(An exquisite scallop on the Surf & Turf at Colicchio & Sons)
Colicchio & Sons (85 Tenth Ave at 15th St.)
Ted Allen in his unmistakable dark-rimmed glasses sits at the bar awaiting his lunch partner who turns out to be none other than the James Beard and Emmy Award winning Top Chef himself, Tom Colicchio. The two retreat to a private dining room within the heart of Colicchio & Sons, and I would love to be a fly on the wall in that room where it eventually appears through frosted glass that two or three others have joined them for a meeting. Talk about a culinary celebrity power lunch...
Moments later, an immaculately dressed and striking younger gentleman arrives at the table to take our drink order. My comrade, Pete, struggles with his beer selection, and after attempting to describe what he is seeking, the man momentarily leaves the table, only to return a split second later with a sampling of three different brews, the copper-colored and ambitiously hoppy Brooklyn Brewery Detonation Ale winning Pete's favor.
We are dining in the Tap Room, formerly the lounge at Craftsteak before it reopened as Colicchio & Sons. Separated from the main dining room (above) only by an enormous steel-framed glass wine tower, the Tap Room is a somewhat less formal room with an exciting selection of brews accompanying its own menu, a slightly scaled down version of the dining room menu in both intricacy of dishes and pricing. Beneath us, a madras patchwork rug of various patterns. Overhead, the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? The formal main dining room, open only for dinner service, features two tasting offerings for $95 and $135. Today, we are enjoying a 3-course Restaurant Week prix fixe lunch for $24.07 in the Tap Room, although if lunch was any indication, dinner in the main dining room is worth every penny of its price tag.
Our meal begins with a delicious spin on lox with cream cheese, reconceived here as glistening grapefruit colored medallions of incomparably tender fatty salmon on a bed of velvety smooth creme fraiche; and instead of citrus to cut the richness, tiny cubed cider apples add both a sweet and tart crunch, elevating both the flavors and texture.
We are both left speechless by our second appetizer, a terrine of braised beef short ribs and oxtail, with pistachios and a teardrop smear of piquillo pepper sauce. Braised to delicate tenderness and formed into a terrine, the duo of exceptionally flavorsome cuts of beef are then sliced like a paté, offering familiar flavors in an unfamiliar but delicious presentation. The beautiful tangerine-colored piquillo sauce was both sweet and smoky, only mildly spicy, and extremely addictive.
The same gentleman who took both our drink and dinner order turned out to be the Colicchio & Sons General Manager, Scott Sozmen (with an impressive resume that includes Craft, Spice Market, and Per Se), who again arrived at the table when our pizza came. "I hope you don't mind that I took the liberty to ask the chef to do something special," he grinned, "but since you had debated so much between the two pizza choices, I asked him to prepare you a half pie of each." It was a very kind gesture, and one that we appreciated very much.
The pizzas, available in the Tap Room, are cooked in the gas-fired Wood Stone oven that is practically on the border of the seating area. The pies appear to be a gourmet high-bred of the more artisan neapolitan pie and a classic personal New York pie. The crust bubbles in the high temperatures of the oven, and then sighs to create a deliciously doughy and buttery crust with just a hint of crispness along the edges. The first half of our pie was topped with small dollops of a creamy ricotta, squid-ink colored strands of black cabbage, and paper thin ribbons of speck, which added a wonderful smokiness to the pizza.
Pete proclaimed the second half of the pizza to be best he has ever had. I will have to admit that it would certainly rank up there in my top five. Earthy wild mushrooms, salty sopressata, and a blanket of taleggio cheese that has a rather bold aroma, but a surprisingly mild and salty finish. It is one of my favorite cheeses, and melted harmoniously with the toppings on this fantastic pizza. But the player here that made the pizza was the generous slathering of soffritto, a carefully sauteed and lightly browned reduction of minced vegetables, garlic and onion shining the brightest. Usually a base for other sauces, it was a brilliant pizza spread.
Adam Platt named the C&S pork belly BLT one of the best 35 pork dishes in New York, and if the Tap Room Surf & Turf is any indication, I can most definitely understand why. Here, the pork belly is rendered delicately tender with intense flavor and caramel-colored crunchy outer coating. The turf sings a duet with the best surf I have savored in quite awhile, two flawlessly seared scallops that fall into delicate slivers at the mere whisper of the knife, each bite a wondrously buttery palate-tickler of a most exceptional filet mignon of the ocean. As with all of the dishes we enjoyed, Chef Colicchio's expert preparation and manipulation of the most simple, natural flavors proves him far more than a celebrity, reminding us of the artistry that elevated his craft to such fame. While the dollop of bacon-mayo could quite easily be licked alone by the upside-down spoonful, when scallops and pork are prepared this beautifully, you hardly want to hide the flavor at all, no matter how seductive the condiment.
When a plate makes me laugh, you know that I have fallen in love. And you could not really do much to peel the smile from face after my initial few spoonfuls of the potato gnocchi. Push your fork aside, and take full advantage of your spoon, because the broth is intoxicatingly salty, buttery, and delicious. Enormous potato gnocchi the size of a plump thumb are unbelievably delicate and light, allowing them to soak up the harmony of all of the flavors in this dish. Black-eyed peas add a sweetness and pop, which complemented the savory and tender chunks of sopressata , all woven with glistening ribbons of cavolo nero (black kale), crowned with a golden-browned dusting of bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. In a cast iron dish prepared in the oven, it was a flavor playground that kept us grinning with every bite.
From pastry chef Stephen Collucci came some of the most delicious desserts in the city, each maintaining the integrity of Colicchio's signature stamp of culinary excellence within the framework of simplicity. The vanilla ice cream parfait was built with spongy cubes of a rich red velvet cake, a lava stream of warm fudge, and crunchy oreo cookie crumbles. A sophisticated sundae reminiscent of the basic desserts you loved as a kid: cake, cookies, and ice cream.
Zeppoles have never tasted so heavenly than the handful tucked into a folded linen napkin, each warm, surprisingly moist and almost almond-kissed sweet, dusted with a snowfall of confectioner's sugar. A ramekin of warm butterscotch we nearly licked clean with our fingers accompanies, but the quenelle of malted milk ice cream pushed us over the edge with glee. Like a sublimely smooth, chilled, creamy center of a malted milk ball, it was yet another simple, delicious morsel that elevated a familiar flavor with innovation.
Peanut butter hot chocolate is usually far too rich and thick for me at the end of a meal (or any time of day, really), but at C&S the thermal glass mug of cocoa is paired with homemade peanut butter marshmallows and a quenelle of whipped cream that swirl together for the perfect warmer before a long winter walk on the High Line, where Colicchio & Sons has seasonally served donuts, cider, and soups (wish I could have tried the lentil short rib they served!) near the entrance across the street from the restaurant. As the High Line only seems to be offering concession licenses a month at a time, check to see when Colicchio & Sons will next be featured. Better yet, start your visit to the park in the sky even earlier, and enjoy a full meal in the Tap Room beforehand.
As a very generous final touch and an effort to prove that the restaurant week menu was considered very carefully to reflect the usual menu, we were presented with a gift card for $20.11 at the end of our meal as an invitation to return in 2011 for the full menu offerings. While it certainly made the meal even sweeter, we would have come back regardless. Colicchio & Sons is serving up some of the most exciting American cuisine in the city with an unprecedented level of hospitality.