Here's the scenario: You're away from home and you love good food, but your schedule won't permit multiple meals in memorable restaurants.
My advice? Forget what's white-hot. Ignore the moment's "It" restaurant. Aim instead for something tried and true -- a place with some seasoning. I keep a mental list of such restaurants, and I rely on it for those occasions when I'm on the road, the clock is ticking and I don't want to be disappointed. For me, these return engagements evoke a sense of whatever city I'm in, just as surely as its museums, concert halls and parks do.
What follow are three suggestions for three popular U.S. destinations. Each recommendation is delicious, each is a treat -- and each answers the question, "If I only have time for one restaurant, where should I go?"
In a city that boasts of more than 17, 000 places to eat, it's nearly impossible for me to identify a single favorite. Yet much as I relish every chance to explore haute French cuisine at Daniel, lusty Mediterranean cooking at Babbo or the sublime American fare at Gramercy Tavern, the reality is, it's the sunny Italian dining room known as Esca where I come to roost most often.
Don't be put off by the English translation of Esca's name: bait. Do take a few moments to examine the day's catch on display at the small bar, where the fresh ingredients for your meal might include razor clams, kite-shaped skate, sea bass and, lastly, geoduck, the most obscene-looking of underwater ingredients (you'll know what I mean when you spot it). "The menu changes twice a day, depending on what's in the market," a bartender in a starched white jacket told me as he whipped up a Bellini in early spring. Traditionally made with peach nectar, my cocktail was pink -- and pleasantly stinging -- with rhubarb juice. Fall is announced by green apple or pomegranate.
The operative word on the menu is crudo. As in, raw. A chef's chef, David Pasternack buys the freshest fish he can and does little more than cut it up and dress it invitingly. The results -- razor clams with chilies and mint, black bass with toasted pine nuts, mackerel with a kiss of aioli -- are breathtaking in their simplicity and directness. No less appealing are the seafood pastas. Like much of the menu, they change frequently. You will be very happy if you happen to encounter spaghetti brightened with fresh mint, ignited with chilies and enriched by lobster. Or whole-wheat noodles tossed with sardines and walnuts. The cooked fish here is nearly the equal of the raw; skate with fleshy mushrooms and Arctic char with fingerling potatoes are two savory cases in point.
Dressed in lemon-yellow walls and sea-green tiles, Esca also addresses the important question of where to eat before or after the theater, located as it is a few blocks from Broadway's stages. Even on its own, though, Esca delivers a pretty fabulous show.
402 West 43rd St., New York. 212-564-7272. www.esca-nyc.com. Dinner entrees $20 to $27.
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Sidney Poitier, Tom Cruise and the entire cast of "Friends" are all regulars, and every other patron appears to be on intimate terms with the same plastic surgeon. Thus the revelation in this pleasure den is how wonderful the food is, better even than what I remember of star chef and owner Wolfgang Puck's original Spago (now closed) in West Hollywood.
From the vast open kitchen, which is expertly guided by executive chef Lee Hefter, streams a parade of dishes -- elegant, luscious and ready for their close-ups. Diners are eased into a meal with little whimsies from the kitchen -- picture a tiny sesame-flavored cone capped with spicy tuna tartare -- before continuing on to the likes of Cantonese-style roast duck, pizza scattered with house-smoked salmon and caviar, or maybe a world-class Wiener schnitzel. Wiener schnitzel? Puck is Austrian by birth and honors his homeland with that and other childhood favorites, including beef goulash with spaetzle. If decisions are difficult, you can splurge on the mother of all tasting menus. This banquet costs $120 a person, but commences with nine treats from the kitchen before you see an actual first course.
Forgo dessert here and you'll miss out on the handiwork of one of the leading pastry chefs in the country, Sherry Yard. Her souffled pancakes and chocolate tart are dreamy role models, and the "50 vanilla bean ice cream" tastes as rich as its description.
Provided the weather cooperates (and when doesn't it in Southern California?), try to sit on the brick-paved patio, whose doors are thrown open to the dining room and whose buzz suggests an A-list cocktail party. Outside you will see two very old olive trees and a granite fountain inscribed with the same word in myriad languages: "passion." It's a mantra this worldly kitchen takes to heart.
176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, Calif. 310-385-0880. www.wolfgangpuck.com/myrestaurants/fine_dining/home/frame.php. Dinner entrees $25 to $48.
Even from several blocks away, I can tell I'm getting close to nirvana, as the perfume of roast chicken and woodsmoke wafts from the massive brick oven at Zuni Cafe and into the surrounding streets.
Once I'm inside the airy, two-story restaurant, I feel compelled to order that signature bird. Succulent as can be, the carved pieces are scattered on a salad of country bread, pine nuts and currants and then drizzled with champagne vinaigrette -- well worth the 45 minutes it takes to prepare. But other things call to me, too. The long, copper-topped bar always tempts me with lush seafood platters, including oysters, periwinkles, crayfish and crab in season, and a glance at the tables of others nearby reminds me I'll want a plate of shaved celery, house-cured anchovies and real aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, too. And if it's lunch time, at least one person at my table has to order a hamburger. No ordinary specimen, this one is fashioned from organic chuck and kept in place with slices of aioli-slathered rosemary focaccia. The meat, the bun -- one taste of that hamburger, and it is very hard to go back to anything else.
The same can be said of the open kitchen's delicate pastas, thin-crusted pizzas and espresso granita. Who knew that coffee-flavored shaved ice had the power to transport?
Zuni Cafe began life as a Mexican outpost in 1979. You can still find a Caesar salad (a dish invented in Tijuana) on the menu, and it's perfect. Over the years, however, Zuni has morphed into the destination restaurant that it is today: a little French, a little Italian, utterly soulful. Kitchens as personal as this one always have a conscience at the helm, and in this case, it's Judy Rodgers, whose long-ago good fortune as an exchange student was to land in the home of the celebrated French chef Jean Troisgros in Roanne, near Lyon. The experience left her smitten with precise preparations, and with foods simple and pure. At Zuni, a nightly crowd of artists and socialites, tourists and foodies, are the grateful beneficiaries.
1658 Market St., San Francisco. 415-552-2522. Dinner entrees $13.50 to $27.