A Plate Full of New York Flavors

NEW YORK CITY -- One could never criticize New York for lack of style, and today, more than ever, the very healthy restaurant industry here is displaying a distinctive manner that exudes confidence, variety, and substance. Gone are the days of towering concoctions that seem to exist solely to edify the ego of the chef, and back again are menus that are smart, simple, and created with the wants of the diner in mind. And thank goodness portions are now much smaller, much healthier. Here, then are thoughts from a week-long eating tour in the city:


All my life I’ve wanted that perfect corner spot, the one with friendly faces that greet you at the door, just enough style to make you feel you are in the right place, and a simple menu that allows you a light snack or a major feast, depending upon your mood and hunger of the day. If a roaring fire is tossed into the equation, I’m a goner.

Rolando Beramendi’s two-week old Greenwich Village wine bar – Bellavitae – is just that sort of place, with a large wood-burning oven, an exposed brick wall, gigantic framed mirrors, gorgeous pine floors and a quiet ambience make this a place to visit again and again. Beramendi and his partner Jon Mudder create an enthusiastic greeting committee and serve as genial hosts. For more than 15 years Mr. Beramendi has been a top American purveyor of all things Italian, including the finest, oils, pastas, and rice. So of course all those extra-virgin olive oils, 20-year-old balsamic vinegar, organic penne, and golden egg garganelli appear on his short and sweet, single-page menu.

When you go, and you must, order the you-can’t-stop-eating-them fried meatballs –perfectly crusty (and not at all greasy) on the outside, nicely seasoned, firm and well-flavored on the inside, all deep-fried in olive oil. A favorite of the evening was his brilliant, grilled radicchio, rolled in the thinnest of pancetta, quickly pan-fried and drizzled with a touch of balsamic vinegar. Don’t miss the simple and sublime fettunta, slices of freshly toasted crusty country bread that are rubbed with garlic and anointed with the fragrant 2004 vintage new olive oil from the Capezzana estate outside of Florence. One can go on, and we did, sampling a salad of fresh greens tossed with a dressing of pomegranates and balsamic vinegar, as well as perfectly spicy portions of organic penne tossed in a tomato-rich sauce arrabbiata. Meat lovers will adore the sliced steak topped with a powerful green sauce, redolent with herbs.

The Bar Room at The Modern and The Modern:

Let’s all confess that the idea of dining in a museum restaurant is generally not one that stirs thoughts of culinary bliss. Let New York’s Danny Meyer change your mind about all that. As part of the re-do of the Museum of Modern Art, Meyer has shown he can do it again, with two main-floor dining rooms with their own entrance, the casual Bar Room at The Modern and the upscale The Modern.

Brand new and already full of buzz and energy, the two restaurants sport very modern, uncluttered fare that has a strong, singular personality. Alsatian-born chef Gabriel Kreuther knows his stuff and serves it up with flair. At the Bar, you’ll find a stunning tarte flambée, a very thin-crusted Alsatian “pizza,” topped with onions, cream and bacon. This is one of the finest versions I’ve ever tasted, the sort of can’t stop eating it fare perfect for a cold night in New York. I loved, too, the tuna carpaccio teamed up with crunchy curly cress and a citrus-ginger vinaigrette. The wild salmon with a gentle horseradish crust, served with cabbage steeped in Riesling wine was lovely, as was the earthy, braised pork cheeps, served with sauerkraut and a surprising ginger juice.

I found the room a bit cafeteria-like with uncomfortable chairs and tables a bit too close. And the wall of wines along one wall is lovely, but then why is one given only a measly choice of 14 wines and two champagnes?

There’s no doubt that my repertoire of fish recipes will include dishes from the other side of the room, the more elegant, upscale The Modern, overlooking the museum’s amazing sculpture garden. I devoured the duet of fresh, cloud-like langoustines wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon and served with a spicy organic yogurt anointed with an unusual and well-flavored cardamom oil. And there is no question that buttermilk-poached turbot served with a clove Mousseline will soon appear on my dining room table: It’s a “why didn’t I think of that” sort of dish, with buttermilk creating an even smoother, richer flavor for the already regal fish. If you are in the mood, you can also feast on roasted wild boar chops with a rutabaga “sauerkraut,” chorizo-crusted cod with a white cocoa bean purée, drizzled with a spicy oil made from the Moroccan-style harissa.

The decor in this small, welcoming room is subdued, with black marble floors, a grey ceiling, black chairs, shiny stainless cutlery, and clean white china, a modern statement for the modern life. I can’t wait until weather allows for dining in the garden, for that will be a treat all in itself.

Per Se:

There’s no question that chef Thomas Keller – of Napa Valley’s French Laundry fame – is one of America’s top and most respected chefs. I’ve followed him since the 1980’s when we was working at Rakel in New York City, and if his new Per Se is any signpost, he’s not ready to stop and rest on his laurels anytime soon. The gentle, outgoing Keller has created and made famous some of the modern table’s most delightful treasures, including his oysters and pearls (plump oysters set atop a bed of pear tapioca sabayon and topped with a generous dollop of glistening caviar -- think sea, sea, more sea); and of course his famed ice cream cone, buttery homemade cones stuffed generously with a salmon tartare touched with lemon oil, chives, shallots and crème fraiche.

We sampled these, and much, much more on a recent evening, including an amazing, foamy Jerusalem artichoke soup, studded with tiny pickled Jerusalem artichokes and cilantro leaf. The dish was all that today’s food should be: Light, creative, elegant, unfussy, and satisfying. Hand’s down, the star of the evening was his home-cured, home-smoked Washington State steelhead trout roe, topped with intensely flavored dried bonita an a touch of Persian lime salt. Again, purity and simplicity reigned, food that was smooth and mouth-filling, surprising, gratifying. Feed me langoustines any day of the week and it brings a smile to my face. Here, Keller poached the Scottish delicacy in sweet butter, so sparingly that they appeared to be almost raw, and served it atop a bed of wilted spinach teamed up with allspice-infused Anjou pears.

In his new and wildly popular (reservations are taken two months in advance) dining room overlooking Central Park, Keller seems to have it all together. The wait staff is abundant, well-groomed and well-trained, and outgoing in perfectly measured way.

But I found a bit of trouble in paradise. A chef of his stature should understand black truffles, one of the world’s greatest delicacies. Respectful use of truffles means knowing they are best flattered when sliced raw, into thin rounds, so one can best appreciate the texture, the aroma. On the evening we dined at Per Se, waiters arrived with the bane of my kitchen-gadget existence, the microplane, an idiotic tool designed for the woodworking shop as a rasp for fine finishing. I wish it had stayed in the workshop. Instead of thin, flavorful rounds of truffles, we were served truffle sawdust, mounds of precious black shavings, a method that totally destroys any pleasure of the magical wild mushroom. And, like many chefs today, Keller insists on serving many many dishes out of giant bowls (sorry, but they look like dog bowls to me), vessels that overwhelm the small portion sizes and, what’s more, are very awkward to eat out of. And, Mister Keller, the menus are just too long. Halfway through, even the best-trained appetites begin to fade.

Café Gray:

Just one floor below Per Se, you’ll find Café Gray, a large, bold, glittery dining spot run by Swiss-born Gray Kuntz. Though I can’t say I loved the décor or the fact that the open kitchen overlooked Central Park (what about us diners?), there was something about the food and wine list that caught my eye in the most positive way. I most loved his harvest ragout, a wholesome winter medley of seasonal vegetables, including salsify, chayote, and cardoons in a gentle turmeric-infused sauce. Equally lovely was the steamed turbotin, set in a watercress broth and served with a sunset-orange squash sauce. Also excellent (though the name throws one off) is the skate schnitzel, fresh ray fish cooked in hazelnut butter and showered with capers, walnuts, apples and jicama.

Le Bernardin:

But during a week’s worth of dining, a single dish stands out as the best: That was at what is perhaps the best fish restaurant in the world, Le Bernardin. Ever since 1972, when Maguy Le Coze and her late brother, Gilbert, opened their tiny fish restaurant on Paris’s Left Bank, the name Le Bernardin meant top quality, simplicity, dedication to the best. It is rare for a restaurant to maintain such stature, for a restaurateur to maintain such discipline over the years. Since moving their operation to New York in 1986, Le Bernardin has been, without question, a top table.

Today, I I love the thought of everything the amazing chef Eric Ripert puts in front of you, from the complex quartet of four different marinated fluke ceviche, to the flash-marinated scallops in lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, and on to the Peruvian-inspired crab, avocado and potatoes served with yellow pepper sauce. But forever, forever, I will remember his remarkable raw tuna specialty: Imagine the thinnest slice of toasted baguette topped with a touch of olive oil, a showering of chives, the thinnest touch of foie gras, then more and more and more paper-thin slices of thinly pounded yellowfin tuna. I felt as though I was floating on a cloud, on my way to heaven.

24 Minetta Lane (between Bleecker and West 3rd)
NY NY 10012.
Telephone: 212 473 5121
web: www.bellavitae.com
Email: reservations@bellavitae.com or through OpenTable.com.

Open for dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday. All major credit cards. From $30 to $50 per person, not including service or wine.

The Bar Room at The Modern and The Modern
Museum of Modern Art
9 West 53rd Street
Telephone: 212 333 1220

Open daily. The Bar Room at the Modern: From $17 to $31, not including service or wine. The Modern: Three-course prix fixe at $74, with cheese course $88, not including service or wine.

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle (60th Street at Broadway, fourth floor)
NY NY 10019
Telephone: 212 823 9335
Web: www.perseny.com or through OpenTable.com.

Open from lunch Friday through Sunday; Dinner nightly. All menus, including five-course menu, nine-course vegetarian menu, and nine-course tasting menu, at $175, not including service or wine.

Cafe Gray
10 Columbus Circle (60th Street at Broadway, fourth floor)
NY NY 10019
Telephone 212 823 6338
Email: info@cafegray.com

Daily prix fixe lunch at $45. A la carte, $50 to $50, not including service or wine.

Le Bernardin
155 West 51st Street
NY NY 10019
Telephone: 212 554 1515
Web: www.le-bernardin.com or through OpenTable.com

Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. All major credit cards. Prix Fixe lunch at $47, dinner at $84, not including service or wine.