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My Dinner (and Breakfast and Lunch) With Danny
June 2, 2016 -- Few restaurateurs are as well-known and successful as Danny Meyer, the impresario behind the rapidly expanding Shake Shack chain and the Union Square Hospitality Group, a baker's dozen of New York's top-rated dining rooms.
Meyer would be a food-service legend if he only invented Shake Shack, whose growing list of national and international outlets draw long lines for hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries and milk shakes. But he also dominates New York's upmarket dining scene and has been a culinary wunderkind since he opened his first restaurant, the Union Square Cafe, in 1985 at 27 years of age. His name is synonymous with an extraordinary standard of service. He wins praise and customer loyalty for his staffs' genuine warmth and sincerity in looking after guests.
Dine at any Meyer restaurant in New York City and you don't have to be a celebrity to feel special. Even better, he has a happy habit of opening restaurants in hotels, which means visiting business travelers don't have to venture all that far to sample his creative food and superlative service.
For my day of "dining with Danny," in fact, I decided to sample a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner in Meyer restaurants located inside New York hotel buildings. I also patronized these locations as Meyer has rolled out his innovative "hospitality included" policy. This controversial approach eliminates all tipping, raises menu prices and, Meyer insists, allows him to pay the restaurants' service staff a living wage. I'll have more to say about Meyer's no-tipping initiative in a future column.
BREAKFAST AT MAIALINO
We begin with breakfast at Maialino (little pig), the Roman-style trattoria that serves as the restaurant for the Gramercy Park Hotel. Like any Danny Meyer venue, Maialino does the job admirably, whether serving hotel guests, local residents, businesspeople or out-of-town visitors.
My favorite breakfast--French toast with crisp bacon or fresh berries--is not on the Maialino menu. And two of the house specialties, the egg-centric contadino and the polpetta di Fungi, were already sold out.
I did, however, enjoy the Cacio e Pepe scrambled eggs, a riff on Maialino's pasta specialty. It was served with a wonderful side of mixed chicken and pork sausage. But the highlight of the morning was the ricotta pancakes, memorable both for the taste and the generous portion. Also noteworthy: Maialino's widely touted porchetta (roasted pork) is available as a breakfast sandwich. Other options also include fresh market juices; house-made pastries; cereal, oatmeal, granola and yogurt; and Italian meat sides such as prosciutto cotto and pancetta.
We sat in the unpretentious main dining room and then moved to the handsome lobby bar, which offers the same breakfast menu. Dress for the upbeat crowd was informal, to say the least, including t-shirts, jeans and even shorts. Reservations are recommended for guaranteed seating, but walk-ins are welcome, though there may be a wait even during the early-morning hours.
LUNCH AT MARTA
For lunch, I chose Marta, the Roman-style pizzeria helmed by chef Nick Anderer, who once ran Maialino's kitchen. Its focused menu specializes in some of the best thin-crust pies in New York as well as some other excellent dining choices.
Situated off the lobby of The Redbury Hotel, Marta features an open kitchen, an open-fire grill and two wood-burning ovens. The contemporary décor with hardwood tables is set in a room with high ceilings that somewhat offsets the noise level. There's also an 11-seat bar that serves the full menu. The place is crowded but without feeling especially cramped.
Our server, a young woman, was affable, likeable, totally without attitude and obviously trained to Meyer's high standards. One example: We chose price-fixed menus, but requested a series of substitutions. She accepted our changes with a smile and soon returned with an "OK" for our off-menu choices. She even graciously waived any surcharges.
For starters, we chose an open-face arctic char sandwich on homemade sourdough bread, one of the most creatively flavorful starters we've ever eaten. For one main, my guest selected the spigola (grilled sea bass) served with cipollini onions and chanterelles. I opted for the salsicia pizza with pork sausage, crimini mushrooms and pecorino cheese. The portions were generous and the pizzas can easily serve two.
When my guest declined the seasonal sorbetto dessert, our server brought him an incredible dish of fresh melons. Marta also offers seasonal cocktails, local craft and Italian beers and an all-Italian wine list.
Reservations are a must at this very popular venue, but seats at the bar are first come, first served. There are also seats at a pizza counter fronting the chefs' prep stations.
I came for the thin-crust pizza, I'll be back for the arctic char ... and the pizza ... and the exemplary service.
DINNER AT NORTH END GRILL
For my dinner with Danny, I left the East 20s, home of Maialino and Marta, and headed down to the Battery Park City neighborhood at the tip of Manhattan. There Meyer operates the North End Grill inside a complex that also houses a movie theater, a Shake Shack, a branch of Meyer's Blue Smoke barbecue restaurant, retail shops and the flagship of Hilton's Conrad Hotel chain. Another Meyer enterprise, Union Square Events, handles the food and beverage operations at the Conrad's conference and event facilities.
The business-casual North End Grill has been attracting suits from nearby Wall Street and other deep-pocketed epicureans since its opening nearly five years ago. That's about the same time Hilton and the property's owner (Goldman Sachs) carved the Conrad out of a former Embassy Suites.
When my two companions and I arrived a few minutes early for our midweek reservation at 6:30 p.m., the modern and spacious eatery felt empty. A half hour later, it was, so to speak, packed to the gills. (More on the fish later.) There's a busy bar, an open kitchen, wood-burning grills, mesquite-charcoal ovens and a private dining room. Seasonal outdoor seating is also available.
As you come to expect from a Danny Meyer restaurant, service standards here are above reproach. Young, enthusiastic, informal without being brash, the servers were a delight from arrival to departure.
The menu is quite provocative in scope. First, my guests ordered specialty cocktails. They claimed the generous Salty Dog (vodka, pamplemousse, grapefruit and sea salt) and the Emerald City (gin, cucumber, basil and lime) both "broke taste boundaries." Although I'm not much of a hard-liquor kind of guy, I was smitten by these drinks, too.
After a complimentary serving of radishes with aioli, we started with selections from the snacks menu: excellent wood-grilled artichoke, to-die-for fish croquettas and a highly regarded clam pizza. Because we weren't courting a coronary, we bypassed the charcuterie options and also resisted the allure of the mouth-watering raw bar.
For main courses, there was a wood-fire grilled whole turbot and a surprisingly reasonably priced Dover sole. Our third diner had a veal chop, which he described as "a little fatty and not great."
After skipping the cheese platters, we alighted on the dessert menu. We ordered the scrumptious apple and huckleberry galette, served slightly warm with Calvados ice cream. A triple-threat sorbet featured an outstanding chocolate entry, a very good rhubarb and a so-so pineapple. We also sampled superior herbal chamomile tea and an interesting lemon verbena tea.
Because of the siren call of the cocktails, we opted out of the multitude of other beverage choices, which include wine by the glass and wine pairings; draft and bottled beers; and soft cocktails. The North End Grill also features a wide range of dessert scotches and, for true connoisseurs, a nine-page whiskey list that showcases more than 150 single malts. They can be sampled in various sizes from a "nip" (.75 ounces) to a full bottle.
While attempting to locate the lower Manhattan restaurant, our iPhone guide, Siri, volunteered that the North End Grill had "excellent reviews, but was pricey." Siri was right on the mark. And while Siri didn't mention it, reservations are mandatory.
This column is Copyright © 2016 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.