When out-of-town friends visit, I love nothing more than sharing some of my favorite dining spots with them. Such was the case with a recent night out at The Red Cat. Opened in 1999 by Chef Jimmy Bradley, this cozy Chelsea restaurant devotes itself to creative, seasonal American cuisine.
Anymore, when I hear a restaurant’s repertoire described as “creative,” I cringe ever so slightly. What passes as innovative can, in reality, end up being rather unpalatable. Take, for instance, oyster-studded lasagna with a sun-dried tomato sauce that made my stomach lurch. Florescent yellow garlic custard with bright green asparagus foam that tasted as unearthly as it looked. Don’t even get me started on the deconstructed dishes. Thankfully, I have no such complaints at The Red Cat.
At The Red Cat creativity comes in the form of bold flavors and interesting, yet pleasing, food pairings. Green beans tempura with sweet, hot mustard sauce. Proscuitto and parmesan croquettes with an olive oil aioli. Organic chicken with garlicky soy beans. Simple, smart and oh-so-satisfying.
Red Cat portions are generous. Three hearty eaters — myself included — shared appetizers of a dandelion salad with olives, anchovies and lemon juice, wedges of yellow and red watermelon with feta, fresh herbs and an orange vinaigrette and sliced red, yellow and purple heirloom tomatoes topped with chopped basil, red onion and feta. And, of course, freshly baked bread.
For dinner we split the huge, succulent entree of sauteed skate wing, hazelnuts, portobello mushrooms and greens. Our sides were equally large and lovely — melt-in-your-mouth chive mashed potatoes and crispy, lightly tempura battered green beans. Delicious!
By eating family-style, we saved enough room for The Red Cat’s decadent desserts. As we were celebrating a birthday, the guest of honor, Marilee, chose the sweets. Her extra special treat came in the form of a peanut butter-chocolate parfait with mini, homemade marshmallows, whipped cream and shaved chocolate. The other dessert? Locally grown strawberries layered between a cornmeal biscuit a/k/a strawberry shortcake that packed a flavorful punch.
There’s nothing quite like sharing great food with great friends. At The Red Cat I invariably have the good fortune to experience both.
When I tell friends that the first dumplings that I tasted were brown butter-coated gnocchi, more than a few eyebrows raise. Accustomed to the whole-apple-baked-inside-a-flaky-dough dumpling, they think that I am confused. How could I mistake a savory Italian entree for this luscious treat?
Made from a simple mixture of potatoes, flour and egg, gnocchi is, in fact, a savory, Italian dumpling. Like all dumplings, it originally provided a means to stretching meals and satisfying hunger at a time when appetite-sating meat was a rare luxury. Added to a soup or stew, it afforded an inexpensive means to expanding these dishes. Topped with a sauce, gravy, butter or meat drippings, it became economical and hearty entrees in its own right.
Historians quibble over gnocchi’s exact origins. More than likely these orbs of dough came to Italy via the Middle East during Roman times. Originally made from semolina, they later became known as Italian potato dumplings. Today you can enjoy not only potato-based gnocchi but also spinach, bread and the traditional semolina.
Toppings vary as well. Although I lean toward simpler sauces, such as brown butter or garlic and olive oil with a sprinkle of basil and Locatelli, I could just as easily blanket my gnocchi with pesto or marinara.
1 ½ pounds baking potatoes, peeled, cut, cooked and drained
1 large egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground white pepper, to taste
pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup all purpose flour, more or less as needed
6 to 8 quarts salted water, for cooking
Using either a potato ricer or a food mill and a large bowl, puree the potatoes. Add the egg, salt, pepper, nutmeg and enough flour to make a soft, satiny dough. Depending on how moist the potatoes are, you may need to add more or less flour. Keep in mind that the more flour added, the heavier the dough (and gnocchi) will be.
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and divide it into four equal portions. Roll the dough between your hands and work surface until a 1/2-inch thick strand has formed. Using a knife, cut off ¾-inch pieces and press one side of each piece into the tines of a fork. Place on a floured baking sheet and repeat the same process with the other portions.
Bring the salted water in a stockpot to a boil and cook the gnocchi in batches, about 5 to 8 minutes. They will float to the surface of the water when ready. Use a slotted spoon to remove the dumplings and place in bowls or on plates. Top with butter and grated Romano cheese, pesto or a marinara sauce and serve.