No, not the football team. I prefer to “cheer on” the Miami Dolphins anyway. I am talking about some of New York City’s restaurant giants. On a recent culinary adventure with close friends, we came, we ate, and we conquered as many as we could.
We started with lunch at The Modern. With views to the MOMA’s courtyard, the restaurant is “modern”, stark, crisp and royal all in one. We tried the diver scallop, yellowfin tuna & Scottish salmon combo, the seasonal greens with a goat cheese ravioli and the poached farm egg. For dessert we had the manjari chocolate palet. Everything was cooked, plated and served perfectly with impeccable service to match. The dessert cart at the end stole my heart. I get to choose anything I want? Sweet! I can get used to this. Even better, the waiter gave us additional treats to try later. Heaven. Lunch was more formal than anticipated. If you go, make sure you dress appropriately. Not too shabby for our first official meal in the city.
Dinner that night was at Eleven Madison Park, although I wish it would have been our last. EMP delivered big and raised the bar high. Everyone was dressed elegantly. Service was proper, but not stuffy. Friendly, but not too casual. Gorgeous decor matched the cutting edge and daring menu. The food was as delicious as it was whimsical. The menu, a simple square white sheet, had 4 choices across and 4 rows down with one word options. I chose: Foie Gras, Lobster, Beef, and Chocolate (can you believe at one point in my life I was a vegetarian for four years? But I digress….). No other explanation was given other than the chef had ultimate control of our dinner. By the time my foie gras arrived, I’d already indulged on bread, a quail egg amuse bouche (accompanied by a delicious apple thyme tea) and a white sealed “surprise” box containing what seemed to be a sweet black/white cookie. But it wasn’t. Think black truffle and Parmesan, instead. All of our courses were a beautiful orchestra of slam dunks, one after the other: Bam! Boom! Dunk! Other supplemental surprises included fried chickpea with a Greek yogurt lentil and hibachi on a crisp cracker. Before my dessert arrived, I had a tasting of goat cheesecake with a blood orange sorbet and yet another white “surprise” box. This time, it had a real sweet black & white cookie (which looked identical to the initial truffle parm one). I loved the final chocolate, peanut brittle and caramel dessert. It’s easy to see why Eleven Madison Park ranks so high on every list imaginable time after time.
Lunch on the second day was at Per Se. Why not? Go big or go home right? Overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park, I’m pretty sure I pinched myself several times throughout lunch to make sure this view was real. Per Se is said to be the “urban interpretation of The French Laundry.” Now that I have been to both, I can easily say that Per Se is so much more. At least, I prefer it over The French Laundry. It is beyond just food and about the experience as a whole. We tried the gruyere balls, salmon tartare, citrus hamachi, bacon wrapped scallops, lamb, veal and those Parker house rolls I could not get enough of. Desserts were quite the production. And I don’t mean all looks and no substance. Back to back fireworks of truffles, chocolates, macaroons, and donuts. We ended lunch with their magic-wand foam cappuccino and did not know what hit us. So this is what it means to float on air. This was only lunch. Would we be able to recover in time for dinner? My only critique? Without any background music, lunch was eerily quiet. We had to force ourselves to use our inside voices. I’m Cuban! That was hard.
Even though we could have easily packed up and returned home happily at that point with everything we’d already experienced, we pushed forward. Dinner that night was at Le Bernardin. Really. I do think we napped that day in there somehow and I probably went on a month-long starvation diet when I got home to recover. I kid (but I probably should have). I have to say, and don’t hate me for this, but LB was not as impressive as Eleven Madison or Per Se. Gasp! Note that I said “AS impressive.” Had I kicked off the trip there, I would have been completely swooned. But that was not the case. Le Bernardin was significantly more casual among them all. Everyone was dressed nicely and the staff was welcoming, charming, and friendly. The amuse bouche was a trio of salmon, sea orchin and truffle soup. Our party had the octopus, lobster and black bass. Compared to Eleven Madison and Per Se, the portions here were bigger and there were no “surprise” supplements to your meal. You get what you order. End of story. That said and with the exception of my black bass, everything was deliciously on point. The octopus and lobster were decadent and worthy of a couple of Meg Ryan moans. My girlfriend’s dover sole was worthy of its own Broadway show with all that jazz! The black bass? Well, it was just fish. Cooked to perfection? Yes, but just fish. Not very seasoned. Nothing to dream about. Certainly no moans given. Still, service at Le Bernardin lacked the perfection the other “giants” exhibited. Dishes were served one by one, instead of coordinated at the same time. Sauces and dressings were poured for some while others were left waiting for theirs. The sommelier even (almost) poured wine from a new bottle unto my unfinished glass from the first bottle (thus mixing the two). Splitting hairs perhaps, but I guess it’s what you do when comparing apples to apples. Dessert was outstanding. I had the Madagascan chocolate with peanut mousse & salted caramel ice cream. Overall, Le Bernardin’s still exceptional and a highly recommended must-try as well.
Dining wasn’t as formal for the remainder of the trip, but the restaurants still rocked.
I am a huge Top Chef fan (key word for “I have a huge crush on Colicchio” ). Don’t tell anyone OK? I loved the decor and varied playlist at Craft . Sting? Check! Salsa? Got it! We started with a macro mango cilantro amuse bouche and had the octopus for appetizer, as well as the wagyu carpaccio and hamachi. Great start. For dinner we ordered the sirloin with sides of gnocchi, boo choy, and the risotto. Everything came out in its own copper cookware, making it feel personalized somehow. Everything looked wonderful plated that way. It all tasted as good as it looked. The star of the show? Hands down, the gnocchi! Probably the best we have ever had! Ever! I ordered a 3 cheese tasting which came with a spoonful of honey and a date jam. And then doughnuts happened. Holy happy fatness. What a great dinner. Local and seasonal ingredients lead the menu. The only thing that would have made it better would have been meeting Colicchio.
ABC Kitchen was up next. We might have visited on a Monday night, but it felt like a Saturday night. The simple, store front outside is deceiving and we got a little lost trying to find it. We only noticed the loud music once inside. The decor was dark and modern, mixed with traditional and shabby touches. We started with the olives and cured meat/local cheeses platter. Our entrees were the bow tie pasta & veal meatballs and the suckling pig. The pig was served over a delicate mashed potatoes mix and IT WAS PHE-NO-ME-NAL! Best pork I have ever had. WOW! The only problem? Everything on the menu looked great! I wish I lived closer to enjoy it all. For dessert, we had the sundae and the cookie plate. Yes, I know, way too much food. We wanted to finish it all so badly, but just could not. The caramel ice cream in the sundae was creamy and rich, just the right ending. What a night!
Marea was our last New York City hoorah. I really felt like I had grown by then. No, not grown two sizes up (although that statement is probably also true). I felt like I had grown as a a diner. I really felt blessed to have had this adventure in the city. I was now a changed woman. Back to the Columbus Circle area I had come to love, Marea was our last heavy hitter. More upscale than Craft and ABC, Marea was just the perfect way to finish our trip. The restaurant is very spacious, open, bright, and elegant. Service was exceptional. Every single person was dressed to the nines. No exceptions. We had the octopus, lobster burrata, lobster ravioli, mare risotto, bass and the scallops. One hit after the other. No mistakes, no faults. Despite a full dining room, it felt as if they were cooking just for us! For dessert we had the bombolini: deep-fried doughnuts, zabaglione, espresso crumble chocolate sauce and a white espresso gelato. You know, simple. We also had the Carota. Carrot Cake, except not really: carrot sponge, mascarpone white chocolate crema, candied pecan, and carrot ginger sorbet. Topped that with a perfect cappuccino and a perfect double macchiato, and we were sent away happy as can be. Several additional chocolates with our bill confirmed this was a sweet ending after all!
How was I supposed to return to South Florida now? How can we compete? Although our dining scene has exploded this last decade, I really feel like South Florida still has a lot to learn in the area of SERVICE. I cannot imagine how many other giants New York has to offer that I have yet to try, but I look forward to the challenge. This was a perfect culinary adventure. It paled in comparison to my previous trips and old dinners at “Tavern on the Green.” I cannot wait to return.