I was going to be in Chelsea after a class last Wednesday night so I looked around for a place for a late bite. A couple of sources were talking about a restaurant called Varietal that was opening that day and three of the things mentioned struck me: it was a couple of blocks from school (West 25th between 6th and 7th), it was named after wine grape types (I happen to like wine), and the pastry chef, Jordan Kahn, was from Alinea (I love Alinea). So armed with this much back-story Wife and I headed over for a quick bite to check it out at close to ten on that fateful night.
Now before I go on an egocentric rant like a two-year old child about how Varietal feels like someone who reads Augieland opened a restaurant just to please me alone in the whole dining world, let me point out that they are new and they are rough and there are things to work out. That being said, assuming a fair percentage of the bumps smooth out with time and barring a huge natural disaster on 25th Street, I can see this becoming one of the great restaurants of New York.
My tastes are fickle, particular, and often slightly contrarian, and for every aspect of this restaurant that makes me happy I can see a reason it could put some people off, and that fact may be the very thing that finally draws New Yorkers to a restaurant applying the practices of the new cuisine. I am quite interested to see the reactions some of the choices evoke in others, but after a quick bite turned into a few truly enjoyable lingering hours I have this much to report:
Starting with the left taken from 6th avenue onto 25th street things get interesting. The turn is made from one of those tunnels built under scaffolding through a construction site that never surely ends until you find yourself suddenly in the middle of the next street, a pretty lonely dim one populated by a collection of windows full of mannequin parts, which is a surprisingly strange thing to walk by. I guess it makes sense that mannequin shops exist and would gather fashion district adjacent, but these are nevertheless semi-eerie to encounter. Once found, number 138 West 25th feels a little out of place for this street, as out of place as I am sure Union Square felt on 16th in the ‘80s and 71 Clinton did in the ‘90’s.
Through the door is a lounge of white hard surfaces accented with bold white architectural cubes, and a bar with a sculpture of champagne flutes fused horizontally and hung over it. The space has the feel of a small New York wine bar as conceived by the designer of the Standard. I found it a clean, well-lighted place suitable to both wine contemplation and people enjoyment, while maybe a little cold and stark at the same time.
Through a narrow hall at the southern end of the bar you enter a large, airy, square white room decorated with a chandelier made of suspended wine glass bowls, and five blow-ups of brutishly simple daylight photographs of grape bunches hanging on the vine. Upon entering it seemed sparse and austere, but also kind of delightfully minimalist. Looking back on the experience it was a warmly lit, unobtrusive space that encouraged my attention to my company and my food.
The staff was young, enthusiastic, energetic, and new. Some will laud Varietal, saying that the reason places other than WD-50 that involve the modern cuisine have not had huge success in Manhattan is that they try to be too many things to too many people, and that journeymen waiters who have made a study of ways of unobtrusively covering wine stains on linen table clothes with napkins during service are, as a type, a little restrained to translate the passions and excitement of a creative chef. Others will boorishly call the color of the uniform shirt “wine” and will find the fact that waiters have opinions they are willing to share and involve themselves in your choices a little intrusive and out of place in the dining realm. I personally was delighted to have a conversational front waiter with a culinary education who could answer my queries in detail, and reveled in the fact that he had opinions he was willing to offer and enjoyed geeking out on ideas like the right plate for presenting certain dishes.
The wine list was not yet complete so I won’t go deep into detail here other than to mention that some of the bottles seemed priced on the very expensive side of good taste. ’97 Grange is on for $700 which I am sure is explained easily by the cost of assembling a new list and applying an appropriate mark up, but since Daniel has it for $390 and they are not famous for cheap wine this would seem off market. I would say Varietal should either choose to make less on the bottle or put it away until they can profit fairly from it in the future. Of course part of me views it as a great wine, and knows that since Daniel recently sold all the ones they had at that price and it is not readily available it is possibly worth it to someone.
The glass list is well in place and well organized, involving a couple of samplings from many varietals and many places as well as some interesting flights of three for sampling, at many levels of price point that also seem on to walk on the egregious side of the current market. You could definitely justify these prices, but if your focus is to be accepted as a wine bar the price per glass should be more in line with the wholesale cost of the bottle than the retail. Most glasses are also offered as a taste portion and I imagine it will be quite fun to play around in the list and would have been Wednesday night had I made it past the master challenge, which offers three undisclosed tastes for eighteen dollars that, if properly identified, are free. Some will see this as fun, accept the challenge and know they have been served Lucieu Albrecht Pinot Gris ’02, C. Joquet Chinon’04, and Susana Balbo Malbec ’04. Of course if you are me you will guess Italian Gruner Veltliner, Long Island Cabernet Franc, and heavily oaked new world Syrah, and be delighted to be wrong.
There was nothing on the menu as it read I did not want. Of course when I saw a dish that brought together the joys of bacon and America’s second favorite legal poison (tobacco, right behind industrial corn), I had to get it. I deferred to our server for advice on an appetizer, and since one of the things that drew my attention to the place was Jordan’s Alinea pedigree I opted for the dessert tasting menu.
Amuse of puréed duck gizzards with pear and mushrooms; offal way to start; the gamey bird, earthy mushrooms and sweet apple drew accents from each other and there was an interesting contrast of texture between the chewy disk and creamy purée.
Monkfish Liver Steamed, Black Bean & Miso Pork Shoulder, Daikon: These flavors don’t as much contrast as exist in totally separate worlds. Few things are as of the ocean floor as the liver of the monkfish and its characteristics were preserved here by sake steaming. Similarly, slow-cooked shredded pork shoulder is as of the land as can be. In this case, the pork is formed into a patty, seared, and placed in a slightly-sweet/slightly-bitter black bean and miso BBQ-esque sauce. All these disparate flavors are somehow well tied together by a few light crunchy batons of daikon radish and a small disk of scallion tuile.
Baby Octopus Olive Oil Poached, Sunchokes, Salsa Verde: this dish is all about its preparation. The flavors are the clean, simple light ones of Spain. Most remarkable here is the contrast of the soft bite of the octopus flesh with the caramelized hard crunch of the suction cups. The result is a single component with two textures and two flavors, which the accoutrements play with differently depending on the ratio of flesh to sucker in the particular bite.
Grass-Fed Beef Grilled Strip & Malbec Braised Short Ribs, Bone Marrow Polenta, Leeks: I think everyone will like this, even vegetarians. The strip is tender with notes of stone and metal, the short ribs are rich, deep and toothsome, the leeks are a well suited oniony chlorophyll-bitter contrast, and the stroke of genius is the polenta (white corn grits formed in a cube around a piece of bone marrow and seared, possessing all of the traditional richness of a cornmeal cake without butter notes blowing out the corn’s sweetness).
Pork Roasted & Cider-Tobacco Braised Belly, Celery Root Puree, Baby Collards: the description lays it out pretty well. The celery root purée was buttery and rich, the celery root chip garnish was ever so slightly sweet, the tenderloin was simply roasted and sliced, the collard greens were more suggestive of bitter than bitter, and then there was the bacon. Seared until the skin was crispy, the fat and flesh were cooked a little past perfect, the flesh was tight, and the three components of the belly were almost completely separate entities. This is about the fourth dish I have tried that involves tobacco in its flavoring and it is by far the most subtle. There were smoky notes while eating it that turned into aromas in the back of my cheeks and throat similar to those after a small cigarillo when I exhaled throughout the rest of the meal.
No one will look at the desserts and not see beautiful creativity. Some may taste them and remark that mushrooms don’t belong in dessert; others will be stimulated by the new tastes. Me, I don’t care for sweet. I don’t hate sweet and often I come across what would be considered a traditional dessert that I enjoy greatly, but more often than not I would have preferred cheese, or one more course of savory; so finding a guy who keeps one foot in the traditional while exploring all of the space with the other is very much appreciated by me.
Having gotten the news from our server that a large part of our visit was based on our past experience with his offerings in Chicago, Jordan came out to meet us and chose to send two pre-desserts in advance of the four course tasting I had ordered. I will not go into all the details of the six dishes I tasted, mostly because I don’t think I could; there are many aspects to each and I will list as many as I can remember in the descriptions. On the whole I would say that although these were definitely sweeter than the items on the savory portion of the menu and involved very traditional dessert aspects, they were all truly an extension of the menu, even more liberated by the lightness the end of the meal allows.
Each dish in its own unique way plays vastly with flavor variations, some times comparing similar notions, others starkly contrasting, but mostly doing both at the same time. Flavors as familiar to dessert as chocolate, pineapple, and Concord grape work seamlessly with mastic, dried mushroom, and wood. Textures range as much as I imagine possible – light airs, spherified liquids, frozen creamy, frozen icy, loose gels, firm gels, nutty crunchy, puffed crunchy, and on and on.
Frozen Concord Grape Caramelized Eggplant Purée, Crispy Orange Blossom: icy frozen grape ribbons, viscous slightly bitter (like dark chocolate) aubergine goo, orange blossom snow, and foam, all together somehow reminiscent of the aroma of Molton Brown hand soap, in a good way ;-).
Sweet Potato Ice Cream, Caramel and Picholine Olives, Yuzu, Salt and Yogurt a thick sheet of icy orange cream folded onto itself like a bolt of fabric, dusted in sweet/salty dried olive bits, on a plate with dots of noticeably citric yuzu gel and a mild yogurt cream.
Four-Course Dessert Tasting
Folded Mango Taro Root Purée, Coffee Genoise, Tamarind: toothy thin sheets of mango intertwined with bits of kaffir lime, basil, white chocolate encapsulated coffee, frozen coffee powder, peanut nougat, thai chilis, basil gelée, and thai chili gelée.
Celery Root Abstract Fenugreek Toffee, Cocoa Nib, Yogurt, Cherry Wood Ice Cream: yep, cherry wood ice cream. You gotta trust me; it is very cool, like the smell of lumber being milled. A crisp ribbon of celery root as well as a celery root cake, and a tangy dollop of yogurt were all there and important but the novelty and curiosity and general fascination of accurately flavored and nice tasting wood ice cream stole the show for me.
White Chocolate Cubism Licorice, Pistachio, Chrysanthemum Cream, White Beer: a cube of thin white chocolate squares formed around a cake base containing the creams. This was the most traditional tasting dessert, with the addition of a dot of a coagulated concentration of white beer that sweetly evoked sense memories as diverse as good Asian meals and mornings after high school keggers in one small taste.
Chocolate Gel Pear Sorbet, Mushroom Caramel, Brown Butter: dry/crisp textures of earthy dehydrated mushrooms dotted with caramel, ribbons of gelled fudge, pear nectar encapsulated in lecithin or agar, and a poir William sorbet, as well as white foams and clear gels tasting of minty pine.
More than the use of local purveyors of artisanal products credited on the menu, the sixty-plus glasses of wine well chosen to show off differences of types around the world, a chef’s menu fairly priced and not simply smaller versions of things available in the general menu, a clean warmly lit uncluttered space, a waiter educated as a chef, foods that push the envelope while ever mindful that interesting only works in hand with pleasing, and desserts by someone I am comfortable calling a genius, what makes Varietal my favorite new restaurant in New York this year?
Well, in a year of small places praised for making traditional American dishes well, the death coughs of the Asian mega-restaurant trend, and the big fish chefs of smaller ponds coming here to give us what impressed all the tourists of their hometowns (often only to show that other places reward fussiness) this spot opened pretty quietly on a deserted street in a dead part of town and blew me away.
I regularly travel for cuisine as creative as this, always kind of accepting there may just not be a way to make it work here. But all these parts, good and bad, came together and unapologetically maintained the integrity of striving for newness at this meal in a way I imagine will finally be respected by many New York diners, and embraced by just enough.
At the end of dinner I asked Jordan who was handling their publicity because I felt I had almost missed this place and was upset by that. Later it occurred to me that places that are lauded pre-opening as home to the avant garde and make reference to guys like Ferran are almost automatically scrutinized and rejected for trying to be too smart or for just being completely wrong. I was lucky enough to wander in one night with no presuppositions, just checking out a new place in town, and Varietal allowed me to be wowed (maybe they did their job exactly right). Do yourself a favor, forget everything you have just read and go in with a child’s eyes.