Eat your heart out, buddy
Serge Dansereau visits some of his favourite haunts on a whirlwind stay in the Big Apple
INOW get Sex and the City . Staying in New York’s SoHo district in the luscious apartment of a generous Australian friend, I finally see the great setting for what it is. Lifestyle and the competition to be noticed is all around us. It does help that the maison mere of gourmet chain Dean & DeLuca is on our street, at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, giving us the chance to buy exotic jam for breakfast every day, white tea for our afternoon drip, Brazilian cru chocolate for a pick-me-up and biodynamic yoghurt and fresh berries.
Soon we are up to our usual tricks, trying to get into one of New York’s smallest but busiest restaurants, Lupa, at 170 Thompson St. In my best French accent, with the most polite approach possible, I inquire if we can get a table, with the promise we will be done in 45 minutes. The girls at the door ponder the request, look intensely at the booking sheet, look at each other, look at us and our shoes (luckily we have just purchased a new set of ‘‘ in’’ shoes with the H for Hogan large enough to send the right message), and we are in.
The large, red Italian slicer at the back of the restaurant is more than just a nice trophy; it is used to precisely slice our first antipasto selection, a Parma ham served on a little wooden board that is obviously a signature of the place. The roasted beetroot, asparagus and octopus salads we’ve selected from the small menu are served in tiny bowls that barely fit on the table, but we are ready to sacrifice the mineral water to have them with us.
I guess big hair and dripping gold jewellery is still very much in vogue in NYC, but the woman at the next table, who occasionally rests her elbow in my side plate, is quite approving of my choice of turbot with wild asparagus and morels, despite my clear lack of bouffant hair and having left my gold chains back in the late ’ 70s. She has the same dish served to her before our 45 minutes are up.
I promise myself that this time in New York I will make it to Balthazar, for no reason other than that I have the restaurant’s gorgeous cookbook in pride of place in my home office and drool over it every day, and now that Balthazar, at 80 Spring St, is our local. (New Yorkers love to say this is their local even when they live in Queens, one hour away.)
There is something predictable and kitsch about this so-called French bistro, but maybe that is why it is so loved and popular. The wine list is focused in a biased way: full of gems such as Burgundian corton and Nuits St Georges, and chinon from the Loire Valley, and devoid of wines from any other recognised wine country. The food choice is overwhelming. In my travels in France I have never encountered such a large menu, with every French classic concentrated in one place: it is madness, a folly, but it works.
Everyone is clearly happy: customers, waiters, management, suppliers and maybe (a big maybe) even the chefs. My steak tartare is delicious and the chicken a la creme my companion orders is everything we could wish for. The same applies to the seared organic salmon. (How do they get organic salmon? Are they fed on petite laitue de Madame Alice Waters?)
If you like to have your meal on the hop or work in the area, then Balthazar Bakery is an option. This is where I learn not to take photographs of public buildings, police stations, subway platforms, underground car parks or tiny bakeries, as all this could be the next target of a foodie terrorist, or that is what I am told by the concerned cashier, who serves me a stunning breakfast pastry.
We eat lunch at Bouchon Bakery at 10 Columbus
Gourmet spread: Dean & DeLuca offers everything from white tea to fresh berries and serves as a handy corner store for a healthy start to a New York day
Futuristic shopping: The Wholefoods Market Circle, the sister of Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, of Thomas Keller fame, and the long-lost cousin of French Laundry. It is worth a visit just for the view over Central Park, and the charcuterie plate and nicoise salad do not disappoint. Columbus Circle is the answer to London’s Trafalgar Square or the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
In the cavernous space of the Time Warner Centre there is the most luxurious Williams-Sonoma store full of kitchen and food fetishes, and below ground the most amazing food shop I have seen for a long time. To the left is the fresh produce and a serious attempt to bring organic and biodynamic produce to the masses. The enormous queues at the super-efficient cash registers are evidence of its success.
The Wholefoods Market, at 10 Columbus Circle, blows me away. Here, organic everything is affordable and marginally more expensive than its non-organic cousin. This is a true revolution. I have seen the future of shopping and it is here. This is the new metropolitan museum of food, but with the difference that you can take the stuff away.
The giant Food Network television studio is based at Chelsea Market, the 1890s home of the National Biscuit Company (from 9th to 10th avenues and 15th to 16th streets in Chelsea), but our focus is at the quasi-secret location of Google eastern state headquarters opposite. More specifically, its cafeteria and guest chefs program for its online staff, preparing the perfect duck sausage or showing how to cook fish at biosphere temperature. It’s all a bit too impressive for me: organic this, bio that, with small grower and localised food purchasing policy.
Talk about a relaxed and pampered workforce: free dispensers of politically correct snacks and a few incorrect ones, a full-time sushi chef, a little Razor scooter available to all to travel, and a strategically placed drum kit to relax the body and get the creative juices going if the organic alfalfa drink does not do the trick. It’s social engineering on a grand and committed scale. My reaction, when I leave, is to stop at the hotdog busker on the street corner and promptly eat two dogs with sauerkraut and mild mustard.
To repent, I walk to Balducci’s of Chelsea, a gentrified sister of the much-loved original food shop that started the trend in food emporiums. The interior of the building on 8th Avenue (at 14th) is beautiful, even if it looks like a Masonic Hall outside. The food choice is here but I miss the original with its stackedto-the-ceiling products.
A New York visit for me is never complete unless I attempt to blow the budget on a big night out. In the past I have eaten at Ducasse at Essex House (amazing), Le Cirque (the name says it all), Daniel (busy in the restaurant and even more on the plate), Le Bernadin (hushed sophistication), Gramercy Tavern (my kind of everything), Gotham Bar and Grill (for lovers of art deco) and many others. This time I gaze in at the new Ducasse restaurant, Adour, at the St Regis Hotel, but for fear of being disappointed after the near perfect experience I had at Essex House, I agree to try my New York friend’s recommendation of Chanterelle.
Chanterelle is serious, plush and in a sense quite unadorned. It feels as if the staff take themselves seriously, which clearly they do to have remained at the top of the heap in a tough city. The menu is beautifully handwritten, or is there a new software pretending to be a creative soul?
I guess our downfall is that we are a rowdy bunch of Australians ready to have a great time with great food and great wine. Our collection of Aussie bankers, New York-based Australian winemaker, gourmet food retailers, globetrotting chef and general gourmands and gourmettes make a volatile bunch who arrive at various times and are not respectful enough of the precise restaurant program.
We eventually order from a beautiful selection of entrees and mains (seafood sausage, ravioli of spring greens, roasted pigeon, turbot with peas) and also order some serious wine from a well-informed sommelier, but for some reason thing just do not work in unison.
The food is beautifully presented but is out of sync with the arrival of the wines. Still, we leave happy and a bit wiser on the pitfalls of a kitchen seriously focused on its art.
Returning to domesticity the next morning, we have to prepare our breakfast: organic four-berry jam with wood-fired sourdough, our Gunpowder Imperial tea, and free-range scrambled eggs with French butter and Sardinian sea salt. We must wash our sheets, iron the pillow cases, vacuum and leave everything in pristine condition, as there is no room service in the beautiful apartment of our friend. Still, it has been worth all the foie gras in the world.