Epicurious Eating: RICE
The four E’s
Published Thursday, 12-Nov-2009 in issue 1142
To the average patron of RICE at the W Hotel, the absence of gluten across the menu goes largely unnoticed. Yet for the relatively small population of people afflicted with celiac disease or dermatitis herpetiformis, Chef Rocio Varela shelters them from an array of intestinally damaging foods such as pasta, roux thickeners, gravies and anything wheat-based.
Dishes take on additional character in a masterful fusion of Latin, French and Asian, as Varela draws upon her Puerto Rican roots and formal French training to fulfill four meal categories: Embark, explore, enlighten and end-dulge. In the succession, portion sizes graduate and conclude with impressive homemade desserts that include coconut panna cotta adorned with strawberry-tequila compote and chunky carrot cake slathered in cream cheese semifreddo. The latter is not gluten-free.
Varela, who developed an adversity to gluten as an adult – and since misses pizza the most – makes a couple other exceptions for allowing gluten into her dishes. The beefiest filet mignon I’ve had in years, for instance, is glazed in an Indonesian-style “ketchup” containing soy, a big no-no among the gluten intolerants. Varela is currently shopping for gluten-free soy sauce, which hopefully won’t alter the superior tang of the glaze that popped also with garlic and ginger. Another entrée, pan-seared salmon is brushed in fruit glaze containing soy as well.
Among our favorites from “embark” and “explore” was carrot red miso soup served in a similar ceremonial fashion that I came to enjoy at the former Better Half Bistro. The bowls arrive at the table with only the dry ingredients sitting at the bottom – in this case excellent crispy tofu, sliced green onions and diced carrots. From an iron kettle, we poured over them the liquid spiked with ginger oil, which played deliciously to the fermented flavor of the miso.
Appealing for their simplicity were skewers of juicy, unadorned flank steak served with sweet potato fries. The plate easily feeds two, as does a strawberry-avocado salad with fruit tasting so unnaturally fresh for this time of year, that it left us yearning for summer. I later asked Varela if the berries were perhaps macerated. Nada. The secret to their divine sweetness, she revealed, was the raspberry vinaigrette hitting them.
Salted cod salad served over mashed, fried plantains was also lovely, the fish not over-salted, yet able to stimulate the flavors of super-fresh tomatoes and cubed avocado strewn throughout. As for the butter lettuce salad with sliced sea scallops fanned out over the leaves, the bivalves were devoid of their oceanic sweetness and way too bland in their semi-seared preparation. A modicum of sofrito was the tastiest component on the plate. It’s a traditional Puerto Rican puree of various bell peppers and tomatoes.
Varela also caters favorably to vegetarians, as proven in a trio of side dishes from meat courses that she assembled for my companion. We went gaga over the meticulously layered potato-gorgonzola gratin that normally accompanies the filet. In it were three different spuds: sweet, Yukon and purple. Coconut curry rice cake is a unique creation coiled in Chinese long beans. It’s borrowed from the salmon entrée. The third item, a South American bread made of corn, formed the perfect base for raw baby spinach drizzled in honey-garlic vinaigrette. Carnivores here get it with half-roasted chicken.
Cooking for people with special dietary needs makes Varela a champion of presentation and flavor profiling. She teaches us that we can fill up on dishes omitting flour and popular sauces without giving it much of a second thought. Her culinary style has indeed helped usher in a new identity for the restaurant, which had seemingly fallen off the map for a while amid rumors that the W Hotel was closing.
The redesigned RICE is smaller, cozier and less trendy feeling compared to when it first opened several years ago. Still situated on the hotel’s ground level, there is no host station or anyone appointed to greet you if entering directly from the street. When the minimal wait staff on duty that evening became preoccupied in the kitchen, they missed the arrivals of two different parties, thus prompting us to tell them, “hold tight.” Not even a bartender was available to assist, as the bar sat unattended throughout our entire visit. Wait service is efficient once you’re seated. It just needs a better frontline approach so that customers don’t slip away and miss out on some very original cooking.