My last day in New York was spent at the home of one of my oldest friends, who lives with her husband and two kids in Brooklyn Heights. After four days and long nights of walking in fashionable shoes, my feet were sausage, so my friend lent me her best Mrs. Roper slippers and we drank Italian bubbly and we hung out. It was quiet, and normal. And quiet! One of the Proof You're A Curmudgeon-ly things I noticed being back in New York is how holy-hell loud the restaurants are now. (Also, get off my lawn!)
That night my friend Ross pulled off a miracle of NY Restaurant wizardry (I suspect he hinted to them that I was applying for the New York Times critic job, but I don't want to know!): he got us a table for seven at Empellon by calling the day before. Short back-story is that Alex Stupak, Empellon's chef, left a highly lauded job as pastry chef at Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 to open...a Mexican restaurant? Caused quite a stir. One infamous New York diner even had the huevos to call him out about it in his own kitchen. (The story's on Eater NY if you're into food gossip, and you know you are.)
Ross asked our server to create a tasting menu for us, which seemingly would've made things easier with such a big group. That is, if our server had been able to count. Course after course arrived, but in portions surely meant for four, not seven: a four-inch diameter cast-iron pot (singular!) of ceviche (great shrimp ceviche, at least from what I could tell from the half ounce I tasted); another singular pot of chorizo with red and green salsas (again, enough to have one tablespoon per person); chicken wings in a delicious, sesame-laced mole sauce that, when asked, our server actually called teriyaki sauce. I am not making that up. (Was this a Seattle joke? Could she have known where I was from and was trying to be funny? Alas, no.) To drink, a very delicious cocktail of blanco tequila, pineapple juice, serrano chilis and cilantro (actually, two). And again, a very good time had by all, though I was tempted to eat a hamburger after we left.
And so it is as it was when I lived and reviewed restaurants there. No city is jammed full of geniuses; surely if you believe New York (and Brooklyn) has more great chefs per capita than we do here in Seattle, you must also consider the number of restaurants there versus here. What I suspect is that it's quite hard to be the perfect visiting diner in either city; it's quite easy to happen upon an average-to-good restaurant in New York and in Seattle, and it's quite easy to "order the wrong thing" and be, well, mildly disappointed in either city.
But New York is at a distinct disadvantage because everyone puts such high expectations on every culinary interaction there. If you're going to call yourself the best food city in the country (some say the world?), the sense is that one shouldn't be able to stumble easily upon a so-so meal. It should also be said that one who researches the hell out of her meals (ahem) before travelling shouldn't have been met with so much mediocrity, either, in service and in the food on the plate.
And so this morning, when I read a quote by Ruth Reichl in an interview with the LA Weekly, it struck a chord. She said, comparing LA to San Francisco, that LA has a kind of underdog streak, that LA has a bit to prove. "San Francisco is so convinced of itself as a food city. Here [in LA] you get this pugnacious quality of, Yeah, we are good; we are good."
You could swap in NYC for San Francisco, and Seattle for LA, and that's about how I feel. Nothing wrong with feeling like you've got something to prove, like you don't get the respect you deserve. It's cliche but true: it usually makes you better. But it's especially delightful to taste first-hand the proof: that the premise that you're not as good as the big guns is not the entire truth.