Wednesday, April 28, 2010
SHOwing Support for Shaun Hergatt
In the restaurant wasteland otherwise known as New York's Financial District, SHO Shaun Hergatt has been become a food sanctuary. Here, Australian chef Shaun Hergatt forges French technique with Asian influences to produce some of the best food to be had in Manhattan. Garnering multiple awards including a 29/30 for food in the latest Zagat Survey as well as a Michelin Star in 2010, it came as quite a surprise when New York Times food critic Sam Sifton gave the restaurant a meager two star review. Immediate backlash ensued on Eater forums with Josh Ozersky arguing against Sifton's review; insisting that SHO was worthy of three stars. After having read Sifton's review of SHO and having had the pleasure of dining at the restaurant on multiple occasions I feel compelled to weigh in on the subject. If restaurants are to be judged based solely on the food that they serve, instead of the their ambiance and clientele they attract (Sir Paul McCartney in sneakers) then SHO Shaun Hergett is deserving of at least three stars.
I agree with Ozersky that the crux of Sifton's two star review stemmed less from the food than his own prejudice against the opulent nature of the restaurant and its cuisine. It seems that in the wake of Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac and AIG, the zeitgeist (repeatedly referenced by Ozersky) has rallied against such white-linen establishments, preferring pork belly to a côte de boeuf. But even in hard times such as these, there always will be a demand and a need for such fine dining restaurants and I hope in spite of Sifton's tepid review, SHO Shaun Hergatt will continue to thrive.
In Frank Bruni's final review of Eleven Madison Park, he mentioned that he referred more people there instead of Daniel, Per Se and other stalwarts of the Manhattan fine dining scene in large part because of the value to be had with their $88 three-course prix fixe menu. Much like Bruni championed Eleven Madison Park, I have endorsed SHO Shaun Hergatt. At $69 for three-courses, excluding canapès, an amuse bouche and petits fours, SHO remains one of the best values to be found. While Sifton accuses SHO Shaun Hergatt of being "anachronistic," I respectfully disagree. Had the restaurant been located in any area other than near Wall Street, a constant reminder of the banking industry, expense accounts and excess, then maybe Sifton's review would have read differently. Is the long corridor displaying the wine selection at SHO any less excessive than Charlie Palmer's "wine tower" in Aureole located in Midtown? Are the fine linens, polished silver and sedated dining room any more excessive than the one at Le Bernardin? The answer is "no" to both of these hypothetical questions. In fact, I like the decor and might add that the impressive glass windows allows diners to feel as though they are eating at the private chef's table inside the kitchen at Daniel.
While the dinner prix fixe menu is a steal, I've always been compelled to sample more of chef's Hergatt's food by ordering the five-course tasting menu. On a visit in February, I noticed the recent addition of a fifteen-course tasting menu but will have to save that epic meal for a future date. Not sure what to drink? Just turn to sommelier, Emilie Garvey, who was recently listed as one of Food & Wine's sommeliers of the year.
On to the food, which Sifton finds "fussy." I won't argue with this characterization but will question why he vilifies it? The food at SHO Shaun Hergatt was no more primped or tweezed than any other at a restaurant of this caliber. Microgreens and fine plating are common with many dishes, yet critics never seem to focus on these details when it comes to Japanese food, another cuisine where visual presentation is paramount. After being seated, a waiter stopped and presented our table with a barrage of canapès. Although the canapès followed a familiar structure, the ingredients varied slightly with each visit. On my first visit we were given a trio consisting of: a Goat Cheese Pavè, a Poached Quail Egg with Caviar on a Brioche Crouton and a Lobster Mouse with Tomato Gelèe. Of the three my favorite was the lobster mousse which had an intense lobster flavor and was decadently smooth.
On my second visit we were given the same Goat Cheese Pavè, Poached Quail Egg with Caviar but this time a Garlic Cremè with a Chicken Consummè. Like my first visit, I preferred the preparation presented in a shot glass. The garlic cremè with chicken consommè was a fabulous take on a chicken soup.
The amuse bouche on my first visit was an Australian Hiramasa sliced as a carpaccio and marinated with rice wine vinegar. The presentation of this dish was stunning; served on a cleaned scallop shell that laid atop a bed of sea salt and peppercorns the fish had a very clean taste, and the accompanying marinade was well seasoned.
For my second visit we were given a Trout Carpaccio that was thinly sliced, wrapped around vividly orange orbs of trout roe, and mixed with a citrus sauce. The trout roe literally popped inside your mouth releasing a briny burst of flavor that paired nicely with the citrus sauce.
Service was quick and unobtrusive. Between courses water was constantly refilled and the bread basket would reappear containing: Sourdough, Multigrain, French Baguette, and an Olive Baguette. Two types of butter accompanied the bread: a Salted Cow's Milk Butter and a sinfully good Black Truffle Butter.
The first course of my first visit was Hand Picked Peekytoe Crab topped with a Galangal Gelèe and Santa Barbara Sea Urchin. Sweet crab meat, briny sea urchin and the tart gelèe combined for a memorable first course.
On the second visit chef Hergatt presented a Venison Tartar with Perigold Truffle and Pomme Tuile. This was one of the best tartars I've ever had, with just the right amount of mustard to cut the gaminess of the venison and the earthiness of the truffle.
Next was a Slow Poached Egg with "Satur Farms" Sunchoke and Berkshire Pork Cheek. This dish was a sophisticated riff on an American breakfast. I had read a previous Serious Eats article showing how Shaun Hergatt poaches his eggs, and it tasted great when mixed with the sweet sunchoke puree and savory pork cheek.
On my return visit we supplemented the Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Hazelnut Tuile and Elderberry Coulis. The smooth foie tasted good with the hazelnut coulis, but overall the dish would have benefited from more of the elderberry coulis.
Our third course was a Miatake Mushroom Soup with a Black Trumpet Pavè and Celery Root Foam. The miatake soup was poured into our bowls table side over pieces of the black trumpet pavè, then topped with celery root foam. The soup had velvety texture and the pavè provided some texture but I wasn't keen on the celery root foam and thought it took away from the dish.
On our return visit the third course was a Wild Striped Bass, Leek Relish, White Asparagus and Red Wine Reduction. The bass was very moist and had an incredibly crispy skin, reminiscent of a potato chip, and complimented the red wine reduction.
For both visits the fourth course was Slow Poached Lobster with Creamy White Grits, Burgundy Jus and Parmesan Tweedle. There was little not to love between the sweet lobster and creamy grits; the lobster was cooked very well, and was not a bit stringy, which it can be at times.
The last savory course on our first visit was a New York State Squab with a Duck Rillette Parcel, Sauteed Foie Gras and Rosella Gel. Squab-- otherwise known as pigeon-- tasted great! The accompanying parcel was a pasta filled with a duck rillette and the sauteed foie amplified this poultry-themed dish.
On our last visit our final savory course was a Milk Fed Veal Tenderloin with Sweetbread Ravioli and Foie Gras Sauce. While the veal tasted great on its own, it was the foie gras sauce that helped bring this dish together. The sweetbread ravioli was a bit tough for my liking but didn't lack flavor.
As if Sifton's biases were not already apparent, the inclusion of the fact that chef Hergatt bucks the popular locavore philosophy is another backhanded insult. Though some high profile chefs embrace the sustainable route (Eric Ripert only using sustainable fish for example) many restaurants do not. In the April edition of Wine Spectator, Thomas Keller actually spoke on the merits of not sourcing locally for ingredients. Not that two wrongs make a right, but it hardly seems fair that chef Hergatt should be penalized for this practice.
On our first visit the pre-dessert course was a Braised Pineapple with a Crème Fraiche Sorbet. The addition of mint was a nice touch to this palette cleanser.
For our next visit this course was described as a "Creamsicle," a Vanilla Mousse, Blood Orange Supremes, Orange Sauce and Chocolate Bark. This bite-sized dish was a more refined version of a creamsicle and tasted exactly like its namesake.
Our last course was a Java Crèmux with an Apricot Croustillant, Hazelnut Biscuit and Cardamom Ice Cream. Pastry Chef Mina Pizarro's talent was on display with this dessert presenting a dessert almost too pretty to eat. The Crèmux had a strong coffee flavor that worked well with the other components.
On our second visit the dessert was a Chocolate Soufflè with Candied Kumquats and Wattle Seed Ice Cream. While I wasn't enamored with the flavor of the wattle seed ice cream, the soufflè was flawlessly executed; it was like eating a chocolate cloud.
Before the bill, the waiters wheeled over a cart containing more goodies. Petits fours change and can include: Burnt Marshmallows on Graham Cracker Crust, Pistachio Nougat, Mango Jellies, Sea Salt Caramel Bon Bons, Dark Chocolate Truffle with Hazelnuts and various Marcarons (Poppy Seed, Vanilla, Hazelnut, Chocolate and Tangerine).
There is one take-away from Sifton's review that I wholeheartedly agree with; he predicates his review by describing fans of the restaurant as being, "legion and passionate." I am no food critic, nor do I hold myself out to be one; but Sam Sifton is, and many people follow and trust the New York Times. As such, any personal biases against a particular restaurant concept, where the food is without flaw, and that results in a mediocre review, is inappropriate and potentially damaging for any restaurant, let alone one as ambitious as SHO. Sifton's ratings continues to amaze me as he recently awarded Jean Georges Vongerichten's latest venture, The Mark, two stars albeit describing the food as being, "...so unambitious that it is difficult to fumble." This is not a suggestion that the food at The Mark is not good, but rather another example at how imprecise and amorphous I find Sifton's rating system. Sifton's recent reviews motivated me to write about my personal experiences at SHO in the hope, that if nothing else, people will go there to make their own determination. Regardless of what Sifton or any other critic says about SHO Shaun Hergatt, I will continue to be one of their "legion and passionate" fans.
SHO Shaun Hergatt
40 Broad Street
New York, NY 10004
To see all our pics, please click the flickr link.