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Why do people linger at the doors of some places even though other restaurants have tables vacant? Answer that and you’ll crack the New York restaurant scene, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2009 21:35 IST
Rude Food | Vir Sanghvi

Why do people linger at the doors of some places even though other restaurants have tables vacant? Answer that and you’ll crack the New York restaurant scene...

This has been such a rushed trip to New York that I have had virtually no time to eat properly. Nevertheless, some experiences have stood out and will linger in my memory.

The Carnegie Deli is the sort of restaurant that is always referred to as a New York institution. It is nearly seven decades old and has featured in movies and fiction for years. Some of you may remember it from Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose which features a full table of Jewish comedians sitting at the Carnegie Deli and telling the story of the eponymous Danny.

There was a time when you had to queue up to get in Carnegie Deli, but I suspect that it has fallen on leaner times. The two days I went, it was full of tourists and very few New Yorkers. The walls were studded with photographs of celebrities (including Woody Allen, of course, who has a sandwich named after him) all of them attesting to their love of the Carnegie Deli. But it was not the kind of place you would expect to see Jewish comedians laughing loudly and telling jokes.

That said, the food was awesome. The Jewish delicatessen tradition is barely understood outside of America these days. Because Jews don’t eat pork, they subsist on beef and all their cold meat and sausages are beef based. But only East European Jews – now resettled in America – can make beef taste this good.

I had the famous pastrami sandwich which consists of hunks of pastrami piled untidily on top of a slice of rye bread. The sandwich is topped with more bread but if anybody can eat it like a sandwich and get the whole damn thing into his or her mouth, then they probably have a very happy married life.

Humbly, I opted to eat the pastrami with a knife and fork, with bites of one of the Carnegie Deli’s famous Jewish pickles in between. It was simply terrific. It’s hard to find pastrami this good elsewhere – the Carnegie makes all its own cold meats.

I went back for the corned beef sandwich and the footlong hot dog. Both were great but neither had the impact of that first pastrami sandwich.

I also finally made my way to Morimoto’s restaurant in New York. If you are familiar with the Wasabis in Bombay and Delhi, then you will know a little bit of the background.

Morimoto was executive chef at the New York Nobu when it opened and then broke away to find fame as the Iron Chef on Japanese and American television. But restaurant success eluded him till he opened his own place in Philadelphia. When that restaurant became a hit, his Philadelphia backers brought him to New York.

But New York, sold as it is on Nobu and excellent trad Jap food, was not as welcoming as Morimoto had hoped. The New York Times did not like his restaurant and though he did okay on the Zagat guides ratings, there were still seven or eight New York Japanese restaurants that were rated higher than his.

I have been a fan of Morimoto’s food in Bombay and Delhi but recognised that the dishes he served were essentially variations on Nobu’s greatest hits. His book suggested to me that he had a much greater range and I kept meaning to try the New York restaurant to see if this was true.

First signs were not encouraging. I called and asked for a table at 8 pm on a Saturday night when most of New York was sold out. No problem, they said, at Morimoto, they had room. Then, when I got there they said that Morimoto was in Philadelphia. Besides, they added, they had a problem with the sprinklers in the kitchen earlier in the evening, so everything was running 20 minutes behind schedule. This was not true. It was actually running an hour behind schedule because that’s how long it took them to find me my table. In the interim, I waited in the uncomfortable but trendy downstairs bar area.

Eventually, when they came to get us, my party decided that we would try the dishes Morimoto serves in India to see if he made them any differently in New York.

It turned out he did. The white fish carpaccio, his single most popular dish in Bombay had a different presentation and the fish was cut much thicker. The rock shrimp tempura came as two halves of a portion. One half was Wasabi flavoured. The other half had chilli hotness. And both were served with a raita.

The oysters with foie gras also tasted different but I expected that. Morimoto had explained to me that as the flavours of oyster and duck liver don’t really go with each other, he used sea urchin as a bridge. Except of course, his Indian restaurants have dispensed with the sea urchin. Over here, the dish was made the way it was supposed to be made.

There were many dishes that did not appear on the Wasabi menus. There was an excellent slow-cooked pork in what seemed like a corn cream. And there was even Morimoto’s take on the keema samosa, described on the menu as curry bread.

But the standout dish was called Duck Duck Duck. It was essentially a re-invention of Peking Duck. The duck was cooked as if in Peking Duck with crisp glistening skin. It was matched with slices of cucumber. But instead of the pancake, Morimoto used a crumbly foi gras flavoured croissant. He served the duck leg separately and provided three dips, one the traditional hoisin, the other a red miso paste and the third, a warm duck egg yolk.

It was really a first rate invention and one that hinted at Morimoto’s range once he was freed from the commercial pressures of having to adapt the Nobu menu.

Why hasn’t the restaurant been better received in New York? My guess is that Morimoto’s food is not different enough from Nobu’s for the New York critics to bother with him.

The Morimoto restaurant is on the edge of the Meat Packing District, one of my favourite parts of New York. It has been gentrified relatively recently but I like it because it has an edgy buzz that you no longer find in the Village or in Soho.

The main street of the Meat Packing District is probably the one that has the Gansevoort Hotel, Jean Georges’ Spice Market (in which the Taj were early investors) and Keith McNally’s trendy Pastis brasserie (an updated version of the formula he perfected at Balthazar).

I spent last Sunday afternoon in the Meat Packing District, tromping around the snow and taking in the ambience before ending up at Pastis for brunch.

Pastis is so popular that the crowds make entering the restaurant difficult. This Sunday was no different. I had a booking but the restaurant was full of walk-ins who were quite happy waiting an hour to an hour-and-a-half for a table.

I can’t, for the life of me, work out why this should be so. I enjoyed Pastis. It serves dependable brasserie fare. There’s a nice buzz about it and service is friendly.

But is it worth waiting so long for a table? Why do people linger at the door of Pastis even though other Meat Packing District restaurants have tables vacant?

Answer those questions and you’ll crack the New York restaurant scene. Some places simply have that elusive quality that makes people want to be seen there. It’s not the food. It’s not the location. It’s not the decor. It’s something nobody can define.

Poor Morimoto does not have it. And all of Keith McNallys’ restaurants do. That’s why they turn away people when places with better food are still soliciting customers.