Food Writer's Diary
2015 off to an opulent start

2015 off to an opulent start

That picture you see on the left — it's an image of a piece of sheet metal that was in a gift box in a gift bag that was messengered to my office. 

It's an invitation to have a meal at a new restaurant. 

I get invited to eat at lots of new restaurants in New York. It's a perk of my job. It's also one of the ways that I do my job of spotting food and beverage trends in retaurants. I have to go out and see what's what, which means I'll go to pretty much any restaurant I'm invited to, because you never know — a fascinating surprise can be found anywhere. 

If a representative of a restaurant shoots me an e-mail, or contacts me on Facebook, or freakin’ tweets at me and says something like “let me know when you’d like to come in,” I'll probably let them know. I’m not proud. I certainly don't need a piece of sheet metal. 

This is the first time I've received an invitation on sheet metal, but my boss got one back in 2000 and brought me along as her guest. 

It was an engraved sheet of solid aluminum, inviting her to the opening of the Tribeca Grand hotel. 

That was a hell of a party. Beautiful socialites were there, and Broadway and movie stars. I was later told that 2,000 people attended and they went through six kilos of Iranian osetra caviar. Good times.

But that was 2000. Can you even remember how good the economy was then (worse than in 1998. but still...)? Remember the frivolous mood of pre-9/11 fin de siecle America? That Tribeca Grand opening was a great party, an opulent party, but, given the time and place, not a ridiculous party. Around that time I also went to a party for a new cocktail — a "millionaire's Margarita" made of unconsciounably expensive tequila and orange liqueur — and at that party massage therapists were availble to give free treatments to attendees (best chair massage of my life). At another one I and other writers were shepherded into stretch hummers for a bar crawl. People just did that back then, right up until September 10th, 2011 (I was at the 5th anniversary party of Rocco DiSpirito's restaurant Union Pacific that night; it was fun, but not over the top).

Then everyone's mood changed and the past couple of years seemed a little bit embarrassing. 

As I recall satyrical newspaper The Onion phrasing it in a headline at that time, “Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bulls**t Again."

(Those are my asterisks, of course; The Onion doesn't care).

The box containing my piece of metal inviting me to dinner indicated that the restaurant Zuma had locations in London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Dubai, Miami, Bangkok, Abu Dhabi, the Datça Peninsula (I looked it up; it's in southwestern Turkey) and, now, New York.

That didn't bode well for quality as far as I was concerned, and the metalness of the invitation indicated that the restaurant would be a huge, over-the-top, gauidily expensive restaurant with overly sweet cocktails and soulless food served in a ridiculous environment by beautiful servers. 

Wagyu sirloin tataki
Nigiri sushi on granite

It turns out my servers were ugly.

Just kidding. They were courteous, competent, clean and normal looking. The restaurant's big but not huge — 260 seats spread out over two floors — but it does have a sort of clubby feel. The ground floor room seems cavernous even though it's not really that big, because of the high ceilings, and it has bold design elements of stone, wood and metal. A robata grill’s in plain view, as is a sushi bar. 

The design is very grand, but the food is serious Japanese food, conceived of by chef-owner Rainer Becker, who lived in Japan for six years. The drinks taste like they were made for grown-ups.

I’m not a critic, so that's all I'll say about the quality, but please enjoy the pictures of the food, provided by the restaurant. The prices are reasonable for New York City in 2015, including chicken wings from the robata grill for $7.50, and tasting menus starting at $56. Becker acknowledged, however, that customers in the London restaurant, which opened in 2002, do tend to use it as a place to indulge and spend a fair amount of cash. More power to him.

Oh, but that metal invitation.

I choose to look at that invitation as a sign that 2015 will be a good year. The economy’s better than it has been for quite some time, and maybe that will help to elevate the nation’s mood and let us enjoy our caviar-topped toro with a lighter heart.

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