Saturday, October 30, 2010

Miscellaneous Food: New York 13

In this last month, it feels like I've been away to the moon and back. After weeks in New York, Paris, Beijing and Australia, I've finally slowly dealing with the build-up of jet lag. So now that I have nothing better to do than sit in bed, listen to my neighbours pad around upstairs, while eating corn pops and thinking about how I really should be going for a run, I'm instead running through the "I ate" list.

I thought about doing comprehensive write-ups about each place but you know, I hate bringing my camera to restaurants when I travel. Sometimes I just like to eat in peace, eat to recoup after a hard day's work, eat to be inspired, eat to enjoy the company of friends. There was a lot of that over the trips, so I feel very blessed.

I didn't have that many days in New York because the time was punctuated by short trips out of the city. We had also been there not a year ago, when we had a magnificent meal at 11 Madison Park (possibly my favourite in New York) and stopped in at City Bakery, Morimoto and Jean Gorges. So this time, I wanted to try places that we hadn't been to. Of course, on the first day, I broke my own rule, we went to brunch at Balthazar. Only because as I told myself, I was nostalgic for my old neighbourhood. We really should have tried our luck instead at Lombardi's in Little Italy, New York's most famed and mile-long busy pizzeria.

Balthazar was same-same, crowded-crowded, even on an off-peak hour, sourdough bread, eggs benedict, cuppuccino, like a post-flight shot to the heart. Filled to the brim with Birkin-toters and with the cafe noise reflecting off the mosiac and mirrored surfaces. The food at this Keith McNally institution is also really consistent, which is what has kept it in stylish business since 1997. We wandered down Spring Street and found this ridiculously good designer closeout and consignment store called Roundabout (two stores in Soho and the UES) for Blair Waldorf-type clothes. Shoppig at that store was possibly the best meal of the day.

We also walked into Kee's Chocolates, opened by Malaysian Kee Ling Tong when I last lived in NYC. Unfortunately, the place seems to have become a little run-down over this time, boasting a small cold box with a few sparse small pieces of truffles. The cocoa was fine-grained but light on taste, disappointing and not worth the extravagant $2.50 a piece.

This being Friday, we wandered over to the Union Square Farmers Market, which offers Hudson Valley duck, beautiful local-produce like short ribs and steaks, vegetables, honey, lavender and stalls upon stalls of fresh fruit, juices and hot cider. It was a lovely place to walk around and while away a happy hour. The market was surprisingly small, with more produce than cooked food, so afterward, we walked toward Chelsea and Mario Batali's new foodmarket, Eataly.

I'd read a New York Times article about how Eataly offers Italy by the pound and it was just that, exclusive, exquisitely presented and expensive. Eataly is actually a collection of a ambitiously-large, high-end grocery and small food counters serving up cheeses and Italian cold cuts and larger food stalls with dining areas for hot food.

The place has been opened only a few months and is packed to the brim, I think it's a unique proposition and despite the inflated prices, will continue to be popular and profitable, it has the buzz and je nai se quoi of consumer happiness. After stocking up on some lobster mushrooms, pear mustard jam and Ronnybrook chocolate milk, we continued uptown toward Madison Square Park for the always-hits-the-spot Shake Shack burger. Sitting in the sun and having one of these has to be a to-do stop in New York sightseeing.

Before our trip, I stalked the Momofuku sites and booked us dinner at Ko and Bo Saam. I went in with low expectations, having read that "David Chang is a chef made by an internet" and Z. is notoriously anti any food place that he deems too "pretentiously artistic". The Momofuku Ko experience was a knock-out, it transported me back to days when cooking was aspirational (which for me, is a big compliment). We sat on a single bar counter and watched the magic as the three chefs wove their way through about 10 dishes, each well-balanced, well-proportioned and just over the edge enough to be curious.

My favourite dish was an appetizer, lychee with a riesling gelee, topped with pork-floss-like shavings of foie gras torchon. Who knew all those tastes would go together? It was like a flavour explosion, the supple lychee, the slippery jelly and fluffy pile of savoury goodness. It was such an excellent experience that Z. and I were silent all the way through the eating but talked about the meal all night and all-trip.

Unfortunately, the experience was slightly marred by the surly service and dining environment. We were sandwiched between a bronzed, old Californian couple who kept up a stream of constant, basic questions and for whom every dish was pronounced "Jus Wunnerful!" and another group of truly obnoxious New York twenty-somethings whose selfish, literally screaming American laughter and conversation was interrupted only by their flashing phone camera photos of their respective housemate's "walks of shame". Between the two, I felt more poorly for the sweet grandparently couple, who were ignored and sometimes humiliated by the snarky, adolescently-monosyllabic replies of the chefs:

"What are these mushrooms, you said, in the soup?"
"Where are they from?"

and later "How is the lunch here different?"
"Its just Different"
"But what is different about it?"
"It's a totally different menu"
(sidenote: Lunch is 16 courses and can take up to 3 hours)

and still later when the chefs had started prepping dishes for the next day
"is that salt you're putting on the pork"
"exasperated look. if I put THIS much salt on, it would be, UNEDIBLE"
(he was dusting a flour coating before searing the pork ribs)

If there was one bad taste in your mouth after Ko, that would be it. Even so, I wholeheartedly recommend jumping through all their internet booking hoops to get seats if you're in NYC. It was very worth the trouble.

The following Monday, we wandered into the Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg (Jewish mysticism, ah, New York, you still surprise me) and the Baxter and Leibchen vintage Danish furniture warehouse in Jay Street while on our way to the old institution that is Peter Lugur's Steakhouse. Stepping across the old creaky floorboards in this 1887 brick-walled Bavarian beer hall, you get the feeling that this place is for Rudy Guliani-like mob bosses and grumpy German waiters, which is pretty much how it is.

The steak served is a USDA prime dry-aged porterhouse, with creamed spinach, thick murky sauce in a gravy bowl and fried potatoes. Of course, New York loves restaurants that specialise in one thing, so a decent-hour-dinner reservation has to made ages in advance. We'd come for lunch, a really heavy, sleep-inducing lunch. We had fried bacon (really thick-cut ham), which was excellent and beef was very good, thick yet flavourful, crispy on the outside and moist, pink and juicy on the inside. Was it the best steak I'd ever had- well, maybe not, it was a little too rough for me but Z. felt it was the best, particularly for flavour.

In a case of bad timing, we were booked that same night for Ssam Bar, which is Chang's Korean-inspired 8 to 12 people share one pork butt made into lettuce wraps eatery. Again, I didn't have huge expectations and we had a group of just 5 people. There's not much point blogging photos of the famously huge pork butt because it's been done to death (here) but suffice to say, the pork was juicy, deep and oily-savoury sweet, paired with the cold oysters, sticky rice and soft lettuce, it was quite gorgeous and definitely something to try at home cum Christmas. Please don't go with less than 8 people, as we discovered, that only leads to wasted food and I was sad we couldn't try any of the yummy sounding side dishes, like soft shell crab, cold tofu and uni.

For me, the Ssam Bar menu was a bit like Solociccio in Panzano, unabashedly overdosing on meat but David Chang's restaurants in general were all very on-trend and honestly, very clever. Pork butt for example, is a premium pork cut but its a relatively cheap meat, Bo Ssam, as a dish, is widely available and known (there's even a Martha Stewart recipe for it, though I suspect that was more in response) but it took his concept restaurants to popularise the idea and to package it in this formula that draws in big groups and lots of high-margin boozing through pre-sold internet reservations. Compare the $17 you would pay for a 10 pound pork shoulder, to the $200 that he charges and you'll quickly realize that David Chang is a brilliant businessman and chef, hugely deserving of his burgeouning food empire.

After dinner, we went next door to the Milk Bar, I had heard lots of good things about the ice creams, cookies (but then it's quite common to hear raving about dessert) but most of all the Crack Pie, so named for its addictive, brown sugar and creamed egg filling. We bought one and ate it the next morning on the way to the airport, it really was deliciously salty and sweet. In case you want to make some Momofuku magic yourself, Bo Ssam is a great party dish, here is a perfect example of some restaurant-turned-home-cooking from the Sydney food bloggers picnic. In fact, there are so many devotees to David Chang's Momofuku franchise that I found many blogs that have done the Julia Julie here and here for the crack pie recipe.

On our remaining day, we walked to H&H Bagels at their Midtown location for a steaming hot lox and smoked salmon poppy seed-sesame bagel and the uptown Cafe Boulud for lunch. I had debated Boulud, Boulud Bakery and finally we just decided on the very good value seasonal set lunch at Cafe Boulud, priced at $35 for 3 courses ($28 for 2). We had a simple clear mushroom, barley and root vegetable consomme, a seared seabass (although their duck confit looked excellent) and porcini mushroom risotto.

The cooking at Cafe Boulud is flawless, even good value (I later read that the chef is a James Beard Rising Star award winner) and the other dishes that I saw on the menu, like the braised beef cheeks, braised short ribs, roasted fig with cheesecake cream and port reduction, warm apple brioche with cinnamon anglais and salted caramel ice cream sounded like our meal tasted, heavy and chock-full of French goodness.

If there is one criticism, it's that the menu and the plates were not particularly creative and the environment was a bit stifling, rather like a business lounge with dark oak brown light shades and carpeting. The clientele was white and well-heeled but all seemed to be there for the very reasonable prix fixe and many new each other, with lots of none-too-discreet back-slapping going on. Still, I was impressed with the level of food and the friendly initiative of the waitstaff. If we had more time in NYC, I would have preferred to go to Boulud itself, or Boulud Bakery. Still, compared to what DB Moderne is going to cost in the casino in Singapore, I guess it was good to eat on the Boulud franchise for just $35.

For dinner, we stayed on the UES (which was near where we were staying) and went to Sushi of Gari. This little sushi place is a tiny bar and appendix set-up and has a very comprehensive menu. The appetizers like the hijiki salad and ankimo (monkfish liver) were well-done and the mains were fairly well-sized. They are particularly known for their creative sushi pairings and toppings but the sushi slices are not that generous. Still, after a week without Asian food, it really hit the spot and it is well-known, although I was told we would have been better of at Sushi Yasuda.

On our last day, we decided to go to the High Line entrance on West 18th in Chelsea, this is a 1.45-mile (2.33 km) New York City park built on a section of the former elevated freight railroad spur called the West Side Line, which runs from West 12th-20th, and which has been redesigned and planted as an aerial greenway. On our way there, we walked past a sidewalk cafe and saw the loveliest brunch plates with mounds of crispy bacon. So after we were done walking, we hightailed back to Westville, Chelsea.

This cafe is the bomb, they advertise themselves as simple, high-quality ingredients in fresh, eclectic American cuisine and I was impressed by the freshness and unpretentiousness of the decor and food. The cafe was dominated by a high blondewood bar and tables, transparent hung lighting and heavy glassware.

We ordered a scrambled eggs with crispy bacon, fried tomatoes and portugese muffin, with a second dish of asparagus with parmesan reggiano and a poached egg, washed down with a frothy-smooth cuppucino. The dishes were served with a side of salad and crispy, floured-and-fried fries that were an incredible taste revelation. I wished we could have had the meal space for their battered codfish and the char-grilled Newport steak and if you're in town, I'd definitely recommend a post-flight pick-me-up at this charming place.

80 Spring Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 965-1785

32 Spring Street
New York, NY 10012-4173
(212) 941-7994

Kee's Chocolates
80 Thompson St
New York, 10012
(212) 334-3284

200 5th Ave
New York, NY 10010
(646) 398-5100

Shake Shack (multiple locations)
Southeast corner of Madison Square Park,
near Madison Ave. and East 23rd St.
Phone: 212.889.6600

Momofuku Ko
163 1st Avenue @ E.10th Street
(212) 500-0831

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 2nd Avenue @ E. 13th Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-3500

Peter Lugur Steakhouse
178 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 387-7400

H&H Midtown Bagels
1551 2nd Avenue @ E. 80th Street
New York, NY 10028-3902
(212) 734-7441

Cafe Boulud
20 East 76th Street @ Madison Ave
New York, NY 10021
(212) 772-2600

Sushi of Gari (multiple locations)
402 East 78th Street @ 1st Ave
(212) 517-5340

Westville Chelsea
246 W 18th St @ 8th Ave
New York, NY 10011
(212) 924-2223