27 February 2008
Coast to Coast, Restaurants That Count
I HAD called once to make my reservation, and then again to confirm it, but it wasn’t until I telephoned to say I was running late that I really heard the greeting.
“Thank you for calling Ubuntu,” a woman chirped, pausing for a comma before adding, “restaurant and yoga studio.”
And yoga studio?
Somehow that hadn’t sunk in before. And the way she said it, putting the lotus on a par with the lettuce, filled me with skepticism about this promised vegetarian Eden in the Edenic Napa Valley.
Her response when I vowed to hustle there from the San Francisco airport as quickly as possible didn’t help.
“Please,” she intoned in the kind of ultrasoothing voice that only a person with perfectly aligned chakras and the entire Deepak Chopra library can summon. “Drive safely.”
What kind of Kumbaya cuisine was I in for?
Several fistfuls of lavender-dusted almonds, some truffle-flecked polenta and an avocado pudding later, I had my answer: inspired, exhilarating cooking of a caliber I couldn’t have imagined.
And I couldn’t have imagined it because I’d never encountered it in a vegetarian restaurant — with or without a yoga studio attached — in New York.
In New York I’d never encountered much of what I did in a recent sweep across the country to size up some of the best new restaurants out there. I’ll rank my favorites in order beginning today with No. 10 and No. 9 and continuing for the next three Wednesdays.
My trip didn’t shake my conviction that New York is the finest restaurant city in the nation, with an unrivaled range and depth of options. But it was a fresh reminder of all the exciting dining experiences that aren’t duplicated here, and it was a challenge to the smug superiority New Yorkers sometimes feel.
New York is absurdly blessed, but of course the city doesn’t have it all. It doesn’t have anything exactly like Cochon, in New Orleans, which liberates Cajun cooking from its deep-fried clichés. With its stylishly casual vibe, fatty abandon, worship of pork (cochon is French for pig) and fervent devotees, it’s a Momofuku on the Mississippi.
New York doesn’t have anything as highfalutin as Guy Savoy, in Las Vegas, which presents the possibility of not only wine pairings but also bread pairings for each course. The breads, more than a dozen kinds, are on a trolley nearly as big as some subcompact cars.
And New York doesn’t have anything as homey as Tilth, in Seattle, which occupies what truly looks and feels like somebody’s house, complete with front yard and front porch.
All in all I visited 15 acclaimed, ambitious, promising or intriguing new restaurants from coast to coast, excluding New York City, in late January and early February.
I identified these restaurants through extensive reading and inquiries to food lovers around the country. The work of the chefs at many of the restaurants automatically draws interest. Other restaurants had simply generated considerable chatter.
For this survey I defined “new restaurant” as one that opened between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2007. I excluded New York because I keep readers abreast of what’s happening here.
I narrowed the field in a few additional ways, to give readers of The New York Times as much fresh information as possible.
I bypassed Portland — where, for example, Le Pigeon might have lured me — because readers were introduced to new restaurants there in an article by Eric Asimov last fall.
I evaluated the restaurants on relatively equal terms. Each was visited at dinnertime. Each was visited anonymously. Each had just one meal to make its case, and each was encouraged to show its best face, in that I pointed myself toward dishes that were reputed to be, or should be, the restaurant’s strong points.
The 5 of the 15 restaurants that didn’t make my final cut were Ad Hoc in Yountville, Calif., Thomas Keller’s casual counterpoint to the French Laundry; the two-month-old Takashi, which serves a sort of Japanese-French fusion in Chicago; Tinto, with an array of artful tapas in Philadelphia; Lüke, the chef John Besh’s brasserie in New Orleans; and Comme Ça, the chef David Myers’s brasserie in West Hollywood, Calif.
I had some memorable food at each, but not as memorable as the food at my top 10 restaurants. In alphabetical order, they are:
CENTRAL MICHEL RICHARD (Washington)
COCHON (New Orleans)
COI (San Francisco)
FRAîCHE (Culver City, Calif.)
GUY SAVOY (Las Vegas)
MICHAEL’S GENUINE FOOD & DRINK (Miami)
O YA (Boston)
UBUNTU (Napa, Calif.).
They’re a diverse lot, difficult to compare with one another. You can get in and out of Cochon for under $60, including dessert and two glasses of wine, while Guy Savoy charges $190, excluding alcohol, for its abbreviated “90 Minute Experience” of four set courses.
At Coi the chef Daniel Patterson means to create small works of culinary art, unveiled in a hushed gallery. At Central the chef Michel Richard serves bistro and brasserie fare in a relatively freewheeling atmosphere.
Certain judgment calls — leaving Ad Hoc out of the top 10, for example — were tougher than others. I happened to visit Ad Hoc, which serves the same predetermined meal to every diner, on one of its every-other-Monday fried chicken nights, and I had some of the best fried chicken of my life. But the bean salad before it and the chocolate chip cookies after weren’t nearly as impressive.
Certain trends came into sharp relief. I’ve used the word brasserie several times already, and that reflects what seems to be a renewed interest in French comfort food and classics, which dominate the menus at three restaurants in my coast-to-coast sweep — Lüke, Comme Ça and Central Michel Richard — and one back in New York, Bar Boulud, which opened a couple of months ago.
The prevalence of the brasserie idiom also signals the extent to which accomplished chefs are turning their attention to less elaborate cooking and settings. Cochon, with its concrete floors and a picnic-style communal table up front, is decidedly more casual than Herbsaint, the New Orleans restaurant that put its co-chef and co-owner Donald Link on the map.
That’s a studied choice. “I don’t always want to sit down to a four-hour dinner, but I don’t always want to go to the po’ boy shack down the road,” Mr. Link said in a telephone interview. “And there’s not always stuff in the middle, where you can have table service, get decent wine and get in and out on your own terms.”
The attempt to address diners’ desires for uncommon but unstilted experiences was evident in restaurants in every genre and at every price point.
For all its elegance and pampering, Guy Savoy has clearly been designed to make the pageantry less obtrusive. The muted tones of the staff attire enable an armada of servers to blend into the background.
Fearing’s has three different indoor dining rooms with different looks and different sound levels for different moods, though the menu is the same in each.
At Fraîche, where the cuisine is Mediterranean and entrees average about $24, white cloths cover the tables, but there’s an open kitchen where everyone wears a bright red bandanna.
I encountered many open kitchens, some bordered by a front row of counter seats that give diners a closer look, and they illustrate the way cooking has officially become a spectator sport. You can watch the making of your meal not only at Fraîche but also at Cochon, Fearing’s and Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink — and at Central Michel Richard, with which our four-episode season of “Restaurant Survivor” begins.