Each time I visit New York, restaurants seem to a play a bigger role in the city’s life. Twenty years ago, over lunch with Bryan Miller, my onetime counterpart at The New York Times, he explained how the sheer volume of restaurants in the city was directly connected to the price of property. Only the wealthy could afford an apartment with a dining room; those who couldn’t met in bars, cafés and restaurants.
Two years ago, at Calliope on the Lower East Side, Pete Wells, one of Miller’s successors, recounted how the research for his reviews was taking far longer than before.
Not only have many of the more exciting restaurateurs and chefs moved to Brooklyn or Queens in search of affordable rents, they also do not take reservations. A long journey is followed by a long wait.
The topic of reservations came up again over a drink with an Englishwoman now on her second tour of duty in New York with her husband. She gave a graphic description of how she hovers over her computer trying to snag a time slot via the online reservation system OpenTable. “Making a reservation in a New York restaurant has become the city’s latest blood sport,” she opined.
Nevertheless, I managed to eat at three restaurants, travelling in a mere 60 blocks from Korea to northern Italy to Kentucky. (Each place was extremely noisy – my counterpart at Bloomberg apparently packs a decibel counter.)
My voyage began on West 52nd Street at Danji, the Korean word for the clay jars that contain kimchi, soy and fermented miso. These line the shelves of a narrow dining room that has counter seating for 36 at the front, plus some smaller tables at the back. The rest of the interior is, crucially, light wood so that the overall impression is as bright as possible. Drawers in the tables to put the menus in once your order has been taken are a clever feature.
Hooni Kim, chef and proprietor, as he is of Hanjan on West 26th Street, is one of an increasing number of Korean chefs who are cooking so well across the US. Kim learnt much of his technique working under Daniel Boulud, French skills that he has now matched to the highly assertive flavours of Korean cooking.
The highlight of this combination in his starters were five pieces of silky tofu with a ginger dressing and a small bowl of nourishing beef soup. The hot and spicy pork noodles were thankfully not as hot and spicy as they could be, while the beef sliders and gently poached sablefish with daikon were excellent.
Equally memorable was the service, led by Esther Chun. She has been in the restaurant business for 14 years, obviously loves her profession and imbues her staff with the same enthusiasm. The no-reservation policy does increase anxiety levels among customers but Chun handles this with style.
Donna Lennard is the far-sighted creator of Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria on Great Jones Street in NoHo. The immediate impression, on crossing the threshold, is of stepping into Italy. There are aromas of coffee and fresh bread, vast cheeses and hams, and shelves packed with dried goods.
But the buzz around the tables is unquestionably New York. Part of this is down to the way in which Lennard has converted the home of the former Great Jones Lumber Corp into her vision of an Italian restaurant, while incorporating so many of its original features.
Crostini di baccalà, finely diced cod with celery, preserved lemon and piquillo pepper, ricotta with diced cucumber and marinated anchovies and a little gem salad with anchovies and radishes were refreshing starters, while spaghetti with Sardinian mullet roe and sea bass baked with thyme and charred lemons were very Italian mains. The strong US influence came once I met Justin Smillie, the executive chef, who took me on a tour of the basement kitchen where the bread and cakes are baked and the pork cured and smoked.
Finally, to Maysville on West 26th Street. One side is a large bar, packed with bottles of bourbon and rye, while from the other hang three large charcoal drawings of horses. From the kitchen, chef Kyle Knall serves clean and fresh Southern food: shrimp toast; hay roasted oysters; smoked whitefish mousse; pork belly with apples; and grits with bourbon aioli. Excellent – and very New York.
346 West 52nd Street, +1 212 586 2880; danjinyc.com
Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria
53 Great Jones Street, +1 212 837 2622; ilbucovineria.com
17 West 26th Street, +1 646 490 8240; maysvillenyc.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lander