Fine dining is alive and well in NYC, no thanks to influencers
Fine dining, pronounced dead time and again, is enjoying a golden age in New York — but don’t tell the Instagram-obsessed, wannabe-foodie “influencers.”
On social media, the dining aesthetic tends to favor radioactive-bright dishes and “casual” (i.e., inept) service over food that tastes good and staff who know what they’re doing.
But damn the supposed tastes of the prevailing zeitgeist: Fine-dining restaurants are thriving and multiplying at a furious pace.
Case in point: chef Jonathan Benno’s namesake new, luxurious Mediterranean restaurant in the Evelyn Hotel (7 E. 27th St.). Besides great food, it has grace notes that are supposedly as dated as “Mad Men”-era pheasant under glass: great food, comfort, gracious service, beautiful surroundings and a tolerable noise level. Benno has been packed since it opened in November, well before it earned a rave review in the New York Times last week.
The chef finally lives up to the promise he showed as Thomas Keller’s chef de cuisine at Per Se, where clarity of presentation and flavor distinction ruled — but vanished in his baroque and fussy Italian efforts at Lincoln. Benno’s French-Italian menu is prix-fixe only ($94), and dishes are not revolutionary, but magnificently executed. Coddled egg and Spanish-tinted Elysian Farms lamb with merguez and vegetables merely taste as wonderful as they look.
Unlike at idiot-oriented “scene” spots, Benno’s waitstaff don’t utter inanities like, “How are those first bites treating you?” They don’t harangue us about “people hanging around too long eating,” as my friends suffered this week at graceless scenester-favorite La Pecora Bianca in Midtown (where the hostess tried to chase them out 15 minutes earlier than a two-hour house rule).
Benno appears destined for a long, prosperous future. Yet when the Times awarded it three stars last week, it sounded apologetic about doing so. The headline called the place “proudly out of step with the age.”
What “age” are they talking about? Fine dining’s thriving by just about any definition — and kicking the butt of goofy kitchen experimentation, communal tables and excruciating noise.
All of the modern-French establishments — Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges, Restaurant Daniel and Cafe Boulud — are full almost all the time. So are Marea, Del Posto, The NoMad, Eleven Madison Park, Il Gattopardo, Tamarind, Dawat, Union Square Cafe, The Modern, Gabriel Kreuther, La Grenouille, and just about every steakhouse in town.
The fine-dining field is not shrinking but growing. Some of the most popular places opened within the past three years and quickly filled up — like Le Coucou, the Grill, the Pool, Avra Madison, Temple Court, Majorelle, Flora Bar and newly launched Leonti on the Upper West Side.
Yet many, if not most of the places that blogs and Instagrammers favor appeal to customers more interested in style than in substance: hard-edged pizza, taco and noodle joints that look like, and are run like, kindergarten classrooms.
GrubStreet stated in 2016 that a Times review which downgraded Per Se from four stars to two was “Another Nail in the Coffin of Fine Dining.”
Guess what? It’s hard to get a reservation at Per Se. Let’s hope that restaurateurs won’t put more stock in hype than in the evidence of fine-dining rooms without an empty seat to spare
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