A CD for BLT!

Posted in $$$ - De $60 a $90, Restaurant - Chelsea, Restaurants NYC on May 14, 2010 by restonyc

It was a full maritime evening on Manhattan island.  After seeing Der Fliegende Hollander -the story of a ghost that roams near the shores of Norway and encounters a fisherman- at the Metropolitan Opera, we had dinner at BLT Fish.

Of course, we were late  -we’re French- and we sat down at 11.  The upper room was not that full.  Patrons looked a bit bored and the speakers were blasting horrible post-disco Eurotrash  music, a kind of muzak 2.0 for epileptics.  One of my eternal NY restaurant questions came back immediately: “Why?  What did we do to deserve such crappy music?  Or music at all?”  After two uninterrupted hours and a half with Richard Wagner, silence, or even background noise, would have been enjoyable.  Is it because we were late? But other customers arrived before us as most of them were eating desserts.

No, it’s just a bad New York habit.  In the 2009 edition of the Zagat‘s New York City Restaurants, noise/crowds are customers’ second concern after service and before price.  But apparently, no one cares and no owner reads the guide’s foreword.

There is so much loud music in restaurants in the United States that it is very easy to spot Americans in a restaurant when I’m back in France.  They speak very loudly, not because they’re rude (even if…), but just because they’ve become deaf.  There is another hint to recognize them: American males wear a T-shirt under their shirts.  French boys stop when they turn 12.

As it is written in the Ecclesiastes, there is an appointed time for everything. A time to give birth, and a time time to die…  And I could add: A time to listen, a time to eat.  Were people eating during Wagner’s opera?  Fortunately, no one was chewing next to me when Senta, Daland, and the Dutchman were singing.

If the owners really insist on playing music, here are some ideas:

  • St Germain, Boulevard: a 2002 lounge classic.  So much heard but still efficient;
  • Hotel Costes or Café Del Mar (whichever volume): of course, it would be strange to play other restaurants’ music but it would be anyway better than what we had to endure that night;
  • Air, Moon Safari: I can’t resist Beth Hirsch’s voice;
  • Bill Evans: if you’re a little bit more ambitious.  You will have excellent music that won’t bother you if you’re not listening and please you if you pay attention;
  • Restaurant managers can be daring -it’s their business, after all- and play whale sounds or the ones of a bubbly aquarium.
  • I don’t recommend fisherman’s songs as the ones you can listen (or sing when you’re drunk) at Ty Bedeuf, Brittany’s best bar, on the Groix island.  But I could suggest Fisherman’s blues, definitely The Waterboys’ best album.  I wish I was a fisherman, Tumblin’ on the seas...

Trust me, the best choice is no music!

An artist and a thinker

Posted in Rankings on May 8, 2010 by restonyc

Time magazine in its The 100 Most Influential People in the World honors two people whose poster would hang on one of my room’s walls if I were still pubescent.  Fortunately, this painful time of my life is now a longtime memory.

Strangely, the list is divided in four categories: Leaders, Artists, Thinkers, and Heroes.  All the people on the list should be in the Thinkers category because they all think, except Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck who mainly bark. Trust me, Didier Drogba, the soccer player from Ivory Coast, thinks before he kicks the ball and scores.  High?  Low?  Right?  Left? Soft kick or strong kick?  Strong, always strong, even stronger.

Yes, Michael Pollan thinks but he also makes you act.  Even if you won’t change all your eating habits while reading The Omnivore’s dilemma, food will never be the same once you finish the book.  For example (one among many), Pollan made me look at hunting differently.  What I saw as a macho entertainment for guys who were not over with their childhood dream of becoming a soldier of some sort became another way to interact with nature and the stance that we, human beings, are actors of our world, not just guests.  If you speak about cruelty, the way you’re getting your eggs or a burger is 99% of the time much more cruel than killing a deer in the woods.  Except of course, fox hunting.  But who eats foxes?

Pollan made me understand that eating was going beyond food or agriculture.  It’s also about psychology, sociology, history, economics, anthropology, geography…It’s holistic, complex and fascinating.

David Chang is considered an artist.  Why not?  Ruth Reichl, who has plenty of time now, doesn’t really say why in this eulogy for people who are still alive.  She rightfully points  out that David Chang has pushed boundaries by combining Asian food an European training.  If I were a smartalec, I would write that Napoleon also pushed France’s boundaries at the beginning of the 19th century and was no artist.  Is cooking an art? Not really but I’ll come back to this point another day.  It doesn’t mean that chefs, starting by David Chang, are not immensely talented.  They’re just cooking food.  They’re fulfilling with a hint of genius what remains a primal need.

Momofuku Ssam Bar/Noodle Bar -unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get a table at Ko– are part of my Top 10 Restaurant list in New York.  I don’t know if they’re the best tables in town but they represent the spirit of the city with their blend of pose, energy, noise, hip, and good food.  I go there with my French friends who either read about it in a trendy magazine back there or are looking for the real New York deal.  To some extent, at David Chang’s restaurants, all the New York things that irritate me (to say the least) become (nearly) enjoyable as it’s part of the show: the loud music, the long outside waits, the it’s-so-cool-to-sit-on-an-uncomfortable-bench-and-pay-that-much-money and the waiters straight out of the audition for Glee 2, the low-fi edition .

David Chang has this tremendous ability to make you believe that his cooking is easy, obvious but reading his book shows the amount of work he puts behind every plate.  There is always a solid amount of preparation.  For most of what Momofuku offers, it’s not about buying the best products in the next-door supermarket and making a nice margin by assembling them nicely.

And, of course, the buns are to die for.  The ham tastes amazing.  The bowls make me want to order a second one even before I started the first one.

Last, Chang is a man of taste.  When asked about the most memorable meal in his life, he replies “L’Astrance in Paris”.  I tend to agree.

WTF, NYC?

Posted in $$$ - De $60 a $90, Restaurant - Greenwich Village, Restaurants - How much?, Restaurants NYC on May 2, 2010 by restonyc

A bouncer at the door!?  And a Wednesday evening!!  Is Keith McNally, Minetta Tavern‘s owner, afraid that angry NYU students are going to storm his new restaurant and rob his fancy patrons?

“No, sir!  Only reservations.

– But I have a reservation.

– Please, come in.”

I was a few minutes early for my 10 PM dinner -the only and earliest time available, except 5 PM, when I booked more than three weeks in advance- and I had brought a book to wait at our table.  When I entered the restaurant, my literary pre-dinner kind of fell apart.  The bar was packed and I was wondering whether there would be any space for my friend, just to stand, when he arrived.  At 10.15, the crowd waiting to be seated was still dense and I asked the hostess if we had some chance to have dinner before midnight.  She explained to me that 10.15 was the new 9.30 and that all the people at the bar were 9.30 clients.  It didn’t really make me smile and I followed my number one rule when things start to go wrong in a restaurant -I also use it when I fly but it’s less efficient-: “Always complain.  Always bargain.  Always obtain”.  Three minutes later, my friend and I were kindly offered a glass of champagne to ease the pain.

While we were kind of enjoying our bubbly drink, more and more people came in (10.30 guests?) and I had more the impression to be in Tokyo’s subway during peak time than in a restaurant in Manhattan.  Apparently, they’re using the same yield management software as the airlines that tried to ship back their clients when the Icelandic ash cloud decided to dissolve itself.  Finally, this bouncer was not such a bad idea.  I wondered at that stage if there would be enough air for one more person.

10 minutes later, a waitress fended the crowd and showed us our table.  It nearly made me feel like a VIP.  Did the guys who shot the most get their first table?  Or were those standing people even less famous than we are?  I doubt it…

Seeing Anne Hathaway with a party of six gave me a hint of what might have happened; being quite sure that charming Anne didn’t call three weeks before the due day and wasn’t therefore asked to give another call on Monday in order to confirm that she would, of course, come with her friends.  There were other famous people in the room or that, at least, looked famous.

I always have been surprised by the level of discomfort that new yorkers are ready to experience, just to have the opportunity to brag the following days.  They’re ready to wait for hours in packed, busy, and noisy environment, just to have the opportunity to check in where their friends haven’t checked yet.  Maybe, it’s one of the only moments when there is a sense of equality in a city where money can buy nearly everything.  But as long as people won’t be paid to wait in line for you, you’ll have to stand at the bar -as if you were going downtown at 8 am on a weekday in the 6 train- and wait for your table to be ready.

And the food?  Who really cares?  I’m not sure that New Yorkers go to Keith McNally’s restaurants for the food.  They know it’s unsurprisingly and consistently good.  They go there for the feeling, the atmosphere, the crowd.  And the excellent service, efficient, respectful.  McNally’s employees don’t treat you like kids by filling up your glass after every sip and allows you to eat at normal pace, not as if you were about to miss your train.  Balthazar‘s enduring success is a bit of a mystery to me even if it’s not undeserved.  Balthazar has been a hot spot since 1997.  You can find it in every guide about New York but you don’t feel in a tourist trap at all.

That day, at Minetta, I had a fresh and uneventful salade du jour and a well-cooked Grilled dorade.  I can’t complain.  It was good, neat, and nearly worth the wait.

Fench women don’t get fat…Not too fast…

Posted in Health on April 29, 2010 by restonyc

French women don’t get fat.  This sentence brought fame to Mireille Guiliano who wrote a book about it and who’s now publishing recipes for those who fantasize about looking like a slim French woman.  Don’t buy them!  Because French women don’t get fat, they get fatter.  Apparently, Ms Guiliano isn’t aware of the ObEpi research study that was released last year.  The ObEpi study has been conducted every three years since 1997 and is the most comprehensive document -25,286 people over 18 replied- on French people’s weight.

So, what are the facts?  If you read French, you can get the complete study on the Roche.fr website.  If you don’t, shame on you.

  • 31.9% of the 18+ French are overweight vs. 30.6% in 2006;
  • 14.5% are obese vs. 13.1% in 2006;
  • French women are fatter than French men: 15.1% are obese vs. 13.9% of the men;
  • The older you are, the fatter you are with a peak for the people between 55 and 64;
  • The richer you are, the thinner you are.

So why French people are getting fatter?  Do they eat too much foie gras?  Too much andouillette?  Too much cassoulet?  If it were true…If they were trying to kill themselves like the protagonists of Marco Ferreri’s La grande bouffe by overeating…Alas, it’s much simpler and sadder.  They’re not much different from American or English people -even if they think they are-, they’re just a bit behind.

French people eat more and more crap, fewer fresh products and more processed food for simple reasons.  It’s simpler, faster, and getting cheaper.  They love McDonald’s and Mc Donald’s loves them.  There are 1,184 McDonald’s “restaurants” there employing more than 55,000 people for a revenue of 3.3 billion Euros in 2008 (latest figure available), a steady growth since 2004.  There is also a local competitor called Quick that has 364 “restaurants” and is owned by the French government.  And, of course, French people don’t exercises enough if they exercise.  Can you name a French athlete, except Zinédine Zidane who was a very good soccer player before becoming a master head-butter?  Keep searching…

And unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be over.  People are getting obese younger and younger and French people are not really  on the verge of changing their (bad) habits.

Maybe another time, Boulud

Posted in Bars NYC, Don't bother on January 10, 2010 by restonyc

So far, Daniel Boulud never stopped disappointing me.  First, it was Bar Boulud that sells so-so cold cuts, basically the leftovers that you’re giving to your American customers and that you wouldn’t eat as a Frenchman who knows how real charcuterie tastes like.  And I don’t write about the less than average bread -so essential when you have pâté and ham-, the prices (come on, Daniel, do you really have tax issues to charge that much?), and the horrific music.  Every time, we want to have dinner after a night at the opera, we now go to next-door Café Fiorello, a bit passé but not a trap.

Then, it was the newly opened Bar Pléiades at Hotel Surrey, basically a shoe box -or a boot box- with (as always) bad (and nearly loud) music; a kind of super cheap version of the Hotel Costes records.  So, this time, Daniel was not cooking (because I didn’t eat) but putting his stamp on a new place in Manhattan.  Cautious, I just had wine.  And as my friend Arthur, who paid for the drinks, said: “I didn’t know you could pay $90 for three [bland] glasses of Bordeaux!”  And normally, Life Goes Better With Bordeaux…Yes, I know it’s the posh part of the Upper East Side –so, it’s posh on posh- but it’s not a reason to think that all your customers look like walking Centurion Cards.

The funniest moment -because you can have a laugh in this kind of places- was when a waiter brought chips after we asked at least four times .  So, we received a midgety port glass with at least ten micro chips that would have barely satisfied a kid from Lilliput.  As we say in French: “On va pas s’étouffer”.

I think I have to -yes, I HAVE TO- try Daniel to have a real and definitive opinion on the French man.  Or maybe, I should start by DBGB.  But for the moment,  it’s not going in the right direction.

Two places to brag about

Posted in $$ - De $30 a $60, $$$ - De $60 a $90, Restaurant - Paris, Restaurant - Upper East Side, Restaurants - How much?, Restaurants NYC, Un-NYC Restaurants on January 4, 2010 by restonyc

Had I a camera -it’s on its way, I just have to buy it now-, I’d show you where and what I ate during my Christmas break.

I came back to Sfoglia.  I was happy to go back there because I started this blog (or the previous incarnation of this blog) with this restaurant nearly three years ago.  Also, because Sfoglia is one of the Upper East Side’s prime donne. It’s not super easy to eat there and it’s often for a good delicious reason that restaurants are booked weeks ahead.  How many times did we try to book a few days before?  Sfoglia doesn’t need to be on OpenTable and when you call, a feminine voice tells you that no tables are available before the following month unless you’re ready to eat late (like us) at 10.30 PM.  It’s good to be French in New York!

I tend to like these places where the food is simple and subtle. Is it good? For sure, I had nice cheeses and pasta (bad sign: ten days after, I don’t remember how they really tasted).  But I wonder if it was really worth the wait.  And is it worth traveling to the Upper East Side?  I’m not that sure.  New York is filled with -not too many but enough of them- Italian restaurants that serve unsophisticated but delicate food in an almost Italian farm setting (and when the interior designer missed it, you can say “Welcome to Disneyland!”) with their rustic walls and wooden tables: Peasant in the Lower East Side, Il Buco in the East Village…

In Paris, I had the opportunity to have lunch at Le Comptoir St Germain.  It used to be a wine bar where I used to have a glass of Brouilly, rillettes on Poilane bread before going to one on the nearby movie theaters. Yves Camdeborde, famous for his delicious La Régalade (went there a few times), took over the bar and the next-door hotel to create one of the most well-known gastropubs and boutique hotels of Paris.  The wait for a table can be over three months.  Last year, I wanted to go there with my foodie friend Ben but when I tried to book a table early December 2008 for mid-January 2009, the waitress on the other side of the line nearly started to laugh.  Instead, we went Chez Michel and the fact that Robert Parker was having dinner there convinced Ben that I picked a very good place; and the food too in the end.

But a few days ago, back in Paris for the holidays, I was around with a friend and we walked by, looking for a place to have lunch.  There were tables available on the open terrace.  So, we ate in the cold but under a gas burner and with a blanket on our knees.  Christmas was a few days ahead and I chose an octopus salad, to the point, light, well-seasoned.  One complaint: too many black olives but is it a real complaint?  It’s time for me to better plan my next trip to Paris.  La Régalade should be on the list too.  I heard it’s still pretty good even without Camdeborde behind the stove.

The restaurant of the future will look like the restaurant of today

Posted in Economics, Restaurants on January 1, 2010 by restonyc

A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published a piece called The Restaurant of the future?. The question mark answered this question by saying no.  The same title without a question mark would have meant yes.

Even if its subtitle -“A new model is changing the dining landscape across the country. The rise of small plates, big bars and hotel restaurants.”- tries to give some kind of an appetizer to the reader, there is not a lot to chew in the article, just the proof that a futuristic title can try to make up for when there are not a lot financial news to report.

The piece does not deal with any kind of restaurant but just with the ones serving fine-dining meals –costing more than $70- and takes The Bazaar in West Hollywood as an example of what the now $7 billion industry could look like in a few years.

Basically, the article asks whether we will eat tapas-like in hotel bars.  For some time now, gourmet restaurants have been located in hotels, places that can afford such low-margin businesses but that benefit from the excellence of the cuisine and the reputation of the chef.  A win-win agreement: marketing vs. no profits (or small losses).

When it comes to what and how we will eat it, I think that it will take some time before we abandon the classic three-course meal format.  Remember in the 80’s when prophets and experts were predicting that we would eat pills in 2000.  Tapas have been around for a long time and other countries haven’t tried to serve their food the Spanish way despite its convivial form.

Also, restaurant patrons are very conservative and molecular gastronomy has a long way to go before it becomes the norm.  There have been controversies –especially in France, Spain, and the UK- around this kind of gastronomy that plays with technique and the chemistry of cooking.  But it seems that this topic only interests specialists (international foodies, PhD’s in chemistry, food critics…) given that molecular restaurants are still a rare species: wd~50 in New York, Alinea in Chicago, and I can’t name any in Paris.  Of course, there are millions of people who would love to have dinner at elBulli every year but very few of them would pay to go to one of is copycats.  And in times during which science is everywhere but not lauded and national concerns (cf. Sarkozy’s National Identity) challenge any form of globalization, I can’t see how a non-locally rooted cuisine will become a worldwide standard.

Why do we go to restaurants?

  • To feed ourselves,
  • To share moments with relatives, friends, clients, business or sentimental prospects…
  • To be in a neutral place,
  • To find a solution to our entertaining at home laziness,
  • To celebrate,
  • To experience/discover food,
  • To brag.

These answers are not restrictive and not mutually exclusive but restaurants such as The Bazaar satisfy especially the last two items and these restaurants’ inability (or non-desire) to become larger and blander social environments will prevent them from becoming the new face of fine dining.  Try to go to a place such as The Bazaar or elBulli with your parents/grandparents/friends and you will either (very likely) hear unpleasant comments or be blessed to eat with open-minded people.

Molecular gastronomy -or whatever you want to name it- is not a trend and will remain a niche, in which chefs will create ideas for their fine-dining peers in particular and for the restaurant industry in general; a laboratory with curious and paying guinea pigs.