Manhattanite foodie Reggie Nadelson was born and lives in downtown Manhattan, and is always being asked by friends and visitors where they should eat. While the area has been invaded by celebrity chefs, their restaurants are rarely in her recommendations:
“I prefer to eat in a place where the chef is actually in the kitchen and not on TV, and where the staff are friendly no matter who you are,” she says. “I don’t have time to join a six-week waiting list or a table, or the inclination to go to a restaurant where you have to know somebody who knows somebody who will get you the ‘secret’ phone number.”
Here are her selections:
Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit is a seriously beautiful restaurant: the decor and the food have perfect Swedish pitch. For a Very Big Deal place, it is wonderfully unpretentious; my favourite appetiser is listed on the menu as ‘Herring Sampler with necessary accessories: Carlsberg Beer, Aquavit’. It comes so exquisitely arranged on the minimalist Scandinavian platter, you could hang it on the wall. But it’s not only the excellent fish you come here for. There’s also the venison loin with lingonberry sauce, the seared duck breast, the roasted rack of lamb. Sweden itself is currently in the grip of a foodie revolution, and Samuelsson has just opened a sister restaurant in Stockholm, his home town. Like Samuelsson who is Ethiopian by birth and Swedish by adoption, the food at Aquavit is surprising in both its flavours and its elegance. Try the Swedish brunch, where you get cold Carlsberg or a Danish Mary, a lavish spread of herring salmon and Västerbotten cheese, plus the serenity of a Midtown Sunday afternoon.
Dinner menus from $168 for two without wine; brunch $96
Aquavit: 65 East 55th Street (00 1 212 307 7311; www.aquavit.org)
This is the last of the great New York French restaurants. Le Pavillon, La Caravelle and La Côte Basque are all gone now. Despite damask walls, deep-red banquettes, proper French waiters, a loyal and long-standing clientele, and a dress code that includes jackets, Le Grenouille is not stuffy. It is a living, breathing family restaurant, where the owner Monsieur Masson arranges the incredible bouquets of flowers every morning. ‘Charles Masson didn’t want to own a restaurant,’ says Richard David Story, editor of American Express’s Departures magazine, a guy who eats out a lot. ‘But when he was 12 his father sent him to the kitchens of Spain to learn the trade. When his father died, he took over La Grenouille, and it was, for him, a kind of mission.’
The food is hearty and classically French and wonderful: côte de boeuf, grilled sole, quenelles, foie gras, soufflés. And there are great wines. After a meal at La Grenouille, you feel as though you’ve been on a little trip to France, or to the New York where men wore hats and ladies wore gloves and Jackie O might step through the door at any moment. Better still, it is suggested (politely) that ‘children under 12 should best be left with a loving babysitter’. For a meal to remember in a restaurant that reminds me of the city I grew up in, the city of my imagination and of so many myths, I go to La Grenouille.
Three-course prix fixe menu $178 for two without wine
La Grenouille: 3 East 52nd Street, New York (00 1 212 752 1495; www.la-grenouille.com )
Blue Ribbon Sushi & Yasuda
When it comes to the sushi wars, I’d fight for Blue Ribbon Sushi on Sullivan Street, where the fish is always perfect. This is my sushi joint, and I rarely go anywhere else for it. Some claim that it’s the best in town and that the selection of sakes is unsurpassed. Certainly if you come after 7pm you’ll have to wait in line to sample its amazing spicy fish soup, great dragon rolls and silky sashimi.
But then I was lured to Midtown by my friend Gerry Imber, who convinced me that Yasuda is a must-not-miss. Gerry is a surgeon and he knows his way around a knife. ‘Yasuda and I often joke about who is the better surgeon,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure of the answer. But he entertains the first eight seats at the sushi bar [the only place to sit] with a knife so fast you’ll want the Band-Aid concession.’ As for the sushi, Gerry adds, you don’t have to be Jacques Cousteau to know this is a different experience – and he’s right. There is a checklist of fish of the day, which should be approached as a sort of vertical tasting: first the tunas, then related white-flesh fish. Like all great New York sushi restaurants, the more often you go, the more the chef will likely tempt you with the unusual and the divine, that little morsel of some little-known fish. ‘I’ve known Yasuda for years,’ says Gerry, ‘He does make one politically incorrect gaffe which I love, offering a happy “Shalom” to those customers he identifies as the chosen people.’
About $160 for two without wine
You can’t visit New York and fail to eat a great steak. And Peter Luger has the best in the city, maybe the best in the world. It’s just over Williamsburg Bridge (I’ll make an exception for Brooklyn here). It’s hard to get a reservation, they don’t take credit cards unless you have one of theirs, the waiters can be surly and the salad tomatoes are often served ice cold. But, the beef! The Peter Luger porterhouse, because of the way it’s hung (‘in our own ageing box’ is the restaurant’s motto), is simply transcendent. Order German fried potatoes, some creamed spinach – and, if you’re still upright, a slab of cheesecake for desert.
About $160 for two without wine
Peter Luger: 78 Broadway, Brooklyn (00 1 718 387 7400; www.peterluger.com)
Il Posto Accanto
It’s Saturday lunchtime and I’m at the bar of Il Posto Accanto, eating grilled octopus and gossiping with BeatriceTosti di Valminuta (Bea to all her many regulars). There follows a great frittata and grilled spicy sausages, and the best spaghetti Bolognese in the city.
This is a tiny, rustic wine bar which seats about 30, and servers as a neighbourhood hangout, but also draws off-duty chefs and city politicians. ‘I’m a cook, not a chef,’ says Bea, who is the owner of Il Posto Accanto and Il bagatto, the (slightly) more formal restaurant next door. You come here for the food – for the mussels and white beans, the ravioli or the lasagne – and you come for Bea, who is a force of nature, a glamorous Roman who runs her business to feed her friends. (She invented a special recipe for my fictional detective, Artie Cohen – spaghetti à la Artie.)
Bea is obsessed with fresh ingredients and goes to the market in her bright-yellow Cadillac convertible, which is parked outside the restaurant. ‘To find one great tomato, you must go through eight, nine, 10 boxes,’ she says. ‘For a good meal, everything must be perfect.’ Beatrice’s husband Julio Pena (who drives a pumpkin-coloured 1971 Datsun) looks after the excellent and inexpensive wine list, and her brother Gabrio runs a wine shop round the corner. Il Posto Accanto is in the tradition of New York’s great family restaurants, a place to relax, eat well and catch up with other regulars.
About $110 for two without wine
Il Posto Accanto: 196 East 2nd Street, New York (00 1 212 228 3562; www.ilbagattonyc.com)
Aquagrill is simply wonderful. The fish is fresh, the staff friendly. There are perfect oysters, crab claws and crab cakes, periwinkles and lobster salad. Appetisers I love include the tuna carpaccio with avocado and the spicy tuna tartare with cucumbers and taro chips. There’s alsoBilli Bi, the saffron-laced French mussel soup. Chef-owner Jeremy Marshall’s specialities include grilled Florida red snapper with a sesame cucumber salad and sautéed bok choy; and truffle-crusted Casco Bay cod with wild-mushroom ravioli. Nothing is overly fussy, and you can order your fish roasted,poached or grilled. The caramelised grapefruit with grapefruit sorbet is my favourite dessert in New York. This place has the serious atmosphere of a neighbourhood joint with serious, top-of-the-line food.
About $100 for two without wine
Aquagrill: 210 Spring Street, New York (00 1 212 274 0505; www.aquagrill.com)
Blue Hill New York
When Barack Obama took Michelle on their long-promised Saturday-night date for dinner and a play in New York City, where did they go? They went to Blue Hill. All of Greenwich Village was thrilled, and after their meal, the motorcade came up Sixth Avenue where we locals were camped out at cafés, and people ran into the street waving and calling out. I’m crazy about our President, and – what can I say – he has a great taste in restaurants too.
Go whenever you can get a table, for the fresh lettuce soup with Marine crab, tarragon and candied lemon; Rabbi Bob’s veal; perfect lamb; steamed cheesecake with dark chocolate, roasted peanuts and Maldon salt; or a poached meringue with mango sorbet. These are some of the deeply delicious dishes served at this small restaurant which looks like a country inn. ‘I don’t normally go to restaurants below street level,’ says my friend Mike Cole, and NYU professor. ‘But Blue Hill is different. It’s pretty, the staff are courteous but not gushing and they know their wines. The egg actually has the smell of fresh egg; the mushrooms and tomatoes have the perfume I thought lost forever; and the beets have the crunchiness, colours and tang of the real thing.’
For those who identify themselves as ‘locavores’ (the new breed of foodies who eat local produce, locally cooked), Blue Hill is heaven. Not only does it serve fish and seasonal food, but it has its own farm upstate where there’s a sister restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Its mission is to ‘showcase local food and a wine list with producers who respect artisanal techniques’. Frankly, I’m more interested in the taste of the wonderful apple tart.
About $140 for two without wine
Blue Hill New York: 75 Washington Place, New York (00 1 2122 539 1776; www.bluehillnyc.com)
The newly renovated Minetta Tavern is a Greenwich Village landmark, and the food is sensational. Riad Nasr (pictured above at Balthazar) and Lee Hanson, who have cooked for more than a decade at Balthazar and Pastis, are now partners in Minetta, and the menu is an easy riff on classic French bistro food. It includes roasted bone marrow, pig’s trotters, saddle of lamb, stuffed calamari and oxtail-and-foie-gras terrine. The côte de boeuf has earned Minetta a reputation as one of the best steakhouses in town. I’ve been eating here since I was a kid. It first opened in 1937, but in recent years the old-fashioned Italian food simply didn’t hold up. It was time for change. The lovely old tavern remains intact, and pictures of the famous and infamous are still on the walls. What has changed is the food – and the scene. This is a small restaurant, and there’s nothing to be done about the celeb-spotting crush, but it will calm down in time. For now, go early (around 5pm), sit at the bar, sip one of the house cocktails and try the Pat LaFrieda burger. Or go at 11pm, after the pressure is off, for the late-supper menu. You can stay until early morning, as Dylan Thomas and ee cummings once did.
About $120 for two without wine
Minetta Tavern: 113 MacDougal Street, New York (00 1 212 475 3850; www.minettatavernny.com)
The Four Seasons
Along with La Grenouille, The Four Seasons is one of the legendary uptown restaurants, where finance and media folk meet for lunch in the Grill Room. Go to the Pool Room for dinner instead, where light plays on the water in the white marble pool. Full of tourists? Sure. Girls from Jersey celebrating their birthdays? Yup. But who cares? To be here is to experience the International Style from a time when New York had just become the great international city. It was designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, and when it was opened in 1959 it was an astonishing place: a restaurant with great art which changed its decor four times a year. It is still. The food runs to classics: rack of lamb, Long Island duck, Kobe rib-eye, crab cakes; for starters there are carpaccios, dumplings and salads. Order a very dry Martini followed by the spaghetti with caviar. It’s expensive as hell, but there is no other place like it in Manhattan. Guy Trebay, the New York Times style writer, said to me, ‘I am more in love with it than ever. It’s the best of the remaining places for grown-up New Yorkers. Alas, they are close to abandoning the dress code, and perhaps soon jackets and ties will go and sweatpants will be de rigueur.’
About $180 for two without wine
The Four Seasons: 99 East 52nd Street, New York (00 1 212 754 9494; www.fourseasonrestaurant.com ). Not to be confused with the Four Seasons Hotel, on 57th Street
We New Yorkers hate being suckered. No matter how much publicity it attracts, most of us, once disappointed, will never return to an over-hyped restaurant. So it’s a good sign that, after 10 years, Balthazar is still crowded from 7.30am until 1am. Feel like a whole roast chicken, or the best cheeseburger in town, a good steak, great fries, côte de boeuf in the winter or bouillabaisse on a Friday night? This is the place to go. The decor – the old mirrors, the French bistro chairs, the long bar, the flowers – looks as good as ever, maybe even better now that it has mellowed. It’s hard to believe it hasn’t always been here, at the very heart of SoHo. The waiters are unfailingly friendly, and the bread and pastries from Balthazar’s own bakery are always up to the mark. The consistency is amazing, thanks to the ever-present chefs, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson. I’ve had hundreds of meals here and never a bad one. Everybody agrees that if you want a good time and the best French bistro food in town, head to Balthazar. Come for lunch, dinner or a late-night supper after a show, but skip the weekend brunch – it’s jam-packed with tourists.
About $100 for two without wine
Balthazar: 80 Spring Street, New York (00 1 212 965 1414; www.balthazar.com)