A Lounge That Wants to be a Restaurant… or Vice Versa

Written by Matthew DeBord on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



Church Lounge


Tribeca Grand Hotel

2 6th Ave. (White St.)

519-6677



This fall,
I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited, through the machinations of
a publicist somewhere, to the Italian Culinary Institute twice. On each occasion,
I was treated to a really splendid meal.


It didn’t
hurt that the chefs who had been brought in for the dinners were working with
white truffles. My fellow diners and I had found ourselves smack-dab in the
middle of truffle season, and Urbani, one of the world’s foremost purveyors
of the coveted tuber (along with a mess of other culinarily luxurious products)
wanted to pull out all the stops. We sniffed raw truffles and nibbled truffle
appetizers and slurped truffled pastas and wolfed down truffled entrees and
finished everything off with truffled desserts. The wine flowed. Conversation
was lubricious and civilized. It was fun. We felt, all of us, marked by fortune
and, truffle-filled and rosy, we gloried in the brief glow of bliss that great
food can engender.


The chefs were
impressive. Apart from the wonderful opportunity to eat truffles–and don’t
ever pass this up, even if you don’t really get truffles–I
wanted to scout kitchen talent. The ICI did not disappoint. Both of the dinners
I attended were prepared by young, innovative chefs currently overseeing honest-to-God
real-life New York restaurants. A fairly classical treatment of the considerable
on-hand white truffle supply was delivered by Maurizio Marfoglia, of the Upper
East Side’s Revel. A slightly more madcap and far less calorically or cholesterolically
restrained performance was turned in by Rob Miketa, of Church Lounge, in the
Tribeca Grand Hotel.


It would be
unfair to draw distinctions between the two men. Marfoglia chose to stick pretty
close to the idea that white truffles are best shaved over simple, lush dishes
immediately prior to presentation. When his food was slipped under our noses,
it was not difficult to find the slivered truffles. They issued their funky
bouquet through faint curls of appetizing steam. Miketa, on the other hand,
practices a style that is far more French (though not unmodified–he specializes
in dense reductions, slowly concentrating flavors rather than larding them on
after the fact). For him, the truffles were ancillary, mere components in a
more elaborate matrix. Helpful, but hardly the main event.


The contrast
between French and Italian cooking could not have been more vivid: Marfoglia,
with his blanched and marinated squash medley, lightly drizzled with pumpkin
seed oil, then adorned with white truffle shards; Miketa, carefully constructing
a tart of onion confit with the truffles worked in there someplace, I forget
where (and in the end, I couldn’t taste them, not really, but I sensed
that they were there). The minimalist. The maximalist. The respectful Italian
ingredientist. The passionate practitioner of French technique. Simplicity.
Complexity. Back and forth.


In any case,
I vowed to visit both Revel and Church Lounge, to see what Marfoglia and Miketa
could do in their own elements, on their respective home turfs. I got to Miketa
first.


The Tribeca
Grand, if you haven’t dropped by yet, is truly–truly and genuinely–something
else.


I can’t
even begin to describe it in the space allotted here. Just go. It’s free.
They probably won’t hassle you too much if you tell them all you want to
do is check it out. Church Lounge fills most of the sunken first floor, at the
bottom of a soaring atrium. It’s loungey in the way that all lounges are
these days: moody, slick, lambent. There are tuffets and spongy velvet chairs
and many, many small votive candles. Attractive, but I was concerned. I had
half expected Miketa’s forum to be…I don’t know, more restaurant-like.
A lounge, however, is a lounge. The hotel doesn’t argue against this, either;
check out the website (tribecagrand.com), and you’ll discover that Church
Lounge is not intended to evoke an actual restaurant. Instead, the scheme is
to attract those droves of nightcrawling hipsters who prowl lower Manhattan
in constant search of a moveable feast of small, nibbly foods, to be washed
down with kandy-kolored kocktails and secondhand smoke.


Undeterred
by this realization–and quite enraptured by the drama of the space, especially
after a mostly naked Asian woman spent several bosomy seconds spilling out of
her dress while teetering across the room–my companion and I took in the
bar. A pretty swell place to meet for a drink downtown, we concluded. Even if
the bartenders seemed distracted, borderline zombified, half the time. (I sat,
alone, prior to my companion’s arrival, for a good 10 minutes before anyone
actually noticed me, and though I am innocuous, I’m not that innocuous.)
Overall, Church Lounge’s service could use some work. The staff seems large
and reasonably well cast, but undrilled. They float and drift. They exist in
waitressy bubbles of self-regard. They are not pros, and at the prices Church
Lounge is charging for food, they need pros.


Despite all
this, I was prepared to be dazzled by Miketa’s food. Unfortunately, I was
not. We ordered a starter of grilled octopus with fennel sausage and Provençal
vegetables, which more or less succeeded, but it also struck me as fundamentally
lacking in innovation. Sure, sure, sausage. Cool. Still, you can eat this basic
dish at a dozen (and maybe two or three dozen) places around town. A more exotic
selection might have been the goat cheese tart, with onion confit, beet puree
and thyme. Or the "Spanish Kisses": dates stuffed with Manchego cheese,
wrapped in serrano ham.


Feeling wintery,
when it came time for entrees, we went for the grilled pork loin and roasted
loin of venison, and while these were both robust and delicious, they, too,
were very basic. The sides were basic. (Okay, celeriac-potato gratin, with my
venison, plus a sauce of cranberries, black walnuts and scotch, is maybe not
"basic" in the most basic sense, but still, the plates were set up
in a dispiritingly meat-and-potatoes fashion.)


Where was all
that technique I had seen Miketa use? Where was the craft?


Worsening my
impressions was the wine service. The list–which I was informed is undergoing
some revision–is intriguing and bedecked with some pretty fabulous selections.
But Church Lounge has no sommelier proper (a glaring oversight, if you ask me,
given the obvious ambitions of the hotel). They also appear to lack much in
the way of stemware. We ordered a ’95 Brunello di Montalcino–a husky
Tuscan red from a terrific vintage–and were forced to drink it from chunky,
long-stemmed, small-bowled glasses that had been perched on the table long before
we sat down. Horrifying. Swirling was impossible, sniffing difficult. We’re
talking about a fairly pricey bottle of wine here, and furthermore, one that
would definitely have benefited from more delicate stemware, with a fuller bowl.


My core problem
with Church Lounge it this: there’s a misfit between the implied patronage
and the chef. Miketa has some chops. Compelling him to develop a menu that actually
forces his kitchen to churn out sauteed baby spinach and pan-seared filet mignon
is, therefore, humiliating. Forget about the four-cheese ravioli with a tomato-basil
sauce. I will, gladly, because it’s beneath him. The setting, to be sure,
is chic. And that’s probably bad for the food.





Back to the
Italian Culinary Institute for a moment. The operation recently sent me a copy
of their newest cookbook, Signature Pasta: America’s Top 26 Chefs Share
Their Best Pasta Recipes
.


Now, up front
I must point out that the subtitle should read 26 of America’s Top Chefs,
because many of the chefs who have contributed recipes, while undoubtedly talented,
would not automatically make an objective Top 26 list. Nevertheless, the tremendous
advantage that this cookbook has over most is that you might actually want to
prepare some the dishes included between its covers.


The truth is,
I think I could tackle every recipe in Signature Pasta, with a minimal
threat to my personal sanity, and with none of the hemming and hawing and gradual
diminishment of vigor that goes along with taking on the recipes published in
most cookbooks, especially the ones authored by "celebrity" chefs.


Signature
Pasta
, above all, is a cookbook for the culinarily disadvantaged. I don’t
mean culinarily retarded. These are all pasta recipes, so you need a modicum
of competence to pull them off (boil water, saute garlic, chop things). But
you won’t require a freezer full of lovingly nurtured sauces; it’s
not necessary to have scoured the city’s outdoor markets for exotic produce
or strange creatures of the sea. This is a straightforward cookbook, assembled
by pros, and the pros aren’t afraid to include dishes as simple as the
classic spaghetti aglio e olio (the noodles dressed with nothing more than a
garlic-infused olive oil) or fusilli with tomato filets.


A winner, at
$22.95, ably assembled by Paolo Villoresi and the redoubtable Micol Negrin.
Pick up a copy, wrap it up all nice and tuck it under the tree for someone you
love.


..