Manhattan Musings

December 24, 2008

One of the most consistently important and interesting parts of my work as someone who avidly loves good food as much as I love writing about it is keeping track of what’s up in the world’s other major food cities. This is why I always look forward to a trip to New York, a city where I lived for nine years and a place I deeply love and enjoy. Having been here a week, however, I have to say that a scattershot sampling of various new and old New York restaurants has made me profoundly grateful to live in Paris. Why? For $35 or so, you still eat vastly better in Paris than you do in New York. 

My first meal in Manhattan was with Steven, a dear book-editor friend, at Grano on Greenwich Avenue. Though the Latin American waiter pretending to be Italian was a nice guy, the only memorable aspect of this meal were Steven’s carciofi alla Romana, or Roman style artichokes. Leaving to one side the fact that artichokes are completely out of season and that alla Romana in Rome means griddled between two heavy plaques of metal, this was a tasty little saute. My mozzarella with red peppers and cherry tomatoes came as a mingy serving, and my “macaroni” with tiny meatballs and cherry tomatoes was desperately disappointing for the fact that the pasta had so obviously been par-boiled or otherwise pre-cooked. With a single cheap bottle of mediocre Italian red wine, we both left the table here with a $60 hole in our pockets, which is absurd.

Next meal, Adrienne’s, a highly rated pizza place in the financial district. Though overcooked, the pepperoni and mushroom thin-crusted square sheet pizza I had was delicious and just the kind of thing I dream of in Paris, although most New Haven, Connecticut style pizza is still better than this. The following day was marked by a memorably mediocre meal at Pasacalou, an unfriendly French place in the East 90s where I was mystified by my starter–a bacon-and-cheese souffle in a phyllo pastry cup (who needed the phyllo pastry?), and heartbroken by a bowl of reheated bean stodge passed off as cassoulet.

Fortunately, a terrific late super at the bar of the Union Square Cafe rescued New York City’s reputation for gourmet dining for me the following day. I loved my crudo of Nantucket Bay scallops flecked with jalapeno pepper and lemon zest, and a Savoy cabbage, bacon, Granny Smith apple and robiola risotto was one of the best and most original versions of this heavenly concoction I’ve ever had (Thank goodness I was able to get it without the Balsamic vinegar reduction that would have completely muddled this delicate constellation of flavors, too, and this only because I asked for a very complete description of the dish). Oh if only Danny Meyer would open a contemporary American bistro like the Union Square Cafe or the Gramercy Park Tavern in Paris!

What puzzles me most about dining out in New York, aside from the appalling prices–Paris is so much cheaper than New York, absurdly marked up and usually very dull wine lists, deafening noise and frequently antic service (too present or invisible, with too little in between) is how and why almost all of the really dreary places I’ve eaten in in New York so far are so well rated in a bouquet of different food guides. Consider Il Buco on Bond Street, which everyone raves about.

“There’s very little French cooking left in New York–it’s all Italian these days in Manhattan,” observed bon vivant Bert Sonnenfeld during a meal that Bruno and I had with him and the ever lovely Noel Fitch Riley at this restaurant on Sunday night. We agreed that the grand French restaurants of yore that had once defined good food in Manhattan have almost all sadly vanished, and with a few exceptions–Fleur de Sel, notably among the them, the bistro scene in Manhattan is pretty much withered these days as well. Instead, France has been profoundly shunted off the scene by Italy, and with very mixed results. If the Tuscan country style decor at Il Buco is charming and wonderfully cosy for winter dining, and our starters were pretty good–a lovely kale salad sprinkled with Pecorino cheese, codfish balls with a bland salsa, sausage with resina beans, bruschetta and quince mustard, and empanadas (ordered out of curiosity), the lasagna touted by the waiter was ordinary, as was a wild-mushroom risotto. Ignoring the good looks of the dining room, I’d give this place a 70/100 and a scolding for being so egregiously over-priced.

As we head into 2009, it’s obvious that the New York City restaurant scene is going to take a beating, and I think that convivial, good-value places serving great quality comfort food are going to star in the New Year. Two wonderful examples? Pio Pio, the terrific chain of Peruvian restaurants that have taken the city by storm and which do one of the most delicious roasted marinated chickens I’ve had in a very longtime, and Frankies Spuntino 17. a superb Italian place on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side (N.B. There’s a branch in Brooklyn, too).

Lunch with Kato and Charles from LA, and Bruno, was one of the happiest and most delicious meals I’ve had in the last few weeks. Kato and Bruno raved about the lentil soup, while Charles and I went with the fennel, celery bulb, red onion, and flat parsley salad in lemon and olive-oil vinaigrette, a truly sublime salad. Next, Charles and I, the meat dudes, loved our Faicco’s Italian sausage (out of the skin) in a saute of red peppers on polenta (more grits than real Italian polenta, but this is just a quibble over the difference between the U.S. breakfast cereal texture and the coarser version found in Italy), while Bruno had a surprisingly good baby watercress salad with pear and gorgonzola and Kato was happy with a pretty little plate of broccoli rabe. All four of us loved a killer trio of American farmhouse cheeses from the Saxelby Cheesemonger’s in the Essex Street market (the best Yankee dairy I’ve eaten in recent memory), and my single espresso rivaled anything I’ve sipped recently in Trieste.

Frankies Spuntino 17, 17 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002, Tel. 212-253-2303.  www.frankiesspuntino.com

Pio-Pio, 702 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10025, Tel. 212-665-3000. www.piopionyc.com (plus six other branches in the N.Y. metropolitan area)

Happy Holidays to one and all, and I look forward to sharing more great eating with you in 2009.

  • Charlotte Wilkes

    Alec,

    Hope you’re having fun in NY, and thanks for the tip about Frankies Spuntino 17. We went today and it was superb.

    Love your Paris book, too.

    Charlotte