"Go Ahead and Order the Pasta..."
|By Douglas P. Clement|
Carole Peck doesn't play fair. Even the most seasoned diners would have to admit that in most restaurants, no matter how good they are, menus that seem expansively tempting when first opened break down under the pressure of having to make choices into just a handful of options that seem right. At the acclaimed chef's Good News Cafe in Woodbury, the seasonally shifting menu is packed with things from starters through to desserts that all seem like have-to-have-it dishes.
And this is not epicurean hyperbole. Guests so routinely take their time in pondering this extraordinary bounty of temptation that the wait staff is visibly surprised when anyone orders abruptly. With the wine list and other information included, the menu comes packaged in a mini binder it's the perfect representation of Ms. Peck's ability to marry style and substance, integrity and culinary elan. It reads like an intellectual/gastronomic treatise on not only how to eat but how to live.
But what to eat? Or, perhaps better stated, the question becomes what you can pass over that evening without the recriminations of self-denial in favor of what you simply can't imagine not ordering. With Ms. Peck only getting better each year since 1993, when Good News opened in its current location, this is a significant issue. Hence the tendency of most guests, even regulars who are familiar with the offerings, to linger in the looking over a glass of wine.
The wine list is award-winning (all of the cafe's awards, praise and more is well documented on its Web site, www.good-news-cafe.com), but it always seems to add site-specific depth to the experience to choose one of the wines made exclusively for the restaurant from grapes grown near the Provence property of Ms. Peck and her husband and business partner, Bernard Jarrier. The Cuvee Carole Peck merlot, a good value at $6 a glass or $22 a bottle, is earthy and rich with nice red fruit, while the Cuvee Bernard Jarrier chardonnay is fresh and vibrant. If the restaurant is awaiting a new shipment of the merlot, as it was on a recent evening, opt for red or white on the list of specials; either will stand in admirably.
Still, that doesn't help with the food, does it? And here's the real crux of the problem: Several dishes have held onto their places on the Good News Cafe menu over time because they have broad appeal and are also terrific. In the era of pistachio-crusted pork medallions on creamed corn and baby bok choy, lamb curry with carrots, peppers and eggplant served with smashed yucca and chutney, and wild boar schnitzel with housemade potato salad, saut ed kale and bacon, how do you order the chicken dish or the pasta?
See what I mean about not playing fair? You sit there, surrounded by artwork chosen by Mr. Jarrier, and say to yourself, "The pasta looks great. This time I'm going to do it I'm going to order the pasta." Then another inner voice emerges, warning, "You can't order the pasta. You can have that anytime. You know you really want the grilled veal T-bone with a stuffed tomato, asparagus, matchstick potatoes, shallot butter and a parsley fennel gremolata, or the escolar "white tuna" with herb crumbs, housemade zucchini pickles and Asian sticky rice with scallions."
What do you do? First, perhaps, a little subterfuge you try to tempt your dining companion into ordering one of the old standbys, like the "always good" wok-seared Gulf shrimp with green beans, peas, olives, roasted potatoes and garlic aioli, the "lots of lobster chunks" and spinach "adult" baked macaroni with imported provolone cheese and a white truffle oil sprinkle, or the pasta.
"Honey," you begin, attempting to look considerate, "you could have Henry's free-range rotisserie chicken half with buttermilk mashed potatoes and wok-seared seasonal veggies, that's always good. Or you could have the pasta."
Even as the words are still flowing, as smooth and mellifluous as the wine, you just know she (or he) is going to respond, "Yes, but I'm looking at the halibut fillet with horseradish crush on spinach and beet slices topped with matchstick potatoes, or the fresh clams tossed with heirloom tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, mini maruzze pasta and a basil-and-fennel gremolata." That's followed by something like, "You know what? I really want a bowl of the 'original' lobster soup with lobster chunks, so after that I'll have an appetizer, the seared sesame tuna in a crispy open wonton, with avocado, Napa cabbage, cilantro, ginger-and-carrots and wasabi mayo. That way I can save room for dessert."
That's it, now it's up to you to be brave and say the words out loud: "I'll have the gemelli pasta with asparagus, spiced pecans, gorgonzola, capers and sage leaves with a six-year aged balsamic drizzle."
You quickly look away, fearing the waitress might raise her eyebrows or, worse, the happily buzzing room will grow silent and some unseen game-show-host voice will declare loud and clear, "He ordered the pasta."
But nothing happens. "The waitress says, 'Excellent, thank you,'" the other guests continue enjoying themselves, your companion doesn't question your choice and, suddenly, the anxiety starts to give way to anticipation: "I get to have the pasta, I finally let myself have the pasta."
And you'll be so glad you did. The dish is generously proportioned, beautiful to look at and better and better with each bite. The twirly gemelli pasta has a playful character by nature, and in Ms. Peck's hands, the flavors of the other elements manage to both shine individually and come together perfectly. The capers add a salty zing and the gorgonzola is richly decadent. The dish destroys your savoir faire as a conversationalist. Instead, you're focused on pairings: pasta with asparagus, now pasta, pecans, gorgonzola and asparagus.
Then you notice your companion isn't saying much either. "How's the tuna, honey?" you venture, an overture meant to assess the situation. Your relief is instant when she (he) doesn't say, "I might as well come alone if I want to sit here in silence," but declares, "Oh my God, it's amazing, delicate, fresh, perfectly prepared. And the way it all goes together how does she come up with the combinations?"
A couple of glasses of wine and a big bowl of gemelli pasta later, dessert is going to be shared. The creme brulee is always great, and the "mile-high" coconut layer cake is tempting, but in late November who can pass up pumpkin cheesecake with pumpkinseed oil and brittle and chocolate sauce? Rich, redolent of earthy harvest flavors it disappears fast.
Feeling totally satisfied and having overcome the urge to save the pasta for another time, it's time to leave. One last warning: Don't view the preceding text as a prescriptive. When you go to the Good News Cafe to experience the brilliance of Ms. Peck, no preparation will spare you from the ecstatic agony of having to choose from among dishes that demand to be ordered and savored.
Remember, Ms. Peck doesn't play fair. And her legions of fans are thrilled that the talented chef seems to become more "seductive" with every passing season.