FORKPLAY October 2, 2008

Pinching Pennies. Convivio. Landmark Restaurants. Grande Bouffe. Vintage Chanterelle.

Dear Friends and Family,

      This morning as I did my bicep curls and rotator cuff rows, my trainer wanted to talk money. "My raos merlotcorporate clients will be laying trainers off," she said.  "I have seniority and make the most money so I'll probably go first." She lives on what she earns and can't afford a cutback.

       She talked about giving up her favorite muffins. She has two a day.  "That's $14 a week," she observed. "I could give up Whole Foods and organic, too.  I could probably give up my latte. I think I could live for two weeks on just what I have in my freezer right now - I have salmon patties and turkey patties and chicken breasts - I'd only need to buy perishables like lettuce and tomatoes.  I'm going to try it."

      My friend Vicki says she buys everything with bills and never uses change.  Every night she collects her's and her husband's coins, wraps them in paper tubes, and at the end of the month, deposits them in a savings account.  "It really adds up."  My assistant, who eats out every night just like I do, takes a $3.99 bottle of red from Trader Joe's and, even paying a $20 corkage fee, saves money.

      What could you give up to get your retirement nest egg back? Please email me your ideas for saving on food and drink.

       I've started tucking napkins into my blouse at dinner to cut down on cleaning bills.  Like my friend Karine, I could do all my non-working dinners in neighborhood restaurants and avoid taxis. She says she's started cooking on the weekends so she can eat from the fridge on nights she's home.

       "Tonight I'm cooking pasta Bolognese with sausage and ground meat I had in the freezer," she wrote.

      My friend Naomi has felt some hits in her portfolio but doesn't really need to save.  Not that she couldn't if challenged. "I would give up buying cheese from Dean & Deluca and Eli, which is even more expensive, and buy it at Citarella. And instead of lamb chops at $29 a pound, I'd do more slow food. If you braise a lamb shoulder with lots of vegetables, it's better for you and could last two or three days. I could give up smoked salmon," she said thoughtfully.  "I like it a lot but if I didn't have another piece, I wouldn't care.  I could give up aluminum foil, paper towels and garbage bags. The way I use towels, that would be a considerable saving."  She realizes that every time she and her husband drink a 1961 Haut Brion from the cellar, it's probably worth $3000 a bottle today, "But he paid about $10 when he bought it."

       Every woman I asked made a point of confessing the one thing she would never give up was the hairdresser.

The Earnestness of Being Important

      Bloggers from the thoughtful Frank Bruni at the to the rash and dart-throwing great unwashed as well as the suitably reverent have had their say about myraos merlot list of the Most Important Restaurants in the Last 40 Years in New York's weighty 40th Anniversary. Quick as I could, I posted my own uncut version - a slightly longer list with all the reasons I chose them.  I could have listed Le Pavillon but it was of no importance at all after Henri Soulé died. Perhaps the Coach House deserved a mention for its marvelous American food. I decided not to do restaurants that were important before I became the Insatiable Critic in 1968. I didn't include a steak house.  I might have named The Palm or Peter Luger's (which was always its own unique landmark until dozens of imitations started popping up).  I could have given Alan Stillman credit for the mating-bar format at Thank God It's Friday, followed by Thursdays and Wednesdays (eight months before Maxwell's Plum). "21" remains a landmark today, long after its power faded.

       Chanterelle deserved a mention in there somewhere - for being a glowing beacon on Grand Street in the desolation of grim SoHo and, also, for surviving.  Want to know what I was thinking? Click here.


 How They Ate in Pompei

      New York also asked me to name the best meal I'd eaten in my 40 years reviewing restaurants for this special issue. Riffling through memories of the 18,816 (give or take raos merlota few hundred) meals I've eaten since 1968 for love, money, hunger or just because it happened to be dinnertime- I couldn't do it. I recalled the pageantry of my first sushi, lunch at Takezushi, experienced as if it were an Anvil Chorus in my mouth. My first tasting of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's revolutionary bravura at Lafayette in the now defunct Swissôtel that left me limp with exhilaration. I imagined I could still taste the layered flavors and fiery dynamite of silken oxtail, venison, squab, and rabbit in Uncle Tai's glorious defiance of Chinese restaurant cliché. And I savored memories of the "Dinner of the Century," created by Paul Bocuse at the Four Seasons on his Beaujolais-hustling first visit to America, planting the seed that would bloom into a beanstalk of celebrity chefs.

      That's how I came to write:  "But for cuisinary highs and giggles, for memories of wearing floor length velvet and feeling like Catherine, Empress of all the Russias, I will tell about the preposterous and preposterously delightful Palace." For reveries on excess at the Palace, click here.


Three Stars for Convivio

      Convivio was jumping Tuesday night.  "I guess restaurants haven't started feeling the pain," said our friend and host who, alas, was sounding bruised himself.  It was reassuring to see the lively gathering - all ages, all zipraos merlot codes - in Vincente Wolf's gleaming room with its reflecting high shine. I liked it better on second exposure even though it doesn't make much effort to absorb the din. 

      And from Michael White's menu that changes "daily," as co-owner Chris Cannon was quick to point out, we loved small dishes of sfizi (chicetti in their Campanian name). Radishes to dip into anchovy cream. Spicy chunks of salami.  Marvelous arancini-oozing saffron cheese. And marinated castelvetrano olives.  Why are these olives uniquely delicious?  I can't even guess.

      Probably not everyone would be as happy as I with the bitter, chewy escarole in my salad bowl with bits of peppers, salami, and provolone chunks. But it struck me as a sane prologue to the pasta I had as a main course:  wildly rich fusilli with Neapolitan pork shoulder ragu and an effluvial topping of melted cacciocavallo cheese.  Steven's stracci, rags of pasta with oxtail and pecorino, was less thrilling, but my banquette mate's grilled fish with lemon and more of those amazing olives was the most delicious chunk of branzino I can remember, almost sweet in its exquisite freshness, and perfectly cooked.

      It was no surprise after other early raves, Adam Platt's as well as my own, to see Bruni's three stars in the Times Wednesday morning. And even people who have to give up the chauffeur can always afford dinner. Convivio was already a full house before Bruni's call.  I guess we'll be competing for tables here in this unreal edge of Manhattan.


Vintage Chanterelle

      Just another cookbook, I sometimes think, as one after the other more or less useful or stirring tomes by star chefs and unstarry chefs arrive.  But I am impressed by the unusual ambition and expense gone to by Taunton Press for Chanterelle by Chef David Waltuck and Andrew Friedman (Out October 14).  It looks serious and proper and very elegant, just as the restaurant did when I first fell in love with it and wrote my New York review, "The Daring Young Man on Grand Street."

      "It's like a mirage - a stage set - a teasing dream," I wrote. "Black streets desolate and littered against the shadowy cast-iron facades on the outer edge of SoHo. Suddenly, a cube of light: a tall storefront magnetically aglow. On the door is written Chanterelle. Inside, a studied elegance. Soaring columns and wooden wainscoting, a blizzard of white linen against gray carpet, a great fan of raos merlotstately flowers, birds of paradise. A stylish Sally Bowles gets up from a handsome writing desk to greet you, and hangs your wrap in a tall carved armoire.

      "If you did not already suspect a serious drama about to unfold (big balloon glasses, splendid bread, a ramekin of sweet butter are all cues), the menu would confirm it. Drawing by Marisol. On the right is the $30 seven-course dinner. For feebler appetites, the à la carte is on the left. Chef David Waltuck is 24, and he is in love with the mythic Fernand Point's fabled Pyramide. The Pyramide, its three stars tarnished, is not as brilliant as it was, and David Waltuck is not yet as brilliant as he intends to be. But when he is good, Chanterelle is astonishing." For more of my first review click here.

      In his tribute on the flyleaf, Thomas Keller speaks of "David's cuisine that evokes our roots, as chefs, in French tradition."  This is one for incurable cookbook collectors.


Photo of chef Michael White and customer at Convivio may not be used without permission from Steven Richter.
Fork Play copyright Gael Greene 2008.