June 13, 2007 | Favorites

Yes, Where I Actually Go for Lunch

Jean Georges usually leaves cooking to the chef de cuisine but he hasn't forgotten how.   Photo: Steven Richter
Jean Georges usually leaves cooking to the chef de cuisine but he hasn't forgotten how.   Photo: Steven Richter

        Jean Georges is my first and inevitable choice and the best deal in town, with two courses for $28 and anything else from the lunch menu at $12. I love the room, though it’s a bit worn and maybe the flowers aren’t as grand as they once were. I love it on a sunny day and when it’s grey, love the flash of traffic zipping up Central Park West when the shades aren’t drawn.  Even though I know Jean-Georges has to be jetting around the world dipping into his global pots -- by contract, please, he has to check in -- he more often than not actually appears at the table in his immaculate whites at some point during lunch.

        “Is that you, Jean-Georges?”  I ask, “Or are you the clone?”

        Occasionally there is a pie-in-the sky combination so ludicrous I want to smack the chef de cuisine. (I’m not sure how often J-G himself actually tastes what his right hand guys are up to.)  But guaranteed, there will always be a dish or two that makes me gasp with shock at its daring and fabulousness. Hamachi with silken and seriously tart grapefruit sorbet, for instance. Arctic char with saffron vinegar and butternut squash ravioli, or pan roasted sweetbreads with licorice, grilled pear and lemon. Everything else will be, at the least, very good. Like the inevitable turbot with lemon yellow Chateau Chalon sauce and an inspired variation on squab, smartly caramelized but rare inside.
 pastry chef
 Pastry whiz Johnny Iuzzini does melting macaroons and the best chocolates.                  Photo: Steven Richter

     A seasonal dessert from pastry wizard Johnny Iuzzini is essential, too. Grapefruit gelée with blood orange, tarragon oil, salted crouton and honey ginger ice cream when he’s really reaching.  At the end, with the bitty macaroons, ethereal fruit jells, and the silly homemade marshmallows (I skip them), comes Iuzzini’s elegant chocolate bonbons, maybe the best in the city.

Trump International Hotel 1 Central Park West between 60th and 61st 212 299 3900


        When I’m on my own credit card, I never feel deprived choosing the $27 prix fixe at Gotham Bar and Grill. (Needless to say, I liked it even more when it was $20.06) I remember even feeling virtuous contemplating my grilled salmon with vegetables in a light vinaigrette after a deeply flavorful, cream-free pumpkin soup this past fall. There is always a soup or salad, pasta (possibly stuffed or tossed with lamb or duck or squab) and a fish -- lightly decked out -- on a menu that changes every six or eight weeks. At the moment, the salad of arugula, haricots verts, tomato and goat cheese is a borrow from chef-patron Alfred Portale’s cookbook, Simple Pleasures. Choose Gotham’s warm chocolate cake with banana-mango ice cream or a trio of sorbets to finish.

12 East 12th Street between 5th Avenue and University Place.  212 620 4020


    Lunch a deux at the bar of La Grenouille feels rather rich and very sexy.  As if eating with a man you’re not living with isn’t already intimate enough. There is a special intimacy in bar-side closeness, that side by side exchange that can unleash a little French flirtation in the most genetically distracted Yankee Doodle Dandy.  The legendary flowers here are as glorious as always – fruit blossoms now, lilies and tulips.  You have your own bouquet at the corner of the bar. It’s all part of owner Charles Masson’s plot to shake up the last bastion of haute snobbisme and la grande cuisine from the sixties. The discount bar menu from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.  The front window now open to the street. The captains out of their old fashioned tuxedoes and into business suits.  The charming drawings on the menu are his too.

    You snitch a marcona almond and sip champagne watching the daily drama as Frog Pond habituées appear.  Who is John Fairchild lunching with today? How many Chanels in the room? How would Joan Rivers describe it?

    Spring is very green: Sweet pea flan with favas and morels with pea and mint sauce. Green tagliatelli with ramps on a toss of scallion, pearl onions, and favas. I often have the hors d’oeuvre variés, as I invariably did in my star-struck freshman moments as New York magazine’s first restaurant critic, when I was inevitably seated in Siberia, the Catsup Room. A sliver of poached salmon with sauce gribiche. A curl of tomato. Cucumber with tarragon. Celeri remoulade.  There can never be too much mayonnaise for me.  Blanquette de veau, not too dosed with cream. Quail salad with frisée and slivers of bacon. The menu often changing, of course. Red berry soup with lime sorbet. Maybe a classic ouef à la neige.  And the same chewy Florentine cookies the Frog Pond has been doing since the beginning of civilized time. 

3 East 52nd St. between 5th and Madison 212 752 1495


 Anthos sardines
 Lightly pickled cucumber brings out the freshness of sardines at Anthos.

        Since I discovered the $28 lunch at Anthos, I’ve been sending everyone there. Unlike most of the weekly critics, I like the simplicity of the room and its unassuming paintings of blossoms and don’t feel the need to compare it to the multi-million dollar sexiness of the Anthos team’s ill-fated Dona.  And like most food-fanatics I know, I find chef-owner Michael Psilakis cooking at the height of his talent, as well as the peak of his madness.

        Yes, there can be an excess of ingredients concentrated on one tiny morsel of food.  But I am totally taken by his cosmic reinvention of fresh sardines against the crunch of barely pickled cucumber beside a puddle or slash of olive tar. I love the potato and garlic soup with its cod fritter afloat. For a few dollars more, a second prix fixe includes his stirringly brilliant raw shrimp in a cosmic essence of tomato alongside a saucer of uni-doused crab. And I can imagine coming by just for the chef’s spirited lamb burger.

36 West 52nd Street near 5th Avenue. 212 582 6900


        The second sexiest lunch just has to be meeting someone you’re wild about around 2:30, when the crowd starts to clear at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central.  Get two seats at the bar itself and ask for one of every oyster they have that day for each of you. Don’t leave a drop of juice behind. Just slurp away.  Purists will insist on an icy white wine.  I remember when only a Muscadet would do. After comparing which oyster you loved the most, share a bowl of luscious clam roast. Who knows where touching spoons can lead?

42nd Street and Vanderbilt, Lower Level 212 490 6650


        Last time I met my agent for lunch at the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center, I got a double thrill.  Our table had a perfect voyeur’s view of the skating rink with its dramatic spills and occasional Bronze Medal spins.  And I’m not sure I have ever had a bigger, fresher, more exquisitely seared scallop than the two on my plate. I can still recall the shock of the astonishing texture. They were so rich, I found myself able to eat just one and, without shame, I toted the second one home to eat for breakfast. (As Joe Baum used to say, a true foodie eats leftover pasta cold next day for breakfast. Of course, you can always turn it into frittata. Scallops likewise.)

19 West 49th between 5th and 6th Avenues 212 332 7610


        All my breakfast meetings start at Fairway Café, around the corner from my home, preferably with a cheese Danish by the boss, Mitch London, or a fruit plate, where I know half the fruit will be less than ripe.  Still, the Cafe is my first resort for lunch.  I urge the croque monsieur on my guests, especially for a recent rash of former beaux (dropping by to see why they didn’t rate a mention in my memoir). I might have a plump overstuffed egg salad sandwich or chicken salad on seven-grain, or an antipasto plate, if I’m feeling the need to ease up on carbs. Funny, the exceptional burger I love at dinner never calls out to me at lunch.

Fairway Cafe is upstairs at 2127 Broadway between 74th and 75th 212 595 1888


        Certain of my women friends think lunch must be the Gotham chopped salad at Bergdorf’s Cafe. I’m always game to tag along. To avoid a long queue of hungry shoppers, we have taken to meeting at 2 p.m. in the cafe at the Men’s Store.

Fifth Avenue between 58th and 57th Street


        I took one of those born-in-the-Bronx, but civilized-by-success-in-Manhattan guys to Larry Forgione’s An American Place on the fifth floor at Lord & Taylor. My chum was the only man there, but confirmed sex symbol that he is, didn’t seem to mind at all and we both loved our salads.  Actually, the supposed healthiness of those leaf and veggie snippings just meant we were more than entitled to not one, but three desserts. What the hell?  If you can’t loosen up a little over lunch, what’s life worth?


Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers