July 26, 2008

No. 9 Park

For my birthday, we gathered a bunch of dear friends and booked a table for 10 in the Cafe room of No. 9 Park. The dishes listed in the Cafe's menu seemed actually more appealing on the whole than those in the main room, and I figured a prix fixe structure might have a better chance of mitigating this group's natural gluttony into something vaguely approaching diet-friendly. (Let's face it, I am not going to *actually* diet at my birthday dinner.)

Whether or not we were successful in maintaining sensible restraint can perhaps be debated, but of much greater importance is the insane deliciousness of everything we were served. We arrived very early, so we ordered cocktails at the bar (I recommend the pear martini if you like sweet, and the pegu club in general). I was famished, so we ordered 6 oysters to share, and these turned out to be very briny little fellers of exceptional quality, with mignonette (my favorite) to turn them out perfectly.

The bartender mentioned that while at the bar (6 inches from our table for 10) we could order from the main room's menu also, but not once seated -- which of course meant I scrutinized that menu for any other little treasure we might need to sample. Thereby we came into possession of a plate of exquisite homemade corn agnolotti, in a creamy mustard-yellow sauce apparently made of pureed chanterelles and cream, with tiny sauteed chanterelles and chives. I have heard that the signature plum gnocchi are stupendous, and I had every intention of returning to the bar for a plate of these as post-dessert, but we ended up too full -- next time. (There will *definitely* be a next time.)

The Cafe prix fixe consists of starter, main and dessert. Uncharacteristically, many of us were drawn to the same dishes, so there were lots of plates of steak tartare and gnocchi with peas and lobster, both excellent. The tartare is actually just a tiny shade better than the lovely one over at Eastern Standard, piquant with pickles and capers, and smoothed by brioche toast points and -- be still my heart -- truffle aioli. The gnocchi was fluffy while still being chewy, a paradox i rather enjoy, in a creamy, lightly truffled sauce with a few big chunks of lobster and a scattering of peas and button mushroom bits.

The cod and potatoes was a big winner, with bits of sweet corn and butter-foam draped over the fish and potato, and I have to say: when a kitchen can make a dish out of simple, bland ingredients like these and have it trump a plate of confit duck (delicious itself, with cauliflower puree and dreamy duck leg and rillettes), I will follow that kitchen anywhere.

The duck liver mousse is excellent, with sweet onion topping and dark toast, and had it not been so hot outdoors I probably would have ordered that myself instead of the tartare. The roasted bone marrow arrives as a massive Stonehenge of vertical marrow bones, blanketed in a forest of flat parsley leaves and capers and flake salt -- also a huge hit all around.

The gorgonzola fondue of lamb and brioche is all you could hope for -- a big white crock of gray-blue melty goodness surrounded by perfectly rare bits of roast lamb and brioche triangles and a tangle of pea shoot salad. Again, had it not been so humid I would have been all over this instead of the gnocchi. The roasted sea bass I didn't actually get any of, but there were ravings of happiness from that end of the table, as there were for the orecchiette with sausage and rapini.

Dessert offered two main options, plus selections of sorbet, ice cream, and cheeses. The lemon tart with lemon sorbet was good, but i found the lemon tart to be a bit too heavy, though the lemon sorbet was extra-puckery and exactly what I wanted after the meal. The chocolate sabayon mousse arrived as a perfect cylinder, balanced next to a bit of bitter coffee gelee atop a sheet of feuilletine mixed with chocolate-hazelnut goop. But the real hit was the frozen treats: the perfect blueberry, strawberry and apricot sorbets, and the black-olive ice cream, which really did have an effect very similar to butter-crunch, as advertised.

Somehow a bottle of brachetto d'acqui materialized, gratis from the restaurant as a birthday toast, and that sealed the deal: I *heart* No. 9 Park 4-eva.

This is a top-end restaurant, make no mistake, with perfect ingredients and well-composed flavors, and with super-restrained minimalist decor that was oddly comforting and comfortable -- but what made the evening so festive and satisfying (aside from the magnificent company) was the relaxed-yet-solicitous service. The bartender was instantly willing to whip up a Diet Dr. Pepper & Jack Daniels, even though F was totally kidding about wanting one. A table of 10 monopolized the middle of the room for the entire evening, and was never rushed or hassled. We were checked on and catered to, but ultimately left alone to have whatever sort of good time we liked.

I am a very lucky girl to spend my birthday around such a table surrounded by such wonderful friends.

(photos to come -- they're on someone else's camera...)

Posted by foodnerd at July 26, 2008 11:53 AM
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