I think the best part of being a food writer are the stories within each restaurant. I like the tales of how the food was developed, grown, retrieved, placed on the plate. How the flavors were picked to highlight ingredients in season or chosen to represent the chef’s hometown. I’m always curious about the décor – what sets the mood, the thought put into chairs, tables, lighting, colors. I like to watch the coordination of the front of the house, from chef to maitre’d to sommelier to server to guest. It’s all an art, I believe. Sometimes the dish is great, but the ambiance falls flat. Sometimes the stories are wonderful, but the food is not much to mention. It’s the whys, whos, and hows that are most intriguing to me.
My recent trip to New York was no different, of course. With a list of forty “must-see” restaurants, I hit a number of the big names but many of them just didn’t impress.
Here are five restaurants that really stood out:
1. Apiary. While too many times I’ve sat in restaurants dismayed by the absurd choice of music, the strange mood lighting, the disappointing wines on my table, or the flavorless dishes, Apiary really won me over across the board. Enjoying my spot at the bar, grooving to a stellar music selection, I dined on five great courses from Chef Scott Bryan paired with five different wines from wine man Brett Feore. My dish choices included a mouthpleasing hamachi crudo, crispy sweetbreads, and an outstanding striped sea bass that was quickly inhaled. My favorite wines of the evening were a South African Meritage, 2006 Rustenberg “John X. Merriman” and a 2001 Ramirez de la Piscina “Reserva” out of Spain – both reds fantastic enough to convince me to abandon my white wine-only ways. Dare I say, I’d go back to Apiary just for the vino.
2. Rouge Tomate. I was interested in dining at Rouge Tomate given their passion for organics and locally grown food items. Rouge Tomate boasts a marvelous farm-driven menu, utilizing a number of local farms, food producers, and beverage makers. Much like Apiary, the décor is simple and elegant, with steady wood seating, red accents, and a stream of great jazz music throughout the space. I had the most fantastic pomegranate martini – the Pom-tini – and munched on their housemade hummus before my main dish arrived. As a Pacific Northwesterner, I’m nearly hesitant to eat seafood outside of Portland/Seattle, but I was thoroughly impressed with the perfectly seasoned local shellfish cioppino. I also couldn’t get enough of their banana dessert – three small offerings featuring chocolate and banana. Overall, the beautiful use of local and organic ingredients in every dish only enhanced the spectacular flavors. An absolute fave.
3. Hill Country. This, along with Aurole, are the only two well-knowns I was really impressed with. To put it bluntly, Hill Country really rocked my socks. This bar-b-que joint brought down the house, with every dish a flavor masterpiece. Particularly growing up in the Midwest, I like my bar-b-que, and Hill Country did not disappoint. Fall-off-the-bone meat offerings include beef brisket, pork spare ribs, and beer can game hen, but it’s the sides that are to die for. The longhorn cheddar mac & cheese is nearly sinful, the baked beans with burnt ends delish. Sweet potato bourbon mash, white shoepeg corn pudding, green bean casserole, well-cooked greens with tasty meat morsels. I was literally in heaven. Make sure to have a bit of bourbon pecan pie for dessert, and you’ll be in heaven too.
4. Egg. Egg’s my only choice that’s a bit out of the way, stumbled upon during a visit to Brooklyn. Though I’m not sure the food really warranted the hour wait (and I might even blame the hostess – a 4-top at 1pm on a Sunday?) it was luscious enough to make the list. Each tiny, slightly wobbly table features a “farm report” of ingredients utilized from local farms, with our group ordering a variety of platters, including the biscuits and gravy with pan-seared mushrooms, the eggs Rothko, and a hashbrown order eloquently described as “like McDonald’s, but without all the grease”. But it’s the candied bacon that will make me trek back to Brooklyn the next time I’m in town. Who would’ve thought. Maybe I won’t have to wait an hour this time. (With loudly rumbling stomachs, we didn’t care about taking pictures of the food.)
5. Aureole. Rounding out my five favorites is Charlie Palmer’s Aureole, with Executive Chef Christopher Lee leading the kitchen. Since the restaurant’s relocation, I’ve been interested in checking out the new space, particularly given the LEED status of the One Bryant Park building. Sipping from my very memorable strawberry martini, I decided on the hamburger and fries after they were delivered to a table nearby. I hesitated, laughing to myself about choosing such a simple plate at such a beautiful, white tablecloth restaurant, but as a burger enthusiast, I didn’t want to pass it up. It was absolutely delectable, with perfect fries as an accompaniment. Certainly check it out if you’re in the mood for a great burger – just leave the jeans at home.