Thursday, October 20, 2011

Eating in the capital of the Western World: New York

Together with my wife and Charlie Brown - my soon-to-be 4 months old son who really looks like the Peanuts' character - I recently went for a short trip to New York. We only had one objective: eat. Unfortunately we didn't eat in as many places as we wanted, because Charlie Brown decided that this trip was the right occasion to redefine the term "possession". We didn't go down without a fight though, and we still managed to get to a few places.

The list of places we wanted to try was  long, and built so as to please my wife's Belgian wishes, my Italian desires, and some common cravings. This post will focus on the latter, and I will talk about the Belgian and Italian places we ate in in a different post.

Before we get into the food, let me say something about New York. I have been to New York at least 10 times over the past 10 years, for short or extended stays, for work and pleasure. And every time I've traveled there, my dislike for the city has increased, even more so after moving to Chicago. The noise, the dirt, the aggressiveness of most New Yorkers, the assault of hordes of tourists, the tiny hotel rooms, New York represents everything I don't like in big cities, and reminds me of all the good reasons why I love Chicago, which manages to be a huge city with a small town feeling, if you want.

There are two areas though where New York is still far superior to any other US cities: variety of food and shopping. I'd be tempted to go even further and say that NYC is the best city of the entire Western World in terms of food variety and shopping.

Read me well: I am talking about variety (not necessarily quality) of food AND shopping. You could perhaps try and argue that Milan or Paris are better for shopping (and as a man I would disagree, arguing in favor of London), yet they are surely nowhere near NYC in terms of food variety: you'd better like your pasta and risotto when in Milan (and if you are adventurous your casseula), and your sole meuniere and your escargots in Paris, because if you are looking for good variety you'd better take a plane to London. No, my French and Italian friends: having a couple of Mexican restaurants and a couple of Chinese doesn't make a city a food variety capital.  There is really no debate to have here: New York is a world apart, as different from the rest of world as it is from the US itself. (Incidentally, it makes me laugh to hear European friends claiming that they know the US because they have been to New York three days. It is like saying that you know the plot of Lord of the Rings because you have read the cover).

I could talk about the Western shirt and the colored cashmere socks I bought for cheap, dirt cheap. But since this is not a blog about shopping and fashion (if you are into both check my friend's blog Not just a pretty dress), we will stick to what we know best: food.

At the top of our list of common desires were two restaurants of two famous Iron Chefs, Chef Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill and Morimoto, by Japanese Chef Morimoto. Iron Chef is a US adaptation of a Japanese TV program where a famous chef (the Iron chef in question) battles against a guest chef, preparing an entire menu based on a secret ingredient which is unveiled at the beginning of each tv episod: squid, watermelon, beef, clams, parsley, the secret ingredient can be anything. The dishes are judged by (often pretentious) food critics and guest stars, and are rated on the basis of their novelty, their taste and their look.

Watching the show we have always been impressed by Morimoto's food: it always looked amazing, and judging by the reviews, it also tasted magnificent. He invariably won every time, crashing the competition. Bobby Flay won most of the times, but he had some hits or miss. I remember him losing a couple of times, but I love the guy: he is famous for his Southwestern style of cooking, full of spices, hot peppers. I also own the Mesa cookbook, so we had to try this place.

We also went to Nobu, another iconic Japanese place (as much as I love Chicago's food scene, I personally think there is no really outstanding Japanese restaurant, alas).

So this is how it went.

Mesa Grill
For our Southwestern dinner, we headed to this restaurant located in the Flatiron district. The decor was nice, a solid american look, with a beautiful bar, and a nice fabric for the semi-diner seats. But we were there for the food, so who cares, right? And the food did arrive, and it was all good. As a starter we had a pumpkin roasted soup with poblano's sauce, honey and roasted seeds; and a tuna tartare with nachos. Both were very good, especially the soup. As an entre, we had a green chile cioppino (a fish stew with a lot of green chiles and cilantro) and a mango spice crusted tuna steak. The cioppino was good, while the tuna steak lacked a bit of flavor. I really liked this place, but I wasn't blown away. I guess the problem was in my unrealistically high expectations. There were no faults in the execution of the plates, the flavors were good and as described.  The service was flawless. It is the kind of place where I would see myself go again and again. Yet I wasn't wowed. But at least I wasn't disgusted like at Morimoto's...

Score: 7 1/2 out of 10

Readers of this blog know that I eat pretty much everything, and that I am not afraid of trying stuff that other people would run away from. And - at the risk of sounding arrogant - I think I know Japanese cuisine pretty well. I have regularly been to Japan several times, I have eaten in countless Japanese restaurants with Japanese people indoctrinating me. I have eaten raw octopus killed in front of me, I have eaten the numbing fugu (blowfish), I have eaten stuff that was still moving in my mouth while I was chewing it. This is a necessary long preamble to explain that I am not against "new" food. But ultimately food needs to taste good, no matter how new it is. Taste is king.

So, what happened? We ordered a tuna tartare. I always think that it is a bad sign when the waiter brings you a plate and you have no freaking idea what that is. This thing looked like a Japanese garden. You had to scrape the tartare from a bamboo thing with a small spoon, then dip it into different toppings, and then dip into the sauce. It tasted like tuna tartare, just on the flavorless side. And for 31$, I'd like perhaps less drama and more flavor, please, Iron Chef.
Morimoto's tuna tartare: a lot of drama, little flavor.
Rockshrimps tempura were very, very good, and we ate them with gusto. But then came the sushi rolls. First of all, perhaps their sushi roll menu is different at dinner, but their lunch sushi menu is so short and bland that we were surprised. And perhaps, again, you shouldn't order sushi at Morimoto, and focus instead on some of his other creations. I will grant you all that. Yet, I don't think I have ever eaten a more disgusting sushi roll than the salmon skin sushi roll.

The thing was so bad we left it on the plate after one bite. Not that the server - who would never come and check on us, filling our glasses, for instance - asked us if we had a problem. We left unimpressed, annoyed, and with a fishy and salty taste in our mouth that stuck with us until the morning after.

Score: 6 out 10

In New York's constantly changing restaurant scene, Nobu still retains its status as one of the "it" places for Japanese food. We had already eaten at their outpost in Las Vegas, and the result is the same: a good Japanese place, but absolutely over hyped. I guess you go there more to be able to say that you went there, than for the food, which is good, but not outstanding.

Score: 7 out of 10

At the end of the day you may wonder whether this trip was worth from a culinary point of view. Yes it was! Mesa Grill is really a good restaurant, and so is Nobu. And then temember: we ate also in a lot of other places that I will talk about in the next posts.


from uk said...

I have a jamie oliver restaurant in my city, do you think I should try it?

his pasta taste like shit.

Nice post anyway!

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Hello from UK, and welcome. I was crucified in the past by the health nazi brigade for saying that Jamie Oliver's food is very simple and just not particularly appetizing. Which doesn't mean I don't appreciate his efforts from a social point of view: still, his food seems very bland, and the recipes I have tried from his cookbooks were ok. Just ok.

Having said I have never been to one of his restaurants. If I had one in my city I would probably go though, just to try it. But I would keep my expectations on the low...

Not Just A Pretty Dress said...

I also love NY for the same reasons you described: variety of (almost) everything I really like. Cannot wait to pay another visit to this city. Mesa Grill seems very good...And you know that I'm going to ask you about those cashmere socks. Thank you for mentioning my blog!

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Hi there - the cashmere socks (each in a solid color: bright pink, apple green, turquoise and red) were $9 each, down from the "European" price of 42 euros each. At century 21, the messiest shop on Earth.

Claudio said...

Ti invidio veramente tanto per il fatto di poter fare un salto con (relativa) facilità a NYC e poter approfittare della multiculturalità ed abbondanza della proposta culinaria... Ho provato qualcosa di simile a Londra che per me, povero ragazzo della provincia romagnola, è una sorta di paradiso delle cucine etniche più disparate, un vero eldorado di proposte e scoperte inebrianti. A proposito di UK e di Jamie Oliver: ogni tanto seguo le versioni italiane dei suoi programmi televisivi e mi pare che la sua cucina sia in buona parte una rivisitazione di stili e piatti "caserecci" che magari ad un pubblico anglosassone può sembrare assolutamente affascinante ma a me, romagnolo ruspante, sembra solo una versione semplificata di quello che tutti i giorni passa sulla mia tavola. Una qualsiasi delle osterie e trattorie che si trovano in Romagna se lo mangiano a colazione, al buon Jamie...

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Ciao Claudio, benvenuto! Si', e' vero, Londra da questo punto e' molto simile, e forse anche piu' internazionale, se non altro per motivi geografici e storici.

Su Jamie Oliver hai centrato esattamente il discorso: le sue ricette sono versioni un po' sull'insipido di piatti caserecci. ma i nazisti del salutismo qui lo adorano per il lavoro (sacrosanto) che fa sulle scuole, e se ti azzardi anche solo a dire che be', alla fine le sue ricette fanno un po' cagare, ti prendono per un prezzolato di McDonald's.

Santa ottusita'.


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