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World Class

Ten newcomers strive for the power and the glory

Thomas Matthews
Posted: April 16, 2001


Above: Club Guastavino
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World Class

Ten newcomers strive for the power and the glory

By Thomas Matthews

Neighborhood Stars
Steak Houses

Come to New York and taste the world. The city's most ambitious restaurants respect no boundaries when they seek cuisines to ransack, environments to invent, or vineyards to venture on their wine lists. This voracious urban culture, marked by an endless search for novelty, finds some of its most imaginative and satisfying destinations at the dinner table.

But don't look for "authenticity." New York has no patience for ye olde anything; history is raw material, not an excuse for nostalgia. The restaurant Danube is a fever dream of fin de siècleVienna. Meigas evokes a Spain at once postindustrial and timelessly rustic. Babbo treats Italy with mischievous respect, not slavish devotion. Alain Ducasse's France has nothing to do with berets and bistros. The best new restaurants draw on established traditions but construct their own visions, in the dining rooms and on the plates.

Here are 10 of the most exhilarating new restaurants in town (all have opened in the past three years). They are scattered from the Upper East Side to Wall Street, from a town-house basement to the crow's nest of the 107th floor. Some, such as Meigas, Atlas and Cello, are launching pads for talented young chefs. Others showcase veterans at the top of their game -- Eberhard Müller at Bayard's, Daniel Orr at Club Guastavino and Mario Batali at Babbo. Exceptional wine lists bolster Wild Blue and Bayard's. (Veritas, which opened in 1999, earned a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list last year; this modest yet elegant Flatiron District restaurant delivers an outstanding overall dining experience. It was reviewed at length in the Sept. 30, 2000 issue.) Extraordinary spaces add to the allure of Eleven Madison Park, Guastavino and Danube. It would be a mistake to think New York's old guard has become passé, but these newcomers add welcome depth and diversity to an island that already circles the globe.

For the complete article, please see the April 30, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 62. (Subscribe today)

New York's World-Class Restaurants

Essex House, 155 W. 58th St., bet. Sixth and Seventh
Telephone (212) 265-7300
Open Lunch, Wednesday and Thursday; Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Prix fixe $145 and $160
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club

Alain Ducasse, France's most celebrated chef, probably imagined he was doing New York a favor by opening a restaurant here to replicate his three-star palaces in Paris and Monte Carlo. Instead, critics called him arrogant and pretentious, ridiculing his attempt to raise the standards of luxury dining in New York.

Nine months later, the dust is beginning to settle. Ducasse has abandoned some of his more fanciful touches. The service staff has learned how to negotiate the opulent but small dining room (the former Les Célébrités in the Essex House Hotel on Central Park South). The wine list has expanded significantly, and now offers deep verticals of French classics and blue chips from Italy, Spain and California. (Wines under $50, however, remain conspicuous by their absence.)

But the restaurant has maintained its core principles. There is still only one seating per night, which means each party can pace its own evening. The food is still uncompromising, reflecting Ducasse's insistence on classic techniques and a purity of flavor that borders on austerity. And prices are still the highest in town, at $145 for three courses (plus desserts), $160 for four.

A meal at Ducasse is a gastronomic performance, not a refueling stop. Three hours at the table pass by in languorous self-indulgence. A mise en bouche might include tiny shrimp of unsurpassed freshness and flavor, their briny sweetness given an earthy contrast by straws of black truffles. Shellfish velouté is enriched by whipped cream infused with lobster essence. Squab, tender and gamy, gains classic depth from an intense Salmis sauce. The desserts keep coming, from hot to cold, fruit to chocolate, pastries to candies. Unsurpassed technical skill
creates dishes with the goal of showcasing extraordinary ingredients; balance and harmony take precedence over clever combinations or culinary novelty.

Today, Alain Ducasse takes its place among the most accomplished of New York's French restaurants, with Daniel, Le Bernardin, Lespinasse and Jean Georges. In many ways, it's the most faithful to the classic French approach; a meal there truly feels like a trip to Paris. Whether Ducasse here in America can attain the preeminence he enjoys at home will depend on how well this talented and ambitious chef can adapt to his demanding new environment. He has stiff competition, but I would not count him out.

40 Central Park South, bet. Fifth and Sixth
Telephone (212) 759-9191
Open Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Prix fixe $68
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club

While the famous chefs of France and Italy have long come to cook or consult in New York, their English counterparts have mostly remained at home. But in recent years the London dining scene has taken off, and now one of its rising stars has migrated to Manhattan.

Paul Liebrandt, only 25, has an impeccable résumé, having worked with Marco Pierre White and Richard Neat, who between them brought five Michelin stars to London. At Atlas, he is cooking with creativity and confidence.

Liebrandt's dishes play with contrast and surprise. A "Pig's Trotter" is a plateful of caramel-tinted foam shaped like a trotter, with a mound of tender, warm shredded pork draped on a tiny dice of cool vegetables and garnished with a "chutney" of cucumber and anchovy. It's an imaginative marriage of hot and cold, rich and clean, sweet and tart -- and it's deeply satisfying, too. Coffee and cardamom perfume a lamb reduction sauce; "tagliatelle" of porcini mushrooms deepen huge sweet scallops; fiery red pepper enlivens langoustines lightly fried and wrapped in lettuce leaves. This fusion approach flirts with contrivance and gimmickry, but Liebrandt rarely overreaches.

The wine list is just as quirky and ambitious. There are plenty of exotic selections to tantalize explorers, and enough mature Bordeaux to satisfy conservatives, all served with grace and intelligence. Atlas looks conventional in its small, sober space on Central Park South, but it's an adventurer at heart. Those who value discovery will enjoy the ride.

110 Waverly Place, bet. MacDougal and Sixth
Telephone (212) 777-0303
Open Dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $18-$25
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Babbo burst on the scene in the summer of 1998 and has been full ever since -- it's the best new Italian restaurant in New York in years.

Chef Mario Batali's dishes are based on traditional Italian regional specialties, especially those of Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. When it's appropriate, he leaves well enough alone: A beautiful branzino is grilled whole, filleted tableside and garnished simply with olive oil and herbs. But more often, the dishes bear the mark of the chef's fertile imagination. Among the bold yet harmonious pasta dishes, his ravioli filled with beef cheeks, squab liver and black truffles ranks as a new classic. Meat is Batali's true passion. The winter menu ranges from duck, quail and squab, through rabbit, lamb and pork, to the liberal use of offal, in sweetbreads, tongues and brains. It's gutsy food, but always balanced and satisfying.

The 350-selection wine list is a map of the new Italy, with good producers representing nearly every significant winemaking region. The strengths, however, are in Fruili for whites and Piedmont for reds. Three sommeliers act as guides, and the many selections under $40, plus the dozen wines available by the carafe, make exploration easy.

Babbo occupies the Greenwich Village town house once home to the famous Coach House. The clean, comfortable interior features white walls, dark wood and soft lighting. There's a small bar up front, a dozen tables in the back, and more seating upstairs (which, though quieter, feels somewhat remote). The ambience is casual, but the service is exceedingly professional. Ambitious yet never intimidating, Babbo is setting new standards in a city that has long loved Italian food.

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