Thursday, July 3, 2008
Voyager Bien: The Big Apple
It's no secret, my absolute favorite city to dine in is New York City.
Every trip to Gotham has lead me down a different culinary rabbit hole, delving into exciting territories unlike anything I have experienced before. Sure, Portland has the quality of product, San Fransicso has the reputation and Los Angeles has its share of hidden gems.. But there's a certain magic in New York that makes it simply.. different.
This is not the first time I've blogged about NYC as a gastronomic metropolis. A couple of years ago, I detailed my day-by-day, meal-by-meal dine-tinerary for all nine days of my stay which the lovely Catherine Cole later posted on her Portland lifestyle blog a fly on the wall (Bookmark that and be sure to check in on Catherine's charming musings and misadventures in the City of Roses).
You can jump to this first chapter of my NYC meal manifesto here.
Last Fall I found myself back in the city for some much needed revisits (Freemans, Moto, Diner, Babycakes) as well as some treasured introductions. Though I vowed to return with a stricter budget (the first thing people ask upon reading the prior post is "How did you not go broke?"), I found that the dining experience was more important to me than taking cabs or stocking up on I *heart* NY t-shirts.
The first thing on my mind after trekking to Brooklyn from JFK, plopping on my host's bed, luggage at my feet was "where will we eat tonight when she gets off work?" Luckily, Diner is a relatively short walk and a common answer to such a question for her and her boyfriend. It was a bitter cold autumn night and the wind from the East River nibbled away at our ears as we hurried alongside the majestic base of the Brooklyn Bridge to the tiny old school diner car that houses the aptly named restaurant. We settled into a cozy vinyl booth within the candlelit cable car and glanced over the simple menu. The cold night left us only one option - All three of us ordered burgers and Chimay.
By now my passion for margaritas and mexican food should be apparent.. But I haven't even begun on the Burger yet. The most overlooked art form on any menu, a burger will tell you what kind of establishment you are dining at (Naturally my favorite all-around restaurant also makes my favorite burger). Already trusting Diner's ability to impress, I ordered soundly and enjoyed my beer and company. As expected, this burger did not disappoint. The thick and juicy grass-fed burger was perfectly cooked to my liking, dripping with mustard, mayo, gruyere and pickled onions. After a long moment of silence, my friends and I resumed our conversation with full mouths and happy hearts.
Day two (Halloween, as it were), I met my friend outside of the New Yorker where she interned. Our aimless catch-up walk landed us on 7th Avenue and we ducked into the nearest place as it her lunch hour was waning. The food at Salsa y Salsa Mexican Kitchen (206 &th Ave) was less than impressive - and I know you're probably wondering what an Angeleno from Tucson was doing getting Mexican in NYC, but know that a couple of my top Mexican picks are in this city, including Diner's sister restaurant Bonita. I picked at my lunch and strategically saved some appetite, for once I sent my friend on her train back to Times Square, I quickly made my way toward Chelsea.
After some gallery hopping and a stop at the artiest bookstore in existence, I was ready for my treat. I crossed 9th Ave, passing a waist-high flock of trick or treaters and followed a small coven of witches into Billy's Bakery. Notorious as competitor and offshoot from cupcake behemoth Magnolia Bakery, Billy's is actually a very modest and tiny 50s vintage themed bake shop. The staff sweetly handed candy to masked children before serving patrons cupcakes and coffees. The best part? There is no line around the block. I ordered a delightfully simple yellow daisy cupcake with chocolate buttercream frosting, which perfectly hit the spot - and added the late afternoon sugar rush I needed to stroll back through the neighborhoods of jack-o-lantern guarded and cobweb-wrapped Bownstones back toward midtown.
By evening, with my gracious host in tow again, we made our way among costumed freaks and business people to a small familiar alley in the Lower East Side. Freeman Alley is one of the magical places I speak of that this city keeps, a dark little gem buried unbeknownst at its end. We pulled open the door at the end of the alley and were greeted with warmth and pleasant aromas (a trend I am finding). I had peeked inside Freemans once before, on a prior visit - They were booked for the night and closing the following day for a 3-month renovation! Upon first entering the dim Lynchian dining room everything looked the same (taxidermied deer and swan even appeared in the same spots), but a trip to the restromm unveiled several additional rooms at the back, including a gorgeous wine cellar-cum-banquet room. My friend and I cozied up to the bar, as it was early yet for dinner. The bartender read our minds and mixed us a round of Freemans cocktails (rye, pomegranate molasses and orange bitters). Thoroughly enjoyable (though a little sweet), for the next we opted for the simple but balanced Buffalo Bill (rye, applejack). Feeling peckish with some bourbon in our bellies, we ordered the famous hot artichoke dip - a gooey, mayonnaisey delight served with grilled cheddar toast - and the fittingly sinful(boo!) Devils on Horseback (bacon-wrapped, stilton-stuff dates). Delicious! Once the chefs behind the line (dressed as prisoners!) started firing up the grill and the formal diners (NOT in costume) started filling the front of the house, we looked around at our bar of festive characters and realized it might be time to move on before this perfect moment was tainted. We said our goodnights and thank yous (including one to a male server dressed in a Hooters outfit) and bundled up, back out to the quiet alley and off into the chilly, witchy night.
Day three, I met up in the morning with a friend and her newborn at Cafe Colonial, a charming Brazilian bistro just off Bowery at East Houston. We settled into a cozy corner window table and she removed a small wooly hat from the Baby Bjorn bundle on her chest revealing a small pink head covered in brown hair. "Meet Winston Churchill" she joked about the chubby cheeked, blue eyed beauty staring up at me. "The two of us come here all the time, know everyone on the block" she told me as she glossed the menu. She ordered her usual, the Traditional Brazilian Breakfast (bowl of fruit salad served with pao de queijos - Brazilian cheese rolls) and I opted for a more hearty Brazilian Omelet (with onions, black beans, salsa and sour cream). The fruit selection was incredible and the pao de queijos tender and delicious. The omelette was perfectly cooked and refreshingly not too heavy of a meal to start the day. We took a stroll around the neighborhood after breakfast (and sure enough, everyone came out of their storefronts to visit with small Poppy). We decided to swing by one of my favorite NYC institutions (where my friend happened to start bookkeeping after my previous visit), the hidden gem of the Lower East Side, Babycakes bakery. As we approached I couldn't help but notice a life-size cut out of Marilyn Manson in the window (their Halloween decor?). Inside I learned that it meant so much more - along with their seasonal pumpkin cupcake was the Marilyn Manson cupcake: a chocolate cupcake filled with "blood" and topped with purple "vinyl" frosting. There was only one leftover from All Hallows Eve, and as tempting as it was, I stuck with the pumpkin. What makes babycakes special, or rather different from the many cupcakeries in town is that they are actually somewhat *a hem* GOOD for you. Common allergens (wheat, gluten, dairy, casein, eggs) are cut out altogether from the completely vegan delights and there is not a granule of sugar or chemical replacement sweetener in the entire place! Agave nectar fills in the gap (along with some honey offered for the coffee/tea). You might be thinking blech, but you'll find that actually the decision between gluten-free and wheat-free cupcakes to be a pleasantly difficult one. I favor the gluten-free lemon cupcake as a stand-by.. The tangy, rich and sweet frosting balancing perfectly with the moist, off-sweet cake. The frosting is sooo good infact, that they offer "frosting shots" for $1. Woohoo! There are also single tupperware-like cupcake caddies for sale in case you want to send a babycake to a loved one (they work!). As we gathered our booty of cupcakes, cupcake tops, perfect cookies and coffee, my friend introduced me to Erin McKenna, Babycakes' charming owner. I immediately clarified the debate over the Los Angeles location opening (a 'coming soon' sign had flown over a raw space on Beverly for several months before disappearing last year). She assured me that it was still happening. Now I see the site boasts a West Hollywood opening early Winter 2008. Yesss! After walking my two babycakes back to their apt, I kissed them adieu and strolled back toward midtown, buzzed - I guess not on sugar - but on contentment.
Day four, I met a friend in Tribeca on his lunch break and had a fantastic meal at Takahachi, a minimal elegant space that for me evoked 80s NYC yuppie lifestyle. The food was delicious however, my Enoki Beef (pounded beef wrapped around enoki mushrooms and leeks then grilled) was a refreshingly different bento-box-style lunch.
Upon meeting my host at the end of her work day midtown, we debated which direction to walk. She felt like a small bite, which was about all I could imagine eating (my lunch still with me) and so we headed to the Lower East Side to a little Venezuelan "sandwich" place she liked. Among the dark brownstones on a quiet residential block of East 7th Street appeared a quaint bustling storefront. Inside Caracas, I saw there were only four tiny tables (and I'm talking 1.5 x 1.5 foot tiny!). A couple by the door stood to leave so we snagged their oil-cloth-covered apple crate and approached the counter to order. These "sandwiches" are called Arepas, and start with highly nutritional corn flour wheat-free bread of sorts (like and english muffin meets a pupusa) that is stuffed with various tasty things, from pork shoulder in spicy mango sauce to sweet plantains and avocado. The decision is imposible to make, but since they are small, we decide on a few to sample. We ordered the Los Muchachos (grilled chorizo, spicy white cheese with jalepeños and sautéed peppers), De Pabellón (shredded beef, black beans, white salty cheese & sweet plantains), and La Sureña (grilled chicken and chorizo, avocado slices and the classic and always enigmatic oregano based sauce chimi-churri) and a couple Negro Modelos. As we wait, two more people come in from the cold street and begin shedding their hats and jackets.. and it happens to be two of my closest college buddies - a friend of mine from Portland who is in town visiting grad schools and the New Yorker intern I lunched with two days previous. What are the odds! I realized that this obscure understated Arepa bar must be magical indeed. They squeeze into the table next to us in the window and order several more arepas. When our food arrives, we all sample each one, savoring every delectable spicy-sweet and savory bite.. I can't recommend Cara Cas enough.. It might even sneak up as your most memorable meal in a long time.
Day five I meet up in the morning with my friend in Williamsburg a grab Saturday brunch at his favorite local mexican joint Taco Chulo (that apparently has replaced Bonita as his standby). The stark and minimal red-walled interior left something to be desired, and made obvious how newly opened it was. But the thin crispy chips, pico de gallo and complimentary (gasp!) brunch cocktail (one per meal) made up for that quickly. I ordered a michelada which was expertly mixed, spicy and satisfying. My Queso “Benedict” -though a little odd sounding- was extremely tasty! The two poached eggs with spinach on toasted green onion-cheese cornbread, topped with a "queso Velveeta Sauce" made for a flavorful and indulgent meal.
Saturday night was to be a big night out, reuniting as many Oregonian-NYC emigrants as possible. My host opted for the easiest group setting restaurant she could think of (the last time I was in town we chose Gobo, and though INCREDIBLE it was a several hour wait for a group our size) and so we met at the modest Village Mingala Burmese restaurant on another quiet strip of E 7th Street. I had never tasted Burmese cuisine before, but from what I was told sounded like a lighter Thai.. Which to be honest (being in the food mecca of New York) sounded only slightly enthralling. Happily I was impressed. I can't recall exactly which dishes we got (there were MANY), but among them some incredibly fresh and tasty salads, noodle dishes, and the extremely pleasing coconut steamed rice. Naturally there is a strong Thai influence (curry, peanut, lemongrass, mint), but the dishes are broadened with infusion of tropical and citrus fruits (pineapple, mango, coconut, lemon) and Indian suggestions like 'Nun bread' and 'Samusas'. I do recall the tasty Green Tea Leaf salad (Burmese green tea leaves mixed with sesame seeds, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, split yellow beans, peanuts and lemon twists) and the Mohinga Thoke (thin rice noodles, carrot, cabbage, lettuce, coriander, ground peanut and tamarind sauce served room temperature). The rich Rangoon Night Market Noodles (egg noodles with tender duck meat in a light garlic sauce topped with scallions and crispy onions) were also delicious. I believe I finished off the coconut rice, dressed only with traces of a duck curry sauce, really all the lightly sweet heaven-stuff needed. The group left happy and satisfied - with plenty of cash left for the night ahead.
Day six was my last day in town, and no trip to New York would be complete without a stop at my favorite hiding spot in the city, the adored and elusive Moto. This time for brunch, I knew we had a wait ahead, but it was no worry.. I was reuniting with a couple of close friends in the cozy wedge-shaped corner entree, smelling the delicious food being served to diners in the church pew to our right, round marble tabletops covered in espressos, cheeseplates and votives. What first won me over about Moto my previous visit was the time and place transportation (You can read about it in my previous NYC blog entry). Entering Moto was like stepping into a late 1800s French underground speakeasy, a cramped solemn band playing chanson française between the coat rack and the heavy red curtain surrounding the entrance, and a small horseshoe bar dotted with locals sipping Black Velvets (Guinness and Champagne) who might as well be Absinthe-drunk artistes. It was quiet and dark that first night, but this Sunday morning some of the curtains were pulled back, allowing grey light to filter through the cloudy glass panes into the crowded room. We finally were seated tightly between two other groups and were immediately served a round of perfect cappucinos and a charcuterie plate. I ordered the baked eggs in a light tomato broth.. a simple and elegant meal, served with baguette toasts and a spot of mesclun greens. Regarding the menu, I might have preferred visiting Moto for a secluded late night dinner over wine.. but in my book this establishment of taste can do no wrong. It was a splendid last meal in the city (followed by a walk to the wine shop and a languid afternoon spent the best way possible).
You can be sure that the next time I take on Gotham, you will hear all about it, one crumb at a time..