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Springtime Dining Is Here
The Season's Best Restaurant Choices
by John Mariani

"How luscious lies the pea within the pod," wrote poet Emily Dickinson. New Englander that she was, she must have regarded the coming of spring as a time to feast at last after the long, cold deprivations of winter food.

Dickinson might well have gone out into the countryside to pluck fiddlehead ferns, dandelion greens, baby artichokes, peppery radishes and sweet asparagus. The lambs would be fat, the chickens would lay their best eggs, and the softshell crabs, cod and bay scallops would abound in ocean waters still icy from winter. Come May, the shad with its abundant roe would be ready to cook with bacon.

Chefs all over the world get as giddy as a poet at the thought of all the fabulous land- and sea-fresh ingredients filling markets from spring through summer. Having turned up their noses at the mere thought of cooking one more turnip or winter squash, their imaginations run wild with the possibilities of combining new tastes, textures and colors on their plates.

Bricco

In Boston, two ebullient Italian women—Marisa Iocco and Rita D'Angelo—take full advantage of springtime at Bricco, opening up their windows onto bustling Hanover Street for an al fresco experience. To those coveted breeze-sweetened tables they will bring such seasonal specials as creamy buffalo mozzarella; a sheer carpaccio of octopus with a julienne of endive, shaved Parmigiano and a parsley condiment; gorgeous yellow-gold zucchini blossoms given a crisp tempura treatment, served with frisée greens and a yellow tomato purée; pappardelle with scallops and wild asparagus in a lobster broth; rigatoni teeming with lobster meat, accompanied by golden pea tendrils and a saffron sauce; and whole grilled sea bass with "Easter egg" potatoes, olives and herbs. Springtime in New England never tasted better.

Oyster Bar & Restaurant

At the Oyster Bar & Restaurant beneath New York’s Grand Central Station, a dining institution since 1913, they send out notices to their regular shad lovers that the fish has arrived and its roe awaits their pleasure. New oysters will be in, too, ten to twelve varieties each day, which the chefs will transform into stews or broil with anchovy butter. You’ll also find the best of the season’s Nantucket bay scallops, no bigger than the end of your pinkie, cooked in a Port wine cream sauce or broiled with their roe and tarragon beurre blanc.

Stone Creek Inn

Out in the chic Hamptons, spring is a quiet time when people are starting to get ready for the summer onslaught of tourists. But chefs here are busily creating new menus according to the bounty of spring. The beautiful Stone Creek Inn (405 Montauk Hwy., East Quogue, 631-653-6770) is where chef Christian Mir and his wife, Elaine DiGiacomo, take full advantage of the local farms’ provender. You might begin a meal here with potato gnocchi topped with abundant lobster in a creamy herb sauce studded with fava beans. There is a vegetable ragoût of mushrooms, peas, favas and asparagus with a watercress coulis. Pan-seared local flounder comes with refreshing accompaniments of spinach, asparagus, tomatoes, toasted almonds, capers and a luscious lemon beurre blanc.

Sherwood’s Landing

Along the Chesapeake River, crabbers get their best harvest in spring, and the plump crabs are served up in no-nonsense eateries up and down the Maryland coastline. There is none better than the spiced steamed crabs you’ll find in Baltimore at Obrycki’s, an institution that closes for the winter and greets the new season by opening its doors on March 15. They pour a mess of the hot crustaceans onto a paper-topped table. Then, you whack away with a wooden mallet and paring knife and wash down the succulent meat with pitchers of cold beer. Or you can feast on crab balls, crab dip, crab cakes and crab fingers, along with shrimp in garlic butter and Key lime pie.

A far more posh Maryland venue is Sherwood’s Landing at The Inn at Perry Cabin, where just about now chef Mark Salter is gearing up to make his spring rolls stuffed with crab meat, served with pink grapefruit and creamy avocado; and his peanut-crusted softshell crab with tamari-orange dressing. Then, perhaps, comes a main course of spring lamb shank glazed with honey and tarragon and a tangy-sweet sun-dried tomato sauce. You’ll want to end the meal with an orange-white chocolate crème brûlée with orange tuile, or warm chocolate torte with Amaretto vanilla ice cream.

In New Orleans, everyone is still mad for crawfish in springtime (the season ends around the Fourth of July). They cook it every imaginable way, but the best is in a seasoned crawfish boil. Thousands of the fat-tailed critters are served up this way to hungry eaters, who pick the meat out with a twist of the carcass and dip it into cayenne-spiked butter. That’s certainly how it’s done at Ralph & Kacoo’s.

Geronimo

In more refined style, crawfish étouffée, smothered in a rich creamy sauce and served over rice, has been a tradition at Galatoire’s, where they also do wonders with sweet crab meat—prepared au gratin, rémoulade, Sardou, you name it. Ask your waiter here what’s best that day, fresh from the market, and you won’t eat better in the Crescent City.

The farther west you go in America, the more the land bursts with springtime color. One of the finest restaurants in Santa Fe, N. Mex., is Geronimo, set in an adobe dating from 1756, where chef Eric DiStefano artfully fuses Southwestern and South Asian cuisine. His springtime specialties include grilled Mexican prawns sweetened and sparked with a honey-chile glaze and partnered with crispy, aromatic jasmine rice cakes and a yuzu-basil aïoli; and a grilled rack of lamb with saffron couscous, English peas and tangy-sweet tamarind glaze. His dishes seem as colorful as the surrounding landscape.

Anasazi

At Santa Fe’s Inn of the Anasazi, the Anasazi Restaurant features rough-hewn timbered ceilings and exquisite folk art, an appropriately dramatic setting for chef Tom Kerpon’s big, bold flavors and beautiful presentations. His cinnamon-chile scented beef with a sweet yellow mango salsa and mashed potatoes riddled with chipotles is as vibrant a tribute to the season as you’re likely to find anywhere.

Such foods might have sent dear Emily Dickinson into even greater poetic raptures.

 

John Mariani is well known for his frank and poignant writing in Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion and the Harper Collection. He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and co-author, with his wife, of the Italian-American Cookbook.

(Updated: 07/09/08 HC)

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