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.
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.
|Morimoto's tuna tartare: a lot of drama, little flavor.|
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.