The pyramid

Pub date May 8, 2007

While fretting a few days ago about the menace of the $40 main dish, I spoke to my neighbor, who on a recent trip to San Diego had a close encounter with a $63 main course, some kind of veal with truffles. San Diego — not Las Vegas, not New York. She ended up with a $40-something main dish (veal, no truffles), and I went to New York to forage on the lower reaches of the city’s restaurant pyramid.

High-end restaurant food, whether veal or something else, doesn’t just happen: it is built, or cooked, or created, on an infrastructure of more modest restaurants. In these places, far from the lurid glow of the world’s Columbus Circles, cooks and eaters alike educate themselves; expectations are formed and preferences established. While I am not a partisan of the inventive, technique-driven school of cooking that seems to prevail in New York City, I have always found the standard of execution in Manhattan restaurants to be of the highest order. Had, I must now say, for after spending several days grazing in restaurants up and down the West Side, I became filled both with surprisingly mediocre food and with disappointment.

Let us begin by granting conditional pardon to busy-body New York chefs, who after all must spend months working their way around an inconvenience called a real winter. Still, is this any excuse for serving plate after plate of perfectly unseasoned food? At a place called Fairway Café (above the fabulous Fairway Market on B’way at 74th St.), I nearly wore out my salt-shaking hand in the struggle to revive a succession of dishes, beginning with grilled asparagus and a mushroom pizza and continuing to creamed spinach and some linguine with scallops and pesto. At Swagat, a fragrant, crowded Indian restaurant on Amsterdam, it was the same, with the chicken tikka masala sweet rather than tangy. And again at Louie’s, a handsome café with extensive outdoor seating, a big Sunday brunch–with–the–Times service, and a DOA huevos rancheros–style egg preparation.

We were warned beforehand, by an Upper West Side–dwelling friend, that the neighborhood was a dead zone for food. The better places, he said, are all downtown. I came to see his point, but I couldn’t help wondering how good the food downtown would have to be to impress people immiserated by bad food uptown. That is the $63 question.

Paul Reidinger