Thrifty Bite of the Big Apple

By Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK ~ You gotta love New York. As soon as the financial bubble burst and the suits started packing their lunches, a host of restaurants have fought back by offering affordable prix-fixe menus and perks to keep their tables full during tough times.

On top of Restaurant Week – which features lunches for $24.07 and dinners for $35 at participating eateries through July 31 – dining stimulus deals make eating out in the Big Apple more enticing than it’s been in ages.

And that’s no exaggeration. After living here for 15 years and perfecting the art of dining frugally in pricey restaurants, I moved away in 1995 when even a martini and steak frites at the bar in the chic Soho bistro Balthazar got too expensive. But back in town last month, I found I could afford to eat out well and fell in love with the Big Apple all over again.

The meal deals were everywhere. There I was, walking along tony Central Park South, when I saw “Business Bailout Lunch” emblazoned on a banner above the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel. Of course, I had to stop and check it out. The special menu served in the hotel’s elegant, second-floor restaurant includes two choices from a list of salads, soups, sandwiches and desserts, plus a non-alcoholic beverage, for $14, which isn’t much more than a similar meal would cost at your local Chili’s.

Big Apple restaurant stimulus deals come in a variety of packages: slashed corkage fees, making it more attractive to bring your own wine; specially priced dessert and after-dinner drink combinations; reduced-price tasting-size entrees; extended hours for pre-theatre meals; and classic prix-fixe menus at even some of the city’s most fabled dining places.

“Many restaurants are offering prix-fixe menus on their own, not in conjunction with Restaurant Week. They allow people to eat in places that are normally beyond their budget,” said Andrew Rigie, director of operations for the New York City chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association.

I’d have ordered the Helmsley’s bailout special then and there, but I was on my way to meet a friend for lunch at Jean-Georges, this year’s recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Restaurant Award. As much a physicist as a chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten learned French cooking basics from his Alsatian grandmother, studied spices in Southeast Asia, went into the culinary laboratory and then introduced America to his signature foaming sauces.

Located in several classy-looking rooms on the ground floor of the Trump International Hotel and Tower, with sterling views of Columbus Circle, it’s actually two restaurants in one: formal Jean-Georges and casual, cafe-style Nougatine, which has offered a $24 prix-fixe lunch for more than a decade.

But now you can get the lunch deal in Jean-Georges, too, as well as a four-course dinner (from 5:30 to 6:30pm and 10 to 11pm) for $35, which is about as cheap as a meal comes at a Michelin three-star restaurant.

Apart from price, the beauty of a Jean-Georges prix fixe is the abundance of choices – about a dozen at lunch, all on the small side but filling in their complexity. My selections: tuna tartare with avocado, spicy radish and ginger marinade; steamed skate on spaghetti squash; and warm, oozing chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream. Then coffee, which comes with homemade marshmallows. Of course, you must make reservations for a culinary experience like this.

And remember, if the service pleases, your waiter deserves a tip based on a full-price meal.

Keeping these things in mind, eat your way from the Battery to the Bronx, as I did. Here are some of my top choices:

Cafe des Artistes, 1 W. 67th St., (212) 877-3500,, has a year-round prix-fixe menu with seasonally changing selections, including a starter, entree and dessert for $35, not including tax and tip. The frothy decor, starring murals by Howard Chandler Christy painted in the 30s and 40s, is free; alas, not so the delightful house aperitif made of Champagne and Poire William (sweet pear liqueur).

Daniel, 60 E. 65th St., (212) 288-0033,, has been for ages one of the top Michelin-starred spots for eating French here. It’s on the Upper East Side, close to the Carlyle Hotel, and is the home of a gourmet restaurant chain masterminded by chef Daniel Boulud. At Daniel he offers a $98 three-course early dinner menu (5:30 to 6:30pm) that includes specially selected wines.

Devi, 8 E. 18th St., (212) 691-1300,, is a cool downtown spot decorated like a Rajasthan palace, where chef-owners Hemant Mathur and Suvir Saran rewrote the book about going out for Indian in the Big Apple. The $25 three-course lunch includes such choices as salmon-crab cakes, lamb-stuffed tandoori chicken and mango panna cotta.

Jean-Georges, 1 Central Park West, (212) 299-3900,, is the capital of a group of New York City restaurants created by star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It offers a $24 lunch menu and a $35 early and late dinner.

Michael Jordan’s Steak House, 23 Vanderbilt Ave., (212) 655-2300,, perched on the mezzanine overlooking the great hall at Grand Central Station, has a $24 lunch and a $35 dinner. Both offer New York-style cheesecake for dessert and meat, of course: at lunch a petit filet mignon and at dinner an 8-ounce version of the same cut of meat.

The Modern, 9 W. 53rd St., (212) 333-1220,, on the ground floor of the Museum of Modern Art, is an elegant showcase for Alsatian chef Gabriel Kreuther, formerly of Jean-Georges. On weekdays until 6:30pm he offers a four-course prix-fixe menu for $65 in the formal dining room overlooking the MOMA sculpture garden. The menu features changing selections that have included foie gras terrine and sesame-roasted guinea hen.

Nice Matin, 201 W. 79th St., (212) 873-6423,, a popular Upper West Side spot with plenty of sidewalk tables, has an early-bird prix-fixe dinner menu (5 to 6:30pm Mondays through Fridays) that includes three courses for $35. Choices include grilled salmon, French Midi-style pistou soup and creme fraiche panna cotta.

The Park Room, Helmsley Park Lane Hotel, 36 Central Park West, (212) 371-4000,, has a Bailout Business Lunch that includes two choices of soup, salad, sandwich and dessert, with nonalcoholic beverage, for $14.

Tao, 42 E. 58th St., (212) 888-2288,, an Asian fusion spot midtown decorated like an Ang Lee martial arts epic, has a three-course lunch for $24.07 and a $38 dinner prix fixe (5 to 7pm and after 11pm) that features such favourites as pork pot stickers, pad Thai noodles and wasabi-crusted filet mignon.

21, 21 W. 52nd St., (212) 582-7200,, the famous former speak-easy – featured in shows as diverse as Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and an episode of I Love Lucy – has a $24 lunch special and a $35 three-course prix fixe at dinner. Selections vary, but have included spring lamb and classic creme brulee.

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