The Whimsy of Belly and Trumpet
Three rectangles of semifreddo in pistachio, mint and strawberry sat in a row like fat dominoes at Belly and Trumpet in Uptown. The chilled desserts looked good, with shards of green pistachio and two carefully placed strawberries, but they tasted rather dull and they were tiny. A longer rectangle of panna cotta was dressed with short curls of white chocolate. It looked beautiful, but the consistency was off — it didn't jiggle like most jellied creams. A chocolate tart flanked with mascarpone was so tough my spoon struck the plate with a resounding clank as I tried to liberate a bite. The chocolate was bland, and the overworked pastry was lifeless.
It's hard to believe such clunky desserts arrived on the heels of what is clearly the very best cooking to be had in Uptown. Moments ago I had impaled a thick medallion of rosy Cornish game hen on my fork and found it moist and perfectly cooked, but also a touch boring. But then I doubled down with a second poker chip of poultry — this time with a sliver of foie gras dragged through raisins cooked down to jam. Suddenly the room shifted a touch as the flavors melded in perfect harmony on my palate, and the tedium lifted. So that's what chef Brian Zenner wanted me to experience when he crafted this dish.
Zenner is well versed in culinary balance and precision. He spent 16 months at the much-lauded Oak in the Design District, turning out a world of flavors under recent James Beard nominee Jason Maddy. There he learned to coax tenderness and flavor from delicate octopus, though he's yet to fully match his mentor's technique. At Oak the tentacles arrive seared to counterpoint the wine-kissed braising that leaves the flesh delicate and tender. The texture is right at Belly and Trumpet, but the seared finish is missing. And roasted corn and chiles conjure Southwestern flavor that seems out of place on the menu.
While Oak makes use of global flavors, the menu melds in a way that brings all of the dishes together into a cohesive dining experience. At Belly and Trumpet the menu is less coherent. Some of the dishes lean heavily on Asian flavors while the remainder of the menu resorts to "everything else."
Some of those Asian dishes work nicely. Thick slices of rosy tuna, each garnished with a tiny sliver of chile, sit on a cilantro puree that complements the fish. Long beans, pickled cucumbers, parisienne balls of mango and a tangle of fried shallots keep things bright and interesting. Steamed buns that might be a touch more tender if they were made in house are also good, stuffed with a slice of beef tongue swimming in hoisin, a pickled radish and cilantro.
A dish featuring pork belly doesn't work as well. While the texture is good, the meat is cooked till it resembles a thin slice of soft bacon instead of the fatty, unctuous cut the kitchen should be going for. A bed of kimchi that supports the pork is salty and a small cube of daikon radish is cooked black as brisket.
No matter. The lamb shoulder, braised until it's tender enough to fall apart at the touch of a fork, will right those pork-belly wrongs. Here spices from Morocco and the sweetness of prunes are simmered down into a thick reduction that clings to perfectly cooked couscous. The dish might be a little heavy for spring, but whole parsley leaves scattered about the plate add color, vibrancy and freshness.
Skip the "Tarte Alsacienne," which is nothing more than a clumsy pizza heaped with bland cheese sauce and decorated with bacon and onions. Opt for the venison heart tartare instead. The meat is surprisingly tender, with an almost livery texture, and lightly dressed in egg yolk and little else so the briny mineral taste of the meat shines through. Tiny cubes of beets decorated with microscopic greens and flower blossoms finish an artful plate that illuminates a kitchen that cooks with creativity and thoughtful execution more often than not.
Belly and Trumpet opened three months ago after the owners opened and quickly closed a gourmet hot dog spot in the same building on McKinney Avenue. Bowery's chalkboard art, casual décor and sausages are long gone, replaced by an elevated small-plates concept served in an elegant and very odd dining room. Rose-colored walls serve as a backdrop for paintings depicting fanciful models who look like Lewis Carroll meets New York City fashion runway. Gaudy chandeliers gently illuminate the space furnished with ornate patterned benches and tufted leather booths. It's a bit like a slightly masculine boudoir outfitted with macabre modern art. And it's unlike anything else you'll find in Uptown.
One of Bowery's old counters remains along the back wall, repurposed as a bar. The proportions are off, making eating difficult, so stick to drinking here, where cocktails like the Scorched Belly awaken your senses. The drink features rye whiskey and bitter Aperol and is garnished with a floating slice of lemon assaulted with a blowtorch. The lemon slice warms your nose as you sip, filling it with the scent of burnt citrus. Snack on warm almonds, lemony olives and sishito peppers that eat like an epicurean Russian roulette. While most of the peppers are green and vegetal, with a mild to nonexistent heat, every now and then you get a real zinger — you'll need another sip of your cocktail.
After a drink at the bar, head back out front. The wrap-around porch is the best place to dine as long as the weather permits. With comfortable seats, ample tables and plenty of people-watching, the outdoor seating is a perfect backdrop for a restaurant that finally brings something interesting to Uptown.
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