New York City Restaurant Reviews and Other Matters of the Hat

In NYC for The Headwear Association’s 98th annual dinner at Tavern on the Green in Central Park, I was enthusiastic about trying a restaurant that I had seen reviewed some months previously in the NY Times. Favoring vegetarian cuisine for the past 16 years (James Rachel’s 1990 book CREATED FROM ANIMALS: The Moral Implications of Darwinism sealed this decision back then), I have been waiting for what I knew would arrive some day- Vegetarian Fine Dining. So on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day, the day after the association dinner (good event but, at best, middling meal at T on the G), I set off for the East Village and Heirloom. I wasn’t disappointed. When one enters most vegetarian restaurants, what is almost always palpable is the fidelity of the staff to the work. It feels good to be at a business where the people working there have a passion for what they are doing. In the case of vegetarian restaurants, for most staff, it is also a philosophical conviction that they are doing is the right thing.* So in Heirloom, you are met by hip, attractive, friendly well-dressed hostesses, wait persons, bar tenders, with whom you are on the same wave length (there’s also something sexy about this – but unfortunately I am old enough to be these people’s father). They might be cut from the same cloth as the jeans and t-shirt people that you encounter in most veggie joints, but here we’re all playing dress-up – it’s fun, it’s sophisticated, the décor is cool, it’s all well done. It’s also an important statement – Vegetarianism** is not mutually exclusive from fine dining.

On to the food: I’m seated with a good view of the bar and the front door – I’m catching the scene – I am happy. The wine menu is interesting, but California is conspicuously absent as are the great pinot noirs of Oregon. I’m not sure what this is about (I hope not another example of pretentious New York demonstrating their imprudent superiority by dissing California in favor of Europe- I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt). The two different reds I ordered (glasses) were good – the quality was right for the price. The menu is simple – a good idea – divided into “First Course” and “Second Course”. This works very well as one doesn’t need a lot of choices as one can eat everything on the menu. Vegetarians are usually eliminating four-fifths or more of a menu right out of the gate in most restaurants. So after seriously considering “Truffled Portobello Crostini with Apple Celeric Compote: balsamic vinegar reduction, truffle corstini and lavender honey”, I go with “Sous-Vide Poached Egg with Crispy Sweet Potato: meyer lemon foam, greens and horseradish oil”. Both my waitress and the server make the point that I should thoroughly mix the various parts of this dish before eating. Wow! What a brilliant idea – this really works. You’ve got warm-cool, crispy-soft, bland-spicy, runny-dry, and lots of great flavors all happening in harmony. This was the big winner of the night. I was having more trouble picking a “Second Course”. I intended to go with the favorite of the NT Times reviewer, but it was no longer on the menu. I settled on something unusual (for me at least), “Anson Mills Creamy Grits with Smoked Hominy: avacado, queso fresco and roasted tomato-poblano salsa”. I surmised that this down-home, mid-America sounding dish would be just the ticket for my weekend theme – don’t accept New York as cutting-edge Mecca on reputation alone.*** Well, this dish was fine, but it couldn’t keep up with the superior opening act. After couple of bites, I did come to appreciate the simple comfort food that was the objective. But the dessert almost did measure up to the appetizer – “Black Cocoa Cake, with Chocolate-Bourbon Glaze: sweet chestnut filling and espresso ice cream”. (Like most of the rest of the world) I consider myself an authority on chocolate – this was great. And the big surprise was that the chef de cuisine herself, Amanda Cohen, served me. After a perfunctory inquiry about the meal, she mentioned that she noticed I was carrying the Times review. Given the fact that I had had this article tightly folded into the palm of my hand and was reading it very discreetly, Ms. Cohen’s observation really impressed me. And that says something else about Heirloom – people are paying attention to their diners. As a merchant myself, that virtually says it all.

On Saturday afternoon, I caught the R-train for Brooklyn and visited with Tom Toomey, certainly one of the finest California hat store managers of the 1980s. Tom was a pioneer in the, now full-blown, downtown San Diego renaissance when he managed The Village Hat Shop in the then new Horton Plaza. Many years after his tenure at the hat store, customers would regularly come in asking for and about him. After a long stint in Russia and surrounds, he has settled in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and is following his passion for art – http://www.tcatdesigns.com. We took a long walk in his neighborhood and ultimately landed at Al Di La Restaurant. And what a good landing it was! Everything was top notch at this restaurant including the best entrée of the weekend, the truffles and ricotta ravioli.

Briefly: For an over-priced brunch at the Carnegie Deli you can get insulted by grumpy old-school waitresses at no extra charge. Dukes on Broadway in Midtown makes a good sandwich (hot or cold) highlighted by the bread.

And the winners are:

Heirloom – On Orchard Street near Houston in the East Village.

Al Di La – On the corner of 5th Avenue and Carrol in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

* I spent that afternoon at The Museum of Modern Art where a MOMA lecturer argued that the modern “art object” need not be beautiful, need not be skillfully executed, need not be tangible. Nothing mattered but “the idea” and that all ideas are fair game today with no cannons and no rules. She argued for a kind of relativism where all ideas are equal and nothing mattered other than if the art was “interesting”. She used examples of “artists” shooting themselves in the foot or nailing themselves to a Volkswagen as arguably having merit as art. She, the lecturer, refused to pass any judgments on these so-called works of art (or anything for that matter). In the end, it was hyper-academic drivel – really unnerving. I was left believing that this borough, where the St. Patrick’s Day parade organizers had refused to let gays and lesbians march, was in fact really as provincial as some argue. [But Heirloom, where something mattered, saved the day for Manhattan.]

** My philosophy professor friend (and a native New Yorker) argues that not eating animals is really quite conservative philosophy – anything but an eccentric stretch in thinking. For those of you still grappling with this question, ask yourself if your cousins should suffer so that they can be your food. Then realize that we are all animals differing only by some matter of degree.

*** I met Diane Feen, the editor of the yearly HAT LIFE Directory and bi-monthly HAT LIFE Newsletter at Bergdorf-Goodman, a NYC department store temple, for a visit to the men’s and women’s hat departments and lunch. Hats were way over-priced and their “lunch special” fussilli that I ordered was runny and tasteless (I think they opened a can of tomato sauce and poured it on poorly drained pasta – no kidding) – this was the worst meal I can remember eating at a restaurant in a long time ($18!). And, everywhere you looked, women were wearing full-length fur coats (okay with MOMA I guess, but it would be equally okay if I tossed a gallon of blood on these ignoramuses). What are these pathetic people thinking? This could never happen in California.

Fred Belinsky

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