Keste--Brilliant Pizza in New York City, and Le Concert de Cuisine--Superbly Subtle Franco-Japanese Cooking in the 15th: A-/B+
To anyone who envies me the fact that I live in Paris, it may sound boorish to admit that one of the reasons I love visiting New York City is the chance to eat a really good pizza. Yes, I know, I know, they're people who insist you can find a good one in Paris, but I've never landed one in Paris that was any better than average. Why? Most Parisians just don't have the bulging vein passion for pizza that New Yorkers do, and many consider it as a drole street food not worthy of any serious gastronomic consideration. Dommage!
At the risk of a little sacrilege, I'd say that a really well-made pizza can offer a punch of pleasure that's every bit as potent as a slab of foie gras or any other Gallic delicacy, and anyone who doubts me, should make a beeline to Keste on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. On an absolutely arctic afternoon before Bruno and I found the courage to try and jam everything we'd bought or been given during our visits to New York and the Bahamas into two suitcase that seemed to shrink by the hour, we dashed out the door for a last-minute pizza fix before the numbing misery of JFK.
With a pleasant young Italian waiter tediously playing the folklore card by calling us "Signore" (Gentlemen)--and this inspite of the fact that he perfectly understood me explaining in French what Buratta was to Bruno, things did not get off to an auspicious start. The shockingly high prices on the menu had me ready to pick a fight, too.
And then the pizzas arrived, and were truly fabulous. In fact, the creamy sweetness of fresh just melted mozarella meeting with the bright acidic tang of San Marzano tomatoes with a punchy floral note of basil has to be one of the most brilliant taste trinities ever invented. A sausage version of the same pizza came with a superb garnish of crumbled pork sausage meat from Faicco's butcher across the street, and though $8 for a glass of wine still feels like highway robbery to me, the house red went down without any problems. The only tiny flaw with Keste's pizzas was that a perhaps insufficiently heated oven made them a mite soggy--in Naples, the crust of any good pizza is always dry on the bottom, but this is just a quibble, and I was well and truly yearning for another pizza few hours later when I pried open the aluminum lid on one of the worst meals I've ever eaten on AIR FRANCE.
Keste's also provides an inadvertent but absolutely fascinating lesson in the essential differences between American and European dining, since our waiter spent at least half of his time telling customers that they couldn't order a half-and-half pizza (half mushroom and half sausage, say) like you can in most American pizzerias. "Why not? I'm the one whose going to be eating it and paying for it?" said a man at the table next to ours. "Er, well, because the chef thinks that only certain flavors work well together. This is why there is no compose-it-yourself pizza here." Or to wit, raised to believe the customer is king, many Americans resent it when gastronomic discipline is imposed by a restaurant kitchen.
Before leaving Paris, I'd booked dinner at Le Concert de Cuisine for our first night home. Why? I'd heard it was wonderful just before I went away for the holidays, and the lightness and subtlety of Franco-Japanese cooking seemed ideal as the gastronomic balm to jet lag and the inevitable masochistical melancholia that follows the end of any good vacation. Suffice it to say that I made an excellent choice, too, since chef Naoto Masumoto served us one of the best meals I've eaten in Paris since, well, my last dinner at the Cafe des Musees (early December).
To be sure, the location in the 15th arrondissement wasn't particularly alluring, and the pleasant but anodyne decor of the dining room isn't memorable, but I've rarely eaten food as delicate but politely provocative in the genre of the culinary minuette created by Japan and France's reciprocal gastronomic fascination than Masumoto's pumpkin risotto, linguine with sardines and Nori seaweed (sublime), lacquered suckling pig, and baba au umeshu (plum liqueur). Shrimp flambeed in soy sauce and Cognac were superb, too, and overall Masumoto, who previously cooked at the Benkay at the Hotel Nikko for ten years, has revealed himself as a major talent for so brilliantly understanding the best ways for French and Japanese cooking to inflect upon each other.
Keste Pizza & Vino, 271 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014, Tel. 1-212-243-1500. Avg $25.
Le Concert de Cuisine, 14 rue Nelaton, 15th, Tel. 01-40-58-10-15. Metro: Bir-Hakeim. Lunch menus 24 et 29€, Dinner menus 40 et 57€.