Why do we heart NYC so much? Is it the energy we get from walking the streets? The true twenty-four hour nature of the city? Its culture, arts and museums? The throbbing heartbeat of a place pulsating with vitality no other city can touch? Or is it the world city you see on the streets — a cross-cultural stew of sites, sounds and smells that is a constant source of wonderment and allows no room for boredom?
Sure it’s all that, but mainly we love it because the food is so fucking good.
Our usual itinerary calls for a red-eye flight (Jet Blue if you can get it), the better to squeeze in as many meals as possible and not waste a day traveling east. After parking our bags, we at ELV usually hightail it to Payard Bistro and Patisserie* at 74th and Lexington for what are probably the best French pastries in America.
This time, however, we postponed our standing date with Francois and headed downtown to Bar Jamon (Ham Bar) to sample sherries and Spanish tapas the likes of which Las Vegans can only dream about:
Pay close attention to the pictures and you’ll see a restaurant that is simplicity itself: wine bottles on vertical shelves, about twenty menu items, three hams, five or six cheeses and three desserts. Two dudes run the whole show, and the only heat they use is a toaster. But to those 25 communal seats they bring small, composed plates of beautiful food that the staff knows backwards — with a liveliness in appearance and taste that shames the same old same old tapas put out by Firefly and Cafe Ba Ba Reeba in our humble burg.
Of course we were annoyed by our waitron’s admonition not to photograph the food (“get over yourself Mario” was an apt comment to an earlier post), but we can forgive the rotund, overly-ego’d one when he’s invented a template this tasty.
And why o’ why can’t someone in Vegas figure out a way to make a 400 square foot place work like this one does?
After all this salty/savory/sweet/succulence, our staff insisted we waste a few hours shopping, walking, and getting some culture, but in no time we were right back in ELV’s comfort zone, grabbing some super-smooth cocktails (at $19 per – yikes!) at that bastion of Upper East Side society: Bemelman’s Bar in the Carlyle Hotel.
This art deco masterpiece was restored in 2002 and is so old New York that you practically expect Jackie O to sit down beside you. Her ghost may very well be around (this was her and JFK’s preferred digs when in the Big Apple), but we had to settle for the Easter Bunny®, and the feeling that we were at the world’s most civilized watering hole.
From there, it was but a short stroll across the street to what may be our favorite New York restaurant: Cafe Boulud…….where we sat so close to Jeremy Irons we wanted to interrupt him several times to debate the opinions he was expressing on the British v. American education system. As Humbert Humbert opined, his dining companions (three silver-haired fat cats and their sky-maintenance wives) hung on this guy‘s every word. Occasionally though, those tycoon husbands would leave their missus to gaze adoringly at Claus Von Bulow while they immersed themselves in serious, and seriously boring, business matters** — none of which seemed related to what it takes to get out of the sixth grade in either country.
Scar or no scarf, none of them paid the slightest attention to Chef Gavin Kaysen’s food, which was as picture and pitch perfect as cuisine can be.
Cafe Boulud is just about perfect as well. The size (95 seats — that civilized thing again), understated elegance, knowledgeable staff, and seasonal cuisine make it a spot that feels as comfortable as an old shoe — if that shoe was handmade, custom fit, and as stylish as this guy.
Having visited the cuisines of Spain and France, we decided to concentrate on Italy for a day. First with a simple lunch at Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), consisting of some braised endives with anchovies and pine nuts, and plate of the Neapolitan paccheri (wide bands of artisanal pasta with a light onion sauce and a dusting of good cheese):
From there it was on to some sightseeing……as The Food Gal® was under the impression there were things to do in New York other than eat.
But such trivialities quickly passed (although not quickly enough for ELV), and soon we were tucked into a nice big table at Osteria del Circo on 55th Street, enjoying another in a long line of superlative meals we’ve had here:
Now ELV knows what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Well, you’re very well known to the Maccionis ELV, and they probably give you the royal treatment every time you show up. So your praises for their food and service should be taken with a grain of salt, right?”
Wrong…but kinda right too. Allow us to explain.
This time, we just dropped in, and the staff had no idea who we were. As in all Maccioni restaurants, they couldn’t have been more hospitable, and the food: Spring vegetable soup, trippa Fiorentina, Spring lamb, and a to-die-for apple strudel– was, each dish in its own way — the purest expression of its main ingredient(s). The soup was a clear-yet-rich-broth studded with asparagus and fresh peas — and was the essence of the season in a bowl, and the baby lamb had both tenderness (natch) and lamb-ness — a quality far too elusive in most denatured lamb sold these days.
For most of the meal, we dined in anonymity, with the crackerjack wait staff not missing a beat. Aside from a glass of wine that was a tad warm, the meal was flawless. Just as we were tucking into that superb strudel and a nice slice of Tallegio, the impeccably-attired Mauro Maccioni walked in and spotted us. He sat down, regaled us with tales of the recession and its impact on New York restaurants (“private parties have disappeared, everyone’s down…”), and then comped the meal.
So for most of our dinner, we were just a couple of rubes who wandered in off the street (or at least as rube-ish as the ultra-sophisticated ELV can be) — who experienced the best in food and service because that’s just the way they do things at Circo — both in New York and Las Vegas. Not having to pay can be ascribed to dumb luck, good Karma or the charming graciousness of the Maccionis — probably a combination of all three. Molto grazie Mauro!
The next day, we spent the morning trudging through huge old buildings with tons of really old things displayed in glass cases and hundreds of pictures on the walls painted by lots of dead white guys, before getting back to business: Lunch….….at Kai/Ito En (a combination Japanese restaurant/tea shop) that provided the perfect foil to the richness of Circo’s lamb and tripe.
There is something about the clean, bright flavors of a Japanese lunch that seems to have health-giving properties. The chirashi sushi here was so fresh it looked like it had jumped right from the sea into the bowl, and the tempura was incomparably light — as was the house-made tofu and green tea granitee. ELV freely admits to not being a miso soup expert, but this one had layers of umami unfamiliar to most versions he’s slurped.
So healthy did we feel after all that subtle, Shinto, spiritual sustenance, that our newly restored cardiovasculars needed a jolt of reality, so we popped in here……for a corned beef and pastrami sandwich, roughly the size of my head.
After that The Food Gal® told me there were things like stores or shops or something all around where you could buy, like clothes or shoes or jewelry or other such nonsense, so I humored her for a bit — if for no other reason than to resuscitate the appetite for the meat feast to come.
And strolling into Bar Boulud….….that’s just what we found.
Bar Boulud is another example of an innovative restaurant — accessible to charcuterie aficionados and sausage novices alike — that’s a huge hit in New York, but that is overlooked by the geniuses running our hotel/casino restaurants. ELV is occasionally asked by those F&B honchos for his opinions about what’s new in the food world. Time and again, he points to places like Momofuku Ssam Bar, Bar Jamon, Fatty Crab and Bar Boulud as the future of dining. And what do we get in Vegas? Serendipity 3 and three new steakhouses.
At the bar, you choose between all sorts of fermented meat made by Sylvain Gasdon under the tutelage of Gilles Verot —the French master of the craft, who is, as Frank Bruni says: “…to head cheese what Yves Saint Laurent is to the tuxedo jacket.”
BB is truly the apotheosis of pork, but if cured meat is not to your liking, there’s a standard, but well-executed menu of bistro classics to tide you over until your next meal. (FYI: Ruth Schroader Curtas D.O.B. 8.10.24 – The Official Mother Of ELV – swears by the brioche French toast here.)
Three lunches in one day was a bit much even for ELV, but undaunted, we subway’d downtown, where we hoped to grab a cocktail at Death & Co., and then stroll into some unknown restaurant in Greenwich Village for an unfamiliar late night repast.
Alas, we were thwarted at every turn. Death & Co. (a highly influential mixology mecca) was packed, and perhaps as punishment for all the gastronomic perfection we’d been experiencing, or perhaps a comeuppance for always boasting he’s never had a bad meal in New York City….a divining hand (and a windy, cold rainstorm) led ELV into the Mermaid Inn — for a seafood meal so mediocre it could’ve come from a bottom shelf Vegas casino. (MI does, however, have a groovy Web site.)
Nothing wrong with it, mind you, just sauce-less spaghetti with overcooked seafood (topped with beaucoup bread crumbs), thin, characterless clam chowder (too thin being just as egregious as too thick when it comes to chowder alchemy), and a dozen so-so oysters — all of which left us hungry, properly chastened, and wishing we had taken the bait at one of the Indian joints shilling for our business (“You come in now sir…our food the best!”) on East 6th Street. All of the food there (on this single block containing about a dozen Indian restaurants) might come from a secret, underground communal kitchen (as has always been suspected by native New Yorkers), but at least we would have tasted some seasonings.
The next day, you know who mentioned that she wanted to…what was it?….Explore something called New York’s history? So off we went to look at a bunch of old buildings with lots of plaques on them until I could coax her back to reality.
And that reality happened to be what ELV considers the best Italian restaurant in New York: Felidia……where Chef Fortuanto Nicotra dazzled us with a pasta tasting, and chunks of calves liver over polenta that — for all of the carbs and protein — were surprisingly light. The crudo platter (not pictured) won’t make anyone forget top-grade sashimi, but Nicotra’s heirloom beet salad almost had us liking beets — a major accomplishment in ELV’s ban the beets world.
Then, just for grins and giggles, we strolled down to the restaurant at Scandinavian House…….just so The Food Gal® could commune with her Norwegian/Swedish ancestors, grab a fresh made lingonberry soda, and have some creamy rice pudding that was surprisingly tasty for being made by a bunch of Viking pillagers.
So the question is: Is restaurant food that much bleeping better in New York City than it is in Vegas? Empirically and experientially we would say “yes.” By “experientially” we mean: Everything just tastes better the same way Sagrantino di Montefalco wine tastes better being sipped from a hillside in Umbria than when the identical wine is sipped at your kitchen table. New York is a food mecca, and like any pilgrim on any pilgrimage, the intensity of simply being there heightens all the senses.
Empirically, New York restaurants and chefs get the best stuff. European seafood is a day fresher there than here, and fish and produce from up and down the Atlantic seaboard make a much quicker trip from farm to table. Our other pet theory is that New York gets the highest grades of beef, pork and poultry shipped to it from all over the country. Most steak snobs (and ELV is decidedly one) will tell you that there’s nothing comparable to the dry-aged steaks in New York — no matter what some hypemeister may say. And no matter what the ingredient(s), the competition is fiercest in New York as to what to do with them.
California may have been where the freshness revolution started thirty years ago, but there’s no denying New York’s preeminence in the restaurant world today. To paraphrase Daniel Boulud: There’s better French food in Paris, Japanese food in Tokyo and Italian food in Rome, but New York remains the single best place in the world to experience each of these cuisines.
And once you learn to ignore all the useless distractions surrounding you, it’s also a damn fine place to engage in three-day eating orgy.
* To come full circle, we did make it to Payard Bistro and Patisserie on our way out of town, but alas, no tasty snaps!
** “There is no money in poetry, but then there is no poetry in money either.” – Robert Graves