September 7, 2009

Authentic Artisanal

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 Last year I wrote a rave review for Terrance Brennan’s Picholine. This year, I herald my return by visiting another of his Manhattan restaurants, Artisanal. It is designed to look like an authentic French bistro, complete with weaved chairs, cushioned booths, black and white tile floors, and high ceilings. In appearance it reminded me of Café Luxembourg (a bistro near where I live) and L’Express (a favorite of mine in Montreal). However, Artisanal differs in a way as would be suggested by its name. Artisanal generally means traditional and small scale and the restaurant holds an astonishing array of artisanal meats and cheeses, many of which are aged next to the diners. I did not have a chance to try any of them unfortunately, but there was a very good reason for that decision. 
      It was restaurant week, when all of the expensive Manhattan restaurants cut their prices to $24.07 for lunch and $35 for dinner. Because of the recession though and the hit that fine dining has taken, restaurant week has become a month and a half holiday that fine establishments use as an excuse to keep prices competitive. Being in the midst of my favorite holiday, I had to take advantage of the deal instead of being more adventurous. Luckily, I was rewarded as Artisanal has an especially good deal, where you can eat dinner for $25 and add on a wine pairing for another $13. Since I recently turned 21, I felt compelled to try the wines too. The only downside to the deal is that it is only offered very early (6-7PM) and very late (10-11PM). I am by no means an early bird, so my dining companion and I chose the later hour. 
      The first course that came out was the sheep’s milk ricotta cavatelli a la carbonara, accompanied by a Torrontes from Argentina. 
[img_assist|nid=37856|title=sheep’s milk ricotta cavatelli|desc=|link=node|align=center|width=141|height=106]    
      I am used to ricotta gnocchi, but the cavatelli was completely different. It yielded to my teeth easily, but was in no way overcooked, just comfortable like a plush pillow. The comfort was only intensified by the sauce, which was much more watery than I am used to. When I think of carbonara, I think of an extremely thick and rich yolk-based sauce. This was much more reminiscent of the texture you get when making a box of “The Cheesiest”. The taste of the cheese was muted and subtle. When paired with the wine, many new flavors jumped out at me accompanied by the crisp Torrontes taste. The cheese intensified and the sauce became easier to accept. I could taste the dry age of the cheese as it tightened around the insides of my cheeks, but this exciting sensation abruptly vanished and the dish became mundane once more. Overall, it was not an impressing dish.
      The next dish was awe-inspiring in the complexity and depth of its flavor. This was the sauteed skate wing paired with a Grenache from Spain. 
[img_assist|nid=37860|title=Skate Wing|desc=|link=node|align=center|width=141|height=106]     [img_assist|nid=37861|title=wine|desc=|link=node|align=center|width=141|height=106] 
      The wing was served on a bed of cauliflower, croutons, capers, raisins, and oranges immersed in a blood orange grenobloise. The dish was completed with pureed cauliflower combined with mascarpone cheese. Upon first bite, the exterior of the fish seemed so crispy that I thought the inside would be overcooked. Instead it was moist, flaky, and delicious. One of my favorite parts of eating skate is how easily the meat parts on each of its lines. They’re almost like nature’s “cut here” lines. Next, I tasted the fish with the grenobloise and the flavor of blood orange was tart and overpowering. It made me pucker, but it was still enjoyable, especially when accompanied with the sweetness of the raisins. Then, I tried to taste it with the cauliflower and mascarpone, which was far more soothing. The cheese was fatty and the cauliflower flavor also came through very effectively, though it was a little bland. Finally, I tried the skate with a dip in the grenobloise and another in the puree, combining both flavors. This was just right. The crispy yet tender skate was immersed in the flavor of a far too tart sauce and a bland puree, resulting in perfection. The puree cut the tartness and I could now see the capers coming through over the skate to meet the cauliflower in the middle. With the wine, another element came in. Its color was similar to that of the grenobloise and halfway through the dish, they even tasted similar. The skate more than made up for the cavatelli and it was a dish I will always remember.
      Sadly, the dinner was drawing to a close and the crème brûlée ‘Le Cirque’ and baba au rhum came out with a Muscat dessert wine.
[img_assist|nid=37863|title=creme brulee|desc=|link=node|align=center|width=336|height=252]    [img_assist|nid=37865|title=baba au rhum|desc=|link=node|align=center|width=141|height=106]    [img_assist|nid=37867|title=wine|desc=|link=node|align=center|width=141|height=106] 
      At this point in the meal, we were both so full that each of us could only try a few bites of each other’s dish. The Crème Brûlée was tasty, but by no means memorable. The Baba Au Rhum was even less interesting. Our waiter was very curious as to what we thought of it because he described it as mediocre and said that other patrons gave it a “B/B-“ as a grade, which I fully agreed with. There was a lot of rum in the bread and though I liked the plating, it was a little dull for me. I enjoyed the wine more than the desserts as it was crisp, refreshing, and sweet. It tasted like summer! 
      I wish I could rave about Artisanal the way I did when I reviewed Picholine, but sadly I cannot. Might I go back? Yes, because the skate was so fascinating. That dish was amazing and I can still taste it on my tongue. I even dream about it sometimes. It is rare that I can get such an experience out of a restaurant and the fact that Artisanal could do so leads me to believe that I need to go there again. Until then, my opinion of the restaurant is slightly disappointed, yet hopeful. So if you are ever around the city and want a truly memorable dish, just go to Artisanal, get the sautéed skate, and be prepared for a taste that will not leave you for days.