Only in the Big Apple can you go from a three-Michelin-star restaurant to a 99c-slice pizza place without finding the transition at all strange
New York likes to think of itself as the capital of the world.
We can argue about that, but what we can’t deny is that New York is certainly the capital of the food world. It is, without doubt, the number one food city on the planet — the city that launches food trends, redefines the restaurant experience, and allows the cuisines of the world to flourish.
I’ve lost count of the number of trends that began in New York, or of the chefs who sprang to fame in this city.
This is where Nobu (with a little help from his friends) launched the modern Japanese restaurant. This is where the cuisine of Hunan and Sichuan first came to global attention. The deluxe hamburger was invented here. Pizza-by-the-slice was popularized in the early 20th century by Italian immigrants in New York. The delicatessen culture began here as poor Jews tried to find ways of recreating the cuisines of their ancient homelands.
And New York is where chefs find fame. Nobu, of course, but also Daniel Boulud, Jean-George, Éric Ripert, David Chang, and so many others.
However, when celebrity restaurateurs and chefs from outside come to New York, the city doesn’t just hand over success on a silver platter. Joël Robuchon had to close his L’Atelier. Both of Alain Ducasse’s restaurants have failed. Gordon Ramsay was more or less run out of town. The Caprice branch folded. Hakkasan struggled. And let’s see how Zuma does as time goes on…
A Great NYC Food Experience is everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you go to a food truck on the street, hit the many Michelin three-star restaurants or go to the trendy places. It is one of only two cities in the world where it is nearly impossible to eat badly. (The other is Bangkok, since you asked…)
Oddly enough, it is also one of the few cities in the world where I’ll actually spend good money on a steak. My views on steakhouses are simple: why pay exorbitant prices for a dish that requires so little skill to cook? You can easily buy the steak from a good butcher and cook it at home for a fraction of the cost.
But there’s something about a steak in New York that feels strangely satisfying. It helps that Americans know how to cook a steak properly.
I’ve offended many Italians by pointing out that hardly anybody in Italy knows how to cook steak. To get a good bistecca florentina, you need to go to New York, not Tuscany. The French suffer because their beef is not very good. (Jean-Francois Piege, Paris’s chef of the moment, told me he refuses to put it on the menu because it is so mediocre.) And the English pay way too much at fancy steakhouses (usually run by the likes of Wolfgang Puck and other celebrity chefs).
But New Yorkers regard a good steak as their birthright and rarely pay more than they should for it. Peter Luger in Brooklyn is the legendary New York steakhouse, but I’ve always found the mid-town location of Smith & Wollensky more convenient. I prefer the smaller, more informal Wollensky’s Grill on the ground floor (which serves the same menu) to the traditional steakhouse and sure enough, I ended up there for an outstanding fillet on this trip.
One of the problems with the restaurant at the Park Hyatt where I was staying is that the menu is a little too limited. The good thing, however, is that it is steak-heavy. And so while I enjoyed their petit fillet (the same size as a normal steak anywhere else in the world, but Americans like Flintstones-sized portions), the real revelation was a slender Wagyu minute steak, perfectly seared so it caramelized on the outside and was melting on the inside.
Newer and newer parts of New York keep things gentrified and trendified (the most notable recent example is Williamsburg in Brooklyn) and I love checking them out. This time I ended up in the Bowery, known for its bums during some decades ago, but which is now hip and exciting.
I chose the crowded Pearl & Ash — a small-plates restaurant with a cuisine that is hard to categorize.
Not everything worked but some dishes were interesting, among them bread with chicken butter, trumpet mushrooms with egg and the best patatas bravas I’ve had in years (in the same league as Sergi Arola’s).
Daniel Humm is now generally regarded as New York’s greatest chef, up there with Éric Ripert and Thomas Keller, but much as I love his Eleven Madison Park, I didn’t have the appetite for his long set menu. So I went to NoMad (from North of Madison) Hotel, which has a bustling restaurant that offers a relaxed bistro-style menu overseen by Humm.
I went for the food but was overwhelmed by the hotel. The designer is Jacques Garcia, so the overall feel is not unlike Paris’ Hôtel Costes, which Garcia also designed. But this is a less hurried, more elegant version of the Hôtel Costes with tables in the restaurant that are further apart, warm and friendly staff, excellent service and great, great food.
Ah the food! A starter of a pear salad with daikon, hazelnuts and pecorino merged its flavors so expertly that you could tell this was a kitchen at the top of its game. And the main course of a whole roasted chicken with foie gras, black truffle and lentils was probably designed to invite comparison with such Paris favourites as Le Coq Rico or L’Ami Louis, but it was utterly delicious.
Most critics rate it as New York’s finest chicken and I can see why. As I often do at interesting restaurants, I gave the sommelier a budget and asked her to choose the wine. She chose one I’d never heard of, a Pinot Noir from California’s Anderson Valley, and then came over to discuss the difference between Napa and Anderson, Burgundy and California and the philosophy behind the restaurant’s wine list.
None of this was outrageously over-the-top expensive (I’d say $100 per head for dinner; much less for lunch) so if you want something a little different the next time you are in New York, then this is the place I recommend.