Laugh, Cry, Eat Quail, and Souffle

emanuel mar4 quail.jpg

Photo by ulterior epicure/Flickr CC

Is there ever too much of a good thing? Aristotle certainly thought so when he emphasized the importance of moderation. And psychological research shows that when confronted by too many options, we avoid choosing altogether (For more on this problem of excessive options see Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice).

Too much of a good thing is the problem with New York restaurants. According to, there are 18,696 "eating establishments" in New York City. The Yellow Pages list over 9,000 restaurants, and Zagat has 3,086. How to choose?

I was visiting a friend whose father has untreatable metastatic prostate cancer and is bed-bound in a nursing facility. We needed a quiet place to talk. Having had only a muffin and tea all day, I needed a substantive, proteinaceous meal. We stumbled on Braeburn, on Perry Street in the West Village. Only four months old and it seemed a completely woman-run establishment -- a woman maître d', woman bartender, only waitresses, and women in the kitchen.

The chocolate soufflé for two was a wonderful way to connect personally and end a soul searching meal.

One appealing aspect was a lot of intimate two-person tables and quiet ambiance that permitted the kind of heart-to-heart talking, even crying we were headed for. The staff were certainly attentive without being intrusive -- and permitted us our talk time while making sure the water glasses were filled the bread was replenished.

My friend needed a drink, and the rum punch was spot on. Full of tangy citrus flavors but not drowned in alcohol. Enough to relax her but not make her tipsy.

I have a fondness for small game birds -- quail, squab, pheasant. There was a quail "sausage" appetizer with spaetzle and sauerkraut puree. What was with those quotation marks? The "sausage" was not a sausage in the sense of ground-up trash meat and cartilage disguised with hot spices. Instead, it was all the good quail breast and leg meat nicely removed from the bones, rolled into a tube, and then sautéed. The result was a crisp, flavorful quail without any of the struggle of removing pieces from the tiny bones. Fantastic, with nice balance of the starchy spaetzle. Thankfully the sauerkraut puree was relatively bland, allowing the subtle quail tang to dominate the palate.

The challenge for any aspiring Manhattan restaurant is the entrees. Every place seems to have the same list: an organic roast chicken, some lamb dish, duck breast, a sirloin or tenderloin steak offering, and then the fish -- salmon and one other selection like rockfish, skate, tuna, swordfish. All the menus seem the same. The chefs can put the Swiss chard with one dish and the squash puree or wild mushrooms or spinach with another, but the basic entrees are ... the basic entrees.

This was true of Braeburn. The steak and duck were very nice, very competent, pleasingly displayed. The trumpet mushrooms and roasted onions accompanying the steak were delicious, as was the roasted squash with the duck. The dishes certainly solved my protein deficiency and left a nice, sated, but not stuffed feeling, but they didn't soar.

After talking philosophically about the inevitability of death and the privilege of having lived a full and fulfilling life; after having one or two crying spells about losing a father and the deepening dread of being alone without family left alive; after laughing about a few "memories with father," we came to dessert. A chocolate soufflé for two with a brandy sauce. Nicely served, with just enough brandy sauce poured in the middle to balance, but not drown out the chocolate. A chance to lovingly feed each other rich, dark but airy chocolate. A wonderful way to connect personally and end a soul searching meal.

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Ezekiel J. Emanuel is an oncologist, a bioethicist, and a vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author or editor of 10 books, including Brothers Emanuel and Reinventing American Health Care.

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