May 18, 2005
The Tasting Room (NYC)
posted by Nadia

Life is simply too short to eat bad food. Life is also too short to refrain from simple pleasures on the grounds that they're too expensive or too unnecessary. So go ahead, have lunch in the park instead of at your desk. Buy that Izze soda on a whim. Instead of just walking past the Reading Terminal Market, stop in and get some exciting cheeses.

This moment of clarity was brought to you by pork fat. More specifically, pork cracklings, scattered around a perfectly slow-poached egg served at the Tasting Room. It was the first dish of many that night, and it exemplifies the spirit I'm trying to achieve, both in the kitchen and in life generally.

The Tasting Room is a small restaurant on the Lower East Side with a fabulous wine list and a commitment to seasonal ingredients. When we ate there Saturday night, the menu was brimming with things we had seen at the greenmarket that very morning - ramps, garlic chives, asparagus, fiddleheads. Almost every dish on the menu can be served as a "taste" or as a "share" -- this allows diners the opportunity to sample a greater variety of dishes than would be possible with a more traditional appetizer/entrée menu. Between my mother, Chris, Carl, and me, we had seven savory dishes, three desserts, and a cheese plate. We also had a lovely Viognier.

We started with the aforementioned poached egg dish, which epitomizes everything wonderful about really well-made food. The dish was simple, composed of perfectly roasted potatoes, a few strands of green (dandelion greens, I believe), pork cracklings, and an impeccably poached egg. Each ingredient was the best it could possibly be. The egg, described as "slow-poached," somehow achieved a perfectly uniform consistency throughout -- that is, both the white and the yolk were silken and gelled, but just barely. Having only experienced poached eggs as a study in contrast - a liquid yolk enclosed in a taut structural skin of white - I had no idea that that a uniform custard-like texture was even possible. The effect was profound. But dare I say, the pork fat was even more amazing. As much as I love common cracklings, those chewy-crisp bits of fat and skin that stick to the back of your teeth, the Tasting Room's "cracklings" were a different beast altogether - more like a perfect creme brulée. Biting into these, your teeth encounter the barest shell of a golden crust, which quickly breaks open to reveal a nearly liquid gel of pure pork flavor. I can only describe the experience as transcendental. [Note: for obvious reasons, I am committed to replicating the elements of this dish at home. Stay tuned.]

Next, we had eight plump oysters, served on a bed of rock salt and topped with an Asian cucumber mignonette. I can't imagine that the mignonette was anything more complex than finely grated cucumber and champagne vinegar, but the clean, bright flavors could not have been a more perfect accompaniment to the wonderfully fresh and briny oysters. A secret came out as we were eating these -- my mother had never before eaten raw oysters. She was reluctant, worried that they would be as chewy as raw clams, but Chris, Carl and I peer-pressured her into slurping one down. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that my mother's face almost lit up. The texture of these oysters was divine, silky and gelatinous, with a clear taste of ocean. She declined her second oyster, however, and Chris reaped the benefits.

It would take too long for me to describe the remaining dishes, however memorable, in as great a level of detail. The simplest descriptions, however, should give you a sense of how well we ate that night. A bright green soup of spring onions, garlic chives, scallions, all fresh from the morning market. Perfectly crisp asparagus served with lemon sabayon, curly black mushrooms, and sunflower seeds. A main course of plump scallops, dandelion greens, and chive buds, anointed with a beurre noisette. Pork belly and fiddlehead ferns nestled in a pile of creamy grits and seafood broth. Rare roasted squab, sautéed ramps, and "dirty" barley rich with onions. For dessert, a terrine of pure rhubarb served in a pool of cold buttermilk sauce. Rice pudding topped with cherries and port. Three kinds of cookies -- snickerdoodles, lacy-chewy oatmeal cookies, and shortbread -- and deep chocolate truffles with cocoa nibs. A cheese plate with four wonderful cheeses, which I wish I had been able to appreciate more thoroughly. Unfortunately, by the time the last dish came around, my belly was full, my taste buds were overwhelmed, and I had had a touch too much wine.

So there you have it. A perfect meal, exquisitely crafted using the finest ingredients. Considering food as merely a source of nutrition, such extravagance is unnecessary. Certainly, the money spent on a meal such as this one could be put to more practical use - replacing a leaking roof, submitting to dental work long overdue, dropping dimes into the yawning cavity of debts large and small. But what better way to stir your soul than through a good meal? What better reminder that life is not just about bills and billable hours? Our time in this world is short, and every moment spent in anything but enjoyment is a moment wasted.