I just returned from a day in the city and am eager to share my discoveries in detail. I went with four friends, all my age, only intending to stop by at La Bergamote for some pastries (from a chowhound's recommendation) and then going to Central Park for a day in the sun. We did, indeed, eat our pastries...but then decided to head over to Chinatown. More on that later.
La Bergamote (on the corner of 9th and 20th) was certainly a beautiful sight. When we walked in the door, cases of colorful confections and a quaint atmosphere greeted us. Other customers were enjoying bowl-sized cups of creamy hot cocoa, which would've immediately struck my fancy if not for the 90-degree heat. Instead, I happily settled on a strawberry mousse/sponge cake concoction and a lemon curd(?) tart. The strawberry mousse was really nice, delicate, and not too sweet. It was topped with a thin layer of a gel-like strawberry glaze, which was quite tart and a good match for the slightly sweet mousse. The sponge cake part of the dessert, however, was a little bland. The lemon tart was really wonderful. The filling was firm, but instantly creamy in your mouth. It was slightly sweet, but the tartness of the lemon really dominated - just as a lemon tart should be. Oh, and I cannot forget to mention the dinner rolls. They were dense and chewy and wonderful, 75 cents each. I highly recommend them.
When my friends (3 of whom are Chinese) convinced me to go to Chinatown instead of Central Park, I must admit that I was still a bit skeptical. The only Chinatown I knew involved long rows of junk stores selling virtually the same cheap goods, with the occasional eatery mixed in. Fellow chowhounds, I now lower my head in shame. I could not have been more wrong.
(**Note: We walked through SoHo on our way to Chinatown, and passed Once Upon a Tart. Having heard about this "bakery" quite often, I just had to stop in. A total disappointment! I had the apricot tart, which was basically a dry crumbly tasteless shell topped with disjointed apricot halves.)
Now, back to Chinatown. Ever since eating an egg-custard tart at a friend's house a few months ago, I've been on the hunt for them. I tried one at the Taipen Bakery on Canal Street (which, unbeknownst to me, is considered the "outskirts" of Chinatown). It was ok, a little watery but with a very good crust. Of all the bakeries in Chinatown, I wouldn't recommend that one...it's bigger than the rest, very crowded, and the pastries don't seem to really speak to you.
We turned off of Canal onto smaller side streets, and I was absolutely...dumbfounded? surprised? delighted? All my senses were enticed as we ventured into the part of Chinatown where I'd never before been - the part with beautiful fresh fruit stands, fish markets with dozens of types of fish, meat stores with everything imaginable (including, to my distress, pork uterus), and bakeries with irresistable Chinese sweets. We stopped in Fong Hing Bakery (on Hester Street, between Chrystie and Bowery) on the recommendation from my Chinese friend, his mom, and all of her friends. How could you go wrong? Feeling as if I hadn't really experienced the true egg-custard tart, I bought one...at half the price of
Taipen's (40 cents). Now this was a great tart - a rich custardy center that actually tasted of egg, and a crust that was flaky but stayed together just enough to enclose the beautiful center. I also wanted to try the sesame balls, but knew that I had to save room (and money) for more food stops.
We ventured on, and came to what else - another bakery! This one, Fung Wong Bakery, Inc. (on Mott Street, between Bayard and Pell) had a great selection of wonderful looking goodies. I was able to restrain myself from another egg-custard tart, and instead chose what my Cantonese friend spelled to me as "buht dsai goh." In case my pathetic attempt at transliteration doesn't give you the correct pronunciation, look for the shiny looking palm-sized white pastries with a well in the center; some empty, and some filled with red bean. The texture may not be to everyone's taste, but I particularly enjoyed the firm, chewy, dense, almost slippery feel. From what I gathered, it was made of sticky rice. The flavor was wonderful and subtle, and reminded me that rice does, indeed, have a distinct, nutty flavor. I was also tempted to try the Lotus moon cakes (the ones without egg yolk), which I read about in the Joy Luck Club, but decided to leave it for another day.
Being "growing teenagers" (really just an excuse for eating a whole lot more than we should =), we were naturally hungry for dinner a couple of hours later. Now, I know that chowhounds are supposed to toss their Zagat guides out the window as an initiation, but I couldn't resist trying what Zagat calls the best Vietnamese in the city. Vietnam, on Doyers Street (near Bowery and Pell, but a little out of the way), was really great. Most of the entrees (and there were literally more than one hundred choices) were between $4.50 and $7, and the portions were nice-sized. More importantly, though, the food was of superior quality. I ate the salt-and-pepper squid, which was really nice. The squid was deep-fried, but not at all oily, and served with a DELICIOUS black pepper/lemon dipping sauce. The grilled eel will lemongrass was also very good, as the delicious juicy skin of the eel combined beautifully with the chewy, not-at-all-fishy texture of the grilled eel itself. The assorted seafood and meat noodle soup was really really good, with a nice light broth that picked up the flavor of the shrimp, chicken, fish balls, and other delicacies. The noodles served in the soup had a really beautiful nutty flavor and perfectly "al dente" texture. The shrimp and string beans with spicy black bean sauce, one of the day's specials, was incredible. The shrimp were small and juicy and just bursted with flavor in your mouth. The string beans (thinner and crisper than the ones I'm used to) were all perfectly coated in the delicious sauce. The vegetable fried noodles were really yummy, served with a garlic sauce that was sweet and spicy at the same time, a real treat for the taste-buds. The crispy noodles were wonderful! The texture was totally new to me, but a great surprise. The service was very friendly and relaxed, and we were not at all rushed. This restaurant was definitely a winner.
On a side note, we passed a little Malaysian place on our way back to the subway stop. At this point I couldn't fit another morsel in my stomach, so I had to abstain. But I was intrigued by the sweets in the window, especially by something wrapped in a banana leaf and then steamed, I think. Another thing to remember for next time.
This was a truly memorable day. It helped that I was with Chinese friends, but the language barrier certainly wouldn't stop me from going back and trying my luck. My only regret: that I didn't buy a fresh coconut, de-shelled by a street vendor and served with a straw to drink up all the yummy liquid inside. Those sure did look good.
Thanks for reading, and happy eats!