It might be deemed the centre of the universe. At least of the known universe, it is. Hanging in the middle of rowdy and touristy Time Square is its flag, which looks at first like that of federalist France. Instead it is a verticalization of the Dutch flag, before the orange became red, with an insignia signed 1625 for the year of its founding. Amidst the Dutch golden age, the colonists established New Amsterdam, a centre of trade even in their day. It would be renamed to New York as it was inherited by the British. Post-revolution, it would be the largest and most influential city for the almost the entire existence of the United States.
The city is such a pastiche that its character is hard to pinpoint. It is a champion of capitalism but has exorbitant taxes. Culturally, it has Broadway, MoMA (modern art), the Met (pre-modern art), the Garment District, and Eleven Madison Park, the best restaurant in the Americas. In summary, it is the geographic accumulation of excellence or the pursuit thereof. But with it is a darker side unbefitting of its high estate.
The socioeconomic stratification is evident and unhappy. Racial divisions are clear: generally, the Latinos ride the bicycles and the Blacks provide the service. The quality of English is surprisingly low. Unintelligible accents are common. Economic divisions are widespread: food kitchens are hidden behind a tributary of SoHo, between some designer shops. These juxtapositions are heart wrenching. The Goldman Sachs tower, where the elevators have been made famous by Twitter, is the modern day palace of Lloyd (as spotted by a colleague) and a self-sufficing bastion of the modern day NGO – too big to fail and essential. Outside, a vagabond makes fun of “suits” through a microphone-speaker combo.
Business is cut-throat. Nightclubs charge men hundreds of dollars to give women a free pass. The resultant male-female ratio is favourable. According to one commentator, everyone is a hustler. Each taxi ride is a bargaining match. Pizzas and oysters are a dollar each. Sales for high fashion are frequent: one pair of Ferragamo loafers sold for less than $300 to a fast acting buyer. The upward mobility, if not easy, is aspired to. One salesman said he would have bought the loafers himself for that price. He was completely serious. A concierge at an average hotel raved about the Crudo at Marea. The doormen eye down the next, more lavish neighbourhood to serve. To live in Manhattan is difficult. At most incomes, the luxuries are inaccessible. Even at a full banker/consultant salary, the first two years are “break-even” years. But New Yorkers make it a point to experience “The Good Life”, as aptly described by a poem hung in NY subway cars:
The Good Life by Tracy K. Smith
When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine
For aspiring patrons at fully booked Michelin star restaurants, foie gras is the modern day roast chicken. The food scene of Manhattan is diverse: burgers range from the dollar meals at the eminent Time Square McDonald’s to the heart-clogging populist variety at the Shake Shack. Moving to those good enough to be served medium rare, a bustling and classy hall is the unlikely location of a burger bar. And like most New York dreams, Five Napkin Burger is almost a chain with six locations. According to one deep-fried chicken fillet connoisseur, their chicken fingers are the best he’s ever had. Now, in deeply Michelin star territory, a throwback diner, Minetta Tavern, in Greewich Village sells a $28 Black Label Burger said to be made from a dry-aged striploin. It is drenched with disintegrating caramelized onion act like a potent steak sauce. The result is a messy, flavour-packed delight.
Close-by, still in hipster Greenwich Village is a $50 five course Sunday dinner at Public, another one-Michelin star restaurant. In atmosphere, it is like any new-French establishment in Paris. The exposed lightbulb trick can be found in most Roncesvalles artsy-fartsy restaurants. To drink, a blow-away and innovative drinking vinegar topped with soda. The five courses commence in ridiculous fashion: a foie gras surrounded by what would be better served as dessert. But the saltiness of the duck liver prevails to make an revolutionary first course. The rest continue to mix of sweet and salty. The pheasant terrine pops with marmalade and chili foam. The duck confit melds with poached quince. The bass breaks the chain with a sleepy lobster bisque. And the dessert returns in high form.
Another foodie hotspot in Manhattan is near Columbus circle. An offshoot of three-Michelin-star restaurant Jean-George is Nougatine, where a three-course lunch is only $32. It is a fine restaurant in the Trump building in the French style. Its staple status is defined by the tuna tartare, an Asian miso with perfectly balanced sour and spice. Or the crispy calamari dipped in light foam.
Not far away, the hot two-Michelin-star Marea. Its Italian edginess (and its bad wines) probably means it has hit its ceiling on stars. A last minute walk-in reservation granted us a hard-earned table deep into the night. The menu was a $99 prix-fixe, largely in line with the market-price for such a meal. To start, lobster on heavenly burrata and perky crudo. Then chewy, wavy, al dente risotto with pockets of tomato burst. On the other side, some octopus pasta in bone marrow tomato sauce without the usual tomato punch. For mains, four gargantuan scallops on Brussels sprouts, potato purée and hazelnuts and a swordfish that tasted like really good chicken. Finally, some desserts that, like the rest of meal, is done well but uninventive.
New York is a city of extremes. On the way to Greenwich Village, a posh neighbourhood, our subway train was hijacked by a group of uniformly-oversized couples, clearly intoxicated and unbecomingly boisterous. You then enter a restaurant where the dish-washer drinks Fever-Tree on his break. It is of another world. Funny that the centre of our civilization is not particularly representative of its dominion.
Five Napkin Burger
Original 5 Napkin Burger $15.95
10 oz. fresh ground beef, gruyere cheese, caramelized onions, rosemary aioli, soft white roll
Nougatine At Jean-Georges
Basil Salt, Citrus-Chili Dip
with Parmesan, Escarole and Lemon
Warm Flourless Chocolate Cake
ASSAGGIO DI TRE 27 (pf supp $8)
tasting of three crudo
ASTICE 25 (pf supp $7)
nova scotia lobster, burrata, eggplant al
(Risotto) MARE 33
lobster, halibut n, sea urchin
red wine braised octopus, bone marrow
PESCE SPADA 41
grilled swordsh, roasted sunchoke, salsify,
hen of the woods, trout roe, capers
seared sea scallops, potato puree, fried chickpea,
brussels sprouts, golden raisins, pickled mustard
SEMIFREDDO DI NOCCIOLA 14
piedmont hazelnut, dark chocolate, grapefruit, anise mascarpone
doughnuts, rosemary, chocolate sauce, spiced honey
with poached eggs, smoked salmon and dill hollandaise
Black Label Burger $26
selection of prime dry-aged beef cuts with caramelized onions
and pommes frites
Cured foie gras with peanut banana bread and chocolate mole
Pheasant terrine with sweet potato, orange marmalade, chive shortbread and Holland chili foam
Duck confit with poached quince, watercress, and pistachio vinaigrette
Black bass with haricot vert, braised swiss chard and lobster bisque
Almond lemon cake with vanilla crème, cranberry compote and tangerine tarragon sorbet