Thank God It's Monday
Martin Gillam - July/August 2008
A chef and a wine guy invent a venue where they can cut loose creatively.
If tried and true is your mantra for food and wine pairings, New York City's The Monday Room might not be the place for you. "So often people fall into the same habits—‘if it's venison we need a big tannic Syrah'—but there's a much greater diversity to explore," says head chef Brad Farmerie. "We want to do pairings differently, to give them a breath of fresh air."
Different is the operative word here—customers who step into the cozy confines of The Monday Room find that everything has the stamp of the singular. First, the space itself is unclassifiable: it's not quite a wine bar (because there's no bar), it's not quite a restaurant (it seats just 25 and serves mostly small plates), and despite its plush seats, wood paneling, and air of exclusivity it's not a club. What is certain is that since opening in late 2006 as an oasis hidden inside the popular 125 seat Public restaurant, it has set food and wine lovers abuzz with its daring matches. Both spaces were designed by the team from AvroKO, which just happens to be located upstairs and includes Farmerie's architect brother Adam.
And business is good. According to co-owner Dan Rafalin, the publicity generated since the opening of The Monday Room serves as a catalyst for Public, as the eateries are often mentioned in tandem. The proximity of the two (the entrance to The Monday Room is literally behind Public's hostess stand) also helps drive sales as guests waiting for a table at Public often gravitate to The Monday Room for drinks, while guests waiting to be seated in The Monday Room can order cocktails at Public's 15 seat bar. The Monday Room also provides an alternative dining option when seats at Public are unavailable.
"The clientele here is actively looking for something new," says Farmerie, who also runs the kitchen at Public. "Even though Public is adventurous—no chicken, no steak—people still have a preconceived notion of a three course meal. But in The Monday Room I can be more daring because it's all small plates. Larger dishes often fall into the trap of having to offer a starch and a vegetable, whereas with a small plate you can create whatever you want, and they tend to have punchier flavors."
On any given night guests can choose from a dozen small plates and some 70 wines, available by the half-glass, glass, or bottle (don't even think of ordering spirits here, it's wine or water). And most customers put themselves in the hands of their hosts.
"We don't just ask people what they want to order, we engage them in conversation," says wine director Rubén Sanz Ramiro. "Because it's a small space we have time to do that, and we get great feedback about how adventurous they want to be. For example, a popular first dish is glazed eel with pickled bean sprouts and soft-boiled quail egg. Many customers would expect a dry white wine with that, but I like to serve a manzanilla Sherry, which has an intense, nutty flavor."
"The saltiness and the oily fishiness of the eel go really well with the feel of the sea that you get from Sherry," explains Farmerie, "and the pickled bean sprouts have this intense pop of acidity that complements Sherry's green apple freshness. The combo is a bit of an eye-opener."
For Ramiro, the beauty part is hearing the diner's reaction. "It's great when they say, ‘My God! This Sherry, I love it, I never thought of it in this way!' Of course, sometimes they say, ‘I just don't like it,' so I get them something else.' "
Farmerie says he likes to "push the envelope" on pairings, but only when they truly work together. "A lot of pairings are classic for a reason. I'm not a huge fan of fish with red wine, but we're always looking for exceptions to the rule."
One such exception is the raw Tasmanian sea trout with piccalilli, shichimi togarashi (a Japanese seven-spice blend), and a "three slice pile up." "This is a good example of what we're about. It blends elegance with rusticity," Farmerie says. "The three slice pile up is grilled bread slices with brown butter, capers, and lemon juice. It looks like a train wreck, but that's because whenever I find the food getting a little prissy I like to ruffle it up so that it doesn't lose its soul. And it tastes amazing with the sea trout."
To go with it, many customers would automatically reach for the Chardonnay list, but if they leave it to Ramiro their fish will come with a French red: an Arbois Pupillin from the Jura, made entirely from the obscure Poulsard grape. "It's a very light colored red with bright fruit, earthiness, great acidity, and low alcohol. It's the kind of wine no one ever orders off a wine list—and no critic is going to score it 95 points!—but I think it's a beauty that goes well with the sea trout."
Ramiro's list is full of surprises—wines from Greece and Lebanon as well as the better known regions. "I'm always exploring," he says. "I've just been tasting wines from Brazil, and I was amazed by some of them. They might go onto the list soon."
Farmerie says the process of inventing pairings is a push/pull arrangement between chef and sommelier. "Rubén will often bring me an unusual wine that he likes, and we start to discuss what kind of dish we could pair it with. It's not a one-way street of ‘well, here's my dish.' That's how we came up with pig's head terrine with guindilla [semisweet peppers from the Basque region of Spain] gribiche and radish salad.
"Rubén discovered a lovely 1985 off-dry Vouvray, and I wanted to create a dish that matched its body, richness, and earthiness without overwhelming the wine. I'd been reading about a farm that raised milk-fed pigs, and I was thinking, ‘Boy, that would really go with the Vouvray.' The terrine I made at first was good, but it lacked that earthy kind of ‘growl' so I incorporated some truffle oil to give it that barnyardy feel. And it really came together with the wine.
"One of my aims is to open people's eyes to ‘new' ingredients, like organ meats or game that they might not have had before, and showing them that it's not as crazy or strange as they think." Take, for example, miso baked bone marrow with blood orange/olive marmalade, five-spice brioche, and Murray River salt. "The miso has that salty sweetness that makes an unctuous dish even more so," says Farmerie, "and to cut through all that richness we have a salty, sour, and bitter marmalade: saltiness coming from Chinese black olives, bitterness coming from the rind. You're getting almost a fois gras effect overall."
So, what to pair with that? Not red, not white, but another Sherry—this time a rich dark amontillado. Not everyone's first choice perhaps, but the caramelized richness of the wine marries perfectly with the foie gras effect while the acidity cuts through the opulence. "People wouldn't normally think of either marrow or Sherry as luxurious ingredients, but when you put the two together you're on top of the world," says Farmerie with a justified smile.
"I think the basis of a great pairing is that neither food nor wine should outshine the other," he says. "If you talk to most wine people, the wine has to one-up the food a little bit to get noticed. Then if you talk to a chef, he doesn't want the wine trampling all over his food, so he might make a dish a little spicier. But for me it's really nice when you get an ethereal combination that comes together with real harmony. Offering someone an unusual wine that they've never tried, along with an unusual plate, becomes more than the sum of its parts."
Openness to the new is hardly unexpected from Farmerie and Ramiro, given their backgrounds. A Pittsburgh native, Farmerie won his Grand Diplôme at Britain's Le Cordon Bleu before working in some of the country's top restaurants such as Coast, Chez Nico, and Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, and under New Zealand chef Peter Gordon at The Sugar Club, The Providores, and Tapa Room. Just as importantly he used London as a base for travel through the Middle East, Asia, and Australasia.
"As you travel you pick up influences and incorporate them into your cooking, and you learn never to assume that something won't work just because it hasn't been done before," Farmerie says. "For example, yuzu is just one other citrus. Why not use that instead of lemon or grapefruit? You get a much broader palette of colors. Instead of salt, why not add a touch of soy or fish sauce? The effect can be a little bit haunting for people when they can't quite put their finger on where these flavors are coming from. It's more of a whisper than a shout."
Ramiro grew up in Spain's famous wine region of Ribera del Duero and can't remember a time when food and wine were not part of his life. "My grandmother had vineyards, and I had friends who were winemakers. My mother is a fantastic chef, and I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen, so my career has always gone through wine and food together. When I studied in Barcelona, it was the period of amazing revolution in Spanish food, with Ferran Adrià and others, and that opened my mind in many ways. Then working in London (as well as at The Fat Duck in Bray) opened my mind even further, with chefs creating dishes I'd never seen before." It was in London, working under Gordon, that Ramiro and Farmerie first met and began planning their New York City venture.
"Rubén and I have known each other for a long time, and I love his outlook on food and wine pairings," says Farmerie. "I thought it would be great to give him room to explore that. Also, it's every chef's dream to cook for about 25 people. Often you end up with 200 people a night, which is fine, but this allows me to experiment more.
"We wanted the kind of place where we would go ourselves on a Sunday or Monday night for a glass of wine and some food, and then my brother told me about a friend of his in New Zealand who had built himself a private room in his office, with a beautiful view but no phone, where he could go to unwind on a Monday afternoon and plan his week. He would have a glass of wine and remind himself that life wasn't too bad.
"We liked that concept--this space here is a kind of hideout. That's why there's no big sign outside. We didn't have a big opening party. We've just let it grow naturally by word of mouth."
Farmerie says that even the reservation policy is a little different. "When people call, we ask them about how long they think they want to stay: maybe it's a half-hour for a glass of wine, but if they say they want a table for four hours for a meal, then they have it for four hours. It's about tailor making the experience for customers—and we always add on at least half an hour to what they say because people seem to want to linger. It's building your own menu, without being confined to a main course. People want to try more flavors. I thought small plates were here and gone, but they're back."
Ramiro says customers not only want to try new flavors, they also want to know more about how each wine is made. "More and more they'll ask, ‘Is this winemaker organic? Does he use natural winemaking practices?' We even have tasting flights of biodynamic wines."
The Monday Room's success is spawning a sibling. Farmerie says he hopes to open another downtown restaurant later this year, based on a similar theme of small plates.
"This is the way I like to eat, and I get a great buzz seeing someone trying something new—the tickets will come through, and I'll say, ‘Ooh yeah, these people are eating well tonight.' I always say that if you give someone a great dish, they'll have a great night, but if you give them something they've never had before, it becomes a memorable night and they walk away with a whole new perspective."