Author’s Note: I wrote this almost exactly a year ago…and am only now getting around to publishing it. Fun to find and read again. I hope you enjoy.
“Bananas are very greedy…” denounces our server, but any credit that he’s taken away, he quickly returns by explaining that in this dish, they “play well and don’t overwhelm your pallet.”
Such personification of ingredients might seem out of place, but the truth is (to me at least) almost nothing else in life can deliver the immersive experience of the world of food and wine.
I’m dining with clients at Scott Conat’s Scarpetta in New York City…and our server is committed to delivering us the full force of what the place has to offer…and he takes us on a journey as he explains the menu. Back to those bananas — he tears them down (and our hopes) just to build them back up again. Even the desert menu has a story arc.
Winter Storm Pax had conspired to hold me hostage in New York City. I had a quick in and out trip planned to meet with some clients — less than 48 hours on the ground. What was supposed to be a brief spin through the city turned out to be five days of cancelled flights, and meals that had to be eaten. (I mean, what are you going to do, not eat?!)
This essay isn't going to be a check list of places I went to and what I ordered…I’ll get to some of that in case you’re interested — but, really this is a love letter to world of wine and culinary experiences. A great meal and beverage is, I believe, one of life’s few true pleasures.
Often I will toast a meal with great company by repeating that quote: “one of life’s few true pleasures” and more than once people have made light of it, or my deep love for it. It isn't the items on the plate or wine or cocktail in my glass specifically. It is greater than the sum of all of the ingredients put together.
Planning a great meal begins with the anticipation of the meal: where will you go, with whom, when will you dine, and what will you order (scouring the restaurant’s menu online days before the meal). You may even starve yourself the day of or before, as if that would help you eat more. It probably won’t, but it may deprive your senses so that you are more receptive to the meal.
Consequently, a great meal isn't always the victim of over-planning — sometimes it’s the spontaneity or casualness that makes its special. Back in New York, possibly the center of celebrity chef universe, I went to Shake Shack for a simple burger and fries. A short walk down Madison Ave. to the burger joint with folding chairs in the snow. The food was much simpler, but the experience was (in it’s own way) on par with some of the finest establishments the city has to offer.
I can’t explain my near-obsession with Spain. I’ve never been and can’t say I even speak even enough Spanish to get by. But, the idea of the culture and it’s food and wine is intoxicating to me: late night dinners that last until midnight or later, indulgent lunches that require a nap afterwards, and amazing wine and cocktails.
Cocktails, specifically Gin & Tonics (G&Ts) have always been one of my favorites. Some people say they smell like pine trees (I’ve never cared for that comparison, or found much accuracy within it — but I know plenty of people do). G&Ts it seems, despite having a British upbringing, have come of age in Spain — extremely popular in Barcelona.
Back in New York (the day before dining at Scarpetta) I had dinner with a few friends at Cata, a Spanish restaurant that not only has a very impressive tapas selection, it has a tremendous selection of Gin & Tonics. The list contains, what I remember as, over 20 of the cocktails with various exotic gins AND tonics. The tonic is not just a vehicle for the gin at Cata.
The atmosphere of the restaurant is amazing, and fun — but the attention to detail of culture of Spain, right down to the G&T menu is what really drives home the experience. The food was amazing of course — chicken croquetas, quail eggs Benedict, and jamon iberico de belotta. All amazing and worth writing home about — but those cocktails though. All together, Cata delivers awesome food, impressive cocktails, all in a fun atmosphere — the experience here is different than you will find almost anywhere else.
Clear across the country, in Las Vegas, I dined at the Scarpetta franchise inside the Cosmopolitan hotel for my birthday a few years ago. It was there, after a boozy day at the pool, that I became aware of Mr. Conat’s signature spaghetti. For me, ordering a dish like spaghetti at a restaurant is like some sort of sacrilege — surely there is something better, more exotic, than a plain dish of pasta covered in gravy. Spaghetti is a dish my father used to make on Sunday’s — all day. It’s a dish I equate with kicking back at home. The moment I tasted this dish…my pupils dilated, I could hear colors and taste sounds.
So, it is no surprise that back in NYC, the topic of conversation was who would get The Spaghetti? Everyone was now aware of it’s greatness (the secret is more simple than you would imagine — it’s all in the details!). But, alas, the specials of the evening were too much to resist and we just about all ordered the pork bolognese…I’m a sucker for stuff like that — especially after our server explained it so well on that cold February evening. But, what about that spaghetti — we decided that it would need to be our appetizer (one of two anyway).
The service at Scarpetta was, as you might expect, impeccable. The food was even better and the wine list channeled the Italian countryside, just as Cata’s G&T list did with the cafes and bars of Barcelona. Added together, the atmosphere, service, food, beverage, and conversation at dinner delivered an experience that I just don’t know could be replicated.
Lest you think this is all about late night dinners, breakfast is well represented too. Les Halles, the Park Ave. establishment that Anthony Bourdain worked in, serves a great breakfast with fresh pastries and everything else you would expect.
But seriously, getting back to late night dinners — Les Halles probably serves one of the best Steak Frites I’ve ever had. You can post up at the bar, order a cocktail and then wait for it to arrive. Les Halles isn't overly fancy and doesn't employ some of the sophistry that you sometimes encounter at overly-hyped restaurants. It’s an honest French style brasserie that just serves great food. Thats the experience Les Halles promises and delivers. It doesn't stray too far from it’s roots — a flambe cart is on the move at night cooking up table side liquor soaked (in a good way) crepes. It feels like the kind of place that if you went often enough, would feel like Cheers.
A trip further uptown, just on the other side of Times Square is Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain. My friend is (was) a manager there, and the few times I have been to visit him he does a great job explaining to everyone the attention that the restaurant gets from Mr. Flay — the menu changes, cocktail additions, and staff training. On this night my business partner and I visit him for dinner — and this evening is like no other…the drinks are flowing, the dishes come out of the kitchen non-stop (as fast as we can order them), and the staff is amazing (it doesn't hurt to be the guest of the manager I’m guessing).
So close to the Times Square row of chain restaurants are amazing experiences just waiting for you, like at Bar Americain. Got a few minutes before dinner? Pop into Geoffry Zacharian’s Lamb’s Club inside the Chatwal Hotel for a drink. The art deco design will catch you off guard, as will the cocktails…like a left hook. Strong, but not boozy — an impressive feat. Hell, order another one and stay for dinner while you’re there, I almost did.
Need to grab a quick lunch after you wake up from your late night of overindulgence? I did. Back down by Madison Square Park and by the Flatiron building is Mario Batali’s Eataly. Food is practically my religion and that makes this one of my soul’s sanctums (save for the throngs of people who at times seem unable/unwilling to get out of your way).
I popped into the corner where they serve pizza and pasta and grabbed a seat at the bar. An Italian beer and a margarita pizza with mozzarella di buffala has me fixed up. The kitchen is pumping out pasta dishes and you get to watch them all come together when you sit at the bar. This place has a casualness that is balanced so well with the attention to the quality of the ingredients. Usually it is easy to find one or the other — but rarely both.
A walk up 6th Ave, a self-guided tour (read: wander) through the NYC Public Library and a final drink inside the Plaza Hotel and my impromptu personal food and wine festival was over. But, the experiences collected over those few days were unbeatable.
Food and wine has the ability to please so many of your senses — and some of the people who make it their career care deeply about the details that make up your experience it’s hard not to appreciate them, their sacrifices, their dedication, and their creativity.
Oh, those potentially imposing bananas? They behaved perfectly when seated next to their counterparts in the desert course at Scarpetta.
Cheers — to one of life’s few true pleasures.