Basque-ing in the lime­light

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Su­san Mead­ows For The New Mex­i­can

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.