The Dream Dinner
By Paul Freedman
It was disappointingly and unseasonably cold last Friday, the finale of the winter- that-wouldn’t-quit, but the glow of the Bistro Rollin was all the brighter for the rain. We were welcomed by the warmth of the restaurant’s owners Arthur and Barbara Bratone and their son Paul Bratone which made up for the cold. A substantial meal was certainly appropriate, under the circumstances, but the delicacy, variety and elegance of what was served at this celebratory event were enchanting and beyond mere comfort against the weather.
The occasion was a dinner given for Maritza Fasack, winner in a drawing of names of people who had sent in their e-mail address and/or Facebook information to help the restaurant with its marketing. Ms. Fasack and nine friends enjoyed a seven-course dinner with wine pairings. My wife and I were fortunate enough to sample (for research purposes only, of course) the same menu in another part of the restaurant to see what Chef Manny Lozano had created. Coming soon after a trip to Paris undertaken by Arthur Bratone and Chef Manny, the dinner exemplified the current French style known as “Bistronomique”-- elegant but economical cooking in an informal and small-scale setting. The “economique” part of this compound-word refers not to using intrinsically inexpensive ingredients, but to cooking in a way that doesn’t rely on costly effects to impress. Hold the foie gras, perhaps, but not the truffles which can be used in an intense but reasonably economical way as they were here with warm scallop carpaccio. When executed well (and especially for this particular meal), the effect is a combination of hearty and delightful, respectful of tradition but fun and innovative.
Check out the Photo Gallery below to see the Dream Dinner
Ironically the most under-represented and under-appreciated cuisine in New York now is French, which formerly was the standard for judging all serious restaurants. This is too bad as French means something very different from the old and over-worked image of intimidating service and elaborate food, a reputation in my opinion never deserved but certainly superseded. The actual food of actual restaurants in Paris, as at Bistro Rollin has the same vivid sense of the basic ingredients that always characterized French cuisine; simplicity mingled with variety that also has represented the best of French style since classic French cuisine was first developed in the seventeenth century. But to return to right now, the meal began with an herby Salmon Tartare and miniature arancini, the Sicilian cheese and rice-balls cooked in crumbs to look like oranges. These were served with a sparkling California Gloria Ferrer Brut. With the arancini I thought we were getting a head-start on the announced first course of Gougères but the kumquat-sized arancini looked quite different as they came on skewers on a plate of pink salt and had a more consistent texture than the wonderful Gougères (served on mâche) that followed with their solid exteriors concealing the velvety Mornay-sauce centers. In this case the gougères were not fried but rather were baked and then the Mornay was injected, the result being succulent and surprising as a contrast of textures in the nicest possible way. A Pouilly-Fuissé was rich and perfectly complementary.
The second course was one of the most successful, innovative and almost counter-intuitive--- Warm Scallop carpaccio on Fresh Pea Purée with Black Truffles. Far from the common problem of having too much going on or one ingredient distracting from another, the here the elements created a series of sensations with the truffles, which were in a foamy sauce, creating a smoky, deep umami impression against the delicate sea-taste of the scallops with the sweet peas allowing them to harmonize. This was perhaps my favorite of all the dishes and it was served with a Landmark “Overlook” Chardonnay that alone tasted strong, almost sour, but that held its own and set off the complex scallop dish.
The next course was a play on that bistro classic, frisée, lardons and poached egg. Here the egg was poached but then rolled in panko crumbs, fried for just a few seconds, then topped with bacon and served on lightly smoked frisée and a Port wine reduction. The smoky, hearty yet simple tastes were extended by an aromatic red Bordeaux, a Pomerol from the Chateau La Fleur des Rouzes.
By this time we could hear the festivities of the banqueters intensifying with calls, impromptu speeches, interruptions and laughter. Our relatively quiet table was hardly somber as we contemplated that part of a meal in which the surprises to come can still be anticipated while the recent dishes are still being considered. Arthur Bratone had to get up to photograph the courses and find out the news from the front, but the meal moved along fairly briskly without hurry but also without any sense of anything wanting in the way of organization, precision, professional but witty service.
The fourth course distantly evoked the umami-mushroom tastes of the truffles and the mini-Italian theme of the preliminaries, here in the form of mini-cannelloni wrapped around a duck confit, spinach and wild mushroom combination. The finest, most noble wine of the evening accompanied this woodsy yet light dish, a Santa Barbara Lagrein from Joughlin Vineyard and if it sounds as if I am of course very familiar with this wine and somehow expected it, in fact I had never heard of it, let alone tasted it, before. I found its rich, dense smokiness irresistible. There was some debate as to how similar to an Amarone this was and I’d say the jury is still out.
These small cannelloni may be put on the regular Bistro Rollin menu, but the fifth course in some form will definitely appear--- two kinds of pork over a purée of apple and celery root. The star of the show was the Crispy Pork Belly with a crust of such surpassing deep, rich crispiness as to make perfect bacon seem like baloney by comparison. Ms. Fasack and her guests determined that this dish, with pork tenderloin complementing the pork belly, was the best of all the courses except, perhaps, the final dessert. As I said, my vote goes for the scallops, but I could have the pork belly everyday for a couple of months without complaint. A Crozes Hermitage from Jaboulet’s “Les Jalets” withstood the pork in both its forms.
We then had two desserts: an amazing Blood Orange Sorbet with Orange Segments, far surpassing mere palate-cleansing refreshment not only because of the intensity of its tanginess but the extraordinary effect of candied fennel and fennel pollen. Maybe this was the best course, as my wife Bonnie claimed--- a tough call. The real dessert was a Goat Cheesecake with Medjool Dates, Honey and Almonds. As an historian of the Middle Ages I liked this because it had a kind of Middle-Eastern sweet cheese and dates effect that was popular in Europe at the time of castles and crusades, but it garnered universal acclaim for less pedantic reasons. We had begun with a California version of Champagne and here ended with French Piper-Heidsieck.
The invited guests had a vehicle that combined van with limousine to take them home. We walked back most of the way, the cold now refreshing our well-insulated forms. The meal had evoked France, whose culinary boast has always been that while other cuisines just create mixtures, French is the cuisine of intermingling, where the ingredients are distinct yet mutually complementary and reinforcing. This may not be quite fair to other world cooking styles, but the intermingling quality was displayed this evening perfectly--- everything in harmony but bright and sparkling. France has a dynamic and changing cooking tradition, not one frozen in 1890 or 1960---- vivid, simple yet always surprising