New York City is most certainly the US’ food capital. It seems like all of the greatest and most well-known chefs, those I’ve watched on TV for many years, whose books I’ve read or whom I admire for their achievements have one (or more!) restaurants in the Big Apple. Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Alfred Portale, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain are all synonymous with great food here. I have to admit I’m a bit of a chef groupie (ask E who once pointed behind me exclaiming Jamie Oliver was right there at a tradeshow in Europe – I almost fainted), so when I go to New York, I bring my “to-try” list of the city’s greatest restaurants. I may be guilty of planning my meals more than my visits!
My list is long, but I’m crossing the names one by one. I had the pleasure to eat at the following two restaurants in 2007, and they remain among my absolute favorites.
My brother lives on the US west coast and we only get to see him so often. Of course, I miss him and so we try to reunite as often as possible. For my mother’s 60th birthday, my brother and I planned a secret family trip to New York: we would all meet in this great capital to visit and spend some happy times together. My parents, who had never been to NY, were very excited and couldn’t wait to fly over. We had a couple of months to wait and while my mom was crossing days off her calendar, I researched the city’s greatest restaurants (hence the start of my famous list) to decide where we would have my mom’s birthday dinner.
I had read about Danny Meyer, the famous restaurant entrepreneur. The man has so many successes under his belt that I figured I could not be mistaken by choosing one of his Manhattan restaurants. Since it’s not always easy to get reservations, I made a few phone calls and got us a table at the Gramercy Tavern. Close to Union Square, the tavern is located in a building that looks like it could have been a bank with its arched doors and sculpted pillars. Named after what I believe is one of the most charming parks in New York, I thought its cuisine just had to live up to Gramercy Park’s exclusive and refined reputation.
We were seated in the restaurant’s dining room, quieter and fancier than the tavern in front. Sometimes called “the most relaxed of New York’s chic restaurants”, the wooden beams, velvet curtains, huge flower arrangements and round tables gave a warm feel far from being conceited. The food was simply delicious: it was a three course prix-fixe menu, but felt more like a tasting menu with the amuse-bouche, the small plate that was served between the first and second courses and the sweets brought after dessert.
(photo via gramercytavern.com)
Yes, the food was great but what made this restaurant outstanding was service, the best I’ve ever experienced. Our server was patient, knowledgeable and very refined without being snobbish, and the way plates were served or cleared looked like a choreography. When a new course was served, five servers arrived at the same time, putting our five plates down exactly at the same time. The table was cleared with the same discrete grace. This perfect synchronization was so natural that it took us a few courses before noticing it. It wasn’t disturbing, uptight or snobbish, just resolutely fluid and the servers were friendly and cheerful. You have to see it to believe it, and I’ll have to return to live the experience again.
42 East 20th St., New York, NY, 10003
On our next visit to New York, it was time to choose a restaurant to celebrate our couple’s anniversary. After such a success at the Gramercy Tavern, it was very tempting to once again choose from Meyer’s portfolio. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) being one of our favorite places in New York, we opted for its restaurant, The Modern. Located on ground level, with its own entrance and a glass wall separating it from the Museum’s sculpture garden, we couldn’t help but expect art on our plates.
(photo via themodernnyc.com)
After running around New York to buy E a jacket (mandatory at The Modern), we settled in our half-moon banquette facing the long and narrow dining room. The menu featured à la carte choices and two tasting menus from which we could mix and match plates. The 8-course tasting menu with wine pairing would be our anniversary gift. So started an evening of sweet and salty, crunchy/creamy, sweet/sour, the tastes carefully studied, subtly blended and delicately balanced to develop in the right sequence during the meal and on your tongue. This is still our best meal ever, so meticulously planned that you can’t help but thinking that the chef’s work could be featured in the museum itself.
(photo via themodernnyc.com)
The menus were elaborated by executive chef Gabriel Kreuther and executive pastry chef Marc Aumont, both of French origins. I couldn’t resist asking for a copy of the printed menu and I’m so happy I did. You’ll see that this Early Summer Tasting Menu sounds just like poetry.
Cauliflower Panna Cotta Topped with American Paddlefish Caviar and Cockle Emulsion
King Crab with Young Garlic and Morel Mushrooms
Seared Diver Scallop and Red Mullet with Celeriac-Truffle Sauce
Northeast Flounder Simmered with Fresh Rhubarb, Button Mushrooms and Coriander, Wild Rice
Gamay Poached Sullivan County Foie Gras with Baby Fennel and Black Pepper Caramel
Roasted Buffalo Tenderloin with Early Summer Vegetables and Spicy Watercress Sauce
White Chocolale “Crémeux” with Cherry Marmalade and Pistachio Ice Cream
We ended our meal with a plate of macarons, pâtes de fruits and scrumptious chocolates. Can you ask for more? Yes, I wish service was a tad more thoughtful. While it ran like clockwork, it seemed that each plate was brought by someone new, our server quickly coming afterwards to name the dish, reciting it while looking out at the room or the next table who needed him. After experiencing such a warm evening at the Gramercy Tavern, we were expecting the same at The Modern, but it felt much more precise and rational, which somewhat suited the very sleek surroundings.
In the Museum of Modern Art
9 W. 53rd St. (at 5th Ave.), New York, NY, 10019
NOTE: This blog post was first published in August 2007 on my personal travel blog. I have updated and transferred it to Food Nouveau because of its food-related contents. I think these foodie travel tales can still be useful and interesting to my readers, today, on FoodNouveau.com.