in which she finds some lovely cheese
As well as many other good things. After much debate, I chose Hearth for John’s birthday dinner. Hearth is a cousin of Union Square which John liked very much a few years ago (there is a famous story of a one year old Naomi plundering his exquisite shrimp risotto there) and of Gramercy Tavern, a standby favorite of our very New York savvy Anne. Pluswhich, The Amateur Gourmet likes it, and his recommendations are kind of infectious.
First off, it’s great. What makes me sigh is that it’s great in the way probably a few dozen restaurants in New York are great. The food is honest, flavorful, creative and pretty. It’s served with respect for the serious business of eating, but without pretension. It’s a little expensive, but you don’t feel like you’re getting gouged (and a great big, bad, Chateauneuf de Pape and two snifters of lovely Calvados will do a little damage to the bill . . .) I love the fact that there are many places like this in the city, and am most sad about the fact that in Ann Arbor there are only one or two.
But to the meat (as it were) of the matter. The table was nice, for two, against an exposed brick walls (the other walls were covered in some kind of slightly odd grey felt). There was a perfectly harmless amuse-bouche of a shot-glass of parsnip soup with cardamom. We persuaded each other to be adventuresome with the appetizers and order New Things. The New Things were Snapper Crudo for John and Grilled Spanish Mackerel for me (dutifully traded half-way through). The presentation was a revelation to me, reminding me of just how pretty food can be. I’ve been plating at home and eating in places with children’s menus for the past sixteen months and I had forgotten what a good restaurant can do with color and texture on the plate. The snapper (the belly, I believe) was dressed with lemon, olive oil and rosemary and was almost cloud-like in its subtlety. But only if clouds can also give you a flavor kick in the butt. I tasted the mackerel by itself on first bite and was a bit of a skeptic; compared to the snapper it seemed tough and a bit aggressively fishy. Then I took a bite with all the bits that came with and my mouth began to buzz with pleasure.
And now, I must pause to tell you about crosnes. You see, the mackerel came with crosnes, black radish, golden currents and pinenuts. I had never even heard of crosnes, much less eaten them. How exciting! Well, I guess not that exciting because after ordering, I forgot about them until a few bites in when I started wondering, hmm, what are these things that are kind of like nuts and kind of like sea shells? Well, crosnes of course. This is what they look like:
They’re about an inch long. They’re crunchy. And, it turns out, tubers of a plant in the mint family, and they mix it up really well with raisins and pinenuts and balance out that slightly strong quality of the mackerel.
Both John and I are a bit chagrined about this, but we ordered the same main course. We both really wanted it, and we knew that if we settled upon sharing it and something else, there would be territoriality and tensions over who had possession of the truly desired dish. So, two plates of roasted and braised domestic lamb with lamb sausage, pureed buttercup squash and chanterelle mushrooms, please. With a shared side of the creamiest polenta I’ve yet to experience in my fairly young polenta eating life. As Nick says, mmmmmmmmmm. There were a couple of forkfuls when the lamb came together with the mushrooms and the polenta that were pure early winter Nirvana. I do have to say that there was an odd bit of lamb on the plate (a short rib sort of thing? A shin?) that was all fat, and I wasn’t even convinced that it was meant to be eaten — in fact, we both pushed ours aside, but the portion size was so perfect that was no loss.
Then, there was cheese, but I’m afraid that in the happy haze of food and wine and good company, I neglected to note what types. They were both domestic. One was a fairly sweet and creamy chevre, one was stinky and from Wisconsin. Then there was Calvados, and finally dessert, an ice cream trio that consisted of a lovely but unexceptional vanilla, a pumpkin brittle which I chased around the plate with my spoon, and a burnt sugar that won John’s heart. And then there was room for nothing else. We had eaten everything they had. We wandered out to find our way home, racing to make it to the hotel before my cold, which I had manfully held at bay all evening, wrestled me to the ground. The cold, however, won.
And the cold has remained mostly victorious ever since, relegating me to Trader Joe’s chicken soup and ginger beer on the couch since my return. It was worth the cold, though, to have the pleasures of our last morning in NY. John spent the morning running around Central Park and I spent it walking around my old Murray Hill stomping grounds. A friend once called Murray Hill the most characterless neighborhood in NY, and it may be, but it’s where I lived long ago, so for me it’s just fine. I was pleased to see many of its funny little pieces of neighborhood character intact (shoe repair shops and delis and old time NY supermarkets). Now, too, it has Artisanal, surprisingly French and chic in that grey midtown. I peered in the window, I ogled the menu, but I did not buy cheese.
At any rate, having fasted for almost fourteen hours, we found we could bear to eat again, and headed down to the Village for a little downtown cool and the very fine Noodle Bar. Nothing fancy here, just a bar, highly organized ingredients for various noodle dishes and vats of broth. I had a big bowl of duck broth with duck and greens and ramen noodles. John ate a Singapore curry with rice noodles and shrimp and a bit of sinus clearing heat, and they were just what the doctor ordered, both for my cold and our excesses of the night before. This is the kind of place Ann Arbor emphatically does not have or not nearly enough anyway — a clean, cheapish place with a little style and lots of flavor. Ann Arbor, does, however, have the kids, the dog, the job and finally, all the comforts of home. And that’s pretty good to come home to.