So this past weekend I just got back from a fabulous week in New York. It had only been about a year since my last trip to the Big Apple, but this was my first pure pleasure trip in ages. For those who do not know, I enjoy food nearly as much as I enjoy design (nearly, but not quite) so this trip to New York, with my family, was planned around food as much as anything. Using a mixture of personal recommendations, Yelp, Travel Channel, Daily Candy, New York Magazine and the plethora of food magazines we subscribe to, we winnowed down the extensive list of restaurants that we wanted to try to meticulously craft an itinerary that mapped out every lunch and dinner over our six day trip – with reservations of course (yes, I am that compulsive). The final dining itinerary has an Asian bent and is focused more on the casual side of fine dining since I was traveling with my five year-old, but nevertheless it’s list of restaurants that I think any foodie would be eager to indulge in on a trip to New York.
While I could try to play food critic for this blog entry, I won’t and will leave that to the professionals. But because design and ambiance is a huge part of any dining experience, I thought it would be interesting to blog about the design and decor of all the fabulous restaurants we tried. While there was no breakthrough design moment for me on the trip (because we didn’t go to any multi-million dollar, celebrity chef-owned restaurants that push the design envelope on this trip), I did take away a lot design tips and techniques that are invaluable to file away for a rainy day. Specifically, I paid attention to how Manhattan designers deal with tight space constraints to make restaurants both functional and interesting at the same time. Many of these techniques are applicable to anyone who is designing in close quarters, whether for a small apartment or restaurant.
So the rest of this blog chronologically follows my eating itinerary and shares some of the design tips I saw while offering only a small slice of food commentary only because I can’t help myself. I apologize in advance for the less than great photography but I tried to be somewhat discrete when taking pictures to not be a total nerd and only used my iPhone…
Le Pain Quotidien
- Decor: When we got off the red eye and into the city at 8am, we wanted a pick me up but one that was not Starbucks or Dunkins. So we quickly found the closest Le Pain Quotidien, a patisserie and boulangerie franchise that can be found in 20 locations throughout Manhattan as well as in six states across the country. Despite being a chain, this place is always favorite stop of mine when I’m in New York because it whisks me away to France without leaving New York. How does it do this? Inviting yellow plaster walls, warm intimate lighting, unfinished wood floors, and vintage-looking wooden furniture, case goods and architectural details. Particularly charming, and a trademark to this franchise, is the signature extra-long communal farmhouse table that begs you to sit back and relax with some good reading and a warm latte.
- Food: Whenever I go I always order the same thing: a latte in the stemless “bowl” (which immediately makes the latte taste that much better and more authentic) and a platter of fresh baked bread to eat with their house Belgian Praline Spread (think sweet hazelnut butter) and a poached egg. A faux-French breakfast in a faux-French farmhouse but the warm fuzzy feeling this place inspires is the real deal. And all from a chain – who would’ve thunk?
- Decor: Jane sports a very “conventional” restaurant interior: booths along the walls, tables in the middle, wood floors, and neutral color palette. Nevertheless, I did see two design tricks that I was reminded of: 1) over-sized mirrors, hung angled downward to reflect light and provide interesting people-watching angles, and 2) large, rounded molding that ran along the top edge of the banquettes to create a cove to run up-lights that provide some accent lighting against the plaster walls. I am a lighting freak and I think little details like that make all the difference in the world.
- Food: We chose this place because we knew after a long flight, we would be starved and looking for a hearty brunch. What says comfort food like a BLT-E (egg), rosemary fries and the best cheddar grits (infused with rosemary also) that I’ve ever had? Jane is the classic American brunch place, housed a classic cast-iron building in SOHO. What’s there not to love?
- Decor: Ippudo is the first American outlet for the restaurant chain based in Japan. What started as kind of an underground place for hardcore ramen lovers has now gone mainstream. The vibe of the place though remains a bit hardcore – dark, stylish, and loud. As soon as you walk up to the restaurant, you begin to sense the cool vibe – the hipsters hanging around outside, their tricked out fixies (bikes) chained to the guardrail, and of course the unique exterior fascade composed of strips of woods (ash?) of varying lengths, widths and depths. The result is a multi-dimensional surface that pays homage to tradition (in that it is wood) but does so in manner in distinctly modern. This juxtaposition of old and new is a theme in both Ippudo’s design and cuisine. As you enter, your eyes are drawn to the red wall behind the bar that supports the thematic and interesting ramen bowl collection, a la Kelly Wearstler at the Viceroy in Santa Monica. The exposed brick wall behind the banquette where we sat was nicely up-lit and held a nice piece of art that was an image composed of hanging “coins”, which constantly shimmered and provided some extra kinetic energy to the already hopping restaurant. Again, this was very similar to the art that I wrote about in my previous blog about the Riviera Resort in Palm Springs. Perhaps the most inventive design element in the space was communal table built around an integrated Japanese planter filled with logs (last picture below). If you look closely though, you’ll see that the table is built around a corner wall but the wall is cleverly disguised with smoked mirrors to make it appear as though the table was a complete rectangle (in reality it’s only 3/4 of a complete rectangle). This bit of smoke and mirrors (literally lol) is particularly inventive and playful, and shows that mirrors can still be used intelligently to manipulate and expand spaces.
- Food: Ippudo has quite the following from hipsters to foodies to Japanese tourists for good reason. While it does not have the gastronomic credentials of say Momofuku, the Akamaru ramen with an extra onsen (poached) egg was probably the best I’ve ever had.
Pearl Oyster Bar
- Decor: When you go to a classic restaurant in the West Village that serves New England beach food, what kind of decor do you expect? If you close your eyes and imagine it, it would probably look very much like Pearl Oyster Bar – complete with wainscoting, tin ceilings and brass light fixtures. Despite the restaurants success and longevity, it was started on a shoestring by its owner who did not use a designer, shopped flea markets and chose paint colors to reflect the colors of a beach. The simplicity, coziness and kitsch work with for this concept, and proves successful design can be done inexpensively and innately. Obviously, this place isn’t design-forward but I can certainly appreciate it for what is is.
- Food: The $27 lobster roll is the place’s claim to fame but personally the quality of the ingredients cannot overcome the classic New England style preparation with mayo, celery, etc., which I personally think is only okay. I prefer a more purist lobster roll on a baguette with clarified butter with minimal accouterments. However, the skate sandwich and clam chowder were amazing – probably the best chowder I’ve ever had.
- Decor: Falai is a cutting edge restaurant in every which way. Like it’s neighbor, the highly acclaimed WD-50, Falai represents contemporary cuisine and design. From the street it’s hard to tell what the establishment even is – my first guess would have been a furniture store based on the large window with the Kartell Starck Louis Ghost Chair and the rather industrial and imposing front door. In truth, what the designer did was enclose the vestibule to make it a heated, “semi-formal” entry to the tiny restaurant. Given the the minute footprint of the restaurant, this approach was actually a novel way to gain back a few precious square foot and carve out an entry versus walking into tables as soon as enter. In my estimation, the primary dining room in the restaurant was no more than 12 feet wide, including the bar/prep area. The width of the space for the dining tables and walking corridor was only about seven feet; the total width of the restaurant even with the cooking alcove and pantry area (last picture below) was maybe only 18 feet. So how does someone work with such a tight space? Given the realities, a lot of what what you do is to work the techniques. For example, the space utilizes an all-white, tonal color scheme to make the space seem cohesive and contiguous. Next, there is the transparent Kartell furniture, at the table and along the “bar” (I quote this because there really is no room for a bar – it’s essentially stools in a walkway) which takes up almost no visual mass. Then there’s the creativity. That Starck chair in the window? It’s actually one of four seats at the signature table of the restaurant – an elevated dining space walled-in by glass on two sides overlooking the street and the vestibule. It’s literally like being in a cool fishbowl. It’s so tight that the dining table is pushed length-wise along one wall, and it’s so dark that the only light for that area comes by way of a nearby floor lamp. But it’s also so cool – and a creative way to to use an awkward and tight space adjacent to the door. The other detail I wanted to call out was the cool treatment of the wall protrusions behind the dining tables. I am assuming that these are necessary to cover some unsightly pipes or something that runs along the wall at several points in the restaurant. Instead of trying to mask them, the designer wrapped in a graphic, tonal wallpaper of sorts and used the empty space along the bottom to install some accent lighting, which does a fine job of highlighting the mosaic, Carrera marble floors and adding some extra chicness to the space.
- Food: The meal at Falai was fun, inventive and very good, especially the pasta, which is their specialty. In retrospect, I wish I tried the pasta tasting menu from this chef who has a world-class resume that includes stints at Enoteca Pinchiorri, Michel Bras and Le Cirque.
El Quinto Pino / Ray’s Pizza
- Decor: When we wandered into this El Quinto Pino, we didn’t realize that it would be literally a tapas bar, meaning no tables at all! There was only counter seating, either at the large horseshoe-shaped marble bar or the less elegant wood counters along the sides. Highlighting the restaurant’s Spanish origins were the Moorish design accents, specifically the impactful and beautiful tile accent wall behind the main bar. The place is so small and simple that the menu was written on chalkboards on the back wall, above the door threshold, and even on the support pillar that bisected the middle of the horseshoe. All the cooking is done behind the scenes in a tiny galley kitchen behind the accent wall. Add in some period lighting and vintage mirrors, and this place oozes character and charm despite its diminutive space.
- Food: So we never ate El Quinto Pino. The reason? Because we went primarily for their prized uni panini and they don’t serve it until the evening! I was sooo looking forward to it. So much for my planning… We settled for Ray’s Pizza nearby, which turned out to be our only pie experience of the trip. There’s nothing like a good slice with a side of my favorite Jamaican beef pie.
- Decor: Convivio was the most polished place we went to on our trip. It is a high-end place in a luxury building in the tony Tudor City neighborhood, nearly right across the street from the UN. Walking up to the restaurant you see the four power tables on the brick patio overlooking a park; in the Spring and Summer these tables must be unbelievable. When you enter the restaurant, you notice how big the place is with a bar area, main dining room, a raised dining area and then another dining alcove adjacent to the main dining room. The low ceilings immediately make the place feel intimate but the colors and textures keep the place light and airy. The most striking feature is the red tufted banquette than runs all around the main dining room. It contrasts nicely with the warm gray carpet and the Louis-style chairs upholstered in a metallic gray faux leather. I particularly liked the semi-circular booths with round tables; these tables have upholstered side chairs that reminded me of Pierre Paulin’s orange slice lounge chair. It is a nice touch to have a few swanky lounge-type chairs to break up the space. The neatest design element of the place is the wall treatment, which essentially is fringe curtains hung closely against the wall and up-lit. Since the curtains are white they are extremely subtle but made their mark when they swayed gently with each passing person. The uplighting of the fringe is fantastic, illuminating the fine and delicate texture. My only qualm is that an extra external valance (upholstered) was needed to cover the curtain track – too bad the they couldn’t conceal the track in a hidden ceiling cove when the restaurant was being built out. The final design tip I took away – painting the ceilings in a gloss paint for that extra shimmer and reflectivity, especially on a low ceiling.
- Food: This meal was fantastic. We did the four-course tasting menu, which was plentiful and well-rounded. The highlight again was the pasta dish, not a surprise from the chef who is called the Mario Batali of mid-town lol. We had a small hiccup with a dessert and we were brought two more as replacements. Needless to say the service was great. Overall, this place has that panache, that special dining experience feel, from the food to the decor to the location.
- Decor: Classic Chinese joint with no style to write of. At least it’s decently clean, albeit extremely crowded. In fact, in pinch like with us, you may even be asked to share a table with strangers, which would be fine if those darn soup dumpling steamers weren’t so big… This dining experience is all about the food.
- Food: As a pretty well-educated soup dumpling connoisseur, I think these are the best there is (yes, even compared to Din Tai Fung in LA). The thinness of the dumpling skin and the flavor and volume of the broth (each dumpling yields one Chinese soup spoonful) are unparalleled. Of course to tempt and tease me, Evan, one of the owners of Baohaus, told me that he preferred Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street instead. Unfortunately, he told me on Friday after already eating lunch, when I had no more meals or stomach space to spare on my trip. Bastard. Alas, there will always be next time…
(Dinner was home-cooked by the Parks – thanks Serena and Dennis!)
- Decor: See my blurb for Joe’s Shanghai above except substitute the word Japanese for Chinese.
- Food: So this place was not on our original lunch list; it replaced Cafe Habana because running between uptown and downtown twice a day for meals was killing us and Thursday was an uptown day. Yelp delivered Menku Tei to us and we were grateful. The ramen may not have been as good as Ippudo or Momofuku in a straight-up comparison (i.e. they didn’t know how to make an onsen poached egg) but in a pound-for-pound contest that factored in price, their $8 bowl of tonkatsu ramen is pretty damn good. The milky broth does it to me every time.
Momofuku Noodle Bar
- Decor: Like its food, the design of Momofuku is a modern twist on traditional concepts. Evocative of more traditional Japanese restaurant interiors is the maple plywood covering almost every surface but the floor, which looked to be a nice, slate-looking ceramic tile. Like Ippudo did with its exterior, Momofuku plays with the size and elevation of the maple plywood strips to create an uneven, undulating surface for visual interest. Most of the seats in the restaurant come by way of the bar which extends the entire length of the dining room. A nice detail is how the bar seamlessly transitions from work surface to customer seating in a singular, continuous plane, and becomes table at the front of the restaurant that allows customers to sit on both sides. The bar seating concept seems to be a design trademark at Momofuku restaurants; even their exclusive, ultra-luxe Ko concept a few doors down features bar-only seating and almost the same aesthetic, perhaps with even more inexpensive materials. The few tables in the back and all the stools/bar stools appear to custom designs made of solid oak. These minimalist but sturdy designs focus on practicality and direct peoples’ attention onto the food. The black painted ceiling adds to the drama and the clubby feel. In reality, the clubby energy of the restaurant comes from the teeming throng of loyal patrons.
- Food: This placed is hyped up and it deserves to be, if nothing else for its innovation. I mean how many bao places exist now, not just in Manhattan but across the country, because of this place? But don’t get me wrong, the food is very good, whether the tamales, chicken wings, foie gras or $18 bowl of ramen. But the best thing on the menu is their world-famous pork bun (bao). There is no better, period.
Rice to Riches
- Decor: So I’ve passed this place for years but have never tried it until this trip. Clearly it’s hard not to notice this place because it is so bright and futuristic, yet is sells something as decidedly unglamorous as rice putting? Maybe that’s why they had to dress the place up? In any case, this place is wacky – like a it was designed by a Disney Imagineering alum who threw everything he ever learned into one space. Overall, it’s a bit too much for me with too much going on – signs everywhere, colors everywhere, bad copy writing everywhere. I didn’t see a lot of cohesion or restraint. On the plus side – the innovative tables, all of them, from the ceiling hung ones (which help ingress and egress in a tight space because there are no legs to deal with), to the two-headed surfboard shaped one, to the stripper pole one. In the end, this establishment is successful at least partially from the design of the store – it attracts people to walk in and take a look, and from there the product sells itself. Good design be damned.
- Food: So I admit that aside from the rice pudding out of a plastic cup off the shelf at a grocery store, or from my local Mexican joint, I’ve never experienced gourmet rice pudding before, which apparently has been my loss. This place is darn good and makes rice pudding in flavors that rival ice cream like peanut butter, rock road and banana. I could eat this a lot if I lived nearby, though I think the store owners needs to reconsider their business model, which currently has their smallest serving priced at $6.50. While this stuff is good, that is a lot of money for a single, small serving and they give you way to much anyways. I would sell a half-sized serving for $4 and I bet they would do more volume. But, they’re clearly successful so who am I to say…
- Decor: Baohaus is a study in making the most of what you have, which in this case is not much. This place is essentially subterranean and small, and that’s being generous. I would call the entire ordering/waiting/dining space maybe 10′ x 14′. So what does that mean? Well, no tables of course, but by Friday I was accustomed to counter seating only in New York. One wall has exposed brick and the other a collage of childhood photos of the three brothers/owners. The back wall has a pass through into the tiny kitchen, and the cash register is beneath the store front glass and adjacent to the stairs leading down into the space. I would say that the space had an austere, start-up aesthetic (Ikea stools and all), which is accurate since it has only been open four months. I do like their irreverent branding and marketing, and the blue painted counters that tie back to the brand.
- Food: So being the last bao place we tried we had a chance to compare it against some of the best in Manhattan (Ippudo and Momofuku). Ironically, despite being the most modern concept of the three, as far as the food, its flavors were the most traditional. Their Chairman Bao (pork) tasted like traditional Chinese fatty pork/pork belly served at restaurants, which isn’t a bad thing, just surprising. Flavor-wise, I loved their Uncle Jesse vegetarian bao the best. Oh, and the sweet bao “fries” – ingenius! Cut up bao bread into strips, fry it, serve it with a syrupy black sesame sauce, and call it “fries” – so simple but so good! Not a bad place from a corporate lawyer turned restaurateur. Maybe I could….
- Decor: The Japanese can have a very minimalist, zen-type aesthetic (think Shigeru Ban) so when it comes to designing a hardcore, high-end sushi place I can see why they would utilize this approach. What better way to focus the attention on the food and metaphorically emphasize the freshness, simplicity and sophistication of the sushi than to create a minimalist box devoid of anything superfluous. I am not sure if I had ever been to a sushi place that did not have the requisite fish-refrigerators along the sushi counter – this place was just bare, minimal. The entire restaurant is clad in a honey-colored bamboo plywood (Plyboo?) from floor to ceiling (except maybe the floor itself which may be oak). Even in the hallway to the bathrooms the display niche is finished out completely in bamboo as well as the bathroom doors itself. The space is so uniform and precise that it is impressive, and certainly not easy to accomplish. All you notice is the warm glow of wood all around you from all the well placed lights and accent lights. This place is not sumptuous but serious, in a good way.
- Food: So this place was also not on our initial dinner list, but we kicked off an incumbent to open up a coveted spot when we heard gushing reviews from friends and read similar ones online. I mean people online were GLOWING about this place. So even with the sky-high expectations – the verdict? This place was pretty darn good. First, I’ve never been to a place with such an extensive list of fish, I mean multiple types of tuna, salmon, etc. including a bunch of stuff I had never heard of, all flown in. We were so overwhelmed that we went with omakase to make it easy. All the fish were ultra-fresh and ultra-melt-in-your-mouth. The sushi rice was expertly cooked and seasoned. My only two drawbacks from my meal: no fresh wasabi (I mean Megu does this for you) and slightly small portions (that is so American of me to complain about that). But from a fish perspective, amazing. This place is hardcore.
- Decor: There is not much to take away from Max Brenner in terms of design. I would summarize it as an “upscale”, adult take on a kid’s vision of a chocolate factory. The overall design scheme is very Cheescake Factory-like except for the faux chocolate carrying “pipes” that snake overhead throughout the restaurant, and the fact that the place is super dark, like too dark. It’s almost like they wanted to create a dramatic ambiance so bad that they just decided to make the place super dark. I guess it works – how’s that for an inexpensive design tip?
- Food: This place is a semi-tourist trap but I am a sucker for a sweets and it’s open late so I was so happy to go here. The menu is exhaustive and even for a pretty decisive eater like me I had a hard time choosing something from the pages and pages of choices. Both times I’ve been here nothing has ever been mind-blowing but everything has been good, like the peanut butter chocolate shake or the chocolate fondue. But that’s fine because I don’t need mind-blowing all the time, I was happy to just extend my night in one of my favorite cities.