The food in America generally does not rate well. Huge portions, fast service, and lots of grease is what pops into most people’s heads when they imagine “American cuisine.” That being said, Americans are also known for being rich, rich people like good food, and New York is the nerve center of the American elite, so it should come as no surprise that very good food can be had here. Add in Manhattan’s ant colony-like population density and its people’s 24-hour lifestyle, and you have a recipe for a bewildering dining scene that provides everything from discount hotdogs up to a top-drawer three-star Michelin extravaganza.
Pretzels and hot dogs
New Yorkers are masters of eating while walking, and there are carts and stands positioned everywhere in Manhattan to supply the habit. On my first day in the city, while I’m waiting for James to get out of work, I treat myself to an enormous Greek-style gyro from Uncle Gussy’s, a food truck. There are only two people working the truck, one taking orders and the other cooking, and yet a steady stream of customers is served with amazing rapidity. My sandwich is cheap, big, and very tasty, and only a little bit of the sauce leaks out onto my shirt.
Further down the street food hierarchy is the pretzel stand, which are positioned around the perimeter of Central Park. Mike and I decide to split one, and we receive a tough and old piece of dense twisted bread seasoned like a salt lick. We are sternly warned by the attendant guarding the entrance to the Natural History Museum that outside food cannot be brought into the building, and we struggle to masticate and swallow the thing before entering.
The lowest food on offer on the streets of New York is the humble hot dog. $4 at an entrance to the park gets you a simple boiled hot dog in a spongy white bun, and all the ketchup and mustard you want. Mmm.
Dining, Michelin style
I’ve never really understood how a tire company ended up being the de-facto voice on fine dining, but there’s no sense denying it: nothing says “elitist overpriced extravagant dining experience” like being listed in the Michelin guide. The company focuses mostly on Europe, but it does publish guides to a select few world cities, including Tokyo (which hosts the most starred restaurants of any city), Hong Kong, and New York.
James, Mike and I make a reservation at Betony, a single-star establishment near the south end of Central Park. Mercifully, it’s a quiet mid-week evening, and the restaurant is not particularly busy, so the atmosphere is uncharacteristically chill. We are shown to our seats on the second level by a friendly host, and are given menus to peruse. The menu is prix fix for $95 USD per person (no exceptions), and includes two appetizers, a main course, and a dessert. Is my terminology wrong there? Almost certainly. But I don’t know any better, so whatever.
The show begins even before we make our selections. I didn’t know this, but apparently having a Michelin star implies that a certain amount of showmanship is expected. Our first surprise is an amuse bouche, a sort of mini-appetizer that would probably be too strange to include on a menu. We are brought a sort of cracker-mousse-fish assembly, made, we’re told, with skate. For those who are unsure, a skate is a pizza-shaped sea creature in the same family as the manta ray. Immediately following this, we are brought a second complementary amuse bouche. How decadent! We are also brought a bottomless basket of bread, just like at East Side Mario’s, but of superior quality and made in-house instead of extruded in a paste fill factory.
Choosing which items to order is quite difficult given the paucity of details on the menu. For example, what could “toasted grains” be? I do like surprises though, so I politely refuse the waiter’s offer to explain everything in detail. We place our order and then wait.
The food that comes is dimensionally tiny but enormous in taste. I start with an almost-too-decadent terrine (a good excuse to eat more bottomless bread!). James has the so-called toasted grain, which ends up being rather like a shallow bowl of soup broth with a few bits of boiled barley in it. Later we try a ham hock/vegetable combo (also unexpectedly served in broth) and shellfish ragout. Mike gets poached lobster for his main, and I poached skate wing. I learn later that the common skate is in the process of being fished to extinction, and since I didn’t bother to ask the waiter for details on the sustainability of their fish, I didn’t realize this until afterwards. I make a mental note to remember my ethical obligations in the future, even when I’m paying $100 for a meal.
For dessert, we’re offered a menu filled with strange combinations of rhubarb, blended sweet peas, variations on chocolate, and some sort of seasonal berry I have never heard of. As the waiter is placing the plate containing my dessert in front of me, he belatedly realizes that the chef has forgotten to add the sauce. His eyes widen and he rapidly withdraws the dish, asking me to wait a few moments. I watch him storm back to the kitchen. A few minutes later, he reappears with the dish and a miniature ceramic pitcher filled with a sweet broth (this restaurant is fond of the soup-form), which he pours all over my dessert. As compensation for the mistake, he insists on giving me a complementary glass of dessert wine, which, if ordered a la carte, would cost about $25. It’s laughably overgenerous considering the insignificance of the error, but it’s a nice touch. James and Mike order ultra-rich hot chocolates for themselves.
After several hours of culinary entertainment, we leave Betony chattering about the meal as if we had just seen a screening of the latest film festival sensation. Overall, the food was similar in quality to what I experienced at a local gourmet restaurant in France, but whereas the French restaurant focused on making classic dishes and had attentive but casual service, Betony provided service with fanfare, creative culinary interpretations, and lots of surprises. Was it worth triple the price on the food value alone? Of course not. But as a substitute for an evening at the theatre, with all of the plot twists and creative moments implied therein, it was definitely worth the cash.
The chefs behind Michelin star menus might think that they dictate food trends, but occasionally there is an idea that transcends and ultimately swamps the western world, growing beyond sense or control. It’s like My Little Pony, or the Dutch tulip bubble, or a smallpox epidemic, spreading outward from their places of invention like a ring of dead bacteria on a penicillin-laced culture plate.
Think about the cupcake obsession that swept the world a decade ago. Where did the transformation from children’s birthday snack to $4 gourmet pastry first take place? Probably New York. Then there is the fancy taco, the gourmet hot dog, kobe beef burgers with ethnic toppings, and so on. Pork was so 2012—now it’s all about duck. After the Vancouver Olympics, Japadog fever spreads to New York as a super-hot street side stand. The phenomenon is so palpable that even Zagat has taken note: “For every successful cronut, there’s a pizza cone,” they warn.
It’s easy to spot trends past. Spotting the next big thing is something else entirely. The cronut is over. But what about the crookie? My prediction, based on my personal observations in NYC, is that snooty oatmeal is going to turn breakfast on its head (although perhaps it already has, and I’m just too provincial to have noticed.) I also see the decline of elaborate espresso-based brews made with expensive high-pressure foreign-made precision machines, and a return to drip coffee, but in the guise of the the labour intensive pour-over method.
Will I be right? If I am, remember that you read it here first. If I’m wrong, forget I said anything.