The whole world seems to be in a New York state of mind--and why not? Crime is way down and the city is in great economic shape. The streets crackle with an energy that makes Rudy Giuliani the envy of big city mayors around the world.
To accommodate the full pockets of New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike, restaurateurs and hoteliers are opening places at a feverish pace. That's fortunate, as the city's 81% hotel occupancy rate makes it difficult for visitors to find a bed. Moreover, hoteliers, seeking to stem the flow of hungry guests out of their establishments to eat, are tapping world-class chefs to run their kitchens. You can get four-star chefs cooking your dinner and breakfast without leaving your hotel.
Take the Mercer Hotel. Located in trendy Soho in a building that more than 100 years ago housed the offices of John Jacob Astor, the Mercer features front-desk staffers and bellhops that look like they've jumped out of a Calvin Klein ad. That's only fitting, because Klein himself has been in residence since the hotel opened three months ago.
The spacious rooms, priced from $325 to $430, are symphonies in brown that feature cordless telephones and backlit closets. Owner Andre Balasz, whose other hotels include the Chateau Marmont and the soon-to-be-opened Standard in Los Angeles, has recruited the talented chef Jean Georges Vongerichten. The restaurant he runs is called the Mercer Kitchen, a surprisingly warm and comfortable dining room located in the hotel's basement. It's also shockingly affordable, considering the quality of the food--two people can easily eat for less than $100 including wine. Diners sitting in full view of the open kitchen will notice a whirl of cooking activity, lots of copper pots, a wood-burning oven, and spices in long, tall canisters that look like edible art.
Vongerichten's food at the Mercer is simple, flavorful, and inventive. He shows off his Alsatian roots with a pizza-like tarte flambe with tart fromage blanc, onions, and bacon. More unusual is the rotisseried free-range chicken with olive vanilla sauce, yogurt, and cucumber. His molten chocolate cake with caramel ice cream is a fitting dessert in a hotel decked out in more shades of brown than anyone knew existed.
Vongerichten is also running the culinary show in the Trump International Hotel & Tower on Columbus Circle. A room will set you back anywhere from $395 to $800 a night--and even that doesn't guarantee you a view of Central Park.
While the lunch and dinner menus at the eponymous Jean Georges and the more informal Nougatine have been justly celebrated, equally special is the breakfast at Nougatine. Don't come here for scrambled eggs and toast. Splurge for the decadent shirred eggs with house-smoked salmon, or, in season, the poached eggs with freshly shaved truffles with potato pancakes. If you have a sweet tooth, you may want to go for the French toast with caramelized apples.
Ian Schraeger, an original partner at the Studio 54 discotheque who now operates some of New York's trendiest hostelries, installed the contemporary Chinese-Latino restaurant Asia De Cuba a year ago in his Philippe Starck-designed Morgans Hotel (smallish rooms from $275 to $300). It has been packed Studio 54-style ever since with scenemakers, wannabes, and foodies who have come to sample the intriguing dishes chef Robert Trainor serves. Appetizers and desserts far outshine the entrees here, and the appetizer portions fortunately are so big that you can head straight from starters to sweets. One must-have dish is the Chinese roast pork-adillo pancakes with sour orange and ginger cream.
Some of the city's more staid and established hotels have enticed major chefs to head their kitchens. The Stanhope, located across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, contracted with the superb young chef Matthew Kenney to run Cafe M, a partner in the venture with hotelier Balasz, put the stellar Jeremy Griffiths in charge of the stoves, and the resulting cuisine has been simple, flavorful, and just creative enough. The one outstanding entree is the charcoal-grilled lamb chops with olive mashed potatoes with braised fennel. But try to save some room for the orange panna cotta with caramelized figs for dessert.
UPSCALE PIZZAS. If you're staying at the Stanhope and want to stroll to some tony Upper East Side dining spot nearby, head to either the Lobster Club (24 E. 80th St., 212 249-6500) or Butterfield 81 (170 E. 81st St., 212 288-2700). The Lobster Club's two-story dining room is a cheerful setting for Anne Rosenzweig's clever take on contemporary American cuisine. At Butterfield 81, Tom Valenti turns out fabulous, earthy, French-influenced fare. (Don't miss the lamb shank or the sturgeon chickpea pancake appetizer).
Not far away sits the Boathouse in Central Park, a few blocks south and west of the Met. Food lovers used to regard the Boathouse with disdain. Now they're flocking there. At 26, wunderkind chef John Villa turns out food that finally matches the magical view of the rowboat pond and Bethesda Fountain. Don't miss his rice-paper roll appetizer or seared tuna with coriander.
If you're on a shopping spree, you can eat well, too. For example, Mitchel London, chef for Ed Koch when he was mayor, is in charge of the food at the quirky Parlour Cafe (38 E. 19th St., 212 677-2233) in the ABC Carpet and Home store. He serves up world-class pancakes, a melt-in-your-mouth croque monsieur, and the city's best chocolate cupcakes as diners ogle exotic housewares and furniture from around the world. At Fred's at Barney's (10 E. 61st St., 212 833-2200), Mark Straussman turns out frites and designer pizzas to die for, including one made with Robiola cheese and truffle oil.
Even museums are getting into the haute-cuisine act. Until the Museum of Modern Art brought in restaurateur Nino Esposito, it was difficult to get a good meal at a museum in New York. Now, at Sette MOMA (11 W. 53rd St., 212 708-9710), you can enjoy simple but satisfying Italian fare such as pasta with asparagus tips, oyster mushrooms, and shaved black truffles while overlooking the museum's spectacular sculpture garden.
The newcomer Italophiles are most excited about is Greenwich Village's Babbo (110 Waverly Place, 212 777-0303), located in a beautiful brownstone that housed the legendary Manhattan restaurant the Coach House. Babbo (Italian slang for Daddy) is owned by proud papas Joe Bastianich (proprietor of the fine theater-district restaurants Frico Bar and Becco) and Mario Batali (of the Food Network's Molto Mario show and the restaurant Po). Bastianich supervises the inventive wine program that encourages tasting by offering quartinos (thirds of bottles), while Batali, along with chef de cuisine Andy Nusser, turns out marvelously inventive dishes such as beef-cheek ravioli with crushed squab livers and summer truffles and a dry-rubbed ribeye steak with roasted potatoes, garlic greens, and salsa verde. Don't pass up the chocolate pistachio semifreddo and the creamiest, most intensely flavored ice creams this side of Rome.
STILL COOKING. Further downtown, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, is the City Wine & Cigar Co. (62 Laight St., 212 334-2274). There, former Joffrey Ballet dancer Patricia Williams is turning out dishes such as braised short ribs that can stand up to the stogies being puffed on by the likes of regulars Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel.
Don't look for the new restaurant and hotel activity to slow down in the near future. Architect-designer David Rockwell and restaurateur Drew Nieporent, the force behind the always-busy Nobu downtown, are combining their talents at WNew York and its restaurant Heartbeat in the former Doral Hotel at 51st Street and Lexington Avenue. It's scheduled to open in November. Four-star chef Daniel Boulud is unveiling Cafe Boulud in late September, in the Surrey Hotel space that formerly housed Restaurant Daniel at 76th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. Boulud is spending millions to build the new Daniel, which will open in January in the old Le Cirque space in the Mayfair Hotel (now a co-op building).
It's the ultimate game of restaurant-hotel Can You Top This?, and how far it will go is anyone's guess. But New York's visitors and gastronomes can't help but come out winners.