(originally posted march 10, 2010) The newsletter this week comes to you from NYC, where we are unabashedly eating and drinking ourselves silly. When your baby turns 21 it’s cause for celebration. Besides, whenever you travel what better way to infiltrate a city’s cultural DNA than through its stomach? Several piping hot eateries opened to high acclaim here at the height of the recession and the prodigal son and I were eager to find out how they have they managed to make sweet lemonade in this sourpuss economy. Turns out it's by trading, very well I might add, on the authenticity of several bygone eras, specifically ones that target sation over pretension. For three nights we indulged in well-built cocktails, and ate food prepared for optimum taste, served in rooms designed to fall back behind the dining experience, rooms in which you were encouraged to flirt, sass the waiters, and gossip without restraint.
First stop off the plane was The Breslin, the new April Bloomfield eatery which cleaves more closely to her original concept at The Spotted Pig than the fine dining John Dory she also opened, and closed, last year. For those of you who have not been following the gastro pub invasion of America, when it’s a good thing, it’s a very good thing, with an emphasis on nose-to-tail dishes where less popular cuts of meat lend themselves (or should) to more affordable prices. I was living in England, feature writing for the Evening Standard, when the very first gastro pub, the Eagle in Clerkenwell, hit the scene. The article I wrote about it never ran ~ but therein lies a story that gets to the heart of why this particular form of dining has enjoyed such longevity. The night the photographer shot a full service turn for the article, he got a bit too carried away with the bonhomie of the staff, all of whom cooked incredibly fast, to loud rock music, “high” on life. The images he took were dreadful. In punishing us both by pulling the article, (suffice it to say we were together that night and I was not, in all honesty, an innocent bystander) I remember my editor saying not to worry, I would get another chance. “Gastro pubs aren’t going anywhere. What everyone really wants when they dine out is to have fun.”
The Breslin is attached to the new Ace Hotel, a Portland enterprise which pretty much air lifted its funky, reclaimed, techno-cool aesthetic (complete with an outlet of Stumptown coffee) and plunked it down in midtown. April has brought the pigs. Everywhere you look, on the menu, above the banquettes, hanging from the (authentically?) water-stained ceilings are pigs ~ Plastic pigs, cast iron pigs, flying pigs. It’s a sweet, lived-in room, subtly lit, with laid back service, an eclectic bar menu and great beers on tap. If we can pull it off I plan on stealing for our bar menu ~ with attribution ~ the warm scotch egg that arrived cooked spot on, oozing yolk. Ryan’s onion soup has a more refined veal stock, but I liked their idea of a bone marrow crouton, and the rabbit terrine and thrice cooked frites were delicious. We left the Breslin in exceedingly good fettle.
The next food stop was the birthday girl’s dinner at Minetta Tavern the following night. There is a reason that even the most jaded amongst us returns to Balthazar year after year to visit the shrine where Keith McNally has nailed New York in the 21st century as if it were Paris in the 19th. His latest fixation is on New York in the 30’s. Minetta recreates the original experience of a upscale tavern so well it's hard to know where the faux caricatures that line the walls of the ‘famous’ who once dined there leave off and the real cracks on the mirrors in the ladies room begin. Does not matter. You want to believe you’ve stepped back in time. I don’t remember the food as much as the remarkable scene of tout Manhattan four deep at the bar waiting for a table, happy just to be there. Birthday girl shared a dry aged cote de boeuf with her delightful friend Nate, Lukka had a trio of Berkshire pork which had been notably straw happy. On food alone, Breslin was better. On cocktails and ambiance, a table at Minetta, if you can score one, takes some beating.
The Crosby Street Hotel ~ A perfectly charming rendition of Miami Biannale meets English country house ~ upgraded us to a suite the next day based, I presume, on nothing more than a mild complaint that I had be unable to watch Crazy Heart at 3 in the morning. Ok, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I had also mentioned the prodigal son had been asked to write a column for our favorite travel site, Tablet. Which is true. (Though as yet he hasn’t agreed to write & would kill me if he knew I’d mentioned it at all.) It was hard to leave the room after the upgrade, as all I wanted to do was sleep, waking up from time to time to gaze out over the incredible views of old Soho. I’ve been overpaying at the Mercer so long I forgot there were views in Soho. But we had one more food stop to make before I slept.
In wandering Nolita earlier in the day, Bgirl and I had passed Peasant, where I spied Goat Ragu on the menu. I also noted the deep candlelit room with firelight from a brick oven and a very cool open kitchen where a spit rotated half a pig, a lamb and several chickens. This is where we headed now. The snow, which had been threatening all day, fell in soft flutters, melting before it hit the ground. It was warm inside Peasant, and the room was done in just enough Trattatoria Rusticana to make you think someone involved really had lived and cooked in Tuscany. They had opera on the sound system, (do peasants listen to opera?) which even I’m not ballsy enough to do. It was just loud enough to hear a tenor now and then, and, if you waited for it, the orchestral thunder of armies gathering in some dark Italian forest. They brought us bowls of fresh ricotta, a bottle of young olive oil and bread from the wood burning pizza oven that would win in an Acme (though possibly not an Della Fattoria) thrown down. The wait staff was indifferent but the Italian Sav Blanc they guided me to was appropriately flinty with a soft floral nose.
For starters we devoured mounds of burrata and nicely aged prosciutto. Though the spit called to me, I was on a mission. My desire to serve goat at Barndiva strikes at the heart of the quintessential contradiction I have between giving diners what they want, and making them stretch. I won’t bore you (again) with my ecological reasons for thinking we should all be heading toward proteins that bleat instead of moo, what I sought from this dish was to find a tipping point between those good intentions and a flavor profile in a goat dish that would make me long for it again. I found it, but not on the first bite, or the even the second or third, it was mid-way through the dish when the happy din of the room, the good wine, and the extremely beautiful, articulate and scathingly funny young woman across the table distracted me long enough to forget I was eating goat. This is a new taste profile for most of us, but it's really interesting if you give it a chance. I liked the earthy sweetness that played against the softness of the housemade pasta. Unlike a fattier beef ragu, the flavor sat back on the palate, in a very pleasant way.
The rest of the trip was a blur. As I write this (from the plane) I can only remember too much money spent on exercise gear at Lululemon, boots that (thankfully) didn’t fit at Handmade, very expensive lingerie from a shop in the Bowery, pampered dogs everywhere, and, finally, a mad dash through MOMA an hour before they closed, after which we repaired to the bar in The Modern, which thankfully doesn’t. Bgirl and I spent two extremely animated hours drinking cocktails and talking about how I met her father, surrounded by a fur and diamond crowd waiting for the velvet rope to be dropped on some special event in Taniguchi’s coolly elegant honed granite hall just above us. We quickly discovered our bartender was from LA, where he had worked at Hals in our old Venice hood. When he found out our drinking qualified as ‘work’ for me, he immediately went off piste, creating delightful concoctions which paired perfectly with Gabriel Kreuther’s refined (borderline boring, given what we’d been up to) Alsatian small plates menu. If I knew I would have this much fun with this particular kid someday, I would never have stressed out during her teen years. Then again, knowing me…
My advice when traveling is to spend as much money as you can on food, especially when it supports the part of the dining industry you hope survives this recession. Great dining should be like opera ~ a company of performers using all their skills to create one transcendent moment when life as you know will seem capable of hitting all the high notes: when food and drink, music and ambiance fill your senses to the brim, and overflow. If you are lucky enough to share that moment with someone you love beyond measure, it's possible to believe that whatever the future holds, no matter how difficult these times ahead become, the things you love ~ all of them ~ will just keep getting better.
All text Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)