Birthday a la Solitude

When you tell people that you’re celebrating your birthday by dining solo, the reaction ranges from “That’s so sad!” to “That’s so awesome!” Many thought there was a good chance I’d end the evening either in my bathtub with my wrists slit or sitting at home with a smile on my face. Because I have an aversion to the sight of my own blood, I opted for the latter.

While my birthday fell on a Wednesday, it was only appropriate to celebrate the night before on Fat Tuesday. After Ryan and Sarah treated me to an excellent dinner at Vynl that included a deliciously rich Black Truffle Mac ‘n Cheese special (apparently, this recipe was the winner on Top Chef Season One), a gaggle of my closest friends gathered for a great Nola-style throwdown at Sullivan Hall featuring The Funky Fritters and Bill Malchow & The Go-Cup All-Stars (with a 4 piece horn section and backup singers!) playing the classic album, Dr. John’s Gumbo. I had a blast and got down and funked it up with my good buddy John Jameson by my side. Amazingly, I avoided drinking too much (a first) and woke up in my bed instead of on the living room floor under the coffee table (yet another first).

I decided that Wednesday’s celebration would be a little more subdued. Upon reading that some of the best cassoulet in the city is served at Jarnac, I had found my target. I wanted to go by myself because I find that the rare, solo dinner is the best way to appreciate what you’re eating. The distractions, needs, and complications of others are removed, and all that remains are you and your delectable meal. Dining solo gives you all the time in the world to slowly savor and focus on every bite of your food. (If you think this is a pretentious load of bullshit, piss off! It’s my party, and I’ll cry in my food if I want to!)

Jarnac is in a quaint little room in the West Village, just below the obnoxious Meat-Packing District. As soon as I entered, I was greeted warmly by the jovial staff, especially the fun-loving owner, Tony. Including the owner, a team of four people waited on the tables and tended bar interchangeably, everyone constantly shifting responsibilities and no one claiming specific tables as their own territory. I’m sure this cannot be the only restaurant that approaches service in this logical yet casual way, but this was the first time I’d experienced it. Everyone was so warm and friendly that I really felt at home the entire time.

Initially, I thought I’d be good and forgo the alcohol for a nice, restrained meal. It wasn’t long before I realized that this was a dumb idea because the words “restrained” and “Brian Ferdman” do not belong in the same sentence. Upon considering that all three of my readers seem to be disappointed when I write about anything that isn’t completely gluttonous, I decided to throw caution to the wind because you only turn 33 once. I started with a French 75, a cocktail that I first became a fan of in New Orleans. Jarnac’s version mixed the standard cognac and champagne, but there was more than the normal amount of citrus in it. Normally, a French 75 tends to be a sweeter drink, but this creation was quite tart and a refreshing way to begin the meal.

I made a nice choice with the Roasted Bosc Pear, Red and Gold Beets with Forme d’Ambert Dressing. This was a well-composed dish, as the flavors seemed to reveal themselves in shades of one another. First you had the sweetness of what I believe were candied pecans. Then things scaled back a tad with the sweet roasted pear, which was followed by the mellower sweetness of the red beets and the semi-sweet but slightly savory gold beets. Put all of this on some peppery arugula with a little chive, lightly toss on some mild cheese dressing, and you got yourself a winner.

For the main course, I went with the much-vaunted Cassoulet along with a side of Carmelized Baby Brussel Sprouts and a glass of Côte du Rhone. This cassoulet was a dynamite concoction, and there’s a reason why it takes the chef three days to prepare it. Duck confit, pork cheeks, and some truly stellar, savory pork sausage all sat in a bubbling hot dish with plenty of white beans, tomato, herbs, and garlic. It was a mouthwateringly brilliant combination and certainly the best cassoulet I’ve ever eaten.

The baby Brussel sprouts provided a nice bitter contrast. The carmelization was essential to their flavor, although I have to admit that I found their texture to be a little mushy. I’m not sure if this lack of density can be attributed to their young age and small size or the fact that they might not have been parboiled and shocked prior to sautéing.

Cassoulet demolished. (Inexplicably, my boss always says that it’s impolite to finish all of the food on your plate. She says you should always leave something, so I felt generous and left a bone.)

Upon finishing all of that food, I was more than full, but a waitress was really twisting my arm to order dessert. Finally, I chose something that seemed small and wouldn’t put me to sleep—Vanilla Gelato with a Shot of Espresso. The waiters delivered the dish with their back to the table, waiting until the last second to reveal the candle nestled in a small cookie on the plate. The dessert was another winning combo, as the waitress poured the espresso on top of the gelato to create the coffee equivalent of a root beer float. It was a great finale and was further enhanced by some complimentary champagne. This champagne had a sweeter, peach flavor and was made with Semillon grapes. I believe it was called Clos du Somethingfrench. As soon as I’d finished my glass, Tony immediately filled it up again, and had I not insisted on the check, I’d probably be still be there, on my 17th glass and thinking about sleeping on the floor.

Much has been made about New York restaurants rolling out the red carpet in an attempt to persuade guests to come back again soon. I don’t know if that’s what was happening at Jarnac, but I really don’t care. French restaurants aren’t typically lighthearted, fun places to eat, but this staff seemed to be having a great time, which naturally rubbed off on the customers. The synthesis of well-crafted food and friendly service certainly made for a fantastic birthday meal and effectively ensured I will return to Jarnac in the near future.

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