Vegas on the Hudson
Who says size doesn’t matter? As the meatpacking district continues to morph into some bizarre culinary version of the Vegas Strip, restaurants have gotten ever bigger, glitzier, and more outrageously glamorous. But before Buddakan came along, it was hard to imagine anything quite so monstrously vast, or weirdly entertaining, as Stephen Starr’s behemoth new dining palace. With the help of designer Christian Liaigre, Starr has transformed a former Nabisco cookie factory into a giant faux–Mandarin mansion. It’s close to impossible to navigate the labyrinth of rooms without the help of one of the cheerful, Sherpa-like wait staff, but if you manage to survive the long trek to your table, you’ll find the menu is stocked with inventive, nontraditional Asian delicacies like lightly crunchy, toro-tartare spring rolls, and minced pork “Taro Puff Lollipops,” plus several traditional ones (sticky, melting spareribs and crackly skinned tea-smoked chicken), which might cause a minor stampede if they were ever served in the poky little restaurants in Chinatown.
To appreciate the full impact of Starr’s carefully orchestrated invasion of restaurant Manhattan, walk around the corner to Morimoto, where the renowned Food Network Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto presides behind the glittering sushi bar in his flowing robes and samurai ponytail. The Stygian downstairs bar space resembles any other meatpacking-district hellhole, but the combination of glass partitions upstairs and the wavy, whitewashed walls exude a peaceful, Zen-like calm. The best dish on the occasionally erratic menu is Morimoto’s inspired homage to Peking duck, comprising a crunchy duck leg, a duck egg, and a sliced duck breast sandwiched not with scallion pancakes but in a foie gras–infused croissant. The real specialty, however, is the Iron Chef’s omakase tasting menu, which included, on the evening I sampled it, a chaste bowl of truffle-flavored tofu, portions of batter-fried blowfish called “Kentucky Fried Fugu,” and for dessert, a dainty ball of persimmon, flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen and eaten with a tiny silver spoon.
Similar elaborate courtesies are bestowed across the street at Mario Batali’s giant new Michelin-approved (two stars) restaurant, Del Posto. The huge, Goliath-size room looks like the Vegas version of some elaborate New York hotel lobby, circa 1922, and if you’re used to the intimate, rock-and-roll hustle and bustle of the other great Batali-Bastianich outlets like Esca, Lupa, and Babbo, it can be confusing, at first, to sit at the polished marble bar, listening to the tinkling cocktail piano with a roomful of expense-account swells and the occasional wiseguy in his ill-fitting suit. But there’s no denying the quality of the food, particularly the calf’s liver (with velvety polenta and a scattering of frizzled baby leeks), the pastas (try the simple spaghetti folded with crab and jalapeno), and Batali’s strangely addictive pumpkin-and-lardo risotto, which is served, with a kind of worshipful old-world flourish, from a shiny chafing dish.