Travels

Food and the City: Only in NY

The Shake Shack

When I left for NYC armed with a highly enthusing list of suggestions, recommendations and must-eats, I was determined to make the culinary most of my stay. But in a city such as this, it can certainly be an overwhelming mission statement: where do you start, what do you choose, where do you go? As often in the trickier situations of life, forethought and discernment are key. A mental list was drawn in which I gathered my priorities, and among them, high up in the list, those food items that most distinctly say “New York City” to me.

Bagels @ Murray’s

Rising early on Sunday morning (a happy effect of the jetlag), we skipped the uninteresting hotel breakfast and walked out into the sunshine to begin the day’s adventures — the savvy food-traveler knows that every meal is a precious opportunity, and he can’t let low blood sugar get in the way of proper fulfillment. Thankfully in this instance, breakfast was right around the corner, in the form of Murray’s Bagels. The shop was small and dim, and one could sense a bustling activity going on behind the counter and out of view — the staff surely kneading, poaching and baking frantically to satisfy the bagel needs of the good people of New York.

For anyone who has yet to visit this type of bagel spot, what you do is choose the kind of bagel you want (plain, poppyseed, sesame, rye, onion, garlic, but also cinnamon, raisin, etc.). They will slice the bagel horizontally, optionally toast it (but many a New Yorker claims that this is heresy for a good bagel), spread it thickly with the spread of your choice (sometimes referred to as “schmear” and usually cream-cheese based), reassemble the bagel, cut it in two half-moons for easier handling, wrap it up in paper and place the whole thing in a brown paper bag.

Maxence ordered a poppyseed bagel with cream cheese while I, ever the indecisive, got an everything bagel (that’s a bagel with all the available savory seasonings) with cream cheese. At Murray’s they don’t toast the bagels (oh god no), but if you’re lucky and/or an early riser, your bagel will be just coming out of the oven. We sat outside on the wooden bench (those welcoming benches being one of my favorite features of New York) and munched on our bagels, still wonderfully warm and oozing with cream cheese. After eating half of mine I had to give up the fight and reflected that we could easily have shared one, but Maxence didn’t seem to agree, though with his mouth full I couldn’t tell for sure what he was saying.

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Food and the City: Ethnic Restaurants

Tofu and Vegetable Arepa

And let me open this week’s program with more food memories from my trip to New York City, introducing a handful of ethnic restaurants. (Apologies for the not-so-great picture, I only had my phone with me when I encountered this arepa!)

Dim-sum @ Golden Bridge

I will start with a sore disappointment and just get it out of the way. Maxence and I love dim-sum, the kind that comes on a cart wheeled around by little ladies through a loud ballroom-sized restaurant, packed full with families and screaming children. Catching the cart-lady as she glides by, watching intently as she opens the different bamboo baskets to show you what she has, asking what this or that is and failing to understand, hurrying to choose so she won’t get impatient and leave, having her apply the appropriate stamp on your ticket, picking up a little dumpling with your chopsticks, blowing on it so you won’t scald your tongue then dipping it in chili sauce, gobbling it up and starting all over again — this was a favorite Sunday brunch meal when we were in California. We haven’t been able to find a good and easily accessible equivalent here in Paris (the New Nioulaville in Belleville is but a sad ersatz) so we were eager to indulge in it again in New York.

At the Golden Bridge in Chinatown, where we chose to go on Sunday after a fun walk around the fascinating food stores, the ambiance was just right — fight for a number then wait in the crowded lobby until the lady calls your number, in Chinese then in English, in the screaming microphone — but the food, unfortunately, didn’t deliver: the dumplings were greasy and tasteless and barely lukewarm. Oh well.

Sushi @ Hedeh

Hedeh is an upscale sushi bar that had been recommended to us by Kate, just off of Lafayette. We went there for dinner on Saturday night — after a long and surreal search for the street which inexplicably wasn’t where it should have been, until we realized the map in the Lonely Planet guidebook had a major misprint — and absolutely loved it. The place is a little odd because you first have to walk through a dimly lit cocktail bar — making you fear that this is just a trendy bar serving sushi, not an actual sushi bar — before you reach a reassuringly traditional restaurant room, decorated like 99% of Japanese restaurants in the Western world.

We sat at the bar so we could admire the sushi chefs’ skills while we ordered and shared an assortment of appetizers (small bites of fish or chicken with different sauces and garnishes), a sushi platter, as well as a couple sushi (uni and unagi) and one roll (my beloved spicy California) from the menu. (Strangely enough, an order of sushi got you just one, something I’ve never seen in any other Japanese restaurant — I thought an order of sushi was universally understood as a pair.) Everything was absolutely delicious and beautifully plated, the assortments featuring more than just the usual suspects, and the fish super fresh.

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Food and the City: Upscale Restaurants

Crispy softshell crab (Jean Georges)

During my stint in NYC, I had the occasion to dine at a few restaurants that I would qualify as upscale — Jean Georges, Blue Hill and Babbo — a very pleasant experience I will now gladly relate.

Jean Georges

The first in this series was Jean Georges, to which I went for lunch. I was very excited about it, having heard a lot about the Alsatian chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose innovative cuisine mixes French and Asian influences. We were there on the perfect summer day (quite fitting as it was, in fact, the summer solstice) and the warm cream-colored room was drenched in sunlight. Our waiter presented us with the lunch menu and explained that it offered “small plates” adapted from the dinner menu and not particularly arranged in terms of first or main courses. He said that three was usually a good number (nice try) but we opted for two, especially since some of us (ahem) wanted to save a little room for dessert. While ordering, I tried to steer clear of the dishes that sounded very French, and went instead for those that seemed to demonstrate the chef’s inventivity. We also ordered Claret from Sonoma, by the glass.

They started us off with a platter of three amuse-bouche — a peekytoe crab salad (peekytoe is a variety of crab, but I mistakenly understood “piquito” and thought the salad had some kind of Mexican pepper in it) topped with a thin slice of dried onion, a beet and balsamic salad served in a spoon and decorated with a peeled cherry tomato (which gave it the most alien, interesting look), and a papaya, coconut and lemongrass soup with chive froth served in a high shot glass — all three very tasty, pretty to look at and fun to eat, precisely the qualities you expect from a good amuse-bouche.

My first plate was Crispy softshell crab, served on a piece of avocado with sticks of cucumber, and a lime and crystallized ginger vinaigrette that the waiter poured on in front of me. (Tableside sauce pouring was something that they did on three occasions over the course of the meal: this is sort of fun, but it can also be a little awkward if the timing is not right and you start forking in before they come with the finishing touch.) Softshell crabs are crabs that have just newly molted, so they are still small, and their shell is still, well, soft, so the whole thing can be eaten (and don’t you oh-poor-adolescent-crab me). This dish had so many of my trigger ingredients that I simply couldn’t pass it (Crab, avocado, lime and ginger? Dish! Will you marry me?) and it was indeed just what I’d hoped, a great combination of tastes and textures, very refreshing.

The second plate I ordered was the Soy-glazed veal cheeks, served with a dollop of celeriac purée and topped with an apple-jalapeño salad. It didn’t strike me at the time, but now that I reflect upon it this wasn’t a very seasonal dish (stewed meat? with celery root? and apple? in late June?). I enjoyed it very much all the same, the sauce subtly flavorful and the meat extremely tender. I did however feel that the apple-jalapeño salad could have stood up for itself a bit more. (Apple, jalapeño! Speak up, we want to hear you too!)

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Food and the City: Midscale and Lunch Restaurants

Pan Bagna

Now that my sweet NYC memories are safely tucked away (leave it to me to put dessert first, always!), we have quite a bit of savory ground to cover, and I will start with a little batch of midscale/lunch places: ‘Ino, Freemans, Pearl Oyster Bar and Teany (see end of post for coordinates).

‘Ino

On Friday night I stepped out of the plane, a bit dizzy from the voyage but excited and more importantly, hungry — it’s nice of the airline to provide a pre-landing breakfast snack, but um, what was that thing in the cellophane bag exactly? I got to my hotel in the Village, dropped my stuff, freshened up, and went out again for a little reconnaissance walk. On Bedford Street I noticed the tiny ‘Ino, a kitchen-less Italian wine bar that’s equipped with a handy-dandy sandwich press, from which they churn out fresh and tasty panini — on bread from the Blue Ribbon Bakery just across the street — as well as antipasti, bruschetta and tramezzini.

I opted to have half a panino with a side of greens, and chose the one with portobello mushrooms, sundried tomato pesto and grana — an Italian cow’s milk cheese that’s somewhat similar to parmesan. The grilled sandwich was absolutely delicious (if a little salty) and the greens struck me as particularly flavorful, lightly dressed and peppery, just the way I like them.

Freeman’s

The next morning (Maxence having arrived late in the night) we went for a walk through Soho, Nolita and the Lower East Side, and decided to go to Freemans for brunch. This was tricky to find: the address we had said Chrystie Street, but when we got to it the restaurant was nowhere to be seen, so we asked a nearby store keeper, who kindly pointed us — this was probably not the first time she had to redirect would-be brunchers — to a tiny blind alley which we had passed just moments before. The restaurant is hidden at the very end of Freeman Alley, you really have to know it’s there to find it, and that’s probably the whole point: I later learned that it had been recently much buzzed about as a low-profile, best-kept-secret type of place. It was however almost empty when we got there (around 1pm on a Saturday) and we took a seat in the rather dark room, interestingly decorated with patinaed wooden furniture and taxidermist trophies on the walls.

We chose two dishes from the brunch menu and rotated halfway through, as we like to do when eager to try different options: one was an egg, bacon and spinach skillet, which came in its individual cast-iron pan, creamy and golden-topped with gruyère. The other one was a lamb and parsley sausage (in fact two patties of sausage) served with two poached eggs on a watercress salad. We were also served thick and pre-buttered toasts of sourdough bread, which were a little too dry (stale?) for my taste. Both dishes were good and well seasoned, but somewhat heavy on the butter and cream and general saturated fat. And frankly the ambiance was a tad gloomy: the place is probably a better spot at dinnertime when it comes alive and you can fully enjoy the dim lights and the company of wall-mounted dead animals!

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Food and the City: All Things Sweet

Original Glazed Doughnut

In my mind, one of the most defining (and endearing) features of American cuisine is its shameless, over-the-top sweet tooth: giant chunky cookies with a tender heart, proud muffins that could feed a family of four, voluptuous cakes slathered with frosting, life buoy sized doughnuts, velvety ice-cream loaded with goodies… I love them all, and I was determined to use my vacation in NYC to get a taste of some of my favorites — the keyword here being “a taste”, so as not to spoil my appetite when there were so many other things begging to be eaten just a block away.

Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery

I had heard and read so much about The Cupcake Craze that this little piece of pastry stardom could simply not be overlooked — I know, I know, this is so 2003, but you’ll have to excuse this Parisian girl, said craze hasn’t reached us yet (and who knows if it ever will). I knew about the Magnolia Bakery of course (and was even given their first book as a gift) so I went to check it out on my very first day if only to see the line. But there was none at all, which was sort of a disappointment: it would have been fun to watch, a bit like the line outside Pierre Hermé‘s boutique. I did enjoy the magic marker sign that said “Limit: one dozen cupcakes per customer”, but was somehow none too tempted by the girly-girl pastel swirls that they sported.

I held out instead until the next day, when Maxence and I were strolling around the Lower East Side, and I (ahem) steered us towards the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery on Rivington, recommended by Andi for its “delectable cupcakes done right”. This bakery was in fact started by former Magnolia employees, and I had heard that their cupcakes were tastier, and that the service and prices were better, too. We stepped inside, took a deep long whiff of the sweet baking smells, and chose to share a sexy red velvet cupcake, with satin buttercream frosting and little heart-shaped sprinkles — I mean, with a name like that, it simply must be shared, right?

Delicious and moist and certainly the perfect first bite into the World of Cupcakes, but the real highlight was this incredible happenstance: as we were walking out, a girl sitting at a table near the door, neatly sharing assorted cupcakes with her boyfriend, looked up at me and asked: “Excuse-me, are you Clotilde?”. Completely taken aback, I was amazed to realize that this was Molly, whom I had almost met in Paris, whose blog Orangette I faithfully read, and who had in fact recognized Maxence from a pic she had seen on C&Z! Molly, visiting from Seattle, happening to be at the exact same moment in the exact same NYC bakery as yours truly, visiting from Paris? I mean, what were the odds? We chatted for a few moments, decided that New York was a small city when you knew where to eat, talked about cupcakes, blogs and the world’s best pizza and then went our separate gastronomical ways, leaving me with the lingering suspicion that I had maybe just dreamed this utterly improbable and delightful encounter.

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