I’m the person whom friends ask for restaurant recommendations when they’re traveling. I read a lot. I’ve been to a lot of places. I have a knack for matching people to restaurants.
What follows is likely to strain my credibility on the matter.
I found myself in New York City for one night without a plan. Generally, if I am in New York, the trip is centered on where I will eat. But this time, the visit was impromptu. We had spent the day driving through some nasty weather, and when we got to our hotel at 6:30 p.m., we were tired, tense, hungry and without a reservation.
So I started thinking about what restaurants I haven’t visited in the city. I plugged them into my iPad to plot them against where our hotel was. None were close, and most were booked.
Then I thought of NoMad. That’s the new restaurant from Daniel Humm, the chef at Eleven Madison Park. Humm and Eleven Madison Park have won just about every major industry award in the past couple of years, but I have to admit, I don’t know a lot about them. I know Eleven Madison is a super luxe place, and the one directive I had from my wife was nothing too fancy. NoMad is supposed to be more casual, and friends whose opinion I trust like it a lot. That is literally all I knew about it.
I Googled “nomad nyc.” The first hit was for a restaurant Web site. The next several were for stories that talked about Humm and his new, more casual restaurant. I clicked on the restaurant site.
The cuisine was Mediterranean-North African. Looking back, that should have been Clue No. 1. Humm is from Switzerland, so I wasn’t sure what the North African connection could be. There was no obvious mention of Humm, but maybe he’s a modest guy. Moving on.
Clue No. 2: The menu prices were reasonable. I mean, I heard it was casual, but by NYC standards, this place was downright affordable.
I could get a reservation for 9 p.m. For a hot New York restaurant. On a Friday night. Let’s call that Clue No. 3. But I booked it.
We got in a cab, and I told the driver, “Second Avenue between Fourth and Fifth.” The words actually stumbled out of my mouth, because when I said the address, I plotted that point on a mental map and thought it weird that the restaurant was so far down Manhattan. Something I read when the new place opened suggested it was in a neighborhood just north of the old restaurant. This would be considerably south. Clue No. 4: nearly recognized, nonetheless ignored.
The restaurant we arrived at was a nice neighborhood place. Decorated thematically to match the North African menu. A little dark. Mosaic tile tables. Warm tones. A little rustic. It was nice but hardly a temple of modern gastronomy. Clue No. 5.
The menu provided Clues No. 6 through 8.
* When I asked to see the cocktail menu, I was directed to a portion of the menu I already had, where there were five or six wine-based drinks, the highlight being sangria.
* The food options were pretty typical. A trio of dips. (“What might Daniel Humm do with hummus,” I actually wondered to myself.) A tagine of lamb braised with dates.
* The dessert menu was even more spare than the cocktail menu. While I previously might have wondered what Daniel Humm might do with chocolate mousse, after I saw that the hummus was your typical chickpea puree with grilled pita wedges, the mystique had faded.
It was a fine, reasonable meal. And we got out of there for about $80, which was nice. But it was sort of like food I’ve had in similar restaurants before, anywhere in the country. The best chef in America was behind this? I didn’t get it.
I also — still — didn’t get the fact that I had gone to the wrong restaurant. That didn’t come until a couple of hours later when I was in bed trying to make sense of what had just happened.
For some reason, I suddenly remembered something about the name of the restaurant, NoMad, the one I intended to go to. It was one of those New York artifices in which they shorten the words and smoosh them together to name things. NoMad was derived from North of Madison (Square Park). We had been nowhere near Madison Square Park.
Apparently, that was the clue I needed to realize my mistake. It came several hours late.
Nomad, the restaurant we actually went to, was fine. If it was the kind of thing I had been looking for, I think I might have liked it a lot. The duck pastilla was quite good. If I lived in the neighborhood, or was staying in the neighborhood for a few days, I might go back. It just wasn’t where I wanted to go for my one meal in the city.
Never again will I wander that aimlessly through New York in search of dinner.
Jim Webster, a multiplatform editor at The Post, is a culinary tourist, an amateur caterer and won Mario Batali’s grilling contest in 2008 by putting three kinds of pork in one dish. Follow him on Twitter at @jwscoop.