Per Se, Jean Georges, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns have been visited, and a couple of them left me wishing I’d spent my money elsewhere (though one did indeed take the prize). But now to the fun stuff: Dining at critics’ darlings like Torrisi and the Breslin, eyeing up Veritas’s new chef (will he prove his three stars from the New York Times?), and debating Thai chicken wings at the Las Vegas import Lotus of Siam (you might want to stick to Vegas).
After somewhat disappointing meals at both Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, I was ready to throw in the towel and eat hot wings for the rest of the trip since, clearly, the Fancy Category wasn’t cutting it. Little did I know the winner would be, yes, a fancy restaurant—Jean Georges’s flagship on Columbus Circle—but for its decidedly affordable two-course $38 lunch offered Monday through Saturday (dinner is $98 for three courses).
I am lucky to say that I have been to Per Se once before. It was a little over two years ago on the day my brother Oliver got married. Everyone agreed that the five-course lunch was breathtaking. My Japanese sister-in-law, a professional collector of breathtaking meals (who inexplicably remains a size zero), called it “possibly the best I’ve had.” We nodded in agreement. Regretfully, we could not say the same about our most recent trip. Sure, the food was intricately prepared and beautifully presented, but—hang on—the fish was overcooked and the frog’s legs were underseasoned? My brother Matthew, who had chosen the 9-course vegetarian menu, was left deflated as well. There were some amazing high points, like his Salvatore Brooklyn ricotta agnolotti, but then perplexing dishes like a massive hunk of Amarelo da Beira Baixa cheese that he would have had a hard time finishing if it were the only thing he ate. Chef Thomas Keller has created a global reputation that rests on his OCD-like demand for perfection. But this wasn’t it.
Let’s talk logistics. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is in Westchester, 45 minutes north of New York City by train. Unless you have a car, you have to be able to eat your three-hour-plus meal in time to take the last train back to the city at one in the morning. Or pay an exorbitant fee for a taxi to drive you back at that hour. My advice? Either find a way to eat at 5:30pm or plan a lunchtime outing on the weekend when you can take in the sights of the farm and its surroundings (or, on a personal note, have enough light to take photos in the “no flash zone” dining room). The lake and trees looked nice by moonlight, but are much more enjoyable by day, I’m sure.
Maybe I visited too early upon its opening in 2009 before they worked out the kinks, but Marea, Michael White’s Italian seafood restaurant, left me disappointed back then. I am a fan of his previous ventures, Alto and Convivio, but at Marea the dishes were bland or simply not inventive–pasta with calamari and clams? As the months went on, people raved about the crudi (raw fish) and fusilli with octopus and bone marrow. Then, in May 2010, the James Beard Foundation awarded Marea best new restaurant. As far as I’m concerned, anyone with a stove and a sign has a James Beard award by now, but it was enough to make me reconsider (then again, Tom Colicchio won outstanding chef and Keith McNally won outstanding restaurateur).
Despite living in NYC for five years, I never made it to Peter Luger‘s historic 1887 steak house in Brooklyn. Rumors swirled about the surly waiters and the massive porterhouse, considered the best steak in the city by many. With a steak-loving friend in town one weekend, we also ended up at Strip House, so I thought it would be fun to conduct a NYC steak-off. (I was originally planning to have Minetta Tavern‘s NY strip in the running as well, but it was so bad I dropped it from the lineup.)
Oh, glorious pizza. Since San Diego’s restaurants are in some kind of purgatory of mediocrity, with pizza options just a step above Domino’s, I tend to seek out good pizza when I travel. Declaring the best “New York slice” engenders as much arguing and regional posturing as Mideast peace negotiations, so I’ve limited my research to the Neapolitan-style pizza served at relative newcomers Motorino and Kesté.
Tom Colicchio needs to stop spreading himself so thin. The host of Bravo’s Top Chef has five branded restaurants with 13 outlets across the country. ‘wichcraft, his casual sandwich eatery, has 12 locations in NYC alone! (I ate at one in my neighborhood; it doesn’t have the flair it did when it first opened next door to Craft on 19th street.) Even his renowned flagship Craft, which lets the quality of ingredients sing for themselves like à la carte presents, has lost its luster. Not surprisingly, Colicchio & Sons has followed in this vein: Good but not great.
Is it an oxymoron to have to call 21 days in advance and hear a busy signal for 30 minutes to make a reservation at a casual Mexican eatery? If the food were sensational, I can understand, but what’s all the hype about? Well, the secret entrance doesn’t hurt. From the outside, La Esquina looks to be, and is, a three-dollar taco shop. But if you report to a woman with a clipboard, she grants you access to the swanky brasserie below.
Eleven Madison Park, under bulletproof restaurateur Danny Meyer‘s direction, has been on my NYC hit list since it received a rare 4 stars from the New York Times in August 2009. They seem to be using French Laundry as a model (especially for food presentation) and, while the meal was highly enjoyable, it had some missteps.