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2023-04-17 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine New York's Changing Restaurant Scene Makes for Some Fine Dining

New York's Changing Restaurant Scene Makes for Some Fine Dining

Hungry for change
CHANGING TASTES Lore on its South Slope corner in Brooklyn
Photo by Daniel Chen, courtesy of Lore

There comes a time in a man’s life when, by choice or necessity, he must remake himself. Gosh, maybe that’s not true. Maybe there are people whose lives are as coherent as a school desk: unified in form, consistent in principle, and easily grasped. But I am not one of those people. If they do exist, they can count themselves among the blessed. For the rest of us, how we exist in the world can feel provisional and transitory. We are, in the cynical parlance of the office, hot-desking ourselves.

As I said, the reasons why one might need to reestablish oneself vary. Some are deracinated by place; others by time. Some wish to; others are forced. The results vary as well, not only in terms of one’s recontextualization of self but how the newer, shinier version is received. What is the con man congressman George Santos but a brilliant reinventor of self? Nothing could be more American than that. As for me, less criminally but more common, it was age that did me in; the accumulation of years and deeds stuck to my oars like seaweed, until no forward progress was possible, and I had to jump ship.

I was once, I think, a big deal, a promising young writer. Now, I am not. Young, for sure no longer, and promising? I have promised myself to stop promising anything. As for whether I’m a big deal, how many times do you have to explain to a new acquaintance why you are one before you realize you’re not?

This review concerns three restaurants and four restaurateurs of certain renown who have either been forced or have chosen to reintroduce themselves to a new population with little or no context of exactly how big a deal they were. It is therefore a piece about insecurity and effort, primarily; lunch and dinner only second.

When I was a version of myself that was married, at the peak of my earnings, and pregnant with potential, my family and I lived on 15th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The north side of the street is occupied by a large Gothic brick building that was once an armory and is now both a YMCA and a homeless shelter. (They are contiguous, not coincidental.) The south side of the street is taken up with apartment buildings — one of which we lived in — and a single restaurant that sits on the corner of 15th and 7th Avenue. For many years, the restaurant was Thistle Hill Tavern, a faux-English pub with overpriced but above-average food run by the celebrity chef Dale Talde. When that closed in 2016, it became Camperdown Elm, named after the stooping, majestic 150-year-old tree in nearby Prospect Park. The double cheeseburger, available only at the bar, and a stiff Manhattan, got me through many nights of marital strife. By the time the Elm closed, I was divorced (one too many strife-filled nights) and had been pushed out Coney Island way like dough under the rolling pin of rising rent. Now it’s a trek to make it to Lore, the newest occupant of the corner space.

A fitting name, Lore is, for a restaurant run by a man attached to his own origin story. The man in question is Jay Kumar, a Mangalore-born chef who grew up in Oman but who, for over 20 years, ran Jay’s, a well-regarded Indian restaurant in Basel, popular with both watch and art people — of which Basel has many. I gather it was similar to Indochine, except with better food. With a well-groomed beard as thick and gray as Chronos’s and more charms than a Tiffany bangle, Kumar certainly seems at home in the rather more swinging European capital than in sleepy South Slope. But three years ago, having fallen in love with an American woman, Kumar relocated to New York with a dream to open a restaurant. And last year, he did.

Lore’s chef, Jay Kumar, who ran a well-regarded restaurant in Basel, Switzerland, before moving to New York
Photo by Heather Willensky, courtesy of Lore

It’s a strange feeling to reenter a room known for so long in so many iterations, but Lore might be my favorite yet. Kumar’s menu is tight but wide-ranging with chaotic inputs. It is in counterpoise to the prevalent trend in Indian cuisine, as embodied by the group Unapologetic Foods’s Dhamaka and Semma, of culinary cultural insularity. Kumar is a man of the world, and his menu is the same. It’s not apologetic but welcoming. Where else in New York does one menu contain fish-and-chips, sea bream ssam, a fermented dosa, and a ribeye steak with masala butter? Where else in the world would it be as good?

Key to Kumar’s menu is milagai podi, a southern Indian spice mix made with red chili, mustard seed, asafoetida, and many other spices. (It is called here gunpowder spice, because what don’t we weaponize?) The spice, similar to duqqa, is found dusting the corners of the concise menu. It appears in the aforementioned fermented dosa, a lentil crepe filled with delicately spiced potatoes and red lentil daal. It is also present in lamb chapli kebabs, a Pashtun ground meat patty, resting on a sworl of smoky baba ghanoush with Castelvetrano olives and tomato.

The sea bream ssam at Lore
Photo by Heather Willensky, courtesy of Lore

The fish is as tender as the chips are crisp, arriving in a golden coat like it were the Met Ball. And the Afghani chicken, long marinated, zinging with whole tempered spices atop the stir-fried cabbage and creamy squash, rivals the poulet of any of New York’s best brasseries. These are all served in person by Kumar, who smells of cologne and whose fingers are covered in silver rings and flesh by tattoos and whose hair is perfectly coiffed and who will talk to you for hours about Brooklyn or Basel, take your pick. He’s a bit of a showman, true, but one who, rather than resting on his laurels, is cultivating his new crop in his new land. I didn’t know Kumar before. Now I do and I too believe the lore.

Across the river and north a ways, another reinvention is going on at Jupiter. Here British chefs Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer, who found renown at their French-ish restaurant King in SoHo, have opened a pasta-driven restaurant in the basement of Rockefeller Center named after the Roman king of the gods (get it?). The center itself is in the midst of its own radical renaissance. Where anodyne lunch troughs served the thousands of Midtown office workers, now buzzy restaurants imported from points cooler are tasked with luring tourists year-round. On the street level, Le Rock, previously reviewed, and Lodi, lavishly praised. On the lower level, flush with the rink, are three additions: Naro, from double Michelin-starred Atomix’s husband-and-wife Junghyun and Ellia Park; Five Acres, from Brooklyn whiz kid Greg Baxtrom; and Jupiter, by Shadbolt and de Boer, joined by beverage director, Annie Shi.

JUPITER IN RETROGRADE The kitchen at Jupiter, the new restaurant of chefs Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer
Photo by Clay Williams

Though King is, was, and will be the hottest restaurant in the city, I’d wager that most of the diners passing through the subterranean doors of Jupiter have no clue as to the pedigree of the restaurateurs. On a recent visit, the room read as a tourist brochure for “I Love NY.” Due in part out of pride and in part out of business savvy, de Boer, Shadbolt, and Shi have made sure there is no competition with their downtown King. Here they are striking out for something new in their hometown, but not for a hometown crowd. Jupiter is a celebration of pasta. The bulk of the menu is devoted to it, with nine primi and only three secondi. Since two of the secondi in question are a steak and a whole grilled dorade, neither of which are looking for innovation or self-expression, that leaves only pasta as a medium for the chefs to express themselves.

Jupiter’s paccheri verdi con sugo di maiale e limone dish
Photo by Marcus Nilsson, courtesy of Jupiter

And what do they say? It’s hard to hear actually. Perhaps it’s because the room is loud, all hard surfaces and soft light. But, I fear, it could also be that their message is too muted. Whereas King abounded with surprising flavor, Jupiter seems abashed. Nearly everything I tried lacked something; not a chromosome exactly, more like an enzyme. A bruschetta laden with crab and aioli would have greatly benefited from a touch of chili spice. The eight pansotti di zucca one receives for $26 swim in a perfectly pleasant butter and parmesan sauce. But eating them felt somehow like talking to a bored and boring conversant at a dinner party. The effort it takes to drum up any interest isn’t worth the pay off. Pansotti are a Ligurian shape, meant to be stuffed so full their bellies protrude. (“Pansa” is dialect for belly.) At Jupiter, however, the silhouettes are slim, sleek, put together perhaps, but no fun. Another primi, the paccheri verdi con sugo di maiale e limone, showed more promise. The bright green paccheri were indeed dotted with succulent pork but the lemon peel, promised in the ragu and which would have elevated the dish by off-setting the fat with bright citrus, was either missing or too polite to assert itself. I can’t tell if it’s better or worse that those at Jupiter have little inkling about the brilliance these women have created downtown. But I do. And I have to say, Jupiter, I ate at King. I knew King. King was a friend of mine. Jupiter, you’re no King.

What I have zero context for is whatever the hell is happening behind the frosted windows on East 50th Street that is the home of Chef Guo. Chef Guo is Guo Wenjun, a master chef from China who opened his tasting menu restaurant in August 2022. On offer is a 19-course dinner for $518. As for the cuisine, perhaps the best way I can describe it is as Guo himself does, emblazoned on every single plate and napkin and chopstick: “The Finest Personalized Gourmet Chinese Cuisine in America.” The establishment of bona fides is unrelenting and unremitting. From the moment the door is opened and Guo’s name uttered by one of two servers — both in silken brocade Chinese dress and wearing white gloves — it is uttered with reverence. A television screen plays an endless loop of media clips. The menu features an image of Chef Guo, his neck weighed down in golden medals and sashes, a trophy in his hand. “Chef Guo,” it is noted, “has been formally recognized by China as an Elite Master of the Chinese culinary arts.” At the bottom of the menu are two scenes from different state banquets where, presumably, Chef Guo cooked. In the right image is Barack Obama. In the left is Kim Jong-un.

FLOWER POWER Chef Guo (Guo Wenjun), in his Midtown restaurant
Photo by Deb Lindsey
Butterfly Falls in Love with the Flower, one of 19 dishes on the tasting menu at Chef Guo
Photo by Deb Lindsey

Of the 19 courses, served on custom-made imperial yellow porcelain, perhaps the most striking was an early dish called “Butterfly Falls in Love with the Flower.” I mean, that name alone is far out. But the plating, treated as a painting, was truly striking. Small edible paper butterflies flutter around a pastoral scene, wrought of shrimp and sausage and “dozens of natural ingredients,” so says the starstruck server. But by the time we had feasted on the Hundred Happinesses and Eight Treasures in a Pouch Bag and Chef Guo Signature Pork Chops and Signature Noodles with Black Bean Sauce, the meal had begun to feel like one of those interminable state banquets. The food was good but the agenda so strong — worship at the altar of the finest personalized Chinese cuisine in America — that one couldn’t help but yearn for the freedom to make up one’s own mind about who Chef Guo was and who he is now.

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