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I’m Mari.
On Marivelous Me! you’ll find recipes, food gifts, food I’ve traveled for and food solutions. Poke around, maybe you’ll find inspiration for something you’re working on. Enjoy! 

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Thursday
Jan242013

Keith McNally - A Restaurant Savant

You may recall - since I've mentioned it almost daily - I'm leaving New York City. As part of the mourning process, I'm eating at some of my favorite restaurants to lessen the sting of this inevitable departure. You would be correct to assume that I am including some of The Restaurant Wizard of New York City's establishments. 

The Odeon, Café Luxembourg, Lucky Strike, Nell's, Pravda, Balthazar, Balthazar BakeryPastis, Morandi, Minetta Tavern, Schiller's, Pulino's - what do all these iconic places have in common? Mr. Keith McNally. I've been to all of them over the years and what I can say is he's got the touch. He knows and understands how to create New York dining institutions with just the right mix of food, décor, service and theater but you wouldn't know it if you passed him on the street. When I used to work at Balthazar, we'd have weekly meetings before Balthazar opened for lunch and he'd sometimes show up in grey sweatpants and sneakers. A pedestrian costume masking a brilliant auteur. 

As far as the food goes, there's never anything moderne, no foams, no incantations spoken tableside. What you will find is very well executed classic foods. Foods that people understand and are accessible, like a delicious onion soup gratinée made with a mountain of caramelized onions and topped with aged gruyère cheese and steak tartare, ground fresh and mixed together with the right amounts of umami, brackishness, and funk. Which by the way, Balthazar makes hands down, The Best Tartare I've had in the City. No contest. What you may sometimes find is excess - like a côte de beouf for two and as I affectionately call The Tower of Power: three tiers of raw seafood splendor. When the food runner parades the seafood chandelier across the room on his shoulder, everyone watches the palanquin procession wondering who ordered the beast. Eyes are wide and smiles are broad, from those about to consume the briny purses as well as from those at neighboring tables.

The décor. Often mimicked yet never duplicated Keith's restaurants look like they've been around for ages. I remember when Balthazar was opening. My friend, Jane, was working there so I got to peek behind the poster-covered temporary wooden structure out front. Hand-chipped floor tiles, chain-dented tabletops and zinc bars. These are some of the details and lengths one needs to go to simulate wear. A few years after Balthazar opened, Mr. Mari and I went up to Artisanal, a Terrance Brennan restaurant. Although the restaurant had an amazing cheese selection and cave, it lacked that glamorous patina. Instead, it looked like a family-friendly, Disney-version of Balthazar. 

There has never been a time when I felt snubbed at any of his restaurants. Granted, I've known a few of the maître d's but even when I didn't, the staff has always been gracious and solicitous. Just don't be a No Show. Like many restaurants around town, if you made a reservation, they have a file on you. Do you not show up, do you tip well, are you rude, do you come often, etc. Like an airline, they "reward" good guests with better reservation dates and time slots, better tables (yes, they exist), and prompt seating. This topic is a post all on its own so I won't delve further into it but just remember that like at most restaurants, being nice counts a lot, as does tipping well. 

Keith's restaurants are magnets. You'll see morning power meetings at Balthazar, Anna Wintour sitting at Table 61 during Fashion Week, and gorgeous women at Minetta Tavern.  This extra layer is what makes Keith's restaurants so enticing; the Crème de la Crème, the Who's Who are eating only elbows away from you and me. 

In less than six weeks, I'll be living in Los Angeles. We'll see if there's anyone out there that I think deserves the West Coast title of Maestro. 

(Photo of Keith McNally via James Hamilton, Bloomberg; Stumptown coffee at Balthazar; onion soup gratinée at Pastis; buckwheat crèpes with scrambled eggs, gruyère cheese and ham; Eggs Benedict; Morandi interior via Morandi; chairs via Lucky Strike; chilled glasses at Pastis; Jacob, friendly bartender at Pastis)

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