William Skidelsky eats a giant steak in New York
The quintessence of New York: a bloody, buttery, monstrous steak
If you want an objective assessment of New York's cooking, it's probably best not to ask a New Yorker. Most New Yorkers, as I discovered during my first trip there recently, subscribe to a monotheistic world-view, at the root of which is the belief that New York (or "The City", as they invariably refer to it, suggesting that theirs is the only one that counts) is "the best city in the world". From this follow several conclusions, among them the belief that any given activity - be it cooking, cleaning or traffic management - will, if undertaken by a New Yorker, necessarily be accomplished better than if undertaken by anyone else.
In the arena of cooking, this results in some extraordinary judgements. As one inhabitant of the city explained to me: "The immigrants who arrive in New York generally have access to better ingredients and so on than they do in their native countries, and so, once here, their cooking improves. So it's fair to say that Chinese, Italian and Polish restaurants in New York will be better than those in China, Italy and Poland."
When confronted with such colossal arrogance, entirely unencumbered by empirical verification, the temptation is to reject it out of hand. I would like to be able to say that the food in New York is truly appalling, worse than any I have ever eaten. But as this would merely replicate the bias displayed by most New Yorkers, I won't do that. Instead, I shall endeavour to be objective. New York, it's fair to say, is a good city for food. It is probably not an "incredible" one, nor even "completely amazing", but in terms both of quality and variety, it definitely ain't bad.
What I shall say, however, is this: when it comes to moderation, we Europeans win hands down. Subtlety is not a value prized by many New Yorkers. Big flavours are the order of the day, with a mammoth helping of outlandish combinations on the side. There is a logical explanation for this. European cooking is the product of centuries of evolution. Our experience has taught us that there is a limit to experimentation. New Yorkers, on the other hand, have left such Old World prissiness behind. For them, it really is a case of anything goes.
So it is hardly surprising that fusion cooking should be all the rage on New York's dining scene. During my stay, I visited a restaurant called Aquavit, on 13th West and 54th Street, which is garnering rave reviews. The chef, Marcus Samuelsson, who is of Ethiopian descent, grew up in Sweden and is a great lover of sushi. He reflects this in his cooking, which is a curious amalgamation of Scandinavian and Japanese styles. The combination isn't entirely successful. Scandinavian and Japanese cooking both have a tendency towards blandness (all that raw fish and pickled vegetables) and, when combined, the effect is merely intensified. Given that the whole point of fusion cooking is to explore the idea of contrast, it stands to reason that one shouldn't combine cuisines that are naturally similar.
Another restaurant, Artisanal (on Park Avenue), illustrated something else New Yorkers love: gimmickry. The place is basically a conventional bistro, but with a "special feature" (every bar and restaurant in New York has a "special feature") - in this case, cheese. From a chill counter at the front, diners can select from more than 200 samples. Many of the main dishes have also been adapted to include cheese.
Artisanal was pretty good, but it wasn't until I ate at a restaurant in Brooklyn called Peter Luger (178 Broadway) that I felt I had arrived at the quintessence of New York. Peter Luger is situated in a graffiti-line neighbourhood (Wall Street is just a pop across the Brooklyn Bridge - handy for traders) and has
been specialising in the same thing - Porterhouse steak - for more
than 100 years. Other dishes are available, but the waiters give you a withering look if you ask for them. My friend and I had to stand in line for a table, yet the steak, when it came - buttery,
bloody and monstrous - was just about the best I had ever eaten.
Here at last was a restaurant to justify the way New Yorkers feel about their city. "This steak," I announced to my companion with a faraway look, "may just be the best in the world."