We are a curious bunch aren’t we, us humans? A sheer bundle of palpitating contradictions. We rage against the constraints of society, then seek to embed ourselves in it. A species constantly wavering between tolerance and intolerance, in constant search of an elusive middle ground. Our brains don’t help: brought up to seek more, covet more, earn more, we often fail that which is fine and special and designed to titillate all our senses, even when it’s right in front of our nose.
I bring this up, because it happened to me, and to my dining companion, at NoMad, the extraordinary hotel on Broadway and 28th Street. We had come to New York to enjoy a long May week together, and New York had mostly snubbed its nose at us, at least in meteorological terms. We’d endured fog, rain, sleet, circular storms, and an awful lot of flat, low, grey heavy cloud – great weather for ducks, less so for tourists in search of sun and fun. No matter. The NoMad beckoned. We were dressed up to the nines. It was Friday, Fun Friday, and we were looking forward to a great time ahead.
The moment upon which the evening pivoted occurred not in the main bar, with its 24 feet of burnished mahogany, with its vast collection of spirits and wines and cocktails and beer, and its buzzing, braying, boisterous clientele. We'd come to see Nathan O'Neil, the chief bartender, and a former finalist of the Diageo WorldClass bartending competition (we'd met in Hong Kong during the GB final), previous to moving Stateside he went went on to win a a host of awards heading up the bar at Dandylon, at the then, newly opened Mondrian hotel In London. We told Nathan the spirits we liked, before long he'd come back with two beautifully presented cocktails before he went back to overseeing a dozen bartenders, catering to, on any given night, thousands of thirsty, and exacting punters.
We retreated to a corner to sup Nathan's excellent concoctions, content to absorb the vastness of the place. This is New York at its absolute finest, a place that creates and sets its own agenda, marches to its own tune, knows only its own ambitions, an internal combustion engine of positive human energy. NoMad boasts an original fireplace imported from a grand old French château, a rooftop bar, and a two-level library connected by an original spiral staircase, and containing an eclectic list of books ranging from sociology to music to boozy histories of the grape and the grain.
But it was the food that really knocked our socks off. Called to dinner, we traipsed happily – and, already a few cocktails in, a tad drunkenly – up to the first floor, where we settled down to chat and to observe the clinical mayhem going on at the bar below. It was something akin to a prize-fight: eight bartenders, all with their own work stations boasting buckets of ice and orange and mixer bottles and bitters and those metal shaker cups that Tom Cruise bounces off the ground in Cocktail. They danced and revolved within their own tiny spaces, like flesh-and-blood marionettes, seeming to take orders as if by telepathy. There was no spill, no panic, no mess, no chaos. Just clinical order. Order that made the head spin. And there was Nathan at the centre of the bar, owning the operation as a ringmaster bestrides the Big Top, or a conductor rules the pit.
Then the menus arrived – and this is where the brain started working overtime. See, we ordered what jumped out at us: for me, lobster rolls with avocado and crème fraîche, and toast with speck, chèvre and walnuts; for my significant other, bay scallops with yuzu and pistachio, and foie gras with crispy chicken and black truffle mayo. We wolfed it down.
But then the waitress returned with a new dish we hadn’t ordered. Humm Dog, it was called: a sort of mini hotdog concoction, wrapped in bacon with black truffle and celery. And it was amazing. Then came another dish, chicken pot pie with black truffle and foie gras. Later on, the sweets arrived: coconut and passionfruit cheesecake, a candy bar with dark chocolate and caramel, and a popsicle with apple and cinnamon. By this time, we’d put ourselves fully in the hands of the waitress, who wound up bringing us several off-menu dishes, each progressively better than the last.
And it took me a while to realise that the dishes I’d ordered, while salivatingly great in their own right, weren’t a patch on those that had simply been brought to me. I’d wanted Dish A, but then along came Dish B. At first, I got a little subconsciously suspicious – what was the meaning of this, bringing me fare I had neither requested nor pursued? It took a good while to realise that the NoMad’s staff knew their clientele better than they knew themselves. They knew how to twang your taste buds with food more finely tuned than a Stradivarius. But it worked. My simian brain started out static but ended up supple, and we left, a little poorer in wallet but immeasurably richer in every other conceivable way.