eater's digest: calliope

One of the (only) downsides of having lived in Paris is that New Yorkers assume I'm an authority on French food in New York. Truth be told, I'm a "when in Rome" kind of eater, and have rarely discovered NYC eateries that resemble the fresh, creative and elegant preparations I grew to love in France. Instead, I typically find fussy, heavy cuisine - a fault I assign not so much to the chefs, but moreso to American diners' expectations of "French" food.

That said, every once in a while - and often when I am least seeking it - I discover a restaurant that so utterly embodies the food of France that it bypasses nostalgia and heads straight to simple pleasure. No restaurant in New York has done this more for me than the recently opened Calliope, in the East Village.

A few weeks before Calliope opened, I saw chef Ginevra Iverson speak at a panel about the Farm Bill, where I was impressed by her no-nonsense views on sustainability in restaurant cooking. I thus came to her restaurant expecting something akin to Northern Spy Food Co (which I also love), but discovered a more subtle approach to seasonal eating. In fact, it resembled the perspective of the Parisian chefs I know: that we should eat seasonably because it tastes better, requiring no further, self-conscious examination of edible ethics.

The food at Calliope was beautiful, from the complimentary anchovy toasts (saltily paired with peppery raw radishes) to the warm, home-baked madeleines we received as a goodbye treat. But no dish was more visually stunning than my favorite, the leek and lobster terrine. Here, the noble leek (which is so often cooked to smithereens) was allowed a bit of al dente. The lobster was a clean complement with its meaty flesh, tarragon added herbal complexity, and a crunchy dose of sea salt sealed the textural deal.

We followed the terrine with the tomato tart, an uniquely red and intensely flavorful use of this omnipresent fruit. Also impressive was the elegant, golden-crusted roast chicken with chanterelles, a dish that harkened back to the true French classics. On the other hand, the less typically French rabbit pappardelle was not a flavor or textural combination I enjoyed, though the rabbit itself was very well cooked and Pete Wells seems to have appreciated it. As for the sides, the chard and sorrel gratin was rich, but less so than expected - a perfect definition of modern French cuisine.

Calliope 84 East Fourth Street (212) 260-8484

eater's digest: new york city wine & food festival, part 2

In the flurry of activity that is the New York City Wine & Food Festival - from dinners, to lectures, classes and parties - there is one central stronghold : The Grand Tasting. This tented festival at Pier 57 takes place over two days, featuring small bites from some of the city's best restaurants, as well as cooking demos from the Food Network's band of celebrity chefs. It's an almost overwhelming celebration of the city's food, but somebody's got to taste it. Lucky for me, I'm that somebody. Here's the rundown on my favorite small bites:

I've always been a fan of thai/larb-inspired lettuce wraps, but Kittichai's version was more refreshing than most. An excellent choice for an over-saturated tasting event, with acidity and spice that cut straight to the palate.

This is the second time I've sampled newcomer AG Kitchen's cuisine, and I have to say, I'm impressed. Sandwiches usually don't strike me as addictive, but I had to stop myself from grabbing seconds of this spicy, tangy medley of pork, ham, swiss, pickles and hot mustard.

My main complaint at such tastings is that there's usually too much meat. But in the case of MexiBBQ, I was more than pleased by the unusual tequila/oregano sauce. Hot and herbaceous in the most unusual way, this was elevated Mexican - comfort food 2.0.

One of the major surprises of my second day at Pier 57 was Benares' lentil and potato dumplings. A medley of textures differentiated this surprisingly sweet - but not saccharine - dish from the Indian food I've eaten in the past. Definitely a restaurant I've added to my list.

I love lobster bisque, as I do most things seafood-related. But I've had enough bad bisques to last a lifetime. Not so with Brasserie Cognac. This thin soup beats out its creamier cousins with the distinct addition of umami, from mushrooms meant to mimic the texture of tender lobster meat.

At an event where most chefs come at you with a one-two punch, it's always a surprise - and often a relief - to taste something subtle. Nios set itself apart with medley of fresh, mild flavors that proved more isn't always more.

Ian Kittichai managed to show up his namesake's dish (the aforementioned lettuce wraps) with an even more spicy thai dish from Ember Room. At first, the spice startled, but was quickly - and cleverly - cooled by the bitter crunch of an endive leaf.

In the end, however, there must be a winner - or at least, a dish I wish I could taste again. For me, that was Northern Spy's soup. Pickled, but not so much as to be briny, it was an enticing spoonful and a palate cleanser in one. To boot, I've yet to taste a less-than-impressive bite at Northern Spy's day-to-day digs, making for an extra-confident endorsement.