More on food in New York

Just a collection of pertinent observations:

  • It’s amazing how so many restaurants which might get classified as “fine dining” in Bangalore are run out of such small places in New York. Of course, in Manhattan real estate is at a premium but the amazing thing is how these restaurants maintain their class despite putting tables within a foot of each other.
  • Tipping here is serious business. For the first time in my life I’ve left a minimum of a 15% tip wherever I’ve gone. And despite paying the tip by card, I follow the standard Indian policy of rounding off so that the total amount is a round number.
  • I’ve had mediterranean food thrice in three different places and each has tasted much different from the other. Hummus and pita bread has been the common factor in each.
  • Went to an Indian restaurant once during these two weeks (when I was catching up with some IIM friends) and it was surprisingly good. Especially since my benchmark was the Bangladeshi places in London, I suppose
  • As I had mentioned in an earlier post, large cosmopolitan urban agglomerations such as New York lead to extremely niche restaurants. What are the odds of finding a “high class vegetarian” Korean restaurant (called Hangawi; brilliant food and even more brilliant ambience) or a Caprese (serving food supposedly native to the island of Capri) restaurant?
  • I’ve taken a fetish for soup – had soup thrice this week. Veg dumpling soup at Hangawi, fawa beans and green peas soup at the Capri Caffe and a mixed vegetable soup at The Hummus Place. All extremely thick and excellent. I should try soups at more places.
  • I had the much-recommended ethiopian food the other day. The main item is some dosa-type thing. It’s a bit sour and is served cold, though. Extremely large and similar to home-made plain dosa. I had a veg platter for the main course. Got four dals (two of which tasted like the pappu you get in Andhra meals and one had wine) and four sabzis. Not ideal with dosas but was good only.
  • The Greenwich Village area seems to have a good congregation of high quality (but cheap looking) restaurants.
  • The way they make the omlette in my office cafeteria is interesting. First they just put the vegetables onto the tawa and then they take pre-beaten egg/egg white and pour it on top of the vegetable using a bowl. And they spray something on the tawa so that it doesn’t stick. And they actually toss the omlette in the air to flip it around on the tawa!
  • When we were kids we would hear that American kids can’t do arithmetic and use a calculator even to add two single digit numbers. Restaurants have taken advantage of this. For example, on today’s dinner bill, at the bottom it said something like “for 20% tip leave $4.64” or something. So basically since most people don’t have patience to do the arithmetic for 15%, they just take this number given to them and put it. Profit for the waiters!
  • I hope to eat many other kinds of tasty food in my one remaining week here.

Urban living and restaurants and liquidity

Last night I had dinner at Alfanoose, a small Mediterranean joint off Broadway. I had hummus and salad with pita bread, and had also brought along a falafel sandwich which is now sitting in my fridge and is likely to get consumed today for breakfast. Excellent stuff. Absolutely brilliant. And not expensive at all – ten bucks for the hummus and salad, and six for the sandwich. Considering that USD = 10 INR according to the Idli index, this is extremely reasonable, insane value for money.

I have been intending to write this post for ages, about how one of the best positive externalities of urban living is restaurants. When you are living in a desolate area, with not too many people around, there is no option but to cook your own food. Even if you live in a village ora small town, the number of people who are willing to eat out will be small, which means it makes little business sense for someone to open a restaurant there. You are likely to find a handful of them, but the lack of competition will mean that you can’t really trust quality.

There is a network effect in restaurants. Some people don’t eat anywhere but at home, and some don’t cook at home at all. However, there is the large middle ground of people whose consumption of restaurant food varies directly with quality and liquidity. And these two concepts are inter-related – the bigger the town is, the greater the required supply of restaurants which means more competition and thus higher quality. And higher quality leads to higher demand (more fence-sitters converted) and the virtuous cycle goes on (of course, population and the fact that some people don’t like to eat out limits the boundaries of the cycle).

Another thing is that the larger a town gets, the greater the liquidity of the food market in there, there is more variety. If you remember Bangalore in the 1980s, when I was growing up, there was one standard type of restaurant. Where you would get cheap idli and dosa and a few other standard snacks, and a few “north indian” items at meal times, and every time you wanted to eat out you had to go with one of these. And you would have noticed how with the growth in the restaurant market in the 90s you got more variety.

What makes cities such as London and New York such foodie havens is their size, and also that culturally people here are more inclined towards eating out than in other places such as India. This leads to insane liquidity in the market, and as I explained above that leads to more variety, and so you get more niche food. And when you have cities as large as New York or London, what you get is full-fledged liquid markets in cuisines that are everywhere else considered niche!

So because of liquidity in otherwise niche markets, in each cuisine you will find various kinds of restaurants. Like yesterday I had awesome hummus at this self-service place! While in a place like Bangalore to get any kind of hummus you’ll have to go to a fine dining place and spend a bomb.

Another thing I realized is that when liquidity is thin it usually occupies the top end – like how in Bangalore you get non-Indian stuff only in high end fine dining places. But I suppose I’ll write about that in detail some other day