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tomatoness: a dinner by Meredith Kurtzman

On an balmy late September Thursday, unseasonable moisture threatened the Greenpoint air, but the mood inside Archestratus Books was calmly electrifying, toasted with delicate anticipation. The occasion was not a reading of the latest from local Literati or vanity tour for celeb-whoever 2.0 (though it's fun to guess what sort of not-quite celeb attraction the neighborhood might yield-- a former oughts-era noise band member turned yogi?) It was, if you can believe it, a four-course dinner by a virtually unknown chef, the incomparable Meredith Kurtzman, this city's greatest gelato maker.

It sounded like occasion so rare I guarded my inbox with this news like an important employee, the important kind important enough to receive important emails, wrapping the announcement up in my possessive arms. Later I learned such a momentous event had been graced upon the public once before (about a year ago, brunch). Kurtzman's obscurely noted praise requires a little more than a deep dig into restaurant culture, necessitating insider knowledge. She's unplaceable by Level 300 Foodies because, as the Eater article (perhaps the sole profile-type write-up?) explains, the feisty chef entered the galley at mid-age and toiled, typically, as pastry chef, behind the curtain of toxic chefboy names like Batalli & Bastianich. The “evil empire,” she called it. The latter of the duo publicized in his memoir his dislike for his employee, neatly sketching with broad strokes of his subjectivity the portrait of a crotchety woman, low on personal skills, but adept with sugared milk. His descriptions note an unfriendliness, though not difficulty, but prove nonetheless that always in orbit is this notion that a woman remain presentable and pleasant, and proof that when she fails to comply in the slightest is ostracized in the most...

That night, Kurtzman did don a look of weariness, in keeping with her history of culinary travails, hardly abiding more than three years at a place. Her determined movements showed signs of age perhaps, as is inevitable for us all, but also the sage exactitude of a pro. The meal she prepared was divine and rustic, at once a demonstration of a thoughtful cook. I only hope Kurtzman finds a venue suitable to her needs, should she want, and the the recognition she deserves.

The setting: Dinner was served at long tables in the center of the store, book shelves pushed aside, rather than in the proper cafe area, inviting a communal mood. I went alone, equipped with an impulsively purchased cook book in addition to my own battery of personal reading, but not caring too much because the occasion's specialness out-won my social anxiety. 

The crowd: A younger woman armed with a tome and baggy denim jacket evoking the attempted bluster of someone from Full House wearing their big sis's hand-me downs; a mature female couple, tres new york, one half outfitted with smart suit and the other with spectacles, both with the breezy poise of people who've figured it out. Their public nattering, and a gender-identifying misstep sent the Diffident 90s Portrayer and her friend in search of another spot at the table, proving a visibly awkward maneuver as there were but twenty seats in total, maybe. They were replaced by architect from Lebanon, and her partner, a voice-actor, who both proved amiable conversationalists and tablemates for the remainder of the evening. 

Dinner was tomato-centric, a celebration of the plump fruit’s closing tenure as greenmarket babe. Forgive the ghastly photos. (Requisitory dim lighting and convivial atmosphere.) Trying to get photos was like taking photos at your friend's house: no condescension, just, what's the point?

Chickpeas dusted with magical maroon paste. Notes of spice, harissa, Some robust variety of tomato? I was thankful for the generous heaping, plated on plastic samples of Kurtzman’s own design. Mini tomatoes comfortingly embellished some of the dinnerware. Psychedelic but homey, like a hippie in the country-kitchen. The crackly garbanzo came accompanied by an unphotographed gazpacho shot, perfunctory. But, in tandem, they played like a little joke: crafted libation--silky, smooth, the excellence of which is always unnoticed until errored; and savory bar snack. Clever.

An open faced fried green tomato sandwich with a toasty polenta base. Might this be the best use of the humble gritted corn? The ribbon of mortadella added a streak of saltiness and the herby mayo a perky greenness, like a blade of grass.

Fregola with calamari and clams, braised fennel in a roasted tomato broth. Goes well with a glass of nero d’avola, deeply plumy Sicilian red I giddily ordered while pretending to know about wine after a week in italy.

The meal was crowned with what else but coppetta, a gelato sundae. Its milkiness, subtly flavored with corn, combined with cornnut brittle, reminds delightfully of Corn Pops cereal. Plums in tomato caramel await at the bottom. Dessert for breakfast.

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