Food Stories: My Own Private Zagat: My Wife’s Leftovers
Note: This article originally appeared in the New York Observer in 2002. Sadly, several of these NY restaurants are no longer with us. And I’m happy to report that I’ve graduated in life to actually eating at good restaurants.
My wife is a lawyer. Every year, a steady stream of wide-eyed summer interns flood the New York firms. Associates like my wife like it because they get carte blanche to take the interns to lunch at the city’s swankiest restaurants. Interns like it, of course, because they get well fed. Law firms like it … well, they don’t like it, but they do it because they have to keep up with the Joneses. Lavishing interns is just one of the fronts that law firms still compete upon, even in this economy.
It’s a strange dance, one I’ve never really understood, but one that I’ve had more than a passing interest in. Twenty-two- and 23-year-olds-the very folks who have already signed up to pad their résumés in New York and hang in the Hamptons-are courted over plates of warm buckwheat blini drizzled with melted butter and caviar at Firebird. “What do you want to do with your future?”–type discussions are played out over medallions of pan-seared Arctic venison with lingonberries at Aquavit.
Not bad. I mean, I thought the deal when you showed up for a summer internship was “Here’s your desk, there’s the boss, don’t break anything.” In the legal world, the roles are reversed. When I was an intern, I did things like answer phones while the reporters were at lunch shoving martinis down their necks at some place along the Detroit River. One afternoon, I accidentally hung up on Ross Perot (in hindsight, not a career killer). Another summer, when I had aspirations of being a doctor, I worked as an orderly in an operating room. They let me mop up brains and tumors and even take amputated feet wrapped in Glad bags down to the lab. After scrubbing down, one of the doctors would usually spring for a tuna sandwich and a quart of milk out of the vending machines. I felt special.
Am I jealous? Yep. But I have figured out how to capitalize on my wife’s good fortune. Here’s the deal. She’s a petite woman. She can’t possibly eat everything on her plate. So she brings me her leftovers. Her lunch is my dinner. I don’t usually bother to heat it up; we don’t own a microwave.
This arrangement started off small-a tuna tartar mixed with Spanish olives, black currants and almonds from Asia de Cuba. They call it “Tunapica.” Then there was the $18 crab cake from Del Friscos. Café des Artistes does a nice “Joy of Bonaparte”-a creamy lemon napoleon with berries. From there, I moved up to the porterhouse from Sparks and salmon at the Four Seasons. My palate is a self-educated one-one that has improved over a long string of character-building disappointments like Yankee Stadium hot dogs, deli sandwiches and doorstopper knishes from street vendors.
I’ve become a bit of an expert, even an elitist, which I think gives me the right to challenge Zagat’s with my own set of criteria for judging New York’s finest eateries at their most naked and raw-no mood lights, no violins, no Philippe Starck interiors.
My criteria for leftovers are:
Aroma: If you buried a duck magret under permafrost, it wouldn’t tend to smell of anything. Same goes for leftovers hastily pulled out of the fridge while Law & Order is on. Warm food tends to smell better than cold food. Therefore, anything left over that is still emitting an aroma wins big points.
On that basis, Shaan’s takes the gold. They do a pleasant saag paneer (creamed spinach with cheese), moist tandoori chicken, crispy naan bread, spicy lamb and one of the better mulligatawny soups around.
Presentation: When you ask to have your food wrapped, a lot of places just shovel the stuff into a plastic carton. People say you should judge a restaurant by the cleanliness of its toilets; I say check the doggy bag. I appreciate places that take care. Meat should be on top of the rice, not underneath, for example. Apple sauce should not be mixed with caviar.
Asia de Cuba wins here. Oxtail was cleanly separated from salad, salad was separated from calamari.
Décor: N/A. I’ve never been to these places.
Chewability: Leftovers tend to be hard on the teeth. I appreciate something that doesn’t take a lot of mastication. I’m even more impressed when something like steak-which in its normal state takes a good amount of swordsmanship-can be cut with a fork two days after it was originally served.
Peter Luger’s “steak for two” blows everyone away. The steak is tender, with a nice hint of their sweet sauce still on the meat. Contrary to what some say, creamed spinach at room temperature is not bad at all. Luger’s loses points on presentation, though. The steak is shoved into a paper bag like shoes tossed into a trunk.
Longevity: Sushi doesn’t travel. If you don’t happen to own an ice truck, you should eat it the same day. I will say, however, that I once ate Nobu’s toro 48 hours after the fact. It was excellent. I didn’t get sick.
Pó is strong here. My wife brought me some of their gorgonzola tortelloni. Not tortellini, “tortelloni.” It’s bigger. I had to go out of town for a couple of days. When I came back, it was as if Mario Batali had just prepared it. I almost broke out into an aria right there in my boxers.
That’s my list. Other standoutss include:
Paupiette de Sole Catalane at La Côte Basque: The people of Catalan, in Spain near the French border, really know how to cook fish. This dish has an aggressive tomato base with sweet leeks.
Gravalax with black mustard at Aquavit: It’s light and refreshing. The dill makes a bold appearance. What makes it black? Squid ink.
Leg of lamb roasted with fresh mint crust, stuffed artichoke and potato fondant from Le Cirque 2000. I’m not sure what fondant is. I think that bit was missing when I ate it.
Asia de Cuba has a Thai salad that is a nice blend of beef topped with Asian greens, avocado, oranges, noodles and a four-alarm vinaigrette.
Now they say atmosphere makes a place. That’s why, when I unwrap leftovers, I occasionally dim the lights and listen to “Nessun Dorma.” I’m not trying to show off, but I am a big believer in the idea that civilized societies need to entrust certain individuals with positions of authority when it comes to food. My hand is raised.
At the end of the day, it’s about dedication. Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific didn’t rise to the top by eating at Taco Bell. It took years of cultivation. Marcus Samuelsson over at Aquavit didn’t take Manhattan by catering to the lowest common denominator. It takes careful attention to detail, and passion. And like everything in this town, it also takes connections. Gaining access to this world of culinary delights doesn’t have to be expensive. You just need a wife like mine who doesn’t eat so much.