By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
I had no idea that New York dining would have such a drastic impact on me. After my recent trip, I lost my appetite for a week. Those once-appealing Seattle restaurants seemed to be missing something. My taste buds changed after my last trip.
Some of the finest restaurants I’ve ever dined in were in New York. One friend asked if I visited this or that famous restaurant. None were nationally renowned. We just happened to be in the neighborhood. From pho to ramen noodles, Chinese to Indian, American to Italian, we had the most amazing dining experience there.
I can usually smell my way to great meals. Call it my gift of developing a marvelous tongue. In my opinion, restaurants in the Big Apple have set a gold standard. I don’t refer to my phone or use Yelp or other reviews. Mostly, my husband and I ate close to our hotel, following my instinct by looking inside the restaurant, reading the menu, and observing what the diners were eating. And seldom do I listen to the hotel concierge’s recommendations.
Every single restaurant we dined at had something for Seattle restaurants to emulate.
Whenever I venture into a Seattle Indian restaurant without my Indian friends’ guidance, it could spell disaster. I could easily get the “wrong” dishes on the table due to inexperience!
Not at Indian Accent Restaurant.
We ordered everything without the waitress’ help. The mistake most Asian restaurants make is the menu has too many items. For non-Asian customers, it takes too much time to digest what exactly is on the menu and too much effort to decide what to eat.
But the Accent menu with fusion dishes was organized, simple, and short. The one-page menu consists of five categories — appetizers, mid courses, main courses, accompaniments (side dishes), and dessert. Every category has only five to six items. So I picked two appetizers, two main courses, one mid-course, and one side dish (naan and wild mushrooms with chicken) for sharing. The dinner was so exquisitely prepared. I wish I could find such a wonderful Indian restaurant in Seattle.
My husband and I accidentally walked by it, and made a reservation for the next day. Oh, they were so popular that they didn’t have tables until 10 p.m. The only option we had was to sit at the bar.
“Is it okay if we don’t drink?” I inquired hopefully.
“No problem,” the bartender replied. When we sat down at the bar, we knew we found the right place. The presence of young Indian professionals dining there made my confidence soar.
A restaurant across from Central Park charged us $12 for two fried eggs not being listed on the menu. You see, it served only eggs benedict, not fried eggs.
The bill was almost $50, including a coconut pancake, tea, coffee, and juice.
What a rip-off! Perhaps, we shouldn’t order items off the menu!
Then a world of difference just one block behind — Rue 57. That restaurant served two fried eggs and grilled tomatoes for just $8. The total bill was $20, including an almond croissant, chocolate croissant, tea, steamed milk and latte. The food was great. The reasonable price enticed us to dine there the next day for Sunday brunch.
I was about to order salmon and bagel with cream sauce. But I hate bagels and that thick piece of dough.
“Can I have your almond croissant instead?” I asked.
“I’ll see what I can do,” replied the waitress. Off she went and I expected her to come back, and say “no substitute” unless I was willing to pay extra. And I would have been glad to do so. She never came back with the answer, though.
Brunch arrived, and the plate was exactly what I wanted — salmon with the big almond croissant attractively displayed on top. Yummy it was. What’s more surprising was the bill — there was no additional charge for the croissant. We left the restaurant feeling satisfied and wished we could return for dinner.
I cannot count how many times I’ve encountered stubborn, lazy, and rigid chefs who would not give the customers what they want simply because it’s not on the menu. Or the wait staff that just won’t bother to make the request.
Rue 57’s motto was to make the customers happy, and do whatever you needed to do to make the customers happy.
When we were at Flushing, the parking attendant recommended a Shanghai restaurant. One glance from the outside of that restaurant, and I shook my head. The setting didn’t look comfortable.
We walked down the street and found another Shanghai restaurant. There were only three tables, with two or three diners dressed in China’s airline uniforms. Well, if picky Chinese from China eat there, we couldn’t go wrong. The chefs were Shanghainese. Yes, I can distinguish between Cantonese and Shanghainese.
We ordered crab with steamed dumplings, salty chicken drumstick, and stir-fried bok choy and sesame cake.
Everything was delicious, especially the dumplings. They are so much better than Seattle’s in quality — thin wrapping, juicy tasty sauce inside the dumpling, and real crab powder. The bill was only $30. In Seattle, it would have been double the amount. This restaurant should open a branch in Seattle, and there would be lines, I guarantee.
Food hall vs. food court
In New York, an Asian lady we met at the hotel told us about Food Hall at the Plaza Hotel. “It’s much nicer than a food court,” she said. It was actually much, much nicer and cozier, and is operated by Chinese owners.
The night we arrived in New York, we were hungry, so we didn’t care where we dined.
Some of the Food Hall’s eateries had tablecloths. Each restaurant occupies a small section of the basement. Prices were not low.
We had seaweed salad, a bowl of pho, and ramen inside the food hall. It was about $14 a bowl. I was happy to find Asian noodles within a short distance of our hotel, and the food was pretty decent. The bill was $44.
Attention: Entrepreneurs, invest in food halls, not food courts. This would appeal not only to millennials, but my generation as well.
Its name was Quality Italian Restaurant on the second floor. My love affair began with its rolls — so palatable — that looked fabulous. (Many Seattle restaurants now charge for the bread). I ate two. The waiter offered us more, but we declined. We needed to save room for the entrées.
One thing nice about dining in an Italian place is that olive oil is in abundance, along with good spices and herbs.
Yes, we were greedy, pouring tons on our bread. We are suckers for virgin olive oil not only because it tastes fantastic, it also lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Our food choices were ordinary Italian dishes, but the presentation and flavors were extraordinary. On our table, we had salad, soft crab, pork shank, and baked oysters.
We couldn’t finish the pork, so I cut it into small pieces and packed it to eat on the flight home to Seattle the next day. You would think the pork would be dry the next day. It was not, and it was still delicious.
Being customer-oriented, the restaurant emailed us a survey asking for our feedback afterwards.
What Sea-Tac Airport can learn from Newark
We flew back to Seattle through Newark Airport. Every restaurant at the airport has an iPad on each seat of each table, including a Chinese restaurant called Little Purse Dumplings. You can order and read the news through the iPad. That’s progressive.
You can see the restaurant’s big Chinese characters about dumplings from afar. It gave you the impression or it was my assumption that Asians were at work. Yet, not a single Asian was doing the cooking in the open kitchen or waiting tables. The employees were Latinos and Blacks. “Could there be Asian dishwashers inside?” I wondered.
Food is just one touch away on the screen with menus, labels, descriptions, and pricing of every item. The dumplings and noodles were good, and dessert was fair. I would prefer Asian food to a sandwich or hamburger at the airport.
Even though mistakes were made when customers shared tables on where the food should be delivered, it was an impressive and efficient operation. While other restaurants had empty tables, the Little Purse was packed with both Asian and non-Asian diners.
A question for the Port of Seattle: When are we going to implement those iPads at our airport’s restaurants? What about more varieties of Asian food?
My editor warned me that I might get some flak for suggesting New York restaurants are better than Seattle’s. Yes, it’s my opinion. And I would add that not every New York restaurant is superb, I just happen to be a lucky soul.
Good food finds me wherever I travel.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.