NYC Restaurant Week—A Celebration of Food
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NYC Restaurant Week is a biannual event when the best restaurants in the city—many Michelin-starred—offer prix fixe meals for only $26 (lunch) and $42 (dinner), which are significantly cheaper than their original prices. Taking advantage of this, we tried several restaurants that we had never been to before and experienced a fine-dining experience that wonderfully showcases the culinary diversity of New York City.
Aureole—A Celebrity Restaurant that Doesn’t Live Up To Its Name
Aureole is a hidden oasis in the heart of the most touristy part of Times Square. Its modest entrance goes unnoticed among the flashing lights of the billboards and the zoom of the cars going by. The hostess led us into the spacious dining room, which had sleek furniture and walls covered with dark walnut wood. Yet, despite being elegantly furnished, this restaurant established by American celebrity chef Charlie Palmer proves to be disappointingly bland.The Restaurant Week prix fixe menu offers a selection of traditional courses. The Smoked Brook Trout Rillette was a delicate cylinder of chopped trout and fragrant herbs, garnished with mâche salad and a scoop of bright orange roe. Upon entering your mouth, the flavor is bright and citrusy, but soon, it takes a turn and becomes rich and smoky. The texture was reminiscent of tuna salad, though not in a bad way. The greens were nutty and soft, contrasting with the salted roe bursting with sharp flavor. A crunchy piece of buttered brioche was served as a side.The Scottish Salmon was less exciting. The massive chunk of fully cooked salmon was bland except for the strong taste of butter, and it was extremely underseasoned. Despite the oozing fat, the fish itself was too firm, almost hard to swallow. This was served on top of cannellini bean cassoulet, which was undercooked and aggressively salty. The Soft Brioche Dumplings formed a huge unrecognizable lump bathed in a pool of creamy brown sauce. The first thing that hit me was the cheese, which almost masked the earthy taste of wild mushroom ragout and the oregano.The lack of attention to details prevents Aureole from redeeming its title as a big name restaurant in New York. Its food—mediocre at best—will stop any customers from coming back after being initially starstruck. The mere celebrity status of Aureole was evident—the overexcited couple next to us were busy snapping pictures for Instagram instead of actually eating.
The Russian Tea Room—A czarist wonderland with not-so-wonderful food
The Russian Tea Room can be found two doors down from Carnegie Hall, under a red awning that reaches the street. Once you step inside, you enter a Russian fantasia of sorts, with red walls and red leather booths, paintings in gilded frames, as well as some beautifully ornate plates.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere is the only redeeming quality of the restaurant. The Restaurant Week menu was only a selection of items from the regular lunch menu. For the first course, I opted for the borscht, a traditional Eastern European beet soup. It was disappointing—almost hard to eat—with undercooked beets that still had a bit of a crunch to them and a smoky aftertaste that didn’t belong anywhere near this classic dish. The broth was too watery, with a small pool of oil on top. The presentation was underwhelming, without any sort of garnish and with some minor spillage along the side. Along with the soup came a small pirozhki, a puff pastry, that was cold and greasy without any of the requisite flakiness.
For the main course, I had another classic called the Boeuf Stroganoff, a piece of braised beef on a bed of noodles with cream sauce. It was bland, and I was tempted to ask for salt just to add a little flavor to the dish. The noodles were fine—just fine, but also flavorless. The meat was soft, but had no evidence that it had been braised in wine, and the mushrooms were thrown on almost as an afterthought, not delicately plated as one would expect in such an establishment.
The Russian Tea Room will never be a fine dining establishment; instead, it will be a garish spectacle of fantisful czarist decoration, which happens to serve some food. With the Restaurant Week menu ($26), I felt like it was overpriced, and on a normal day, the idea that the meal would run $74 is outrageous. The restaurant claimed to draw on Soviet influences, and unfortunately, it did so too much. With cold service and bad food, I would recommend this place if you don’t care about the food but want a conversation-starting atmosphere.
Hakkasan New York—Cantonese Fine Dining
This outpost of the international chain feels anything but generic. It has avoided the temptation acted upon by so many other high-end chains (e.g. the Palm) to use a cookie cutter technique. Instead, they hired the firm Gilles & Boissier to design the space. It truly is like no other restaurant in NYC. The entrance, however, is nothing special, being a small door a couple blocks away from Times Square. Inside, a large, marble, incense-filled hallway 50 feet long leads to the hostess’s desk. Behind that desk is a maze of twists and turns, dividing a large space into many smaller ones. There is a bank of windows facing the street, illuminated with a blue light reminiscent of an alien landing.
I initially was planning on having the Restaurant Week prix fixe, but after considering the menu, I decided to have the Lunch Dim Sum ($42). I had an iced green tea ($8), which was good but hardly incredible. The scallop shumai was easily the best shumai I have had, though. Another standout, the pumpkin puff filled with roast duck, was amazing with a crisp outside and a soft, chewy filling. The rest of the food was good—what one would expect from a Michelin-starred Cantonese establishment.
Dessert, however, is where Hakkasan distinguishes itself from the crowd. I had the chef’s choice of ice cream, one scoop of apple sorbet and one scoop of ginger ice cream. The apple sorbet, though it was the waiter’s favorite, was rather ordinary, reminiscent of an apple crumble. The ginger, on the other hand, was spectacular. It was creamy and had the ginger flavor without any of the characteristic burning spiciness, presented on a beautiful handmade plate that looked a bit like a piece of wood.
What sets Hakkasan above the fray of upscale Chinese restaurants in NYC is the combination of spectacular food and atmosphere, two things that are rarely together. This is one of those restaurants that certainly deserve their Michelin star, and it is one that I can see myself frequenting.
Gotham Bar and Grill—unpretentious good food
Gotham Bar & Grill is cozily nestled among several other restaurants in Union Square. Unlike many other Michelin-starred restaurants, the atmosphere here was homely and unpretentious. The well-lit space was welcoming and instantly put me at ease.
The starter ceviche was an acidic assortment of pungent pineapple, thinly sliced radish, and tiny slivers of carrot. The raw fish took on the fruitiness of the citrus, paired with a sweet and spicy kick from the aji dulce.
The Tuscan Kale Salad was a mixture of quinoa, frisee, dried apricots, crushed almonds, and pecorino pepato. The blend made the salad taste slightly sour and bitter at first, with a nutty twist of dried apricots and almonds. The Winter Vegetable Risotto, made of carrots, pearl onions, brussel sprouts, and parmigiano reggiano, was rather sweet at first, with a pleasant savory aftertaste and drizzled over with a smooth lava-like cheese.
The main course, Pan Roasted Chicken, was tender and juicy, seasoned well enough that every single bite was consistent. The skin was roasted to a crisp perfection, topped with herbs and chicken jus. A buttery mixture of orzo pasta, squash, asparagus, and wild mushrooms served as a more earthly counterpart.
For dessert, I ordered chocolate cake. The tiny wedge was astonishingly soft and moist, reminiscent of lava cake. A generous scoop of salted almond ice cream balanced the luscious bitterness of the chocolate.
The unpretentiousness of Gotham Bar & Grill sets it apart from other Michelin-starred establishments. Its food is consistently comforting, reliable, and warm to the taste buds as if it were home-cooked.
Tamarind Tribeca—A Chance Encounter with Adventurous Indian Cuisine
Tamarind was an accidental encounter. I had reserved another Indian restaurant for a nice Monday brunch, only to find out later that I reserved a table at 10:30 p.m. instead of 10:30 a.m. Devastated, I went into a frenzy of trying to get a table for that day, but soon, I realized that most restaurants were booked. Finally, I had some luck when I stumbled across Tamarind Tribeca, a place that I had never heard of.
The dining room was almost empty when the headwaiter led us to our table. The space was decorated with simple oakwood elements and lit by modern chandeliers that gave off a soft yellow light.
We started the meal with an amuse-bouche, a chickpea fritter so aromatic that I could smell it before the waiter even set down the plate on our table. The waiter rattled off a long list of ingredients upon my request. I've already forgotten them, but my wild guess is coriander, peppers, and chopped chives. They are made into a batter, fried, and then served with chunky green chutney. Though slightly cold, the fritter was crunchy and flavorful.
The appetizer, kekra chaat, is a juicy chunk of crab meat, ginger, lemon juice, mustard seeds, curry leaves, and tiny cubes of tomatoes. A sliver of fresh lemon and radish sango added a zing, along with a smear of green chutney as the base. Its warmth was full-bodied, the noticeable curry flavor heightening the supple texture of the crab. I’m not lying when I say this course was so good I almost licked my plate.
For entrees, the Restaurant Week menu lets diners choose two courses from six different types of meat and cheese. Not knowing what to order, I chose the ones that seemed the safest—Meen Calwan (halibut) and Kathal Murgh (tandoori chicken). Tomato rice with dried blackened chilis and herbs, along with a sweet pepper salad, was served on the side. The chicken was firm and smoky, and it possessed a subtle hint of the yoghurt it was marinated in. The mint almond chutney added a powerful raw zest to the heavy fragrance of the meat. However, the halibut was less impressive. The sharp spice of fenugreek seeds, coconut milk, and coriander overpowered the tasteless fish; it felt like I was eating the sauce itself instead of the halibut. Sides included a pillowy naan—which was soft yet crisp on the outside—paired with a purée of curried vegetables.
I didn’t expect too much from the dessert at an Indian restaurant, yet I was pleasantly surprised here. The Gulkand Cheesecake is a dainty melt-in-your-mouth cube of pastry marbled with preserved rose petals. The sweetness of the petals is subtle enough to not mask the creaminess of the cheesecake itself.
Indian food had always been a wild adventure for me, since each restaurant serves such different food. But Tamarind Tribeca was a whole other world; its willingness to take bold risks was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Its self-proclaimed title, “The Finest Indian Restaurant in NYC,” is not much of an exaggeration.