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November 25, 2011 10:28 pm
Roberta’s and Daniel, New York City
Joe Bastianich, with whom chef Mario Batali has opened more than 20 restaurants in New York, Las Vegas and Singapore (Hong Kong may be next) was in typically feisty mood after lunch at Esca, the duo’s seafood restaurant on W 43rd Street.
“I still believe New York is the dining capital of the world,” he said. “You can get the best of whatever style of food you want to eat here. It’s like London but with a permanent 50 per cent discount on the prices.”
Now, I have long remained sceptical about the price differential between these two cities, as London’s bills have to include the sales tax, and the service charge is invariably lower than the 20 per cent anticipated in New York. But the value of any meal can only be a reflection of its quality, and regrettably my first three evenings in New York ended in disappointment.
At Veritas, the wine list under Rubén Sanz Ramiro continues to impress, but its kitchen singularly underperformed, most notably with an incorrectly seasoned roast chicken dish.
Dinner the following night, at La Promenade des Anglais, a Niçois restaurant that French chef Alain Allegretti has opened on W 26th Street, got off to a good start with some excellent appetisers: burrata, fried gnocchi and zucchini and a delicious bottle of Austrian Meinhard Forstreiter’s 2010 Grüner Veltliner ($42). But then everything got sloppy as the dishes that followed lost their precision and flavour.
Despite the torrential rain, we ran into La Mar off Madison Square Park with unbridled enthusiasm, keen not just to learn about the Peruvian ingredients on its menu but also to see how its new owners have transformed what used to be Tabla, a favourite Indian restaurant.
Sadly, they do not seem to have taken their customers into account. This is a difficult space over two floors. Everything seems hard, metallic and deafening. Even to large tables the waiters describe every single ingredient on each dish as though in an intimate dining room. The ceviche (marinated raw fish dishes) were good but the whipped potatoes with different toppings and the rice and shrimp dish were disappointing.
Two days later, my spirits and faith in New York’s restaurants were restored by quick trips to old favourites. The first involved a yellowfin tuna burger (a key ingredient is the ginger mustard glaze) while sitting at the bar of Union Square Café as it celebrated its 26th birthday and then the goats’ cheese tortellini at Otto, a Batali/Bastianich co-production by Washington Square. These two restaurants continue to exude the city’s energy and their owners’ clear vision for them.
This energy was matched if not surpassed by trips to Roberta’s in Brooklyn, and Daniel on E 65th street. Roberta’s has a breeze-block frontage (it used to be a car mechanic workshop) and a green curtain across the front door which draws back on to such a scene of colour and exuberance that I felt as though I was walking into a speakeasy in 1920s Chicago.
There is a flurry of activity around the red pizza oven in the corner, a packed bar and in the centre a series of wooden tables and benches that are more comfortable than they look. All the other customers seemed to be half my age with more than twice my hair.
Carlo Mirarchi’s food and wine list is sensationally good. A particularly intense, and equally well-dressed, salad of squashes from the restaurant’s own plot; crisp sweetbreads with lime and aioli; a carpaccio of beef as good as any; and very moreish pizza. Great food and great fun.
Both these factors were prominent in a celebratory dinner at Daniel during my very first visit to this long-established pillar of the city’s restaurant scene. It was well worth waiting for.
The meal in a room that has echoes of the dining room on an ocean liner contained several culinary highlights: a game consommé with foie gras tortellini; yellowfin tuna, cured, confit and as a tartare; squab pigeon with foie gras; and turbot, on the bone, with endive roasted and pureed.
But what impressed me most was that this quality was being served to 250 customers on what I learnt was their busiest night of the year, a number I know no leading French chef in Paris or London would dare to match. Only, I realised, in New York.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
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