Monday, January 31, 2011

Peels, New York

I went to New York on this trip with two goals (outside the whole 'complete a major presentation for work' thing, which is peripheral to eating, wouldn't you agree?): the first was to visit the Dream House. I failed. The second was to eat desserts sprung from the mind of Shuna Lydon. I succeeded, and was veryvery pleased.

Professional chefs move around a lot; I've been reading Shuna's blog on and off for what seems like a short time to me, but she's already lived in San Francisco, London and New York in that time. I nearly went to the wrong restaurant before realizing that she changed a few months ago and is now holding down the baking empire at Peels, a faux-retro 'diner', where 'diner' is faux-modest for simple food in the modern-fresh vein, cooked pretty well and served at all hours. This place is evidently associated with other hip locations and cool owners, but being a Tokyo resident there's only so much I want to clutter my mind with that. Suffice to say that everyone on staff was tattooed and looked like they went to Wesleyan. I got a few funny looks for wearing a suit and not wearing a beard.

Describing this place to Cuz (who comes to dinner the next night and also Saturday, wait for it), I said it was 50's-style. That was wrong. There's nary a lick of chrome nor a swash of neon to be found. I meant to say it's country-style 50's, or maybe 30's. White wood cabinets, appealingly old appliances, menus painted on mirrors, antique-y bare wood tables, high green stools. It's sort of Walker Evans, or Wright Morris, but in color.

The food is pretty well in color too. This is a skillet of vegetables, no doubt organic and locally-sourced, baked with goat cheese. The bread is tasty. It is artfully charred. It is mounded with fresh herbs. This is tasty.

But hell, I was just eating vegetables to make myself feel better. Honestly, I should have ordered three desserts instead of vegetables plus two desserts.

This is the butterscotch pot de creme. I'd feel guilty trying to say much about it, considering how much the chef herself wrote about it last month. Suffice to say: real butterscotch is delicious. Walnuts go with it. Crisping the walnuts with cumin is the kind of savory touch that makes a dessert interesting, and more interesting than the currently-popular 'put salt in the chocolate'. Fresh caramel is delicious with anything, but got a little lost here between the nuts and the pot.

This was it for me though - the kind of thing that I want to pay people to think of and invent and serve. It's the Blackberry Eton Mess Fool. This bears the signs of a year spent in London, I think; a fool is in general cream and berries, sort of protozoaical ice cream, while the Eton Mess part of the name means there's meringue underneath. I didn't know that from the name, so it was a real pleasure to get halfway through the yogurt-y, cream-y blackberr-y goop and find something texturally distinguished to liven up the second half of the game. I was also unneccessarily proud of myself for being able to diagnose all the flavor and texture components correctly, including the mint-rosewater ice milk. It's not even possible to turn that over in your mind - mint, rosewater, blackberries, yogurt, egg. It sort of goes together. And sort of not. And in that way, is sort of interesting. Or better. And the low-light, color-enhanced, oversturated picture sorta makes it look even more interesting.

It's a shame it's still Monday night of the trip, because this was probably the single most enjoyable dish I ate all week.

If there was any doubt about location, I snapped off some quick shots on the street afterward. Really, the neighborhood around the hotel was deadly dull; I ended up back in the greater Soho/Bowery area 3 more times before I left town.

And one of those times was when I went back in order accost Shuna in person. This was a bit premeditated, because I saw her name pop up on the facebooks a few months ago and realized she was friends with one of my friends, and there's your introduction. This case is full of her handiwork, and she and the 'pastry department' are really doing a lot for the overall Peels menu, so she didn't have more than a few minutes, but she's every bit as interesting and energetic in person as you'd expect from someone who would invent a Fool like that.

Oopsie, I didn't try the Stumptown coffee, which would have been another good goal. Perhaps I read too much? I've been conscious of ST getting popular, and this week saw something suggesting it was already over-popular and the quality was declining. This is much more than I need to know for an Oregonian coffee brand.

Being after lunch, I didn't want to eat more desserts, so I picked up a few things for the next day's breakfast. On the right is the house-made graham cracker, one of those handcrafted things that shows you right away why a mass-produced commercial version of an item became popular. The muffin of the day was candied grapefruit peel with fennel and...and...I want to say cumin again. It was a bit confronting when I first bit into it, but grapefruit and spice is always going to seem odd first thing in the morning. It almost seems like a shame not to go through the whole menu of cakes, pies and cookies. Perhaps not quite enough to make me move to the Bowery, but I'd be visiting regularly.

The Wesleyan / tattooed thing, by the way, is faux-referential for 'me'.

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