Basque-ing in the limelight
IExecutive chef Leo Varos of the O’Keeffe Café emerged from the kitchen on a quiet night to discuss the spices in his house-made paté, but the subject soon turned to the Basque region of the Pyrenees that straddles the French/Spanish border where Varos lived for a while. Varos’ charcuterie is redolent of his European roots. One tastes the Basque country in an amuse bouche of perfectly prepared sweetbreads with roasted tomato, and garlic and rosemary in the sauce au poivre.
Varos likes to work with local farmers and treated us to an example of that with the carefully selected cheese plate. Sweetwoods Dairy’s tazon de llanto, a hard sheep-and goat-milk cheese, is perfectly at home with a trio of delicious Italian, Spanish, and French cheeses. Despite the proximity of El Bulli (the famous molecular gastronomy-friendly restaurant in the Pyrenees that may close permanently in 2012) to Varos’ Spanish home base, that brand of food science is not for him. He joked that he spends time trying to get chemical additives out of his food, not into it. His Slow Food ethic, classical techniques, and careful execution create a cuisine that chooses delight over dazzle. A five-year veteran of Geronimo, Varos worked with O’Keeffe Café’s former chef Laurent Rea before being promoted.
The Wine Spectator award-winning wine list is a hallmark, thanks to café owner Michael O’Reilly. If Pranzo is O’Reilly’s neighborhood trattoria, O’Keeffe is his indulgence. O’Keeffe’s wine list shoots for the moon; there are few good selections for the frugal, and the list is rife with more expensive gems. Wines by the glass, like the food-friendly Crios Rosé from Argentina, are $10 to $12. The Rhône Valley’s 2005 St. Joseph 420 Nuits is subtle, with bright acidity and mild peppers and fruit. I loved the 2008 Ritual Pinot Noir from Chile (our server’s suggestion) with its earthy nose and spicy fruit.
A new prix-fixe dinner menu began March 31: $34 for any three selections from 12 options changing weekly. Bonuses were a simple amuse bouche of tazon de llanto cheese and a meltingly delicious chocolate truffle — little attentions not seen elsewhere in town. Compared to the winter à la carte setup, the spring’s prix fixe is no sacrifice — just an even better rapport between quality and price.
Duck confit or a plate of boudin noir (pork blood sausage) and boudin blanc (sausage without the blood) make lunch a continental feast, but one can order less daringly — like a baby-greens salad refreshed with superbly balanced vinaigrette enlivened by intense strawberry and toasted almonds or a perfectly conceived roasted-vegetable soup in a subtle lamb broth. At dinner, a 16-hour braised oxtail baked in phyllo with sauce Diane (a pepper sauce enriched with cream and Varos’ signature additions of herbs and roasted tomato) created a stir — share at your own risk. The mixed roasted beets and goat-cheese crumble also triggered competition, whereas butter lettuce with roasted blue cheese satisfied with the play of tangy-smooth on crispness but lacked similar star quality. The dreamy sauce Foyot (an herbaceous béarnaise heightened by demi-glace) with a slightly chewy Harris Ranch petit filet of beef guaranteed the plate left the table wiped clean. I adored the buttery Dover sole meunière. But an English pea flan let down its companions — a roasted tomato marinara with spring vegetables — like a drab wool sweater on a bright Easter frock. The good rosemary bread dipped in olive oil, chopped garlic, and balsamic vinegar is a course all its own.
Heavenly deconstructed Black Forest torte, wine-deep chocolate flourless cake, subtle coconut crème brûlée, chocolate hazelnut torte, and sweet pound cake with snappy lemon custard will overcome any doubts you have about ordering dessert. Photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe at the stove, her kitchen, and her bright flowers watch over the cozy red leatherette banquettes and white-clothed tables. Though you’ll feel elegantly at home inside, the patio calls in spring. There are plenty of good reasons to answer the call.