Who among us has not had the image of New York taxi drivers on their days off, careering around in Coney Island Dodge-Em cars? And who has not wondered if a man spending all afternoon at the pinball machines is not, the other six days of his week, an air traffic controller? And who has not assumed that a restaurant critic, when not chewing full-time on behalf of her home town team, jogs and rolls off the calories at a gilded diet spa?
I don't know about the taxi driver or the air traffic controller, but I can tell you about a day in New York that rendered my jaws limp and my digestive tract whimpering and my whipped cream-insulated soul begging to return to my normal routine of dining out only once or twice a day.
My reputation for moderation is justifiable nonexistent. I worked up to my day-long eating binge in New York like a boxer starting punch drunk. Sunday blurred from a child's birthday party (couldn't let the barbecued chicken and fudge cake go to waste) to a feast of epic proportions with legendary wines. Monday I went on the wagon through breakfast, having only an empanada on the way to the airport and eschewing the peanuts and drinks on the plane. I even fended off all but black coffee from a cousin whose great accumulation of years weighed on me to accept a nourishing snack. Monday night's dinner at the Four Seasons -- four pastas, five main courses, an exponential leap into desserts -- well, that just couldn't be helped. I did walk back to my hotel -- nearly three blocks.
If you think an eating marathon is only a physical feat, you haven't begun to understand.I grew up with the Yom Kippur variation of the Poor Starving Children in Europe theory of force-feeding young-sters. It contends that whatever you leave on your plate -- particularly if it is delicious -- will drive you to the brink of insanity some day when you are forced to fast. Thus, during that long day in New York, it was not only what I ate that burdened me; what I left on my plate was stretching my conscience to painful surfeit.
A 9 a.m. start at the Plaza, breakfasting with a food pal, I was obnoxiously self-controlled. Three strawberries I ate, and half a croissant. Washed them down with two cups of coffee and half of my friend's sausage. The $8-per-person bill was worth it in its representation of what I didn't eat. Felling smug, I traded self-congratulations with a taxi driver who had given up smoking; he said that cursing was cheaper than smoking by some $800 a year, as he hurried with my change so he could chase a bus driver who had just retorted to his courses with an obscene gesture.
Appropriately enough, my first lap on my restaurant marathon (the Plaza had been a warmup) was at the World Trade Center's Big Kitchen. This Neiman-Marcus of the fast food places has booths everywhere -- breads piled high and wide, a raw bar, a hamburger counter with signs proclaiming the fat content (18 percent) and garnishing (a pickle) that you can expect for your money. It has barbecuing chickens, a deli and cheese counter, Nature's Pantry and a stand selling quiches and meat pies and turnovers that cook before your eyes. The morning routine of serving a thousand breakfasts had just ended. I sat at a table made up of two teams: the World Trade Center on one side, our hosts of the hour; and on the other side a group of three from Washington's American Cafe, who were orchestrating this marathon.
A word about the event's origins. Running into the American Cafe owners some months ago in Philadelphia, I had been awed at their boast of having eaten in 50 New York restaurants in two days. I had to see that. Invite me along next time, I suggested They did. And here we were. The restaurants were chosen to given them ideas for their menus, marketing concepts and decor. We were seeking what is new, trendy or original rather than surveying New York's best.
So we started with the world's biggest restaurant operation, the World Trade Center, with 22 restaurant operation, the World Trade Center, with 22 restaurants feeding from a central commissary.
I started with coffee and croissants. One buttery bite flaked over my skirt. I resisted popping the crumbs into my mouth as I picked them off. A second slight nibble. They talked of quality control while I tried to control my hand-to-mouth mechanism. The brioche was easier to limit to one bite; I can eat better in Washington. I quietly broke off a small piece of a sugared puff pastry pig's ear as the WTC staff told me of chicken stock being made in 100-gallon containers and flash-frozen in single-gallon portions to be sent to the individual restaurants. They described their personnel concept of preparer as server, of involving the staff with the final stage of the cooking, of the finishing steps always being done in the restaurant rather than in the central commissary. I nodded, breaking off a bite of a pineapple danish and crunching one more bit of the best food so far -- Swiss peasant bread.
Aquarter of a million people a day pass through the World Trade Center terminal, and 50,000 work in the office building. We walked through the corridors, nodding sagely at descriptions of how the break-fast bars and retail sales are set up and the peanut butter ground to order, applauding their bringing in hand-candled, non-oiled eggs from Pennsylvania to sell to people after work -- 500 dozen at a swoop. A fresh, hand-candled egg sounded delicious. To divert my burgeoning gluttony, I asked what does not sell. That depends, they answered, on how you present the food, how visual it is. People are price-conscious, they elaborated, but shrimp sells no matter what the price.
The sight of so many people busy over food was making me hungry. The meat expert was examining saddles of lamb; as he explained why he was rejecting some, I was imagining those 4-F saddles of lamb rehabilitated with parsleyed bread crumbs and bundles of crisp green beans. The bakery's bricks of unsalted butter and galon jugs of vanilla had me fantasizing tarts thickly paved with apples. Discarded cans of pie filling brought me back to earth. No temptation there. Chefs imported fresh from Taipei were carving white radishes into fish and thick carrots into spirals that magically turn into fragile fishnets. Past stock kettles and crates of bright vegetables, through mazes of meat and fish preparation centers, I planned to control myself through lunch.
Lunch was only a matter of two modest trips to the buffet table at Windows on the World, looking on Manhattan's toys -- the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building. While it is true that somebody found a '75 Dopf Gewurztraminer or two to ease the flow of food, I resisted a second dollop of memorable potato salad, and had only one clam in aspic. The peppery, cumin-spiked feta cheese and tomato salad I loved briefly -- one bite brief. I fixed in my memory the sesame-oiled Chinese noodles with black mush-rooms after only one forkful. And after a single round of sole mousse with shrimp garnish, I can tell you that -- this whole business was getting very frustrating, and I was Hungry. But it was only the beginning of a strenuous day, so I merely nibbled the three glorious fruit sherbets and the nutted meringue dacquoise. Fortunately, the pear-chocolate tart, amaretto mousse and lemon tart were flawed and readily resisted.
Our verbal restraint was not operating nearly as well as our gustatory restraint, so by the time we left the WT it was 4:30 p.m., and we were anxious. We handled that by getting lost. Finally we found Dean & Deluca, 121 Prince St., a food shop that sells only what you most want to buy: comice pears; dark herbed vinegar from Modena, Italy; brownstone house made of gingerbread. The store is stocked for a food fancier's "what if" games. What if you could choose from 40 French goat cheeses? five kinds of dried mushrooms in bulk? a dozen different clam and oyster knives? fresh truffles and fresh quail eggs and fresh mayonnaise and fresh poums in winter and Russian pashka when it is not even Easter? They are all there, displayed against five different white paints on the walls and classical musci in the air. I ate one smidgen of Brillat-Savarin cheese and bought a wheel to take home, hibbled a corner of a pretzel, forcing myself from trying another to tell if it really was the best pretzel I'd ever tasted.
It was 5:15, and I was famished. Into WPA, its long black Depression-chic hall-ways leading to an expensively dingy restaurant that was closed. On to 162 Spring Street restaurant. It looks like early Hi-Tech crossed with late disco. I was not getting full, but I was getting the picture; exposed pipes, painted vividly, are to SoHo what golden arches are to highways. As for menus, the operational term is eclectic (chili and filet mignon), and required courses are fettucine and steamed vegetable platters. As for the prices, Washington hasn't seen anything yet; a meatloaf sandwich costs $3.75.
Oh-Ho-So restaurant presents the Chinese version of nouvelle cuisine. The menus, pasted onto paper plates and on blackboards, list sweet-breads in plum sauce, mussels with meat sauce and spinach with green fried rice. The furnishings are Early Home Dining Room with Painted Water Pipes; the flowers are as colorful as the stained glass, and to let you know how serious the food is, the menu warns, "MSG served on request only."
Our timing was off; it was too early to eat. But at the SoHo Charcuterie, the carryout counter gave us hope. Carefully nut-studded pates and terrines attracted us. Their $10 to $14 a pound prices deflected our interest. We passed around a solid hunk of cookie called a Chocolate Glob, and painstakingly chose: tortellini salad with re peppers (a variation on the fettucine routine), broccoli in a garlicky cream, jumbo shrimp in a pink dill sauce, tarragonmayonnaised chicken. A bite of each, a peek into the rear dining room, where floating candles were being set on white cloths with vases of dried herbs. The menu set me yearning for puree of eggs with white truffles and asparagus en croute. We sidetracked with a little ham comparison -- Westphalian, Black Forest and prosciutto. Then we cleared our palates with Perrier. We were feeling neither full nor hungry, but definitely edgy as we fell further and further behind our schedule. A slow-to-add and long-to-converse waitress detonated one temper in our party. Better get our temamate some solid food.
On to a real sitdown meal at One fifth. It was 6:10, and this was the third restaurant of the afternoon that had appeared in the movie "An Unmarried Woman." Just the place to soothe frayed tempers. Tuxedoed waitresses hovered and poured and advised. The dining room is an ocean liner reconstructed, and we were transported from Manhattan edginess to cruise ship calm. We asked that everything be brought at once, including the check. Seafood salad ($9.75) and fresh fruit plate ($7.95) were colorless renditions, so I would up investigating the bread. Clam-and-oyster soup tasted fine, and the single bite gave me a bonus of clam -- one of those rubbery ones that turn to chewing gum in your mouth. The only dish hard to leave for those mythical starving children was the steamed vegetable plate -- but mythical kids don't eat vegetables any-way.
By 6:45 we were still hungry enough to talk about food. Our taxi driver chimed in, explaining that he was a restaurant buff. "The Palm has great steaks, but it's a semi-zoo," he informed us, then, in a burst of camaraderie told us about his very favorite restaurant in New York, adding, "I'm always afraid it's going to be reviewed." He was a good cabbie, a trusting soul, and I silently vowed to keep his secret safe from those nefarious reviewers.
Like a drinker getting up from the bar, I suddenly realized that I was more full than I had thought. I walked through the World Trade Center's Market Bar, past the upended boxes of vegetables and double yolk eggs that are presented like roses to departing patrous, past the long feathery fennel stalks, past the thick white bowls highlighting salads and pates, past the whole fish and damply glistening shellfish on seaweed beds, and I was Not Tempted. My bites had been bigger than my bark. In the rear a table was set with rows of silverware and a single cordon of WTC executives. The Market Bar was inaugurating Sunday brunch the next week, and the proposed menu -- from soup to nutted baked apple -- was to be tasted this evening.
The next three hours ought not be recorded for History. There are some practices in each society, I am convinced, that future generations are better off withoug knowing. Just between us Americans of the '70s, what we did was run through 15 dishes. But the reality was even greater than that, for each dish had its variations, and we zigzagged from vegetable-cheese soup to shellfish stew, from charcoal-broiled shrimps with dill and caraway seeds (now, that's a dish worth the subway ride) to omelet with avocado and bacon (not to be tasted on a numbed palate). The event was complicated by the fact that Market Bar is committed to, as they state it, "courageous herb levels." So, if the sea scallops with finnan haddie tasted like a star-studded brunch dish, one must keep in mind that it was pungently smoky enough to compete with leek-prosciutto quiche and king mackerel with fennel butter. The sampling had its required fettucine (green ones, with tomatoes, mushrooms and fennel) and its vegetable specialty (spaghetti squash, the newest fad vegetable since snow peas and alfalfa sprouts). With it all, we retained enough vigor to apprectiate the evening's heartiest dish, a whole lamb shank on a bed of vegebables and lentils. "This is heavy-duty power steering," my neighbor said as he plunged in for another forkful. Our heads became more finicky than our palates. I criticized the cornstarchy sauce on the baked apple but took three more bites to make sure there were no hard feelings.
A 10 p.m. good night, with the World Trade Center group eagerly ending a long day and the Americn Cafe crew raring to go. A pause for checking into hotels, while I took a respite on a lobby sofa with a blood-curdling mystery to take my mind off food.
By 11 p.m. I had identified my state as overextended lingering between hunger and satiety. Was I neither full nor tempted? or boty? It was time for a full-scale all-out binge. We argued whether to walk or ride to the Pan Am building -- all of three blocks -- until somebody solved it by hailing a taxi. The Trattoria looked sleepy, its antipasto extravaganza nearly empty. One sample of torta, a layered cake of ham, cheese, pimiento, mayonnaise and other anonymous tints. A feast for the eye, not bad but a little confusing to the tongue. Then coffee ice cream, the richest and coffee-est and smoothest this side of Naples, and amaretto ice cream, good stuff with an intriguing chewy texture.
Somebody gave us a break at Wood's, with "i assume somebody told you we're not serving."
"No," answered one of our glassy-eyed group, "But that's all right, because we're not eating anything." Saved from ourselves. But I didn't really want to be saved from smoked duck breast with fresh papaya or grilled loin lamb chops with dill hollandaise. I would have even handled another steamed vegetable platter (there was no fettucine on the menu). Same story at Le Relais.
If you want to choose an appropriate end to 15 hours of decadence, you wind up at midnight at Maxwell's Plum. Calling it baroque is like calling the White House a good address. Every place you put your hand in Maxwell's Plum there is sculpted brass flesh to be stroked. The curlicues have curlicues. The jungle of hanging plants is populated with packs of hanging ceramic animals. The rear ceiling is inlaid with thousands of pieces of stained glass; the cellar is laid with 60,000 bottles of wine. And possibly the best dish in the house -- if not in the upper East side of New York -- is the french-fried onion rings. Balanced, of course, by a perfectly dreadful chili. It is a restaurant with certain pretension -- witness the salad Troisgros of sauteed chicken breast with herbs, pine nuts and a stimulating vinaigrette with walunt oil and mustard. Good job, too. But we ended our evenign -- our day-and-a-half, rather -- embroiled in controversy over Maxwell's Plum. The pecan pie. They thought it was terrible. I thought it was a once-superb pie, buttery of crust and crunchy of caramelized nut filling, that had been wrecked by being refrigerated uncovered as it grew damp and absorbed other flavors. The chocolate mousse cake we all agreed was second-rate.
And the evening, we all agreed, had taken even our second wind. I remember an evening when, as a teenager, I set out to get drunk on a ginger ale punch at a party. It was too sweet, and I got full before I got high. And so it was with that day. Exhaustion hit first.
"Are you still hungry?" I adked one of the stalwarts.
"No, I think I can sleep all right."
I wondered where I had put the bag of peanuts from the plane.