Vir Sanghvi's New York Diary
Paris is now over-priced and overrated. London has lost its edge. So New York is truly the foodie capital of the world. While the restaurant scene in most cities the world over is dominated by a few big-name chefs, the New York environment remains resolutely local. Vir Sanghvi writes.brunch Updated: Feb 18, 2012 19:40 IST
It is not as though the big-name global chefs have not tried to make their mark here. Often, the restaurants they have opened have been excellent. But New York has failed to be impressed.
Alain Ducasse, the only chef in the world with three restaurants that have three Michelin stars (in Monaco, Paris and London) opened first at the Essex House hotel. Michelin loyally gave him three stars but New York was indifferent. The restaurant closed. Then, Ducasse opened a new restaurant, Adour, at the St Regis Hotel, and Americanised his menu. But New York still did not take to him and even Michelin has only given a single star to Adour, a slap in the face of the man who is often called the world’s greatest chef.
Ducasse’s rival for that title is Joel Robuchon. His L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at the Four Seasons gets two stars from Michelin (though the Atelier brand is reserved for Robuchon’s more casual restaurants rather than his fine-dining places) but it remains the sort of restaurant that tourists and international businessmen – rather than real New Yorkers – go to.
The worst fate of all has been suffered by Gordon Ramsay. When the loud-mouthed British chef opened in New York, he bragged about how his restaurant would turn the city’s dining scene around. Instead, it was a resounding flop. Michelin, which gives Ramsay three stars in London obligingly gave him two stars in New York but Michelin hardly matters in this city. The New York Times (which really calls the shots) slaughtered Ramsay and though the restaurant survives, Ramsay no longer cooks there (does he cook anywhere these days, I wonder?), is listed as a mere consultant, and his New York empire struggles. A second Ramsay restaurant, Maze, is described by Zagat as feeling “like an airport lounge” with nothing to distinguish it except for steep prices.
In that sense, New York is like Paris. It only likes its own chefs. Outsiders are never made to feel welcome. When the Taj-run Pierre Hotel opened a branch of London’s trendy Le Caprice, I wondered how long the restaurant would survive. This time, in New York, I got my answer. Though the Pierre is now better than ever (and is finally commanding the rates and occupancies it deserves), Le Caprice has been a flop and will close next month. Its place will be taken by Sirio, a brand owned by Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque, a New York institution. (Interesting to see how Maccioni is spreading his bets – his partners in India are the Leela group while in New York he is in bed with the Taj.)
But once New York takes a chef to its heart, it allows him to spread his wings and open as many restaurants as he wants. So the likes of Mario Batali, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Nobu Matsuhisa, David Bouley and Michael White can do no wrong (nor can such prolific restaurateurs as Danny Meyer and Drew Nieporent), while outsiders get the brush-off.
Last week, I spent four hectic days in New York, shooting for Star World and trying to fit in as many restaurants as I could. My first meal was at Brushstroke, a small, new, hard-to-get-into Japanese restaurant in the Village (thanks to the Pierre’s well-connected concierges for finding me a table). David Bouley is a brilliant New York-based French chef whose main restaurant Bouley, I love. (Bouley gets 28 or top grade from Zagat but only one star from Michelin which may tell you something about how irrelevant the French guide is in this city.)
Over a decade ago, Bouley (the chef, not the restaurant!) began working with Yoshiki Tsuji, head of the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Japan and exchanging ideas. A year ago, these exchanges resulted in the creation of Brushstroke in a spot formerly occupied by Bouley’s Danube restaurant.
I wasn’t sure what to expect because Bouley is a French chef but was pleasantly surprised to find that Brushstroke sticks closely to traditional Japanese flavours. There is none of the Nobu-Megu-Zuma emphasis on easy-to-please food and no chef’s tricks. For instance, many Japanese chefs make their chawan-mushi (steamed egg custard) with foie gras to appeal to Western palates. Here it was made with mushroom and sea-urchin, both typical Japanese ingredients and the flavours were deep and intense.
The restaurant is designed by Takashi Sugimoto of the ubiquitous Super Potato company. But it is not a caricature Super Potato design. (Thai Pavilion, San Qi, Set’z etc.) and reminded me more of Bangalore’s elegant Edo, also designed by Super Potato. The service was relaxed and friendly and the food was excellent. Small wonder that Brushstroke also gets the top score of 28 from Zagat. (To be fair, New York has two restaurants that get 29 – Le Bernardin and Daniel – but 28 is generally regarded as tops.)
I was in New York to interview Deepak Chopra and he took me to ABC Kitchen, located in the building where he has his studio. The restaurant is relatively new and packed out with a celebrity clientele (Hilary Clinton, movie stars, etc.), which comes for the fresh ingredients and the relaxed vibe. It is one of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s many New York establishments but differs from the others because it emphasises Jean-Georges’ take on California’s Chez Panisse style of cooking.
I had a salad of raw scallop and a whole-wheat pizza and tasted some of Deepak’s brussels sprouts (the first time I have ever liked this vegetable) and Portobello mushrooms. The food marked a welcome departure for Jean-Georges though perhaps we got special treatment because Deepak is both a celebrity and a regular (he has an account there).
While most of Daniel Boulud’s expansions have been into chic, happening restaurants like Bar Boulud or DB Bistro Moderne (home of the over-priced hamburger), his Café Boulud on the Upper East Side remains closest to his food at his main Daniel restaurant and thus, to his haute cuisine roots. I went for Sunday brunch so I’m not sure I can judge it on that basis. The tables were too tightly packed and service was slightly slapdash but the food was rock-solid with a slow-cooked rib of beef with a perfectly fried egg (his take on steak and eggs) and a butter-poached lobster with silky scrambled eggs as the stand-out dishes.
Zagat gives Cafe Boulud 27 (as against Daniel’s 29) and it has a Michelin star so it is no surprise to see it described (by Zagat) as a place for socialites and ‘old money types’. I guess I’ll have to go for a proper meal to judge the weekday menu.
Michael White is very much the New York chef of the moment. I went to two of his establishments on the same day. I had lunch at Marea, his Central Park-facing seafood restaurant described by Michelin as “the place to go for the boldly-moneyed and their beautiful companions.” (Boldly-moneyed? No, I have no idea what that means either but Michelin gives it two stars and it gets 28 from Zagat.)
The sun-filled room was full of the rich and famous (Yoko Ono, etc.) and the food struck me as being an Italian take on Le Bernardin which does the same sort of thing in a more Frenchified way. (And does it better.) A starter of raw tuna, mackerel and cuttlefish was good but the stand-out dishes included a brilliant black bass and lobster on a base of burrata. The flavours were clean and distinct and this was cooking of a very high order.
I was less sure about White’s Ai Fiori, where I had dinner. The restaurant has been well reviewed and is regarded just below Marea (one star from Michelin and 27 from Zagat) but the vibe is singularly joyless. Ai Fiori is on the first floor of the Setai, a hip, newish hotel with a complicated brand history. (Some Setais have an Aman connection because of Adrian Zecha but this one is managed by the Capella group – which also runs the Norman Foster-designed resort property in Singapore’s Sentosa.)
I imagine that the idea was to run a happening, hip and trendy place but the designer’s chief contribution is to make the room so dark that it seems almost dingy. The staff are more Italian than at Marea and the food is less adventurous. Nothing I ate was bad – a veal chop, a steak etc. – but the overall effect was under-whelming.
I have many childhood memories of the Café de Paris in Geneva which serves only one dish: steak in a buttery sauce and crisp French fries. I had read about the Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecote chain (branches in Paris, London, Barcelona, etc.) which serves a similar menu and had imagined that it did the same Café de Paris steak and sauce.
The New York outpost is not terribly well-rated (20 in Zagat) but follows the chain’s global policy of accepting no reservations. You have to turn up and take your chances. I am told that in Paris there can be queues outside the restaurant.
But, as if to prove my point about New York and outsiders, the large L’Entrecote branch on 52nd Street was nearly empty. (Only three other tables were occupied.) Bored waitresses served steak and chips to a few customers who seemed as bored. The steak was so-so, the fries were soggy and the sauce was rubbish – not a patch on the Geneva Café de Paris version. I could see why the restaurant was empty. The kindest thing that could be said about it was that it was reasonably priced (around $25 per head) and wine mark-ups were low.
For my last lunch in New York I went to the highest rated of Danny Meyer’s restaurants. Meyer is a New York phenomenon and his places (Union Square Café is probably the most famous) are marked by good food and outstanding service. But even by his standards, Eleven Madison Park is top-of-the-line. It has three Michelin stars and rates 28 in Zagat.
The room is wonderful: high ceilings, art deco lithographs and lots of sunlight. The service is as personalised and warm as you would expect at one of Meyer’s restaurants. The menu, however, is a bit of a surprise. You order four courses (it’s a prix fixe) from options listed simply as: potato, chicken, lobster, chocolate etc. You can ask the serving staff about how each ingredient is cooked but they prefer to remain tight-lipped and urge you to let the meal be a surprise.
After you’ve ordered, the freebies start arriving. Chefs wander in from the kitchen bringing little cheese balls or quail-egg canapés. Then, the meal begins. It takes between 90 minutes to two hours.
My food was a revelation: a dish described simply as ‘potato’ had small boiled fingerling potatoes with pork belly confit and black truffle. There was much more in a similar vein: lobster, foie gras and chicken, all cooked with astonishing imagination and finesse. It wasn’t hard to see why the restaurant had three stars and I’d rate it up there along with Le Bernardin as one of New York’s finest. It is hard to eat this well (and at these prices) in Paris.
The final flourish came with the petit fours. These consisted of two chocolate beignets encasing truffle ice-cream. One had white truffle ice-cream and the other had black truffle ice-cream. Though other chefs have tried to merge the flavours of truffle, ice-cream and chocolate, I have never known it to be done as well as here. The flavours were so clear that you could tell the difference between the taste of white truffle and the taste of black truffle.
So what did I think of the food in New York?
Well, pretty much what I have always thought. Paris is now over-priced and overrated. London has lost its edge. So New York is truly the foodie capital of the world.
Got a table?
Eleven Madison Park (1212-889-0905)
Le Relais de Venise L'Entrecote
From HT Brunch, February 19
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First Published: Feb 18, 2012 14:26 IST