When giving culinary advice for the holidays, I like to take a page not from Zagat or Michelin, but rather from the script of “Ronin,” John Frankenheimer’s spy-thriller set during Christmastime in France.
“You go to what you know,” says Sam, an ex-CIA officer played by Robert De Niro. So when my buddies seek out restaurants for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa -- whatever -- that’s exactly what I tell them. Go to what you know.
This is the time of year to fall back on favorites.
And your own intuition in choosing a reliable place to eat will be infinitely more astute than my ability to tell you where to dine with your in-laws when they fly in from Hades.
When your kids come back from college, you’ll be better off at a restaurant where you’re already a regular, where you know what’s good, where the bartender knows what you’re drinking.
That all said, if you’re looking to push the envelope a bit, here are the luxuries, some of them affordable, some of them less so, that are good to indulge in this time of year.
Truffles: When ordering these pricey fungi, you’re not so much paying for taste as you are for exposing your olfactory system to one of the world’s most expensive perfumes. I’ll even argue the best part isn’t eating them, but inhaling the aroma of the ethereal petals as they’re shaved over your tagliatelle.
This is why it’s good to take truffles at Per Se, where the shave can last a minute or more. For this privilege you’ll pay $175 (service-included). Those on a budget (or not) may argue that it’s better to spend close to $200 on great truffles than $75 on mediocre ones.
Jamon Iberico: This fine ham, from the acorn-fed pigs of Spain’s Southwest, can cost more than $200/lb retail, or $35 for an appetizer-sized portion. The key is to find a thickly sliced ham to show off the crimson flesh and Kobe-like marbling. Tertulia in the Village does it best, serving the nutty, almost floral meat at room temperature so the silky fats soften up, melting in the mouth like ice cream.
Caviar: Sturgeon roe is like Champagne; the only thing you need to do to enjoy it is to afford it. And the good news is the expensive stuff you buy from a local purveyor is often just as lovely as the super-expensive stuff from a high-end restaurant.
More from the Luxury Holiday Guide:
Just steer clear of mediocre hackleback or paddlefish roe, unless you’re the type to bring a six-pack of Bud Light Lime to a dinner party. The 50 grams Golden Osetra from Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side is $200, an excellent Israeli analogue to more expensive Iranian fish eggs.
If you prefer to take your caviar service in a restaurant, Le Bernardin charges $155 for an ounce of Golden Osetra and has an excellent selection of sparkling wines for pairing.
Best Views: The general rule is the better the view, the worse the food. Case in point: the old Rainbow Room or any airplane. There are of course exceptions. Asiate at the Mandarin Oriental serves decent enough tastings ($95-$150) and boasts stunning views of Central Park South.
If you have $295 per person to burn, same-week tables for four are easy to come by at Per Se, with its killer views of Columbus Circle. My underdog suggestion, however, is Lincoln, where diners get affordable, Michelin-starred Italian food and panoramic, plaza-level views of Lincoln Center, one of New York’s greatest public spaces.
Cocktails: Speakeasy-style bars like ZZ’s and Death & Co. are pretty great, but I prefer more classic spots in December. Bemelmans, with nightly jazz and dark corners for canoodling, is where you go after dinner at Cafe Boulud on the Upper East Side. Downtown the quintessential cocktail joint is Mario Batali’s Del Posto, where you can expect a live piano player, an old-world interior that feels straight out “The Great Gatsby,” and one of New York’s best Vesper martinis.
Foie Gras: Fatty duck liver is the pride of New York’s Hudson Valley and ranks with pizza and bagels as one of our state’s best products. Yet unlike caviar, foie takes serious skill to serve; there’s too much cold, gray and sinewy liver out there. Paul Liebrandt’s The Elm in Williamsburg sells a soft, silky version ($18) that definitely gets the job done.
Also consider the foie gras soup dumplings at Anita Lo’s Annisa for a slurpy French-Asian take on this delicacy ($21).
Feast of Seven Fishes: Take Root in Cobble Hill extends the Italian-American Christmas eve feast to the week before, with a $105 tasting menu (up from the usual $85). Expect dishes like squid with black garlic, bacala and radish, or monkfish with pepitas. This all comes courtesy of chef Elise Kornack, a strong female voice in our male-dominated restaurant world.
Duck: Eleven Madison Park’s Muscovy bird, glazed with lavender and served with a potato foam and foie-gras parfait, is one of New York’s great dishes. It comes as part of the restaurant’s $225 prix-fixe, which books up about 30-days out. But walk-ins can order the luxury (minus all the tableside pomp and circumstance) for $48 a pop. Rating: Strong Buy.
Long Tasting Menus: I’ve long believed that dinner can be more enjoyable when it consists of 12-30 courses, with each course comprising just a few bites. Brooklyn Fare ($255) is at the apex of this movement, but you probably won’t get in before 2014.
Instead, try the two-Michelin-starred, avant-garde Atera, or the American, Japanese and Italian-influenced Blanca, both of which charge $195 for more than 20 small plates.
Take-Out: Epicerie Boulud is my staple deli to fulfill all the requirements of holiday appetizing, or as some of us call it, tailgating. This is where you go for Merguez sausages to throw on the grill, or for foie gras-studded pate en croute (makes a legit banh mi sandwich). And for a full Thanksgiving style dinner, just reserve a pork butt at Momofuku Ssam Bar ($250-$350), which has the added bonus of not requiring any real cutlery to devour; you tear it apart with your hands.
Spa Food: Laugh all you want but this is what you’ll be eating after buying your loved one a couple’s pass to the local bathhouse. So my advice is to hit Spa 88 on Fulton, where you can sweat it out in the banya, rehydrate with a bowl of spicy Georgian lamb soup, and cool off with an icy bottle of Russian beer. The best spa food is Soviet food.
Carabineros: Imagine the sweet taste of langoustines crossed with the nutty maritime tang of red mullet. That’s what a carabinero shrimp tastes like. For this rare and regal privilege you’ll pay about $21 per shrimp at La Vara in Cobble Hill, or around $64 for an entree portion at Carbone (when they’re offered). Suck on the shrimp’s head, because the aromatic guts taste like concentrated lobster stock.
Ambitious Meal Near Penn Station: April Bloomfield’s The Breslin isn’t just one of New York’s best pubs, it’s where you can get a Michelin-starred meal within walking distance of the Long Island Rail Road. This is where you treat the family to a $75pp suckling pig feast before heading back to Oyster Bay. Or just drop by the bar for a $21 lamb burger.
Champagne: We all know we can drink good champers at New York’s most expensive restaurants, so if you want a $3,600 Krug, feel free to flex your black Amex card at Daniel.
For off-the-beaten-track bubbly, swing by Reynard in Williamsburg. Wine director Lee Campbell has put together what might be the city’s deepest list of Champagnes at less than $200. Try a tart bottle of Ulysse Collin to pair with rabbit liver at $180.
Indulgent pre-Christmas Dinner: I grew up eating in the red sauce joints of Long Island’s North and South Shores, so it warmed my heart when I heard Carbone in Greenwich Village would try to do high-end riffs on the old-school Italian American experience when it opened earlier this year. It did more than that, of course. It became one of New York’s best restaurants.
Charity Meals: When critics label fine dining as “American gluttony,” I respond that our city’s great chefs are among our biggest advocates for anti-hunger organizations. Just the same, I hope the dining public can strive to match the philanthropic commitment of these expensive restaurants. So for those who refrain from direct giving, consider Le Bernardin’s lounge menu, $5 of which goes to City Harvest.
Though really, we can all do more as diners.
(Ryan Sutton reviews restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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