Wednesday, March 09, 2011

I ate New York

Just like Milton Glaser, I heart New York. I truly do. I'm a convert to its big-city ways, frenetic energy and brash attitude. It's so unlike lovely, laid-back Vancouver, but like our wonderful west-coast city, if you need to find food on the cheap (and believe me, on this trip I certainly did) it's simple.

It all began when my good friend of many years, Jenny-Faye, called me up at the beginning of the year and asked if I wanted to go to New York in the fall to attend (ahem) Comic Con, the annual sci-fi convention. That's right: a giant collection of geeks, most of them likely in costume, swarming around convention tables, chatting about nerdy tv shows, attending panels and playing D&D on every available surface. Did I want to be there?

Apparently I did!

And thus it was, that a crisp, bright October morning found me heading out of the largest hostel in the world (it's in uptown Manhattan) and smack into the middle of a giant parade on Amsterdam Avenue. Which was typical, sort of; I found out that there's always something going on in New York. It doesn't really matter where you go, you're bound to run into something happening.

For our purposes, of course, the 'something' is all the delicious food and food-related events that the city offers. Following Amsterdam southwards, I came across the Mermaid Inn, a fantastic seafood restaurant with three locations throughout the city. I convinced Jenny to accompany me to the one on the Upper West side the following day.

Dinner looked a little pricey, but brunch was very reasonable. It happened to be a Sunday, which of course is Brunchday anyway. We both had the incredibly indulgent challah french toast with sautéed bananas. It was heavenly. We paired it with bacon, because what food is not improved by the addition of bacon? Answer me that.

Mmm, banana french toast.

The aesthetic (and of course, the food) is New England seafood house, and I shall one day return for a full plate of oysters or some Manhattan chowder! But on this trip I really enjoyed gobbling up my french toast with the autumnal morning sun streaming in.

Another of the draws was the design of the restaurant's printed materials (menus, business cards, matchbooks, etc.). I'm a sucker for a good hand-written script. Included in the photos above is the logo for the Russian Tea Room, which Jenny and I passed by that same morning. Far more formal, but it has a similar swashy feeling, I think. One day I shall visit that famed celebrity-haunt (where apparently Madonna was a coat-check girl in 1982) for some high tea and caviar (just $115 with champagne)!

A business card from the downtown location of the Mermaid Inn.

One of my most fervent food wishes whilst in New York was to eat at some of the great delis there and experience a little of the Jewish heritage of the city, to see how it compared to Toronto, where I grew up and ate at my share of great delis. This was a bit of a pilgrimage for me, and boy was it amply rewarded.

I must make a confession, though: I'm not really a big fan of smoked meat sandwiches, brisket, or corned beef. So, although NYC certainly offered plenty of towering sandwiches of meat, I'm afraid I didn't consume any of them. My Zaida used to love them, lean pastrami on rye adorned with plenty of hot mustard, dill pickles and accompanied by a Coke to wash it all down. I tried valiantly to join him and my brother in eating smoked meat sandwiches on one of our visits, but it just confirmed that it was not my thing. So I went back to my usual. But I do love lots of other deli food!

Here are Jenny and I in the Carnegie Deli in midtown Manhattan, so named because of its proximity to Carnegie Hall. This was a great deli, if a bit touristy. A huge place with lots of rooms and lots of character. To start they served pickles from the Pickle Guys on the Lower East side. I think these were the half-sour and full-sour kinds (they also do new, hot, 3/4-sour and other items like pickled peppers and tomatoes. Aaaand, they make killer horseradish. Great for Passover).

Jenny peruses the menu and I choose a bagel with tuna salad at Carnegie Deli.

Lots of famous New Yorkers have eaten there, including Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman. And Tyra Banks! Not someone I was expecting to enjoy a deli sandwich. Wonder what she had, and if she smized when it appeared! Jenny had a giant turkey sandwich; it was enormous, I can't emphasize that enough. And if you can see the poster behind me (click and click again) it says: "Not all the skyscrapers in NYC are made of glass and marble." That referred to the massive stacked smoked meat sandwiches they kept bringing out. They all looked ready to topple over. I wonder how much meat goes into them?

The next stop on our deli tour (though not the same day, of course) was Katz's, the best deli in NYC, I think. It was amazing; to me, everything the city is about: bustling, loud, brimming with humour and a great mix of people from all kinds of backgrounds. You can either take a ticket and they mark off what you order on it for payment later (kind of like dim sum, I suppose), or you can be seated for wait-service. But I think the self-service is more in keeping with the spirit of the place.

I was feeling a little under the weather, so I had some Jewish penecillin (matzoh ball or kneidlach soup). It was fantastic and did the job of soothing me admirably. I also shared some latkes with Jenny (though I may have had more than my fair share!) and a black and white cookie (of Seinfeld fame). Katz's was amazing, they have a massive menu as well, and a deli counter (natch) where you can buy sliced meats to bring home. They have great neon signs, one of which reads "Send a salami to your boy in the army," which does a New York sort of way!

I also patronized Russ & Daughters, a long-established deli counter known for its fine selection of fish and caviar, bagels and bialys, and sweets (I had some traditional pruney rugelach). They've been around on Houston St (pronounced 'How-ston,' as a New Yorker told me when I asked the way to 'Hyu-ston' street!) since 1914, but got their unique name after Joel Russ made his three daughters partners in his business in 1933. How cool is that?

My other deli stops were Barney Greengrass's (he's the Sturgeon King, according to his own advertising) where I had an egg salad sandwich and a great waiter (atmosphere: fantastic. Another hangout of Jerry Seinfeld); Yonah Schimmel's Knishery (also on Houston, also about 100 years old) where I had a liver & kasha knish (the best sort, I think: knishes, the potato-based Jewish dumpling, are everywhere in New York); and Zabar's, on the advice of the Moollas, who have loads of NYC knowledge.

Zabar's is just great. It is a deli, but it serves a broad demographic. I saw ahi tuna sliders there, for example, nestling alongside babkas and other more traditional deli food. In Manhattan, Jewish food belongs to the whole city, not just its Jewish population, which is fantastic. I saw halal food vans selling knishes in NYC! That's fantastic. Anyway, Zabar's is a sort of supermarket/deli, which has an amazing selection of cheeeeses! See the bottom left picture below:

Some of the hits and misses of NYC: burgers and cupcakes?

You can also see Barney Greengrass's great sign there, and Zabar's bread department. It is a busy place, as you might imagine, and well worth a visit to stock up if you are trying to avoid eating at restaurants every night, as I was on this trip. The hostel I was staying at had a massive kitchen with many workstations, so it made sense to buy some food in and store it in one of their fridges or cupboards. I found if I labelled all my bags, no one took anything. It was a great system. I got some good bread and cheese from Zabar's for picnic lunches.

There were a few misses in terms of food selection, as I was in NYC for ten days, and in that time, inevitably not every meal will be a winner: the pretzel I had, ubiquitous streetfood, was bland and dry (and huge); the concept of Burgers and Cupcakes I decided to steer clear of; Ozu was a nice-looking place, but their noodles were horrible, and if there's one thing a Vancouverite will not stand for, it's bad noodles! Jenny dragged me to a futuristic restaurant near Times Square called Mars 2112, and it was ... unbelievable. You must check out their website. But then I had chosen basically every food place so far, so poor Jenny was due. And I did get a great picture of her with a guy in an alien suit.

We had some run-of-the-mill pizza; I know NYC is also famous for great pizza, but I didn't look for it, so I must make sure to next time. Supermarkets were great to look through, as Americans often have unusual products, including Smucker's 'Goober' Peanut Butter and Jelly. I really should have held up the grape flavour. Ugh. Alternating stripes of highly-processed 'peanut butter' and 'jelly' in one jar. Is that really food? Another fail was my one foray into the world of streetdogs; again I'm sure there are some great stands somewhere that sell a tasty 'dirty-water dog,' but my choice was random and unpleasant.

But a great hit was Five Guys, a fantastic burger place on the way to the convention centre. I stopped in for some food by following Travel Food Rule Number One: "Are there a lot of locals in the place? Is it hopping? If so, you can't go far wrong." And it was amazing. One of the most memorable burgers ever. All the elements just came together perfectly. Aaaand, I've just found out that there's one in Park Royal in North Van! Huzzah! We must make a pilgrimage; trust me, guys, their burgers are worth it. They have signs up which let you know which farms your potatoes and beef are coming from. Very cool. So when are we going?

Our best stumble-across, by far, was a food market at Madison Square, right by the Flatiron building. We came across lots of stalls, including one from a Brooklyn business that I'd been wanting to visit: Pies 'n' Thighs. The thighs refer to the chicken, I assume, rather than your own thighs once you partake of their amazingly delicious deep-fried chicken sandwiches served on a biscuit AND SMOTHERED IN HONEY BUTTER.

This is the best food ever. I cannot adequately describe its incredibleness. If that's even a word. If it is, it applies here! I finished the sandwich off with a slice of chocolate peanut butter pie (my first ever) – they rotate pie flavours, and it was hard to choose, let me tell you, with maple bourbon pecan and key lime on the menu – and a cup of hot apple cider from another stall, which was very warming in the autumn. Forgive me for bringing design back into this discussion, but the Pies 'n' Thighs menu was another winner here, friendly and just a little hipsterish (they are based in Williamsburg, hipster central, apparently):

Pies 'n' Thighs latest menu.

Pies 'n' Thighs has been noticed by Martha Stewart lately, so I'm sure they're doing well. They also cater! Do you think they'll cater to the west coast? I'm sure those hipsters would appreciate a road trip!

I include a picture of me at the Met(ropolitan Opera) holding a glass of champagne, which I foolishly lined up for during the intermission (I saw Rigoletto, it was a fantastic experience). Guess how much it cost? I shall answer at the end of this post. It was pink champagne, if that makes any difference!

My final great foodie visit was to Eataly, the new Italian food complex created by Mario Batali along with partners Lidia and Joe Bastianich. It is a massive place, filled with markets (vegetables, fish, cheeses, meats, wines, pastas, sweets and coffee), twelve restaurants (from high-end Manzo to the very casual Caffe Lavaza or Gelateria), and hundreds of people. There are classes to take (language, cooking, wine-tasting, etc), demonstrations and all sorts of events and high-profile guests, all to promote Italian food and cooking. It's all absolutely amazing, as you can probably imagine.

I'm including this map of the site; it doesn't really convey how huge Eataly is, but you can see all the different departments. It's like the Macy's of food! I explored most of them, whilst Jenny gave up after a bit, as it was pretty crazy in there. I got some prosciutto, some salami, some dolce gorgonzola (really good, not too much bite), some ciabatta, some Italian lemonade and some dolci (chocolate truffles) and joined Jenny for a picnic lunch outside. This was one of those times that I wished I properly enjoyed coffee, as they had a beautiful coffee bar there, and it smelled delightful.

Whew! That's the majority of my foodventures in NYC. When you're eating cheaply, it's a great city. Almost every sort of food culture is well-represented. In New York I ate Swedish food, Jewish food, Italian food, southern soul food, New England food, German food, Japanese food, and a lot of foods that, though they originated elsewhere, have become a part of New York's identity.I feel like I got a broad overview of the city, but NYC is a foodie town, and there are thousands of restaurants, great and small, there. One day I hope to eat at Per Se or the Gramercy Tavern or Babbo, but for now I'm perfectly happy with my cheap eats! One last picture of a reflected New York, and thanks for persevering with me through this massive post!

P.S. My pink champagne at the Met was $17 for the glass. What do you think? Too much? :D


Leeeeesha said...

Laura, what an epic post! You sure covered a lot of culinary ground while in New York.

Personally, I think that eating cheaply is the best way to do it when you're on a trip like that. You got to experience so much more than if you'd opted for a couple of expensive dinners - not to mention the thrill of finding those surprising local gems!

And reading about your foodventures really made me miss New York, with all its hustle and bustle and liveliness. It's been about 15 years since I was there last, so of course I've been having cravings for the city ever since. Perhaps Chris and I will make New York our next urban retreat . . .

moyrad said...

I am so jealous! I bet you could eat at a different restaurant everyday of your life in New York.
Definitely want to try those delis - a big stacked cornbeef, smoked meat,or pastrami sandwich sounds delicious. My mouth is watering right now.
Let's try Five Guys when the sun comes out again.It would be a good summer place.
I would eat the thighs and may be a savory pie but i will leave the fruity pies to the rest of you.
Can't wait to have my own New York foodxperiences!

The Abecediarist said...

Leesh! I know, it was a bit of a mega-post. But I'm grateful that there are readers out there!

I agree about the cheap eats, I think there are so many places that make amazing food at really reasonable prices (in NYC and here!), thankfully. You two should definitely plan a visit, no doubt involving a lot of architecture alongside the foodventures!

Michelle! Probably you could, especially as many restaurants would close down and new ones start up in their place. You shall have to be the Jew I could never be, and eat a lot of pastrami during your foodxperiences! Trust, the peanut butter pie might convert you!

Meg Whetung said...

Amazing post Laura! I so enjoyed reading this. Thank you for including so many photos – they really set the scene for all the food. It's especially cool to see the menus and restaurant interiors. Oh to be there right now! I can happily help Michelle out with making up for your pastrami avoidance – I looooove smoked meat sandwiches.

We have to go to Five Guys! We ate at Hamburger Mary's last night, and while it's always satisfying, I'd definitely join a search for a better burger...

I saw Martha's spot on Pies 'n' Thighs and am dying to try it one day. Mmmmm biscuits.

I want it all! Thank you for sharing :)