The one thing that still stays in my mind from Christmas 2010 is the media coverage of the "fat sugarplum fairy." Following The New York Times article calling the ballerina allegedly chubby (claiming she had "eaten one sugar plum too many"), I went to go see the New York City Ballet's rendition of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, not only to get into the mood for Christmas, but also because I found it highly improbable that a ballerina would be anything close to "fat."
Unfortunately, ballerina Jenifer Ringer wasn't performing the night I went to Lincoln Center, but nonetheless, the ballet did the job of making me feel like going on a sleigh ride... with a bag full of candy. Halfway through the gumdrops and cookies and sugarplums and whatever else, I was sincerely curious how anyone can make it through the Nutcracker without a trip to the concession stand.
My date and I decided on Po, the small West Villager that is best known as one of the first eateries where Mario Batali got his start. It's a classic neighborhood spot, for the most part untouched by tourists. We got there early, which was a lucky accident. By the time we were done with dinner, the line was out the door.
Given that I had just been subjected to a child's dream (or nightmare) of having candy dance in front of me for the past hour and a half, I was ready to chow down.
I started by meal with two salads, in honor of the ballerinas. I enjoyed the satisfyingly starchy combination of roasted beets and artichokes with the subtle watercress, spunked up by some bitter endive and a nice, salty taleggio crostino. My second salad was organic apples, radicchio, spicy walnuts, topped with gorgonzola; a pretty classic and always delicious combination. Chef Lee McGrath ays the salad was a Mario Batali inspiration that was put on the menu during the early days of the restaurant and still remains. He says, "It was [Mario's] idea to shave the baby Italian artichokes raw. Gives them kind of a crunch and adds texture. The beets are just roasted skin-on with salt and olive oil. They wanted a watercress, beet and artichoke salad, nice and healthy and shaving raw preserves nutrients rather than cooking them out." So, it was good to know that I could actually suggest this dish to any ballerinas I may come across.
My pasta courses, I decided to dedicate them in honor of Ms. Ringer. Listen, people give pasta such a bad rap, but Ballerina Lady, I think you should eat whatever you like. You are beautiful and very thin in my book. Anyway, back to the food. The first pasta I had was a linguini vongole, which is my favorite pasta to start with in general. Light and full of flavors of the sea, the dish is traditional to Neapolitan cuisine. Po's is a bit of the twist on the classic, made with fresh clams and white wine, but they also add pancetta which adds a depth and salty note. It ends up that bacon and clams were the reference point for the dish. Chef McGrath says, "When Steve, the owner, goes down to his beach house in Jersey, he loves getting clams casino with bacon, so that was the inspiration that he relayed to the chef. The vongole is made with cockles which are sweeter and smaller, and because the pancetta has a little pepper in the curing process, it fits well with the red chili flakes in the dish." Then, for a bit more of a hearty, wintery plate, we moved on to a papardelle in braised duck ragu. The meat was my kind of gamey and it was amazing what a difference hand-rolling pasta will make! The noodles were firm and chewy, textured like I'd imagine an Italian mama to make them.
My entrée was in honor of no one but myself. During the holidays you need to gain some weight in order to have something to resolve to lose. So, in a self-indulgent move I opted for the beer-braised beef short ribs served with sweet carrots and soft polenta. The preparation for the dish is a process. Chef McGrath tells us, "They start with aromatics like carrots, garlic and celery, and get braised in red wine, san marzano peeled tomatoes, bay leaves and thyme for about 3 hours." It's not the most attractive dish, everything is brownish orange. But the short ribs were tender, and the polenta a was comforting base to the plate. Not much of a stand-out star but definitely a solid entrée.
Finally, the desserts. As I gazed at the sugar, glistening from the tops of sweet course, I decided to eat in honor of the one and only Mouse King. I feel that the Mouse King is really underappreciated. He was also the only character in the Nutcracker who understood my predicament of wanting to eat the pretty candies that were so happily dancing around. I poured one out for my homie... or chewed one out. Whatever you want to call it, I dived into the panna cotta with amarena cherries dessert. Chef McGrath says the dish is "a fairly traditional recipe, but we use amarena cherries to top it off, which are imported from Italy. They're kind of hard to find, with a nutty, almond-like liquor taste." Not only was it plated beautifully, but it finally had me sated and really proved to be the finale of my evening.
I feel that Balanchine would be proud. Or maybe he would have looked at me with disgust and said it was no wonder I never graduated from my 3rd grade ballet class. Either way, I'm glad I'm in a profession where I eat what I like. No one says boo about a fat food writer.
INSIDER TIP: Po recently launched an intermezzo (meaning between lunch and dinner) menu, so food is available all day long, and all items are $12 and under.