Wednesday, 2 September 2015
Cheese and Biscuits on Tour - New York City 2015
I hesitate to make any grand statements about the health of anywhere's restaurant scene based on a four-day trip and a handful of meals but, well, that's all I've ever done, and despite trying my absolute best to sample the latest and greatest of what New York City had to offer, just like in all my previous trips to this fine city, somehow in 2015, for the first time, I left rather underwhelmed. I'm not about to pull a Tanya Gold - nothing was a complete disaster and there's every chance I was just a bit unlucky - but I remember the days when this city was the alpha leader of restaurant dining, untouchable from bottom to top, and to find myself even a teeny bit disappointed after a meal is not an emotion I'm used to associating with the place.
But let's start at the start. The first morning I wanted a bagel for breakfast, somewhere handy from the Williamsburg AirBnB we were staying in. The Bagel Store had a big queue - a good sign - but it seemed most people were queuing not for bagels but for something called a "cragel", some odd hybrid of a croissant and a bagel presumably dreamt up on the back of the vicious cronut phase that swept through the town a few years back. I tried a salted butter cragel; it was a bit stale and greasy and I wish I'd ordered something else. Staff looked a bit harried though so maybe they were having a bad day.
For lunch, surely nothing could go wrong in a highly-regarded steakhouse in Midtown? I mean, surely this is what New York does best, right? Except from the very first moment I stepped through the doors of Wolfgang's on Park Avenue, I could tell something was up; there was none of that incredible beefy steakhouse aroma that hits you when you enter the doors of Peter Luger's, or our own Goodman in London. And then once seated by a slightly frosty front of house (a steakhouse cliché but one I am usually happy to put up with) even at head height the trays of beef travelling past to other tables suffered from the same odd absence of beefiness. Not a good sign.
And so my fears were realised - a vast, tender slab of $50 USDA porterhouse, cooked accurately medium-rare and finished with melted butter, that tasted of absolutely nothing whatsoever. "Steakhouse fries" were dry and soily and the house red was only OK, but I knew not to expect top-notch sides in a traditional steakhouse. All I did want was for the main event to be worth the (not insignificant) amount of money they were charging, and this really wasn't. And before anyone says "well what did you expect from USDA beef", I've had plenty of USDA steaks in my time - not least at Luger's - and they've generally been a good deal better than this.
That night we attempted to get into St Anselm (1 hour wait) Maison Premiere (2 hour wait) and Fette Sau (1 1/2 hour wait) and ended up in a little dive bar called DuMont Burger eating buffalo wings. Which, actually, was rather lovely.
The next day we found ourselves in Midtown again and what felt like the only place open for brunch, Sarge's Deli. And again, I'd have been happy to overlook the staff that treated us like an inconvenience had my matzo ball soup not come out of a packet and the rye bread on my pastrami sandwich not been so stale I'm convinced it must have been yesterday's.
So as you might imagine, a lot was riding on our second bash at Maison Premiere that night. This time we did make it in, deciding to take no chances and eat at 5pm (the one benefit of jetlag is you're hungry at weird times), and fortunately the service here was much better, being very accommodating of our strange eating time (technically the kitchen hadn't opened yet). The food, too, was just about worth the effort - a vast selection of east and west coast oysters yielded some dinky little things called Ninigret Cup from Rhode Island which were lean and minerally and sharp as a tack.
House bread was excellent, which was just as well as it came with fully three out of four of the main courses we chose. Why bring us a $4 portion of unordered house bread knowing the amount of bread we'd unknowingly already ordered with the other dishes? Oh well, I'm sure they had their reasons. A seafood selection of mussels "vichyssoise" with bacon and potato "pearls" were very clever French classics in miniature, and sea urchin's always a showstopper. Salt cod brandade and "warm olives" (?) were only OK but they were nothing if not filling thanks to all that bloody bread.
On the last day, burdened by our luggage on the way to Newark (which staff coped beautifully with), we'd booked the Four Horsemen, a bright and clean little spot that had been recommended numerous times from various corners. And indeed it was lovely, at least some of it was. American "Prosciutto" was every bit as good as the real thing, moist and delicate and not in the least bit dry. Country terrine had a great chunky texture and the pickled green tomatoes were a perfect accompaniment, even better than the more traditional (at least in France) cournichons.
Beef tartare with sesame cracker was visually striking and the textures worked well, there just wasn't a huge amount of flavour from the beef, or anything else on the plate for that matter. And fried potatoes with aioli weren't anything different from those available in any Spanish tapas bar, except of course for the $10 price tag for a bowl of potato and mayo.
Romano beans with dry aged beef [mince] was a slightly confused jumble of textures and flavours that perhaps would have worked OK as a salad or side but had little recommend it as a main course. And finally pepper fritters with thyme and honey were just weird, like the soggy desserts you might get at the end of a cheap Chinese meal except with a faintly distressing savoury pepper taste when you bit into them. Not very pleasant.
And with that, we were headed back off across the Atlantic. Hopefully you can see that we did at least try, and my gripes with any of the places we visited on our admittedly rather brief stay were justified. And as I say, we could have just been unlucky and caught some of them on a bad day, or just inadvertently ordered badly but the New York I remember isn't anywhere you could have ordered that badly, at least not with the amount of nerdy time and research I tend to put into figuring out where my next meal is coming from. So I'll put it down to experience and, as promised, not make any grand generalisations about the state of East Coast dining. All I will say is, it's good to be home.
Bagel Store 5/10
DuMont Burger 7/10
Sarge's Deli 6/10
Maison Premiere 7/10
Four Horsemen 7/10