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

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