Friday, August 28, 2009

Summer 2009: the Season That Killed

Fall can't possibly come soon enough for me this year.

Not only is summer my least favorite season, and this year, it is certainly going out like a lion with days upon end of still air and lethargy, but this one keeps killing good things.

First there were the big celebrity deaths that just kept coming. The phrase "The End of An Era" has been proclaimed something like six times this summer, and deservedly so.

But what was far worse about this summer, was the impact of the economy on the city, and the loss of three of its best restaurants.

In June, we lost both Jarnac and Alfama. Just last night we lost Elettaria.

Jarnac was the personification of comfort and coziness. Nestled (I use that word sparingly) on the corner of W. 12th St. and Greenwich St., it had a small dining area with pretty windows and quaint fixtures, and a menu comprised mostly of Southern French classics with a slight Southern American spin. It felt like dining at a French Provencal "boite," not like being squeezed into a noisy den of fabulousness. The food was rich, flavorful and soothing. The British owner, Tony, is like meeting Basil Fawlty's charming nephew. Instead of being anxious and cranky, he is good humored, gracious and attentive. Yet there is something wonderfully sarcastic underlying each compliment. For instance, if you arrived late: "Oh thank goodness you're here. We couldn't possibly start our entire dining service without knowing you were safe!" he'd say with a wink. I was first introduced to Jarnac via Sunday brunch and was so torn between corned beef hash, duck mole tamales with poached eggs, a wonderful savory french toast toast concoction that was called something like "egg on a brick" or fluffy french toast and bacon. Luckily we were in a big group and ordered everything; I could taste it all (but definitely had duck envy). Our coffees and mimosas were bottomless. We ate and drank like our stomachs and livers were too. The waiter was funny and conscientious. They also had a well-chosen, eclectic wine list that was half off on Sundays.

I finally started coming for dinner only this year at New Year's. Considering what a chaotic night that can be, Tony gentlemanly as always. Our waitress was calm and sweet. The prix fixe menu had tons of delicious options like salads of seasonal veggies and cheeses, soups and charcuterie. Entrees were a fabulous cassoulet (perfect for that icy night), venison and chicken roasts, braised fishes and pasta. Desserts were big and festive, bread pudding (but not dense), chocolate terrine, tarts. The champagne kept flowing. Daniel Radcliffe was at a nearby table entertaining a couple of babes. Helium balloons hanging everywhere. We all had noisemakers and mardi gras beads. Just after midnight, Tony and the staff went outside to let a bunch go, as was their tradition, and the balloons immediately got stuck in a nearby tree. The corpses of those dead balloons were still hanging up in that tree in mid June when we had our final meal on my birthday. They promise to re-open in some manifestation, but no word yet as to when and how.

Alfama was a Portuguese restaurant on the corner of Hudson and Perry Streets. It prided itself on being a mix of tradition and new world flair and succeeded beautifully. My first visit was on a Wednesday night with a few friends. What we didn't know when we first decided to go that night that Wednesdays were for fado, the traditional story-telling Portuguese singing, accompanied usually by a single, loud guitar. It is considered very rude to speak through a fado performance, so this made our usually convivial a little awkward. But the food was so good it didn't matter, and they took breaks often to let diners chat. We had port-soaked chourico cooked ourselves over a flame, baked clams with more chourico, pork and duck meatballs with ginger dipping sauce (a nod to the island of Macao), bacalao with cod and shredded potatoes, shrimp and other roast fishes. We had mine and John's favorite Portuguese wine, Casa de Santar, and a round of ports from their extensive menu of vintages, rubies and tawnies. John was especially impressed they carried a variety of white ports, which he had only seen in Portugal. We ordered a dessert of molten hazelnut chocolate cake with rum ice cream, which we devoured in seconds. It was so fantastic, the four of us ordered another one despite the wait, and gladly consumed another round of ports.

It wasn't till a couple of years later that a new group of friends who coincidentally were also avid patrons of the place, introduced us to the co-owner Tarcisio, who besides having a knack for hospitality, is an accomplished cocktail maven. New to the menu were a list of inventive cocktails using Portuguese spirits such as licor beirao, which he used in a drink he called "Calhambeque," which is Portuguese for "Jalopy," aka, a Sidecar! He was also starting to incorporate new ideas into the cooking. My new favorite dish was a slab of high quality filet mignon which had been marinated in garlic, brought to the table raw on a hot stone slab. So you cooked it yourself and then dipped it into sauces, accompanied by fingerling potatoes and greens. Simple and amazing. To date my favorite steak ever in the city. After this initial dinner with the new mischpucha, we formed what we called the Alfama Rectangular Table, and returned quarterly on a Monday night, with a revolving group of good friends old and new. But sadly, Alfama too too lost its lease due to a greedy landlord, and closed the same late June day as Jarnac. Again, with promises of a new beginning, but still no word as to when and how.

Then the unexpected shock of Elettaria's sudden close just yesterday! In its original inception, it seemed like it was here to stay. My friend John Isom, who I used to work with at Astor, was the beverage guru. Another Astor alum, Jessica Tantillo, was brought by chef Akhtar Nahwab from EU as his sous-chef, and Noel Cruz was the warm, hospitable co-owner and manager. The concept, (the name means the genus of the cardamom seed) was gourmet classics infused with spice and bold flavors without over-complication. My two favorite things were the revolving fresh scallop dish, which changed seasonally, and usually involved some sort of yummy pork ingredient and caramelized onions, served over greens. And the heavenly donuts, with sweet Indian spices, a fragrant, light syrup, and cardamom ice cream. It was something I proclaimed the first time I ate it (and immediately ordered seconds with my friend Ruth), that I wanted served to me on my deathbed.

The cocktails were clever riffs on pre-Prohibition classics, using high quality spirits and fresh ingredients and the wine list was well-chosen to match the food, affordable and playful. Diners sat right in front of the open kitchen, where we used to wave to Jessica before she sadly had to move back to Texas a few months ago. The bar was comfortable and social. The people behind it were constantly coming up with new ideas to keep it fresh, including a fantastic Violet Hour cocktail time every night, with great bar snacks. People I brought there always had fun. My only complaint was that it was so easy to get utterly schnoggered at the bar since you wanted to order everything, and the trip to the restroom required a a concentrated poise as you tried not to wipe out on the hardwood floor while walking the gauntlet across the crowded dining room, a right at the open kitchen, and down the stairs. I usually remembered to wear shoes with good traction. I couldn't bring myself to take part in its final night last night. Just too sad to see this happen to such a talented and gracious staff, but I heard it was fun. Good on you for going out in style, Elettaria!

Again, rumor has it, another greedy landlord situation. More promise of a new incarnation. Another culinary heartbreak. If it could, my stomach would dim its lights for you three. You will be dearly missed.

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