NYC Trip Report: From SF Hound
Last week, I made my first trip out to New York in 10 years. I didn’t post any questions here, but did some cursory research and put together a list for our brief five nights in the city.
Our first meal was dinner at Eleven Madison Park. This was the perfect welcome to New York. I can’t say enough good things about our experience. From the opening line-up of amuse bouches (paired with a great bottle of champagne) to the skate, to the duck that has officially ruined all other duck dishes, the food was phenomenal. Actually, I will say that the tuna tartare appetizer that sounded boring -- but was recommended by our waiter even after I countered that it sounded boring -- was actually boring. But everything else was top-notch, including the service. The sommelier was at the top of his game, nailing every pairing based upon our dish and our feedback. I had one of the best French pinots in recent memory (forgotten, but written down -- actually typed up -- on a card for me at home). Our group of four had a lot of fun and I think the folks serving us did as well…which was nice for an upscale place that still feels a little bank-y. This is an important one for me. Good food is good. But good food serviced by good waitstaff is great. And EMP totally delivered. We were all blown-away. Ironically, it was almost too good of an experience in my mind to ever consider going back. Just one of those nights that gelled perfectly that I want to leave in my memory undisturbed. A special thank you goes to their Assistant GM, Sam, who at the end of our meal gave us a great introduction to the New York dining scene, understanding our interests and pointing out places to try and others to skip. He offered us his card and said we should feel free to call him at any point during our visit. Incredible. We were hugely grateful to him as well as all the other staff there (and believe me, there were A LOT of staff).
The next morning we had a fantastic brunch at August. Everything we ordered was delicious, but I wouldn’t have traded anyone my scrambled eggs with housemade gravlax on pumpernickel for anything. The back courtyard/greenhouse setting plus delicious, rustic food made this spot feel special.
After much walking and shopping in Soho and Nolita, we eventually snuck in a burrito & corn-on-the-cob from Café Habana. Nothing special, but certainly hit the spot.
Our second night’s dinner was at Allen & Delancey. Food was good, service was fine, interior was great. But unfortunately, we were totally unimpressed. We were suffering from serious food fatigue and everything just felt flat by comparison to the previous night’s blow-out at EMP. Plus, everything here was probably too similar to what we’re accustomed to in San Francisco. At dinner, as we forced down what I’m pretty sure was very good food, we lamented that we should have just gone out for burgers & beer.
The next day we did a scaled-down version of RGR’s LES tour. When I first read this on Chowhound, I was sold. My wife and I love good Jewish deli, of which San Francisco has exactly none. Well, I loved everything about this little tour. Stopped in at Katz’s, Russ & Daughters and Yonah Schimmel one day, and did Kossar’s (and Katz’s again!) another day. Not sure how you are supposed to fit in all of these stops on one stomach. I was totally satiated after a (absolutely perfect) half-pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, so by the time we walked out of Yonah Schimmels with a cannonball-sized knish, we were done. We happily bought a soft-cooler from Russ&Daughters and brought home some bagels and lox as well pastrami and rye from Katz’s.
That night, we had a reservation at Degustation, but with the previous night’s dinner at Allen & Delancey fresh in our memory, we quickly cancelled our reservations. Instead, we went to Employees Only where we had two great cocktails (me a rum Old Fashioned and my wife some oddly flavorful tequila/absinthe creation) and shared a good plate of orecchiette pasta & sausage.
After that, we strolled up the way and sat at the bar at Spotted Pig where we had a number of small dishes (heirloom tomato gazpacho was a stand-out) that culminated in a shared burger. This place was fun…once we were able to sit down.
Finally ready to delve back into more refinement, the next day we had a lavish lunch at Jean Georges. Along with our experience at EMP, this was a high point of our visit. The room and setting was beautiful. Had the perfect air we were seeking. The service was a little haughty, but was completely apt (not nearly as fun as the guys at EMP). My wife had the two-course and I opted for three (my appetite being much bigger than my stomach). The amuse bouche included a smoked sea trout that I’m still thinking about. I followed that up with a Peekytoe crab/squash blossom dish (very good) and some of the best Artic Char I’ve ever had. Fantastic. At that point, I was done, so my wife and I did our best to finish off an excellent veal and apricot dish. All dishes were much more interesting than the image that your mind forms when it reads the menu. I like that. It was our anniversary, so we also splurged on a couple glasses of nice, crisp rose champagne. After we finished the actual dessert we ordered, many more complimentary sweet bites followed (insanely delicious bites of flavored chocolates + marshmellows). We soon discovered that we wouldn’t be eating again anytime soon.
That meant a cancellation for a 5:30 seating at Babbo and our actual dinner at 10pm. We had heard good things about the restaurant in our hotel, Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar+Grill, so we sat at the bar thinking we would nosh. I didn’t love the atmosphere of the bar area (or unidentifiable 70s/80s sounding rock music), but this was a great experience. Our bartender was extremely nice and knowledgeable, offering his suggestions and many complimentary tastings of both fish and sake. By the time we were done, it wasn’t inexpensive (about $250 including a couple “boxes” of sakes), but it was some of the best fish we’ve had. On par with good sushi places in LA, but like nothing in San Franicsco (so sad).
One of the things I was looking forward to in New York (besides the LES tour) was trying the new “craft” cocktail spots. San Francisco has quite a few places and I’m a big fan. During our brief visit, we went to Milk&Honey, Little Branch, Death&Co. and Employees Only (as mentioned above). The drinks at Milk & Honey and Death & Co. were flat-out amazing. The familiar drinks were exceptional, and the new ones revelatory. I think my favorite was an M&H cocktail with bourbon, sweet vermouth, campari and chocolate bitters (see: http://bittermens.com/recipes). For atmosphere, I think we liked the classic style and beauty of Death & Co. best, but Milk & Honey had a nice, effortless charm of its own.
It was a fantastic trip. The food and drinks were all great without exception (even the corner hot dogs I snuck in). Even more, most folks we encountered were hugely friendly, welcoming and knowledgeable.
I was so impressed, that I’ve actually booked a quick follow-up trip in three weeks. There’s an Open House New York event happening that weekend, and I needed the excuse. I’m going solo this time, so I’m interested in recommendations for other places I might like that are especially good for solo diners. I’m also hugely interested in architecture+interior design and really appreciate places with unique interiors and atmosphere, both new and historical. I popped my head into the Lever House restaurant to take a look and loved it; but, I would be equally pleased with an older place like Keens (from what I’ve read).
Much thanks in advance.
That sounds, overall, like a wonderful visit. I'll try to think of some other ideas for you. I was curious about Lever House myself recently, and a couple of 'hounds posted back with positive reviews, by the way.
Wait, you started with EMP? It's no wonder you were largely unimpressed by other places...I liked A&D when I went a few weeks back, but dinner at EMP is amazing and it's hard to compare the two. It sounds like you did the prix fixe menu? Or did you do the tasting? The tasting is fantastic. I though I liked EMP after having the prix fixe, but I plain out loved EMP after the Gourmand menu...
For cocktails, I'd encourage you to try PDT, Pegu Club, and Flatiron Lounge. Or you could go back to D&C -- the menu is so large, and they're about to switch up the summer list with the autumn one.
As for Blue Ribbon Sushi, I've never been impressed by just the sushi there, so I could encourage you to book somewhere else. Perhaps Sushi Yasuda?
Oh, and Babbo is a perfectly fine place for a solo diner. Hint. Hint. You may also want to consider trying to snag a seat at Momofuku Ko, or, barring that, a dinner at Momofuku Ssam Bar.
You ate (and drank) really well! Many of the places mentioned are among my favorites, including EMP and Milk & Honey. Some other places to try on your next trip are:
Craft: One of my favorite high-end places in the city. The food manages to be simple yet refined. There's a branch in LA, but I can't really think of a comparable place in SF.
WD-50: Not sure how big the molecular gastronomy scene is in SF, but chef Wylie Dufresne is one of the more creative and well-known advocates of this approach. They have a tradition of creative cocktails at the bar, which is also good for solo dining. But fair warning -- this place tends to be a bit polarizing.
Babbo: You should try to make it back there, as Cal-Ital tends to be quite different, and it's a good place to dine solo. Another Italian place I really enjoyed recently was Apizz on the LES, where you took RGR's tour (good call).
I think you should try Degustation this time. I works particularly well for solo diners and the food is great. Plan on having the 10-course tasting. I'm not a big fan of WD-50 but it may be something you would want to experience once. Interestingly, the last time we had dinner at Degustation, Wylie Dufresne and his wife were dining there also.
Note to the OP: Degustation is closed on Sundays.
I like WD-50 a lot but honestly think that other restaurants in other cities do "molecular gastronomy" much better. (I have a really hard time thinking about going back to WD-50 after experiencing Alinea this summer.)
However, if you're into cocktails, I actually think Tailor is a better stop off. Miso pork belly + one of Eben Freeman's creations (the solid cocktails are back on the menu now, not sure if that includes the absinthe gummy bears) is a great pre- or post-dinner bite.
Thanks for all the thoughts and suggestions. Sushi Yasuda sounds great, and I will try and make it to Degustation this time. Any thoughts for a more casual meal? I love the idea of Craft, but can only do so many tasting menus without getting the dreaded food fatigue. Some of the places I had my eye on last visit but didn't get to were Little Owl and Perilla. Not sure how I would fare alone at these places, but recommendations for more casual dining at the bar of similar spots would be great.
I'm going to be doing a lot of art-viewing, so thought I would eat lunch at the Modern one day. Anything recommended for lunch around the Whitney or Guggenheim?
Also, I'll be staying mid-town this upcoming trip. I had my eye on Bill's Gay 90s as a spot to check out for old NY atmosphere. Also curious about Bemelmans for the same vibe. On the other end of the spectrum, Buddakan looks amazing (interiors), but the warnings about bridge & tunnel crowds give me pause.
Little Owl has a tiny, tiny bar (something like 3-4 stools) and while the wait is usually long, and I've had friends who successfully walked into Little Owl as a solo diner, especially after 9pm, and especially because they were willing to sit at the bar. It's a little cramped, however.
Balthazar and Gramercy Tavern are two lovely restaurants. I lived in San Francisco for a long time and think you'll enjoy the vibe.
River Cafe (view), Luger's (porterhouse) are worth it.