This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Any trip to New York seems to reflect the increasingly important role restaurants play in our lives.
This process began 20 years ago over lunch with Bryan Miller, then my counterpart at the New York Times. He astutely explained that the sheer volume of restaurants in the city was directly connected to the price of property. Only the wealthy could afford an apartment with a dining room. Those who couldn’t, met in bars, cafes and restaurants. This phenomenon has now spread to most of the world’s major cities.
Two years ago, at Calliope on the Lower East Side, Pete Wells, Miller’s successor, recounted how the research for his reviews was taking far longer than before. Not only have many of the more exciting restaurateurs and chefs moved to Brooklyn or Queens in search of affordable rents, but today many do not take reservations. A long journey is now followed by a long wait.
The topic of reservations came up over an early-evening drink with an Englishwoman now on her second tour of duty in New York with her husband. She gave a graphic description of how anxiously she sits over her computer trying to snag a desirable time slot via the online reservation system Open Table, her shoulders arched and her brow furrowed. ‘Making a reservation in a New York restaurant has become the city’s latest blood sport’, she opined.
Happily, I managed and three restaurants allowed me to travel in the space of no more than 60 blocks from South Korea to northern Italy, taking in the food and drink of Kentucky as well. Yet one factor is common to all these three restaurants – they are all extremely noisy. I also learnt on this trip that my counterpart at Bloomberg packs a decibel counter.
My voyage began on West 52nd Street at Danji, the Korean word for clay jars that contain kimchi, soy and fermented miso. These line the shelves of the narrow dining room that manages to incorporate seats for 36 around a counter at the front and some smaller tables at the back. The rest of the interior is, crucially, light wood so that the overall impression is as bright as possible, while drawers in the tables to put the menus away once your order has been taken are a clever, ergonomic feature.
Hooni Kim (pictured above by Steve Schofield), chef and proprietor here as he is of Hanjan on W 26th street, is one of an increasing number of Korean chefs who are cooking so well across the US. Kim obviously learnt much of his technique cooking under Daniel Boulud, French skills that he has now cleverly matched to the much stronger, more assertive flavours of Korean cooking.
The highlight of this combination in his starters were five pieces of silky tofu with a ginger dressing and a small bowl of nourishing beef soup. The hot and spicy pork noodles were not as hot and spicy as they could have been, happily, while the beef sliders and the gently poached sablefish with daikon were excellent.
Equally memorable was the service, led by Esther Chun. She has been in the restaurant business for 14 years, obviously loves her profession and imbues her staff with the same enthusiasm. Operating a no-reservation policy does increase the anxiety level among customers but Chun handles this with style.
Donna Lennard is the far-sighted creator of Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria on Great Jones Street in NoHo, another part of the city becoming increasingly talked about for its cafes and restaurants.
The immediate impression on crossing its threshold is of stepping into Italy. The aromas of coffee and freshly baked bread are pervasive; there are vast cheeses and hams on display; the shelves are packed with dried goods; and it is only the size of the panini, far larger than any I have seen in Italy, that resonate with America.
But behind the shop the buzz around the tables is unquestionably New York. Part of this is down to the manner in which Lennard has converted the home of the former Great Jones Lumber Supply into her vision of an Italian restaurant while incorporating so many of its original features, particularly around the open kitchen.
Crostini di baccala, finely diced cod with celery, preserved lemon and piquillo pepper, ricotta with diced cucumber and marinated anchovies and a little gem salad with anchovies and radishes were refreshing starters, while spaghetti with Sardinian mullet roe and sea bass baked with thyme and charred lemons were quintessentially Italian main courses. The very strong American influence came once I met Justin Smillie, the executive chef, who took me on a tour of the basement kitchen where the bread and the cakes are baked, the pigs cured and smoked – work carried out by cooks speaking to one another entirely in Spanish.
Finally, to Maysville on West 26th Street, which takes its name from the Kentucky city. One side is a large bar, packed with bottles of bourbon and rye, while from the other hang three large charcoal drawings of horses. From a kitchen at the far end chef Kyle Knall serves clean and fresh Southern food: shrimp toast; hay-roasted oysters; smoked whitefish mousse; pork belly with apples; and grits with bourbon aioli.
Each restaurant is different, excellent and very New York.
Danji 346 West 52nd Street; tel +1 212 586 2880
Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria 53 Great Jones Street; tel +1 212 837 2622
Maysville 17 West 26th Street; tel +1 646 490 8240