Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Miscellaneous Food: New York 14

A trip to a major city in the US these days hardly needs any prefacing. New York in parcticular, with it's acrid taxi fumes, incessant noise and car horns and cold but sophisticated new year's spirit and dress sense, was a real shock to the senses and sensibility.

A run-down of the places we visited and ate, with few pictures (it's hard to get away with a set-up in a restaurant). In general, I didn't double over any places from my last trip (read about our trip from a year ago here) but as you well know, you can eat multiple times a day in New York and never visit any place twice.

On the first day, I literally, stopped in panic upon alighting from the plane. I was overheating in my coat, in the open winds of New Jersey and I thought, oh fish, have I possibly, taken the wrong plane and wound up in Miami? Luckily for me, it was simply a balmy winter day and miracle of miracles, it continued to be so for most of my trip. On that first night, owing to having miscalculated the time, I arrived in Williamsburg at 8pm instead of 8am and we went to L'artusi in the West Village for dinner.

Bathed in a warm yellow light, the place was still jumping crowded. It was one of those ridiculous New York institutions where the bartenders are full of clever, charming banter, they serve small plates of world cuisine (doesn't everyone these days?) and old rich-looking people are seated in tables in the restaurant, while hip overdressed youngsters crowd standing-room only, three-deep at the marble bar where the "oh my gawd, the food is so Goods" were just hurting my ears.

Yes, I'm awful but only slightly pretentious, remember? Old rich people by the way, are a wonderful indicator of food quality and consistency, though less of value. We weren't terribly hungry, so we split a plate of grilled octopus, risotto and cheeses. Sure enough, it was all excellent and well-cooked, although the octopus was slightly rubbery. Then it was back home to Sweet Williamsburg to sleep off the intermiable plane ride.

The next day, I had the pleasure of a New Year's Eve tour of Williamburg that started with a cup of Gimme Coffee. This chain is also in the West Village and in Chelsea Market. I've drank a lot of cups of cuppuccino and an awful lot of good ones but this one, was sublime. It was possibly one of the top 5 cuppucinoes I've had, so if you are in the area, seriously, try it out for a cup of smooth, caffeneited deliciousness. We then hightailed it to Red Hook, where I had the most interesting experience at Red Hook, Lobster Pound.

The shop has these large wooden tanks, like ponds of Japanese onsen baths. Instead of people, lobsters swim by the hundreds in these tanks and they sell these lobsters, scooped fresh in nets. If you like your lobster fresh, sweet and cheap, then this is the place for you, with $15 whole steamed lobsters and wonderfully hot buttered lobster rolls. We had a lobster each (cue: gasp) and a warm, buttery Connecticut-style lobster roll (as opposed to the Maine-style cold lobster with the traditional mayonnaise and celery). Afterward, we ambled our way onto the Brooklyn Bridge and into Maison Premier, a 1930s Prohibition-style bistro for oysters and cocktails. We had about 14 oysters, all different kinds, and this was only a selection from their list of over 50 oysters and clams. The quality is good and so is the selection but the prices are not cheap, so best to come on the weekdays for their $1 specials.

It was New Year's eve after all, so we rolled into Brooklyn Star for dinner. Brooklyn Star is best known for Southern Cooking, I hear they have the best breakfast grits in town, but for New Year's eve, they were serving a set menu that was more European than Southern. This was hip but simple things like a roasted tomato soup with a side of bone marrow on toast. They also served a fantastic roasted pigeon for mains and the only slight let down was truffle honey over sharp cheese, raisins and two chocolate truffle balls from Momofuku for dessert. It was good but felt a little outsourced. I noticed though that for brands that make it big in New York, there is almost a wholesale business to other restaurants, for example, Gimme Coffee serves Balthazar pastries and many places stock H&H Bagels.

The next day, I was not intending to eat but I walked past a Momofuku Milk Bar , which can now be found all over the city and walked out with a crack pie and a packet of apple pie truffles, both were comforting and absolute sugar perfection as always. I joined some friends at Evergreen Cafe for dim sum, usually Chinese food is the pits in New York and I was surprised to be introduced to this little cafe, right in the heart of the obscure Upper Far East, with pink tablecloths and really decent dim sum. I was brough there by a family friend who has HK roots and this is a great recommendation for if you live in near that area. One of my discerning, only slightly pretentious foodie friends asked me, well, is it you know, Red Star quality (the question made me crack up so mea culpa!) and my answer was, it's not Imperial Treasure quality but the siew mai and steamed glutinous chicken rice were excellent and the fan juan and char siew bao were really yummy and definitely far more refined than Red Star. I'm Cantonese and I don't eat bad dim sum yo.

Of course, since I was uptown, I stopped at H&H Bagels for a poppy seed and lox bagel fix and and then made my way back down to the Village to The Spotted Pig for an early dinner. I met with two lovely foodie friends and we had really high expectations, given the hype that the Spotted Pig has created over the last year. However, we were sorely disappointed, the place was crowded and loud, reminiscent of a college sports bar. We had to wait over an hour for a table (they don't take reservations) and then when shown to one, we were told that there was a 30 min wait for burgers because the fries were on backorder. To add to the confusion, we couldn't tell who the waiters were, as they were changing shift and they don't wear any kind of uniform. This is New York and there were many strange people at the bar, the servers seemed the most alternative of them all and the service standard was about the same.

The burger was good but I didn't think it was worth the wait, especially with the famous beanspout-thin shredded mass of fries, which wound up soggy by the time they were served. We were able to order from the all-day brunch menu as well as the dinner menu but turns out that they were about the same and many items were unavailable. After two noisy, slow hours here and three dishes later, we cut loss and went to Veniero's for cheesecake.

I've been coming to Veniero's for many years now, simply because I think they have the best cheesecakes in town (and they are sited in the Lower Far East, close to where all the Momofuku restaurants used to be when they started out). The New York cheesecake is creamier and smoother than the Italian cheesecake but both are really good, I brought one back for my hosts and the two families finished off the whole cake after dinner. The stained glass and wood decor is old-school Italian bakery and the service is really poor. The clientele is also deep Bronx Italian, we waited in queue only to have this large elderly group jam their way past us and rub shoulders with the manager! What a night!

After few days of work, I returned to New York to stay with a dear friend who is one of my few friends interested in both fashion and food. Needless to say, this made for a truly carefree and uplifting break, it's just happy to be with someone to whom you don't have to explain why you have to step into every Williams and Sonoma shop that we pass. Of course, New York is also the best city to walk, catch up, gossip, shop, eat and bake. I feel privledged to know of a handful of people who have more kitchen implements than I do and she definitely has earned her spot high up that list, you should check out her lovely and instructional blog

On the first day, we did a tour of the city's beautiful properties near Central Park and then went to Bouchon Bakery for lunch. I don't quite understand why there is such a big hype over the bakery, except that perhaps this is the New York outpost of the Napa outlet, so maybe the experience is different. The food is very good, we split a juicy turkey (I know, a paradox), cranberry, caramelized onions sandwich and a luxuriously smooth pumpkin soup and some truly excellent bread, but it seemed more a little atrium place for ladies who lunch. We went to the Time Warner building primarily to also go to Williams and Sonoma and Whole Foods to buy ingredients to cook a group weekend dinner of Nasi Lemak and Beef Rendang and not because we needed a heavy lunch because that night, we went to Peter Lugar Steakhouse for dinner.

Peter Lugur is an absolute institution, if you plan to go, please make a reservation at least 5 days in advance. The place is huge, an entire Germanic townhouse, in Williamsburg, just near the water. From the train across to Brooklyn, you can see the engraving painted on the brick wall and the set up is just that, hale and hearty. Stepping in is like going back in time, darkwood floors and beams and a wave of testosterone from the fat cat, gold Rolexed bankers at the bar. I guess they can afford $130 steaks more often than the rest. Peter Lugur does do smaller ladies cut or rib-eye steaks but the piece de resistance is their porterhhouse, which you just order per number of guests. We had rare steak for two and medium-rare steak for three, potatoes mash and their marvellous fatty creamed spinach.

The smell that hangs about the air gets you hungry (particularly on a cold day) and the meats come sizzling on the dish, with hot oil spooned over them. There is also thick pouring jugs of sauce but you really don't need it because the beef is so tender, juicy and flavourful. This is an amazing steak, the only one that I think can compare is the Bistecca Florentina but even then, it's a different kind of texture (tougher) and flavour (more gamey). We decimated the plates in front of us, all the way to the bone and then we had key lime pie with schlag (a mountain of sweet German whipped cream), each of us really had eaten more than our fair weight. Red wine, good steak and conversation with friends, that alone was worth a week of New York traffic, street noise and sooty air.

The next day, we did a really random but fun browse and shop at the discard outlet of Mokuba Ribbon and Lace and Kleinfeld's bridal where Say Yes to the Dress is filmed, then finally made it to a late lunch at Lombardi's in Spring Street for pizza. This graffiti-lined corner store is actually large and cavernous inside but it forms a line out the door on most days, from its claim of being the best and oldest pizzeria in New York. We went at 2.30pm and even then, there were diners. The thin-crust pizzas come in a regular and large size, (we shared a plain magharita and mushroom pizza) on old-fashioned aluminium stands and although I don't know that they are the best pizza I've eaten, it was very good. I think what gave it an edge is that they use fresh basil and rounds of fresh mozzerella for the pizza. It isn't particularly cheap, at $16 for the regular and $22for the large but the size is very generous.

That night, I went for a whole duck dinner at The Breslin, at the Ace Hotel. This place is known for their lamb burgers but ever so often, they serve whole animal meals, like duck, lamb or chicken. I would have prefered to actually be served different parts of the duck in individual dishes, like rillete, duck confit, duck breast l'orange, but what it was was more like an Asian serving of three whole roasted ducks with various sides like pomegrate salad, brussel sprout gratin and baked potatoes in duck fat. The sides in particular were delicious but the duck was actually a bit soft and mushy, so the meat had all but lost it's beautiful striated texture. Also, although the Breslin is clearly very hip, it was also very dark, which made it hard to focus on food and it was very impersonal- although advertised as a chef's table, this just means a large rectangular wooden table outside the glass of the kitchen, not that there actually is a chef or that he comes round to meet the table.

I really think a lot of restaurants are starting to emulate the Asian or Chinese style of family meals or meal service, perhaps following the success of David Chang's Bo Ssam at Ssam Bar. Part of this is because it's really much easier to serve Asian style meals, you just prepare the main dishes and put them in the center of the table, no need for service staff to take orders, change cutlery or for the kitchen to dovetail a cooking schedule that depends on courses. Intead of all that work to prep, station and finish courses, you just put out three roast ducks and feed 10 people at a go. The other advantage of course, is the cost angle, where each person pays you $130 for much less variety of food and grocery cost (in Bo Ssam, it's $120 for a $20/pax cost in pork butt) and that your liquor bill at the end of the day, because you insist of minimun group size, will more easily sustain your restaurant.

Of the three meals that cost about $130 (Breslin, Peter Lugar and WD-50), I felt Peter Lugar was the most worthwhile, with a toss-up between the Breslin and WD-50, with the latter being slightly more expensive but then also with far more work involved in preparing the dishes. These meals were also inclusive and priced up slightly because of wine and I felt that dollar for dollar, the pricing probably matched some of Singapore's more swanky restaurants, like those at Marina Bay Sands or Dempsey.

The next day, we had brunch at Westville Chelsea. I had been there before and had a wonderful scrambled egg and bacon set, this time I was adventurous and tried their breakfast burrito, stuffed with avocado, cheese, tomatoes and ground meat. Perhaps because I'm not a natural Mexican food fan, I didn't like it as much (not because it wasn't excellent, I just missed the crispy, crackly bacon). Our dining companions also had the stuffed french toast (with cream cheese and berries) and that was really yummy. After brunch, we wandered all the way down the High Line (a beautifully urban elevated railroad) to Chelsea market and East Village shopping, then I went to a mozerella-making class at Murray's, a cheerful and amazingly-stocked cheese store.

This class was really fun and well-conducted, on this basis, I would encourage anyone who is interested, even children, to sign up for classes at Murray's. Our teacher was a beautiful would-be actress and cheese enthusiast, she led us through a tasting of 5 different soft, fresh cheeses, with a generous freeflow of champagne, white and red wines. Then she walked us through a technical lesson in the casein proteins in milk and how this is manipulated through the cheese-making process through the addition of an enzyme, rennnant, to cause the coagulation of milk. She explained that there were vegetal rennnants, which came from the thistle plant (this was discovered in Spain and Portugal, when sheep wandered through thistle brush and produced coagulated milk), microbiotic rennant and then animal rennant, which is taken from the fourth stomach lining of an unweaned bovine. Of course that makes perfect sense as only unweaned animals can convert milk to solid protein nutrients; this was discovered by a Boudoin who was crossing the dessert with milk in a bag of sheep's skin lining. We were given samples of curd, as well as some to bring home and we had a hands-on submerging and shaping of mozzerella and burrata balls. This class had also cleverly worked in time for us to retail shop in Murrays and peruse their long cheese ailse and racks of dairy and fruit and nut products.

After class, I joined some friends at Wylie Dufresne's WD50 for dinner. I was glad that my friend had picked this restaurant, from Dufresne's Top Chef appearences, as I had sampled molecular gastronomy at Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck in Bray and decided that most of the dishes (like oyster and passionfruit) were parings of tastes that were odd and a little off. The one dish that I liked the best was the most traditionally cooked beef stew, which was phenomenal but hardly molecular. The whole dinner, in terms of taste, was somewhat stilted and never really achieved that happy satisfaction for me. Well, I have to report that WD50 was much the same, all of us felt it was strange that glowing online reviews had praised the food and the experience and these reviewers clearly eat there extremely often. While it was not bad, certainly it was very interesting, I would stop short of calling it delicious or even tasty. I'm not sure that I would eat there more than once, as the food is more weird than comforting.

The tasting menu is very long and has ample food, you start with small plates which grow larger and more substantial. The few dishes that jumped out at me were the poached egg in the shell, pumpernickel, caesar dressing, lily bulb, which was an egg served with a cracked edible egg shell on the side. We were told that this was edible kaolin clay, which had been thinned out, speckled and formed over a balloon, then popped and cracked to resemble a real egg. Another dish was the rock shrimp, miso noodles, chicory, yuzu, this was actual noodles spun of solidified miso soup (a really odd taste) and dusted with dehydrated chicory. As you stired the dish together, some of the noodles melted slightly to form a noodley, gooey mess that tasted like all its component parts together but nothing like the original. The best items were the desserts of apricot

Babka, Cake and Bake, Sourdough at Brooklyn Kitchen.

Maison Premiere
298 Bedford Ave, between Grand St & 1st St
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Neighborhood: Williamsburg - South Side
(347) 335-0446

50 Clinton Street,
New York, NY 10002-2401
(212) 477-2900


Shang said...

Ahh.. Gimme! I have missed it. To think it was like only 5 min walk away from my old place...

Good and non-pretentious.

What are your reccs for good coffee (both drip and espresso-based) in Singapore?

Unknown said...

that was fun to read! Agreed, been to WD-50 a few times. the 1st was my first molecular experience and so fun for that reason (with a squeezetube of paste that when squeezed into hot broth became a noodle) but the food was not special. Moto was even more off the wall (laser vaporized orange peel and your personalized menu with your name printed on a cracker) but also the taste so so. people say in the US u really have to go to Alinea for it to all come together.

agreed on spotted pig, but sorry your breslin experience wasn't better.

will have to try evergreen (i've heard that mentioned before) and the bistecca firentina.

and maybe i'll give westville another chance. it's right next to my normal coffee shop for work, so easy to go, but was underwhelmed by my lamb sausage sandwich the first time.

and so sad they closed the H&H bagel in our neighborhood. and yes that steak was pretty amazing.

Bored Adolescent said...

Looks yummy