I had read Garlic and Sapphires, a truly delightful book by former NYT-food critic Ruth Reichl, which had got me extremely hungry just reading about restaurants in New York. I had also read Being Julia, by Julie Powell, a hilarious book chronicling her tribulations during the Julie/Julia Project, which was actually what inspired me to go out and buy Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
So I was really looking forward to visting New York, and personally experiencing the culture of food-appreciation that seemed so pervasive.
After an agonising bus ride from DC to New York, I arrived in time for dinner with some friends at a contemporary, popular, fusion restaurant, Basta Pasta. I'm a big fan of Japanese Pasta restaurants, as I believe they combine Japanese efficiency with Italian tastiness.
The restaurant has a truly open kitchen; the only thing that separates it from the bar is a narrow path, allowing you to watch the Japanese chefs at work, tossing pasta and plating dishes. Oddly enough, despite the layout of the kitchen, no offensive odours permeate the restaurant.
Basta Pasta is not very large, and is quickly filled to the brim, with the restaurant turning two covers in the time that we were there, so it's very advisable to make a reservation.
My first course was black mussels and clams, steamed in garlic and white wine. It was pretty good - nothing special; but then again it's hard to really do anything special with shellfish and white wine. Having said that it's also hard to go far wrong.
What was special, however, was my pasta dish, which was spaghetti in a parmigiano-reggiano sauce, topped with parma ham. What was interesting about this was the way it was prepared. The hot pasta is first placed in the cavity of a hollowed-out wheel of parmigiano.
It is then mixed around inside the cavity, as the waiter periodically excavates the walls, causing bits of cheese to fall into the pasta, where the residual heat of the noodles melts the cheese.
It is next scooped out of the cheese wheel, and placed onto the waiting plate.
Finally, it is topped with slices of parma ham and sliced basil.
I really enjoyed this dish; the presentation was visually appealing, and the pasta itself was delicious. The ham and cheese are naturally salty, flavouring the dish without adversely affecting your blood pressure, and the melted cheese adds weight and body to the sauce.
Some other dishes to try are the ever-popular tobiko-mentaiko pasta (the top picture), and the signature uni (sea urchin) pasta, which was a vivid orange hue and surprisingly sweet.
37 W 17th St, Between 5th & 6th Ave
New York 10011
I know, I know, you can find it in Singapore. But how can anyone possibly resist an entire establishment devoted to chocolate?
The Max Brenner in New York is pretty massive, easily dwarfing the one back home, and unlike the Singapore outlet, this one sells all manner of sweets, pastries, cakes, drinks, chocolate syringes...it's pretty much as close to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory as you'll ever get, and you just know you can only find it in New York City.
We had the chocolate fondue that, objectively, was exactly what you'd expect a chocolate fondue to be like, apart from the rather cool braziers they use.
Probably not a must-visit place, but if you're in the neighbourhood, and have finished dinner early, there are worse things you could do for dessert.
Okay, who am I kidding. Go, if only to just stand and breathe in the wonderful chocolate aromas. And sample their free white chocolate drinks.
141 2nd Ave, NY 10003
One of the hallmarks of Ruth Reichl's time as Food Critic of the New York Times was her marked open-mindedness towards ethnic foods. Suddenly reviews of Japanese, Indian and Israeli restaurants started taking the place of Italian and French eateries. One of her particular favourites was Japanese cuisine, and with a profusion of restaurants in New York's informal Japanese enclave, it's not hard to see why.
Soba-Ya is a small place that specialises in soba. When I say this, I mean their menu is almost completely made up of soba and udon dishes, though I believe they serve other things during dinner. For lunch, though, do not come here if you do not like soba.
All their soba, however, is hand made, which makes it wonderfully delicate and a pleasure to eat. The soy-based broth most of the noodles come with is sweet and pregnant with umami, making you understand why in Japanese culture it's considered appropriate to slurp your noodles.
I had the Kamonanban soba, which consisted of their trademark soba served with slices of duck breast. I'm not usually a fan of Japanese cuisine, but I can well appreciate a good bowl of soba, and this was a good bowl of soba. It is, however, oddly filling, so having, as I did, a late lunch, is more than likely to ruin your appetite for dinner.
My friend swears by the matcha creme brulee, and it is in fact the only dessert he ever orders here. I thought it was a bit too soft, but nonetheless it is a good way to end the meal.
229 East 9th Street, NY 10003
Tel: 212 533 6966