Sunday, October 12, 2014

Stolen Tables and Valdemort: The Lion, NYC

Jeter!!!
What can I say about the 20 year career of Yankees short-stop Derek Jeter that hasn't been gushed about in the last year? Retiring from professional major-league baseball is often a subject that can trigger handwringing, introspection and statistical wanking from the pundit class however Jeter's retirement was marked by a remarkable chorus of universal praise: everyone loves Derek Jeter.

Personally I find him to be the least offensive thing about the Yankees, and team I despise due to a complex combination of a feeling of inferiority (having grown up with Cleveland sports) and disdain for those who abuse power (in this case, the power of the Yankees owners to buy the best team in the franchise) and the fact that Yankees fans are smug pricks (a trait that was forgivable in the Red Sox until they started winning championships making a Red Sox and Yankees matchup a zero sum affair as far as I was concerned, unless the result of the match up somehow had an effect on the standings for the Los Angeles Dodgers).

Not since the golden days of baseball (names like Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose were bandied about) has a retiring player been as universally lauded. The managers of each ballpark presented  Jeter with a gift for his last game as he travelled around for his victory lap this season.

So, the guy stole my table. No big deal – our party had grown from 5 to 6 to eventually 8 so we could use the extra room seated in the general dining room with the peasants (and apparently Ralph Fiennes and Susan Sarandon).

The Lion, on the edges of the West Village and Chelsea, is helmed by Chef John DeLucie. The restaurant website touts that the restaurant embraces a certain je n'est cest Huew Lewis "it's hip to be square" attitude of serving "unhip" American classics.

I am reminded of two things when I think back about my meal there on a crisp early autumn night.

First is a clip of Chef Grant Achatz talking about famed and oft maligned San Francisco Chronicle food columnist Michael Bauer and his proclivities. "If you wanted to get anywhere in the San Francisco restaurant scene," paraphrasing chef Achatz, "all you needed to do was to put certain dishes on your menu because of one guy, Michael Bauer. If you put a beet salad with goat cheese on your menu, you were in. And so you saw restaurant after restaurant featuring the beet salad with goat cheese."

The second thing that sprung to mind was a movie that I was forced (literally strapped to a chair) to watch flying from one coast to the other on some airliner or another. There is a scene from the Jon Favreau movie "Chef" (starring Favreau as chef Carl Casper), where Oliver Platt plays a food blogger (Ramsey Michael) who thrashes Casper's menu (after, unbeknownst to Ramsey Michael, chef Casper's restaurant owner and boss Riva, played by a prickly Dustin Hoffman, kiboshes Casper's new menu and insists that he serve the standard, stogey, unchanged menu). "Chef Casper's astonishing weight gain might be explained by the chef eating all of the dishes sent back to the kitchen," barbs blogger Michaels, "some of these dishes might please the country club crowd but they are a far cry from the daring chef I remember when I first encountered him." (Paraphrasing.)

Casper knows in his heart that Michaels is correct: he has been phoning it in for too long.

Casper, pride wounded, works up a completely new menu only to be rebuffed again by Riva. Casper has had enough and quits – his sous chef takes over grudgingly and fires the old menu. He is then forced to watch in real time as Michaels again savages Casper for serving the same menu on Twitter. Incensed, Casper marches back into the restaurant and gives Michaels a piece of his mind. The video goes viral on YouTube, effectively ending Chef Casper's career.

It is a scene that captures the tension between food professional and food writer that has made me lose sleep wondering if I should pen more toothsome critiques, remain constructive or avoid controversy at all whenever I write a review for a restaurant.

I later bought the movie on iTunes to show my roommate.

Let me come to some sort of point here, then. New York is undoubtedly the restaurant capital of the world, and for many reasons. Chief among them is that everyone in New York eats out, often several times a week, in establishments with three-, two-, one- and no-Michelin stars: Nobu to Popeye's Chicken (and I love Popeye's Chicken). Often it's because there's no room for a kitchen in that $3000 studio in Manhattan.

People in New York eat out as a form of sustenance but also for entertainment and to see and be seen (take for example Messieurs Jeter and Fiennes and Mademoiselle Sarandon).

I chose the Lion because I knew the food was good and that I would be supporting my little sister, who is the wine director; but I also chose it to show off to my current batch of coworkers.

"This is the best meal I've had in a while," said one of them.

Perhaps, but I didn't see anything come across the pass that I wouldn't have been able to make at home. A disappointment for me, but I am not everyone so perhaps I am being unfair. The food was made skillfully and properly seasoned (although, and perhaps as a side-effect of the unannounced presence of the retired Yankees short-stop, service was a bit slow that night and orders seemed to take some time to get fired).

Service slowness aside, the food was well done and well presented; but as I said, nothing knocked my socks off or left me wondering "how the hell did they do that?" The theatre was all in present company and not on the plate, and perhaps that is what Chef DeLucie would prefer. Still, perhaps there is room on the menu to show off to restaurant goers like myself who can be hard to please. Perhaps I missed the marquee dish.

My entrée was a duck breast with a pile of salty quinoa and my appetizer was an asparagus soup with foie gras.

If you are looking for something a little more adventurous, maybe The Lion wouldn't be my first choice, however if you intended to relax, have some skillfully made cocktails, a good bottle of wine and maybe do some celebrity spotting over unfussy classic cuisine, The Lion might be the best game in town.

(And they have a great wine list.)

(Incidentally, the dinner was part of a series of launch party events for Selfie.com. Go to http://itunes.selfie.com/ to download the app and join the conversation. I'm "DottoreGus.")

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The Lion
62 West 9th St
New York, NY
10011