Saturday, February 29, 2020

Biting into the Big Apple

Basket of rolls at Balthazar

     If I told you that I ordered a croissant for brunch at a fancy French restaurant in New York City and it cost $4.80, well, you wouldn't think much of that, would you? Big city. Expensive.
      So why, when looking at the menu for Balthazar ahead of time, something my family does the way other people look at guidebooks to cities they plan to visit, did my gaze lock on the $24 basket of pastries, which I immediately dubbed the "Twenty-four Dollar Basket of Rolls." I had to order it. I like a good roll, and these had to be extraordinary. At that price, they'd better be.
      They were okay. Nothing that wouldn't have seemed out of place passed over the counter in a waxy bag at Panera. And to be honest, I glanced enviously at the basket of bread given free to diners on other side of us, people not cracked enough to order the pricey basket and thought: "Dumb."
      I realize that a percentage of readers consider the whole fine dining thing is dumb, a scam designed to separate people who have too much money and too little sense from a portion of that money. I hear ya. But the truth is, looking at our long weekend in New York City, while the peak aesthetic experiences had to be the "Vida Americana" show at the Whitney, and seeing Anais Mitchell's "Hadestown" at the Walter Kerr Theater, the swank eateries were right up there. They were a lot of fun, each with its own glory.
    The best thing about Balthazar was the room. It looked like Le Grand Zinc in Paris, or, even more so, a place I loved, back in the day, the old Un, Deux, Trois Cafe at 123 W. 44th Street. I'm glad I ate at Balthazar once, but wouldn't go back until I've eaten at every other restaurant there is.
      Uncle Boons, 7 Spring Street, seemed promising and unusual, just for being a One Michelin Star Thai restaurant. I didn't know those existed. Most memorable here was the elaborate, almost dramatic process required to get in. You can't make a reservation. That would be too easy. What you do—what we did—is show up shortly before the place opens at 5:30. Join the enormous line, stretching around the block. Wait half an hour which, in my dewy innocence, I thought meant we were waiting to get in to eat an early dinner. When I said as much, my older son explained, with a touch more asperity than I might have preferred, considering he was addressing the man paying for all this, that I hadn't been listening to the plan.  We were in line, not to eat, but to be given a time, which turned out to be .... three and a half hours hence. We then repaired to a different restaurant to eat some truly strange Georgian bread concoction involving cheese and a stirred egg in the center and tarragon-flavored soda. Then to the common area at my kid's dorm to play a fun labyrinth building game, which perked my spirits—it had been a long day.
Duck at Uncle Boons
    Suddenly, he got a text. Our table was ready, or about to be ready—an important distinction because once it was "ready" we had 10 minutes to park ourselves at the ready table or it went to the next group of would-be patrons—sparking a mad dash for a cab and frantic ride to Lower Manhattan to grab the table before our window of opportunity closed. While I paid the cabbie, the two boys ran into the restaurant and my wife and I followed. There was still a knot of people in the door, and when we tried to push past—"our table is ready"—my wife said, the woman in front of us snapped, over her shoulder, "Mine is ready too!" But a group left, and when the line squeezed to the right to let them up the stairs, we barreled down through the gap, and found the boys intensely studying the menu as if it were a treasure map.
     The next hour was a highlight. First, I was having dinner at 10 p.m. in New York City, which is life as I understand it. We ate "Heavenly Pig Ears" and sweetbread mee krob, blood sausage, yellowtail and gaeng supalot duck and pork jowl. Dessert was sticky rice and a coconut sundae that reinvented the form. Everything tasted fantastic. It was the sort of place you could only justify leaving by making a solemn vow to return.
     New York interior space is given to weird combinations: kitchens with bathtubs in them, living rooms with sleep platforms. abcV is Jean-Georges vegetarian restaurant inside ABC Carpet, whose prosaic name belies a sprawling pillow and silverware emporium for Manhattan's money set—I think I'll give them their due tomorrow. 
     A large, white room, filled with beautiful people. Friendly, attentive service. None of the pretension radiating off their mission statement:
      "Plant based, non GMO, sustainable, artisanal and organic whenever possible. Locally and globally from small & family farms. abcV is here to serve, inform and inspire a cultural shift towards plant based intelligence, through creativity and deliciousness...." 
    It goes on, but you get the point.
    Oh heck, why not? It's too good not to share in full: "Offering high vibration foods, embracing balance with beauty, wellness, wisdom & love to nurture our personal and planetary ecosystems."

    And liberals wonder why people hate us.
    Like many vegetarian restaurants, they have to be on their top game, and they were. I don't know if "wild blueberry bowl, jungle peanut butter, fresh and dried fruits" sounds good to you, but it did to me, and man, was it. As was the slow roasted beets, dijon, avocado puree, chili aoili and pickles.
Late afternoon snack at Katz's Deli
      I'll stop now. We ate, by my count, in 16 restaurants in four days, from the aforementioned Balthazar to Olympic Pita in the West Village. Two delis, Katz's and Russ & Daughters. We went back to Mizoun in Chelsea Market, whose grilled cauliflower disappointed, last time, so much that I was surprised to see us there again (I am, if you haven't noticed, a very go-along-to-get-along type of dad, trotting after my family as they rush wherever it is they're going, consulted only at moments that require me to take out my wallet). I was glad we returned, because the cauliflower and bag of green beans, salted and garlicked, were much better than last time. Plus now, having gone three times, I'm a regular.
      Talking about restaurants strikes me as running the risk of becoming dull quickly, and if this is, my apologies. Not to mention late, going up shortly after 7 a.m. Saturday, which is not my habit. But the truth is I worked yesterday dawn to dusk, writing Monday's column and diving into an exciting new project I hope to tell you about shortly. So I appreciate your indulgence. One thing I found eating out, is you tend to get what you pay for.


  1. We had a similar experience in San Francisco. Scoma's had been highly recommended to us, but we were warned that it was a long wait for a table. We went there, they took out name, and we were told it would be four hours. We went back to out hotel and napped, then went back at the appointed time. We then waited another half hour, and finally were seated next to the bussing station. But we ordered our food and when it came we were overwhelmed by the great meal we were eating. It was absolutely the best seafood we had ever had!

  2. If you would like to have the exact opposite experience, no travel, no wait no michellen star, try Eat Me Milk Me right around the corner from where you work. If you've never been to a milk bar and are a fan of Clockwork Orange , it's everything you never hoped for.

  3. I'm one of those readers who considers the whole fine dining thing...well, maybe not exactly dumb, or a scam aimed at people who have too much money and are too "into" food...just, well, somewhat boring. Not my cup of tea...even if I could afford the places described. Which I can't.

    On the dining-out scale, I'm a lot closer to the White Castle-Taco Bell-Pizza Hut end of the spectrum. Truth be told, we hardly go out at all these days. Too many other expenses, mostly involving home repairs and medical bills. Geezerhood: It is what it is.

    Standing in line, not merely to eat, but to be given a time to eat, which turns out to be...hours later? Sorry. Can't imagine anything worth enduring that, and I'm way too short-tempered for it, especially when hungry. My time is my money, and it's too precious to waste. I don't belong in any large, white rooms, filled with beautiful people, because I'm simply not one of them. Best not to go in the first place...or to even imagine it. Ain't gonna happen.

    Most unpalatable of all? "Sustainable, artisanal, organic, a cultural shift towards plant-based intelligence, high-vibration foods, wisdom and love to nurture personal and planetary ecosystems." For real? That's a lump of...baloney...too big to swallow. Enough to gag me, even without a spoon. Even some liberals (mostly non-foodies) can't stomach that kind of pretentiousness. If that makes me a proletarian slob, I am what I am.

    But hey, you enjoyed yourself, Mr. S, and I understand that. Isn't that what life, and health, and wealth, should be all about? As the postal workers say, "To each his zone." It's just not mine.

    1. I'm not sure how you can deem something boring that you haven't tried and have no experience with. I've never gone to a NASCAR race—that too is expensive, time-consuming, of no interest to me, etc. But I would never declare it boring, because I've never experienced it.

    2. I stand corrected. "Somewhat boring" was a poor choice of words. "Of no interest to me" is a far better phrase, and describes my feelings exactly. Thanks, Mr. S.

      I've probably been to at least a couple of high-end eateries in my lifetime, on somebody else's expense account. I was certainly not bored, but the food and the ambiance were of little or no interest to me, as I can hardly recall the particulars. Had those experiences been on MY dime, I'm sure I'd have paid more attention...a LOT more.

  4. Okay, perhaps not about superfluous? I've tried it a couple of times and fiscal responsibility/guilt made it harder to swallow. At the end of the day, it's just food.
    Regarding NASCAR, our fearless leader recently gave an election year embrace to his adoring fans at Daytona by taking a lap in the Presidential Limo. Enough said.

  5. Eating great or, at least interestingly is one of life's great things. I completely understand mankind not getting other people's hobbies or passions. " you paid 500 bucks for a book ?" Get it. Different strokes. I'm ALWAYS flummoxed when other people dont understand the joy of fun,fine,different dining just seems like a mutual thing we should all have ,but don't.
    Ah well , more for us.

  6. Grizz, you don't have to eat at the fanciest places but the ones you mention are bad for your health.

    1. Went to them often in my youth, and young adulthood. Less and less as I got older. Taco Hell is always expanding their menu, but the quality has suffered. Mickey D's is still edible, but mostly just for breakfast. And all the White Castles have left and gone away. Their frozen sliders just aren't the same. I also like SPAM. But my doctor says NO, so I rarely eat it now. I miss the junk sometimes, but I know I'm much better off.

  7. The joy I see and feel in the fine dinning experience you describe is the shared experience with family especially our children. 4 tickets to a sporting event ( my preferred experience) a concert or theater costs as much and my boys like the food experience much more an can throw it out into the world on Instagram and interact with their friends in a way they find meaningful. And if the foods good , huge bonus!


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