As a loyal DC Chowhound and NYC native, I felt compelled during a recent business trip to sample several NYC restaurants that I have long wanted to try or that were recommended by friends and Chowhounders. So, in my 48 hours or so in NYC I visited the following for lunch and/or dinner: Esca, Peter Luger, Craftbar, Union Square Cafe, and Gramercy Tavern.
My review of Esca was posted a few days ago, and my memories of that lunch only amplify my fondness for it. However, it was also by far the most expensive of my meals, at $100, and probably over all the most interesting.
Peter Luger has been a family hangout for decades. On most occasions we go to the Brooklyn location, but we could not get a reservation there so we went to Great Neck instead. I have never liked this location and on this occasion nothing intervened to change my opinion (the steak was rather gristly and the atmosphere has not improved). Still, the steaks there, even when not perfect, are better than anywhere else I have been.
Craftbar, recommended to me by the Chowhound community, was amazing. I sat at the bar for lunch and had the fried oysters (topped with sea salt and thin slices of lemon and sitting on a little bed of shaved fennel) followed by a warm pressed sandwich of duck 'ham', taleggio and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. This was all followed by a luscious chocolate tart with pistachio ice cream. Excellent, and not too pricey.
The Union Square Cafe was packed when I got there. I ended up there more or less by accident--I was walking downtown from 29th along B'way and passed Bolo, Mesa Grill, and several other places, none of which quite caught my mood. When I found myself at Union Square I thought I would see if I could get in, and sure enough there was a seat at the bar. The bartender was fantastic, very charming and amusing, and pointed me in the direction of several specials. So I started with a polenta and prosciutto dish served with a light creamy sauce, and followed by the special leg of lamb with fava and canellini beans. All of it was excellent, though the wisteria dropping blooms in my wine and dishes as I ate was a bit disconcerting.
Finally, Gramercy Tavern for lunch before catching the train. Here I also had no reservation but was given a table with no questions, though the place ended up being packed. To start I had a lovely artichoke salad with arugula, parmesan and cranberry beans, and for my main I had a grilled fresh bacon with red cabbage and spaetzle. I chose this, reasoning that I would be unlikely to make it at home, but now I'm not so sure--the flavor was so intense, and the meat so tender, that it may be worth looking into. For dessert I had their rhubarb tart with brown butter ice cream, a very nice homey way to end the meal.
Overall, I would give top honors to Esca; the cuisine there was very inventive, the selections broad, and the service top-notch. The only downside is the price (ugh!). Next would go Gramercy Tavern with Union Square a close third. Then Craftbar (not far behind either) and Peter Luger bringing up the rear (perhaps because I am so used to the place).
There you have it, for what it's worth.