March 31, 2006
by Mike Taylor
Café Maison, 408 E. 63rd St., impressed us before owner Jeffery Fitzpatrick told me the secret about his stove. My wife, friends and I enjoyed two wonderful dinners comparable to any found in tonier neighborhoods.
Occupying an old storefront next to J'Adore and a Blockbuster just east of Oak Street, the restaurant's casual atmosphere suggests a suburban Parisian Café but belies the upscale menu. Entrees range from $15 for Tres Mushroom Napoleon to $29 for Beef Tenderloin stuffed with blue cheese. Selections of chicken, duck, seafood or a Dijon-glazed pork chop fall in between. Appetizers run from $8 for Brie Cheese Strudel to Hudson Valley Foie Gras ($16).
A coffee bar with a pastry case dominates one section of the place. Tables covered in bright French oilcloth surround an unfinished sideboard in the dining area of the forty-seat establishment, which opened in 1999. Chalk blue and apricot walls create a sunny ambiance even at night.
It's a cozy setting for the impressive, elegant dishes created by Chef Ryan Kelly, who's been in the kitchen for about six months. Fitzpatrick said, " He's definitely brought us to another level."
On our first visit, we sampled the strudel. Laced with crabmeat and crawfish, it had the appearance and texture of a savory cheesecake over a flaky crust. The bite from chili-tarragon sauce drizzled around the plate enhanced the creamy, nutty flavor of the cheese.
"I could eat a full plate of this," Karen said after a bite of the Carpaccio ($9). Capers, truffle oil, Dijon mustard and Pecorino Romano cheese all danced on my tongue with the shaved pieces of raw tenderloin. It was as decadently savory as the desserts proved in a sweet way later.
The salads also offered interesting combinations of ingredients. We tried Warm Goat Cheese ($9) in a hazelnut crust with a burgundy vinaigrette, Maison's Mozzarella ($9) with caramelized shallots that perfectly complemented the soft cheese and the one that surprised me the most — Brussels Sprouts and Blue Cheese ($8) with roast pear and caramelized walnuts. I'm not a Brussels sprout fan but the marinated buds matched with the other flavors proved a pleasant surprise.
Good Paella demands to be eaten slowly. Each of the many flavors and textures in the seafood stew clamor for attention, from the al dente fish and shrimp to the tomatoes and multi-colored peppers with a spicy impression made by the Chorizo sausage. At Café Maison, Kelly serves it over saffron-laced couscous in a rich broth. It's a dish worth lulling over to let the flavors of each bit linger on the tongue.
Other entrees require cruise control as each entices diners back for another bite with greater and greater speed. The taste buds instant message the mind: "That was good, gimme more."
On my other visit, I quickly devoured the luscious Caramelized Sea Scallops ($28) with a peppery olive tapanade over polenta with truffle oil. My tablemates responded similarly to a beef tenderloin ($29) stuffed with blue cheese in a thyme cabernet sauce and the Dijon Pork ($18) with pickled pearl onions, as well as other fish and fowl dishes.
The sensibly sized portions left plenty of room for Café Maison's desserts, which are just as impressive as the rest of the menu. Kelly combined the ubiquitous breading pudding with equally ubiquitous crème Brulee to offer a dish ($5.50) that has the best of both. Emily and Susan hoarded the dish after letting Butch and I have a small taste. A smooth-textured flourless chocolate cake ($5.95) tasted rich and sweet without being cloying. And Karen fell in love with a tart, light lemon cake ($4.95).
The servers made sure the food starred at the table with attention to all details. The only glitch during either visit came when we waited long enough for the check to feel neglected. That's a server's "raison d' etre" as far as I'm concerned — to take the money. After getting the right order to the table efficiently, delivering the bill promptly should be a slam-dunk.
Nevertheless, when I took a deep breath outside Café Maison after my second delicious dinner, I knew I'd eaten well. And when I talked to Fitzpatrick on the phone later, I got even more impressed. He spoke more as an admirer than employer when he said of Chef Kelly, "it's amazing what they do in that little kitchen with an electric stove."
He asked me not to write about the stove because most comparable places cook with gas. But to me, it makes Kelly's job more challenging and the results more astounding. I asked my friend Karen the caterer whether to reveal the secret. She responded negatively at first, suggesting it wasn't that big a deal. She said, "Every chef should know his stove."
But after a pause, she agreed I should reveal his secret. She said, "To cook that food that quickly on an electric stove. That is impressive!"
Mike Taylor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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