Before I knew what was going on, I went all ovine and signed a petition to save the Fairway cafe. It always is the best destination after a movie in the neighborhood, when you can seriously appreciate a couple of glasses of wine for less than one ticket cost. And the food is reliable, the noise level painless, the servers a trip. But now I understand the justification for shutting a money-losing amenity down and using the square footage for 5,000 other noble enterprises. Call me cynical, though: Having shopped the store for going on 30 years, I am not entirely convinced even opening up all the space in China would ever stop church ladies from yelling cocksucker at old guys who jostle them in the onion aisle. It’s Bellevue on Broadway.
Speaking of which, the 46 months I invested in my second stint at the NYTimes were not totally in vain. I did get to go to Rao’s on the tab thanks to connections, and so I pity everyone squandering real money on the auction for reservations, at $5,000 a head minimum. As I think I’ve written, I remember not a detail of the mediocre food we ate that night. But I will never forget the boss coming out of the men’s room and relating the exchange he overheard Al D’Amato having with “Little Al” — “You’re a good guy; you don’t ask for much.” I don’t think you’ll get that with the eBay antipasto.
For all my mockery of the WSJournal’s new New York section, it does occasionally run something our other daily delivery does not, like the piece on the new rules for the Greenmarket cracking down on the crappy baked goods they all sell. I understand they’re holdovers from the bad old days when local farms were few and far-flung. But keeping them does tarnish the image of the whole system. Forcing them to use 15 percent regionally grown and milled grain will build more of a market for local wheat etc. As will the requirement that eggs, dairy, meat, honey, maple syrup and produce all be from around here. And of course who is howling loudest? Not a farmer. A commercial baker.
I got myself insulted on Twitter for saying lumpen women make terrible waitrons because they plod (or maybe being called a twit there is considered a compliment). But I don’t care if it makes me weightist. We had to sit through the worst service in a swamped restaurant with two lumbering ones on duty (not helped by a hostess who, when we snared her to say one order of iced tea had not arrived and the other tasted like coffee, just informed us she’d tell our server!) Visual insult to injury, I was seated with the unavoidable view of the pregnant narcissist in the crop top (beer belly or baby bulge: it ain’t attractive). I once had to haul myself around on crutches for months and know too well that bulk slows you down. Some jobs are simply better suited to the fleet. You don’t, after all, see plus-size jockeys at the Derby.
We may be living in a digital world, but my consort is kind enough to still bring home paper from his travels, particularly menus, which is how I came to see the latest charge: Cake Cutting, $2/Slice. Given the kerfuffle over a too-hip joint here penalizing a patron for bringing her own, it should be the coming thing. Or at least should make cupcakes even more inescapable. The whole incident really was a coals-to-Newcastle — or coffee-to-Stumptown — situation anyway. The secret to the place’s success is what my friend Leslie Wong always says: The more New Yorkers get fucked, the more they like it.
I have mixed feelings about Mexico asking for Unesco protection for its cuisine: on one mano it’s laudable, on the other I had a kimchi tamal at Momofuku Noodle Bar that could convert a whole new generation to the religion of masa. But then I think maybe all national cuisines should be protected. Consider Italian. Saturday my consort and I wound up meandering around the West Village in search of lunch after the Union Square Greenmarket and were depressed to find the wonderful little shop across from Minetta Tavern selling focaccia col formaggio worthy of Recco now just bakes any old pizza. The guy I’m convinced proudly sold us our first slab looked beaten. And then we wound up at the newish Quinto Quarto, which looks Italian to the Tuscan Sun max but turns out food so bad it would convert your average Milanese to the McItaly. And it’s still in business. At least we evaded the worst New York food: Glasian — gloppy Thai/Vietnamese/sushi.
The JGold Wannabe tried out yet another new voice in mystifying readers like my consort, who braved a few grafs and could not understand why the rave added up to only three stars. Poor Britchky’s fingers must have been twitching in his grave. I’m so naive I believe even a Poor would not have hurt a restaurant that does what it does so well, and has for so long — I will not soon forget walking out of the deserted Four Seasons last summer and seeing the floral Frog jammed; if you’re going somewhere for a scene and not cuisine, flowers are a fixed face’s best friend (I ate there for my long-ago Allure story on how restaurants make women look good or bad). What was most surprising is that no attempt was made to connect the news dots between that review and the profoundly depressing information that the chef on whom Ruth once lyrically bestowed four stars is now slaving at a Midtown East joint one step up from Tout Va Bien. Of course I’m so old I got addicted to quenelles before I ever had to face down gefilte fish. But I do know that there’s a whole food truck devoted to schnitzel and that people make special expeditions to Cafe Sabarsky for the strudel alone. I just can’t tell the Egotist from the Drivelist sometimes. Or understand how “blackened fruitcake” saw print. Sloppy is as sloppy ledes.
For all my trashing of everyone else, I’m starting to think anyone who listens to me might as well follow Yelp. I’ve been flagellating myself for two weeks now since suggesting a Milanese reader try Keens for his steak fix on a trip to NYC; it had only come to mind because we were heading there again. He and his poor spouse soldiered through the $90 porterhouse, eating it all because in their country you consume what you pay for. In my nightmares, they, too, were shunted upstairs to the Disney DR rather than being seated in the charm space. The only consolation was heading to Fairway’s ambiance-free cafe and noticing the steaks there were $37. Admittedly, with potatoes rather than the $8 addition on 36th Street, but still. In between lashes, I’ll remind everyone I never claimed to be an expert on steakhouses. But I’ll take 260 extra for suggesting Les Halles, too, which he found to be both too Europeanesque and too loud. The awful truth is that great meat is so accessible in regular and farmers’ markets these days there’s no reason to shell out big bucks in hopes of decent creamed spinach. Nothing is easier to cook, especially if you buy from a good butcher who knows exactly how long to sear or grill it. (And let it rest.) For steak, there might be no place like home.
Seeing SD26 advertising as frenetically as Dunkin’ Donuts would be sadder if the whole NYC restaurant scene weren’t going through such craptastic changes. On the plus side, Mama Mexico in my neighborhood has been seized by the tax man after the quality police failed to do their job (was there a margarita mill in the city with worse food and worser service, not to mention the gall to post a certificate claiming honors for service?) On the downside, we walked out of the excellent Part One of Horton Foote’s “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” the other night and passed what now thrives where Bistro du Vent succumbed: another fucking Ollie’s (no orgies in noodles). Maybe all bad things come to an end, though: Irving Mill is dying so that another Brother Jimmy’s BBQ can subsist. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tavern on the Green or Cafe des Artistes converted to a Saint Shack.
I also had to laugh at the notion that Chanterelle bit the big one because of its location in the wake of 9/11. Right after that horrible day I walked around Tribeca reporting for the NYTimes how restaurants were doing, and never in six lifetimes would I have imagined it would even come back, let alone be transformed into a vibrant residential neighborhood. Nobu and the Harrison do not appear to be crying the blues, either. The sad truth is that if Chanterelle could be what it was 30 years ago it would probably be doing fine; it actually was the very model of a modern restaurant, with stripped-down decor and a focus on food. Instead, it reaped the Wall Street whirlwind. Leave it to the incomparable Seymour Britchky to sum it up best, in 1991: The original started life on a budget and showed austere restraint; when it moved from SoHo to larger quarters it became “one luxuriously appointed dining room among New York’s many.” He still gave the place four stars, and apologists might want to ponder which others with that ranking survive: Aquavit and Le Bernardin. The other dead are Lafayette, Jean-Georges’ launching pad, and Lutece. Somehow I think it would be better to blame the rise of Chilewich than an unlucky location.
I interviewed a couple of guys recently who noted that a busy restaurant is not necessarily a successful restaurant. So I’m surprised anyone is surprised at Tavern on the Green going whale-belly-up. Getting the asses in the seats is the easy part with an establishment never known for food. Keeping the mega-lights on is the hard part — those bills do pile up, especially if you are not in the habit of running a business like a business. The only mystery is how a restaurant with no real local fan base has survived so long. Cafe des Artistes, of course, had the opposite problem — New Yorkers embraced it like the subway. Good friends got married there. I went to a birthday lunch there with nonagenarian neighbors who were wetting themselves (I hope not literally) over the romance of it all. I had drinks there with an aging Holly Golightly where we both turned Chardonnay-blinded eyes to the filth on the floor below the bar. But the food? My old idol Britchky nailed it back in 1991: The place had “functions that are quite apart from ingestion.” And he also praised the staff as civilized and competent. It would be sad if part of the reason for the shutdown really had to do with union pay for these pros.
Digging out my first Britchky, from 1981, I also wonder if the problem is not that a restaurant virtually in the shadow of the most expensive new apartment building in the city since the Depression just didn’t evolve. He noted that its appeal was then a combination of playful mood and serious money, in an era when dropping the mega-bucks generally involved absurd formality. Once those customers have tried a sidewalk table at Bar Boulud, how are you going to keep them down under the musty murals?
So I was in Fairway the other day and actually heard the words “thank you” and “you’re very welcome.” A woman apologized when she saw her cart was in front of the cool sponges I was agonizing over. The cashier packed the reusable bag I pulled out of my purse to avoid his plastic and save(!) the planet. It was all beyond surreal, but it was, of course, not down at 74th and Broadway, where I rarely venture without getting bruised and battered, physically or/or psychologically. I was up at the unsettlingly mellow Harlem store, after helping to judge a firehouse grill-off. And that was a trip in itself. I agreed to do it without thinking it would entail a fate worse than salmonella — being relentlessly photographed — or that it would be so challenging. Four of us had to rate burgers, ribs and chicken thighs grilled by teams from four firehouses, and these were guys who are beyond passionate about cooking, given that any meal might be their last. And it wasn’t just about flipping off No. 1, 2, 3 and 4; the criteria included tenderness and creativity etc. It was tough, knowing how much the cooks had invested of their souls. It was also a lot of meat in a very short time, but mostly I came away thinking how rare it was. When was the last time you had restaurant food where you could taste how the kitchen had put 150 percent into every plate?
Oceana’s sayonara to 54th Street was one of the most heartfelt soirees I’ve probably ever experienced, but I also have to say it was also the closest to a hostage situation I’ve been in in a good long while. It even featured what looked like a video of the victim just before the beheading. The accolades went on. And on. Luckily, the downstairs bartender had an Energizer aspect, and the kitchen kept the really sensational food coming as well. (Each of the three chefs responsible for consecutive three-star ratings did three mini-dishes.) Unfortunately, guests were the untrusting sort and were hoovering as fast as the stuff could be sent out. One snapped at a waiter that food was coming too slow upstairs; one waiter snapped at a guy who summoned him over with a full tray: “I’m trying to get these to people who haven’t had 12 already.” But it mostly felt like an end of two eras in one space. When I was in restaurant school, one outing was to the kitchen at what was then Le Cygne in a city where the only serious places were traditional French. And when RM first cooked at Oceana, we went for Bob’s birthday and had a blowaway meal. Lolling on a banquette in a room about to be abandoned, I could remember exactly where we sat and half of what we ate. My friend who had never eaten there found the space gloomy, but that would be like judging the hotel in “The Shining.”
Everyone’s moving west these days, and I wonder how that will play out. When I got home, I rode up in the elevator with neighbors just in from an anniversary dinner way downtown at a French restaurant who said: “There’s money out there. It’s just not seemly to show it.” Pizza is the new brioche.
Here’s one guessing game my consort and I never played in the Chimp Reign of Error: Where might the First Couple eat on a trip to New York? We both ruled out Per Se and Daniel as too expensive/ostentatious. I said Le Bernardin because it seems to be the reflexive choice of the high-profile who won’t want to seem too indulgent/ostentatious (and who have eaten at Citronelle). Bob thought a Danny Meyer joint was a possibility. But of course the Big Os are too smart for any of us. Blue Hill was the right restaurant on the right night. Although I can’t wait until the wingnuts start bitching that “green” food was involved, I do like how the cult of Saint Alice has been cut off at the local/seasonal/sustainable pass. Best part: Imagining Mrs. Chimp sulking in envy over her successor getting to drink martinis in public. Complete with a sentient husband who can have all the wine he wants without trashing the joint. The Os both deserve a burger today.
And reports that Tavern on the Green reneged on its cookbook deal are not exactly shocking. The only surprising aspect is that anyone really thought a catering hall never known for its food would have recipes worth the sacrifice of trees. I still remember the poor young Swiss chef who was canned back in the last century after the NYT, when it still mattered, awarded only a “fair” for his ambitious cooking. His wife, a then-friend of mine, had given me a tour of the kitchens and the watchword was obviously not quality, only quantity (the only place I think I’ve seen bigger vats was a pumpkin factory in Illinois where tons were reduced for canning). But it’s still a little unsettling to read reports implying potential concessionaires are pulling out because the staff is unionized (read: deal-breakingly expensive). If your plane is going down, would you prefer the pilot with training and benefits or the co-pilot who doesn’t know nothin’ ’bout no de-icing and had to come to work with a cold? Swine flu hysteria made no sense not least because no one wanted to consider how many food handlers can’t afford either a sick day or a doctor. And with sneezing and wheezing, those ridiculous latex gloves are not protection but kabuki. Especially considering the waiters long ago got kinder reviews than the food.