Are rich New Yorkers so bored by the panoply of dining options available to them that they are demanding to be amused as well as tantalized? Has the increasingly competitive cooking field raised the tone of menu discourse to literary levels? Or does it have something to do with residents living in a kind of prolonged adolescence?
On March 26, appearing on Charlie Rose’s evening talk show, Mr. Keller told the host that his favorite dish is a simple roasted chicken. "It takes me places where I’ve been before," he said. "It’s an emotional thing; I think food, food has reference points, and food like roasted chicken has reference points." Reference points! The new calories!
"When you think about macaroni and cheese, you think about macaroni and cheese you had when you were a child," Mr. Keller continued later. "Now you’re going to experience macaroni and cheese like we do, and hopefully you can have a new reference point for that."
Two years ago, Eric Hara, chef of DavidBurke & Donatella on East 61st Street, created a $21 foie gras and macadamia nut dish that he titled "PB & J." It’s been a huge hit. "If you can be creative enough to reinvent it," Mr. Hara told The Observer, "people can associate with it. Especially people who don’t really know what foie gras is, it’s a good way to warm yourself into it.
"I mean, I really didn’t reinvent the wheel on it," he added. "Foie gras was always paired with something sweet like a jam or a huckleberry, and toasted bread and some hazelnut. I just called it a ‘PB & J’ so people could understand what it was kind of going to be. It’s not even a sandwich. … But people love it. I can’t take it off the menu now."
Meanwhile, on the Lower East Side, at experimental restaurant wd~50, chef Wylie Dufresne has tied foie gras into a knot and deconstructed a humble Italian specialty, available city-wide for $2.50 per slice, into "pizza pebbles": tiny balls of dough flavored with tomato and cheese powders, scattered between dollops of pepperoni purée with shitake mushroom chips stuck on the side. These are available on the tasting menu, which costs $125 per person.
"I’m not trying to improve pizza; I’m just trying to have fun with the process, you know?" Mr. Dufresne said on the phone with a slight defensive inflection, as his sous chefs banged around preparing weekday dinner service in the background. "I think people are misjudging it. Is it an improvement on pizza? I don’t know. But is it a fun, or imaginative, way of looking at pizza? Certainly."
Mr. Dufresne explained further that his pricey "pebbles" are supposed to be a version of pizza-flavored Combos, those bite-size, packaged logs made with crunchy sourdough bread and filled with a Cheez Whiz-like cream; you can buy them at any Duane Reade. "I don’t think that Combos are any sort of culinary milestone, but again it’s something fun," he said. "It’s meant to be tongue in cheek. If you close your eyes, you’re not going to be eating a New York slice. You have to bring a certain level of, whatever it is, a suspension of disbelief, just a little bit of fun to the old thing."
The chef said he was inspired by Combos because they were his college staple at Colby College in Maine. "I ate a lot of that garbage, you know?" he said. "And it seemed like something a little more easier to approximate than something like a Dorito. I mean, we could make Dorito pebbles really easily, but I think that might be pushing it too far."
Meanwhile, over on Sullivan Street, Peanut Butter & Co. proprietor Lee Zalben specifically designed his sandwich spot, which has been in business since 1998, to conjure childhood memories of packages of Wonder bread and a jar of Skippy. There are sunny yellow walls and shelves lined with vintage peanut butter tin cans. Cost of an "Elvis" peanut butter and banana sandwich: $7.
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