Somewhere between Philadelphia and Wilmington, on a train ride from New York to DC, my brain relaxed enough that I started letting the iPod play the Bruce and Dylan while skipping the Petey Pablo and the Beastie Boys, rather than the other way around. It was in this frame of mind I started thinking about the past year and my long-neglected blog.
‘07 had high and low lights higher and lower than any other of my years thus far. In my real life my son was born, my father passed away, and my little business tripled in busyness. In my world of food two significant things happened – The New York Times mentioned this blog, and new New York restaurants turned boring.
The Times thing lost me the anonymity of going into a place as little more than an enthusiastic diner. Prior to Augieland I had developed relationships with restaurants and restaurateurs and when reporting on these particular places I took general niceness on the part of the proprietors in stride because the relationship existed pre-blog.
For the most part, I walk into any meal excited. I live in the greatest food city in the world after all and our corner joints are better than most locales’ best offerings. I wouldn’t be going somewhere I was not already a regular if there weren’t some exciting catalyst. How that zeal is managed by a place is what I liked to write about. I have turned bad times good or fallen in instant love with restaurants that successfully convinced me they were genuine. On occasion this led to some appreciative something-or-other sent by the house.
As far as reporting, I tried to mention both these scenarios in a write-up whenever they occurred, and attempted to establish if said gratuity was born of an appreciation of my business, my attitude, a mistake by the house, or had some other genesis. After the Times mention, when someone at table said “Augieland” free things started showing up from the kitchen for no good reason, and for the first time busboys started remembering my glass had the flat water; no longer was my water at the end of a meal half sparkling.
All comps seemed some attempt to curry favor, which put an end to my ability to report on what I care about for a while. Sometimes a great meal would be turned icky by free dessert and sometimes a bad meal would be made worse by a visit from a chef I didn’t yet know or want to meet. In a nutshell, if they didn’t know my real name and I didn’t have a fondness for them yet, any thing extended translated as a desire for free blog press and bred contempt in me, and Augieland is not a place for contempt, it’s a place for celebration.
The dearth of exciting new restaurants thing (and probably the nesting instinct of lost fathers and new sons) left me largely visiting old favorite haunts. To be honest, I think I have done about 70% of my dining this year at Babbo, Cru, Blue Hill, Hearth (Insieme), Strip House, and Gotham, with Cru and Babbo making up the lion’s share of that. With nothing new to captivate, what was there to report? All these places are already well covered in Augieland.
The best comparison I can make for the new restaurants of NYC ‘07 is to pop music right after ’92 – the period where, after some pretty dramatic changes of direction, the music world decided to be as boring as it could and every single note on the radio was something about a train running away that sounded the same, played by some indiscernible band I think we called “Hootie and Toad the Wet Gin Crows.” Sure there were guys doing a decent job and if you just went out and let it be the background for your nights it was fine, but contemplation revealed it as mass produced, audience targeted, and lacking art.
Augieland is only fun when considering whether the experience a place offers is a good value relative to its cost, and nothing new seemed to merit much deep thought. Remembering this was a very eventful personal year, here are the feelings I have about food ‘07, in the simple, sound-bite nutshells the year seems to deserve.
After all my friends told their friends about Augieland people started asking me, so I developed a standby list of five restaurant recommendations for the simple answer to “where should I have my -- insert your important event -- dinner.” What I have come up with is: at this time in NYC, at their current prices, enthusiastic diners won’t be let down by money spent at Cru, Blue Hill, EMP, JGV, and Masa. Sure I love dinner at other places, like Babbo, but some people want “real Italian food, not cheeks” so I can’t just recommend them blindly as I can these other five.
The bright and shining dining star of ‘07 is Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park. I am pretty sure the next guard of true fine dining in NYC will be he and Shea Gallante. I had two significant meals at EMP this year, the first being my father’s last birthday, the second my next. I was shocked by how wonderful the first was, only to have it lost in the emotion of the event of my father’s passing some three weeks later. With six months’ distance I returned for my own birthday to have my suppositions confirmed, this is one of our great places. I recommend getting the roasted duck for two and an old bottle of Rhone – it will forever be an important memory to me.
Otherwise, looking back on the year my thoughts get even shorter and are:
Tailor has a lot of promise and will be great in a year or so if it finds the right audience (one that is capable of giving good feedback that Chef Mason takes).
It is very sad Varietal did not figure out how to “work out a couple of things” fast enough.
I would say that most of the fish I had at Yasuda was of Masa’s caliber, so if all you want on a given night is fish and don’t want the pre-courses and Zen/Kaiseki-like experience of Masa, at the prices I don’t think it can be beat.
I know people love it but Le Bernardin is an overpriced hoax. Spend your fish dollars at Esca or Cru where you’ll still have half of them after ten fish courses and you will have had great food with wine lists befitting the menus’ ambition, rather than a lot of pretty good sauces presented tableside.
None of the many times trustworthy people have told me to forgive icy burrata and give Morandi another shot has been convincing enough to get me back.
There is no need to call me and tell me that after a second visit you have decided you were right the first time and WD-50 isn’t any good. Wylie does enough right that you bought food from him twice, and I like knowing he is there.
Jimmy Bradley is a hero and, as his employees of yore spread out and open more great little spots serving the foods of Sunday at Tuesday and Wednesday prices, the better our city gets. Perilla and Market Table are the unpretentious types of places needed in times when people care more about how to get into Waverly Inn than if the food is any good when they get there (it’s fine, by the way).
Borough doesn’t stand a chance if they are replacing exciting things like Cevape with things like “maybe a salad” before I even get to try them. Conviction these days needs to be in dishes like sausage and cheese sandwiches, diners are rewarding it more and more.
Gramercy Tavern’s Vegetable Menu has always been my favorite because it was born of a passion for the Greenmarket rather than an ethos. This hasn’t changed under Michael Anthony’s guard and I am delighted about that.
The white truffles so far this year have been both exceptional in quality and price. The best and most comprehensive white truffle degustation is at Cru again this year, but unlike other years no one seems to be doing a bad job with them and they seem equally dear at most of the places I have been.
The same narcissism that makes me think my thoughts on food are worth publishing here keeps me from just publishing things I think will end up trite as a result of being forced. Going forward I will probably post a lot less, but hopefully when I do my experiences will be worth the effort and will help inform your decisions on whether something is worth your hard-earned money and valuable time, or else it will just be the usual snarky crap about things like raw milk and foie that no one will let me vent anywhere else.