Food and the City….Two weeks in New York

Food and the City….Two weeks in New York

You have to have a BIG appetite for New York. An appetite for the pace, the size and the big ideas that this city is brimming with.

As soon as you touchdown, you can’t help but feel your heart quicken in time with the energy and drive that is found everywhere, morning, noon and night. New York is a character…one that we know well even if we have never been there. No matter where you come from, exuberant New Yorkers will embrace you and very quickly you will find yourself in deep conversation…with the guy at the bar, the person waiting with you in the queue, the diners at the nearby table…they all want you to experience the best this city has to offer and they are fiercely proud of it.

Our two week immersion into the food scene of New York had us eating from dawn to the wee hours of the morning, exploring everything from street food and soul food to hot spots and five star dining…and I confess, when I left, I still wanted more. You see, New York just whets your appetite, you will never be fully satiated, because there is always more, something new to delve into and it’s always done to the max.

So I see this as just one chapter of my New York addiction…here’s a snapshot of our food experiences in this city on steroids.

MARKETS, FOOD COURTS & PROVIDORES

While Katz’s Deli is on the to do list for most tourists, for a taste of a real uptown New York/Jewish style deli head to Zabars for hand sliced lox, bagels and potato salad. Then take your stash for a few blocks’ walk to magnificent Central Park, find a picnic spot and relax. Best combined with a trip to the nearby Museum of Natural History.

For full on food overload, you can’t beat Chelsea Market. A neat-as-a-pin market mall that will leave you boggled for choice, especially if you go hungry. Hmmm…what to choose? Italian, Mexican, French, Asian, Seafood and there’s even an Aussie Tuck Shop.

People come from everywhere to queue up at Los Tacos No 1 but we settled on fresh fish tacos, vibrant prawn ceviche and agua fresca from their sister stall Los Mariscos that is tucked away inside the market but opens onto the street. To be honest though, I reallllly wish I had cracked into into a whole boiled Maine lobster from The Lobster Place…so beware, no matter what you choose to eat, this place will give you serious FOMO.

When you are feeling like Italian, make a beeline for Eataly. This is a full-on emporium dedicated to all things Italian and done to the max in true New York style. Again, your eyes will be bigger than your stomach so I recommend you do a full loop of everything that is on offer before making your decision on what and where to eat or what to take home to cook.

For a quick casual food hall bite, City Kitchen, underneath the ROW NYC hotel in Midtown, offers NYC fast food under one roof – whether you are after lobster rolls, tacos, sushi, ramen, burgers or donuts you’ll find it here in this slick city food hub.

9th AVENUE INTERNATIONAL FOOD FESTIVAL – May 2018

New York boasts many street markets and food festivals and it’s worth checking out what is on. While we were there, the 9th Avenue International Food Festival brought a world of flavours, sights and smells right to our doorstep as we were staying in Hell’s Kitchen. All sorts of street food – Mexican, Caribbean, Italian, Spanish, American BBQ, Asian as well as cannoli in a rainbow of flavours and dozens of donuts – lined the avenue for miles. The most popular item with a stall on every block was South American arepas – cornmeal griddle cakes filled with melted cheese that make the perfect street food snack fresh off the grill.

BEST OF THE BAKERIES

If you are after what truly is the best bread in New York, then head for the Sullivan Street Bakery. Here you will find Italian-style artisan breads and pastries created by Jim Lahey, famous for his revolutionary no-knead bread method. Pop into the cafe for a casual bite. There is a selection of breakfast rolls, sandwiches, pizza breads, foccacia, brioche, buns and bomboloni to sample but don’t leave without a loaf of his famous slow-risen bread with its crisp, dark, chewy crust, spongy centre and unbeatable flavour.

In Soho, the Dominique Ansel Bakery is a destination bakery for tourists and foodies alike due to its signature Cronut, the half croissant/half donut pastry sensation that had them queueing for miles, and they still  sell out the 300 they bake daily by mid-morning. But, never fear, there are plenty of other novelties to keep you amused…cookie shots, flowering hot chocolates, macarons in every flavour and frozen s’mores on a stick to name a few.

If you are cookie fiend, brave the queues for a taste of the famous cake-style cookies from the Levain Bakery in any one of the three locations in New York. There is always high demand for the various types of cookies here and although service is quick, you might wanna check the cookie line cam on their website to figure out wait times before you go!

Amy’s Bread has three locations in New York and specialises in hand made everything – great bread, superb American-style cakes, cute cupcakes, beautiful pies, pastries and savouries.

Touring around and feeling peckish? Then grab a soft, more-ish pretzel from Aunt Annie’s. They are freshly baked on site and much better than those chewy old ones from a street vendor. Love the cinnamon sugar ones…

 

SOUL FOOD, STREET FOOD & CAFES

The melting pot that is New York means that with a little exploration you can find some of the most authentic examples of world cuisine and good home-style cooking too. The cool Bushwick district of Brooklyn boasts an eclectic mix of restaurants, bars, street art and fashion boutiques and also a tortilla factory. Here, at the Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos double layers of freshly made tortillas are used to make hot off the grill tacos that hit the spot. It’s a pretty no fuss affair, so much so, you have to write your own order on a slip of paper before you get your taco on a paper plate. Drop in for a genuine Mexican snack when you are in the area.

It’s only because I tango that we found ourselves at the Spanish club, the Centro Espanol in Queens but it’s notable for the most authentic Spanish food that came out of their Circulo Restaurant and served in their old-school ballroom. Empanadas, garlic prawns, jamon and queso, galician octopus and a very fine paella valenciana fuelled us up for dancing well into the wee hours.

The latest Mexican hotspot in the Big City is La Esquina. It takes up a corner of Soho and has become a colourful landmark for the area. There is the taqueria, cafe and the subterranean brasserie which you need to book for well ahead. We ate casually in the cafe where you will find good examples of all the usual Mexican suspects…guac, quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas etc etc…

For a taste of true Southern-style soulfood you can’t beat Sylvia’s in Harlem, who is, after all known as ‘the Queen of Soulfood’. Really good Southern fried chicken, collard greens, okra, cornbread and peach cobbler to finish.

New Yorkers are squeezing themselves into this tiny Chinatown restaurant, Spicy Village, for a serving of their Big Tray Chicken to share. Pieces of slow cooked chicken and potatoes are simmered in a spicy Szechuan style sauce that is laden with cumin, fennel, star anise and coriander and served with their signature hand pulled noodles.  It’s so good it almost has a cult following.

Vegan, vegetarian and plant-based eating is a burgeoning trend globally and nobody does it better than The Butchers Daughter. This is ‘vegan dressed as lamb’ with a menu that squarely caters to the vegetarian that really would like to be eating meat. Meaty favourites like burgers, schnitzel, ceviche and carbonara get a vegetarian makeover and each dish is colourful, balanced and satisfying. Because it started as a specialty juice bar, there are juice shots and smoothies galore as well as the obligatory turmeric latte. It’s no secret that I am a bona fide meatlover, but I loved the freshness and the fun spirit of this place and the sophisticated presentation of vegetables in all their glory in this Nolita go-to spot.

COFFEE SPOTS

For Aussies, the quest for a good coffee when travelling in the USA, even in a metropolis the size of New York, is still a challenge. So much so, that ‘Australian-style’ coffee has become an actual thing in NYC! We found our fix at St Kilda Coffee, Five and Dime (for coffee or cocktails!), Ninth Street Espresso at Chelsea Market, Briciola and Great Circle Coffee from the Sullivan Street Bakery.

PIZZA & PASTA

The flavour and feistiness that Italian immigration brought with it to New York in the last century has dug in deep, both in the centre of the city and surrounding boroughs, particularly in Brooklyn. New York style pizza has evolved from the Neapolitan style and we were pretty happy with the pizza joints we found there. The grungy vibe of Roberta’s, set in a warehouse in arty Bushwick, is a fun place to be while you wait for their famous pizzas to emerge from that wood fired oven and the more traditional Delarocco’s in Brooklyn Heights make a mighty meatball pizza. By the way, when pizza is that good…you have to eat it with your fingers!

When you want a comforting bowl of pasta, cooked as close to home made as possible, in this big city, then head to Mamma Mia 44SW. This is a family run Italian restaurant and suited us for a jet-lag beating meal when we first arrived.  A starter of eggplant smothered in sauce and mozzarella got the juices flowing, followed by generous plates of pasta – clam linguini and ravioli with home made pesto, both good! It’s located in the theatre district so good for a pre-theatre meal too.

I love those serendipitous moments when you just decide to grab a quick bite at the restaurant across from your apartment, and it turns out to be one of the best meals of the trip! That’s what happened when I wandered into a packed to the rafters Esca and asked for a table for one…they squeezed me in.

This is a gentrified Italian that specialises in seafood, with polished, knowledgable wait staff and it seems to be a stalwart for seasoned New York locals and businessmen in noisy, deep conversation, with just the odd out-of-towner (me!). A complimentary appetiser of tuna and cannellini bean on crusty Italian bread and juicy black olives in chilli herb oil went well with a very affable Montepulciano as I settled in.

Just a little note about me – when I’m weary or down and out, I love to twirl….spaghetti, that is – so I couldn’t go past the Spaghetti with One Pound of Cracked Lobster. It arrived tossed with generous Maine lobster pieces, slow roasted sweet cherry toms and a hint of chilli in a fresh, fruity tomato sauce, finished with a burst of fresh mint – which was the genius bit.  I did not want that dish to end!  But, it did, and I was consoled by a generous serve of house made biscotti and petit fours served by the sweetest of waiters…and then my friend turned up for dessert (Limoncello Baba and Rhubarb Crostata) so that finished on a high note too.

I highly recommend Esca, you feel like you are in good hands from the front door to the kitchen to the table.

LATE NIGHT FIX

There is no shortage of late night hangouts in this City, here are a few to explore.

Bea in Hell’s Kitchen is both a brunch and dinner spot but we liked it best for cool cocktails and late night post-theatre supper snacks, particularly their Tuna Tartar with Guacamole and their Shrimp Toast that was more like a flatbread covered generously with more guacamole and juicy fat prawns.

And talking about cool, if you want to sink into some New York jazz vibes, head to the Roxy Hotel. Slurp a few down at the Oyster Bar, and listen to some easy jazz over a cocktail or two in the Roxy Bar, then head downstairs to the submerged Django jazz club for full jazz immersion (but make sure you book a cocktail table, otherwise you’ll be standing).

GRAND CENTRAL OYSTER BAR

If there is one experience any foodie should not miss, it is visiting the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Sit at the bar with fellow travellers and local New Yorkers and you will soon strike up conversation as you watch the chefs at work. The seafood here is so fresh it practically talks to you. Daily catches are scribbled on the hokey handwritten blackboard and you can work your way through oysters, clams, shrimp, crab, lobster, you name it…served or cooked however you like. Seafood lovers…run…

HIGH END EATS

And now for the fine dining side of things. These are only a few of the ‘must-book-ahead-to-avoid-disappointment’ dining destinations and I recommend choosing at least one of these to give yourself a taste of the finer things in life, New York-style.

When you walk into Buddakan, it feels more like a decadent, almost illicit den of iniquity than a restaurant. It’s clubby, baroque and cloaked in darkness, which adds to the intrigue and gets your pulse racing and ready for the sensory experience that is the food and wine.

Try and get a seat in the main dining hall, where majestic chandeliers are suspended from the towering, cavernous ceiling over a long banquet table and make your debut as you alight down that grand staircase. Then sink into the menu that is a confident delivery of East/West Fusion. The Dim Sum Tasting for Two is a great start – two tiers of imaginative dim sum – tuna tartare with a hint of chilli piped into a crunchy spring roll casing, fancy prawn toast of dungarees crab with sesame and salmon roe, whimsical carrot shaped dumplings, meaty Cantonese chicken, shrimp and coriander dumplings, and sweet, sticky tea smoked ribs. A smoky, savoury whole sea bass with a textured skin partnered with fennel and ginger took pride of place on our table next to the sizzling soy short rib that slipped off the bone into the tender hor fun noodles underneath. They were both almost upstaged by the brilliant little side dish of gai lan (chinese broccoli) with mushrooms, almonds and truffle. Be prepared to surrender yourself into the Buddakan experience, it’s as heady as an opiate den!

As much as we love Mexican street food, the high end Mexican-inspired food at Cosme transports you there and beyond. Here I had the best Guacamole I have ever tasted, mixed with an assortment of fine fresh herb leaves and served with crisp sheets of yellow and blue corn tortillas. For entree, we shared razor clams with green chorizo that came hidden under a tortilla lid. The signature dish of duck carnitas featured completely boned leg and breast, that undergo a 3 day confit process in Mexican coke, condensed milk and vegetable juices, before being wrapped in duck skin for roasting. It pulls apart easily to be wrapped in warm soft tortillas with watermelon radish, steamed julienne onions and salsas. And dessert is not forgotten, with a meringue made of corn husks split and filled with sweetcorn mousse and a pretty raspberry and pistachio little number. Vibe here is lively and ultra-cool to match the menu.

Feeding the millennial hunger for the new, Contra lives up to its name with a menu and ambience that suggests quiet irreverence, but in a good way.

Enter this narrow corridor of a restaurant and the pumping music gives it more of a hectic bar vibe that can be distracting but the food forces you to pay attention. Our set menu began with a grown up chip sandwiched with sea urchin, shiso leaf and shallot; then ceviche-style lobster bursting with zesty lemon oil and crunchy raw asparagus in an ambient consommé; next was ever so slightly wilted spinach with tissue thin, translucent pancetta that melted on the tongue; the halibut dish tasted of both sea and soil with the earthiness from the morels and vegetal green almonds that popped in the mouth; the beef with smoked rhubarb and black sesame took us off on a tangent of bold and complex savoury, bitter and smoky flavours that would polarise some and thrill others; both desserts challenged the notion of sweetness, with heightened acid freshness from berries coupled with balancing components – almost unsweet ice cream, vanilla scented olive oil or the crisp crunch of a milk meringue.

Contra is an exercise in simple finesse with the thrill of being contrary to expectations in textures, flavours and even temperature using very well-selected fresh ingredients. You may not like everything, but it will definitely challenge your thoughts of what works and what doesn’t on the plate.

I’ve saved the best for last…

For a real immersive experience, Bouley At Home offers set tasting menus for lunch and dinner in star chef David Bouley’s City test kitchen where his team develop menu ideas. We did the 5-course lunch for the very reasonable price of $75USD, which, for the quality of the food and service was an absolute steal.

The concept of Bouley At Home replicates the feeling of eating at home, so you can choose to sit in either the state-of-the-art kitchen or in the more loungey dining area in full view of the main Test Kitchen. We had the savoury part of the menu sitting on counter top seating in the uber-modern timber panelled kitchen with the chef at work right in front of us, complete with cutlery drawer at each setting, then transferred for dessert in the neighbouring test kitchen, where we sat at the marble benchtop right in front of the action.

Now, to try and recount the menu, which was nothing short of a religious experience…

A pure clean concentrated chicken consommé and bite of warm cheese and aromatic truffle on pastry came first; then an explosion of delicate but funky sea urchin with fresh apple and pearls of two types of caviar in a frosted glass; a fine layered tian of silky eggplant and creamy goats cheese; a wedge of textured potato rosti with elegant smoked salmon slices and a flourish of distinct baby salad greens and salmon caviar pearls; an ambrosial and silky textured porcini custard with fresh sweet crab; slow stewed beef cheek served with tiny mirepoix size gnocchi made with kale, giving the dish a grassy flavour; tender pink moist duck on nutty wild rice and creamy polenta with a concentrated jus and bright yellow, citrusy puree made from the fruit known as Buddha’s Hands; a pineapple and coconut ice cream to transition us into dessert; a high octane lemon mousse with chewy caramelised tuile; a rich, soft-centred bittersweet dark chocolate fondant countered with coffee ice cream and, finally, a flourless roasted walnut cake with concord grape sorbet…oh, it was superb!

Add it to the bucket list…

So there is my two weeks of being a New Yorker, condensed into a few pages and some happy snaps. No doubt, if you find yourself there, your experience will be totally different, for such is the thrill of NYC!

I’ll be back…

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