Thursday, December 26, 2019

Maximal Deliciousness Alert: Mesmerizing Meal in a Department Store

This is sort of flabby and digressive because here in Slogsville I luxuriate in not needing to meet expectations or do things "correctly". Hopefully it conveys, expressionistically, how thrilled I am about this place...and why it's so rare a thrill.

Wolf Restaurant, in a corner on the second floor of the Nordstroms on 57th Street in Manhattan, is amazing, and you've got to go immediately. Their marquee chef, Ethan Stowell, has departed back to his Pacific NW empire, but his protegé is spectacular, and you can say you were there early, when his cooking cost a mere $55.
But wait; a department store restaurant?!? Yeah, no. Expunge whatever you're imagining. Deliciousness is deliciousness. Let's not waste time marveling over the incongruity.
I don't eat many $55 meals. I can't afford to do it often, but that's fine because that price level is full of scams. There's much great food in New York City for under $25, a sprinkling of it for over $75, and a vast wasteland in between. The reasons are complicated, and I'll riff at length about it one day. But most insiders I know would readily agree with this assessment.

I nearly always leave $50 meals wishing I'd spent $20 somewhere better. Mid-priced places almost never deliver value commensurate with their premium (micro-explanation: they stake their premium not on elevated quality but on class signals).

High-end places ($75+) may earn their price by offering luxe treats unavailable at lower levels, but, for me, their exorbitance raises unrealistic expectations. A $100 meal competes with my stupendous bullpen of grandmotherly delights. And, at any price range, deliciousness is rare, for reasons that have nothing to do with economics.

But what if a pricey meal earns its tab with quality? What if it's every bit as delicious as my grandma places, plus beaucoup ingredients, careful prep and consistency (along with the expected service, comfort, and ambiance upgrades)? What if a pricey meal delivers exactly the experience people who can't afford pricey meals imagine pricey meals to be?

I've experienced this with fewer than a dozen restaurants, which burn in my memory with hot lust; places like Picholine, Il Buco, Grange Hall, and Blue Ribbon (I also found Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with all his overexposure, actually underrated...if you could get the actual guy to cook for you, which you now can't). It was never a matter of the grungy trombonist elevating for some magical moment to The Way It Is At the Top. Again, this sort of thing is highly aberrational. In every case, the swells around me also recognized something was up, as did the staff, who were working not for Hasbro but for Santa. There's a palpable inertia that comes from being on an extraordinary winning team. You can feel their thrill at being part.

Wolf is one of those places, one of the vanishing few. The buzz doesn't stem from pretentious posing, but from assurance all around that they're absolutely killing it. Exceptional talent creates a sizzle, and its polished execution delivers an energetic snap. I recognize the symptoms. I knew before I sat down. To be honest, I knew from scanning the Yelp photos. Not just "that looks good", but a gut-level impression that I was viewing snapshots from Heaven.

To be sure, I'm also excited about places like Nawab in Yonkers (best North Indian I've ever had), Hardena in Philadelphia (spectacular Indonesian; run by the daughters of the chef who once worked in the basement of the Indonesian Consulate in Manhattan who I wrote about in my first book) and Parrillada Las Americas (an Ecuadoran buffet in Ossining with the only rotisserie chicken that reminds me of my beloved House of Garlic Mayonnaise outside Barcelona). Nothing could be better than what those places serve, and they have both sizzle and snap. That's why I resist spending four or five times their price!

But truly exciting up-ticket places are much rarer - like meteors - and they offer perqs unavailable at the lower end, where I've trained myself to overlook a lot. A place with outstanding fajitas and terrible everything else strikes me as a great place; I placidly step around the sand traps. I'm no ingredient materialist (The Arepa Lady squirted frickin' margarine on her blessed corn cakes), but there's a different (though not inherently superior) result when every carrot slice, every garnish, is super fresh and artfully cut. If the food's great and all the touches are on the money because everyone in the kitchen is as sharp as a knife and strongly aligned like magnetized iron shavings, that's not an experience that can be enjoyed for fifteen bucks.
Nothing's "better" than super-delicious. I reject the notion that super-deliciousness plus crisp linen napkins equals something even better. As a Chowhound, I appreciate the whole range. I like Cantonese food (when it's good) for its modular finesse, and I like Rich Guy food (when it's good) for its ingredient palette and fine touches. It's all ethnic food; all evoking some tribe or another. I guess I'm a demographile.
One learns to do without "touches" on the low end. Wilted lettuce and stale bread are overlooked. The salad dressing may not, um, delight, and the wine-by-glass might be toxic for human life. Fine; I laser-focus on the good stuff. But when they're on-point, touches are an awfully nice extra. Same for quality ingredients. Having been moved to tears by margarine, I don't imagine that imported butter, in and of itself, is The Answer. But it contributes a certain color to the artist's palette, and while a great artist can create wonders with black and white, intense shimmering rainbows do have their appeal.

But back to Wolf. Every few years there appears, among the mid-priced scammers, a genuine article. An extremely talented and dedicated figure who never got the memo that it's really all about pose, and whose unnecessarily miraculous skills will prove irrelevant once he's blossomed into stardom and spends his days consulting with media fluffers while hard-working Central American minions produce grub under his distant imprimatur (Ethan Stowell's photo still smiles down at diners here, though the dude's split back to Seattle).

So we have a narrow window here. For the moment, this guy will actually cook your food if you merely go there and pay the bejesus out of him (Jean-Georges, by contrast, will cook for you right about when Kim Kardashian arrives to helpfully boost your social media cred).

I'm good at being early, but, still, I've only been party to this sort of situation a handful of times in my life. And each time the window slammed shut sooner than expected, leaving me aggrieved for not having taken better advantage. Eating so well for 20 bucks, I'm awfully resistant to paying $30 or $40, much less $55. But at times like this, I feel a profound desire to shovel bills from my wallet and profusely thank them for accepting my money.

This isn't any sort of serious review. Just my mental notebook after trying a mere two plates, starting with rabbit salad - revealing impeccable touch along every possible axis though perhaps not particularly devastatingly delicious in the long view - and following with spaghetti with uni, leeks, chili, and pangrattato, aka breadcrumbs (don't miss this Yelp photo) that slayed me. The single fat chunk of sea urchin was the best I've ever had (he did stuff to it), and the rest I can't describe or explain because 9s and 10s leave a person unable to analyze. I wafted out through the garish, brightly-lit department store like it was the Garden of Eden scented with opium perfume, cackling like a madman at the stark framing incongruity between me and the agitated, tight-faced shoppers bustling around me.

There's not an iota of pretension or bullshit at any level. Just a stunning minimalist dining room (including a ginormous bar), stupendous view, genuinely friendly staff, and every aspect on-point. I don't even need on-pointedness; again, I'm trained to Overlook in the pursuit of Magnificence. But that fiendishly miraculous spaghetti, in this setting, with the service, and this view, and the touches, and the pointedness, left me woozy. Shoot, just give me the damn spaghetti. Fill my room with it and let me eat my way to the door.

I asked my waitress whether everything's this good or if I just ordered especially well. She wagged her head gravely, with a touch of exasperated awe. "It's all really that good," she pronounced in a lowered voice. She did single out, however, the cacio e pepe and the bucatini (here's the current menu). But I feel a profound sense of trust. I'd be bewildered if anything - so long as this guy's still in-residence - were to disappoint. I want to work through it all; to soak up all facets of the art.

With my happy hour-priced $10 glass of Barbera, I paid $55 plus tip, and all I could think of was returning. Maybe I'll break into my neighbors' houses and hock their jewelry. Maybe I don't need that Miata.

I've left fewer than a dozen mid- or high-end restaurants with this degree of daunted woozy invigoration. My friendly, awed waitress suspects that nameless protegé chef may soon be drawn away to open a restaurant of his own. So while I still can, I want to learn his name and work through the menu.

This isn't my normal tack. I let expensive condiments go bad; I have nice wool sweaters growing mothy while I don sweatshirts more befitting my non-fabulousness. I hoard frequent flyer miles and never use them. I didn't eat enough at Il Buco or Grange Hall or any of those other places, and I regret it. I seem to have the darndest time gettin' while the gettin's good. But I'll try to do better this time.


Display Name said...

Wow! I might have to go to the Nordstrom at King of Prussia to do a return but I'll bet the vittles will not be as stellar. Several years ago CDC was kind enough to accompany me to that location. I was too dazzled by the boot selection to notice much else but cdc had a chunk of time for bored observation while I treated myself to a blast from the past luxurious shoe shopping experience, no zappos this time. He told me faces looked pulled tight, almost like they had botox or plastic surgery, and they all looked miserable.

ThereAreLimits said...

Thanks for the suggestion, fun to try new places, especially ones we'd never go to on our own. For us the food was quite good, but nothing we had was delicious, exceptional or rated a return. Or as my wife puts it "Nothing I'd get hungry for." The staff were very nice (once past the greeter) and the service was excellent. Decent wine at a reasonable price. I didn't like sitting at the kitchen bar (all that was available) -- not much fun watching people mess with your food in their blue rubber gloves and with tweezers and stuff. And being served from behind and having to really work to make eye contact with your server is weird. I prefer sitting at a table and facing your server and making contact and delicious food appears from some magical place behind the curtain. But heck, we can't all like the same stuff or the world would be too boring.

James Leff said...

Thanks for the report! And don’t assume different taste; you might have loved my meal, and I might have shrugged at yours. What did you have?

ThereAreLimits said...

We had the Wolf salad (with no bacon), the delicata squash with maitake mushrooms, the baguette with fennel honey butter (bread okay, butter better than it sounds, tasted like fennel pollen), the agnolotti (could have been delicious with better hazelnuts or something), the very good Paccheri with prawns, and the zeppole (sure, served with excellent chocolate sauce, but the zeppole themselves don't compare to one of the lesser stands at the current San Gennaro festival -- let alone in my youth.

James Leff said...

Are you saying that the zeppole at San Gennaro are really good, or that they’re mediocre but better than Wolf’s?

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