By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010; F02
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.)
Dessert is cleared, and what looks like a tray of colorful gems -- macarons in such intriguing flavors as candied violet and peanut butter-and-jelly -- is produced. My critic's radar goes off when a bottle of cognac shows up and pours are doled out. "Be sure to put it on my tab," I remind the general manager. "I could," Will Guidara responds, "but this is what we do for everyone here." Sure enough, I spot cognac on other tables in the restaurant, too. "Have as much as you'd like," the suave suit says, leaving the bottle on the table. Without prompting, the bill comes with an envelope containing the labels from the wines we've enjoyed.
My friends and I rub our eyes. We're not dreaming, but dinner at Eleven Madison sure makes it seem so.
11 Madison Ave.; 212-889-0905. http://elevenmadisonpark.com. Three-course dinner $88.
What's good and hot and won't break the bank?
Book a table at Locanda Verde in Tribeca. It's a big, and big-hearted, warehouse space that stars Andrew Carmellini in the kitchen. In years past, he was the reason you put A Voce and Cafe Boulud on your New York dining itinerary. These days, he's serving rustic riffs on Italian food that demonstrate his finesse but don't cost a fortune.
There are antipasti to start, a handful of pastas and entrees to follow, and if you skip dessert, it's your loss. Karen DeMasco, late of Craft, knows her way around sugar, flour and butter. (Her banana-walnut cake with bitter chocolate sauce is divine.)
While you're admiring the way the designers used the walls to store -- and show off -- the restaurant's wine selection, ease in with steak tartare. Carmellini gives it a Piedmontese spin by slipping crushed walnuts and chopped winter truffles into the creamy raw meat, best slathered on the grilled bread that accompanies it. My Grandmother's Ravioli is a valentine to its creator, a fresh wash of tomato sauce and a dusting of Parmesan on delicate squares of meat-filled pasta. "Lucky grandson," I think to myself.
Nice and light: plump roasted scallops brightened with citrus and racy with heat-packing cauliflower, garlic and pignoli nuts. Heartier, but heavenly just the same: shaved lamb and thinly cut peppers packed in a rosemary bun. The sandwich arrives with little logs crafted from chickpeas, lightly crisp outside and creamy within, that threaten your relationship with french fries (because how can you ever go back after tasting these?).
A scoop of blood orange prosecco sorbet tastes true to the fruit. It's a little fizzy and a lot of fun -- just like a meal here.
377 Greenwich St.; 212-925-3797. http://locandaverdenyc.com. Entrees $17-$28.
Where can I catch a good meal before the show?
When Eduard Frauneder and his business partner were mulling names for their Austrian restaurant, they knew they wanted to avoid the usual Teutonic cliches. Danube was out. So were Blaue Gans and Waltz. In the end, and hoping to change their menus regularly to reflect what they would find in the market, the two chefs settled on Seasonal Restaurant & Weinbar for their 60-seat dining room. It opened two Octobers ago in Midtown within an easy stroll of the Broadway stages.
Narrow and white, the restaurant would be chilly without its vivid accents: birds of paradise at the bar, a rose on each table and espresso-colored leather banquettes. With the very good brown bread comes an echt taste of Austria, a spread of farmers cheese, Hungarian sweet pepper and chives called Liptauer that negates the need for butter and keeps you dipping back for more.
Pace yourself. You'll want to save space for one of the best dishes on the menu, the boiled-beef tafelspitz. Sound staid? Thin slices of tasty flat iron steak are coddled in a bowl of clear golden oxtail broth, an entree trailed by sides of horseradish-spiked applesauce, garlicky creamed spinach and two lacy, coin-size potato cakes, or roesti. The elegant presentation is underscored by the petite portion size, which falls somewhere between a meal for Barbie and one for Grandmother.
That's a compliment, by the way. Frauneder and Wolfgang Ban, both of whom are also employed by the German mission in New York, prove that potato soup and venison tartare don't have to put you to sleep by the second act. They cook with a light and sure touch. What might be the most elegant potato soup I've ever tasted floats marbles of cheese that melt on the tongue and bits of speck, similar to bacon. Dill lends a breezy note; sheer purple potato chips flavored with Parmesan lend a light crunch. That raw venison, also an appetizer, is three or so bites of ruddy pleasure fired up with harissa in the seasoning. In lieu of the traditional raw egg garnish, there are tiny yellow beads formed by poaching, then frying, the yolk. Oddly, the wiener schnitzel is a lesser dish, properly golden and crisp but otherwise suffering from the blahs. Its vinegary potato salad, dilled cucumber salad and tiny pot of lingonberries help you forget that, though. These and other dishes are all offered on Seasonal's terrific lunch deal: three courses for $27.
There's a proper way to eat the aforementioned tafelspitz, says Frauneder, but even the Viennese need time to master getting the beef, the potato and the condiments on a single fork spear. This fan looks forward to practicing his aim at Seasonal.
132 W. 58th St.; 212-957-5550. http://seasonalnyc.com. Dinner entrees, $23-$34