hakkasan

IMG_1093Part of the allure of Hakkasan is that you’d walk on by if you didn’t know it was there. A large steel door on a grotty stretch of 43rd Street – which was not too long ago a major thoroughfare for the dispossessed, the deranged, and the deviant – is your only clue. In fact, I strolled past not once but three times, wondering if I had gotten the location right. It’s a peculiarly British fashion, this ramshackle exclusivity designed to be enjoyed like a secret among those in the know. In Hong Kong the idiom reaches a highpoint as a lingering legacy of a restrictive class system: the city is pockmarked with private dining clubs secreted down blind alleyways and atop skyscrapers, where the price of admission demands a secret knock or password. Though an import from London – with outposts in Las Vegas, Doha and Mumbai – Hakkasan feels less like the former and much more like the latter. Opening that steel door is akin to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. A long, ghostly illuminated hallway leads you to a check-in desk, watched over by a pair of grinning Cheshire cats. You wonder yet again if you’ve come to the right place and suddenly have a sinking feeling that perhaps you might get turned away because you don’t know the password. No worries, this is New York: democracy and dollars rule. You have a reservation; you’re warmly greeted and ushered through an expansive marble-clad bar area, thumping with techno music, turning past the kitchen and down another hallway before arriving in the land of the lotus eaters. It’s disorienting, but I expect that’s the objective; you’re so relieved to be seated that the excessively priced menu doesn’t make you blanch: an $888 plate of Japanese abalone? $345 for a Peking duck, albeit garnished with caviar? What, no shark fin or swallows nest soup? Searching for reasonably priced items while sipping an $18 glass of Sauvignon Blanc you’ll recall the wise words of Confucius – not to mention Chinese chowhounds: the less you pay, the more satisfying the meal. A traditional Hakka dim sum platter made for a colorful start: scallop shumai, prawn and chive dumpling, black pepper duck dumpling, and har gau, all pretty to look at – and even tastier to eat – and at $28, or roughly $4 per dumpling, what passes for a bargain here. Udon noodles ($18) are nothing out of the ordinary and skimp on the advertised shredded roast duck but they’re satisfying dressed in plenty of spicy, seafood-rich XO sauce. The Assam Seafood Claypot ($42) is perhaps the most successful plate of the night. Studded with chunks of fish, shrimp, and squid in a savory curry broth, it’s big enough to share and even budget friendly if you load up on rice. Pak choi are bright and crispy but really, $15 for a side of veg? When the bill comes it’s a bit of a shocker, despite best attempts at avoiding anything approaching excess: $200 with tip. For a pre-theater meal it feels like a bit of a rip-off. Then again if I was with the high-rollers in Macao, or above the clouds and looking down on the Hong Kong skyline, I wouldn’t think twice. Perhaps that’s the best way to approach a meal here: close your eyes, drink the potion, and embrace the fantasy of being in a place far more magical than midtown.

assam clay pot

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steak ‘n shake

The constant queue outside the newly opened – and oddly apostrophed – Steak ‘n Shake in midtown makes me think there’s more to this burger joint than meats the eye. Stay tuned.

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brunch is a four-letter word

Upstairs at The Kimberly, brunch can best be reduced to a couple of four-letter words: “view” for the unexpected cityscape that comes with being thirty stories up in a rather unremarkable part of midtown, and “slow” for the utter disregard bestowed on diners by an inexperienced if not completely inept wait staff. (somebody please promote the bus boys – my water-glass was never less than three-quarters filled). When a new restaurant’s finding it’s legs one can forgive the front of house faux pas if the kitchen can come up with the goods. Disappointingly, a four-top of Eggs Benedict, Belgian Waffle, Scrambled eggs with Merguez, and a Kobe burger turned out to be something akin to brain surgery: 45-minutes after ordering half our plates hit the table hot and the other half ice-cold. (Is there anything more unappetizing than a puddle of cold congealed Hollandaise?) Come on people, this is brunch, not proper restaurant food. If they can’t get it together to send out a warm plate of eggs to a half empty restaurant things don’t bode particularly well for the evening rush. Still there is that view. And certain people might even consider the languorous pace of things a luxury. In the Meatpacking District we’d have been handed a check and ushered out the door in a fraction of the time spent waiting for eggs to be reheated.

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sunday supper

JCT Kitchen & Bar in trendy West Midtown’s Westside Urban Market gets its name from a nearby sign for the junction of railroad lines that once carried livestock into the city of Atlanta. Emphasizing traditional foods and European techniques, Chef Ford Fry’s restaurant couldn’t be more appropriately named.  As homey as it is upscale, this is Southern farmstead cooking in an elegantly casual atmosphere you wish grandma’s house had.

The light-filled restaurant feels like a Southerner’s answer to the French bistro, with a menu that’s reminiscent of family favorites tweaked by ingredients from regional fields and farms. “Farmstead is a culinary term currently used in artisan cheese making, where the dairy comes from the same farm where the cheese is made. I like the word because it indicates hand-crafted food and the use of local farms; it speaks of seasonal, fresh ingredients,” explains Chef Fry. “It describes a philosophy of food. We want to use local products and make all the goods ourselves.”

Signature Southern dishes include fried chicken, shrimp and grits, braised short ribs with “pot roast” vegetables, and chicken & dumplings that’s actually red wine-braised chicken with gnocchi sautéed in brown butter – just don’t call it coq au vin.  Sunday nights play host to an old-fashioned Sunday Supper, with a “meat and three” menu that is ridiculously priced at only $24.  It begins with warm biscuits and deviled eggs. Then choose from five meats like sweetwater catfish and hickory roasted pork loin and nine home-style vegetables for the table. Also included is JCT’s farm stand salad plus the luscious pie or cake of the moment.

Sorry,  I just can’t resist:  this is one junction where it all comes together.

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