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

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

Friday, October 29, 2010

Lucien - October 16, 2010

Le Lapin A La Moutarde
A few years ago, I was told by a French expat that he had simply given up on French restaurants, high or low, in New York in place for his girlfriend (now wife)'s amateur cooking.  I had already had a deep suspicion that the standard of French food in New York was mediocre but if her decent one-dish, simple cooking, produced after following a Le Cordon Bleu cookbook for three mysterious hours, was superior, then the standard, or the lack thereof, might have hit a new low.  The Daniel empire, while the best among the overrated and overcrowded culinary frontier that is New York, has been consistent in being superior to its peers; and yet, when you consider what "peers" are consisted of, the compliment becomes somewhat limited.  In any event, my tireless search for my Le Paul Bert in New York landed me in the Lower East Side on a cold, gray afternoon.  While I do not subscribe to the automatic skepticism that the French do not know how to cook pasta, it was indeed disheartening to find that the top item on Lucien's menu, proudly described as the "Traditional Lucien Dish," was nothing other than spaghetti alle vongole.     

Lapin á la Moutarde
Carefully averting my eyes from the spaghetti on the menu, my eyes were instantly caught by the rabbit:  Now, there was a meat that was under-consumed in the U.S.A. (along with the ostrich and the alligator).  Tender, lean but somewhat neutral in taste (no, chicken does taste like chicken), rabbits are perfect for the heavy mustard sauce - no wonder the French had it figured out a long time ago.  In this classic bistro dish, the pungency of the mustard is creamed to a velvety sauce, and the rich sauce wraps around the tender rabbit like a blanket.  Arriving slightly later than its brethrens (a miscalculation in the kitchen?), Lucien's Lapin á la Moutarde was almost all that you could ask for in a Lapin á la Moutarde, almost because one of the rabbit meat, the breast, was sadly dry.  While slathering on the sauce does mask the dryness, Lucien and I had not got close enough so that I would feel necessary to bury the truth in the mustard sauce, for in that sauce you could bury a lot of woes as it was superlatively creamy, rich and tangy.  The lapin leg swimming in the sauce was a joy.  And, the flat egg noodles? Perfectly al dente - maybe the spaghetti alle vongole would not have been bad - and covered in that creamy yellow sauce, they were mesmerizingly delicious.  A moment of gastronomic arcadia.  Just mind the breast the next time.

Crème Brulée
I stopped ordering crème brulée a while ago when every restaurant seemed eager to put it on the menu as if they needed to prove their sophistication yet without the skill to polish it off.  After many overly sugary and undercooked - it is supposed to be soft, but cooked so it is not runny or congealed into lumps like overcooked potage - copies, I have simply given up.  This night, it was not ordered by choice but by necessity as we were ordering all the items on their dessert menu. This, however, turned out to be the best crème brulée I have had in years (I order crème caramel, a more of bistro dessert in my opinion whenever and wherever I find it, which is a rare occurrence).  The candied surface was just the right thinness so that it required no sledge hummer and caramelized sufficiently to lose the sugariness and had matured into a bitter-sweet shell, hiding beneath, a silky, creamy delicacy that were held together only long enough to be transported to your mouth.

From here on, in the order of "better-than-expected" to "ordinary" to "passable" to "surprisingly un-French."

Loup de Mer Chilien avec Julienne de Légumes
Despite its apparent plainness compared to other offerings on the menu, this dish caught me off guard by its well execution - delicate flesh cooked to perfect flakiness and yet with all the moist tenderness intact while the julienned vegetables provided the necessary texture as a contrast to the fish.  Furthermore, although simply seasoned, the vegetables served adequately as a sauce, not overwhelming the delicacy of the Chilean sea bass but adding on a subtle layer of flavor.  One up for Lucien. 

Onglet au Vin et Champignons
This dish garnered a place above the short ribs for one thing only - the accompaniment of a lovingly diced tiny vegetable salad.  They vegetables were a happy surprise, light and yet with a burst of flavor.  While the side character stole the lime light, the main actor, an ordinary piece of meat leaning on the stringy side, sat amidst the forgettable and forgotten mushroom sauce. 

Braised Short Ribs (Spicy)
The special of the day was special, used in the sense that it was unique. It was unique for its spiciness:  After all, I had never had spicy short ribs in a French restaurant, have you?  While people most often rave out the tenderness and the falling-off-the-boneness of short ribs, braised or stewed, as if it is some kind of a divine virtue, such qualities are only the very basics, like alphabets.  Any short ribs with some liquid or marinade stuck in an oven for four hours can score those easy brownie points even if the cook is thoroughly inept in the art of cooking.  A dish is judged by two components:  The flavor and the texture.  However, the guidepost for stewed/braised meat should focus on the flavor as it is the determinant of a cook's skill since the texture is easy to achieve (but you complain of having had tough short ribs? Well, those "chefs" are not qualified to be even discussed then).  True, it is not hard to season adequately in the long four to five hours whether you are doing it on the stovetop or in an oven (trust me, oven is better for the even distribution of heat, and you know what, the bottom does not get burned) - More than sufficient opportunities for the tasting/testing spoon.  Nonetheless, if seasoning were such an easy job, then many chefs will be out of business.  Here, the primary color and flavor was tomato - spicy tomato - and that was all there was.  Although it did not lack any salt or pepper, the dish lacked any layers of flavors:  No garlic, no onion, no thyme; just an overabundance of tomatoes.

Crab Cake
To be quite honest and fair, I have never quite understood the benefit - should it be plural? but, is there more than one benefit? - of a crab cake, that is to say, except that you do not need to dirty your hands and still get to eat crabs. However, with all the additives - let's start with the bread crumbs, I feel I am being cheated out my crab.  Therefore, Lucien's crab cake, filled with lumps of crab meat and tasted of crab meat, should have been more satisfactory than most.  It was. But, that was the extent of it - more satisfactory than most.  Furthermore, while the red pepper sauce was not adequately prepared, I also miss the synergy between red pepper and crab.

Foie Gras Maison 
Why has the U.S. banned importation of French foie gras?  The substandard sanitation, was it, or the inhuman treatment?  Stop being such hypocrites:  Apparently, the Americans love foie gras and it is on every menu at every restaurant where it wants to present a whiff of "fanciness" or merely to show that it has not been excluded from the distribution channel of Hudson Valley.  As long as there is a ban on importation, we have to suffer this kind of mediocre product where there is only fat and no taste.  There was nothing wrong with the way Lucien prepared it - well seared - but it was a problem with the quality.  Foie gras is not all about fat, please.

Salade d'Endives et Roquefort
Uninterestingly composed by merely laying out the ingredients on the plate, this classic salad looked forlorn, as if apologizing for not being able to give me its very best.  And sorry it should have been as it was not the best or the second best endive salad:  The dressing lacked any flavor to bind all the components together; therefore, each walnut, endive and blue cheese went their separate ways.

Tart Tatin with Cinnamon Ice Cream
Lucien, you should be ashamed of yourself.  Do I really need to educate a French restaurant what a tart tatin is and how it is prepared?  I think I will save my breath, except I must say:  A tart tatin is not an apple pie.  It needs to be caramelized, and the apples are not sliced so they can be all mushy together, not to mention that it is prepared upside down.  I think I have said it all after all.

Gateau au Chocolate with Vanilla Ice Cream
Again, Lucien, you should be ashamed of yourself.  This was supposed to be opera (the chocolate cake on Lucien's website was not what we got) - the signature Dalloyau pastry. Perhaps it was:  It was so dry that it might have been shipped from Paris (and not flown).

Salmon Tartare
As embarrassing as it is for someone who prides oneself with the ability of total recall when it comes to food, I do not remember very much about this dish.  What I do remember, however, was a sense of sheer indifference toward the tartare.  So many restaurants, French, Italian, American, Mexican, Japanese, you name it, have got tartare on their menu.  Somehow, the idea that raw food is healthy, which is to a very large extent, has been overtaxed in recent years, probably also fueled by the sushi craze.  Here is a tip:  Some restaurants, or a lot of restaurants, use the cheapest meat/fish available to make tartare since it is chopped up, the customers will not know where the scrap of meat/fish has come from, or worse, due to the seasoning of caper, acid, salt and pepper and onions, it is hard to distinguish the quality or the freshness of the fish even for a discernible palate.  Let's think for a moment of the close cousin of tartare:  The spicy tuna roll.  Most commonly popular and widely available, where do you think the tuna comes from? Or let me put it this way, do you think that there is that much of quality tuna flowing around in the ocean?  No.  Very often, the tuna used in spicy tuna rolls is the worse grade of tuna - diseased and wormed and undesirable from various unsavory reasons.  Some food for thought next time you order one of those rolls, no? 

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