It’s pretty likely, I’d have thought, that anyone logging onto this site enjoys spending the odd evening at a restaurant. Those of us who live in London – or even visit London on an occasional basis – are well aware that we Brits have privileged access to one of the most diverse and high-powered dining scenes in the world. Arguably, the only city that can match it – possibly even exceed it – in terms of its restaurant culture is New York.
A recent visit to Manhattan – my first in 18 years and my husband’s first ever – was a heaven-sent opportunity to get to grips with its restaurant world. I’d booked tables at a selection of places, from the super-trendy to long-serving old faithfuls. My aim was not to pit one city against another, but rather to get a taste of just what it was that makes New York such a great restaurant city.
One of my first dinners was at the much-lauded Corton, a new venture from top restaurateur Drew Nieporent. As the name suggests, the wine list’s strength lies in its Burgundian offering, but more of that later… The restaurant itself is a somewhat hushed temple to gastronomy, the kind of place where you’re afraid to laugh too loudly in case you get angry looks from diners at neighbouring tables. Nevertheless, the menu ($85 for three courses or $140 for a seven-course tasting menu) devised by British chef-patron Paul Liebrandt has immense appeal. Choosing just three dishes from the short menu (a choice of six dishes for each course) was tough, but only because we wanted to try everything.
In the end, I settled for a beautifully presented starter of hamachi (yellowtail), which came with an avocado and violet mustard garnish, while my husband Mark opted for the silky, opulent foie gras with sour cherries, Chioggia beets and Catalua spices. Mains were a richly spiced dish of lamb with eggplant chutney, ricotta, espellette peppers and anise hyssop and a tender, subtle composition of rabbit with scallops accompanied by artichokes, sweet potatoes and a painterly smear of black garlic. Although there were a lot of ingredients packed onto each plate, Liebrandt’s cooking proved a masterful assemblage of intense flavours.
Our only issue with Corton, sadly, came with the wine service. As the restaurant’s name suggests, Burgundy is pretty much where it’s at, and given our choice of food the ideal would have been to have had a glass of white each with our starters and to have shared a bottle of perfumed Pinot with our main course. Sadly, with a list of over 60 red Burgundies, only three came in at under $100 – and then only just. Prices rose vertiginously thereafter to hit a height of nearly $3,000 (although, admittedly, this was for a bottle of DRC Richebourg, never a cheap option). Bottles averaged somewhere north of the $200 mark. As I scanned the list for a cheaper alternative – an Alsace Pinot, a Cabernet Franc from the Loire or a cru Beaujolais, perhaps – I found little choice, and most of the alternatives seemed too heavy and rich for Corton’s delicate dishes. We ended up with a slightly tired bottle of Barbet’s Moulin Vent Vielles Vignes 2006 ($60), which didn’t really do the food justice – it fared best with the gently gamey flavours of the rabbit, but didn’t have the power to stand up to the spices in the lamb dish.
But the worst disappointment of all was the attitude of the business-suited sommelier, which changed from friendly to disdainful when he realised that we weren’t about to take out a second mortgage as a down payment on our wine.
The evening was saved by our waitress, who blended consummate professionalism with a friendly personality – and by the superlative quality of the food. Nevertheless, the evening was tainted by the tussle over the wine list.
As a result, our favourite fine dining experience came at the weirdly named WD-50, a play on the name of the chef-patron, Wylie Dufresne, and the lubricant, WD-40. I’d been looking forward to dinner at WD-50, if only because a friend of mine referred to Dufresne’s food as being ‘like a cross between American and Martian cuisine’.
The restaurant suited its funky Lower East Side location: a long, thin, richly coloured space with mellow lighting and an open kitchen at the far side of the room, where the chefs worked smoothly, silently, and with a precise economy of movement. Once again, the service was nicely gauged, blending efficiency with warmth – a hallmark of pretty much all our dining experiences in a city once famed for surly service.
The wine list ranges far and wide, featuring sakes, beers and a particularly strong list of sherries, as well as reds, whites and ross from Greece, Southern Italy, the Jura and Croatia in addition to the better-known regions of France, Australia and California. While some restaurants fob you off with the predictable choices when it comes to the by-the-glass selection, WD-50’s offering is more eclectic.
The restaurant manager suggested a glass of Nama Ginjo sake, Masumi Arahashiri First Run, to match an explosively flavoured starter of aerated foie gras with a tamarillo-molasses sauce and pickled beet. It was a revelatory experience: rather than being weighed down by the rich sweetness of the classic Sauternes-style match, the sake not only coped admirably with the food’s weight but cleansed the palate between bites as well. A dish of smoked eel with spiced bread and a bitter twist of Campari in the sauce was paired with a glass of Weingut Robert Weil’s Weissherbst Sptburgunder 2007, whose slight smokiness echoed that of the dish, while its twist of candied lemons provided a perfect counterpoint to the Campari and spice.
An earthy, full-flavoured main of duck with parsley root, mustard greens and spaetzle spiked with Worcestershire sauce was paired with a glass of Tir Na N’Og’s Old Vines Grenache 2006, a wine that perfectly matched its savoury intensity. Another dish of pork loin with charred leeks and coconut-mustard mash was paired less successfully with Leon Barral’s Faugres 2006, which threatened to overwhelm the delicate meat and sweet veg.
The meal concluded with a shared dessert of soft chocolate, peppermint ice cream, black cardamom and toffee, for which the suggested match was a glass of darkly bitter amaretto liqueur that provided the ideal foil for the bitter-sweetness of the dish.
In terms of world-class dining experiences, both Corton and WD-50 come near the top of the Manhattan list (although, as I’ve pointed out, unless you’re planning to blow the budget, WD-50 is the more approachable option). Other restaurants that weren’t quite in the same league, but nevertheless have much to recommend included Scarpetta, a bustling Italian place where sophisticated versions of Mama’s home cooking can be washed down with a wide variety of wines from the Old Country.
Particularly noteworthy were the silky home-made papardelle sauced with rabbit, herbs and parsnip dice and the Sicilian spiced duck breast, which came with a zesty accompaniment of preserved oranges – a contemporary take on an old favourite. A bottle of Gattinara’s Antoniolo Nebbiolo 2004 was, perhaps, a better match for the duck breast than the delicately flavoured pasta, but it wasn’t a totally inappropriate match for either dish.
Aldea is very much flavour of the month in midtown Manhattan. Chef George Mendes served his apprenticeship under some of the best chefs in France, Spain and the US before opening Aldea earlier this year. The restaurant’s menu nods politely in the direction of Portugal, Mendes’ parents’ homeland, although the dishes are prepared with a lighter touch than the Iberian originals. His duck rice, a mound of buttery rice studded with duck confit, slices of chorizo and black olives harmonised beautifully with a bottle of Joan d’Anguera’s deeply flavoured Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, Montsant 2006. The wine was also a more than adequate match for a savoury dish of lamb loin and belly, the loin cooked rare and the belly cooked long and slow.
By the end of our stay, we’d had enough of fine dining, so we enjoyed an enjoyably informal last meal at Greenwich Village’s Pearl Oyster Bar. Like many of New York’s hipper eating joints, you can’t book a table at Pearl – you’ll have to join the queue (and there’s always a queue). No wonder – the place serves the best oysters and steamed clams in town, not to mention a top-notch lobster roll with shoestring fries. We sat at the bar and necked our seafood, washing it down with a couple of locally brewed beers from the ever-changing list on the blackboard. It wasn’t premier cru Burgundy, but it was a great match for a thoroughly enjoyable meal nevertheless.
Natasha Hughes is a freelance food and drink writer whose work appears in Decanter, Imbibe, Square Meal, Traveller and Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine, as well as the wine website www.wine-pages.com. She is currently studying for her Master of Wine