New York's entrepreneurial marathon to maximize, market, brand, expand, and reinvent the bistro, café, canteen, tapas stand, and chop house is torrential. So many openings; so many threatened launches to come. In retrospect, the restaurant madness of the eighties seems almost tame. Not even a certified obsessed foodie, powered by an internal clock that says "time to eat" three times a day, can keep up. Escoffier and my trainer know how I've tried. So here it is: mad-cow stampede, saucier's apprentices run amok, lamb's-tongue vinaigrette, wasabi sorbet, foie gras-stuffed chicken wings. And yes, peanut-butter-bacon-and-banana means Elvis is in the house.
I'm dizzy from the splash of so many new places. What do you love?
I can't wait to go back to Brasserie 8 1/2, where the floating stairway brings out the Lorelei Lee in me. I like seeing Léger and Matisse looming above my seared tuna, and am totally beguiled by how luscious bistro classics can be in chef Julian Alonzo's skilled hands. And now there's a new noon-to-midnight menu in the lounge, so I can drop by anytime on a whim for Alonzo's lobster club sandwich or a croque monsieur, or thaw out with a glass of Burgundy and his steaming cassoulet.
We've never really spoken, but I know from the delicious excess at First, his downtown stand, that chef Sam DeMarco is a soul mate. The lunch lineup at District in the new Muse hotel proves it: lollipop buffalo wings paired with mini-burgers. Potato pierogi and a brisket sandwich. Five-dollar desserts. Nostalgia for the matinee busloads. Dinner is less playful but just as appealing in a quietly witty set by David Rockwell. There's a luscious roast pork loin accessorized with foie gras-stuffed prunes. A paragon of a sirloin (is it the salt rub?) with bone-marrow pierogi. And old-fashioned cheesecake with huckleberry compote. There's also a three-course pretheater prix fixe for $32. Another gift for theater hounds and businessmen at a loss for a grown-up lunch in mid-midtown is Triomphe in the Iroquois hotel. Chef Steven Zobel exercises genuine authority with such bistro classics as rabbit à la coq au vin and roasted chicken with lardons and artichokes.
What about the newly hatched talent?
True, it was late last year that I scouted the wunderkind Wylie Dufresne at 71 Clinton Fresh Food on a not-yet-gentrified stretch of the Lower East Side. Much to my amazement, Jean-Georges's protégé has so far resisted all temptation to leave his bush-league perch. He continues to wow even the most demanding gourmands who win the lottery for his few tiny tables. Patricia Yeo's delicious fusion daring in the urban rain forest that is AZ is this year's triumph. Six months into the jungle, she seems even stronger and surer (though the room cries out for a lighting adjustment). Miso-glazed Chilean sea bass, the Sichuan-pepper salt-cured foie gras, marvelously fatty short ribs with taro gnocchi, and the seared tuna with braised oxtails in a port reduction are all major pleasures. And if you can resist the hot-fudge sundae (I'm not sure you should), lemon and tangerine ices with citrus-vodka-soaked fruits have just the pungency you want to cool your palate.
I hear you call yourself the Junk-food Queen. Where do you get your fix?
An allusion to my weakness for Jujyfruits, Drake's crumb cake, and chocolate bridge mix. If you're not a peanut-butter freak, you don't need to know that I practically had to be dragged from Peanut Butter & Co. to be kept from gobbling a second half of the Elvis -- a grilled peanut-butter sandwich with banana, honey, and bacon. I ordered it on whole wheat, even though I know Elvis would've preferred white. It comes garnished with potato chips and carrot sticks. (Just like Mom, sneaking in those carrot sticks.) They'll even cut off the crusts for you.
F&B in Chelsea is clearly the Tiffany of fast food. (Is that the subliminal message of those robin's-egg-blue walls?) I have friends who start and end the day here at one of the bleached-wood counters, dipping beignets (plump doughnut pillows), three to a $1.50 order, in a choice of sauces -- caramel, chocolate, mango. I'll take the apple fritters (no sugary dip needed) with cider. Or a split of champagne served in the bottle with a blue straw. Hot dogs come in a dozen guises, plus vegetarian. I like the Great Dane for its rémoulade and onion crisps on marinated cucumber, and the savory Sheep Dog (ratatouille and crumbled feta on lamb sausage). But it's worth a stop for the superlative fries alone.
I can't find my way around Chinatown. Help!
Now that Chinatown extends to Flushing and has almost gobbled up Little Italy, I get lost, too. And I hate when joints I loved get sloppy and rude. Happily, raves have not corrupted Chuen Ping Hui in his new post at Ping's Seafood on Mott Street. Most nights, he's stir-frying exotica in one wok and crisping bits of garlic and shallots to shower on fried calamari or sweet Dungeness crab in another. If it's a choice between steamed oysters as big as linebackers or scallops in the shell drizzled with his pungent XO sauce, I must have both. And itsy silverfish tossed with dried squid, flowering chive, Chinese celery, and jícama slivers is a must. My Chinatown guru loves the pricey sautéed lobster on soft emu noodles (though I find it overcooked). Even vegetarian fried rice has the signature of the movie-star-handsome master I first discovered wowing local honchos with his banquet flash at Triple Eight Palace.
I've stumbled on remarkably rewarding dishes by throwing a dart at Funky Broome's ambitious menu. And I like the agreeable attitude in this stark white storefront, zapped with chartreuse and lavender neon; I even like the fake flowers with fake dewdrops. I'd go back for the razor clams in black-bean sauce, the chopped chinese sausages with preserved vegetables, the Thai-style clam pot, and the marvelous wok-fried pork-stuffed lotus roots with noodles. Avoid hideous dumplings and spare ribs -- they're funky in the wrong way.
Call me shallow . . . I just want to be where it's happening.
I'm not sure what you mean by it, but if you want to rub buns with the coven from the late Mortimer's, you'd better trick Mario Buatta or Nan Kempner into taking you to Swifty's. The kitchen's pretty perky and everyone is welcome -- yes, Phyllis, even you. Alas, there is rarely a vacant table. Orsay blooms defiantly and aggressively a few blocks uptown, having emerged from the rubble that was Mortimer's itself with a definitive style statement. It seems to draw a mix of Upper East Siders feeding their decorators at lunch and their in-laws at dinner, wistful parvenus looking for a Bass or a Blass, and assorted flotsam who haven't a clue and wouldn't give a fig if they did. Nothing I tasted either thrilled or offended me -- I couldn't quite believe charlotte of marinated herring or lamb chops on Caesar salad, but what the hell. I like lamb chops and I like Caesar. It's a shortcut.