Try to sum up the ever mutating Manhattan restaurant scene? You might as well try to knit fog. Nursing a cocktail – a Manhattan of course – in swanky, clubby Soho House in the Meatpacking district, I determine instead to track down places that give a sense of iconic Big Apple. Places that have a chance of being around in 20 years’ time, where you don’t have to dial the number on the secret phone booth, or enter via a fortune-teller’s shop.
We kick off uptown at the newly revamped Monkey Bar, a stalwart since the repeal of Prohibition and now a wonderful, Mad Men-style power scene; its famous Ed Sorel murals and red booths cook up an evocative, jazz-age atmosphere. But chef Damon Wise’s menu couldn’t be more contemporary American: native ingredients – Peekytoe crab, Block Island swordfish – in pairings with kimchee or marmalade or quince. It all works.
Lovely sommelier Julie Hennigan is responsible for later moments being a bit, er, fuzzy, but I’m entirely clear on the remarkable quality of the cheeses. American cheese used to be a byword for plasticky appallingness, but these artisan numbers show that, fromage-wise, the US has come a long way, baby.
Even on the grungy Lower East Side, gentrification is spreading like mould. Every doorway seems to lead to a cool bar, niche wine shop or Laboratorio del Gelato. Thank heavens for legendary Katz’s Deli. And Essex Street Market, there since the 40s and now bristling with artisanal bakers, Mexican food merchants and purveyors of chocolate-covered bacon (I ate the lot).
It’s also home to notoriously bonkers luncheonette Shopsins. The menu’s improbably long for such a weeny kitchen, which belches out calorific terrors such as donut sliders (mini-steamed hamburgers served in, yes, doughnuts; revoltingly delicious); or poutine, a Canadian number featuring fries, cheese curds and gravy; or peanut butter ‘slutty cakes’. Then there’s mad, foul-mouthed Kenny Shopsin himself, throwing out anyone who transgresses one of his arbitrary rules (no parties of four, no cellphones, no substitutions). We’re permitted to enjoy heftily pricetagged Mo’Jemima, pancakes incorporating bacon, poached egg, syrup and, uh-huh, mac’n’cheese. If you’re looking for ‘only in New York’…
Far more lugubrious is the Lexington Candy Shop in the Upper East Side, one of the few luncheonettes (I adore the word luncheonette) to have resisted the hand of modernisation. Actual soda jerks whip up thick shakes and malteds to go with your liverwurst or peanut butter sandwiches. I have the famous New York egg cream (no eggs, or cream; a bilious concoction of chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer). We’ve stepped into a Hopper painting.
We detour to Harlem in search of soulfood, and in chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, have fluffy cornbread with honey butter and tomato jam, and the mac – here made with orecchiette, New York cheddar, comté and gouda, and wilted greens. But it’s at Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s famously hard-to-get-into Waverly Inn (001 917 828 1154) that we spot the mac’n’cheese nirvana. We’re sitting beside an English rock star and his botoxed babe who order this luxurious, white-truffled version – at a gazillion dollars it’s the pinnacle of foodie conspicuous consumption. They leave most of it because it’s, like, you know, fat. And carbs. We stick to a chunk of aged beef, seared into blackness and served with butter and chunks of rock salt. Killing yourself slowly never tasted so good.
Then there’s Old New York as reimagined by arch-restaurateur Keith McNally at Minetta Tavern. It looks as though it’s been here since the days of Some Like it Hot. We’re here for the black label burger; a secret blend of dry-aged beef cuts, it costs an eye-watering $26. The yielding, slightly sweet bun, the jammy fragrant onions, the impossibly deep, savoury beefiness… I’d say it’s worth every cent.
Immersed in iconic Manhattan-ness, we pick a couple of nouveau Noo Yoik wild cards. David Chang’s Momofuku outlets are the epitome: hysterically blogged, wildly oversubscribed and, frequently, insanely good. But his midtown Má Pêche is almost secret. It’s accessed via a branch of his bakery, Momofuku Milk Bar, where we pick up some appallingly gorgeous cookies (I’d return to NY tomorrow for the blueberry ones alone). Then we perch at the open-kitchen counter of the strange, cafeteria-like space, for a romp of a tasting menu.
Flavours are exhilarating: sea bass served in its crisped skin like a posh taco; an outstandingly refreshing sliver of sweet scallop with horseradish and grapefruit. Most exciting is a play on Chang’s signature pork belly bun, featuring spiced lobster with homemade chicharrón: the lightest, crispest crackling. Inspired. Next door to camp, grungy piano bar Marie’s Crisis in the West Village is Hakata Ton Ton. Lured by the promise of ‘collagen cuisine’ that’s ‘great for your skin’, we keel on up; it’s stellar. Especially the pigs’ feet, slow-cooked to yield the most shimmering, deeply flavoured stock for hotpot, or collagen gyoza. We’re the only non-Asians in the tiny, no-frills restaurant. Yes, they’ve all got marvellous skin.
New Yorkers are all about chasing the newest, greatest thing. I say there’s a reason that places become classics, and that’s every bit as exciting, right?
By Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin)
Written May 2012
Main image courtesy of Gavin Hellier / AWL Images