Monday, December 24, 2012

Miscellaneous Food - New York: John’s of Bleecker Street, Grom and Totto Ramen

Every once in a while, a debate rages over what the “quintessential” Singapore dish is. Is it Hainanese chicken rice? Bak kut teh? Laksa? In food-crazy New York, similar questions provoke countless answers, as this thread on Serious Eats demonstrates (check out the comprehensive post by Kathryn). The common contenders tend to be pastrami, New York cheesecake and burgers, but I was really in the mood for New York-style pizza.

Wikipedia has an informative entry on New York-style pizza here for all you food historians, but it’s essentially a large hand-tossed pizza with a thin (but not necessarily crispy) crust that’s light on sauce, and often (but not always) sold by the slice.

The New York pizza scene is dominated by a number of “first families”, and a number of pizzerias can trace their provenance to Gennaro Lombardi’s turn of the century pizzeria in Little Italy.

Of these, John’s of Bleecker Street was located just a stone’s throw away, and so that’s where S and I headed to for lunch. As the awning clearly says, John’s sells whole pies only, so come with an appetite or with friends.

From the moment you enter, you know that John’s is older than old-school. Diners sit at chipped tables and small wooden booths, while behind the counter pizza is made to-order and priced per topping, and the whole place has that authentic, dingy feel that only a true Prohibition-era establishment can boast of.

What is also immediately noticeable is the amount of graffiti adorning every square inch of the furniture in John’s. Booths, walls and chairs are covered in scratchings and scars from countless generations of childhood sweethearts, mobsters and ordinary diners.

Apart from the obligatory tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, we decided to add sausage, mushrooms and basil to our pizza. At US$14.50 for a small pizza and US$3 per topping, it’s probably best not to overload the pizza base with toppings, and in any case the pizza tastes better that way (the crust stays drier).

John’s also offers some basic pastas and sides, but I can’t imagine why anyone but a particularly large group would need to order these. No New York experience is sufficiently authentic without having some fast food, and as far as pizzerias go, they don’t get much more traditional than John’s.

John’s of Bleecker Street
278 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10014
Tel: +1 (212) 243 1680

Walking back from John’s along Bleecker Street, we stumbled across Grom, an Italian gelateria. Although it was too cold for gelato, the hot chocolate that Grom was advertising sounded irresistible, especially since S and I are chocolate fiends, and Grom's billed itself as “authentic Italian hot chocolate”. 

Just watching the viscous hot chocolate being ladled into a milk frother was intoxicating: the chocolate melted and dripped off the ladle like so much liquid wax.

Grom’s hot chocolate is exactly what it looks like – nearly 100% melted chocolate that is steamed up in a milk frother. Luscious, almost cloying, liquid chocolate. No one could possibly complain that this hot chocolate is too thin or diluted, and in fact I even thought that it would have benefitted from being thinned out with a little milk. S and I went a little overboard and ordered the large cup, which is virtually impossible for one person to finish.

Still, on a cold, blustery day, there can be no question but that Grom’s hot chocolate will stick to your sides and warm you up to the very last drop.

It would be a waste to spend time in New York without catching a show or two on Broadway, but there is also the risk of being lured into one of the many tourist traps that line Times Square and being subjected to a lousy meal. If you think a dinner at Times Square can’t be that bad, this review from the New York Times might cause you to change your mind.

Rather than subject ourselves to bad food for the sake of convenience, S and I decided to treat ourselves to some delicious ramen at Totto Ramen, a bona fide hole in the wall that’s so small a queue is almost inevitable past 5pm. Thankfully, the line does move along, so we were able to sit and order within about twenty minutes.  

I have always been curious what the special attraction of ramen is. Why are there so many ramen joints, and what has given rise to the hordes of fans who are almost religious in their zeal and fervour to sample that elusive, transcendental pork bone soup? After all, soba or udon are surely eaten no less in Japan, and (I imagine) require comparative skill to make – so where are all the soba and udon restaurants?

One of the reasons for Totto Ramen’s popularity is the char siu. The slices of it are stacked high behind the counter, and the top layer is constantly being broiled by one of the kitchen hands wielding a portable blow torch. 

It’s easy to see the attraction: the char siu is brimming with fat, and the char from the flame gives it an irresistibly smokey flavour which adds to its complexity and tastiness.

For those of you who think that ramen, while cheap and comforting, is not particularly filling, be sure to order the Totto Ramen special. Topped with a mountain of black fungus, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts and scallions, and concealing a large quantity of char siu and pork ribs, as well as, of course, the ramen itself, I severely underestimated the amount of food contained in one bowl. The Totto Ramen special was a cornucopia of tasty pork, springy noodles and a sweet, richly umami broth. Good for any occasion, but truly exceptional on a particularly cold autum night.

Totto Ramen
366 West 52nd Street,
New York, NY 10019
Tel: +1 (212) 582 0052

Friday, December 07, 2012

Miscellaneous Food - New York: Murray’s Cheese and Apiary

Good food is not merely restaurant-quality haute cuisine: Bleecker Street is a remarkable collection of traditional diners and historic eateries, as well as gourmet shops full of artisanal produce.

Case in point: Murray’s Cheese – a purveyor and retailer of fine cheeses, many of which come from local dairy farms around the region. From aged cheddars and mild gouda to soft bries and crumbly goat’s cheese, every cheese you might think of serving for your dinner’s cheese course is available. In fact, if you can’t think of what you want to serve, no problem, just take a number and the trained counter staff will walk you through the numerous selections on offer. Of course, if you already know what you want, no need to hog the line as there are separate display areas which contain pre-packaged items.

We were not there specifically to purchase cheese, though. Murray’s Cheese also runs numerous cheese-making and cheese-appreciation course, and my sister had kindly purchased S and me a mozzarella-making course. (For those of you who are wondering why I'm posting yet again about Murray's Cheese, look closer and you'll realise that two of the more recent posts about New York City (including the one on Murray's Cheese) were in fact posted by my sister from her last trip to New York!) The course began with a tasting of different kinds of mozzarellas, beginning with tasteless milk curds, then moving on to the soft mozzarellas and the creamy burrata, ending off with a slightly firmer smoked mozzarella.

Making mozzarella, for the uninitiated, involves pouring scalding hot water on milk curds, gathering and squashing them up into a solid mass with your bare hands (we were given gloves, but it didn’t make much difference to the hot water), stretching it out into a long, continuous ribbon, then rolling it up like a croissant before pushing it through a ring mould (we simply made an “O” with our forefinger and thumb) so that it forms a pouch, and continuously tucking the ends of the cheese into the pouch until it forms a nice smooth ball. Oh, yes, and all without kneading or handling the cheese too much (or it will toughen out) and simultaneously dipping the cheese into the hot water to relax the proteins.

Unsurprisingly, it was incredibly difficult, and my mozzarella ribbons kept breaking apart, causing me to end up with small, irregularly-shaped and rather tough mozzarella balls. While discouraging, taking one of Murray’s cheese-related activities is actually pretty fun, whether you’re looking for date ideas, or just an enjoyable way to spend two hours, and it’s easy to see why classes book up well in advance. While you’re there, be sure to pick up some wedges of cheese to bring home!

Murray’s Cheese
254 Bleecker Street (between 6th and 7th Avenue)
Tel: +1 (212) 243 3289

As if Superstorm Sandy wasn’t enough to make my trip a memorable one, a nor’easter gusted through New York, bringing with it gale-force winds and a snowy blizzard that quickly blanketed the metropolis with sleet and slush. It was crazy for anyone to be out in that weather, and yet there we were at 7pm, trekking our way to Apiary restaurant.

What would normally have been a ten-minute walk became a forty-minute struggle, partly because we had to stop to buy me new socks, as my shoes were not waterproof and my socks were soon a sodden, freezing vice around my feet. It was thus a relief to finally enter the comforting dark wood warmth of Apiary, a chic, modern American restaurant.

Through most of the week (Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday), Apiary offers a three-course, prix fixe menu for the excellent price of US$37 (before taxes and service). To kick off the meal, appetisers include salads and this celery root veloute with pickled shiitake mushrooms, black truffle butter and chives. The soup itself was a great starter: luscious, warm and hearty, but I thought the sourness of the pickled mushrooms was too tart and jarring for this earthy dish.

For the main course, I opted for the duck leg confit with parsnip puree, farro, glazed turnips and green-peppercorn amagnac jus. Duck leg confit is such comfort food that it is always very difficult to find fault with it, save perhaps that the duck leg was slightly on the small side.

The same was not true, however, of S’s roasted organic chicken with potato puree, garlic confit, cumin glazed carrots, lemon and Madeira reduction. The bird was generously portioned and deftly cooked, full of flavour and natural juices. The creamy potatoes and the sweet carrots, as well as the heady Madeira sauce, rounded out this satisfying dish.

My trio of ice cream and sorbet consisted of three large scoops of caramel, raspberry and vanilla ice cream. These were delectable, but they were too much for me, and I doubt if I even finished one of the scoops.

S’s classic molten chocolate cake is an old favourite, and Apiary’s version is dense and intense, baked from a rich chocolate batter and paired with a slightly sweet vanilla ice cream.

I discovered Apiary by Googling “most underrated restaurants in New York City”, and after sampling the food it’s clear how it’s gained that reputation. Treat yourself to a fine mid-week dinner at Apiary, but make sure there isn’t a blizzard outside when you do.

60 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10003
Tel: +1 (212) 254 0888

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Christmas Sales: Fruitcake!

Newsflash! We are in the process of baking our Christmas cakes for the festive season and I can't tell you how good the warm aromas of rum, fruit, nuts and vanilla, smell. We'd like to share it with you, so we've used some of the secret stash of fruit that we soaked and have put 12 more fruitcakes up for sale, for the 12 days of Christmas.

The cakes are for collection on the 16th of December, Sunday and are $50 for a 6x6 inch boxed and ribboned square cake. Unfortunately, only one size and date of collection remain. Please message us at, if you are interested.

In the meantime, here are more pictures of the honey-baked-brown deliciousness! Thank you for all your support and feedback and have yourself a Merry Christmas!