A Balanced Food Philosophy

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What you’ll first notice when you enter Rouge Tomate is how utterly spotless every sparkling surface is. The unusually spacious and gently lit main dining room, which seats 120, is outfitted with graceful bare wooden tables, cream leather booths and crimson candleholders at each table—a small splash of color in an otherwise mostly beige space.

We eventually discovered that a number of unusual factors are at work at Rouge Tomate. It’s the only restaurant I know of that employs a culinary nutritionist, Natalia Rusin, to collaborate with the executive and pastry chefs. For the prevailing philosophy at the restaurant is “S.P.E.,” Sanitas Per Escam (health through food), a culinary movement formed by dieticians and chefs that goes beyond mere nutrition to embrace three components: sourcing (using primarily if not exclusively seasonal ingredients), preparation (employing cooking methods that preserve the nutritional qualities and integrity of those ingredients) and enhancement (promoting the interaction of ingredients to create as much menu diversity as possible).

Crimson candleholders and other subtle touches add small splashes of color in an otherwise mostly beige space.

Crimson candleholders and other subtle touches add small splashes of color in an otherwise mostly beige space.

As fussy as this all may sound, it really works wonders. Sometimes a restaurant can get too caught up in a philosophy and the food and service suffer. Not Rouge Tomate. My partner and I were truly overcome by the intensity and freshness of the flavors, and by some of the most unusual but effective combinations I’ve encountered since Paul Liebrandt was at the stoves at Atlas combining lamb tenderloin with cardamom and champagne grapes.

The menu proudly lists the local farms and fisheries that use sustainable practices and supply the kitchen. Executive chef Jeremy Bearman worked the kitchens at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas and db Bistro Moderne in Manhattan. He is more than up to the uncommon and rather daunting task of fulfilling the principles of S.P.E. His dishes soar with flavor. And the emphasis on freshness, especially now that spring is in full swing, is almost startling.

The entire staff seems genuinely proud and happy to be working there. Our dapper server, Adrian, is consummately skilled and centered, and he guided us in all the right directions during our rather atypical ride.

Even beverage director Rainlove Lampariello’s house cocktails are quite unusual. “Ramos Fizz” is an intensely refreshing though improbable combination of gin, lemon juice, orange juice, orange bitters, yogurt and soda. “After Eight” blends vodka, homemade mint juice and Valrhona chocolate puree, but instead of just tasting like a chocolate mint, it has a certain fresh milky quality, with plenty of fresh mint flavor.

The tawny slices of bread are served, at least currently, with a thick verdant puree of asparagus sprinkled with crumbled walnuts. Each mouthful makes you deeply thankful that it’s finally spring.

We loved a chilly and ruddy gazpacho gelée topped with avocado mousse, one of the tastiest ideas gazpacho ever encountered.

A fat slice of duck and pistachio pâté is plated with crunchy pickled rhubarb chunks and pickled spring onions, with browned slices of sourdough toast, whole grain mustard and pureed rhubarb. I’ve never had—nor heard of—pickled rhubarb, but it turned out to be another very good idea.

Slices of house-cured Alaskan king salmon are on one of the most artfully arranged plates I’ve ever seen. Tiny baby flowers are placed all around the gleaming white plate, which is centered by carefully stacked tender-crisp haricots verts stirred with dilled thick Greek yogurt and surrounded by lines of sweet mustard.

Grass-fed New York strip steak is served in ruby and buttery slices that are literally spoon tender. In fact, all the dishes were so user-friendly that I didn’t touch my knife all night. A potato fleischnacke (pureed potatoes wrapped in pasta dough and sliced) is topped by a heap of mâche and pickled ramps, finished with a warm minced mushroom vinaigrette.

Firm, snow-white halibut is crusted with crushed hazelnuts, and set on a bed of cool soba noodles, which keep the fish from overcooking. The dish also features strips of jicama and radish, and the plate is strewn with finely sliced young cucumbers.

The dessert course is accorded as much importance as the other courses—in fact, the menu refers to it as the “Third Course.” Pastry chef James Distefano and chef Bearman are right on the same page.

Mango and pineapple carpaccio features coconut tapioca parked on a thick layer of rummy macadamia cake, draped with shavings of mango and pineapple and finished with mango and pineapple sorbet.

Happy is the banana who wanders into Distefano’s kitchen area: a luscious banana-chocolate petit-four is alongside a caramelized banana Napoleon, roasted banana sorbet and a demitasse of thick hot cocoa.

The operative word to describe everything about Rouge Tomate, from the food to the service to the décor, is balance. And it’s the kind of balance that very few other restaurants come this close to achieving. Lots of conspicuously interesting and in-the-know people come to Rouge Tomate, and it’s certainly easy to see why.

tom@hugeflavors.com

Rouge Tomate
10 E. 60th St.
Between Madison and
Fifth avenues
646-237-8977
Entrees: $24 to $39

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