It is now very obvious to anyone travelling to the US that food, wine and the hospitality industry receive so much wider media coverage today than in the past (see, for example, Union Square Cafe – 30-year-old icon with its CBS film crew trailing its owner Danny Meyer) and that this has had a decidedly positive effect on how these subjects are practised across this enormous and fascinating country.
However, the most significant change in the social status of these subjects will never be noticed by Americans. It can be appreciated only by a non-US citizen, still groggy from jetlag, while standing in line at immigration.
Although this encounter is still slightly scary (gaining entry to the US has never been easy), over the past three or four years it has become far less so for us at least. As Jancis and I are summoned forward and hand over our passports for inspection, there is today an appreciable note of interest in those who are scrutinising them and us when we announce that we are here, on business mixed with pleasure, to write about the wines of America and the restaurants of the particular city we are landing in, whether San Francisco or most recently New York. There is a perceptible swelling of pride behind the counter as we discuss these subjects before they look us over once more and ask us to raise our four fingers and thumb for finger printing, the closest experience I ever hope to come to being held in police custody.
This was certainly the case when we recently arrived on the BA181 and were scrutinised by Pardilla, a congenial Puerto Rican immigration official who explained that his name originates in Spain, although he has encountered Italians and Filipinos with the same unusual name. Intrigued by our professions, he waved us through with a smile.
By 11.15 pm we were occupying two corner seats of the Barolo Bar at Maialino, on the corner of Gramercy Park, slightly peckish and, despite the fact that we had been in the city for only 90 minutes, feeling every inch New Yorkers. Glasses of Graci’s Etna Rosso 2012 alongside plates of gorgonzola with delicate sunflower honey and salami laced with fennel proved sufficient ballast to keep our bodies upright until our heads hit the pillow.
Sunday provided several very New York highlights thanks to a weather pattern increasingly common to other parts of the world. We arrived 24 hours after a day of torrential rain to be greeted with glorious warm sunshine – precisely what we had experienced in London. This made our plans to wander down to Russ & Daughters Jewish deli in the East Village for a smoked salmon brunch a great pleasure to execute.
Unfortunately, scores of others had the same inspired idea. We should have realised this from the crowd of hungry customers waiting patiently outside the original branch of this store on 179 Houston. This prototype opened in 1914 and provides bagels stuffed with smoked salmon from Scotland, Nova Scotia and New Zealand inter alia ‘to go’. But had we turned back then we would have missed the twin pleasures of walking down Orchard Street and spotting an object lesson in how not to run a restaurant.
Our destination was 127 Orchard Street where, 100 years after the original store opened, Russ & Daughters The Café, opened, an obviously successful foray by the current generation of the family into today’s hospitality business. I can only say that the deep narrow café, with a long counter, exudes warmth and charm even from the vantage point of the reception desk as that is as far as I got once I heard, perhaps not unexpectedly perhaps, that the waiting time for a table at 12.15 was over two hours.
But as we stood in the sunshine we were able to take in Orchard Street, once an outpost of the city’s bustling garment trade and still littered with small tailors, more recently established bars and cafes and a wonderful old store that proudly sells corsets with the original sign above the door. I was also able to appreciate what an opportunity the owners of the Black Tree café, two doors away, were missing.
This place, with an intriguing organic menu, was only 50 yards away from the crowds outside Russ & Daughters, and was virtually empty despite a welcome bench outside. But its staff was doing everything in their power to keep potential customers away. No one was handing out menus to the crowd waiting in the street outside and, to intensify this lack of welcome, the two trapdoors to the dark cellar beneath the restaurant were left wide open with a red warning bollard. They might just as well have put a DO NOT COME IN sign outside. We didn’t and instead spent the following 10 hours doing things that made us feel right at home in the city.
The first was an enormous brunch, the meal which many claim New York has bequeathed to the rest of the world, at Saxon + Parole, one of the restaurants that emanated from the AvroKo design company that initially specialised in restaurant and bar design. The place was packed; the music was loud; the service was friendly and the Blood Marys strong – although Jancis’s curiosity was piqued by their selection of artisanal beers, of which she managed to finish just half a glass of the KelSo beer brewed in nearby Brooklyn.
Our late afternoon and early evening were spent in one building, MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art on W 53rd Street, enjoying two very different experiences that I would urge nobody to miss.
The first was the magnificent Picasso Sculpture exhibition that runs until 7 February 2016. This has brought together sculpture from this incredibly prolific artist from multiple sources, including many pieces that have never been on show before, and reveals him to be incredibly resourceful, witty and equally imaginative not just with the finished sculptures but also with the inexpensive artefacts that he has incorporated into his work, ranging from colanders to tennis balls and nails for hair. It is fantastic.
As is the pleasure of descending to the museum’s ground floor and walking into The Modern, the kind of sophisticated restaurant that fits this particular space perfectly. But as it enters its second decade, The Modern remains an increasingly rare phenomenon, however many other museums proliferate. Even Untitled, Danny Meyer’s visually breathtaking new restaurant pictured above at the relocated Whitney museum, shuns white tablecloths.
Museum directors are today fully aware of the growing importance of hospitality to keep their customers happy and supplement their declining government subsidies. But today the emphasis has to be on cafés and affordable food, so few museums will have the opportunity to establish anything as ambitious as The Modern. Only the Rijks restaurant in Amsterdam has the luxury of an entrance separate from the museum, which allows it to stay open for the lucrative dinner trade, but it does not have such wealthy clientele on its doorstep as The Modern does. This keeps The Modern busy day and night and, perhaps most profitably, drives the constant demand for its two private dining rooms.
Since the arrival, from The Fat Duck in Bray, of Simon King as general manager and the return of Abram Bissell to the stoves after a few years at Nomad, this restaurant has been on a upward trajectory that culminated in its more formal side, The Modern, recently receiving its second Michelin star. We ate and drank in the more informal Bar Room extremely well: raw hamachi with watermelon, tarragon and honey; a chilled corn soup with wild rice; an artful lobster sausage in a crab bisque; and a breast of chicken with runner beans and almonds. With them we enjoyed two wines from the Pacific-cooled vineyards of the Central Coast a mere 3,000 miles away: an Ojai Chardonnay 2013 from Bien Nacido vineyard and a Piedrasassi PS Syrah 2013.
We then strolled out on to Fifth Avenue, feeling every inch New Yorkers.
Russ and Daughters Café, www.russanddaughterscafe.com
Saxon + Parole, www.saxonandparole.com
The Modern, www.themodernnyc.com