During five days of talking, and listening, to numerous restaurant-obsessed New Yorkers as well as many of the city’s restaurateurs and chefs, the opinion of Ranjit Mathrani, owner of London’s Amaya and Masala Zone restaurants, kept floating into my consciousness.
Restaurants are, according to Mathrani, the clearest expression possible of a market driven by supply and demand and New York’s restaurants are certainly proving this at the moment. However, as is so often the case with markets, not everyone is happy.
The complaints began over a dinner next to a fixed bond trader with HSBC who, while a fan of some of the city’s most recent openings, was unhappy with just how difficult it was to get a reservation; how often she was kept waiting for her table, invariably well past the time of the reservation; and just how noisy and crowded all new restaurants seem to be.
But any notion that New York is currently a seller’s market was dismissed during conversations with representatives of more than 70 restaurants who gathered to raise over US$150,000 for Share our Strength, a charitable organisation that uses food to fight hunger. Chef/proprietor Geoffrey Zakarian was at pains to explain just how difficult it is to recruit staff of the right calibre for his new, extremely comfortable restaurant Country, far more difficult today than when he was recruiting for its older sibling, Town. And just as I was walking out of this very noisy room I overheard another restaurateur on his cellphone to one of his managers, making sure his ad to hire more cooks would be in all the city’s papers the following morning.
Out of this heady cocktail of seemingly insatiable demand, apparently limitless amounts of money, and chefs in open, but invariably friendly, competition with one another have emerged two restaurants, Perry Street and Del Posto, which seem to epitomise the current hedonism of New York. And although very different in design, both share a perhaps more important function in that their location, not far away from each other on the Lower West Side, demonstrates the ability of restaurants to draw crowds to previously overlooked areas of any city, as Sir Terence Conran so successfully proved at Butler’s Wharf by Tower Bridge.
Perry Street occupies the ground floor of an obviously chic block of flats, one of which is occupied by chef/restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten who opened this restaurant last year. Twenty years ago a meal at Jo-Jo’s, where Vongerichten was first cooking on his own after his arrival in New York from his native Alsace remains one of the most memorable I have ever eaten in the city as this chef began to expound his particular culinary style bridging France and Asia with a strong emphasis on lighter, Vietnamese influences.
Judging by the intensity with which Vongerichten was inspecting the produce at the Union Square Farmers’ Market early one grey Wednesday morning he has lost none of his initial enthusiasm and this has been matched at Perry Street by one of the most comfortable and welcoming interiors I have come across. Predominantly white, the room seems to incorporate all the ingredients necessary to make conversation possible – a thick carpet, leather seats and window curtains – and some of the most flattering lighting, too.
To match this Vongerichten has inspired his brigade to new heights: a thick, rice cracker-encrusted piece of tuna with a citrus emulsion and black pepper and crab dumplings with snow peas were two highlights of our first courses but best of all was a dish, rather undersold on the menu as it transpired, of grilled king oyster mushrooms and avocado carpaccio with charred jalapeno oil and lime. The mushrooms and avocado had been sliced lengthways into the thinnest pieces and then these rather anodyne ingredients had been given a completely new taste dimension, firstly by grilling in the case of the mushrooms, and then by the oil.
Similar if not quite as exciting flavours were delivered by a grilled fillet of black bass with caramelised radishes and a bluefin tuna burger with bonito mayonnaise. Desserts, particularly a savarin with rhubarb compote and white chocolate meringue with yuzu sorbet and Thai basil, were about the best of my trip. Dinner reservations are, not surprisingly, difficult at Perry Street but its light, airy room makes it a definite lunchtime treat.
Del Posto, on the other hand, only opens its expansive doors at lunchtime at the weekend concentrating instead, as do several other of chef Mario Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich’s, other Italian restaurants such as Babbo, on the more profitable, bibulous evening trade.
Such is Batali’s popularity not just in New York but across the US that when he took me across town on the back of his Vespa a year ago to watch cement being poured into the basement of what was to become this vast new restaurant I felt like a part of a groupie entourage as bystanders called out and asked for his autograph. And it is because Batali has become so large a part of their lives that I believe explains why so many New Yorkers have taken against this new restaurant, believing that the far more formal layout of Del Posto is too radical a departure from the more down to earth approach that delivers such wonderful Italian peasant food at Batali’s other restaurants.
But while Del Posto is undoubtedly very impressive architecturally with a major flight of steps leading upstairs opposite the doorway, tables on a series of balconies on the first floor and waiting staff in formal, black attire I think that this view is harsh. Del Posto is a major commercial risk even at the $10 million cost Batali admits to (to which another restaurateur replied ‘at least’) but it is also an expression of how certain restaurateurs dare to anticipate the market, whether correctly or otherwise, and how, like all human beings they are looking for the very opposite of what they already have.
However grand Del Posto may be – and it does provide a wonderfully theatrical backdrop for so many New Yorkers’ obviously new outfits – it has not changed Batali’s appearance or approach. He still wears his trademark plastic sandals, shorts and broad smile as he bustles between the kitchen and the tables with a speed that belies his bulk. The kitchen, which will presumably only gain in confidence, already delivers some extremely appetising dishes: a salad of wild mushrooms and peas with prosciutto and almonds; a vegetable fritto misto; featherlight ‘nudi’, pasta rounds stuffed with ricotta and sweet peas; halibut with spring vegetables; and a dramatic veal shank for two with asparagus and porcini. A magnificent, almost overwhelming, wine list compensates for an over-intricate dessert menu.
Del Posto is an extraordinary example of the current restaurant fever pervading New York. Should the Dow Jones index head irrevocably south we may not see its like for a while.
Perry Street, 176 Perry Street. 212-352 1900. Open 7 days.
Del Posto, 85 Tenth Avenue near 16th Street, 212-497 8090. Open for dinner Monday-Friday, lunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday