I never cook the night before a holiday. My favorite pre-Thanksgiving dinner is pizza and a beer. But since my family is Jewish, we have extra observances and celebrations centered on food. I always do all of the cooking myself.
Last Thursday — the night before Yom Kippur was to begin — I craved a fine meal. I hoped to discover one at Serpico, which opened in June on South Street.
James Beard Award-winning executive chef Peter Serpico has joined culinary forces with Stephen Starr. The casual, bare-bones space has booths, tables and chairs, as well as counter seating with full view of the open kitchen. Thank goodness it is well-lit. The menu is printed on a blackboard, but patrons are offered a paper one as well.
Edward and I sat at the counter and watched the magic that occurs when a restaurant is well run. We saw the tickets coming in and heard the chef say “fire a duck, fire a mousse and a soup please.” I thought I was watching “Top Chef.”
We sipped martinis ($12) and nibbled on an unusual thin crisp rice cracker that the servers broke off from large sheets. Several servers took exceptional care of us as the restaurant filled to capacity within an hour of our arrival.
Duck liver mousse ($10) was a playful version, visually speaking, of one of my favorite starters. The duck was whipped smooth and literally smeared into an oval on a white plate. Dots of naturally sweet pomegranate juice circled the mousse. We delighted in the flavor and texture of the mousse and enjoyed it on small slices of hot grilled baguette.
Torn pasta ($16) was a highlight of our dinner. Fresh sheets of perfectly cooked egg dough were married with snail sausage, the right touch of garlic, crispy chicken skin for texture, bits of pecorino for a slightly salty flavor and a sauce made with Italian parsley that was so outstanding, I scooped every bit of it. Snail sausage was a first for me. They were tiny squares with a meaty texture that played off the softness of the pasta. The sausage imparted a mild flavor, but when enjoyed with the garlic, it was a winner.
Serpico has a fine wine, beer and spirits list. We sipped a glass of Côtes du Rhône ($10), which I knew would drink well with my breast of duck entrée ($21).
I would like to have seen a better sear on the duck, which I found a bit salty. Still, the light use of honey in this dish helped to counter balance the salt. Several multi-colored baby carrots and a few thin slices of pickled radish were included.
After much deliberation, Edward decided on the trout ($26). Serpico’s version has to be the most unusual one I have ever sampled in a restaurant. The filet was brined with capers, but was not a bit over salty. It was placed in a gray matte-finish bowl and covered with a rich stock, which had the consistency of lobster sauce, but lump crabmeat and trout roe were used instead. The smoked potato salad, cut into a brunoise, imparted a marvelous smoky flavor and aroma that may have been too strong for some people. A touch of pepperoncini, for a slight hot kick, and a dash of chive oil easily made this dish one of the tastiest in recent memory.
If you are a chocolate lover, the rocky road dessert ($8) is for you. I adored it. Three scoops of rich, dark chocolate pudding were frozen into an ice cream consistency, surrounded by a pool of homemade marshmallow and a scattering of candied walnuts. The play of slightly sweet and slightly salty from the walnuts reminded me of the sundaes I loved as a girl.
Toasted apple cake ($8) was another sweet ending. Apples are in season and I found the use of applesauce and brown butter to be an inspiration. It reminded me of the Amish apple pies often served at fine restaurants in Lancaster County. Vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce topped it off.
Serpcio is a casual restaurant, so I was surprised to find the prices on the high side. However, fresh, top-quality ingredients were used in every creative dish we sampled.
Three tips of the toque to Serpico.
604 South St.
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