You may not be surprised to learn that when it comes to what I eat, at any given moment, I can be a bit of a control freak. In fact I have a theory that most food people are control freaks: what better way to control what goes into your body than to become an expert on the subject? It’s rare to find a food person grabbing handfuls of snack food willy-nilly off a snack cart. Give a food person the opportunity to select his or own snack from a larger selection and a careful decision will be rendered. That makes us discerning, but also kind-of obnoxious in terms of going with the flow.
So lately, I’ve been going with the flow. The other night I met my friend Lauren for dinner and when she suggested a restaurant I’d never heard of–Casellula off 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen–I said “sure.” Turns out that’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time.
As life was ending in the Catskills, my life was just beginning. I was only a kid when my parents drove my brother and me upstate to experience the splendor (or former splendor) of the great bastions of Jewish entertainment. We stayed in hotels like The Concord and Kutsher’s where the carpeting was well-worn and the smell was a pungent mixture of mothballs and boiled eggs. I remember a lunch in a sunny dining room with faded pink tablecloths and a plate of refrigerated gefilte fish plopped down in front of us, my dad teaching me how to cover it extravagantly with spicy horseradish to mask its nothingness. We saw Frankie Valli perform. We saw The Turtles. An artist named Morris Katz painted landscapes in the lobby. These memories circled around a vague mist in my head as I joined my parents for dinner this past Monday night to celebrate Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) at Manhattan’s resurrection of this time and place: Kutsher’s Tribeca.
I’m not one of those “where must I eat when I go back to New York?” kind of people, though I did Tweet a week before our trip something along those lines. The responses were fascinating to me–apparently Acme, which I knew as a fairly mediocre sandwich and sweet potato French fry spot near NYU, has been transformed into a restaurant-of-the-moment. Also: Isa has all the food bloggers buzzing. But, I don’t know, I wasn’t in the mood to be fanatical about new restaurants. I decided that, when it came to food on this trip, we’d wing it.
When you arrive in New York, for your first time or after being away for a while, you want a taste of what makes the city unique. Sure, you could pop into one of those hip bastions of dining where everything’s pickled or ensconced in some kind of obscure animal fat but, really, aren’t they doing that in most food cities these days? What you crave is the sort of thing that doesn’t push the envelope in any way; you want comfort food, New York City style, served gruffly yet with an inscrutable sort of love. What you crave is the 2nd Avenue Deli.
The West Village is not an easy place to grab a cheap lunch. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a wonderful place to grab lunch. There’s Market Table, ‘ino, Pearl Oyster Bar, The Spotted Pig, Barbuto, etc, etc, and so on. But the operative word in my first sentence was “cheap” and while all of those places have wonderful food, if I ate at one of them every day, I’d be broke. Which is why, upon moving here two years ago, I was in search of a place I could visit on a weekly basis, where I could eat quickly and cheaply and relatively healthfully, a place that was convenient to my apartment and convenient to the coffee shop where I do most of my work (Joe). The place I settled upon was Hummus Place.
About a year ago, a place opened up in SoHo/Nolita called “The Best Chocolate Cake in The World.” A tongue-in-cheek act of hubris, sort of like the novel “Winner of the National Book Award,” foodies were skeptical. Many who went there dismissed it as overrated. Me? I forgot about it. But last week, after having lunch with my friends Leland Scruby (of the French Culinary Institute) and Bao Ong (whose name you may recognize from the the New York Times Diner’s Journal blog) I asked if they wanted to check it out because it was right around the corner from where we were eating (Falai). They gladly assented.
At the very tippy top of the New York restaurant pyramid sits Jean-Georges. It’s up there with Daniel, Per Se, Del Posto, Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin; the only restaurants that currently have four stars from The New York Times.
What separates Jean-Georges from the bunch, though, is that you can eat lunch there for $28. Let me say that again. You can eat lunch at one of New York’s only four-star restaurants for $28.
I’ll never forget the first time that I took Craig to The Burger Joint. “What is this place?” he asked, annoyed, as I led him into the Parker Meridien Hotel. “This is fancy, I don’t want anything fancy. I just want something fast.” He was reacting to the marble interior of the Parker Meridien lobby which is, indeed, fancy. It almost feels like you’re walking into a lavish bank. But just past the front desk, astride a large curtain, is a narrow passageway at the end of which is a sign.