The way New Yorkers are polishing off truffles and foie gras, you'd think we were back in the days when junk bonds were corporate street food. But there's more—lots more—than an eighties revival heating up Big Apple kitchens.
BEST UNSUNG CHEF
MEIGAS 350 Hudson St.; 212/627-5800; dinner for two $90. Reservations are easy at Meigas. And you won't see its dashing chef, Luis Bollo, flipping Spanish tortillas on Martha Stewart. Opened last fall with minimum fanfare, Meigas recalls a Barcelona hotel lobby—circa 1982. Never mind: this is the closest you'll come in America to tasting the wild creativity of millennial Spain. Bollo translates the folksy pulpo a feira into a still life of warm octopus, ribbons of puréed broccoli rabe, and tears of octopus gelée. He offsets the silkiness of skate with a salad of crisp sweetbreads, then pairs it with an improbably flavorful rice infused with squid ink. And his lobster gazpacho is soup from another dimension. Maybe you were expecting paella and sangria?
BRASSERIE 100 E. 53rd St.; 212/751-4840; dinner for two $70. Descend the translucent catwalk of a staircase and prepare to gape. Architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio have transformed this old standard into a modern tour de force, taking resin, silicon, and perforated wood where they've never gone before. Now think retro and order fish sticks—er, goujonettes of sole—and chocolate beignets from a waitress so friendly she's practically codependent. The space glows most seductively when it's half empty (i.e., late supper or breakfast).
GUASTAVINO'S 409 E. 59th St.; 212/980-2455; dinner for two downstairs, $110; upstairs $130. What if you crossed Grand Central Terminal with a Gothic cathedral, then slicked it with Terence Conran's signature gloss?You'd have Guastavino's, the designer's Titanic-worthy production under the Queensboro Bridge. At the downstairs brasserie as many as 300 diners loudly attack reassuringly ordinary salads and grills. But upstairs, at the pricier Club Guastavino, the pike quenelles and the crispy spiced frog legs are almost good enough to excuse the clueless service.
AND ABOUT THAT DUCASSE DEBUT …
ALAIN DUCASSE AT THE ESSEX HOUSE 155 W. 58th St.; 212/247-0300; lunch or dinner for two from $320. Let New York food critics rattle their knives. Me?I cherished every second of my four-hour, $600 lunch (for two) at Ducasse. Still seething after my last Paris meal chez Alain—withering snobbery, a disturbing blood-dripping pigeon—I show up with my Michelin Star Wars defense system on full alert. Then … something happens. Is it the indecent lusciousness of foie gras royale or the post-dessert bombardment of goofy confections?The pleasure of being wooed by an army of Gallic garçons, this time defanged and submissive?Or is it the old Les Célébrités space—reborn as a faux-Empire stage set?My companion and I stare at the hideous, paint-splattered car crash of musical instruments on the wall. We scan the clumsy menu descriptions ("marmalade of chicken legs"—does the kitchen employ a grand-mère with Jack the Ripper tendencies?). And break into a light-headed giggle. You laugh like this only in Vegas.
Even the $160 tasting menu doesn't ruin the mood. True, the food is mostly ridiculous, but there are moments of the sublime. The ugly bird from Paris returns as a swan of a squab, and the desserts are a triumph. The bloopers?Oversteamed sole in one of those piercingly rich sauces that give French cuisine a bad reputation. Bow-tie pasta (the tacky kasha varnishkas sort) with another mucky sauce—this one fit for a 30,000-lira menù turistico.
And still. We leave loaded with lollipops—and almost delirious with joy. Amused to have partaken in a folly so arrogant and yet so naÔve. Glad to have seen the world's most celebrated and cynical chef slip on his own reductions. Thrilled to have witnessed the Michelin three-star ritual exposed as farce. But mainly, happy to have had such a grand ol' time. Certainly "vaut le voyage," as the red book would have it.
Enough with the Cosmopolitans, already. New York is awash in Syrah and Gruner Veltliner, and wine bars are opening faster than you can decant a Barolo. In the belly of the Meatpacking District, RHÔNE (63 Gansevoort St.; 212/367-8440; dinner for two $100) proves that concrete, aluminum, and brick can, in fact, be cozy. The Rhône-obsessed owner, Jeffrey Goldenstein, can talk you through his St. Josephs and Côtes du Rhônes one grape at a time. Order the succulent pork belly with that knockout Gigondas.
The adorable Demi (125½; E. 17th St.; 212/260-0900; dinner for two $40) could fit into a sommelier's pocket. Chef Diane Forley's tiny whimsies—such as corn flan with lobster—are arranged in tiers and matched to, say, a hand-picked rosé or Pinot Noir.
"That Pinot Gris is really uninteresting," declares a wine waiter at MORELL WINE BAR & CAFÉ (1 Rockefeller Plaza, at 49th St.; 212/262-7700; dinner for two $90). "Let me recommend …" Minutes later you're sniffing out the bright mango notes in a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. A handful of grape-friendly dishes complement 125 wines by the glass.
Heads up, downtown—the top of the island is rockin'. Stepping out this fall: JIMMY'S UPTOWN (2207 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. at 130th St.; 212/491-4000; dinner for two $65), a Latin-themed extravaganza from the owner of the legendary Jimmy's Bronx Café. Want soul 'n' spice without supper-club hoopla?Bayou (308 Lenox Ave.; 212/426-3800; dinner for two $50) is your place. Manhattan's most welcoming restaurant excels in roast chicken and catfish, classic Creole turtle soup, and shrimp in a sharp rémoulade. Afterward, catch a set at the revamped ART DECO LENOX LOUNGE (288 Lenox Ave., 212/427-0253). Okay, okay, you're still hankering for ribs, collards, chitlins. You'll find them at COPELAND'S (547 W. 145th St.; 212/234-2357; dinner for two $40).