Questions of an anticipating appetite: Can she cook as well as she writes? Will I get to see the actual Gabrielle Hamilton or does she get a sub chef at lunchtime? Will Prune be too expensive? Will the restaurant be very crowded because the chef/owner wrote a best seller? Will my granddaughter like it? Will I be able to find it in New York City? Can I get there on time from shopping in Chinatown? What should I wear?
Part one: On the train again heading to NYC. I hope its warmer there... I got into the car this morning and that little unfriendly digital thermometer boasted a frightening 6 degrees below zero. I didn't know it could go that low. I'm going to spend a few days with my granddaughter Nina, an NYU student. We have lots of plans. Today we are going to eat Vietnamese for lunch, take an intense Yoga class at Jivamukti Center by Union Square then enjoy dinner at Otto's, an old rail station turned loud eclectic Italian, a family favorite. But our biggest adventure will be lunch at Prune. No, it's not the old lady care center, but it's a celebrated restaurant.
My sister gave me a book for Christmas, "Blood, Bones and Butter: The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef." by Gabrielle Hamilton.
Hamilton, a renowned chef, lover of foods and other things, has an MFA in literature and, oh busboy, can she write. The sad, funny, clever memoir is laden with a desire to escape from the drudgery of cooking and pursue her passion for writing although she continually returns to her real passion and finally ends with a 30-seat structure serving savory food stuffs in New York's lower East Side.
Part two: We have lunch reservations. First and first...not quite the neighborhood I had expected but I'm from upstate what do I know? On our first walk by, sheltering our faces from the wind and cold, we totally missed Prune. The discreet dining establishment did not shout its celebrated reputation. I thought it looked comfortable. We were not greeted but welcomed at the door. It was 2 o'clock. The small place, although full, was not crowded. We sat in a window seat in the corner, with a good view of the inside and outside. My stepdaughter would call the dcor, shabby chic. I would call it relaxed. I thought of some of my upstate associates who might say, "This place is no big deal look at the bathroom, it's so small, the mirror is old, and the seats are uncomfortable." I looked at the menu and thought, "but this is a big deal." There were only 15 luncheon choices, hand printed with a light description. Prices ranged from $9 to $18, no big deal.
Nina and I began with the classic "peek at other plates" while we decided what to order. It all looked pretty good and we were excited. I had a few questions. I learned that Valadon cheese is an intensely flavored goat and cow blue cheese, Bouchot mussels are harvested on wood (chot) and the celery salad with warm blue cheese toast was "shaved" not "shared" as the tiny printing suggests.
The menu offerings ranged from common, grilled hamburger with sharp Cabot cheddar on a toasted english muffin, to more unusual, such as monkfish stew with grilled squid and bouchot mussels. There was a variety of seafood, including fried oyster omelets, a rock shrimp roll with old bay french fries. There was short rib soup with pear barley and shiitake mushrooms, petite poule vert, and a simple classic N.Y. deli egg on a roll. There were vegetable options: Gratin of grilled endive with pistachios and crumbled Valadon and a saily sous chef salad. There were items I probably would only order on a more adventurous day, such as skate wing with lemon, caper sauce with Szechuan potato slaw and fried sweetbreads with bacon and capers.
Because the servings were smallish, we ordered and shared three items. First, the Tuscan kales with toasted pine nuts and parmesan. Yummy, that went fast. It was after 2 p.m. and we had been walking and shopping. Next, I had the pasta kerchief with french ham, poached egg and wilted greens- delis. The kerchief was just that , a small square of home-made pasta covering the dish. The ham was thin but sharp and salty, a perfect contrast to the warm egg and greens. The ratatouille sandwich was a surprise. The vegetable was reduced with a medley of rich flavors and placed atop a rectangle of flaky pastry - gorgeous.
I treated myself to a glass of cold white wine (and paid New York City prices). Nina treated herself to dessert, a perfectly ripened and poached pear with a dash of crme fraische. Lovely.
Conclusion: Writing of a life full of peaks and plunges, Ms. Hamilton's book satisfies the reader's appetite for life, love, adventure, education and eating. It is filled with food information and food experiences. The memoir boils as she makes her way to finding her true life choice. Serving simply the best in a simple manner, Hamilton's restaurants satisfies the eater's appetite for good food, good service and good vibes.
Restaurant Watch: What restaurants have you visited that you would like to share?