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Big Apple is now the Big Cheese

By CHRIS SHERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 5, 2002

Like a lot of folks, eating is one of my favorite reasons to go to New York, and I always come back with a bellyful of trends.

During a visit last month, I noticed that the menu hasn't changed dramatically from last year. Maybe Sept. 11 put the endless search for the new on hold. Morels, skate, fennel, sweet peas and microgreens were still in season and in fashion -- and any Italian restaurant worth its pasta knows that sage can be as Italian as oregano.

The changes I noticed this time weren't model-year trivia but concentrated improvements in basics:

Cheese: Very good cheeses, once served only at the altar of Dean & DeLuca and a few old cheese shops, are now available in many upscale groceries and delis. Cheese plates for after dinner or lunch are laid out for yuppie ploughmen in many French and Italian restaurants.

The cheesehogs' dream is Artisanal, New York's first cheese specialty restaurant (2 Park Ave.; 212-725-8585), where the fromage cave is as large and well-tended as many wine cellars. The difference is that many of the little beauties are taken out each day and set on a huge marble slab.

The decor is brasserie French (retro tile, vintage Deco posters for Laughing Cow and lots of cheddar gold) and the menu is, too. But it's the cheeses, a picturesque stack of wheels, wedges and pyramids with reddened rinds, thin crusts, coverings of ash and chestnut leaves, that catch your eye and palate.

You can have cheese puffs to start and cheese-crusted tarte tatin to finish, assemble your own cheese plate or buy to take home.

Almost 200 cheeses, foreign and domestic, goat and sheep are on the list. I ordered a farmhouse canestrato from Italy, buttery bleu St. Agur and a slightly nutty Durrus from Ireland.

Whether they come with the names of Old World villages or New American entrepreneurs, cheese represents one of farming's most rustic and sophisticated arts. It's a food we're just beginning to appreciate again, and I'm delighted it has a new showcase.

Wine: Clever restaurateurs with the most wine smarts have stocked their lists heavily with $25-and-under bottles. Among the savvy ones plucked from odd corners of the Mediterranean at good prices included crisp whites from Turkey and the Ribeira heartland of Spain, and a bright white grenache from the island of Porquerolles off the Riviera.

Bread: After 10 years in the oven, the West Coast revolution in baking has permeated New York. The good stuff, hard of crust and deep of flavor, is everywhere.

Groceries, delis and all manner of restaurants, not just upper-crust bakeries, are stocked with real bread from French breads to crude ciabbatas. You'll find crusty Old World loaves of Italian subs and Vietnamese banh sandwiches as well. Plus fresh pita and naan too.

Service: Blame this on the terrorists, the death of irony, the Disneyfication of Broadway or a hunger for visitors, but attitude is disappearing. I won't proclaim the death of that most cherished New York virtue on the street or in all restaurant quarters, but in restaurants I contacted, the customer's wishes carried more weight than those of the server or owner.

On the phone and in person, staff was helpful and generous about reservations, cancellations and special requests.

Or how about just backing away graciously rather than pressing for an order: "I'll let you catch up on the day, the week or the years." He was right on the last one. Actually top restaurateurs around the country have promoted genuine solicitousness and friendly human contact as the key to better service -- and better business.

Names: Trendy restaurants here often boast simple one-word names, rarely tried here outside of Ybor and the clubs. But in the last year or so, artistic minimalism and the new simplicity has pared New York names further. Overlooking foreign words (Ilo or 'ino), proper nouns (Po, Jack's) and those with meaningless second words (The Grocery, Le This and Cafe That), I hunted down the sparest restaurant names I could find in the plainest English, five letters or fewer.

Cutting them down to size: Atlas, Bid, Clay, Clove, Craft, Diner, Due, East, Figs, First, Fish, good, Grace, Grove, Home, March, Merge, Pace, Pfiff, Prune, Punch, Queen, Rain, Rice, River, Snack, Spice, Town, Vine. In the abbreviation or symbolic category: A (as in the subway train), AZ, DT/UT, EAT, NL, and Y2.

Inside stuff

The Nibbler wasn't the only one hunting trends in New York. Some 100 restaurant owners crowded into Ruby Foo's at Times Square for the inside dope from trend gurus assembled by American Express.

Their bottom lines were familiar. Diners want authenticity, rustic flavors and genuinely comforting service. They want to feel like they're affluent: "It may be a $20 meal but treat me like I'm rich." The trend-spotters say diners are turning more activist (read demanding and vociferous) than ever. They talk to neighboring diners, pester waiters about passing food and complain in an instant.

One consumer's bad experience gets retold a minimum of nine times, and those statistics of "viral" marketing came from the bad old days before the Internet. Today, word-of-mouth reviews are multiplied instantly and endlessly on the Web, and that will get faster with new sites hooked to 800 numbers and cell phones.

Those are the trends. Or not, according to chef Bobby Flay of the Food Network and Bolo and Mesa Grill restaurants, who proved himself a star nay-sayer:

Comfort food: "People are not going around with their heads hung down saying, "Give me some roast chicken.' Not in New York City. They come to my restaurants for energy."

That word: "We use the word authentic a lot. We say "we're not authentic.' People don't want really authentic. They want the flavors." Some chefs he admires do achieve authentic flavors, such as Chicago's Rick Bayless, who takes his staff to Mexico annually. "I'm a thief, I steal the flavors of Spain," Flay confessed, "but I give them a dramatic Bobby Flay presentation."

Drinking: After a decade of big-brand hype that consumers are "drinking less but drinking better," Flay says no. "In my places, our experience has been people are drinking less expensive stuff."

High-tech tracking: New software can track diners' meals, bills, visits and tip percentages. Two restaurateurs raved that it helps spot unreported problems, track a forgotten wine and "personalize" service for John and Marie Diner.

Again, not Flay, who asked, "Doesn't anyone have worries about their privacy here?"

Fifteen percent for us?

Here's a great idea pitched under the rubric of "empowering the employee" and "rewarding loyalty" that even Dilbert would enjoy.

Rather than give a complimentary appetizer or other amenity to all guests, Steve Hanson, owner of Ruby Foo's at Times Square, gives servers there and at his other resataurants the chance to choose that little something extra for their tables.

It happens unannounced, two nights a week. Servers are allowed up to 15 percent of the bill to use on anything but a discount. It could be appetizers, salads, desserts or an extra bottle of wine.

It's worth trying -- and may be easier than finding fresh peas around Tampa Bay.

- Food critic Chris Sherman writes about dining and restaurant news in the Nibbler. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or by e-mail at sherman@sptimes.com.

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