Taking a Bite Out of The Big Apple…
or how I learned to stop worrying and love the butter!
I arrived in Manhattan on a blustery, snowy Sunday evening, 2 ½ hours and 4 different forms of transportation after landing at JFK. I stepped out onto Union Square from the subway to be greeted by the inevitable pangs of hunger that come with travel. Somehow the club soda and animal crackers on the plane just didn’t cut it.
First stop…Pommes Frites. Cold and wet I stepped into the warm, dark little room (a
the inside, these are the fries you still recognize as tasting of potatoes (potatoes, oil, salt…gotta love short ingredient lists) simple and delicious. Combined with a chicken gyro from down the street I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome. As I drifted off to sleep I anxiously wondered at the culinary treats that further awaited me.
Day 2 began with a trek from my lodging in the East Village to Café Sabarsky at the Neue Gallerie on the Upper East Side. The beautiful old greystone building houses German Expressionist art, including Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer, on the upper floors with the Café and gift shop occupying the first floor. With a view of Central Park on my left and freshly baked European style pastries to my right I sat down to a traditional Viennese breakfast service; two soft boiled eggs, ham, bread, butter, jam, OJ and coffee. What a joy! Everything was prepared just right (essential for such simple food). The coffee proved to be a tad bitter, though nothing a little cream and sugar couldn’t tame. I could have spent hours there sitting and reading were it not for many more scheduled stops.
After a quick twenty-minute stroll through the gallery ($15 admission sounded steep but it was WELL worth it) a short hike through Central Park brought me to H&H Bagel. I ordered a whole wheat (my inner health nut got the better of me after I had butter that morning for the first time in months. Turns out that was the first of many tablespoons of butter I would consume that week. While my arteries were none too happy my taste buds rejoiced.). Dense and very lightly sweetened the bagel was a good snack. I may get a lot of grief for this but I actually like the bagels at New York Bagel and Bialy in Skokie, IL a little better. They have more of a crust and are a little less chewy. (Upon further discussion with some friends it appears that H&H bagels are normally a little crusty…maybe it was an off day. I’ve also been instructed to go to Kossar’s on my next trip.)
Following my bagel I traipsed across the street to Zabar’s, one of my new favorite places on Earth. I’m convinced I could spend a week there and still not see/eat everything on the shelves and in the coolers. Olives, freshly baked breads, cheese, fish, pastas…is there any foodstuff they don’t have?! This stop also brought me to the sad conclusion that most of these goodies wouldn’t make the trip home to Chicago nor could I possibly eat them before I left. This shocking revelation would continue to haunt me throughout my stay.
As I walked down Broadway towards lunch I was stopped in my tracks…pastry! Specifically in this case choux pastry and the cream puffs of the Asian sensation Beard Papa. At a couple dollars a piece with a handful of flavors this was right up my alley. Opting for the classic vanilla (filled to order), I thanked the Santa look a like cardboard cutout of the company mascot guarding the door and took a bite. A light, delicately crispy, warm choux pastry topped with powdered sugar gave way to a cream filling nicely flavored with real vanilla bean specks. I could have made a meal out of these and as I struggled to keep from turning around and going back I decided to forage on.
I finally arrived at the Time Warner Center, home to, among other restaurants, Bouchon Bakery. A big fan of Thomas Keller for many years and not YET willing to sell my first born child for dinner at Per Se I opted for lunch here. While not the most classically beautiful space (what do you expect…it’s in a mall!) the tables and place settings were warm, casually elegant and attractive in silver, glass, black and a beautiful silver and blue, the staff friendly (I was momentarily peeved at my waiter when, upon hearing my hometown, said “oh you have great steak out there don’t you?” ATTENTION WORLD: The Chicago dining scene is FAR more than steak.) After reading about the restaurant on the Internet I had my heart set on the Tuna Nicoise sandwich but decided instead on the lobster BLT. Wow! Served on brioche with a tarragon aioli, the salty, smoky bacon married the sweet lobster that along with the richness of the bread and fresh garden taste of the vegetables created an impressive meal. Served with a small side of picture perfect greens dressed in a light vinaigrette, the quantity of lobster and overall quality of the meal was a relative bargain at $16.95. For dessert I decided on a peanut butter banana Danish craving the salty/sweet combination I so dearly love. I was wary of the banana element, as it is a flavor that I find often dominates but this proved to be the exception. The flavors were in great harmony, the buttery dough tender and flaky with chopped peanuts for a textural contrast. This was something special, perhaps the best Danish I’ve ever eaten.
A few hours passed before dinner at Aquavit Café prior to a thrilling 8:00 performance of Spring Awakening at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Now I’ve admired Chef Marcus Samuelsson for about ten years going all the way back to “Ready, Set, Cook!” on Food Network (tell me I’m not the only one who remembers this show). This meal would prove to be, in some small way, a dream come true. The dining room was stylish and comfortable, the Scandinavian influence shining through. While service was efficient and kind, I made the dreadful mistake of choosing “still” water when they asked and ended up with a $9 bottle!!! I learned my lesson. For the remainder of the trip I asked specifically for tap water. The meal began with an amuse bouche of goat cheese with dill on toasts and a small cup of tomato soup in which to dip them. While not particularly thrilling, this take on grilled cheese and tomato soup appealed as a comfort food of my youth. I continued with herring, four ways. Since my normal interaction with this particular creature of the sea involves cutting one in half, putting it on a hook and dropping it in 200 ft. of icy Alaskan water to catch halibut I wasn’t sure what to expect. Two of the preparations (classically pickled and curry with apple and chives) were decent while the other two were superb. The vodka lime herring had a nice brightness balanced with the richness of a sour cream based sauce and the briny pop of the beautiful orange salmon roe nestled on top. The herring with pickled onions, while not the most attractive shade of purple, had a nice combination of both sour and sweet. It was all set off with a small boiled potato with sea salt and a chunk of tasty cheese. The meal continued with the Swedish meatballs. Very good, but not mind blowing, the generous portion of meat worked in a familiar way with the tart fresh lingonberries (my first experience with them not from a jar…delicious!). The accompanying mashed potatoes were average, rich but not heavy with a nice smooth texture with the exception of a troublesome lump the size of a child’s toe. The thinly sliced cucumber with a light vinaigrette proved a welcome break for the palate from the hearty meat and potatoes. I can think of no better way to have ended the meal than with the Arctic Circle the signature dessert at AC and for good reason. A hollow tube of goat cheese parfait filled with a passion fruit curd all topped with blueberry sorbet was at once creamy, sweet, fresh and immediate without ever going over the top. A few drops of chocolate added a little roasted earthiness. The whole meal was exactly the kind of “new comfort food” that I needed after such a long day. One day down…two to go!
Day two began as a bit of a challenge with 9:30 dim sum and a lunch reservation at noon. A breakfast of steamed BBQ pork buns and shrimp shumai at Jing Foo was both cheap ($8.79 for two!) and satisfying. While I’ve had dim sum as good in Chicago, the sheer massiveness of Chinatown in NYC is worth marveling at alone. I hopped on the subway back to the UES and after a quick stop at Payard (unfortunately didn’t buy anything…just drooled and admired the incredible artistry of the pastries) sat down at Café Boulud. This would, luckily, be my first and only encounter with less than average service. The room was chic yet elegant, if a bit cramped, with fresh flowers and warm earthy tones. Most of the staff were quite friendly including a smiling, helpful French woman, but whether it was my jeans or my status as a zygote relative to the rest of the clientele, the man who actually took our order made me feel as if he were doing us a favor by doing so. His behavior can only be described as snooty. (As a quick side note, I might be a little upset too if I were serving people and they were snapping their fingers at me as the couple at the table next to us were doing. This behavior is simply rude.) Luckily the appetizer quickly made me forget the lapse in service. Guinea Hen country pate with foie gras, arranged neatly somewhat like Lincoln Logs with toasts, was rich and meaty without tasting of organs. The prune sauce and sauternes gelee made this dish truly a great one providing just enough fruity sweetness to keep the savory meat in line. Also of note was perhaps my favorite bread of the week, a pumpkin seed bread (with plenty of butter!). The entrée of veal tortolloni was a big let down after such a stellar starter. Dressed simply with chickpeas, spinach and parmigiano reggiano, everything was cooked well but the overall flavor was rather underwhelming, not even the cheese stepping forward. My dining companion had the striped bass with green lentils, which was superb, without a doubt one of the best pieces of fish I’ve tasted in a while. My meal got back on track with the frozen coconut “nougat” on top of pineapple in what I can only guess was some sort of reduction of its own juices. Like an upscale deconstruction of a pina colada, the creamy coconut and sweet, pleasantly acidic pineapple were harmonious.
Upon leaving, my friend decided I had to try Tasti D-Lite. Never being one to turn down more dessert, I agreed. The cheesecake marble proved to be a very good frozen treat even with the temperatures low and wind swirling outside. Following a Musical Theatre dance class (a vain attempt to burn just a few calories) my body realized it hadn’t been fed in nearly two hours!!! Papaya Dog was the answer. Two dogs with mustard were good (I still prefer the Chicago style!) and the mango “fruit drink” was refreshing, with a wonderfully seasonal (despite the fact that it was January) flavor and a sweetness that in lesser hands could easily become cloying. After a quick pilgrimage to Artisanal to gaze at cheese (I’m a cheesemonger as well as an actor here in Chicago) I stumbled upon Peaberry somewhere in the 30’s. Eureka! Frozen yogurt that actually tastes like yogurt. In both plain and green tea the customer can mix in any number of toppings from chocolate chips to fresh fruit. These are essential as the yogurt is basically flavorless with the exception of the distinct tang (think plain yogurt at your grocer) that is often covered with excessive amounts of sugar commercially. I had a small plain green tea, a little steep at nearly $5. While not unpleasant, upon return I would certainly add on some toppings. Pretty good concept especially for those who don’t want the overly processed “fro yo” most often found around this country.
Before I knew it it was time for my 8PM JoJo reservation. Little did I know what a treat this meal would be. I arrived at five minutes to eight to find quite a few people waiting for tables. The restaurant occupies two small stories in an old greystone walkup. The interior is cozy, the dominant color a welcoming dark red. You almost get the sense that you are in a friend’s dining room for a dinner party. Not long after arriving one of my two dinner mates arrived and shortly thereafter our table was ready. As it turned out our third diner was going to be forty minutes late. While some restaurants, especially in the face of a busy restaurant week, could easily become annoyed with such a thing, the staff couldn’t have been more understanding or accommodating. We were quickly seated despite the incomplete table and our server was attentive but not hovering bringing us bread “to nibble on” while we waited and checking in regularly. Once our party was complete the joy of Jean-Georges commenced (admittedly another dream come true). The evening began with four shrimp lying on a pumpkin ginger puree with basil. Simply superb! The shrimp were well spiced, bordering on spicy hot, but not overwhelmed. The pumpkin ginger sauce was at once sweet, zippy and rooted with the precise amount of acidity to round everything out and enhance the flavors. The basil provided a nice accent, as did the textural addition of toasted pumpkin seeds. With every bite I was in awe of the harmony created by the layers of flavor. The entrée came next and also didn’t disappoint. Pork loin with quince was a twist on the classic pork chops and applesauce. The sweet richness worked well with the unexpected kick of heat in the quince (wasabi? dijon? horseradish?). The meal ended with the signature molten Valrhona chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. It is amazing just how fabulous something so basic can be. The cake gave just the slightest resistance before revealing a luscious, gooey chocolate center. The mouth feel can only be described as magnificent uniting the warm cake with the cold ice cream causing everything to seem right with the world. I left the restaurant that night shaking my head in disbelief and sincere admiration thinking to myself that that was some of the best food I’d ever eaten.
My last full day in NYC and despite several rolls of Tums and an extra notch on my belt I wasn’t about to let up. I walked to Balthazar for breakfast where I enjoyed the character of the space. Old mirrors and fixtures gave the dining room a very “old world” New York feel. I had coffee and, after the waiter talked me out of the basket of pastries, scrambled eggs in puff pastry with asparagus and mushrooms. The eggs were nice and buttery but not overly so and the vegetables were cooked well with a bit of crunch still left. I was disappointed that the puff pastry was a little tough. This is a pet peeve of mine, the very name evoking visions of tender flakiness. Nevertheless, the meal would tide me over until lunch. I stopped at Chelsea Market where I tasted some cheese, bought some brownies and looked at some wine then it was off to lunch at Lupa.
I truly respect Mario Batali not just for his media empire but also because he truly champions the Italian ideal of excellent ingredients prepared simply which is directed linked to seasonal, local foods. In this respect we in America have a lot to learn. Needless to say I was ecstatic to be eating at Lupa. It was a pleasant surprise to see not only a Restaurant Week menu but one with the more traditionally Italian four courses. The dining room is cozy with lots of hard wood and exposed brick, the windows look out on a quiet tree lined street. The space has a very friendly and playful vibe. First course was an arroncini, the crispy shell giving way to a hot, creamy, gooey amalgam of rice, mozzarella cheese, and chicken livers. A lemon wedge provided the perfect accent. It was during this course that I noticed (ok stared and gawked at) not only Harold, winner of Top Chef Season 1 but also Chef John Besh of Restaurant August in New Orleans. After getting over my dorky foodie star struck-ness, I sallied forth into the homemade tagliatelle with oxtail alla vaccinara. YUM!!! Perfectly cooked pasta, the natural sweet acidity of tomatoes and (for lack of a better word) the meatiness of the oxtail were perfect together. I didn’t want this excellent dish to end, though I looked forward to the next dish, the fried Lupa baccala with thinly sliced fennel and a light sauce. My first foray into baccala is hopefully not my last. A fork easily snapped through the coating to reveal a flaky white flesh with the gentle flavor of the sea, a thoroughly appealing texture contrast. Uniformly the desserts I had in NYC were pretty sensational and Lupa was no exception. Upon the waiter’s recommendation (he was very helpful in choosing courses, never pushy) I ordered the tartufo, gelato with a biscotti center covered in chocolate topped with chopped hazelnuts. It was all first-rate and gave me even more appreciation for the straightforwardness of good ingredients prepared simply. Bravo to Chef Ladner and his staff for giving one the sense that no greater pieces exist of the puzzle that is a dish.
I continued the day down the street at Murray’s (amazing cheese caves!) and further on with a cupcake at Magnolia Bakery. I enjoyed it but am not quite sure what all the fuss is about. The revelation that the line often stretches around the block came as a shock. Not sure they are worth that long a wait. Next stop, Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven. This is a real life Wonka chocolate factory. Fanciful, engaging, and visually attractive little works of art are on display everywhere you turn with walls of glass opening onto the actual kitchen where most of the sweets are made. Of note are the chocolate bark with mixed nuts (great snap!) and the ménage a trois truffle (though it said “don’t ask” I did anyway…the chef chooses three flavors every day to go into the filling and only he knows what the three are). I journeyed on to Il Laboratorio Del Gelato where I indulged in a rich duo of mascarpone and dark chocolate that was incredibly creamy and more than lived up to the hype. Katz’s and Russ and Daughters looked great from the outside but as dinner was approaching I was running out of time and stomach space. I decided to make a quick trip to the relatively unassuming Essex St. Market, to find a hidden gem in Saxelby Cheesemongers! The woman behind the small counter tucked away in a quiet corner introduced herself as Anne and immediately offered up tastes of some phenomenal American farmstead cheeses (my particular favorite…after all they are seasonal and local!). She was the friendliest, most welcoming cheese monger I encountered during the duration of my trip.
After obtaining some goodies to attempt to bring home (I really wish I could have picked up some Barick Obama…no that isn’t a misprint) it was time for dinner at the bar room at The Modern. The chic urban space gave a sense of comfortable cosmopolitan elegance with the clean lines, hardwood floors and a glowing blue wall behind the bar, the influence of the museum clearly shining through. As we were seated I marveled at the hip crowd, (some there merely to see and be seen) impressed by the number of people in attendance on a Wednesday night. The meal got off to a lovely start with a raw tuna upside down tarte with fennel, Japanese cucumber and aioli. The clean flavors as well as the contrast between the crisp, cool cucumber, melt in your mouth tuna and creamy aioli made for fine beginnings. Next came a rich and meaty homemade country sausage with a pleasantly zippy whole grain mustard sauce, a clear nod to the Chef’s Alsatian roots. The platings here deserve special mention, the delicate lighting enhancing the food, directly reflecting the art found elsewhere in the building. The meal ended with a buttery, perfectly sweetened apple strudel alongside a prune armagnac ice cream. How comforting! The ice cream was carefully flavored providing an excellent foil to the pastry.
The meal at The Modern would prove to be my last in New York City (I refuse to acknowledge the less than mediocre eggs and potatoes at the airport as a meal). In those short few days I had the time of my life eating my way through the city. The Big Apple is truly a foodie’s paradise and I hope to soon return for more culinary adventures! Until then…sweet dreams.