Postcard From Tom: Where to eat in New York

Food critic Tom Sietsema recommends three Big Apple restaurants to satisfy every occasion.
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

A quickie trip to New York invariably raises lots of questions.

Bus, train or plane?

Museum, concert or play?

Motel 6 -- or the Four Seasons?

Then there are people like me: Where to find good food is the subject I address before I ever start contemplating Amtrak vs. American Eagle, MoMa vs. "The Miracle Worker" or a friend's spare bed in the Big Apple. During a recent 72-hour eat-athon, I aimed for some fresh replies to the three most common questions I get.

Mission accomplished (and pass the seltzer water).

I just got a raise/got engaged/turned 50. Point me somewhere fabulous to celebrate.

Here's what separates a good restaurant from a great one: When you surrender your wrap to the coat checker, he or she doesn't give you a claim ticket. They just remember who gave them which coat (and it's ready when you are at the entrance as you leave). Another distinguishing moment in an evening full of them at Eleven Madison Park involves the amuse-bouche, which isn't just one treat but a flurry of five on a single white plate. Enough for everyone to try everything, the introductions -- a delicate beet marshmallow, a sweetbread-stuffed cornet, a tiny galette of goat cheese and Meyer lemon -- dance on the tongue and suggest more magic around the corner.

Owner Danny Meyer, who helped revolutionize American service in Manhattan with such crowd-pleasers as Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, thinks of everything. And beginning with the arrival of Daniel Humm in the kitchen in 2006, Eleven Madison Park in the Flatiron has evolved from a swell place to know about to one of the starriest places to eat in the city.

Succulent frog's legs and whatever mushrooms are fresh become something decadent when the farm egg on top of the appetizer is broken and a rivulet of sunny yolk becomes part of the sauce. A slender roulade of diced prawns, creme fraiche, lime and green apple is the rich center behind creamy shingles of bright green avocado. Sweetbreads are served as crisp golden marbles on their plate, and roasted lamb, some of the best I've tasted, is lavished with a drift of tart yogurt, spoonfuls of cumin jus and tiny super-sweet carrots. The food is stunning to look at and a joy to eat. Humm, 33, employs the trends du jour, the froths and such of his peers, but they never detract from the pure flavor of the ingredients.

The kitchen reveals a sense of humor, too. At one point, little glass jars, each containing what appears to be a black truffle nestled in arborio rice, are brought to the table. Eyes widen all around. Everyone is expecting a truffle of his very own. The delicacy turns out to be a luscious joke, however: hot chickpea fritters merely stained black with the prized fungus and its liquid.

The cooking isn't all that holds your attention here. The service, as at all of Meyer's establishments, is smooth and gracious; the good bones and high ceiling of the former Metropolitan Life Building lend grandeur to the marble-rich Art Deco room. (Fear not. The buzz from the front bar keeps a meal here from being too serious an occasion.)

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