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Where to Eat in 1999

From fabulous French to Asian fusion, from brand-name bistros to secret passions.

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Could I ever be jaded? Impossible. Not in a town where chefs create fusion in a teacup at the drop of a yuzu. And untold exotic cuisines still lurk in the wings, waiting to be deconstructed. I always said I would pay the magazine if it didn't pay me to eat my way across town. I dreamed up this annual feature as an excuse to revisit my favorites. So when friends call for hot tips, here's what I tell them.

Of all that's new this year, where would you go back in a flash?

I remember the Staten Island ferry floating in dazzling noontime sunshine from our table at American Park. But it's just as magical at night with Ms. Liberty illuminated and flavorful food handsomely mounted. Zesty cooking, the Middle Eastern touches, and the warm good looks and well-spaced tables would bring me back to Scarabée. I'm not sure I can handle the gamble of its no- reservation policy, but I'll be back to try my luck at the sushi bar of Next Door Nobu, a harmony of handsome texture and quiet detail from the often raucous Rockwell Group. La Fourchette, with Marc Murphy at the stove, trots out white-tablecloth ambition and refinement in a neighborhood that needs it. I'm embarrassed to confess I actually relished most of the outrageously ridiculous fusions at Cena -- rococo edibles in a sternly minimalist setting. A friend's parody of the menu, "wild greens hand-gathered by Druids in the moors bordering Loch Macawber with a persimmon-oil- lavender vinaigrette," in no way detracts from the real prose: fried squid on a salad of Chinese long beans, cipollini onions with mint and pineapple sauce. Good grief.

Got something against Babbo?

Babbo confounds me. Serious gourmands line up to eat at the bar, but I've been blissed and miffed in the same meal twice. The crew is still not quite trained. Maybe I started out cranky when my chickpeas -- admittedly delicious -- went flying off their crostini and the waiter observed: "It happens to everyone." So fix the damned chickpeas. Mash them a little so they stick, for Heaven's sake. And how can the beef-cheek ravioli that usually has me swooning suddenly become so gummy? But there are triumphs for every flub. The linguine and clams glow with pepper fire. The calamari "Sicilian-lifeguard-style" is sheer macho. And I'm wild for pasta al ceppo with black cabbage, toasted garlic, and bread crumbs -- even though all my tablemates insist al dente still means cooked through. Outside on the sidewalk, my guests muttered, "The emperor is naked." But there's not enough evidence yet for me to impeach.

I'm in a seafood mood.

The Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center has mellowed into a landmark without a hint of stodge. Sitting at the window as skaters soar toward us, I try not to eat too much creamy chowder, saving myself for Thai mussels, exquisite tuna, and the demanding chocolate cake. Lunch at Oceana is a series of flavor compositions: salmon tartare wrapped in smoked salmon with pea shoots and Osetra. Lobster ravioli in a tomato-basil broth with real acid oomph. And Chilean sea bass in a barely jelled chunk (as requested) with vegetable julienne and a yuzu kick. Aquagrill's winning ways with sea creatures makes it worth a costly detour for me. I've had char that was a miracle of perfection at Estiatorio Milos and been satisfied with crab cakes and swordfish the way I like it (rare) at Ocean Grill.

I've never experienced less than an epiphany on any of my recent extravagant dalliances at Le Bernardin. Of course, we were known and my guest is a regular. "Dazzle us," he said. From the complex salmon rillettes and perfect oysters, chef Eric Ripert's missives kept interrupting the conversation. Tuna tartare layered on endive with dots of a haunting sauce ravigote. Baby-clam seviche with jalapeño (the French captain pronounced the j). A timbale of langouste in fragile bits on a puddle of buttery champagne-chive broth. Possibly the best shrimp dumpling a wonton ever wrapped. One of those diver-harvested sea scallops atop celery-root purée with carrot-chili oil. And on and on and on into the afternoon, tiny tastes, different for each of us, through something demonic that should be called "triple-threat ganache" and pineapple crumble. ("We are become so American," cries Maguy LeCoze.) Then chocolates so tiny I have to eat three.


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