In the event of computer dementia, we may be eating chops seared on a wood-burning barbecue by candlelight for a while, tallying the check by ballpoint. But in these last euphoric moments of the century, it still seems as if nothing short of a stock-market seizure can sedate our town's feeding frenzy. Every week, another three or four contenders of respected provenance leap into the tussle, and a dozen more of dubious or uncharted DNA vie for attention. Hungry? Here's what's happening right now:
Where will I be eating in the next ten minutes?
Dedicated Magellans of the tempestuous restaurant scene have come ashore in the meatpacking district. There were a thousand pastel pashmini flapping in the breeze this summer as Fressen and Markt* claimed their abandoned warehouses. (I like Markt's plain-packing-box-brewery feel and the Belgian mussels-with-fries routine.) The swarm got so intense at Oriont, the place burst into flames and firemen ripped the roof off.
By the time Balthazar's Keith McNally had hung the last ravaged mirror in his clever, less expensive, no-dinner-reservations Pastis, hordes of angels and demons were converging, standing around like dill-pickle strips crammed in a jar, hoping for a table. Given the everyday New Yorker's incurable masochism, I don't predict a letup. If you're not a face or a boldfaced name, come with a Balthazar regular for onion soup as good as your junior year in Paris, splendid leg of lamb with flageolets, excellent fries, modest wines by the carafe, and tangy lemon-curd tart all by itself on a plate, not a coulis squiggle or a pomegranate seed in sight.
Isla, with its cool-blue Formica table- tops, Miami Beach tile, and white Naugahyde booths, is Tampa-born Diane Ghioto's sexily lit invocation of fifties Havana. That's her in the flowing prom dress. An instant rush of good-looking and savvy scenesters shout to be heard above the sweet strains of the Buena Vista Social Club. They share the ceviche sampler, the mussels deliciously perfumed with smoked tomato and garlic chips, seafood paellita, or a mammoth stuffed pork chop with sour-orange mojo.
Fighting the Queensboro Bridge traffic to get to Bridgemarket won't be pretty. But if, like me, you got a lift from his spiffy glam Quaglino's in London, come February you'll want to see how Terence Conran has wrestled the cavernous space under the bridge into a brasserie called Guastavino. If you're not Nan Kempner or Anne Eisenhower, or distinctly related by the ties that bind the displaced personae of Mortimer's, don't even try to get into Swifty's. Yes, the food is eminently edible and the snub and gruff has gone to its just reward, but there's not much room for parvenus like you and me once investors and regulars claim their tables in this pretty walk-in closet of a place. Relieved of the full brunt of its Mortimer's refugee rescue mission, La Goulue may at last have banquettes to spare. Gossip and people-watch over a spirited salade folle or the goat-cheese-and-tomato napoleon and other New World bistro fare.
What's new and hot and worth the hassle?
Lupa, down-home Rome in the Village, is my favorite autumn launch and not just for Mario Batali's celebration of odd animal parts and Italian delicatessen, or for partner Joe Bastianich's bid to bring depth and finesse to a casual Village joint's wine service. I like the mood, the food, and the gentle prices . . . but so do legions of tuned-in New Yorkers. Already it's almost as tough a sanctum to crack as its pricier sibling Babbo.
Crazed, obsessed, monomaniacal, a pain in the ass and proud of it, David Bouley could have sabotaged his high-wire cuisinary act with the Mitteleuropa mania of his new Danube. But his outrageous, highly lacquered, velvet-swathed, Klimt-deckled little dining room is beautiful, fun, funny, and romantic. And the bone-marrow dumplings, the Tyrolean wine soup, the braised beef cheeks, and even the Wiener schnitzel (as transmorphed by Bouley) manage to be Austro-Hungarian but not too.
If he has not yet been lionized as a landmark himself, Warner LeRoy certainly deserves a Landmarks Preservation Commission crown for polishing up the fanciful red and green frippery of the Russian Tea Room with so little trauma. Whether you love or hate the second-floor annex with trout swimming inside an acrylic bear, you can't fault the borscht -- it's wonderful, a meal all by itself. The kitchen is treacherously uneven, but the short ribs, the halibut, the savory minced-veal-and-chicken pozharsky, and the equally luscious lyulya kebab (minced lamb) with saffron macaroni are surprisingly tasty.
Those of us who take the life of our stomachs most seriously were instantly seduced by the sensory shock and sustained pleasure of chef Laurent Tourondel's seafood at Cello last spring. Serene and almost somber, with unusual tableware and haute French service, Cello cost $6 million to open and took just weeks to become near-impossible to book.
What makes a restaurant great?
A skilled and driven chef, a design that wears well, a drilled staff, the owner's presence and relentless perfectionism. Maybe even a megalomaniacal sense of destiny. That's what makes Le Bernardin the model for ambitious copycats. When Gilbert Le Coze died in 1994, his sister Maguy could have frozen the place in homage. Instead, she warmed up the room, threw out the old menus, and gave chef Eric Ripert license to express himself in an exuberant style, so unlike Gilbert's celebrated minimalism. And she's still fussing, adding wooden trellises at the windows, putting up a glass-and-steel marquis outside. This is classic French service at its best, welcoming but proper. Two weeks ago, Ripert astonished us with minced geoduck clam marinated with wasabi and soy-ginger dressing, luscious seared-on-one-side yellowfin tuna paillard with confited tomatoes and bits of olive, and aïoli crab cake in a bouillabaisse that was like a ticket to the Côte d'Azur. Caviar, a side of the house's mythic garlic fries, the $60 Buzet (cheap on this pricey wine list), and a shot of prunelle white lightning brought the bill for four to $500. Less than a Judith Leiber handbag. (But then, I bought mine at the sample sale.)
The same passion for perfection, a sense of discipline in a more dressed-down style of service, and an obsessive driving animator in the kitchen has boosted Gotham Bar and Grill to greatness. It is as American as Le Bernardin is French. Gotham's distinct personality is all the more remarkable because there is no ever-present patron recognizing friends of the house, chatting up the locals, making nice when disaster strikes. A succession of managers have shared that role over the years, some with less charm than others. Now Le Bernardin-bred Richard Hollocou brings a depth of Old World manner and tradition to that role. Why has Gotham not gone for the gold in Las Vegas or London? Perhaps because even after fifteen years, chef Alfred Portale, a major partner here, remains enmeshed in every detail. He broods over each nuance of the wait staff's choreography. He thinks the music softens the clamor. (Oh, if only it did.) He personally selected each photograph hung in the latest freshening-up. There are no revolutions on this menu. He isn't a little bit Japanese one day and Moroccan the next. But the quality of the product could not be better. Each dish is a still-life, oak-leaf-lettuce plumes flying, flavors distinct, textures that stun.