Let us Now Praise Obscure Pizza-Like Things


Early this summer, we were headed for a pizza crisis: New York City’s rampaging, ominously named Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was looking like it was going to retire beloved master Dom Demarco. Thankfully, that’s blown over, so we can go back to taking Dom for granted and think about other pizzas.

And at the moment, my favorite non-Dom pizza is not really a pizza at all, but rather its Alsatian cousin, legendarily a product of hungry bakers waiting for their just-stoked ovens to cool to where they could bake bread without incinerating it. They would stretch out pieces of their strong dough ridiculously thin, brush it with crème fraîche and fromage blanc, toss on some onion and cured lardons, and stick it in their inferno. Tarte flambée, as the French name suggests (flammenkueche in the German-inflected Alsatian dialect, flaming coochie in the New Jerseyan), is all about blistering heat—it’s what causes the edges to develop some crispness while the body stays chewy and tender, all the while taking the rawness off the onions and rendering out the pig pieces just until they glisten. When it’s good, every bite is a progression—crisp, chewy, tart, smoky, sweet, salty, creamy. You can see how this can become a thing of obsession.

Recently I trucked around New York looking for tartes flambées worthy of devotion. A primer, below.

Klee: So the chef here is Austrian, not Alsatian. Francophilic xenophobes beware, but aficionados take heart—an old chef of mine who trained extensively in Alsace says it was nearly as good as any as he’s had over there. The crust is doubled and rolled over at the edges to give it a lovely thin brown canopy over the generously chewy bottom layer. Onions, cut in slices, slip off the slice in bunches, giving certain bites a rush of sweetness. Purists might grumble that the lardons are actually smoked bacon, and the dairy is more crème fraîche than the tangier fromage blanc, but am I going to complain about bacon and crème fraîche? One night I had it with a drizzle of fruity olive oil on top, too, and it was awesome. So there. 200 9th Ave., at 22nd St., New York (212-633-8033; kleebrasserie.com)


DB Bistro Modern: The priciest of the bunch also happens to be the most rustic, or rustic-seeming, anyway, because what could be really rustic about a place that serves a hamburger tricked out with foie gras and truffles? But the flammenküche (the chef here is Alsatian) tastes to me like a superb bread baker’s snack. Shaped like a slipper bottom, the crust is uniformly thin and crisp, like a cracker with a carefully burnt rim. The dairy is tangy and seems more so because the onions are aromatic but not particularly sweet. They’re also cut into abjectly unrustic brunoise, an 1/8th of an inch cut no country cook would bother with, so there goes my theory. West 44th St., between 5th and 6th Ave., New York (212-391-2400; danielnyc.com)

August: This is a place that prides itself on its live-fire oven, so I expected some serious business. To be fair, the thing you get when you order a tarte flambée is a reasonably tasty food, but even a non-purist can see the identity crisis it causes. The crust is pizzalike in crumb and cornmealy. I swore I tasted garlic in the dairy, and the onions are of the caramelized sort and spread all over, making it juicy and saucy. I liked it, in the way that I liked the California Pizza Kitchen’s bbq chicken pizza the first time I had it, but I don’t know if that’s ok or not. 359 Bleecker St., at Charles St. (212-929-4774; augustny.com)

The Modern Bar Room: I should probably first admit that I am in love with this place in a serious way. If a man could marry a restaurant, I’d go up to The Modern’s pappy and tell him to get his gun, ‘cause I’m gonna steal his daughter and make myself his son. So that might make me seem biased, but part of the reason I’m so into the place was because of its tarte flambée to begin with, so everything’s legit. And this thing is awesome, mainly because I don’t get it. The crust is wafer thin with a barely upturned edge, crisp, chewy, but it also dissolves in a way I can’t understand, like the way refined pastries do, with a mellow sweetness and a blooming flavor. The dairy is unctuously rich, the onions and lardon in perfect balance, and suddenly the whole thing is gone. 11 W 53rd St., between 5th and 6th Ave. (212-333-1220; themodernnyc.com)

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