The first thing that caught my eye after Adam warmly greeted me into his perfectly apportioned Manhattan studio were four immense collages of restaurant cards from around the world – the greatest restaurants; the who’s who of hard-to-get reservations; the military decorations of a globetrotting gastronome – all packed artistically into floating glass frames, sandwiched for all time in his memory. And that’s just the amuse-bouche…This is New York after all – I’ve seen signed Yankees and Rangers and Knicks jerseys; even Mets jerseys on neighbors’ walls, but never a chef’s jacket – one from Alain Ducasse in his kitchen, and one from Ferran Adrià with a message on creativity personally penned across the chest. Then there’s the books – I recognized the name Thomas Keller so I plucked the black tome off the shelf: “if memory serves me right” the first page read, “To Adam, Remember that it’s all about family.” signed, dated, and a first edition at that – like the nearly hundred others in his collection, all of which have a message to him from the greatest chefs around the world.
It’s with great pleasure that Used York City introduces a new guest column showcasing NYC’s most treasured tables: “coups de coeur” as they might say where Adam was born in Montreal – focusing on hidden gems, each of which are reminiscent of another place – a country, a time, a memory… and which promise to transport you from the hustle and bustle of big apple.
(UYC) Let’s cut to the chase, what’s the best restaurant in New York?
(AG) What’s the best? Or, what’s my favorite?
(UYC) What do you mean? Tell us about both!
(AG) Technically speaking, the best restaurant in New York has got to be Le Bernardin.
At Le Bernardin, the food is exciting, thoughtful and perfectly executed. The best plate of food I ate in 2011 was there – Octopus a la Plancha. The sauce was absolutely brilliant. It is said that creativity is not copying: here Eric Ripert’s team used Chinese black beans in a light-as-air vinegar based sauce vierge to add a whole new dimension to grilled octopus, which would have been delicious in its own right. We’ve all tasted [you name it] in black bean sauce, which is almost always characteristically sticky, oily, and overpowering. Surely fermented black beans can be a clever addition to day-old stir-fried [you name it], which partly explains the provenance of strong and greasy foods from places that are far inland from food sources, typically needing to make up where freshness lacks by masking flavor with spice. Think for example of the difference in cooking styles you’d find surrounding the Mediterranean in Barcelona or the Greek Islands (i.e., pull fish out of water, drop on hot metal, sprinkle delicately with olive oil and salt) vs. places that are best known for spicy food such as Southern India or Sichuan (ever try Sichuan hot pot with lip-numbing flower peppers?) which are quite far inland. Anyway, back to the food porn: the point is, Ripert singularly realized that the flavor of fermented black beans could add something incremental to perfectly grilled octopus, and that the existence of black beans did not need imply a heavy or overpowering result. Octopus + black beans, and black bean flavor – heaviness, both = revelations. The room itself is also highly relevant in time and place, especially since the renovation last year: modern without losing its classic appeal; chic without seeming cold, a space that is characteristically New York, but which makes you forget for an ephemeral moment that you’re in the center of it all. Oh, and I should also mention that they get service, which is expertly tailored from caring guidance and lengthy explanations for the foodie making his or her pilgrimage to this temple of seafood, to attentive and un-disturbing for the business meeting or romantic date – all based their Jedi ability to read the mood of their guests. To sum it up, nobody is surprised when tickets to the Met Opera, Cirque du Soleil or that hot Broadway show go for hundreds of dollars a head – they are each in their own right, unique artistic interpretations…Well, so is this.
That said, Le Bernardin is not my favorite restaurant. By the time I’ve clocked in 80 hours of work, I probably don’t want to wear a sport jacket or suit to dinner on Friday night. And I probably don’t want to fork over nearly $300 (…that would be per person), short of a very, very special occasion. Moreover, it’s a serious meal, and I’ve spent enough time being serious at the office…I want to feel comfortable. I may want to slouch, I may want to linger, I may want to go heavy on the appetizers and light on the main courses, I may want to share, and I may even want to go from a cocktail to rosé (gasp!) and back again not feeling guilty about the “correctness” of it all, as it must be at a restaurant of such loftiness in reputation. So what’s my favorite? I’d have to say Aldea, Peasant or any of the Totto’s – I’ll save the why for a later column!
(UYC) So then, what’s your favorite restaurant in the world?
(AG) It’s a secret. I’ll tell you about it though: it’s a magical place. I’ve spent a couple of weeks during the last few summers in Barcelona, which is without a doubt the. best. place. to. eat. in the world. You can take the equivalent of the LIRR north and once you’re five minutes outside the city, the train runs right along the edge of the ocean – all you can see out of the car window is the blue of the sea (New Yorkers will know this is the polar opposite of a rush-hour subway ride on the 4-5-6). Forty minutes later and you’re in a quiet little fishing village where there’s a tavern in front of the ocean that’s been in the family for generations. They make their own vermouth, they go up to Galicia every spring to buy the very best seafood at the source and bring it to a cannery to preserve it and make it even better. And let me tell you, there is nothing better, more relaxing or soothing than an afternoon in the sea and sun, spending several hours over several glasses of vermouth (drink half, dilute with freshly siphoned sparkling water, drink more, dilute more, order more, repeat) nibbling at the world’s very best seafood, uncooked, and virtually unseasoned.
Seem weird? So much about a restaurant is not what’s on the plate – it’s how it makes you feel. Danny Meyer, for one, gets that (if you’re at all interested in either business or restaurants, read his book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business). Even so, I’m not always in the mood for Danny Meyer’s particularly perfect yet rather formulaic restaurant model…is it the ideal date place? Is it the right Sunday night comfort place? It can’t be all at once, so what are you in the mood for, or rather, what kind of place can suit and adapt to the greatest number of moods? That’s my favorite place…
(UYC) Used York City last counted nearly 25,000 restaurants in NY: How do you decide where you’re going for dinner; better yet how will you decide which restaurants to introduce to our readers?
(AG) First of all, I’m always scanning the blogs – Eater, Grubstreet, etc. and love to follow the thought leaders and their twitter feeds to find out what’s new and exciting: think Tony Bourdain (famous NY’er! – must read: Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw), José Andres, … for what’s new and exciting. That said, there are things that are universally of good taste, and I don’t mean truffles, caviar and foie gras. One of the most important developments of post-modern gastronomy (the same school of thought which some might associate with molecular gastronomy) was Ferran Adrià’s monumental realization that all products have the same gastronomic value regardless of their price (read: The Sorcerer’s Apprentices). Having a degree in economics, it makes sense to me that the price of truffles is no more than a function of their short supply, and having studied behavioral economics (read: Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational) it even makes sense that the demand for them is therefore higher because they’re expensive. Importantly, notice this has nothing at all to do with how truffles taste. A long way of saying that I’m not going to show you the fanciest, most gilded lilies of the NYC restaurant scene. Le Bernardin, Daniel, EMP, Jean Georges and Per Se are all wonderful (we can have a debate in the below about the one you like best – you already know where I stand…). And not to put them down, but nobody is going to say that they didn’t enjoy their truffle-supplemented dish at Daniel (except for maybe me – I kid you not, but I digress). On the other hand, we should all be able to agree on the fact that it’s much more difficult, and speaks perhaps much more to the skill of a chef when you find the husband-and-wife special to be perfectly sublime at a nondescript Chinese restaurant. A) do you know what husband and wife is? …cold oxtail and tripe, and yes, it’s generally delicious. B) do you know what tripe is? If you don’t you should probably taste it first, before I ruin it for you!
(UYC) Tell us about a food trend that excites you.
(AG) I can’t think of too many positive externalities from the Great Recession other than what it did to the restaurant scene, especially in New York. One of the things that great doctors and great chefs unfortunately have in common is that they tend not to think about price: whatever tools, products or procedures necessary shall be procured in order to ensure optimal result. Period. Then, all of a sudden, there was a sense of doing less with more. Cost went from being the exogenous to becoming the endogenous variable, and smart chefs started to ask themselves the question: “Can we apply the same techniques and same exacting, unrelenting standards to cheaper cuts of meat to lower the price point but not the level of innovation or deliciousness?” (c.f., the Great Fergus Henderson, way before there was an economic imperative to think that way). This logic is at least partly behind the rise of gastropubs, yakitori bars and ramen shops, whereby nobody outside of NYC would think of paying $15+ for a bowl of soup noodles, but the thought of getting a top meal for about $20 with tax and tip is a novel concept for a New Yorker, regardless of the actual cost of the ingredients. We’re learning to prefer a perfect bowl of noodles vs. a lousily cooked stake (I forgot how to spell it because I don’t really like to eat it: hint – no visits to Peter Luger or STK in the cards…) for the same money, and that’s probably a good thing. More innocuously even, you’d see the fish option switch from halibut to skate to shave a few dollars off the cost of the dish, and because we now know that all ingredients have the same gastronomic value it was a win-win proposition with no necessary sacrifice on taste. Even tapas bars benefited from the trend where there is an obvious attraction to the fact that lots of different small plates can be had at lower absolute price points. It makes me happy to know in difficult times that people were content to trade down on quantity — portion sizes and frequency of restaurant visits — but reluctant to accept lower standards of quality. Perhaps the best example though of restaurateurs’ adaptation to tougher times was the rise of bar menus, or full-out bar areas – casual zones within notable restaurants offering more wallet-friendly options in a more relaxed setting, think: Nougatine at Jean Geogres, Bar Room at the Modern, Tap Room at Colicchio & Sons, the café at Aquavit, the lounge at the redesigned Le Bernardin – none of which are cheap by any means, but all of which are a relative steal, where you’re getting served by the same wait staff and the food is from the same kitchen, touched by the same (line) chef. Hopefully this notion of “value” endures even as the economy gets better.
(UYC) How about a trend you’re fed up of?
(AG) I think Anthony Bourdain is a force for good in the world – and before we even get going, I’m not going to knock Tony one bit. He’s teaching us about good taste in a broad sense, and we’re all learning to eat better as a result. And I don’t necessarily think it’s his fault, but he’s a trendsetter and people are taking his professed love of all things porky and fatty a little too far. In the same way that we think truffles = good, pork fat tends to press the same happy buttons in our brain. And it’s cheap. Restaurants are about delivering pleasure, right? If we can deliver more pleasure by adding the cheap thrill of pork fat, then why not? Chefs have become very successful working off this theme – think David Chang’s infamous pork buns (think pork fat + mayo + carb-loaded bun = yummy). Heck, if he opens up a couple more Momofuku’s he’ll probably be considered a chain and be forced by law to like McDonalds disclose the calorie count on his menus! Public, Resto and the once insanely popular M. Wells (for the food and the fact GQ food writer Alan Richman allegedly nipped one of the waitresses in the butt there…) are all flagrantly guilty of this terrible trend. Frankly, there should be a disclosure on servings of bone marrow greater than 1oz, not dissimilar to what tobacco manufacturers have been forced to put on cigarette packs these days. Unnecessary pork fat is like MSG, actually it’s probably worse for you. We don’t take Chinese restaurants seriously at a gourmet level that use MSG, so there shouldn’t be any more empathy for Western restaurants loading up on pork fat either. There’s a happy medium. Forcible health food isn’t fun – I like egg yolks just as much as Bourdain, but lay off the pork fat so I don’t need to retaliate by ordering an egg white omelette.
(UYC) Where did you get the idea for your column?
(AG) I love that Used York City added to the site an area with great ideas for quick trips to take a break from New York. But really, in this culturally diverse live-to-work city, the best many of us can do is take a little gastronomic journey to a special place and feel transported…I’d love to help you find those places!
(UYC) Can you give us a taste of what’s to come?
(AG) Chefs love surprises! Just kidding – I’ll tell you what I have in mind for my first column: I’ve studied in Beijing and spent a lot of time in China so I really love great Chinese food, but I was so disappointed for the first few years I lived in NY that the authentic, light and tasty stuff was so hard to find. Until I discovered Flushing! So get ready for a little journey to China, coming next week…
By: Adam Gross