Sunday, June 1, 2008

An excellent adventure back in time at One if by Land

When I graduated from college last spring, our close family friends gave me a gift certificate to the restaurant One if by Land, Two if by Sea as part of my graduation gift. As OIBL has the reputation of being one of the most romantic restaurants in NYC, I'd been saving up the substantial gift certificate until I could take a serious boyfriend or date. Since said "boyfriend" hasn't materialized about a year later, I finally said screw it-- I want to go. So I decided to take my most faithful dining companions, my brother and his good friend from college, J. As the same trio that took Ethos by storm, we we ready to trade up to a serious "fancy" restaurant.

Apparently, OIBL is notorious for being THE site to propose marriage. One of people I work with went one night and witnessed two marriage proposals over the course of the evening. As such, we all placed our bets on how many proposals we'd see during the night. Since it was a lovely evening in early June, I put my chips on 2; J chose 1; and the bro, ever the pessimist, chose 0.

My brother and I arrived first. The facade of the restaurant has no sign, just a large carriage-house door with a small placard revealing the number "17." It was approximately 113% humidity outside, so we didn't linger, but the precious entrance definitely did set us up for what we had in store.

You just KNOW that this is it

Once you enter the restaurant, you're overwhelmed with the sense that this is, indeed, a "nice" restaurant in the traditional sense. There's dim lighting coming from grand chandeliers, white tablecloths and candles, yellow roses on every available surface, and a man playing a grand piano near the front of the bar. (Note: near the very end of the evening, the pianist played "Groovy Kind of Love," one of the songs my dad used to sing to me when I was little. I think OIBL might get an extra spatula just for that.)

A view from the bar

Since our party was incomplete, the hostess directed us toward the bar, where the bro and I sat for a few minutes before J arrived. Once we had gathered ourselves together, we were led to our table, a large round four-top in the center of the front dining room. From our perch, we could see up to the mezzanine dining level and out to the external garden. There's really no way my descriptions could do this place justice-- from the colonial paintings on the walls to the exposed brick to the carefully composed and gently lighted ambiance, OIBL is gorgeous. It really does feel like the carriage house it once was (built in 1867 to be the carriage house for Aaron Burr, our waiter informed us).

The view of the GORGEOUS external garden area from our table

But after all, we weren't here just to take in the atmosphere. So we turned our attention to the menus. I looked over the wine list first. For an upscale and relatively well-respected restaurant, their wine list is strikingly short, with an even smaller selection of whites (not necessarily surprising for a meat-heavy menu). And, I'd add, it skews very expensive. I ordered a 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, which was about $65 and was one of the cheapest bottles on the list. Were it not for my gift certificates, this would certainly be a true splurge meal (and even so, it wasn't cheap). When the wine arrived, it had the most delicious smell, and it tasted vibrant and mouth-watering. It seemed a bit high in alcohol, but once the rich food arrived, the acidity certainly helped wash everything down.

Menu and roses

The traditional menu option is a prix fixe-- 3 courses for $75. Since they didn't have a vegetarian main course, I asked for two veggie appetizers, and not only did the waiter oblige, but he offered to price them a la carte. That ended up being very useful, cutting the cost of my meal by about $20 or so. Once we had placed our orders, we were off.

First up: bread. Instead of a bread basket, OIBL upped the ante with a separate bread GUY. This man, after my own heart, approached the table with a tray of five different selections of bread: foccacia, olive bread, 7 grain roll, dinner roll, and peasant white slice. Both J and my brother chose the dinner roll, while I went with the seven grain. The triangles of sweet butter that accompanied the bread were the perfect spreadable consistency. The 7 grain roll was dense and studded with oats and nuts. As I told my companions, if I ate the entire roll I would be both full and happy-- it was incredibly good but definitely filling. I ate about a quarter of it; this evening was all about rationing my appetite. As for the dinner rolls, when the bread man made his second visit to the table, J chose the dinner roll again, and when my bro chose the 7 grain to branch out a bit, he said the dinner roll was better. Again, I'd be happy with a bread and butter tasting menu, so the meal was off to a great start.

7 grain--so satisfying

Dinner roll with butter waiting

Then came the amuse bouche. I love the tradition of amuse bouches-- it's just a great little surprise, and often the dish is one of the best of the meal. This particular occasion brought us a small glass of beet gazpacho atop a bit of wasabi tofu cream, accompanied by a tapioca crisp. The flavor of the gazpacho was intriguing-- sweet (from the beets) layered on top of a pronounced tomato flavor. The cream didn't add too much to the equation, but the tapioca crisp was very interesting. It had the texture of a shrimp cracker but the flavor of a hint of lime. Upscale Tostitos, anyone? The amuse was very good but I didn't finish the whole thing-- again, this was a marathon, not a sprint.

A beautiful layered composition...with a mutant chip

The amuse was whisked away by one of the small army of bussers and runners. Our waiter came by to chat between courses-- he gave us a bit of the history of the building, which was very interesting, especially to someone who grew up in an early antique farmhouse. Despite claiming to be "nervous" after watching me taking notes and snapping pictures, he did an expert job walking the line between aloof and overly solicitous. We felt well taken care of and attended to.

Soon the appetizers arrived. My brother chose the buffalo rib eye, small slices of rare buffalo on a bed of ramps sprinkled with slices of pear that looked like french fries at first glance. The plate was not only visually appealing but, according to its consumer, "off the charts" in flavor. The bro awarded the sauce on this dish alone six Offset Spatulas.

Sliced buffalo ribeye with trompe l'oeil pears

J went with the sauteed gulf shrimp with carrot and hearts of palm. The large, pink shrimp rested on top of dollops of orange and yellow sauces; with the orange from the strips of fried carrot, the dish looked pleasingly tropical. While I obviously did not try any of the shrimp (or any of the meat/fish dishes, for that matter), I asked for a taste of the fried carrot, having just had fried carrot a week earlier. It was scrumptious-- it looked like bacon but tasted like a sweet potato chip. When J left a few extra strips over on his plate, I quickly stole them away. With the plate cleared of shrimp and veggies, J pronounced the dish "magic."

It's like Florida on a plate!

For my appetizer, I ordered the salad of spring vegetable crudite. This lovely dish came as a bed of piquillo cake, which tasted like a red-peppery polenta, crowned by paper-thin shavings of various spring vegetables and accompanied by a dot of roasted red pepper puree and few demure curls of mont enebro cheese. As I tried to refrain from shoveling it in my face at an unladylike pace, I attempted to record what veggies were present. I counted frisee, radish, carrot, zucchini, asparagus, and ramps before I had eaten everything and had to stop counting. This was an incredibly creative and tasty take on the typical vegetable salad. The piquillo cake was especially delightful, and I very much appreciated the care that was obviously taken in putting the dish together (also evidenced by the somewhat alarming number of fingerprints surrounding the composition on the white plate...).

Veggies with weeping red pepper puree

Close up on veggies from the back... and the cute little curl of mont enebro cheese on top

And with that, the appetizers were done. The plates were cleared and we had a few moments to reflect on how good the food was-- and I'll reiterate at this point, it was seriously, seriously good. We were well on our way to a top-ten meal contender.

But first-- the entrees. J ordered the American loin of lamb, which came with eggplant, goat cheese foam, and some sort of caviar essence. This plate was also creatively composed, and it came with a large eggplant chip as a garnish. J devoured the lamb, pronouncing it phenomenal. As J and my brother traded bites of each other's dishes, the bro asked who the chef at OIBL is. J replied, quite aptly, "God."

So many things going on with this lamb...

The bro ordered beef wellington, which came perched on a mixture of ramps and asparagus (I snuck a piece of asparagus and it was so, so good. How do they make asparagus taste that good?). He couldn't get over how delicious it was; in particular, he raved, the crust was "out of this world."

Such a glossy, appealing crust

For my entree, I ordered another vegetarian appetizer selection, the wild mushroom and parmesan crumble. When they brought this dish, I thought they had made a mistake-- it looked like dessert. But no; while it was surrounded by a thin ring of pastry crust, the "ice cream" on top was actually a scoop of chantilly cream, and the crumbles below the cream were parmesan, not brown sugar. As I took forkfuls of crunchy, savory parmesan, creamy, light chantilly and the savory mushroom mixture inside, I couldn't get enough. I slowed down sufficiently to offer bites to J and the bro, but by the time it occurred to me to try to incorporate the dots of reduced balsamic vinegar around the edges, the food was gone.

Ceci n'est pas un dessert

Wow. Time for a brief breather. Our minds were blown-- and while our waiter told us we could linger as long as we wanted before dessert, we had hit our stride and plowed on. While we were all absurdly full at this point, we had been watching mouth-watering sweet creations emerging from the kitchen all evening long, so we couldn't turn down dessert. We placed our orders and tried to rearrange the contents of our stomachs to make room.

The desserts came out a few minutes later. The bro ordered the chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream. The tart had a molten interior and was incredibly, incredibly rich. He could only manage a few bites; I took a taste, and J gamely tried to pick up the rest, but we still ended up leaving about half the tart on the plate.

Pretty standard but oh so rich

J had ordered the macadamia baklava. While this was probably the least visually appealing dish we had over the course of the day, I had several bites of it and it was very good. The phyllo was crispy and redolent of hazelnuts, and the honey mousse or nougat on the bottom was light and sweet. I do love honey, so I thought this was a great dessert. As a table we ended up polishing this one off.

Not the most beautiful, but I swear it tasted divine

Personally, I ordered a dish of ice cream-- not creative, I know, but I wanted to end the evening without my stomach exploding (and also knew I'd have a bunch of tastes of the boys' desserts as well). I had two scoops of vanilla and one of salted caramel. The vanilla was good but standard; the salted caramel was an interesting flavor-- very salty on the foretaste, but it mellowed into a nice caramel flavor as it melted in your mouth.

Ice cream. That's all.

Just to make things interesting, they also brought a complimentary plate of petit fours. Ohhhh boy. At this point it was just a challenge-- one which I (probably foolishly) took up eagerly. There was a bed of peanut brittle (extravagantly good-- as the bro said, he would have been happy with an order of peanut brittle for dessert), a chocolate chip cookie, a sugar cookie, a fruit gel (or "fruit snack," in my brother's parlance), a brownie bite, and a small fruit financier. While the bro took care of the fruit snack, I tucked away the financier, chocolate chip cookie, half the brownie, half the sugar cookie, and most of the peanut brittle... all in combination with my ice cream. Now, these were small bites, but come to think of it I did eat a striking amount of dessert last night.

Oh god. I really ate pretty much all of this.

So-- there we were. We had eaten probably all we could have eaten; if there were more courses, we likely would have given up. As we sat back, fat and happy, in our chairs, refusing the offers of coffee or tea and waiting for the check to arrive, we gave up in our quest for sighting marriage proposals-- the one young couple in a table near us had already left, sans engagement ring (thus, the brother wins this particular betting go-round...). It's probably clear by now, but this was a truly special, incredible meal. The food was spectacular; the service added much to the equation-- and they didn't skip a beat with our "unconventional" party (every single other table in the restaurant was occupied by couples, or combinations of couples). And the carriage house atmosphere, which could have crossed the border into cheesy, instead felt like a welcome Colonial respite from the humidity and activity outside. While due to budgetary constraints OIBL is not a restaurant I would return to on a regular basis, it's a perfect special-occasion place. And on that note, I'd encourage you not to reserve OIBL for romance. The three of us had a great time celebrating my graduation, and the food was just as good without a diamond ring at the end. For providing a lovely, memorable evening, I hereby make OIBL my first Manhattan five-OS restaurant.

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