Hay, wood, pine and apple. That’s how the waiter at Compose announced course nine of the chef’s menu, a curious choice of ingredients for a high-end restaurant -- unless it’s a high-end restaurant for Trigger, Flicka, National Velvet, Mr. Ed and Secretariat.
Turns out the dish was an edible potpourri: chartreuse gelee, hay oil, applewood ice cream, crispy phyllo and pine meringue. It tasted like autumn, by way of Ben & Jerry’s.
Course ten was described in three words: Oats, buckwheat and barley. “Sounds like horse food,” I told my waiter with a smile. The smile was not returned.
There were enough components to fill a filly’s feedbag. Whipped maple syrup, blood orange sorbet, brown butter ice cream, oat pudding, barley tea. When mashed with a fried buckwheat cake and barley crisp, it emerged as a nice cookie sundae.
Such are the tasty complications of Compose, a Tribeca den that “seamlessly integrates the individual concepts of restaurant and bar,” to quote the philosophy section (really) of its website. Translation: Compose is a great place for creative grub and booze. Most of the time, anyway.
The idiosyncrasies come courtesy of three cool dudes. The first is Eamon Rockey, a drinks master so humorously formal he avoids contractions when speaking -- as one should when assembling a tasting of six stylistically disparate vermouths.
Rockey’s partners are chefs Nick Curtin (savory) and Micah Philips (sweet), who spent time at Denmark’s Noma, the two-Michelin starred spot famous for peppering avant-garde menus with arcane greenery and game foraged from the Nordic taiga.
Think reindeer sous-vide with wild herb gel, though no Rudolph is served at Compose. The kitchen instead hides medallions of American pork under a delicious canopy of fiddlehead ferns, miner’s lettuce and fingerling tater skins.
Diners who want a piece of the agrarian action are encouraged to call well ahead. The $120 menu is served to just 12 people at a time and only at the horseshoe shaped bar. Turning convention on its head, the limited a la carte menu is mostly reserved for a few tables in back.
Compose is the latest in a spate of micro-restaurants where chefs double as servers and supper begins at the same time for everyone. That time is 7:00 p.m. at Compose, or 9:30 for the second seating -- one of the few demands a tiny eatery can make of diners to avoid overwhelming the kitchen.
Late Great Bread
Other idiosyncrasies are unfortunate. The “potato chip” roll” is among the city’s best breads, chewy, yeasty and crunchy. Too bad it’s served an hour after dinner begins, following five carbo-lite courses. That’s why stomachs grumble after the ocean sphere-amuse, a tasty suspension of oyster and bonito broth that magically bursts in the mouth.
The wine list is iPad-based. Cool. An $80 menu pairing kicks things off with a flute of Carte Blanche Champagne. What comes next may be hard to tell because the wine stewards sometimes forget to announce the grape or vintage; they pour and move to the next guest.
For something stronger, the cocktail list is “dialogue-based.” You tell your waiter what you like; he returns 10 minutes later with a bespoke drink. A companion asked for vodka, the neutral bane of contemporary mixologists. Rockey answered with the requested spirit, fortified with blanco tequila, white vermouth and orange flower water. Genius. I’ll call it a Mexican Vesper (normally vodka & gin with Lillet). It cost $15.
Pair it with Jonah crab and sea urchin. Earthy spring garlic puree sits at the bottom of a bowl custom made from enameled copper.
Lobster may arrive grilled to a perfect medium rare with Old Bay Hollandaise or butter poached with American caviar, intensifying the crustacean’s sharp maritime tang.
Spanish Iberico pork is where Compose rocks the house. Curtin imports the acorn-fed swine raw, then sears it medium rare. The meat’s so intense it’s like dry-aged steak.
The theme from “Shaft” plays on the sound system. The dessert is “Woods.” It contains birch, cinder conk, oak, shitaki and hemp. It looks like a deconstructed Siberian Baklava. Ahhh, the sweet crunch of “porcini bark.” Mad respect. Rating: ** 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: $120 tasting, $80 wine pairing.
Sound Level: Moderate, about 65-70 decibels.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside Tip: Beg for your bread to come earlier.
Special Feature: Killer pork sammy on a la carte menu.
Will I be back: Yes.
Compose is at 77 Worth Street, near Church St. Information: +1-212-226-1444 or http://www.composenyc.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)