Fine dining in America, beyond New York

The New York Times

I had called once to make my reservation, and then again to confirm it,
but it wasn’t until I telephoned to say I was running late that I really
heard the greeting.

“Thank you for calling Ubuntu,” a woman chirped, pausing for a comma
before adding, “restaurant and yoga studio.”

And yoga studio?

Somehow that hadn’t sunk in before. And the way she said it, putting the
lotus on a par with the lettuce, filled me with skepticism about this
promised vegetarian Eden in the Edenic Napa Valley.

Her response when I vowed to hustle there from the San Francisco airport
as quickly as possible didn’t help.

“Please,” she intoned in the kind of ultrasoothing voice that only a
person with perfectly aligned chakras and the entire Deepak Chopra
library can summon. “Drive safely.”

What kind of Kumbaya cuisine was I in for?

Several fistfuls of lavender-dusted almonds, some truffle-flecked
polenta and an avocado pudding later, I had my answer: inspired,
exhilarating cooking of a caliber I couldn’t have imagined.

And I couldn’t have imagined it because I’d never encountered it in a
vegetarian restaurant  with or without a yoga studio attached  in New
York.

My trip didn’t shake my conviction that New York is the finest
restaurant city in the United States, with an unrivaled range and depth
of options. But it was a fresh reminder of all the exciting dining
experiences that aren’t duplicated here, and it was a challenge to the
smug superiority New Yorkers sometimes feel.

New York is absurdly blessed, but of course the city doesn’t have it
all. It doesn’t have anything exactly like Cochon, in New Orleans, which
liberates Cajun cooking from its deep-fried clichs. With its stylishly
casual vibe, fatty abandon, worship of pork (cochon is French for pig)
and fervent devotees, it’s a Momofuku on the Mississippi.

New York doesn’t have anything as highfalutin as Guy Savoy, in Las
Vegas, which presents the possibility of not only wine pairings but also
bread pairings for each course. The breads, more than a dozen kinds, are
on a trolley nearly as big as some subcompact cars.

And New York doesn’t have anything as homey as Tilth, in Seattle, which
occupies what truly looks and feels like somebody’s house, complete with
front yard and front porch.

All in all I visited 15 acclaimed, ambitious, promising or intriguing
new restaurants from coast to coast, excluding New York City, in late
January and early February.

I identified these restaurants through extensive reading and inquiries
to food lovers around the country. The work of the chefs at many of the
restaurants automatically draws interest. Other restaurants had simply
generated considerable chatter.

For this survey I defined “new restaurant” as one that opened between
Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2007.

I evaluated the restaurants on relatively equal terms. Each was visited
at dinnertime. Each was visited anonymously. Each had just one meal to
make its case, and each was encouraged to show its best face, in that I
pointed myself toward dishes that were reputed to be, or should be, the
restaurant’s strong points.

The 5 of the 15 restaurants that didn’t make my final cut were Ad Hoc in
Yountville, California, Thomas Keller’s casual counterpoint to the
French Laundry; the two-month-old Takashi, which serves a sort of
Japanese-French fusion in Chicago; Tinto, with an array of artful tapas
in Philadelphia; Lke, the chef John Besh’s brasserie in New Orleans; and
Comme a, the chef David Myers’s brasserie in West Hollywood, California

I had some memorable food at each, but not as memorable as the food at
my top 10 restaurants. In alphabetical order, they are:

CENTRAL MICHEL RICHARD (Washington)

COCHON (New Orleans)

COI (San Francisco)

FEARING’S (Dallas)

FRACHE (Culver City, California)

GUY SAVOY (Las Vegas)

MICHAEL’S GENUINE FOOD & DRINK (Miami)

O YA (Boston)

TILTH (Seattle)

UBUNTU (Napa, California).

They’re a diverse lot, difficult to compare with one another. You can
get in and out of Cochon for under $60, including dessert and two
glasses of wine, while Guy Savoy charges $190, excluding alcohol, for
its abbreviated “90 Minute Experience” of four set courses.

At Coi the chef Daniel Patterson means to create small works of culinary
art, unveiled in a hushed gallery. At Central the chef Michel Richard
serves bistro and brasserie fare in a relatively freewheeling
atmosphere.

In my rankings I put more emphasis on the pleasure a restaurant provided
than on the ambitions it flexed, and I absolutely took cost into
account.

Certain judgment calls  leaving Ad Hoc out of the top 10, for example
were tougher than others. I happened to visit Ad Hoc, which serves the
same predetermined meal to every diner, on one of its every-other-Monday
fried chicken nights, and I had some of the best fried chicken of my
life. But the bean salad before it and the chocolate chip cookies after
weren’t nearly as impressive.

Certain trends came into sharp relief. I’ve used the word brasserie
several times already, and that reflects what seems to be a renewed
interest in French comfort food and classics, which dominate the menus
at three restaurants in my coast-to-coast sweep  Lke, Comme a and
Central Michel Richard  and one back in New York, Bar Boulud, which
opened a couple of months ago.

The prevalence of the brasserie idiom also signals the extent to which
accomplished chefs are turning their attention to less elaborate cooking
and settings. Cochon, with its concrete floors and a picnic-style
communal table up front, is decidedly more casual than Herbsaint, the
New Orleans restaurant that put its co-chef and co-owner Donald Link on
the map.

That’s a studied choice. “I don’t always want to sit down to a four-hour
dinner, but I don’t always want to go to the po’ boy shack down the
road,” Link said in a telephone interview. “And there’s not always stuff
in the middle, where you can have table service, get decent wine and get
in and out on your own terms.”

The attempt to address diners’ desires for uncommon but unstilted
experiences was evident in restaurants in every genre and at every price
point.

For all its elegance and pampering, Guy Savoy has clearly been designed
to make the pageantry less obtrusive. The muted tones of the staff
attire enable an armada of servers to blend into the background.

Fearing’s has three different indoor dining rooms with different looks
and different sound levels for different moods, though the menu is the
same in each.

At Frache, where the cuisine is Mediterranean and entrees average about
$24, white cloths cover the tables, but there’s an open kitchen where
everyone wears a bright red bandanna.

I encountered many open kitchens, some bordered by a front row of
counter seats that give diners a closer look, and they illustrate the
way cooking has officially become a spectator sport. You can watch the
making of your meal not only at Frache but also at Cochon, Fearing’s and
Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink  and at Central Michel Richard, with
which our four-episode season of “Restaurant Survivor” begins.