Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Restaurant 25: L'Ecole

RESTAURANT: L’Ecole (Restaurant of the French Culinary Institute)
LOCATION: 462 Broadway
DATE: May 20, 2005
FOOD: Five Course Tasting – Appetizer: Steamed Clams with Roasted Red Pepper, Hazelnut, and Ham; Fish Course: Red Snapper Filet in a Tart Cream Sauce, Medley of Spring Vegetables; Meat Course: Lamb Stew with Baby Vegetables; Digestive Salad; Dessert: Apple Rice Pudding Tart.
BEVERAGE: Glass of Red Wine; Decaf Coffee
PRICE: $55.00

It was time to go back to school.

Not for sociology, like I dream of, but for a more accessible love – food.

Having made a previous (surprise) visit with Libby to L’Ecole on my birthday, I had been hankering to go back to the restaurant offshoot of the French Culinary Institute ever since. The prior visit had included incredible selections such as a warm mushroom tart and delicious lamb chops, but even more memorably, the house specialty of perfectly seasoned shoestring fries.

What I failed to realize at the time, was that L’Ecole has two seatings per night, each with a different menu. In December, I ate during the earlier sitting, while my most recent visit fell during the later. As our waitress informed us, this unfortunately meant that the fries for which I had so hankered, were not available, offered only during the earlier hours. I felt like Of Human Bondage’s Philip when the prostitute he has fallen in love with informs him that she will be going only holiday with another man – namely, betrayed and dejected. However, I resolved to press on, determined to enjoy the meal regardless.

Many of L’Ecole’s chefs will go on to become stars, noteworthy for their imaginative rethinkings of food. But while at the school, attempts at innovation seem limited. L’Ecole serves very traditional French fair. But at just $31.50, the five course tasting menu is without a doubt one of the best deals in the city, so innovation be damned.

Everything I had at L’Ecole was very good. But I would have a problem calling anything exceptional. Unlike the fries from my previous visit, I won’t be lauding the merits of any of the newer dishes for weeks afterwards. For my appetizer course I selected the steamed clams with roasted red pepper, hazelnut, and ham. The clams came in a golden broth, small bright squares of red pepper and ham producing a collage effect over the gray clamshells. The presentation however was more impressive than the taste. Though the clams were tender and provided no source for complaint, the other flavors of the dish were completely innocuous. I missed the sweet of the pepper, while I tasted the salt of the ham, but not the pork.

But my fish course more than made up for anything that the clams had lacked. Red snapper is my father’s favorite seafood and I have inherited his fondness for the fish. L’Ecole’s was heavenly – seared crisp on the outside and paired with a tart, Key-Lime pie like cream sauce and crunchy fresh vegetables. I’m sure Poseidon would gladly surrender his brethren for such a meal and if children were given this type of fish while young instead of Gordon’s Fish Sticks (despite the ad’s desperate pleas, I can’t trust a man dressed like a large banana), the quantity of chicken fingers and hamburgers consumed in this country would go down exponentially.

My meat course was a lamb stew very akin to American pot roast. The lamb had obviously been simmered for hours, the care evident in the way the lamb appetizingly broke apart at the mere suggestion of my fork. The stew’s sauce was a bit heavy and the vegetables a tad plain, but the dish was an authentic version of rustic French cooking and something I like eating every so often.

Salad then prefaced dessert. While I’m all for cultural integrity, I have to say that for once, I prefer the American concept of serving salad before dinner to the French method of serving salad before dessert. Salad cleanses the palate, but shares the flavors of entrees. I prefer a small amount of sorbet before dessert to the mix of cabbage, oil and vinegar. Though I doubt either side would agree, I’d propose that the French trade their salad etiquette for ours and the U.S. trade Jerry Bruckheimer and all those involved in the American Pie debacles for Godard. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

Dessert was the most adventurous option of the night. An apple-rice pudding tart combined two dessert favorites into one in the same way John Woo manages to combine everything wrong with action films into a single obnoxious aesthetic (he has flying doves in every single movie, I mean seriously, this symbol had already been run into the ground by the time Noah used it). The dessert reminded me somewhat of Galileo’s (of Washington, D.C.) ricotta Italian tart, due less to the taste, than from the appearance and fact that both were excellent desserts without being all that sweet. I loved the way the rice pudding supported the apples and updated a traditional apple dessert to have greater flair.

L’Ecole does nothing to diminish the high-standing of French cuisine in the food hierarchy. While I still miss my fries like the puppy my parents would never let me have as a kid, there was plenty else to make L’Ecole appealing. I may have had better French food, but for $31.50, it’s hard to argue that L’Ecole isn’t worth a visit. If all such training schools were this refined, I’d be getting my haircuts for free and my teeth cleaned at the local dental college. My assignments on 20th century European history at the University of Virginia certainly never tasted this good.

RATING: 7.2/10

No comments: