The Gist: Roberta’s is a hip pizza place in Brooklyn – at least to the majority of its patrons – but to those in the know it is so much more and in March of 2011 I had the opportunity to find out exactly how much more when I scored a table for three at Chef Carlo Mirarchi’s Tasting Table http://endoedibles.com/?p=329 just before word got out, Carlo was named one of Food & Wine’s 10 Best New Chefs, and reservations began to book out 3-4 months in advance. At $160 the meal would prove to be one of the ten best I had all year and despite being served in a loud restaurant decorated with Christmas lights and picnic tables I said of it at the time that it was “…an experience I can’t wait to revisit on my next trip to New York and an experience I would suggest anyone who values great food and great people check out for themselves.”
The Why: Even during our first visit there were rumblings of taking the tasting menu to the next level and with the kitchen small and cramped, literally only capable of serving a tasting to one table per night, the idea was described by Carlo as a new space to be opened within the next year…or early May as it would turn out; a space called Blanca. Having missed out on a return to Roberta’s during my March visit as Carlo was in Miami for the Food & Wine Festival Blanca immediately went on ‘the list’ as soon as I heard about it, but with the reservation list still booked out 3-4 months and no plans to visit New York in the near future I figured it would have to wait.
The Reservation: Serendipity. Like many things during the last 25 years of my life the Los Angeles Kings dictated my decision to come to New York (or Newark, rather) and without exaggeration it was literally thirty minutes after I’d purchased my tickets to Game 5 that I received an e-mail from reservationist Julia Nichols indicating that six seats were suddenly available for June 8th, the day before the game, at 6:00pm. Acting quickly and responding without hesitation I requested she hold four of the seats while I contacted some friends and within an hour three of us were confirmed, for each of us our second visit to Chef Mirarchi’s Tasting Menu and for my friends actually their second visit to Blanca.
The Space: Obviously the biggest change from my first visit to Roberta’s was the location of the “tasting table” – now a 12 person chef’s counter in a building next door and a far cry from the wooden table with benches I occupied just 15 months prior. Greeted at the door of Roberta’s and subsequently led through the garden to the building next door the space now termed Blanca is well lit, spacious, and exceedingly well designed for its primary purpose of watching the kitchen at work as stainless steel dominates the kitchen and nothing but a large fish head and diverse record collection serve to distract the diner’s gaze from the food and the talented team preparing it.
Obviously not ‘fine dining’ in the traditional sense given the lack of table cloths, counter seating, and soundtrack ranging from Rod Stewart to The Rolling Stones I was additionally happy to see the team at Blanca went the extra mile in terms of seating by providing buttery soft leather chairs with high backs and plenty of padding, quality service ware including myriad styles of plates and wine glasses, and even shawls for those who are too cold given the fact that the kitchen is obviously quite warm while the air conditioning is delivered from the rear. Additionally, for those interested in such things, check out the restroom where a Japanese commode resides featuring more functions than anyone likely needs (even during the course of a four hour meal.)
The Service: Given the hipster casual vibe that predominates Roberta’s one might be surprised to find that the service at Blanca is every bit on par with some of the best in the city but given my first experience with Chef Mirarchi’s Tasting Table it came as no shock that service was efficient, knowledgeable, humble, and as pleasant as the man in the kitchen. With no ridiculous rules about photographs or notes each dish and its beverage pairing was presented with a bevy of details and questions were answered about everything from the design of the room to the sourcing of ingredients without hesitation while throughout the meal guests were checked on frequently with opinions gauged on each dish.
The Food: 27 course tasting menu, bread service, tea, and a glass of Sarasola Basque Cider. $180 + tax/tip. Wine/Sake/Beer Pairing Optional.
Osetra Caviar with Goat Milk Granita: Served in a gold rimmed bowl with a mother of pearl spoon this combination of briny black caviar with frozen and shaved goat’s milk was a classic combination of salt meets sour and much like the more traditional presentation with crème fraiche the flavors were flawless while the textural balance of softly popping eggs and slowly melting ice was inspired.
Glass Shrimp with Celery and Poppyseed: Following up the salt and sour of the prior course, our second dish would highlight sweet and bitter as two small glass shrimp were served hemisected and raw in a pool of celery jus studded with black poppy seeds. Once again a nicely conceptualized pairing with the seeds largely serving to add texture I particularly enjoyed this dish as it further primed the palate for what was to follow.
Striped Jack with Chrysanthemum: Mild and buttery with sashimi quality texture and a slight herbal element on the finish.
Soft Shelled Crab Claw with Yogurt: Fresh and sweet with a slightly sour finish from the house made yogurt the highlight of this bite was actually the texture as the crunchy tempura gave way to creamy crab without a bit of oiliness to be found.
Horse mackerel with Flowering Parsley / Gizzard Shad with Sorrel Stem: An intriguing pairing on a single plate with the two fatty fishes serving as ample carriers for the aromatic herbs. Like each of the raw preparations that preceded and would follow this dish would not have been out of place at a high end sushi restaurant and both the flavors and the textures were a true testament to Blanca’s ingredient sourcing.
Sweetbreads with Lime: An interesting change in pace given the strong emphasis on fish and shellfish during the first half of the menu we were next presented with a single small piece of thymus lightly battered and flash fried atop a simple lime cream and cracked pepper. Crisp on the outside, creamy within, and nicely accented by the lime which was actually more sweet than sour.
Bonito with Sea Beans: Dish seven would present young bonito in its raw state instead of the more common smoked or dried form and with the flavor far milder this preparation proved to be savory and clean without being briny and although I did not really detect much flavor from the sea beans the textural snap was pleasant.
Sea Perch with Rhubarb: Having told us that Sea Perch was one of his favorite fishes during our previous meal I was happy to see Chef Mirarchi present the lightly cooked fish once again and with the buttery smooth flesh nicely balanced with the slightly sweet rhubarb this would prove to be my favorite course yet and the first in a series of three fruit-forward dishes adding some levity to the early part of the menu.
Geoduck with Tuscan Melon: Generally one of my favorite clams or mollusks this course presented thinly sliced siphons as well as a part of the body lightly cooked and paired with ripe Tuscan melon but unfortunately while the textures were perfect the melon itself was far too sweet thus relegating the mirugai to a mild saline note on palate.
Celtuse with Kumquat, Goat Yogurt, Marcona Almond, and Tuna Flake: A “salad” course, if you will, this nicely conceptualized dish presented two slices of the crisp stem, one horizontally cut and one vertically cut, atop slightly funky yogurt accented by black pepper and thinly sliced tuna with intensely sweet kumquats providing an ample foil.
Pen Shell Clam Torched with Bean Flower: Presented along with its enormous shell this Japanese clam would prove far more successful than the Geoduck and with just a touch of char provided by a blowtorch I personally loved this mild sweetness of the bivalve as well as the slightly floral note coming through beneath a touch of smoke.
Sea Urchin, Tofu, Bread Crumbs, Red Amaranth: It is hard to go wrong with high quality uni and here Chef Mirarchi paired a luxurious tongue of California uni with house made tofu, crunchy bread crumbs, and two small leafs of bitter red Amaranth to form a creamy bite with plenty of flavor and just enough texture to prevent the urchin and tofu from blending into a savory pudding.
Squid, Pimento, Meyer Lemon, Purple Onions: Lucky number 13 would feature both the cephalopod and tentacles of squid dressed in pimento pepper oil, lightly seared, and presented with Meyer lemon puree and sautéed purple onions. Both tender and spicy the squid itself was exemplary and while I generally don’t prefer too much citrus with my seafood the aromatic onions and natural sweetness of the Meyer lemons worked quite nicely in the context of the heat.
Beef Carpaccio, Egg Yolk, Arugula, Arugula Flower: With my general blasé feelings for beef well known it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached this dish, though given my experience with Chef Mirarchi’s aged beef during my prior meal I had little reason to worry as the thinly sliced Australian wagyu was tender and supple, literally melting in the mouth. With little lent by the arugula or arugula flower save for some color, I will additionally note that I did appreciate the drizzle of egg yolk and cracked black pepper which provided just a hint of spice without overwhelming the meat’s natural flavor.
Wheat Pasta, Razor Clam, Japanese Uni, Wheat Flower: Again utilizing florals largely as decoration the first pasta course of the evening was a throwback to my previous tasting at Roberta’s in terms of potent flavors minimally adorned as briny Japanese uni and tender razor clams teaming with umami blended with the toothsome pasta to form a flavor I can best describe as the taste on your lips after an afternoon in the ocean – plenty briny and just a touch sweet.
Black Pepper Garganelli with Braised Goat: Pasta number two was even better than the first as the thin rolled noodles rife with black pepper was lightly sauced with a ragu of savory braised goat. Rich and flavorful this was the first time in the meal where I really wished the portion was larger, or that I had some bread to sop up the leftover juices as there is little doubt I’d have eaten a large bowl of this pasta if given the opportunity based on the strength of the ragu alone.
Nduja Ravioli topped with Anise Hyssop: The bite of the night, the bite of the trip, and thus far the bite of the year. For those who have been, think of Grant Achatz’s Black Truffle – Explosion and for those who haven’t, imagine a single bite where dainty pasta gives way to an intense burst of savory spice from the liquefied Calabrian Sausage followed by an immediate rush of cool from the anise. It was perfect in concept and equal in execution…it is the sort of dish that could easily become a signature and probably should.
Sweet Potato, Buttermilk, Watercress, Watercress jus: Dish 18 didn’t really have much of a chance following the Nduja but perhaps anticipating this factor the kitchen made a smart decision to follow-up the shocking heat and minty cool with a dish focused on sweet and sour as the tender sweet potato balanced nicely with the sour buttermilk as the watercress lent a slightly bitter tinge.
Prawn, Tarragon, Turkish Aleppo Pepper: Having watched the live prawns flip and splash around in a shallow bowl in front of one of my friends for the first two hours of the meal this was an expected course and taking a ‘keep it simple’ approach the sweet and snappy prawns were served whole with a touch of tarragon and Aleppo pepper and instructions to suck the carapace then eat the tail, both bites exactly what you would expect and a final briny bite as we progressed towards the highly anticipated heavier proteins.
Aged Rack of Lamb, Fresh Coriander, Mustard Leaf, Mint Jelly: Seated at the far end of the bar where the dry aged meats had been resting alongside the prawns Carlo had picked up the lamb rack a few courses prior and had been working on it ever since as his team tended to the sweet potato and prawn. Described as “aged for a couple of months” by our server and roasted to just past rare this was perhaps the most musky lamb I’ve ever tasted, but at the same time also the most tender – easily cut with the edge of a fork despite slightly crisp skin – and paired nicely with herbs from the rooftop garden plus jelly made with rooftop mint. With only so many bones to go around I unfortunately did not receive one, but given the size of the portion and the fact that even the fattier pieces were perfectly tender I certainly had no room to complain.
Bread Stick and Hearth Bread with Salted Butter: Noting here my predilection for the bread basket if I had but one small complaint about the entire experience at Blanca it would be that Roberta’s delectable house made breads arrived so late in the meal – while I understand that some would want to pace themselves for such a long meal I personally would have been quite happy to nibble on both the soft bread stick and the pizza oven baked crusty bread with local salted butter throughout the night, particularly alongside the pastas.
Poulet Rouge, Porcini Mushrooms, Kohlrabi Broth, Broccoli Rabe: With both my slices of bread gone in no time flat it was time for a dish we’d been watching roast in the oven for at least the last forty five minutes and with juices streaming down the lean bird what we received would prove every bit worth the wait as crisp and salty skin gave way to juicy meat resting in a slightly bitter and aromatic broth of kohlrabi, mushrooms, and rabe. With a portion of dark and white meat provided and the flavors both intense and clean my guess is that this bird was not aged like the rest of the meats but having never tasted this particular heritage breed I really cannot be sure.
Strawberry Buttermilk Gelato: Arriving as a palate cleanser before our last savory of the evening this small quenelle of gelato was creamy and smooth with small bits of berry throughout, a nice flavor serving its purpose admirably.
85 Day Dry Aged Wagyu Beef, Hearts of Palm, Ramps, Scapes, Vin Cotto: The other piece of meat sitting next to the lamb rack earlier in the night, this was by far my most anticipated course of the night and much like last time the ultra-aged meat did not disappoint. A sizable portion, though certainly not the nearly half pound served during my previous visit, and prepared to medium rare with another piece pan seared to well-done at its side the only way to describe the flavor is “rich” with a touch of earthy funk nicely balanced by a touch of acid and the pungency of the tender ramps and scapes.
Bayley Hazen Blue Cheese with Fig, Radish, Walnuts, Fennel, Honeycomb from the Roof: As if the Wagyu wasn’t funky enough our cheese course for the evening would feature one of my favorite American Blues alongside a number of accoutrements and although the figs were slightly less sweet than I would have liked the pairing of Jasper Hill’s finest cheese with both the aromatic fennel and the bitter radish was an inspired choice while the honeycomb and walnuts worked as well as expected in highlighting the subtle spicy notes of the cheese.
Chamomile Gelato with Quinoa and Chickpea Crumble: Having been only modestly impressed with the desserts on Roberta’s tasting the first time around I was happy to see the first of three options arrive with a lot more nuance than any during my first visit and with the gelato flavored similarly to the milky tea that my grandmother often served both me as a child I was additionally impressed by the “crumble” – a buttery composition tasting something like grapenuts cereal without the bitterness.
Wild Strawberries, Strawberry Soup, Sorrel and Ground Ivy Granita, Lemon Verbena Ice Cream: Following close on the heels of the gelato this inspired composition would not have been out of place on the menu at a place like Manresa or even L’Arpege and with myriad textures, temperatures, and flavors at play the overall effect was at times sweet and other times sour but at all times intensely herbal. To quote one of my co-diners, it tasted “healthy” and “refreshing,” a perfect dish for summer.
Cherry Sorbet, Yogurt, Coffee and Hempseed Crumble, Poached Cherries, Pakistani Noble Berry: The final plate of the evening and the largest of the desserts suffice it to say that this was outstanding – the sorbet soft and creamy, the poached cherries slightly boozy, the yogurt just a touch sour, and the crumble much like the quinoa/chickpea combination in texture but laced with notes of coffee and earthiness in flavor. Unfamiliar with the “Noble Berry” prior to this I was additionally impressed by the pastry chef taking time to chat with us about the ingredient, a jet black finger-length berry with a flavor similar to blackberries but a texture somewhat akin to a date.
Matcha: Served after the desserts as we sat listening to music while watching the kitchen scrub down I personally would have preferred coffee, but all things being equal I’ll never complain about green tea either, particularly one this fragrant.
The Verdict: With the capability to now serve 12 persons per night when Carlo is in town I can only assume that Blanca will help the crew at Roberta’s progress through their extensive wait list in a more expedited manner yet given the quality of the room, the food, the service, and the man in the kitchen I could also see the opposite occurring where demand increases even further and as such I will say the same thing I said after my last meal – that this is a dining experience that should reside near the top of everyone’s ‘must-visit’ list, and that I cannot wait to go back.