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GP25Aug04: Why New York's Food (Still) Tastes Better

New York Caper.  No trip to New York is really complete unless we stuff our hamper with delectables to refill our larder back home in the provinces.  Fresh capers complement our salads, while salt capers (only now available at larcenous prices locally) take our pasta sauces from the acceptable to the sublime.  Some wines we buy there are simply not available outside Manhattan, largely due to anti-competitive state liquor laws that prop up the prices of the limited fare offered by a few chosen distributors in any one part of the country.  Then too, there’s the wonderful Italian bread downtown (until recently, many went to Zito’s, but there’s Bruno’s and many others) that compels you to put aside your Atkins Diet. 

Understand, of course, that you have to know where to go for groceries.  For example, you cannot find a passable cup of expresso anywhere on the Upper West Side.  Best to get to the 4 or 5 cafes (perhaps Café Dante, even with its changes, or La Lanterna di Vittorio) in the precincts of Greenwich Village where you will find full-bodied coffee and homemade gelato besides.  And you won’t even pay a king’s ransom. Coffee, cheese, whatever—it may be hard to find, but it’s somewhere to be had in New York City. 

The expresso, the capers, the wine, the pastry and bread, that’s the short story of why New York is better, rivaled perhaps only by New Orleans in the rest of America.  Manhattanites—and the Bridge and Tunnel crowd that comes into town on the weekends to do its shopping—simply have access to better ingredients, which have not lost their taste, than the rest of us.  A restaurant in the city has to work hard at putting bad food on the table when it can recruit its salmon from the Fulton Fish Market or its tomatoes from the likes of Hunt’s Point, more or less the world’s largest produce market.  Now, of course, the chefs of note have moved on to their own very special, small suppliers, well away from the big markets. With such good vegetables and other basics, Craft, a current favorite of ours to which we take visitors from other countries, manages to cook simply enough to bring out the best in the ingredients at hand and does away with unnecessary distractions that ordinary cooks use to camouflage the mundane.  (See our Best of New York City).   

Murray’s Cheeses.  We learn in the August 2 New Yorker, which mainly excels on cultural New York and health topics (authored by Boston doctors), that Murray’s Cheese Shop (www.murrayscheese.com) has hit the big time.  Years ago, Reform Democrats would wait in line outside the shop, hoping to spice up their diets with budget assortments of cheese.  Frankly, it wasn’t very good at the time. 

But if we are to believe the New Yorker’s roving reporter, today it’s fabulous.  Two owners later, it’s many times the business in size, scope, and quality.  A Jersey boy out of a supermarket family has truly put the place on the map, even as many of the nearby Italian grocers on Bleecker Street close up shop. 

Global Supply Chain.  Rob Kaufelt has gone around all the big distributors, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and bought his cheese direct.  Today, metaphorically, the food fanatic gets off the interstates and travels the Blue Highways to uncover unique quality.  For instance, “In 1998, Koufelt met Herve Mons, who is one of ten master affineurs  in France….  He buys young cheese from the cheesemakers, brings it back to climate-controlled caves … and generally coddles the cheese until it either reaches maturity or is ready to ship.  It’s finishing school for cheese.”  Mons buys his cheese right, matures it superbly, and ships it vite to New York.  Koufelt has a short, tightly controlled supply chain, tying himself to Mons and other gifted craftsmen.   

As we have learned at Dell and Wal-Mart, their supply chains are the drivers of their businesses, allowing them to offer standard, middlebrow wares at fairly low cost with indifferent service to consumers who don’t have time to look for the best deals.  But a tight supply chain is just as vital to a quality boutique of any sort that is trying to offer exceptional, rather than cut-rate products.   

On several occasions we ourselves have gotten burnt by enterprises with defective supply chains.  Years ago we were involved with a consulting project involving flavorful woods that made for better barbecue.  Very quickly we discovered that most packages of wood sit around on distributor’s shelves for ages, losing all flavor and adding nothing to our meat or fish.  Most recently, we found that a California pinot noir that had been full of spirit when we drank it in New York had turned watery when funneled through a Virginia distributor.  (Well, we really should be drinking burgundies anyway.)  Merchandise that sits too long in the pipeline turns to naught.  

Any great enterprise works feverishly to establish its supply chain.  Nubuyoshi Kuraoka’s Restaurant Nippon (www.restaurantnippon.com/frameset.htm), one of the City’s older and finer Japanese restaurants, went through elaborate certification procedures with the federal government in order to become the first U.S. restaurant to legally import fugu (poison Japanese blowfish) into the country (another did it first illegally, but, as far as we know, it has since vanished).  See our Best of New York City for more on Nippon and look at its website for details on both fugu and the restaurant’s soba, made from wheat grown on its own farm in Canada.  This is just an extreme example of the lengths to which New Yorkers will go to secure the unusual and the best. 

Incestuous Relationships.  To read about Murray’s in “Big Cheese” is to begin to comprehend how well a top cheese vendor must  understand  the quality cheese buyers at all the restaurants that matter.  Murray’s does not do complex market surveys, but knows, say, all 100 of its best customers intimately.  For this, Kaufelt has a wholesale chief named “Liz Thorpe, who is twenty-five years old and graduated from Yale with a degree in art history and American Studies….”  She tutors new clients on how to buy and serve cheese.  The league of food people, in and just outside the City, is a tightly linked community bound together by a common fanaticism rivaling in intensity that of the collector or the evangelist.    

The Condon Factor.  Some forty years ago George Heard Hamilton, one of America’s finest art historians and later the head of the Sterling and Francine Clark Museum (www.clarkart.edu) in Williamstown, Massachusetts, outlined 4 or 5 things that went into a great painting.  You could have, he thought, a talented painter, all the right materials, a breathtaking concept, but come up empty-handed if you lacked a great audience.  A demanding audience. 

In the 1980s, we dined frequently with an elegant New York graphic artist named John Condon.  We remember at least 3 great restaurants to which he introduced us, including a Sicilian café named Siracusa, frequented by the Mob, on the Bowery that made its own pasta and then mixed it with squid nestled in its own ink; Periyali, in the 20s, where the Greek fare had a refinement that distinguished itself from the standard run of Balkan and other Eastern European food; and a Scandinavian mid-town meeting spot where the whole presentation or gestalt elevated the eating experience.   

Towards the end of his life, Condon even opened his own eatery and jazz club, just above Union Square, making him so expert that he became even more finicky—right in character with New York’s great audience.  He knew as much or more about food as the restaurateurs whose establishments he patronized.  As a patron, he improved the places he deigned to visit.  At any one moment, in New York, you will find such customers that could be on the other side of the counter tomorrow.  

Or, in turn, the proprietor-customer may be found sampling the wares of the City.  Neal Rosenthal, head of the Mad Rose wine group (www.madrose.com/aboutus.html) in New York State near the Berkshires, may tour New York wine bars for hours on end, as part of a conversation about everything with an English wine writer.  He recalls Rakel, a  restaurant formerly over on Hudson, as we remember, in which Thomas Keller was a partner before he achieved French Laundry and Per Se fame.  We have an interest in some of his Italian vintages.  The demanding, New York audience may sometimes consist of the very tradespeople who cater to the restaurants and the stores.  

The Child Legacy.  Across America, almost in every nook and cranny, there are now food partisans who want the very best.  Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Craig Claiborne, and others have given them an eye for something better.  But our distribution systems are still full of hiccups, and neither the smarts nor the fresh goods that make for greatness have really crept off the island of Manhattan.  There’s needs and wants across the Hudson that America’s biggest grocer, Wal-Mart, cannot and will not fill, leaving the quality field of play for other suppliers yet to come.  Even amidst the impersonal world of global commerce, there are still small business villages, where supplier, and merchant, and customer know each other terribly well and where passion lights up the business because it is built on personal connection and compulsive dedication.  That’s New York.  Woe to the disconnected. 

P.S.  Be on the lookout for our newsletter on spices: the first issue will be posted in the next couple of weeks.

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