Catch Up With Our Food Critics: Rao Enjoys "New York Nordic" and Sietsema Finds "Perfect Jerk"
This week, our restaurant critics ventured beyond the Manhattan dining scene, with Robert Sietsema on the hunt for authentic Jamaican jerk all over Flatbush, and Tejal Rao sampling new Nordic dishes at Williamsburg's Aska.
How did their Brooklyn choices stack up? Read on to find out.
Rao finds the beauty in Frederik Berselius's interpretations of initially ugly ingredients (like root vegetables, bitter lichen, and monkfish) at Aska. The popular new spot, which has recently undergone a few shakeups, "may not be perfect, but it sure as hell isn't boring."
Rao calls the restaurant's unique style "New York Nordic":
Aska might epitomize the import of New Scandinavian cuisine with the chef's emphasis on wild, esoteric ingredients, micro-seasonality, and devotion to technique, but it also maintains a distinctly Brooklyn feel, set back in a converted industrial space with painted brick walls and a concrete floor in Williamsburg.
As for the humble black radish, Berselius shaves it like a gloriously perfumed truffle, paving a hot potato soup with its raw, black-edged petals. Even seen through a daze of winter root-vegetable fatigue, it is indisputably beautiful, reminding us that the magic of cooking isn't just in the transformation of ingredients, but in a chef's understanding of juxtaposition.
She also notes that the staff is an essential part of Aska's character:
Yes, the front of house is young. This crew in rumpled cardigans and plaid does not have the deep, classic background once required for fine-dining service, but the servers do have style and confidence and rhythm to suit the kitchen's ambitions. It's because of the service (and not the giant space heaters that hang from the ceiling) that Aska feels warm from the moment you walk in.
"The world's jerk capital is no longer Jamaica, but Flatbush," Sietsema reports in his latest review. And while there are "about 50 restaurants" offering the dish, Exquisite Express, Peppa's Jerk Chicken, and Errol's Carribbean Bakery are singled out by the critic for serving the best bites of sweet and smoky meat in New York.
Sietsema writes that the key to great jerk lies in the (often secret) spice rubs:
In addition to allspice, the recipes -- many of them closely guarded secrets in the highly competitive world of jerk -- can include thyme, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, scallions, soy sauce, lime juice, rum, bay leaves, ginger, and black pepper
Although, a restaurant's jerk sauce is equally important to a dish's gestalt:
After your order is hacked into small pieces with a cleaver or machete and deposited in a carryout container, most places ceremoniously offer one or more bottles of sauce for you to apply. Of the three common types, one is thin, vinegary, and incendiary; another thick, somewhat less spicy, and tasting of Worcestershire; while a third is often just doctored American barbecue sauce.
And while Exquisite Express won out as the critic's favorite, other noteworthy places were named:
The third-best we tasted was at Errol's Carribbean Bakery, a rollicking spot run by Rastas with extravagantly inflated knit hats. Don't be distracted just yet by the killer bread pudding or the red velvet cake; go right for the jerk chicken. The plump pieces taste pungently of allspice and thyme; the homemade sauce is wonderfully lumpy and grainy.
The city's other critics appeared equally focused on intense flavors this week. At the Times, Pete Wells reviews New York's newest barbecue joints, deciding that Mighty Quinn's is the best of the lot. "The pulled pork is the only one in town that doesn't make you embarrassed for New York. It is staggeringly good," Wells writes in his review. He awards the East Village restaurant two stars.
At Time Out, Jay Cheshes warns diners not to judge Salvation Taco--the Midtown Mexican taqueria from April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman--by its riotous after-work crowd. The chef and her restaurant partner "have hidden a very good restaurant inside an extremely clamorous bar," he writes.
Ryan Sutton has mixed feelings about WD-50, Wylie Dufresne's Lower East Side fine dining outpost. The once-pioneering efforts of the chef now seem slightly less inventive -- and egregiously priced with dinner for two running around $644. "The cost might make some weird sense if WD-50 was even better than it was in the a-la-carte days. It isn't." Still, Dufresne creates a "fine place for a bite at the bar."
Finally, Michael Kaminer notes that Tommy Bahama Restaurant & Bar might have fared better had it opened in irony-embracing Bushwck instead of Midtown Manhattan. The Daily News critic writes, "Singapore Sling, Zombie and other Space Age throwbacks dot the cocktail menu. There's even a groaning, honest-to-God dessert tray."
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