Vegetarians: if you have a little extra money to burn and you're looking for the kind of pampered service that a Michelin-starred restaurant provides—with super tasty, meticulous food to boot—then run, don't walk, to Rouge Tomate.
This huge, gorgeously appointed space on posh 60th Street right off the park—all blond wood and creamy, off-white leather—consistently receives a Michelin star, and when sampling the careful modern Continental cuisine that pays equal attention to taste as it does to looks, it's easy to taste why. Rouge Tomate is one of the many restaurants these days that expresses a commitment to local, seasonal and nutritious food, but here, you actually believe it. The fall menu is chock full of fantastic autumnal produce: cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, root vegetables, squash, mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. And in the meal I ate, these wonderful ingredients were done full justice: their natural qualities enhanced but never overshadowed.
My dinner started with an amuse-bouche of Beet Tartare, an itsy-bitsy dice of well-seasoned roasted beets shot through with just a touch of tangy freshly grated horseradish, topped with a mild horseradish-yogurt foam, and sprinkled with tiny, super crunchy toasted quinoa, whose grains took on a welcome nuttiness. This starter was indicative of the courses to follow: gorgeous, well thought out, and freaking delicious.
The same goes for the bread course. During my meal I was offered a tangy potato sourdough with an airy crumb and a denser, heartier rye studded with sunflower seeds. Both were excellent, and both were elevated by the lemony, light as air ricotta and the silky smooth, sweet, utterly unadorned squash purée served alongside.
Rouge Tomate offers a number of appealing toasts to start the meal. I chose the Cauliflower Toast ($11), a thin, crisp grilled slice of rye smeared with a buttery-soft Point Reyes blue cheese and piled high with funky Brussels sprout sauerkraut, tiny halved Brussels sprouts, miniature al dente cauliflower florets in a riot of colors, a scattering of toasted pistachios, and delicate mustard flowers. The toast, beautiful to behold, was an even greater pleasure to eat, with an almost incredible variety of flavors and textures coming together in one supremely satisfying whole.
The lovely toast made a fantastic opening act for the best dish of the night, airy pillows of Ricotta Gnudi ($25)* served in a pool of Parmesan cream dotted with herb oil and topped with a woodsy tangle of chewy roasted mushrooms and deeply browned celery root, dusted with fresh black truffles and finished with toasty, crunchy fried salsify, a relative of parsnip. When the bowl of gnudi was delivered to the table, it was the aroma that got me first: deeply rich and savory. It tasted even better than it smelled, with milkiness from the two cheeses, bitterness from wilted greens, and a hint of sweetness from the salsify chips.
Disclosure: The kitchen, sensing that the diner with the camera might be up to something, sent this dish out on the house. But the meal was paid for in full.
A second appetizer didn't quite hold up to the luxury of the gnudi, but was delicious nonetheless. Mushroom "Tartare" ($17) was flavored in classic steak tartare fashion, folded through with briny capers, minced celery and mustard. In lieu of a raw egg yolk, the mushrooms were topped with a perfectly runny sunny side up egg, and accompanied by a selection of delicate pickled shallots and button and lobster mushrooms, along with soft, sweet roasted garlic, which brought a punch of acidity to the tartare when mixed in. Finally, super crunchy double-layered potato chips with rosemary leaves hidden inside were a welcome retro accompaniment perfect for scooping.
After the barrage of complex, nuanced appetizers, a main dish of Cauliflower "Steak" ($24) was a slightly-too-bland surprise. The "steak" in this case was a thickly-sliced, under-seasoned wedge of roasted cauliflower supposedly spiced with Turkish pepper and mustard seeds, but tasting of not much. The effort apparent in each of Rouge Tomate's dishes was here, too: a soft puré of cauliflower and golden annatto seeds; a mix of red quinoa, toasted hazelnuts and pickled golden raisins; a cardamom-laced port wine sauce. But apart from these elements never really coalescing, they also couldn't overcome the mediocrity of the cauliflower wedges atop them.
Although I couldn't recommend this last dish, every other course was close to a marvel: simultaneously delicate and bold, with a laser eye directed at achieving a variety of tastes and textures. And although they couldn't be called a bargain, the prices here are quite reasonable in relation to the quality of the food. For a special meat-free night out, Rouge Tomate is a definite winner.