Eat Up New York Dining Deals

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

It's easy to eat cheaply in Manhattan. The city is chockablock with delis, bagelries, pizzerias, sidewalk vendors and all manner of ethnic and interesting cuisine that's easy on the wallet. But Manhattan (and, increasingly, Brooklyn) is also teeming with cutting-edge and celebrity-chef-run restaurants that once were only for the deep-pocketed and well connected.

Well, not anymore.

In the past decade, and in increasing numbers, top New York chefs have opened down-market (read: cheaper) spinoffs of their original (read: expensive) restaurants. And since the economic downturn, some also have begun offering fixed-price meals, small plates and bar menus to lure diners.

During a recent weekend in New York, I wanted to sample the city's dining deals, from recession specials and prix-fixe menus to down-market offshoots by celebrity chefs. Two food-savvy friends came along on the mission. Could these bargain buys make filling meals, or would we have to fall back on pizza?

Our first stop was dinner at Picholine, a classy French spot near Lincoln Center that earned two Michelin stars again this year. Chef-owner Terrance Brennan recently launched a "menu d'economie," with three-dish "tasting flights" for $20, half-portion "tasting plates" for $15 and a "60 under $60" wine list. The regular three-course dinner menu costs $92.

Perched around cafe tables next to a long purple banquette by the bar, we chose six small dishes from the flights menu (a few ounces of standout Wagyu beef, a handful of crunchy tapioca chips, four foie gras lollipops) plus a light-as-air sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi tasting plate to share (three gnocchi apiece). With Brennan's cheese-centric bistro, Artisanal, in mind, we ordered a quartet off the cheese cart ($24), nudging our meal out of the "cheap eats" category. Adding wine -- a $45 red from Provence, the least-expensive bottle -- kicked the bill up another notch.

The verdict: Most of Picholine's dishes were fantastic (the only real dud being the shrimp mixed with popcorn), but . . . we did need a pizza run at the end of the night.

While Brennan's restaurant uses the small-plates concept to attract diners on a budget, others have simply extended the fixed-price menus from January's Restaurant Week ($24 lunch, $35 dinner). One of those is Fig & Olive, a Mediterranean place with locations in the Meatpacking District, the Upper East Side and Midtown.

On a Saturday night, the Meatpacking District was buzzing, and over the course of the evening Fig & Olive filled up with a mishmash of diners: 20 girls at a sweet 16 party, a table of rowdy suits making toasts, someone toting a baby whose sporadic cries turned heads all night. We learned something else about Restaurant Week specials: You might have to ask for them. We were careful to schedule our reservation for 7:30 because the deal is good only till 8 on Fridays and Saturdays.

Our three-course dinners had hearty portions, with chicken samosas and tuna carpaccio for starters, then grilled lamb with couscous, and branzino with figs, for the mains. The feast ended on a high note with a pot of chocolate custard and a dish of pistachio ice cream. With the addition of a bottle of Sicilian pinot noir, the total was just a few dollars more than at Picholine. Yet when we left Fig & Olive, its bar scene jumping, we were comfortably full, no pizza required.

On another day, angling for a different kind of deal, I pondered my choices at the 'Wichcraft sandwich stand in Herald Square. The dozen 'Wichcrafts around Manhattan are part of the Craft restaurant group helmed by Tom Colicchio, best known as the head judge on Bravo's "Top Chef." In 2003, the first 'Wichcraft opened with the motto "Real food, hand-crafted"; the chain uses such ingredients as hormone-free meat, house-made jelly and mayo, and locally baked bread.

I paid $12 for my sandwich and tea, devouring the chunky chicken salad on multigrain bread (with walnuts and roasted tomatoes; who'd a thunk it?) later on in Madison Square Park, facing Daniel Burnham's 1902 Flatiron Building. The view compensated for my sticker shock.

Craft is one of the many restaurants whose success has spawned lower-priced dining outlets. Some, such as 'Wichcraft and Bouchon Bakery, French Laundry chef Thomas Keller's eatery, were launched long before the current downturn, and others are new, such as David Chang's Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar in the East Village.

Chang's flagship restaurant, Ko, has some of the hardest-to-get tables in town, whereas Milk Bar looks and feels like a neighborhood bakery, albeit one serving Chang's famous pork buns (two for $9), bottled beer (Lone Stars for $5) and sweets such as cornflake-marshmallow-chocolate-chip cookies ($1.75 for one) by pastry chef Christina Tosi.

When my friends and I visited Milk Bar, we waited in line and scanned the menu board hanging above the counter. "How do you think the 'old fashioned donut' ice cream is?" my friend asked me. As if on cue, the guy in line behind us, who a moment before had looked hipster-indifferent in his neon-green shirt, took off his matching jumbo headphones and excitedly said, "It's amazing! You almost think you're eating a doughnut!"

I'm not sure why eating doughnut-flavored soft-serve is better than just eating a doughnut, but we tried a free sample and liked it ($4 for a cup or cone). Meanwhile, the Milk Bar line was growing longer, everyone hoping for their own slice of recession-priced heaven. Then we noticed a high white-frosted cake on the counter ($5 a slice). "What kind of cake is that?" my friend asked the cashier. Before she could answer, a woman ahead of us, sporting a blond Mohawk and dark-rimmed glasses, spun around and gushed, "It's my favorite!" Then she leaned in really close and confided, "It's so good, it's orgasmic."

Done! One slice, please!

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Details: Restaurants

Picholine (35 W. 64th St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-724-8585), Fig & Olive (three locations, including 420 W. 13th St. between Ninth Avenue and Washington Street, 212-924-1200), 'Wichcraft (various locations, 212-780-0577), Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar (207 Second Ave. at 13th Street, 212-777-7773)

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