If you want to know the best thing about Cafe Gitane in The Jane Hotel, you’re looking at it. It’s an utterly charming space; big, bright, airy. There’s even an alligator on the wall.
When Craig’s Uncle Chris, Aunt Liz and Cousin Katie came through New York a few weeks ago, they wanted to take us out to brunch. At the time, I had a copy of New York Magazine’s Best of New York in my hand and under the category of “Best Brunch” they chose Cafe Gitane for “an ambience that feels airlifted from the Left Bank with a detour to Cuba.”
Somehow, in the past two weeks, I’ve eaten at three new and relevant New York restaurants. Instead of typing up three separate restaurant posts, I decided to make a video summarizing all three meals. The only thing I think I got wrong is the price of the spaghetti and tomato sauce at Scarpetta; it’s $24, not $26.
At a party recently, I was chatting with Amanda from Eater about how disconnected I feel from the world of New York dining; how I rarely know what’s new, what’s not, what’s worth eating at and what’s worth avoiding. How does the Eater gang stay so informed? And how do the throngs of savvy New York diners know where to descend each week? And, come to think of it, where should I go if I want to go somewhere new and hot and relevant?
“Merkato 55,” she answered, quite simply. “It’s Marcus Samuelsson’s new African restaurant in the Meatpacking district and it’s going to be a big deal.”
That nugget was confirmed today in Frank Bruni’s NYT article Newest Restaurants Still Reflect Flush Times. Wrote Bruni: “But neither Adour nor Bar Boulud is as daring as the experiment under way by Marcus Samuelsson. Mr. Samuelsson, renowned for his Scandinavian cooking at Aquavit, is betting that he can make pan-African cuisine magnetic enough to fill about 150 seats at Merkato 55, which jostles for attention and affection among the Asian and Mediterranean behemoths in the meatpacking district.”
I’m a big fan of Aquavit (see here), I’m always game to try a new cuisine and Lauren–the friend who shares my birthday–wanted to take me out tonight to celebrate. So I said, with great self-satisfaction: “Merkato 55. That’s where it’s at.”
People, food blogs exist for a reason. A few months ago Ed Levine told you about “The Best Italian Restaurant Nobody Knows About”. He gave you the number and huge incentives to call: celebrity chef, quiet room, $41 tasting menu. So how come on Friday, when Diana offered to take me out as a belated birthday gift, I called that number and we were able to get a table at 9:30 PM on a FRIDAY night? How come when we got there the bar was almost empty and the Enoteca barely buzzing? Why aren’t the people who line up at Lupa, who clamor for reservations at Babbo, beating down the door at Del Posto?
No, not the expensive half that I put down last year; the area by the bar. Because this, my friends, is a secret that shouldn’t be secret much longer. For $41, you get four courses of Mario Batali food in a pristine setting. Don’t believe me? Click ahead.
Who is responsible for the lavish meals you see displayed before you on my website? No, I don’t mean financially: financially we owe our gastronomic livelihood to my father who slaves away in his Margate office almost ten hours a day so we can nosh on amuse bouches and petit fores. No, the question I raise is who is the Rasputin that whispers the restaurant suggestions into his ear: who is the motivating force behind our extravagant outings to the city’s finest? The prosecution has narrowed it down to two suspects: me and my mother.
Oh sure, blame me. I’m the obvious choice. Me of the food website, the picture-taker documenting each course for all the world. Surely someone who has the chutzpah to photograph his entire meal at Per Se has the nerve to push his father towards expensive four-star meals, even when all his poor father wants is a piece of steak and a potato.
Yet, I contend–in my own defense (I have a fool for a client)–that this evidence is purely circumstantial. Yes, I’ve been known to respond to the question “where should we eat when we come to New York?” with four-star suggestions, but I’m not the gasoline that gets the car moving. That gasoline is my mother: she fuels our family’s feasting forays with a genuine desire to experience the best the world has to offer. She loves everything that is exciting, new, classy, elegant, and especially trendy.
If I were never born, if I were never there to express my interest in all things food, mom would still be dragging dad to the hottest, trendiest restaurants they could afford. (They’d afford a lot more if I were never born!) And these days, in New York, if you mutter the words “hot” “trendy” and “restaurant” in the same sentence the almost instant response will be “Buddakan.” And this is where we went, last week, for my parents’ final night in New York.
Fans and lovers of Mario Batali, his shows, cookbooks and cuisine, I come to you with sad news: believe not the glistening, glowing three-star review Frank Bruni bestowed upon Mario’s newest restaurant, Del Posto, in The New York Times just last week. I am here to bravely declare that Del Posto merits not three stars, not even two: our experience there last night was minimal at best. I am here to report back with firsthand notes, pictures, anecdotes–even video!–from a meal best left forgotten. I may not have the clout of a New York Times food critic, but I have the stamina and chutzpah of a first-rate food blogger. Would a professional photographer take a picture like this?
I rest my case.
Now let us study that photo above for a moment, so I may set the stage. We are on 10th Ave., mere feet away from the chilly Hudson River. We are north of the meatpacking district and south of Chelsea proper. Across the street from where we stand is Morimoto, the other restaurantasaurus receiving much fanfare in the food media. Notice the bridges connecting the two: my brother and I imagined that cows were led across these bridges before being slaughtered, though we have no evidence that these buildings were used for the slaughter of cattle in their former (less scrutinized) lives. If they were we’d like to call one of these bridges, after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, the Bridge of Moos. Otherwise, we suspect that these bridges are now used for shoveling money back and forth between the restaurants into rooms of jolly men laughing at the idiocy of upscale diners, who would spend (as we did) $30 on a single dessert. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
I love manipulating my parents. Originally, we were going to dine uptown at Fresco’s for lunch. “Maybe we’ll see Katy Couric again,” said my dad eagerly. Since I knew celebrities were the draw, and since I was less than impressed on our last outing to Fresco’s I said: “You’ll see twice the celebrities at Spice Market. It’s the hottest spot in New York.”
This wasn’t really a lie. Spice Market IS one of the hottest spots in New York right now. However, much of that “hotness” occurs at night, not for lunch. And also it’s Labor Day weekend so most big shots are out of town. But, on the other hand, this allowed us to get a 1 pm reservation. We showed up a bit before then and walked around the meatpacking district. I think my parents enjoyed it–quite a change of pace from their posh (*=count up all the Spice Girl references in this review and win a free Spice Girls CD retrieval from your CD collection, free of charge) confines uptown.
So we gingerly made our way over to the brown and white open-aired cafe on the corner of 13th and 9th:
Now you may remember the scary hullabaloo that surrounded Amanda Hesser when she gave Spice Market 3 stars after which it was revealed that she was friends with the chef. Well I am here to tell you, after eating there, that were I judge and jury I would exonerate Amanda immediately: the food at Spice Market is wonderful and quite deserving of three stars.
For starters, there were “lobster rolls”–a sushi-like concoction featuring lobster and fiery mayonaisse:
Then we were brought chips and salsa–which was really a sporty tomato jelly with a kick to it:
The chips were really amazing. Familiar, yes, but so much fresher and tastier than the styrofoam you find at Chili’s. They crumbled with a “posh” in your mouth.
Next up were Vietnamese mushroom spring rolls:
Also quite tasty. It’s as if Jean-Georges (the owner/chef) took Asian street food and gave it an elegant spin. What’s that you say? That’s the whole point? Well sorry, don’t be a baby about it.
[Note: this Spice Girls game is growing irritating, Adam. Can't you supplant the Spice Girl references with references to other popular all-female bands? Consider it done.]
My mom’s HEART was set on a salad, so we ordered the avocado salad with radishes and mustard and onion tempura on top:
The BANGLES of microgreens on top really gave it an edge.
Now for the entrees—here we GOGOs.
Noodles with shrimp and a spicy tomatoey sauce:
The shrimp were good, the noodles boring and the sauce incredibly hot. (My mouth was on fire). This was my least favorite dish. The only HOLE in an otherwise great meal.
[Ok, I'm quitting this game.]
The steak with cilantro lime topping (I’m getting some of these dishes wrong because I didn’t keep a menu or take notes) was a perfect fusion dish:
The steamed lobster (the priciest dish on the menu) was a little disappointing, but how disappointing can lobster be?
Now then, I made an excursion to the bathroom and soaked in the aesthetics: (sorry for the bad pic):
Sort of like a really classy EPCOT version of Asia. Acutally, it was really quite a beautiful space. Added a lot to the experience.
Finally, there was dessert. The waiter sold me on Vietnamese coffee—something I’d never had:
It was espresso on top of sweetened condensed milk. Very sweet, and therefore right up my alley.
For dessert I chose the one I had read the most about: Thai Jewels.
When this arrived, my dad made me laugh by saying: “It looks like spit. Who would want to eat that?”
He had a good point, but it ends up that I would want to eat that. A lot of it. It’s sort of a milk foam with all sorts of strangely textured fruit and tapioca mixed in on top of coconut ice shavings. This next picture is nasty but it gives you an idea of what lingers beneath the surface:
In conclusion, spice up your life with a meal at Spice Market. It’s what you want what you really really want…