This trip to New York turned out to have a slight Italian bent, with a visit to the high end Ai Fiori and impromptu meals in two separate Little Italys.
But our first dinner was a late one Christmas night at the cumbersomely named Chef's Club by Food & Wine. The restaurant, located in the Puck Building on the corner of Houston and Mulberry, is one of those great New York spaces that is at once old and modern. It has rustic brick walls and ceiling with a modern bar on one side and a state of the art gleaming kitchen on the other. The concept here is to showcase the "best new chefs" from Food & Wine magazine.
The chef in charge on the night we visited was Didier Elena, and he couldn't have communicated his disdain at having to work on Christmas more than if he went to each table and told the guests to get out. Instead, he just walked around and sneered, and at one point I saw him leaning on an unoccupied table next to the kitchen browsing through his smartphone, something he no doubt would have fired any of his staff for doing.
But the food was wonderfully inventive and quite good. We enjoyed an appetizer of potato gnocchi flavored with butternut squash in a sauce of sage brown butter. Very good, but the Smoked & Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras was even better. The fatty lobes were served with sunchokes on a plate that was dotted with green puddles of buttermilk-thyme jam and crisped apple chips.
The Low Country Seafood Pan Roast featured Anson Mills grits and bright orange Carolina trout roe.
Our server, who was terrific, said he enjoyed working Christmas night (and that the guests had been good to him all evening). God bless us, every one, and a bah, humbug to the chef.
We were staying at an apartment not far from the Puck Building, in the East Village, so we had a chance to explore some of the restaurants and bars on the neighborhood. Gato, on Lafayette Street, was a fun find. It was another late, apres theatre dinner, just a quick bite, but we had to rush our order in before the kitchen closed. (It may be the city that doesn't sleep, but dining options are fewer after 11 p.m.)
Here we had the option of ordering three of the tapas sized plates for a very reasonable $17. We chose the lamb tenderloin, white anchovies and the Eleven Layer potato, which is easy to remember because eleven rhymes with heaven. The potatoes were like an Anna potatoes preparation but better, creamier, and elevated a degree when topped with caramelized shallots and flash-fried sage.
The whole-bodied anchovies were sufficiently salty with a bit of pink peppercorns and mint to complement.
The lamb tenderloin was indeed tender and had a piquant salsa that gave a nod to the restaurant's Mediterranean bent, this one a bit more toward the Spanish coast. Gato is owned by Bobby Flay and Laurence Kretchmer, who were also owners of BOLO, a Spanish restaurant that was demolished to make way for new developement.
There's no new development in this space. It is a 100-year-old building that has the look of perhaps having held a printing operation. It features a central bar in the middle of the front space and a multicolored tile floor with hexagonal designs. I plan to return for a full meal — earlier some evening.
For a weekend brunch we found Boulton & Watt on the corner of Avenue A and 1st Street where it comes into Houston Street. (To give you an idea of its location, it's across Houston from the legendary Katz's Delicatessen.)
The place has more of a bar vibe, though it serves a full menu. It is more rustic than some of the other restaurants in the area, going beyond just the exposed brick walls to chipped paint, bar tops and chickenwire antique mirrors. The restaurant is names for Matthew Boulton and James Watt, business partners who manufactured the stream engines led to the mechanization of factories. As a nod, the overhead fans are operated by a series of belts and pulleys.
I chose the lamb omelet, a simple serving with shredded meat and goat cheese, served with potatoes. My brunch companion had the short rib Benedict, braised meat with bone marrow served on a platform of country bread. There wasn't anything fancy about the food — the surroundings were a predictor of that — but it was a nice way to start the day, and the service was very pleasant.
It was a delight to see that the Rainbow Room had reopened, though basically it is just a restaurant for brunch. Other nights, the adjoining bar, SixtyFive Lounge, is open for your imbibing pleasure. The name, of course, indicates its location on the 65th floor of the skyscraper now known as the Comcast Building at 30 Rockefeller Center. The room is posly elegant and the lighting is properly low. Seating in the center of the room does not focus much on the view, which is the real reason to come here.
But you're welcome to take your drinks onto the balcony outside for what just might be the best view in New York. And on a cold night like the one when I visited, the crisp air makes the lights of the Empire State Building, the new Freedom Tower downtown and all the lights in between dazzle even more.
It's so breathtaking you won't even mind that you just paid $27++ for your Manhattan.
Next up: Ai Fiori, Zero Otto Nove, and Da Gennero.