When we touched down at JFK my eyes misted up with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. A bright blue sky framed the skyscrapers on the horizon, the smell of pizza permeated the baggage claim area (really!), and the Lebanese cab driver who immediately (and proudly) informed us that he’d beaten up his last passenger. More than anywhere else this feels like home to me. Granted, my entire week there was tinged with rose-colored glasses because really, nothing beats New York City on a crisp Fall day, and we had a succession of them. By October the tourists have gone home (well, for the most part) and you can spend hours wandering up and down and across and around the wide sidewalks. I love getting caught up with energy that sweeps you up and carries you along from the moment you step outside your front door. And while during my past few visits to New York I’ve quickly become annoyed at being a tourist in a city I called home for so long, this time I somehow let go and just enjoyed seeing friends, shopping and eating and eating and eating.
I cannot write any more about our trip though, without first shouting from the rooftops that my talented and very handsome husband won an Emmy Award for his reporting in Syria alongside Richard Engel, John Kooistra, Ammar Cheikhomar, and Aziz Akyavas. Really, the Emmy ceremony is why we were in NYC in the first place, the food was just a happy necessity. Statue in hand, after drinking too much champagne and eating two slices of perfect pepperoni pizza from a 24 hour hole in the wall next to our hotel, it was on to the serious job of eating and exploring.
The Huffington Post named Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria one of the ten best Italian restaurants in the US earlier this week. I’d have to agree! Crispy artichokes, scrumptuous octopus with nuggets of fregola on top, marinated razor clams, little gems salad with anchovies – yeah, and that was just to start. We then tried pastas, my favorite was the italian sausage with green onions, but I give them credit for a strong cacio e pepe spaghetti because it’s nearly impossible to find one that beats the version we had in Rome earlier this year. We also had a whole branzino and sauteed kale with mustard and anchovies – two items that were on just about every menu in Manhattan, it seemed. The only niggle in our meal was that I felt rushed. We had a 10:30 pm reservation (our friend works until 10pm) and our waitress seemed impatient and huffy from the very start and during the second part of our meal staff did everything short of mop under our table to let us know that we were no longer welcome. Don’t accept a late reservation if you don’t want to serve a proper full meal to your customers. I found no fault with the food. Front of house should take a page from the kitchen’s book.
For lunch the next day we stumbled upon a local chain called The Meatball Shop. You’d think we’d be sick and tired of Italian food but no, we perservered. The space at their East 70s location was unique and stylish and the concept winning. First you pick the kind of meatball you want, then your sauce or gravy, then what you’d like them served on. I chose pork meatballs in a basic tomato sauce served on polenta. My darling other half chose beef meatballs with mushroom gravy and some focaccia. A small side salad of arugula and tart green apples for us to share, and my friends, you have a winning lunch. If I lived here I’d be fat from meatballs. At the time we didn’t know that there are meatball outposts throughout the city, so if you’re looking for a hearty, not eye-wateringly expensive meal, there’s probably one near you.
That evening found me at the Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune, a chef’s favorite since it opened 14 years ago. I loved Hamilton’s book, have watched Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert gush over it, but can I say it didn’t live up to the hype? A couple of years ago I dragged my parents here for Sunday brunch. I stood in line before it even opened and we got a table right away but the food left me a little cold. Similarly my bone marrow with parsley salad and grey salt felt unloved and my branzino was….well, it was branzino, nothing special. That said, I did love my friend’s starter of fried green tomatoes with a buttermilk sauce, but the rest, in all its simplicity, was a little lacklustre. I don’t have pictures as I was seeing an old friend and sometimes I just want a night off from the note-taking and phone at the ready. The company certainly won out over the food.
I was on my own for lunch Friday and remember my sister Ellen telling me I had to try the Mandoo Bar near Herald Square. Dumpling heaven!! It’s a Korean dumping bar, tiny, sleek and unpolished. The staff get you in and out quickly and for those lucky enough to work or live nearby, they seem to offer a roaring take-out service. As I waited in line for a spot I watched the ladies in the front windows making dumplings at lightning speed. What I would give for their skills! Once seated I was given a bowl of pickled daikon radish and a small salad, followed quickly by my crispy spicy pork dumplings. They were beautifully spiced – I could eat them every day! For a main I tried the Mandoo ramen that came with a couple more dumplings and a rich, healthy feeling broth. Perfection. Thank you for the tip Ellen!
Friday night found us without plans or really any idea of what we should do with ourselves and frankly, we were both a little worn out. As we wandered around the streets of the Lower East Side, all of the restaurants, full of hipsters and beautiful people out to meet others like themselves, seemed like a lot of hard work to us. I do declare we’re getting old! As we neared Houston Street, I remembered Katz’s Deli, yeah, that one from When Harry Met Sally. Now, I’ve devoured a lot of corned beef in my time, but I’m ashamed to say I had never been to Katz’s. Yes, it was full of sightseers and the ambiance is simply what it is, but it was really fun. I had to guide my husband through the ordering process as it’s about as New York as you can get, but we both ended up with huge sandwiches (mine corned beef, his brisket), pickles and coleslaw. We even happened to snag the very table where that famous scene with Meg Ryan and her orgasm, was filmed. What I would do for that corned beef sandwich right now (salt beef over here just doesn’t cut it)!
Union Square Market is one of my “happy places.” So when Saturday morning came and the sky was still blue, I dragged my husband out of bed and down to 14th Street. We kept thinking we’d stop and get something to eat here or try a snack there, but nothing was quite hitting the right note. As we made our way West, I settled on where we were going but kept it a secret from my lovely partner – he had no clue we were even close. And soon we arrived at the steps up to Red Farm in the West Village, finally fulfilling his craving for Chinese food. Now, I’ve extolled the virtues of Red Farm in my previous post on where to eat in New York, but as they’ve just opened up a second restaurant on the Upper West Side, let me say again, you must eat here. Eggs Benedict for brunch be damned! Give me crispy beef and soup dumplings any day. We gorged ourselves on the pastrami egg roll, crispy beef (the fried lemongrass garnish is something I’m stealing for my own dishes), the fried duck and crab dumplings, and crab noodles. Even my jasmine peach iced tea was divine. No, it’s not authentic, but it does what New York dining does so well. It has mixed and matched what’s best from lots of cuisines. As we strolled through nearby Chelsea Market afterwards, I felt absolutely content.
My final day in the city dawned and I very nearly veered towards a funk about leaving. Instead I hurried us down to Dominique Ansel’s Bakery on Spring Street in SOHO to try and snag one of the most talked about pastries on the planet: the Cronut. It’s a hybrid croissant and donut created by pastry chef Ansel, that’s created such a frenzy there’s been news reports about it and the lines stretch for blocks, selling out quickly every day. Bakeries are rushing to create their own versions of the Cronut, but I wanted to try the original (if we could just get there before they sold out). We were told we were lucky, we only had to wait about 20 minutes and while we were sitting eating them the last Cronut of the day was sold, so we got in just under the wire. As a self-proclaimed conisseur of donuts, I have to say, this pastry is pretty delicious. The flavor of the month is caramel apple with creme fraiche, and glob of the filling accompanies every bite. Waiting for a pastry might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but there was a sense of comraderie in the line, people sharing stories about previous waits, Cronut mythology, if you will.
We wandered through SOHO as all of the shops were just opening. Ah, Sunday in New York. My flight wasn’t until evening, so we had time for one more treat and I knew just where I wanted to take my Emmy winning man – Little Owl. Now, I hadn’t ever been for brunch, but I did win dinner at this tiny spot in the West Village back when I was in Culinary School. There was a competition on someone’s blog, sadly I can’t remember who, but dinner was out of this world. Brunch was no disappointment (and I’m always pleased when a place that was so good years ago has maintained its standards). I ordered eggs benedict – this version had greens, a fontina biscuit base and a sausage patty under the poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. We also had an order of their famous meatball sliders and a bibb lettuce, beet, squash, pumpkin seed and parmesan salad. I still don’t know how the chefs here produce such great food in their shoebox-sized kitchen, but a meal here has never failed me.
On the plane home, my jeans decidedly more snug that on the trip over, I made a few notes about the things I loved from our week in New York. Apparently you have to put kale somewhere on your menu these days, pork still reigns supreme, Italian food is evolving and flourishing, and Asian fusion has come leap years from its origins in the 80s. I hope that here I’ve captured for you just a few of my favorite moments and morsels. I’ll be back over there for all of November, so if you have suggestions of places you think I should try, please let me know! I often feel like I’m making the rounds of the places I loved when I last lived there in 2007, so much has changed and yet I’m surprised at how much stays the same.