By: Diane Weintraub Pohl
As an inveterate carnivore, I was skeptical about what I’d find researching, and sampling for, this article. What I found were flavors, combinations and creativity that left me vacillating between impressed and elated, and always wishing there were seconds. I still love you, pork belly and rack of lamb, but you definitely have some serious competition. Ergo:
Warm Beets and Goat Cheese in Fig Balsamic Glaze, Mint
Roasted Beet and goat cheese salad–everyone makes it, right? Perhaps, but not like Hassan Jarane. The chef/owner at the recently relocated Mint finishes his roasted beets with a splash of muscatel vinegar, then crumbles on his goat cheese for a soft, tangy cloak. And it’s no typical chevre either, this one comes swathed in cinnamon-rubbed dried cranberries. There’s a finishing fig-balsamic glaze, a hail of honey-roasted peanuts, and it’s all atop a bed of greens tossed with lemongrass and ginger. A devilish polyglot, but singularly divine.
Ricotta Gnudi with Ramps, Almonds, Fava Beans and Mushrooms, Moderne Barn
Chef Ethan Kostbar’s cooks labor two days to make these gnudi, but their effort is our reward. To savor these ethereal ricotta pillows with a gentle saute of springtime’s ramp/mushroom/fava trinity, all sauced with butter, moistened with pasta water, and dusted with parmesan and toasted almonds, is to reap the benefits of time, patience, and inordinate skill. Summer’s version will feature roasted corn, chanterelles, basil and sunflowers seeds, but those gnudi are immutable.
Berber Couscous, Zitoune
Take seven mostly root vegetables, five herbs and spices, three-hours-long -cooked couscous and one coucousiere pot, and you’ve got just the preliminaries of chef/owner Alain Bennouna’s Moroccan phenomenon. To finish, stir the fiery depth of harissa into the accompanying cooking liquid elixir, spoon it over the palette of vegetables arranged like wheel spokes atop a gleaming couscous hubcap, and indulge in a dish worth crossing the Sahara for.
Pickled Watermelon, Tomato and Herbed Goat Cheese Salad, Iron Horse Grill
Summertime, and the cooking is easy. Or in some cases, nonexistent. At Iron Horse Grill, that’s no detriment. Take chef/owner Philip McGrath’s greenmarket fiesta of golden teardrop tomato, fuschia watermelon and snowy herb-flecked chevre baubles. The bite-sized globes are offset by fronds of chive and a crescent of almond puff pastry, then dressed with melon water, olive oil, champagne vinegar and cracked black pepper. That melon water? It flows from the watermelon during prep, when the fruit “brines” in the dressing, absorbing flavor like a sponge. Simple, and simply sublime.
Mushroom Toast, Harper’s Restaurant
Don’t let the name of this dish fool you; Chef Chris Vergara’s cooking might be understated but his food is anything but. Robust flavors characterize his cooking, and this dish is a killer. Assorted organic mushrooms are first butter-poached, then sauteed in olive oil; shallots are caramelized, the pan deglazed with Madeira, then it’s all spooned atop a slab of grilled country bread. Add a layer of gruyere oozing from the broiler, and finally, a gently fried egg beneath a blizzard of minced herbs. A drizzle of Madeira reduction and the dish is finished– I grabbed my fork, and within minutes, it was.
Chana Bhatura, Masala Kraft Cafe
“There’s nothing like Indian street food,” claims Masala Kraft owner Bela Mehta, and I believe her after sampling several of her recreations. The cumin-scented spinach puree, Palak, came close, but the Chana Bhatura, was a spice-laden swoon. Chickpeas pureed with curry: no big deal, right? Not in Bela’s hands. Her curry plays like a symphony: ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, toasted cumin and amchoor–ground from unripe mango–form the string section alone. Brass resounds with garlic, onion and red chili. Add the counterpoint of ethereally puffed, fried bhatura bread, and it all becomes operatic.
Vegetarian Monk, Gem Cuisines of China
In China, cuisine is as revered as religion, and sometimes it is religion. This dish is a case in point. According to Gem owner Paul Chou, Buddhist monks ,compelled not to harm anything living, would conceal their vegetables within a tofu skin wrapper. For them, dogma; for us, pleasure. Chou’s bundles bulge with three types of mushrooms, shredded burdock root, cabbage and bamboo shoots, all sauteed then rolled up in a tofu sheet. The packages are quickly deep-fried, simmered in broth seasoned with soy and hoisin sauces, and placed on a bean sprout bed, the broth spooned over. Nirvana.
Vegetarian Moussaka, Nemea Greek Taverna
There are moussakas as done by the Greeks, the Turks, and the Balkans; this one is done by a wizard. Formed in a ring mold, chef Sterling Smith’s version appears as a banded souffle, its layers of grilled red bell pepper, zucchini, eggplant, spinach, ramps and roasted potato a color-wheel swirl, its crown a golden puff of soy-milk bechamel. Did I mention the lemon confit and nutmeg that amp up that bechamel? The pooling sheen of tomato sauce? This moussaka has flavors as deep as the Aegean, and visuals as lovely as its isles.
Mint: 19 Main St, Tarrytown, 914-703-6511
Moderne Barne: 430 Bedford Rd, Armonk, 914-730-0001, modernebarn.com
Zitoune, 1127 W Boston Post Rd, Mamaroneck, 914-835-8350, zitounerestaurant.com
Iron Horse Grill: 20 Wheeler Ave, Pleasantville, 914-741-0717, ironhorsegrill.com
Harper’s: 92 Main St, Dobbs Ferry, 914-693-2306, harpersonmain.com
Masala Kraft Cafe: 206 E Hartsdale Ave, Hartsdale, 914-722-4300, masalakraftcafe.com
Gem: 1128 Central Park Ave, Yonkers, 914-361-1500, gemchineserestaurant.com
Nimea: 599 E. Boston Post Rd, Mamaroneck,914-698-6600, nimeataverna.com