Get Down with the Matriarchy at Claudette
Simple preparations yield dazzling results.
The bundles of tripe-wrapped pork shoulder bob in a white-wine tomato broth dotted with roughly cut mirepoix. The carrots, potatoes, and celery, stained ruddy, have sopped up the juices pooled within the stew's shallow copper pot. It hardly resembles the much-derided organ meat I've come to love for its sci-fi appearance and yielding chew. Stretched, rolled into bundles, then browned in the oven, this tripe was as hearty as I'd expected, but lively, too, and almost...graceful.
This is the cooking of Provence, skillfully executed by Koren Grieveson, Claudette's chef de cuisine. The then-girlfriend (now fiancée) of Food Network personality Anne Burrell, Grieveson won national acclaim for her work under Paul Kahan at avec in Chicago, then left the Windy City in 2012 and moved to New York, for love.
She and executive chef Wade Moises have ironed out a concise, six-section menu of predominantly lighthearted Provençal fare that occasionally looks to North Africa. The spice-trade connection is no accident: Grieveson is South African and also a global citizen, having grown up across five continents — not as a military brat but as the daughter of a poultry businessman (make coq au vin, not war).
Cold, composed vegetable selections show off the produce's flavors with minimal lashings of vinegar, herbs, fruits, and nuts. Snappy fennel gets a chiffonade of tarragon, matchsticks of dried apricots, and almond slivers. Black beluga lentils, a special, are toothsome and earthy, though they'd benefit from a sprinkle of salt. Zucchini emerges as the star of the bunch, cut into pasta-like strands and assaulted by sweet, roasted tomatoes, tangy anchovies, and fresh basil — a polished taste of summer.
As dusk descends one evening, the dining room's French doors open out onto Fifth Avenue and a well-dressed crowd delves into brittle ratatouille tarts, the bright, soft vegetables supported by short-crust pastry shells. A lamb-and-asparagus salad, with gamy meat and crisp stalks set against sprightly sherry vinaigrette, drags us back to spring. And marine starters, like a spicy jumble of chickpeas and charred baby octopus, outshine the crusty Tunisian loaves, which are not doled out gratis to each table.
If the smaller plates are unassuming, main courses are veritable showpieces. Dorade, roasted whole, its blistered skin hiding flaky, tender flesh, arrives with a singed lemon half. Grieveson's bouillabaisse is served en croûte, the buttery puff pastry destined to soak up herbaceous broth as you spear mussels, octopus, and boulders of monkfish. Hand-painted tagines hold a trio of braised chicken thighs over nutty bulgur wheat perfumed with swiss chard, eggplant, citrus segments, and stone fruits. The chef also puts together a pretty plate of hanger steak, sliced thick and arranged into a crescent next to the square chickpea fritters known as panisse. The beef wears a shaggy mane of herbs and coriander seeds, which seasons as aptly as any marinade.
Wine and cocktail menus are the purview of Seth Liebman, and they are altogether merciful, with several choices among whites and reds in the $30-to-$50 range — a notable bargain in this spendy neighborhood. Liebman deserves another resounding round of applause for his masterful list of aperitifs, which utilize bitter liqueurs in truly refreshing ways for $10 apiece. Even among these, the "Pia," a mercurial stirring of Campari, Dubonnet, and Esprit de June (a liqueur made from grapevine flowers), stands out.
Desserts run $10 individually or can be ordered in a set of four for $36. The usual tarts, puddings, and pastries apply, but I won't soon forget the combination of candied orange and lavender-honey sour cream sandwiched between rounds of dense pistachio cake. Its floral notes would make a perfect pairing with one of Liebman's dessert wines. Or you could always order another aperitif — just pretend it's a digestif; bitterness abounds in both categories.
But back to that tripe stew, which comes with slices of rustic, grilled bread. In its native tongue, the dish is called pieds paquets and is traditionally prepared with lamb trotters. Grieveson's version lacks the unmistakable gelatinous wobble that only braised animal feet can bring home, but the pork shoulder parcels yield to a butter knife. The recipe comes courtesy of Claudette Sammut, the matriarch for whom this restaurant is named.
Restaurateur Carlos Suarez and partner Mark Barak, who also own Bobo and Rosemary's in the West Village, encountered her food through the cooking of Reine Sammut, Michelin-starred chef and wife of Claudette's son, Guy. After a stay at the couple's Lourmarin hotel and restaurant, the team asked the Sammuts if they could honor Claudette with their next restaurant.
Dark wicker chairs offset an airy, whitewashed room, and up front there's walk-in seating and a white marble bar that pays homage to the Sammuts' homeland as evocatively as the Washington Arch does to the Arc de Triomphe. While not entirely open, the kitchen is visible through a wide, arched doorway, flanked by walls covered in hand-painted white-and-gray tiles.
The breezy environs are complemented by harmoniously vibrant food. Claudette — the restaurant and the woman who inspired it — should be proud.
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