Do not get between a platter of beautifully composed sushi and a bunch of sports reporters at a US Open pre-opening tasting. Half of them will be jockeying to videograph the static stuff and the rest will be serving themselves with both hands. And when you finally figure out that this is one big wedding reception, where the best table is closest to the kitchen, they will have locusted through all the fancy fare. You will be settling for what you always envisioned as stadium fud, gut-busting indulgences like portobello fries and bratwurst re-presented as art on a skewer with a round of soft pretzel and a squiggle of mustard.
I blame myself for not asking about the rules of the game, though. After the half-hour-long BS intro with the “celebrity guest chefs,” I put my bladder before my stomach and wasted time walking half a mile to the closest bathroom while the pros were staking out tables and grabbing seats where the wine and cocktails and high-end tidbits would be served first. I didn’t realize the goal was to snare a chair immediately and dig into whatever the waiters were passing.
On the plus side, I finally chose a table that turned out to be occupied by a couple of producers from a local teevee station — and those are always guaranteed to be both the most experienced and the most gregarious guests.
Great lesson one: Charm the waiter. After just two “I love you” encounters with one overburdened carrier, our table leader had him sneaking her not just the chicken tinga taco our table had been deprived of but a glass of red to accompany the sliver of bone-in tomahawk rib-eye only she was able to cadge.
Great lesson two: Traditions matter. Our table leader pointed out that you got to keep the “glass” (plastic) if you took the sponsored cocktail; last year she amassed nine. Because I don’t have enough crap in my kitchen, I got in line to garner one, right alongside an Argentine sportswriter who wanted his refilled because this was his 10th Open and he actually had enough crap. (Hope he understands it was genuine curiosity and not Cougarism that led me to inquire where he stays on so many trips to such an expensive city. “With friends” was good enough.)
So was the food worth the schlep on four trains to the Mets-Willets Point stop (which has, incidentally, the first working bathrooms I’ve ever seen in a subway)? Michael White’s squid ink cassarecci was extraordinary, the pasta perfectly cooked and its dark flavor amplified by tiny bits of shrimp, scallops and squid, with a garlicky dusting of mollica for crunch (someone should do a story on how great that Italian garnish is). That composition was worthy of Marea. Unfortunately, I missed his lobster-topped burrata and his tomahawk steak (wary of feedlot beef, I did pass on his steak tartare).
Mantuano-of-Spiaggia’s avocado toast was also sensational, with pistachios for crunch and pickled serranos for heat, and his “tomato bread,” a soft slice also topped with Manchego and serrano ham, also delivered great flavor. (I passed on his flaming ouzo shrimp.)
I don’t eat chicken, so I didn’t mind not scoring Richard Sandoval’s tinga taco, and I missed his Maya chopped salad with steak (see beef wariness above) and chayote, which I later would see described as “a type of Central American cucumber” — take that, mirlitons! Otherwise, what I snared was more like those portobello fries (tempuraed, BTW), a bready mini crab cake and over-grilled tuna about which everyone kept asking “what is it?” To be fair, salmon crudo had a pretty presentation, while the US Open Signature Lobster Roll was overstuffed, although the “spicy” flavor of the Louis dressing that was either promised or threatened proved to be imperceptible.
One amusing thing was that the chefs were subjected to the usual trite questions in the introduction beforehand (“what’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted?”), and of course grilled cheese came up and reverse snobbery rained down. All said it needs to be down-and-dirty, made with American “cheese” and cooked in the grease on a griddle so it takes on the flavor of whatever went before. (So much for “Chef”’s after-the-credits demo.) But later there were two types on offer, one made with Gouda, herb butter and bacon and the other with New York Cheddar and New Hampshire Landaff. And the sports types went nuts, one yelping “Jesus” as he tried to get through the scrum around a waiter.
The whole event reminded me of many in Italy that were sponsored by the local government. So I guess it wasn’t surprising that the cappuccino I finished with had “Lavazza for US Open” spelled out in dark chocolate on the foam.
Two last notes: I did hear a new line, after all these decades, after the inevitable “what do you cook at home?” was asked of the “celebrities.” Michael White: “That’s like asking a postman if he wants to take a walk at the end of his shift.” And I now think every chef who feels star-bound to show up in whites should take a fashion cue from Morimoto (my photo was even lamer).
WIGB, though? Yep. If only for the smug privilege of being media and avoiding the metal detectors the regular people had to walk through, here in the freedomest country in the world.