Friday, September 15, 2006
I hadn't been to New York since our trip to The Colbert Report, which itself was the first time in longer than I care to admit. New York is great, but it's an exhausting day trip. I always get what I call “museum back,” a lower-back stiffness and pain that I only get in Manhattan and/or museums. The people-watching there is glorious; the sheer volume of pedestrian traffic, itself a novelty to this denizen of the 'burbs, is overwhelming. I've noticed fewer fat people, per capita, in New York than anywhere else, despite an astonishing assortment of restaurants. (Whether this is due to the constant walking, the ubiquitous stairs, or the appetite-dampening effects of bus fumes is a debate I leave to the experts.) Sometime in the last year or so, Mayor Bloomberg apparently issued a Mandatory Ipods Decree, so you could tell the bare-eared tourists from the bepodded native stock.
(Not that you need anything that obvious. Although I usually think of myself as an educated person, and The Wife is both attractive and sophisticated, when we go into Manhattan we both feel like we're wearing overalls and John Deere baseball caps. Cleetus, the slack-jawed yokel. New York is the only city that has this effect.)
I also got a restaurant recommendation from a colleague at work. It was a little place on restaurant row (46th Street, around 8th) called Becco's. It uses a 'prix fixe' menu, which I like to pronounce “pricks ficksee” just to annoy the French. For twenty bucks a person, you get antipasto and three kinds of pasta.
This bears explanation. Here in the 'burbs, talk of unlimited pasta conjures images of the Olive Garden, or maybe grad school. It usually means three different shapes of noodle in Ragu. If you want to be cosmopolitan and you don't care about cholesterol, you go for 'alfredo,' which in the burbs means creamed fat with flecks of green stuff in it. If you really, truly don't care, there's baked ziti.
No, no, no. This was altogether different.
The antipasto was the first clue that we weren't in the suburbs anymore. Out here, antipasto usually means shiny deli meats wrapped around thick cubes of cheese, all sprayed with something to make it even shinier. (Whoever came up with this approach seemed to think that the only problem with olive loaf is that it doesn't glisten enough.) This antipasto was almost meat-free. Most of what was on the plates was unidentifiable, but had been marinated in what I can only assume was the nectar of the gods. There was something resembling salmon, which was extraordinary, and a sliver of what appeared to be eggplant. I have never understood the fascination with eggplant. An ex-girlfriend once declared that if sex were a vegetable, it would be eggplant. We broke up. But this was amazing. Subtle, yielding, almost sweet underneath the marinade. Could this be what she meant? We were so young. But I digress.
The main courses were served in an almost military style. The waiters would carry impressive bowls – vats, really -- of whichever pasta was up. You'd nod 'yes' or 'no,' and if 'yes,' the waiter would scoop an imposing pile onto your plate. It was almost a buffet, but without getting up. Since nearly everybody in the place ordered the prix fixe, they could just cook it by the bucketful. It's an ingenious system, and it keeps the tables turning over.
The first was farfalle in a red sauce with basil. It was, by far, the most pedestrian of the three offerings, but still nifty in its own way. The noodles were obviously homemade. The sauce had the clumpiness of freshly-prepared stuff, and the basil leaves were big enough to actually mean something. It was tasty, and pleasant, and satisfying enough, but it seemed like the kind of thing I could do, or at least find, if I really put my mind to it. Not bad, but not special.
The second was linguine with clams in an olive-oil-and-garlic sauce. I've long been agnostic on clams. They can be pleasant enough every now and again, prepared properly, but they hardly seem worth the effort. (Fried clams, which my Mom calls french fried rubber bands, are novelty items, suitable only for amusing children.) But the linguine was revelatory. Balancing garlic and olive oil is tricky, since the textures are so different, but these folks knew what they were doing. It was lightly applied, which is key – there's such a thing as too slippery – and the linguine was fresh enough to push back a little with flavor of its own. Better, they didn't do the pretentious 'small food plus big plate equals culture' thing; it was piled in a manly heap, the way God intended.
Then, the canneloni.
I admit, I was well into my teens before I knew that canneloni wasn't invented by Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. I still think of it as a member of the manicotti family – edible, yes, but as uninteresting as baked ziti. Suitable, perhaps, for feeding large transient gatherings on the cheap, but nothing you'd ever order on your own.
This was the moment I realized that we were in the big leagues.
It was a simple noodle, draped over a filling of spinach and ricotta, all lightly coated in a cream sauce. (I don't remember the name. Something vaguely French.) But describing it that way is like describing Cassandra Wilson as a singer. True, as far as it goes, but so utterly reductionist as to be misleading.
I didn't know spinach could subsume itself so gracefully, that ricotta could be so smooth and subtle, or that a noodle could be so perfectly textured as to both put up a nice resistance to the sauce and still melt when eaten. The dish was so good that the moment actually become socially awkward. The fact that something so extraordinary could also be mass produced gives me hope for the future.
Prix fixe are my new favorite words. We're going to have to start eating our way down restaurant row, one prix fixe at a time. President Bush said we can help the war on terror by going out to eat. I'll do my part! Let bin Laden tremble at the mighty stewpots of liberty!
The play was adequate.