Gastropod

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THANKS to New Yorkers' obsession with food, the city's restaurants are recovering from the recession, even if the country isn't. Classic contemporary places such as the Union Square Cafe, Gotham and Odeon have held up well through the hard times and score highly in the latest edition of the influential Zagat restaurant guide, despite the rise of restaurants specialising in herb-infused oils and Thai spices (Jean-Georges Vongerichten's JoJo), politically correct vegetarianism (Zen Palate), and punk sushi (Fujiyama Mamma).

Most of the fashionable places continue to be Italian. Coco Pazzo, Carmine's and Boom are the current names to conjure with, their styles ranging from Tuscan through trattoria to tavola calda. But the hottest restaurant right now - literally and figuratively - is Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill. Located in the excruciatingly hip Flatiron district north of Greenwich Village, it specialises in so-called 'South-western' cuisine. Flay is a flame-haired, hot-tempered 27-year-old with a predilection for chillies who has taken up the culinary style pioneered by Arizona 206, in whose kitchens Gastropod learnt - several years ago - to distinguish between a chipolte and a jalapeno and to wash very carefully after chopping chillies.

WHAT is smart over there is about to come over here. A double dose of high- profile Americana is on its way. Work will begin shortly on the London branch of Planet Hollywood - not merely a restaurant but, according to Sylvester Stallone, 'a concept'. Actually it's a museum of movie memorabilia that also serves food, and is fronted by a trio of tinsel-town tough guys: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis are the others. At least one of these is promised as the star attraction at the ground-breaking ceremony next week on the site in Coventry Street, and the place will open in December.

Also heading for these shores is Mezzaluna, a restaurant renowned for its pasta and small pizzas cooked in an authentic wood-burning Florentine oven. It already has branches in New York, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Newport Beach and Aspen; this autumn there will be another one in the splendid new Neal's Centre at Seven Dials in Covent Garden, with Marco DeVina, the chef from the original Mezzaluna, in the kitchen and Neal Grossman, Loyd's slightly more comprehensible brother, in charge.

THE RIOTS in Los Angeles badly affected restaurant takings: important as it is to be seen in all the right eating places, it is apparently not quite a matter of life and death. Wolfgang Puck, proprietor of Spago, the ultimate celebrities' restaurant in West Hollywood, reckons it lost pounds 50,000 worth of business to the looters. Spago has successfully anticipated every food trend in the 10 years it has been open, from designer pizzas (topped with strange stuff) to designer vegetables (small but perfectly formed) - and it continues to set the pace. The current speciality is 'risotti'.

But Mr Puck himself is far too famous to cook, and the man responsible for this latest development is a native of the Ivory Coast named Francois Kwaku-Dongo, whose CV reads like a film script: he was washing up until the chef fell ill and he stepped in to save the day.

Other new, and therefore busy, restaurants in the LA area include Rockenwagner and Bikini, both in Santa Monica, and Cicada on Melrose Avenue, the current music-biz hangout.

They come and they go, but when in LA Gastropod insists on making tracks to Musso & Frank Grill in West Hollywood for a properly dry martini; Chasen's for devilled beef bones and Caesar salad; and El Cholo on Western Avenue for archetypal Tex-Mex grub.

Should you be keen to try the food that those wacky Californians eat, but lack the wherewithal to make the trip, London's Park Lane Hotel (071-499 6321) is having a festival of Californian food until 12 July, in collaboration with the Robert Mondavi wine company. It costs pounds 16.50 for three courses, which might be lobster and white-bean salad with arugula (rocket to us), fresh herbs and summer flowers, followed by smoked beef tenderloin with pancetta and black bean sauce, and a peach and apricot tart with tangerine ice-cream and fresh mangoes to finish.

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