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New York: Foodie capital of the world

It may not be the capital of the world, but it’s where most food trends are launched, where world cuisines flourish and where chefs find fame. New York is, without doubt, the number one food city on the planet, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Dec 06, 2014 18:15 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
New York,Nobu,Japanese

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 popularised 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.

Also read:Vir Sanghvi's New York diary

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. When successful restaurateurs and chefs from outside come to New York, they struggle.

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 when it opens later this year.

Eating in New York is always a joy. 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…)

It is oddly enough, 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 spend so much money on 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. (Which is what I do when I feel like a steak.)

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 fiorentina, 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 caramelised on the outside and was melting on the inside. 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 my youth but which is now hip and exciting.

I chose the crowded Pearl & Ash, a small-plates restaurant with a cuisine that is hard to categorise. 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 as 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’s 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 flavours so expertly that you could tell that 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.

Eat street: Only in New York can you go from Michelin-star cooking to a food truck without finding the transition at all strange.

Only in New York can you go from Daniel Humm’s three-Michelin-star cooking to a food truck without finding the transition at all strange. When I tweeted that I was in New York, Shazmeen Kara tweeted that I should try the Halal Brothers’ food truck. Various others chimed in with their own recommendations including my son (Raaj Sanghvi) who said, “The cart parallel to the Hilton Hotel is the best. Many imposters around that block.”

Intrigued by all this advice, I went there and found three trucks, all run by the same team called The Halal Guys (is this what you meant, Shazmeen?) who also put up large signs warning customers not to fall prey to imitators. But they had long lines in front of all three carts so clearly they were doing okay.

The food was not Indian but vaguely Middle-Eastern. I had (as my Twitter pals had instructed) the lamb over rice with extra hot sauce. It was delicious and filling.

Having learnt from the writings of such American journos as Thomas Friedman that taxi-drivers were the true repositories of wisdom, I listened to a Pakistani taxi driver, who assuming that I was missing the food of the sub-continent, insisted that I went to Handi in Little India: “Best Pakistani biryani in the world, sir!”

It turned out to be the closest thing to a Punjabi dhaba that you could find in New York. All the customers were Punjabis (from both sides of the border) and the guy behind the counter spoke only Punjabi with a smattering of Hindi/Urdu. I tried the biryani. It was nice but – dare I say this – very Punjabi.

Finally I also ended up (now that I was in Little India) at the New York branch of Bombay’s Kailash Parbat. The dahi-batata puri was fine but it was odd to be served by a Bangladeshi who had no great understanding of the cuisine. Even so, dahi-batata puri and bhelpuri are such world-beaters that they’ll triumph anywhere.

And it is always nice to have a little touch of Bombay in New York.

From HT Brunch, December 7
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First Published: Dec 05, 2014 19:03 IST