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USA - East Coast


 

New York City

Per Se, Time Warner Building, 10 Columbus Circle. Tel: 212/823.9335
Having eaten and enjoyed dinner in Napa's
French Laundry on a couple of occasions, I was delighted to secure a table at Chef Tom Keller's New York sister establishment, which opened in February 2004. Per Se is the urban alter ego of The French Laundry: the ambiance and setting could not be more different, and yet so many things are the same. Whilst the French Laundry is set in a rural, historic and fairly modest building, Per Se is conceived on a much grander scale, a soaring, opulent space within the showy Time Warner complex, set on the southwest corner of Central Park. But the true soul of this place is in the detail. Seated at your table in the glamorous dining room with its glittering views over Manhattan, and the same discreet, charming and friendly service soon blows away any fears that this place will be style over substance. Every member of staff was relaxed and utterly charming, our waiter returning with a hand-written list of favourites when we asked him to recommend a steak house for a true NYC experience. A glass of Pierre Gimmenet Cote a Cote Champagne 2005 was perfect as we settled in an enjoyed some beautiful canapés including cornets of Scottish salmon with red onion crème fraîche and warm gougères. Then started an absolutely brilliant meal, purportedly of nine courses, but in fact I lost count at 15. A creamy Tahitian squash velouté was laced with black truffle, pumpkin seeds and hazelnuts, whilst sushi of fluke came with compressed English cucumber and pickled ginger. It was intense, sweet and brimming with flavour. Tiny Nantucket scallops came with a light but deep watercress purée and grapefruit salad, whilst a ragout of black winter truffles sat in a truffle custard. Many French Laundry favourites appear too, including the always delightful Oysters and pearls - the most buttery, sweet tapioca cream, salty Sevruga caviar and lightly cooked Island Creek oysters. Of the main courses (slightly more substantial portions) roasted Portuguese turbot was a highlight, cooked simply but perfectly with Swiss chard and a beurre rouge (red wine butter) and I loved the Snake River Farms Calotte de Boeuf, grilled and served with a bone marrow pudding, little Japanese Hakurei turnips and a sour cherry jus. Somehow, the pacing of the meal, the small portions (many are no more than one or two spoonfuls) and the relaxed atmosphere is enough to keep the appetite alive and well, even when faced with several desserts and cheese courses. My favourite was probably another signature dish of 'coffee and doughnuts' (little cinnamon-dusted doughnuts with a cappuccino semifreddo) that brought a real smile to my face. We had a tour of the enormous kitchen with its own temperature controlled chocolatier, bakery and butchery, where head chef Eli Kaimeh works the pass beneath a large monitor beaming live pictures direct from the French Laundry kitchen in Napa. My expectations of Per Se had been high, though a little murmur of doubt wondered if Keller and his team could successfully transfer the special magic of the French Laundry to the other side of the country. Any doubts were simply blown away: this is a brilliant dining experience serving some of the world's most sophisticated, but in its way unpretentious, food. The magic is there. The menu costs $275 per person including service. The wine list is all-encompassing and advice from the sommelier team well worth listening too, as many wine pairings and by the glass offerings can be rustled up like magic. (2010)

Alto, 11 East 53rd Street (between Madison and Fifth Avenue). Tel: 212/308.1099
Named after the Alto Adige region in northern Italy, this two-Michelin-starred restaurant is smart and comfortable, with a cool palate of pastel colours and subdued lighting. Executive chef and co-owner Michael White overseas a menu that pays homage to northern Italian cuisine, but which is resolutely modern and open to other influences, and which displays a lightness of touch throughout the menu. I started with seared scallops, which were beautifully cooked to a golden crispness on the outside, served with grappa-soaked raisins and toasted marcona almonds. I followed this with a pasta dish of duck and foie gras ravioli doused in melted butter and sage, with a red wine jus. My main course was sensational: a block of alabaster-like bone-marrow crusted halibut that was served with roasted salsify, broccoli rabe (a leafy, green member of the mustard family) and a deeply-flavoured wild plum jus. To finish a clear, concise and beautifully balanced meal, pumpkin cheesecake was a proper baked version but was light and slender and the perfect, tapering conclusion to the meal. The wine list is excellent (and obviously the passion of sommelier Eric Zillier) with a heavy bias towards Italy, but a really interesting and globe-trotting selection that spans both verticals of the great and the good of world wine, and some quirkier exploration of less well-known corners. Good by the glass options too. The four course menu costs $84, with a seven course tasting menu available at $130. (2010)

The River Café, One Water Street, Brooklyn. Tel: 718/522.5200
The River Café did not have its Michelin star the last time I ate there, which I think was in the late 1990s. But my memories of its absolutely magical setting, tucked beneath the Brooklyn bridge with views back to Manhattan, drew me back. The restaurant has been here since the 1970s, when it shared this part of the Brooklyn waterfront with warehouses and working wharfs. Today it is a little more chic around here, but the building and its extensive gardens looked exactly the same as on my previous visit. We were seated efficiently by the window, and the welcome was warm and friendly. I kicked off with   
a terrine of goat's cheese, potato and crisp pancetta which was a lovely melange of flavours and textures, served with cubes of golden beets, leaves and edible flowers. For my main course I kept things very simple and have to say I am so glad that I did. Whilst my dining companion's fish and seafood dishes were all pronounced as very good, my 'Lobster and Lobster' was just sensational: a whole tail of lobster in a lemon butter sauce with salad of raw green beans and sugar snap peas, plus a lobster sandwich. The sandwich was just heavenly: beautiful, sweet lobster meat in a light mayo, in perfect rounds of butter-fried brioche. Calories? Cholesterol? Off the scale no doubt, but what a dish. Passing on dessert (at least one moment of lucidity) I finished with good espresso and thoroughly enjoyed this meal in a place which some call a tourist trap, some call over-priced, but which I thought delivered an excellent product at a fair price. Winner of numerous Wine Spectator awards for its wine list, four of us stuck with Roederer Estate's Brut NV throughout the meal at $50 per bottle. Dinner is a fixed price $98 dollars, with lunch at around $60 for three courses. (2010)

Sparks Steak House, 210 East 46th St (between 2nd & 3rd Ave). Tel: 212/687.4855
This was our choice for the New York steak house experience. Let me set the tone by telling you that part of Sparks' fame stems from a freezing night in December 1985 when "Big Paul" Castellano, a local mobster, was gunned down on the restaurant's steps. It sounds like a story-line from the Sopranos, and indeed walking in is like visiting a film set: it is an enormous restaurant, clubby and darkly-lit, the busy bar serving beers and cocktails with brisk efficiency and a simply vast dining room (how many covers here? Hundreds I suspect). The space is divided by wood and etched glass partitions, and after a Manhattan at the bar we were comfortably seated in a corner table and settled in to peruse the menu. Steaks dominate of course, but a selection of lamb, fish and other dishes is available too. I ordered sirloin, with onion rings and creamed spinach, which is perhaps the quintessential choice. The steak was excellent: caramelised and with some bite on the outside, yielding and flavoursome inside, though the creamed spinach didn't do much for me in terms of flavour or texture I must say. We had to have baked New York cheesecake of course (good, not exceptional) and a bottle of robust Cabernet Sauvignon from an extensive list. Overall we paid around $120 per head which was fine for an entertaining evening. I probably would not return: other than the steak itself the food was lacklustre and I found the several groups of noisy businessmen that surrounded our table a little loud. It is an experience for sure. (2010)

Mary's Fish Camp, 64 Charles St, West Village. Tel: 646/486.2185
No reservations at this terrific and tiny, no-frills neighbourhood restaurant where diners squeeze into crowded tables and order from the short, every-changing menu. If there's no table when you arrive, leave your name and have a drink in one of the surrounding bars - they will come and get you when your time has come. The open kitchen produces copious plates of fish, which is delivered fresh daily. At lunch I ordered a pan-fried cod sandwich, which came with a mound of French fries. The sandwich was delicious, the fish cooked to just opaque perfection and from the very short wine list a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa hit the spot at $40. With coffees, the bill for four came to $160. (2010)

Nyonya, 199 Grand St (Little Italy). Tel: 212/334-3669
Nyonya is Malaysian cuisine, and this packed restaurant with its exposed brick walls and buzzing atmosphere is reckoned to deliver an authentic interpretation of it with imported ingredients such a ginger flowers, Kaffir leaves and Galanga and home-made curry sauces made from coconut milk and tamarind seeds. After some very tasty chicken satay washed down with Malaysian beers, we shared a large, overflowing bowl of beef rendang with coconut rice. The beef had been slow-cooked in coconut milk and curry spices for many hours, before being finished in a wok to dry off the liquid and leave moistly-coated chunks of melt in the mouth beef. This was a good casual dinner, the total bill coming in at only around $20 per person (cash only). (2010)

New York - Finger Lakes

In the north of the state of New York lies the Finger Lakes, with a sizeable wine industry and plenty of recreational activities. In 2007 I spent a long weekend there, based in the town of Ithaca, home of Cornell University.

Ithaca: Mahogany Grill, 112 N. Aurora Street. Tel: 607/272.1438
This bistro-style, busy restaurant was jumping both inside and on the pavement tables on my weekend visit, but the short wait for a table was worth it for the welcoming, speedy service and a good choice of food, wines, and micro-brews. I had a very nicely char-grilled USDA Black Angus steak and slice of creamy baked cheesecake, both of which were unfussy, well-cooked and tasty. Moderate prices. (2007)

Ithaca: Moosewood, 215 N. Cayuga Street. Tel: 607/273.9610
Fine, hearty vegetarian cuisine - expect long queues at peak times. Good range of micro-brew beers as well as wines and large platters of home-cooked food. (2007)

Florida - Orlando area

I would never even have considered the Disney Empire as a fine dining destination. Several people urged me to try however, naming in particular the Portobello and the more expensive Californian Grill. Both are within Disney World, but neither require Park tickets to attend.

The Portobello Yacht Club, Disney Pleasure Beach. 407/934-8888.
The Portobello has a nautical theme with lots of polished wood, brass and decorated with fine ships models. Like everywhere else in the Magic Kingdom it is also large, noisy and child-friendly (a good or bad point depending on your point of view!). We ate here on the first evening after flying in and I felt a bit jet-lagged, but I enjoyed what I remember very much. True to its Italian leanings, before the meal we were served warm, home-made Italian bread with excellent olive oil and a whole bulb of slow-roasted garlic for spreading. Delicious. My Seabass was seared and, though slightly over-cooked, very tasty, served with good, fresh vegetables and rice pilaf. Decaffeinated Espresso was good. The individual pizzas made in the wood-fired oven looked excellent, and the mostly Californian and Italian wine list had a fair by-the-glass selection. Worth a visit. $150 for dinner. Open daily.

The Californian Grill, Disney Contemporary Resort. 407/824-1576
This was easily the best meal of my trip. The Californian Grill has a big reputation for food and wine, regularly appearing in "America's Top 100" type lists. It is situated on the 15th floor of a large Disney hotel within the Magic Kingdom, with easy parking, mono-rail connection and absolutely spectacular views over the theme park and lake which can be enjoyed from a couple of large terraces. We were very lucky in that we were given a prime seat facing directly onto the Disney Castle and evening fireworks. Kitsch or not, it is a remarkable view compared to that from most restaurant tables! The food really was superb, light and imaginative. A starter of Sonoma goats cheese ravioli in a tomato and herb broth was wonderfully textured and full of flavour. For a main course I chose the filet mignon which was truly stunning - the best steak I've had in a long time - served on mashed sweet potato. My partners seared yellowjack tuna steak was also fantastically good, blackened and cooked just raw in the centre. The waiter suggested sharing a hot triple-chocolate soufflé with peanut butter ice-cream for dessert which was the right decision - it was densely rich, yet light as a feather and as good as any dessert I can remember. Again, good espresso to finish things off. The wine list really is first class - a choice of about 100 interesting and some quite rare bottlings, with reasonable mark-ups and - best of all - everything available by the glass. Friendly staff complete the picture of a really enjoyable night out. $250 for dinner. Open every day.

Florida - Tampa Bay area

Bern's Steak House, 1208 South Howard Ave, Tampa. 813/251-2421
What can I say about Bern's? A legend in its own lunch-time. This place is over-the-top, unique and wonderful in an awful kind of a way. Formed from what looks like a large concrete warehouse under a freeway slip-road, the interior is a wonderful cross between Parisian bordello and Blackpool pleasure beach. Apart from the steaks and the decor, Bern's is famous for its wine list. Weighing in at a couple of Kilos, it has 7,000 entries including, for example, 100 vintages of Latour going back to the 1830's. Bern's operates on a vast scale, with several large dining areas and lots of hustle and bustle. The dining room I was in (Burgundy), despite the red velvet and wine-themed murals, was basically a large, ambiance-free hanger of a place with horrible lighting. The waiting staff were helpful and charming though which helped make up. The steaks are superb - you specify weight, thickness and cut, and it is cooked the way you like. All meat is top quality and hung for 8 weeks to ensure it is succulent and tender. Desserts can be taken in a special dessert room with a piano player belting out schmaltzy show tunes and cheesy ballads. Designed with 50 individual booths, all of which have a view of the piano player or a TV screen relaying the sound and pictures. Great fun, decent food and quite a wine list. Maybe not very sophisticated, but an experience. $110 for dinner. Open every day.

Guppy's, 1701 Gulf Boulevard, Indian Rocks Beach.
A fairly chic, but casual and friendly place with a large outside terrace and a couple of big indoor rooms, Guppy's does some really good fish and seafood at reasonable prices. I loved the smoked-fish pate served with crackers as a starter - a lovely, rough texture with chunks of fish and a really nice flavour. One of the house specialities is the tuna steak - cut like a filet-mignon in a thick, small portion and broiled (Charcoal grilled) just nicely. Wine list is a single sheet of A4 - mostly Californian - and there's a good list of beers. The waitress made that familiar but annoying mistake of treating foreigners as if they don't know to tip - she did a huffy number on us when she thought she was only keeping $5 change out of the $100 I gave her - hope she felt bad when she discovered the other $10 I left on the table.... $95 for dinner. Open 7 days.

Florida - Palm Beach area

Eleven Maple Street, Jensen Beach. Phone 561/ 334-7714
Outside the door on a Thursday evening is market and neighbourhood street-party, but inside it's an oasis of calm with a comfortable yet up-market atmosphere. This was probably my second favourite place in food terms. The cuisine here is definitely "fusion" with a Pacific Rim flavour. My Oak-grilled Grouper was served on sticky rice and Thai Crab-cakes, with a Thai green curry sauce. It was garnished with delicious wild mushrooms, smoky bean-sprouts and stir-fried vegetables. This was a sensational dish - not nearly as weird as it sounds! The oak-burning grill in the kitchen imparts a wonderfully smoky flavour. Dessert was equally good - a light pineapple and macadamia nut cheesecake, served with a berry coulis and some sweet, black, mission-figs - scrumptious stuff. Wine list is also quite interesting with some unusual choices from small US producers. We had a pinot and Viognier by the glass, both good. Eleven Maple could be an expensive choice with main courses starting at $25 and everything a la carte, but it is very good. $160 for dinner.