For years, I espoused the so-called "feedbag theory" of gastonomy -- that is, that if the food was good, it hardly mattered what the room looked like. But I am pretty much alone in this. Most high-end New York restaurants are gorgeously, cunningly designed. And some are masterpieces. These are the latter.
Whether you swoon for its 4 star food, or find it, as I do, somewhat over manicured, there is no question that this is one of the great restaurants in America. The room itself has a grandeur that is unmatched and the level of service is unparalelled. So is the price, so maybe come here on an expense account or with a wealthy uncle.
Daniel is a hard restaurant to characterize. It's probably the standard by which all Michelin 3-star food in New York is judged, when service, atmosphere, wine, and everything else is taken into account. The food is precise, globalist, and executed with the very utmost extent of French technical skill. But from a purely culinary point of view, I always found it somewhat disappointing. When they do the kind of glorified Lyonnais or country French food Daniel Boulud does better than anybody else, the place is unbeatable; but too often I feel that there is no real point of view. Flavors and traditions jump from course to course, and you are left without a real sense of where the kitchen is coming from -- which is not to say the food isn't delicious. But it always seemed a little overconceived and perhaps a little overelaborate. That said, this is probably the ultimate New York restaurant experience.
Le Grenouille, in many ways the consummate French restaurant, still maintains much of its airy, elegant charm, like an octogenarian dowager in flawless, vintage Chanel. Its flowers are as towering as ever, its waiters as suave, and its execution of old-time French standards pretty much on point. Still, the food isn't really the point.
Maybe the defining mid-century New York restaurant, The Four Seasons continues to be a gathering place for the most powerful and wealthy of Manhattan grandees. The food, as always, is an afterthought, but there is no better place to have a martini.
Public is one place that definitely deserves the "better than it has to be" award. The room is the very essence of the retro style pioneered by the influential design firm AvRoKo -- no surprise, since its founder, Adam Farmerie, is the brother of Public's chef-owner, Brad Farmerie. The latter does adventurous modernist food made with far greater care and imagination that one would expect from a restaurant this pretty on such a chic block of Nolita. The cocktails are also very high-concept. Some nights you'd rather have a steak and a Rob Roy -- and if that's the case, go someplace else. Public doesn't take the easy way.
The big prestige restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Asiate has what is undoubtedly one of, if not the best view in New York. It's utterly weatherproof, so watching a storm here is an especially perverse pleasure, one that makes you feel almost godlike in your power. It's great on a nice night too. But plan on bringing a bag of krugerands to pay for your meal.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten's biggest, prettiest restaurant was a joint effort with the great Gray Kunz and its brilliant Asian-fusion menu, a tribute to the street food of southeast asia, has some of the most sophisticated food of any such restaurant in town, despite all the tourists. The vegetarian tasting menu is one of the best in town, and the only one that can really be called cool in any sense.
This rustic temple to seasonal cookery in the old Rockefeller estate has been called the culinary Storm King, but really, it's closer to a local food holy site. It's unspeakably beautiful and the food is well worth the long ride, but there's a certain seriousness of purpose here that sort of take away the fun for me.
GILT is a strange case. One of the city's most ambitious, advanced, and best kitchens produces some of the most startlingly good food to diners in a freakishly strange and beautiful room -- and nobody knows about it. Maybe it's because it's hidden in the Palace Hotel, a private preserve of rich eurotrash types. Whatever! Go there when you are eatin on an expense account or with a rich friend looking for something different. Because this place really is.
Any establishment owned by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter is bound to have an A-list crowd, and that, rather than the middling cocktails or unexceptional food, is the point of Monkey Bar and restaurants like it.
The Hurricane Club may be seen by some as a gaudy watering hole for woo girls and their beefy swains, chef Craig Koketsu has created a quality menu that is at the same time fun -- and the cocktails are a hoot too.
Though it is, undeniably a big-box restaurant, Megu is a very fine, very committed, and quite authentic tribute to the best of Japanese cuisine -- as its frequent patronage by Japanese nationals attests.