I am guilty, in my typical reverse-chic way, when it comes to serious dining out, of hardly ever considering any of the midtown New York restaurants, preferring the more intriguing adventure of being surprised by some talented young up-and-coming chefs who showcase their creations at some affordable distance from the luxurious beaten path.
But this week the exception consisted of a delicious lunch excursion, guided by Chanie Kaminker, my assistant and friend, whose brother Chaim is manager at Wolf and Lamb Restaurant, on 48th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. Chanie had enthusiastically described the recent changes the restaurant had made to vamp up their setting and their menu, thereby shifting their image from a deli restaurant to a heavy-duty steakhouse with a professional menu, and she suggested a date there.
I marveled at an unusually long gleaming woodwork paneling counter at the back of the room, which also served as a partition between the kitchen and the dining room, and on which all dishes landed, ready for pickup, lined up with military precision. Lunch started on a high note with a wonderful smokey-spicy pumpkin soup, which veered off resolutely from the classical sweet-spicy pumpkin soup as we usually encounter it. This one had a deep mahogany color, and the crunchy toppings of shoestring potato and chipotle-toasted nuts provided a wonderfully funky counterpoint with the creamy soup.
Beautiful and perfectly seared slices of tuna followed, drizzled with a jalapeño-infused olive oil and served with a handful of salad baby greens.
As a frequent restaurant goer, cook and cooking teacher, besieged from all sides with good food, I try my utmost to mitigate the daily exigencies of eating as a rough sport by cutting whatever corner I possibly can. So when I saw the enticing description of the restaurant’s deli sandwich, I asked if it would be no trouble getting it served as a platter, sans bread, premium deli being a treat I indulge in just a couple times a year. It was described as follows: Charcuterie/Delicatessen Sampler – Classic Romanian Plate Pastrami, Homemade Corned Beef Brisket, Slow Braised Brisket of Beef, Old Fashioned Smoked Turkey Breast. Except for one of the meats (probably the braised brisket) which I thought must have been left to cook too long and dried out, all other meats were ideally tender and sliced razor-thin. Chaim explained how they got that pastrami so succulent by re-brining it in their own kitchen, with their own spices and curing it again before slicing. The smoked turkey didn’t feel like the lean treat you are supposed to settle for when you want to be on your dining-out best behavior: All of it was lean and delicious, and none of it was overly salted. That platter came with an assortment of 4 dipping sauces, my favorite of which was a wonderful chipotle sauce, and Green Cabbage Slaw with Fresh Dill and Parsley, very good albeit a tad too lemony.
My friend’s entree was an Herb Rib Eye Roast Sandwich with Porcini Mushroom Gravy, served in toasted italian bread, and served with Potato Crisps Sea Salt and Garlic Fries. Could this be kosher, I wondered? Heaven help me, it looked like pictures of pulled pork I have seen in verboten food magazines. But yes, it was Kosher through and through, and delicious, the porcini gravy bringing it over the top.
Dessert: We were quite full, but we still soldiered on. That’s the litmus test for any good sport, after all. Chaim suggested we leave that up to him, as two treats were just coming out of the oven. One bite of each dessert told me the baker, a celebrity pastry chef in its own right, was a man after my own heart. We still hear out there some echos of the totally unfounded assumption that if dessert is dairy-free, don’t expect miracles. Why, we will never know, since all ingredients that make dessert delicious are inherently kosher and pareve. Chef Daniel Espinoza plays up his flavors to the hilt, and, I was very pleased to discover, he never uses a smidgen more sugar that strictly necessary to make his dessert good. And good they were, excellent even, bearing no other adornment that their description called for, looking demure and tasting wonderful: The Rustic Pear Crisp, Brown Sugar and Oatmeal Streusel, served with Vanilla Ice Cream, was made in a broad-bottom shallow mold, which meant quick baking, only until all fruit was firm-tender and the streusel ethereally light and crunchy.
Belgian Chocolate Truffle Mousse Cake (excellent chocolate, chef Daniel: same as what I use: Callebaut!) with Fresh Strawberry Coulis, Hazelnut Whipped Cream: what could possibly beat bittersweet chocolate paired with hazelnuts, topped with berry sauce?
The service was good, prompt and gracious down the line, even with the restaurant filled to just about capacity. I can’t imagine Chaim being more hospitable to his own house guests. A real pleasure, after eating at some of those luxurious restaurants where the waiters are sometimes trained to snub you and make you feel like a glutton for punishment.
I left my one problem for the end, so as not to take away from our wonderful experience, and who knows, maybe just maybe the staff at Wolf and Lamb will do something about it: Describing main courses mostly by their meat (Chaim did mention main courses came with one vegetable or grain, but how would we know? It didn’t appear anywhere on the menu) and pricing them pretty steeply is every restaurant owner’s privilege, no problem there: My pet peeve creeps in when I see “side dishes” separately listed, separately priced, and dished separately, as if they were some sort of problem stepchildren. Presented this way, the subliminal message is, again, most unfortunately: “The side dish is totally unnecessary and frankly boring. You came for the hunk of meat, didn’t you? Still if you absolutely must eat your spinach, you can, for an additional twelve dollars”. The side dish, instead of being an integral and exciting part of the dish and getting pride of place, becomes a sort of penance. If a main course is priced between $30.00 and $57.00, why on earth can’t the vegetable and the grain and whatever it is that make a main course a main course simply be integrated into the main course, like all good restaurants do? I could not possibly be the only diner who feels a piece of meat or chicken or fish without its accessories is simply not a dish, no matter how delicious. A la carte? OK! Just as long as the main course comes with its necessary accompaniments. So, dear Chaim, would you consider simply putting these side dishes on the plate, very nicely, they are really paid for in full, the menu being priced the upscale way to begin with? Just as long as no other uncalled-for costs insinuate themselves on that plate!
Chaim did mention several times we should also sample dinner and the delicious dinner menu: We sure will, please G-d, very soon! Thank you for a wonderful experience! Let me know when I can meet your talented pastry chef! Attention, all fans of Wolf and Lamb: New location opening soon on Coney Island Avenue! A most welcome addition!