East Village superstars Grace and Jack Lamb now have a small place next to their crown jewel (Jewel Bako), where tapas stretch across Spain through France. Creative chef Wesley Genovart follows the latest trend of working in an open kitchen, and the results are most impressive. The sleek bar and dreamy lighting are so seductive you might just feel hypnotized, but the attentive staff see to it you are kept alert, both through their elegantly-orchestrated maneuvers as well as the vivaciousness of the other guests. For eating at Degustation resembles less the current fad of grazing and more of the nuanced tasting that is becoming the hallmark of small spaces where quality is prized above quantity (be it the number of guests or size of portions). Chef Genovart has a brilliant take on traditional tapas fare, creating starters dramatically reduced in size but big on taste. It is a joy to watch him and his crew preparing for example, four tiny croquetas, which diners can observe being placed with exactitude on a long rectangular white plate. Or an innovative take on the traditional Spanish tortilla, here reduced in size and structure and resembling perhaps a tiny petit four, a wonderous tiny box of provocative and harmonious flavors. Watching the sous-chef create the tiny roast beef sandwich by first cutting out a round of bread, then later deftly stacking beef, then chopped greens atop this tiny round, you sense so much more going on around you.
Indeed, this world of gastronomy in miniature—along with a tiny, open kitchen—requires advanced tools, dexterity and grace. Should you be lucky enough to sit just where the sous chef prepares his plates, you might feel that you've proceeded to a higher plane, where the courtly world of the shining prince comes vis-à-vis with the sushi chef's visage. But these dynamics are so clearly different than at a sushi bar, and you will find many forces within this dining room competing for your attention, especially given how you and your companion sit side-by-side. Your eyes dart around here to a curious globe with alabaster seas, there a collection of wines pleasantly arranged, with the minimalist décor further afield.
The culinary knowledge imparted to the professional diner here—mixed nicely with a few glasses of wine from the excellent selection—ought to alone be worth the admission price to this temple of (dare we say?) harmonic convergence, where precision meets elegance and technique marries essence. As the meal progresses, you get the sense that the triage taking place around you is both dramatic and sedate: grapefruit wedges being broiled with a miniature blowtorch. Gorgeous head-on shrimp resting in preparation for their final arrangement. An extraordinary loin of very rare lamb artfully served aside beautiful wild mushrooms with a bright splash of green 'chlorophyll'; the very appearance of which screams organic. You almost wish to apologize for destroying this construction, its muted colors making it seem ethereal. Then there is the wonderfully prepared mackerel served with a tangy puree of fennel; then the two tiny pieces of quail with a frisée salad; and then comes an extraordinary foie gras served with those luscious grapefruit wedges and swimming in caramel water. We are continuously reminded of the sea, perhaps because of the undulating white dishes that reappear from time to time. While silver is continuously refreshed, the service never seems intrusive, merely effusive.
While all the dishes stand on their own, a pork belly with Sichuan peppercorns, long pieces of scallion, and thinly-sliced jalapeños sent us back to Sichuan, where the most clever chefs are tested on the authenticity and innovativeness of their huai gwo rou. Chef Genovart clearly excels in all these respects; you would be remiss to skip this marvelous dish. End your meal with either a cheese course or perhaps with either the lovely tarte tatin or fascinating grilled strawberries, presented as cylinders with a delightful and refreshing ginger granita with eucalyptus. For a couple embarking on a culinary journey, Degustation is your place. For a group, ensure you are sitting at the corner of the long bar so you can make eye contact with each other.
Degustation is located in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Long before the musical "Rent" brought in legions of pierced, tattooed teenagers from every corner of America (and drove up the rents), the East Village was an eclectic mix of elderly Ukranians and Poles, Dominican and Puerto Rican families, and assorted artists, wanna-be bohemians, punks, their followers, lovers and friends. (Did we leave anyone out?) Largely gone are the heroin dealers, all night parties, punk music extravaganzas and infamous Bagel Tree of the 1980s and early 1990s, but the real landmarks remain, including the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Tompkins Square Park, and Cooper Union. The Public offers some of New York’s finest Off-Broadway Theater as well as Joe’s Pub, with a diverse variety of live shows. Beautiful Tompkins Square Park offers something for everyone, including dog runs, basketball courts, a weekly market, outdoor music events, and occasionally local characters chatting late into the night to infrequent riots. To be fair, few other parks in America have played such an important role in radical or anarchist history. Many long-time residents complain of the neighborhood’s recent gentrification, and skyrocketing rents forced even legendary punk club CBGB's to exit the neighborhood, replaced by a John Varvatos boutique. And while there are truly many new restaurants and boutiques dotting Avenues A, B and C, lots of the famous watering holes, dives, and other unclassifiably scrappy bars remain. Some of our favorites include Mars on lower First Avenue, Zum Schneider on Avenue C, 2A on the corner of Second Street and Avenue A, and Lit Lounge, with its adjoining Fuse Gallery. Make sure to check out the Polish butcher stores on First Avenue and the nearby Italian pastry shops, walk along the Ukranian strip of Second Avenue, try one of the Japanese restaurants on East Ninth Street, and also walk along St. Marks Place, one of New York’s most eclectic streets. East 4th Street's Theater Row boasts cultural buildings which house eight theaters and twelve dance companies as well as a couple of community development groups. Among its members are New York Theater Workshop, La MaMa Experimental Theatre, Rod Rodgers Dance Co., WOW Cafe Theatre, Millennium Film Workshop, Duo Multicultural Arts Center, Teatro Circulo, Downtown Art, Alpha Omega Dance Co., Choices Theater, Teatro IATI, Cooper Square Committee and Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association. The Nuyorican Poets Café is still going strong on East Third Street between Avenues B and C. Since 1973 its mission has been to create a multi-cultural venue that provides a stage for artists traditionally underrepresented in the mainstream media and culture. Poetry slams, theater performances, open jam sessions for hip-hop, poetry and jazz, as well as unique screenplay readings all take place on a weekly basis in this intimate cultural setting. For film buffs, we would be remiss not to mention the Anthology Film Archives on East 2nd Street, a local theater best known for consistently showing the finest in avant-garde and experimental cinema. We also recommend the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on East Houston Street, home away from home for those who enjoy great acoustics and the company of die hard independent film fans. The East Village is also home to the trendy Cooper Square Hotel as well as the charming Gem Hotel, making it a great neighborhood to enjoy your stay in New York.
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