Monday, 14 May 2007

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - New York City

NYC is, as you would expect for a major world city, packed full of incredible places to eat. I have it on good authority that the best steak, best BBQ and best sushi anywhere in the world (including Japan!) can currently be found in the Big Apple. So it's no surprise that those in search of great foodie experiences will find themselves here sooner or later. But just at the moment there's on extra very important reason that the British in particular are interested - the $2 pound. It wasn't long ago that American tourists in London would be fawned over by greedy restaurant and bar owners, a strong US economy and generous tipping culture making these visitors very welcome indeed. Now it seems the tables have turned, and it's the Brits who now find themselves taking advantage of Half Price City over the pond, swanning around like rich arab Sheiks with money to burn. So why not make the most of it while it lasts?

R.U.B. BBQ stands on West 23rd Street, near 7th Avenue, and is, I learn now, very well regarded in its field. I say this because at the time I had no idea whether it was supposed to be good or not, because I'd never heard of it. I visited out of necessity because I was hungry, jet lagged and because it was one block from my hotel. So on this occasion, it turns out my finely-tuned foodie sixth-sense actually worked for once and I was treated to a surprisingly tasty lunch. Rub apparently stands for Righteous Urban Barbecue - I suppose making its full title Righteous Urban Barbecue Barbecue, but let's not be pedantic - and is owned by a guy called Paul Kirk who, when not running this restaurant, travels the length and breadth of the USA on the competition barbecue circuit. I have always been slightly obsessed by the idea of competition barbecuing, and desperately want to go to one in the future. Only in America is the correct way to cook pulled pork turned into a competitive sport. Beats watching the snooker anyway.

So here we have buffalo chicken wings, half a barbecued chicken, onion rings, BBQ beans and something called "greens" which certainly included spinach as well as a couple of other ingredients I wouldn't like to commit to. And apart from the chicken being a little dry (we shouldn't have ordered it really - part of me knew that it would have been sitting around a little while because they can't get many orders for chicken in a place like this, but there you go) it was mainly delicious. The wings in particular had a lovely spicy flavour and the huge mound of onion rings were devoured in minutes. I can't remember how much we paid but I don't think it was more than £10 in total, and service was perfectly suited to the informal room - friendly and attentive. My first meal in New York, completely on-spec, and it was a hit!

R.U.B. BBQ - 7/10

Our evening meal that same day was selected in a similarly random fashion. I had fancied an early-evening cocktail in the Plaza Athenee on Central Park, but it was closed for renovations, so instead we rolled up to the Hudson Hotel on West 58th Street. It was a lovely warm evening and the garden bar was packed to the gills, but we managed to grab a couple of seats at the bar at the Cafeteria, an impressive converted warehouse with a lively central kitchen island. The decor everywhere in this hotel was very impressive - at least I think it was because for some reason the lighting is so subdued you needed eyes like an owl to make your way to the gents without bumping into something. A friend did warn me of New York's tendency to use very low light after dark - apparently it's to make your date look good.

It wasn't initially our intention to eat here, but the menus looked very interesting so we found ourselves ordering such delicacies as lobster cocktail, tuna tartare and fois gras. Those are three separate dishes, you'll be relieved to hear. The lobster cocktail was tasty if not astonishingly good, however where else at the moment can you get something so decadent (it was topped with caviar) for £10? The tuna was declared "delicious" and my fois gras was cooked perfectly. Cocktails were good enough and service was a bit stressed (every seat in the house was taken, it
seems) but I have since learned that you come to the Hudson for the atmosphere and experience. It's a bit of a "see and be seen" place - a New York equivalent of London's Sanderson. The only real disappointment was a creme brulee which really didn't have much going for it, but all in all it was a very enjoyable way to fend off the jet lag for a few hours. I think the bill came to about £2.50. Not really, but it wasn't much.

The Cafeteria at the Hudson Hotel - 6/10

Peter Luger's steakhouse in Brooklyn is considered one of the "must-visit" restaurants in the world, and has been a New York institution for the best part of 100 years. It is very popular, and getting a table can be a bit hit and miss, but we were lucky enough to have friends in lower Manhattan who did the hard work for us before we arrived in town. So it is here we found ourselves heading to in a taxi on the Sunday night, bombing across Brooklyn Bridge with huge wads of dollars in our pockets (Luger's is cash only).

Now lots of restaurants are very very popular and usually very difficult to get into, for various different reasons. Sometimes it is the reputation of the chef (Gordon Ramsay's comes to mind), sometimes relative value and location (Busaba Eatthai on Wardour Street) and sometimes just for serving great food. But you would hope, no matter how difficult a place has been to secure a booking at, once inside and at your table, service will not take advantage of their reputation and will try very hard to make your stay pleasant.

Not so Peter Luger's.

After being kept waiting half an hour, pushed around and shouted at by waiters in a frantically busy stretch of corridor despite being on time for our allotted booking, we were unceremoniously ushered to our table. Here is where, in any normal restaurant, you would be handed the menus but no - we had been informed that this is not considered the done thing; you had to just ask for "steak" and hope for the best. A thought did cross my mind that perhaps we'd better check the price, but that would have also been against protocol.

Luckily for all involved, when the food did arrive, it was quite amazingly good. Strips of bacon were deliciously flavoured and had just the right balance of juicy fat and smokey flesh. The spinach side was buttery and seasoned well, and the fat meaty prawns (or rather shrimp) tasted lovely and fresh. Best of all though - steak of course. Blackened and crispy on the outside, pink and juicy inside, dripping gorgeous fatty juices and tasting like beefy heaven, this really was the perfect example of its kind. Almost worth putting up with the rest of it for, and - dare I say it - at least as good, if not better, than the steaks at Hawksmoor, and probably about half the price.

So really there wasn't any problem with the food, and I don't mind having to empty my bank account of cash before I visit, if that helps them. What I object to is being taken for granted as a customer and for Peter Luger's to just assume that being treated like crap and looked at as a worthless tourist for asking for a menu is an acceptable part of a traditional New York experience. It's all very well saying "it's all about the food", but I draw the line at being abused and insulted for wanting to eat good steak. I get enough of that at work. Apparently Luger's sell the same gorgeously aged steaks from their butchers shop - you can order online. I bet if I bought up the premises next door and sold the same food with a smile on my face I'd make a killing. Worth thinking about.

Peter Luger's - 6/10 (9 for food, 3 for service)

Which more or less brings us to the end of my little trip to the states. Monday lunchtime I also came across one of the many "original", "famous", etc. Ray's Pizza parlours, and had a very mediocre pizza in a room full of screaming schoolchildren fresh out of the science museum. There's not much else to say about this, but here are the photos anyway:

After a 7-hour flight back to Gatwick, and 24 hours to get over the jetlag, I then hopped on another plane to the Costa Brava. A few reviews of restaurants there, in what is fast becoming one of the gastronomic hot spots of Europe, are on their way.


Anonymous said...

I think part of the whole experience of Peter Lugers is the surley service from the old brooklyn waiters. I found the whole thing extremely atmoshpheric. I do agree they could employ a different tactic with the waiting diners, leaving them in the stream of angry waiter traffic was a bit much.

Anonymous said...

Is the bacon at Peter Lugers a side dish or does it come with the steak? If only you could get a main course of just bacon.

Chris said...

I suppose you could order a few bacons on their own and leave the steak? You'd run the risk of a beating from the waiters though.