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  • July 29, 2010

    Hymn to a Blue Hour

    In March, I attended the CBDNA Southwestern Division conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  I had a few fine performances there (Harvest — my new trombone concerto — with Texas Tech, and Kingfishers Catch Fire with the wind ensemble from Kansas State University), and spent a few days hanging out with fun people.  And I also hung out with people who like to give me shit — particularly after a few drinks.

    “Your music is all fast and loud,” I was told by a certain individual who shall remain nameless (Robert Carnochan). “Not just yours. Everybody is writing fast, loud music. But yours in particular. Fast and loud.”

    “It’s true. You should write a slow, lyrical piece. If you did, I’d play it,” said another anonymous conductor (Steve Davis).

    This wasn’t the only time I heard that this spring. A few days earlier, I’d been at the CBDNA Northeastern convention for the premiere of Harvest (shout-out to Joseph Alessi and the West Point Band), as well as a performance of “Asphalt Cocktail” with the West Chester University band (can I get a “what what” for Andrew Yozviak?).  At the post-concert reception that followed West Chester’s concert, I was approached by none other than Donald Hunsberger, formerly the director of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, who said to me, “you know what I’d love to hear from you?  A slow, lyrical, quiet piece.”

    Sigh.

    But it was really Rob Carnochan & Steve Davis, with their wine-enduced berating, that convinced me that yes, they were right.  I write a lot of fast, loud music.  But I write that music because I like that music.  I write music that I want to hear.  The beauty of writing for band is that if the piece is fairly successful, it’ll get a lot of performances, and I’ll hear a lot of performances.  I’m not going to write a piece that I don’t want to sit through 50 times.  If I’m going to write a piece, it’ll be a piece I want to listen to.  I’m not writing a piece thinking, “oh, I hate this, but it’ll probably get played.”  I’ve turned down commissions for works that I can’t imagine ever wanting to listen to.  And my personal opinion is that a lot of slow lyrical stuff is cheesy and, the worst offense in life, boring.

    But Rob and Steve got me thinking.  What would happen if I sincerely tried to write a piece that was slow and songlike?  Could I do that and not make it (gag) cheesy or (slamming my head into a wall just thinking about it) boring?

    I guess I have a few (very few) instances in other band-based pieces that have accomplished this.  The beginning of “Aurora Awakes” does this, but then it spends 75% of the piece very fast and rhythmic and dependent on the percussion section.  The “Metal” movement of my Soprano Sax Concerto is probably my favorite slow music that I’ve written, but you need a superstar soprano sax player (yo, yo, Tim McAllister) to pull that off.  Then there’s the slow movement of the trombone concerto, but unless you have Joe Alessi hanging around just hoping you’ll ask him to play the high D’s it requires, well, you’re SOL.  And then there’s “Turning,” which never gets played (save for several performances from Kenneth Thompson, and an upcoming performance at Indiana with Jeffrey Gershman), possibly because it’s so dark, or because much of it is terribly dissonant, or maybe simply because it requires a $1000 waterphone.  (I just posted a newly-discovered performance recording from Richard Clary at Florida State.  If you haven’t heard Turning, with its unusual combination of angst and waterphone, give it a listen.)

    So there’s stuff — it’s not like I’ve completely avoided slow music — but it’s not the norm, and what I didn’t have was a standalone, non-concerto work that’s simple, slow, and (hopefully) beautiful.  So I gave it a shot.

    What’s the best way to keep it simple?  For me, the answer is: write it at the piano.  I almost never write music “at the piano” because I don’t have any piano technique.  I can find chords, but I play piano like a bad typist types: badly.  But if I write the music using an instrument where I can barely get by, the result will be very different than if I sit at the computer and just throw a zillion notes at my sample library, all of which will be executed perfectly and at any dynamic level I ask.  I decided to write this piece at the piano largely because we’re spending the summer at an apartment in New York that has a nice upright piano.  I don’t have a piano at home — only a digital keyboard — and it’s very different to sit at a real piano with real pedals and a real action.  It was fun.  Now I want a piano.

    Also fun: writing again in New York.  This on its own is a very different experience, largely because of the requirement to walk everywhere here.  If I want lunch, I’m walkin’.  I get my best ideas when I’m just outside walking somewhere.  No other US city requires you to walk to get where you want to go.  If I’m in the car, I have music playing.  Here, though, it’s just the sound (noise, I suppose) of the city.  I wrote the main melody for the piece while sitting on a brownstone stoop one morning after picking up a cup of coffee.  It was pretty funny, really, with me sitting outside on a beautiful summer morning in New York City, Moleskine music notebook in one hand, and my iPhone Pianist app in the other (so I could find pitches), writing this piece.  As I said on Facebook, I felt like I was in an ad for something.

    I’d been writing mostly at the piano and hadn’t put the piece into the computer yet to try orchestrating anything yet, and then, last Monday, I received my very fancy new toy: the Vienna Symphonic Library‘s “Complete Winds” sample collection.  Once I had those samples — which are absolutely incredible, particularly the woodwinds — I started putting in 14 hour days.  I finished the piece — in full score — yesterday.

    And then there’s the title.  I made an MP3 for AEJ, who comes up with almost all of my titles, and she listened to the piece a dozen times and gave me a list of possibilities.  The final title is:

    Hymn to a Blue Hour

    The “hymn” part of her title immediately made sense, as the melody is so simple that it does literally sound like a hymn.  It’s one of those melodies that almost seems like it must already exist, and I kept wracking (or is it racking?) my brain trying to figure out if I’d actually written this tune, or if I’d accidentally stolen it.  I’m now reasonably sure it’s an original tune.

    What about the “blue hour” part?  I hadn’t heard the term, but as AEJ told me (and the Wiki confirmed!), the “blue hour” is the period of twilight where there’s neither full daylight nor complete darkness.  AEJ said that the piece sounds like vespers (the evening mass) at a simple Shaker church.  Thus, “Hymn to a Blue Hour.”  This is why she makes the big bucks.

    Hymn to a Blue Hour” was commissioned by Mesa State College.  They’ll premiere the piece on December 3 at their Best of the West 2010 festival.  The piece is dedicated to Stephen Boelter, who, with his wife Karen Combs, established the Best of the West festival.

    The score is up now.  The MIDI will follow… soon.

    11 Comments

    July 17, 2010

    Blue Hill

    We continue eating our way through New York with a visit to Blue Hill, a restaurant with a menu that “showcases local food,” with ingredients from “nearby farms, including Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a forty-five minute drive from New York City.”  As Frank Bruni described it in his review in 2006, it’s “food you’d almost rather hug than eat.”  That’s accurate.  This is food that celebrates the ingredients, not the preparation.  Perhaps I’d have appreciated it more if we hadn’t had this 48 hours after our dinner at Eleven Madison Park, where every course was prepared with brilliant creativity.  But back to Blue Hill…

    The room itself is a few steps below street level in what used to be a speakeasy.  It’s an intimate space, with low ceilings, and it’s dark.  Dark, dark, dark.  I’d have thought it cozy if I wasn’t trying to take pictures, but this level of light was a big challenge for my camera.  I had to crank the ISO and the aperture in order to get anything, so the shots were noisy (thanks to the high ISO), and getting any consistent white balance, even with processing, was just about impossible.  But that’s enough bitching about the light.  There’s so much more to complain about.

    After you’re seated, they bring you some bread.  The bread was pretty good, but not memorable.  I don’t believe it was warm, and it wasn’t sweet, or yeasty, or, well, much of anything.  It was… fine.

    The next thing was our little complimentary amuse bouche — two teeny-tiny “burgers” made of snap peas on an almond bun. This was exceptional — easily the tastiest thing of the night. I could make a whole meal of just these, but sadly, you only got one-per-person, and they’re roughly an inch wide. Just delicious, though.  And free!

    We each ordered salads, as it would be crazy to visit a farm-based restaurant and not order something consisting entirely of this fresh produce. Mine was the summer vegetable salad. It came with the greens in the middle (with the dressing underneath), and the other vegetables around the edge of the bowl.

    After mixing it all together, it looked like this. It was very, very tasty. Incredibly fresh, with a delicate dressing that in no way masked the vegetables.  It tasted like lovely, lovely plants, and for a moment, I felt like a deer.  There was a small part of me that thought it seemed a bit basic — and small — for $16.

    AEJ ordered the summer bean salad. If your idea of ass-kickin’ excitement is an absolutely perfect bean, then this salad would definitely knock you on your ass. These beans were, no exaggeration, perfect. But they were beans. And they took up less space in real life than you’re seeing on your monitor. $15.

    For her entree, AEJ opted for the vegetarian option, figuring this place would know how to prepare vegetables.  Sometimes, AEJ orders the vegetarian tasting menu because it forces the chef to be more creative to make an entire dinner interesting without using any meat at all (not even bacon!), and there’s also the challenge for the chef to come up with something creative to justify the cost. When we ate at Hubert Keller’s restaurant — Fleur de Lys –in Las Vegas, AEJ’s vegetarian meal was much more interesting (and delicious) than my traditional meal. (If you haven’t seen Hubert Keller’s “lady bug of plum tomato,” you should check out my Vegas blog entry.)

    This is Blue Hill’s “zucchini steak” — ricotta cheese, curried almonds, olives, and emmer wheat. To me, it was a little too vegetarian.  It tasted like grains and vegetables.  There was no pop of flavor, no real spice, just… zucchini and wheat.  $28.  Let me say that again. $28.

    My entree was the ravioli with pork belly. This was delicious. The pork crisped up on the edges, the fat melted in your mouth. It was definitely good. There were, by my count, four bites of pork belly, and maybe a half-dozen nickle-sized ravioli. Price? Never mind. At this point, I just started chewing on my wallet.

    My dessert was the chocolate bread pudding — molten in the middle — with vanilla ice cream. Again, very tasty. Not exceptional — not massively chocolaty or rich — but good. Why they chose this course to not include any fruit is a little beyond me.

    The lack of fruit in my course was remedied by AEJ’s dessert, strawberries with Blue Hill Farm jam, peanut butter ice cream, and some incredible peanut butter-type goo. As AEJ said, “these are the best strawberries I’ve ever tasted in my life.” I tasted one and agreed. And the peanut butter was really something special. The desserts were both quite good — AEJ’s won, though, by far — and were a relative bargain.

    So that’s Blue Hill. To be clear, it’s very good. The ingredients are fresh — probably picked (or slaughtered) that day, all organic, just perfect. The presentation is minimal, a celebration of the ingredients, not of innovation. The portions are extremely small, as if each course were part of a 12-course tasting menu, when in fact, these were the full-size portions. I’m not a big eater — I love food, but I don’t need a huge portion of anything — so my complaint is not that there wasn’t enough food. My issue was that for the amount of food presented, the prices were astronomical — and, to state the obvious (if you’ve been reading the blog for the past five years), I’m not normally one for, um, pinching pennies at a nice dinner.  That’s our big splurge.  But that said, this felt awfully expensive for what it was. It was so minimal that one could go to Wheatsville CoOp in Austin, buy a bunch of local organic ingredients and a Niman Ranch pork belly and put something very similar together for a whole lot less money and feel just as good about not trucking your vegetables from 1000 miles away.  As AEJ said, “I feel like at Blue Hill, all I’m paying for is not having to walk to the farmer’s market myself.”

    I sort of think that if Blue Hill were anywhere besides NY or the Bay Area, people wouldn’t pay these prices for fresh vegetables.  But if I apply that logic to any restaurant, nobody would pay NY prices for much of anything outside of NY. If you eat in NY, you have to pretend you’re at Disney World or the airport, and just accept that a soda is $4 and there are no free refills. (Does that sound like a depressing fortune cookie? “There are no free refills in life.” So true. So true.)

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    July 4, 2010

    Eleven Madison Park

    It’s been an amazing couple of weeks in NYC, thanks in no small part to the incredible restaurants.  There was the good-if-slighly-overrated Morimoto, the fun and creative evening of molecular gastronomy at WD-50, a downright perfect Italian meal at Scarpetta, and several other good (but not photographed) meals.  Last night, though, was the epic meal of the summer:  The 12-course “gourmand” dinner tasting at chef Daniel Humm’s restaurant, Eleven Madison Park.

    The first thing you notice is the staff: all young, and genuinely friendly.  A lot of restaurants at this level can be overly-serious, bordering on snooty.  My preference is for the food to be taken seriously and treated respectfully, but there’s no reason to be uptight about it.  I don’t want to feel like I can’t have fun and wear my clown shoes to dinner.  The extremes, at least in tone, have been Jean-Georges — where a jacket is required and the majority of the clientele is so elderly that you’d swear some have been embalmed — and at the other extreme, WD-50 — where almost everybody is under 45, and there’s no dress code at all.  Both places have brilliant food (Wylie Dufresne, the chef at WD-50, used to work at Jean-Georges, and in fact, Jean-Georges is an investor in WD-50), but the tone (and, well, the food) is completely different.  Eleven Madison Park is closer to Jean-Georges than WD-50, both in mood and food, but it manages to remain just-shy of any hint of stuffiness.  It’s a room full of smiles.

    When you sit down, you’re presented with a little bowl of warm Gougeres to nibble on while you look over the wine list.  Er, wine book.  The thing was just huge — probably 150 pages.  It was like the “Mission Earth” of wine lists.  (Did you know that L. Ron Hubbard’s book, “Mission Earth,” is the longest novel in the English language, with over 1.2 million words?  And what a page-turner it is!)

    Here’s our next plate of hors d’oeuvres (two of each) — from right-to-left, a sweetbread pocket (we skipped this; sweetbreads give us the fear), a mushroom tart, foie gras and jelly (not sure what kind — currant?) with black pepper on a cracker, big-eye tuna, and a carrot marshmallow.  The carrot marshmallow was the best part — sweet, bouncy like a good marshmallow should be, and… carroty.  You probably think I’m kidding, but it was magically delicious.  (Where have I heard that before?)

    Cocktails! AEJ ordered the Velvet Cobbler: Amontillado sherry, Mosel riesling, and lemon verbena. It tasted (and looked) like the kind of drink that only men would drink, in, say, 1945.  Well, except for the strawberry garnish.

    Turns out mine looked awfully girly by comparison. This is the Devil’s Buck (a decidedly not-girly name) : Lowland blanco tequila, Creme de Cassis, ginger, and lime. (That lime on top is turned inside-out to hold the shot of creme de cassis.)

    Bread and butter! Two butters, actually — cow milk butter on the left, and goat milk butter on the right, with a little bowl of fleur de sel (ie, course salt).

    Things started light and fun. This is the Tomato Lollipop (presented in a basket of cherry tomatoes) : tomato, Taggiasca olive, and basil. The tomato, as far as we could tell, was tomato ice cream. This was sensational.

    I love corn soup. This is chilled sweet corn soup with summer truffle, radish, and purslane (an eatable flower). The corn, like everything else, was ridiculously fresh — almost as fresh as I was feelin’ after a few courses of wine. ZING!

    Speaking of the wine, we ordered the wine pairing, specifically requesting that the wines be kept kind of on the light side. (We aren’t big fans of a chewy red wine.) In all, there were 10 wines, ranging from white to rose…

    … to this Burgundy (according to our steward, it was “Domaine Jean-Marc Bouley, Clos des Chenes, Premier Cru, Volnay, Burgundy, France 2005” — but all I know is it tasted awfully light for such a dark wine), served in the biggest wine glass I’ve ever seen. (We were told that the glass could hold an entire bottle of wine. Now it’s a party!)

    This is the Taboule salad with summer crudites (melon, etc.) and wild herbs. (I gave AEJ the cucumber. I hate cucumber.)

    The next course in the tasting would have been rabbit, but we asked for a substitution, because I didn’t want AEJ to start crying thinking of a tiny bunny. The substitution was amazing: Goat’s Milk Ricotta Gnocchi with violet artichokes and bacon.  This was good with its paired wine, but even better with my cassis cocktail.  It was rich and gooey, and each bite tasted different, depending on whether you made a bite with gnocchi and artichoke, or olive, or that amazing sliver of cheese that you see on top.

    This is the Atlantic Cod Cheeks, poached in olive oil with sweet peppers and “piment d’Espelette.” The sauce was wonderful, as was the fish, but the sauce wouldn’t really stick to the fish for whatever reason.  (The fish seemed a little wet.)

    It looked very pretty, though. (I think every restaurant should use eatable flowers as a garnish, just because it makes a nice picture.)

    For my next course, I had the Nova Scotia Lobster Lasagna with lemon verbena and heirloom squash. This — the broth in particular — was a highlight of the dinner. I also loved that it was called “lasagna,” but it obviously wasn’t a traditional lasagna. Even the lasagna noodles weren’t standard, but had been rolled in paper-thin flowers. (You can see a hint of a flower near the center of the frame.)

    While I had the lobster, AEJ — who is allergic to shellfish — had the “Loup de Mer,” slow-cooked with cannellini beans and chorizo.

    It wasn’t included in our tasting menu, but the table next to us had the duck course (stuffed with lavender — I believe AEJ referred to the duck as “lavender butt!”), carved table-side.  (Those are some perfectly-polished copper pans.)

    Here is the chicken, roasted with sweet corn, chanterelles, and farro. I know it’s silly, but I think it’s fun when the sauce is added at the table.

    It also means you get two photos of the same course. (This broth, like the others, was intense and delicious.)

    Next up: Colorado Lamb, herb roasted with eggplant, cumin, and yogurt. We think the lamb was cooked sous vide, as the lamb had been cooked at WD-50, and like WD-50’s lamb, the texture was rubbery. Maybe there’s a way to cook something sous vide and get a good result, but I haven’t had it (or maybe I have, but didn’t realize sous vide was involved). I’m all for tender, but meat this tender just resembles an eraser. A lovely, delicious eraser — like the kind you’d get at an art store — but an eraser.

    Look what’s at the next table! It’s the CHEESE CART!

    The cheese cart is a fun course. We don’t know a great deal about cheeses.  (I, in particular, am clueless, but I do know that I prefer Mexican Velveeta to regular Velveeta.)  We don’t like cheese on the stinky side (Mexican Velveeta being the exception), so we asked our waiter for a mild selection.  “A slice of your finest American cheese food, please!”

    Our (exceptional) waiter, preparing the cheeses.

    CHEESE! (and nuts.)

    There’s something awfully cheery about the Champagne and cognac cart.  (And again with the smiles!)

    After the cheese course… desserts! This dessert doesn’t look like much, but I can still — even the next day, after 10 glasses of wine last night — remember how amazing this was, and what the texture felt like. It’s called “Milk and Honey” — a mountain of dehydrated milk (I suspect that liquid nitrogen was involved) that you crack open to release a river of lavender-infused honey.

    The next dessert was “bittersweet chocolate” –Cremeux with black sesame, caramelized banana, and yuzu. (More yuzu! It’s everywhere now — Morimoto, WD-50 — and I love it.)

    And now — “mignardises” — in this case, macaroons. Which one should we have?

    All of them, of course. (At this point, what’s another 400 calories?!) Each one was different. Peanut butter & jelly was our favorite.

    We also had a pot of their in-house tea called “White Sunrise in Tibet.” We loved the tea and asked for more information about it. Minutes later, our waiter brought us a card with details about the tea — and the address of a store that carries it — all on a printed card. He also brought us copies of our menus (a slightly different one for each of us, since one course was different between them), including our personalized wine pairings for each course.
    After tea: a glass of cognac. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted cognac before. We have a bottle in the house, but we only use it for cooking. (Some recipes of Ina Garten’s have you add cognac and then set fire to it. Very dramatic.)

    Finally, they brought us little boxes of jellies (“fancy Cluckles!,” as AEJ called them) to take home.

    We also got a private tour of the kitchen (which is huge, bustling — and spotless). They don’t encourage photography in there, though — which was fine with me. I don’t want people taking my picture when I’m working, either.
    We also met the chef, Daniel Humm, who is even younger than I am, and I hate him for that.  Very nice guy, too. (If I were as talented as he is, I’d be an ass. Er, more of an ass.)

    We had an amazing night — and it was a full night. We got there at 6pm and left around 11pm. (You can tell from the pictures that it got darker… and darker…) I’d rank it up there with Alinea (still my favorite restaurant), but maybe just a little lower in overall creativity.  (It’s going to be tough for any restaurant to ever beat the wintertime campfire dish at Alinea.)

    My sampling of restaurants is small, but Eleven Madison Park is definitely the best meal I’ve ever had in New York.  I loved it.

    Up next, Blue Hill on Monday night…

    7 Comments

    July 3, 2010

    Scarpetta

    Summer is the time when there’s nothing on TV but reality shows, and there are a few shows that we rarely miss. There’s “Top Chef.” There’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” — sort of like “Top Chef,” but with art and artists instead of food and chefs. (That sounds like a terrible idea for a show, right?  That’s what we thought.   Insufferable, you’d think.  But we watched it — and it’s surprisingly good. And one of the artists on the show, Miles, is the real deal.)  There’s the terrible-but-we-watch-it-anyway “Design Star” on HGTV, a show that has nothing to do with design, but everything to do with asinine team challenges under ridiculous time constraints.  (Seriously, who designs a kitchen by committee, and executes the whole thing in 24 hours?  The more I think about “Design Star,” the more I hate it.  But still, we watch it.)

    One of our favorite reality shows — and it runs year-around — is Chopped, on the Food Network.  (We also watch “Next Food Network Star,” even though the only “star” to ever come from any past season of that series is Guy Fieri, and the last thing anybody needs is another Guy Fieri.

    Also, does Bobby Flay ever cook anymore if it’s not filmed?  I like Bobby Flay on TV, and the first couple of times I ate at Mesa Grill back in the late ’90s, I thought it was damn good, but in the years that followed, it was less polished with each visit.  (Maybe it’s good again; I haven’t been back for probably five years.)  But does Bobby still cook there?  He’s on TV All.  The.  Time.  Rumor has it that he lives in the building where we’re staying this summer, so I’m going to refrain from knocking him any further, in case he Googles himself, finds this entry, then sees me in the elevator.  Unlikely we’ll cross paths, though, because I think he spends most of his time in LA now, helping drunken damsels in distress.)

    Sorry.  Back to Chopped.  If you haven’t seen this show, the basic idea is that there are four “up and coming” chefs from various restaurants, and they compete through three rounds of competition.  (The rounds are courses — the appetizer, main course, and dessert.)  For each course, there’s a “mystery basket” that has several ingredients that all have to be incorporated into that course.  For example, the appetizer basket might include gummi bears, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and canned fish, and the chefs are judged on their ability to make a coherent dish that uses all of the items in the basket (and other ingredients from the on-set pantry), all within a set time limit of 20 or 30 minutes, depending on the course.

    The poor judges have to then taste all of these dishes, and at the end of each round, one chef is eliminated — or, “chopped.”  The combination of three judges is different every week, but one of the judges who frequently appears on the show is Scott Conant.  My assumption was that if a professional chef was moonlighting as a judge on “Chopped,” they weren’t necessarily top-tier chefs.  I assumed this to be especially true if judging on “Chopped,” where he has to taste dishes containing lima beans and Snickers.  How good a chef could these guest judges really be?

    If Scott Conant is any indication, they can be f-ing spectacular.  Until seeing him on Chopped, I hadn’t heard of him, but it turns out that his NYC restaurants are highly regarded (3-star reviews in the NY Times, one of the “Best New Restaurants in America” by Esquire magazine in 2008, etc.).  I foolishly thought he was just the guy on Chopped who never liked anybody else’s pasta.  Well, now we know better, thanks to a last-minute reservation at his restaurant Scarpetta in NY’s Meatpacking District (far west 14th Street).

    Lots of restaurants bring bread to the table when you arrive.  Lots of places make the bread in-house.  But bread this good is almost unheard of as a freebie.  There were several kinds to choose from, but the show stopper was the warm bread stuffed with cheese and cured meats.  It was like a free sandwich as an appetizer — and it was damn good.

    The bread basket comes with these condiments — butter blended with some sort of creamy cheese, an eggplant spread (I hate eggplant, so I didn’t pay much attention to that one), and a citrus-infused olive oil. The olive oil was some of the best I’ve tasted.

    Appetizer time! AEJ started with the burrata — homemade fresh mozzarella with fresh tomatoes and mixed greens. It was bright and tasted like summer.  It’s tough to beat a real, farm-grown tomato in the middle of summer.

    I had the equally stellar raw yellowtail with “Olio di Zenzero” and flaked sea salt. I loved it. I haven’t had yellowtail this tasty since Jinpachi.

    Next: the pasta course!  AEJ ordered beet ravioli topped with crushed pistachio. The flavor was surprising (in a good way) because the ravioli looked like they were filled with a rare-cooked meat, but it was, most definitely, beets. Just perfect. I could eat at this place every day.

    I ordered a special — the short rib ravioli with hazelnuts, brown butter, and horseradish. It was intensely rich — and, yum.

    That should do it, right? An appetizer and a pasta — that should be plenty of food. Well, it was, but we’d ordered another course. (It’s a good thing I’m running a lot here, in addition to walking a few miles a day, or I’d be huge.) This is AEJ’s dish: the roasted chicken with parsnip puree, herbed spaetzle, fegato sauce, and vegetables. Chicken doesn’t get much better than it was here, with the rich sauce and perfectly-crisped skin.

    I had the lardo-wrapped halibut with morels, asparagus, and roasted potatoes. “Lardo” is just what you’d think it is. I’ve had bacon-wrapped fish before, and it was terrible in the past, with the bacon and fish both ending up overcooked, dry, and tough. Somehow, this was just right. These vegetables, though — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — may have been the best thing of the evening, or at the very least, had the most concentrated flavor per bite. As a bonus, this is just about the prettiest food picture I’ve ever taken, so thank you for that, Scott Conant.  (A suggestion to anybody taking pictures of food in a restaurant: sit near natural light and never, never, never, ever, ever use a flash.  I’d asked to be seated against the window that evening, and we’re old, so we eat early, so the light was very good.)

    At last, it was time for dessert. AEJ went with the surprising choice of ordering the olive oil cake with lemon ice cream and orange mascarpone cream. It was a bright and light way to end the meal.  Who knew that olive oil cake was a good idea?!  (AEJ, apparently.  Oh, and Scott Conant.)

    I, on the other hand, ordered the not-so-light closer: banana budino with pecan gelato and oat tuile. Rich — but delicious. I never turn down a banana dessert, and heavy as this was, it was worth it.

    Here is a shot of one of the caramelized bananas.

    After dinner, I called for our car.

    Okay, not really. We walked back to our apartment, via the Highline Park — a new park on the west side of Manhattan, built along the former elevated railroad tracks. The area had become overgrown with wildflowers, and when it was turned into a park, the landscape design was made to reflect that history. It’s a beautiful park, right in the middle of the city.

    The flowers are pretty.

    I can’t even imagine what this park has done to the real estate values of the neighboring buildings. Nobody wants to live pressed against a train track, but everybody wants to live overlooking a park.

    It’s an awfully nice place for an evening walk.

    It was another great night here in New York. I can’t recommend Scarpetta highly enough. (And I will never again negatively pre-judge a chef simply because I saw him first as a judge on a reality show.) Up next, tomorrow night — dinner at Eleven Madison Park. I hope my camera is welcome…

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