Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Miscellaneous Food: New York - Babbo and North Fork, Long Island

I was last in New York a couple of years ago, and not much has changed since then. Everyone still walks around with a cup of coffee in their hands, or a dog on a leash. Everyone is still always going somewhere, and has something to say to a complete stranger.

Of course, much has changed with me in the four years or so since I was last in the Big Apple, and, over the course of this trip, the seeds of further change would be sown, but more on that later.

I was keen to visit some of my previous haunts, and as I was staying downtown at West 3rd and Mercer, Mario Batali’s Babbo wasn’t far. Unlike my last visit, this time I was seated downstairs, which is rather dark and cloistered. Diners have to sit on the same side of the table, which makes for slightly awkward conversation.

The chickpea bruschetta which I had the last time is still the complimentary appetiser that greets diners at the start of their meal. Unfortunately, after four years, I still haven’t learnt to appreciate them. I find that they fill you up too quickly compared to tomatoes, leaving less space to enjoy the bigger dishes.

Such as the beautiful grilled quail with shaved fennel and lardo, which was wonderfully smokey and meaty. I always feel like quail is an underutilised meat, like rabbit, which is unfortunate given how tasty it is.

The linguine with clams and hot chillies was perhaps overly salted, although the chillies lent a great piquancy and liveliness to the dish and the clams were extremely fresh. It has always puzzled me why, despite the fact that Singapore is an island at the centre of a number of trade routes, we so rarely have fresh seafood.

Much like quail, it isn’t easy to find octopus on a menu, and I can think of no better way to enjoy it than char-grilled, served with mushrooms and chianti vinegar. The octopus tentacles were scorched, and tasted as meaty as the mushrooms they were served with, while the vinegar helped to cut through some of the char.

S ordered the pistachio and chocolate semifreddo. Drizzled over with chocolate sauce, and infused with a mild nutty taste from the pistachios, this creamy dessert was delicious.

It’s difficult to resist panna cotta at an Italian restaurant, especially when it’s a saffron panna cotta with rhubarb marmellata and rhubarb sorbetto. This petite mound was the perfect combination of cream and gelatine, and it wobbled lusciously at the push of a fork. The rhubarb accompaniments had been cooked in syrup, but were not cloyingly sweet, and still retained their natural tartness.

Babbo was a great way to kick off my New York adventure (and what an adventure it would prove to be), with smart, sophisticated, up to date Italian cuisine. The menu is full of inventive pastas (think calf’s brain), as well as more traditional stalwarts (calamari and grilled lamb chops), which will appeal to all possible tastes and appetites. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.

110 Waverly Place, New York City, NY 10011
Tel: +1 (212) 777 0303

As I had a fairly long time in New York, S and I decided to rent a car and to take a weekend roadtrip out of town. I had seen some gorgeous photos of the North Fork of Long Island, and was intrigued by the fact that it appeared to have a thriving community of vintners and winemakers. Additionally, the village of Greenport’s charming, idyllic lifestyle was irresistibly 1950s, with old-fashioned bed-and-breakfasts and ice cream parlours, meaning that it was the perfect destination for a carefree weekend. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that North Fork also has some of the best restaurants outside of the city.

Although we got slightly lost along the way, when we pulled up in Greenport, it was easy to see why it’s becoming an increasingly popular tourist spot. Strolling down Main Street, USA, on a breezy autumn afternoon, with the sun in your eyes and nothing in particular to do, the sedate, relaxed pace of life easily lulls you into a vacation frame of mind.

Our first stop in Greenport was Noah’s, a casual, streetfront restaurant that is unpretentious, welcoming and fresh. Noah’s lunch menu consists mostly of tapas-sized dishes, a raw bar, as well as a handful of full-sized main courses. Being a port town, most of the restaurants in Greenport serve similar seafood dishes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when they’re as amazing as the local calamari fritto misto served with fennel, lemon, green beans and lemon aioli. Firm, fresh, and coated with a light, crispy batter, the calamari was absolutely fantastic. What’s more, despite being labelled a “small plate”, the serving size is so generous that it would probably have been a main course in and of itself.

I found Didi’s spicy french fries to be less enjoyable, however. They were indeed quite spicy, but apart from that, they were not particularly interesting, and filled us up unnecessarily.

The Crescent Farm Pulled Duck BBQ, on the other hand, featured slow-cooked duck, torn apart into rough slivers, slathered in a rich, tangy (though slightly sugary) sauce with a slightly Asian flavour thanks to the chopped scallions. It’s a shame there wasn’t more pulled duck, as it paired very nicely with the smooth, creamy bed of mashed potatoes.

Our last dish was a generous bowl of steamed mussels in a romesco broth, with preserved lemons and chorizo. Robust, full-bodied, the broth was intensely savoury, with the chorizo imparting a throaty heat that enlivened the already tasty, briny mussels.  

136 Front Street
Greenport, NY 11944
Tel: +1 (631) 477 6720

S and I were so full after that meal that we didn’t have space for dessert; instead, we decided to take a walk through the beautiful town of Greenport. 

Greenport’s history as a fishing and whaling village still shows through, with neighbourhood shops selling nautical curios and paraphernalia, and a beautiful pier that stretches out into the water and the horizon.

Greenport lies at the end of a road that winds through a number of agricultural plots, most notably the vineyards, but also a number of fruit and vegetable farms, many of which offer visitors the chance to “pick your own”.

As my visit coincided with Hallowe’en, Krupski’s Pumpkin Farm seemed a logical option. It was slightly surreal to see pumpkins strewn haphazardly over the grounds, but it was fun to walk around and watch kids screaming excitedly as families chose that special pumpkin they’d be bringing home to carve to greet trick or treaters.

Krupski's Vegetable and Pumpkin Farm
38030 Peconic, NY 11958
Tel: +1 (631) 734 6847

Dinner that evening was at The Frisky Oyster, which unfortunately had dimmed the lighting, making photography virtually impossible. The menu at the restaurant was well-balanced: while seafood understandably featured, it didn’t receive excessive attention. Baby beet salad, braised pork belly, pan-roasted free range chicken – nothing that would be out of place in any high-end restaurant in any thriving cosmopolitan community, except this was Greenport.

We were still full from lunch at Noah’s, so S and I decided to only have main courses of lobster garganelli with arugula and lemon vodka cream sauce as well as duck breast with sweet potato and pear puree, swiss chard and cranberry demi-glace respectively, both of which were well-executed and extremely satisfying.

The Frisky Oyster does not open for lunch, and as a result it tends to be rather crowded during dinner. With a full complement of thoughtful and well-cooked dishes, it’s hardly surprising.

The Frisky Oyster
27 Front Street
Greenport, NY 11944
Tel: +1 (631) 477 4265

The next day was a beautiful one, as the sun was out and the weather was fine. The whole morning was suffused in hope and bathed in warmth, and we found it hard to believe the news reports that a dangerous superstorm was bearing down upon New York.

Apparently, the lady manning the front of house at the North Fork Oyster Co was similarly sceptical, for she informed us as she was pouring our drinks that she didn’t think anything would come of the storm, and that there was no need for her to leave Greenport, despite her daughter’s warnings. We were not as sanguine, as we have already made plans to return to New York City early the next day to stock up on groceries and water. As things turned out, parts of Greenport were flooded by Hurricane Sandy, and we hope that the North Fork Oyster Co was not too badly affected.

As the restaurant’s name suggests, seafood tends to predominate on the menu, although it is also possible to order some other meat dishes. I’d had a fairly filling breakfast, and as we were due to visit one of Greenport’s premier wineries after lunch, S and I decided to share some local seafood. The steamed Calendar Island mussels were served simply and classically with roasted garlic, herbs and white wine, allowing the natural freshness of the clams to shine through. The dish was, however, slightly marred by the fact that the clams were still somewhat gritty.

The NFOC Fisherman’s Stew, however, was phenomenal. The best test of a chef’s skill is whether the simplest and humblest dishes can be transformed into something sublime, and that was clearly the case with this dish.

The stew base was simply bursting with flavour: garlic, tomatoes, prawn and vegetable oils all coming together in a glorious celebration of the day’s catch. The mussels we’d sampled already, but the littleneck clams were sweet and delicious, and the prawns were plump, succulent and crunchy. Small cubes of Yukon gold potatoes had also been added to the stew, and these were perfectly-cooked, having absorbed the tasty stew without losing any of their firmness.

It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have enough time in Greenport to sample some of the other interesting dishes that we saw on the menus at the various restaurants in town, and I can see why North Fork attracts weekenders and out-of-towners on such a regular basis. I, for one, would return unhesitatingly for another helping of the NFOC Fisherman’s Stew.

There are close to 50 wineries in Long Island, with many of them family-owned and sustainably farmed. Surprisingly, the wineries and vineyards in Long Island are not necessarily smaller than those in Napa Valley: Bedell Cellars, for instance, owns three vineyards totalling almost 80 acres of land, divided between three vineyards – Bedell, Wells Road and Corey Creek. All the wineries in North Fork are likely to be swamped over the weekend, and the trick is to find one which is sufficiently spacious and well-run so that still maintains its class and appeal despite the hoards.

Located just a short drive away from Greenport in Cutchogue, the winery at Bedell Cellars is a beautiful white building that overlooks the vineyards, with its main tasting room located in a large and charming open-air barnhouse that features an upper mezzanine that is cosy and intimate.

As the weather was so fine, though, S and I sat on the terrace, which offered a sweeping view of the lush, verdant vineyard and the wide expanse of fertile land that made Long Island so irresistible to early settlers.

Tasting a flight of six wines reminded me of my days in the UK as a member of the university’s wine club, and as I felt the wine going to my head, it occurred to me that it’s been some time since I’ve been in university. Many of the wines we tasted consisted of two or more blends, which I have mixed feelings about; and I only really appreciated one or two of the vintages. Still, it was a fabulous way to spend half an afternoon, and while we were tempted to visit another winery, it was probably best not to drink and drive.

Bedell Cellars
36225 Main Road
Cutchogue, NY 11935
Tel: +1 (631) 734 7537

One of the most highly-acclaimed restaurants in New York, if not the country, is North Fork Table and Inn, which serves sophisticated, progressive American cuisine with seasonal local and organic produce. The restaurant offers a great three-course, prix fixe menu at US$75, with a strong emphasis foods sourced from agricultural and fishing communities from the East End, such as Peconic Bay fluke and organic Scottish salmon.  

Dinner began with a little taster of Serrano ham and goat’s cheese atop a lightly-toasted crostini that was crispy, fragrant, salty and umami all at once.

Both S and I opted for the Thai-inspired lobster and carrot soup with local baby carrots, lobster dumpling and cilantro. “Thai-inspired” evidently meant “Tom Yam”, as the carrot soup was quite spicy. Slightly thick, the soup was delectably sweet, with a generous helping of lobster, enveloped in a thin, delicate dumpling skin. Although I’m not normally a fan of spicy soups, after the initial dance of fire across the palate, the tingle gives way to a soothing heat that warms the throat and makes it difficult to put your spoon down.

My order of roasted Berkshire pork loin with thyme-scented cabbage, caraway spaetzle and mustard jus was unfortunately somewhat disappointing. The pork, although cooked pink, was a little dry and tough, while the large hunk of roast pork belly which should have been crispy and crackling was instead limp and slightly sodden.

S’s Montauk sea scallops a la plancha, on the other hand, served with Nicoise olives, lemon thyme braised lobster mushrooms, saffron aioli and roasted tomato juice, on the other hand, was not merely a joy to look at, but was also an explosion of flavours. The scallops were seared perfectly, and paired with tastes and textures designed to complement and accentuate, rather than compete and overpower.

Dinner ended on a delightfully sweet note with a chocolate caramel tart, milk chocolate mousse and caramel ice cream, as well as a sorbet sampler featuring coconut, passion fruit, raspberry and pear sorbets. With the dessert kitchen being helmed by the former pastry chef of Gramercy Tavern and winner of the James Beard Award for Pastry Chef of the Year in 2000, you can be sure that every dessert on the menu will be something to remember.

North Fork Table and Inn
57225 Main Road
Southold, NY 11971
Tel: +1 (631) 765 0177

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