the year i ate new york

All the ‘Love Letters to New York’

Restaurants have fallen for the phrase — but it doesn’t mean much.

An early version of Tatiana’s chopped cheese with truffles. Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland
An early version of Tatiana’s chopped cheese with truffles. Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland

Is there an American city that loves itself more than New York? There certainly isn’t one with as much confidence. (We have these things called bodegas — have you heard of them?) In spite of rats as fat as size-12 Crocs and a chaotic mayor straight out of a Batman comic, the love the inhabitants have for their city may be its greatest self-replenishing resource. Restaurants are one of the most reliable stages for this romance, and after lockdown — when so many of the great pleasures of living here became verboten — the very assertion of loving New York has become a defining characteristic of the post-pandemic era. What better way to declare your ambitions as a canonical New York restaurant than by referencing the city itself?

Metropolis by Marcus Samuelsson (yes, that is its full government name) has made one such salvo inside the newly opened Perelman Performing Arts Center, the glowing, modular cube that looks as though a benevolent alien mothership made landfall in lower Manhattan. That mid-century space-age quality continues inside with ribbons of sapele wood and LED lights leading into a dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows. This is big-money heft to amp up the drama of a pretheater drink. The menu has a United Nations breadth to it with Spanish-accented chistorra in “blanketed franks,” smoked hamachi tacos, and a tiger curry squash. How do so many disparate ideas cohere? “This is a love letter to New York,” explained our waiter, employing the very specific phrase that I’ve heard in a number of restaurants lately (and which echoes the theme of Alison Roman’s recent nuptials). Functionally speaking, this strikes me as a clever way to say “New American” — a way to create permission for cultural promiscuity while dodging accusations of appropriation. Since New York is a city of immigrants, saucing a lamb dish with kare kare sauce or making a Cantonese lobster pasta to invoke Chinatown haunts can instead be interpreted through the soft focus of homage.

Some of it works better than others: “Flushing-style” XO sauce overwhelmed some oysters, but I could snack forever on fried olives dipped into everything-bagel mayo while sipping a bubblegum sour, a cocktail with a brain-fritzing charm. Maybe the most hackneyed moment of the night occurred when the waiter whispered in our ear that there was only one Dover sole left in a continuation of restaurateurs’ ongoing love affair with peddling the flatfish since the glory days of La Grenouille. Still, we were taken in by his showmanship. “This is the king,” he proclaimed while setting the dish down, and we all had that sobering déjà vu … It’s a fish. In this case, one served with a good chunk of the tail shorn off (shark attack?). Yes, there’s a beautiful ceramic sauceboat with an almond beurre blanc, grilled pencil leeks, and pommes soufflées as crunchy as a Terra chip. But the fish, $145 before tax and tip, suddenly looked smaller and more homely than it should, like meeting a man who claims he’s 5’11” on Tinder.

In some ways, the concept at Metropolis felt like a more generic version of Tatiana by Kwame Onwuachi, which opened late last year as a culinary anchor in another one of the city’s grand arts institutions at the David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center. What gives idiosyncrasies their weight is the force of specificity behind them, and Onwuachi has been adept at selling his biography since his run on Top Chef: Creole cooking by way of his mother, Nigerian by way of his father, and the city of New York by way of his childhood. Hence, egusi stew stuffed into wonton wrappers live alongside a butter-leaf salad tossed with shiso and saltfish, and oxtail-and-crab rangoons with pimento cheese. Anything braised is divine, like the oxtails in a sticky, deep-brown gravy with coconut-scented rice studded with pigeon peas, and the tender goat inside a flaky patty. But the bodega might be the real font of inspiration here: The chopped-cheese sandwich made with Taleggio, dry-aged rib eye, shredded lettuce, and shaved truffles inside of a kaiser roll is stupidly good. She is a diva.

Yet there’s no doubt that the greatest part of Tatiana is the other diners. Getting in has been one of the more trying tasks this year: I have waited with multiple alarms, Resy notifications, and sweaty fingers to no avail. So I did it the old-fashioned way last Friday and waited on line. Upon arrival around sunset at 4:45 p.m., there was already a queue 50 people deep. Still, the good mood was impenetrable, because nobody was going to waste their ’fits. The maître d’ quoted us a four-hour wait that turned out to be two — just long enough to have to leave a screening of Anatomy of a Fall midway through — and allowed us to reunite with our former linemates for a seat at the drink rail. We had been through the trenches and made it to the other side. By the end, the gold heels were coming off and we were all wiggling to Ashanti.

Whereas Tatiana had a strong sense of self, Clara, the new restaurant in the New-York Historical Society, feels more wayward. Named after Clara Driscoll, the designer of the Tiffany lamps displayed in the museum, initially the menu seemed to be a callback to the Gilded Age with dishes like a remixed lobster Newburg, where the tail would be stuffed with shrimp paste and tempura-fried. During my recent visit, the menu was in the midst of an overhaul — the lobster had been 86’d, as had much of the cocktail menu. One of the surviving vestiges was the Waldorf salad, which was so literal it was hard to discern what the point of all of it was, particularly when served next to a barley with smoked labneh, carrot tartare with shiso, and a honeynut squash with polenta and cheese foam. I’m not sure Ms. Driscoll would have known what to do with all that.

I don’t think there’s any restaurant that is more ready to inscribe itself into the history of the city than Torrisi. This is the grander, Barbenheimer version of the cooking Rich Torrisi started doing, just down the street at Torrisi Italian Specialties, in 2009. References, puns, and in-jokes abound: the sliced boar’s head on rye, chopped liver and Manischewitz, Nha Trang octopus (a reference to the Baxter Street restaurant), duck à la Mulberry, and even the light puffs of zeppole that arrive with slices of both Italian and American ham. (Get it?) The terroir that Torrisi is mining begins in Little Italy and winds its way around Chinatown. The technique helps the jokes to land — cartoonishly pillowy tortellini; the greatest fro-yo ever — and the effect is mystifying, like being in a New York City restaurant about a New York City restaurant.

The high glitz of the Puck Building space and charismatic service all conspire to leave you with the very specific sensation that you’re on a movie set where you’re at once the main character and a background actor. Where else could you possibly want to be?

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