I know that it’s been awfully quiet around these parts for a while, but whirlwind trips to New York City will severely cut into your blogging time. The lovely folks at NOTCOT and Liqurious sent me on a hybrid photography/writing assignment to cover the launch of Rosangel, a new hibiscus-infused tequila from Gran Centenario.
You can probably guess that I don’t have a lot of personal affection for flavored spirits, but my better judgment prevailed: As freelance gigs go, getting to visit New York for a long weekend sure beats the hell out of just about anything else.
I fretted about how to make a rose-pink tequila sound credible to our cocktailian friends. But in all honesty, from what I was able to taste at the event, Rosangel has all the hallmarks of a quality product. It uses Gran Centenario reposado as its base, it’s aged for an additional 2 months in port casks to give it complexity and a rosy glow, and then it’s infused with hibiscus blossoms, not doctored with artificial flavors. I’m anxiously awaiting the chance to get my hands on a bottle to play with; the retail launch is set for March.
What I didn’t know when I accepted the assignment was that one of the events would be held at Clover Club, the newish Brooklyn bar from Julie Reiner of Flatiron Lounge fame. And, better still, that I’d have a chance to watch Ms. Reiner and Paul Pacult lead a hands-on immersion training for eight tequila-loving bartenders flown in from all around the country. (I won’t steal my own thunder any more than I already have: You’ll have to check out the NOTCOT post for the full scoop.)
So anyway, apologies for the radio silence. At least you know I had a good excuse! I promise there’s another post coming soon, all about the 70-pound pig we roasted for Cameron’s big birthday.
(Oh man, I shot so many frames… picking just five representative photos for the filmstrip this time is impossible! Please click through to see the whole collection.)
Oh, how we longed for this New York City escape! Being in separate cities most of last month, we didn’t manage a proper Valentine’s Day celebration, so we decided to combine a business trip and a family visit with some top-notch dining a month later. Alas, it was not to be. Oh, to be sure, we spent plenty of cash, and ate at places that everyone raves about. But good food? Not so much.
Now, I know better than to make pronouncements about the general state of New York City dining based on a few nights out. But I will say that, by the end of the week, I was downright despondent that we hadn’t had a good meal to show for our efforts (or our substantial credit-card expenditures), and hungry to be back in San Francisco.
Tuesday evening, I landed at JFK, hopped a cab to meet Cameron at his hotel, and unpacked at a leisurely pace. After all, he’d already eaten dinner, and my body told me it was 5pm, not 8. A bit later, we hailed another cab up to The Carlyle Hotel, where I’d dreamed of having a world-class cocktail (and the ground-to-order hamburger promised by the online menu) at Bemelmans Bar while Cam kept me company with a drink of his own.
We were a bit surprised to find the bar overwhelmed by a jazz trio, but not nearly as surprised as we were when a waiter slapped a “$20 per person cover charge after 9:30pm” sign on our table just as our butts hit the banquette. Huh!? Doing a little quick math — $20 per drink, $40 in covers, and another $20 for the burger — I quickly realized this round of drinks would happen some other night, before the cover charge kicked in.
Back out on the sidewalk, Cameron remembered that a co-worker had mentioned a “pretty good” bistro on the Upper East Side that had an impressive Belgian beer selection. A quick online search turned up B. Cafe, and a quick stroll led us to their door.
The beer selection was nice, if not as stunning as some sources would lead you to believe — I think my time in Seattle has forever spoiled me into expecting too much when someone says “beer selection is without peer” — and the food was good, in an unambitious sort of way. I got my burger, at least, alongside properly made frites.
Wednesday night, we met Cameron’s sister and bro-in-law for dinner at Del Posto. Arriving a touch after our 9pm reservation time, we were asked to wait in the bar. Where we waited. And waited. And waited. No offer of drinks, no apologies, no checking back to assure us we hadn’t been forgotten.
As 9:45 rolled around, we eventually were escorted to our table. After all this wait, the food — with the exception of a mind-alteringly delicious risotto and a solid salumi platter — turned out to be no better than fair to middlin’. Lowlights include bitter foie gras, lobster spaghetti al dente to the point of some serious crunch, squishy pork, so-so desserts. But the true terror was the service.
Despite having no fewer than four people theoretically serving our table, we were constantly ignored, offered one another’s food, and generally given the bum’s rush. The grand finale? Our waitress announced after our mains that her “partner” (and let’s be real, he’s a busboy) would be taking care of our desserts. Honey, darling — is it our fault that we’re the last ones in the place? (And, while we’re in question mode: Why does it look like a Cheesecake Factory in here?)
When all else fails, aim lower. And earlier. We arrived at Cookshop on Thursday night a hair before our 6:30 seating call, and were ushered promptly to our table — where we sat, and sat, and sat for close to 20 minutes without so much as a “can I get you a drink?” Gadzooks.
We finally flagged down a waiter and inquired, diplomatically we hoped, if perhaps we’d been seated without the host letting our server know…? (Waiter stage directions: Mumble, stammer… slink away.) Gosh, would “Oh, sorry! I’d be happy to get you a drink while we sort out who will help you” be too much to ask?
As we scanned the wine list, a strange pattern emerged. Seeing as Cookshop trades heavily on its locavore cred, we were puzzled both by the absence of New York wines — is a single Finger Lakes Riesling all one can expect amid a sea of Italian and French bottles? — and the relative scarcity of American vintages at all.
The food? Again, flawed. The best part of our meal was a plate of fried hominy we ordered to nibble with drinks: Golden-crisp, dusted in salt and tinged with just a hint of lime. Oh my-my-my! Gorgeous pork — a small chop and a big sausage — was burdened by undercooked black beans and an odd, sweet pineapple relish. The saddest part, though, was our inedible finale: a pair of sorbets — banana thyme and ginger pear — that were grainy, gluey, and not the least bit tasty. (And bear in mind, ginger + pear = delicious, in my book.) We took one bite of each, screwed up our faces, and left the rest to melt. When our waiter asked what was wrong, we told him that not only were the textures quite un-sorbet-like and the flavors beyond bizarre, but both scoops had the gummy texture of dessert left too long in the freezer. He told us that simply couldn’t be the case, and brought the check. With the sorbet on it, of course.
The next night, a much-anticipated meal at Blue Hill off Washington Square got off to a surreal start, as our cab drove verrry carefully down Lexington Avenue, almost alone; a freak snowstorm had dropped six inches of snow on the city after a 72-degree high the previous day.
In fairness, I can’t lay all of the blame for our terrible evening at the kitchen’s feet — that honor goes to the pompous gentleman to our right who was enjoying dessert as we came in, and yet persisted in ordering glass after glass, extra course upon extra course, as he lectured at great volume the couple to his other side about French politics, the trouble with today’s parents, the moral imperative of naming one’s children with grace, and a dozen other topics he apparently held quite dear.
Dear lord, his braying was almost enough to distract us from the fact that every last thing we ate was criminally over-salted, from the emerald-green lettuce broth supporting a bevy of Disney-adorable baby mushrooms beneath “this morning’s farm egg”, to the too-enthusiastically brined Berkshire pork loin (which was almost redeemed by angelic creme fraiche spaetzle).
We decided to pass on dessert, in favor of after-dinner drinks when I spied Chartreuse VEP on the menu — I’ve always wanted to try it, but blanched at the $100+ price for a whole bottle. Was I crushed when they didn’t have it? Not so much as I was unsurprised, as this was the third beverage we’d asked for during the course of the meal that they’d “just run out of”. Uh-huh.
The bright spot in our week was, undeniably, the cocktails: We passed two happy evenings at Pegu Club, where the lovingly crafted drinks, chipper bartenders (yo, Nate and Alister!), and cozy atmosphere reminded us of our favorite bar.
We also popped into Flatiron Lounge on our way to Del Posto, and had a couple of rounds of vintage-esque libations that were a touch off-balance, but on the whole rather tasty (especially as we were seated at a table, not the bar).
And we did finally make it back to Bemelmans Bar on Saturday evening. Yes, we still ended up spending the $100 we balked at paying before, but it bought us five drinks, a table for four, and brilliantly attentive service. It was a lovely scene, drinking our spendy cocktails surrounded by Ludwig Bemelmans’ dreamlike murals, served by white-jacketed waiters under a rosy light. It simply oozed five-star, old-school cocktail charm… my only quibble is the nasty fake maraschino cherries in their otherwise stunning Manhattan.
240 E. 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
85 10th Avenue
New York, NY 10011
156 10th Avenue
New York, NY 10011
Blue Hill NYC
75 Washington Place
New York, NY 10011
Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle
35 E. 76th Street
New York, NY 10021
37 W. 19th Street
New York, NY 10011
77 W. Houston, Second Floor
New York, NY 10012
No mere pretender to the retro cocktail trend, the Pegu Club is a true vintage recipe. It’s been making the rounds since at least the 1920s, and was purportedly invented at the eponymous club in Burma during the British colonial era. (If you’re curious, Robert Hess has a nice DrinkBoy article on the recipe’s evolution over time.)
I first tasted this drink years ago (at the Zig Zag, where else?) but I’ve never tried making it at home. For some reason, even though the ingredients are far from obscure, it just feels more like the kind of drink you want someone else to make.
Luckily for lazy drinkers like me, it’s becoming easier to find bartenders who know how to properly construct this tangy treat. Pegu’s become something of a darling in cocktail circles in the last few years, so much so that in 2005, Audrey Saunders adopted its name — and its Asian vibe — for her now-legendary cocktailian haunt. As you might imagine, getting a properly made Pegu Club cocktail at the Pegu Club is as easy as asking.
2 oz. gin
1 oz. orange curaçao
1 tsp. lime juice
dash Angostura bitters
dash orange bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice, and strain into a cocktail class. Garnish with a lime.
It’s Wednesday, the last night of NYC Without Reservations, and I’m completely ashamed at how relieved I am. Between the time zone difference, a full day in a strange office with heavy deadlines, a couple of late-night social commitments, and the dedication of my free evenings to foodie jaunts, I’m completely exhausted. Cue soundtrack of The World’s Smallest Violin playing, “My Heart Pumps Purple Piss For You.”
Nevertheless, duty calls. I’ve been strategizing an assault on tonight’s destination for months. When we lived in Seattle, Anita and I were introduced to the most amazing bar in the world: The Zig Zag Café, where Murray, Ben, and Kacy mix drinks with the same care and creativity that goes into a great meal at a fine restaurant. Seduced by the art of the cocktail, we’re constantly on the lookout for more of the same, although the Zig Zag sets a very high standard.
So tonight I step off the subway at Bleecker and aim down West Houston street. I keep a sharp eye out, and it’s a good thing: there’s no sign overhead, only a glowing logo etched into an otherwise unremarkable smoked glass and aluminum door. Just as I get close enough to make out a vestibule and a man inside, he pulls the door open to welcome me to the Pegu Club.
A short staircase transports me to a tastefully lit place for cocktails. I drift across the main room, drawn by the bar glowing at the far end. About halfway there, the hostess intercepts me. I ask for a seat at the bar, but it’s full. I can sit at one of the knee-high tables lining the banquette on either side of the room. I am vaguely—no, make that seriously—disappointed. A great bar is like a sushi restaurant: the experience depends on being close to the action.
The hostess must see my face drooping like a Warner Bros. cartoon. Before I can get a word out, she chirps earnestly, “I’ll sit with you!” She’s obviously joking, but the oddness of the offer and her bright, matter-of-fact delivery make me laugh as I take a banquette seat.
I decide to start with the namesake drink, the Pegu cocktail. But seconds after I place my order, the hostess re-appears. “Come with me,” she says. I follow, and she tells me that I am to stand just…here. “These folks are getting ready to go,” she murmurs. “I told you that I’d take care of you. Now, you hover.” I make like a hummingbird and, sure enough, two people on the near end of the bar pack up and split. I slide into one of the seats that they leave empty, and it’s showtime.
The bartender nods a welcome. Later in the evening, I‘ll learn that his name is Phil. In the meantime, I watch him work, smoothly swiveling between drinks and chatting with the group on my right: two men and one woman. I wonder if I need to re-order when my Pegu cocktail appears, made by another bartender who appears to be dedicated to mixing for the rest of the room. The cocktail is served in a coupe glass—a bowl-shaped receptacle that you see champagne served out of in old movies.
I sample the drink and am surprised that the complicated ingredient list winds up tasting like a slightly bitter Cosmo. The coupe glass doesn’t help—it funnels the drink right down the center of my mouth instead of allowing it to spread out across my tongue.
I’m definitely having trouble hitting stride tonight. Phil the bartender is working hard and focusing on the people that he knows. When he needs ice for the shaker, he holds the bar’s large ice cubes in his hand and cracks them by hitting them with a bar spoon. At one point he pulls down a few of the bar’s trademark tinctures for a curious couple. I trade a couple of sentences with a man sitting next to me, but he pulls up stakes and heads out, so I focus on my drink and on watching the room.
I’m feeling a little lost when the hostess swoops in with a big smile, happy that she was able to deliver on a promise. “Who’s your new best friend?” she asks, laughing a little. “You are,” I agree, and thank her for the seat at the bar. Her name is Stephanie and over the course of the next half-hour, we chat while she cares for the room. She takes the train into Manhattan. She knits and has a friend in Westchester buy her special yarn for half what it costs in the city. She calls Westchester “upstate New York” the way that Californians call Colorado “back East.” She’s a talented hostess—the awkwardness drains away, and I begin to feel comfortable in the space.
I’m ready for my next cocktail and ask Phil to recommend something with bourbon. “Boozy?” he asks, “And will rye work?” Fine. He starts mixing and I start wondering: Rye, chartreuse, maraschino, lemon juice. One sip and I feel like I’ve dipped my tongue in a packet of saccharine. It’s intensely, unpleasantly sweet.
Phil and I are each equally taken aback at the other’s reaction. “Sweet?” he asks, amazed. “I’ve never had anyone react that way to that drink.”
“Yep,” I confirm, “Way too sweet.” And I’m thinking: you mix two sweet cordials with citrus and an inherently sweet liquor and you’ve never had anyone tell you that it was sweet?
Phil thinks for a minute and proposes a Corpse Reviver #2. Never had it, but I’m game. He produces a small, chilled glass that looks a bit like a cropped martini or a cordial glass. It catches the attention of the regulars. Apparently when this bit of hardware comes out—Phil calls it a “Nick and Nora” glass—the man is not messing around. The Corpse Reviver #2 is tasty and it packs a wallop. It is definitely not sweet.
While Battle Cocktail has been raging, I’ve fallen into conversation with one of the men in the threesome to my right. While they work on Sazeracs, I learn that they’re out for his brother’s birthday. I mention San Francisco and Seattle, and everyone knows the Zig Zag. We talk shop. I argue educational priorities with his girlfriend. The night spins away.
Except…Phil and I never really get on the same page. My next drink is another citrus-laden number that’s kinda one-dimensional. I ask for a Vesper to clear my palate, and it’s my last of the night. Of all the cocktails, the Vesper is the only one that really works in the coupe glass. For a moment, I feel like James Bond in Monaco.
It isn’t until I’m paying the tab that I realize that at some point Stephanie vanished, having established the correct vibe. I track her down on the way out and thank her for making me feel welcome. At a great bar, what comes in the glass is only part of the magic.
It’s Tuesday evening of NYC Without Reservations, and I’ve suffered a setback: I’m at the wrong damn address.
I was aiming for Veritas, but I’m at 42 East 20th Street, and there’s no sign of…oh wait, there it is. It does my ego no good that I’ve already paced around for five minutes and called information before I see the Veritas sign on the other side of the street. It’s only about 900 feet tall with white lettering on a black background. Good thing I wasn’t trying to chew gum while I was walking, or I’d have ended up in traction.
Setback number two. Perhaps if Scott Bryan was a regular reader of Married…With Dinner, he would have held a space at the bar in case I showed up.
Back on the street, I see an expanse of glass glowing warmly across the way. Now I understand. Fate directed me to my dining destination, but I was too stubborn to listen. I submit to the tides of the universe and accept 42 East 20th as my destiny. Veritas be damned. I’m going to eat at Gramercy Tavern.
When I breeze into the tavern’s front room and see the packed bar, my confidence wavers for just a moment. But sure enough, there’s one open spot down at the end by the waiter station. To seal the deal, it’s under a canopy of leaf-covered branches springing from a bucket. After my encounter with the aggressive plants at Babbo, I’m beginning to feel a bit like Stanley thrashing his way through the jungle underbrush in search of Dr. Livingstone. I could wait for another space to open up. Instead, I take it as a sign and pull up a stool.
A cheerful bartender hands me a menu loaded with historically styled ways to get wasted. Old-school cocktails are what all the cool kids are drinking, I guess. I haven’t seen this many smashes, fizzes, and the like since I was at Bourbon & Branch. I choose a Gin-Ginger Tonic, and discover that my booze sense has lead me astray. The drink itself tastes okay, but it’s delivered in a foofy, long-stemmed glass packed full of crushed ice. Gads, man. What’s next? A paper umbrella and a slice of pineapple? Even if the presentation is historically accurate—which I doubt, but I’m a drunken scholar, not a drink scholar—you have to draw the line somewhere. At the very least, put a picture of a pansy or something next to the menu listing to warn the unsuspecting patron. I hope that this isn’t a trend.
I tuck the glass into the crook of my arm and drink quickly, trying to keep a low profile. Quick visual review: Bald guy with earrings and a soul patch in a pressed shirt sitting under a tree’s worth of foliage, furtively sipping a sweet drink out of a pimp glass. I’m absolutely positive that this not what my father had in mind when they said, “It’s a boy!”
Rattled, I scan the menu for something to prop up my fragile masculinity. I find a filet mignon with balsamic onions and pureed potatoes. For the opening course I abandon my principles and order a salad. Nothing else sounds appealing and I need the roughage after last night’s adventures in guts and butter. Nevertheless, I have to get a grip on myself. Maybe I should down shots of whiskey between courses. I resolve to order everything in a very deep voice.
The salad turns out to be a pleasant surprise. I never used to pay much attention to over- or under-dressed greens, but it’s something that Anita always notices, and now I do too. My house salad is skillfully dressed, and if the lettuce mix is pedestrian, it’s also tender. A light touch of fresh dill makes the dish sparkle. The filet arrives, I tear in, and I’m smiling wryly by the end of my first mouthful. It’s a nice bit of meat and properly cooked, but after wallowing in beautiful tri-tips and dripping, marbled cuts of rib-eye from Prather, I’m spoiled. The potato puree on the other hand, is so good that I’d slurp it off the plate without the benefit of knife and fork if necessary. The little pile of thinly-sliced balsamic onions atop the filet is divine.
The crowd at the Tavern is ecumenical. A pride of tan, power-suited men at the opposite end of the bar call out to friends and wave silvery martinis. A tableful of parents and young children behind me gives way to two women in informal knit tops working their way through dinner and a bottle of champagne. Two seats down the bar, an elegantly featured young woman orders a cheese plate and a glass of wine and then lingers over it for the duration of my stay, scribbling notes. I can’t catch what she’s writing, but it’s something about food. One of the floor captains spots her and the two embrace happily. She’s been recently promoted to host at (I miss the name), and is having trouble finding her rhythm, especially handling VIPs when they make difficult reservation requests. The man sitting between us orders fish and a glass of white wine. He calls the bar staff by name, banters with the woman expediting drinks for the waiters, and then chats up the newly promoted hostess. They talk about food and eventually the French Laundry, but not Per Se, as far as I can hear.
I finish with a cheese course and a discovery. I’m again seduced by a robiola, accompanied by a soft, amazingly nutty blue, and a powdery, parmigiano-esque cheddar from Vermont. The discovery comes with the wine. Doesn’t it always? Carrying the wine from the main course over into the cheese course has always felt natural, but it’s usually a red and I’m rarely happy with the combination. This happened at Babbo last night, so I try a different route and am rewarded. I ask for something white and sweet-ish, and the bartender recommends a gewurtztraiminer that I think tastes of apples. He seems unconvinced, but he’s happy enough that he found something I like. The taste of apples and cheese makes me think of autumn, but the greenery over my head and the warmth of the evening as I leave still say summer. Maybe we have a few days left.
It’s Monday evening, the first night of NYC without reservations. I stroll purposefully down to Washington Square Park and step through the door at Babbo at around seven. The bar and front tables are full and there’s just one couple sipping wine by the door. A quick chat with the host and the next open spot at the bar has my name on it. I try to find an inconspicuous spot to stand and end up by the doorway, dodging the overzealous greenery stashed at head level. Sly and the Family Stone penetrates the air. While I wait, a man walks in dressed as if the Ralph Lauren Polo box arrives in the mail every three months. “Oh,” he mutters. “Looks kinda crowded,” and darts back out, the way you do when you go somewhere all the time and you’d just as soon just grab a hot dog down the street as wait a half hour for dinner. I hate him. He is evil and probably unkind to animals. I am instantly, passionately jealous.
Salvation. My seat is available. Immediately I am confronted with the extensive wine list, but I am hopelessly uncultured and ignorant of Italian wine, and the only name I recognize is Bastianich. Grasping at straws, I point at a likely white and ask the bartender for a description. Among other things he says, “Minerally,” which when used in reference to white wine is akin to saying, “Al-a-kazaam!” to my taste buds.
It is probably due to a deficiency of character that the more exclusive the restaurant, the more powerfully I am drawn to any offbeat meats that appear on the menu. So, like Vincent Vega at Jackrabbit Slim’s, I run my finger down the menu muttering, “Offal, offal, offal,” until I score. It doesn’t take long; Signor Batali is known for his fondness for barnyard variety. I order warm tripe “alla parmigiana” to start, followed by beef cheek ravioli in crushed squab liver sauce.
When the tripe arrives, I am relieved that I didn’t go for three courses (the lamb’s brains pasta was bleating my name). It is an heroic portion of innards and I tuck in with abandon. The tripe is mildly but not aggressively funky, and the red sauce is smooth and sweet, shot through with occasional sage leaves and chunks of soft, thoroughly cooked carrot. The texture of the tripe reminds me of hand-shaven dan-dan noodles. The wine works with the dish, keeping everything light and bright.
I ask for another wine recommendation to accompany my beef cheek ravioli, and the bartender pulls down a bottle that he says was opened for a reserve tasting. Montevertine 2001. Again, I am uninformed and foolish, but it tastes great. It’s a chianti grape, but there’s none of the lurid, screaming cherry attack late in the palate. How civilized. Not cheap, but very civilized. The beef cheek ravioli are very slightly disappointing. The filling is delicious, as is the sauce, but the pasta itself is not quite right. It’s faintly tough, although I’m particularly sensitive to pasta that’s a little too al dente.
As I eat and drink, the wine retains some mystery. There’s something missing that I can’t put my finger on. The absence isn’t unpleasant, but it’s noticeable. Finally I figure out that I’m not getting the boozy punch that my feeble palate must now be accustomed to after years of drinking huge, alcoholic, New World wines. I mention the difference to the bartender and he nods. Of course.
Eating at the bar of a fine restaurant is a little bit like watching a concert from the first row. You can enjoy the show like everyone else, but you also get glimpses of the artists (and sometimes their supporting cast) at work. You get to share some of the tiny, unacknowledged dramas that pepper every live performance. My bartender asks one of the waiters if the customer wants to taste a particular bourbon. “Oh no,” sighs the waiter. “He wants me to taste it for him and tell him if he’ll like it.”
Somewhere between the tripe and the ravioli the room starts getting more crowded. By the time I’m halfway through the ravioli the place is packed. Behind me, an expensively-dressed foursome in their fifties loudly complains about the delay in outer borough accents so thick that I have to smile. Where is Dr. Higgins when you need him?
Over my shoulder, a man asks for a glass of cabernet and a glass of pinot noir. “We don’t have anything made from either of those grapes,” says the bartender, “But we have wines that taste similar.” The man takes a wine list and begins a debate with his female companion that’s obviously going nowhere useful. The bartender listens for less than a minute, then pulls down a bottle of wine and pours tastes for the couple. They’re happy with his choice and settle in to wait for their table. The bartender sets up a glass in front of me and pours another taste. “This is what I would have recommended if you hadn’t gone for the Montevertine,” he says. A few minutes later, he shows up with another bottle and another glass: “You’ll see that this one is more alcoholic. It’s made from grapes grown high up on Mount Etna.” Truly, I am still foolish and uncultured, but I am now also master of universes both known and unknown. I belong here. I shall borrow a corkscrew and carve my name on the bar and that will serve as a marker until a brass plaque can be ordered.
Another couple presses in on my right and the man asks me about the wines in front of me. I tell him what I know and we commiserate over our lack of Italian wine-fu. “When we were in Italy,” he says, “The best wine was whatever was being made locally.” I nod understandingly, as if I’ve been there. Italy. Of course. The man continues, musing regretfully about the Italian wines that they’ve drunk here in the States that haven’t been up to snuff. “I mean, they’re good and all,” he allows, “But are they worth $250 a bottle?” Again, I nod. Indeed. What can one do? Excuse me, I think that’s my Ferrari the valet is bringing around. Ciao.
The cheese course is wonderful: robiola, Coach Farms Finest, and taleggio latte crudo. There’s no way that I can manage dessert. I’m pretty sure that my feet don’t touch the sidewalk all the way back to the hotel.
You’ve always wondered, and I’m here to tell you that yes, filing stories from remote locations is every bit as sexy as it sounds. One of my fondest memories of my days as a computer journalist is writing a column while sitting in a Paris café and then e-mailing it to my editor from the local cyber. Yep, just so long as there’s good food, strong drink, zero chance of bodily harm, and I don’t have to work too hard, I’m your effete traveling correspondent.
I suppose that there could be bodily harm in New York City, but you really have to go looking for it, especially in the Murray Hill/Gramercy Park area of Manhattan. Dangerous pigeons, I’d imagine. Strollers from hell. Aggressive art. I finally talked the company I work for into flying me back east for a week so that I could do little things like meet the man who I report to, not to mention the rest of the editorial team. Details.
But the truly important consequence of this trip is that I get to spend five nights in NYC, eating my little brains out. Fun, no? Lots of advance time with maps and Web sites and telephone calls, right? Perhaps for the ordinary traveler. The desperate truth is that despite my deep and highly valued organizational skills within the modern office milieu, I’m horrible at planning personal outings, trips, events, engagements, sideshows, meetings, and gatherings. True to form, three days before I had to leave, I had made zero reservations. “My god,” I thought. “This show is going to suck.”
Note to self: hire producer on return to SF.
So. Lemons to lemonade moment. The theme for this adventure is now New York Without Reservations. I’m not going to eat anywhere that I can’t just walk into and sit down. And I’m going to nice places, dammit. Virtue, thy name is necessity.
We’ve talked about going to Chanterelle for years, ever since we bought David Waltuck’s Staff Meals cookbook and fell in love. Anyone who cooks this well for their own employees, we reasoned, must do truly amazing things for their diners.
We’ve been to NYC a few times over the years, but something always conspired to keep us from visiting Chanterelle. We were determined that this time, we’d go. And so, exactly a month before our arrival, I called and made a reservation.
And now we’re here. Since it’s about a gillion degrees outside — and probably a gillion and twenty in the subway — we sprung for taxi from the flat we’re renting with family, determined to arrive relaxed and cool. The driver dropped us at the corner, and we spent a few puzzled minutes trying to find the place. Surely it couldn’t be the unmarked place over there that looks like a gay banker’s boudoir?
But, indeed it is. The atmosphere is odd — the gauzy balloon shades covering the windows look like they haven’t gotten an update since the place opened in the 80s, and the wide-open room seems sparse, not elegant. No banquettes or booths… just a few tables, overly fragrant floral arrangements, acres of plush carpet, and deathly silence. Very much the old-school stuffy French restaurant vibe: I kept expecting John Belushi to pop up and ask “how much for your weemin? how much for the leetle girl?”
We opted for the tasting menu and wine pairings. I’ll try to find the copy of the menu that they gave us — unrequested, I might add — and report back. At the moment, though, nothing really stands out about the food, other than that the foie gras course was appropriately sized (unlike the usual trying-too-hard gigantic slabs that ruin your appetite for the rest of the meal), the cheese trolley selections were impressive, and the basil souffle for dessert was very strange. Service was good overall, with a few glitches: More than once, our wines didn’t make it to the table before the course they were supposed to accompany; we got served the same wine twice — once with the foie and once with dessert — by mistake; and we kept getting handed from server to server when our main waiter would disappear.
In short, it just wasn’t quite the impressive experience you’d expect at these high prices. And high prices they are: We spent almost $600 for two, after tax and tip. Nothing was bad, almost everything was quite good, but nothing was amazing, stunning, or otherwise impressive. And frankly, I’d rather have three $200 meals — or two trips to the French Laundry — than eat here again.
2 Harrison Street
New York, NY 10013