Oregon Chef Spends Four Fabulous Nights Dining New York City

Duck Breast, WD-50

For me there is no other city on the planet that is as electrifying as New York City. I recently won a recipe contest for the Cooking Channel and received an expense paid trip to The Big Apple to shoot a segment on a Cooking Channel show called The Perfect Three, but that was only part of my incredible experience in NYC. My good friend Angelika and I were able to choose four New York City restaurants where we would have dinner during our stay.  I think that one could easily spend months choosing a different restaurant every night and still not be able to enjoy all the fantastic food the city has to offer.

Monday evening, after a long flight and a short rest in our hotel, we decided to go to Il Mulino on a quiet corner in Greenwich Village. Around for over twenty years,  Il Mulino has been voted #1 Italian restaurant in NYC for two solid decades by Zagat’s. When you walk in the door you know you have entered one of New York’s Italian jewels. The place is small and very cozy with white tablecloths and handsome tuxedoed waiters moving around the closely spaced tables like ballet dancers.

Almost as soon as you are seated and your napkin is neatly placed across your lap, your table is gradually covered with antipasti like house-cured salami, paper-thin sliced fried zucchini and warm focaccia bread served with bright green olive oil for dipping. A cart arrives tableside with an entire wheel of Parmeggiano Reggiano and shards are carved and piled on your plate. This is before you even order!

Owning brothers Fernando and Gino Masci were born and raised in L’Aquila in the countryside of Abrusso, Italy. The food at Il Mulino reflects the simple perfection of authentic Italian cusine: unadulterated, pure comfort and full of pleasure. The antipasti were followed by hand-made porcini ravioli, veal Marsala and sautéed broccoli rape. We had no room for dessert. We almost fainted when the bill arrived, as a trip to Il Mulino is very expensive; but hey, we were in New York City!

Tuesday night we had dinner at Morimoto, a short walk from our hotel and adjacent to Chelsea Market. Masaharu Morimoto is a Nobu alumnus and very familiar to fans of the Food Network show Iron Chef. The cool, clean white-on-white interior was described by Frank Bruni, restaurant critic for the New York Times, as “a sparkly wonderland for glittery people”. Angelika and I tried our best to disguise our “Oregon” amongst the obviously New York über-hip crowd. The strong Asian influence of Morimoto obviously includes sushi, but the dinner menu has many choices for the non-sushi eater with such items as: tuna pizza with olives, anchovy aioli and jalapeno, and Japanese lobster fritters with pickled ginger and scallions.

We decided to start with two appetizers. We ordered a mixed green salad with a kabosu vinaigrette and shaved bonito which is dried Skipjack tuna. Our second appetizer, Kakuni, is a ten-hour braised pork belly served with congee and a soy-scallion jus. The mixed tender greens salad was perfectly dressed with the sour sweet dressing. The bonito flake added texture and a pleasant strong fish flavor similar to anchovy. The impossibly tender and sweet pork belly was floating on a pillow of congee, an Asian rice porridge. The congee was soft and creamy and paired beautifully with the succulent meat; the jus added a mild onion and soy sauce note.

For dinner, Angelika had the Braised Black Cod with a ginger-soy reduction and I had Roasted Ocean Trout (I believe here we call it steelhead…) with turnip, miso, truffle and crispy prosciutto. We added Chinese broccoli on the side. We slyly traded plates so we could sample each other’s choice. Both were cooked perfectly, although Angelika thought the Black Cod tasted a bit fishy… Angelika … it’s FISH!

Wednesday night we dined in a restaurant that I have always wanted to try. Wylie Dufresne is executive chef at WD-50, a restaurant located on the lower east side at 50 Clinton Street. If you are a Top Chef fan like I am, you will recognize Chef Dufresne as the king of culinary experimentation. His whimsical interpretation of such dishes as eggs Benedict and cold fried chicken will make your taste buds swoon. We arrived at the small restaurant in a somewhat not-so-hip part of town and found it to be relaxed and comfortable. We were seated at a table in the center of the long narrow dining room very near diners on either side of us.

A very friendly couple from the Bay area didn’t waste much time introducing themselves by way of making suggestions about what we should order. I was eyeing the Iberico pork cheek, fried “pickle” and caraway mayonnaise appetizer when my new San Fransisco friend strongly suggested I try the cold fried chicken with buttermilk-ricotta, Tabasco and caviar. He said that he and his wife have dined here many times and had to be tasted to be believed. I followed his advice and ordered it alongside the duck breast with black sesame dumplings, red cabbage and parsnip comsomme. Angelika started with bay scallops, cauliflower, caper and preserved lemon and followed it with the also strongly suggested Waygu chuck steak, black-eyed peas, fig, and rutabaga.

While we were waiting for our main course, our new found friends ordered some after dinner drinks concocted by the house mixologist (at WD-50, bartender does not apply!). The mixologist arrived tableside to serve his elixir made with premium sake, raspberry puree and several other select ingredients … don’t remember, doesn’t matter, don’t try this at home! He infused the beverage with Co2 and poured it into a small shot glass over a single square ice cube. My nearby friend tasted it and squealed that it tasted exactly like peanut butter and jelly! He insisted that Angelika and I sample it.

He was absolutely right … amazing! The cold fried chicken appetizer was a work of art. The buttermilk ricotta and the crumb-crusted chicken were the perfect combination of creamy and crispy and the impossibly huge portions of caviar added an incredible texture and briny flavor. Tabasco was transformed into a glistening pink sauce which looked beautiful on the plate and added the perfect heat to balance the dish. Angelika’s scallops were plated in a trail on a long slender plate with a puree of cauliflower perfectly drawn inside a round stencil at one end. The preserved lemon and capers danced in-between each scallop and pieces of shaved roasted cauliflower, resembling baby’s breath, also garnished the plate. My duck was cooked perfectly and the tender dumplings, red cabbage and parsnip comsomme added lightness to the rich duck breast. Angelika’s Waygu beef was fork tender and delicious; the black-eyed peas were paired with mustard seeds and “fried” to resemble several small popcorn balls. The rutabaga puree was blended with French goat cheese and transformed into what looked like creamy peanut butter. A puddle of viscous fig sauce added supplementary sweetness.

For dessert we shared a Warm Spice cake with coconut, tamarind, coriander and pineapple. It was garnished with freeze-dried corn kernels that tasted like candy … Impossibly delicious! As I was snapping pictures of the food, (kinda tacky these days, but it is Wiley Dufresne, so everyone was doing it), I explained to the waiter that I am a contributing food writer for 1859 – Oregon’s Magazine. He told me that chef Dufresne always loves to meet food writers and invited Angelika and I into the kitchen for a tour and to meet Chef Dufresne. For me it was like shaking the hand of a rock star!

Thursday night, our last night in NYC, our reservation was at Butter, located in NoHo on Lafayette Street and under the direction of Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. Those of you who are devotees of the Food Network show Chopped will recognize her as the somewhat serious center judge with typically divergent opinions. Chef Guarnaschelli’s food seemed to me to be of a more “homey” nature due to the fact that she is known as a Greenmarket devotee. For that reason I especially wanted to try this New American kitchen.

We arrived a bit late … got a bit lost … and we were greeted at the door with a decidedly “no problem” attitude. We waited a few short minutes for our table and so chose to start downstairs for a cocktail. I had the perfect French 75: gin, citrus and champagne. It was cold, bubbly and totally refreshing. Angelika had a Brown Derby with Bulleit bourbon, fresh grapefruit and honey … kind of a twist on a Manhattan. Before we finished our cocktails, we were seated at our table in the downstairs dining room and began perusing the menu. The dining room was dark and cozy and reminded me of a birch forest. The walls were completely covered with verticle branches used as wall covering, giving the room a very organic feel.

A basket arrived with fresh buttermilk cornbread and quinelles of black pepper flecked butter. The combination was addictive with the sweet cornbread and peppery butter. We were grateful that they only brought two small pieces, as we could have easily eaten many more. We were a bit puzzled when we saw that they were offering a three course tasting menu for a mere $35. I thought this had to be a mistake or the portions must be literally a bite or two considering the unusually small price. As luck would have it, it was restaurant week in NYC and that was the reason for the special menu offering. How lucky were we??!! However, it was also fashion week in the city and so ridiculously tall waif-thin models were walking around everywhere looking like gazelles in their native habitat. To me they all looked hungry…

I ordered a simple salad with goat cheese and hazelnuts, followed by duck confit with white beans and grapefruit supremes, and sticky toffee pudding with whipped cream and pecans for dessert. Angelika started with the Cavatappi pasta, spicy lamb sausage and yellow tomato sauce followed by fresh Alaskan salmon, French lentils and a mustard sauce with a warm chocolate cake for dessert. The duck was fall-off-the-bone tender and the acidic grapefruit cut through the richness of the dish. The sticky toffee pudding was warm and sweet with crunchy pecans and whipped cream … total comfort food. We ordered a beautiful “Antica Terra” Oregon Pinot Noir to drink with our meal. Angelika loved her pasta and the salmon reminded her of home.

We were a little jealous when we saw a plate of raspberry beignets with vanilla sauce arrive at the table next to us. They looked absolutely decadent dusted with sugar, warm and oozing with raspberry filling—served with a rich blond vanilla custard for dipping. We considered ordering them, but decided we had taken a big enough bite out of the Big Apple.

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