In Manhattan, fall is the season when the big restaurant openings traditionally happen, when the megalithic new canteens in the Meatpacking District open for business, the latest whims of Food Network–blessed chefs are realized in granite, steel and Berkshire pork, and the gossip columns wheezingly unveil the latest in elite haunts. The current hot tickets include the first American restaurant from Hell’s Kitchen auteur Gordon Ramsay, king of the cannon of lamb; a hidden Chelsea den that reportedly admits only billionaires and supermodels; yet another remodel of the Russian Tea Room; and a new West Village restaurant so exclusive that all reservations must be personally vetted by the owner, who edits Vanity Fair in his spare time. The West L.A. sushi bar Sasabune also opened a branch in New York, joining Masa, Koi and Matsuhisa among other Japanese Los Angeles transplants. New Yorkers may not think much of our pizza, but they seem to care deeply for our raw fish.
This fall in New York, though, whenever you rubbed two chefs together, the talk in the restaurants was all about the Michelin stars — who got them but didn’t deserve them (La Goulue), who deserved them but didn’t get them (Union Square Café) and who deserved a third star (Daniel). Andrew Carmellini, whose newish A Voce earned a star this year, at first seemed to shrug off the honor, but looked as pleased as a kid with a new bicycle when he was reminded of it. The Web site for the Spotted Pig, a profoundly uncomfortable Village pub that happens to serve wonderful Italian food, sported a banner saying “We kept our Michelin star.” The night I ate at Del Posto, the expensive new restaurant from Babbo’s Mario Batali, the basement dining room was packed with chefs celebrating the restaurant’s two-star rating, which must have been particularly sweet for Batali after Del Posto had been slammed by every critic in New York. Nobody had paid much attention to the star ratings in the first edition of the New York Michelin Red Guide when it came out last fall — some of the judgments were just too weird, although not nearly as weird as the stars awarded in this year’s San Francisco guide — but in its second year, the Michelin stars took on weight and importance, possibly outranking even Zagat rankings and New York Times stars in the heart of the New York food community.
Of course, the Guide Michelin, as it’s known in Europe, is the definitive guide to restaurants in France, even to people who consider the book’s taste to be too conservative, rewarding a restaurant’s napery and massive flower arrangements as much as it does its cuisine. Dinner at a three-star restaurant, the highest ranking, may often be less a meal than it is the celebration of an ancient ceremonial rite, but the parameters are well understood.
The meal at Del Posto was wonderful — Parma prosciutto wrapped around the Emilian fritter called gnoccho, spinach-infused garganelli sauced with an impeccable Bolognese, the most spectacular truffled chicken anybody could remember eating, plus an old bottle of Brunello — and the grand, balconied dining room was elegant as anything devised by Cecil Beaton, like those Continental 1930s ballrooms Fred and Ginger tripped around. Even if you prefer the funky, organ-intensive cooking at Batali’s Babbo, and I suspect that I might, Del Posto promises and delivers a level of luxurious Italian cuisine probably absent in the United States since Rex in downtown Los Angeles closed a decade ago. Two stars at least, although you’d probably want somebody else to pick up the check. (Thanks, Ruth!)
The late-night dinner at Spotted Pig, a noisy, rock-blaring bar that takes no reservations, was also splendid, although occasionally the excellence of the fresh mozzarella with oozing roasted-pepper crostini, the gently spiced razor-clam brodetto and the pan-fried quail was undercut by the tiny milkmaid’s stools that pass for chairs in the tavern. At A Voce, a corporate-feeling Madison Square–area Italian restaurant owned by the French-trained Carmellini, who made his bones as the chef at the also-Michelin-starred Café Boulud, I ate the most delicious Sardinian sheep-milk ricotta scooped up with chunks of grilled bread, a properly stinky bowl of Roman-style tripe with mint, and a foie-gras-spiked rabbit terrine that bore a suspicious resemblance to a slab of rillettes. Earthy, luscious, Italian. Insurance executives have their romantic sides too.
My VillageVoice colleague Robert Sietsema treated me to a bargain $24 prix-fixe lunch at Perry Street, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant in one of the Richard Meier–designed buildings near the new Hudson River Park. The meal included not only the most delicious little balls of house-made mozzarella with grapefruit, roast arctic char in a spiced carrot broth and poached chicken garnished with lacquered slivers of its own skin, but the experience of eavesdropping on designer Tom Ford in the next booth, dishing dirt on Mitzi Gaynor of all people. Who could begrudge Perry Street its new star?
A Voce, 41 Madison Ave., New York, (212) 545-8555.
Del Posto, 85 Tenth Ave., New York, (212) 497-8090.
Perry Street, 176 Perry St., at West Street, ? West Village, (212) 352-1900.
The Spotted Pig, 314 W. 11th St., New York, (212) 620-0393.