By Danamarie McKiernan
There have been times in the past when restaurant week came around, and it didn’t matter much to me. This year was different, completely different. As a culinary student, it was a whole new world. Constantly tasting everything with an open mind, it’s as if I’m a child learning to familiarize myself with new flavors, aromas, textures and sensations. I know an amazing chef that can put a spoonful of sauce in his mouth and tell you every ingredient that is in it. That kind of palate development takes time, patience and practice—and starting that process was my primary goal during this year’s restaurant week.
My first stop was lunch at Alan Ducasse’s Benoit on West 55th Street. I used to work in that area, and must have walked past this restaurant a dozen times. The website explains that “Alain Ducasse’s bistro evokes the charm and pleasure of the original Benoit in Paris, which opened its doors in 1912”. When you walk in the door it does exactly that—you are transported to an authentic Parisian bistro. I made the reservation for 2 so as to eat at a table, and the hostess was very friendly when I told her that my (non-existent) friend had canceled and I would be dining alone.
As I looked over the menu I was very happy with the offerings they put together for restaurant week. My first course I choose a pork tonnato which was impeccably cold. I slid a butter knife over some of the sauce so I could taste it alone. It was creamy and smooth with the tang of acid from lemon juice and wine. For my entrée I chose skate wing grenobloise. It was flakey and buttery with just enough lemon, salty capers and fork smashed potatoes, whose texture complimented the dish so well. The dessert I chose was a patisserie parisienne—a beautifully prepared cherry tart that glistened on the plate. But my absolute favorite part of Benoit? As I walked past the hostess to leave, she stopped me, said goodbye and handed me a paper bag with a treat to go. Now that’s fine dining!
Next came lunch at Morimoto. This time, I sat at the bar and was able to see the extensive kitchen in action. To my amazement, it was busy but the entire kitchen was quiet. The décor was absolutely beautiful and very modern. right down to the place settings.
I started with a light, floral tea and ordered a bento box, as well as tuna tartare. I heard about the latter dish many times and (as a loyal Iron Chef America fan) had seen versions of this dish plated on occasion. It was all I had expected it to be: silky and accompanied by all the accoutrements one needs to adapt the texture to their personal taste. Every component of my lunch Bento Box was also prepared flawlessly. The miso-glazed chilean sea bass broke apart in large buttery, sweet, tangy and slightly smoky flakes. The sushi tasted fresh and clean; the tempura crunchy and flavorful. And the orange ginger dressing was probably the best I’ve ever had.
Continuing on the seafood trend, I headed to Esca, a marvelous restaurant for Italian seafood in the city. This time I did have a friend with me, offering the chance to taste even more of the menu. Of particular note was the grilled calamari with arugula: tender charred rings with a nutty, mildly sweet olive oil that complemented the plate effortlessly. Of the entrées, the grilled sea bream with sautéed spinach and baby fennel stood out. The flesh just slid onto my fork, and was drizzled with a beautiful olive oil—different then the oil I admired on my calamari. I would have loved to have those finishing oils in my pantry.
Then there was lunch at Aldea. I rarely get the chance to eat at Michelin star restaurants, and eagerly sat at a bar, right in front of the open kitchen. It was remarkable. At Morimoto, the open kitchen was huge, so the chefs were far away. This time, the chefs were within talking distance. It was exhilarating to have the chance to ask questions during my meal.
At Aldea, what I noticed were the exceptional knife skills. For tomato gazpacho, tomatoes, hearts of palm and cucumbers were cut to perfectly complement each other, then placed in a bowl with tweezers to mimic a nest of fresh vegetables in a garden. It was beautiful. The soup was poured at table and slowly covered the vegetables, lifting them up into a silky, sweet both with a hint of mint. For an entree, I chose to have skate, in order to compare it to the dish at Benoit. This time, the portion was a bit larger, with a divine and nutty brown butter and cooked pickled vegetables (which I had never tasted before), which added the perfect amount of acidity to the dish. I finished with a chocolate mousse dessert composed of varying flavors and textures, so that each spoonful was an adventure.
The only dinner I ate that week was at Riverpark, which proved to be my favorite meal. I had never heard of this restaurant or even knew it existed. When I made the reservation I explained that I was a culinary student and was curious if I could get a tour of the kitchen. I also arrived–with my cousin—a little early, because I wanted to see the restaurant’s farm. I was amazed how something so beautiful and plentiful can live here in NYC.
When we arrived, my reservation must have been flagged, because the hostess said that they were waiting to show me the kitchen. I cannot even explain how I contained my excitement; I did not want to look unprofessional. The manager, John, took me by the arm and walked me to the kitchen. I was introduced to Chef Andrew Smith who gave me a tour, explaining each section of the large, immaculate kitchen and some of the more interesting ingredients. He enthusiastically answered all my questions and gave me his card before I left. It was absolutely astounding.
My night was already made, and I had not even eaten. We sat, overlooking the water, ordering a grilled calamari salad with farm greens, grapefruit and nicoise olive vinaigrette. The plate itself was so stunning and every ingredient so attractive that it took a moment for me to even want to eat it. I am glad that I did. The calamari was tender and perfect, the greens dressed slightly and the bitter olive vinaigrette all exploded in my mouth with flavor.
The next dish was a duck confit ravioli. The waiter poured the dish’s broth over the ravioli at the table, as I closed my eyes to take in the aroma. I spent the next ten minutes talking about the ingredients and flavors that I had just experienced. For our main course, we chose the Berkshire pork chop and the black sea bass. The pork was grilled to perfection, sprinkled with grilled peaches and accompanied by collard greens. The greens were sautéed to perfection: not too salty, not too bitter. The sea bass came on a mound of freekeh, which I had never tried before and the waiter generously explained to me. The skin on the fish was so crispy that it crunched in my mouth, even as the flesh remained very moist and flaky. A tomato consomme rounded out the dish with acid and sweetness.
That meal at Riverpark was a memorable experience that I have since then told many people about. I was fortunate enough to extern at the restaurant for the final segment of my Culinary Arts program at ICE and was honored to work in such an amazing restaurant. Overall, my restaurant week experience lived up to my goal: experiencing many different flavors and textures in a short amount of time. I look forward to making a more reservations for one in the future.