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FORKPLAY November 13, 2013

It Is What It Is. Contra Dazzle. Bilboquet Shuffle. Daniel's Guide Culinaire. Etsy Treasures.  


Dear Friends and Family,


       "It is what it is." I hear people saying that all the time. Some people seem to say it often, an acceptance of some unappealing reality, their acquiescence to the idea that the odds are on the other side. I find the phrase strangely disturbing. I stopped a young friend who leans on that line. "Why do you say that? Why don't you say, 'It's not right? It's unfair? It's outrageous? I won't accept it? I will organize my friends to protest? I'll expose the practice on Eater? I'll beat that bitch at her own game?'"


       I think I singed her with my intensity. She agreed to try to avoid the phrase. "Gael doesn't want me to say 'It is what it is' anymore," she said to someone we were with who had just uttered the phrase.


       "Oh, go ahead." I bowed out with a sigh. "Say it if you must."


       Maybe people who think disappointments and rejections and no reservations between 7 and 8:30 "is what it is" are healthier than I am. Surely they stress less. They don't get distracted and lose sight of the serious goal because they're not so busy tilting windmills, straightening people out, reporting the fools and nogoodniks to the authorities. Am I frittering away my energy and time? Am I using my anger or is it abusing me?


       It's true, I am falling behind in my work. I am surrounded by piles of clippings and letters I mean to write and books I want to at least look at and maybe one I would write if I could find the time. And then there is the infernal clutter I must shed. Still, even though I often can't accept "it is what it is," even though I suspect that might be good for me -- I sleep very well with my illusions.




I wanted our colors this week to be broccoli and frost berry in honor of a surprising meal on Orchard Street (see below), even though FORKPLAY might look at first glance prematurely Christmasy.




Contra Is Indicated


       Big, dark brown rolls arrive, already broken into halves...not very attractively, "brushed with lard," and alongside "just everyday butter," the waiter responds when we ask. The crusty warm bread is unusual, seriously seductive. Good bread always gives one hope. These mostly whole wheat rounds signal more than mere hope.


       I definitely think I've found something major. I'm excited. I've only had one dinner at Contra -- their five-course $55 chefs' tasting. That's all they do. But for me: many gasps, deep sighs, cries of "amazing." In 45 years for me now as a restaurant critic, good is often good. Glorious is not that often. It's like finding an oil well in your backyard, or a diamond worthy of Elizabeth Taylor in your late grandma's handkerchief box.


       How startling that it would be in this modest little storefront on Orchard Street. Chefs I never heard of, one just 23 years old (okay, with Noma in his resume). The menu half-accommodating, half-challenging - kohlrabi, monkfish, beef, quince and beets. As one of the partners himself has observed, "The meal, like the space, is kind of spare." Click here to read more, then rush to reserve.138 Orchard Street between Delancey and Rivington. 212 466 4633.




Le Bilboquet Shuffle


       Le Bilboquet lost its lease after 27 years on East 23rd Street and recently emerged three blocks south with three times as many seats to fill and its bullying rudeness in tact.


       I can't say I was eager to try Le Bilboquet. I am an Upper West Sider. I am sure it shows. Look closely and you can see I'm missing a snap on my coat. I'm blonde, but not that blonde. And I do my own nails. Never mind thin, we won't discuss that. I knew the original Bilboquet as a cramped little sardine can catering to the Upper East social set, whatever that is. I shouldn't be so snobby. I'm sure they are mostly sincere and do good works.


       I suspect some are actually embarrassed to watch Philippe or his team freeze someone at the door with a cry of, "We have no table for you." All the while these same faithful habitués can be grateful that someone has the guff to keep the riff raff out.


       But my longtime pal, Karine Bakhoum, is wrangling the press for Le Bilbo and she wants me to taste. She should know better, but I suspect she is totally mesmerized by the arrival of Chef Julian Jouhannaud, a toque with cred from his Ducasse days to upgrade the menu. Not that the basic menu inevitables can change. No no no. Le Bilboquet regulars might not appreciate too much change. What do you eat? Do you dare confront the ogres? Click here to read more and decide. 20 East 60th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. 212 751 3036.




Daniel's Big Book


       I would never call Daniel Boulud the Joyce Carol Oates of the kitchen though he has published several cookbooks. But lift this new one, "Daniel: My French Cuisine" (Grand Central L&S $60), and you know you are holding a significant opus. This is his Codex, his Guide Culinaire. And it's gorgeous. Thomas Schauer's photographs elevate food porn to something like pure lust. Yet it's intimate too, up-close Daniel.


       The chef, working with writer Sylvie Bigar, set out to celebrate the 20th year of Restaurant Daniel. (Click here to read my February 26, 1999 BITE, "Double Your Pleasure.") But with his characteristic generosity and enthusiasm, his remarkable exuberance, the concept souffled. He stops to touch on his journey from family farm poverty to apprenticeship at Lyon's Chez Nandron, through growth in France's great three star kitchens, and then Westbury Hotel's Polo in New York and Le Regence, to his stature among chefs and his closeness with Paul Bocuse (who has written a loving letter of testimony here).


       You may never have the time to cook the recipes of Restaurant Daniel, although you might try the Nantucket scallop ceviche (minus one or more complicated enhancements). And unless you are a just-hatched foodie determined to master the grunt-and-groan classics, you will want only to read and observe Bill Buford's chronicle of the "Iconic Sessions": his eighteen days with Daniel's master team, cooking over a dozen "elaborate, technically flamboyant, and historically evocative French dishes." Don't I wish I'd been watching from the chef's glass sky box!


       And then there is a coda offering, the section on Lyonnaise memories Daniel cooks at home for his friends. You might more easily set yourself the task of somehow becoming one of those friends before you get out your stock pots to attempt his memory of the Gâteaux de foies blonds, he (and all of us foodies before there was such a word) ate at Alain Chapel. But never mind.


       This is the book you will be buying for gourmands and foodie hopefuls for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza. You will be seeing it decorating coffee tables in homes where the canapés may have come from Épicerie Boulud or even Zabar's.




Etsy Treasures


       Vintage bag collectors continue to surprise me with their purchases from my collection on sale at Etsy. I am amazed no one has snatched up the fabulous snake clutch or the charming little wooden beaded bag or the Anne Turk shoulder bag I wore crossed over my body all those nights after dinner during the disco days. (I used to tuck a lacy black satin teddy into my coat pocket, in case I didn't find my way home at night. No choice, bags were so small.)


       But that's okay. I was a little sad when I took them down from my walls and out of my drawers long forgotten in their tissue wrap, but now I'm enjoying the idea that the treasures of my incurable collecting are being loved by someone else.  


       It's like boyfriends or husbands, only not quite so. So, check out Etsy now and make me an offer.  


Photographs of Contra's wagyu skirt steak and monkfish and Le Bilboquet's foie gras and mussels may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.