The following was written before September 11th, 2001
Like most New Yorkers, I can't afford those restaurants that garner plaudits in Zagat's. I've made some peace with that. After all, I'm less a foodie than a chowhound, scouting outer-borough ethnic eats on the weekends.
At lunch, I usually brown-bag it or grab a $2.25 rice and beans from the nearest Chinese-run Mexican joint. (Finally, after a decade in New York, I'm a regular at a restaurant. Of course, it's the Fresco Tortilla Grill.)
Still, I feel I'm somehow missing out by not visiting those Zagat-worthy places. I can't help but wonder how the other half (OK, sliver) lives, and eats. Fortunately, the city1s tourism and restaurant titans figured out how to bridge that gap: Restaurant Week, the now biannual opportunity to get three-course lunches for around 20 bucks. (This year the charge is $20.01, to conform to the year, and while Summer Restaurant Week was in June, several restaurants offer bargain meals through Labor Day and even the end of the year. See www.restaurantweek.com)
So, in visits to spaces like the vaunted Tabla and the soaring Guastavino, or in sampling ingenious flavor combinations or Mondrian-meets-Pollock dessert displays, I have come to experience what I call "ritzing", the inverse of "slumming". And just as slumming has its hazards, I've found that ritzing inevitably involves some frustration, even humiliation.
Even though I don a jacket (and sometimes even a tie), the restaurants seem to sense that I'm a temporary foodie. In early January, I called the Gramercy Tavern for a 1 p.m. Winter Restaurant Week reservation. Two days before the big day, I got a call from the restaurant, asking me to confirm my 1:30 p.m. reservation. I protested weakly about the time. "Wishful thinking," I was told. Perhaps they'd made a mistake; then again, maybe they bumped this ritzer for a regular.
The Gramercy Tavern, like a few exemplary Restaurant Week participants, offers an entire menu for the prix fixe. Most, however, provide a separate mini-menu with two or three choices for appetizer, entrée, and dessert. Remi, a midtown Italian restaurant on 53rd Street, goes one better, confining bargain-seekers to the Rialto Room, with a separate entrance on 54th Street.
Because I did not cite Restaurant Week when I made my reservation, hoping not to be pegged as a peon, I was taken aback by the high-priced menu we were given in the main dining room. We were then led by a haughty, beautiful staffer through swinging doors in the back of the room, past the kitchen, to the prix fixe Rialto Room.
The food at Remi was great, as it is at most of these restaurants. However, the size of portions varies greatly. The steakhouse Angelo & Maxie's provided a decent slab of meat but charged us for the sides. More common were the portion sizes at the steakhouses Ben Benson's, which supplied a few lame slices of filet mignon, and Peter Luger, whose steak sandwich was a far cry from the famed porterhouse.
A typical ritzing lunch includes a good-sized appetizer and dessert, plus an architectural entrée of lilliputian proportions. I've long suspected that orders from the regular menu mean bigger portions, and I recently found confirmation. At Tabla, both prix fixe appetizers were notably skimpy, so we ordered an extra appetizer from the regular menu. It was far more substantial.
I know the restaurants must make a profit and thus can't serve huge cuts of meat or fish. Still, while some of my female friends, pronounce a petite portion of fish just perfect, outside of visits to the Bobby Flay enterprises Mesa Grill and Bolo, I've rarely gone home sated from Restaurant Week meals unless I've emptied the breadbasket.
Most of these restaurants have their own dessert chefs, and dessert is often the clear star of the meal. How about that mango sorbet? Or the combo of grapefruit/litchi/lime? At the mix'n'match Craft, we were allowed to order from two separate columns, the most generous dessert course yet.
Service is usually charming and competent, but sometimes there's an undercurrent of resentment, a raised eyebrow when I don't order the usual wine or coffee, or look distracted while a waiter recites a list of not-to-be-considered specials. Indeed, last year the Times reported that waitstaff loathe us ritzers for lingering at tables (not me) and tipping small (this year I tipped 20 percent).
I've forgotten the food at Estatiorio Milos, but I remember the eternal wait for service. And even if service and food are stellar, there are other ways to pull rank: the much-lauded Union Square Café seated us in the upstairs grotto.»
The most-coveted restaurants participate only in Restaurant Week, but there's ritzing aplenty at other times. The Flatiron newcomer Aleutia, an apparent hipster paradise at night, was nearly empty for a Tuesday lunch in April, perhaps because the air temperature was inadvertently Aleutian. The salad andsorbet were superb, though the fish portion was small; still, the notably attentive servers managed to keep us fed in bread.
Then came a trip to the Latin fusion restaurant Patria, where, because we were on an expense account, my companion and I compensated for the prix fixe by ordering the most expensive wine available. The fish entrée was of typical bonsai proportions, laid out on an enormous plate like some minor sun in an interplanetary system. The dessert was inventive: the mole ice cream exhibited a palate of flavors unknown to Ben and Jerry, while the white chocolate tamal exhibited no discernible chocolate taste. (White chocolate, my friend declared, is "conceptual.")
Still, over several years of ritzing, my most memorable meals have come during official Restaurant Week. At AZ, the Asian fusion restaurant in the Flatiron district, the meal went perfectly. Not only were the portions decent, the menu options extensive, and the service attentive, we two were seated in a lovely booth that could easily fit four. It's a new restaurant, my companion observed; maybe they try harder.
Still, my most satisfying ritzing experience came at the aforementioned Gramercy Tavern, where the pecking order had been established on the phone, then maintained by the haughty coat check lady and the cordial, oh-so-groomed maitre'd's. Though my friend and I ordered the lamb and the steak, respectively, from our waitress, the male server, as if practicing some form of culinary dyslexia, brought us lamb and skate.
I ordered the steak, I said, but was told no, I had the skate. (I neglected to point out that nobody orders skate "medium-well".) Given my hunger and apparent Pavlovian compliance at this restaurant, I decided to welcome the dish, which was fine. A few minutes later, our waitress returned and apologized, adding that my unserved steak waited in the kitchen.
I might want it, she said, pointing to my nearly finished skate and adding that portions aren't so large. I said yes, and the double entrée made for a filling meal, not to mention some karmic triumph.
After the bombing, we were urged to get back to normal, to spend money, to go to TriBeCa. As if it could be normal, when you could turn a corner on Greenwich Street and see the charred skeleton of 5 WTC. When the restaurants turned into impromptu canteens for the rescue workers. When the air remained smoky and metallic.
If this was patriotism, it was a self-indulgent version, but I went back. Some restaurants extended the prix fixe to the end of the year. At the Duane Park Cafe, on the first week it reopened, we watched a heartfelt reunion between a couple of regulars and the proprietor. We newcomers got a sincere thank you. The TriBeCa grill was half-full, the service excellent, the portions large. (I actually didn't finish that Thai beef salad.) The dessert duo was a Hobson's choice between creme brulee and a figs/shortbread/port combo. They brought us a plate of cookies as an extra. Nice.
Then in mid-October, they revived Restaurant Week, for two weeks. Montrachet and Chantarelle were full, so we tried Capsouto Frères, way west on Washington Street. The walk took us past Nino's, the all-purpose canteen for rescue workers. At the high-ceilinged restaurant, amidst the ladies doing lunch, a huge table of rescue workers gathered, wearing portable phones and drinking Cokes. The generous proprietor hovered welcomingly. For us ritzers, the food was good, but the portions small—that petite serving of fish again. As we back on Canal Street, we saw some workers firing up an outdoor grill for the rescue workers. Maybe the guys at Capsoutu Frères could get seconds.
On the Friday before New Year’s, I took my first trip to Nobu, solo. The handsome space was still packed at 2 p.m., but I got a seat at the sushi bar. The prix fixe - salad and miso soup, teriyaki/rice/tempura - was solid, though it sure took a while to arrive. And, despite the extra courses, I was a little disappointed that there was no dessert. Still, it’s hard to feel churlish when you sit at a nice meal and read "Portraits of Grief" in the Times.
Winter Restaurant Week starts January 28, and it's two weeks long.