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reachej

"Avant Garde" Cuisine in NYC

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In another thread some folks brought up the idea that NYC is not really on the forefront of modern cuisine, something I would generally agree with. Fat Guy offered an interesting financial hypothesis as to why and said:

I think the more fundamental issue is that New York just isn't ready to support avant-garde cuisine in a serious way.  Maybe New Yorkers would support it if the economics of Chicago were transplanted into a New York neighborhood...

I don't know enough about Chicago to argue for or against it, perhaps others might. Could there be other reasons as well? Likes and dislikes of New Yorkers? Reasons talented chefs may choose other places?

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By avante-garde, do you mean molecular gastronomy? Because there are plenty of people using new techniques but just aren't smearing it on their menu.

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I would not say that NY is not at the forefront. Wylie Dufresne is right there with anyone when it comes to quality hypermodern cuisine. I will agree, howeve, that the city has not embraced hypermodern cuisine as a concept in the way that the country of Spain or the city of Chicago, for examples, have. It is not that there isn't significant interest or a coterie of devotees, but for some reason it hasn't really captured the imagination of the masses. Hopefully that will change and the masters of this approach to cooking such as Wylie, Sam Mason, Wil Goldfarb, Paul Liebrandt, Alex Stupak and others will get their due.

I think one of the problems is that the cost of dining in NYC, being what it is, most people are moe into the safety of a known cuisine as practiced by reliable and sometimes great kitchens. Avant-garde, by definition, is into pushing boundaries. Oftentimes it does so when in the hands of its masters in amazing ways. Sometimes it misses or even if it hits the creator's mark, is not what the public is interested in. There will be a time (and it is already happening) that hypermodern cooking is no longer truly avant-garde. Many techniques have been and more are everyday being incorporated into mainstream restaurant and even home kitchens. There is plenty of evidence for this all over eGullet, for example.

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There are any number of valid reason why avant-garde type places don't do as well in New York as some other cities. Steve's neighborhood theory is correct as one factor and several more can be mentioned. I'll list two.

New York is a bigger tourist town than either Chicago or Washington and tourists tend to eat more conversatively. They're more apt to try the chefs that have become popular on the Food Network than go for a meal at WD-50. The tourists flock to places owned by Bobby and Mario or places that have an NYC "state of mind" appeal- USC, PL, Sparks, Grammercy to name a few.

Secondly, though New York is known as a "hot bed" of social liberalism, it's never been that way with its food. A large portion of NYC's population is ethnic oriented and tend to eat within their own ethnicity or other ethnicities that they have become familiar through friends, marriage, neighborhood etc. Even when I invite some of my old neighborhood friends for dinner, I need to be very careful about what I serve. Their range of culinary motion is quite limited with rare exception.

As to why Chicago and Washington have accepted this type of cuisine somewhat more readily, the answers are a bit more simple. Washington is as international town with a large part of the population being diplomats, etc who have more experience with the avant-garde type of cooking.

Chicago does not have the myriad of extensive ethnic neighborhoods that exist in New York and it's more of a compact city. It's population is more cosmopolitan on a percentage basis and its cost of living is somewhat less. All this leads back to Steve's neighborhood theory, which I believe is absolutely on the mark.

Just my thoughts.


Edited by rich (log)

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I absolutely love DC as a culinary destination. It holds some of my most favorite restaurants, but before we anoint it as true hotbed of hypermodern cuisine, let's consider that the premiere hypermodern restaurant in DC, Jose Andres' Minibar, is only a six-seat restaurant housed within another of his restaurants. Sure it is wonderful, but under that scenario, it could probably exist anywhere with a cosmopolitan audience. In addition, Chef Andres has all his other more conservative restaurants to help support it, much in the same way that all of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurants help support lunch at Jean-Georges.

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I think Doc is getting the point. How well is "avant garde" cuisine really doing? Are the Moto's, etc. doing tons of volume? Is that even "doing well"? If you look at Ferran, he is keeping the dream alive (el Bulli) by doing other projects to make him money. Does avant guard cuisine have to be supported by more user friendy menus/themes within the operator/chef? Probably. I think Paul was on the right track with the Classic/Modern menu split, maybe the place wasn't right, and of course if I read another thing about how he put Jello on a naked woman(his PR and media presence wasn't good at all) that would even scare me off. As for the NY Times review, of course it was a 3 star restaurant.

Money isn't everything, but if you don't run a viable business, it is hard to be a starving artist forever. I am a huge fan of this movement, balanced with some restraint. So where do we go from here?

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i think that it would be shortsighted to say that new york is not at the forefront;

even though it is relatively conservative town when it comes to eating;

imho this is because new york restaurant scene was developed early when fine dining in us meant french; wealthy people still make this association with luxury.

i dont think that any other american city developed as deep a luxury restaurant scene as early as new york basically because they couldnt afford to.

further, the argument that two restaurants in one city that is not new york means the death of "hypermodern" in nyc are a bit exaggerated.

in the world, you would have trouble finding another city as progressive among the major capitals: remember, el bulli is not in barcelona.

this brings me to my last point, destination "one of a kind" restaurants tend to do better outside of major urban areas because they do not depend on repeat clientele or suffer from the economies of scale from operation in expensive areas.

i think the talent migration to nyc speaks for itself, the super notable move being alex stupak from alinea to new york;

also remember, new york generally doesnt engage in intercity rivalries because it doesnt need to. it has the biggest the most etc of pretty much everything and is the no 1 tourist destination

in short, only the red sox have a rivalry with the yankees, the yankees just like winning

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The day "avant-garde" is popular with the masses is the day it is no longer "avant-garde".

There is a difference though between someone trying to push the envelope for its own sake versus someone trying to push the envelope to come up with something new, interesting and good. I don't really ascribe to the former, but appreciate the latter. This is one reason why I prefer the term "hypermodern" to "avant-garde" when discussing the cuisine of these and other chefs of a similarly creative mindset. I consider the names I mentioned above to be in the latter category, although I still have yet to try Chef Liebrandt's cuisine. I base my inclusion though on reports from here and elsewhere. At some point I hope to be able to determine the validity of that inclusion for myself.

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The problem is that in the arts, say, you can be avant-garde and ignore the desires of the audience. But restaurants are (and pretty much have to be) commercial enterprises. Even in the field of what would normally be considered pop music, the "no wave" bands of the late 70s/early 80s clearly abjured any notion of popular success -- and were able to do it, because the fixed costs (and necessary time commitments) of their enterprises were so low.

Jamesbchef said above that "it's hard to be a starving artist forever." But the fixed costs of running a restaurant are such that you can't be a starving artist, ever. It's not like painting or forming a band.

I think I said once that I'll believe in avant-garde cooking when I see someone getting a day job to support his restaurant. Jamesbchef has now pointed out that people like Adria may actually be doing that.

Anyway, to echo something Fat Guy said in the Liebrant thread, it may be that in a city like New York the only way truly avant-garde (or hypermodern, as docsconz better puts it) could work economically would be in Brooklyn. Sort of like the way the avant-pop music scene has moved there, and much of the avant-jazz scene. I've often gloated that Manhattan is over, because the incredibly high fixed costs there have made it impossible to do anything there that isn't nearly completely mainstream. Fat Guy argues that the Brooklyn model would ultimately fail, however, because not enough Manhattanites would come to Brooklyn to eat. I think that if a restaurant were good enough -- I'm talking Alinea quality -- and also marketed as sufficiently distinctive (think BAM), and if it were reasonably accessible to mass transit, and if its investors were patient enough, it might be able to eventually lure patrons from the Evil Empire of Manhattan as regular commuters, as BAM was ultimately able to do. I tend to agree that the Gilt model was bound to fail from the start, and it might be true that even Tribeca couldn't support a truly avant-garde luxe restaurant (although I'd be interested to see the attempt).


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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I think I said once that I'll believe in avant-garde cooking when I see someone getting a day job to support his restaurant.  Jamesbchef has now pointed out that people like Adria may actually be doing that.

Given the popularity of El Bulli, Adria could charge much more than he does and still fill it many times over. I don't think the issue is whether El Bulli is economically viable. Rather I think Adria is taking advantage of the success of El Bulli to branch out.

I don't think that this cuisine is inherently unviable economically. With so many of its techniques becoming more and more mainstream and even much of its visual framework becoming adopted within the mainstream, I think it is only a matter of time before someone like Wylie Dufresne, Paul Liebrandt or someone else becomes financially successful in NYC with this style and approach. With the advent of Gilt, I was hoping that time had finally arrived.

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To me, ``fashion" in gastronomy is overstated; integrity, uncompromising insistence on only the best quality ingredients, painstaking preparation, attention to detail and solicitous service -- not faddishness and gimmicrky --are the foundation on which great restaurants build their reputation. Thus it has always been and will always be.

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I think it's silly to deny that DuFresne, Aschatz, Adria, Liebrandt, etc. are cooking in a style that's different from the way other people cook. And I think it's silly just to give that style a blanket dismissal. I mean, it's entirely possible to like one restaurant that has the best quality ingredients, painstaking preparation, attention to detail and solicitous service more than another, right? You might even actively dislike a restaurant that has the best quality ingredients, painstaking preparation, attention to detail and solicitous service, if you don't like the style of the cooking. In fact, I would say that the best quality ingredients, painstaking preparation, attention to detail and solicitous service pretty much describes Gilt. But you could still have either liked Gilt or disliked it, on the basis of the style of the cuisine. Certainly, the best quality ingredients, painstaking preparation, attention to detail and solicitous service weren't enough to keep its initial iteration in business.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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Taste always will win the day. Simply put, creative food is not always good. I've seen alot of impressive looking food, both in technique behind it as well as presentation and ingredients, that just doesn't taste good.

In a way I'm glad that this 'hypermodern' cuisine isn't becoming the norm - theres far too many chefs than can't make a simple, home cooked meal taste good yet they still try to pull off some crazy shit.... Anyone can grab some agar, some juice and a CO2 canister and make a foam. But making one that tastes good is a whole other story... Anyone can grab some CaCl, sodium alginate and make 'caviar' or 'ravioli'. How many cooks can even make a perfect traditional ravioli? You need to be able to walk before you can run... Too many young chefs forget this. Novelty means nothing if your food doesn't taste good.

Reminds me of something I was told recently by another chef. He said that making borshch (beet soup - yes that peasant soup that is often ridiculed) is an excellent judge of a cook's character. Borshches range from 3 or 4 ingredients to 15 plus. It's very easy to make one that tastes decent, but very tough to make one that is truly outstanding. Another example is potato purée (aka mashed potatoes). It's easy to make, yet tough to make well. It's just potatoes, salt and butter, yet it's much more than just the sum of those ingredients.

Novelty might be impressive to some, but strait up good taste is what really matters. I just don't see it in most 'avant-garde' places.


Edited by Mikeb19 (log)

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Taste always will win the day.  Simply put, creative food is not always good.  I've seen alot of impressive looking food, both in technique behind it as well as presentation and ingredients, that just doesn't taste good. 

In a way I'm glad that this 'hypermodern' cuisine isn't becoming the norm - theres far too many chefs than can't make a simple, home cooked meal taste good yet they still try to pull off some crazy shit....  Anyone can grab some agar, some juice and a CO2 canister and make a foam.  But making one that tastes good is a whole other story...  Anyone can grab some CaCl, sodium alginate and make 'caviar' or 'ravioli'.  How many cooks can even make a perfect traditional ravioli?  You need to be able to walk before you can run...  Too many young chefs forget this.  Novelty means nothing if your food doesn't taste good. 

Reminds me of something I was told recently by another chef.  He said that making borshch (beet soup - yes that peasant soup that is often ridiculed) is an excellent judge of a cook's character.  Borshches range from 3 or 4 ingredients to 15 plus.  It's very easy to make one that tastes decent, but very tough to make one that is truly outstanding.  Another example is potato purée (aka mashed potatoes).  It's easy to make, yet tough to make well.  It's just potatoes, salt and butter, yet it's much more than just the sum of those ingredients. 

Novelty might be impressive to some, but strait up good taste is what really matters.  I just don't see it in most 'avant-garde' places.

I don't think this is any different from any other style of cooking. Some are clearly better at it than others. If I go to a lousy Italian restaurant it doesn't mean the whole cayegory is bad. The same is true for hypermodern cuisine.

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I don't think this is any different from any other style of cooking. Some are clearly better at it than others. If I go to a lousy Italian restaurant it doesn't mean the whole cayegory is bad. The same is true for hypermodern cuisine.

Apples and Oranges.

It doesn't work. One can't compare a cuisine based on tradition, history, culture, the arts, sustainablity, terroir, and the ingrained sensibilty of the peoples and what their cuisine means to them to a movement or trend whose only common denominator is an emphasis on technique and the need to create.

To me, ``fashion" in gastronomy is overstated; integrity, uncompromising insistence on only the best quality ingredients, painstaking preparation, attention to detail and solicitous service -- not faddishness and gimmicrky --are the foundation on which great restaurants build their reputation. Thus it has always been and will always be.

Not to mention how the market decides fashion. A successful restaurant needs to be supported by the public. One can talk subjectively about how they favor a certain fashion or even wish how they hope it will succeed but, not one person, a chef, pundit, or impassioned amateur included, will decide. The market (the dining public) itself will decide on the longevity of a movement or trend and weed out the fads and gimmicks and will allow to remain what will become a part of the permanant lexicon of gastronomy.


Edited by milla (log)

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I don't think this is any different from any other style of cooking. Some are clearly better at it than others. If I go to a lousy Italian restaurant it doesn't mean the whole cayegory is bad. The same is true for hypermodern cuisine.

Apples and Oranges.

It doesn't work. One can't compare a cuisine based on tradition, history, culture, the arts, sustainablity, terroir, and the ingrained sensibilty of the peoples and what their cuisine means to them to a movement or trend whose only common denominator is an emphasis on technique and the need to create.

Why not? Quality is quality and can be seen and not seen with many different styles or traditions. If someone is using good ingredients and creative techniques with creative combinations that look and taste great and are fun to boot, why should that be classified with someone who is using creative techniques and either not using them well or with poor ingredients or poorly conceived dishes? Why should that be any different than someone doing the same thing with techniques taken from the classic French lexicon for example? French haute cuisine also puts a premium on creativity but perhaps with less of an emphasis on new techniques. Use of those techniques even if done with technical skill is still no guarantee of a successful dish. I think separating out technique is an arbitrarycriterion for dissing a whole style of cooking. Some are good at it and some aren't. I stand by my statement.

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Why not? Quality is quality and can be seen and not seen with many different styles or traditions. If someone is using good ingredients and creative techniques with creative combinations that look and taste great and are fun to boot, why should that be classified with someone who is using creative techniques and either not using them well or with poor ingredients or poorly conceived dishes? Why should that be any different than someone doing the same thing with techniques taken from the classic French lexicon for example? French haute cuisine also puts a premium on creativity but perhaps with less of an emphasis on new techniques. Use of those techniques even if done with technical skill is still no guarantee of a successful dish. I think separating out technique is an arbitrarycriterion for dissing a whole style of cooking. Some are good at it and some aren't. I stand by my statement.

I don't follow you.

I don't think anyone dissed anything. I wasn't the one who separated technique out in an arbitrary fashion, you did. That is what i respectfully disagreed with.

As for "tastes great" and generalizations about French haute cuisine, I don't know exactly where your info comes from but to me it crosses the line of confusing subjective opinion and objective fact and that is when i step away, before the circular discourse starts.

With regard to the subject of this thread my point was it is not the "forward thinkers" who will decide the success of this movement or whatever it is, but the dining public. We can all have opinions but ultimately the market will decide. Are these restaurants economically viable in the long run? Will the dining public embrace and support them?

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I don't think this is any different from any other style of cooking. Some are clearly better at it than others. If I go to a lousy Italian restaurant it doesn't mean the whole cayegory is bad. The same is true for hypermodern cuisine.

Yes, many restaurants are terrible. I don't think I've eaten a single good meal that someone else has made me in a very long time....(includes some highly rated restaurants - how they got their rating I'll never know, because the food sucked) That's why I'm opening my own restaurant in the next couple years (hopefully next year), but that's another story...

Hypermodern food isn't taking off in NY because New Yorkers are not easily impressed. From what I've heard (from inside the kitchens) of 'hypermodern' places in NY, theres not much to be impressed about...

And you're right when you say some people are good at it, and some aren't. Goes for anything in life.

Most of the top places in NY and elsewhere are French, because most of the best chefs are French-trained (not my opinion, just my observations).


Edited by Mikeb19 (log)

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I don't think this is any different from any other style of cooking. Some are clearly better at it than others. If I go to a lousy Italian restaurant it doesn't mean the whole cayegory is bad. The same is true for hypermodern cuisine.

Yes, many restaurants are terrible. I don't think I've eaten a single good meal that someone else has made me in a very long time....(includes some highly rated restaurants - how they got their rating I'll never know, because the food sucked) That's why I'm opening my own restaurant in the next couple years (hopefully next year), but that's another story...

Hypermodern food isn't taking off in NY because New Yorkers are not easily impressed. From what I've heard (from inside the kitchens) of 'hypermodern' places in NY, theres not much to be impressed about...

And you're right when you say some people are good at it, and some aren't. Goes for anything in life.

Most of the top places in NY and elsewhere are French, because most of the best chefs are French-trained (not my opinion, just my observations).

The part I highlighted in bold is where we disagree. Many hypermodern techniques have been incorporated into mainstream and successful high end restaurants as have many aesthetic components. The difference is that the hypermodernists continue to push the creative envelope and don't always play it safe. By its very nature, this type of vanguard or "avant-garde" is always greeted with skepticism until it has slipped into the very fabric of a culture. There was a day when Impressionist painting was considered outrageous or technical gimmickry, yet it now is the epitome of conservative taste.

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Why not? Quality is quality and can be seen and not seen with many different styles or traditions. If someone is using good ingredients and creative techniques with creative combinations that look and taste great and are fun to boot, why should that be classified with someone who is using creative techniques and either not using them well or with poor ingredients or poorly conceived dishes? Why should that be any different than someone doing the same thing with techniques taken from the classic French lexicon for example? French haute cuisine also puts a premium on creativity but perhaps with less of an emphasis on new techniques. Use of those techniques even if done with technical skill is still no guarantee of a successful dish. I think separating out technique is an arbitrarycriterion for dissing a whole style of cooking. Some are good at it and some aren't. I stand by my statement.

I don't follow you.

I don't think anyone dissed anything. I wasn't the one who separated technique out in an arbitrary fashion, you did. That is what i respectfully disagreed with.

As for "tastes great" and generalizations about French haute cuisine, I don't know exactly where your info comes from but to me it crosses the line of confusing subjective opinion and objective fact and that is when i step away, before the circular discourse starts.

We must not be following each other's reasoning and words in the way each apparently has intended them. My point was, as Mikeb19 understood, is that there are good and bad practitioners of just about any style of cuisine and even a solid foundation in fundamental technique is no guarantee of a good meal as the creative concepts used can be distorted or off-base (to any given palate) regardless of the skill and technique used. I had an unenjoyable meal at Pierre Gagnaire even though the skill, technique and creativity were all quite apparent.

I mentioned French haute cuisine as an example of a cuisine, that at least in France, puts a premium on creativity. Michelin rewards restaurants not just for great technique, which should be a given at that level, but also for creativity and style. Obviously some do it better or more consistently than others.

Hypermodernism is a movement. It is not a specific cuisine or style although most chefs who would be considered as hypermodern share a few traits. Among them, as I understand and see the movement, are:

-Technical creativity - stretching of creative boundaries by using new techniques and combinations of ingredients

-Science - an interest in and understanding of the science of food preparation as a guide to development and use of new techniques and flavor and textural development - so-called "Molecular Gastronomy"

-Aesthetic creativity - stretching the boundaries of aesthetic presentation and often the ergonomics of eating. The best of these chefs have succeeded in defining their own styles.

-Tradition. The best of the hypermoderns, IMO, don't eschew tradition. They use it as a basis and jumping off point for their cuisine. Ferran Adria told me that his cooking is based on traditional Catalan cuisine. Obviously he has taken it in new and different directions, but it still infuses his culinary thought. Wylie Dufresne's work uses the varied culinary traditions of NYC for his framework. His "Pickled calf's tongue, fried mayonnaise,onion streusel" is a classic example of that.

-Wit and whimsy. This may not be a universal trait, but I find that it is common amongst at least my favorite practitioners. The aforementioned fried mayonnaise, is an example of that as are many of the culinary "trompe l'oiel" type presentations such as Wylie's Carrot-coconut "sunnyside up"

-Taste, Flavor and Texture. These are major components for any chef or cuisine and no less so for these chefs. Sometimes the flavors aimed for are familiar, but with different textures or presentations. Sometimes the flavors are totally unique and novel. While they may not always hit the mark for deliciousness, the best practitioners do a remarkable amount of the time. Some chefs may look for shock value. While that may be avant-garde, it is not necessarily a hypermodern trait.

-Ingredients. The best practitioners use the best ingredients they can get. Why should they be any different than any other top chef? Unusual ingredients are common, but not necessary. The fancier the restaurant, the more likely these will come into play.

Obviously a number of traits pertinent to the hypermodern kitchen are common with any good kitchen. This has obviously gone beyond addressing the quote above, but I wanted to define, hopefully a bit more clearly, what I at least am referring to when I am talking about "hypermodern cuisine"

With regard to  the subject of this thread my point was it is not the "forward thinkers" who will decide the  success of this movement or whatever it is, but the dining public.  We can all have opinions but ultimately the market will decide.  Are these restaurants economically viable in the long run?  Will the dining public embrace and support them?

For any given restaurant this is clearly true in that they must find a critical mass of patrons to be financially viable. So long as that is met it is not necessary to have widespread recognition or acceptance.

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I've been away from this thread but a couple points (objections) to some comments that have been made:

1. I don't understand FatGuy's point about the economics of New York v. Chicago. Alinea is just as expensive as Per Se (literally). Alinea appears to be packed every night in Chicago.

2. Rich, I don't understand your ethnic neighborhood comparison between Chicago and New York. Having lived in both cities I'm perfectly comfortable with saying that Chicago's ethnic enclaves are more robust and less diverse than those of New York (see its Indian, Pakistani, Polish and Serbian neighborhoods for starters). If anything, Chicago is roughly comparable to Brooklyn and Queens combined.

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actually i did understand the point about economics of chicago

with regards to opening the restaurant (just not to its thriving)

unless you mean that the restaurant can stay open long enough to become popular

i do think that wd-50 is far more progressive than alinea or moto

just fewer high tech toys

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i do think that wd-50 is far more progressive than alinea or moto

just fewer high tech toys

This is a very interesting assertion. Since the topic of this thread is so broad I don't feel like exploring it further is necessarily "off-topic."

I haven't eaten at Moto (but I do stalk the food) and have eaten at both Alinea and wd-50. I would say without a doubt that wd-50 is more whimsical than the two Chicago restaurants, but to say it's more progressive is, well, interesting. While Alinea and Moto both fit into the traditional fine dining mold more than wd-50 that alone doesn't make wd-50 more progressive.

Opinions? Disagreements?

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I wonder if start-up costs for the "avant garde" kitchen are higher than than for a classical kitchen, and cost of doing business in NY is higher as well?

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i do think that wd-50 is far more progressive than alinea or moto

just fewer high tech toys

This is a very interesting assertion. Since the topic of this thread is so broad I don't feel like exploring it further is necessarily "off-topic."

I haven't eaten at Moto (but I do stalk the food) and have eaten at both Alinea and wd-50. I would say without a doubt that wd-50 is more whimsical than the two Chicago restaurants, but to say it's more progressive is, well, interesting. While Alinea and Moto both fit into the traditional fine dining mold more than wd-50 that alone doesn't make wd-50 more progressive.

Opinions? Disagreements?

I am not sure what is meant here by use of the term, "progressive". I suspect it means using and pioneering the use of new techniques and "hypermodern" ingredients like colloids, transglutaminase, etc. This may or may not be the case, but the reality is that all three of these restaurants as well as a handful of others around the country are trailblazing a small revolution in cooking and dining on this continent.

As for NY, WD-50 is demonstrating longevity, a trait that is difficult for any restaurant, let alone a hypermodern one. That in itself is an indication that at least a subset of the city is "ready" and desirous of this cuisine.

As for other indicators, don't discount the pastry world. NYC is clearly in the vanguard of hypermodern pastry creativity with people like Sam Mason, Will Goldfarb and Alex Stupak honing their arts (and sciences) in that city. There are also a number of others, who may not be quite so cutting edge, but still incorporate ideas and techniques in their work. This is clearly the golden age for pastry in New York and the hypermoderns are clearly a major part of that.

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