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The pasta bar at the Todd English Food Hall; photography by Ball & Albanese

The Plaza Food Halls Get Fat and Sassy

by Gael Greene | Manhattan magazine | October 29, 2012

I’m one of those transplants from the Midwest who thinks more like a New Yorker than many New Yorkers. And yet I fell for the new Plaza Food Halls once chef Todd English and his crew got their cellar legs two years ago. My guy and I were regulars before and after movies at the Paris. I preferred to park at the raw bar—where I could watch a brace of cooks grilling and saucing and slashing open bivalves—to the Zen concentration of the sushi stand or the heat of the rotisserie station or the pizza bar.

Still, I thought it a little too cute and tourist-swarmed for snobby locals. At a compact 5,400 square feet, it was like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of a culinary destination compared to the giant lower-level food emporia of the Takashimaya department stores in Tokyo, Berlin’s thrilling KaDeWe and Harrods in London. How wrong I was. Long after the gossip-battered matinee idol and feeding czar—Boston-launched English—had gone off to beget four or five new restaurants, city hipsters vying with out-of-towners for too few seats meant a wait for us or a mad scramble for a vacant stool.

One evening, our favorite Italian flatbread with sweet sausage, aged provolone and roasted tomato sauce had grown sadly flabby, and the appetizer portion of bucatini amatriciana had shrunk in its bowl and lost its porky sass. It didn’t seem to matter. The place was jammed with city hipsters and visitors from unknown ZIP codes.

The Plaza got the message, and opened up 3,500 more square feet last November. Display tables loaded with expensive temptations to carry away were replaced with tall stools at tables for communal eating. The cocktail bar and a giant pasta-production counter became the draw in the adjacent new space. And it was now called the Todd English Food Hall at the Plaza.

We dropped in early one Monday. I’d promised my guy we’d get home in time for the big Giants game. We were the only customers at the new pasta station with its hanging copper pans and ribbons of draped noodles. The huge omnivorian menu was a torture. I wanted everything: ramen and dumplings, lobster hush puppies, oysters raw and oysters baked with caviar. Why not? And kimchi pork sliders. Prices had crept up (as they have everywhere). The $15 sushi roll was now $19. The $6 glass of red had vanished. But littleneck clams in the shell were just $2 each.

I ordered our favorite “extra crispy” pizza and the tuna two ways, always reliable. Suddenly Todd arrived and began playing with the new giant red Nova, the Lamborghini of pasta machines. With his name now boldfaced up front, I’d hoped he’d tighten the kitchen. A gift bowl of the chef’s old-school veal Bolognese appeared—meaty, rich and savory. It could become a habit. I’d ordered a half-portion of lobster with fettuccine. A full portion came, with too many ingredients—artichoke heart, speck, mint and pecorino—but delicious and enough for four. Skipping dessert, we got home in time for kickoff.

Spring brought the second wave of expansion to the concourse. Merchants of jewelry and other wearable frippery were replaced by a flotilla of food vendors—altogether 40,000 square feet of goodies, mostly edible. No surprise, there’s FP Patisserie by François Payard selling chocolate decadence—he’ll do cranberry chocolate tart for Thanksgiving. Maison du Chocolat is a predictable addition, too, as is Lady M doing banana chocolate crèpe cake.

William Greenberg Desserts offers his familial rugelach, schnecken and hamantaschen as well as fruit tarts. I swooned a few weeks ago over Three Tarts’ chocolate lovelies—exquisite cookie sandwiches with a thin layer of ganache, 80 cents each or six for $4.60. Pain d’Avignon’s sensuous bread pudding with orange-infused custard is my fantasy breakfast.

The surprise is, someone was hip enough to recruit an outpost of No. 7 Sub Shop, the frenetic sandwich designer at the Ace Hotel that bakes its own bread to hold braised lamb and peanut butter, or tofu and eggplant with broccoli mayonnaise. And Sushi of Gari offers Gari’s Choice omakase for $60 or just a California roll for $5.50.

One autumn Thursday, I found the concourse stands mostly tranquil if not deserted at 7pm. I sampled a custom-made Luke’s lobster roll in its buttery, just-toasted bun beside an un-ironic guy eating a Luke’s peanut butter whoopie pie with blueberries. Inside English’s Food Hall proper, the joint was electric and jammed, waiters scurrying. I got to taste those lobster hush puppies—better than those I remembered from long ago in Mississippi. Mac and cheese came sizzling and toasted, neither too salty nor too cheesy—“I want it crusty brown,” I’d said. It didn’t really need its pulled-pork slivers. My pals shared their excellent $12 octopus starter and crisply sweet and spicy kimchi-marinated baby back ribs. Three marvelous little prime rib sliders oozing fontina fondu (best dish of the evening) astonished our trio. Then a massive triangle of cheesecake with berries we only intended to taste seduced us. With this as a last memory of an indulgent evening, we’ll soon be fighting holiday shoppers for a stool at the inn.

The Plaza Food Hall and the Todd English Food Hall
1 W. 59th St., concourse level, 212.986.9260

The Plaza Food Hall:
Mon.-Sat. 10am-8pm., Sun. 11am-6pm
The Todd English Food Hall: Sun.-Thu. 11am-10pm.,
Fri.-Sat. 11am-11pm