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.
A Chinatown Banquet
Any fine Chinese meal is like a banquet, and Chinatown is like that, too. Being greedy, however, I’d choose to feast in several establishments instead of just one.
Breakfast: The Saint’s Alp Teahouse has superior teas and lots of inventive tapioca drinks, but for neighborhood quirkiness, I’ll take a paper cup of ginseng tea and honey from Dragon Land Bakery and a crumbly walnut cookie served by one of the prim cookie ladies wearing dainty stewardesslike hats. After that, a spoonful or two of nourishing breakfast congee (Cantonese rice porridge) amid the plasticated vines and bamboo bridges of Congee Village up on Allen Street – preferably without chunks of the house specialty, sautéed frog. For a pointedly non-Western breakfast, eat what the Chinese eat: dumplings. At Dim Sum Go Go, you’ll find them stuffed with wood mushrooms or mashed shark’s fin or pearly bits of chives and baby shrimp.
Lunch: Stay on a little longer at Dim Sum Go Go for a platter of the fluffy seafood fried rice (with lightly whisked eggs and slivers of apple-green broccoli stems) and the thin strips of salt-baked pork, fried into crinkly shapes like some strange form of ribbon candy. Then nip across the street to the always-reliable New York Noodle Town to snack on a helping of duck rolls and a platter of cold suckling pig, before repairing to the nearby Sweet-N-Tart Café for a restorative bowl of chestnut tong shui (literal translation: “hot soup”) filled with soft green lotus seeds.
Dinner: The final meal of the day means the obligatory pilgrimage to Ping’s Seafood for a plate of the crispy shredded squid, shot through with scallions, jícama, and crunchy little silver fish. Follow this by leaving Chinatown proper, and travel up to the new midtown branch of Grand Sichuan International. The menu here is accompanied by a runish and amusing volume of footnotes. The hot stuff is the point, however, so go directly to No. 115, the simple braised beef fillets in chili sauce, containing shards of beef cooked to mushy softness, in a deliciously viscous sauce fierce enough to strip the bark from a thousand trees.
Haute Cuisine Makeovers
In high cuisine, as in high society, cosmetic readjustments are a fact of life. The food at Jo Jo remains generally superior (the famous chicken with green olives, fashionable offal dishes like pork cheeks and lentils), but Jean-Georges’s million-dollar renovation has had a curious reverse effect. Newly hung with funereal damask curtains and clinking Victorian chandeliers, the bright, stylish space now looks frumpy and severe, like a perky young matron who suddenly decides to look 100 years old. A more successful dowager face-lift is on display at Lutèce, where André Soltner’s little townhouse has been redecorated in an icy, Arctic motif. The menu has been refurbished, too, with newfangled recipes like seared foie gras smudged in marmalade and brackish dark chocolate. One seasoned foie gras hound declared the dish “just this side of perverse” but gave a thumbs-up to a marginally less strange fillet of John Dory in a rémoulade of wasabi, mustard leaf, and daikon, with a pocket of pommes soufflées on the side.
Charlie Palmer has left the kitchen at Aureole, leaving executive chef Gerry Hayden to experiment with feathery dishes like fluke marinated in citrus and Wellfleet oysters topped with little golf balls of cucumber sorbet. The chef transition has been less smooth at Le Cirque 2000, although, as usual, it’s hard to notice amid all the circuslike commotion. Who cares if my duck confit was a little dry, or that a $17 crabmeat appetizer, crowned with guacamole and plantains, looked like something off a luxury liner bound for Tobago? Even from the hinterlands of deepest Siberia – table No. 49, between the kitchen and the bar – there’s no better place to view all the characters in the strange New York zoo.
It was a pleasure to drop in at La Caravelle, where elderly “classiques” have been revamped with nouveau curry sauces (on the trio of lamb) and baby Japanese eggplants (on the pan-seared tuna). The restaurant’s glimmering green murals are still intact, you can bolt down one of Alberto’s vodka Mojitos at the small corner bar, and, for a sentimental fatman like me, there’s no greater comfort in the world than watching spoonfuls of velvety pink lobster sauce being ladled over a helping of the kitchen’s famous truffled pike quenelles.
A Trek Through the Boroughs
For the Manhattan-based restaurant critic addled by a diet of truffles and velvet slabs of foie gras, a visit to the outer boroughs is a kind of culinary palate cleanser. The following journey could be accomplished in a month, a year, or a single bilious day.
To begin, line up on Saturday morning with the diminutive neighborhood matrons at the Villabate Bakery, on Eighteenth Avenue in Bensonhurst, for sticky rice balls as big as duckpins, wheels of orange-scented ricotta cheesecake, tray upon tray of lemon-drop cookies, real Sicilian cannoli, and spumoni ice-cream cakes, all displayed on glittering silver shelves.
Proceed to Totonno Pizzeria, on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island, to dine on a simple cheese pie in one of the spare little booths, which always remind me of freshly painted, aqua-colored church pews.
Hop the 7 train to El Grano de Oro 2000, where you can sit at a sidewalk bar on Roosevelt Avenue and watch your soft-taco fillings being drawn from simmering pots of chicken, chorizo, even tripe. Quesadilla is the house speciality, however, flipped like a flapjack on the griddle with shreds of cilantro, cheese, and chicharrón (pork crackling), then served on a blue-rimmed plate with wedges of lime and some guacamole in a teacup.
Next, venture to Sripraphai, down the road, in Woodside, for a modest portion of Thai-style candied bananas, crisply fried in a light batter, with sprinklings of sesame seed and coconut.
Finally, flag a taxicab to the African Food Temple, among the auto-parts shops on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, for a bowl of flavorful Egusi stew. This Ghanaian dish comes in numerous peppery combinations (I liked beef atop a heap of tangy, fermented corn) – but whatever you do, avoid the urge to dine with a fork and a spoon. Napkins and a big metal fingerbowl for washing your hands are provided by the waitress. For further ablutions, the bathroom is a soothing, almost pleasant place, strung with bright plastic flowers and smelling of cheap tropical perfume.
Fishing for Perfect Seafood
I didn’t have the gumption to plunk down $261 for the shellfish tasting menu at Alain Ducasse (since replaced on the seasonal rotation by a six-course, $250 meal built around black truffles), but in between the operatic attentions of fifteen or so waiters, I did sneak a taste of my wife’s mildly treacly mushroom-infused lobster velouté, plus a wafer-thin chip of seared halibut that, by our reckoning, cost exactly $20 per bite. Your money still travels a lot further at Le Bernardin, where Eric Ripert’s new version of the baked potato contains a savory gourmet mash of dill-scented smoked salmon, potato crème fraîche, and Osetra caviar, flanked by two delicately toasted ladyfingers filled with more smoked salmon, caviar, and slips of Gruyère cheese. Sitting among all the fat cats and moguls, I tried not to make piggy noises slurping down four tastings of fluke seviche – beginning with a simple sauce of virgin olive oil and lime juice, ending with a combination of wasabi, orange zest, and coconut milk. That was followed by two ravioli filled with mushrooms and whole Argentinian shrimp, covered in a pleasing foie gras-and- truffle sauce, and two ghostly white squares of halibut, perfectly steamed, with slivers of salsify and more black-truffle sauce ladled on top.
Similar high-pitched seafood delights were on display at Cello the evening I visited, although I’m afraid I forgot my dinner jacket and had to negotiate my teacup of lobster risotto (with little squares of foie gras folded inside) wearing a house jacket that was so small that the cuffs stopped at my elbows. Not that this seemed to faze my very proper Upper East Side guest, who leaned over her equally refined portion of potato-crusted halibut and whispered, “I don’t think they’re eating this in the caves of Tora Bora.”
That’s probably true, too, of the exemplary fish delicacies at Esca (I like the salt-baked bronzini, the nightly crudos, the linguini with mahogany clams), and the delectably salty codfish cake, with sautéed cod in a rock-shrimp chowder, at the new Citarella restaurant in Rockefeller Center. Several of Citarella’s more elaborate dishes – Chilean sea bass and parsley risotto with clunky helpings of beef short ribs, for instance – weren’t nearly as satisfying, in retrospect, as a container of the good old smoked-seafood salad, served with a paper napkin and a plastic fork, at the original mother ship uptown.
The Great Curry Ramble
My friend the Delhi connoisseur likes to consume his curries, naans, and kulchas the old-fashioned way, in a messy communal lather. No wonder he’s displeased with Adä, in Murray Hill, where you can sip a glass of Chardonnay while hoity-toity fusion dishes like Goan baby back ribs (delicious) and lamb-shank vindaloo (less delicious) are brought to the table one by one. For fine dining, he prefers Tamarind, where he feasts on helpings of shrimp moiley (fresh shrimp in a cumin-spiked coconut sauce), Cornish game hen and quail roasted on a spit, and for dessert, dribbly sweet rasmalai dumplings bathed in rosewater. The elegant Flatiron-district establishment also serves a giant, moon-shaped masala dosa, plus sandwiches rolled in paratha bread – try the lamb sholley – designed to complement a selection of fancy designer teas available at the adjacent tea bar.
If you’re in the mood for an old-school curry ramble, direct your cab to the former shoeshine parlor that houses the Lahore Deli on Crosby Street, for a shot of milky sweet chai, a restorative bag of freshly made potato samosas, and a container of curried goat, preferably to be consumed in the company of your cabbie and all his friends. For further adventure, proceed to Hampton Chutney Co. in SoHo for an array of culturally confused dosas (I actually like the one with woody portobello mushrooms and butternut squash), and then travel on to Banjara, in the East Village, to peer at Tuhin Dutta’s imposing dumpakht, a strange, blimpish delicacy from the city of Lucknow. The lamb version (there’s also chicken and shrimp) is slow-cooked in a creamy stew with almonds, bay leaves, and sticks of cinnamon, then sealed under a dome of pastry, like some fabulist South Asian rendition of lamb potpie.
Nostalgic for a Bull-Market Side of Beef …
I sneak out of my apartment and go next door to Strip House to dine on David Walzog’s opulent seared rib chop, which is filled with juicy flavor but charred on the outside to a peppery sirloin crisp. For pure beefeater elegance, you won’t find anything better than the steak au poivre ($32) at Balthazar, with a sidecar of healthful spinach and a tangle of crispy golden frites.
For a proper communal feed, my wide-bodied friends and I repair to the MarkJoseph Steakhouse, just off Peck Slip in the South Street Seaport, where the mammoth porterhouse for four ($133) is pre-sliced, Peter Luger-style, on a hot platter, dripping in a sizzle of its own fat. There are baskets of squeezy Lugerlike onion rolls for additional comfort, and gravy boats of sweet red steak sauce – a co-owner used to work at Luger’s Long Island branch. There’s even a smattering of wise guys in the crowd, with great white napkins spread expectantly over their bellies.
Midtown wise guys seem to be reconvening at Ken Aretsky’s Patroon, newly refitted with a utilitarian glass-and-brick façade (plus flagpole), in a style we’ll call firehouse chic. My overly charred sixteen-ounce sirloin didn’t measure up to the hallowed prime cut at Sparks down the street. But the porterhouse was sawed in wide, satisfying slabs, and a wedge of the hatbox-size house New York cheesecake kept the four large gentlemen at my table busy with their spoons for half an hour, maybe more.
A Proper Italian Feast
I like the little bowl of sweet ricotta cheese served gratis to all the rowdy food scholars at Peasant on Elizabeth Street, and I’m also partial to the brick-oven-baked rabbit, stewed in cannellini beans with salty strips of pancetta, and the perfectly oval pizza bianca pooled with olive oil. A chaste bowl of gran farro soup (made with a sweet leavening of squash) was the best thing I ate at Beppe, in the Flatiron district, although my other fatso friends couldn’t keep their hands off chef Cesare Casella’s aggressively rustic Tuscan ribs (pork ribs braised in tomatoes and rosemary) and the pleasingly greasy lemon fried chicken, served fritto misto-style over a mound of fried green tomatoes.
Margherita Aloi, formerly of Le Madri, offers a more decorous take on Tuscan cuisine at the newly opened Arezzo, in Chelsea: creamy broccoli-flavored cavatelli with crumblings of sausage, little cones of fritto misto wrapped like popcorn in a twirl of paper, and salty slices of Tuscan steak, strewn with bits of crinkled dandelion and herb-covered Tuscan fries.
For pure strangeness, Pino Luongo’s new Upper East Side establishment, Centolire, has a see-through elevator to transport diners all the way to the second floor, plus a curiously edible dessert composed of chocolate mousse bound in strips of caramelized eggplant. For a less radical form of sweetness, follow the Italian purists across the river to Al Di Là, in Park Slope, where, after an invariably satisfying dinner, you’ll find glasses of the gooey Venetian ice-cream dessert called gianduiotto and fresh baked ricotta tarts flecked with orange and lemon zest.
For comforting pasta, I like the spinach-and-ricotta ravioli at Baldoria, the lasagna della nonna at Campagna, and the lemon spaghettini at Sandro’s, laced with a confectioner’s touch of cream and pecorino cheese. For everything else (chewy bucatini alla amatriciana, plump ricotta gnocchi with sausage and fennel), there’s Lupa – at lunchtime, of course, before the dinnertime hordes elbow in.
When Dining in Harlem …
The immaculately renovated Victorian townhouse that houses the Sugar Hill Bistro is lovely to look at, but at this early date, the restaurant’s eagerly anticipated gourmet menu is mostly a mess (flat-tasting blackened salmon, chewy beef dishes, and tepid soups). Jimmy’s Uptown remains the Toots Shor’s of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, complete with shimmery nylon lampshades, luminous half-moon banquettes, and weirdly successful hybrid dishes like filet mignon and grits. The place for real pan-fried chicken, the neighborhood cognoscenti agree, is Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen, although I always seem to miss the fabled Wednesday buffet, and never can get a table the other times I come. Instead, I end up standing on the sidewalk, gnawing my chicken from a flapping Styrofoam container. If it’s a weekend night, you won’t have much better luck fighting your way into Max SoHa, the new closet-size outpost of the East Village Italian joint, although the superior house ravioli are big as flapjacks, and it beats trying to bum rush your way into Rao’s.
Want to tackle a wide range of the neighborhood’s traditional delicacies in a single sitting? Travel up Lenox Avenue to Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too and order the mammoth sampler: $14.95 for a tasting of ribs, collard greens, smothered chicken, etc. For less traditional neighborhood dishes like soft corn tacos (more than ten varieties, including spicy pork, beef tongue, and tripe) and cheesy platters of chilaquiles (chicken or beef with salsa, served on strips of corn taco), drop into El Paso Taqueria, on the corner of 104th and Lexington. If you happen to be loitering around East 119th Street before lunchtime, indulge in a platter of juicy suckling pig at a little storefront establishment called El Rincón Boricua. The proprietors, Carmen and Luis Serrano, guard their singular pork recipes (fried pig tails are another house specialty) like the family jewels but say they are willing to sell out for a price. “I’m looking for the right deal,” Carmen told me, as she ladled a heap of boiled cassava onto my plate. “My dream is to get into fashion. Cooking is just to pay the bills.”
He Said, She Said
In restaurants, as in life, my wife and I often have opposite, though complementary, tastes. She is slim, decorous, and discerning; I’m hefty, unkempt, and omnivorous. No wonder her choice for a neighborhood gourmet dinner is usually Annisa, on Barrow Street, where Anita Lo continues to serve mysterious fusion creations – lacquered squab with tea-smoked foie gras and candied walnuts; Shanghai soup dumplings, garnished with even more foie gras – in a graceful dining space roughly the size of a commodious suburban garage.
When my austere Tyrolean mother-in-law comes to town, we reserve a table at Wallsé, Kurt Gutenbrunner’s industrious little fiefdom on 11th Street, in the far West Village. There, the ladies can gaze at the spare, Adolph Loos-inspired interior, sip inventive cocktails with names like Forbidden Fig (Maker’s Mark, fig purée, fig-infused balsamic vinegar), and nibble on savory strudels stuffed with mushrooms or fresh codfish. Recently, my wife’s also been going bonkers for the blinilike potato-and-Gruyère dumplings (with crème fraîche and scallions for dipping) at Jane, on Houston Street. Aside from serving a roster of salads and three tasty varieties of eggs Benedict for brunch, this sleek new establishment is also conveniently named (we like to think) in honor of our 2-year-old daughter.
For exotic, big-budget occasions, we visit Jewel Bako, the precious, jewel-box sushiya on East 5th Street, in a former video store. Here, we dine on glittery slivers of toro and Jack mackerel dusted with citrus and ginger, Nobulike mounds of tuna tartare, and delicate after-dinner scoops of sake sorbet. Le Périgord on Sutton Place is her choice for a modest, Francophile dinner; for a gourmet three-course luncheon (preferably at one of the sunlit window tables), her favorite destination is Fleur de Sel, on lower Fifth Avenue. On a recent visit to this appealing establishment, $20 purchased a pillow of chestnut-and-white-truffle ravioli swimming in parsnip soup, a crisp sautéed country poussin in a sweet, pinkish foie gras sauce, and for dessert, an artfully constructed raspberry feuilleté, roughly the size of a commemorative postage stamp.
When Dining Without My Wife …
I wedge into one of the downstairs checkered-cloth-covered communal tables at D’Artagnan, in midtown, for juicy slabs of country lamb from the rotisserie, great bowls of “macaronade” (nuggets of foie gras and big tubes of ziti in a rich wild-mushroom sauce), or a crock of Ariane Daguine’s hometown Gascogne cassoulet, filled with fat Tarbais beans, garlic duck sausage, and dense strips of duck confit.
Another favorite trencherman watering hole is the bar at Olives, at the Union Square W Hotel. Despite what my more refined foodie friends say – “macho stadium food” is what one of them called it – it’s always a pleasure to sample pedestals of tuna tartare with a drizzling of sesame dressing and several crispy rock shrimp buried at the bottom, slow-braised beef shanks as big as softballs atop scoops of whipped hummus, in minty Greek-yogurt sauce, and Todd English’s patented hamburger, which is smothered in sautéed onions and pressed between two squares of toasted panini.
Beacon, in midtown, is where I go for a furtive taste of the eighteen-ounce Argentinian “ranch-grazed” rib-eye ($29) and platter upon platter of the delicious mixed-sausage grill: smoked duck sausage, blood sausage, and generous cuts of coal-fired chorizo. When my brother and I need a quick seafood fix, we sidle up to the bar at Mary’s Fish Camp, in the West Village, to grapple with a bowl of those messy lobster knuckles, followed by the giant, structurally challenged lobster roll and (if it’s dinnertime) the impressive house bouillabaisse, stocked with lobster claws, mussels, and scallops as big as tangerines. Finally, there’s the bar at Babbo, where it’s always a pleasure to indulge in Mario Batali’s favorite offal delicacies, like beef-cheek ravioli decked in truffle sauce, pig’s feet Milanese (deboned, breaded, and flattened, as if by a steam roller), and a melty mass of veal-tripe Parmesan. My wife always averts her eyes when this controversial dish appears, but from a distance, after a glass or two of Barolo, I swear it looks almost picturesque.
What’s Probably Cool Now
Ladies and gentleman of a certain age are frantically congregating in the tiny, cable-car-like dining rooms at Swifty’s – it’s still the happening place for Upper East Side Hooray Henrys – and I have to admit that my lunch of tasty creamed chicken hash was weirdly enlivened, on a recent visit, when Liz Smith herself came hurrying by, trailing eddies of perfume. A few blocks south, members of the younger, leather-jacketed set are swarming into Commissary to enjoy the stylishly simple cooking of Matthew Kenney (fresh halibut in lemon butter, seared foie gras with salty hazelnuts and a smear of red-currant jam, like some gourmet peanut-butter-and-jelly treat), even though the gloomy Donald Trump space resembles the hippest in late-night dining circa 1979.
The giant dracaena tree at The Park seems to be turning a little brown around the edges, but I liked the “red room,” strung up with Chinese lanterns, and the pleasure of flipping through Eric Goode’s complete set of National Geographic magazines while waiting for my sour-apple martini and a glass of perfectly decent wild-striped-bass seviche (seasoned with mint, pepper, and lots of lime) at the bar. Midway, on Charles Street in the West Village, may resemble a clamorous nightclub after hours, but the clean, economical dishes that emerge from Bill Schutz’s kitchen (hanger steak with Belgian frites, monkfish with braised cabbage and bacon) are refreshingly gourmet.
I prefer the Pan-Asian kitsch motif at Tao to the Pan-Asian kitsch motif at Man Ray, although my perspective may be warped by having been banished several nights in a row to a table in Thierry Kléméniuk’s conspicuously celebrity-free basement, next to a row of urns that look suspiciously like Mandarin chamber pots. As far as I could tell, there are no chamber pots at the new Moomba offshoot, TanDa, although the lanterns hung here and there in the former Park Avenue OTB parlor are actually old Vietnamese fishtraps. You can procure a semi-authentic bowl of green chicken curry at two in the morning, however, and a few of the South Asian fusion items on the menu (lacquered five-spice squab, Maine lobster dusted with green mango) don’t taste nearly as grisly as they sound.
A Trip Around the World
If you’re still a little shaky when it comes to air travel, but crave a slice of modern Amsterdam, just hop a taxi to Sullivan Street and squeeze into one of the sleek little café chairs at NL. You’ll find quirky mounds of risotto laced with sauerkraut on the menu, an authentic sampling of Indonesian-inspired rijsttafel, even a modernist version of Dutch hare stew (hazenpeper) flavored with cloves and slices of roasted pear. In a Latin mood? The Mexican province of Veracruz is Zarela Martinez’s latest obsession, although her new restaurant, Danzón, isn’t nearly as much fun as Paladar, her son Aaron Sanchez’s racy nuevo Latino rendition of the original Zarela uptown. Whenever my globetrotting parents want a taste of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast – where they have never been – they make a beeline for the Dalga Seafood Grill, off First Avenue on 62nd Street, to contemplate the restaurant’s soothing blue-and-white interior and devour the house seafood bohca (a savory seafood stew baked in phyllo) or platters of fresh grilled anchovies, flown in from the Black Sea. If you want a taste of semi-authentic old Morocco, visit the perpetually doomed restaurant space at 46 Gansevoort, which has recently been reinvented as Zitoune. You’ll find a variety of decent tagines (try the veal cheeks, smothered in dates, honey, and almonds) and an alarmingly large (and not at all authentic) beef short rib, infused with lemon confit and cumin and brought to the table in a ceremonial ceramic urn.
Four Ways to Have a Proper Breakfast
For atmosphere, let’s begin with a plate of beans on toast (two eggs optional) at Pastis, in the very early morning, with the big louver doors thrown open so you can watch the garbage trucks go trundling by.
For counter dining, a helping of buttered grits and salmon croquettes at the M&G Diner up on 125th Street, or a platter of huevos rancheros at the Bright Food Shop, in Chelsea, complete with two layers of soft tortilla, two eggs, and a melty mass of beans, sour cream, coriander, and Jack cheese. For nourishment, the fruit bar at The City Bakery, where you can load up on wedges of fresh papaya and mango before moving on to healthful bowls of mamaligah (advertised to me by the porridge lady as “Jewish grits”) or a palatable Americanized variety of Thai congee (made with jasmine rice, with sprinklings of salty soy nuts or shaved coconut).
For brunch, my friend the egg nut swears by the Gruyère-and-mushroom omelette available weekends at Le Zinc. I’m partial to the hubcap-size portion of codfish hash at Diner, in Brooklyn, under the Williamsburg Bridge, the chiffon-light lemon ricotta pancakes at Five Points, on Great Jones Street, and the strips of real corned-beef hash, fried with cubes of potato, at Leshko’s, off Tompkins Square Park. You can get most of this and more at the new brunch at Ouest (plus prosecco bellinis spiked with peach purée), and the narrow layout is diabolically designed to frustrate the usual brunchtime invasion of baby strollers.
A Culinary Art Tour
The roosting habits of New York restaurateurs are always difficult to divine. For whatever reason, some of the city’s grandest chefs have recently been setting up their kitchens in art galleries, auction houses, and museums. Our tour begins at the AQ Café at the Scandinavia House, on lower Park Avenue, for a quick glance at August Strindberg’s predictably gloomy photographs, followed by an uplifting lunchtime helping of Marcus Samuelsson’s salmon lasagna, a smorgasbord of four herrings (for only $6.50), and a frothy glass of Carlsberg Elephant Malt beer, all served cafeteria-style on translucent plastic trays. The simple tuna burger with wasabi mayonnaise is my very biased father’s favorite dish at the Garden Court Café in the newly renovated Asia Society (he is president of the institution).
For the best rainy-day cup of hot chocolate in the city, visit the lavish Neue Gallery on Upper Fifth Avenue, home to Café Sabarsky, Kurt Gutenbrunner’s ode to the strudels and dumplings of his youth. There are eleven varieties of cakes and tortes on the menu, plus dainty breakfast dumplings smothered in bacon and onions, gourmet liverwurst sandwiches (served open-face with a sweet onion confit), and creamy bowls of chestnut soup, all of which you can walk off by climbing up and down the great curving marble staircase leading to the galleries upstairs.
Finally, there’s Bid, the ambitious, loungelike restaurant on the ground floor of the Sotheby’s fortress on York Avenue. The straightforward menu doesn’t quite live up to the novelty of its surroundings, although I like the roasted quail garnished with turnips and savoy cabbage, and the milky pink lobster chowder, larded with satisfying deposits of potato and smoked bacon. If there’s an evening auction on, mingle upstairs with the legions of paddle-wavers; if not, the whole experience feels a little bizarre, like dining in the lost corner of a vast, deserted corporate museum.
A Really Good Sandwich
The sardine sandwich was never high on my list of gourmand delicacies until I sampled the one at Bread, a new sandwich parlor in NoLIta. It’s built on a fresh baguette from the Balthazar Bakery, with tomatoes and big silvery Sicilian sardines, all bound together with a slather of Thai pepper mayonnaise. It’s on the menu along with brick-size bruschetta loaded with basil and plum tomatoes, and other mildly odd sandwich combinations like wedges of ciabatta with prosciutto, Danish butter, and mozzarella, or white Mediterranean tuna with lemon-mint dressing. Here the sandwich contents tend to melt together in a precariously messy fashion; gobble them too quickly and the whole structure becomes unhinged, like a proper sandwich should.
That’s true, too, of Douglas Rodriguez’s bountiful, un-tapas-like veal-brisket sandwich at Pipa (smothered in mushrooms and caramelized onions on a toasted baguette), and, to a lesser degree, of the pressed hanger-steak slider concocted by Scott Ehrlich at Wylie Dufresne’s new storefront diner on Clinton Street, the AKA Cafe. The slider comprises tender marinated steak, creamy pickle relish, and a bialy, squeezed in a sandwich toaster. It’s roughly the size of an English muffin cut into tiny halves, so order several (if you add up the entire dinner menu at AKA, the grand total comes to $84, including a superior oyster soup and delicious pork-and-ginger empanadas), then consume them with your friends, in little bites, like tea sandwiches.
And Finally, a Few Family Favorites
My uncle Frank, the family gastronome, is a lifetime New Yorker and a gentleman of solid, traditional tastes. These days, he mourns the passing of the great Galician establishment, Meigas, on Hudson Street, which in his estimation served the finest dish of tripe in the entire city. But to anyone who considers New York to be on the verge of a new and chaotic Dark Age, he commends, in no particular order:
The lobster soufflé at Orsay, the cassoulet at La Côte Basque, and the chicken tetrazini at Pietro’s.
Herring Week every April at The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal (or an oyster pan roast served at the counter any day, preferably by his favorite waitress, Patricia, to whom he sends a Christmas card every year).
The tripe soup and any kind of enchilada at the original Gabriela’s uptown.
The midnight menu at his favorite bistro, Balthazar, particularly the duck shepherd’s pie and the fat boudin noir (with gravy, crisped potatoes, and two poached eggs).
The mutton chop at Keens Steakhouse. “They get them from Montana, where they let lambs grow to be big, old-fashioned things,” he says.
The minestrone at Teodora, on East 57th Street, an establishment he has been frequenting ever since he spied two portly Italian priests dining happily at the bar some years ago.
To this list, I would add, in no particular order or preference:
A luncheon of blinis and Osetra caviar at the Grill Room of The Four Seasons.
Christian Delouvrier’s confit of suckling pig at Lespinasse, the rack of lamb at Daniel, and the braised fresh bacon on the tasting menu at Gramercy Tavern.
The hot pastrami sandwich at Carnegie Deli, preferably devoured next to a gaggle of fellow patriots from Sioux City or Dubuque.
A bowl of clam chowder at Pearl Oyster Bar, any croissant at Fauchon, a vodka martini and a Portale tower of seared tuna at Gotham Bar and Grill.
Weekday breakfast at Barney Greengrass, of salmon and eggs, preferably (as recently happened to me) with Philip Roth the only other diner, sitting in the corner pondering his morning bagel and cream cheese.
A weekday lunch at Peter Luger.
Most anything for lunch at Union Square Café and most anything for dinner at Jean Georges; most anything any time at Bouley Bakery, provided the joint reopens.
And finally, a simple cup of the special split-pea soup at the original Joe Jr., on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 12th Street, where I like to repair, on my off days, with the morning papers and a soothing green canister or two of Extra Strength Mylanta.