You’ve been there before: in the thick of the Fifth Avenue midtown stretch, slightly fatigued, somewhat hungry, not quite sure what you’re in the mood for, but knowing it’s something that probably doesn’t exist in that culinary hinterland. It’s that stretch of Manhattan smack in the middle of power breakfasts and business meetings—yet wholly unhelpful when it comes to food that’s reasonable, enticing, and caters to what New Yorkers want and expect in a meal.
For that, Todd English has come to the rescue, with his Plaza Food Hall, which he recently opened at the abuzz-again Plaza Hotel. English has something of a hybrid allure; he rose to fame as a Boston chef, but also managed to stick his fork into a slice of the New York pie, opening an outpost of his highly acclaimed Olives in Union Square. Even his physical appearance calls to mind a raffish combination of Jude Law-meets-Joaquin Phoenix (from the clean-shaven, good-looking days).
This hybrid sexiness is at the core of his latest venture. As its name suggests, this is a food hall—a fancified food court of the shopping-mall variety, if you will, offering something for everyone at stations that include, among other things, a bakery, a wine bar, a produce market, a pizza oven, a sushi bar, and a fresh ocean grill. Still, for what its name and purpose suggest, the Plaza Food Hall is far from a kitschy kitchen; instead, it has a certain appeal of that original city of English’s, Boston, and its famous Faneuil Hall—and the great rush you get when walking into a historic building filled with so many (greasy, salty, downright tasty) food offerings. Or, perhaps more apt, one might say that this is an American version of a European food hall, such as the famous Food Hall at Harrods, in London, or La Grande Épicerie at Bon Marché, in Paris.
It’s easy to do too many things not so well instead of doing one thing just right, but English hasn’t overreached his grasp on the possible here. Sure, it’s a dicey bet to try to pull off sweet-and-sour squash caponata and roasted baby beets with pistachio and Manchego at the wine bar while simultaneously serving up spicy cilantro-jalapeno-blackened tuna rolls at the sushi bar, all the while turning out fig-and-prosciutto pizzas. Still, on a recent night, no one dining at any of the different stations seemed to mind, and no one noticed any lack of authenticity or inventiveness in any of the stations’ endeavors. On the contrary, the ampleness of choice—each one of which executed fairly finely—was met with approval and applause.
For the diner, elitist or amateur, there is no dearth of delicacies. If time for a sit-down over cheese and charcuterie isn’t in your schedule, many things are ready to go, including attractively arranged woven baskets with foodstuffs, or sweet nibbles from the bakery. The Plaza Food Hall is also a sort of international specialty market, with olive oils, vinegars, spices, coffee, cocoas, and artisan jams available for purchase. The most seasoned and curious of gourmands might also like to drop by the Demo Kitchen, which offers cooking lessons (worthy of a return trip and review all its own). As if the charred octopus with grilled leeks and almond romesco wasn’t enough.
(Photographs: Mimi Ritzen Crawford)