food 09.27.06

Big Giants, Little Giants

There's a theory we've heard that theater flourishes under Democratic administrations and withers under Republican ones. We've haven't invested much time on that one, but there's perhaps some truth to it, since Dems are more likely to fund arts programs federally.

Lately we've been wondering if there might not be some backdraft between politics and restaurants. When Lonesome Dove opened recently, not incidentally an import from Texas, it was duly touted by the Quotidian Confection and ilk, but we found its arrival depressing. What's happened to New York restaurants?

In the 1980s, it was all about those vast, roaring places, epitomized by our least favorite restaurant ever, Cafe Seiyokan. They weren't about food, they were about theater, and we're not talking great theater, we're talking dinner theater. The smaller, more personal restaurants (we're generalizing quite a bit here, of course) didn't stage a comeback until the '90s. In the past few years, it's been the large, overwrought eateries that have elbowed their way back into the spotlight. Big hair, big restaurants? You tell us.

If we're being completely honest, the American restaurant we'd most want to eat at tonight isn't in New York at all — it's Delfina in San Francisco. It's not that there aren't talented chefs around; the city has an absolutely incredible field of talent behind its ranges. It's that the market has, for the moment, moved away from the more idiosyncratic kind of places that we love, such as the late Follonico, to name one. (There are some flourishing right now, of course: Little Owl, the just-opened Boqueria, Five Points, Little Giant, The Tasting Room, and Extra Virgin jump to mind).

But take a look at Gourmet's picks of the country's Top 50 Restaurants: nothing around here has caused the buzz of Chicago's Alinea. There are four New York restaurants in the top 10: Per Se, Masa, Daniel, Le Bernardin — all fine restaurants certainly, but all event restaurants, and all well-established — no surprises like Alinea. As for the rest of that list, Babbo, Jean Georges, Gramercy Tavern are on it — again, all wonderful places, but where are the exciting young chefs bursting out of the pack?

What we see missing from the landscape is located somewhere between Alinea and Delfina: a place you go a couple of times a month because the food is imaginative or comfortable, the decor is imaginative and comfortable, and the staff knows you, and you go because you had a particularly bad day, or a particularly good one. That kind of place.

If we were In Charge of Things, we'd never have installed Paul Liebrandt at Gilt (was there ever a more Reagan-era-sounding name?). Instead, we'd pair him up with pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, find a place downtown, say on Washington Street, build them an amazing kitchen, a cool-looking but unpretentious dining room, steal the Danny Meyer service playbook, and ignore food costs for as long as we could. Who knows what you'd get — it wouldn't exactly be the small, personal restaurant we dream about, but it would be some show.
It took less than an hour for our incredibly generous MUG readers to fund the $941 via Donor's Choose to help the 6th grade teacher in the Bronx buy reading books for the class. We'll let you know what effects those books have when we get word. It all happened so quickly that we overshot the mark before we could close the challenge. That means we have $219 still to allocate. We thought we'd do another challenge in mid-December — we'll give those who donated priority in suggesting how that money should be spent. $941 may not be a lot of money in the scheme of things, but it's a lot of money when you don't have it. We couldn't be happier to have helped out one city classroom and thank you so much for making it possible.


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