Best food cities: New York - 'The innovation never stops'

Sunday , October 04, 2015 - 12:00 AM

By TOM SIETSEMA
The Washington Post

What’s the Big Apple got that no other great American food city has?

Just about everything — and more of everything than anywhere else, its tastemakers will tell you.

“New York has a diversity and depth” rivaled possibly only by London’s, says Mimi Sheraton, the author most recently of last year’s “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.”

“New Yorkers love the concept of more, more, more,” says Clark Wolf, an influential restaurant consultant with bases in Manhattan and Sonoma County, Calif.

When it comes to restaurants, “New York has a deeper bench of them than any other American city,” says former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni. “It’s pure numbers.”

I recognize the city they’re all talking about, the metropolis of 8.5 million eaters in five boroughs. As a regular visitor to New York for more than 25 years, I’ve paid respects to the trailblazers of the times and checked off the cooking of some of the most famous chefs in the country. A cursory roll call might trumpet the Quilted Giraffe, Le Bernardin, the Spotted Pig, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, David Chang - followed by at least 100 more names.

New York is a Big Deal. But New York is not all that, 24/7.

I say this having spent 11 days there recently, logging time at nearly 50 restaurants, bars, shops and markets as part of my continuing survey of the 10 best food cities in the country. Libraries of books have been written about what makes Manhattan tick; my mission was to focus on how it stacks up, foodwise, against other destinations. Such a task in a city with more than 45,000 restaurants is, to put it mildly, daunting; in a roundup this month of new restaurants, the New York Times previewed more than 60 fresh faces. So I ate, drank and shopped - high and low; inside luxe dining rooms and outside on dirty streets; in Manhattan and in two other boroughs — to try to make sense of what many consider the greatest show on Earth.

Can we talk about a few things? Like the $700 omakase — for one — at Masa in the Time Warner Center? I’ve had better Japanese tasting menus in Denver, with fewer restrictions. (“No photographs,” a hostess warned me on my way to the pale hinoki-wood sushi counter.) The nearly $900 for two at Eleven Madison Park under chef Daniel Humm? Honestly, the highlight of the night was watching the sommelier open my neighbor’s wine using a tong heated over a flame. New Yorkers tend to get pretty excited about even routine Mexican food, perhaps because Mexican isn’t one of the market’s many strengths. The raves lavished on Cosme, a current darling in the Flatiron District, wouldn’t apply to my dinner there and left my companions scratching their heads, as well. And a dinner at Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn suggested the icon had seen better days. Everything about the place felt tired, including a waiter who seemed to be sleepwalking and a porterhouse missing its trademark mineral tang. Maybe you have to be a native to love the place.

Or maybe the city that never sleeps should take a restorative nap.

It’s dangerous for a writer to jump into a story thinking he knows how it’s going to end, and I’ll confess that ahead of my time in New York, I figured I’d be using up my annual allotment of exclamation points. New York, after all, claims more awards from the James Beard Foundation than any other city. Michelin inspectors weigh in here. The world comes here to eat and to cook. The rest of the country is reminded of that, constantly, by the critics and editors who call New York home, and by the morning TV network shows that introduce Flyover Country to, say, a cronut.

So perhaps my expectations were a bit high.

And sometimes they were met. I had a fabulous dinner at Jean-Georges, where the hostess let me know I could order anything from the formal dining room even though I was perched in the bar. A lunch of barbecued short ribs and spicy squid at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong in Koreatown conjured Seoul in every bite (and sight), and despite the ear-splitting noise at Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, I could still hear my companions swoon over David Chang’s spicy fried chicken sandwich, secreted in from his new Fuku next door and some of the best fast food of my life. Los Angeles is a month away for me; for now, Sushi Nakazawa in New York serves the finest omakase in the land. Carbone for updated Italian-American? Daniel, even if only for drinks and Frenchy snacks in the hushed lounge? Russ & Daughters, the beloved shop on the Lower East Side, for pastrami-cured salmon and a side of people-watching? I have nothing but happy memories of them all. And munching on a hot dog from Gray’s Papaya, amid exhaust fumes and a sea of humanity, I sensed that all seemed right.

You can’t mention New York without tawking about Brooklyn, blanketed with dozens of dining rooms that feel like the platonic ideal of a neighborhood restaurant (the models being Franny’s and Marlow & Sons) and concepts designed to please millennials (as its name suggests, Heatonist sells hot sauce, period). The rustic Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook bests some of the South’s famous pit stops, and my new favorite fusion cuisine may be Jewish-Japanese after eating a grilled Japanese pancake, okonomiyaki, dressed with sauerkraut and pastrami at Shalom Japan.

Other moments during my exploration of New York, I thought that sometimes more is just ... more.

‘You can’t beat Queens for diversity‘

In New York, everything seems to boil down to numbers - usually big ones.

Take cooking styles. Robert Sietsema figures there are nearly 200 distinct cuisines, including regional Chinese, Indian and even Ecuadoran styles, in the city he has covered for more than three decades, first as a chowhound for the Village Voice and more recently for the online Eater New York. Who better to introduce me to the largess than my distant relation and the author of this year’s “New York in a Dozen Dishes"?

We could’ve spent a day on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx eating Italian food or in Astoria eating Greek, but instead we meet on a Saturday morning at the gates of the Ganesh Temple Canteen in Flushing with plans to graze around the borough until one of us waves a white flag or turns green. “You can’t beat Queens for diversity,” says Sietsema, who guides me to a basement cafeteria where we feast on dosas and other South Indian dishes while religious cartoons play on overhead TVs.

From there, we taxi a mile northwest to the Golden Shopping Mall and head to an underground maze of food stalls, where we hopscotch from a $4 bowl of chili-oil-slicked julienned potatoes, tempeh and mushrooms from Chen du Tian Fu to a cumin-laced, jalapeño-ignited lamb burger from Xi’an Famous Snacks, pausing to marvel at a guy pulling noodles by hand across the aisle. A few blocks away, we stop to see what looks interesting at the carryout window of the sprawling Red Bowl Noodle Shop. My new favorite street food is a Taiwanese sausage-within-a-(rice)-sausage that we devour on the sidewalk.

Then it’s off to East Elmhurst on the 7 train (facetiously dubbed the “Orient Express”) and tacos and tequila at Tacos Morelos, where the signatures include a zesty red pumpkin-seed mole and a taco (over)stuffed with a gooey and delicious chili relleno. The little English in the dining room is on a sign on the wall that reads “CPR available at the counter.”

Hang out with the foreign cuisine expert, whom humorist Calvin Trillin dubs “my man Sietsema,” and you learn a few tricks for finding good food on unfamiliar turf. One is to give a restaurant a smell test; cooking aromas are good, “floor wax and urinal cakes” not so much, he advises. Another tip is to check out the diners. Do they look happy? Are they cleaning their plates or merely pushing food around? Sietsema is no snob when it comes to foreign food that might be unfamiliar on its home turf. “Fusion food can be as good as native,” says the man who can be as content eating a pastrami pizza as a pastrami sandwich.

Sietsema is eager to show off even more menus (“Have you ever had momos?” he asks, pausing at a food cart selling nothing but Tibetan dumplings), but I apologize and excuse myself from our high-calorie half-marathon. Regretfully, I have but one stomach to offer, and the previous night had me dining at the new Jams and the starry Jean-Georges and Daniel restaurants, after which I had an only-in-New York moment when I stopped outside Sprinkles on my way back to my hotel to buy a banana cupcake.

It was dispensed from an ATM.

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