October 3, 2008

Eating Well Made Easy in New York

By Dan Macdonald

With Wall Street crumbling all around me, I made a fiscal discovery during a recent weekend in New York City that applies to good ol' J-Ville.

Diners can eat better there for the same money we spend here.

My wife, Judy, had business in the city and I went up later in the week to spend the weekend. The most expensive part of a New York visit is getting there and finding a place to stay. The rewards points from my wife's many business trips made the mini-vacation possible.

But rewards points don't pay for meals. But that's where the budget doesn't have to be busted.

In Jacksonville, the better owner-operated restaurants are offering entrees in the mid- to high teens. Dishes besides steaks cross the $20 barrier with increasing regularity. I ate in Manhattan and never had an entree costing more than $20. These were some of the best- tasting meals I have had in some time.

For some reason, I don't see the same culinary imagination here.

Maybe it's because of the Jacksonville clientele. Chefs have told me they'd love to get adventurous with ingredients and preparations but those items -- which often demand costly ingredients -- sit untried on a menu.

The dinners I had in New York weren't concoctions featuring a bushel of truffles or exotic game. Instead, they were quality treatments of familiar fare. I had Pan-Seared Upstate Chicken with Roasted Corn, Romano Beans, Shishito Peppers, Cornbread and Mushroom Jus ($19) at Alias (76 Clinton St. on the Lower East Side), Roasted Duck Breast in a Ginger Demi-Glace with Kasha Varnishkes and Broccoli Rabe ($17) at Essex (120 Essex St. also on the Lower East Side), and Lamb Schnitzel crusted with Parmesan and served with smashed potatoes and lemon ($18) at The Smith (55 Third Ave., in the East Village).

So how do you find these bargains? The Internet. Judy is a wiz and prior to trips she loves doing research. Sites like www.opentable.com are great for making reservations online. One of her new favorites is www.metromix.com.

This site lists several cities. In New York, you can select restaurants by borough, cuisine or price. Figure out what area of town you want to explore and find a restaurant in your price range. Most restaurants have their own Web sites that list menus and prices as well as give you plenty of pretty pictures so you get a sense of the scene and dress code.

By the way, Jacksonville restaurants would be well served to do the same. Many already have Web sites and even provide menus but don't list prices. You aren't doing customers or your business any favors by hiding that pertinent information.

Another great Metromix feature is a map of the area showing other restaurants and nightspots. It even spots subway stops. We printed the maps to use to find wine bars prior to dinner.

Once you have an idea of what restaurants you'd like to try, zip over to Grub Street, one of my go-to sites (www.nymag.com/daily/ food). It is the restaurant blog for New York magazine. Search for the restaurant your are interested in and most likely it will have been reviewed by the magazine and include comments from diners are well.

Big city bargains are there to be found on the Internet.Dan Macdonald is a freelance [email protected]

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