However, my friend's band April Smith and the Great Picture Show were playing at Maxwell's with Langhorne Slim, so I decided to make a whole night of it. But where to go? Luckily the same NY Times article that mentioned us at the end of the year listed Bin 14 as well.
We entered the narrow restaurant at 7 PM and the place was already bustling with a full bar and only a couple of the dozen or so tables empty. I immediately had a good feeling about the open kitchen, exposed brick and massive wall of wine cubbies. We got a table towards the back, right near the kitchen.
The philosophy of the restaurant was immediately apparent and right up my alley. With a large menu of small dishes meant for sharing and a great wine list available in 2 oz pours, we were encouraged to graze and sample...heaven IS a place on Earth!
Our server, attired in a black t shirt and jeans... again, my style of casual service...was Mike and he instilled us with confidence from the start. We gave him the green light to pair wines for us and then we proceeded to order pretty much half the menu.
Ok, I exaggerate a bit...there was quite a bit that we didn't get to sample...but 11 courses later...we got a pretty good snap shot.
First there were 3 types of bruschetta...Lobster Club, brightly flavored, with copious amounts of lobster, avocado and prosciutto. There was just the right amount of mayo and a touch of celery really stood out for me. The Beef Tartare was a healthy portion that lacked a bit in the seasoning, but that was made up for by the topping of raw quail egg yolk. We also had a special of Foie Gras mousse with the slightest layer of strawberry jam. From the wording, I had expected an actual piece of Foie and not a mousse...however, it was still excellent.
Next came calamari dusted in chick pea flour and served with capers and hot peppers. No clunky marinara...no sauce at all was needed. I have had calamari with chick pea flour before and enjoy it. Our server had said the calamari changed his life...I won't go that far. The mussles on the other hand were transcendent. In a broth of Pernod with caramelized fennel and blood orange, I could have eaten several bowls.
We also had a Brussel Sprout and Pancetta Pizza...I know you are getting jealous by now. This was an inspired combination on a pizza. I love my Brussel Sprouts, as anyone who eats my dinners can vouch for. But even I had never thought to put them on a pizza. They crisped up and caramelized in the pizza oven and the crust was crsp and chewy at the same time. This was a real standout.
I love sweetbreads. I never get to have sweetbreads.
So, sweetbreads and Brussel Sprouts and pancetta...
I was about to do my Meg Ryan impression but, once again, I am trying to keep my girlfriend. The only thing I would have done differently would be to cut the sprouts smaller and the pancetta bigger.
At this point we had our first miscue of the evening. The lamb sausage was just OK. It had a very familiar taste and texture which I couldn't identify. My dining companion, Alex, put his finger on it. Chef Boyardee. Not the best...though we still ate every bite, so... not that bad either.
Finally, we shared 3 entrees, which also come in smaller portions...thank God! A gnocchi with oxtail ragout was almost perfect. The gnocchi were soft and pillowy, not chewy and dense, as is too often the case. However, the ragout was a bit too sweet, as is also often the case. Duck risotto was good, not great.
The highlight of the entrees was a taglitelle carbonara with butternut squash and a poached egg. The pasta was soft, delicate and obviously made fresh in-house. The squash was an unusual but welcome touch, perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the warm egg yolk brought just the right level of richness.
Along the way, we tried 6 different wines, the names of which elude me now. At this point we were in a state of mild euphoria. The food ranged from good to excellent, with no single dish being life altering.
The experience, however was one of my all time favorites. Being allowed...no, encouraged, to sample and graze and try so many things...has to be my favorite way to dine. The staff was casual, friendly, yet well informed and professional. It reminded me a bit of my favorite bar, Employees Only, in that I was comfortable enough to let go of the reigns, sit back and let things happen.
And that's how you become an ortolan.