Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hotel Griffou (New York, NY)

Bone Marrow Flan

I think I kill restaurants -- by going to them and enjoying them. Just weeks after I went to Pichet Ong's adorable and fascinating little P*ong, it closed. Shortly after I visited Sam Mason's Tailor, that closed. Luckily, Hotel Griffou isn't closing, but I did somehow manage to time my visit to coincide with Chef Dave Santos's final day. (The investors evidently had a different vision for the restaurant than Santos, according to his comments on Chowhound, where he posts under the handle chopjwu12.)

Chef Santos appears to be something of an underrated dark horse of the NYC culinary mini-verse. The Portuguese-American Chef has done time in the kitchens of Bouley and Per Se in New York City and Nicholas, a Red Bank, New Jersey restaurant widely reputed to be among that state's best. For a long time, the most notable things about Hotel Griffou were the stylish underground space and the likable cocktails. (To be fair, the space, which is divided into several different rooms to isolate sound and offer greater privacty, was -- and is -- exceptionally pleasant.) That changed when Chef Santos joined the team in October 2010 bringing his new American, Portuguese-inspired menu. The dishes I tried from his kitchen during a recent meal were most certainly not an afterthought.

My dining companion and I ordered a series of small plates, since we wanted to try as many different dishes as possible from Chef Santos's menu. Highlights included an truly excellent white, almond gazpacho and a beautifully executed fluke tartare.

The almond gazpacho came with a generous mound of peekytoe crab, black grapes, celery and toasted, chopped almonds in the center, which made for a lovely contrast of flavors and textures (sweet, salty, juicy, crispy, crunchy, soft, chewy). I also liked the simultaneous richness and lightness of the almonds pureed into the cool, soothing soup. 

The fluke tartare with peaches, coconut water, and red curry was even better. The dish had a touch of toasted sesame oil and the fluke was surprisingly substantial: It had the same robust, chewy texture of beef in beef tartare, and went well with the almost crisp peaches. Peaches were deliciously slightly underripe and the touch of acid they brought really enlivened the dish. There were tempura battered and fried leaves / greens perched atop the tartare, which my dining companion helpfully removed and ate for me.

Fluke Tartare

On the other end of the spectrum, a watermelon salad and heirloom tomato salad were less sucfessful. The watermelon salad with housemade silken tofu, ginger included delicious, ripe watermelon and it was attractively presented, but was frankly a bit too minimalistic for my tastes. A slab of very sweet, ripe, red watermelon was served with balls of milder, more subtly flavored yellow watermelon perched on top. Silken tofu came in the form of a wee swipe of dressing on the plate and was so gently flavored, it didn't stand up to the stronger flavor of red watermelon. the dish was sprinkled with a very small amount of crunch sea salt and julienned shiso leaf. 

Watermelon Salad

The heirloom tomato salad with whipped burrata and balsamic granite could've been a brilliant dish, but perhaps because of our recent spate of very wet weather, the headline ingredient, the small grape heirloom tomatoes, were underripe and not as flavorful as I'd expect heirlooms to be. Whipped burrata took the form of a very mild, slightly creamy sauce or dressing not all that different than the silken tofu dressing served with the watermelon salad. Balsamic granite was an interesting touch, though not necessarily texturally compatible. The granules were to large and rough to really work with the small, soft tomatoes. I wonder if a balsamic sorbet might've worked better.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

My dining companion and I did, however, love a dish of seared sea scallops with tomatillo, avocado and piquillo pepper. The three large, fresh, sweet scallops were perfectly seared on the outside and still slightly rare on the inside (a texture I really enjoy) and came perched atop sliced, vinegared summer squash. The slightly acidic, complex and gently spicy tomatillo and roasted piquillo pepper sauce was assertive, but did not overwhelm the scallops. I didn't detect any avocado, but it could've been present in the sauce.

Seared Sea Scallops

A final savory dish of bone marrow flan with Szechuan beef and heirloom radish salad (pictured at the top of this post) was visually gorgeous, but of mixed success, flavorwise. Radishes were sliced so thinly they were translucent, like beautiful, miniature panes of glass. The flan was quite sweet and desserty, which threw us for a slight loop, since we were expecting something a bit more.... meaty? It was remarkably tender, though, and had a gorgeous texture. I think, the brown, chewy, fried bits scattered throughout the plate were Szechuan beef. I didn't love the beef -- the bits were overly tough and oil logged -- but it was kind of fascinating to eat these with the sweet, tender flan. Greens garnishing the dish were notably fresh and flavorful. The sweet elements of the dish did transition us to our dessert course quite nicely.

My dining companion is planning a trip to Singapore, so we thought it was only fitting to end with corn panna cotta, served with ice milk, caramel ice cream and a paper thin, unsweetened crust of, I think, cornmeal. (Singaporeans love their corny desserts.) The dessert was as intriguing as it sounded. Panna cotta was almost soupy, with a deeply corny flavor. Caramel ice cream helped bring out the rich, almost malty scent of corn. The cornmeal (?) crust was the only element that didn't quite work for me. If it'd been crisp like Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies, the texture would've been a very nice addition to the dish. As it was, though, the crust was hard rather than crispy.

Corn Panna Cotta

Due to exigent circumstances, Girl Eats City is not allowed to do full-blown cocktail research right now, but my dining companion was nice enough to share his, an interesting drink that included watermelon, cilantro, a wee bit of tequila (I think) and lots and lots of crushed ice. It was a bit girly and watery, but for us quite perfect. It's something I would sip while watching cricket.

I do regret that Chef Santos is moving on, just as I was starting to get into his food at Hotel Griffou. But I suspect that a man of his talents is going to land on his feet just fine. I can't wait to see (and eat!) where he ends up next.

21 W 9th St # 1
New York, NY 10011-8939
(212) 358-0228

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