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Fondue joins forces with salad in Jimmy Bradley's inventive melding of two classics. (Food stylist: Ari Crisp. Props: The Prop Company, Maxine Kaplan Associates.)

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FOOD

Special Delivery

By SAM SIFTON

Published: November 30, 2003

Over on the far West Side of Manhattan, down where the cabs sleep and art geeks wander, there is a restaurant called the Red Cat, which a fellow named Jimmy Bradley opened in 1999. It is a laconic, successful and welcoming place, popular far beyond the confines of its immediate neighborhood.

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The Red Cat doesn't serve lunch, nor does it have a back door. Every morning deliveries arrive up front and are trucked in through the dining room.

Here now in the entry is a delivery man with a large paper package. He's looking for a boss.

''Who ordered the deer?'' the man asks.

Bradley, who was the Red Cat's first chef and still oversees its menu, sits at the bar, signing checks. He has an affect somewhere between that of a rock drummer and a handicapper of racehorses. There is no venison on his dance card for tonight. He looks at the man for a minute, his expression moving from flat to suspicious to resigned, then walks into the restaurant's kitchen.

''Who ordered the deer?'' he asks.

There is no answer.

But there is still the deer, and to Bradley's eyes it looks pretty good, worth buying even if he hadn't thought to do so before it arrived.

And thus a special is born. Specials, actually. Parts of the animal will be offered for sale in the Red Cat that very night, then again the night after and probably the night after that -- the first night's loin chops leading to tomorrow's saddle leading to marinated off-cuts, burgers, stew. Each preparation will take its place in the liturgy of the restaurant meal, to be recited between the drinks order and the arrival of the wine list, something for the waiters to talk about, something to sell.

''We've got a lot of loyal, repeat customers and pretty short menus,'' Bradley said the other day, talking about the deer and about specials in general. ''I want to give those people new things to eat, keep them interested. Specials are good for that.''

They are, and for so much more. Spend any time at all inside a New York restaurant kitchen and you'll see where innovation really finds its muse. It's right there at the intersection of practicality and joy, sitting in the walk-in cooler: specials. That is to say, food that just showed up, food that didn't sell last night, food that needs to be, as the bureaucrats say, re-purposed.

It's important to remember that specials have practical value in the restaurant game. In fact, before seasonality became a restaurant watchword, before greenmarkets were viable sources for local ingredients, before men started showing up in city dining rooms with freshly harvested venison or line-caught striped bass, specials had very little to do with showcasing ingredients or a chef's high-wire cooking skills. Instead, specials were built out of things about to spoil and spoke to the grisly inventiveness of a hungover cook wearing chili-pepper chef pants throwing together a special of -- what is this stuff, anyway, veal? Thursday's tuna? Say, warm tuna salad with veal sauce, a kind of reverse vittelo tonnato? Something, at any rate, that will move plates.

These days, of course, no one talks like that. These days, bright-eyed waiters recite lists of specials designed to showcase only the most fleeting of menu items (Bay scallops! Truffles! Ramps!) and exciting new preparations -- the best, most inventive things a chef can do with the rarest and freshest ingredients available.

But the old ways live on, and Bradley is a pragmatist about the gaping divide between the perception of specials and their reality. He understands how things work.

On the one hand, he sometimes arranges his fish deliveries to come at night, when customers are in the dining room, and takes possession of the glistening fish right there in front of them. ''It excites people,'' he told me. Parade a huge, fresh tuna through the dining room on a Wednesday night ''and you'll sell a lot of it. Not just the tuna, but all your fish dishes. People say, 'When these guys say fresh fish, I guess they really mean it.'''

But Bradley is realistic too. Some things sell well, and some do not, and wise as you may be as a chef or restaurateur, you cannot always predict which will do which. And when a dish does not sell -- when you have an 80-pound wheel of Gruyere left over from a failed fondue experiment, say, or when you've bought 20 pounds of field mushrooms off a forager and sold only 5 in three days, you've got to pull out some jams. Just like your man in the chili-pepper chef's pants, you have to move product.

Two years after he opened the Red Cat, Bradley opened the Harrison in TriBeCa with his business partner, Danny Abrams, and this spring they opened the Mermaid Inn in the East Village -- a trio of stylish restaurants in a little more than as many years. But Bradley maintains the knock-around spirit of someone who has worked plenty of scruffy kitchen lines. He was a New England slipstreamer who cooked on Martha's Vineyard for years, who ski-bummed in and out of kitchens in Colorado, who got himself well and truly fluent in leftovers. He says: ''It's a special, right? So by definition it ought to be special. But if it's not, really, then it ought to be cool, and either way it ought to be exciting.''

Take the salad below. ''I'm a big proponent of what you might call stoner food,'' Bradley said when he gave me the recipe, which did, in fact, arise out of an aborted attempt to bring fondue to the bar at the Red Cat. ''I think there should always be something on the menu at my restaurants, where someone can come in and see it and say, 'Yeah, man, I want some of that right now, and then we'll figure out the rest of the meal.'''

Yeah, well, a pool of warm Gru-yere, topped with batons of bacon, wedges of potato, a bitter salad of greens, the cold against the warm, the salty against the faintly sweet and acidic? Pretty special by any account, and as good as it might be in a bar, I think it's a perfect fall weekend lunch, especially paired with a slightly chilled Fleurie and an afternoon appointment on the couch in front of the Giants game on TV.

Likewise the risotto recipe, a variation on a dish Bradley's grandmother made when he was a kid, shuttling between parents in Rhode Island and Philadelphia. Bradley hauled it out one day when he had mushrooms to spare; it started as a special and was until recently served on the menu at the Red Cat, beneath a sweet-and-sour glazed quail.

You don't need the quail. As is true in so much of Bradley's cooking, there is a genuine interplay of flavors and textures at work in the dish. Above the foundation of broth-enriched rice, the sweet of the raisins rides calmly into the bite of the radicchio. Meanwhile, the soft, salty whoosh of the cheese rises up over the loamy richness of the mushrooms like steam over a marsh. The sausage seems an elegant afterthought, fennel-studded excess to help blunt autumn's chill.

It's a special, all right. Superb.

Jimmy Bradley's Salad With Gruyere
4 Yukon Gold potatoes, about 5 ounces each, peeled and quartered lengthwise
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
10 ounces bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 cup white wine
1 cup heavy cream, or more if needed
2 cups shredded Gruyere cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 head Belgian endive, leaves separated
4 to 6 cups cleaned, torn arugula or dandelion greens

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place potatoes in a shallow foil-lined roasting pan; drizzle with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil and toss to coat. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and toss. Bake 40 minutes, until tender and crisped, stirring after 20 minutes. Loosely cover with foil; keep warm in low oven.

2. Meanwhile, fry bacon until crisp. Drain on paper towels.

3. Melt butter over medium heat. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes until the mixture is golden. Reserve.

4. Combine shallots and wine in a nonreactive saucepan; boil until reduced to 1/3 cup. Reduce heat to medium. Stir in the flour and heavy cream, simmer and stir in cheese, a little at a time, until melted and mixture is smooth. Taste; season with pepper. If necessary, thin with more cream. Keep warm.

5. Combine remaining oil, the vinegar and mustard in a large bowl. Whisk until blended. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Add warm potatoes, bacon, endive and arugula or dandelion greens; toss to coat.

6. Ladle fondue into a large bowl and place the salad atop or serve in individual shallow bowls.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Sausage and Mushroom Risotto With Raisins
1/3 cup golden raisins
6 ounces sweet or hot Italian sausage (about 1 1/2 links), casings removed
2 small cloves garlic, finely minced
3 ounces (1 cup) cremini mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and quartered
4 1/2 cups lightly salted chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons finely minced onion
2 tablespoons finely minced celery
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1 small head radicchio (8 ounces), shredded (4 cups)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (no stems), finely chopped

1. Place raisins in a bowl; cover with hot water. Set aside to plump.

2. Combine sausage and garlic in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook 5 minutes, breaking up sausage, until meat begins to brown. Reduce heat and add mushrooms. Cover and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms start to exude liquid.

3. Simmer broth in a saucepan.

4. Melt butter in oil in an enamel-lined cast-iron casserole over medium heat. Add onion, celery, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; saute 5 minutes, until vegetables are translucent. Add rice and cook, stirring, 1 to 2 minutes, until edges of rice are translucent and coated with pan juices. Add wine and simmer 3 minutes, stirring continuously, until wine has almost evaporated. Add 1/2 cup hot broth; stir over medium-low heat until rice mixture is moist, not runny. Repeat, adding 1/2 cup hot broth at a time, until rice is al dente and mixture is creamy (about 20 minutes; adjust heat to keep rice cooking gently and add more hot broth or water if needed).

5. Drain raisins and add to rice. Add sausage mixture, radicchio, Parmesan and thyme and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

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