Congratulations to our own Tejal Rao, who was awarded the Craig Claiborne Award by the James Beard Foundation at Gotham Hall this evening! The Craig Claiborne Award is given in honor of the former New York Times restaurant critic and recognizes some of the best restaurant criticism in the country. JBF honored Rao’s stylish reviews of Pok Pok NY, Per Se, and 606 R&D.
From her write-up on Per Se, Pastry Chef Elwyn Boyles Conjures Desserts in the Sky:
Know this: Every time you wave away the dessert menu without even looking at it, a cook’s heart shatters like a pane of burnt sugar. Every pastry chef dreams of hitting us with their bill of fare while we’ve got an edge of hunger and dignity, and the light in our eyes hasn’t died, but instead he has to deal with us at the end of the evening. If he’s to woo us, he must do it when we’re full, perhaps a little drunk, willing (maybe) to split a slice of cake among ourselves but often preferring to skip it altogether for just a coffee and the check, please.
Elwyn Boyles, the soft-spoken Welshman in charge of Per Se’s desserts, is one of a handful of pastry chefs living the dream.
It has become a habit of mine to stroll by Pok Pok just to see how many sweaty people are outside in primary-colored shorts or backless dresses, waiting for Andy Ricker’s exuberant, unpretentious Thai food, recently imported by way of Portland, Oregon. I hoped to find a pattern, to share tips with you to avoid the waits, but there’s always a wait at Pok Pok. Twenty minutes if you’re lucky, two hours if not.
Before you know it, you’ll level up to a table of your own, sip pandanus-flavored water from steel tumblers, and order food from serene waiters in matching T-shirts. The yam makheua yao is a neatly built flavor bomb of grilled eggplant ($10), topped with shallots, crispy garlic, and hard-boiled egg. Forget about Ricker’s more trendy, candy-encased chicken wings ($12.50); this spicy, smoky eggplant salad in a lime-and-fish-sauce dressing is the best way to start your night. On the tightest of budgets, you could even make a light meal of it with a side of sticky rice ($1.50), but why not throw in the kaeng hung leh ($14), a wildly complex curry of soft pork belly and shoulder meat under a thick layer of deeply flavored fat. Or wispy slices of muu kham waan ($16), charcoal-grilled Mangalitsa pork neck with a sharp chile dressing. The heat of it will swell your lips, but the meat arrives, conveniently, with a plate of raw mustard greens under crushed ice.
From Tejal’s review of Prospect Heights eatery 606 R&D:
The food here comforts. Often, it’s what you’d consider making for an impromptu dinner party: half a golden rotisserie chicken ($20) served with a bowl of yogurt, some spicy watercress, and toast. There is no wrong way to go taking this apart, but the best might be with a friend and a cold old-fashioned, sitting outside on the last warm evening of the year. A spiral of spicy pork sausage from Faicco’s is a real winner, served with a hefty, miscellaneous bread salad ($16), soaked in a well-seasoned dressing and tomato juice, scattered with basil. It is lovely.
An ideal way to end a meal at 606 is with a pot of lemon-myrtle tea and a slice of hot plum pie with its crisp, latticed crust and gently sweet filling. Out on the patio, there’s the sound of water running. A book club pretends to meet about a novel, but ends up drinking wine and talking about having babies. A man kisses his partner on the wrist when he arrives to the table and nudges forward a tiny ramekin of radish wedges and soft, salty butter (that’s amuse-bouche for I love you).