Monday, January 28, 2008

Allen & Delancey: Restaurant review

I wrote this review for a publication back in November but, owing to matters beyond my control, it got pushed. This is a more personal version than wld have been printed.

It’s late November, it’s cold, it’s windy, I’m wearing vertiginous heels, and there’s a pan handler eyeing me thoughtfully from his doorway perch on a deserted corner of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The sole reason I’m down here on a grim Monday night is that Allen & Delancey is the new gig of Gordon Ramsey-empire exile Neil Ferguson.

He was famously ejected from the Ramsey ego project at The London NYC Hotel in Manhattan by the irascible Gordon after a series of lukewarm reviews, but there were rumblings that he had been hard done by. Certainly his skill as a chef has never been in question: more his judgement of the requirements of the Manhattan fine dining scene.

I'm having problems finding Allen & Delancey, until I spot the discreet lettering at the bottom of the curtained window, and then see my parents looking lost, and eminently muggable, on the opposite side of the dual carriageway, their cab driver having failed to locate it.

My glamorous mother doesn’t do what she perceives as slumming, not ever. Even getting her down to my East Village apartment from her rococo Midtown hotel is a stretch. If I want to know if Ferguson’s culinary reach and reputation is going to extend up beyond 14th street then my mother's experience will provide the perfect litmus test.

Things don’t start well after her first trip to the bathroom. “It smells of wee, and it’s so dark in there I couldn’t see to reapply my lipstick”. Great. We are apparently to have a bi-level dining experience: Michelin worthy, we hope, in the dining room, and LES dive bar in the loos.

An elegant and dimly lit, narrow bar leads to the windowless two roomed dining room proper, with the prettiest flowers I’ve seen in a restaurant either side of the Atlantic: old fashioned, blowsy roses. The calm and cool jewel box of a dining room at the Royal London has given way to the warmth of bare brick walls, adorned with shelves of sub-pub tat, dodgy paintings and exceptionally comfy banquettes. It’s a clever room with no bad tables, and a sense of occasion about it, even given the downbeat decoration.

It’s just a shame that it’s so dark we can barely read the menus. We grab the church candle from the shelf behind us to illuminate our table, but it barely penetrates the Stygian gloom. Someone seems to have forgotten that the enjoyment of good food requires all five senses: whilst I love The Smiths, the music is way too loud: we have to stretch to hear each other.

Although the barman didn't know how to make an Old Fashioned, the wine list is compact but beguiling, with clever choices including a delicious Gruner Veltliner by the glass. We waver over a very well-priced $100 Amarone, but settle on a $66 Ayres Pinot Noir from Oregon. Ten out of ten for offering tap or bottled water, but we are less impressed to discover that the sparking water is the overly fizzy imported Hildon Water.

Eating in restaurants is tricky as a vegetarian. As a fully paid up member of the awkward squad, (no to fish or meat, yes to dairy & eggs) my diet is a source of derision to many chefs. I certainly know that I am unwelcome in Bourdain’s Les Halles and, although I like and admire Fergus Henderson enormously, I’m not beating a path to St John.

If I check out the carte on-line and there is no vegetarian option then I always ring in advance. At Allen & Delancey I am assured that vegetarianism is no bar to entry: speak up, and “Chef will prepare you something off menu. It’s really no problem at all for both courses.”

I am expecting something quite special now. Not least because before he took the Ramsey shilling, Ferguson did a stage at Alain Passard’s thoroughly amazing L’Arpège in Paris, which has brought the humblest of vegetables to the forefront of modern French cooking, earning three Michelin stars in the process.

Sea scallops, celery root cream, braised cipollini onions, verjus and Raviolo of sweetbreads, bolognese, parslied carrots, savoy cabbage arrive. My parents start to look longingly at their cooling plates, as my place remains empty. I call over the waiter who looks bemused: she hasn’t ordered me a first course, explaining that the vegetable plate is ‘very large’. I look at her like she is insane: maybe she is. But hell, I’m English: I eat my way through menus, vegetarianism not withstanding.

The parents are happily troughing away, liking the contrasts of consistency and taste that chime together on their plates. I eventually get leeks vinaigrette with truffled fingerling potatoes, minus the listed proscuitto garnish. It is good, the baby leeks providing a textural balance to the smooth potatoes, whilst the dressing is just the right side of sharp. Unfortunately, the lack of lighting is such that I actually fail to spot the truffle puree at the side of the plate until I have eaten everything else. I call for more of the delicious warm bread, swish it around the plate, and lick my fingers. Although I had to fight to get fed, it’s an admirable start.

And then, after a lengthy wait (bear in mind it’s a quiet-ish Monday night), our entrees are plonked down. I get a vegetable medley: someone in the kitchen has had fun in the various stations, raking over the mise en place, picking out the vegetable garnishes and cobbling them together over an excellent smear of cauliflower purée.

Peering through the crepuscular murk, I start the name game: I spot trompette des mortes and some fat porcini; a tatty sliver of preserved lemon lurks alongside an olive, an artichoke heart, a piece of parsnip, and a little squash. There are some more of those fingerling potatoes, carrots, and rather too many onions, - pearl and cipollini are my best guess – but it’s just too dark for a serious identification parade.

There isn’t a cohesive note on the plate. (Maybe he should be taking a note from Rowley Leigh’s new Café des Anglais in London whose vegetable plate is a thoughtful selection of roast beets, squash, onions, radicchio di Treviso and a little polenta cake, dribbled with sauce vierge.)

It is also not ‘very large’ but rather small, and I polish it off in a few minutes. Still hungry, I remonstrate with the waiter who hops it to the kitchen and returns with an offer of ‘Chef’s risotto’.

Whilst I wait, the parents engage variously with their main courses: slow roasted pork belly, pickled pear, parsnips, fenugreek syrup for my mother and Beef, cabbage, onions for my father, which he ordered purely because it sounded so unprepossessing. What arrives is a roundel of aged beef; a savoy cabbage parcel contains chopped beef shoulder, and a cabbage wrapped onion. He makes small groaning noises which are slightly disconcerting coming from a parent, but apparently indicate extreme appreciation. The beef is cooked perfectly and, what sounded like heavy peasant food, is actually refined and hearty all at the same time.

The autumnal risotto is sensational, similar to one I had back in March at the Royal London Bar, and certainly one of the best I have eaten. There are various schools of thought where risotto is concerned: some prefer it in the Venetian manner, all’onda, or wavy, where the dish is slightly soupy, rippling when you attack it with a spoon.

This is a stiffer version, with a perfect bite and the lack of soupiness works well with the vegetables. It is studded with chunks of butternut squash, topped with sautéed chestnuts and hen of the woods mushrooms, with a creamy truffled foam around the edges. I try to ask the server about the foam’s composition; she nods and says truffles. I give up, and bury my head in my plate, stopping only to emit small squeaks of pleasure as I shovel it in. I stupidly press some of the delicious mushrooms on my parents. We fall silent in homage. I wonder if anyone will notice if I lick my plate clean.

Just as we have perked up considerably, buoyed by the Pinot and the thoroughly excellent first two courses, our puddings arrive. The menu had read well, with an unusual (for a Manhattan carte), and welcome emphasis on fruit, but the orange plate is a heavy mess: a million miles from the implied elegant assembly.

The one tiny tangerine segment is flavourless, with no evidence of the promised caramelisation. The clementine has been peeled, sawn in half and presented as a charmless hunk of tasteless fruit, the ice cream has crystals in it, and the two sliced chunks of financier, (an almond flour, ingot shaped cake) although with the traditional crisp crust, are too dry and crumbly to work with the fruit. Maybe a self-contained Madeleine with its lemon hint would have worked better. Paradoxically, the element requiring the most skill, the orange blossom sabayon, is immaculate: delicately scented, and moreish.

My mother’s sautéed fall fruits, hibiscus, Catalan cream, saffron pistils has several large chunks of unpeeled apple and pear with shards of core left in. We take turns in nicking bits from my father’s choice, whilst he tries to stab our fingers with his fork. It's a clever take on apple pie a la mode: a whole Gala apple wrapped in excellent puff pastry with a caramel sauce and rum & raison ice cream on the side: Scrumptious.

Service is charming, chatty and well-meaning - but stuck at café level. The smooth service that usually comes with food of this standard is notably absent here: the busboys don’t know who is eating which plate of food, we have to request fresh glasses for our second bottle of wine, and there are long delays. Empty glasses and side plates are left lurking on the table.

If Ferguson has pretensions to make Allen & Delancey a ‘top dining destination’ then he needs to ratchet up the quality of the elements surrounding his food. A firm hand front of house would make all the difference. At the moment this truly inspired cooking deserves much, much more.

In the interests of full disclosure I should note that my risotto was comped as were the puddings, a very generous gesture.