On the long flight to New York City from Tokyo, I drifted through an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations while lying comfortably horizontal in Cathay Pacific’s brilliant business class ‘coffin’.
Lamenting his middle age (the former whippet-thin, ex-junkie chef Bourdain has put on a few pounds) and lack of knowledge of New York’s boroughs other than Manhattan, Bourdain goes on a mission to find authentic ‘ethnic’ cuisine. (Just what is ‘ethnic’ cuisine in NYC anyway?). His quest does indeed turn up some great food in the boroughs. One of Bourdain’s guests on his adventure was New York’s current culinary rock star, David Chang, of Momofuku fame, whose food I was eager to try. I dozed off dreaming of ginger-scallion noodles.
Our driver from the car service that collected us from JFK was from the Dominican Republic and lived right around the corner from our East Village holiday rental. He praised the local ethnic cuisines you could get in our neighbourhood and we were quickly salivating.
I decided that, seeing Chinatown and Little Italy were just down the road, and landmarks such as Katz’s Deli were nearby, that we should undertake an ethnic-focused culinary adventure and eschew the stuffiness of restaurants such as Per Se (not to mention its $275 a head menu). Instead, we would tuck into the local, affordable, authentic representations of the cuisines of the waves of immigrants that have come ashore over past centuries.
Sadly, the taste test quickly soured. On our first night we played it by ear and were walk-ins at a local Italian joint that looked fabulous, but the food was uninspiring. Okay, that was our own fault for not doing enough research. Having consulted the usual NYC dining suspects, cross-checked and triangulated data, we set off for Turkish at Bereket. But alas, another disappointing experience with unfeasibly dry meat accompanied by an awful sauce that was as authentically Turkish as I am.
Next we tried Veselka, the inexplicably popular Ukrainian diner that would have made Lara’s Russian-Ukrainian grandparents weep – and not for joy, the meatballs had a tough exterior masking a dried cement centre, the vereniki (dumplings), ordered fried, were deep fried sarcophagi. The food was only redeemed by a simple beetroot salad that was delicious. When we couldn’t finish it our waitress pointed out that it was the best dish on the table. Boy, was she right.
Later on in our fortnight, trying what was called ‘New American’ cuisine at a locally recommended place regrettably called Prune, we had the most overpriced plate of food ever put in front of us – a few miniscule, sad-looking pieces of chewy calamari atop masses of sliced celery and other vegetables for $14. Their version of ‘Pho’ (the classic Vietnamese soup dish) had some beautifully slow-cooked beef accompanied by a limp broth and a few bean sprouts. A fatty lamb shoulder defied all attempts to get a piece to a fork that didn’t contain 50% fat and a Greek salad (with barely a drop of olive oil) that would have you kicked off Santorini. If this is ‘New’ American cuisine, I have much sympathy for those who suffered through ‘Old’ American cuisine.
We’d been craving Indian for months, which we used to eat at least once week when we lived full-time in Dubai, where the largest percentage of the population is from the Indian Sub-Continent. There, the Indian restaurants specialise in regional cuisine, and it’s as authentic as any you’ll find in India. Devi, the restaurant we tried here, reached for the heights of the master of gastronomic Indian, Vineet Bhatia, but failed, inelegantly.
The aforementioned David Chang’s cuisine was another beast altogether. His vaguely Korean deconstructions and reinterpretations are pointless – kim chee pork tamales sounded like something interesting, but managed to insult both Korean and Mexican food in one mouthful. Having just come from Tokyo, Chang’s ramen noodles were well below the quality of even local chain noodle shops in the city. His pork ‘buns’ were just okay, but it’s hard to go wrong with slow-cooked pork belly and hoisin sauce. His much-admired ginger-scallion noodles were a letdown, too dry, with too little ginger to give it a kick, perhaps to not scare off the hipsters banging elbows and screaming their orders over the shrill soundtrack as they sipped ostentatiously marked-up $50 bottles of plonk from glasses with no stems.
The problem with Momofuko – and this is a problem that we had with most of the ‘ethnic’ food we tried in New York – is that Chang is not really catering to Asians, he’s catering to people who probably know little about Asian food and are willing to swallow the hype to suffer though their first bites of kimchee, which they probably think Chang invented. To laud Chang as this culinary luminary shows how the New York City dining scene reporting is in a state of flux, having now reviewed Per Se, Jean-George etc a dozen times.
But these are just some examples of the meals we had. New York might be the greatest city in the world to some (in my opinion it’s certainly one of the most interesting), but based on our experiences it’s certainly not the greatest eating city in the world. It certainly has some fine restaurants at the top end, some fun places to eat at the bottom (if you turn a blind eye to the food’s departure from its ethnic roots), and a lot that are overrated or clearly maddeningly inconsistent in the middle.
The current fads – shake shacks, gourmet burgers, hot dogs and mobile cup cake trucks – confirm a culinary scene in a state of flux. The noise level of some places, spurred on by already ludicrously loud and often ill-chosen soundtracks, had me reaching for the beverage menu to soothe my nerves, only to be reminded of the outrageously marked-up bottles of vino you have to drink from glasses with no stems. What’s with that?
A couple of days before we left New York we broke our rules and visited the restaurant Eleven Madison Park. The room was divinely Art Deco and the service was note-perfect – just the right level of familiarity – and both our waitpersons were graduate chefs from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). The food was Modern French, beautifully presented, but with no silly affectations apart from a delicious tomato lollipop. Despite the presence of Maldon sea salt on the table (primarily there to dip a little of the divine bread and butter into) I never reached for it – I have to cast my mind back a long way to recall a better seasoned or better cooked meal. I’ve certainly had more adventurous fare, but when the cooking is of this high a standard the ‘wow factor’ comes with, well, just how perfectly the food is prepared and presented.
As we lamented our ‘bad luck’ on the rest of the trip – courtesy of recommendations by the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Village Voice, various New York food bloggers etc – and poured out our woes to our new New York friends, they told us that we would have had to leave the island and go further afield to get authentic ethnic food –to areas where the newcomer chefs/restaurateurs had not yet started watering down their cuisine because they had an audience of customers not wanting it any other way.
On our last day, deeming our ethnic experiment to be a failure, and having had the best meal by far at Eleven Madison Park, Lara asked, “Do you think we could still get a booking at Per Se?” By that stage I was almost starting to think it was a good idea…and that Bourdain was on to something by heading to the other boroughs.
In our next post, our brief and no-holds-barred thoughts on every place we sampled in NYC.