FORK PLAY January 11, 2010

Remembering Craig. Ai Fiori. Beauty & Essex. Chocolate Chicks.

Dear Friends and Family,

      I am deeply saddened that Craig Claiborne has been almost forgotten. He was Great God Craig to me
in the days when his Friday review in the Times was gospel and I would eagerly buy the paper Thursday night as one could in gaelcraigolden days. Checking the stars. Would we go? Could we afford it? Claiborne was our town's revered food power when James Beard was just a loveable cooking teacher and writer with no New York City outlet for his column. As Betty Fussell recently noted: "Thanks to Craig a nation of Puritans discovered food was a pleasure, and like sex, you could do it at home."

        So I was shocked when a certain snobby department store, an emporium for arrivistes, unveiled their foodie-themed windows in November. The first window featured "The Innovators" - James Beard, Julia, Thomas Keller, as steam emerging from a boiling pot. Thomas Keller hadn't scrambled an egg when Craig's passion for chili heat dared us to taste salsa, challenged me to brave the snobby Pearl's and order (from his review I carried with me) all the spicy, gingery, chile-detonated stir fries he loved.

        "Very spicy," the waiter warned as he took my order.

        "I like spicy. Give me Craig Claiborne spicy," I said. I dropped a chopstick load of Szechuan beef with bits of treeimage ear and lotus root into my mouth and gasped. Oh yes. It was spicy. The shrimp was a killer, too. I choked and sneezed and coughed, tears running down my face.

        "Something wrong, lady?" the maître d' asked.

        "No," I said, wiping my cheeks and my forehead. "It's wonderful. It's perfect."

        The parvenu carpetbagger Alain Ducasse appeared in the Christmas window - but no Craig. Craig, whose early laudatory profile put Ducasse's Louis XV on the map.

        "What could you have been thinking?" I asked the window dresser, a slight sprite of a man posing for the paparazzi in front of his oeuvre.

        "You can't blame me. I know nothing about food," he said. "I had to trust my advisors."

        I could only imagine the motivation of his advisors.

        In 1968 I was an early foodie - the word had not yet been invented. I was determined to meet Craig. I would get an assignment to write a profile for Look magazine. He seemed amused and invited me along on a reviewing lunch to see how he did it.

        We met in the Village at a funky little Spanish restaurant. Craig was fussy and proper and very Southern, just like he sounded in the Times, scolding the waiter in his soft, rolling drawl because the plates weren't warmed.

        I tried not to seem gauche. "Oh yes," I said, feeling the plate with the back of my hand as if it were a loved one's fevered brow. We were the only customers in this little joint. I am sure they had never heard of warming plates, but the waiter warmed them.

        I was deeply impressed by Craig's seriousness. He told me how he had suffered that week, agonizing over the stars he awarded - very rarely four, but sometimes three, many twos, and often one. "I was up all night, tossing and turning, trying to decide if I'd given the Gaiety Delicatessen three stars instead of two because Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb (his bosses) like the Gaiety. Or does the place deserve it?"

        Later, when Clay Felker recruited me as New York's Insatiable Critic, I insisted we follow all Craig's rules: anonymity, paying for everything, three visits minimum.

        We became close when I took a house for the summer down the road from his prefab. He cooked fried chicken for me, a quarter cup of black pepper went into the dish.

        "We have a lot in common," he said. "We both love men. But I like older men so we won't be competing."

        One evening, I called Craig to ask if my guy and I could have a swim in the pool before dinner. "I'm going southernout," he said, "but no problem. Come. Just swim. I'll be getting dressed." The two of us were naked at the far end of the pool, testing whether you could do it underwater, when Craig came out of the house.

        "I'm not looking," he said, setting a bottle of Dom Pérignon in a bucket of ice at the edge of the pool, along with two crystal flutes. He sent me half a dozen of those flutes from Baccarat to thank me for the Look story.

        It wasn't just Craig missing from that window. The pioneer innovator of the Quilted Giraffe, Barry Wine, was not there. I didn't find Larry Forgione or Anne Rozensweig or Elaine. Or me. I didn't stay around to count the rest. If Craig is in the Salon de Refusés, I guess it's an honor to join him.



        The best citrus hits the market right now. That's why Fork Play colors today are blood orange and pink grapefruit.


Michael White: How Does His Garden Grow?

        The calendar went awry for chef Michael White when the opening of his ambitious upscale Ai Fiori in the new Setai Hotel collided with the infancy of his raucous Morini in Nolita. The man is ravenous for empire. He was taking some heat for the prices at brand new Marea before it morinichefsettled down to become the 2009 restaurant of the year when he started talking about the cheap, casual, late night joint he would open downtown. Whipped by the din of eating orgiasts crowded close at old kitchen tables, my first visit to Morini was a disappointment. I left with my mouth burning from manically salted potatoes.

        Two weeks later, White seemed to have found the kitchen. My rustic soup of faro and beans with porcini and sage was thrilling and I loved the warm parmigiano custard with wild mushroom sauce and olive oil-streaked toast. Pastas that had been clumsily over-sauced in the kitchen while the chef greeted his fans that first night were now beautifully balanced, notably macaroni with pork sausage, tomato and black pepper. It wouldn't be the butter and lardo and salt that lobstermight keep me away, it was the noise.

        Ai Fiori is the antidote - if Morini is for tumult-seeking youth'uns. White's newest post is for grownups, elegant, judiciously lighted, serene. The slivered scallops and celery root lined up in a marrow bone with marrow and truffles is a new classic. What should you order? Click here.


Behind the Pawn Shop

       Beauty & Essex, launched by the powers behind The Stanton Social, burst into life on the cusp of Christmas, and though it had not yet been claimed by nocturnal tall women and the pride of cats who attend them, it was still impossible to snare a table at an hour when adults eat. So, in a Me, Eloise foot-stamping mode, I was forced to call chef-partner Chris Santos, whose small tasting plates I've loved.

        Santos had bought the old Katz & Sons furniture store on Essex Street, big enough for 300 seats on three floors essexshrimpwith two bars and a lounge in its 10,000 square feet. Frankly, it didn't sound like he was planning anything meant to please me. But still ... I liked his attitude ... and that food.

        We walked in to 146 Essex as directed and found ourselves in a pawn shop. Alas, nothing was for least for now. Then the door opened and we walked into a funky, whimsical elegance of Beauty - a jewel box. Is this spot for you? Click here and see what we ate.


Chicks Loving Chocolate

        It began with a note from a publicist working for "2 Chicks with Chocolate," named a Top 10 Chocolatier in America by Dessert Professionals Magazine, for their artisanal bonbons by pastry chef Patrick Costen, formerly of Ilo, now a restaurant consultant. The soliciting flack suggested the Chicks were Willy Wonka meets Build-a-Bear meets Sex in the City but that didn't put me off. Send a box of chocolates, I wrote.

        I tasted slowly, three a day for maximum impact. Green Spotted Teardrop of Pistachio. Red Peak of Spiced Ganache. Silver Spotted Square of Earl Grey Caramel. Gold Lined Square of Brown Butter. Yellow Spotted Square of Blood Orange Caramel. A dozen in all, handsomely boxed, absolutely delicious.

        I'm not easy. I toss out unsolicited goodies all the time. But I would buy these chocolates at retail. Find them at Macy's in The Cellar, $24.95, or on the 2 Chicks website.



Photographs of Michael White at Morini, Ai Fiori's lobster, and the grilled shrimp and cocktail from Beauty & Essex may not be used without permission from Steven Richter.

Photograph of Craig and Pierre Franey may not be used without permission from Dan Wynn estate.
               Fork Play copyright Gael Greene 2011.