The World on a Plate
Text by Shoko Wanger
One of the perks of living in New York is that everyone comes to visit (much like living in Hawai‘i, come to think of it). And when they come, they come hungry. “Where do we eat?” is the out-of-towner’s mantra. It’s a question I’ve spent much of my past few years in the city researching in the company of my sister-in-law, a food critic for The New York Times, who has generously recruited me as a “taster” on a number of her dining forays. I’ve tried beef tartare with guacamole sorbet in Tribeca, pig trotters in the East Village, macarons flown from Paris to the Upper East Side and even an elegant miniature loco moco drizzled with demiglace and crowned with a fried quail egg in SoHo.
The breadth of the New York restaurant scene is dazzling, but it’s also daunting. If a newcomer has only a few days in the city, I’d narrow down my suggestions to three spots—or more precisely three experiences—that are quintessentially New York.
On 52nd Street, amid the neon buzz of the theater district, Victor’s Café channels the glamour of old Havana. The three dining rooms ring with laughter. At the table next to you, there might be a family a dozen members deep toasting a birthday. Overhead, leaf-shaped fans sway lazily, as if guided by a breeze. It’s warm, convivial, tropical, and the spirit is unmistakably aloha. Victor’s has been owned by the same family since 1963, and dining here feels like you’ve been invited to the home of an old friend. In a city where hip too often trumps hospitable, it’s refreshing to hear a waiter say, “We are so proud to be serving these dishes to you.”
Kama‘aina will find reminders of home in the flavors, too. Mojitos come with thick stalks of sugar cane. Crispy plantain chips arrive arranged like flower petals in a paper-lined cone—a salty-sweet bird of paradise. The snapper in the ceviche de Pargo is paired with mango, its citrusy tang offset by buttery avocado. The shredded steak in the ropa vieja, a specialty at Victor’s and a Cuban classic, is texturally reminiscent of kalua pig and even comes with a scoop of white rice. For dessert the guayabitas de Maria is a sticky, jammy, guava-rich cobbler—“everyone’s favorite,” a server proclaimed as I took my first bite. It certainly was mine.
At Tocqueville, off Union Square, you are in another New York entirely. The first impression is of a private salon from another age. A chandelier with tiny shades on every bulb hangs from the ceiling. Tablecloths are white and crisp, servers attentive yet unobtrusive. Diners relax on seats nearly as soft as clouds, surrounded by walls the warm color of sand. Tocqueville is Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky’s labor of love. The husband and wife divide duties in the kitchen and the front of the house respectively. Mr. Moreira grew up in Brazil with a Japanese stepmother and trained as a sushi chef. His eclectic background and commitment to locally sourced ingredients informs a menu uniting classic French technique, American inventiveness and Japanese artistry. Bluefin tuna sashimi and tartar is accompanied by pickled papaya, lychee and, surprisingly, a pair of crisp, salt-speckled potato chips. Duck breast is bathed in a citrus star anise consommé. Sea urchin is opulently draped over angelhair pasta immersed in a sauce rich with butter, soy, ginger and lime.
Most glorious are the grits, a down-home dish made haute with truffles, veal bacon and an egg fried sunny side up. The dish arrives at the table hidden beneath a silver cloche. Warm and velvety, with a brilliant, canary-yellow yolk at the center, it resembles a sunburst—culinary poetry.
From Cuba to France and finally to Tokyo. The entrance to Kyo Ya is nearly invisible from the street; stairs lead down to an entrance on the bottom floor of an East Village apartment building. Inside, the wood-paneled walls almost appear to move, curving like the waves of the ocean. Sleek and understated, it’s an ideal backdrop for scene-stealing cuisine—even the restrooms blend seamlessly into the woodwork, hidden like secret portals. But for all its exquisite beauty, there’s not a trace of conceit. Tables are few, and the dining room is warmly lit.
There are Japanese restaurants in Hawai‘i, of course, but not many like this. Each course is presented in its own dishware, and the wait staff arranges it all with care and a smile—a footed ceramic bowl streaked with blue; a wooden box of wakame salt; a silver bowl spattered with orange and shaped like a teardrop. A cocktail glass nestled in ice cradles delicate cubes of sesame tofu while a woven basket transports loose-leaf tea in stout, hand-labeled jars.
Even seemingly familiar dishes are transformed. A bayberry drunk with wine brings a hint of sweetness to the miso-glazed black cod. The famous sweet potato tempura arrives at the table whole, its interior steamed, its skin crisp and feather-light. Its only attendants are a tiny pot of soy sauce and a thumbprint’s worth of Mongolian salt.
Pressed mackerel sushi is seasoned and arranged head to tail on a leaf-laden dish; no soy sauce necessary. For the adventurous there’s seafood shutoan—pan-fried scallops, steamed king crab and gently boiled shrimp in a bonito sauce made creamy with egg yolk; or ebi shinjo, orbs of shrimp mousse topped with crispy rice. Try milky yuba (tofu skin), paired with uni in a sauce studded with goji berries, or Kyo Ya’s take on the humble croquette, which adds gobo (burdock) to the traditional mashed potato recipe.
For your final taste of New York, I suggest the luscious “heavenly custard” presented in a simple, slender black cup. Butter-yellow, creamy as pudding, it comes adorned with a single, perfectly placed tapioca pearl. And yes, those glittering flecks are tiny shavings of edible gold.
236 West 52nd Street, (212) 586-7714
1 East 15th Street, (212) 647-1515
94 East 7th Street, (212) 982-4140