It’s been quite some time since I’ve partaken in Restaurant Week (a three-course prix fixe, lunch is $24.07, dinner is $34.07), seven or eight years, probably; in theory, it’s a great opportunity to try places that I’d never have the money for otherwise, but there can be an assembly-line feel to the whole experience, an underlying awareness that the people serving you consider this whole thing to be an extended version of amateur night and are less than appreciative that their tips will be smaller and expected work rate higher. It always seemed like the same bunch of restaurants were involved, as well, but in the intervening years, the list of participants has exploded.
During a slow moment at work a couple of weeks ago, I found myself absentmindedly scrolling through the list when I came across a name or two that made me sit up and take notice. SHO Shaun Hergatt, located in the Financial District on the second floor of the Setai condiminium building, has taken some knocks for its pricing and decor, but from what I’ve read, the consensus on the food is that this chef is the real deal. With normal lunch prices in the $16-$20 range for appetizers and $25-$37 for main courses (none of which entrées were on the prix fixe menu), I was eager to get a taste of the magic for a fraction of the cost.
Apparently everyone else had the same idea. An initial call for a reservation resulted in the dreaded, “We’re all booked, but try us again tomorrow in case we’ve had cancellations.” Sure enough, the next morning they had a 2 p.m. opening; I tried not to feel insulted when we were seated in a half-empty dining room. Luckily, the food would make up for it.
My friend ordered the maitake mushroom soup as her starter; a bowl containing nothing but a few tiny cubes, billed on the menu as black trumpet mushroom pavé and celeriac foam, was delivered to the table. The server then returned with a small porcelain pitcher and, as he poured its contents over the dish, a heady rush of earthy aromas filled the air. The buttery, creamy, mushroomy purée was just thing for a cold February day.
My selection turned out to be much less seasonally appropriate, but it was so good I didn’t care: ocean-trout tartare, with ocean-trout roe and kalamansi dressing. This was a type of fish I’d never had before; salmon-like in both color and texture, the delicate flavor was almost overshadowed by the fiercely citric dressing (kalamansi, it turns out, is a fruit common to and popular in Southeast Asia, especially the Philippines) and the effervescent, fishy pop of the roe. I lingered over this dish for as long as I could, going so far as to scoop as much of the amazing dressing as I could from the bottom of the plate for one last spoonful.
For her main course, my friend chose the butternut-squash risotto: Sweetened with green apple, anchored with hazelnut, and topped with a tangle of fried parsnip crisps, this was not your average rice. We swapped plates for tasting purposes, and my first bite yielded so many questions that I had to steal a second just to identify all of the flavors before passing it back across the table.
I chose scallops as my entrée almost without thinking; the little mollusks are one of my very favorite things to eat, after all, but when diners on either side of us were presented with the hibiscus-and-acacia-honey-glazed duck in an apple-cider reduction, I kicked myself for not ordering that instead. It looked insanely good, and, full disclosure, it’s entirely possible that regret clouded my view of my own dish. Served in a puddle of baby fennel that had been given an extra kick with the help of Pernod, ringed with saffron foam, and garnished with woody segments of young hyssop, the inherent sweetness and subtle flavor of the scallops themselves got lost in the mix.
Finally, dessert. If I have one complaint about the prix-fixe system, it’s that you select your final course when you choose the rest of your menu: Diners are expected to divine which treat they’ll want after the other two plates, not really knowing how those dishes will taste and which dessert would be a logical progression. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m never quite in the mood for the sweet treat I picked at the beginning of the meal; that being said, both of ours were stellar.
My dining companion went with the citrus palette with milk-chocolate ganache and passion-fruit ice cream: Unbelievably light and refreshing, I instantly wanted more than just a taste. The blast of cool citrus was the perfect finish to her wintery meal.
My meal progressed in the opposite manner: I followed my light, citrusy starter and herbacious main with a dessert so rich that it filled me up more than the two previous courses combined. Never a fan of pecan pie, I surprised myself by ordering the pecan caramel tart (it was the caramel that convinced me). What appeared to be a shortbread layer provided the base of the pastry; a layer of oozing, bittersweet caramel was sandwiched between two of dark chocolate, and the whole thing was crowned with candied pecans and accompanied by a scoop of maple ice cream. To say I scraped the plate clean would be an understatement.
Possibly the best touch of the afternoon came with our coffee, in the form of four tiny treats: coffee-flavored mini macaroons and cinnamon marshmallows on graham-cracker crust. A great note on which to end—both were adorably delicious.
Lunches such as this one have the potential to be real day-killers, to leave you in a stupor for the rest of the afternoon; this was not one of those meals. Each dish was beautifully composed, and the portion sizes were ideal: each serving just enough, but not too much. If this is how those much-maligned ladies lunch, if this is really how the other half lives, where do I sign up?
SHO Shaun Hergatt
40 Broad Street, 2nd floor
New York, NY