Excess on a plate: postcard from New York

At Chez Es Saada, gazelle-like waitresses flicker in and out of the candlelit shadows like mirages. They wear short, gold, lace dresses, slit at the side to the waist, and when they bend to deposit their domed dishes of pesto-seeping olives and smoked almonds on the low tables, they run their fingers caressingly over the men's shoulders as they slink off. They must slink, because if they were to walk properly, they might bruise the rose petals strewn carelessly about the mosaic floors of the restaurant. Are the New Yorkers grateful for this sensuous, Moroccan, full-service, hors d'oeuvre treatment? Do their tongues hang out as they watch the gilded houris glide through brick archways toward the kitchens? They are not grateful, they do not pant. Instead, they pound the tables with their fists, reviling the olives, deploring the service and imprecating the staff to get a move on with the bastillas. Who cares that Casablanca could have been shot within Chez Es Saada's ceiling-fanned walls? There were scores of speedier Moroccan restaurants, and besides, it's past time to head off to a dessert cafe.

When it comes to food, New Yorkers are more spoilt than even AA Milne's Mary Jane - who threw a tantrum rather than eat her rice pudding. In other cities, in other nations, people simply eat: for breakfast, they rejoice to receive a cup of coffee or tea and a husk of bread, accompanied by a scraping of margarine or Marmite, and a droplet of honey or smear of jam; at lunchtime, they make do with a sandwich; at dinner, with guilty indulgence, they consume a fillet, salad and veg, and some sort of starch, varying according to the nearest latitude and body of water. But in New York everyone feasts. Feasts for breakfast, feasts for lunch, feasts for dinner. The New Yorker rises at 8am, then pads over to the breakfast nook and devours enough food to feed an Italian fishing village for a week. Mountains of doughy bagels, smoked salmon, cream cheese, steamed eggs, corned-beef hash, sausages, waffles, pancakes, cornflakes - all washed down with a still-life's worth of fruit and bee pollen mashed up in a high-speed blender. At the office three hours later, Manhattan's buzzing workforce hits a disquieting lull, as employees stop to ponder every day's most urgent project; the selection of the company-paid lunch. Will it be Mexican, Indian, Italian, Texan, barbecue, diner fare, or Japanese? Anyone for fugu? Or what about that brilliant new sandwich place, the one that noticed that people couldn't fit their mouths around the filling-crammed sandwiches, and so made the bread as flat and big as placemats - to hold all the stuffings without causing undue discomfort to the jaw?

By noon, everyone has figured out what sort of juices, cappuccinos and biscotti they want, the orders are phoned in, and the workday resumes. Until dinner, when the hunt begins for a place that has food as good as lunch, in an atmosphere as good as the movies, including, it is always hoped, patrons whom one can actually see on the movie screen. Chez Es Saada is only one of a slew of restaurants that struggle to attract jaded diners by dishing out food in mythical environs; another is Pravda, the swank post-Soviet vodka and pirozhki bar. Still another is Balthazar, a lily-choked, marble- wood-and-mirrors re-creation of a Parisian 19th-century restaurant, which has so captured the public imagination that diagrams are regularly published in the local papers, including the Times, showing where moguls and stars sat in it.

During this week in late June, designated "restaurant week", bistros and dinner spots, cafes and diners exert themselves specially to catch New Yorkers' hungry eyes and slavering mouths, luring them in with multi- course luncheons at prices even lower than usual. New Yorkers rarely notice the difference, since every week is restaurant week when you are on an expense account, and no one knows how to cook, or has time to shop, anyway. Gulled into terminal overwork by canny corporate honchos who toss them lunch much as a zookeeper tosses herring to seals, New Yorkers have come to confuse working with eating - which probably explains why they see food as such serious business.

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