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New York's Comeback Kids

Veteran chefs star in three new Manhattan restaurants

John Mariani
Posted: March 26, 2003

Washington Park achieves an ideal balance of downtown casual and New York sophistication.
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New York City has become one of America's most potent symbols of dogged resilience -- or chutzpah. This is as true of its economy, its neighborhoods, its sports teams and its Broadway theater as it is of its people, who have repeatedly delighted in disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion that "there are no second acts in American lives."

Rebounding is certainly a talent common to New York's chefs, who might well be called "the comeback kids." New Yorkers pay attention to the new chef on the block. But after a honeymoon period, when seats at the hot new restaurant are as tough to come by as tickets to The Producers, the infatuation can fade. The chef may find himself amid a sea of empty tables, jobless, with his inflated ego in shreds.

Three veteran chefs in three new restaurants are demonstrating their pluck -- and maybe a little luck -- by trying to hit precisely the right note at a time of economic difficulty, while at the same time expressing very distinct, individual styles of cooking.

Scott Conant is now flourishing after years of wonderful yet underappreciated work at quite admirable venues including Barolo, Chianti and City Eatery. Now, at the new L'Impero in Tudor City near the United Nations, Conant, with partner Chris Cannon (formerly of Judson Grill), has a showcase in which to further refine his ideas about the amazing versatility of Italian and Mediterranean cuisines.

L'Impero is an enchanting restaurant, beginning with the rustic wooden doorway that opens into a lounge in colors of peacock blue, tawny brown and bright copper. The elevated dining room soothes with vanilla-colored walls, an overlay of ivory linen and roomy banquettes in rich tobacco brown.

One can easily tell when a chef loves his own food, because nothing on the menu could ever jade his palate. Or yours. This is the case with Conant at L'Impero. Begin with a fresh cranberry bean soup with winter vegetables and the Italian bacon called speck. Or warm up with a bowl of stewed octopus with fingerling potatoes, grape tomatoes, capers and a shot of Sherry vinegar. The roasted quail had a lot more flavor than usual for these dull, domesticated birds, and was served with sweet grapes, walnuts and a foie gras emulsion tempered with recioto wine.

The pastas and risottos are all sumptuous, and never oversauced. Don't miss Conant's braised rabbit mezzaluna -- half-moon shaped ravioli -- with roasted parsnips, tomato and a lovely touch of mint. His braised duck and foie gras agnolotti with an aromatic Moscato Passito reduction is a superb dish in which the perfect pasta itself is as important as the other ingredients. Yukon Gold potato gnocchetti were a delight, lavished with fresh porcini.

It is not unusual for appetizers and pastas to outshine Italian entrées, but equality is achieved at L'Impero. A seared fillet of branzino scented with rosemary and served with creamy lentils and rapini greens was a triumph of sea and garden, as was the impeccably roasted turbot with sweet leeks, onion, endive and salsa verde. Most impressive of all is Conant's remarkable way with roast baby goat -- a meat that is usually tasty enough but none too tender. His is a marvel, the meat succulent and soft, but finely grained, its side dish of baby artichokes and potatoes moistened with the goat's pan juices.

There is a selection of fine Italian cheeses, each with its own complement, perhaps a compote of beets or chestnut honey and currants soaked in dark rum. Conant likes combining sweet with cheese, as in his dessert of quince and pecorino crostata with bufala ricotta ice cream.

Cannon puts together L'Impero's cultivated wine list, at its best when showcasing small, unusual Italian estates such as Bisson Pigato Riviera di Ponente '01 ($34) and Ferrando Carema "Black Label" '96 ($82), and Sardinian bottlings such as Santadi Shardana '97 ($42), made from the Carignane grape. And, like the admirably priced food here -- with no main course more than $28 -- the wines are fairly tariffed, with many good selections for less than $40.

One has to assume that in putting the initials of his name and restaurant in lowercase -- rm -- Rick Moonen is following some stylist's idea of cool, especially because Moonen himself is not a particularly reserved, shy man. Indeed, he has a room-filling personality, which he has transferred -- in just three months -- from a long tenure at the still excellent Oceana on East 54th Street to a bi-level restaurant in an East 60th Street space that has seen its share of flops. The premises in fact look a bit like below decks on a swank yacht, with velvet banquettes in coral and sea green and textured blue glass on some walls. The lighting is flattering, the table settings excellent, and there is good space between tables.

The absence of a dress code detracts from the serious but unpretentious atmosphere at rm, but that's New York these days.

Moonen comes in on a high note, and his ebullient cooking is evident in every dish on this resolutely seafood menu. Appetizers range from a roasted garlic velouté with flaked cod and the crispiness of cooked pancetta to spaghettini with a lusty lobster bolognese, rich with chopped lobster meat and lightly tinged with tomato and vegetables. Pan-roasted sea scallops take on a pleasing earthiness from an oxtail and horseradish sauce, and if you're bored to tears with raw tuna, you've never had Moonen's, which is spiced and served with shaved radish and a Champagne vinaigrette.

Moonen's style has become simpler since he left Oceana. At rm, he focuses on the species rather than the accoutrements, as in his steamed black sea bass with nectarines and toasted almonds, or his pan-roasted loup de mer with roasted garlic and petite gnocchi. Butter-poached lobster -- this year's fad item -- comes off well, with a delicate cauliflower puree and tangy Granny Smith apple slices. Skate gains measurably from a pistachio crust and is accompanied by Swiss chard and a parsley monté.

Like Conant, Moonen loves combining cheese with sweets, though they don't work as well here in combinations such as caramel tartlet with Gorgonzola. I also find the desserts of pastry chef Pichet Ong lacking in sweetness, which is really unfortunate when the menu offers a chocolate malt shake and malted milk candy.

The wine list at rm is, as you'd expect, geared to seafood, with more than half its 250 labels in white wine. Among the more unusual offerings are the Australian Alkoomi sparkling Shiraz '98 ($80), the Chappellet Old Vines Cuvée Chenin Blanc '99 ($30), and the Sandalford Element '00, a blend of Verdejo and Chenin Blanc ($35), along with a lovely rosé '00 from Tablas Creek ($50) and a refreshing Vacheron Sancerre Rouge 2000 ($48).

Washington Park, so named for its location just north of Washington Square, is the latest venue for a chef long out of the limelight in New York. Jonathan Waxman, whose original goal was to be a jazz trombonist, made his reputation as chef at the Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant, Michael's, in the vanguard of the glamorous French to Southern California cuisine movement. Waxman, with partner Melvin Master, then headed east to open one of the most talked-about restaurants of the 1980s -- Jams, praised for bringing a fresh, novel simplicity to New York's food.

Hailed as the fair but straggly haired upstart from Los Angeles, Waxman became one of the first celebrity chefs, but the hoopla took its toll on him, personally and professionally. He lost Jams and another restaurant, Buds, then went into limbo for several years, acting as a consultant for others. Now a family man, and a bit more gray than blond, Waxman has settled in at Washington Park, chastened and confident that his simple, good cooking based on impeccable ingredients will put him back in the front ranks of New York chefs.

Looks like he's done it: Washington Park is a big hit, an ideal balance of downtown casual and New York sophistication in a two-level dining room space that had seen a slew of restaurants open and close quickly. The wide windows look out on the rush of traffic on lower Fifth Avenue, the kitchen is open, and the appointments simple, with wicker bistro chairs and dark draperies.

The wine list, overseen by Patrick Bickford (late of Jean Georges) is extraordinarily rich for a new restaurant, with 60 to 70 daily selections, printed on the back of the menu, pulled from a massive tome of 2,000 available labels -- the largesse of investment banker partner Roy Welland. It is certainly one of the finest collections of Burgundies in the city. For instance, there are 11 selections of Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux, including magnums for vintages 1986, '87 and '92; 12 vintages of Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny; nine bottlings of Lafite, dating to 1870; six vintages of Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino Riserva, back to 1937; 14 Château d'Yquems, including an 1893 at $1,856, and five vintages of Vouvray Moelleux Le Haut Lieu -- 1919, '24, '45, '47, and '76.

Waxman's direct, unfussy cooking buoys these wines as much as they buoy his food. The menu -- a simple piece of 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper -- lists 11 starters and as many main courses, with a few nightly specials. Waxman has kept his juicy, grilled-to-order, free-range chicken and perfect French fries (having raised the price by a dollar, to $26, since it hit the menu at Jams back in 1984), along with items such as a wild mushroom salad and baked Coach Farm goat cheese, both dishes dependent on the market's best offerings. His red pepper pancakes with smoked salmon and caviar -- a quintessential Southern California extravagance -- has become a signature item.

On a recent visit, one of the best starters was his custardlike duck ragout with a Hubbard squash lasagne, full of woodsy flavors. Grilled calamari -- too few -- sit atop a red chili salad, and the fritto misto "River Café," paying homage to a dish at London's River Cafe, is crisp and greaseless. Maine lobster with fava beans is a dish without fanfare but with good flavor.

For entrées, I highly recommend the Niman Ranch loin of pork with red cabbage and fresh bacon -- a lush, wintry dish, as tender as pork can be without being overcooked in the least. Sweetbreads with morels and Malmsey was far tastier on a second visit than on the first, but striped bass with cauliflower puree and black trumpet mushrooms lacked distinctive flavor in the flesh of the fish. Rarely seen Nantucket bay scallops were not well-served by being forced to swim in a too rich cream sauce.

There is a very good selection of eight cheeses nightly, and pastry chef Heather Miller sustains Waxman's affection for heightened comfort food in items like butterscotch-pecan tartlet with pumpkin ice cream and a sensationally good caramel-apple brioche bread pudding with ginger ice cream and cranberries.

Prices at Washington Park are higher than one might expect downtown post 9/11, with entrées reaching $39 for a rib eye.

Waxman, Conant and Moonen are currently sharing the bright spotlight New York always throws on true talent, which for these three "old-timers" must be far sweeter now than it was the first time around.

John and Galina Mariani's new book is The Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

45 Tudor City Place
Telephone (212) 599-5045
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $19 to $28; prix fixe, $48
Credit cards All major

33 E. 60th St.
Telephone (212) 319-3800
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Prix fixe, 3 courses, $55; vegetarian, $45; 6 courses, $100
Credit cards All major

Washington Park
24 Fifth Ave.
Telephone (212) 529-4400
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $26 to $39
Credit cards All major

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