Monday, October 31, 2011

Smith & Wollensky: I May Be a Mirage, But Then, So is Smith

Broder and Wollensky was not the name of this steakhouse that you can visit when dining in New York
By Mitch Broder

I am a professional journalist, and I do not fake photographs.

When I need a photograph faked, I get someone else to do it.

So I got someone else to fake this photograph, which I wouldn't have had to do if I had triumphed in the Smith & Wollensky "Take the Pledge" contest, which I did not.

The faker did a masterly job. But it's a hollow victory. On the day the sign above should have been real, the real sign said "Kilkelly & Wollensky." Supposedly, I didn't win because my name wasn't randomly chosen. But I think it was personal. Maybe the management knew I've been sneaking steaks at Keens.

Bienstock and Wollensky is one of the names that graced this establishment for dining in New York
As I reported, Smith & Wollensky deleted Smith for a month and promised to replace his name with that of a different patron every day. To be randomly chosen, you had to make reservations and pledge never to eat at other steakhouses. It probably wasn't worth it if your name was Smith.

The contest mirrored tradition: When Alan Stillman founded the restaurant thirty-four years ago he randomly chose its two namesakes from a phone book. Stillman also founded T.G.I. Friday's, in 1965, and it is said that he randomly chose that name from a calendar.

The contest winners were treated to an elaborate fantasy; the sign and awning makeovers were just the beginning. Their names also appeared on the business cards, cocktail napkins, matchbooks, and waiters' jackets. They virtually owned the place, though not enough to rate free cheesecake.

The name changed each day for a month at Smith and Wollensky in New York
On various days this month, the steakhouse has been Gunn & Wollensky, Wilt & Wollensky, Butwin & Wollensky, Lipsky & Wollensky, Hu & Wollensky, Pi & Wollensky, Pompliano & Wollensky, and Mugavero & Wollensky. My favorite, based strictly on cadence, is Lewkowicz & Wollensky. But none has quite the magic of Broder & Wollensky, though Pi & Wollensky comes close.

Allison Good, the restaurant's spokeswoman, told me that the winners were very happy. They came to eat with their friends and families, and some came for both lunch and dinner. She also told me that some people were even more desperate to win than I was. "There's been lots of money offered," she said. "We did not take anyone up on it."

Still, she offered no condolences, and little hope of a second chance. "I would have to say this was a once in a lifetime opportunity," she said. After all, it was a lot of work changing those signs and that other stuff daily, not to mention making sure that all traces of Pompliano were gone before Mugavero arrived.

That's why I got the picture faked. A hollow victory is better than none. And outside of my name on the signs, I have everything else that matters. My name is already on business cards. I can write it on matchbooks, napkins, and jackets. And I prefer to see my name standing alone anyway, because, frankly, Wollensky has never pulled his weight.

Smith and Wollensky became Pi and Wollensky for another name change when dining in New York

Just be yourself at Smith & Wollensky, Third Avenue at 49th Street, New York City.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Marchi's Restaurant: Where You Get It All Without Asking For It

Dining in New York is a wonderful experience at Marchi's Restaurant
By Mitch Broder

I sat in Francesca and Lorenzo’s bedroom and ate for two hours straight.

I wish that Francesca and Lorenzo could have been there with me, not that I would have shared.

But though they are gone, it was their food that I ate — all five courses of it — at one of the great forgotten meals of Manhattan: dinner at Marchi’s Restaurant.

The key word here is “one,” because that’s what Marchi’s serves — one meal, the same meal, every night, six nights a week. Like many buildings in the city, its building has a sign that says “No Menus.” But here the sign has double meaning. There’ve always been no menus at Marchi’s.

The inside of an old apartment has now become the spot for dining in New York
No, that's not us.
I’ve posted the tale of how  Francesca and Lorenzo Marchi’s apartment got turned into a restaurant in the thirties and a one-meal restaurant in the forties. But I didn’t try the meal. That was wrong. I suffered deep regret. I returned to make amends. My selflessness is self-serving.

I was seated in the part of the main dining room that was indeed once the bedroom and now feels like a living room where you can settle in, which you do. My hosts were the Marchis’ son Mario and his wife Christine, who run the restaurant with Mario’s brothers and treat you like guests in their home, which it still is.

My own guest was Patricia, who unlike me can cook and whose culinary observations transcend my customary “Um” and “Ick.” Our waiter welcomed us. I had the dinner. Patricia, too, had the dinner. There were no questions and no answers — only certainty in an uncertain world.

Monogramed plates await you when you're dining in New York at Marchi's Restaurant
The meal began with warm bread. Um. Then came the first course, with an artful centerpiece of honeydew, radishes, celery, tomatoes, and fennel. This was accompanied by a platter of salami and a platter of Lorenzo Salad, featuring red cabbage and tuna. Patricia wanted the recipe. She didn’t get it.

The signature dish of Lasagna at Marchi's Restaurant in New York
The second course was the one that I was most excited about: the Lorenzo Lasagna. Christine calls it their signature dish. The bowls arrived. I rose to photograph them. “It smells so good,” Patricia said. “Hurry up and take your picture.” I decided to hear that as supportive.

At a five-course meal you need to make choices, and I made mine: I chose to have all of my lasagna, no matter what lay ahead. Patricia said: “It’s a very delicate lasagna.” I said: “Um. Pass the bread.” We had now both had enough dinner. We had three courses to go.

A fried piece of catfish for those dining in New York at March's Restaurant

The next was fried fish, which the waiter said was cod but which Mario said was catfish. Either way, it was skillfully done. “It’s creamy, with a light crunchy topping,” Patricia said. It came with green beans and beets, most of which I left for her. I’m famously generous with my green beans and beets.

The main course when dining in New York was roast chicken and roast veal at March's Restaurant
Soon we were served roast chicken and sliced roast veal, along with a platter of sautéed mushrooms and a bowl of tossed salad. The chicken was as tasty as any I’ve had, yet Patricia didn’t say a word. It turned out she was in poultry paradise: “I was too busy eating it to speak.”

The dessert course was delicious for anyone dining in New York at Marchi's RestaurantAt last we came to dessert, which had no chocolate and yet was perfect. It comprised fresh fruit, provolone, warm lemon fritters, and crackly crostoli. I had a perfect orange and a perfect banana and the crostoli and the fritter, which was like warm pudding with a crispy coating, and which I thus forgot to shoot.

Patricia and I had a wonderful, charming, old-fashioned homemade meal, and we marveled that people weren’t still lining up outside to get it, the way they used to.

“Back in the sixties you had a full meal,” Mario said. “If you were Italian you sat down for three hours. With people today, it’s ‘Gimme a sandwich, gimme a beer, I’m on my way.’”

Too bad for people. But not for all of them. Marchi’s still has its clientele, and its absence of menu choices appears to be an asset.

It allows you to savor the meal again and again, like a good book, Mario said: “By the fourth or fifth time, you really enjoy what’s being put in front of you.”

Marchi's restaurant offers those dining in New York few selections buyt a chance to savor their meal

Take your time at Marchis, 251 East 31st Street, at Second Avenue, New York City.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Strangely New York: Embracing the Crunch at Schnitzel & Things

Dining in New York you can now find Schnitzel at Schnitzel and Things
By Mitch Broder

There are numerous unforeseen benefits to our economic collapse, and among them has been the New York City debut of accessible schnitzel.

There’s scant hope that you could approach a counter and order fried cutlets in five flavors today if Oleg Voss had not lost his job as an investment banker in Vienna.

But he did. And he had trained at the French Culinary Institute before he’d attended the NYU Stern School of Business. So he decided to start a restaurant and he saw opportunity in schnitzel. He and his brother Gene launched a food truck called Schnitzel & Things, and now they’ve parked a quick-schnitzel restaurant by the same name.

The schnitzel comes in traditional veal, less traditional pork, and least traditional chicken, cod, and eggplant. The things range from the traditional Austrian Potato Salad to the Schnitz Burger with Cheese and the Yukon Gold French Fries, because this is America.

Because this is America, the brothers strategically Americanized. They don’t want you to worry if, say,  you don’t know what schnitzel is. “The challenge was to take this ethnic food and to make it cool,” Oleg explains. “To make it so the masses identify schnitzel with us and not with the Bierhaus down the street.”

The small interior leaves room for big flavor at Schnitzel & Things in New York City
They do have bratwurst, and they serve things like spätzle on special, but they’ve left the full German menu to spots like the Bierhaus down the street. The gold’s in the schnitzel, Oleg says, because it’s Americanly crispy and crunchy: “Ultimately, it’s a familiar flavor because it’s a fried piece of meat.”

Hearing that, I couldn’t resist. I had the chicken schnitzel combo. I had it with the Austrian  Potato Salad and the Roasted Beet & Feta Salad. As you can see, the fried piece of meat overshot the takeout container. I dined in. This was just too much schnitzel to carry around.

The schnitzel was addictive. It tasted like chicken coated with potato chips. The potato salad was pleasantly cool and chunky. The beets were beets, which was a strike against them, but they were made palatable by the feta. I dipped the chicken in the Spicy Sriracha Mayo, which I believe is from the Thai region of Austria.

The place makes a tasty meal, and clearly others agree. The brothers already have plans to open several more stores. Oleg could be the king of fast-casual schnitzel — and all because he aimed high.

As he recalls: “I just didn’t want to work at a restaurant peeling potatoes and onions.”

When dining in New York you can't miss Schnitzel & Things

Break tradition at Schnitzel & Things, 723 Third Avenue, between 45th and 46th streets, New York City.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Smith & Wollensky: Mr. Smith Goes

Dining in New York you'll find something missing from the iconic Smith and Wollensky sign
By Mitch Broder

When Smith & Wollensky asked me to eat a steak on their billboard, I did it for them. So when I asked them to replace their “Smith” with my “Broder,” I imagined they’d do it for me.

And they’re giving me a shot. Then again, they’re giving you the same shot. And you didn’t even eat creamed spinach on their billboard.

Smith & Wollensky is a steakhouse at Third Avenue and 49th Street, except that it has ousted Smith, not that he ever existed. The restaurant’s founder, Alan Stillman, picked both names out of a phone book, leaving him free to eradicate either of them without being tweeted to death.

There are many steakhouse options when dining in New York, but could you give them all up but one
So in its most ego-seducing stunt since the billboard, the restaurant is offering customers a chance to see their names replace Smith’s for an entire day this month. Presumably after that, Smith will return, since it’s getting pretty hard these days to get your hands on a phone book.

The winning customers get their names not just on the outdoor signs, but also on the menus, matchbooks, napkins, business cards, and waiters’ jackets. On this first day, for example, the restaurant is Fleiss & Wollensky. When you call, they answer, “Fleiss & Wollensky.” Still, Fleiss has to pick up his check.

If you call tomorrow, I am told, you will hear “Ritenour & Wollensky.” And Ritenour will be the name on the signs and all the other stuff. It’s a vanity bonanza. Naturally, it has great appeal to me — just as the billboard had great appeal to me. All I seek is glory.

In the summer of 2001, the restaurant had a billboard that looked like the restaurant, high above Broadway and 54th Street. In front of it was a platform with a table and chairs. As a member of the press I was invited to eat there. As I revealed last week, I can be bought for a three-dollar cookie, so there was never any question that I’d take a steak dinner.

I had to go to the roof with the billboard, where I was clipped into a rock-climbing harness and handed waiver forms, which I signed because I never jump on a full stomach. I climbed the metal steps to the platform, where I sat on a nailed-down chair at the nailed-down table and was served dinner by a waiter named Angelo whose jacket said “Tim.”

I had shrimp cocktail, sirloin steak, creamed spinach, hash browns, Snapple Iced Tea, and cheesecake with raspberries. But surprisingly, I had little glory. I had expected crowds below, waving. There were no crowds below at all. There was occasional waving, but that may have been to the cheesecake.

Still, I wrote about the night for the nation’s largest newspaper chain, giving Smith & Wollensky the chance to make back the cost of my meal over time. I’ve always figured they owe me, so I asked to be Smith for a day. They said I could — if I apply like everyone else. I was going to mention Angelo but I thought better of it.

So like everyone else, I had to go online and pledge to eat at no steakhouse but Smith & Wollensky for the rest of my life.

Between us, I may not keep the pledge even if I win. But who cares? After all, what good is journalistic integrity if you can’t sell it?

Be the Smith at Smith & Wollensky, Third Avenue at 49th Street, New York City.