Restaurant Review: Co. (NYC)

Several weeks ago, I went to Co. for the second time. Apparently it is pronounced “company” but I find this confusing and a little pretentious. Apologies in advance for the quality of the photographs; I had forgotten my camera so we used a cell phone.

"Popeye", with pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper, and garlic.

This upscale pizza restaurant is located in Chelsea, just blocks away from Upright Citizens Brigade, making it a solid date night restaurant. It’s also, incidentally, directly across the street from my once-favorite Chinese restaurant in the city–Grand Szechuan–which was displaced by Sichuan Gourmet. The chef-owner is Jim Lahey, champion of “no-knead bread”. His bread recipes have been written about by Mark Bittman, served up at Jean-Georges (an investor in Co.) and Marea, and raved about by none other than Stone Soup co-author Josh Morrison.

The decor of the restaurant is casual and relaxing. Long, wooden communal tables stretch across the dining room, with rows hanging lamps directing their light downward, right at the pizza to be placed below. A few tables line the walls, but I found it more fun to sit at the communal table, which seemed to bridge the boundary between a fine dining establishment and the informality of a pizza parlor. The wood and stainless steel and little else made the room seem modern rustic in the clean and sparsely-furnished sort of way, like a cross between Peter Luger and Aquavit. All of this prepares you for a somewhat revolutionary experience–this isn’t your local Brooklyn pizza.

The thing to get here is obviously the pizza. The dough is prominently featured, as advertised. It is thin, light, with huge air-pockets. The outer edges are crunchy and charred from the intense heat (900 degrees F) of the wood-burning oven that home cooks simply cannot replicate, no matter how conductive their pizza stones may be. Despite being barren of toppings, the crust itself was salty, and a little sour-doughy. Needless to say, I didn’t discard it like oil boom-grade Domino’s crust. The dough under the toppings, on the other hand, mopped up the liquids from the toppings well, particularly the nectar leaking out of the roasted cherry tomatoes.

Special of the day: mozzarella, basil, roasted cherry tomatoes, chili, and corn meal.

Though most of the hoopla is focused on the dough, I thought the toppings were extraordinary. I’m customarily a meat-eater, and when I go out to restaurants, I don’t stick with salads. My first trip to Co. with three other omnivores and one vegetarian, I dutifully requested the “Boscaiola”, with tomato, mozzarella, pork sausage, mushroom, onion, and chili. On the suggestion of an episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, however, I also recommended the “Popeye” with pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper, and garlic. It was revelatory. I hate cooked spinach normally, finding it slimy, stringy, and bitter. But this spinach had been scorched by a 900 degree oven. The edges of the leaves were blackened and crispy, and the heat seemed to have released the Platonic essence of spinach flavor, free from the disgusting texture and tongue-parching quality it normally has. The cheeses complimented the spinach perfectly. The black pepper were crushed larger and coarser than normal, so it provided a surprising toothsome crunch to the odd bite. I thought the some of the garlic pieces we a little large for my taste, but it didn’t stop me from ordering the Popeye at my second visit. At that visit, my friend ordered their special pizza of the day, which had mozzarella, basil, roasted cherry tomatoes, chili, and (interestingly) corn meal. The concept of using corn meal as a base, in lieu of a tomato sauce, actually worked terrifically, and I would get it again if it were available. The toppings were so good that I remarked to my vegetarian friend that I could see myself converting… if I could eat Co.-quality pizza every day.

Quick note about a salad we ordered. It was delicious, and simple enough to try to replicate at home. In fact, it’s going with the escarole-gruyere-citrus idea I stole from Union Sq. Cafe in David’s Book/Pamphlet/Short List of 2 Salad Recipes. This Co. salad was shaved strips of zucchini (I think it was raw), dressed with a simple lemon-olive oil vinaigrette, black pepper, coarsely ground sea salt, basil, shaved parmesan, and mint (a masterful addition). Great alternative to the leafy salad variety, and the best part was that the zucchini held up better than a poor lettuce leaf against absorption of the vinaigrette, and retained most of its crunchiness. A sure winner for any dinner party.

The service was terrific. The server was incredibly friendly and polite. One when reaching over to clear a plate, he accidentally brushed against my shoulder. And by brushed, I mean there may have been the barest contact between his shirt sleeve and the fabric of my shirt by my shoulder. He immediately swung over and apologized in a courteous, but not embarrassing manner. At my first visit, the server was able to squeeze in two extra pizza orders during a busy dinner service when we realized that our initial order was insufficient, and she/the kitchen ensured its timely arrival before we had finished the first two pizzas. The standard of good service remains water service, and here Co. has a good system in place. Your water is filled from a carafe, and the carafe is left on the table. Instead of a small carafe that merely held the volume of the already-poured water and scantly a few milliliters more, this carafe was well capable of filling our glasses again. And what’s more, full carafes of water were left on the table, finally answering the eternal custom of leaving a nearly empty carafe with an obvious solution–don’t. Of course, the server also stopped by frequently to top off our water glasses, and I never had a moment where had to search out some hapless busboy with a needy look.

Having sampled NYC’s artisanal pizza scene (Motorino, Otto, Artichoke), its old guard landmarks (Grimaldi’s, Patsy’s), and its everyday NYC standbys (Koronet’s, the generic place that Louie C.K. scarfs down a slice at, half-a-dozen random places with “Best Slice in New York” signs, and the pinnacle of authenticity–Famiglia’s), and even some healthy challengers from up in Boston (Emma’s in Cambridge), I’m confident in voting for Co. as my favorite pizza spot. Go, and get the spinach pie. It’ll make your taste buds bulge like its namesake’s muscles.

Co.: 4 / 5

230 Ninth Avenue (and 24th Street)
New York, NY

Restaurant Review: Sichuan Pavilion (D.C. area)

This weekend I visited Sichuan Pavilion in Rockville, MD with a fellow spicy food enthusiast Matt S.

Sichuan Pavilion was highly recommended by ethnic food and economics blogger Tyler Cowen (it is, in fact, #1 in his Top 5 list), and so despite the distance, we decided to give it a shot. We had previously visited Szechuan Gourmet in Flushing together with Josh, and I think both of us were eager to compare the best of NYC with the best D.C. had to offer.

Sichuan Gourmet is nestled in a deteriorating strip mall/business center with drab, brownish architecture. Despite the dismal exterior, the restaurant was packed, with a line of people waiting for tables. We knew right then that the restaurant would either be terrific, or inappropriately popular. Fortunately, it was the former.

We managed to get seated relatively quickly because I pointed out two empty tables for two, but the wait for larger groups was much longer. Unfortunately, the restaurant only takes reservations for groups of 6+ (I was told), so prepare to stand around if you go during peak hours.

The menu is divided into an American Chinese Style section, and an Authentic Chinese Style section, so you don’t actually have to ask for the “secret Chinese menu” like in some other places. Both menus were quite extensive, and we would become very impressed that they could execute such an ambitious menu.

We ordered the Dan Dan Spicy Noodles, Ma Po Tofu, Fresh Pepper Corns w. Fish Fillet, and Smoked Duck. Both the Dan Dan noodles and Tofu are normally served with minced beef, but since Matt is a vegetarian, were able to request them without.

The Dan Dan noodles came first. Although they initially come out looking like a bowl of plain noodles, all the sauce is on the bottom, and its important to toss and mix the noodles. Although we were familiar with this preparation, it may have been helpful for the waitress to mention the proper way to mix the food, or even to mix it table side. The noodles were not how I expected them to be; normally they are more white than yellow, and slightly thicker, so they’re chewier. The chili sauce was good, though not initially super spicy. We thought the Sichuan peppercorn that imparts the characteristic numbing sensation could have been used more liberally. A few other ingredients I would have liked to see in this dish were steamed bok choi, and maybe fermented black bean. Without the black bean or more peppercorn, the spiciness was a bit one-note; with them, I think the dish would have had a more complex flavor. Overall, the noodles were very tasty, but not as delicious as the same dish at Szechuan Gourmet.

Matt ordered the Ma Po Tofu, a classic Sichuan dish that we also had in NYC. The tofu was cooked very well, and you could tell it had been stir-fried in the wok for a while. It was browned, rather than white, and little pieces of tofu had chipped off the edges and melted into the sauce. I mention the brown coloration because you often get tofu that’s very white, bland, and sort of lukewarm on the inside. This tofu was terrific, and the flavors penetrated all the way to the inside of the tofu. As Matt put it, it was the difference between eating a great tofu dish, and a eating great sauce with some white cubes floating in it. He thought it was the best tofu he had ever had, and I would agree that it was up there among my Top 5 tofu experiences.

Dan Dan Noodles

The smoked duck came highly recommended from several other food blogs, even though it is not precisely Sichuan. You could definitely taste the tea smoke in the duck. I was happy to see the fat was properly rendered, because excess duck fat is the biggest problem with classic Peking duck. After the duck was smoked, it was breaded and fried, and the skin was super crunchy. Unlike Peking duck skin, which at its best is thin and crispy, this was more like a chicarrone. The generous pile of duck was placed on a bed of chopped lettuce, ringed with buns, and topped with some cilantro; there was also a bowl of sweet black bean sauce (I think this is often conflated with hoisin sauce, incorrectly). The intent seemed to be for the diner to create duck pouches like one would with Peking duck pancakes. The buns were very, very authentic-tasting. Many restaurants buy their buns pre-packaged, and they have the soft airiness of processed Chinese pastry bread. The bread of these buns seemed more substantial, and tasted like the man tou my mom and grandmother used to steam. I was very happy about them, and it gave me a sort of Ratatouille moment. The duck as a standalone item was absolutely delicious, and I loved the crunchy texture and the flavor of the tea smoke. However, I thought the duck pouch concept could have been executed better. For example, instead of lettuce, which has absolutely no flavor, they could have used julienned cucumber. Instead of cilantro, I think the more traditional slivers of scallion would have been better suited.

The last dish was the peppercorns with fish fillets. This is the pescatarian version of the braised beef fillets in chili oil soup that I discussed in the Szechuan Gourmet review. The fillets of fish (I couldn’t tell what kind… probably tilapia) were cut into square inch pieces, about a quarter of an inch thick, and were swimming in a deep red chili broth. In a lot of places, ordering this dish means you get single layering of meat on a bed of napa cabbage, but in this case they actually gave you a lot of fish. In general, we thought the portion sizes of this restaurant were very generous. The fish held up well through the cooking process. You could pick them up with chopsticks without them falling apart; they were still flaky, and not at all overcooked. The chili broth itself was very spicy, but I thought once again they could have used more peppercorn in it.

Ma Po Tofu

The service was very responsive, and we had no trouble waylaying different waitresses with requests, none of that “I’ll get your server” stuff you see in many American restaurants. I appreciated the extra-large glasses of water. Though we didn’t necessarily need the water to put out any oral fires, the management understood the effect of their food on clientele (and drinking water is just more fun after eating Sichuan peppercorn). This is an odd comment, but we also thought the chopsticks were very nice. Not the one-time use chopsticks that you have to rub splinters off of, or the overly lacquered and slippery fancy chopsticks, just nice wooden chopsticks you would find in any normal Asian home. As with most very-authentic Chinese restaurants, the stuff on the walls was nothing to write home about, but the decor was in the atmosphere–the packed dining room with large families, the instantly-recognizable aroma of great Sichuan cooking, even the predictably kitchy decorations. Eating Sichuan food in a more fancy setting (like Sichuan Chalet on the Upper East Side) just wouldn’t be quite the same; wiping the orange chili oil off your chin with a nice white cloth napkin would seem almost disrespectful.

One final constructive comment. The menu had a short beer list with the standard Budweiser, Heineken, and Tsingtao offerings. It would be great to see a white wine or two, particularly (since I’m a big fan) a few Rieslings which go really well with spicy Chinese food. And of course, markups on wine always equal large profits for the restaurant.

I’d definitely recommend Sichuan Pavilion to any readers in the D.C. metro area who are willing to travel a bit for a spicy food adventure. While Szechuan Gourmet in Flushing remains my favorite Chinese restaurant, I thought all the dishes we had were terrific and, and hope to one day return to explore more of their extensive menu.

Sichuan Pavilion: 3.5 / 5

410 Hungerford Dr
Rockville, MD

Smoked Duck, Breaded & Deep Fried

Stuffed Duck Pouch

Fresh Peppercorns with Fish Fillet

Tofu gone, this bowl represents our appreciation of the meal.