There is a dewy summer garden vibe to Telepan, the debut restaurant of Judson Grill's Greenmarket-driven chef Bill Telepan. The room is painted a lush sage green, and larger than life photos of fruit trees and vegetables canvass the far walls of its dining rooms. The welcoming bar, a large rectangle of pecan wood, straddles the restaurant's twin dining rooms that are simply done with banquettes in soft fabrics, light wood accents, and sanded wood floors. It is an almost prosaic setting-a dressed up Ikea dining room in designer Larry Bogdanow's minimalist style-which makes the white table clothes, stunning flatware and elegant stemware almost seem out of place. But the juxtaposition of earthy design with such sophistication is also mirrored on the plate, where the food is at once magnificent and yet deeply elemental and incredibly approachable. (Read: this is food you want to eat.) This union of opposites is Bill's hallmark approach, and it is in evidence all over his new menu at Telepan.
Bill conceptualized his menu in the style of an Italian eatery with three courses: he offers appetizers of salads and smoked fish, midcourses of pasta, vegetables and eggs, and entrees of larger beasts and fishes. His vision was to offer people enough choice so that they could dine at Telepan whatever their appetite-tiny, medium, ample, or extra hungry woman (that would be me).
Jamie, Alison and I started our feast at Telepan with a few cocktails (I loved the Orange Fizz), and a selection of appetizers. We had to have Bill's house-smoked brook trout-a signature from his days at Judson. He folds flaky pieces of smoked trout with black radish sour cream and mounds the smoked fish salad onto a silver dollar sized buckwheat pancake ($12.50). Add a nice shot of cold vodka, and this is what smoked fish is about people. Bill's yellowtail sashimi ($15) is a welcome twist on the now ubiquitous crudo. He lays silvery slices of shimmery yellowtail tuna onto small hills of chewy farro tossed with mint, citrus, and cured tuna. The farro salad gives the fish both the right amount of lemony zip and a nutty earthy note of contrast. I wasn't so crazy about the beet salad though ($11). While I loved the beets, which were of all sorts of brilliant colors and marinated and lively, they were tossed with pieces of fresh guanciale and fried pig's feet. I am all about pig, but this dish does not make any sense. Why were the pig parts in there? They didn't do anything for the salad in terms of texture or flavor profile. It was just odd. But his Hen of the Woods mushrooms ($13) were complete brilliance. Perfectly roasted (and nicely salted) meaty mushrooms surrounded a frisee salad topped with a glossy, jiggly beautifully poached egg. Once pierced, the sunny orange yolk slips out, running all over the mustard-dressed frisee. It's dreamy.
As we moved onto midcourses we noticed that the room was getting quite warm. I tend to heat up quickly, but when Jamie was visibly hot (she is always cold), I knew something was wrong. Apparently the air conditioning was on the fritz, and the heat was on full blast, which even in December was too much. They were trying to fix it but there was not much hope. So Jamie, Alison and I started to disrobe. Off came our sweaters. We joked about a game of strip dinner. After each course, we might have to lose more clothing. Don't worry, we stayed clothed, but I think I lost a lot of water weight at dinner. (Yay!)
Midcourses were even better than the first ones. There are many dishes involving eggs, which I love (please Bill, open for breakfast), including the egg in a hole ($16), a thick cut slice of Amy's Sourdough bread, buttered and grilled and filled with two sunny side up organic eggs (all of Bill's eggs are from Katherine Bradshaw's Pine Hill Farm in Connecticut), and topped with two deep pink slices of lightly smoked wild King salmon and a parsley crème fraiche. (Time for the vodka shots again.) I loved the colors of this dish almost as much as the taste-the smoky fish, the creamy egg, the cool tart crème fraiche, the buttery bread-the whole thing was just so bright, vibrant, and fresh. But people there is nothing on the menu that compares to the Robiola Tortellini ($16.50). This is a dish that would have resulted from the marriage of an Italian grandmother and a Jewish grandmother, which I guess would be some sort of sequel to Brokeback Mountain-perhaps entitled, "Down on The Tuscan Kibbutz." Anyway, seriously folks, this dish has elements of the best home cooking in the world. The chicken broth, or brodo as Bill calls it, is wildly rich, swimming with ribbons of kale and bobbing with these tiny, amazingly light meatballs made of veal, and nice fat kreplach (tortellini as Bill calls them) filled with robiola, a Tuscan farmer's cheese. Jamie and I were in love with the soup. We kept going back for more, slurping and smiling in the sweltering heat. It's hard to beat that soup. But the roasted cauliflower ($15.50) was quite nice (and a good option for vegetarians), served with heirloom shell beans and winter greens. But the sweet potato blini-a stack of sweet potato pancakes layered with spaghetti squash seasoned with pumpkin spice-was flat. It tasted like an overly sweet Thanksgiving side dish, and it was missing contrasting notes. Give it some Meyer lemon zest, or maybe add some chiles. Wake that pancake stack up. It's asleep!
But we were not deterred by the pancake stack. We forged on and ate more. (I'd like to thank New York Sport's Simon Lawson now for the great Boot Camp workout that afternoon, which enabled me to eat this much.) We had to try a few entrees, and we were very pleased with our choices. The 24-hour roasted lamb shoulder, sliced into brisket-like pieces, was an absolute ten. Bo Derek, eat your heart out. It was plated over super crisped roasted potatoes, and was just heavenly. We also loved the white tuna, though the fish is alarming because it is Clorox bleach white. I felt like it should be cod or halibut and not tuna, but it was tuna, and it's good tuna at that. It is poached so it is supple and silky, and served with purple potatoes, spinach, and baby fennel, drizzled with a fennel vinaigrette that just amps up all the flavors on the plate. Nicely done.
The Heritage Pork ($26.50) was sort of a cassoulet deconstructed-melting spare ribs, a roasted loin, a fat sausage link seasoned nicely with lots of oregano, and cured bacon, served with a crock of killer cassoulet beans that were firm but creamy, and generously infused with fat and herbs.
Please don't think I am a total heathen, but we had dessert too. I know. Hey, a girl's gotta eat. And I am so glad we did because Bill's pastry chef Larissa Raphael (AZ, Pace, Judson Grill) is a star in the making. Nah, scratch that. She is a star now!
Her quince granita ($9) with a yogurt crème fraiche was tasted like standing under a cool waterfall on a balmy sunny day. It was icy, like a delicate snowcone, and steeped with the flavors of the quince's spiced poaching liquid-vanilla, cloves, cinnamon. What's really cool about this dish is that as the crème fraiche sits on the ice, and gets colder, it thickens to the consistency of really creamy gelato. It's just off the hook.
We also loved her Oloroso sherry custard tart ($9)-a flying saucer filled with a firm but silken sherry custard sandwiched in shortbread on the bottom and a nutty cookie on top, with stunning filets of blood orange and candied pecans dressing the plate. The surprise hit was the peanut butter and milk chocolate cake ($10), with peanut brittle ice cream and huckleberry gelee (like PB&J). It may sound like something you have had before, but you've never had peanut butter and chocolate like this before. Trust me people.
We were clearly among the last people in the restaurant-as-sauna at this point, and so we drank the last of our wine, re-dressed in the layers we had shed, and waddled out of the restaurant. I wish Telepan were in my neighborhood. Despite the heat wave, and the few off dishes, I loved the food, the simple ingredient-driven approach, and I love Bill's attitude toward food. He doesn't take things too seriously; there is whimsy, spirit, and joy in this food. I know you may think I am nuts when I say things like this, but I believe you can feel a chef's energy in the food you eat. (Please, don't lock me up in a padded room.) And you'll see when you eat here that there is great energy in this food. You can tell there are people in the back putting their heart and soul into this food, and that means a lot. What's more, Telepan is a welcoming place with a great staff (our waitress Karen was terrific). If Telepan were closer to home, I would be there weekly (at least) eating eggs, snacking on smoked fish, slurping brodo with robiola tortellini, and cooling off with a quince granita (or two).
Review By: Andrea Strong