There are, I’m willing to admit, celebrity chefs whose food and personality I very much enjoy. One such example is the delight I get when I hear Alton Brown announce “Sous chef Anne Burell making one of her famous pastas” on Iron Chef. Ms. Burell works as Mario Batali’s sous chef on the show, and I started making handmade pasta dough only after watching her endless parade of beautifully mixed doughs on my screen. Thus, I was not going to pass up a chance to dine at her latest culinary venture, Centro Vinoteca, while I was in New York. We arrived early for our reservation, having cut short our walk in the East Village due to the pouring rain. We were sat immediately, all through the night service was impeccable. We began with four piccolini, the miniature starters offered before the appetizers. These ranged from good to amazing. At the good level were the marinated anchovies. Marinated in lemon, I would say, they had a very sharp flavor, which I enjoyed. I enjoyed the sharp flavor even more when we were later given a basket of bread and my palate had a foil to the acidity of the fish. B rather enjoyed the goat cheese with pepperonata, though I was less enthused. I found the smokiness of the pepper overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the goat cheese that accompanied it. A good dish, for sure, but with a stronger cheese or lighter smoke, with the potential to be great. A bigger hit was the stir-fried olives. Simplicity is the latest trend in cooking, and Burell exemplifies it here by lightly stir-frying a variety of olives in olive oil. The heat of the pan enhances the texture of the skins, while the frying intensifies the flavor. It was as if she had taken an average olive and transformed it into a superolive. Lastly, the biggest hit of the piccolini, the fried cauliflower. In reading the NY Times review of this place, they said that this woman can fry. I don’t usually bother with fried foods, but with a review like that, I had to try. The pieces came with a delicious garlic aioli, however, I didn’t feel that my cauliflower desired a sauce, as the caramalized taste of cauliflower was rich and pleasing. The fry was done perfectly, not a trace of extra grease or sogginess. The texture and crunch of the cauliflower were perfect, and shone through the light layer of breading. I know it is hard to believe that a small piece of cauliflower could be so transcendant, but its the truth.
We shared one appetizer, easily the winner of the night, calamari noodles in broth. It was again, very simple, calamari cut into noodle like strips floating in a simple broth with a hint of lemon, black olives, arugula and little rounds of potato. While the potato I could take or leave, the rest of the dish surpassed my expectations of just how good squid in broth could get. The spice of the arugula matched the mild tartness of the black olives, while the potatos offered a crunch to contrast the touch of chew left in the calamari. This was certainly a dish for the winners circle.
For our main dishes, we chose to get a pasta each, as that is, after all what we came to eat. B chose the bucatini alla amatriciana. Having recently read the NY times article about this dish, I thought it had sounded good. The dish was. The bucatini (like an extra fat spaghetti) were perfectly cooked, there was the right amount of sauce and everything tasted great. It was still, though, as B pointed out, sort of a glorified spaghetti and meatballs. I chose the evenings special, whole wheat tagliatelli with pumpkin, broccoli rabe and pumpkin seeds in a broth and olive oil sauce. I know it sounds like something out of a health food store, but this whole wheat pasta avoided the common overly-al dente chew of many such pastas, and the crunch of the pumpkin seeds made for hidden treasures floating in the broth sauce.
The special treat for dessert? As we walked out B turned to me and said, “Look! There’s Anne Burell, and she is PISSED!” Sure enough, there was her spike blonde mop of hair, in the pass window asking, as we lip read, “What the fuck is this?” To some poor cook. It was awesome.
Later that week, we ended up at Ms. Burell’s mentor’s restaurant, that of the venerable (Seattle Native) Mario Batali. We had come to Otto with just one purpose: Olive oil gelato. Sure enough, there it was. We ordered it up, along with ricotta flavor and butterscotch pecan. It is easy to understand how this man became a star as you eat these simple scoops of gelato, just one of many flavors, of many desserts, of many dishes, and think just how delicious it is. The olive oil was certainly the star, like sucking down creamy versions of high end olive oil, and the real treat was the occaisional crunch into a piece of the sea salt sprinkled atop.