Friday, February 10, 2012

The Peach or the Prune?

It just lay there like a dead fish.
I came to New York for this cookbook conference and it is even more fascinating and overstimulating than I had predicted. More about the conference later, if I can think of a way to write about it that won't read like boardroom minutes.

Meanwhile, in my limited free time, two gastronomic adventures to report:

1. Because I loved Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir so much, the first culinary goal of the trip was to refresh my tattered 8-year-old mental snapshot of her restaurant, Prune. I remembered it as tiny, shabby and merely okay.

Here's the new snapshot: Tiny, tiny, tiny, and shabby, but in a chic way (though not "shabby chic") and staffed by offhand young women in pink t-shirts.  Pappadums instead of bread. Jars of what appear to be home-pickled onions for martinis on the bar. Open kitchen. Mirrors. Uncomfortable stools. Expensive. For appetizer I ordered fennel with butter and trout roe. The fennel, cooked to melting tenderness, bathed in a thick butter sauce and was saved from unctuousness by small orbs of salty orange roe that burst when you bit into them. It was dreamy.

Entree: less good. Ordered roast branzino, which I never see on California menus and which sounded exotic and enticing. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but what appeared was a gray trout-size fish on a plate with a wedge of lemon and a few twigs of thyme. Not exotic, not enticing, and lacking relish, sauce, chutney, or side vegetable, not very interesting to eat. I like a bite of this, a bite of that, not just fish, fish fish, fish, fish, you're done. It was tasty fish, but too austere for me.

Overall an enjoyable meal, but I prefer Hamilton's writing to her restaurant.

2. After last week's bo ssam dinner and the Christina Tosi near-win in the Tournament of Cookbooks, I also wanted to try a David Chang restaurant. Last night a friend and I went to Ma Peche on 56th Street, behind and below Milk Bar where Isabel and I bought cereal milk soft-serve and compost cookies last summer.

Ma Peche has a vast and glamorous dining room, gauzily lit and theatrical. Could not be less Prune like. We were attended to by two waiters, both skinny boys in t-shirts who looked young, jaded, and tired. I like to think I don't gush too much so you will believe me when I say this was one of the best meals of my life. Not top 10, but probably top 100. Started with a "Last Flight to Mexico" cocktail, which is a mezcal-based Aviation and worth every single empty calorie. Each dish that followed was perfect: raw mackerel; steak tartare; broccoli salad; brussels sprouts. I wish I could offer more detail, but I didn't analyze, just ate and felt very lucky. There are lots of negative reviews of Ma Peche, like this one. I'm not going to let them sway me.

I wanted to try to try a Serbian burger this trip, but tomorrow is full so that probably won't happen. Home Sunday.


  1. Why does a writer as good as you like a book as bad as Hamilton's? A mystery!

  2. Ma Peche...swoon. Chang's empire is my holy grail of to-visit restaurants. I agree, that fish looks like just fish. If you ever get to Austin you have to try Uchi or Uchiko--they are on my top 10 list.

  3. The Prune dinner sounds cold. The diffident wait staff, the slab of lonely fish. At least they could have boned the branzino for you at table.

    I admire Hamilton's prose, but I did not like her memoir. Mostly because I found her utterly unlikeable. She whined incessantly and mostly without good reason, I thought. I also found her attitude toward her mother as monstrous as the figure she painted of the old woman at the end of the book. At the start of the book, her mother seemed like a goddess: chic, warm, interesting, not to mention it was she who instilled Hamilton with her love and reverence for food. But at the end of the book on a trip to show her mother her grandchild, Hamilton was comparing her mother to a poisonous spider, among other terrible things. It was the writer's venom, however, that seemed most deadly, especially as it seemed to issue out of nowhere. There was no plausible explanation for why the mother turned, in her daughter's eyes, from a nurturing presence to a life-threatening force of evil. It seemed unforgivably cruel and immature and left me with a very sour taste.

  4. @Ginny -- now I want to go to ALL his restaurants
    @Anon & Steven -- practically everyone I know disliked GH's book, or liked with big qualifications. I just loved the writing and maybe it blinded me to flaws. Agree she seems to be a very problematic person.

  5. i recently dined at prune and had a really mediocre slice of greyish roast pork that didn't seem to be of the best quality meat from the start.
    the only saving grace was that i found sitting at the bar to be romantic (if you go with the right companion), and they do have fernet branca on hand for a true digestif, which you need after dining there.

  6. So glad I didn't go to Prune. I was tempted, just to see, but was so underenthused by the menu I took a pass. Sad I missed Ma Peche, though!