretentious, and it impeccably echoes the cosmopolitan cachet of the dining room and service, which, under the redoubtable direction of Danny Meyer (who also owns Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, The Modern, and Blue Smoke), is the most congenial anywhere.
Three of us chose widely from the menu, while Humm indulged us with several amuses and tastings of other items. The first was a carrot and mussel nage, another a small, bright orange poached organic egg with
A Maine diver's scallop “En Chaud-Froid” with osetra caviar was next, with a cup of delightful, not-too-sweet-not-too-harsh Miyasaka, Nanago, Junmai Daiginjo, Masumi Prefecture Sake. An Austrian '04 Riesling from Franz Hirtzberger was a tantalizing match with a salad of heirloom tomatoes and slices of pitted watermelon with basil and an almond-vanilla vinaigrette, and a small plate of velvety gnocchi of La Ratte potatoes with zucchini flowers, lemon confit, and light tracings of bottarga. An Alsatian '89 Gewürztraminer by Albert Boxler, Sélection de Grains Nobles, went beautifully with a terrine of Êlevages Périgord foie gras with Bing cherries and warm sour cherry brioche (right).
Fish courses came next: wild Atlantic halibut done “Mi-Cuit” with delicate flavors of fennel and olive oil, was accompanied by an '04 Sancerre by Henri Bourgeois, La Porte du Caillou. You don't often see wild Scottish langoustines this side of the Hebrides, and those served by Humm show why they deserve their proud appellation; poached in butter and dressed with a corail vinaigrette, they were plump, meaty, and sweet. Loup de mer “à la vapeur” with zucchini “écrassé,” crispy tomatillo and Meyer lemon demonstrated amazing finesse, the fish silky and very fine, the accents of vegetables and fruit colorful enhancements.
A serving of confit of suckling pig was a marvel--cut into a rectangle about three inches by five (what do they do with the rest of the animal?), topped with its own very crisp skin and layered with meltingly tender white meat suffused with fat, with cipollini, apricot chutney, and white cardamom jus. A full-bodied '04 Roussanne from Raymond Usseglio from the
Then came cheeses, with an '04 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage, and to tease the palate towards sweets, a mascarpone sorbet with griottine brandied cherries, followed by a blueberry pecan financier cake with warm blueberries and black raspberry sorbet, accompanied by a lovely, faintly sweet '03 Chenin Blanc from Philippe Delesvaux, Sélection de Grains Nobles, and more than ample mignardises.
Oh, I almost forgot the chocolate-banana soufflé with peanut butter ganache and roasted banana ice cream and a glass of Niepoort 30-Year-Old Tawny Port.
The restaurant is
open daily for lunch and dinner. A 3-course dinner is $68, with a
6-course tasting menu at $85, and seasonal 8-course menu at $115.
THINGS TO DO ON THOSE LAZY NIGHTS IN CEDAR RAPIDS
Since opening last December in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Garden Place restaurant has been broken into three times, once by a burglar who made himself a sausage and beef pizza, left the oven on and the dishes in the sink.
ONE TO YOUR EAR AND YOU CAN
"Do oysters have little bivalve souls? Do they dream briny dreams, scream briny screams? On a level that I suppose is selfish and somewhat silly, I hope not, because they are alive when they are shucked right in front of us, their deaths more proximal than those of so many creatures we eat."--Frank Bruni, "They Died for Us" in the NY Times (June 25, 2006).
* Jacques Loupiac and the staff of La Panetiere in
* Woodlands Resort &
* Starting Aug. 9 Quattro at the Four Seasons Silicon Valley in East Pal Alto, CA, is doing a series of monthly “osteria nights” with a family-style meal and a featured local winemaker. On Aug. 9, Ridge Vineyards will be featured with Chef Alessandro Cartumini’s 4-course menu of 3 antipasti; 2 signature pastas; 3 entrees and 4 desserts, along with a special magnum selection not generally available to the public. The winemaker will be available to discuss wines tableside. $75 pp. Call 650- 470-2889 or visit www.quattrorestaurant.com.
* On Aug. 24 Cakebread Cellars will showcases fine wines at Farallon in
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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