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Apr 14, 2008 08:42 AM

Help! Suburban Mom Needs Advice

Hello fellow Chowhounders! In late June, DH and I are celebrating our 10th anniversary with a weekend in NYC without the kids. I have started to map out some plans, but could really use some advice. First, about us: in our mid-40's, adventurous eaters of all cuisines, fairly casual and tend to be somewhat intimidated by fine dining. Also, DH prefers not to wear a jacket, though will if absolutely necessary. Last time in NYC with kids, we ate at Katz's and Szechuan Gourmet. Have also really enjoyed Babbo. We will drive up from Philly on a Friday morning, probably be staying somewhere in midtown, TBD. So here's what I have so far:

Friday lunch: an uncle wants to take us out. He suggested Bouley, I countered with Eleven Madison Park or Jean Georges. Am I right? Other suggestions along those lines?

Friday dinner: Not sure yet. Maybe something funky and ethnic? We might end up in the theatre district and I'd probably pick Marseille (had a great solo meal there in Jan.) or DB Bistro Moderne. I was also thinking Casa Mono, which I've been wanting to try. Other ideas?

Sat. lunch: probably spend the morning at MOMA and then have lunch at the Bar Room at the Modern.

Sat. dinner: this is the anniversary meal. I was angling for Per Se, but it stretches our budget and DH isn't really into that kind of meal. He wants Esca, which I know isn't popular on this board, but a friend recently raved about it and the menu really appeals to DH (plus he doesn't need a jacket there, right?).

Sunday: maybe an LES extravaganze at Katz and Russ & Daughter, though were were there not that long ago. We might end up UES at the Met Museum, any good ideas near there? Any not to miss brunches in the city?

So many choices, so little time. I'd appreciate any feedback, filling in the blanks, anything we really shouldn't miss, etc.


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  1. My favorite 'special place' brunch is at Brasserie 8 1/2, downstairs at 9 West 57th Street. It's a prix fixe buffet w/ omelet station and a good quality selection. Great room - bright, open space with booths as well as tables. I've found the reservation people very accommodating and if you tell them it is a special day and ask for a booth when you reserve they'll probably give you one. Your DH won't need a jacket, but clean and neat - what my mom called "well put together" will do nicely. Some people will be a little dressed depending upon their occasion of the day - it's neither super dressy nor super casual.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Jane A.

      I'm sorry, but I've had a terrible experience at Brasserie 8 1/2. I thought the food was overpriced and mediocre-to-not-good. Very sex and the city atmosphere, though, if you're into that thing.

      To the OP -- Between Bouley, EMP or JG, I would also pick EMP. I actually loved Bouley but read a couple of terrible posts about their customer service recently. And for your funky ethnic night out, if you find yourself in the East Village, you've got the Momofuku restaurants.

    2. Here are my thoughts with regard to your plan...

      Fri. lunch: Regulars know that EMP is our favorite NYC restaurant, and we have lunch there very often, so I highly recommend it. There is an a la carte menu and a 2-course market lunch. But my advice is to go for the 5-course Gourmand, which is always incredible! The wine list is excellent, service is welcoming and professional, and the space is gorgeous. During the day, with the (sun)light cascading in through the huge windows, it's magical! Although you will see a lot of "suits" at lunch -- Credit Suisse in that building and employees there think of EMP as their "cafeteria" lol -- no jacket is required.

      Fri. dinner: In the Theater District, either Marseille or dbBistro would be a good choice. I'm not a fan of Esca. I do like the food at Casa Mono, but I find the seating to be uncomfortably cramped.

      If you like Lebanese food, I highly recommend ilili. We just had dinner there last night and were blown away by how delicious the food is. I don't drink, but my husband raved about the Lebanese wine he tried. Our waitress was very pleasant, and service was good, the only glitch being that I had to ask for my water glass to be refilled. It's a huge space with a very attractive design.

      Sat. lunch: Even though we haven't been to The Modern or the Bar Room yet, since you will going to MoMA, I think your Bar Room idea sounds just right.

      Sat. dinner: You mentioned thinking of Jean Georges for lunch, so why not go there for your anniversary dinner? It's certainly a celebratory kind of place, and though it is upscale, it's not nearly as expensive as Per Se. The only hitch for your husband -- jackets are required.

      Sun.: Have you taken my LES Food Excursion? If you will be going to the Met Museum, I recommend brunch at Cafe Boulud. Four-star chef Daniel Boulud's second-tier restaurant definitely has first class cuisine. Gavin Kaysen, who became executive chef there a few months ago, just received the James Beard Award as Best Rising Chef, and his food is, indeed, superb! Service is cordial and polished, and the small space has attractive contemporary decor. Jackets not required.

      I hope you have a wonderful weekend in NYC. Happy Anniversary and Bon Appetit!

      2 Replies
      1. re: RGR


        I agree with almost all of your suggestions, but with a change in sequence.

        I will actually suggest JG for lunch on Friday, and EMP for Sat anniversay dinner. My reasoning being that a lot of the dishes at JG's dinner menu are available during lunch (Mon - Fri), so there is no reason to pay extra for *almost* the exact same dishes. At EMP, however, some of the best dishes, like the duck for two, suckling pig, the crab roulade, are only available during dinner time. If OP is going to EMP once, I think dinner will surpass the lunch experience.

        As for funky dinner on Friday, my top choice will be Momofuku Ssam Bar. You can't find anything like Momofuku in other city, and I have always been very happy with my visits (I actually like it better than the highly praised Momofuku Ko, but then it's just my preference). Anyway, if Momofuku seems too exotic, then Casa Mono is a fine choice, albeit the cramped seating as RGR mentioned.

        Of course, RGR's LES excursion is not to be missed! You can't say you visited NYC unless you finished the tour! :D

        Hope you have a wonderful anniversary and enjoy your time in NYC!

        1. re: kobetobiko


          I rarely argue with you, so no surprise that I think your suggestion of flipping EMP and Jean Georges is a good one. I've not had lunch at JG (yet), only one dinner, so I'm not a familiar with the menus as you are.

          P.S. Just to note that the crab roulade has been removed from the dinner prix-fixe menu and is now available only on the dinner Gourmand. Doing the Gourmand would be a great (and less expensive) substitute for Per Se's tasting-style menu. And if they want the signature duck for two or the suckling pig, they can swap for one of the meat courses.

      2. Thanks so much for all the feedback so far! Some of my thoughts/questions follow:

        Fri. lunch: Uncle seems to have an attachment to Bouley, but hopefully will be agreeable to our suggestion. I'll leave it to him between EMP and JG, since I'm equally excited about both.

        Fri. dinner: ilili looks very interesting! I would never have known about it and will definitely throw it into the mix. How cramped is cramped for Casa Mono? DH is a big guy and doesn't like small spaces, but would love the food. I've read all about the Momofuku phenomenon, but for some reason it doesn't grab me. I'm not the biggest fan of Korean flavors, and that looks like the main influence. Any other don't misses I should keep in the mix?

        Sat. dinner: I'm with you all on the EMP of JG idea for dinner, but DH didn't seem too enthused. He really likes the idea of Esca. Can you say more about why you don't like it? It looks like our kind of food, and a good friend was there recently and raved about it. Still open to other suggestions as well.

        Sun.: We've done a modified version of your tour RGR, and still might do the whole thing, depending on what else we do that day. The Cafe Boulod brunch looks terrific, and a likely contender since I think we'll do the museum either before or after. Any partcular menu recommendations? I'm not sure how late we'll stay Sunday, but if we stay most of the day and do brunch early, any later in the day suggestions?

        Also, any suggestions on reservations at any of these places? I'm assuming most don't reserve more than a month in advance. Are any particularly difficult so that I really need to pay attention to the day and get my name in?

        Thanks again, and keep the ideas coming!

        6 Replies
        1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

          I think Esca is good if you're a seafood fan. Loved the geoduck ceviche. I don't think you'll go wrong with that restaurant.

          Also wanted to mention that Momofuku, while owned by a Korean guy, is not mainly influenced by Korean cuisine. It's really a combo of a lot of different Asian and non-Asian cuisines. For example, the pork buns they're known for is a riff on Peking duck. And they've got a great selection of hams at Ssam. And of course the original ramen is Japanese in origin. But if that's not your thing, there really are a lot of choices in NYC. Ilili that RGR mentioned does look good.

          1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

            Hey, Hungry,

            Casa Mono is a fairly small place, and I consider the seating to be *very* cramped, as in, there's-barely-any-breathing-room-between-tables-and-you're-practically-sitting-in-your-neighbor's-lap. And the tables are on the small side as well.

            We've been to Esca only once, pre-theater. Another instance where the seating was so tight that I was practically in the lap of the nice lady to my right. (Our table was at the corner of a banquet, so there was a wall to our left.) Service lacked any cordiality and was of the how-fast-can-we-get-you-out-of-here variety. In my view, getting people out quickly in order to make a curtain and exhibiting some pleasantness are not mutually exclusive. Plenty of restaurants where we've dined pre-theater manage to do so. Esca was severly lacking in that regard. I might have been willing to overlook these problems if the food had been stellar. However, it was o.k., but certainly nowhere near rave-worthy. All in all, a disappointing experience, and we've not been back.

            When we do brunch, my husband and I prefer not to eat breakfast foods, so we always choose a restaurant that either serves only lunch or has at least several lunch-style dishes on the menu. Cafe Boulud falls into the latter category. We had brunch there in December, so I'm a bit hazy about what I ate. I know I had hanger steak for the main course, and it was excellent. I had soup and dessert but even though I can't recall what they were, it doesn't matter because they're seasonal and are different now. Needless to say, whatever they were, they were delicious.

            Another thought. If you don't do EMP for lunch or dinner, you could do it for brunch. While I like Cafe Boulud, if I were given the choice between the two for brunch, there would be no question that I'd choose EMP. Again, I'd skip over the breakfast side of the menu and go for Chef Humm's exquisite lunch creations.

            If you stay through Sunday evening and haven't done ilili by then, it would be a good choice for dinner.

            Of course, you should make reservations. Two weeks out should be sufficient, but if you want to do it a month in advance, all the better.

            1. re: RGR

              I beg to differ in Esca, Its to bad that its in the theater district because its not a meal that should be hurried through...their crudo's started the trend and they still do them the best (don't get the crudo tasting, just order a couple), absolutely great pasta's lobster spagetti and mint, bucatini w/ octopus, macaroni w/ sea urchin and crab oh man...and their salt crusted whole fish are the best of their kind in the can be tricky ordering at esca and many that negative reports believe have been caused by poor ordering, its hard to bad mouth restaurant after one meal you rushed through and allowed them to seat you at a bad table....the downside of escais that it is very easy to rack up a big bill, then again the room does not lend itself to a 10th anniversary, the food does however ....

              1. re: Cpalms

                When we dine pre-theater, we always make our reservation early enough -- around 5:30 p.m. -- precisely so that we do not have to rush through our meal. We had plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely meal at Esca. The problem I referred to was the staff's *attitude*.

                "...allowed them to seat you at a bad table."

                You presume a lot with that statement. The fact is, I am never shy about requesting a different table when the one provided does not please me. So, we did just that but were told no other was available. Still, in my view, there's no excuse for jamming tables in so close together.

                As for the food, we ordered the salt encrusted branzino. It was fine, but I've had far superior versions of branzino elsewhere. Also, though it was billed as "for two," the portion sizes were rather skimpy.

                As far as bad mouthing a restaurant after one meal, I go by the theory that a restaurant has only one chance to make a first impression. For me, Esca failed in terms of food, service, and ambiance. In short, all the ways that count!

                1. re: RGR

                  other than the branzino, what else did you have?

                  1. re: Cpalms

                    Too long ago to remember although the fact that I don't remember tells me it wasn't memorable.

          2. All your picks and the others that have been suggested are very good choices, with the exception of Esca, IMO. I have to agree 100% with RGR. Absolutely nothing memorable about it, except that I thought it was grossly overpriced for the quality, service and ambiance. I also agree that Bruni's reviews are often way off the mark. But obviously many people love Esca passionately, so who knows, maybe you will be one of them.

            1. Well, humph. DH's stodgy old uncle insists on Bouley for lunch. He "eats there all the time" and it is the "best French restaurant in the city." Oh well, he's paying. I'll just have to hope it is one of their good days, since inconsistency is the biggest problem I've read about. Maybe since uncle is a regular, they'll treat us well.

              Also, DH is pretty excited about Esca, though if I really push for EMP for Saturday dinner, he'll probably cave. I'm going to have to think about this more. I'm a little worried about diminishing returns having so many high-end French meals in such a short time span. Cost may also be a factor, since EMP dinner looks extremely pricey.
              At least we're not big drinkers, so the wine tab won't be huge.

              Any thoughts about Fatty Crab? I was thinking about that, or something along those lines for Friday dinner.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

                I may be the almost-lone voice in favor of Esca here, but I really enjoy it. I've been 3 or 4 times and have never encountered any problems with the service, seating, etc. The food has also been uniformly delicious, except one time I received an overly salty grilled branzino with olives and capers. I sent it back and it was replaced without question. All of the crudo I've tried has been great, their "brodetto" appetizer is delicious and chock full of different types of shellfish. The last time I was there I had a monkfish special which was superb.

                EMP is a BEAUTIFUL place, though - a much nicer/grander atmosphere than Esca no matter where you're seated. I've only been there once and it was well before Chef Humm's time, so I can't comment on the food, but I think just atmosphere-wise it's a much more special place than Esca. If the food is as good as many 'hounds believe, it's probably a better choice.

                1. re: biondanonima

                  Biondanonima, it's not just you. I think Esca is fine and Hungry will probably be happy with it. My preference is for the crudos. They do a great job on them, always fresh and perfectly seasoned. Yeah, it's not a grand atmosphere like EMP, but it's not shabby either. The only thing is Esca's decor goes more with a mid-priced restaurant even though it's a higher-priced one.

                  Hungry, I wouldn't worry too much about DH's uncle and Bouley. I did say that there were a couple of negative reports about service. But it seems that the majority of posters loved their experiences there. And as your uncle is a regular, I'm sure you'll be treated very well.

                  And I've only been to Fatty Crab once. It was fine, but as I frequent a lot of Malaysian/Singaporean restaurants, I thought it was good, not exceptional. But if you don't have much experience with the cuisine, I think you will like it.

                2. re: Hungryin theBurbs

                  Hey, Hungry,

                  Even though I didn't like Esca, to be fair, there are many Hounds who love it. So, since your husband is so excited about Esca, do it on Friday evening. But definitely do it after 8, so that you won't be contending with the pre-theater crush. Then, do EMP for your anniversary dinner on Saturday. In my view, that would be a good compromise.