Like little Alice chasing after a White Rabbit who seems particularly pressed for time, I found myself last Thursday night falling down the fabled bunny hole. Some trains packed by rush-hour traffic, a short walk down a dark and abandoned Brooklyn street, through the doorstep of a grungy, junkyard-warehouse hipster haven with crackling noises and wonderful toasty-roasty smells pouring forth from a huge wood-fired oven, across a litte garden with a Berliner Kunsthaus Tacheles vibe to it and into a squeaky clean, almost clinically white room. Before I could ask, “So where exactly are you taking me?” I was seated in high top chair at a laboratory bench type porcelain counter overlooking a brilliantly metallic kitchen who’s protective cover has seemingly only recently been peeled off. This is Blanca.
There were characters there, a very tall man dressed elegantly in black, explaining the inspirations of Chef Mirarchi, the latter romping around his stainless steel turf in chef’s whites and shorts, a messy blonde bob and cotton sweater sporting young woman making sure everyone’s plate was turned the correct way, and the other diners, their faces shining with an almost stoic appreciation for what was about to go down in front of us. Looking around I tugged at my rabbit’s sleeves, demanding an explanation, but not before the chatter of nearby dinner guests hit me, “So how long did you spend trying for a reservation?” “12 seats.” “20 courses?” “3 hours? “You choose the vinyl.” “Look at those cuts!” “There he is now.” And slowly it began to sink in. Yes, we were only 12, facing a huge kitchen, under the constant glare and scrutiny of two beautiful pieces of meat (an aged rack of lamb and an 85 day dry aged Wagyu loin), which diners started to notice and whisper about at varying stages of the meal. Yes, it is incredibly difficult to get a reservation here, so it better be good. And yes, a tiny bit of Roberta’s hip flare was indeed permitted past the door and allowed to materialize in the form of a BYO-vinyl station from whence smoky tunes poured a homey breeze over the atmosphere. And then, with some caviar served with a mother of pearl spoon, it started.
Glass shrimp with poppy seeds and celery-lime jus. Almost too slippery to get on the spoon, cool and delicate raw shrimp with a slight crunch, boosted by nutty sesame seeds sprinkled over the top. The lime picked up the sweetness of the shrimp, while the very slight green zing of the celery calmed the acidity of this lime, evening out the dish. A really nice way to prime the palate for what was to come.
Uni in savory yogurt with fried brussels sprout. A combination of dairy and seafood which struck me as odd when I first heard it described, but which quickly became one of my favorites of the evening. The yoghurt was impossibly smooth with a nice pungent twang and a slight sweetness which stood up beautifully to the murky, briny sweetness of the sea urchin. When mashed up against the roof of my mouth, the roe melted on my tongue, mixing with the yoghurt base to create what was almost like an uni-flavored yoghurt in the mix. The deep fried brussel sprout leaf added a wonderful smoky and nutty element to round out the sweetness and the acidity, while also adding a much-needed crispy texture to the smoothness going on around it.
Veal sweetbread with lime custard. Thymus sweetbread, my beloved molleja, with a very light, golden brown fried coating. Crispy on the outside and mushy, velvety smooth and fatty on the inside. Here the traditional lime pairing appeared in the form of a thick, bright yellow cream that proved to be a wonderful chip-and-dip accompaniment to the crispy sweetbread. The acidity of the lime cut the fat in the gland, getting rid of the slight innard-y taste, while the sweetness of the cream rounded out this acidity. The black pepper cracked over the top brought the dish back into a savory realm, making sure the sweetness of the cream did not dominate.
Scallops with crispy black bass skin. Tender, gummy scallop meat seared until the outside caramelized into a slightly sweet crust, topped with a crispy bit of fish skin that poured smokey, oily, grilled fish flavor into the otherwise clean flesh of the scallop. A cool idea to have the flavor concentrated in such a small element of the dish, with the scallop meat serving as a textural canvas to project this flavor upon.
Horse mackerel, mackerel, needlefish and sardine. A shashimi plate with some of Mirarchi’s favorite fishes. All clean and delicate with minimal preparation, the flavor becoming more and more intense as I proceeded counter-clockwise, starting with the light horse mackerel and ending in the more pungent, fishy sardine. I particularly enjoyed the thin slice of apple lain across the back of the mackerel, likely intended to get rid of any excess oil in the fish by cleaning it up with the tart acidity of the fruit.
Venison with kohlrabi broth and turnip slices. This dish was particularly near and dear to my heart, as it reminded me of traditional Hungarian dishes (Töltött karalábé, Karalábé leves, etc.) that use kohlrabi, an ingredient that really is not used enough on this side of the globe. I was glad to see it appreciated in its purest form in this kitchen. A very slightly cooked almost tataki-like preparation of juicy and very gamey venison in a pool of kohlrabi broth whose essence is similar to that of broccoli, but slightly sweeter. Also on the plate were some raw slices of crispy turnip, which added a nice hydrating element and a very subtle radish-like zing to the dish and thus balanced the sweetness of the kohlrabi broth. Although the meat was rare, this dish to me was a play on a hearty game and root vegetable stew, deconstructed and made a bit lighter to fit in with the rest of the meal.
And then something completely different, oyster grilled on the half shell with salmon roe. The cool thing that caught me off guard and really stood out about this dish was that the oyster was grilled on the shell, so that it was not only slightly warm, but the flesh was also laced with smokey flavors picked indirectly off the grill. This is what happens when the heat arrives to the meat through its shell, but the smoke reaches it from the air around. Topping the oyster were a few large, juicy beads of reddish orange salmon roe, which burst forth a salty, brine, sea-water flavor as soon as it was bitted into. It was the perfect complement to the oyster, as it put back the briny flavor which the grill stole away from the oyster and hydrated it a bit as well. A very minimalist but well-thought-out dish.
Silken tofu with grilled cauliflower and bonito flakes in apple broth. If not necessarily the most exciting, this by far was the most beautiful dish of the night, almost too pristine to cut into. Delicate, jiggly, house-made silken tofu in a pool of a slightly acidic apple broth, with salty, smoky and fishy, paper-thin bonito flakes sprinkled over the top, which melted against the moisture of the tofu, leaving only its flavor painted across the exterior of the stuff. Some broiled (?) baby cauliflower heads were artfully placed near the tofu, offering a crunchy textural contrast to the smoothness of the tofu, but not too much flavor to take away from the bonito.
Squid with lovage salsa. A simple dish but a good one. Fork-tender, grilled squid tentacles arranged very nicely on the plate, served with what I initially thought was some sort of pesto, but which ended up being a salsa made of lovage, garlic and a bit of oil. The stuff was very fresh, with a striking green color and a nice celery-like zing that complemented the natural sweetness of the squid, as well as adding an oily element to the clean, gummy texture of the flesh.
Agnolotti filled with molten pine-nut sauce. After the mix of seafood and light meats dishes, a bit of Italian pasta for some grounding of the meal. Out of the three pasta dishes, this was by far my favorite. The indubitably house-made agnolotti were perfect in texture, al dente but soft and starchy-smooth. They were filled with a molten pine-nut sauce which was buttery and velvety, with an almost floral vanilla sweetness to it as well as the expected nutty, salty, Christmas tree essence of the pine nut. This may sound like a weird comparison, but the experience of the filling gushing out of the agnolotto was a bit like biting into a kinder bueno and feeling your mouth flooded by that sweet, smooth white chocolate filling inside. An unexpected surprise.
Pici with ground…animal. A thick, gummy pasta, almost udon-like in texture, which was slightly fatter than spaghetti, turned in a ragu of some sort of tender ground meat which I thought was wild boar or lamb and which my dinner companion remembers as some sort of game, like guinea fowl or quail. I don’t remember this one too well, because I only had a few bites of it, as I am generally not a fan of very thick pastas, especially when they appear in 20+ dish tastings. For a pasta lover though this one should definitely hit the spot.
Raviolo stuffed with the nduja. A similar experience as the agnolotti but a fully savory version. Piping hot and palate-tantalizing pork sausage spread flavored with plenty of chili for heat, packed into a dainty raviolo whose skin gives way immediately when bitten into and burst forth the oil from the sausage that coats the mouth quickly with spice and teases the tongue for a few miliseconds before the hearty, chewy pork follows.
New and sweet potatoes with watercress and buttermilk. This dish was particularly awesome as it highlighted Chef Mirarchi’s ability to bring out the true character and potential of his ingredients, in this case potatoes. I’m not sure if they were blanched or not before being pan-seared to remove some of the excess starch (or maybe they were of the variety which doesn’t have much to begin with), but the end result was two rounds and one little cube of spuds which were incredibly crispy on the outside (one was burnt dry, but not bitter) and smooth but meaty on the inside. In terms of texture, the potatoes were just as satisfying and sumptuous as any protein, with the seared, caramelized and coarse-salt spotted exterior playing the role of the “skin” while the interior was juicy enough to mimic flesh. The potatoes were served with a tiny pool of buttermilk which, to me, hinted at the alter-ego of the star ingredient, the creamy mashed potato. Similarly, the bright green watercress jus hinted at another traditional dish, crushed potatoes with some sort of fresh green herb – chive, parsley, in this case, watercress. The peppery, radish-like zing of the herb packed a nice punch which added some intrigue to the dish.
King Crab in an uni and brain (?) sauce. Definitely a dish to show off to friends about. A nice and long pre-cracked King Crab claw, succulent and juicy in texture and very sweet in flavor, placed atop a pool of an uni sauce of which I think I remember hearing that it also contained brain. The sweetness of the crab balanced out the murky flavors of the uni, though for me the flavors of the dish weren’t rounded out well enough since it ended up on a sweet note without much depth. I also didn’t really taste any of the brain that was apparently in the sauce. Maybe it was just for texture…
Celery root and ginger gelato with lime gelee. I immediately proclaimed this to be the best palate cleanser I have ever had and I’m sticking to it. A creamy smooth gelato, packed with the floral zing of ginger as well as the slightly greener, leafier, subtle bitterness of celery, next to a pearly, translucent scoop of moist lime gelatin, which was incredibly tart, painfully so when tasted alone. The two combined magically, with the gelato adding some milky dairy smoothness to the jiggly texture of the gelatin, while the three flavors bleached the palate clean of the first half of the meal.
Rack of lamb with mint jelly and dried coriander leaf. My dinner companion and I agree that this is probably the best piece of lamb that we have ever had. And the fact that the cut was sitting there watching us, smirking knowingly as we fawned over dainty little glass shrimp and delicate, jiggly tofu, probably added to our appreciation of it. Why was it so awesome? Because it was aged for months before being roasted to a point where it was warm but still rare, and because aging it brought out a funk and a musk that combined with the naturally metallic, liver iron flavors of the flesh, elevating them to a level of intense depth that almost feels like it should not be allowed. In texture, it was tender, with a thin layer of extremely crispy skin and a fatty portion which melted – far too quickly… – like butter on my tongue. It was served with a dried coriander leaf that, I admit, I did not dare touch in fear of it affecting that lovely funky of the meat too much, and some mint gelatin, which I appreciated as a creative take on the mint sauce traditionally melted over lamb. The gelatin worked well, its texture giving way to the warmth coming off the sear, spreading its crispy cool menthol flavor over the salty exterior of the meat and lifting up that dirty funk JUST enough to where it was no longer so dangerous but still very tangible..
Roberta’s Bread and Butter, the brainchild of Melissa Weller, current head baker at Roberta’s, past head baker at Per Se and Bouchon Bakery. I wasn’t really expecting to think anything of this besides the fact that the doughy bread was threatening to take up space in my stomach that I was reserving for more exotic ingredients. I changed my tune after a single bite of the City White bread. The thing was light but still chewy, reminiscent of a rustic French country loaf, with big beautiful air holes and a perfect charred crust which added a grilled note to the slightly tangy sourdough flavor of the interior. The butter was smooth and luscious, only slightly salted, and at the perfect state of melty softness to spread easily over the surface of the bread. The darker Hearth Bread I did not enjoy that much because it was a bit too bitter for my taste, but I generally do not tend to like darker breads so this is a personal bias. While I really enjoyed the City White bread and butter, I thought it came at kind of an awkward part of the meal, between two meat courses, instead of as an intro or interlude to a more carb-y portion of the meal. I would’ve enjoyed it a tad more had it come either before or with the three pastas, for example.
Iberico Pork with daikon radish. I don’t know if it was just me but, seeing this dish as it was placed in front of me, I could honestly not believe this pork. The flesh was closer to crimson, almost magenta in color, rather than the pink of lesser pork. The beautiful marbling was visible despite the fact that the thing was cooked – the fat had melted to leave little grooves between the fibers of dark red flesh. The sear caramelized the outer rim of the meat while the inside remained so tender and juicy that my eyes rolled back while chewing. The slight sweetness of pig flesh was still notable, but the thing had a much deeper, gamier flavor than any other pork I think I’ve ever had. Perhaps the reason I didn’t recognize what this was at first is that I’ve never had Iberico pork in any other form besides its cured, paper-thin, oily and delicious charcuterie version. Not a bad way to pop that cherry.
85 Day Aged Wagyu Beef Loin with persimmon and grilled puntarelle. Wine brought my dinner companion and I close as we enjoyed a journey through such a vast array of well-thought-out dishes. Closer still sat the two aged meats on the counter, like two funky old grandpas playing checkers (or doing whatever old people do…) up til the point where lamb was picked up and slapped onto the grill by the hands of Mirarchi. The Wagyu loin followed not long after. This dish was superb and very pretty. The meat was beautifully marbled, buttery smooth with a deep magenta hue standing out against the thin, dark brown sear. And yes, it was funky, but not in a way that packed a blow to the palate in quite the same way the lamb did. It was earthy and musky but still mild and sweet. The salty sear was not completely overtaken by the funk in this case. It was served with the traditionally Roman accompaniment of grilled puntarelle shoots, which had a nice bite to them and added a pleasant bitterness to the dish. Some of this bitterness was balanced with the acidity of the persimmon, also included.
Sunchoke puree with sunflower seed powder (I think?) and apple sorbet. A deeply satisfying dessert. A nutty, slightly oily, smooth and very dense puree of sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) with a very light, below-the-ground sweetness similar to that of a sweet potato, but with the slight bitterness of a radish. Also on the plate were some sunchoke chips for some extra root veg flavor and a crispy, dry texture to spread the moist, gooey version of the ingredient on. The sunchoke was topped with a cool, tangy sorbet of what I think I remember to be apple, which provided some acidity to the dish, while not overpowering the sweetness of the sunchoke. There was also a powder which I recall as being made of sunflower seed or sesame or some other nutty, smokey ingredient, which reminded me very much of the flavor of sunflower halva, the nutty, oily, dry and delicious dessert which my dad often gets at the Russian store and makes (with my help) disappear in minutes. The combination was a good one and Mirarchi’s attempt to coerce the natural root-y sweetness of veggies to replace artificial sweetness in his dessert was a success in my book.
Dinner closed with an ode to the neighborhood, Hempseed Macaron. While I don’t necessarily agree with the notion held by certain anachronistic hippies I know, that hemp will save the economy (hemp sweaters are itchy and we’ve already got plenty of twine…), it does prove to be a cool ingredient which, when used correctly, adds a uniquely dank flavor to a dish. In this case, the hempseed oil (?) added a pungent earthiness and a nutty character (replacing that of the cleaner almond, which is traditionally used in macarons) to the velvety smooth buttercream filling, while the toasted hempseed be-speckling the exterior of the cookies provided some crunch and fiber. The macaron itself was very well executed. The meringue cookies were very light and airy, allowing my teeth to sink into them with ease and requiring them to bite only at the point where the two cookies met. The filling melted instantly in my mouth. A very suggestive way to end such a creative meal.
Overall, I had a fantastic time at Mirarchi’s mostly Italian but also seemingly kind of Eastern European omakase. I experienced his use of popular, exotic ingredients in ways that I haven’t seen them touched before (uni with yoghurt, tofu with bonito flake, etc.). I also had the chance to taste numerous dishes where he allowed more modest, subtle ingredients such as kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichoke and plain, old spuds to dominate. A tasting like no other. Mirarchi, with his reserved, humble creativity is truly on the verge of becoming a household name in haute cuisine.