Battered. Bruised. Brutal. Stepping back onto Heathrow tarmac last week, these were the three brothers running through my mind, after a delayed and nerve fraying flight back from JFK. Two of us made the jaunt, an unashamed restaurant visit. Our bodies hated us at that moment. Blind fury.
One particular night in Manhattan involved a day/night that segued into the following morning with not one iota of sleep, not a single snatched moment, no two hour doze between dusk and dawn — forward rolling into the next day like a thing possessed. Chaps on a mission with sh*t to get done and no time for shut-eye. Well ‘ard, yeah?? Demented, is the other lens through which to view this show of London braggadoccio…
Any visit to New York City on a restaurant hit involves certain inevitabilities: a long list of venues to take in, with that list spiralling out of control within hours of touching down, colour, texture and depth being added to the list from the moment you utter “where else should we go?” to one of the natives. Carefully laid plans, Mice and Men, all these go flying out the window amid muttered curses of dammit dammit dammit wish I’d never asked dammit….
So here we are, having slung our bags into the room on Broome Street, off Bowery, nestled on the edge of SoHo and NoLIta knowing that every moment wasted staring at our hotel walls are precious moments wasted when we could be sampling some of the finest restaurant delights known to humanity —or something like that.
London is closing the gap, we keep hearing. London restaurant openings, concepts, almost as exciting as New York now, the murmurs say. Well, we wonder…
And so the visit unfurls, a maelstrom of activity within 60 minutes of arrival at the hotel.
Korean joint Takashi and its Brain Cream. Brain. Cream of. In a tube. With blinis. With caviar. Brain cream. Cream of brain. I was galvanised by the previous two dinners (this is no joke, this no mere posturing, the schedule of unhinged people), and so felt ready for this most disturbing of menu items. The cutest of venues, tiny open kitchen. One of the highlights.
A halllucinatory memory of ‘Pac Man’ dumplings at modern Chinese joint RedFarm. Astonishing not only for the cheeky styling, but for the fact that each colourful ghost was in itself a very decent Har Gau prawn dumpling. Some of the best Xiao Long Bao soup dumplings I’ve had anywhere followed, pork and crab jammed with sweet, intensely flavoured meat, the fantastic broth gleefully sucked from the hole in the top.
The thrill of dinner number one (the first of three that evening, Locanda Verde and Alder waited in the wings) at Chez Sardine, a funked up modern take on a Japanese Izakaya, where pristine nigiri were made throughout the evening in front of us at the bar. The chef rolling our nigiri sported a hat emblazoned with ‘You Mad, Bro?’ We liked that. Everything here was perfect, butter textured fish, perfect temperature rice, morsels of utter joy — throw in a sharp, taut wine list flirting with sparkling Vouvray and razor sharp Muscadet, and this spot became the shimmering highlight of our entire trip. Plonk this exact concept in London, watch it fly…
The drive-bys of long held favourites, just dipping a toe in, just to check they’re still good: Locanda Verde bar strike, lamb meatball sliders (yep, still great), broad shouldered Vietti Barbera by the glass. Seriously good wine list here, effortless class from Mr Andrew Carmellini’s crew. Momofuku ramen/pork bun strafing run. Two fat slabs of pork belly confirm previous thoughts — peerless buns, nothing to touch them in London.
A one/two combo of Gramercy Tavern (Baked Long Island clams, Malpeque oysters, Oregon Pinot Noir from Cristom winery at the bar), and the dash across Gramercy Park to Maialino for carbonara with guanciale and deep fried artichokes.
Then the memories start to coalesce and we’re freewheeling downhill….
A first lunch at new modern Korean Hanjan in Flatiron, taking in ‘Bulgogi’ beef Bibimbap; the first and only la-dee-da dinner, at Betony, new place from Bryce Shuman, ex-Eleven Madison Park, ‘lobster rolls’ fashioned into wafer thin cigars crammed with sweet lobster meat; a quick flip into April Bloomfield’s Salvation Taco, and ending up having more Negronis than tacos; $1.25 and four fat pork and chive dumplings, crisp and hot from the pan at Prosperity Dumpling, on the Lower East Side; obscenely tasty fish sauce slathered chicken wings at Pok Pok Whiskey Soda Lounge. Pok Pok Phat Thai and noodles cooked in rendered pork fat; sloppy sliders at shabby institution Shopsin’s in Essex St Market; the best fried rice ever at Mission Chinese brothel-tastic dirty red light every plateful into a filthy red hue, and carefully made Cynar Negronis; the joy of finding the great wood fored pizza next door to the hotel, the ever so cute three month old Piacere, deserving to be busier; a scintillating brunch at Saxon and Parole of Eggs Benedict with yuzu mayonnaise; Fatty Crab West Village for Singapore chilli crab, messy fingers, sauce slicked cheeks, followed by quail egg shooters; sister restaurant Fatty Cue for delirious Malaysian/BBQ mash-up and pork ribs slicked with fish sauce and palm sugar; huge ‘double’ gin ‘n’ tonics at Wilfie & Nells on West 4th Street, coming in pint glasses, looking like sextuples: because they were; the pre-dinner perfect Negronis at the slickly designed Michelin starred stalwart PUBLIC; the late night pit-stop at Wylie Dufresne’s Alder in the East Village, for ‘Pigs in a Blanket’ of Chinese sausage, japanese mustard, sweet chilli, and then more, and then more, and more….
Then it all goes blurry, and the next sights and smells are London and we’re standing there blinking into the sunlight as we step off the plane. Shell shocked.
City that never sleeps, yeah, concrete jungle where dreams are made, oh, there’s nothing you can’t do…
London we love you. Damn, your restaurant scene has never been so exciting. Then we take in a little NYC and….once again, I’m in a New York State of Mind.
Those little town blues…
*A version of this NYC round-up appeared in restaurant industry newsletter The CODE Bulletin:
CODE: “The Eyes and Ears of the Industry”