"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Monday, October 25, 2010

Celeste - October 22, 2010

Celeste at its best
Dining at restaurants is similar to having a relationship:  There are many first dates and even one-night stands, some of which, aside from the many thoroughly unmemorable and the others that you do not want to be reminded of (you know which), can be enjoyable for the moment in one way or the other, yet nonetheless they miss the critical something in order to be elevated to the next level.  Then there are those, despite their faults and imperfections, that keep drawing you over day after day, week after week, and for the very few, year after year (assuming implicitly that you have not gone completely nuts).  To truly experience a restaurant, it is necessary to embrace it with understanding and a sense of humor - not only should you share in its glory, but also stand by it in its hardship; you know the rap, "in health or sickness" and "in rain or shine" and all the rest of it.  The bottom line is:  You need to love it.  Especially at Celeste, you need a lot of love and some more and all the magnanimity you can spare because here, you are dealing with the omniscient and omnipresent dictator reigning over Celeste in a puffer vest and a handless device (it must come in handy in order to coordinate with the daily shipment from Italy).

White Bean Soup
Thick, rich and satisfying, Celeste's bean soup, whether white bean or chick pea, has been constantly good and has stopped me many times from fleeing New York all together in the seemingly endless winter months.  When you think about Italian food, you think of pasta, pizza and gelato; while all of them are delicious, a simple vegetable soup is one of the dishes where the essence of Italian cuisine comes alive. It is just a bean soup, and yet it is not just a bean soup:  How simpler can it be? and yet taste how deep the flavor is!  It is a bowl full of sunshine, capable to instantaneously transport you over to Tuscany; moreover, it will also cure anything from a cold to a heartbreak.

Tuna Tartar
Unless I am craving particular dishes from the regular menu (the artichoke salad, the gnocchi or my former favorite, the chicken liver they changed the recipe), I simply order from the specials of the day.  It requires much perseverance, confidence and professionalism to maintain the quality of the signature dishes day in and day out, and thus it is exceptionally admirable when they succeed in doing so.  However, not every ingredient is available or at its best every day; the capricious bigger Nature out there with a capital N likes variety as well as us, humans (wonder why we are bored to death by office jobs?).  Therefore, in good restaurants, "specials of the day" = "what are good today."  Sadly, this formula does not apply to some restaurants where they whip up a concoction more to clean out the fridge rather than due to market availability.
Yes, I do digress and I have digressed.  The tuna tartar itself is well-seasoned with the usual condiments of caper and lemon and the rest of the team, but the accompaniment of blood orange and fennel are what have made this dish stand out beyond a mere pleasant appetizer:  Sampled with the blood orange, the tartar becomes fruity and light; eaten with the fennel, the tuna takes on the green earthiness and a slightly herbal tone.

Florentine Mussels

As big as 2-3 shakers
Do I need to say more?  The pictures speak for themselves, do they not? Why else would have I have ordered three plates of mussels do you think?  Normally, I would not let anyone at the same table order the same dish:  We do the lazy susan and everyone rotates.  Dinner table is sacred:  You should not eat with people suspect of unsavory diseases or redolent of unsanitary oral hygiene).

Not a miniature turkey
But for Celeste's special true Florentine flown-from-Italy-this-morning-arriving-at-JFK-at-4PM mussels, I will order three; and if I had not started dinner early at home with one pound of fresh scallops sashimi (still working to finish off the real wasabi flown in from Japan), I would have ordered another for dessert.  These mussels are celestial (I had to use the word somewhere...); they are life-changing; they are simply nothing like anything you have ever had.  I had liked mussels before, but always considered them to be of the lower rank in the conchological world.  However, when there is trust between the restaurant and my stomach, I would be willing to bend my opinionated ears and heed advice.  And, so should you:  Get the mussels; and get at least two.  Then you can suffer from an acute overdose of purines later on.

Tagliatelle Bolognese

Up close and personal
In a city overflowed with Italian restaurants and with such a strong Italian tradition, the reason why there are so few good Italian restaurants escapes me.  Whenever I see the detestable word, "meatballs" on the menu, I would cross off the restaurant from my list.  Spaghetti with meatballs?  Did you see that during your last trip out to anywhere in Italy?  And Caesar salad?

A good bolognese, while freshly made pasta always helps, should embody Bologna, the city after which the dish is named - bold, earthy and meaty.  At Celeste, what you order is what you get:  It does not sound difficult, does it? And, it should not be difficult.  However, at many "New" American establishments, the food is so micromanaged and deconstructed and broken down to the molecular, Cs and Hs and Os, that you may be chewing on your alphabets rather than good solid ragu.  Celeste's bolognese is just such an antithesis - rich with the meat and tomato, pungent with a pile of shredded parmeggiano reggiano.  Chewing all that with the thick al dente home-made tagliattelle, there is really no reason to go anywhere else.

Address:  502 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY 10024
Phone:  (212) 874-4559

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