Friday, January 27, 2012

Rouge Tomate - Restaurant Week, Winter 2012

Rouge Tomate has been on my radar for a while now.  The restaurant was built up during its opening as a health- and environment-conscious Belgian import, ready to merge New Yorkers' collective (and often fanatical) love of good food and general proclivity for staying fit and take the city by storm.  The concept definitely piqued my interest, and I've been meaning to stop by for a while now, but given that an estimated 98% of my dining out occurs south of 14th street (particularly during the winter), I haven't been in the general vicinity of the restaurant at any opportune time.  Thankfully, that time presented itself this week, and my mother and I headed over to the restaurant for a non-committal, Restaurant Week sampling of the menu.

A word about Restaurant Week: Restaurant Week has always been a bit hit-or-miss for me; what should be an opportunity for restaurants to develop new clientele and build word of mouth about their establishment typically winds up being, well, a circus.  Hopes of solid, well-thought out meals and polished service are dashed by hurried service, off-menu items created solely for the event to keep costs down, and a general feeling that you're doing nobody a favor with your patronage.  It's also an opportunity to give an expensive restaurant a trial run, a peek into what it's capable of turning out before you decide to blow three-figure amounts on a single meal.  A review of the proposed Restaurant Week menu is always a good idea; if I can't review the menu, I'm just not going.  Rouge Tomate's Restaurant Week menu looked rather appealing, and since its regular menu does not come cheaply, Mom and I decided to give it a go.

The restaurant is located on East 60th street, half a block off of central park, and the clientele seems mostly pulled from the surrounding residences.  The space is modern and sprawling, with boxes of apples (fake; "not very environmental of us", according to our server, though she was quick to share that the restaurant composts all eligible waste).  The environmentally-friendly angle is played up - sustainable and bio-dynamic wines and organic beers are highlighted on the list, and the menu lists the provenance of many of its ingredients.

Beet Tartare Amuse Bouche
After selecting our drinks (an organic Samuel Smith lager for mom after some gushing on my part over the brewery's oatmeal stout - my very favorite beer - and an "unusual" Spanish red for me, which I really liked at first taste, but my enjoyment of which diminished with each sip), we were presented with an amuse of beet tartare with horseradish foam.  The restaurant uses no butter or cream in its cooking, which meant that most of what we ate was kept light and undeniably true to taste.  The beets were incredibly beet-y, sweet and juicy, while the horseradish foam was a bit tame for my tastes.  Mom likened it to borscht, a comparison hard to refute.

Cauliflower-Almond Spread and Rosemary-Infused Olive Oil

Bread service was accompanied by rosemary-infused olive oil and a cauliflower - almond spread (remember, no butter here).  The spread, again, tasted exactly as described, but was a bit thin atop the bread.

Seeded Roll and Sour Wheat Bread

We sampled each of the three offered bread types; I really enjoyed the slight sourness of the plain wheat bread, and the heartiness of the peasant roll, generously topped with pumpkin and sunflower seeds.  The poppy- and sesame-seeded roll (pictured above) was regrettably soft throughout - no chewy crust here.

Autumn Squash Soup

Mom started her meal with the Autumn Squash Soup (Apple / Pumpkin Seed / Fall Spice / Anisette).  It was sweet, the apple coming through loud and clear, with an anisette foam that lacked pizzazz. (Is Rouge Tomate perhaps forced to rely on foams since it can't fall back on cream?  Cream (crème fraîche in particular) would have been better here, and a little dollop here and there never killed anyone. The pumpkin seeds provided a lovely textural contrast, and came through almost like granola.  Pretty good overall, and Mom cleaned her plate.

Hawaiian Walu Crudo

I started with the Hawaiian Walu Crudo (Avocado / Yuzu / Soy / Jicama / Jalapeño / Lemongrass-Ginger Oil), which I really enjoyed.  The fish was tender and buttery, the yuzu bright and refreshing.  A little bit more in the accoutrements department wouldn't have hurt, but this dish was certainly a hit with me.  (Side note on Walu, also called escolar and butterfish - WTF.  Thankfully my appetizer was not rewarded with any such symptoms.)

Steelhead Salmon a la Plancha

For the mains, Mom went with the Steelhead Salmon (Five Grain Salad / Pine Nut / Broccoli Rabe / Raisins / Beldi Olive / Sauce Vierge).  She'd been expecting to see arctic char on the menu, as advertised on the restaurant's website, but she loved the fish nonetheless.  I tasted a corner, and the skin was cooked to a perfect crisp, and what I tasted of the fish seemed tender. The taste of Steelhead (actually not salmon, but [rainbow] trout) will just never compare with wild-caught salmon for me, though, as it lacks that certain richness.  The fish was nicely portioned and plated atop a generous pile of what seemed to be quinoa, millet, couscous and a couple of other grams I couldn't readily identify, which tasted nutty and wholesome.  Pine nuts provided texture, and the broccoli rabe was cooked tender, but not beyond.

Hudson Valley Duck a la Plancha

My entree was the Hudson Valley Duck a la Plancha (Endive / Grapefruit / Rutabaga / Apple / Ginger-Foie Gras Jus) (yea, I'm back).  The duck was cooked superbly, a perfect rare to medium-rare (yea, sorry about the grainy, horrendous iPhone pictures). The majority of the fat was rendered from the breast (we are at a 'health-conscious' establishment after all, but the bit that remained proved to be the perfect amount, providing that lusciousness but not overwhelming the very, very tasty meat.  The accompaniments were fine, nothing that really wowed, but nothing that clashed with the main event.

Onward we slogged to dessert, though I was entirely sated at this point - Rouge Tomate did not skimp on the portions during Restaurant Week.  Mom ordered the Pear and Cinnamon Ice Cream Terrine
(Spiced Chiffon Cake / Poached Pear / Cranberry), and I the Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache
(Banana / Graham Cracker / Marshmallow / Maldon Sea Salt).  Both desserts arrived far too cold, on plates that had clearly been refrigerated before being brought out from the kitchen in all its pre-fab, Restaurant Week glory.

Pear and Cinnamon Ice Cream Terrine

I tried only a tiny bite of Mom's terrine - it was fine, but the healthy nature of it was glaringly evident.  The cranberry dollops were refreshingly tart, though, and helped offset the otherwise one-note nature of the dish.

Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache

I enjoyed my dessert a bit more than Mom's, though chocolate tends to wear on me quickly.  The ganache was smooth and certainly bittersweet, hardly saccharine at all, which I favor.  Graham cracker crumbs are undeniably fun, and these were no different.  The little chocolate balls provided some crisp and crunch to the affair, and the sorbet was nothing more than some one-ingredient banana soft-serve.  I cleaned my plate of the banana and graham cracker elements, had a couple of spoonfuls of chocolate, and my sweet tooth was perfectly content.

Overall, we really enjoyed our meal at Rouge Tomate.  The restaurant put forth a solid, friendly Restaurant Week performance with really good, generously portioned food and attentive service.  Since I don't typically eat out in this area of the city, I'm not sure how quickly I'll be back, but I'm sure I will be.

Rouge Tomate 
10 East 60th Street (b/w 5th and Madison)