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Manhattan Dim Sum Fish Trip Report Pizza Banh Mi

NYC Trip Report: dim sum, banh mi, 21, Les Halles, pizza, fish/chips, etc...

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NYC Trip Report: dim sum, banh mi, 21, Les Halles, pizza, fish/chips, etc...

kukubura | Mar 12, 2010 03:56 AM

I grew up in NYC but live in Baltimore now and was in the city for three days during which time I crammed in lots of eating. I wrote it all up for my wife's food blog and while I didn't blaze any trails I think you guys might enjoy the read. (The New Orleans board is always full of fun trip reports so I figured, why not post one here?) I posted a link earlier but it was taken down so I'll paste the bulk of the text here and if you want to see the write-up with TONS of lovely photos google the complete phrase "my favorite of the five food groups was pizza" and the post will come right up...

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I grew up in NYC but live in Baltimore now and was in the city for three days during which time I crammed in lots of eating. I wrote it all up for my wife's food blog and while I didn't blaze any trails I think you guys might enjoy the read. (The New Orleans board is always full of fun trip reports so I figured, why not post one here?) I posted a link earlier but it was taken down so I'll paste the bulk of the text here and if you want to see the write-up with TONS of lovely photos google the complete phrase "my favorite of the five food groups was pizza" and the post will come right up...

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When I told Trix that I had to go to New York for a few days of family business she went through a brief period of jealousy before settling on the kind of statement that gets made all the time around here: "You know you're going to have to write a blog post about this, right?" She had a point. I already had a list of old favorite food joints I wanted to check in on and her challenge gave me the perfect opportunity to try some new places as well, meticulously documenting every dish in photos and notes along the way. If she wasn't going to get to join in on any of the actual eating at least she was gonna get a nice trip report out of it. And in an effort to keep things cheap I decided to hold all meals to $10 or less (not including alcohol, of course!)

Growing up in the city, my favorite of the five food groups was pizza, so it was only natural that my first meal would consist of a couple of slices. Since pizzerias across the city were such a constant part of my childhood, I never even really knew that many places by name: It was always "that place outside the subway station at Brighton Beach" or "the one where those guys broke open the Gauntlet video game coin slot and gave us unlimited free plays." So the first pizza lunch of my New York excursion was at "the one thoughtfully located across the street from Penn Station." And as far as locations go it couldn't have been better. Within one minute of detraining I had two steaming slices of pizza, courtesy of NY Pizza Suprema.

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This is one of my go-to joints for grabbing a slice and walking with it: Firm and crisp crust at the wider part, slightly droopy at the tip, sauce that mixes a little tartness and sweetness, and just the right amount of cheese. I don't know what it is with pizza places outside New York but they don't know when to stop with the cheese!

Satisfied with my pizza I headed out to visit my old office, take care of a little preliminary family business, and finally drop off my bag at the downtown apartment where I was staying. Before heading back in to the subway I noticed that the downtown Les Halles was very close to my crash pad. Mental note!

Hopping out of the subway on 14th street I finally had the chance to check out A Salt & Battery, a British chip shop that has apparently moved from its old East Side location to the West Village since I've been gone.

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Trix and I frequented another chip shop (The Chip Shop, actually) when we lived in Brooklyn and I was curious to see how the Manhattan competition stacked up. Also, I had read on their website that they were committed to sustainable sourcing, like switching from cod to locally-caught pollock, so I was intrigued. I ordered a small pollock ($6) with chips ($4) and finished it off with a Newcastle Brown Ale.

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It might still be a little vestigial Brooklyn pride but I don't think it was quite as good as The Chip Shop was back in the day. The fish was plump and moist and perfectly cooked and the fries were fantastic, but the batter was missing a bit of something. The Chip Shop is also a curry shop so it's possible that they have some propriety seasoning blend that they add to their batter and maybe that's what I was missing. But overall this was a fantastic meal in its own right, enhanced by my stainless steel perch in the window.

After finishing off my beer I headed out to meet an old friend for a drink. Since I had so much eating still planned I decided to walk the 50-odd blocks to the Hell's Kitchen bar that he chose. That's definitely one thing I miss about New York: I'd be surprised if you could find ten consecutive walkable blocks in Baltimore. Watching the neighborhoods change as you walk (sometimes gradually, sometimes from one block to the next) is a simple pleasure.

After having a great time reconnecting with my old friend and meeting his charming husband I headed back downtown. Stepping out of the subway I decided to see if Les Halles was still open. I sneaked in just before last call and decided to have a bite at the bar.

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Reading Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential ten or so years ago was a memorable early experience in my journey through food and since his time at Les Halles was so integral to the book I was excited to give it a shot. I ordered a half portion of steamed mussels ($9) cooked in Billi Bi, a comforting broth of cream, saffron and Vermouth.

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After Trix's saffron-heavy medieval series I was excited to see those little orange strands back in my food. The half portion was generous to say the least. Sopping up the sauce with crisp French bread and sipping on a glass of bordeux blanc, recommended by bartender Quinn, made this midnight snack a perfect capper to my first day. I wish I had ordered fries however, as my barstool neighbor's fries looked incredible (as did his peppercorn-crusted steak au poivre. This was one of those rare times that I almost wished I still swung that way!)

Day two, a full day of family business, started with an unremarkable egg and cheese sandwich on toasted rye at a diner not worth naming. But for lunch I headed to Delizia, my childhood around-the-corner pizza joint.

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At some point this ambitious pizzeria turned its back room into a classy red sauce Italian restaurant, but they never dropped the ball with the slice business up front. I had a plain slice (the measure of a good pizzeria) and a white slice, which is really Delizia's specialty, in my opinion. Creamy and rich, this is a subtle slice that tastes as sophisticated as such a basic food can.

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With both Delizia and Pizza Suprema I was amazed at how light great pizza can be, compared to the thick crust, heavy sauce, overly cheesy pizza you so often find elsewhere.

Dinner on day two was definitely something different. My visit marked some sort of confluence of events that only comes about once in a long time: Both my brother and I and both of my parents were in town at the same time AND many top restaurants were still running their restaurant week specials. To commemorate this momentous event and to take advantage of some truly ridiculous deals, my parents decided that we all needed to go to 21 Club.

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Long considered one of the classic old New York restaurants, 21 Club is probably known more for its history and atmosphere than its food. In the end it reminded me of some of the grand dames of New Orleans that Trix and have visited: Impeccably run and staffed but still warm and inviting, and focusing more on giving you a long, relaxed, memorable evening than breaking down any culinary walls.

Still, there was one unique thing about 21's menu. Apparently as part of the Orient Express family of restaurants and hotels they host chefs from their other properties for limited engagements, bringing over their menus as well. So in addition to the normal 21 menu and their incredibly cheap restaurant week menu ($35 for three courses) we were also offered the menu from Hotel Caruso on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, cooked up by the original chef. Unfortunately, due to the incredibly dark atmosphere (and my reluctance to blind other diners by using flash) my photos of this meal were virtually useless.

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Before dinner my brother and I ordered dirty martinis. His was vodka, mine Hendrick's gin (le choix de la maison de Trix.) I started my meal with 21's citrus and juniper cured Mahi Mahi appetizer which featured shaved fennel, roasted pickled jalapenos, beet emulsion, blood orange reduction and a chip of some sort (Taro, perhaps.) Frankly I thought that the collection of ingredients would come together to create a unique flavor but I was a little disappointed. When tasted all together it just tasted like a bunch of ingredients and not a collective whole.

I was more impressed with the Polipo Arrostito con Cavolfiore e Riduzione di Aglianico (Roasted octopus with cauliflower and Aglianico wine reduction) off the Hotel Caruso menu, which I split with my brother (the kitchen thoughtfully gave us each a half-serving on our own plates.) The roasted octopus had an unusual smokey flavor and had just the right amount of chewiness, and the reduction was rich but not overpowering.

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For my main I had 21's risotto, which was great. Loaded with morel mushrooms and peas (two of my favorite ingredients) and topped with a couple of chips of crispy aged Parmigiano, the risotto had a comforting creaminess but still had a firm texture and just felt great in my mouth. After watching one TV reality show chef after another butcher risotto (culminating in the watery barn slop turned out on this season's Last Restaurant Standing finale, by the eventual winner no less!) it was nice to have a perfectly prepared version.

My mom ordered the salmon which had a very flavorful horseradish crust, probably the most potent flavor of the evening. The other entree that I tried was my dad's spaghetti off the Hotel Caruso menu. While he was expecting chunks of anchovy mixed in with the spaghetti, what was actually delivered was much more subtle than that: The anchovy had obviously melted while being cooked together with the spaghetti and infused its flavors into the pasta. What almost looked like a plate of plain spaghetti actually hid a beautiful, salty, nuanced flavor. Surprising and delicious!

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Three or four hours later we finished our desserts, whooped it up with our table neighbors one last time (another aspect of 21 that reminded me of New Orleans) and stumbled out into the crisp night air. 21 may be a graduation night-type restaurant and a lot of the diners may look like extras from Gossip Girl, but the level of service and the plushness of the environment are definitely memorable.

My final day in New York was all mine to spend wandering around, eating and looking at art. Trix and I used to frequent two different Chinatown dim sum houses: Grand Harmony when we wanted seafood, communal eating and chasing carts around in a panic before hungry regulars grabbed all the shrimp dumplings, and Vegetarian Dim Sum House when we wanted exclusively veggie dishes and calm table service. I was set on the vegetarian option because I haven't found some of their flavors anywhere else (we've taken to making our own dim sum), but their 10:30am opening time made the wait tough. As I wandered the streets of Chinatown killing time one restaurant after another wafted rich aromas directly into my brain.

I somehow managed to hold off and was the first person into Vegetarian Dim Sum House, located on tiny Pell street, just off the elbow of curvy Mott street. I don't expect service with a smile at this place (and I didn't get it) but I do expect amazing food at ridiculous prices and I wasn't disappointed. After checking off three boxes on the dim sum menu I was quickly served a plate of three sweet and salty dumplings. These pillowy fried balls are crispy without being greasy and are filled with a clever mix of sweetness and saltiness, neither of which overpowers the other. The filling is so well balanced that these two seemingly conflicting flavors tickle their respective taste-buds simultaneously. This might be one of my favorite flavors.

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I also ordered monk dumplings and vegetarian mock shrimp dumplings. The monk dumplings were filled with creamy rice and chopped up bits of mushroom (earthy and rich) and the shrimp dumplings, with their shiny skin, really nail the flavor of their target crustacean.

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I asked what their fake shrimp is made of, expecting some sort of compressed taro or something, and was surprised to learn that it's actually a steamed wild mushroom. Tasting the "shrimp" on its own I was dumbfounded trying to connect it to my favorite fungus. Very cool. And at less than $9 for all three dishes you're not going to beat this meal anywhere.

After spending a few hours checking out SoHo galleries I figured it was time for my last meal of the trip. I headed back to Chinatown and Banh Mi Saigon Bakery. The Vietnamese population must be swelling in Chinatown because, other than a few pho shops, I don't remember there being nearly this many Vietnamese restaurants last time I was here. (The photo from the top of this post comes from the Paris Sandwich banh mi shop, on the short list for a visit next time.)

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Trix and I have made our own banh mi before and there are a couple of places in Baltimore to get them, but the store-bought bread is always lacking. Saigon Bakery promised fresh baked French baguette, so I was in. Located in the back of a jewelry store, the tiny counter serves up a massive stream of orders to the constantly regenerating take-out crowd. I ordered a sardine banh mi ($3.75) and a Buddhist banh mi ($4.50), found a stoop around the corner and sat down.

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The sardine one was loaded with chopped sardines as well as the various fillings that make banh mi so delicious: chopped carrot and daikon, crisp cucumber, slices of jalapeno and lots of fresh cilantro. The Buddhist bahn mi featured a delicious mock pork or duck as well as really great mushrooms.

Having it on bread with a substantial crust made a big difference from the limp sub rolls I'm used to. I was surprised at how light the fillings were (the ones I've had in Baltimore are loaded with mayo.) Instead of the heaviness I expected there was a vinegary freshness to them. That said, I like the fillings in both versions that I've had about equally. It's the bread that clearly wins out in New York. (Although once Trix starts baking her own fresh French bread all bets are off!)

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After eating half of each roughly 10-inch banh mi and wrapping up the rest for later, I started to walk north to Penn Station. Along the way I passed countless other food adventures that would have to wait for another day: Cafe Habana (now selling their famous Mexican street corn on a stick), The Union Square Farmer's Market and all its beautiful produce, Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop and its delicious egg salad... So much food, so little time!

And in case you were feeling too bad about Trix missing out on all this fabulous knoshing, I had one final surprise: I stopped back in at NY Pizza Suprema before boarding my train and picked up a couple of pies to bring home. It was tough riding all the way back to Baltimore with these beauties on the seat next to me without taking a bite, but there was no way I wasn't going to let her join in on a little of the fun. After all pizza is the ultimate take-out food, even if it's a 200 mile delivery!

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