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James Beard winners and nominees, discerning diners and top ingredients make New York the place to eat

NEW YORK

What if we'd bet on Mine That Bird, the shocking winner of the 135th Kentucky Derby? It was 50 to 1. We'd be driving snazzy cars and buying drinks all around.

But I like my gambling a little safer. I want a shoo-in. I went to New York for the James Beard Foundation Awards May 4 at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. In the days leading up to Emeril Lagasse, Cat Cora and actor Stanley Tucci taking the stage to emcee the evening, I dined accordingly, hitting a handful of nominees.

I chose five restaurants/restaurateurs, and three of them emerged victorious at what has come to be known as the culinary Oscars. (For a complete list of winners, go to jamesbeard.org.) Dashing from one restaurant to the next in blustery, rainy springtime New York, I reflected on what has made New York arguably the country's best food city.

Taking chances

David Chang (his Momofuku Ko won for best new restaurant) entered the national culinary consciousness in 2003 with his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar (171 First Ave., (212) 777-7773, no reservations, $9 to $16) in the East Village, which did radical, unrepentantly meaty (pig tails and pork necks) Asian-ish food on the cheap. Before his empire went on to include Momofuku Ssam Bar, Momofuku Ko (12 seats, one of the hardest reservations in town) and Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar, everyone was just blown away by his steamed pork belly buns and ramen.

I went for lunch at the Noodle Bar, and, yes, it's possible to be blown away by ramen. His are handmade, the most famous version topped with a softly poached egg and pork bits. I opted for the ginger scallion (for a while this was the only vegetarian dish; most everything else contained ham), roasted cauliflower, slivers of ginger and bamboo shoots hidden amongst the crimped noodles.

Defying the butt-punishing wooden benches at the communal tables, designed to move you out pronto, I lingered over pork buns: More like open-faced, taco-like buns, they cradled planks of ultra-plush, fatty pork, a scattering of scallion, and salty-tart, paper-thin cucumber rounds. Heavenly, and followed up with a small crock (a special of the day) of chicken liver foie gras served with buttery baguette toasts. Plunge the knife past a plug of hard yellow chicken fat to scoop the velvet spread, dots of fresh thyme and fleur de sel waking the whole thing up. Even foggy with saturated fat, it was easy to see that David Chang's genius is being an iconoclast willing to take risks.

It's about volume

Ruth Reichl, author and Gourmet magazine editor, once said the ability to make a lot of money is what makes New York restaurants so great. A popular New York restaurant can seat each table three times a night: tourists and early birders at 5:30 or 6 p.m., the regular folk at 8 p.m. and then the Europeans, hipsters and restaurant industry people at 10 or 10:30 p.m. More customers means more money. This translates into top-notch ingredients and higher chef salaries — ergo, envelope-pushing, jaw-dropping food.

However, I ate in two restaurants where the gotta-turn-the-table mentality got in the way of my enjoyment. Babbo (110 Waverly Place, (212) 777-0303, reservations one month in advance, entrees $24 to $29), which won a James Beard this year for best pastry chef, casts a huge shadow in the culinary world. Mario Batali's famed menu is about lush animal fats, heavy on the organs and interesting bits (lamb's brains, pig foot Milanese, fennel-dusted sweetbreads).

It was tasty, but our only breathtaking dish was rabbit with tiny sweet potatoes, fresh green peas, crisp pancetta cubes with a carrot vinaigrette (the rabbit loin, however was rolled in so much of what tasted like herbs de Provence that it was like sniffing an underwear-drawer sachet). The experience was good, I'm not claiming otherwise, but it's so obviously a machine, with a zillion aproned minions zipping around the dining room and bumping into each other, that it's enough to make you frantic. Every time I set down a fork, a young woman was at my elbow asking me if I was done. Back off, I'm still nibbling.

The next night at Scarpetta (355 W 14th St., (212) 691-0555, reservations one month in advance, entrees $28 to $37), we had trouble with a similar frenzy factor. Too many servers, bussers and dining room attendees zoomed around a tightly set but gorgeous dining room in the Meatpacking District.

Nominated for best new restaurant but not a winner, it's still easy to see why Scarpetta and chef/owner Scott Conant have charmed foodies. Conant is known for rigorously simple high-minded Italian. For us this meant a perfect spring tagliatelle with white and green asparagus, wild mushrooms and other tender-crisp veggies, topped with a foamy, truffle-infused zabaglione (a fragrant sauce that you'd like to dab behind each ear).

The wine list's range (another NYC trend: by-the-glass offerings poured from small individual carafes) impressed me more than my entree of rosy Sicilian-spiced duck breast with preserved orange and root vegetables.

Savvy diners

One morning, we left the comfort of our lovely hotel, InterContinental the Barclay (111 E 48th St., (212) 755-5900) and stood for more than an hour in a heavy drizzle to gain admittance to Prune (54 E First St., (212) 677-6221). Chef Gabrielle Hamilton's tiny East Village spot didn't win this year for best New York restaurant, but her legion of fans remain unperturbed. Unassuming, funky, with a unique and gutsy menu (at dinner, it's sardines on Triscuits, deviled eggs and warm monkfish liver on toasts), Prune is beloved by the city's foodies and chefs, and Hamilton is often referred to as a "chef's chef."

Go for weekend brunch (no reservations, $12 to $19) and listen: The crowd is passionate about food, speaking eloquently of French merveilles pastries or eggs en cocotte. Sipping a Bloody Mary stocked with pickled Brussels sprout, turnip and caperberry (all served with a small sidecar of Red Stripe beer) and plowing through butter-crumbed eggs over spicy stewed chickpeas with preserved lemons, it was easy to see why Prune has such a cultish following.

I ended my dine-around at the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art (9 W 53rd St., (212) 333-1220, lunch entrees $12 to $24), this year's winner for best restaurant in New York. Chef Gabriel Kreuther is another rock star among the city's food cognoscenti. Frankly the best meal of the trip, lunch was a revelation, from a spring pea salad with Sicilian pistachios and a little flurry of ricotta salata, to an orange and grapefruit "carpaccio" with green apple-basil sorbet.

Kreuther is a wizard, yes, but much of what makes the Modern a destination is ingredients. New York has better access to the world's best produce, cheeses, meats and artisanal foods. But clearly New Yorkers' expectations have something to do with this.

At the awards ceremony later that day, Dan Barber, winner of this year's outstanding chef, took the stage: "I remember telling my father, I want to be a chef. He said, 'Why?' I said, 'I love food.' He said, 'I love books, but I don't read for a living.' As the economy collapsed, most industries died down to the lowest common denominator. But fine dining didn't become less fine, and I credit managers, and mostly chefs, who refuse to lower that bar and love food and continue serving good food."

Maybe that's a good summary of what makes New York this country's best food city.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter: @reiley. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.

James Beard winners and nominees, discerning diners and top ingredients make New York the place to eat 05/12/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 4:30am]

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