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Fat Guy

L'Ecole 2008-2009

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My new best friend Alan Richman invited me to speak to his "Craft of Food Writing" class tonight at the French Culinary Institute. As consideration for my services, Dean Richman (he is one of the FCI's deans, whatever that means) promised dinner at L'Ecole, the school's student-run restaurant.

Had there not been a L'Ecole dinner invitation involved, I'd have agreed to speak to Dean Richman's class without hesitation. But with the threat of dinner hanging over me, I hesitated for at least three or four minutes before emailing my consent. As much as I find the idea of culinary-school restaurants charming and admirable, I take great pains to avoid eating at them. It's a no-win proposition: the meals I've had at such restaurants have ranged from mediocre to awful. If the food is mediocre, decency requires that you rave about it. If the food is awful, what are you going to do? Complain? Go online and post about how awful the student-run restaurant at some culinary school is? Pitch a story to Pete Wells at the New York Times?

It was thus that I found myself at the FCI tonight speaking to Dean Richman's class. My instructions were to "tell your story" and then answer questions. My story isn't all that interesting and, worse, Dean Richman positioned me as a "successful" food writer. I'd like to have seen him argue that case to my wife yesterday when the nursery-school acceptance letters came, first delighting us and then throwing us into a panic over how to pay for our son's education. If ever there was a time to reconsider the decision to turn eGullet into a nonprofit instead of selling it to AOL, it was yesterday. But I told my story and answered some questions.

Then it was time for my reward. I considered coming down with a case of fibromyalgia, but there's a student in the class who commutes every week all the way from Phoenix in order to learn at the feet of the master, and she was going to be the guest of honor at the dinner, so I felt it was my responsibility to attend. To be sure, I didn't do it for Dean Richman.

I also toughed it out for a pedagogical reason. The students in Dean Richman's class are studying the craft of restaurant criticism this week. They were given the perverse assignment of reading reviews by Frank Bruni. When Frank Bruni's restaurant reviews become required reading in actual classes that people pay money to take then surely the end of days is near. The dollar can't be worth that little yet. So I figured I'd do a quick diary entry on the evening, as a shout out to the boys and girls in Dean Richman's class, if only to give them something a little less tortured to read this week.

I would not, however, have accepted the invitation had I known in advance how long the current brigade had been in the kitchen at L'Ecole (which, for those who have French as bad as mine and were wondering, means "school"). The way these culinary-school restaurants work is that they're usually part of the final term's coursework. Every once in a while, depending on how long the practical unit is, a whole new kitchen crew comes in. At the beginning of that rotation, you want to stay the heck away from the restaurant. At the end of the rotation, you can at least hope for a modicum of professionalism. Tonight was the second night of the new rotation.

If restaurants were rated by how much they exceed expectations, our meal at L'Ecole tonight would need to be awarded however many Michelin stars Alain Ducasse has. In absolute terms, the food was on par with what one would expect at a New York Times two-star restaurant in the Bryan Miller era, when two stars meant a really solid classic French restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised by just about every element of the meal. The company was good too. Even Dean Richman was fairly well behaved.

Dinner at L'Ecole, I should also note, only costs $39.95. That's for a generous four- or five-course (depending on the night) prix-fixe dinner -- limited choices -- in an attractive restaurant with attentive and enthusiastic service. We were in on a five-course night. The wine list is quite reasonable as well, with plenty of solid choices in the $30-$50 range.

The choices for the first course were "open seafood ravioli" (in other words mixed seafood covered in a pasta sheet) and an audaciously retro dish you don't see much these days: consomme. It took me a minute to click in to classic-French-cuisine evaluation mode. I'm probably not quite up to the task, because there are so few bases for comparison these days. It used to be that you could go to a different French restaurant every night of the week and have consomme at every one of them. If you do that, your ability to evaluate consomme really gets honed. Me, I hadn't tasted a classic consomme in who knows how long. Years? I can't believe what I've been missing. A well-made classic consomme -- and to the best of my knowledge this was such a specimen (I'll even go out on a limb and suggest that it was a double consomme) -- trumps the standard contemporary appetizer offerings of tuna tartare or seared Hudson Valley foie gras with out-of-season fruit any day. But of course few of today's chefs (and their customers) have the patience or dedication to make a dish that's so seemingly simple yet requires so many inputs in terms of both skills and finances.

The open seafood ravioli (actually a single open seafood raviole) was a fine example as well, the various mollusks and crustaceans cooked just through, in a saffron- and cream-enhanced broth (maybe it was mascarpone; I didn't take a menu with me) that I mopped up with many slices of the school's excellent baguette. I'm glad I didn't stop for a baguette at Balthazar as I walked from the Spring Street subway station to the FCI, because the FCI's student-baked baguettes are superior to Balthazar's baguettes -- and they gave me one to take home. I have a series of plans for it tomorrow.

Next we had a choice of barramundi or bass. All three of us ordered barramundi on our server's recommendation, but I strong-armed Dean Richman (which is not an easy thing to do) into changing to the bass so we could taste it. So impressed was our server by my ability to get Dean Richman to change his order, he brought us an extra portion of the bass. It turned out that the bass was the superior dish. Not only was the bass the better piece of fish -- the barramundi lacked the firmness and whiteness of the best specimens of that fish, whereas the bass was a nice piece of fish -- but also the bass came in an elegant broth meant to evoke a Mediterranean fisherman's stew (including a garnish of a long, thin crouton with rouille). The barramundi's garnishes -- well-made potato puree, al dente roasted Brussels sprouts, diced bacon of impeccable quality and a white-wine sauce spiked with mustard -- deserve honorable mention, though.

For the meat course the choice was between lamb and duck. Again Dean Richman had to be manipulated into ordering the odd dish out, so he got the lamb. Both dishes were credible. The duck presentation consisted of slices of seared breast and a single braised thigh with a textbook red-wine sauce (regular restaurants could learn a thing or two about proper sauce-making from L'Ecole) and a couple of afterthought slices of roasted apple. The lamb chops came with Merguez sausage. Both the lamb and the duck were good products, tender (including the seared duck breast) and cooked medium rare.

The next course was a slightly overdressed salad. L'Ecole should probably skip this course. Consomme = good anachronism. Overdressed salad before dessert = bad anachronism. We also opted for a selection of cheeses, which if you're a paying customer carries a disproportionate $9 supplement. There were about a dozen choices and we went for Garrotxa, Ossau Iraty and Epoisses. All were well-cared-for examples, and the Epoisses tasted illegal. Maybe it was just the Berthaut product that skirts the legal limits for aging by an hour, but it tasted better than the Berthaut Epoisses I get at Fairway.

I was surprised, given that the FCI has a professional pastry arts program, at the lack of ambition on the dessert menu but a little searching revealed that the pastry arts students may not participate in the restaurant. If so, the desserts are pretty good by the standards of desserts prepared by non-pastry chefs. Were it full-time pastry students preparing those desserts, that would be a different story. The dessert choices were Linzer torte, creme brulee and molten-center-type chocolate cake. Looking back, I wish we'd tried the creme brulee because that was the most classic dessert and might have demonstrated something. The Linzer torte, for its part, wasn't what I'd call a Linzer torte but it was a tasty dessert of jammy filling between layers of pastry. The oozing chocolate cake was straightforward and properly timed, which is more than I can say for the last three of four of those things I've had in restaurants where the entrees cost as much as the entire dinner at L'Ecole.

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Wow, I haven't been back to l'Ecole in YEARS. Last time I thought the food was good and well-priced, but I am talking 10 years at least. I meant to go back but with so many other choices to explore I just never did make it.

Perhaps I should think about another visit.

Cheers! :cool:

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I've eaten about half the baguette so far, my son has eaten about a quarter of it, and my wife has eaten both ends. That kind of puts a crimp in my lunch-baguette-sandwich plans. I guess I'll have the sandwich as a snack right now.

The big caveat with my comments on L'Ecole (I'm capitalizing the L because the restaurant does, not because I believe in it) is that I'm reporting on one meal whereas culinary-school restaurants are notoriously inconsistent. Still, I've at least established a baseline that says the place is capable of producing a high-quality, enjoyable, correct meal for forty bucks. I mean, worst case scenario, could it be more inconsistent than Bouley? Probably not. So for forty bucks it's worth checking the place out, right?

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I have a friend who works at the FCI and supervises the kitchen there. I'm told that there are more or less two "teams" working the kitchen, and that these teams correspond to the two seatings. The first seating is the one you want, as this corresponds to more experience, etc.

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Interesting. I had deduced a teams theory as well, but my theory was that they have a less experienced team on the nights that they do the four-course menu and a more experienced team for the five-course menu. But maybe they have several levels of teams. In any event, my meal was at 9:30pm, which was the last sitting. So kudos not only to the students but to the chef-instructors who supervise that kitchen. That's a great accomplishment to turn out a meal like that on night two of a rotation. I don't know of any regular restaurant that could pull that off.

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Yeah, when the kitchen turns over shifts, L'Ecole goes from a great value to a hideous rip-off. At least thats what I gathered from my only two trips there. The later led to to never want to go back again, at any cost. Literally one of the worst "fine dining" experiences of my life. Rude, uneducated service, sloppy plates, cold entrees, awkward timing and absolutely juvenile desserts.

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Literally one of the worst "fine dining" experiences of my life. Rude, uneducated service, sloppy plates, cold entrees, awkward timing and absolutely juvenile desserts.

But how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Seriously, though, your list of complaints is largely about the front of house stuff, with only the desserts a real kitchen flaw. This makes me wonder about how the FOH/BOH teams are trained and handled. After all, if everyone's there to learn the line and become the next John Q. Foodstar, part of the problem might be whipping those sous into decent service shape, a process that may require more on-the-job attitude adjustment than skill development.

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Two thoughts:

First, my meal was on the second night of a new rotation, so it's certainly possible that they've improved their supervision in order to even out some of the inconsistency. Or we just got lucky.

Second, it seems to me one could just ask on the phone whether it's a new crew or an experienced crew on a given night. Or, I'm sure there's some other way to find that out.

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I went to FCI.

they've changed the different levels since I attended, but in essence you don't get to cook for "real people" until about 5 months in. The food that goes out is pretty heavily supervised and at night there is a non-student expediter for things to run more smoothly....during the day, the "specials" are often imagined by the student...I had a lot of fun making up specials...pasta with a seafood burre blanc :blink: good for three bites... (unless you really like butter) short rib sandwich...etc. for thirty-something bucks...l'ecole is just a plain steal, even on an off night. The dining room is pretty, and the wine is always well priced.

Time to make a reservation.

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I graduated from FCI a few years back and its good to hear that they're still going strong. One thing to note however- students that attend this school go in with varied levels of prior experience. There were several students in my class with 5+ years of cooking experience so people may have had a better meal with us then they might have with the next class. Its really just luck of the draw. Also, there is usually a little more instructor "involvement" when they are hosting special functions especially if the clss is that new.

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Two thoughts:

First, my meal was on the second night of a new rotation, so it's certainly possible that they've improved their supervision in order to even out some of the inconsistency. Or we just got lucky.

Or they knew exactly who was coming to dinner that night, so they made sure everyone was on the ball.

Were the dean of my institution to come observe my class, and I knew about it, I would make sure my lessons were the best they could be (not that I don't always do that, but some days are just not as perfect as others :rolleyes: ).

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We've been there a # of times over the years, although not recently (that's 2 years in Steve R lingo). Throw in a couple of "functions" there, including a grad school alumni event with a kitchen tour, and I guess we have a feel for the place. All told, good to very good meals have been had.

Best adventure (disclosure -- this was over 10 years ago): 8 of us descended on them and had a very good (two and a half Bruni stars?) meal over the course of several hours. Lots of conversation, time flying. Dessert course was taking unusually long to come out. First, our server said "almost ready", then someone else said "I'll check with the kitchen", then... well, you get the idea & 45 minutes went by. Finally, we all got sick of talking to each other and focused on the waiter, who basically shrugged "I dunno" and got the manager/supervisor, an "over 50" well dressed guy, who looked like a stern dean of students and had a nice french accent. "I'll check". Well, you could hear the not so elegant yelling from the kitchen and then, in a recomposed state, he returned and eloquently stated "the kitchen informs me that they 'ran out of chocolate' and didnt quite know how to tell you so they just stalled and hid". He gave us a very nice smile too.

So... without any chocolate desserts, we got comped something or other in the liquid department & went on our way, knowing we had a story to tell which, obviously, I'm still getting mileage out of.

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Were the dean of my institution to come observe my class, and I knew about it, I would make sure my lessons were the best they could be

I don't know. There are probably deans (eight of them), instructors and visiting chefs eating at that restaurant all the time. And the kitchen supervisors surely know their job is to teach the students how to cook well not how to fake it for VIPs. They can learn that working at Daniel.

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Thanks for reminding me of how great the baguettes at FCI are. Anyone have the recipe?

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On March 31, 2008 we dined at L'Ecole. Our reservation was for 6:30 p.m. Upon being seated we were presented with an amuse bouche. A little bacon thing that was will done.

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We began with a bottle of lucien albrecht, crémant d’alsace brut rosé, alsace. It is on the web list at $40 but we paid $34. Very nice dry pink bubbly. I had to correct the server when she said she was serving champagne. My wife felt bad - but I thought that this was the place to learn.

For first course we had the bay scallops served on shells and a bed of salt, the mushroom tart, and an onion soup. The scallops were a surprise, the tart o.k., although I did not get the sauce. (someone has to taste it).

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For main course we had the salmon, skirt steak, scallops and the lamb.

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Our meal was accompanied with a bottle of e. guigal, côtes-du-rhône, rhône valley, france 2004. Very nice at $32.

Prior to dessert we were served a berry sorbet.

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and then the Chocolate Ganache Cake with Mocha Sauce, Yuzu Cheesecake with

Macadamia Nut Crust, Mixed Berry and Tapioca Cobbler with

Honey Vanilla Ice Cream, and the Spiced Zucchini Bread Pudding with Ginger Ice Cream.

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We accompanied the dessert with a Pedro Ximenez and capped the meal with some yellow Chartreuse.

We asked for the check at about 9:00 p.m. and our total before tax was $262.80. It was a great value for dinner for four and I would do it again in a heartbeat. After our meal we had a tour of the kitchen. There were a lot of people back there. My only regret is that L'Ecole could not be located within 200 miles from were we live.

Jmahl

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So in the year since I started this topic I managed to get hired by the FCI, or rather by the ICC (International Culinary Center, the parent organization), to teach a food-blogging class. (Don't laugh.) They even gave me a title: Director of New Media Studies. (Don't laugh.)

Today I had an appointment in the vicinity of the FCI and had to schedule a lunch meeting with my agent for right before that appointment. The timing was a little tight. I asked myself, several times because I'm not very smart, "Where can I eat in the vicinity of the FCI?" Eventually remembering that there's a restaurant at the FCI, I made a reservation for my first-ever lunch at L'Ecole.

The L'Ecole dining room gets a ton of natural light at lunchtime. We sat at a table right against a big window facing Grand Street. I'm not sure us two ugly men were the best advertisement for the restaurant, but it was a great perch.

I have a vague memory of placing an order but the kitchen sent us so many dishes I can't remember which ones we chose and which were imposed. From the current lunch menu, for appetizers we tried country pate with foie gras and truffles, red beet and mustard seed terrine with sweet onion slaw and spicy baby greens, spring pea panna cotta with crab and pea shoots, and cold poached salmon with cucumber salad, whitefish roe and smoked leek vinaigrette. For entrees, sauteed monkfish with pickled cherry tomatoes, arctic char with white asparagus and paella,

pan-seared branzino with artichoke and buckwheat crepes, bouillabaisse, and a special of choucroute garnie based on Andre Soltner's recipe from Lutece. That's for two people.

It would be almost as exhausting to describe every dish in detail as it was to attempt to eat all that food (no, we didn't finish everything), so just a few observations: the spring pea panna cotta with crab and pea shoots was by far the most impressive appetizer. I envisioned a ramekin of a flan-like pea substance topped with crabmeat, but the dish was more deconstructed than that, with the pea custard spread in a long strip on a rectangular platter, layered with crabmeat and pea shoots. The dishes at L'Ecole range from traditional French to more contemporary, and this was a dish I'd that would have felt entirely at home at Jean Georges or another restaurant on that level at the contemporary end of the spectrum. It was really, really good. The pate was correct. If you're into stuff like pate and consomme -- the standards -- L'Ecole does those quite well. I didn't get to taste the salmon because my agent is a pig and ate all of it before I could taste it, which probably means it was pretty good. I thought the beet terrine was not particularly interesting, though I did think it was kind of cool how they pressed little cubes (aka dice) of beets into a larger cube for presentation. But it was, in essence, a beet cube. Whatever.

Of the entrees the monkfish was the surprise, and clear, winner. I think there were probably three things that pushed it over the top: first, it was simply a great piece of fish to begin with. I don't know much about how FCI does sourcing-- I'm sure I'll learn more -- but this was superb monkfish. Second, it was handled right. Monkfish is one of those ingredients that so many restaurants have trouble with. Tom Colicchio's restaurants, in my experience, are just about the only ones that consistently do a great job with monkfish. I think he once said resting after cooking is an important step. In any event, this was a well-cooked piece of monkfish that reminded me of why monkfish can be appealing (but usually isn't): because it really is like a fleshier version of lobster, with many of the same subtle flavor notes and a luscious texture that few fish have. Third, a brown butter sauce didn't hurt. The dish could have used a stronger garnish, though. The pickled cherry tomatoes didn't do it for me. I'd say the runner up entree was the Soltner choucroute garnie. Not only was it an excellent specimen of choucroute garnie, but also if it had been the only thing on the table it could have been the whole meal -- appetizer, entree and dessert -- for two people. Certainly at lunchtime half that plate of choucroute garnie would be plenty for a normal overweight person. There was a debate at the table about the char, which is cooked in the CVap oven. Some people like the texture of fish cooked this way (in a moist environment that is functionally similar to sous-vide cookery), and some don't. I enjoy it occasionally, my agent does not. The bouillabaisse was correct (when I say that about a dish, I mean it in a good way), and the branzino was forgettable (as it often is).

Then the meal got interesting.

First, we had a visit from Dave Arnold (we'd actually had some other visitors throughout the meal, because a few of the students in my class also work at the FCI), the FCI's resident food-and-technology guru (Pete Wells, in Food & Wine, called him "The Food Avant-Garde's Enabler"). In addition to a discourse on CVap cooking, interwoven with several other discourses (Dave Arnold is like that), we got to try a "red hot Manhattan," which is a Manhattan-like cocktail set aflame by a thing that looks like a curling iron. There was no way to catch a photo of the actual flaming process, in part because I only had my cell-phone camera with me, but here's Dave Arnold supervising the bartender:

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Then we had a bunch of desserts:

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I fear I'm not up to the task of conveying the bizarreness of what happened next.

A couple of days ago I got a message on Facebook from Robin Insley, a publicist I've known for a long time, titled "Save Jacques Torres' Champagne Kiss." The message, which I assume was sent to a zillion people, said "Please help us save Jacques' Champagne Kiss by signing this petition! Thank you!" I confess I skimmed the message, never clicked on the link and promptly forgot about it.

So there we are, sitting in L'Ecole at the tail end of the lunch service, uncomfortably stuffed, ready to leave, my agent late for his next meeting and me on the verge of being late for mine, and in storms Jacques Torres trailed by a guy with a video camera, a guy with a boom mic, a photographer, a guy with an iPhone (Jacques Torres is now following me on Twitter, by the way) and some additional people with unclear roles. And he starts handing out little chocolate candies emblazoned with Rocky Horror lips while talking on his cell-phone to someone who's clearly interviewing him, and he's saying something like, "Ze Hershey's people zey're trying to screw me!"

First things first, I accept a piece of chocolate and then another one. Then I start remembering Robin's Facebook message and realizing that this frenzy of activity must be related. I figure I'll just ask the guy with the iPhone what's going on but, by the time I swallow my second chocolate, Jacques Torres and his hit-and-run brigade have left the building.

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Finally I was able to ask for the check. But the best part about being Director of New Media Studies turns out to be that I get to eat at L'Ecole for free. I'm going to try to ascertain the parameters of that perk, like, can I eat there for free every day? How many people can I bring with me? Can I get free wine too? Once I figure out what I can get away with I'll let you know. I'm already putting together a plan for Sunday brunch, which the restaurant has just started offering.

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The bad news is I did have to pay for brunch today. The good news is I got a major employee discount (though I think my official legal status is more like "guy who is tolerated" than "employee") and somewhere between five and eleven plates of free food (I lost count). The even better news is that in the grand scheme of things the difference between free, discounted and full-price at L'Ecole is not terribly significant. Especially not at brunch, because the prix-fixe brunch you get for $19.50 is just, as the kids say, stupid.

If you talk to professional cooks, as I sometimes do when they put up with me hanging around them, you'll hear nothing good about brunch. They describe the brunch shift as the death row of cooking. I've heard more than once, "I got this great job offer, but I would have had to do brunch, so I told them to get lost." (Okay, cooks haven't generally said "get lost" since the 1950s, but you get the idea.) So you can be sure that, at most restaurants that serve brunch, you're getting the second string. By contrast, the L'Ecole brunch shift is staffed by eager cooks who aren't yet jaded, alienated and anti-brunch. They're actually enthusiastic about it. Everybody in that restaurant is so damn proud of the brunch they're doing, it's like a brunch cult in there. And, although it's all a little weird by the standards of the industry, the payoff is one of the most ambitious, significant brunches you're going to find, especially in that neighborhood but also just in general.

You get two courses plus coffee (Illy) or tea for your $19.50. There are quite a lot of choices -- enough for every station in the kitchen to have enough dishes to make it hard. I mean, they have everything from soups to seafood sausage just in the appetizer section. They also start you out with a basket of scones, brioche and raisin bread.

I didn't taste every plate on the table, but I tasted a bunch of stuff and it was a uniformly impressive showing. In the appetizer department I was most fond of the hamachi tartare, served over parsnip puree and dressed tableside with a Meyer-lemon vinaigrette. A close second was the smoked salmon -- a rectangular brick of it, not thin slices -- served with half a bagel and a little ramekin of chive cream cheese. That plate alone could have been brunch for a person of average appetite. Cousin Stephanie sent back her cauliflower soup because it wasn't hot enough, however this was remedied with aplomb and, when I tasted sample number two, it was excellent. I didn't get to taste the French onion soup, but it looked and smelled like a good one, as French onion soup at the French Culinary Institute should be.

The best entree by far was the day's special of biscuits with sausage gravy and fried eggs. The gravy, in particular, was just an outstanding specimen. Because, I guess, you have these French culinary instructors forcing some pretty rigorous technique on the kitchen -- something you don't necessarily see in the average diner serving biscuits with sausage gravy. The triangular biscuits themselves, also superb. And they even do the fried eggs in ring molds (I assume) so they come out as neat little circles, and they're fried a little crispy on the edges but with runny yolks, which is the way I like fried eggs best. The steak and eggs consisted of sliced (hanger? skirt? I forgot to ask) steak, a fried egg, French fries and a small green salad. The omelettes, well made, are particularly noteworthy for the potatoes they come with -- thinly sliced potatoes layered and roasted -- as well as very nice Pullman toast. I also had a taste of a L'Ecole burger, which comes topped with gruyere and ratatouille (I would probably order it without the ratatouille next time around, not that the ratatouille isn't good but it's just not something I want on my burger) and is served on a stellar brioche bun.

We were there not only to test the limits of my L'Ecole dining perk but also to celebrate Cousin Stephanie's engagement to her boyfriend, Jason. They just got engaged during their trip to New Zealand. The L'Ecole people somehow integrated this information into their systems such that "Congratulations" appeared on one of our many desserts.

Now that I think about it, they have appetizers, entrees and desserts available for the two-course prix-fixe brunch. I wonder if that means you get any two out of three? If that is the case, appetizer-entree is the way to go because the desserts, while good, aren't worthy substitutes for the savory food.

There were no faculty visits to our table today, this being Sunday, and no surreal celebrity sightings. We did, however, see one of my students ("student" being loosely defined as someone taking my class, in which I am technically the "teacher," even though this student is an FCI employee who surely outranks me, me being the lowest-ranking member in the history of the ICC/FCI team) because she was working garde manger today. And she, in turn, dispatched her intern to give us a tour of the school. Although I have an electronic key-card that gets me around the school, I can't actually find anything there. As far as I can tell the school occupies two buildings that are adjacent in a multi-dimensional space that requires transport between parallel universes in order to, for example, find a bathroom during the break in the middle of my class. Or to get from the elevator to my classroom without walking through a bunch of annoyed people's offices. I keep having this daydream that they call security on me and I get led away in handcuffs, protesting that I'm actually the Director of New Media Studies on my way to teach a food-blogging class. "Yeah, yeah buddy. Tell it to the judge. Move along now."

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we got to try a "red hot Manhattan," which is a Manhattan-like cocktail set aflame by a thing that looks like a curling iron.

For those who are interested, there's a little more on flaming cocktails in today's Cooking Issues blog post.

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After class this week I had a free dinner at L'Ecole in the company of the school's esteemed Dean of Food Journalism, Alan Richman, as well as two of the departmental coordinators. I feel compelled to note, having now dined at L'Ecole twice with Dean Richman and twice without him, that his presence is a net negative in terms of how much extra stuff the kitchen sends out. When I go without him, many extra plates of food hit the table, so much so that it requires conferences among the food runners to figure out how to fit everything on the table (Will they remove the bread plates? Consolidate side dishes? Allow 40% of a plate to hang off the edge of the table? Set up an auxiliary table?). Last night, though, not one extra item. The presence of two high-ranking officials of the institute also did nothing for us. Though I enjoyed their company very much, I'd have eaten better alone.

Most every dish we had was something I've reported on already, but there were two new things to report:

First, L'Ecole is currently offering a stellar tasting of three cheeses from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. (If you're a reader of the Art of Eating you may remember a cover story on Jasper Hill Farm a little while back.) It's the first cheese course I've had in a long time where I've perked up and taken notice. The availability of retail cheese in New York City is now so good that I rarely go to a restaurant anymore where I don't feel I could have just picked up the same or better cheeses at Murray's, Artisanal, even Fairway or Zabar's. But this tasting was both intelligently composed and based on cheeses in such amazingly good condition (supplied directly by the producer, I was told) that I couldn't stop eating the cheese and was seriously tempted to eat everyone else's cheese too, which I would have done had there not been two ladies at the table. Just three pieces of cheese on a plate, no condiments, plus a basket of FCI bread. Minimalist and spot on. Here's the literature on the tasting.

JASPER HILL FARM

NORTHEAST KINGDOM, VERMONT

Jasper Hill is a small family farm located in Greensboro, the heart of Vermont’s beautiful Northeast Kingdom. Bought in 1998 by Mateo and Andy Kehler, the brothers purchased 15 Ayrshire heifers in 2002 and so began their sustainable agricultural endeavor.

Their mission has been to revitalize the dying local dairy economy while producing quality farmstead cheese.

To that end they have partnered with Cabot and have just finished a 22,000 square foot, one-of-a-kind cheese cellar. Working closely with local, small producers on everything from recipes to business plans, Jasper Hill plans on using the cellar as a depository for the entire farmstead cheese community.

WINNEMERE

raw cow’s milk

washed rind

salty, grassy & tangy

CONSTANT BLISS

raw cow’s milk

bloomy rind

creamy, earthy & unctuous

BAYLEY HAZEN BLUE

raw cow’s milk

natural rind blue cheese

nutty, herbaceous & smooth

Second thing of note: we had three excellent wines. I hadn't had the chance to test the free-food perk with respect to wine, but we must have ordered a couple of hundred dollars worth of wine and nobody seemed to care. We had an Alsatian riesling from Albert Mann (Cuvée Albert, 2007) that was, not surprisingly, an archetypal dry, high-acidity riesling. This is the one they can serve up in a wine class in order to teach what a first-rate riesling is supposed to smell like, look like, taste like, be like. We also had a Turley Zinfandel (Juvenile, 2007), which was surprising in what, to me, seemed like a very mellow, subtle, Merlot-like character -- it wasn't at all what I expected but wound up being delicious in a different way. Finally, we had a half bottle of Rombauer cabernet from Napa (2004). This was my first Rombauer but, I hope, not my last.

Anyway, the reason I mention the wines is that in looking at the wine list I got the impression of an extremely well-chosen list, not huge but big enough to occupy my interest over the course of 40 or 50 free meals, and the prices seemed quite low by New York restaurant standards (though I didn't do an extensive analysis).

The meal was free but for you it's $42 for five courses: appetizer, fish course, meat course, salad, and dessert. A $10 supplement for cheese. Of course wine costs extra. I've linked to the menu but there's some complexity as to which menu is available on which nights at which times, so read the menu overview page if you require specificity.

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First, L'Ecole is currently offering a stellar tasting of three cheeses from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. (If you're a reader of the Art of Eating you may remember a cover story on Jasper Hill Farm a little while back.) It's the first cheese course I've had in a long time where I've perked up and taken notice. The availability of retail cheese in New York City is now so good that I rarely go to a restaurant anymore where I don't feel I could have just picked up the same or better cheeses at Murray's, Artisanal, even Fairway or Zabar's.

And those Jasper Hill Farm cheeses are available at Saxelby's, in the Essex St. Market. Really good - and pretty pricey at retail, I might add.

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I've seen the Jasper Hill cheeses around, and purchased little pieces here and there (they have some at Murray's too), but I've never had them in the condition in which they're served at L'Ecole. Maybe it's my imagination, but this is some of the only restaurant cheese I've had in years where I thought there was value added to having it in a restaurant instead of just buying it myself to eat at home.

I had another free dinner on Tuesday night. Since I've already waxed rhapsodic on many of the items on this particular menu, I'll just add two negatives: 1. We were a party of eight, which really tested the student chefs' ability to pull together a meal. For four of the five courses, all the plates came out together, but for one of them they came out over a period of a few minutes. Luckily we had a table full of people not afraid to start eating, or too hungry to do otherwise. 2. The Arctic char, which I love, comes with a side dish of paella, which is weirdly un-good: oversalted rice, rubbery bits of seafood (I've had it three times now so I think it's inherent in the dish, not a student error on one night). When it cycles off the menu it will not be missed, not by me at least.

Going for brunch again on Sunday, I hope.

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I recently bought the Bayley Hazen and Cabot cloth-bound cheddar (made by Jsper Hill and featured in that Art of Eating article) in N.H. - both truly outstanding. I will be making a point of buying more whenever I return to N.H. (hopefully with some frequency as my son is going to college there).

I got to know Alain Sailhac a bit during the Bocuse D'Or and have been wanting to get to L'Ecole ever since. Your reports have certainly whet my appetite even further.

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Come with me I get a discount.

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Come with me I get a discount.

Happily with or without a discount.

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I've been back at L'Ecole for brunch the past two weekends, with parties of five, so I think now I've tasted everything on the brunch menu or maybe almost everything.

A big surprise on the appetizer section of the menu is the fried calamari. It took a few visits to get to it, because it's such an unlikely brunch appetizer, but it's some of the best fried calamari I've had. Not only is the calamari itself unusually tender, but also the breading-and-frying job is incredibly competent. There's also a spicy chipotle aioli with it, which is even less brunch-like than fried calamari itself, but like all the sauces at L'Ecole it's made to a very high standard.

Having now tried it three times, I'll say that the poached salmon entree is a total winner. It's a tied hunk of salmon that isn't really the size of a baseball but has that scale of visual impact when it's served. Also comes with a few pieces of asparagus and a citrus sauce, but the salmon itself steals the show.

Other favorite appetizers: hamachi tartare, smoked salmon, seafood sausage

Other favorite entrees: eggs Florentine, eggs Benedict, frittata with Merguez sausage, steak and eggs.

Desserts do cost extra and are neither necessary (the two courses you get in the prix fixe are a lot of food) nor important (they're better than average restaurant desserts but not superlative). If you want to maximize value, the way to go is the two-course prix fixe and nothing else. Once you start adding other stuff the value becomes less amazing relative to other restaurants.

The only item I'm not particularly recommending is the hamburger, both because ratatouille on a hamburger is not appealing to me (though you can of course just leave it off) and because this hamburger is not particularly competitive with the top examples in town.

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