John’s NYC Journal and Photo Essay
How New York Fails to Live Up To Its Reputation and Where to Eat, Drink and Buy Wine in the Big Apple
In mid-February I spent three days criss-crossing Manhattan and Brooklyn visiting some of the city’s top restaurants, wines bars and wine shops. The purpose was primarily to spread the word about my winemaking project in Hungary, the J&J Eger Wine Co., and facilitate sales for my US agent, Blue Danube Wines. I expected the worst.
I fully expected to run up against haughty attitude from some of the world’s most influential sommeliers and wine buyers, surely jaded and saturated by what must be the world’s most tenacious and numberless army of sales reps, like a never-ending episode of Zombies. I expected to find little love for the still woefully obscure red grape Kékfrankos/Blaufränkisch (even if it’s Central Europe’s most important). And I expected to shell out plenty of dough for food and drink along the way for my troubles. I was wrong on all counts.
As it turns out, there is a conspicuous lack of attitude in the wine trade. New York is awash in gracious, hospitable, educated and polite wine buyers, eager to greet with a welcoming smile. An unplanned 9 pm stop at one of Manhattan’s hottest new restaurants, all’onda, jam-packed, resulted not in a sneer and a swift kick out the door, but instead a genuinely warm invitation by proprietor (and, as it turns out, legendary restaurateur) Chris Cannon to sit at the next open table. Cannon then proceeded to insist on tasting the J&J kékfrankos in the middle of frenetic service, and was impressed enough to offer to take a glass upstairs to another important buyer who happened to be dining that evening. He then brought the little group that had gathered with us (including, by sheer coincidence another winemaker, Stelios Boutari of Kir-Yianni winery in Naoussa, Greece), a parade of intriguing wines and plates of superb Venetian-inspired food to sample. And to top it all off, he refused payment. Attitude? Nowhere to be found. Now that’s classy, if fiscally questionable, hospitality.
Elsewhere, with few exceptions, the stories were similar. It was a complete and thorough dismantling of prejudice.
I was also surprised by the level of interest in, and knowledge of, lesser-known grapes like kékfrankos, and other relics of backcountry Europe far from the glossy pages of Wine Spectator. New York’s wine pros are ultimately far more knowledgeable and open then pretty much any other city’s that I’ve been to (with a nod to Montreal and London), which I suppose is not shocking considering the sheer and overwhelming availability of wine from every grape growing corner of the planet. Any wine of genuine quality is given a fair look, with few pre-conceived notions, and the most obscure stuff seems to even generate a noticeable glimmer of excitement instead of skepticism or disdain. And this is not just in hipster bars and wine shops, but also top end establishments like Jean-Georges, Café Boulud and Tocqueville.
To be sure, I was traveling with Blue Danube partner Stetson Robbins, who had set up rendezvous in generally non-hostile territories where an open mind and warm reception were more likely. But there’s a real overarching sense of curiosity and wine-without-frontiers attitude that permeates the trade, which just five years ago would have been much more difficult to find.
And New York also failed to live up to its reputation as an expensive city to visit (hotel rooms aside). In fact, once you’re on the ground, you can live large on a very slim budget. I’d put the experience of eating and drinking in the city among the best, and least expensive, in North America. There’s just so much culinary talent, ethnic diversity and fierce competition that diners frolic in a perfect storm. From a plate of western Chinese hand-ripped noodles in rich lamb cumin broth at Xi’an for $7.50 (special Nº1), to a lumberjack size house-made bratwurst with sauerkraut and dumplings at Café Katja for $9 (the pint of Riegele beer is extra) or even a three-course, $29 prix fixe lunch at chic mid-town Bar Boulud complete with wine service by one of the city’s most celebrated sommeliers, New York rocks the value quotient.
So pack your bags, or fill them while you’re there, and head to NYC for some serious wining and dining. Here are a few of the restaurants, wine bars and wine shops to hit in Manhattan and Brooklyn. And, of course, I’m only scratching the surface.
Restaurants – Brooklyn
Café Dada ‹ Cafe Dada | French-Hungarian Cafe and Wine Bar
57 7th Ave Brooklyn, NY 11217, 718 622-2800.
Proprietor Gabor Ferencz serves up home-made pastries and fine café fare with a short but satisfying wine list, perfect for a midday snack.
Shalom Japan | Jewish & Japanese Food
310 S 4th St, New York, NY 11211, 718-388-4012
Yes, my reaction was the same: you serve what kind of food? As the website says, you can expect “Authentically inauthentic Jewish and Japanese food by Chefs Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi.” So deska. GM, partner and sommelier Micaela Grossman has assembled a superb wine list that hits all of the right flavours and textures to match with, err, classic Jewish-Japanese, anchoring on vibrant and crisp, clean and mineral whites and reds.
90 Wythe Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11249, 718-388-2969
Aska is a tough ticket to get, with just a dozen and a half seats available each night for Chef Fredrik Berselius’ seven or ten course fixed menu. Though disappointed walk-ins can find solace in the three-course teaser at the bar. Both the design and menu represent Scandinavian minimalism at its best (one dish is listed as simply “celery”). “We cook with equal parts forward thinking and nostalgia, looking to where we live here in the Northeast while remembering our roots in Scandinavia” says the brief. For the full experience, take the wine pairings proposed by Doreen.
Restaurants – Midtown Manhattan
1900 Broadway, New York, NY 10023, 212-595-0303
Daniel Boulud needs little introduction, and the food lives up to reputation. And wine, too, is taken ultra-seriously. The entire space is designed to evoke a wine cellar, with wood and limestone everywhere, and genius built-in wine buckets between banquets show savvy forethought. Walls are adorned with photographs of white napkins stained with famous wines – you can see what a ’64 DRC Romanée-Conti or a ’91 Guigal La Turque would have looked like had you spilled some on your lap, at no extra charge. Sommelier Michael Madrigal is one of the city’s most influential and wields a list that draws winemakers, wine lovers and sommeliers from across the globe. Ask what treats he’s pouring from his new toy device, the Coravin.
Jean–Georges & Nougatine at Jean–Georges
1 Central Park West, New York, NY 10023, 212-299-3900
It was near zero-hour for lunch service on Valentine’s Day when we stopped in here, so it’s a miracle that master sommelier Laura Williamson agreed to meet. From a tiny but packed cellar, this ultra-sharp and energetic professional moves more wine then just about any spot in the city, and despite the administrative-heavy management of the programs for both Jean-Georges and Nougatine, as well as the Trump Tower’s (in which the restaurants are housed) banquets and mini-bars, she does it with grace and charm. Maybe next time we’ll stay for dinner.
Restaurants – Lower Manhattan
All‘onda – Modern Venetian Cuisine
22 E 13th St, New York, NY 10003, 212-231-2236
The latest spot run by local legend Chris Cannon offers creative Venetian cuisine, heavy on the sea. See also the intro above for a sense of the level of hospitality one can expect.
DBGB | Kitchen and Bar
299 Bowery (Between Houston & 1st St.) New York, NY 10003, 212-933-5300.
Daniel’s lower Manhattan outpost has a real bistro vibe, the sort of place you can pop into for a quick snack or stay all night eating and drinking. Eduardo Porto Carreiro is the sharply turned-out gentleman to ask for when leafing through the wine list.
Paul Grieco’s mini-empire of wine bar-restaurants (which includes Hearth, Terroir Tribeca and Terroir E.Vil) has been a beacon for the wine world for many years, a place where one could count on the rules to be regularly bent or broken (for the past several summers he has poured nothing but Riesling by the glass). But though he may no longer be the lone radical on the wine scene, this is still the place to eat and drink. Second in command Matt Stinton will be easier to track down than the elusive Grieco, but is no less passionate, radical and knowledgeable.
79 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002, (Lower East Side) 212-219-9545
A very laid-back spot that transports you to a Viennese heurige, where simple but soulful Germanic food meets tasty and well-priced (mostly Austrian) wine. You’ll likely spot other hospitality folk hanging here on their days off, stretching hard-earned dollars without compromising on pleasure.
Corkbuzz – NYC Wine Bar, Wine Classes, Dinners and Events
13 E 13th St, New York, NY 10003, (Union Square/Greenwich Village), 646-873-6071
Corkbuzz is master sommelier Laura Maniec’s vision of the ideal rallying point for both wine lovers and wine professionals: You’ll come here to eat solid, market-inspired cuisine, but mostly to explore both classic and obscure corners of the wine world and learn from the well-drilled team of sommeliers. High-end flights of wine, including some old treasures snatched up on auction are poured via the Coravin device, and half-price champagne after 10pm ensures a lively late night crowd.
1 E 15th St, New York, NY 10003, 212-647-1515
Veteran master sommelier Roger Dagorn runs the beverage show in this “civilized oasis dedicated to the art of fine dining”, an ever more rare type of establishment where elegant, slow-paced dining is the rule rather than the exception. The majority of ingredients are bought at the Union Square Greenmarket just down the street. Also go next door to 15 East Restaurant, a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant under the same ownership, where Dagorn’s exceptional sake lists reaches into 4-digit prices, which, he tells me, sell regularly.
Xi’an Famous Foods (three locations in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn)
Being featured on an episode with Anthony Bourdain may have propelled Xi’an, named after the eponymous northwestern Chinese city, into the spotlight, but the hand-ripped “biang biang” noodles and intensely flavourful broths heavy on cumin, chili, Sichuan peppercorns, and other spices would have done the job eventually. Surely one of the top value meals in the city, but get the timing right as the lineups out of the tiny hole-in-the-wall shop at peak hours can snake around the corner.
Wine Shops – Manhattan
Frankly Wines – Tribeca, New York City
66 W Broadway, New York, NY 10007, 212-346-9544
This is Christy Franks’ version of the “well-stocked wine closet: a well-edited selection of daily essentials, quirky finds, and higher end treasures…” Although just 328 square feet, this shop has something for every palate, as the astonishing volume of wine that moves through the space evinces. Franks also casts a much larger shadow on the NYC wine scene than such a small space should logically permit, having inspired and influenced the tastes of a generation of wine pros and countless consumers along the way.
Chambers Street Wines
148 Chambers St, New York, 10007, 212-227-1434
Invariably cited among the wine shops not to miss while in NYC, Chambers Street Wines’ creed states their purpose clearly: “we are committed to stocking the best natural, organic and biodynamic wines from small producers around the world.” Partner Jamie Wolff has assembled a collection of wines that has insiders gawking like kids in a candy store.
Maslow 6 – Tribeca
211 W Broadway, New York, NY 10013, 646-490-7224
A more cerebral, less touchy-feely sort of wine shopping experience, Maslow 6 offers a calculated range of classics and intriguing selections, including one of the city’s most expansive Austrian wine selection.
Wine Shops – Brooklyn
56 Degrees Boutique Liquor Store
350 Franklin Ave, Bedford – Stuyvesant, NY 11238, 347-955-4921
You know you’re no longer in Manhattan when you step into this shop: funky lighting, Chartreuse walls (the green, naturally), shelving consisting of old wooden crates, customers hanging out at the cash sipping wine. Pretension need be checked at the door. The rule here is simple: if it’s good, it’s get listed. Plavac Mali or Furmint? Bring it. Liter bottles of Tuscan red under screw cap? Why not. It’s tasty.
153 Franklin St, Brooklyn, NY 11222, 347-689-4563
It’s hard to know whether you’re in someone’s living room or in a wine shop when you’re at Dandelion Wine, aka “Dandy”. There’s a very chill but serious vibe, where human stories meet compelling flavours. As we’re told, “the selection is eclectic but vast, representing all the major wine regions of the world, many of them organic or biodynamic, most of them under $25, and all of them with a story to tell.”
Natural Wine Co.
211 North 11th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211, 646-397-9463
As the name implies, this is one of the original outposts for the natural wine movement, which has since permeated the very fabric of the entire New York wine scene. But like the notion of “natural” wine itself, the shop isn’t prescriptive, nor does the purchasing policy follow any dogmatic manifesto. The wines found on the shelves are instead loosely defined as being sustainably made and by and large from small producers. In other words, trust us. This is the good juice.
That’s all for this now. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS