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An analysis of menus and wine lists at New York's new restaurants reveals the latest developments in dining
By Ryan Isaac
What's hot in New York's restaurants? On the menu, it's foie gras, fish, venison and decadent chocolate desserts. Wine lists are shorter, but value-priced offerings are more prominent than ever.
The city's best new restaurants could share a cab -- they all seem headed in the same direction. Whether traditional steak house or current hot spot, neighborhood favorite or aspiring classic, these establishments have set the parameters of dining in 2001. Their menus and wine lists can be read like a treasure map, marking the spots that cry "you are here" to adventurous diners.
So where, exactly, are we?
Wine Spectator gathered menus and wine lists from nearly 50 New York restaurants that have opened since 1998 (the last time we devoted an issue to New York City). They reflect the best judgment of some of the city's savviest chefs, sommeliers and restaurateurs as to what their customers are hungering for as the new century begins. Comparing them, a portrait emerges of contemporary dining in the restaurant capital of the world.
Above all, the menus say that times are good. Seared or sautéed foie gras, about as rich as food gets, is as prevalent today as Caesar salad in a steak house. When the ban that prohibited European countries (including France) from exporting uncooked goose livers to the United States was lifted just over two years ago, it made foie gras easier to obtain. So much easier, in fact, that while preparations and accoutrements vary, it's not uncommon to find foie gras more than once on a menu.
While this trend might suggest an abandoning of America's recent health kick, chefs have found a comfortable balance of indulgence and restraint. Popular first courses include seafood salads, grilled seafoods and other light, healthy creations such as ceviches and tartares from the ocean.
Chefs have dropped anchor in the sea when designing entrées as well. Seafood dishes' share of the menu has grown so large that it lends itself to a science-fiction premise in which sea-dwelling creatures evolve to rule the land. Salmon, tuna, striped bass, and snapper are the most popular varieties of fish, with scallops leading the shellfish parade. Most often, the fish is simply roasted, grilled or seared, and accompanied by vegetables, but decadence creeps in here, too, as other versions are potato-crusted or bacon-wrapped and served with meat- or red wine-based sauces.
The meat dishes currently on menus reflect a changing of the guard. Duck and pork have become fixtures, and are leading the charge away from filet mignon, now found mostly at steak houses and brasseries. Venison, once considered an exotic meat, looks poised to establish itself for the long haul as a healthy and wine-friendly alternative to beef.
Dessert offerings don't reflect the restaurants' specific cuisines as closely as the appetizers and entrées do. The cakes, tarts and puddings are virtually interchangeable from one menu to the next. They follow a simple progression, beginning with apple strudels, lemon tarts, banana cakes and sorbets, moving on to cheesecakes and puddings, and reaching the apex with the pastry chefs' chocolate weapons of choice. Chocolate crème brûlées, soufflés, mousses and layer cakes are only a few of the selections in the catalog. Cheese seems to have found a place on only a sprinkling of New York restaurant dessert menus, usually as a limited option such as "today's cheese selection."
Prices are even more homogenous than the dishes, with entrées generally falling between $20 and $30. There are a few happy exceptions, however; the average entrée price at Lupa, Merge and Pastis is less than $20. As an alternative to the appetizer-entrée-dessert habit, many restaurants now offer tasting menus, and diners often have more than one to choose from. Prix fixe options vary widely, from three courses for $160 (Alain Ducasse) to three courses for $75 (Cello) to six courses for $65 (Esca). Some offer wine pairings for an extra cost. Of those restaurants that do feature tasting menus, about half of them do so exclusively.
Regardless of price, cuisine or location, almost all of these restaurants present diners with a narrow focus and make their intentions clear. Menus are short, often comprising only half a dozen different appetizers or main courses. These restaurants achieve the delicate balance that affords diners the chance to splurge while remaining comfortably grounded in simplicity and familiarity.
Like the menus, the wine lists of today's newest restaurants are carefully focused. The economics of launching a restaurant in New York make it difficult to establish a large wine cellar upon opening. The new wine list is short, but it is also well-balanced, with excellent individual selections, and the overwhelming majority reflect an effort to pair wine to the food.
The lists fall into three basic categories: those of serious breadth and depth, featuring expensive trophy wines; those with an ethnic or regional focus; and those with eclectic selections. Typically, these new cellars' strengths lie in California and/or France.
The restaurants that boast wine lists of great depth are the most sparsely represented of our group. Only Alain Ducasse, Atlas, Del Frisco's and Wild Blue (which benefits from the Windows on the World wine program, 20 years in the making), qualify for this heavy-hitters club. Del Frisco's and Wild Blue display impressive depth in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux, and offer many in larger-bottle formats. It is not uncommon to see prices of more than $300 on these lists, or wines that have long disappeared from retail shelves.
Where a restaurant's cuisine shows a strong regional focus, the wine list generally follows suit. Esca's Italian-only, 200-selection list is divided into "mountain" and "coastal" categories. Danube and Wallsé share a carefully designed Austrian theme, while Meigas and Chicama have lists that complement their Spanish cuisine. It should be no surprise what Rhône's focus is.
The remaining establishments draw from multiple regions and focus on food-friendliness. These lists are compact and precise, inherently guiding diners to appropriate matches, sometimes through specific recommendations. Wine directors and sommeliers at restaurants like Blue Hill and Merge have made efficient selections so that even an inexperienced wine drinker, perhaps with a little guidance from the knowledgeable waitstaff, can feel comfortable. At 71 Clinton Fresh Food, each of the 40 wines is accompanied by descriptions and recommended food matches.
Wine directors appear well aware of the bottom line and assemble their cellars not for show, but for short-term storage. With few exceptions, diners will be hard-pressed to find many wines more than a few years old. In return, the financial strain of long-term cellaring is relieved, and prices are lower. While the average price per bottle is from $40 to $80, the lists offer many selections from $30 to $50. At almost every restaurant, you can purchase a bottle for less than $30, and often as little as $16.
No one would claim that New York is inexpensive, but there are plenty of values to be found among its newest restaurants. A little research can go a long way toward ensuring an enjoyable -- and affordable -- meal in welcoming places all over town.