18 OCTOBER 1991, Page 33

Restaurants

Iwould go to Manhattan for its restau- rants alone. Scoff you may, but then an enormous and unwarranted superiority attends our attitude to eating American style. Though scoff you should: for New York is, above all, a city for eating in.

And I'm not talking expensive restau- rants. Leave those to the insecure natives. Don't spend your time in New York going to swanky joints like Le Cirque (only fun anyway if you're one of proprietor Sirio's pets) or gastro-palaces like Lutece, Le Bernardin or Lafayette. Yes, they're fabu- lous, but you can do fabulous here in Lon- don, in Great Milton, or in Paris for a cheaper flight. Go, in New York, for what New York does best. First stop, the Union Square Cafe.

The Union Square Cafe is what nearly every aspiring restaurateur claims to be opening over here these days. You know the format: a menu that mixes serious French culinary commitment with Cal-Ital eclecticism in a joint that jumps with casu- ally worn coolth. Somehow it never works over here. The prices get too high, the fashionableness becomes an excuse for the kitchen's shortcomings and eclectic becomes a byword for yet another garnish of sun-dried tomatoes with pine-nuts and fresh ginger. But there, it works.

The presiding image is one of apple- cheeked cheeriness rather than interior- decorated chic. You enter almost straight on top of a shiny wooden bar, and since there are always queues you may as well stay there for a drink or three; the wine list is good enough to sweeten the wait for a table.

One visit cannot do justice to the menu: the crabmeat, spinach and cumin tortellini are juicily aromatic in their lobster broth, 'Nowadays you have to be pretty careful how you pursue happiness.' but do you really want to forgo the lozenges of polenta, deep fried and heaped with chicken livers, mushrooms and shav- ings of parmesan? I'd come back, too, for the amber-crisped fried squid, palate-burn- ingly hot with a cold and resonant anchovy mayonnaise. For a main course, the grilled 'fillet mignon' of tuna comes seared to a barbecuey bronze on the outside, soft and hardly cooked coral-fleshed tenderness within. With it come scorched discs of aubergine and wilted mustard greens. But the vegetables are my favourite, and the last time I went I ordered a selection of them instead of a main course proper. I had mashed turnips with crispy shallots (a favourite of the anti-hero of Brett Easton Ellis' s American Ps,cho, though that's no reason not to order it), tuscan beans sim- mered to sticky stewiness with sage and olive oil and prinked with knife-sharp pecorino, potatoes mashed with parmesan, red onion chunked into thick slices and grilled, which looked, with their crazed stri- ations, as if they'd fallen out of a Modigliani, a hillock of polenta whipped up with mascarpone and Gorgonzola and crumbled with toasted walnuts, and spinach doused with lemon juice and strong Tuscan oil. Puddings occupy the territory midway between solidity and fantasy. Here, for example, the Italian semi-freddo — the gelato in its perfect form, a cross between an ice and a mousse — is hijacked by Americans to form a lunatic, but strangely satisfying hybrid: a peanut butter and chocolate chip semi-freddo with New York maple syrup. For far too much food expect to pay between $30 and $45 a head. Only the truly ungluttonous can expect to get out for less, but it's still the case that the prices are the same in dollars as you might expect to pay in pounds for a less reward- ing but notionally similar meal here.

The Flatiron district is Manhattan's newest up-and-coming area, and in it is Manhattan's hottest spot, the Mesa Grill. Koyote cuisine is not to everyone's taste, but the born-again Tex-Mex served up here is for urban cowboys only. Glass-fronted for maximum exposure, the Mesa Grill rides high on salsamania. Come for blue- corn salmon cakes with pineapple and tomatillo salsa, lamb chops with jalapeno preserves, hearty greens and sweet potato gratin, for grilled swordfish with cilantro pesto, red peppers and mango and Yucatan-style mako shark with avocado salsa and south-western fries. Poetry is not dead but resides, these days, on menus in adobe-inspired restaurants.

Larry Forgione's American Place, on the site of the short-lived NY version of La Coupole, is a Union Square Cafe for grownups. Beer-brown wood-panelling lines the walls, stiff white tablecloths deck the tables, and you're all set for an elegant

NEW YORK NIGHT AND DAY

clubby evening, until the inelegant clubby noise assaults you. Concentrate on the food, because, on busier nights, conversa- tion is all but impossible. Quail comes boned and grilled, with patties of root veg- etables and stir-fried greens, venison is sweet and sautéed, sprinkled with hickory nuts and accompanied by a huckleberry sauce, and crabcakes are devilled and banked with a crispy tangle of fried, straw- fine potatoes. It is American food in much the same way as some of our more adven- turous restaurants produce 'British food'. It is the imagination not the repertoire which is home-grown. Puddings, wisely, veer less from tradition. There's banana betty, apple-pan dowdy and peanut-butter ice- cream sandwich with chocolate cookie wafers. About $50 a head.

Rumour has it Mr Forgione acted as consultant on the menu of the Royalton's restaurant, 44, and his influence is visible, if only in the fact that the food served there is not of the finely chiselled sushi school you might expect from its haute-stylishness interior. The anorexic models who come here late on Friday nights must faint when faced with a plate of pork chops with red. apple sauce and New York strip with sweet potatoes and crispy onions. But let them pick their way through shitake mushroom salads and tossed farm greens. I advise the fillet of salmon with cucumber and dates, which, I promise you, tastes better than it reads.

The Ambassador Grill, house restaurant of the UN Park-Plaza, spurred by current fashionable tastes, is also inching towards American-ness with boasts of pan-seared Texas antelope and grilled lamb steak, but its strength lies in a surprisingly successful and exuberant demi-European-ness. The menu degustation, at $42.50, takes you from said Antelope, to a delicate shellfish bouil- lon, to a robust dish of monkfish with a tor- tilla crust and black bean chili, to an Italianate rosemary-infused rabbit loin with deep-fried courgette-flowers and, finally, to a fruit compote with a creamy mascarpone mousse and crumbly, aniseedy biscotti. For some reason, when they built the hotel, they put the swimming pool on the roof 'So I clipped him round the ear with it!'

and the restaurant in the basement, but to make amends fcir such silly planning, the designers have constructed a ceiling of mir- rors which makes you feel as if you're sit- ting in a space-age conservatory. Natives tend to sniff at the Ambassador Grill. Ignore them: they're wrong; it's underrat- ed.

Italian restaurants have long held sway in the fashionable food scene in New York. Remi is not about to take the place of Elio's, which remains the pasta-place for the beautiful people, but I like it better. A small strip of a place festooned with murals of a definitely up-market variety, Remi is cheerfully innocent of that inhibiting ten- sion that defines the truly trendy trattoria. It would be inaccurate to say it wasn't reck- oned a place to go to, but no one's going to view a failed reservation as social death.• Start with grilled sardines, their savoury oiliness offset by potatoes which have been doused in vinegar, or shell pasta with seafood and cannellini beans, and progress to rack of lamb with roasted garlic and a timbalo of goat's cheese and aubergine, or bacon-wrapped quails with lentils. Pud- dings are something of a star turn, but I love best just their glass of vino dolce with a pile of Italo-American cookies to dunk in it. Dinner for two costs around $120.

If you want Chinese, don't let image-con- scious Manhattanites talk you into their current rave, the Shun Lee Palace. Insist on Canton, a cupboard of a room down spindly Division Street. Be sure to book or you won't have a chance in hell, take cash as credit cards are scorned, and, once there, wave away the menu knowingly. What you do is ask the owner, Eileen, to choose for you and, after the most deli- cious negotiations, you will have the best Chinese food you have ever had. I don't know quite why Eileen even bothers with her menu, since nothing that comes out of her kitchen is on it. But that's New York for you.

Union Square Cafe: 21st E 16th, between 5th Ave & Union Square; tel. (212) 243 4020

Mesa Grill: 5th Avenue, between 15th & 16th; tel. (212) 807 7400 An American Place: 2 Park Ave, at 32nd St; tel. (212) 684 2122 44 at the Royalton: 44 W 44th St, between 5th & 6th Ayes; tel. (212) 944 8844 Ambassador Grill: UN Plaza Hotel, 44th St & 1st Ave; tel. (212) 702 5014 Remi: 145 W 53rd St, between 6th & 7th Ayes; tel. (212) 581 4242 Canton: 45 Division Street, between Bow- ery & Market Sts; tel. (212) 226 4441 Important note: tipping is more generous than in Britain. The easiest way to make sure you've left the right amount is by leav- ing double the state tax.