Chinese New Year with Two American Chefs? A Burns Supper at … Marea? How It All Went Down…
It’s turning into one of those weeks: One late night after another, each morning bringing a painful reentry, a test of the restorative powers of a hot shower and pot of coffee, the eternal question of why I pony up for that monthly gym membership. But I’ve been powerless to stop it. Such is the lure of great food and drink, the reassuring presence of old friends, and the giddiness of meeting new ones.
Oddly, unpredictably, delightfully, the past two nights have both conjured thoughts of New Year’s Eve. Here’s why:
“Too much food!” cried our waitress at Legend, a Chinese restaurant on Seventh Avenue in Chelsea.
Both toques are Chinese food enthusiasts, who first met last year, when the Waltucks (David and his wife Karen, former goddess of Chanterelle’s dining room) and I had dinner at Kin Shop.
The two chefs had long respected each other from afar. Both also love Asian food. So it was decided that the three of us would connect for a Chinese dinner. By the time we got around to scheduling it, the two had gotten to know each other a bit by participating in a few of the same charity events, and by David and Karen’s visits to Harold’s restaurants, both of which are in their West Village neighborhood.
We met Harold after service at Kin Shop, around 9:30pm Tuesday night. Given the hour, rather than a Chinatown spot, David picked Legend, which he first discovered by way of a New York Times review last year. We made the five-minute walk and settled into a banquette just past the bar. Despite the fact that this is Chinese New Year’s week, the hour was late and the restaurant was nearly empty, save for a few diners in the subterranean space below.
Sitting with these two guys, I didn’t even bother offering an opinion as to what we should order when our waitress arrived, pad in hand. Harold, in turn, deferred to David: “You go and I’ll fill in.”
It’s always fun when a chef orders for a family-style meal–tapas, sushi, Chinese food–there’s an implied license to go for broke and select anything that appeals to both taste memory and curiosity with little or no regard for whether or not all of it will actually be eaten.
Off David went: fried lamb with curry, spicy garlic eggplant, double-cooked pork, Dan Dan noodles.
“Those are spicy!” warned our waitress, her eyes widening.
“It’s ok,” he said.
Then it was Harold’s turn: Tea smoked duck, red rabbit.
Another warning, this time about the rabbit: “Lot of meat, no sauce.”
This brought a skeptical look.
“Really. It’s okay.” Moving on: “Chengdu prawns.”
Then came the warning about the quantity–“Too much food!”–as if we were about to drive a car off a cliff.
“It’s okay,” Harold said, smiling a charmer’s grin. “I eat a lot. I’m a hungry boy.”
This brought a shrug.
“And pork dumplings in chili oil.”
“Oh, those are good,” said David, sounding as though he’d meant to include them in his opening salvo.
(Neither ordered the dish misidentified, at least I hope so, as “Crispy fried whole red Snapple” on the menu.)
These days, David is the executive chef for Ark Restaurants, a position that’s been held in the past by such fellow notables as Jonathan Waxman and Larry Forgione. His duties include shepherding the coming Clyde’s restaurant on Tenth Avenue into existence, and keeping tabs on other Ark restaurants in New York City and around the country. And Harold, of course, is readying his The Marrow, in Hotel 718 in downtown Brooklyn for an opening. The two traded notes on the usual: number of seats, staffing up their respective kitchens, which meat and fish purveyors they like (and don’t), and so on.
But for all the talk of the future, eating Chinese food with David, especially this week, couldn’t help but remind me of the past, specifically one of the great traditions of Chanterelle: For the last several years of its life, he and Karen closed the restaurant the Sunday of Chinese New Year’s week and invited a massive group of friends and family to enjoy their hospitality via a Chinese banquet: linen-draped tables were set end to end across the center of the room, and periodically David would emerge from the kitchen, a platter of freshly cooked food aloft. One of his cooks would bang a small, hand-held gong and as the sound echoed in the air, David announced the dish and set it down on the table, which was loaded with two columns of platters by the afternoon’s end.
Another feature of the banquet was a karaoke machine, which prompted a wide-ranging line up of guests to take to the microphone and sing their hearts out. Though it wasn’t in use Tuesday night, the fact that there’s a karaoke stage downstairs at Legend triggered a discussion of the old days, which really weren’t that long ago, Chanterelle having just closed in 2009 after an incredible three-decade run. (Time doesn’t allow for it at present, but one day I hope to write a nice, long post about just what made that restaurant so special to so many people.)
“What’s your go-to song?” Harold asked.
David didn’t have one. I don’t either, really, but I’ve always thought that, with the perfect amount of alcohol in my system, and supportive friends around, I could do a mean version of Elvis Costello’s Allison. Harold’s, it turns out, is Wonderwall by Oasis. Go figure.
Anyway, it was a memorable night with two chefs I’m privileged to know outside the kitchen. We agreed to do it again, perhaps even often, and always over Chinese food, all of which would be a very good thing, as much for the new memories it’ll mint as for the old ones it will surely continue to evoke.
A Burns Supper at … Marea?
New Years came up again Wednesday night, albeit in an entirely different way, when I learned that Robert Burns, the Scottish poet whose birthday is celebrated on January 25, penned a version of the New Year’s staple “Auld Lang Syne.”
Joel’s one of the most passionate foodies I’ve ever met; we got to be pals in Lyon, France, while I was covering the Bocuse d’Or competition for my book, Knives at Dawn. An attorney by trade, Joel was and remains the secretary of the Bocuse d’Or USA. But that’s the least of it: Generally speaking, he’s a passionate, menschy cook with a Peter Falk rasp in his voice, who can’t get enough of the world of chefs and restaurants. Sensing a kindred spirit, chefs like him, too: He counts among his best friends Daniel Boulud, whom he got to be pals with twelve years ago when Joel’s wife Joyce arranged for him to spend some time cooking in the kitchen at Daniel as a birthday present. Daniel offered to do a series of sessions, to teach Joel something about every course, from amuse bouche to dessert. After a few formal lessons, Daniel gave Joel a jacket and apron and told him to just show up anytime and jump in with the cooks. To this day, more than a decade later, as his law practice allows, Joel still gets into the kitchen at Daniel about three times a month.
Joel and his friend Bob Grimes are well known, individually and as a bit of a dynamic duo, to a certain caliber of chef and restaurateur around town. Not only do they frequent top spots on a regular basis, but they host regular, intimate wine luncheons to which they invite a small rotation of chefs, sommeliers, wine reps, and writers to join them and talk shop. The lunches culminate in a grand finale every December when they throw a large-scale holiday luncheon that serves as an annual reunion of sorts for those who are a part of it.
But, just as Mick and Keith recorded their own albums in addition to functioning as Rolling Stones, Joel also pursues his own, independent culinary passions. Specifically, he delights in reviving and/or extending culinary traditions: he’s been the inspiration behind game and grouse dinners at Daniel and the pressed duck that the restaurant offered for a time a few years back; he even purchased two two old-fashioned duck presses for the restaurant to make the dream a reality. And if you’re wondering why matzoh is available during Passover at all Dinex restaurants, you can now hazard an educated guess as to whose fingerprints are on that development.
Just as I could go on and on about David and Chanterelle, I could continue to rhapsodize about Joel. But for now I’ll have to leave it at a brief description of his latest concoction: the Marea Burns supper. Technically a Marea special event, but unmistakably Joel’s brainchild, the genesis of the evening was that George Barber, who often commands the podium at Marea, is a Scot. One thing led to another and the next thing anybody knew, Joel was urging Marea’s chef de cuisine Jared Gadbaw and general manager Rocky Cirino to create a Marea-style Burns supper.
It was an intimate evening, in the smaller of Marea’s two private dining rooms. We started with sherry, then moved on to ale followed by an array of whiskies to sip with the food: Scottish langostines, served raw in the style of the restaurant’s crudo, atop cucumber slivers; a hearty cock-a-leekie soup, the broth poured over the cubed meats and such at the table, a quenelle of prune alongside to sweeten it, if desired; and then, of course, the requisite haggis, served with neeps and tatties, or turnips and potatoes, both of which were whipped on this evening. (All of this was delineated on a specially designed menu presented in an elegant, folder, with Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” featured on the left side.)
For all the horrid regard in which haggis is held here in the United States, the version served up at Marea was actually quite palatable. Apparently the kitchen refined it over three tastings, upping the amount of lamb belly, dispensing with the lungs that are a part of the original recipe, and so on. Paired with the whipped potatoes, it reminded me of a slightly grainier shepherd’s pie, with a peppery undercurrent that pleasantly surprised me. I had seconds.
George, decked out in a kilt for the occasion, and seated at the head of the table, schooled attendees on the traditions of a Burns supper, encouraging us to read poems, and especially to tell personal stories. We were also privileged to have another Scot, the accomplished correspondent and author Matt McAllester at the table. (Matt’s wife, Pernilla, an art advisor, somehow found herself the lone woman at this gathering, but toughed it out admirably.) Matt recently edited the book Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar, about foreign correspondents and their food fixations. How’s that for a great idea, and however did I miss it? I’m ordering mine today.
It all passed too quickly. Just one of many highlights: As we took turns reading poetry stanzas, George and Matt showed up the rest of us by unfurling their mellifluous Scottish accents. Nonetheless, Joel manned up and read “Auld Lang Syne” all by his lonesome from start to finish, a rather touching rendition, I might add.
Dinner wound up with cheeses, then gingerbread topped with vanilla ice cream and a Drambuie custard sauce, then the usual Marea petits fours. We all signed each others menus, then I shared a taxi back to Brooklyn with the McAllesters. There was talk of dinner plans in the near future. These things often don’t come to pass, but having partaken of a Burns supper together, at Marea of all places, how can we fail to follow up?
By the way, did you know that Robert Burns died at 37 years of age? Reminds me of an old joke I once heard: “By the time Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for three years.” I’m not a composer, so I’ve always found that line rather funny. Burns having been a writer, this one is harder to swallow.