Freshly returned from a few days in the city for spring break (truth be told, I really spent most of it at a Hooters in Paramus, NJ with Camille Paglia working on her script for a musical version of Caligula) I have a renewed sense of purpose when it comes to food. There’s so much about the city that I don’t miss: the parking, the noise, the smells, the noise, the expense, and how loud it is. But the food can be good. Having said that, though, I find that the older I get the fewer restaurants really do it for me. There’s the cheap ethnic hit, sure, and I could never make Indian or Thai meals as well or completely as the places we used to order from in Brooklyn, but beyond that category there are few joints in the middle range that succeed for me. Even among the high-end establishments (which every now and then I get to try) it can be hit or miss. Mostly I like to cook at home.
There aren’t any pictures, because I will not be one of those people who pops a flash during a meal. Sorry; it’s obnoxious and the resulting pictures look like shit, so why bother? You can see properly shot pictures on their sites.
The first night we had a nice dinner at Tartine, which is exactly the sort of unpretentious local French hangout that I wish we had in this town. It’s not fancy, and very far from cutting edge, but the food is solid and the prices are impossible to beat. I had an onglet served a beautiful deep, chewy, bloody red (though with a gratin that offered far less pleasure than a haystack of skinny frites would have) and the wife got a bouchée à la reine which Milo instantly pegged as “fancy pot pie,” except “the crust is not as good as Daddy’s.” I also love that they have no licence, so you can bring a good bottle for no markup; dinner cost $65 for the three of us. All restaurants should have their liquor licences summarily revoked so they can’t keep raping poor consumers for mediocre bottles. A 100-200% markup over retail is highway robbery, and it’s a big part of why I hardly go out to eat.
The next night was Il Buco with the NYC members of both sides of the family. I like this place, and have been there a bunch, but as with almost every restaurant the rule is to order lots of small plates to share. The big plates almost never sustain the same level of interest for more than a bite or two. The small plates were almost all excellent: squid stuffed with risotto, a ballotine of rabbit, crudo of the locally farmed fluke, kale salad, and a couple others were all worth the trip. The mains, though, with the exception of their porchetta, which was decent and very juicy, were not well-chosen by the group: just pastas and risotto. I feel like a huge asshole paying 22 bucks for a plate of pasta that I could make twice as well at home for a twentieth of the money. This is another reason I hardly ever eat out, and especially at Italian places.
And the last night we went to The Spotted Pig. All of the press and hype means that it’s a table you wait (and wait) for, but if you show up early enough (5:30 sharp, and with a cute kid and a cheerful attitude) it’s not too bad; we waited 20 minutes. It’s very scene-y, and pretty loud, and service is intermittent since they have lots of people to take care of, a meaningful percentage of whom are drinking while they wait for a tiny table. We got an assortment of small dishes, and most were good. (They forgot to bring us one dish). One was great–rabbit rilletes that were sweet, savory, and adorned with just the right layer of sensuous fat and grilled bread for schmearing. Along with the pork pâté, the rillettes came with what seems to be the house blend of French whole-seed brown and hot English yellow mustards for a result that looks mild but really opens up one’s third nostril.
Beer-steamed cockles were clearly cooked in real, bitter beer, and I admired that forceful flavor in the resulting tomato sauce (and more grilled bread for enthusiastic soppage). I had some nice oysters with mignionette to begin, and a couple of tangy, creamy rollmops got the saliva flowing, but Milo’s burger handily won the night. The accompanying shoestring fries cooked with rosemary were decent, but the burger with Roquefort on a squishy, shiny bun marked with a Platonic grid of grill marks took me straight back to the restaurant at the country club my parents briefly belonged to when I was just Milo’s age: my own archetype for burgerness. Perfect texture, deeply beefy taste–it was no surprise that more than half the food we saw carried to nearby tables was burgers. I even heard a server encourage the next table to try things on the menu that were not the burger. Here’s a superb post breaking down the goodness of the SP burger, complete with forensic grind analysis and a recipe for making them at home. Desserts were mixed; the slice of flourless chocolate cake was much too big given its density, a lemon tart was nice and sour but also too large, and the crème brulée I got was instantly seized by Milo, who emphatically declared it to be “the best thing in the world.” He wasn’t far off; it was sublime. The standard for comparison that one should keep in mind here is bar food. By that measure, it succeeds handsomely; the seasonal and local menu and the execution place it well above standard pub fare. Is it worth a two-hour wait, though? Not to me. Also, the food is too salty. My hands were swollen by the time we got home, and I was parched though I’d been drinking water throughout the meal.
There were a couple of lunches, too, but nothing to write home about. At the end of the trip, I was happy to get home and defrost some lamb phở and go out to thin the various sprouts that are coming up so happily in this very wet and springy weather we’re having. I boiled some soba and we had noodle soup with the thinned salad and the very first asparagus on top, stirred in just before eating so it was a bright, resplendent green studded with the hot crimson of tiny baby radishes. It’s hard to beat good noodle soup for home cooking comfort, and this was exemplary.
I do like to go out to eat sometimes, especially with friends or to eat something that I can’t make at home. I’ve had some epic meals at cheap and fancy places alike, and I love to have my world made bigger by tastes and textures I’ve never had before. It can also be great to simply not have to cook and clean up once in a while. But at the end of the day, there’s something powerful that keeps me in my own kitchen, beyond the fact that too few restaurants really hit the marks I want them to: food is too important to leave to other people.