Degustation is designed entirely to facilitate a relationship between the chef and the diner. With only 16 seats arranged in a half-rectangle around a bar that encompasses the prep area, you don’t miss a moment of your dinner being made. For better or worse.
Do you want to see the plastic storage bowl your rabbit liver came out of? Do you want to look at a whole container of cooked bacon slabs on the counter throughout your meal and know that you only get two tiny pieces? Is that worth it to get to watch your chef so delicately place a single slice of Fresno pepper on top of a sardine with a pair of forceps? It’s not exactly the most romantic of date spots, but dinner at Degustation is special in its own way.
amuse-bouche: fish skin, sherry vinegar
Being served this the moment we walked in the door was kind of hilarious, if you know me. While I can at least eat seafood without much complaint now, I still don’t find it the least bit comforting or homey. And it was actually my first time at Degustation that I tried fish skin for the first time. At least that was attached to a piece of actual fish, though; this was just straight-up skin.
And I actually kind of liked it! It was only slightly fishy, and the texture reminded me of Cheetos: crispy, puffy, and full of tiny air holes. The sherry vinegar was so sour it made me wrinkle my nose, but I liked the combination.
amuse-bouche: ham and apple croqueta
Clearly this is much more my speed. A crunchy exterior, a creamy potato interior punctuated by ham bits, and a smoky emulsion underneath that I kept coming back to, trying to scrape more off my plate. This still wasn’t as good as the one at Tenpenny, but I think it was improved over the last time we were at Degustation.
amuse-bouche: Spanish tortilla, quail egg, shallot jam
This was our favourite on the plate because it was the most original and complexly-flavored. The tortilla had the texture of a Shanghai bun skin, and the filling was like caramelized onions: sweet and sour and like it came off the bottom of a cast iron pan. The shallot jam is just really nice, too; it has all of the flavor of an aged wine with all of the texture of a homemade jelly.
• hamachi crudo
I somehow didn’t take a photo of this, but it was served on a spoon with pickled vegetables. It wasn’t fishy but had that distinctive fresh ocean flavor that you find in mild seafood like scallops and shrimp. The refreshing bite was a nice palate-cleanser for the more intensely-flavored amuses.
uni, sunchoke panna cotta, ramp?, pepper
I love a savory panna cotta; you just don’t get enough creaminess in savory foods. Panna cotta topped in sea urchin is a little bit different, but I understand that uni is considered a major delicacy, and I’ve only had it a handful of times at this point, so I was open-minded.
It tastes like iron, looks like orange chicken skin, and has the texture of mousse. Which is not to say that I didn’t kind of enjoy it. The spice of the single slice of pepper really pervaded the entire bowl, and I can really get behind the idea of uni pudding, which is basically what this was.
The problem is that everything in the bowl was just so unfamiliar. About halfway through, it started seeming just, you know, something someone should eat only if beef isn’t available. I ended up mixing the rest of my uni into the panna cotta so I could disguise it. I’m still a work in progress, I guess.
On the other hand, I think I can honestly say that I like monkfish liver. I had it first at an Asian buffet (Ichi Umi), but it was drowning in some sort of sweet sauce that I figured was the only thing making it palatable.
But no, it tasted like any other totally non-fishy organ meat and had a wonderful flaky, chunky texture. And, as I’ve probably made abundantly clear, I hate tomatoes despite years of trying not to, yet these were weirdly delicious. The cilantro and red onion overpowered that gross not-quite-sweet, not-quite-savory thing tomato has going so that the topping tasted like a fresh, crisp salsa. I really loved the way that nothing could get soggy because of the way it was cut into little slivers.
asparagus soup, bacon, salmon roe
I was really excited when this was set down in front of me. I was ready for something earthy and familiar. We sunk the contents of our spoons into our cups of soup and were delighted by crunchy bacon and artichoke tips and . . . SALMON ROE? I wrote in my notebook, “Just give me something without fish!” Even the wine this was paired with tasted salmony to me. At least the soup itself was delicious, with a savory foam on top that reminded us of eating garlic and onion potato chips.
Littleneck and razor clams, pasta, butter beans
We loved the salty, garlicky flavor of this dish. After a pretty dismal experience at Flex Mussels recently, this brought me back to bivalves a little. The textures in the dish were all of a similar chewiness, but luckily, I like chewy.
sardine, cucumber tzatziki
My boyfriend was worried I wouldn’t like this due to its silver-skinned fishiness, but on the contrary, it was just a big, salty, crunchy fish stick. I loved the spicy pepper against the cool pickled vegetables, and the tzatziki was like a better version of tartar sauce.
chicken egg, bacon, crouton
This one kind of overwhelmed us and sent us into a five-star-dish coma, starting with the adorable presentation of the brown egg on blue-and-brown-striped plates and ending with the tiny chunks of ham hidden in the cheesy egg filling. We loved the texture progression from creamy egg to chewy ham to crunchy crouton.
rabbit tasting: liver, pate; baguette, salad
Watching a chef form your rabbit liver into a quenelle with two spoons right in front of you is kind of a joy. So is eating different preparations of the same animal in one dish. The liver was smooth and organy, but the pate was like eating a really fine lunch meat–spicy, flavorful, but so likeable a kid would eat it. Spread on the crisp baguette and topped with some pickled greens, it was hearty and filling.
lamb, Romesco sauce, barley, olive breadcrumbs
This lovely little chunk of rare lamb was wrapped in lamb bacon and proved once again that any kind of bacon is good bacon. The Romesco sauce was nutty, garlicky, and sweet from the red peppers it’s made from; we weren’t sure if it was just the color, but when we swiped our barley through the sauce, we swore it made them taste like orange Nerds candy. We loved the sour dirt-looking topping, and I was shocked to learn it was made from my enemy, the olive.
I wish I had any memory of what this was, but between wine pairings and my not writing anything about it in my little notebook, it’s pretty hazy. Some sort of meringue, an orange supreme, and a slice of jelly. I remember liking it, but I guess it wasn’t quite memorable enough to overcome the wine.
caramelized torija, grapefruit
On the other hand, it’s almost like I can still taste this little square of French-toast-like brioche. It was our favourite dish on our first visit to Degustation and definitely did not disappoint the second time around, even without the benefit of newness on its side. The way they torch the outside but leave the inside doughy and uncooked makes for such interesting taste and texture contrasts. The chef in front of us, sensing our delight, informed us that the bread is soaked in heavy cream for twenty-four hours. And that explains that.
We didn’t, however, care for the grapefruit segment on the side. I really, really love grapefruit, but next to the super-sweet caramelized bread, it became savory; usually I love the play between sweet and savory in dessert, but in this case, the grapefruit just sort of lost all its flavor, like fruit does when it’s out of season.
I wasn’t using a ratings system at the time of our first visit, but I think I would’ve given Degustation four donuts back then, too. It doesn’t exactly reflect how I feel about the place in certain circumstances, though. I don’t think the food is technically perfect, and for me, it’s way too heavy on the fish. But for diners who are just getting into high-end food and don’t mind a little roe here and there, I think it’s one of the best values going.
For $80, you get to try ten tasty and creative courses and watch the chefs make them right in front of you. Things can get pricey if you opt for the wine pairings, which run the same as dinner itself, but it’s still several hundred dollars less than you’d pay at many of the restaurants I’ve rated five donuts. Of course I’d argue that the several hundred dollars is worth it for a five-donut meal, but while those might be once or twice in a lifetime meals, Degustation serves more of an everyday dinner in a less-stuffy environment. Plus, did you see that torija?
239 East 5th Street
New York, NY 10003 (map)