During World War II, when England was suffering the Nazi blitzkrieg, American publisher Abner Doubleday lent W. Somerset Maugham his country house for the duration. "But I have to warn you," said Doubleday. "There are only two servants, and they're ignorant country people from South Carolina. They know nothing about cooking the foods you're accustomed to."
"Never mind that," Maugham answered. "Come visit in a week, I'll have dinner for you."
A week passed, and when Doubleday arrived, the house was sparklingly clean. The formerly ill-dressed servants were in livery. At dinner, they impeccably served out a veritable feast, with all manner of exquisite delicacies. Doubleday expressed amazement that the poor pair had been so quickly transformed into Continental chefs.
"It was simple, my dear Doubleday," said Maugham. "The only problem was -- eating the same thing every day for a fucking week!"
Chet told this story about a month ago, as we nibbled olives and dipped our bread in olive oil at Carta, a midsize, cheerful room that combines a sense of informality with the luxury of real damask napkins. Chet's a "regular" diner, and by coincidence he recognized the current nominee for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg dining a few tables away. On that midweek night, however, there was otherwise a surprising amount of room. "Given the quality, this place should be packed every evening," Chet said.
"Carta" means both "menu" and "map," and the restaurant's aim is to fulfill both definitions. Instead of serving a single cuisine, or (in the currently fashionable style) covering the waterfront, the map-menu concentrates on one ethnicity per month. Often, it's a locally underrepresented area: August, for instance, was Peru, and September was Gascony, the area of southwestern France whose residents are famed for their boastfulness, their longevity, and their diet of duck, goose, goose fat, fatted goose liver (foie gras), black truffles, and red wine. The current menu features foods of the Middle East's "Fertile Crescent," which is actually well-represented locally, although to get an overall picture you'd have to travel throughout the city -- to Maykadeh, Ya Ya, and Just Like Home, among others, each offering tastes from segments of the crescent.
The region is decided, a waitress explained, at a meeting of the staff. The chef plunges into research (mainly through cookbooks, given the impossibility of cooking and eating out simultaneously). Later, he tries dishes out on the staff and, during the last week of the old menu, presents a final audition of the menu candidates. Again everyone on staff gets to vote. If a chosen dish fails to meet expectations, the menu can change midmonth. The typical menu includes a host of "small plates," about four "large plates," and several representative desserts.
Each menu highlights several recommended wines (available by glass or bottle) chosen to mirror the cuisine; unfortunately, these regional wines -- cheap in their home locales, and worth it -- can be pricey at the restaurant. The full wine list on the back of the menu offers bottles at all prices, at markups of about 250 percent over retail, with ample selections available by the glass (most about $6).
Carta's "regulars" show up often, knowing that they won't have to eat the same food every month for a fucking year. While many crowd in during the first weekend of a new menu, Chet advised us that the cooking is typically best in the second and third weeks.
At the Gascon dinners last month, the "small plate" standouts were a duck foie gras salad ($10) and a chanterelle and leek tart ($7). The former had exquisite morsels of force-fed duck liver sprinkled with pistachios and walnuts with halved grapes -- a delectable combination albeit with rather too much salad and too little foie gras, the six small bites scarcely constituting a Gascon's portion. The thin-crusted tart's creamy, sumptuous filling highlighted the wild mushroom flavor. Another hit was a gratin of pumpkin, tomatoes, zucchini, and Cantal cheese, spiked with fresh thyme ($7). "Every bite has a different taste," marveled TJ. But the salmon rillettes ($7) were an unexciting fish pate, the duck breast (on another vast heap of rabbit food) was slightly overcooked (pink-brown) for my taste, while dreadfully undercooked sorrel fritters ($7) tasted only of wet dough.
Our main course cassoulet ($17) had firm white beans in a delightfully complex sauce with a smoky undertone, a few shreds of pork, and a topping of sausage slices coated with bread crumbs and thyme. The meat content was spare compared to the array of poultry, lamb, pork, ham, and sausage you might get in a genuine Gascon bistro, where you'd find the leftover-absorbing bean casserole perpetually simmering on the back of the stove. Since Carta doesn't have perpetual Gascon leftovers, their version was more an Abstract of Cassoulet, with a genuine rich taste despite a narrower range of ingredients. In hindsight it seems an emblematic dish: Carta apparently doesn't re-create ethnicity in detail, given the monthly shift in cuisine, but can do a fine job in recapturing overall flavors or, sometimes, fancying them up. We finished with good espresso, and excellent desserts ($5 each), the best being a classic velvety, boozy prune and armagnac ice cream.
TJ and I returned for the first weekend of the "Fertile Crescent" this month. The restaurant was full all evening, and groups without reservations kept pressing their noses against the windows (or would have, had their parents not taught them better). This time, the table condiment was cubes of sweet-pickled cucumber, the bread was a seeded baguette, and the accompanying oil tasted odd. "It's not extra-virgin," said TJ. "No it's -- there's another flavor besides olive oil, a cooked flavor." "It's toasted sesame oil," said a neighbor to the left (a young Asian-American dining with a British lad). We all chewed this over and decided that sesame oil goes better with dim sum than baguette.
Syrian grilled chicken kebabs ($8) had three bamboo skewers bearing three slices each of overcooked breast meat, but the accompanying muhammara (red pepper and walnut dip) was both sweet and earthy. The skewers rested on a bed of salad greens with a delicious sesame dressing (available separately for $6). Syrian-style dolmas ($8) had slightly tough bottled grape leaves with a chewy, quite spicy stuffing of rice and small yellow chickpeas. But in the "beggar's purse" ($7) of spinach and cheese in a phyllo pouch, the spanakopitalike filling was bland, crying out for herbs and for a larger jolt of the sumac (a sour red Persian spice) that the menu promised but we couldn't detect. Its salad bed sported a sour, yogurt-tasting dressing. Our neighbors to the right, who'd looked grim when they sat down, grew grimmer when confronting their "small plate" of visibly dry swordfish skewers ($9). Meanwhile, our left-hand neighbors were praising their visibly tender entree of baked acorn squash stuffed with tabbouleh ($12).
Our first main course was a ragout of partridge and quince served on saffron-almond rice pilaf ($17). Partridge is a dark-meat bird, but even so, it had been stewed too long (and in too much liquid) to retain much distinctive wild-bird flavor. The pilaf was also swamped by the bird's mild, thin sauce, although the slices of quince, with the texture of pear, retained a pleasing tartness. But we were delighted by marinated grilled loin lamb chops ($20). The marinade's light, sweet-tart flavor was apparently based on pomegranate juice, rather than the sour, gluey bottled syrup (called "pomegranate molasses") that's often the base for local renditions of this dish. The meat, grilled medium, was accompanied by mnazzalleh, a tasty vegetable stew with several types of earthy beans. Rounding out the array was a heap of refreshing tabbouleh.
Both our desserts ($5 each) were highly intense. Saffron ice cream was chewy with mastic, in the Turkish style, and loaded with so generous a dose of precious, strong-flavored saffron (made from dried stamens of a type of crocus) that it was hard to handle, despite the contrasting mediation of sour cherries. Poached pears were coated in a sea of caramel made from pomegranate juice, sparked with cardamom and a touch of cinnamon.
Two months of Carta menus gave us quite a lot of pleasure despite some unevenness, and some necessary compromises based on local ingredients and tastes. (The latter may explain the tendency to overcook animal proteins, perhaps for health reasons.) Then, too, some dishes seem based more on published recipes (and guesswork) than on first-hand experience tasting the foods in their native settings. At the same time, the good scholarship here translates itself to the plate, and the chef's research becomes the diners' adventure.
Next month, Carta will transit from Middle Eastern to Mitteleuropean -- a cuisine currently represented here by a single Polish restaurant and a scattering of paprikash and goulash entrees on local German menus. You can be sure that Carta's chef will carefully Polish every dish and Czech it carefully to make sure you won't go away Hungary.