What a weekend. Blew in from LA for a surprise party for my brother in law, and did my best to get inside me as much quintessential new york grub as possible.
This is a long report, so I've tried to index it with headers, so you can fast forward to the restaurants that interest you most.
Let's start with....
THE BAD AND THE UGLY:
(Spice Market, Cafe Steinhof)
Sadly the party was held at Spice Market in the meatpacking district. I was advised by pretty much everyone on the manhattan board not to eat there, but had no choice. Since we were in a private part room downstairs, only the bar menu was available to us. We ordered the mushroom eggrolls (2 for $10.50) which were good, unique in flavor, and the mushrooms provided a lovely meaty texture. They had a light crispy skin more reminiscent of a spring roll than an egg roll. Tasty, but hardly worth the price.
Having read recently on the of the Chowhound boards about lobster rolls but never having had them myself, I decided to splurge on Spice Market's $15 variant. I was served 4 quarter sized sushi style rolls with an orange, spicy dipping sauce. I popped one in my mouth and was met with an entitrely unappealing squish between my teeth, and an oozing, sour flavor. my first assumption was that I was eating spoiled raw lobster. closer inspectionr revealed that there was in fact a small piece of cooked lobster, as well as a long gelatinous rectangular cube which slid out of the bottom of the roll nicely when pushed through with a chopstick, landing with a plop and a bounce on the plate.
"What is this??" I asked the waitress.
"It's lemon-lime jelly. To balance the lobster." she replied.
Balance? This is lobster we're talking about, not sour cabbage. Lobster's flavor is so delicate that the last thing it needs in sour jelly to augment or "balance" it's flavor. Totally rediculous!
The next morning we were going to head to Florent for brunch, per the recs of several manhattan chowhound. At the last minute, my sister and husband told me they were making an "executive decision" to take me to "Cafe Steinhof" in Park Slope. I went with the flow. Cafe Steinhof is a neighborhood pub, supposedly austrian but decidedly american in the food they serve with the exception of a few international touches. It was a cold day so I ordered the chicken soup with crepe slices, as well as the beef goulash. My sister ordered fruit and granola, and my brother in law ordered an avocado, tomato and sprout sandwich. The broth was bland, with hardly any seasoning and far too many gummy, julienned crepe slices floting on top. The goulash was filling but also bland bland bland. Hardly any spice at all to augment what was essentially an irish stew with a german sounding name.
Enough of that. I decided I had had enough of people deciding my culinary fate. New York is too good an eating city to have 2 bad or even unextraordinary meals. Armed with New York chowhound guidance, I took my culinary fate into my own hands.
THE GOOD (finally!)
(DiFara, Katz's, The City Bakery, Rice to Riches, Wo Hop)
That evening I insisted to my sister that we go to DiFara in Brooklyn. There was a small amount of complaining, as the place was off the beaten path, and my sis & her hubby are not in the habit of leaving the dusty trail to forage for excellence. Thankfully my sis convinced a friend to drive us there. As we approached, there were groans in the car. From a distance it looks as if there are no dining tables, and there was talk of taking the pizza home. I shuddered... after hearing so much praise for difara's pizza, I was determined to eat it as quickly as possible after coming out of the oven. real chowhounds know how rapidly pizza devolves once it comes out of the oven. Thanfully as we got closer we saw a few tables in the back and my fears were allayed.
For those who have not been there, let me tell you. DiFara's is not pretty. It is a dingy little hole. We arrived at 8:45pm on SUnday night, and the place was packed, and a mess. The pizza man (dominick, I think is his name) is a one man show making the pizzas. Only occasionally does a young guy come from the back to grate some fresh parmesan for him before returning to the back room, leaving this withered pizza master to himself.
We were immediately hit by a blast of smoke in the eyes as we entered. You know, the kind of teary eyed smoke reaction when you eat at a korean bbq place with inadequate ventilation (I have one venerable LA institution in mind). But what a smell. There was also a crowd of people, and a really messy room. Half eaten pizza crusts piled high on pizza trays. greasy pans stacked up on top of each other. One dining room chair had a pile of parmean cheese poured on top of the seat. And dominick himself has no problems taking people's money, and pressing those same fingers into the next customer's dough.
But.... it was truly excellent pizza. Per suggestion of many on chowhound, we ordered 1/2 cheese and 1/2 broccoli rabe pizza (FYI Broccoli Rabe is not on the menu). After waiting for 25 minutes for the pie, I went back up to the counter to check on the status of our order. Dominick tells me "I think-a I forget your order". (my brother in law is not amused by this set of events, so I get 2 slices of pizza for the 4 of us to help take the edge off.) I watch Dominick make one pie after another.... his secrets are all out on the table. After stretching the douch, a ladle of sauce. Then olive oil poured on top. Then shredded mozzarella, then generous pieces of fresh mozzarella, which he tears up into chunks and places randomly on the dough. Finally a sprinkle of fresh grated parmesan, and into the oven.
About another 20 minutes go by and our order 1/2 rabe pie finally comes up. The pie is beautiful. Smoky, beautiful crust with uneven, ruddy browning along the edges and a couple of grey spots imparting a wonderful smoky aroma and beautiful contrasting look and texture to the pie. wow. He gives us a generous portion of fresh parmesan to sprinkly on top as we see fit. We bite. The sauce is perfect. Not too sweet, not too acidic, just perfect balance. The crust is crispy, chewy, smoky, beautiful. The broccoli rabe... well, too bitter and overpowering I felt. The flavor of the broccoli rabe that so many chowhounds here love was just too strong. It overpowered that delicate sauce.
After finishing the pie in about 10 minutes, we were still a little hungry. By this time it was close to 10pm so the place had cleared out. I see a handwritten sign-- "wild/porcini mushroom slice $5.00". I decide to try. It's quiet now, and dominick warns me "the cold porcini go on hot pizza". I say that's fine. He takes out a huge glass jar filled with meaty, beautiful mushrooms suspended in an herbed olive oil marinate. He ladles a generous portion onto a plate for my sister and I to taste. We bite. I don't know how plant-derived food can taste sinful, but these mushrooms in olive oil were. And with a scoop of these on top of a slice of pizza, it was the perfect combination. The mushrooms were not overpowering like the broccoli rabe was. They imparted their own subtle flavor and contrasting texture, and the fruity, aromatic olive oil on the pizza added a layer of decadence and richness to an already wonderful pie. DO NOT MISS the porcini mushrooms. It is incredible.
KATZ's VS. LANGERS (in LA)
It sounds apocryphal. How could the New Yorker claim that Los Angeles had a jewish deli with better pastrami than New York? I decided to taste test for myself. I'd heard a lot about Katz's but had never been there. Walked in. Navigated the funny ordering system (for those familiar, its sort of like Philippes in downtown LA except at Katzs they give you a ticket when you walk in the door that the counter man marks your orders on). I walk up to my own personal pastrami carver. I ask for a taste.
Ive had Langers pastrami sandwich in LA enough times now that its memory is permanently ingrained in my head. Its delicious stuff. So tender, and steamed for so long that if it were on the bone it would, in fact fall off the bone. Also, Langers does this unusual steam toasting of their sandwich rye so that you get a lovely crunchy rim around the edge of the sandwich, but the middle stays soft.
I asked my counter man at Katzs for a sample. I see that hes got on the counter in front of him a beautiful piece of meat. He carves off a generous sample for me. My first impression its damn good. It has a unique, robust, peppery flavor but not overpoweringly so. The textureits definitely tender, though Langers definitely gives extra steam time to their cut. Though the texture and tenderness of Langers is better, I like the flavor of Katzs pastrami more. I order a sandwich. He piles on a very generous portion of pastramieasily double the amount that Langers puts on theirs. Unfortunately, this is put on rye bread out of the badno steaming, no toasting, etc. It makes a damn good sandwich, but Langers edges ahead by a nose for the extra dimension their super crispy rye crust brings to the sandwich.
THE CITY BAKERY
I had heard about the super rich hot chocolate here and had to try it. I dont know if it was as it had been described to me (like drinking melted chocolate cake) but this was definitely good stuff. Rich, densely flavored molten chocolate and stellar homemade marshmallows. Although the marshmallows are an optional addition (at 50 cents each), they are truly required because they alleviate the monotony problem that this hot chocolate suffers from. Since the chocolate is so rich (like the viscosity of motor oil) and not very sweet, the flavor does get a little laborious after a while, as they serve an obscene amount per cup. All four of us agreed that the first few sips were great but we were soon craving bits of melted marshmallow to add some lightness to the deeply flavored, bitter, rich drink. Since my sister is vegetarian, she get any marshmallows and simply could not finish.
RICE TO RICHES
I didnt officially eat here, but its worth a mention. My sister brought me here for some tastes of their totally unique rice pudding flavors. This is easily the best rice pudding Ive ever tasted. The flavor is so rich that I feel as if there must be a cup of cream in each serving. The two flavors I tried were rum raisin and mascarpone, both lush flavors that rolled over your tongue and overtook your mouth. I wanted more. I wanted so much more. Unfortunately I was stuffed from pastrami and the baskin robbins sized scoop is all we managed.
Yes, its bad, inauthentic Chinese food. But I needed some excellent New York style egg rolls to take for the Jet Blue plane ride home. In LA Ive eaten some fantastic hong kong style dim sum, Beijing Islamic food, and shanghainese food. But sometimes I just need a good brown chewy new york egg roll. Is that too much to ask? J
Thanks for the grub, New York. Hope to be back soon!