Barbecue, taco, pizza and hot dogs, New York style


This article is also published in the Financial Times.

Nothing, I recall, ever made my wife and I as popular with our children when we were all living under one roof as the possibility of our all spending a few days in New York over the festive period. The charms of being in the city that goes out of its way to make retail therapy easier than any other were immediately obvious, regardless of age or whose name was actually on the credit card.

Eating out was a further attraction, particularly the portion sizes, as well as the opportunity to enjoy styles of cooking then under-represented in London, most notably Mexican and barbecue.

Happily, the most fascinating recent development I noted on my most recent trip to the city is one not just restricted to New York: that numerous chefs, hitherto associated with expensive restaurants and ingredients, have been turning their attention to much less expensive food with swifter styles of service. The consequences for those with big numbers and big appetites to satisfy are hugely beneficial.

In fact, my only disappointment while researching this trend was when I followed several top chefs' recommendations of the noodles being served at Ivan Ramen in the new Gotham West Market. These tasted pretty ordinary to me, with much greater satisfaction coming from another stand a few metres away serving the excellent Blue Bottle Coffee from San Francisco.

The pleasure quotient was much, much higher at one of the four branches of Mighty Quinn's barbecue stores set up by Hugh Mangum, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute who went on to work under Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but who has now reverted to the pursuit of slow-cooked meat instilled in him by his father.

As were waiting in the queue at the branch in the East Village, a chef took a large, dark, unctuous piece of brisket out of the pit behind him, turned round, and with gloved hands patted it down before preparing to slice it for his appreciative audience. He beamed with pleasure, just as we did too several minutes later seated at thick wooden tables with plates of the brisket, sweet-corn fritters and a sweet-potato casserole.

A similar path has been pursued by Alex Stupak, once the pastry chef at Wylie Dufresne's wd50 in New York and Alinea in Chicago, but now most enthusiastically pursuing his passion for Mexican food and, in particular, a quest for the freshest tacos.

In quick succession Stupak has opened Empellón Cocina open just for dinner, Empellón Taqueria on West 4th Street, where we had a most authentic lunch, and perhaps most appealingly Empellón Al Pastor. This corner site on A Street houses a bar at one end and the kitchen at the other, behind which the chefs make the tortillas (800 an hour, Stupak proudly told me) and slice the large hunks of pork laced with pineapple roasting vertically on the spit, the dish that gives the restaurant its name.

As in many of these newer places, service is 'waiter-assisted', ie the customer places the order and pays at the kitchen with waiters then scurrying around with the food. The tacos are excellent; the place is fun and packed from early evening; and the prices are fair. The highly ambitious Stupak is contemplating expansion to either Los Angeles or London. I do hope he heads east.

The furthest Nick Anderer and Terry Coughlin have managed to move since, as executive chef and general manager, they opened Maialino on East 21st by Gramercy Park five years ago, is seven blocks north. But for pizza lovers, their recently opened Marta in the lobby of the renovated Martha Washington hotel is well worth the wait.

This is a fascinating opening and not just for the food. The hotel developers have bravely created this restaurant space right by the hotel entrance off East 28th Street, so that the first person to welcome any guest is not the hotel receptionist but rather the receptionists for Marta with, just beyond them, two vast wood-burning pizza ovens. Also clearly visible in the far corner is a large grill whose flames have already embellished the white kitchen walls with large black stains.

The barbecue chef proved the equal of his pizza counterpart. The highlight from the former was trout saltimbocca, a whole trout, skin wrapped in prosciutto, enhanced with sage and lemon before being sliced through the bone and served in five thick, flavourful pieces. There is a good range of pizzas including one for the adventurous topped with tripe, chilli flakes, pecorino and mint.

Finally, to a very clever twist on the cocktail bar and the hot dog, for me two quintessential aspects of New York life.

Just around the corner from the NoMad Hotel on Broadway, which the talented general manager William Guidara and Swiss-born chef Daniel Humm have made so popular, the same team has carved out the NoMad Bar from what was an electrical store with a massage parlour above (hence their Red Light cocktail).

The bar has become an instant success, not just because of the professional service and clever lighting that gives the interior the feel of an Edward Hopper painting. Humm's bar menu is another attraction, most notably his hot dog – topped with diced celery and black truffles. (Photo courtesy of Cayla Zahoran.)