Yesterday was my birthday and it was one of the best days of my life. I know I get too excited about things and am prone to hyperbole and gross exaggeration, but you have to believe me on this one. The day began when my boyfriend arrived with a bouquet of my favorite flowers, orchids, and the most beautiful ones I’ve ever seen.
He then whisked me uptown for lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, Jean-Georges. In a previous entry, I described it thus:
“There are a hand full of restaurants in the city that might be described as perfect. Nothing and no one in life, of course, is, but allowing for human error and the occasional misstep, Jean-Georges is one of those places where the service is impeccable and the food is divine and you want for nothing.”
We started out with a trio of lovely amuse-bouches.
For lunch at Jean-Georges, customers choose two plates from the menu. For my first plate, I chose the Foie Gras Brulee with Rhubarb Juice, Pineapple Raisins and Sichuan Peppercorn. I suspect they’ve tweaked the recipe since the menu was printed because I didn’t taste or see the Sichuan peppercorn. Instead, lovely, tiny, purple shiso leaves were floating in the pretty pink rhubarb juice.
Sichuan pepper is actually not a pepper at all but the outer pod of a fruit that causes a strange tingly, numb feeling on the tongue with a slight lemony taste. My best friend Mark is convinced that after eating one, plain tap water tastes like Sprite or 7Up. I’m actually glad they were axed from the dish because when I’m eating something this delicious, the last thing I want is for my tongue to be numb. I’ve heard that certain people choose to put certain numbing creams on certain parts of their anatomy during certain acts and I never understood that either.
The brioche was lightly toasted and sliced in perfect proportion with the foie gras, which had a delicate layer of burnt sugar. The rhubarb was so bright, fresh and clean against the richness of the foie gras and the pineapple raisins added just the right amount of sweetness and the shiso a delicate scent, not to mention beauty. It was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
Liam chose Crispy Soft Shell Crab, Shiso-Yuzu Mayonnaise, Boston Lettuce for his first course.
The crab was cooked tempura-style with a rice flour batter. There was obviously a great deal of skill involved in deep-frying and battering something so daintily, so I’m reluctant to criticize the chef’s subtlety, but while I love the delicate flavors of shiso and yuzu and the gossamer batter was impressive, I wanted a bolder flavor from the chili allioli. The dish was lovely but a bit like a very pale, very thin woman. I wanted a little more spice, a little more excitement. Some hips for crying out loud.
For my second course, I chose Roasted Halibut, Aromatic Spice Broth and Spring Vegetables.
It was a beautiful piece of fish cooked perfectly- tender and silky. The spices were Middle Eastern in flavor with incredible depth and warmth and complemented nicely with the spring greens.
For his second course, Liam chose Caramelized Veal, Silky Cauliflower and Kumquats with Chartreuse
This course was only so-so for me. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, per se… actually the kumquats were a little weird. We were both intrigued by the idea of kumquats with chartreuse but they just reminded me of some strange candy your grandma might have in a jar somewhere in her house. The rest of the dish was fine.
For dessert, we shared the rhubarb selection, which included Warm Honey-Rhubarb Tart, Crystalized Rose Petals and Strawberry-Rhubarb Soup, Mango, Passion Fruit and Yuzu. Very yummy. I normally think fruit “soups” are a bit of a cop out, but I could’ve downed a gallon of this stuff it was so tasty.
During lunch, Liam gave me two of the many presents he chose to “shower” me with (his phrase, not mine). The first was a mixed CD (how else does a boy show his affection?) and the second present was a DVD of one of my all-time favorite movies, Roman Holiday (my copy was from the bygone era of VHS.)
We went home, watched Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck fall in love and after we took a nap, he announced we had dinner reservations at 7. Was he crazy? I had a belly full of delicious, extravagant food and I was already feeling so loved and content, I told him I could walk onto the street and get shot in the face and still die happy.
But Liam planned a whole 24 hours of birthday indulgences, so I changed and put on the beautiful earrings he gave me (yet another present!) and we hopped in a cab and headed to Aldea.
Aldea is a sleek, sexy Flatiron restaurant owned by chef George Mendes, formerly of Tocqueville, Wallsé and Bouley. The food is Portugese-inspired and manages to straddle the great divide in contemporary cuisine between comfort food and molecular gastronomy. When food is too simple and hearty, I dismiss it as something my mother or I could make at home and when it’s too cerebral, interesting in theory but not pleasing to eat, I wonder what the point is. When a dish is delicious and inventive when I’m satisfied and surprised, there’s nothing more gratifying.
My very thoughtful boyfriend managed to get us seats at the chef’s counter, where we got to watch the entire kitchen staff work their magic from start to finish.
The meal started with a trio of amuse-bouches. My favorite was a soup made with Prince Edward Island clams, ramps and a touch of coconut milk and curry.
The first course was Lightly Smoked Sardines with caramelized lychees, pickled spring onion and brioche.
This dish was fair. It was obviously very beautiful and I liked the flavors, but because the brioche was so brittle and the sardines so… well, slimy in the sardine way, it was difficult to get even bites. I’d get too much sardine and only part of the brioche, which was breaking into jagged, uneven pieces and I’d taste no lychee at all and then a burst of lychee.
What made the foie gras dish at Jean-Georges so wonderful was that the brioche was soft and thick enough so that I could cut it up and get perfect bites of all the complementary flavors and textures at once, so I couldn’t help but wish this dish held together a little better.
The second course was the Fois Gras “Mi-Cuit” with birch beer gelee and foam, peanuts and cocoa nibs.
This was really interesting and really tasty. It was really fun to see what was going on behind the scenes and because we had a view of the kitchen, we saw one of the cooks start to plate this dish on a flat plate. Someone came over to him while he was sprinkling the nuts and nibs and told him to put it on the plate you see above. It looks nicer, but because of the little well on the plate, the first bite I took was basically just a big mouthful of nuts, which had collected in a pile.
The next course was Monkfish Cheeks with a stew of razor clams, potato, fennel and saffron.
This was really lovely. It’s really easy to dismiss Italian parsley (it’s not the most exciting herb), but it added a lot of freshness to the stew and was so nice against the warmth of the saffron. It was really hearty and satisfying.
My favorite course, though, was the Arroz de Pato with duck confit, chorizo, olive and duck cracklings. Everything was cooked perfectly and the nicest complement to the salty duck and sausage was the apricot puree. I only wish there had been more of it.
Before dessert, we were given a “pre-dessert.” I don’t exactly recall what it was (five wine pairings had me a little buzzed at that point), but I remember really liking the foaminess at the top and the creaminess of the custard at the bottom and being surprised by pine nuts. Pine nuts! It was comfortingly warm and not too sweet. Yum.
For dessert, we had Banana Custard Brulee with caramelized rice, lemon and chickory ice cream.
And after dessert because we hadn’t eaten enough food for one day, we were given lovely mignardises. We ate them while chatting with a wonderful couple sitting next to us and I hope we get to see them again. (I befriended them on Facebook. Fingers crossed.)
George Mendes himself was there that night (and surprisingly young and ruggedly handsome.) He was kind enough to wish me a happy birthday, autograph a menu and even take a photo of us.
After dinner, we headed over to the Angelika to catch a late show of the Argentine film El secreto de sus ojos.
Food, films and a man I’m crazy about. It almost didn’t seem fair to be that happy, to be young and in love and lucky enough to be passionate about my work and experience such fine things.
This morning, I woke up and couldn’t believe what a wonderful day we’d had together. It was like a dream. I felt like I was tempting fate by using up my happiness quota for a lifetime on a single, incredibly indulgent day. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Afraid I’d get hit by a bus. Half expecting some tragic news to arrive.
But everything’s fine and I’m still alive and incredibly grateful… and I can’t wait for next year.