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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Eating My Way Through NY

What is a mecca? I feel as if it is the appropriate word to describe New York City (among other words), at least in terms of this usage: “A place that is regarded as the center of an activity or interest.” Okay, yes, that works. Then again, so does this one: “a goal to which adherents of a religious faith or practice fervently aspire.” Okay, yes, that works, too. While the first usage seems appropriate, as NYC is indeed the epicenter of several “activities or interests” (rabid baseball fans, public transportation, theater, crazy taxicab drivers, etc.), the second is a bit more questionable. Unless, of course, you know me.

Because I very much believe that food (or cuisine) qualifies as a “religious faith or practice.” Consider for a moment that food is so intertwined in the religions and faiths of the world. (Look no further than the culinary traditions of this Holy Week: Passover (no leavened food products) and eggs for Easter. Also consider the holiness of cows in the Hindu faith, the kosher traditions of Judaism, and the various food traditions of Christianity and Catholicism (pan dulce during El Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, for example)). In short, food is so vital to the countless faiths of this world that it is no stretch to also consider it its own practice or faith. After all, don’t we all believe in some higher being when it comes to food—that elusive meal that seems to transcend the taste buds and truly transport you to some far off place, like the distant memory of some wonderful past meal? Therefore, you could very much say that I, as a firm believer in the religion of Food, “fervently aspire” to NYC in order to bow at the shrine of cuisine that very much transcends the taste buds.

New York is the place to try new things. I don’t ever go so far as to say, “Hey, how about a nice plate of calf’s liver!” but I do take the opportunity to sample foods that I would not ordinarily prepare at home (which isn’t saying much, considering that I eat mainly apples, oatmeal, milk and coffee, and yogurt at home—but that’s not really the point here) or that I have never before tried. Case in point: the poached egg.

There is something so richly satisfying about a runny yolk (skip over this part, mom), its oozy goodness slowly pouring into the crevices of a toasty piece of bread or crisp roasted potato. But I had never had a poached egg before, mainly because I don’t go out for breakfast that often (read: ever) and its preparation seems rather tedious. (I’m more of a scrambled egg girl at home.) Nevertheless, I fully intended to experience a poached egg in NYC. Luckily, I was able to enjoy that runny yolk twice in NYC—at Quartino, with pumpkin and asparagus; and at Nizza, in a chickpea pancake that deserves its own spotlight.
Nevertheless, in an attempt to simplify matters, here is a meal-by-meal analysis of my food mecca to New York City:
Quartino Bottega Organica: Poached eggs with pumpkin and asparagus, along with a side of roasted potatoes. This is the kind of thing that seems as if it would be filling, but is actually deliciously satisfying. The secret player here was the potatoes, which achieved the ideal texture: crisp, flavorful crust that gave way to tender, creamy innards. Success.

For a coffee, Abraco: The highlight was the girl who walked in after us and asked for her coffee to be prepared for her with milk and a Splenda. Even I knew that this wasn’t that kind of place.
Cacio e Pepe: a first course starter of freshly-prepared mozzarella cheese was absolutely delicious. Seriously, this cheese was so fresh that the inside was still creamy like a soft cheese, which contrasted nicely with the edges, which resembled a firmer mozzarella cheese that you may be more accustomed to. That was served with prosciutto and other accoutrements. Also, we got a free arugula and pear salad, which was delicious with a slightly sweet, slightly tart balsamic vinaigrette (the way balsamic just is). The warm mushroom and artichoke salad with pistachios was the real highlight for me, though. Because mushrooms and artichokes sort of look alike when warm, it was hard to discern which was which, but it was just so freaking awesome, it didn’t matter. Deliciousness. The main course was a ragu of sorts with black olives and calamari. The pasta was a shape I’m not so familiar with. Imagine pappardelle cut into triangular shapes and you get the gist. Red sauce pastas are my all-time favorite, so this dish was automatically a winner. Also note that the calamari was prepared simply—not fried. This is the way to enjoy calamari, readers. I often times feel as if fried calamari is over prepared, overdone, and overexposed, so this preparation was the answer to my prayers. Every person should try it. For dessert, it was poached pear with cinnamon ice cream, which was so intensely cinnamon (never a problem in my book; you should see my oatmeal every morning) and complemented the subtle sweetness of the pears perfectly.

Nizza for brunch: Okay, I tried the chickpea pancake here and oh wow was it delicious. Seriously, it was addictive in some strange way. It’s called socca and was filled with pecorino cheese, onions, and crispy sage leaves on top. Of course, the real kicker was the two eggs on top, which once again lent their runny yolkiness to the dish, totally enhancing it all.

Dean & Deluca, for a delicious oatmeal raisin cookie: This is what every cookie should aspire to be: crispy on the edges, wonderfully chewy everywhere else, with the perfect balance between sweet/tart raisins and earthy oats. Success again.

Becco: Let me just get this straight off the bat: Becco is my favorite restaurant. I would, no joking aside, move to NYC just to be able to eat at this restaurant once a week (or once a month, but definitely more often than the yearly rate I have going now). I have dreamy thoughts about the pasta at this place. It is just that good. Everyone should go. I recommend it to anyone, no questions asked.

Okay, so to start the Caesar salad, which is nothing special, but nevertheless really good. The antipasto misto is definitely more interesting: different odds and ends of antipasto, like oven-roasted tomatoes, white beans, potato and octopus salad, grilled squashes, etc. Especially yummy. The three different pastas that night, in order of my liking: fresh spaghetti (and you can taste the difference) with tomato sauce and fresh basil was astounding yet so simple; fussili with four (or five?) cheeses and a bread crumb topping (basically Italian mac and cheese)—I’m guessing the cheeses were parmesan, mozzarella, taleggio, fontina, and/or pecorino; and penne with onions and slow-roasted beef brisket.

I was tempted to order the dessert sampler for dessert but I was pretty full from the multiple helpings of pasta and it seemed everyone else was, too, and I didn’t want to leave a giant pile of desserts uneaten, so I went for the ricotta cheesecake instead. A word about this ricotta cheesecake: It’s not like a traditional cheesecake. It’s definitely lighter and the crust isn’t as crisp, but the creaminess of the ricotta is much different from the creaminess of cream cheese, making the cake a lot different than the cakes I’ve enjoyed in the past.

Amy’s Bread at Chelsea’s Market (plus a smoothie from Friedman’s): A delicious bran and flaxseed muffin gave a whole new meaning to the “health food” that you might imagine when you hear the words “bran” and “flaxseed.” It was delicious and, most importantly, moist, with a few raisins mixed in. I definitely aspire to one day be able to master the art of baking like Amy Scherber.

The New French for lunch: I enjoyed a bowl of Pho (a spicy Vietnamese (?) soup) with broccoli, bok choy, more veggies, and noodles. I also got a half of a grilled cheese sandwich, which was one of the best I’d ever enjoyed—buttery brioche and gooey, melted Gruyere cheese. This is really how grilled cheese should be done, folks. Also worth mentioning: the gargantuan cafe au lait that I enjoyed with lots of yummy FOAMED milk on top. Because froth just makes everything better.
Good for dinner: A tomato cazuela to start, which was basically a sweet tomato sauce and goat cheese baked in an earthenware dish and served with grilled bread; a mixed green salad with aged cheddar, roasted pears and pecans, and an apple cider vinaigrette; and scallops with brussels sprouts, lentils, and apple fritters. Yummy.

Gelato at L’Arte del Gelato: This was the first time that I’ve ever had gelato, I think. I had one scoop each of the yogurt with berry and biscotti flavors, which were both intensely flavored. The yogurt flavor was tart like good yogurt should be, and the biscotti flavor had a nice sweetness to it that actually balanced out the tartness in the yogurt.

Stone Park Cafe for lunch: The appetizers were a fresh pea soup (delicious peas!) with crème fraiche and crispy prosciutto and an escarole salad with a wonderful lemon vinaigrette. Both were successes. The entrees were the real winners, though. Holy—they were absolutely delectable. One was a homemade tagliatelle with smoked salmon that had been cooked in some way so as to make the outside crisp but still maintain a moist interior, fava beans, and braised fennel. It was absolutely outstanding. The real surprise, though, was the hanger steak. Normally I don’t eat red meat, but this steak was so flavorful and cooked to a perfect medium rare. It was accompanied by spaetzle (a type of European dumpling) that was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and a dried olive garnish that, while not the centerpiece of the dish, definitely contributed a salty bite that was really important. The desserts were so good: panna cotta with a blood orange sauce and thin biscotti cookie was tasty, as were the flavors of gelato: coconut, sour cherry, and pear. My favorite was the coconut flavor, which—even though the gelato itself was cold, duh—tasted warm and nutty. Worth noting: clean plates all around.

Otto for dinner: This was freaking awesome. We started with two small plates of vegetables: brussels sprouts with red peppers in a balsamic glaze and mixed mushrooms. These are two of my favorite vegetables. There is nothing better than roasted vegetables. Ask anyone who knows my regular eating habits and he will tell you that roasted vegetables is my favorite dinner. Because I’ll eat just that for dinner often. Ooh, it’s so good, so obviously I enjoyed this immensely.

We also enjoyed a delicious thin crust pizza with tomato, mozzarella, and prosciutto. The pasta puttanesca was even better in my opinion, though. Absolutely delectable. Again, red sauce is my favorite accompaniment to pasta.
Black Hound for dessert: Oh. My. God. This was delicious. Apple and pecan pie with a cookie crust was extremely tasty. The cookie crust was a welcome change from the regular pie pastry. But my absolute favorite (and perhaps the best cake I’ve eaten—ever) was the gianduja (chocolate and hazelnut) cake with little flowers of almond goodness and toasted hazelnuts. Seriously, the buttercream here was so insanely delicious and I absolutely have overcome my marzipan aversion because the marzipan flowers were my favorite part. Confession: I went back for seconds.

Kitchenette for breakfast: This was a true gem. I absolutely love long, lingering meals where I can just relax and the laid-back feel at this (way) uptown diner allowed me to do that. I ordered the farmhouse breakfast, which came with two eggs (I got mine scrambled this time), cheese grits or potatoes (I chose grits), and a wonderfully light biscuit that came with an apricot jam that was divine. The true star of this meal was the biscuit, though. I hope that I can one day turn out biscuits that airy and delectable. (And my mom’s blueberry pancakes weren’t too shabby, either.)
Becco for dinner (again): Okay, so Becco is definitely the place to indulge, but I totally felt that it was well-earned after walking something like eight thousand blocks that day. So maybe it wasn’t that many, but we walked from 123rd street to 93rd street (running count: 30 blocks) and over probably about 10 (40 blocks). Then we took the bus to 74th street, and walked all the way to Central Park South (55 blocks) and then through Central Park (70 blocks) and then to Becco at 46th street (85 blocks). We then walked all the way home from the West Village (100 blocks). That’s 100 blocks, give or take (mostly likely give). But on to the food, which was justified by our marathon that day.
So I started again with the antipasto misto, which somehow was better. Those grilled veggies are scrumptious. They were running the fresh spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil again, so I of course got a second helping of that. They also had orrecchiete with bacon and tomatoes, which was also rich and delicious. The real surprise, though, was the semolina gnocchi, which really should have been called “little pillows of heaven.” Seriously, they were that good. It’s hard to describe the flavor, because it definitely was not gnocchi-like in that there wasn’t a predominant potato flavor. But they were so good. Little coins of goodness. And this time I finished the ricotta cheesecake.

Murray’s Bagels for breakfast: This place was good, too. Reminded me of a NY institution, but we were able to comfortably settle down for about an hour with our bagels. Mine was a whole wheat with tomato and lox. Yum. The juice I had was also good—pomegranate or something to that effect, but thirst-quenching nonetheless.
August for lunch: Okay, so our final meal in NY was definitely memorable. August has this wonderful outdoor patio/greenhouse in the back and it was actually a beautiful day (go figure) so we really got to enjoy the weather. I had the roasted beet salad with goat’s milk yogurt panna cotta, greens, and a pickled beet puree. This was outstanding. I love the subtle flavor of roasted beets and they used the golden variety here in addition to the traditional red. The pickled beet puree had a wonderful tart flavor and was the most brilliant shade of pink. It’s amazing that nature can actually take on a hue that bright. Even the greens, which were refreshing and simply prepared, added another dimension. But the real winner here was the panna cotta. I’ve never had goat’s milk yogurt before, but I’m seeking it out wherever I go now. It was delicious: tart and creamy, and perfect with the earthy beets. Total success again.
The cherry on top of the sundae that was the trip was the chocolate pots de crème, an intense chocolate pudding that was cool and creamy. High marks also go to the whipped cream accompaniment, which, while seemingly an afterthought, really cuts the intensity of a dessert like this, which can become too rich. The fresh cream really balances out the flavors in this dish, though.

And so that was NY, more or less, as tasted by me. But there are still so many more places on “the list” that I didn’t get to visit. But there’s 51 weeks left until I can hopefully return to the city. And who knows how long the list will be by then? Too many places, too little time.

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Blogger Mary said...

wow, your food memory is amazing - no notes or anything, how did you remember all those details?? but I'm glad you did - thank you for getting it all written down!

Monday, 13 April, 2009  
Blogger Lydia said...

you definately have your own "voice" when you write-ny times food critic-watch out! agree about the mecca concept and poached eggs-andrew loves them as well, and has learned to turn them out quite nicely-can you recommend a place or two in philadelphia? thanks for sharing

Monday, 13 April, 2009  

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