Run, Don't Walk
It didn't take more than a couple of bites before dining at York St. got me thinking about Lloyd's of London. Lloyd's, founded in 1680, is the venerable insurer that was brought to the brink of ruin by asbestos litigation, among other things. It's also the company that famously wrote a $1 million policy to protect the Queen Mary's visitors from ghosts. It also insured Betty Grable's legs for $1 million before it insured Bruce Springsteen's voice for $5.5 million, the breasts of strip teaser Evelyn West (the "Hubba Hubba" girl) for $50,000, and the legs of dancer Michael Flatley and actress Jamie Lee Curtis.(Lloyd's reportedly dispatched its own leg examiner to measure the lower portion of Curtis' anatomy before underwriting the policy.)
York St.'s fare made me wonder: Shouldn't York St. chef and owner Sharon Hage consider such a policy to underwrite her tongue, or whatever physiological mechanism inspires the food she drafts? Not only would this insurance help her and the rest of us rest a little easier, it would considerably jack up her hype potential. Plus, it would catapult her onto the "A" list of Dallas chefs in the minds of Dallas diners. I mean, who ever heard of the Hubba Hubba girl before that $50,000 policy was underwritten? Me neither.
Then again, Hage, who threaded her way through Dallas via the Zodiac in Neiman Marcus, Salve! and Hotel St. Germain before purchasing the long-ago-grown-tired York St. earlier in the year, probably cares little about hype or how she's perceived among Dallas' trendy gobblers. You catch this sense just after walking into the place. The physical changes Hage has made to the restaurant are minimal, yet dramatic. She's cleaned it up, put a few coats of white paint on the walls, installed compelling black-and-white portraits along one wall, narrowed the bar, pulled out the window treatments and installed new lighting, which includes a wrought iron spriggy votive candle chandelier above the bar.
The whole interior reflects an intelligent respect for space. Nothing is excessive, with the possible exception of noise levels when the tables are filled (a regular occurrence) and darkness at night. (Manager Mark LaRocca had to retrieve a votive from the bar chandelier so a guest could use it to read the menu.)
Perhaps this spatial reverence explains Hage's food. Her plates are virtually void of distractions or busyness; there are no hyper-amplified collages or mortified sculptures of vertical fastidiousness. Her food is alive and clean, intelligent and simple, ample and adroit. The ivory lentil soup, for example, is a smooth bowl of unctuous subtlety, percussively rippled with crispy artichokes--baby artichokes shaved very thin, dusted with flour and fried. Bouchet mussels incorporated a similarly offbeat meshing. Steeped in a horseradish broth, the sweet, chewy and firm mussel meat dueled with bits of smoky ham--a bewitching brush between marine and terrestrial brininess.
Bumping up Hage's standing still further in the dining department is how she inaugurates her meals. A plate of steaming towels scented with spearmint is brought to each table. Not the thin flimsy kind you find in auto shop class, but thick towels that could sanitize a bouffant hairdo, or at least make it smell better. There aren't even significant Asian influences on the menu to justify this little Japanese ritual, but it works, and it's an understated touch that demonstrates a reverence for food. Little vials of fino sherry and dishes of almonds and olives follow the towel ritual, providing several more aromas to mingle with your spearmint fingers.
One of the significant factors driving Hage's menus is the seasonality and freshness of her basic ingredients. She says between a quarter and a third of her menu is in flux daily. This provides space for unexpected compositions on a day-to-day basis.
One example is the halibut with braised endive. Hage garnishes the fish with either champagne grapes or white currants. With either fruit, she creates a white verjuice. The delicate white fish itself has a whisper of sweetness. What the fruit (in the case of the champagne grapes, generous clusters) does is simultaneously amplify and foil the marine sweetness with its sweet-tart composure.
Another example of this deftness is the way Hage handles duck eggs. She takes a poached duck egg and perches it atop a knot of frisé framed with stalks of chilled white asparagus. The mass is sewn with ribbons of fennel and dribbled with an intense tarragon vinaigrette. Breach the supple, slightly chilled egg, and a lazy stream of bright yellow duck yolk floods the cool well-dressed greens with warm richness.
Basic salads have this same arresting simplicity. Pursiane salad with vine tomatoes and haloumi cheese splashed in sumac vinaigrette contained just one thick piece of tomato. It was like a piece of tortured, frayed beef, so rich and meaty was this scrap of fruit, bleeding with juicy pulp.
The wine list is as peculiar and functional as the rest of the restaurant, which makes sense since it was designed to mesh seamlessly with the food. Everything on this list has a purpose in service to the menu. There are no bottles posturing for conspicuous consumption, or sections drowning in a glut of chardonnay and merlot. The list has a deliciously refreshing Chinon (Loire), an alluringly silky rosso di Montalcino and wines from New Zealand to Portugal (not port). Suggested wines for each dinner entrant are listed on the left side of the menu.
Hage says one of the most important criteria for her wine list was the inclusion of half bottles to provide alternatives to wine-by-the-glass. "I like the ceremony of having a bottle of wine opened at the table," she stresses. Half bottles also provide an easy means to pair a white wine with appetizers and a red with dinner--or vice versa.
In addition to wine, York St. has a flourishing tea list with a selection of hand-crafted teas from a place called the T Salon. Hage says she stumbled upon the place while wandering around New York City. It offers some 350 teas that Hage buys by the pound. After entrée plates are licked, a platter of tea selections is presented with a pinch of each blend in a small dish so you catch the aroma of the teas before ordering. The teas are then delivered in a coffee press.
The teas are generally paired with desserts, which are usually created with seasonal fruits. The warm blueberry pie was made with tiny wild Maine blueberries (flown in) and fresh cream. These berries are robust and sweet with a tangy edge that is slipped between a delicate flaky pastry. Even better was the blueberry buckle, an old rustic dessert with a buttery crumb topping that can't contain the raging tart-sweetness of fresh blueberries.
But this buckle was had after an even homier bit of warmth: rabbit. This hearty rustic rendition reposed in an orzo pilaf with firm, tender and separate grains. The rabbit itself, sliced and arranged in striations over the orzo, was prepared simply with sage and garlic before it was sautéed in butter. The juicy meat, with a barely perceptible layer of crispness, was washed in morel sauce, adding a layer of pronounced earthy richness.
Veal chop was also a showpiece of understated skill. The tender, juicy and slightly pink chop was planted in a green bean and potato tonnato, a cool sauce of pureed tuna and anchovy blended with capers, lemon juice and olive oil. This racy antagonist foiled the mildly flavored meat beautifully, making it seem lighter than the thick chop actually was.
Perhaps the weakest entry sampled was the skate: a lightly floured piece of fish with Jonah crab and asparagus. The flesh was a bit soggy, though the musky sweet flavors were vibrant yet light.
Hage says she purchased York St. with the intention of changing the name, but a name would not come. "I was agonizing over what to call it," she says. "This place has been York St. for the last 12 years. That's what this place is called. That's what it is. It can stay that way."
To that end, Hage has equipped York St. with a small but attentive service staff that is well-briefed on her daily creative flourishes, which can only get better with time.
Sharon Hage is among the most little-known, underrated high-caliber chefs in town. But she no doubt is little concerned over it. That's because the sum of her energy is focused laserlike on her food and guests. Hage most likely won't call Lloyd's to underwrite a policy on her tongue, but at least the rest of us might want to call a less famous insurer to beef up coverage on our legs. It can get physical trying to grab one of York St.'s precious tables. So run, don't walk.
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