On paper, it sounds contrived: a Spanish-themed food court run by three celebrity chefs in an American mall. But The Shops and Restaurants at Hudson Yards is no ordinary mall, and Mercado Little Spain is much more than a standard shopping-centre dining precinct.
"What José Andrés and the Adrià brothers have done at Mercado Little Spain is really remarkable," The New York Times food critic Pete Wells told me soon after my first visit to Hudson Yards. "There's never been anything like it for Spanish food."
New York has never seen anything quite like Hudson Yards, either. Work started seven years ago on the US$25-billion complex atop a railway depot, sandwiched between Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side. Early features include the mall, a 101-storey office tower, two towers of luxury apartments, a sliding-roof arts centre and a massive climbable sculpture known as the Vessel. Future plans include skyscrapers by Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava. By the time Hudson Yards is completed in 2024, it will be the largest private real-estate development in US history.
The 15 stalls and three restaurants that make up Mercado Little Spain are located on the ground floor of the seven-storey Shops and Restaurants at Hudson Yards, which houses 20 other eateries, many by well-known chefs. The mall is full of culinary ventures that shouldn't quite work – but do.
At Mercado Little Spain, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Andrés and the pioneering Adrià brothers have deftly mixed highbrow gastronomy and crowdpleasing comfort food, demonstrating a deep understanding of Spanish cuisine in the process. Each stall yields a new discovery: piping hot patatas bravas, glasses of tangy gazpacho and fluffy churros dusted with sugar. Sophisticated Mediterranean seafood is served at Mar – El Bulli fans will thrill at resurrected dishes such as liquid olives and shaved shrimp covered in shrimp-head juice.
At Leña, exemplary grilled meats and paella dominate the menu; and at the casual Spanish Diner, the largest of Mercado's three restaurants, the focus is squarely on eggs: served with ham, or beside rich eggplant stew, or atop hot chips (a nod to Madrid's Casio Lucio). Even the merch stall, complete with José Andrés cookbooks and paella pans, is tasteful.
On the fifth floor, Momofuku restaurateur David Chang has opened Kawi, a serious Korean operation quite unlike the raucous establishments that made him famous. Taking the humour out of Momofuku might sound like a risky move, but it works under head chef Eunjo Park, who was most recently at Momofuku Ko and has also cooked at Per Se, Daniel and prestigious establishments in South Korea. At Kawi her kimbap, the Korean answer to sushi, is revelatory, particularly a version with thick foie gras terrine and tart pickled daikon, and her traditional stew of soybeans and pork belly tastes like the sort of dish a world-class chef would cook at home.
It's served in a windowless dining room that is noticeably quieter and less scene-y than Chang's other Manhattan eateries. The low-key atmosphere seems deliberate. As Wells wrote in his Times review of Kawi: "Park makes food that you want to concentrate on."
Then there's Tak Room, by chef Thomas Keller, of The French Laundry and Per Se. In a sprawling dining room with plush velvet chairs and a live jazz band, smartly uniformed waitstaff serve the sort of continental cuisine that the American élite preferred in the 1950s: prawn cocktail, roast chicken, Dover sole meunière and prime rib. Nothing served here is original, and the priciest mains cost more than US$100, yet Tak Room has been close to fully booked since it opened in April. The refined nostalgia of the experience is powerful: Manhattans to start, then clam chowder evocative of summers by the sea, roast chicken for two and a time-warp slice of heavily frosted dark-chocolate layer cake. Critics approve, too; New York magazine's Adam Platt called Tak Room an "outlandishly pricey but curiously satisfying" destination that "provides plenty of retro pleasure".
Keller's isn't the only restaurant at Hudson Yards catering to those with deep pockets. Costas Spiliadis has opened a branch of his flamboyant Greek seafood chain Estiatorio Milos (other outposts are in London, Montreal and Athens) and he's charging more for seafood that just about anyone else in the city. And Michael Lomonaco – who runs one of New York's most expensive steakhouses, Porter House, on the Upper West Side – is serving pricey plates of beef at the Hudson Yards Grill. Both establishments seat more than 200 diners, and both have been reliably busy since opening a few months ago.
Not everyone is convinced. Food-savvy New Yorkers have been expressing mixed opinions in private and public about the blockbuster dimensions of some Hudson Yards venues. "One of the reasons there's been a bit of a backlash against the Hudson Yards restaurants is that a lot of them don't seem to have anything to do with how New Yorkers wish to dine today," says Wells. "The places that people have responded to lately [in Manhattan and Brooklyn] have been smaller, more modest, not necessarily inexpensive but not obviously built for rich people in the way some of the Hudson Yards restaurants are."
Many locals are unhappy with the neighbourhood more broadly. Some see Hudson Yards, with its expensive apartments and boutiques, as élitist. Writing in The New York Times, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman denounced the development as "a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 per cent".
Vessel – commissioned by Stephen Ross, the billionaire who developed Hudson Yards – comes in for harsh criticism, with many questioning the merits of what is essentially a series of interconnected staircases. "The developer's idea of public space turns out to be this big twisted pretzel with a pretentious name," says Wells, "and you can't even walk on it without making a reservation weeks in advance." Writing for New York, Justin Davidson called it "a grotesque monument to a rich man's vanity".
Yet many New York residents I've spoken to have visited Hudson Yards at least once since it opened in April, and many plan to return. For some, the main attraction is The Shed, a US$475-million multi-disciplinary arts centre that features a giant sliding roof clad in Teflon and has already hosted performances by the likes of Björk and Gerhard Richter. Others will no doubt return for the superlative empanadas at Mercado Little Spain.
When I return, my first stop will be Peach Mart, a whimsical version of a typical Asian convenience store. The pocket-sized venture, next door to Kawi and also run by David Chang, is the new Manhattan go-to for lovers of cult Korean and Japanese snacks such as caramel matcha potato chips and hard-boiled gummies. It's also has a kimbap-rolling machine that churns out crowd-pleasing varieties such as mortadella and cheese.
Best of all are the Japanese-style convenience store sandwiches, made with Japanese milk bread and filled with irresistible combinations such as potato salad with jalapeño peppers. It's some of the simplest food available at Hudson Yards and also some of the best, and proof that you don't need a grand dining room to dazzle.