Dinner at Alma, The Best New Restaurant in America

Imagine being 27 years old and on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard when you find out that your relatively new restaurant in downtown L.A. has just been named by Bon Appetit the “Best New Restaurant in America 2013.” That’s precisely what happened to Chef Ari Taymor in August and his restaurant Alma is now on the lips of every food-obsessed person in the city (maybe even the country).

Being the wily person that I am, I immediately reacted to the news of Alma’s award with a jaunt over to OpenTable where I booked the earliest reservation I could: dinner for 4 on Saturday, September 7th at 9:15 PM.

Michael Voltaggio’s ink.

There was a moment at Michael Voltaggio’s ink.–where Craig and I went to celebrate our six year anniversary this weekend–when I washed down a bite of my egg yolk gnocchi (the first course on the tasting menu) with a cocktail made of mezcal and smoked salt and thought to myself: “I’ve never tasted anything like what I’m tasting right now. How is this happening?”

What’s Good?

The waitress, who we loved, responded to our request for a pasta suggestion with enthusiasm. “Get the ravioli,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

I was with my mom last night at the new A Voce in the Time Warner Center, and our waitress was solicitious, funny and helpful. And when we asked for her advice, she gave it with zeal and genuine enthusiasm. But it was only when we were eating the ravioli, which she so heartily recommended, that I began to question the wisdom of asking the server’s advice on what to order.

The Seven Stages of Dining at Per Se (Craig’s Birthday Lunch)

The First Stage: Shock

The original plan was to take Craig to see the play “Speech & Debate,” which he’s been eager to see, and then to dinner at Soto–a Japanese place in the West Village, praised as the second best new restaurant of the year by Frank Bruni in The New York Times. And then Mika happened.

Mika, as you may or may not know, is the poppy, campy not-out-of-the-closet-but-clearly-gay singer/songwriter whose catchy tunes–including “Grace Kelly,” “Lollipop,” and “Love Today”–are taking Europe, and slowly America, by storm. I casually mentioned to Craig that I’d considered getting Mika tickets for his birthday but that I didn’t think he’d want to go (this after making reservations at Soto, but before buying tickets to “Speech and Debate”) and he said, “Awww–that’d be so much fun!” So I quickly shifted gears and was able to snatch last minute Mika tickets, rendering the Soto dinner plans a no-go and leaving a big gaping hole for the day part of Craig’s birthday.

Clearly, though, there needed to be a meal. Craig had initially responded “a nice meal” when I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. Where could we go for lunch on a Saturday that’d constitute “a nice meal” before I surprised him with Mika? The first thing that occurred to me was Le Bernardin: it’s one of the best-kept lunch secrets in New York (see this post) and so I quickly called there to see if they had anything for Saturday and the hostess politely told me that they don’t serve lunch on weekends, only on weekdays.

Le Bernardin is a four-star restaurant and since I was in a four-star frame of mind, I Googled my other options. It was then that I realized Per Se has a lunch it serves on weekends. I was well aware that a reservation at Per Se is astonishingly difficult to attain–this is, for those who don’t know, the sister restaurant to our nation’s most prized, celebrated restaurant, The French Laundry–and even if I did attain it, it’d be far outside my price range.

I dialed the number, put the phone on speaker phone, and listened to the Per Se recorded message for about 10 minutes before someone picked up.

“Hello, this is Per Se, how can I help you?”

“Hi,” I said, “I know this is crazy to ask, but I thought I’d take a chance: do you have anything for lunch this Saturday?”

My finger was poised over the phone’s “off” button, prepared for her to cackle and say, “SATURDAY? ARE YOU MAD? WE BOOK UP THREE MONTHS IN ADVANCE!”

But instead: “You’re very lucky sir. We just had a cancellation for this Saturday at noon.”

I almost leapt out of my chair. “Oh wow,” I said. “Ummmm… hmmm… how much is lunch anyway?”

She told me and even though that number was FAR outside anything I ever dreamed of paying, my inner demon said, “What the hell?” and my outer demon said, “Ok, I’ll take it.”

“Excellent,” she said. “I’ll just need your credit card number to hold the reservation.”

“My credit card number?”

“Yes,” she said. “You have until tomorrow to cancel and after that if you fail to make the reservation, we’ll have to charge you for two lunches.”

I got out the card, read her the number, and, once my shock subsided, entered the second stage of Dining at Per Se…

Winter Time is Prime Time for New York Dining

I have made a discovery, dear reader, and it may not be much of a discovery–I’m sure big city eaters have known this for some time–but I’ve come to the conclusion that winter time is prime time for New York dining.

The above picture was taken at The Spotted Pig where I took Patty to lunch on Wednesday (she catsat when we were in Seattle, and I owed her another meal). At night, you can’t get near The Spotted Pig–and that may still be true in winter–but daytime can get pretty busy too. On this day, though, the place was half empty; we practically had it to ourselves. [Incidentally, the dessert Patty is holding is a must-try: a banana tart with dulce de leche and toffee that was surprisingly not too sweet and extremely light.]

Other lunches I’ve had lately in the city support my theory. For example, this sushi lunch I had at Morimoto (it was a business lunch, actually–I’m not usually in that neck of the woods)…


…was consumed in another half-empty restaurant, a nightclub like space that feels eerily cavernous in daylight. The lunch was $24.95 and featured the sushi you see, soup and salad. I found the sushi wonderfully fresh and, as expected, expertly arrayed. Chef Morimoto was making the rounds looking cheerful–though a few days later he’d lose half his fortune.

The lesson, though, is that if you like dining out in New York but can’t stand crowds, your time is now: late January and all of February. There’s finally a seat at the counter at Pearl Oyster Bar (get a bowl of chowder and a Caesar salad, and leave very happy); I haven’t been lately, but my hunch is there’s a bowl of noodles with your name on it at Momofuku–an ideal wintertime salve. And, if you have a little cash put away, now’s the time to endorse a favorite neighborhood gem as Craig and I did last week when we had a spontaneous meal at Palo Santo. Dana Bowen once told me that Palo Santo’s chef’s tasting menu (at $45) was one of the best deals in Park Slope and after consuming a raw scallop amuse, barricuda for the fish course, a rabbit heart course and wild boar for the entree, I have to agree: this is brave, exciting food that surprises and delights well beyond the $45 price tag. And, it being winter, we sauntered right in and we were seated right away.

So fear not, timid New Yorker. The dining scene here can be intense, but winter is your friend. Go out and patronize a hard-working chef and be rewarded with a minimal to non-existent wait. And same goes for you non-New Yorkers, wherever you are: go support local chefs who struggle to fill seats in cold weather.

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