Mario Batali and NY Times Critic Go Head to Head on NYC Eating

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Book Flights

Jul 10, 2017

by AKASH ARORA, Features Editor

Will our New York experts agree on the ultimate fine-diner and the best brunch? We put them to the test.

Who’s the chef? Mario Batali, the man behind some of NYC’s best-known eateries including Babbo, La Sirena and Eataly. And the critic? That’ll be Sam Sifton, the food editor of The New York Times. 

Is there one restaurant that really nails the New York vibe?

MB The Spotted Pig can be anything you want, from celebspotting to craft beer to fancy and funky cocktails served by tattooed hipsters. But the star of the show is April Bloomfield’s delicious, soul-satisfying take on down, dirty and damn tasty pub food; it’s at once ethereal and gutter-based.

SS Brennan & Carr (3432 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn; +1 718 769 1254). It’s a roast-beef joint with dark panelled walls. You can find all kinds of hard men – sanitation workers, cops and lawyers – eating these thin shaved-meat sandwiches the size of footballs under the careful watch of waiters wearing ties and long butcher jackets. It can’t be beat. That’s New York as I’ve always known it to be.

What would you rate as the best fine-dining restaurant in the city?

MB Definitely Le Bernardin for the sexiest, smartest, most elegant and yet most relaxed fine dining in the entire country. Chef Eric Ripert is a true Zen master, wine director Aldo Sohm makes wine a blast and the staff relax in a way that makes you feel slightly grown-up – but not too much.

SS Craft, where I’d have a big steak and a lot of vegetables. It’s not so much a scene any longer – you’re not marching past Instagrammers to see if your reservation will be honoured – and it’s not part of the day-to-day strum of conversation on social media. It’s a fine-dining restaurant that continues to deliver on the same promise that it has been delivering on for more than a decade.

What rooftop bar do you love?

MB I like Salvation Taco – but mostly for April Bloomfield’s tacos, not the bar scene.

SS Westlight, on top of The William Vale hotel in Williamsburg. It’s a new hotel, just raised. The cocktails are excellent but, more importantly, it offers an unparalleled, brand-new view. It was a part of the city that belonged to the birds; no tall building existed there. Now it does, with a spa on top. The view of the city, even for a lifelong New Yorker like me, is astonishing.

Your favourite hole in the wall?

MB I like Mamoun’s for falafels and I love Milano’s (51 East Houston Street; +1 212 226 8844) for that rare super-divey drink after late shenanigans.
SS Great NY Noodletown on lower Bowery in Chinatown. Clams in black-bean sauce, ginger and scallion noodles, soy sauce chicken – you can eat that in the middle of the night, closer to dawn than midnight, and your life is complete.

Where do you get the best pizza?

MB Roberta’s, for everything: the pizza, the hipster vibe, the outdoor garden, the thoughtful food. And the non-traditional pies dressed in the simplest and most austere way make it a double yumbang.
SS Lucali and L&B Spumoni Gardens. I refuse to choose between these two Brooklyn stalwarts, because they’re so different. On the one hand, at Lucali, you have this beautiful, round, hand-thrown, thin-crust, wood-fired pizza of exceptional deliciousness. On the other hand, at L&B Spumoni Gardens, you have a gas-oven-cooked rectangular “grandma” pie that is kind of pillowy, only crisp at the edges, almost too sweet in the sauce and almost too salty in the cheese – yet somehow it works together perfectly.

And the best burger?

MB Brindle Room is a tiny little joint in the East Village where the bun-to-meat ratio is balanced, the meat is rich and funky without being too precious and the feeling is more dive bar than temple.
SS Hard Times Sundaes is a food truck that one of my colleagues at The Times discovered in a Brooklyn parking lot. It’s the very opposite of the fancypants burgers that generally capture the attention of the press – a classic griddled-burger grease bomb. Absolutely delicious!

Where do you go for your caffeine fix?

MB Caffè Vergnano, inside Eataly. Short espresso in a ceramic cup, no milk, one sugar.


SS Café Grumpy. It has a number of locations – I go to the one in Midtown. Fasten your seatbelt, because this is an excellent pour.

What about breakfast?

MB I like poached eggs with artichokes la vignarola and grilled bread at Buvette. And if I’m feeling it, I’ll have an espresso followed by a Negroni – because I’m a New Yorker.
SS It’s fashionable in some circles to take your breakfast at Balthazar in SoHo but that’s not how most New Yorkers eat. Instead, my advice would be to find a deli with a long line in front of the griddle and order an egg, bacon and cheese toasted roll with salt and pepper. And I guess if you’re varsity level, you ask for a squeeze of ketchup as well. That’s the classic New York breakfast right there.

New York has fantastic food courts. Recommendations?

MB Eataly is the only one worth a shake – not because I own it but because it’s the real deal. Everything, from the bakery to the butcher, from the oyster selection at Il Pesce to La Birreria on the roof, delivers the promise of Italian culture, unique and exclusive products and that real double-kiss-on-the-cheek hospitality.

SS Smorgasburg. It’s outdoors in the summer [Williamsburg and Prospect Park] and indoors in the winter and there’s some really interesting eating. At other food courts, people get into a rut. But the people selling food at Smorgasburg change and therefore offer a barometer of good eats in New York at the moment. It’s worth braving the crowds to experience it.

Who serves the best brunch in NYC?

MB I love Russ & Daughters for smoked salmon and sturgeon, caviar, blinis and strong cocktails. It’s a timeless place – like a slice out of the ’40s.

SS Prune on the Lower East Side takes the service of brunch far more seriously than most restaurants. They don’t take reservations for brunch so there’s always a big queue. But it’s worth the pain – I’ve never experienced a bad dish there.

Who does the ultimate bagel?

MB Ess-a-Bagel. I hate the puffy, steroid-filled bagels of the 21st century. These are the right size, made by the right people and served with the right brusque, hurried attitude.
SS Bagels in New York keep getting larger, less dense and less flavourful. But you can still find a great one at Terrace Bagels Café (224 Prospect Park West, Brooklyn; +1 718 768 3943).

Is there an amazing restaurant in the city that no-one knows about?

MB No, it’s New York. There is breathless press even about s**tty places. That said, I’m a fan of Tertulia, which is under the radar. Seamus Mullen makes Spain appear out of nowhere in Manhattan. It’s the flavour and magnificence of Spanish gastronomy without all the foam and tomfoolery.
SS No, it’s New York – everyone knows everything. However, Houseman, Ned Baldwin’s easygoing neighbourhood restaurant in Hudson Square in Manhattan, doesn’t get nearly enough attention. I like the food and the atmosphere. It’s laid-back and the cooking is simple and executed quite unpretentiously. It’s a good picture of non-trendy New York cooking right now.

SEE ALSO: Toast the Sunset at New York’s Best Rooftop Bars