The hotel restaurant used to be something of a last resort. Often housed in a bland, unflatteringly lit space, it was a convenient option when you were too tired to go anywhere else. The menu was normally unadventurous (club sandwich anyone?), the service lacklustre and the experience functional rather than fabulous.
How times have changed. Nowadays, celebrity chefs are falling over themselves to collaborate with high-end hotels. Particularly in cities such as London and New York where real estate is at a premium and competition is cut-throat. The benefits for both parties are obvious – a well-known chef lures guests to the hotel and the restaurant gets a steady supply of customers. In short, everybody wins.
During the last couple of years New York has seen a flood of notable new hotel restaurants by high-profile chefs. Here are some of the best.
A TOUCH OF SPICE
Manish Mehrotra raised the bar for Indian fine dining when he opened Indian Accent in New Delhi in 2009. Serving playful interpretations of Indian street food, it was recently named the 2016 Best Restaurant in India by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants.
For his first international foray, Mehrotra chose New York, and in February 2016 opened a second Indian Accent in Le Parker Meridien hotel, three blocks from Central Park.
It's fair to say it was a gamble. Indian cuisine isn't as popular in the US as it is in Britain and high-end Indian restaurants in New York are thin on the ground. Yet, despite all that – or possibly because of it – it's been a resounding success.
Inside, the restaurant doesn't feel particularly Indian; an intimate bar with a gold marble counter leads into a cosy wood-floored dining space with simple grey chairs, dark wood tables and white banquettes. Decoration is minimal with the only extravagance being a gold-leaf feature wall.
It's a sparse canvas that allows the food to take centre stage. Diners choose between a three-, four- and seven-course menu, all of which showcase Mehrotra's innovative interpretations of simple Indian fare.
Starters include potato chaat – the quick, cheap snack that's commonplace on Indian streets – drizzled with yoghurt and artfully presented on a bed of white pea mash. There's also an elegant tower of tangy kolhapuri chicken curry and a zesty salad of cucumber, tomato and avocado. Particularly striking is a selection of papads, which are arranged vertically, like the scales of a stegosaurus, and come with wild boar pickle and house chutneys.
More substantial courses range from a rich ghee roast lamb curry served in a miniature copper pot to a tamarind-infused sea bass with a Kerala moilee (a creamy fish curry).
I've never been a huge fan of Indian desserts but the doda barfi-style treacle tart with vanilla bean ice cream is divine, as is the makhan malai – a creamy concoction of saffron milk, rose petal brittle and almonds.
Having dined at the Indian Accent in New Delhi, I wasn't sure how it would be received in New York. Looking around a packed dining room on a wet, windy Monday night, I'd say very well indeed.
123 W 56th Street. Open Monday to Sunday for dinner; Monday to Saturday for lunch. Lunch costs $US31 for two courses; dinner starts at $US75 for three courses. See indianaccent.com.
Mario Batali has been a busy man. Since bursting onto the New York food scene in 1998 with Babbo (an Italian restaurant that gained a glowing three star-review from The New York Times), the celebrity chef has gone on to open nine more restaurants in New York, four in Vegas, four in California and three artisanal food and wine marketplaces in New York and Chicago. No wonder he hasn't had time to open a restaurant in New York for almost a decade.
That all changed in March when he and long-time partner Joe Bastianich launched La Sirena, an elegant trattoria on the raised plaza level of The Maritime Hotel in Chelsea.
It's a setting that oozes glamour. Inside a standalone 11.5-metre quartz stone bar separates two dining areas finished in a soothing palate of grey, marble and brass. The plum spot, however, is the spacious outdoor terrace, with its intricate black-and-white tiled floor, exposed wooden beams and a veritable rainforest of trees, shrubs and planters. Predictably, it's become a celebrity magnet, particularly during high-profile events such as New York Fashion Week.
The menu is a familiar romp through the regional Italian cuisine for which Batali is famous. Antipasto options include thin slices of flavoursome short rib carpaccio and roasted asparagus with smoked ricotta. There's a decent selection of mains, ranging from swordfish to meatballs to salads, but the big drawcard is the homemade pasta.
A mess of black squid ink tonnarelli comes with generous chunks of lobster, slices of squash and a dusting of lemon-flavoured breadcrumbs. Another hit is the hand-rolled pici spaghetti with sausage and a rich, flavoursome escarole ragu. However, for sheer artery-clogging indulgence, the leek and mascarpone stuffed pansotti with castelmagno cheese and lashings of brown butter is hard to beat (I bet they don't sell many of those during Fashion Week).
Given the salubrious surroundings, prices are surprisingly reasonable. Starters range from $US15 to $US21, pastas from $US19 to $US26, and mains from $US16 to $US29.
All of which means you can splash out on a few glasses of spumanti while enjoying a leisurely afternoon of spot the celebrity.
88 Ninth Avenue. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. See lasirena-nyc.com.
British chef Jason Atherton and American hotelier Ian Schrager's first collaboration was Berners Tavern in The London Edition Hotel. Offering upmarket British cuisine in stylish surrounds, it opened in 2013 and was named AA Restaurant of the Year in 2014.
It made sense that they'd employ the same formula for Atherton's first foray into the US. Located on the second floor of The New York Edition Hotel, The Clocktower opened in May 2015 promising "contemporary cuisine with British sensibilities".
Atherton might be an unfamiliar name in New York, but he's well-known in Britain. After honing his technique with the likes of Gordon Ramsey, Marco Pierre White and Ferran Adria, he branched out on his own and quickly amassed three Michelin stars. Today he has 16 restaurants around the world, including the much-lauded Kensington Street Social in Sydney's Old Clare Hotel.
The Clocktower's dining area is spread over three mahogany-panelled rooms, whose walls are crowded with black-and-white photos of celebrities from the '50s, '60s and '70s (ask for the book that explains who's who). It's a classic New York-look – dark, brooding and intimate – a modern take on the traditional gentlemen's club.
Looking through the simple one-page menu, it's hard to spot the cuisine's "British sensibilities". Apart from an English pea risotto and a Berkshire pork chop, the menu sticks to American stalwarts such as steak tartare, macaroni and cheese and a bacon cheeseburger.
Thankfully, they're expertly executed stalwarts. The macaroni and cheese is a standout – a devilishly rich concoction with wild mushrooms and slow-cooked ox cheek. The chicken liver and foie gras parfait is equally indulgent, particularly when paired with slices of deliciously tangy IPA-infused sourdough.
In fact, the only dud note is a $US65 40-day dry aged New York strip, which, while flavoursome, is far too tough. The accompanying triple cooked chips help alleviate the pain.
Despite Atherton's Michelin-star credentials, the atmosphere is refreshingly unpretentious. The restaurant is buzzy and energetic and there are some entertaining table-side theatrics, including dishes conjured from wooden boxes and some dramatic sauce pouring.
All in all, it's a slick collaboration between two hospitality professionals at the top of their game. Expect more to come.
5 Madison Avenue. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. See theclocktowernyc.com.
ONES TO WATCH
The renaissance of the New York hotel restaurant shows no sign of abating. The Beekman recently unveiled two celebrity chef-helmed eateries – Fowler & Wells by James Beard award-winning chef Tom Colicchio and Augustine by Keith McNally of Pastis and Balthazar fame. Steakhouse supremo Wolfgang Puck has jumped on the bandwagon with his first New York restaurant at the new Four Seasons Downtown and you can guarantee there are many more delicious offerings in the pipeline.
Air New Zealand flies via Auckland to Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco with onward connections to New York. See airnewzealand.com.au
Rob McFarland was a guest of Air New Zealand and Brand USA.