1/14/2008

BLT Market

The proliferation of "chain" restaurants in New York can be unsettling. I don't mean Ruths Chris or the Olive Garden - disturbing in and of their own right - but the high-end type like the BLT empire.

What isn't a chain these days? Will Daniel Boulud endure criticism at Bar Boulud for starting up yet another place with the word "Boulud" in the title? Unlikely. Laurent Tourondel isn't alone in hocking his cookbook at the register or hopping on the latest bandwagon, market-driven fare. Back when BLT Fish opened, Tourondel got slammed for these tricks. But given the current environment, you have to wonder if he was just ahead of the curve on the in-your-face self-promotion that's everywhere now.

BLT Market's version of rustic - in the Ritz, no less - feels a little slick, like Marie Antoinette playing country house. As soon as you walk in the door into this attractive, pleasant array of rooms in vanilla colors, you see the telltale signs of a barnyard that's very haute indeed. But if you can suppress the urge to roll your eyes at the cutesy colanders on sale in the mini-mart at the register or the painstakingly-curated farm tools hung on the wall, Tourondel's latest venture has a lot to offer.

One night last week, after a quick drink at the Ritz hotel bar, which is fabulous by the way - witness the live piano music as played by a live piano player! - Marie Fromage and I settled in to our seats in BLT Market's bright and airy dining room, which is decorated with huge vegetable murals suspiciously like those at Gramercy Tavern, but pleasing nonetheless. The napkins are dishtowels, the water carafe an old glass milk bottle.

We were thrilled by the pigs-in-a-blanket amuse bouche. Crafted from seemingly homemade frankfurters and sauerkraut, encased in a crispy, light pastry, they were scrumptious. Had they been on the menu, I might have forsaken the whole rest of the dinner and ordered about 10 more of these. That must be why they're not on the menu.

Also served alongside was garlic bread, not the fussy crostini kind but the carb-o-rama kind laced with a buttery garlic parsley spread. More haute junk food - love it. The bread was more of the focus here than the spread, which was fine since it was freshly baked, crusty outside and squishy within.

Meanwhile, I couldn't stop sneaking glances at Cynthia Stevenson, who was seated next to us. You may know her from Men in Trees, but I'll never forget her performance as the bossy, know-it-all oldest sister in Happiness. You know, the one who ends up being married to a pedophile. Brilliant.

Ordering is a tough decision here, because the menu is divided into three parts, yet it seems foolhardy to attempt to eat all three courses and save room for dessert. We opted for the pastas. One thing that impressed me about BLT Market is that the concept isn't all hype; you can see it on the plate. The colors and tastes of all the different ingredients are very bright and fresh, thanks to the efforts of chef de cuisine David Malbequi. In the delicious pappardelle with a venison bolognese, kale, and pecorino, each of the elements retained its individual character, but the whole was very well-balanced, not to heavy or oily as some bologneses tend to be.

The poached Maine lobster gnocchi with fennel and lemon beurre blanc was sublime. I liked the classic combination of flavors here, elevated to a new level with such carefully sourced ingredients. Not too fussy, but not so simplistic that you would think, hey, I could make this at home. More like Jacques P├ępin could make it at home and the rest of us could all die trying.

At this point we were unexpectedly served dessert menus, when we said out that we hadn't gotten our entrees yet. Our duo of servers was embarrassed by the error, which actually was no big deal. One waiter immediately asked what sort of wine we'd been drinking at the bar and ordered us up another round. While some might see this as an example of botched service, something to be expected in a place that's only been open a couple of months, I actually saw it as an example of good service. Anyone who's ever worked in a restaurant knows that mistakes are going to happen; bad service is when the server does not take responsibility for an error and instead blames the customer. More on that in a future review.

Marie Fromage's spiced orange-glazed maple leaf duck was so pale in color I actually mistook it for the other meat-of-the-moment, pork. It was an excellent cut, not at all gamey, and seared with Chinese spices that put an interesting spin on an otherwise Western dish with foie gras and bacon and collard greens as sides.

Not so for the venison, which was a little tough and not cooked to medium rare as requested. To be honest, I didn't really notice the toughness until Marie Fromage pointed it out, because I was loving the sides of chestnut braised red cabbage and cranberry, plus the pistachios on the venison. It's a relief to encounter traditional flavors - even little celery leaves - when most chefs can't suppress the urge to throw a wrench in every dish. As for the toughness of the meat, coming from a family of hunters, I am used to roughing it when it comes to eating game and consider the dish a triumph if it's free of shot. Note to self: adjust expectations when dining in a restaurant. Maybe it would have been better to stick to the regular menu instead of an item from the "blackboard menu"?

Tragedy struck when the waiter informed us they were out of bananas Foster. It's so hard to find this old-school dessert that I always order it when it's on the menu. We settled for chocolate feuilletine, which was not particularly chocolatey, but the accompanying coffee ice cream was delicious - made so by the addition of pralines, ground so fine that you detect their taste but not the crunch of individual nuts.

The bill was somewhat painful, despite the free round of wine. The irony is that Greenmarket ingredients are almost always cheaper than what you'd find elsewhere, at least for home cooks, yet here the prices were at Dean & Deluca levels. The bargain conscious should steer clear of the Ritz-Carlton when roughing it with market fare.

Will an exact replica of BLT Market land at various cities across the U.S., including, as Marie Fromage said darkly, the Short Hills Mall? It's too soon to tell. But if you can summon up the suspension of disbelief necessary for dining out these days, BLT Market might just charm you into submission.


BLT Market
1430 Sixth Avenue, between 58th Street and Central Park South
New York, New York
212-521-6125



1 comments:

Marie Fromage said...

"...feels a little slick, like Marie Antoinette playing country house..." - absolutely spot on, the best way to describe this place. In addition to the Short Hills Mall, I can also see it in the American pavillion at Disney's Epcot!