New York City Dining and Travel Notes
I had a wonderful trip to New York City recently and shared some of the places that I visited (see links at end of post), but there were plenty more places that I ate at, which didn’t get mentioned in previous posts. So here’s a round-up of them…
Most of the good delis are gone in New York City, but Katz’s is an institution and I like to believe it’s never going to let me down. I’ve had great meals there, but on this visit, my corned beef was tough and almost all of the meat inside my sandwich was inedible. A sandwich that costs $19.75, plus tax should be stellar.
Of course, the interior is still is great. And the place was packed with tourists, as well as a scattering of some locals. So maybe it was just an off-day.
205 East Houston Street
Dinner at Adam’s
We laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve shared the tears and happiness over the years. But I could never figure out why Adam Roberts of Amateur Gourmet wouldn’t invite me over for dinner. But after a few not-so-subtle hits, finally the prestigious invite came through. And let me tell you, it was worth the wait. He is going to have to relinquish his “amateur” status pretty soon.
We had a super heirloom tomato salad then on to homemade lobster rolls.
As the meal progressed, things got a little strange and Adam did something that seemed so peculiar: he took out his camera and starting taking pictures of the food. Of course, I was mortified. (And I saw a few other strange things that night as well..including a picture of actor James Franco on the coffee table, which I thought might be standing in for his other half, and I was relieved when he joined us later that evening.)
But as a good guest, what else could I do but sit there and smile as if nothing was amiss? And eat.
Being the genial host, Adam soothed over any rough spots by offering a selection of potato chips. But the night eventually had to end and I was well fed, and was happy to get to see him on his home turf at last.
Most Americans don’t realize how we crave certain foods until we leave our own country. Things we might scoff at normally become nostalgic treats. And while many of them fall into the junk food category (like tortilla chips, M&M’s, peanut butter & cheese crackers, and orange slices), I curiously found myself craving hamburgers in Paris a while back. Interestingly, after I wrote that, hamburgers are a staple on the menus of most Parisian cafés. But they’re not the big, meaty, juicy two-fisters we’re used to chomping down on in the states, and the fries are invariably from frozen spuds. So on this visit, I wanted, no—needed, the real deal.
The best burger I had in New York City was at Prune with Deb of Smitten Kitchen, which she assured me would be terrific—and it was. Everything was in the right proportion and made me realize that an English Muffin does make the best bun for a burger. Old-fashioned types can stick with those towering, puffy buns, but toasted English muffins remain crisp and stand up to all those juices and don’t fall apart. Leave it to the English would provide just the right vehicle for this all-American sandwich.
I went with pals Matt and Adam to Bill’s Bar and Burger based on a recommendation by a popular food website and the burger (shown above) was fair. The sides were okay, but nothing to write home (or you) about. I was happy to see sweet potato fries, but the company topped the burgers.
I mean, they were better than the burgers that we ate. That is, Matt and Adam. And that’s a different Adam than the one above. Confused yet?
I also went to Shake Shack, which has achieved cult-like status and had just opened a branch near where I was staying on the Upper East Side. It’s not the most inventive or over-the-top burger, which is fine with me: it’s always just-right. And I am truly impressed at how they can crank out a fine burger and fries, and shakes, at a good price and work so efficiently. It’s seems like a no-brainer to me to do things the way they should be done, but it too-often goes wrong elsewhere. Be sure to ask for your fries “well” if you want them super-crispy, which they’ll do, and is a concept I wish they’d adapt everywhere. I hate soggy fries.
It isn’t a trip to New York City unless I stop in at least once at City Bakery. But the reality is, I usually find myself there at least two or three times. (Oh, and the Splenda packets weren’t mine.)
It’s one of those places that’s beloved by most New Yorkers and when you see all the cookies piled up and the astoundingly good pretzel croissants, you’ll want to move there yourself to be closer to the goods.
3 West 18th Street
Union Square Greenmarket
There are a few cities that are more urban than Manhattan, but the fact that they can have a year ’round farmer’s market featuring produce grown within a hundred mile radius is incredibly impressive. This spectacular greenmarket features seasonal products like goat and cow’s cheese, bins of juicy peaches, sweet corn on the cob and baskets upon baskets of heirloom tomatoes.
If I lived in New York, my daily lunch—and dinner, would be a big plate of tomatoes with fresh basil leaves and golden olive oil, along with boiled corn on the cob with butter and crunchy salt. I’d be a very, very happy, and well-fed, person.
Union Square Greenmarket
Union Square West
(Market is on Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday)
After my burger lunch with Deb, she dragged me down a dark alley, professing to know of a good chocolate shop. Sure enough she was right, but a fermeture exceptionelle (which I’m no stranger too…) was in effect, so I jotted down the address to go back.
Being the boy-pleaser that she is, at a party I went later than week she slipped me a package of their chocolates which, surprisingly, I didn’t open until I got back to Paris. When I opened the box and read the label, I audibly gasped: Pretzel-Coated Sea Salt Caramels!
Each one had a lovely, liquid-filled center, which unfortunately made sharing impossible. So I had to eat them all by myself : ) So If you go, be sure to get a few extra…
Another place that I’ve heard about is Kee’s Chocolates. The editor of my first cookbook, who knows New York and food better than just about anyone I know (after all, she edited me!), falls uncharacteristically silent for a few moments when she utters its name. For some reason, it always eludes me when I head to New York. And apparently they run out because of the small production, so get there early. Or at least before I do.
6 Extra Place
80 Thompson Street
In the years since I moved to Paris, although there’s no shortage of fast food-style sushi places have sprung up everywhere (which all carry the exact same thing, which in my opinion, makes them suspect), authentic Japanese food has really moved up on the radar with Parisians and it’s not too difficult to find real Japanese restaurants here. Although a real sushi bar is still elusive, places lining the rue Saint-Anne, and on the various side streets, are now packed night and day.
Korean food, however, isn’t very well represented. Unlike Japanese food which is low-fat and has fairly recognizable flavors, Korean food is wild and spicy—there’s everything going on in those big bowls of bi bum bap; lots of garlic, spicy-hot chili sauce, fermented vegetables, and it’s not exactly what one would call ‘refined’ fare. So naturally it’s one of my favorite cuisines.
So I found myself a few times sitting at a table at Mandoo Bar on the strip of Korean restaurants that line 32nd street. My friend Carrie recommended it and I loved the fact they make the dumplings, which are their specialty, in the window. Although the wrappers are a bit clunky, the fillings are great and it’s easy to eat more than you think. (Especially if you’re like me, and you order more than you should.) One night we also had a cold noodle dish made with ‘acorn‘ pasta that was fresh and lively, perfect for a hot summer night. And they had bottles of cool sake and beer to wash it all down, too. What’s not to like?
2 West 32nd Street
I wish I could remember each and every place that I had a great cup of coffee (although none could possibly top our visit to Joe the Art of Coffee when Romain told the barista, “This is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.”) I had great coffee almost universally in New York. Of course, a few places stood out, but it’s as if no one will pour you a cup of coffee without letting you know who picked the beans, what method they took to get to New York, the nationality of the person who unpacked the bags and what time they were roasted. Which was always that day. It’s one of the better qualities of Americans; once we latch onto an idea, we tend to take it to the extreme. Hey, if it results in better results, then count me in.
Sonya recommended in my comments Sicaffè which was indeed a good address. But I also liked Tarallucci e Vino, and especially the staff, because when I was waiting for an acquaintance, they asked if I wanted a glass of water while I waited, since it was hot out, and didn’t mind if I used the restroom. (Yikes, I need to get out of town more often…)
When I was a kid growing up in New England, I wouldn’t eat lobster. I know, I know. If you could reach through this screen and slap me, I’d let you. But back them, it wasn’t considered a ‘gourmet’ delicacy, like it is today. Of course, now all I want is a lobster roll crammed full of freshly boiled lobster. So who knew that was available in Manhattan? (Outside of Adam’s apartment, see above.)
Although I was extremely tempted by the fried clams (but could they be better than Howard Johnson’s tendersweet fries clams? RIP..), I went with the Lobster Schooner, which included a lobster roll, a fancy soda (I took root beer, of course), Miss Vickie’s chips (I don’t know who Miss Vickie is but with chips like this, she should be a Mrs. by now), and a pickle. All for just $16.
The roll was a pull-apart roll, fried in butter, then filled with lobster meat and a dab of mayo and more butter. (There’s a bit of quibbling between New Englanders: I like no mayo and all-butter, but a few argue that mayonnaise is required. Because I’m not from the south, I can’t argue with the bbq folks, but I will take up the fight for all-butter lobster rolls when and where required.) The lobster was a bit underseasoned, likely because the boiling water wasn’t salted enough, and I wasn’t fond of the white peppery mixture sprinkled on top. But those are just minor quibbles because for the price and quality, and the extremely nice guys at the counter, Luke’s Lobster is worth dropping anchor for.
242 East 81st Street (at 2nd Avenue)
93 East 7th Street (at 1st Avenue)
You won’t find Mexican or Tex-Mex combo platters at Fonda in Brooklyn, known for traditional, fresh Mexican cuisine. I had a great, and very filling, brunch which started with a big molcajete of guacamole and a Bloody Mary’s. (Although I should use the singular since I only had one and so did my friend.)
Manhattan isn’t well-known for its Mexican food, and even though I had a few fun Mexican meals with new and old pals at Barrio Chino and Mexican Mama (525 Hudson St), coming from California, I’ve need to get black beans and corn tortillas infused back into my bloodstream, which I do whenever I’m back on North American soil. And I was happy to get my fill at Fonda.
434 7th Avenue
Unlike Katz’s, the quality at Zabar’s hasn’t slipped one iota. The housewares department upstairs is still relatively brilliant (although they no longer carry my favorite knife), and the food aisles are jammed with everything, from rich halvah to French cheeses, which they sell at prices less than we pay for them in France.
So when someone finds me a two bedroom apartment in New York City for under $800/month, with a doorman, I know I won’t have to give up on eating great French cheese. And I’ll be saving money on both my rent and on my monthly cheese bill.
When trying to decide, out loud, how many chocolate rugelah to buy (I mean, I was in New York, where kvetching is part of the fun), a nice little old woman grabbed my arm, and said, “Go ahead. Buy yourself a whole pound, honey.”
Aside from the chocolate and cream-cheese pastries, I also schlepped home a potato knish, or so I thought. When I got home I couldn’t find it and panicked. Being an eco-shopper, I dutifully toted my reusable nylon tote bag to Zabar’s. And being a demi-Parisian, I’m used to loading up my own bags, and waved away any help. So I assumed I left it idling in the bag by the register. (And they were probably thinking what a putz I was for not letting them help me with my bag.) The next morning, I found it, so now you can all sleep at night knowing that I was well-nourished.
Mast Brothers Chocolate
I have a particular affinity for American bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Some of my best friends started making bean-to-bar chocolate years ago, which I thought was folly at the time. And now they’re revolutionized the way Americans think about chocolate and I always beam with patriotic pride when I try a chocolate bar from a new upstart.
Luckily we had a car because I’m not sure how you’d get to the factory without one. When we arrived, the famed bearded brothers were likely in the back making chocolate, and we missed the start of the tour (for which you can reserve online), so we had to make ourselves content with sampling a few of the chocolate bits and pieces they had on offer. We tasted, and talked, and critiqued amongst ourselves.
We agreed that some of the chocolates had the unripe flavor of freshly made chocolate, which happens if chocolate is consumed before the chocolate had time to meld after it’s roasted and mixed. (Chocolate benefits from sitting a few weeks before eating.) But I made quick work the bar of fleur de sel chocolate that I brought home to snack on, which was gone in a (very) short time. I just couldn’t wait the requisite two weeks.
Mast Brothers Chocolate
105A North 3rd Street
Some travel tips for New York City, plus a few words:
I’ve used Carmel Limo for rides to and from the airports, and their prices are slightly higher than airport shuttles, but the few times I’ve taken shuttle vans, we’ve spent hours circling the city picking people up. (Many of who aren’t ready when the van arrives.) Hence I stopped. A friend recommended Carmel and I’ve used them a few times and found them reasonable (download coupons on their site), punctual, affordable, and clean.
Even though streets in NYC are numbered, it’s easy to get lost around the winding streets downtown. I bought a NYC Unfolds map, which you can find them in most newsstands and drugstores, or on Amazon. The map unfolds, dividing the city into thirds, so you’re not wrestling with a giant map on a street corner or on the subway.
Shopping for American Jeans
Nothing to do with food, but Levi jeans are always a hot item, especially for visiting Europeans. Although some of the models available in the states are cut differently from their European counterparts, Dave’s Army-Navy is the best place to buy Levi’s in New York City. You might find other places that are a bit less-expensive, but Dave’s really has great service and happily accepts returns and exchanges. (Aside from the huge selection of jeans, Europeans can revel in that as well.) Several staff members are fluent in French, and other languages, and I always pick up a pair or two of jeans here whenever I’m in New York.
The best way to get around New York City it to buy a MTA Metro Card. You can load up the card and it’ll deduct a certain amount for each ride that you take. (Depending on how much you buy, it’s about $2 per ride that way.) I advise getting a weekly card, which currently costs $27, as you will likely take more than thirteen rides during a week. Two week cards are available as well, and those come with a protection program in case you lose the card.
Taxis are plentiful, except when it’s raining, and are inexpensive compared to other cities. Taxis are useful when going in certain directions, as the subway is linear and doesn’t always neatly cross town, prompting transfers and the stations can be hectic. I’ve never had any problems, but many folks prefer to take taxis late at night rather than ride the subway.
Online Reviews and Sites
Lastly, I was vexed when looking up various businesses during this trip by how often a website would come up that didn’t lead or link to the business I was looking for. I understand that all of us, and travel and dining websites, are jumping into the internet full-force. But I really wish everyone would link directly to the site of the business in posts and listings, as I try to do.
And as someone who doesn’t much use online reader-supplied review sites for dining and travel, I was surprised at the discrepancies in many of them. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but the amount of damning and praising reviews for the exact same establishment or service raised my eyebrow at least more than once. For example, I’ve used the car service mentioned above several times (which is not a paid endorsement) and was hesitant after reading a few uncomplimentary online reviews. But each trip I took was great; the car was clean, the drivers were nice, and the service was punctual.
These sites are just taking off in France, and I’m sure many of these ‘reviews’ are not exactly written without another motive. I guess that’s the nature of anonymity and the internet. If you have something to say, if you’re doing it with the right intentions, I don’t see any reason not to use one’s real name. Because when you leave commentary, if you’re going to say something that affects someone’s business, you should do so with conscience. If you have a problem with a company or service, contacting the company first is a good way to find resolution. -dl
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