Four nights in New York after a professionally negligent gap of almost three years yielded two inescapable facts about this hectic city's restaurant life.
The first is that almost in spite of the city's restaurateurs the food and wine on offer have never tasted better. And both will continue their pre-eminence until mayors in the rest of the world follow Mayor Bloomberg's far sighted commitment to ban smoking in public places. As a result tables are less cluttered; flavours are sharper; and walking into a crowded restaurant particularly in the evening is an even greater pleasure now that it does not involve fighting through clouds of fug.
The second is that no other city manages to churn its restaurants quite so quickly. One restaurateur friend who attaches too much weight to my profession has calculated that of the 150 restaurants reviewed by the last restaurant correspondent of the New York Times over the past three years over 60 have already closed. This is not always bad news, other than for the investors obviously, as exemplified by the sommelier at the month-old BLT restaurant who has astutely managed to compile an exhaustive wine list in a a very short time by buying up the cellars of two of his short lived predecessors.
Dinner at BLT Steak also exemplified one of two highly influential trends. The first is the city's current fixation with all things Asian, which I touched on last week, and is confirmed by the further openings of Matsuri, Megu and Riingo amongst others. The second is the heavy influence of the Atkins diet even outside the home which means that out go carbohydrates and sauces and in comes protein. Of all the city's recent openings, I was reliably informed, over 70% are either Asian with its plain sushi offer or steak houses.
In the right hands this can be very exciting as was proved by a return visit to Craft in the Flatiron district where chef Tom Colicchio pioneered, even before Atkins took hold, the concept of a menu deconstructed to its individual building blocks thereby allowing the customer to choose the combinations which best suit both palate and wallet.
But what makes Craft such a pleasure is that equal attention to detail has been paid to how the meal is enjoyed. The lighting is flattering; the specially designed chairs wonderfully comfortable; the waiting staff immediately recognisable in their crisply ironed blue check shirts while the tables, spacious enough to accommodate the plates which you are encouraged to share 'family style', even include a sliding drawer on the outside to hold accoutrements for the wine service. And, best of all, even when the restaurant is full and the music playing, you can still hear and be heard.
Initially, the menu is not that different incorporating first courses, mains and side dishes but under each is a listing of various styles of cooking: raw and marinated in the first category; roasted and braised in the second while vegetables, mushrooms, potatoes, grains and beans come roasted, sautéed, braised or puréed. Best of all were a heart octopus terrine from the charcuterie section, a multi coloured beet salad and braised beef shortribs with only the roasted skate, had it been served on rather than off the bone, leaving room for improvement. An excellent dinner for three with a bottle of mature Leeuwin cabernet sauvignon from Western Australia came to US$248 plus service.
Just how difficult and intricate this innate simplicity is was obvious from dinner at BLT Steak, whose name stands not for the dish but rather the chef as in Bistro Laurent Tourondel.
The menu is again very simple. The main courses, which incorporate seven different steak options, are listed alongside seven different sauces and all of these are well cooked and presented. But at this stage in its development BLT Steak is not a sum of its parts. The lighting is poor; the tables too small for the plates and the noise level too uncomfortable. Judging from the dishes we ate and in particular his very fresh salads, I would say Tourondel is a talented cook but there seems to have been an over ambitious attempt to open with too many possible options for the customer rather than a clear cut vision of what the management wants the restaurant to be.
John McDonald, the public face of the parties behind Lever House, last year's high profile opening, has no qualms about what he wants his restaurant to be - the serious rival, if not replacement, to the Four Seasons as the place for 'power dining' in the city in the early 21st century.
The restaurant, situated on the ground floor of a 1951 building that bears numerous similarities to London's Royal Festival Hall built in the same year, exudes energy and a sense of occasion. To reach the dining room there is a tunnel from the street which opens up onto a long space that comprises comfortable booths down the left hand side and a separate room at the far end which can be closed off for small private parties. As a new York friend exclaimed "This is the kind of place where you expect Austin Powers to jump out of the walls."
By contrast, the waiters emerge somewhat disconcertingly from a dark corridor on the far left behind which chef Dan Silverman (ex Alisons's on Dominick and Union Square Café) produces a menu cleverly designed to please his cash rich, time poor clientele. There are half a dozen raw fish starters to satisfy the current Asian obsession; a first course of New Yorkers' favourite short ribs of beef served pink and cold with a frisée salad; a cleverly constructed salad of yellow and green beans topped with fried okra; and several light but tasteful main courses - vitello tonnato; Arctic char with a herb butter and a seemingly highly popular chicken paillard with farm greens. Service is swift leaving no complaints other than the mark-ups on the red wines.
Finally, there was just room and time to visit two old favourites both not too far from bustling Union Square which I hope will ride any changes in New Yorkers' fashions.
The first is the wonderfully named Gotham Bar & Grill where chef Alfred Portale has maintained consistently high standards for 19 years. Gotham is that rare combination of a particularly exciting space and very keen prices particularly at lunchtime where a US$25 three course meal of a warming cauliflower soup with diced mushrooms, a fillet of bass and three refreshing sorbets as dessert was unquestionably the best value in a town where sterling and euros currently go a long ways.
And, finally, to Blue Smoke where the initial problems of reconstructing a smokehouse reminiscent of the mid West or Deep South in this urban jungle have finally been overcome. This will always remain one place where New Yorkers seem only to happy to forget Asia and Atkins, to roll up their sleeves and eat ribs messily - one culinary tradition I am delighted the US has bequeathed to the rest of the world.
Craft, 43 E 19th Street 212-780 0880
Megu, 62 Thomas Street, 212-964 7777,
Matsuri, 369 W 16th Street, 212-243 6400
Riingo, 205 E 45th Street, 212-867 4200,
BLT Steak, 106 E 57th Street 212-752 7470,
Lever House, 390 Park Avenue, 212-888 2700
Gotham Bar & Grill, 12 E 12th Street, 212-620 4020
Blue Smoke, 116 E 27th Street, 212-447 7733.