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Eating Manhattan: The closing of a favorite restaurant prompts a search for a substitute


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POSTED: Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Beyond the thrill of going back to New York to cover Fashion Week, I was also looking forward to returning with my boyfriend to “;our”; restaurant, Payard. I don't know when or how it became our haunt. That role could have been filled by any number of great restaurants we have visited in that city, from Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Jojo, to the Modern at MOMA, to enjoying the voyeuristic proximity to the old-money lunch crowd at Bergdorf-Goodman's BG restaurant.

But late in June came the bad news. Payard was closing. Apparently, the landlord was raising the rent at Francois Payard's 1032 Lexington Ave. patisserie and bistro (to $1 million a year, I read somewhere), and the chef-owner felt he had no other option.

We go to New York every two or three years, and we found Payard filled so many of our needs. I first went there for the chocolates that were great for omiyage. While there we found it was a pleasant place to stay for dinner with good bistro fare in a sophisticated setting befitting its Upper East Side address, yet it always seemed comfortable and homey.

During visits when we stayed on the Upper East Side, we found it was also a great place for a quick patisserie breakfast. When we stayed in SoHo or Chelsea, we'd make the pilgrimage back there for dinner.

Now it was gone, and we were forced to look for a new place we could call our own. But where to begin?

We didn't feel a lot of pressure at first. The first order of business was to feast on food we can't get in Hawaii, so we found ourselves hitting a spate of Brazilian and tapas restaurants. We returned to one of our past favorite tapas bars, the dark and mysterious n, on Crosby Street, a street that doesn't appear to be weathering the economic downturn very well. Most of the storefronts are vacant. Later, we tried the hyped Flor del Sol, which was too popular (crowded) and noisy for our taste. The food was heavy and overdone; the sangria, perfunctory.

At that point we started laying down rules for our beloved home away from home. We didn't know what the restaurant should be, only what it shouldn't be, and I jotted notes into my iPhone: “;Can't be too expensive or ostentatious, not too casual. (I'm sorry it can't be the Shake Shack or Gray's Papaya.) Can't be too noisy or crowded. Food must be very good, preferably French bistro. Waiters can't be snooty.”;

One of the places we wanted to return to, but didn't have the appetite for when we passed by, was Balthazar, a worthy contender for its Old World ambience and bistro fare. It was just too bad we couldn't be hungry on demand.

After a week in Midtown, nine blocks from the Bryant Park tents, we moved to the relative peace and quiet of the Upper West Side, away from the havoc to be created by the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. (I had already endured the traffic and blockades caused by the MTV Video Music Awards that took place at Radio City Music Hall across the street from my hotel.)

The Upper West Side is full of humble, overlooked medium-size restaurants, and one of our favorite places there is the gelato shop Grom, which focuses on securing the best fruit, chocolate and nuts for its ice cream and yogurt. A tiny cup will cost you $5 but will probably be the best ice cream you'll ever taste. Pistachio will taste like the nut straight from its shell. Then there's salted caramel flavors and decadent chocolates. I'd probably be there every day if I lived there.

While there, we came upon a wonderful Turkish-Mediterannean restaurant, Bodrum, serving delicious mezze, pizzas and tagines. It was a place we would have returned to if we had more time in the city.

Checking out the New York Times restaurant reviewer Frank Bruni's parting column and recommendations, we checked out one of his breakfast and lunch suggestions, Cafe Luxembourg for chicken salad and a lobster roll (just OK), as well as the romantic Italian restaurant 'Cesca, not to be confused with Mario Batali's lovely Esca, where simple dishes like a fresh corn salad and grilled Spanish mackerel are amazing. It was also the first time I had shark (thresher) that was as tender and flavorful as an oilier fish such as opah.

By the time we left town, there was no clear winner, and I was sad that we hadn't found “;our”; restaurant, but the search couldn't be rushed or forced. Even Payard, after all, did not become our haunt over-night. It took repeated trips in which we found ourselves naturally drawn there. We did not set a goal to find a favorite New York restaurant.

Now that I'm home, I find myself longing most for Jacques' (20 Prince St. in Nolita) moules frites ($18), perhaps because of a lost opportunity. There, the fresh, homemade fries could be the best you'll ever taste, and the mussels are prepared three ways. He picked Dijonnaise; I would have preferred Provencale style with tomato, garlic and basil, but didn't have a chance to make a return visit.

Four days after our return home, I found an e-mail message awaiting from Mr. Payard. (I got on his e-mail list when I complained once about a batch of his chocolates, and it demonstrated how he takes a hands-on, personal approach to every aspect of his business, which also won our loyalty.)

In his e-mail he announced, “;Another Payard location is soon to come, and you will be the first to know about it!”;

Very good news, in which case, our search will soon find closure.

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Nadine Kam's restaurant column appears every Wednesday in the Star-Bulletin. Restaurants are reviewed anonymously. Meals are paid by the Star-Bulletin.