Letter from the Editor: Concept and Character in New York City Vol: 78

September 2011
Antoinette and Will
Antoinette Bruno, CEO and Editor-in-Chief
Will Blunt, Managing Editor

Our appetites are strong, but our time is short. So each year, as we scour the mosaic dining scene of our Big Apple hometown, we make hard choices—mostly based on industry recommendations, sometimes based on our own guerilla research. And tough as it is to discern definitive trends in a city full of so many doggedly independent thinkers (who wince at the word “trend”) we have seen—and tasted—a few tendencies, ahem, toward the deliciously idiosyncratic within cuisine types.

As we note in our 2011 New York Dining Guide, the city isn’t a melting pot; it’s a chunky, colorful stew, a cross between a succotash, jambalaya, mulligatawny, winter melon stew, doro wat—and a few hundred others.  It’s a multi-ethnic parade, with a technique backbone, fine-dining flourishes, an increasingly local pantry, and, oh yeah, a free exchange of ideas—and ingredients—that fuel innovation. And while the outer boroughs consistently trump the “mainland” in both bounty and variety of ethnic cuisines, the number of articulated culinary concepts on the “big island” is increasing.

There’s a new wave of Asian concept restaurants in New York. A Korean heritage and Japanese upbringing are the driving forces behind Takashi Inoue’s beef-centric eponymous house of high-concept cattle worship (down to items like fourth stomach, tendon, and a seriously creative rib-eye sushi). Wasan joins two talents, Chefs Ryota Kitagawa and Kakusaburo Sakurai, of the old and new schools respectively, as they create modern Japanese cuisine via seasonal local product. The same approach is filtered through a kaiseki lens at David Bouley’s long-anticipated Brushstroke, where 2009 New York Rising Star Isao Yamada crafts traditional seasonal kaiseki cuisine with an American pantry.

Pantries and practices are mixing across the board. At the Theater District Mr. Robata, Chef Masaki Nakayama casts fusion in a new light, pairing raw tuna with buttery escargots. And at Yuba, Chefs George Ruan and Jack Wei build “nouvelle Japanese cuisine” with traditional and classically Western ingredients (amadai-wrapped foie gras, anyone?). India is technically part of the Asian land mass, but because of its distinctive spices, cooking methods, and the sheer geographic variety, we tend to think of it as an entity all its own. And that entity has never been more vital here, with restaurants like Vikas Khanna’s Junoon and Hemant Mathur’s Tulsi redefining Indian food far from the masala-soaked ranks of Curry Row.

European concepts are thriving. Michael White unleashed two new, very different concepts: the homey, warm, regionally focused Osteria Morini, where you can dig into the lemon-herb lusciousness of hearty porchetta, and its upscale cousin Ai Fiori, where modern Italian is infused with the warmth of the Riviera. And for classic French fare, head to Fabian Pauta’s bistro by way of Park Slope, Belleville, or Chris Leahy’s bouchon homage, Lyon, complete with veal tongue, sweetbreads, chalkboard specials, and romantic lighting.

More than a few European cuisines have made their mark (or just enlarged an already hefty mark) on the Manhattan map. Bar Basque does tapas uptown-style, with a smart Spanish wine list, ultra-mod interior, and talented Chef Yuhi Fujinaga behind each creative bite. Vandaag brings the cuisine of Northern Europe (with an emphasis on Denmark and Holland) to the Lower East Side, with one of the city’s best aquavit and genever lists to pair. And at The Fat Radish, Chefs Ben Towill and Nick Wilber are working in tandem to refine the contours of their native (and typically misunderstood) British cuisine.

As for typically misunderstood American cuisine, we’re embracing eclecticism, rugged contours, sophisticated integrations, architectural plating, and our own down-home regionalism. We’ve got chefs like Preston and Ginger Madson plating up polished southern flair at Peels, Kevin Adey at Northeast Kingdom crafting rugged haute American with meticulously chosen ingredients, Christian Ragano working serious sophistication into the comfort-centric menu at New York Central, and Michael Garrett putting seasonal, soulful American eclecticism to the test at Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster.

Pastry in New York is always a patchwork of concepts—this is the land of the $3 cupcake truck and the $8,000 sundae, after all. We like our sweets, and we like them in all shapes, sizes, and price points. And this year we saw a surprising mix of the homey (like Amanda Cook’s Market Fruit Galette with scrumptious almond cream at Cookshop), and the high concept (like Malcolm Livingston II’s texturally diverse passionfruit-banana-peppercorn play on a floating island at WD~50: you don’t know quite what you’re eating, but you know you’re loving every salty, sweet, sour bite).

Indulgence and innovation are alive and well across the pastry board. Manabu Inoue is keeping razzle dazzle elegance alive with a chocolate dome technique at Morimoto; the precision and creativity of his modern Italian desserts at Lincoln prove that Richard Capizzi is an industry (and Per Se) veteran; Bjoern Boettcher’s Dark Chocolate Tasting at 2005 New York Rising Star Shea Gallante’s Ciano is all elegance; beyond the classic tea tray service, Damien Hergott’s Darjeeling Torte combines the best of pastry and tea at Bosie Tea Parlor; and Emily Wallendjack chars strawberries for a sexy, smoky complement to chèvre cheesecake at Veritas. And unabashed flourish will always have its place in New York pastry, whether it’s a ring of butterfly-laden cotton candy around Salvatore Martone’s whimsically updated Bananas Foster, “Le Banane,” at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, or the festive chocolate dome that exemplifies Pastry Chef Manabou Inoue’s flair for spectacular sweets at Morimoto.

Beautiful colors and acidity were on display from Pastry Chef Antonio Bachour at Quattro at the Trump Soho, and we’re excited to see what Bachour will bring to the table as a competitor in our 2nd Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition. This year’s competitors include more than a few Rising Star Pastry Chefs, so the bar is sure to be high.

Even in its modern incarnations, straight-up elegance is classically New York, and chefs like Didier Elena at Adour and Lauren Hirschberg at Craftbar are stoking the flames with style. It was in this white-linen context that we were able to enjoy some of the city’s top wine talent, with pairings ranging from old-school elegant to boundary breaking.

Scott Carney variously teased and tamed the spice of Khanna’s Indian cuisine at Junoon (the duo will recreate the phenomenon at an ICC wine workshop); Richard Anderson thrives in contrast pairings at Marea; Olivier Flosse’s expertise played as nimbly with elegant as funky, surprising pairings at A Voce; Amanda Reade Sturgeon’s consistently creative pairings took us from pear cider to stout to chianti at Dovetail; and Shaun Paul provided a sublimely spot-on Burgundy and squab pairing at Corton.

But for those of you who haven’t sipped from some of the best wine lists in the city, the 2nd Annual Somm Slam at this year’s ICC will give you a second chance—not simply to taste the best of New York, but somms from across the country.

Meanwhile, time is running out to buy your tickets for this year’s 6th Annual ICC. Check out the schedule of international presenters, and delve a little deeper into the Sixth Sense with a preview of this year’s program. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook for updates on this year’s programming and daily previews of the food and fun just a few weeks away.

Antoinette Bruno
Will Blunt
Managing Editor