Long before Samantha, Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte graced our T.V. screens, Manhattan in New York City was the definition of decadence, especially around a table. For decades, the city has played host to some of the best restaurants in the world. Restaurateurs volley to attract globally-trained chefs whose status” rival Hollywood celebrities. Food trends are born here; culinary creativity is celebrated. So it”s no surprise that NYC is one of the destinations local restaurant players go for inspiration.
Indeed, Manhattan is all about what”s new, and nothing stays the same for long. Eating in New York City is like previewing what will be coming soon to restaurants closer to home, modified of course to reflect gentler tastes. So, if you”re heading to the city that doesn”t sleep, here”s a weekend strategy that should save you some time hunting for those talk of the town eateries.
Remember dining is one experience that can”t (or shouldn”t) be rushed in Manhattan. A real New York dinner is an investment, reservation time is an approximation and all restaurants worth stopping at are equipped with bar seating for table waiting. Pre-dinner cocktails unique to each establishment are mandatory. But when you get your table, do like the people before you. Take your time, relax and indulge. This might be the only time you sit down for longer than a New York minute.
Lunch, however, is another story. The mid-day meal is about getting a table immediately, skipping drinks and eating quick and fabulous food – then getting back to the pulsing pace of Manhattan before someone else snaps up all the designer-label bargains at Sims, Century 21 and Daffy”s.
Lunch options are many, so here”s a suggestion. Combine two uniquely NewYork experiences and head to Soba Nippon at 19 West 52 nd Street only a few paces off the beaten shopping path.
Soba Nippon is all about noodles – Soba specifically. Noodle bowls have been a staple of food courts in big cities for a while, but the major difference here is quality and flavor. Soba noodles are 80 percent buckwheat and 20 percent regular wheat. These particular noodles are made in the restaurant from buckwheat grown on the owner”s farm in western Canada.
Soba noodles must be prepared and presented properly. In a review posted proudly in the restaurant window, the New York Times food critic recommends these dishes be served cold and plain. Rest assured – it tastes better than it sounds. Served on a flat basket, the pale brown noodles have a smooth al dente texture and should be dipped in the fish and soy sauce next to the plate. Then add scallions and wasabi to taste. Slurping is not only appropriate, it”s encouraged.
If nutritious carbs (and a compact sushi bar) aren”t enough to attract you to Soba Nippon, then maybe this is: season two, episode 14 of Sex in the City, Sarah Jessica Parker playing Carrie Bradshaw participated in an ill-fated date with Oz and Law & Order star Dean Winters at this counter. In a seat next to Carrie, he utters the deal-breaking joke, “sake to me,” that makes Carrie cringe. But that”s no reflection of this establishment, which is “soba worth it.”
For dinner later that day, graduate from Soba to Sapa – a distinctively different Asian-inspired experience in the city”s trendy Chelsea district. Take a cab to 43 West 24th Street and watch for an unobstrusive street entrance that looks like a warehouse door. Behind it is one of the city”s latest additions to a list of fusion cuisine restaurants catering to those in the know. Named after an ancient city in Vietnam, Sapa is owned by Brian Matzkow who hired Chef Patricia Yeo to create a menu of modern French and Vietnamese dishes suitable for the North American palate.
Rolls are an important part of Vietnamese dining, and they”re an important part of Sapa”s pre-dinner menu. Start with a variation on the standard vegetable spring roll and dip it into hot, sweet mustard. Add the Cocoa and Peanut Glazed Spareribs for the table and you”ve set the tone for a sweet and mild meal.
Main course selections include Cod Roasted in Parchment with wild mushrooms and porcini-sherry sauce, Grilled Filet of Beef with fried oysters and foie gras hollandaise, or the Dry Aged Rib-Eye Steak with gourmet onion rings and stilton aioli (it takes a talented chef to upscale the onion ring). All this should be enjoyed in the surprisingly spacious back dining room complete with two semi-circular VIP booths screaming for a photo shoot. In this room, you”re in the capable hands of professional staff, with the added bonus of an exceptional wine steward.
Menu is not enough in New York, atmosphere makes or breaks a place. Sapa”s award-winning interior design reflects concrete minimalism, taking advantage of its 100-year-old converted industrial space. Exposed beams and brick walls compliment the white urns and twinkling bare lights in the floor-to-ceiling gauze curtain that separates the back from the middle dining rooms. Here, slick urban loft blends with energetic club decadence that creates an in-crowd place to be.
The front of house, unfortunately, is not as expertly handled as the dining room, but perhaps that”s all part of the experience. Expect to wait at least an hour for a table on the weekends (even with a reservation). Cocktails flow along the 20-seat mahogany bar. Lounge with others on the leather banquet seating or spool-like low stools. Here is where you”ll get the best view of Sapa regulars: trendy groups of unwinding work colleagues, dating couples out for the first time, and groups of amorous gay men vying for each other”s attention. Sapa eludes the affluence of a boutique hotel, balanced with a down-to-earth yet heavenly menu that”s worth the wait.
While Sapa in youthful Chelsea is a depot for disposable income, davidburke & donatella is rooted a neighborhood of old money. Across from the exclusive 21 Club (haunt of Donald Trump) on the Upper East Side, this restaurant has jumped aboard the revived dress code trend, and an air of stoic formality permeates its 133 East 61 st Street location. Overlook the surrounding staunchness and you”ll experience a creative, contemporary and fabulously edgy menu that should be saved for your last big night in NYC.
Called the Dr. Seuss of food by some, Chef David Burke teamed with restaurateur Donatella Arpaia to open davidburke & donatella in a converted Upper East Side townhouse in 2004. This serious restaurant that doesn”t take itself too seriously. Inside the typically NYC cramped dining room, any stuffiness is undermined by lacquered table surfaces and a scarlet-red glass sculpture in the center. Every night, the chef”s tasting menu is handwritten (complete with doodles in margins) on cards and distributed to each table.
But design is only window dressing at davidburke & donatella. Food is the source of its superpowers. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish – seafood is the rhyme with reason on this menu.
Start with warm Kumamoto Oysters with lobster, black truffle and watercress, or the Parfait of Yellow Tuna and Salmon Tartars with Russian royal ossetra caviar. Then, if you want to experience a revisioned age-old favorite, select the Halibut T-bone with lobster dumplings. Or go for broke and order the Lobster Steak with curried shoestrings, black honey and citrus fennel candy. If Asian isn”t yet out of your system, also on the menu is Mustard Crusted Tuna Teriyaki with a soba noodle nori roll, spicy tuna sticks and tapioca sauce.
Leave room for dessert is a command, not a suggestion. Despite the to-die-for quality of the main course, the final faire is what you”ll tell your friends about. Pastry chef Carissa Waechter matches Burke”s creative style with various combinations of chocolate, coconut, butterscotch and fruits including the Opera in the Park, a classic opera cake with a chocolate park bench, or Vanilla Creme Brulee with a chocolate butterfly.
But the signature novelty is Burke”s own Cheesecake Lollipop Tree. In the center of your table lands a metal “tree” supporting tootsie pop-like balls of candy coated cheesecake on sticks. Pick off a pop and dip it lightly in the bubblegum flavored whipped cream, and you”ll be rethinking food combinations like green eggs and ham.
Dinners like this will also have you reconsidering stopping at that hot dog cart on the way to the airport. New York City dining rooms are too tempting to miss, so forget slumming with mustard and mystery meat while strolling in Central Park. Drop your packages at the hotel and check out instead what”s being served up today in NYC – and tomorrow everywhere else.