So you’ve written the requisite glossy cookbooks and appeared on all the popular cooking shows. Your name turns up (perhaps too frequently) on “Page Six.” You’ve opened restaurants in Vegas and L.A. and have franchise deals with hotel chains and cruise ships. What’s next for the superstar chef who has done it all? Let’s call it Food Hall Chic. Daniel Boulud opened a sausage canteen, DBGB, on the Bowery early this year, and David Chang’s new midtown restaurant, Má Pêche, has a decidedly communal dining-hall feel. Later this month, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich will launch Eataly, a giant, multistory, multi-restaurant food-court tribute to the cooking of their ancestral home. And earlier this summer, in the basement of the Plaza Hotel, perhaps the most brand-happy chef of all, Todd English, unveiled his own glittering food-themed space—a place designed, with its pastry and cheese stands, its multiple menus and dining bars, to mimic, at least in theory, the great food halls of London, Paris, and Tokyo.
Not that the Plaza Food Hall by Todd English has the pedigree, or the cathedral-size grandeur, of the Takashimaya food hall in Tokyo, say, or the famous Harrods hall in London. It’s located in the iconic hotel’s newly renovated concourse level, next to a row of perfume stands and a boutique selling giant, piña colada–colored garden hats. The room is cramped by food-hall standards, but the designer, Jeffrey Beers, does a deft job arranging the space so it retains a sense of flow. The floors are stippled with pearl-colored tiles, and the many dining bars (there are eight) are covered in polished white marble, like coffee bars in the waiting room of an elaborately appointed train station. The hostesses are fitted with earpieces to communicate from kitchen to kitchen, which means you can sample a piece of bluefin toro belly at the Sushi Bar while eating shrimp stir-fry from the Dumpling Bar or signature Todd English flatbread pizzas from the Pizza Bar or slabs of prime rib (with signature “Todd English Sauce”) from the Grill.
I sat at the Pizza Bar on my first visit, between a genial, rosy-cheeked Texan and a couple from London. A few chairs down, two gentlemen dressed in charcoal bespoke suits picked at a plate of half-eaten hamburger sliders, and next to them was a regal-looking woman wearing a head scarf (a princess from Dubai, we theorized), nibbling on a square of flatbread pizza. “I feel like I’m at the waiting lounge in the Frankfurt airport,” one of my guests said as we took delivery of our dinner, which included half a dozen fresh Pemaquids (from the Ocean Grill and Oyster Bar), some over-hard brandade fritters (from the Tapas Bar), two kinds of flatbread pizza (the best one piled with crumblings of smoky chicken sausage), and some braised-beef dumplings (from the Dumpling Bar), which had been steamed to oblivion in their little bamboo cage. The Londoners glanced sideways as the dishes kept piling up. “Do you always eat like this?” one of them finally said.
Todd English has a history of tailoring menus for transitory crowds in public spaces. Besides his cruise ventures (there’s an English restaurant aboard the Queen Mary 2), he has lent his name to a steakhouse at JFK. He knows that variety usually trumps quality in this kind of environment (not all the food at Harrods is fabulous, after all), and that’s true here, too. The Sushi Bar offers eight specialty maki rolls (avoid the green, herb-infused pesto maki), and the seven, mostly Mediterranean-themed salads have a bright, bountiful quality. The nine varieties of flatbread pizza are all fired to order in the roaring, wood-burning oven, and although the “American Kobe” beef in the $14 Food Hall Burger was cooked like Salisbury steak when I ordered it, the prime-rib sliders ($16 for three) are piled with ribbons of tender meat, dripped with a rich Fontina dressing, and served on fresh brioche buns.
If you plan on hunkering down for an extended meal in the basement of the Plaza, the place to do it is at the Ocean Grill and Oyster Bar. The three-sided bar occupies the center of the room and is lined with rows of oysters and assorted goggle-eyed sea creatures buried in drifts of crushed ice. Unlike the “char grilled” dishes at the Grill or the random assortment of pastas (gummy Amatriciana, signature Todd English ravioli stuffed with squash), the seafood is fresh and generally well prepared. Your $24 buys a whole, char-grilled branzino, and for a bit less you can get a pile of shrimp, fresh off the fire, which the kitchen marinates in the tangy, herb-based Moroccan sauce called chermoula. There’s a good selection of oysters that are $3 apiece, a bit above standard midtown rates, and you can wash them down with a respectable, if pricey, selection of white wines sold by the bottle or glass.
Does any of the cooking at the Plaza Food Hall retain the unique stamp of a great chef? Of course not. But these days, the term “great chef” is a more diffuse, salable quality than ever, and if you’re looking for a quick meal before booking a carriage ride through the Park or plunging into the scrum at the Fifth Avenue Apple store, you could do worse. Who knows? You might even catch a glimpse of the great chef himself, who materialized before me one evening in his black ninja garb to dust a knob of pizza dough with flour, before vanishing again. If you don’t actually see the frenetic chef in action, you can purchase signature Todd English tote bags, signature Todd English water bottles, and signature Todd English candy bars. And for dessert, I recommend the excellent red-velvet cupcakes from the Curly Cakes cupcake chain, an enterprise fronted, in the family tradition, by Mr. English’s 17-year-old pastry-chef daughter, Isabelle.