With over 18,000 restaurants to choose from, and dozens of guidebooks to dining out, New York City can be a paradise for knowledgeable gourmets or a jungle for those of us who just want a good meal. The area above 42nd Street and below 59th Street, from river to river, is a Mecca for most visitors to Manhattan, and since I have lived here for a dozen years now, I can claim to know a little about my favorites in the several neighborhoods that constitute Midtown. I am partial to Chinese, Italian and Japanese cuisine (in alphabetical order, note), but have had splendid experiences recently in American and Swedish restaurants as well.
Undoubtedly the best Swedish restaurant in New York, Aquavit prides itself on its prix fixe menu, three courses for $80. I can recommend the herring sampler as a starter, with aquavit and beer accompanying. My choice for the main course was a preciously arranged seafood stew, which came in widely separated mounds of lobster, scallop, shrimp and smoked salmon in a shallow saffron cream dill broth. Dessert was a sampling of three sorbets, all made from fresh fruit. There's a three-course, pre-theater menu costing $55, served until 6:15. If you want something less hearty and expensive, try the café, which has daily specials (salmon on Monday, etc.) for $20, a herring sampler at $12, Swedish meatballs at $19. Their three-course prix fixe menu is only $37. On St. Lucia evening (December 13), they bring in a group of "angels" from the Swedish school, and, with the traditional flaming candles on their heads, the girls sing traditional Christmas songs for about 30 minutes. The restaurant is located at 65 E. 55th St. (between Park and Madison), tel. 212/307-7311; www.aquavit.org.
Bottega del Vino
Utterly charming, the ambience at Bottega del Vino is enough reason to dine here. Housed in the former Playboy Club just off one of the most desirable corners in New York, the Bottega is as close as you can come to a true Italian restaurant of the old school. You enter through a small deli, where you can buy fresh Italian goodies (especially the yummy panini), and soon find yourself surrounded by a warm décor (dark wood, marble, chandeliers) that feels just like Verona. The reason you feel you are in Europe may be because the restaurant is a branch, really, of its parent in Verona (with the same name), established in 1890. The food is outstanding, traditional, but with nice nuances by an accomplished chef. Their signature dish is Vailone Nana risotto in Amarone wine, which I found one of the best risottos I have ever had, anywhere ($23). Spaghetti alle vongole is, believe it or not, a traditional Veronese dish, and is featured here, too, with manila clams, for $20. My companion had braised beef in Amarone wine sauce, served with polenta, another house special at $28. The wine cellar is said to be one of the city's largest, with over 2,000 labels, and you can't go wrong with a glass of Amarone, a dark and richly aroma-laden Veronese wine. You'll find them at 7 E. 59th St, just off 5th Avenue, tel. 212/223-3028.
Brooklyn Diner USA
If Bill Clinton had kept his original plan to have his post-presidential office on West 57th Street, he would no doubt be hanging around the Brooklyn Diner there, a goldmine of comfort food. I've eaten there several times and enjoyed their classic "Dodger" pot roast ($17.95) and sumptuous baked macaroni and cheese ($16.95). Now, visitors to the Big Apple don't have to confine themselves to this spot, at 212 W. 57th (tel. 212/977-1957), but can go to a newer version, called Brooklyn Diner USA, opened in late 2006 at 155 W. 43rd Street (tel. 212/265-5400), right in Times Square. The owner, Sheldon Fireman, says American ethnic dishes "from every part of Brooklyn" will be represented, including German, Irish, Italian, Jewish and Spanish. Mr. Fireman also owns five other well known restaurants in Manhattan, including the wonderful Café Fiorello, opposite Lincoln Center. More at www.brooklyndiner.com.
Frankie & Johnnie's Steakhouse
The main reason to come here is to experience the old-fashioned ambience, and besides, it's very convenient to many theaters. Opened in 1926 as a speakeasy, the story goes that patrons mounted the stairs and knocked on an unmarked door, using the password "Frankie" when a peephole opened up. On confirmation that the patrons were acceptable, the response was "Johnnie," and they were admitted. The walls are lined with photographs of stars of stage and screen from days mostly past, and the place has done well enough to spawn three offspring (on West 37th Street in John Barrymore's former townhouse, in Rye, NY and Hoboken, NJ). They also offer free limo service to diners within the Midtown area, which includes the theater district.
On a cool autumn evening recently, I had for an appetizer the pimento and anchovies on cabbage, a bit vinegary for my taste, and for the main course a succulent T-Bone steak ($40), which was perfect. I was disappointed in the tough, old bread and the gritty Caesar salad, but happy with fresh strawberries and cream. My companion had a splendid grilled gray sole ($24), which I tasted, and we were assured by Mario that the restaurant orders six fresh ones daily. All their beef is said to be prime and is dry aged, then seasoned with a 'secret' blend of herbs and spices before being grilled. Ask for F&J's own bottled steak sauce, too. There's a fine wine list (I had a glass of California pinot noir at $9.50). Efficient service and a charmingly antique ambience made for a pleasant evening overall. 269 West 45hth Street, upstairs, tel. 212/997-9494; www.frankieandjohnnies.com.
For Italian dining that is superb and with an ambience that is elegantly low-keyed, think San Domenico, owned by the veteran restaurateur Tony May. You should opt for classic Italian dishes designed for the upper crust such as some middle crusted I have enjoyed over the years. Typical main course prices include $36.50 for roasted baby goat with rosemary scented fingerling potatoes, a typical pasta dish $28.50 for risotto with red beets and Barolo wine.
Wu Liang Ye
One of a small chain (three New York City restaurants), Wu Liang Ye offers the best Chinese food I have ever eaten in Midtown. It's mostly Szechuan style food, including shredded pork with spicy garlic sauce ($11.95), sautéed baby shrimps with Szechuan chili sauce ($14.95), and pan-seared pork dumplings ($5.95).The service was excellent, in the neutral Chinese manner. (On a wintry evening, when we piled our coats onto one chair, the headwaiter draped a clean tablecloth over them, making sure no food got spilled on them by accident.) Other highlights of the menu include Beijing style roast duck ($29.95) and the Chef's Ma Po Tofu, with minced pork ($9.95). Lunch specials run just $6.95 (24 choices, including tangerine chicken). Location: 36 W. 48th Street, just off Rockefeller Center, tel. 212/398-2308. There are two branches, one on the Upper East Side at 215 E. 8th St, the other in Midtown East, at 338 Lexington (between 39th and 40th).
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