Maybe it's my own warped perspective, but trundling around town these days on my gastronomic rounds, I've detected a subtle shift in the culinary habits of New Yorkers. Since the events of September 11, my pixieish wife has developed a curious fondness for sandwiches made from Genoa salami and giant slabs of Gruyère cheese. A friend who lives six blocks from ground zero confesses he's been consuming food "like a bear hibernating for winter." After decades of overheated palates and bull-market extravagance, spare, elemental Greenmarket menus (like those you'll find at Craft) are in vogue; vaporous foams and jellies are out. Beef cheeks, lamb shanks, and cheese are the great new gourmet obsessions. Dim sum and stout bowls of porridge are the fashionable foods in Chinatown. Rustic is the word on every Italian-food snob's lips. And the most talked-about haute-cuisine dish of the season happens to be a hamburger, albeit one filled with truffles and foie gras. That's because comfort is at a premium in this new Age of Anxiety, and there's no greater comfort, these days in Fat City, than a good old-fashioned feed.
Where to Find Comfort
Nobody has divined the delicate new alchemy of excess better than Terrance Brennan, who has brought hundreds of his esoteric cheeses south from Picholine and is serving them up to the masses at Artisinal. His restaurant is really a brasserie, wine bar, and fromagerie in one, and it's easy to addle yourself with odd fondue combinations (like fontina with white-truffle essence) or stand zombielike for hours in the fluorescent cheese cave, communing with the glimmering wheels of Epoisse, Flixer, and Harbourne Blue. Thomas Valenti poses similar dilemmas for trenchermen of the old school at his elegant Upper Broadway restaurant, Ouest. Crowds of neighborhood gourmands line up like jumbo jets on a runway to scarf down artful hungry-man creations like bacon-wrapped, mushroom-stuffed capon (with a mound of peppery barley on the side, all doused in a toffee-colored foie gras jus), a truffled "omelette soufflée" dripped with creamy mousseline sauce, and smoked sturgeon salad decorated with whole platoons of lardons and poached eggs.
The scene at Ilo, off the lobby of the Bryant Park Hotel, appears posh by contrast, even high-minded. But after admiring the clean, vaulted décor, I found myself at the bar, devouring plates of gourmet pulled-pork sandwiches topped with frizzled onion rings, and little knishes flavored with truffle oil and melty lobes of Gruyère cheese. I then staggered to the dining room for a taste of the eccentric "tidal pool" containing uni, oysters, and a flotilla of exotic mushrooms, which I followed with crackling slabs of Rick Laakkonen's celebrated roast-duck special, rubbed with sea salt and Sichuan pepper and carved at the table. Such ceremony is mostly dispensed with at Daniel Boulud's hectic new DB Bistro Moderne, where the rooms are a little poky and the kitchen can take glacial lengths of time. But the food is generally worth the wait, and it's always fun to see formerly desiccated society matrons bravely gobbling down brawny dishes like stuffed pig's trotters, cassoulet, boeuf en gelée (served in a parfait glass with a skim coating of horseradish cream), and the noble $27 DB Burger, with its truffle-and-foie gras- laced short-rib interior, and silver stirrup cup of pommes soufflées on the side.
More Refined Pleasures
My friend the food aristocrat is a woman of fine-tuned, almost monkish tastes who favors quality over quantity, sautéed over fried, and the freshest summer vegetables over the richest hollandaise sauce any time. These days, she's dining at her usual dainty hangouts: Prune, for deviled eggs and the fresh-off-the-cob corn succotash; The Tasting Room, for the clam chowder; 71 Clinton Fresh Food, for the smoked green-pea ravioli; and Blue Hill, for the poached duck. Lately, I've also spotted her sneaking up to Town, in the basement of the Chambers Hotel, where Geoffrey Zakarian serves up fragrant bowls of chilled pea soup laced with crunchy bits of prosciutto; thrillingly (her word) tender venison carpaccio drizzled with juniper oil, with slivers of green apple; and a melting (my word) duck steak, nearly soft enough to cut with a fork. My helping of lunchtime lobster roast was exemplary in a lavish, creamy sort of way, as were the desserts, particularly the mildly tangy sourdough chocolate cake and the chilled mound of melty Café Brulout, accompanied by a little crowd of beignets filled with molten chocolate.
At Craft, even the most lumpen chowhound gets to comport himself like an effete food expert, at least for an hour or two. Tom Colicchio's original do-it-yourself conceit seems to have given way to a kind of upmarket, family-style free-for-all, which doesn't keep his waiters from rhapsodizing obtrusively about the bouquet of today's batch of shiitake mushrooms, say, or the lucent quality of the diver scallops, hoisted from the waters of Maine only hours before. My advice -- and the food aristocrat's, too -- is to order every mushroom you can (the hen-of-the-woods, in particular) or if you're feeling modest, the lunchtime Market Menu ($32 for three courses), with a glass of wine from the impressive house list. The belon oysters actually do taste like they were hauled from the ocean just hours before, and the loin chops of lamb have a pure, almost torolike freshness, and, at roughly $14 per chop, are priced almost as high.
Eight Reasons to Dine Near Ground Zero
In no particular order:
1. Most anything on the menu at Nam, which opened in October below the barricades on Reade Street. Try the diaphanous rice-paper bo dai rolls (filled with bits of shrimp, jícama, and tiny cubes of sweet Chinese sausage) and the steamed shrimp dumplings, wrapped in thin folds of banana leaf, like some exotic gift from the street kitchens of Hanoi.
2. The fried clams at The Harrison, newly opened on Greenwich Street, followed by the shell steak sprinkled with crisps of pancetta, and a quartet of warm chocolate beignets for dessert. It's as comforting a combination as you'll find right now in the city.
3. A taste of the signature strudel stuffed with oxtail marmalade, and then a serving of the noble schlutzkrapfen (cheese ravioli), part of the $21 special lunch menu in the glittering room at Danube -- dollar for dollar, in this era of fiscal restraint, still one of the most elegant dining experiences in all Manhattan.
4. A bowl of the homemade papardelle at Ecco, on Chambers Street, doused in orange casaligna sauce (made of tomatoes and ricotta cheese), preferably on a holiday evening, when the beautiful old mahogany-trimmed room is all aglow with Christmas lights.
5. The suckling pig at Pico, on Greenwich Street, which chef John Villa rubs inside with garlic and sea salt, spit roasts for four hours, brushes with citrus and honey, and serves in crispy round slices, like a savory jelly roll.
6. The paintings of clipper ships on the walls of the old India House at Bayard's, a perfect complement to Eberhard Müller's classic preparation of Dover sole, regally presented on a silver platter with brown butter and a squeeze of lemon.
7. The possibility of a full day's leisurely dining, beginning with breakfast among the steel workers at The Little Place on West Broadway (try the house chilaquiles). For lunch, omakase at the sushi bar at Nobu. Begin your dinner-ordering with the classic seafood-sausage appetizer at Chanterelle, and then head up the street for the beef duo entrée at Montrachet, with special attention paid to those braised beef cheeks. And, for dessert, a simple slice of cheesecake at Pepolino. Total cost: $132.50 exactly.
8. The hickory-smoked ribs, barbecued daily near the corner of Greenwich and Hudson Streets for the disaster-relief workers by the Reverend Gary Shelby, from DeSoto, Texas. After quiet pleadings, the reverend smuggled me a plate. The meat was infused with a porky sweetness and came undone from the bone when you tweaked it with your plastic fork. I didn't have to tell the Reverend that open barbeque pits are banned on the island of Manhattan. "Can't get meat like it anywhere in New York City," he crowed. "That's real barbecue, as soft as cake." Amen to that.
Tracking the Thrill Seekers
Hearty eaters, as a rule, do not always have the most adventurous palates. Maybe that's why it took me months to travel up to Atlas, where the mad Englishman Paul Liebrandt had been terrorizing diners with creations like parsley and licorice soup and slivers of eel oddly decked with chocolate sauce. When I arrived, however, our waiter murmured that Mr. Liebrandt had recently abandoned the kitchen. It turned out he'd fled downtown to the West Village bistro Papillon, where he showed up at my table the other evening displaying a large côte de boeuf chop, which was baking in a smoldering thatch of hay. That was after the licorice-steamed rouget fillets (decorated with a tar-colored but tasty chocolate tuile) and before a whiskey zabaglione dessert and a selection of petits fours consisting of "nori-o's" (chocolate fondant between squares of caramelized nori seaweed), among other items. These Harry Potterish concoctions are in their early stages, so the nori-o's tasted a little too experimental, while the côte de boeuf, carved in pink slices and flavored with a coffee and cardamom jus, was actually delicious.
The same is true of Marcus Samuelsson's notorious lobster roll at Aquavit. Wrapped in slivers of pear, with a drizzling of sevruga caviar, potato foam, and a shot of nose-clearing ginger-ale granité, it tastes naturally sweet, like some intricate seafood version of roll-up pastry. Samuelsson's crispy salmon -- wrapped in the thinnest pastry briqué and cut lengthwise, with a spoonful of Meyer-lemon zabaglione for dipping -- had a similar confectioner's quality, as did a subtle bowl of raw-Kobe-beef ravioli floating in a light truffle-and-tea-flavored broth. For dessert, try the white-chocolate fennel crème, made with ascending layers of apple sorbet and apple foam, white-chocolate crème, and a hard-candy cap of nougatine. A spoonful of sorbet melts magically to cream, which gives way to the sweet crunch of sugar candy. You're left, in the end, with the pleasing sensation of coolness and a vague, aromatic whiff of fennel seeds.