A Return to New York




The second anniversary of “Food and Whining” just happens to coincide with my return to one of my greatest joys surrounding food – dining in New York city.

I haven't been here in over two years; two long, complicated, stressful, and painful years (the first more than the second). The demands and uncertainties of divorce, combined with the loss of my father, overshadowed any sense of optimism and long-term thinking. I was occasionally convinced I might never set foot in New York again. “Things will get better”, assured those who had endured either (or both) types of loss. Things did get better; a great deal better. After that unintended hiatus, I'll be here twice in under a month.

I had nearly forgotten the trademark intensity of this place, but a simple taxi ride from Laguardia into Manhattan can serve as a quick reminder. My driver, like all other New York taxi drivers, used the accelerator pedal as more of an on/off switch while the brakes for near-brick-wall-stops. Rapid flicks of the steering wheel aimed to navigate the only occasional, narrow, and brief gaps between other cars in a constant quest for just one more car length. The notion of “hurry up” is implied here; it is a pressure cooker, a time machine, a forest of skyscrapers in a (mostly) grid-like structure. You can have anything you want, at any time of the day or night, and you can have it delivered.

On this trip, the inherent intensity would also include record-cold temperatures (since 1994 anyway). An average northeastern winter would be extreme enough for any Californian as we only really have “winter”  as a novelty for skiing and, even then, only at altitude; “recreational cold”, located only where it is most needed. Here, it was unavoidable and invasive. Also missing from my early trips is cigarette smoke, the haze of which added ambiance to bars and clubs, blurring details, creating a slight veil of intimacy on an otherwise crowded island.

Regardless of the "real" reason I was in town (usually work-related), in spirit I was there for the food. I don't think the food is necessarily better in New York (in fact, I could make a strong argument against it), but the environment transforms it from mere dining into an experience.

Between trips, I'd collect every scrap of information I could about new restaurants, from in-flight magazines to more obscure articles in Food Arts magazine; all of which served as a portfolio of statistics equivalent to sports but with fewer fans.

I wanted to branch out to new places but also felt I allegiance to my old favorites; the “go-tos”, the “tried and true” places that wouldn't steer me wrong.

The first stop was Veritas.

I double-dipped on my first two nights visiting Veritas twice on consecutive nights. I feel a certain sense of shame given the massive number of restaurant options in New York, but there is comfort and a knowledge that my odds of getting in are good as I don't handle rejection well. Before branching out, I had to reconnect.

The last time I was in, Tim (the Mâtre d') was leaving the restaurant after a decade. The celebration began days before his scheduled departure, his fans stopping by when they could to wish him well and raise a drink to him and he to them. At dinner on Thursday, I made note of that Tim's going away party would be the following day. I had already planned on having dinner with my friend Tracy at Veritas, and anticipated an early arrival to ensure we got a table. Unfortunately, I arrived much later than I had hoped and hadn't made a reservation; an oversight for which she scolded me and rightly so. Despite the fact that it was raining, I had a hunch our odds would be equally slim elsewhere but Tracy had lost her grandmother and girlfriend in the span of a single week; now more than ever, I wasn't taking no for an answer. I was already planning a way of getting us in.

I met her at “Flute”, directly across the street. Three-quarters of the way through a glass of Champagne, I remembered that this was Tim's last day. I quickly downed the remaining quarter of a glass, sat down the empty, and assured Tracy “I'm going to get us a table.”

I ran across the street dodging raindrops the size of a Texas belt buckle and entered Veritas to plead my case. There were no empty tables nor seats at the bar and, to reduce my odds even further, there was a couple in front of me. If there were was a last table to be had, they had it. Tim greeted the dripping diners at the host stand noting that the only open table was directly next to the front door and his (loud) going away party would be starting within the hour. The couple cowered a bit and chose to “look elsewhere”.

I approached the podium, hoping for a bit of recognition from Tim, and said, “Hi, I'm here for your going away party... Are there any tables available?” His memory served well and he mentioned (with similar warning) the table near the front door. I accepted immediately, assuring him we didn't mind the noise and even intended to contribute to it. I ran across the street to get Tracy, and a dining (and wining) adventure began.

The next day, it was too cold outside to even think. Aside from dining in New York, I love walking. And walking. A hike through through the woods bores me to tears (sadly) but through New York is restorative and never, ever boring. In this weather, it was impractical and unpleasant to walk more than a few blocks. Mother nature had kicked on the blast freezer; walks were brief, layered in insulation, and uncomfortably cold.

Undaunted, I bundled up a bit tighter and walked a mere 3 blocks to another of my culinary faves - Esca, which is part of Mario Batali’s empire. Their “crudo” (raw) fish list always reads like a Haiku of simple trios; always a fish or shellfish, usually olive oil, and often an obscure sea salt. (yeah, I know... Salts have become the cult thing to do, but with them, somehow it works.)

At Esca, too, efficiency is king and the precision of this restaurant makes a Swiss clock seem like the results of a hillbilly armed with bailing wire and duct tape.

I instinctively want to help in a restaurant, a bit like an Australian shepherd's instincts are to herd during a rhinoceros stampede. When I eat at the bar, I'll remind servers of forgotten orders, memorize what items they have run out of, and in general just play sideline expediter.

In this instance, a waitress sat down two wine glasses at a table and, as each landed, I saw a swirl of water in the bottom of the glass. Given their meticulous handling of spotless stemware, I couldn't imagine the error nor the fact that the waitress hadn't caught it.

I politely but assertively tapped her on the shoulder and she resistantly turned around. I quietly noted the problem - mystery liquid in the glass - hoping secretly for a thank you and the superficial feeling of having impressed a cute waitress.

Instead, verbal fangs appeared from out of nowhere loaded with tempered, but stern, venom, as she -too - spoke softly but with a sense of urgency; “We prime the glasses with wine before we serve them.”

Oh. Right.

It had been a while since my ignorance of all but the most obscure of restaurant workings had bubbled to the surface like the opening of a warm and agitated bottle of Cremant. I cowered in my chair, stung with the knowledge I had nearly derailed the efficiency of which I am such a fan as the waitress resumed her presentation.

Sommeliers are easy to spot. They tend to nearly every table at least once, dress better than servers, but not as well as the maitre d', and have a combined look of both optimism and surrender in their eyes. Esca’s was a woman in her early fifties. I called her over with an exaggerated "come here and help me feel better about the stupid thing I just did" gesture. She, having just stifled a yawn, seemed eager for distraction and to assist. She explained the practice of opening the bottle, pouring a bit into one glass, and pouring that glass into another, and finally into her tasting glass; a bold test of both the wine and anything in the glassware that might interfere with it. I sat corrected.

Sitting at the minuscule bar at Esca gives you an even better sense of what "belly-up" dining is all about. In this case, the "bartender" (Victor) is more like a server captured in his own domain, as knowledgeable about the menu as any server, and brings a mix of silky service with an accent and attitude that you could only find in New York.

And so my addiction to New York has been satiated (for the moment) and there is going to be a need for me to visit on a fairly regular basis. Despite the 5-hour plane ride in either direction, it's good to be "home" again.

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