Before travelling to New York at the end of April this year, I did what everyone in the game does: ask loads of people for way too many recommendations. There’s an obsessive-compulsive urge to ensure that no stone is left unturned. It’s as useful as the onset of FOMO is inevitable midway through the trip. Sure, I had a fabulous list of places from the Eater NY staff and there were places that I’d listed over the years (since I’d last been in 2010) myself. But there are people in London who I know to trust and whose view on current food cityscapes is contextualised by what’s happening globally, not just on either side of the Atlantic.
I decided to ask an American baker who is working in the UK — probably one of the most talented in the country at the moment. I was keen to hear from him about where I could get a really good loaf of bread in NYC, but also where to eat restaurant-wise. His taste is impeccable. The day before I left, I got a very long, detailed email. A considered response to a fairly facile request. “Tell me what to do, where to go,” I’d asked, expecting a list. “Well, think about this,” was the gist of the reply.
The key paragraph in the email is worth repeating verbatim, as it strikes me as a bellwether for the current mood around the New York and London restaurant scenes and their respective importance:
I'm afraid my disappointment with the bakery scene is matched by the dining scene as a whole. A lot of hype, not a ton of substance. I've had more crappy to disappointing meals than good ones. I ended up just eating a ton at Xi'an Famous Foods — like Xi'an Impression, but a chain, and mostly take away. I would straight up murder a bowl of cold noodles and smacked cucumber right now. I still really like Roberta's, and I wish I had eaten at Lilia. Nowhere else made too much of an impression, nor seemed all that much better than what I could get in London — I'd prefer to go to Som Saa than Uncle Boons, and Lyle's to Contra, or Pitt Cue to Hometown. Had a damn tasty roast chicken at April Bloomfield's new butchers, but it's in a bit of a weird area (Upper West Side). No reason to go there unless you were doing a Seinfeld tour, or going to the Natural History Museum.
Needless to say, I was mildly disappointed; my excitement had been cooled. But it also didn’t come as a massive surprise. Food people in London — who visit New York often — had told of the fact that, even if the city hadn’t lost its thing, then London had definitely caught up. No longer was it as exciting.
To put the two cities’ relationship in context, we might consider other places that inform them both. Put another way, it’s hard to think of a city in the world that has informed London’s restaurant scene anything like that of New York. The comparative proximity is a factor. After all, only Ireland and the Atlantic separates the two cities; there’s a sort of natural inclination for Londoners to visit New York and vice-versa. It helps that we (almost) speak the same language. (On my recent trip, I was alarmed at how frequently I was misunderstood.) Then, there’s the “Special Relationship” — invented by Thatcher and Reagan, consummated by Bush and Blair and reinvigorated with some handholding by the current two Premiers only this year.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the way that the London dining scene has recently evolved is that it has done so having looked less at New York for inspiration. London’s most innovative and brilliant restaurants in recent years have been inspired as much by Copenhagen, Tokyo and Paris. And maybe the Special Relationship itself just doesn’t mean as much any more. London, a little more cocksure, took the exposed brick, jam jar cocktails and ran to its European neighbours to remind itself of a little refinement. What to put on those walls and in those jars.
During the course of my week I ate at the newly crowned, so-called ‘best restaurant in the world.’ Now, to give Eleven Madison Park the benefit of the doubt, the kitchen was serving all of its “classics” from over the years, so the menu — in large part — was, by definition, dated. I recall volunteering my summary to colleagues at Eater immediately after the lunch and time hasn’t altered my assessment: The service was stunning but save for one or two interesting moments, the food was largely pretty ordinary. Forgetting for a moment that it is impossible for any one place to be the best restaurant in the world, this one wasn’t even the best restaurant that I experienced in New York in five days.
You might say, “Well, you would say this, hipster!” when I tell you that, especially in contrast to EMP, I loved Contra. And Wildair next door. Whilst as a guest you might not be greeted by the eerily in-tune door staff — EMP allegedly Googles every guest — you do leave having eaten more interesting, intelligent (and delicious) food and drunk more interesting, memorable (admittedly voguish) wines. But the baker was right: they’re not better than Lyle’s or P. Franco.
Also high on the list was Cosme: the kind of place so slick as to be critic-proof, but I didn’t love it. Yes, the food was all sorts of modern Mexican genius and the room had everything — including that kind of glamour and atmosphere that a visitor understands New York to have by virtue of having watched a lot of American TV — but I don’t feel a strong urge to go back.
But where New York still absolutely lords over London is at breakfast, quick things and sweet things: the breakfast sandwich at High Street on Hudson was among the most delicious things I’ve ever put in my mouth before 10 a.m. The crullers at Daily Provisions were a little oil-soaked for my taste, but nonetheless a novel thrill as breakfast dessert after a bacon and egg English muffin. Whether he was trying to charm me or not, I don’t know, but the chief of staff at Union Square Hospitality Group — the group behind Daily Provisions — told me that one of the main sources of inspiration was E5 Bakehouse in Hackney. And, as fate would have it, the consultant baker on the project? The baker quoted above.
But I think more than anything, the modern, multi-cultural melting pot restaurants like any Dave Chang place or Mission Chinese or a gourmet dive bar are the kind of restaurants that London is still too prude to embrace. The only restaurant in London remotely in this genre is Black Axe Mangal — and that’s a shame. Oh, and Los Tacos No. 1 in New York’s Chelsea Market was a stark reminder of how far London has got to go on the Mexican front, even if and when Santo Remedio re-enters the fold.
On the plane home I wrote this: London seems better now because it used to be much worse. While New York may not have stagnated, it had less room for improvement. London, meanwhile, has improved exponentially. And I think the two cities can continue to learn from each other. Just like they always have.