John Curtas is …

New York Stories

ELV note: As most of you know, ELV hearts the Big Apple. He lived just outside of it (in Danbury, CT) between 1985-1990, and never tires of its energy and its eateries. Below is a quick travelogue of our four days there last week, concentrating on — what else? — food and restaurants. Some misguided souls (like The Food Gal®) are under the impression there are things to do in New York City other than eat and drink, and for this they have our sympathies.


After our definitive Italian-American-Neapolitan meal at Mario’s, it was time for some fancy food. You know, pretentious organic/locavore stuff…the kind that makes New York and northern Californian gourmets wet with something approaching post-coital satisfaction because it simultaneously feeds their politically correct and au courant impulses.

So we stopped into Jean Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen, which is rapidly becoming the high temple of sustainable sustenance on the East Coast:

This place is so environmentally friendly, you half expect a little head to come popping out of the toilet and tell you paper is unnecessary if you truly love your planet. Everything from the locavore lettuce to the Connecticut porcelain is carefully crafted to dually assuage a zest for trendiness whilst stoking a self-satisfaction sense that one is doing the right thing even as one is being an insufferable food snob.

All that being said, the food they serve here is pretty nifty.* How something so simple as a beet salad, chicken livers and crab meat on toast and can attain such heights of hyper-deliciousness is something we can only ascribe to the twin towers of ultra-freshness and cooking so careful its sole aim is to highlight the taste of the raw ingredient, and nothing more. This high-wire act is much more difficult than it sounds — especially at the “gourmet” expensive restaurant level. The house-made cookies weren’t as good as the ones they make at our Spago, though, much less approaching the ethereal-ness of David Chang’s at his Milk Bar (see below).

Of course, one lunch in the Big Apple is never enough, especially if you’re ELV, so our staff begged and pleaded with us to drop into Union Square Cafe (where neither of us had been for almost fifteen years):

We have a soft spot in our heart for USC, since we first dined there in 1986 — not long after it opened. Then and now the service was top drawer — friendly, informed and efficient — and the menu full of pastas, pizzas and proteins, tweaked just so, so as to appeal to snooty gourmands and foodie neophytes alike.

Nothing much has changed here. From the decor to the menu, it fit like an old shoe. But that’s the problem; we could tell the shoe is getting old.

From there it was on to the Big Gay Ice Cream truck:

Big Gay Ice Cream Truck

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...as in blithe, convivial and vivacious

…which wasn’t open yet, so our Salty Pimp had to wait until we perused the produce at the world famous Union Square Greenmarket:

…to kill a little time until we worked up an appetite for dinner.

The evening’s meals were another double dip, but not because they were planned as such. The good folks at our soon to be game-changing (we hope) Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino arranged and picked up the tab for a meal at the newest Blue Ribbon Sushi at Columbus Circle. Our dining companions were the James Beard Foundation’s Dr. Mitchell Davis (and his partner, uber-old-person-physician Dr. Nate Goldstein), and the inimitable Uncle Alan Richman. Having this deadly duo show up in any eatery in Manhattan is bound to send a shudder through the kitchen. But that’s not what sabotaged our meal.

Besides a dining room that was under-ventilated, crowded and hot, with straight-backed booths built for models/midgets, and military jet afterburner decibel levels, the real problem with our dinner of sushi/sashimi cliches was that Mitchell and Nate brought a pie:

Vermont raspberry pie

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Mitchell Davis' hot pie

Yes, a pie — from some pie shop in upstate Vermont where he and Nate had been vacationing. The question of whether this bastion of foodie intellect and integrity actually paid for the pie (or swiped it from the shop after leaving some money on the counter) was a question of some debate at our table, but there was no arguing that it was the gol durndest raspberry pie you’ve ever tasted. (More than worthy of being pilfered, if you ask ELV.) You might think bringing a fruit pie to a sushi restaurant is like taking wheat grass to a barbecue, but this one was irresistible — a flaky, not too sweet crust, surrounding a succulent filling that was like a raspberry explosion in your mouth with every bite. It was so good, we abandoned the sushi and sashimi and took turns picking at the pie with our chopsticks (as you can see Uncle Alan doing above).

But the room was so hot, sticky, loud and uncomfortable, we abandoned it after a few courses, so we could actually hear each other speak. Mitchell knew of an Israeli/Mediterranean joint a few block away (that’s what he said, in the humidity, it felt to us like a mile), so we repaired to Taboon (no tasty snaps, although the meze was quite tasty) for some Spanish wine and civilized conversation.

ELV has great hopes for Blue Ribbon when it comes to the Cosmo, but if the comfort level isn’t improved, and the din diminished compared to the Bromberg’s latest offering in New York, we’ll be off like a prom dress and on it like a bad habit.

The next morning, it was up and at ‘em. And by “up and at ‘em” we mean searching for a lunch spot to fuel us for the arduous task of eating our way through a taping of Iron Chef America. ELV, the man who has eaten in more restaurants than anyone in the history of Las Vegas (no brag, just fact), also prides himself in having eaten in a boatload of New York City eateries — especially for someone who has never lived there. He once counted almost two hundred in a Zagat guide during a long plane flight, and guesses he’s way past that now. But one that had escaped our fork for thirty years was a homey, old style French bistro in Tribeca called Capsouto Freres:

…since 1980 a bastion of what some would call hoary French food, but what we called a taste of the Left Bank after feasting on sumptuous sole almandine, goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms, a winy coq au vin, decent duck pate, and blueberry crepes. It was a Parisian lunch, simple and satisfying, and established a nice baseline for flavors before we started perusing the pyrotechnics of the Iron Chefs.

After our day of taping at the Food Network studios, we needed a respite from all those pyrotechnics, so we cabbed it to a boffo little Belgian boite Laurent Tourondel had introduced us to on east 29th Street, Resto:

…that has a concept that is perfection personified. Moules and steak frites, a few fish, six meats, half a dozen apps and nothing but the best Belgian ales and beers, makes it the perfect little 60 seat bistro when all you want is simple, hearty, well-cooked food washed down by first class brews. No chef in Vegas has the guts to try a menu so small, but when one does, if they do it right, wethinks the world will beat a path to their door. So far, only the Japanese have had the cojones to risk (and accomplish) more by serving less.

Speaking of making more with less, no matter what we may think of David Chang’s nouveau Korean fusion food, what the boy does with a simple cookie is something to behold. That’s why a trip to Milk Bar is now mandatory on every trip:

Milk Bar

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David Chang's ode to cookies and cream

ELV, as is his wont, decided to leave lower Manhattan with a bang. And by “with a bang” we mean tackling a New York strip in New York, before returning to The Strip:

…and were more than a little disappointed when he saw the Old Homestead had been remodeled, and the ancient gas lamps, well worn furnishings and wood wainscoting — burnished by a century and a half of catering to New York’s meat men — had been “updated.” It no longer resembles what it has been since 1868 — New York’s oldest steakhouse — and now basically look likes a long, narrow, slightly upscale Outback.

Regardless, our strip was well nigh the apotheosis of steak. Crusted with pepper and spices, impeccably cooked, and possessed of that brown, roasted, mineral rich flavor only great beef possesses. It wasn’t the greatest steak we’ve had in New York — those, in order are: Peter Luger’s, Gallagher’s, Palm, BLT Prime and Wolfgang’s — but it was a darn sight better than any you’re likely to encounter anywhere in America. Anywhere, that is, except New York, Chicago and Las Vegas — America’s bastions of beef.

Was a simple steak the way to leave New York after all that high falutin’ food? We think so, and we also think Eating Las Vegas eats New York about as well as any gourmet, gourmand, epicure or gastronome who lives there.

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* Seymour Britchky (in his review of Odeon) – The Restaurants of New York 1986 (Random House)

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One Response to New York Stories

  • The pie hypnotized me…. I remember those fresh berries growing up back east. Sure do miss pies like that.

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