New York - Downtown Reborn
Wine Spectator|October 15 & 31, 2017

There’s no city on earth like it. Here’s our guide to its many pleasures for wine and food lovers

Thomas Matthews

New growth where the city began

Stone Street runs a mere two blocks in lower Manhattan. But if you happen to wander across it on a sunny day in late September, you could find crowds of people slurping oysters and hoisting pints of beer while struggling not to trip on the cobblestones underfoot.

The small-scale setting—old buildings, briny breeze, an easy, lived-in conviviality—might convince you it has been this way for centuries. And in a way, it has.

Stone Street is one of the oldest streets in New York City, dating to the mid-17th century, when the Dutch owned Manhattan. The English built a tavern here in 1670. Many of the buildings currently standing were constructed after the Great Fire of 1835. This enclave has witnessed most of Manhattan’s four-century history.

Yet today’s Stone Street is also a recent creation. In the 20th century, the city’s energy and wealth moved north and west, abandoning this old section to decay and crime.

“In the 1980s, this neighborhood was tough,” recalls Harry Poulakakos. Back in 1972, he opened a steakhouse in the India House, at the intersection of Stone Street and Hanover Square. “Stone Street was a back alley. It had no city lighting. It was a drug supermarket. There were muggings every day.”

In 1996, Stone Street and its periphery were granted status as a historic district. By 2000, the city had refurbished the street with lights and pavers. In 2002, Harry’s son, Peter, opened Financier Patisserie on Stone Street, and then in quick succession a pub, a pizza restaurant and a wine bar.

And now, every September, there are bounteous oysters. “When they excavated Stone Street, they found mountains of oyster shells,” Peter Poulakakos explains. “Oysters were a staple in the early days of New York, and every bar served them. So we created an oyster festival to honor that history. Last year, we opened 35,000 oysters in one day. We collect the shells and they’re used to help with an oyster reef restoration project in New York Harbor.”

The growth of New York City is fueled by the perpetual energy of creative destruction, and nowhere in the city has the power of that energy been more visible in recent years than in the neighborhood known as “downtown.”

Where downtown begins is clear: at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. Where it ends, moving north, is a matter of opinion. To someone living outside the city, the border of “downtown” might be 14th Street at the edge of Greenwich Village. Those who work on Wall Street might draw the boundary much more tightly, at Chambers Street.

For this story, I consider anything south of Canal Street as part of Manhattan’s downtown. This includes three principal neighborhoods: the Financial District; Tribeca; and Battery Park City and the new World Trade Center. (City Hall and its cluster of government buildings near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, along with the southern end of Chinatown, complete this map of downtown.)

The Financial District occupies the southern section. A maze of narrow streets flanked by office buildings, it retains traces of the deep past, from Stone Street’s Dutch footprint to Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington feted his Revolutionary Army officers in 1783. Once purely commercial, this neighborhood has become increasingly residential, its population growing from about 4,000 in 1960 to more than 40,000 in 2014.

Tribeca is in the northwest quadrant, where 19th-century warehouses have been transformed into luxury housing, and fine dining flourishes alongside local hangouts like Puffy’s Tavern on Hudson Street and Walker’s on North Moore.

Drew Nieporent helped pioneer the culinary culture here, first opening Montrachet in 1985 with David Bouley as his chef, then Tribeca Grill with partner Robert De Niro in 1990. Both restaurants earned Grand Awards from Wine Spectator (a distinction Tribeca Grill still holds). “I’ve watched Tribeca evolve,” Nieporent reflects. “It’s really managed to retain much of what made it special back then.”

On the banks of the Hudson River, the past gives way entirely to wide streets and gleaming towers. The new World Trade Center complex, which is still under construction, has become a major tourist draw, home to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Sandwiching the complex are the high-end shopping malls of Brookfield Place and Westfield. Quiet Battery Park City has a beautiful waterfront park.

Tom Colicchio has been a successful chef and restaurateur in New York since the 1980s. Slowly but steadily, his restaurants have moved downtown, and now his latest venture, Temple Court, is in the Beekman hotel, near City Hall.

“Honestly, I came downtown because the deal was so interesting,” he says. “The spectacular building itself was the key. But later, walking around, I loved the idea of being part of bringing downtown back. It’s old New York, but at the same time, people are rediscovering it. It seems like a neighborhood that’s full of opportunities.”

In the early 1980s, I worked as a bartender at the Odeon, one of the first restaurants to put Tribeca on the map of greater Manhattan. I served Diana Ross and Leonard Bernstein, Andy Warhol and Jack Nicholson. It was a heady time.

The Odeon is still flourishing, and I still go back sometimes. It draws more of a neighborhood family crowd now. One of its founders was Keith McNally, who went on to open many successful restaurants around the city. Now he has returned downtown with Augustine, also in the Beekman. It’s already a hit, like Temple Court, packed every night.

If you live in New York long enough, or study its history, it becomes clear that everything old is new again, and that everything new is built on something old. It’s this layering that gives the city its depth and so much of its interest. No matter how much new construction seems to obscure the past, the history is always there. Lower Manhattan is one of New York’s most vibrant neighborhoods today, a place to find oysters, ghosts and pleasure.

Atera

The culinary approach known as molecular gastronomy, which reached its highest expression at El Bulli in Spain, never gained much traction in New York. In Europe, the cuisine took root in Scandinavia, most famously at Noma in Copenhagen. Now Ronny Emborg, a young Danish chef who trained at El Bulli, has brought his take on this inventive and technical cuisine to Atera in Tribeca.

Diners with the stamina and curiosity for a three-hour, 15- to 20-course culinary odyssey (and the budget for the $275 price tag, service included) will find the experience to be both delicious and delightful.

The small dining room is basically a display kitchen, with appliances against the back wall and a large center island that is surrounded on three sides by a wide bar, at which a dozen diners sit on high stools. Inside the kitchen area, five cooks in whites and four men in suits prepare, present and explain the series of small plates. It’s a bit intimidating at first, but as the meal goes on, barriers break down and engagement becomes livelier until at times the room feels like one large party.

The food is meant to puzzle and amuse. No menu is offered (until one is presented at the end of the meal), and the creative techniques, unusual ingredients and dramatic presentations combine in dishes that are mysterious and surprising.

Nevertheless, the structure of the meal is relatively conventional: A series of “snacks” based on vegetables are followed by seafood based dishes (scallops, salmon and lobster on my visit), then by meat (pork and venison) and finally by a bevy of desserts. Flavor themes carried through as well, with acidity and herbal notes threading through nearly all the dishes, from the “lime, juniper” foam that opened the meal to the black garlic and lemon that flavored a madeleine at the end.

Diners can take control of their beverage selections, at least. The extensive wine list, which holds Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence, is rich in the classics, with more than 15 bottlings of Domaine Leflaive, including a Chevalier-Montrachet 2008 at $1,080, and an 11-vintage vertical of Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Craft beers, ciders and sakes are also on offer.

Two wine-pairing options are offered (at $175 and $375). The “regular” wine pairing, like the menu, mixes off-beat selections within a conventional structure. Among the eight glasses I was served were Champagne, Mosel Riesling, white Burgundy, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley (Philip Togni’s Tanbark Hill 2014, replaced by a Château Ducru-Beaucaillou St.-Julien 2001 on the “reserve” pairing) and Sauternes.

There’s also a “temperance” pairing ($105), a series of inventive and delicious nonalcoholic concoctions that actually paired beautifully with the dishes.

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