Dining Tour of the Big Apple with Tim Zagat
Several months ago, I went along with Tim Zagat and a reporter for the London Telegraph for a tour of New York's top restaurants. I could tell the story from my own point of view, but I think the author, Douglas Rogers, does a mighty fine account of it in his article that ran this past Sunday, April 20.
Following is the text of the article and here's a link:
New York: Tim Zagat's gourmet tour
Douglas Rogers joins the founder-publisher of the influential Zagat Survey restaurant guides on one of his legendary New York 'dine-arounds'.
Tim Zagat was missing. Somewhere between the reception and the private dining room of Thomas Keller’s imperious Per Se restaurant in New York’s Time Warner Centre, the founder-publisher of the Zagat Survey restaurant guides had disappeared. I’d been warned about this kind of behaviour.
“You do realise,” Michael Mahle, Zagat’s communications director, had whispered as we set off on a five-hour “dine around” with his boss of the 10 best restaurants in New York, “that with Tim anything can happen?”
There are few more pleasurable – or unpredictable – experiences than visiting the city’s best restaurants with the man who knows them better than anyone. A dashing 66-year-old, with a rasping bourbon-and-cigar soaked voice and meaty 6ft 2in, 250lb frame (testament to three decades of dining out), Tim Zagat is the Orson Welles of the New York restaurant world; a man with a manic enthusiasm for good food and good times that would exhaust a teenager.
What I hadn’t expected was that he would stray off-menu so soon. It was only 6.45pm and we had nine other restaurants to see – kitchens to tour, master chefs to meet, sushi and steak to sample – and already the worry was we’d never make it out of Per Se.
“He’s through there,” said a bus boy ferrying imported Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm into Per Se’s $30-million, 5,400sq ft kitchen.
We headed off down a long, ceramic-tiled corridor, past a wall-mounted television screen beaming live footage of French Laundry, Keller’s Napa Valley restaurant. All around was a hushed, focused intensity that was more science lab than restaurant: chefs were delicately drizzling Russian caviar over plates of iced oysters; wrapping smoked bacon around sirloins of farm rabbit.
Before it opened in 2004, waiters at Per Se took dance classes to learn to serve with added grace. That television screen? It was so that the cooks could keep in tune with their counterparts in the French Laundry kitchen.
Eventually we tracked Zagat down to the confectionery room. He was flirting with two pastry chefs, handing out free subscriptions to his online guide, and helping himself to packets of freshly baked coconut truffles.
It was in 1977 that Zagat and his wife, Nina, both Yale-educated Manhattan lawyers, started collecting reviews of New York restaurants written by dinner party friends. They hit upon an idea: why not produce a restaurant guide written by ordinary diners instead of food critics?
The democratic formula paid off: today Zagat is a vast publishing empire, with restaurant surveys covering 60 cities around the world, as well as guides to nightclubs, spas, hotels, golf courses and food markets. More than 300,000 people vote in the surveys, their opinions are condensed into quotable review form by hundreds of editorial staff at the Zagat offices overlooking the Time Warner Centre on Central Park.
But while the distinctive purple-red dining guide is an institution – the “Burgundy Bible” as New Yorkers call it – Tim Zagat’s tours of restaurants, his “dine arounds”, are the stuff of legend. He visits more than 600 New York restaurants a year, and as part of his rounds will often invite friends and journalists along for the ride. Zagat eats dinner out five nights a week and lunch most days.
My own plan was simple: to visit the 10 best restaurants as listed in the 2008 guide, and eat dinner with Tim and Nina (who would join us later), in the last of them. Mahle had drawn up our itinerary and would ride shotgun to keep us as much on schedule as humanly possible.
Our second official stop was Jean-Georges, the Columbus Circle restaurant of Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the lobby of the Trump Hotel. The seas part when Zagat walks into a restaurant. Receptionists flutter their eyes, maître d’s trip over themselves to offer their best tables, and those who don’t recognise him soon step into line. “I’m Tim Zagat,” he’ll say, holding up a copy of his book. “I do this.”
Still, I was surprised to find Vongerichten himself waiting at the front desk to give me a tour of his café and fine-dining restaurant. In the kitchen I sampled a freshly baked cinnamon marshmallow petit-fours that comes with an espresso order; it evaporated in my mouth like a magical sweet foam. “Room service,” Jean-Georges smiled. Guests at Trump’s hotel get the food of the sixth-finest restaurant in New York sent to their rooms.
Two French restaurants have vied for the top Zagat rating for the past five years: Daniel, on the Upper East Side; and the seafood restaurant Le Bernadin on West 51st Street. Le Bernadin was next, and we hopped into a chauffeur-driven town car and headed south.
The genius of Zagat’s guide – at least for Zagat – is that although he doesn’t write the reviews, restaurants still fawn over him as if he did. However, he never accepts complimentary meals, and when a team of waiters at Le Bernadin scurried round offering wine and champagne, he ordered water and made sure Mahle paid for it. “I try not to drink on a tour until the end,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d get stuck in one place.”
I didn’t have the same problem and tossed back a pricey glass of burgundy while chef/owner Eric Ripert, a friend of Zagat, guided us through an elegant dining room lined with 19th-century French paintings and past a private upstairs salon where 40 Japanese bankers were cutting deals over plates of sea-urchin caviar and escolar with miso butter.
Le Bernadin slipped to third in this year’s Zagat ratings, but Ripert seemed unfazed. He reminded Zagat to come to the party he was hosting the next night for the launch of My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals, at which Ripert (who is on the book’s cover), was to roast a Puerto Rican whole hog and administer a whippet shot of truffle foam to the mouths of the guests. “Must I?” Zagat grins. “I hate this job!”
When we arrived in the Four Seasons Hotel lobby to visit the jewel-box sized L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (ranked 10th), a dapper gent in a tailored suit and pink tie greeted him warmly as we walked past. “That was Peter Browne,” Zagat shrugged (Peter Browne as in assistant to the Beatles and name-checked in John Lennon’s Ballad of John and Yoko: “Peter Browne called to say 'You can make it OK, you can get married in Gibraltar near Spain’.”)
Most of Zagat’s energy comes from an insatiable love of food. Arriving outside Sushi Seki, a cult Japanese hole-in-the-wall in the Upper East Side, rated ninth in Zagat, his car door lightly bumped a cyclist ferrying a Chinese food delivery. Zagat apologised, and then his eyes lit up: “What you got there? Noodles? Mmm... smells good.”
There are 2,069 restaurants in the 2008 guide, but as we drove around Zagat would tell the driver to stop if he saw an establishment he’d not been in before; then he’d run in with pad and pen to make notes.
“Go into a restaurant and you can tell if it’s good without eating in it,” he explained. “I look at the people inside, the menu, the kitchen – it has to have a liveliness, an animation.” He paused. “I tell you what, if you really want to know great New York restaurants you really should meet Sirio. Driver, take us to Le Cirque!” And we veered deliciously off course again.
Le Cirque is not in the Zagat top 10, but it’s one of the most famous restaurants on earth.
Opened in 1974 by Tuscan-born Sirio Maccioni – “the world’s great maître d’ and owner,” said Zagat – it’s been a gourmet playground for global high society for 30 years. It recently moved to the sleek glass-and-steel Bloomberg tower on East 58th Street, where, incredibly, Maccioni, 76 and a cross between Don Corleone and Marcello Mastroianni in his black tux and dark glasses, still greets his guests at the front door. He gave Zagat a hug and was soon gliding me through a sumptuous circular dining room set below a billowing silk circus tent, the walls a shiny, lacquered ebony.
We’d just missed Nancy Reagan and Henry Kissinger, but the banker Sandy Weill was at one table and the scent of money and power in there was as strong as the smell of black truffles on the plates of foie-gras ravioli.
Adjacent to the bar, Zagat showed me a wall of photographs of Maccioni with friends: Sinatra, Jackie O, Sophia Loren, Bill Clinton, Silvio Berlusconi. The story goes that Pope John Paul II once asked if he could reserve a table at Le Cirque. Maccioni told him: “Of course, but can you guarantee me a table in heaven?”
“My ambition,” Zagat said dreamily, “is to make it up on this wall!”
Le Cirque is not all about celebrity. Maccioni popularised such dishes as crème brûlée and pasta primavera, and helped launch the careers of master chefs Daniel Boulud and David Bouley, whose eponymous restaurants are rated one and seven respectively in Zagat.
It was way past 10pm now and it was clear we were not going to make it to Peter Luger, the Brooklyn steakhouse, nor to Chanterelle, the French classic of David and Karen Waltuck in Tribeca. Mahle called Nina to say we’d be dining at Bouley in Tribeca, but first we’d see two more restaurants uptown: Daniel and Sushi Yasuda. And it was there, inevitably, that the wheels came off.
In Daniel, a haute-Renaissance palace of red velvet carpets, Venetian pillars and coiffed Upper East Side sophisticates dining on frogs legs and foie gras and milk-fed pig, I ordered a basil-infused vodka cocktail at a gorgeous gold-leafed bar counter to survey the glamorous scene. Zagat, forgetting his no-booze rule asked me for a sip – and then downed the whole drink. He turned to Mahle who also had a cocktail. “Come on, Michael,” he growled – and downed his drink too. “Right,” he said, “anyone for sushi?”
Sushi Yasuda was 22 blocks south. I’d never heard of it, but it’s the highest-rated Asian restaurant in Zagat’s history. It was on the ground floor of a nondescript commercial block on East 43rd Street. The décor is unremarkable – blond wood, bright light – but the dozen tables were heaving, and behind the counter Naomichi Yasuda, a big, bald Japanese chef in his fifties, was rolling rice and cutting fish with the flourishing precision of an orchestra maestro. When he saw Zagat walk in three stools miraculously became available at the counter. “Mr Zagat,” he smiled. “Sit. Sit. I take care of you…”
It started with Long Island Spanish mackerel paired with a sake served on a miniature bamboo mat. Then a portion of Idaho rainbow trout with a different drink. Florida Eel came next, spiced up with a rare, rich shot of soy sauce. A piece of Rhode Island bonito went down, smooth as an oyster. Each portion of fish was paired with a sake from a different Japanese region, which we swiftly knocked back. Then came an extraordinary, sloppy, pungent sea urchin from Santa Barbara. “Best aphrodisiac in world,” said Yasuda.
Mahle briefly popped out to call Nina to tell her we were running late. While he was out, Zagat ate his portion of Hamachi yellow tail. “Don’t tell him,” he ordered – then ate his own. I asked the young couple next to me how they chose the restaurant. “We found it in Zagat,” the woman said. Zagat heard her and winked. “It’s a great book, isn’t it?” Then he drank more sake and another tuna slice. “You wouldn’t think we have reservations at Bouley tonight, would you?” he grinned. “Hey, do you want to come with us?”
I suspect they might have, except it was then that Nina marched in. A soft-spoken brunette, she had the definite air of someone who had seen her husband in action many times before. She suggested it might be best we call it a night before her husband created more havoc. Zagat’s schoolboy grin briefly gave way to disappointment; it was clear who wore the trousers around here, he would have to go home.
Mahle ordered me a cab while I watched Nina shove Zagat into the back of the town car. As it sped away, he managed to stick his head out the window. “Go to Bouley!” he commanded me. “It’s brilliant!” And then he they were gone, off to their Upper West Side apartment overlooking Central Park. It was way past 1am.
Zagat's top 10 New York restaurants
1. Daniel 60 E 65th St, between Madison & Park Aves (001 212 288 0033).
2. Sushi Yasuda 204 E 43rd St, between 2nd & 3rd Aves (972 1001).
3. Le Bernardin 155 W 51st St, between 6th & 7th Aves (554 1515
4. Per Se 10 Columbus Circle, 5th fl; 60th St at B’way (823 9335).
5. Peter Luger Steak House 178 Broadway at Driggs Ave, Brooklyn (718 387 7400).
6. Jean Georges 1 Central Park W, between 60th & 61st (212 299 3900).
7. Bouley 120 W Broadway at Duane St (964 2525).
8. Chanterelle 2 Harrison St at Hudson St (966 6960).
9. Sushi Seki 1143 First Ave, between 62nd & 63rd Sts (371 0238).
10. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon 57 E 57th St, between Madison & Park Aves (350 6658).
Zagat New York Restaurants (£9.99). Zagat London Restaurants (£9.99). To join Zagat.com, where you can rate restaurants, read members’ reviews, and have updates such as menus, maps, food trends and new openings sent to your email address or BlackBerry, visit www.zagat.com/account.
Story from Telegraph Travel: