Have you ever been to one of those parties where everybody asks you what you've been reading, or if you've seen any good movies? Because if you're in New York City anywhere around what has become known as Beard Weekend, that slip of time between the James Beard media and cookbook award banquet that generally takes place on Friday, and the James Beard restaurant awards on Monday, “Where have you eaten?” is a question that will be asked 100 times, in detail perhaps more probing than anything you had in mind.
If you answered Marea or the Breslin, it meant you were visiting last year's restaurants, that you were out of it enough to believe crudo or stuffed pig's trotters were still relevant. If you answered Torrisi, the Little Italy sandwich shop whose antipasti have become the obsession of a certain downtown crowd, you were doing better. Torrisi is frightfully hard to get into, and the very fact that you were there meant you believed in the perfectibility of the turkey sandwich, which is a very romantic notion.
Eataly was still a good answer: Mario Batali's throbbing food hall is still new enough and strange enough to elicit sighs of admiration from your peers, although one is given to understand that you are supposed to have eaten at the vegetable concession, Le Verdure, rather than the beef tasting menu at Manzo. WD-50 is the middle-aged restaurant you were supposed to visit — modernist cuisine has slipped back into the foodist consciousness, and WD-50 chef Wylie Dufresne is one of the American masters. Nobody was talking much about the French guys this year, although La Caravelle was said to be making a comeback. The hip reference was to the strange Northern Chinese goings-on at the new food courts out in Flushing.
As always, the Beard Weekend made me feel as if I had slipped a little behind in my eating, as if permanent residence in L.A. had left me unable to form meaningful opinions on the best Uzbek restaurants in Rego Park or the new Ghanian places. I hadn't even gotten to Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson's new soul food place up in Harlem: a Swedish-raised Ethiopian's take on chicken 'n' waffles for a mostly white clientele in a historically black neighborhood. I made it into Lincoln, the new glass-box restaurant behind Avery Fisher Hall, only for a Negroni, although it was a very good Negroni.
I landed at least a couple of times at Dutch, a kind of American restaurant in Soho run by Andrew Carmellini, who proved his command of rigorous French cooking as the chef at Café Boulud, and apparently figured out how to transfer that technique to a kind of deconstructed menudo garnished with avocado and Fritos, to jiggling-fresh ravioli stuffed with smoked ricotta, and to a dish of dressed crab served with a Bloody Mary–influenced tomato gelée that was one of the best crab salads I've ever tasted.
An old friend snuck me into a pre-opening dinner at Boulud Sud, a new Provençal dining room from Daniel Boulud, whose Daniel is one of the country's best French restaurants. That turned out to be a mistake, not because the charred Spanish mackerel and chorizo-stuffed baby squid weren't delicious (they were), or because the forest-green Provençal felafel wasn't great, or that the jellied cow's muzzle with zucchini wasn't an inspired bit of charcuterie, but because critics shouldn't hang out at dress rehearsal.
Robert Sietsema, my equivalent at The Village Voice, did drag me to M Wells, an old Airstream diner in Queens that has become famous for its versions of the meaty Québécois dishes made famous at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. I was impressed with a presentation of roasted marrow bones spiked with snails, a layering of mucusoid textures whose virtuosity could only be applauded, as well as pickled pig's tongue with mustard; hand-slivered beef tartare; and a bowl of herbed tripe tossed with long-cooked broccoli and smoked herring. New York Times critic Sam Sifton liked M Wells so much that he refused to leave one evening when it seemed as if the restaurant might have been on fire, and after visiting, I can see Sifton's logic — he could have missed out on the banana cream pie.
And would it be disingenuous of me to claim that the single best bite of the weekend, which was part of the street-food celebration after the awards put together in part by Street's Susan Feniger, was a lacquered pork-belly bánh mì assembled by L.A.'s own Octavio Becerra of Palate? I was proud, I was hungry, and damn, did that sandwich taste like home.