The Strong Buzz


November 19, 2007

I remember the first time I interviewed Tailor’s chef and owner, Sam Mason. It was in 2003, for a piece I wrote for Time Out New York on a wacky trend of savory ingredients showing up in desserts. At the time, the trend was in its infancy, and I was stunned by the random vegetables (parsnips, beets) and wild ingredients (coffee, chiles) Mason was tucking into panna cottas and cakes at WD-50, which had just opened at the time. (And what exactly was coffee soil?) As we talked, he explained that over the years he found himself reaching into the savory kitchen’s walk-in and stealing ingredients for the pastry kitchen because his mentor, the late Jean Louis Palladin, had encouraged him to use vegetables in different and often startling ways. “Palladin thought that vegetables should not be categorized as untouchable in the pastry kitchen,” he told me back in 2003. “And he was right. My thing is to change the perception that vegetables are for savory and fruits are sweet.”

Now, almost four years later, with the opening of Tailor, Mason has made his mentor proud. Indeed, vegetables, chiles, and even mustard are not just for the savory kitchen. As Mason demonstrated at WD-50 and now at Tailor, they play well on the sweet side as well. But he’s also one-upped himself. With Tailor we learn that a pastry chef’s pantry—fruit, chocolate, peanut butter, and butterscotch, can move over to the hot line too. Impressive.

Set in the 19th century building that was once the home of the American Nut & Screw Building and more recently, the bar Veruka, Tailor shows an impressive way with design. Through a double height solid wood beamed door (with knocker in case you want to knock), you’ll find a warm amber-hued dining room lined with rows of wide booths on one side and deep leather banquettes on the other, with a strip of glossy two tops down the center. Though it was designed by partner Lauren Weiss, it has a vaguely AvroKo feel as the space is lit with antique bare bulbs and clusters of little crystal chandeliers that look like grapes hanging from the ceilings. The walls speak to the “Tailor” moniker, in navy and grey with soft pinstripes. Toward the back a few stuffed blackbirds sit on a breakfront, offering the requisite element of taxidermy. Take a walk down stairs and you’ll find a bar tended by well-groomed men in ties and snug fitting, you might say tailored, vests, in the center of a few nooks filled with low lounge couches for comfortable seating while drinking.

Steven and I started downstairs with a few cocktails, which are the creation of Sam’s fellow WD-50 ex-pat, cocktail guru Eben Freeman. His cocktails are hand-made to order, and feature the sign of a bar that cares—fresh juices, house infusions, and Kold Draft ice cubes. The list also offers many drinks that contained ingredients I’d never heard of, like the Bohemio—a mix of tequila, Becherovka, and Naranja Agria ($12). I tried to get the bartender’s attention to ask a few questions about the drinks, but since they are always busy mixing and shaking, it was difficult to get any time with them. Perhaps a few words of explanation under each drink might be helpful? I ended up ordering a drink with just two ingredients that sounded familiar—The Waylon ($12)—a simple highball filled up with house-smoked coke and bourbon, which tasted like bourbon and root beer (yummy), while Steven went for the drink that most closely resembled a Manhattan, in this case called Blood and Sand—scotch, sweet vermouth, with orange head and Redbach that was served with an impressive frothy head in a nice fat old fashioned glass. (For the record, Becherovka is a traditional Czech herbal liquor with cinnamon notes; Naranja Agria is sour orange; orange head is fresh oj that has been aerated, which explains that nice frothy head, and Redbach is a Belgian Flemish red ale brewed with cherries.)

The avant-garde drinks dovetail nicely with Mason’s wildly inventive salty-meets-sweet menu. For those of you who may bristle at the sounds of pork belly with butterscotch miso, roasted duck in raisin dashi and foie gras with peanut butter cocoa and pear, let me assure you that much of the menu sounds a lot stranger than it tastes. In fact, much of it tastes great.

Mason’s menu is divided between salty (savory) and sweet (dessert), with each section offers seven to eight choices. Early on, complaints that the savory plates were a bit small led Mason to add two sizes (small and large), allowing for bigger appetites to be sated. Between the two of us, we had five salty (small size) and two sweet, which was more than enough to leave us both feeling like we should’ve exercised a bit more restraint. But when you’re faced with a menu that’s so daring, you kinda want to try it all. You know even if you don’t love it, you’ll have a fun ride.

And I did have fun eating at Tailor for the most part though I must say that I had an issue with the style of service. The waitstaff, while trained to the T and I imagine know even the molecular structure of every ingredient on the plate, are too formal. The use of the word “we” should be eliminated from waiter’s vocabulary all together. “Will we be having sparkling, tap, or flat water tonight?” As Bruni wrote a few weeks ago in the Times, I find this “WE” thing just a tad too pretentious. Unless you’re sitting down to join me for that water, just ask what I want. It’s okay. I’ll let you know. It’s a small point, especially in light of the flawless service this team of waiters offers, but it’s still a bit much in my opinion.

In any case, with respect to the food, I was really impressed. Pink slices of roasted duck ($15/$25) were supple and almost silky in texture, set over a mound of spaghetti squash in a puddle of dashi broth steeped with raisins that was brilliant. Duck loves the flavor of fruit and this broth was infused with the essence of this musty-sweet-earthy fruit. How clever.

Perhaps nothing is as memorable on the menu at Tailor as the pork belly with butterscotch miso, green apple, and whiskey-braised artichokes ($16/$24). After Steven took the first bite, he put his fork down and said, quite clearly and confidently: “This is the most elegant pork belly dish I’ve ever had.” (Steven is in the business, and he’s someone whose opinion is quite well-informed.) And I agree. It’s not big, heavy and clunky as it often can be. (Though, to be honest, anyway it looks, it’s always darn good.) The pork belly in this case is brined and slow-cooked until it turns a sort of pale shade of rose, then sliced thin, like sashimi might be, and fanned out over a generous pour of wonderfully caramel-like butterscotch miso. It’s luscious and delicate, and when combined with that sticky miso—think a hoisin sauce crossed with caramel—and fine slices of tart green apple that give your mouth a shock of POW! Well, it’s a sensation. I hope that Mason considers adding a miso butterscotch pork belly bun to a bar menu downstairs. While I have others for sure, this is one of my favorite dishes of 2007.

His poached artic char ($17/$25) was also a textural revelation—warm, glossy and soft—the right counter point for a side of pickled lime spaetzle that’s fried up and crisped so it tastes almost like spaetzle French fries. (Again: bar menu, please.) The only negative point on this dish was an opaque gloss of passion fruit on the fish, which was too sweet.

The peekytoe crab ($17) arrived looking a bit like eggs benedict. Mason plates three little hills of fresh crab salad seasoned with basil over pineapple and tops each mound with a white fluff of Thai basil foam that from a distance resembles the whites of poached eggs. To bring some texture and salt to the dish, Mason adds a dried chip of Serrano ham. It’s meaty and crisp, and the right accessory.

The only disappointment on the menu was the chorizo-cured kampachi with sweet potato cream and potato granola ($15). This dish appealed to me in theory, but not in practice. The kampachi is sliced too thick, so the pieces feel heavy and clumsy, and the fish is served room temperature, which is really too warm. What’s more the flavor profile is flat. There’s no brightness to it, no acidity at all, and the chorizo acts almost like a muffler, suffocating the flavor the fish completely.

Dessert, the touchstone of Mason’s career until now, is equal to his savory menu in thrills. There are seven choices, from sassafras cake with smoked vanilla ice cream and preserved plum ($12), to manchego cheesecake with concord grape sorbet ($12), and I’d have liked to try them all, but my limited belly room only allowed for two (and even that was a stretch.) Steven took a look at the menu and made his choice with ease. “I think the world is a better place because of mustard,” he said, “so it really does not get any better than mustard ice cream.” He was referring to a rum raisin-caramelized banana with mustard ice cream and brown butter cake. I was having a hard time deciding, but finally made up my mind when I heard the description of the French Toast: pan-fried homemade brioche with brown butter ice cream and raisin puree. Done. When the French Toast arrived—fashioned into a golden rectangular stick—a warm wave of nutty browned butter took me to Sunday morning. This dessert combines Mason’s affection for simplicity with his passion for creativity: snuggled up next to the stick of French Toast you’ll find a little mound of dehydrated bacon chips, making this a complete breakfast-as-dessert. Just add orange juice and the Week in Review.

Meanwhile, Steven was loving the heat of the mustard ice cream, which I have to say, is no joke. There’s an undeniable bite of mustard powder in there, and it’s a wicked fine foil for the sweetness of the banana. This is a dish that speaks directly to the vision of this chef, who years ago took a trip to the other side of the kitchen to fill his pastry larder.

I applaud Mason for his vision and creativity, but more than that, for making sure that what he’s peddling is not just some sort of cerebral affair of the mind or an act of culinary masturbation that does not really please anyone else. The dishes are considered and thoughtful, not to mention wildly enjoyable to eat, and exquisite in the manner of modern art. I like to think that Palladin is looking down on Mason at this moment, smiling his big smile, and giving him a wink and a nod.

Tailor is located at 525 Broome Street, between Thompson and Sullivan, 212.334.5182.

Andrea Strong