Posted by: acooksca | 10/22/2010

Two New Glitzy Food Halls in N.Y.C.

Eataly cheese counter

For years fine dining has been shifting from formal to casual. In Europe, multi-starred chefs now open bistros rather than bank on elegant dining rooms. San Francisco is exploding with unpretentious food stands serving foie gras bites, escargot poppers and all manner of locally-sourced delicacies. Los Angeles now has a reported 8,000 food trucks, many offering gourmet fusion such as Japanese-style burgers, Korean barbeque burritos and dosas (Indian flat breads) with a global array of fillings.

Now that diners are used to eating well-crafted cuisine in casual environments, New Yorkers are beginning to see the next new trend emerge: food halls under the direction of highly regarded chefs. A group of culinary heavyweights including Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianch opened the ambitious multi-restaurant/market place called Eataly (200 Fifth Ave. between 23rd and 24th streets). Their mission is to foster understanding of the traditional Italian table – through shopping, classes and eating at stations dedicated to particular products.

Last Monday evening I strolled around Eataly’s grand space, checking out areas dedicated to luxurious cheeses, sparkling cook wares, model-quality fresh vegetables… all too alluringly appointed to grab something from. Central gathering places have clusters of tables, some with chairs and some for standing, and seating at bars facing food preparation areas. The idea is that your party sits facing the Crudo Bar, sharing a selection of oysters or ultra thin fish carpaccio prepared before you. But what if someone in your party doesn’t eat raw fish and wants pasta from another area of the food hall instead? If you tried to snack around the hall, waiting for dining space in each nook, you could be there until tomorrow in the heavy crowds. It was unclear what you could order where.

I loitered about the bustling Central Piazza, waiting about 15 minutes for the corner of a communal marble-topped standing table. Once I had somewhere to be, the cordial server offered a menu of salumi plates, salads and wine. The quality of greens and parmesan shavings in the lightly dressed Insalata Tricolore was impeccable. A sampling of three housemade salumi where also faultless. Three slices of very good bread wrapped in brown paper were brought. A glass of Spumante came with my order, perhaps as a reward for having persevered in snagging one square foot of space at a standing table.

I gave up a few precious inches of table-top to two young women who needed a place to order a glass of wine while waiting for their reservation at Manzo, the only restaurant in Eataly with a reservation policy. They work at the Food Network and this was their first time to Eataly. “There is nothing else like this in New York, with different open eating spaces, surrounded by products.” They were impressed that patrons are encouraged to interact with the food handlers and each other but equally as confused as I was about how to sample menu items between different areas. All in all, it is a lively marketplace of top quality goods and I would return to fight the crowds if I lived in Manhattan.

Plaza Food Hall, NYC

No less than the venerable Fairmont Plaza Hotel has opened a casual dining court amongst the super-premium shops on the bottom floor. Guests can purchase a variety of specialty foods, fresh flowers and house wares in the Plaza Food Hall but the emphasis is on dining. Chef/restaurateur/TV personality Todd English oversees the eclectic menu prepared at eight stations. Much of the seating, like in Eatlay, is at counters facing the cooking stations. My friend Christine and I had to ask how it worked as I wanted lobster from the seafood area while she wanted a designer pizza from the open-hearth oven.

We placed our names with the hostess. We were seated at whatever cooking station had space regardless of what we wanted to order. A menu listed items from the sushi bar, the grill, ocean grill and oyster bar, brick oven, charcuterie counter, bakery and wine bar. We were sat at the steamy, cramped Asian dumpling bar which would have been fun and involving if we were ordering a selection of dumplings and noodles. I would have preferred the wine and tapas bar. At least the concept of open kitchens with dining gives the space a vibrant, easy atmosphere.

Christine had a green salad and a very tasty flatbread topped with prosciutto. My grilled lobster salad, a diminutive portion of micro greens and perfectly handled lobster on a round of grilled bread, was delicious. Interesting wines by the glass and attentive service added to the experience. Rather than attracting foodies as Eataly does, the Plaza Food Hall is designed to appeal to those who would like to dine at this landmark hotel but pass it by as too formal and expensive.

As it happens, a year and a half ago my husband and I were at the Plaza Hotel and shared a moment of perfect food bliss. In the early twentieth century opulence of the Plaza Champagne Bar we shared a trio of not-to-be-forgotten lobster sliders with glasses of Alsatian wine. The elegant old world ambiance, charming tuxedoed waiter and carefully prepared plate made that experience more attractive than the new food hall, at about the same cost. I am thankful for the excellent quality offerings of the new food halls. But when their structured fun and bustle gets to be draining, thank goodness for the traditional, gracious establishments in New York where one can re-energize.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: