Friday, April 20, 2012

Downgraded Decadence

Photo Courtesy of B. Milne

I’m back in New York–catering, restaurant hopping and eating myself into a state only slightly shy of a full-fledged food coma. I simply cannot resist the bounty of dining options here, and I’m not even trying to. Hunting down good, thoughtful, real food in Boston feels like my part-time job. I’m not kidding when I say I have a spreadsheet and a Google Reader account set up to help me sort through all the crappy chain restaurants, overpriced (and mediocre) novelty joints, and the abundance of fast food dreck that passes for actual food. I have to work to find the foodie treasures hiding among the real food deserts throughout Boston and Cambridge. And they do exist, but they are not nearly as varied, well-executed or affordable as spots of similar size and scope in NYC. You read that right. In my view, from over 15 years of experience eating in New York and a mere nine months dodging Sysco supplied diners in Beantown, it’s cheaper (and easier) to eat well in The Big Apple.

Last September, just weeks after moving to Boston, I published my very first magazine article…about New York. I documented a trend in what seemed to be a wave of four-star chefs who were opening two-star market-cafes in response to both the economic climate and the growing popularity of comfort foods. I’ve reprinted the article below, but you can read the online edition here or take a peak at Spice magazine’s current issue here. It may not be dining on a dime, but menu hopping in NYC for $20 or less never tasted so good. Eat it Up!

Downgraded Decadence

Photo Courtesy of P. Wagtouicz

In New York City some things never change. Restaurants are not one of them. Trends, tastes and seasonal produce come and go. New Yorkers still eat out, and often, but the places they frequent have shifted markedly in character. After 15 years of eating my way through NYC, I know the restaurant town that showcases the whole world within its five boroughs. Recently, I’ve noticed something significant changing in the dining landscape that has been home to Michelin starred chefs and gourmands of every stripe. And despite popular conception, it’s not just happening in Brooklyn. Downgraded decadence has stormed the city more powerfully than hurricane Irene, and it has left in its wake eateries of a simpler but no less delicious sort.

From the debris of the 2008 recession, which has had lasting effects on the gastronomic climate of New York City, a new “temperate controlled cuisine” has been crafted. Sitting squarely in the midst of lauded foodie temples from celebrated chef-gods and their $300 per plate meals, a humbler breed of restaurant is taking root. Once, comfort foods were the realm of immigrant fare and take-away cafes, a convenient side note on an otherwise flying cityscape. Now, every four-star chef worth his or her salt is launching a neighborhood market-cafe. They have set their sights on earning little more than two stars and far more importantly, winning the long-term loyalties of locals.

Last summer, culinary superstar Daniel Boulud opened two new eateries here, Boulud Sud and Epicerie Boulud, both of which are considerably less highbrow operations than his flagship four-star, Daniel. These openings followed the launch of DBGB Kitchen and Bar, Boulud’s popular burger and hot dog joint just down the block from the famously raucous, shuttered nightclub CBGB. My most recent meal there was shared among a crowd of late-night artists and restaurant savants and featured matzoh ball soup, canard and Thai sausage courses served with duck cracklins and red curry respectively, the menage a trois of beef patties featuring all three specialty house made cheeseburgers, and two scoop ice cream sundaes–all in all, a rather rock star spread from the French master chef who spent many years at Le Cirque.

Epicerie bills itself as a gourmet eat-in and take-out market offering Chef Boulud’s signature house made charcuterie, complimented by artisanal cheese, oysters, soups, salads, sandwiches and sweets. This take-away cafe is representative of a move that may have seemed to take a step backward just a few years ago, and is now every savvy restaurateurs first foot forward. As delicious as Daniel, but catering to the desires of New Yorkers and tourists looking for less extravagant outlets to sample Boulud’s high-minded artistry, Epicerie has already set the standard by which other such markets will be judged.

Exalted chefs such as Thomas Keller and newer entrants like Iacopo Falai have opened similar concepts in Manhattan. With spaces that elevate the supermarket to new heights and cater to the sophisticated tastes of the executive class on an economized budget, there’s sure to be something for everyone, across all price ranges.

Keller’s Bouchon Bakery enjoys two highly trafficked New York City addresses, including an outpost at Rockefeller Center and another inside Time Warner Center. Best known for The French Laundry, his restaurant in the Napa Valley, and New York’s Per Se, also housed in the Time Warner complex, Chef Keller opened the original Bouchon to bake bread for his California outpost. Inspired by the boulangeries he loved in France, he quickly realized the business opportunity in opening these up to the public and thus expanded the bakery’s repertoire to include take-away cafe fare. Perhaps the best time to visit the bakery is at breakfast. After a stroll through Central Park and a peek inside the nearly 50 high-end boutiques on Columbus Circle, I’ve been known to pop by Bouchon for a pitch-perfect petit dejeuner. Classic quiche Florentine, banana-nut muffins and homemade granola guide my footsteps unerringly to the bakery, but it’s packaged specialties like the caramel corn and gourmet pet treats that stuff my shopping bags to bursting point on the way out.

From French to Italian, uptown to down, more market-cafes are opening their doors to food connoisseurs. Another notable newcomer, Iacopo Falai’s latest project, Bottega Falai, offers Italian goods and groceries, such as fresh baked breads, sandwiches, salads, pastas, pastries and coffee to go. Located in Soho in the space next door to Caffe Falai, the two eateries make an impeccable pairing. When you’ve worked up an appetite wandering through the shops and galleries that line Soho’s crowded streets, this delectable duet offers pleasing shelter. If you need to grab a snack on the go, pop into the Bottega for a bagged lunch; if you prefer to sit and idle a while, settle yourself into a comfy chair at the Caffe.

In Chelsea, Mario Batali’s Italian food emporium Eataly may offer the grandest example yet of this hotshot chef trend toward dining and shopping under a single roof. Walking into the Italian Disneyland of food was initially a bit overwhelming. One hot summer night I made my way through the freshly painted double doors just off Fifth Avenue, near 23rd Street. The smell of espresso and the sounds of steaming milk got my taste buds percolating, but before I stopped to try anything I was determined to venture in and see everything Eataly had to offer. It’s an impressive array, from imported chocolates, contemporary kitchenware, miles of meat and a bounty of Italian cheese, olive oil, gelato and wine. There’s a pizzeria, a vegetable bar, standing tables serving salumi and crudo, a rooftop beer garden and a smattering of small, reasonably priced cafes offering restaurant quality meals. It’s as if London’s famed Harrods Food Hall had landed in New York by way of Rome!

Photo Coutesy of Evan Sung

With wood burning ovens baking bread and pizza crusts being hand tossed in the air, I was starting to feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store. The atmosphere was friendly and cheerful, the shelves bursting with fresh and packaged Italian groceries in every imaginable incarnation. Any doubts I might have had that Eataly would turn out to be just another megastore masked as foodie nirvana were quickly dispelled.

The constant rotation, renovation, reinvention of even the landmark epicurean institutions is what keeps New York’s cuisine scene perpetually fresh. Here’s to the new turn that the downturn has begotten.

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One Response to “Downgraded Decadence”


  1. Anita

    I haven’t been back to New York City for a very long time. One of the things I hear the most about is the food there. I plan on going back soon, and bringing lots of money, so I also can eat my way through New York!! :)

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