With fine-dining restaurant prices going through the roof, lunch is my favorite time to sample elevated gourmet snacks, like the golden-fried $20 fritto misto Amalfitano, available at the Bastianich empire’s perpetually outstanding theater-district outpost, Esca. That’s only a couple of dollars less than the legendary $28 prix fixe luncheon at Jean Georges, which was enlivened on one of my recent visits by lumps of fresh uni served with jalapeño on little squares of brown, buttered toast. But you’ll get the most profound bang for your lunchtime buck at Anthos on 52nd Street, where I like to go with my skinny fashion-editor friends to watch them stare in wonder at Michael Psilakis’s epic lamb burger. There are fat hilopita egg noodles available, too, and smoked octopus flavored with lemon confit, but nothing packs the wallop of the $20 fusion burger, which the chef mixes with secret deposits of pork and crushed garlic, grills in caul fat, and stacks on a toasted brioche bun.
If you can’t find a seat amid the jabbering hordes of editors, tourists, and art professionals who gather daily in the grill room of The Modern, then sneak behind the museum to Gray Kunz’s new venture, Grayz, which occupies the old Aquavit space in Nelson Rockefeller’s former townhouse on 54th Street. The little café tables are scattered here and there in the warrenlike rooms, so belly up to the cozy little bar for a cool gimlet poured straight up with cucumber juice, and a couple of opulent Grayz oysters Rockefeller, which are presented at supper time on a row of silver spoons. If you’re in the mood for a slightly more hearty feed, order Kunz’s famous braised short ribs, which come wreathed, in the evenings, with creamed spinach and a crown of retro horseradish foam, or sandwiched, at lunchtime, between pieces of toasty ciabatta in the regally named “short-rib croque-monsieur.”
When I’m in the mood for a more casual, down-home midday snack, I’ll pay $9.50 for a bowl of the classic, organically pure “shiso” ramen at the new East Village noodle mecca Ramen Setagaya. My two favorite afternoon sandwiches are the little skirt steak “bocata” dressed with tangy cured tomatoes and deposits of melted Mahón cheese at Seamus Mullen’s Boqueria, and the deliciously messy hot-pressed Sikorski kielbasa Reuben at Borough Food & Drink, constructed, in case you didn’t know, with great greasy kielbasa links trucked in from Greenpoint. For a more leisurely, highbrow afternoon feast, the choice is Daniel Humm’s aptly named “Gourmand Tasting Lunch” at the newly revived Eleven Madison Park, followed by a stealthy visit around the corner to Andrew Carmellini’s inspired, constantly improving Flatiron-district establishment A Voce. My last wintry late-afternoon lunch there included crostini spread with whipped chicken liver and foie gras, a bowl of gently stewed Tuscan tripe with a fried duck egg, and for dessert, a frosty silver bowl of vanilla ice cream dripped with truffle oil, with a crumbling of biscotti on top.