71 Clinton Fresh Food

Last spring, Andrea Strong wrote a column/rant in the Strong Buzz urging New Yorkers to go to restaurants with challenging menus. If New York is to remain a world-class restaurant city, she argued, New Yorkers need to support chefs who stretch themselves beyond a really nice roast chicken. High on that list of restaurants was wd-50, Willie Dufresne’s Lower East Side restaurant.

Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted challenging for my birthday dinner, so we had a drink at wd-50 and headed across the street to Dufresne’s first restaurant (now under its third chef), 71 Clinton Fresh Food. The menu at wd-50 looked even better in person than it had on the web; the restaurant even prettier at night than it had walking past one midday last spring. Our drinks were lovely; the bartenders knowledgeable and friendly (a nice combination). In short, we were a bit sorry to have been conservative in our choice.

But the meal at 71 Clinton did not disappoint. My husband started with a salad of heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese curd. It was lovely but my appetizer was stratospheric: a foie gras nougat (a huge, creamy dollop of foie gras) sitting on a bed of what looked like tiny grape nuts but were caramel crunchy things, and covered in pale green basil foam. To the side was a small lump of pink gelatin with a rosy-citrusy taste. I was in heaven. It was so pretty and really one of the yummiest things I’ve ever tasted.

My veal (and yes, I ordered foie gras and veal: with a babysitter about four times a year, each event ought to be a real blow-out, I think) was a little intimidating. I don’t think I liked it—well, I know I didn’t like it but it was interesting enough and good enough that I’m willing to believe I might be partly to blame. Anyway, it was a very big, very, very pink piece of meat: about six or seven thick two-bite pieces. In college, I had a friend from Pakistan who complained that all the meat in the states really tasted of meat; she was used to cooking with lovely masking sauces and vegetables in which you weren’t so aware of eating flesh. I thought of her.

My husband’s chicken was divine. Cooked sous vide (under empty?—the waiter says they seal it in a pouch and poach it), it was pale, pale, pale (more meatiness, but less jarring to me) and tender as butter. It sat atop a little pile of swiss chard next to a small pile of gnocchi—the best, lightest potato pillows!—all bathed in a brown butter and foie gras (mmmm…) sauce. His chicken matched my appetizer.

For dessert? Chilled peach soup with vanilla shortbread cookies and a generous dollop of crème fraiche gelato. Delicious.

Clinton Street and the Lower East Side in general was hopping after dark—I love just being out and feeling myself part of a scene—and Malcolm Gladwell was seated just a few tables away from us inside, so all in all, it was a good night. And, thanks to the New Yorker writer with the huge forehead and crazy hair, I even managed to get a smidge of literature in this post…