Sunday, May 26, 2013

Miscellaneous Food: New York Food 2013

So, are you tired of New York food reviews? I certainly am. I landed in New York, thinking, ok, I'm still seeing the same restaurants, so I'll just fill in the gaps. There are, as usual, a ton of new restaurants but many of them are a little unusual and far-flung (read: Brooklyn). Many, because of their home-grown size, don't take reservations, which as a visitor, can often be too tough to navigate. 

I began my 11-day trip with a dinner at Marea. This Central Park South institution has lovely pastas, probably some of the best that I've tried in recent history. My mother's take was they were "too salty". She said that about half the food on the trip, so I wouldn't take it personally, objectively, I suppose it could have been a little less salty. The restaurant is a sort of typical brown chair, shade-lighting corporate-style place and it is completely packed, we lived just a few doors away and it was always full, from brunch, to well past midnight. 

The service is good, if a little snooty, the bread is good, the meats though, weren't as good as their pastas. We had the braised octopus pasta and a simple tomato-based meat pasta, the texture of the home-made pasta was excellent. You know how, some pastas, when you taste them, the flavour, the chewiness, the soft give and slightly briney taste, you just know they are hand-made? Well, their pastas had that texture. Overall, I thought the restaurant was enjoyable though not necessary and I'm not entirely sure why it's just won its second Michelin star. 

The next day, we made the trek to Balthazar, the Chelsea Highline, the Union Square Greenmarket and the Mario Batali Italian emporium Eataly. At the Chelsea Highline, spring was out and so were the vendors for BBQ shredded pork sandwiches, Bluebottle coffee (from San Francisco) and artisanal popsicles. On the way back from the Highline, we stopped by a Planet Doughnut for their famous creme-brulee doughnuts, little stuffers filled with a flawlessly smooth creme-brulee cream. I also re-visited Pearl Oyster Bar in the East Village for a lovely, sumptious juicy lobster roll, but at $30 a plate and with indifferent service, it has somewhat destroyed the romance I used to have with in college- the only lobster joint I can now recommend is Red Hook Lobster Pound, where their $13 whole fresh-steamed lobsters and piping hot lobster rolls are really a steal.

We took a short couple days to Woodbury in upstate New York and basically went on a organic and grain buying binge, as well as dinner at Bear Inn, which wasn't very memorable except for some very good fiddlestick ferms, then headed back to the city in time to meet some friends for dinner at The Lincoln, a beautiful pyramidal glass structure at the Lincoln Center. The starters were not as memorable but again, the range and pastas were excellent. I had the spanner crab uni rigatoni, which was light and yet filling. It was a perfectly competent, even excellent Italian restaurant but again, although well executed, I felt the restaurant kind of lacked flair and it was very corporate- it was buzzing on an early dinner seating on a weekday and it was all suits and cocktails at this place, more sign I suppose that corporate New York is healthy and spending. 

The next day, we went to a restaurant called Park Avenue-Spring. This is a really interesting place, which changes its name, website and menu based on the four seasons (this must be quite confusing to taxi drivers). Again, the place was packed out on a midweek day and the space was beautifully decorated with cherry blossoms. The clientele was mostly Gossip Girl and Democrat senator lookalikes. (Ok, maybe more like young Republican senators). I am told the restaurant also has a $35 brunch prix fixe, which is one of the best deals in town. 

I was a little doubtful about the place, given the concept but it was excellent. The menu of spring vegetables was outstanding, tasty and rich and the Dover Sole was beautifully executed. My pea soup was velveteen and thick with taste and the carmelized roasted baby tri-colour beets atop a pistacho pesto with Danish Blue were a revelation. The prices were not cheap especially given we had a very light menu but pretty much what you would have paid for any top-end restaurant. I would have been impressed with this European menu for a romantic night out or a meal with friends or the parents. Although I didn't get to try it, I heard similarly good things about the restaurant Modern at the MOMA.

We spent most of the time dining near Central Park South or the Upper East Side because of some logistical constraints, I attribute this failing to the fact that I generally felt my food had more Michelin stars than it did inventiveness. I tried Sarabeth's for brunch, which despite it's fame, had not much else to recommend it. The inside of the restaurant was a pale mint green shabby chic, rather how the original Patisserie Valerie in Marylebone High Street used to look. The eggs were pretty good (but aren't they at every brunch place) and the waffles were thick and crisp and the juice was a whopping $8 USD. I picked up my coffee at Stumptown at the Plaza Hotel's Basement Food Hall and on balance, I think between Gimme Coffee, Stumptown and Bluebird, Stumptown Coffee is my favourite (although they are all good).

I also tried the Lady M cakes and crepe cakes, also at the Plaza Hotel's Basement Food Hall- I had the green tea crepe mille fuille, which was very good but oozing with cream and a little too soft for my liking. It was very well executed and although I didn't relish it, as I had expected I would (maybe my expectations were too high), I do think about it occasionally, a month later and that's usually a sign of a great pastry. I sent the aunts to Jean Gorges for his fairly-priced and well-executed set lunch (which the male cousins found completely inadequate for their appetites) and when we were too full for much dinner, we popped into Bar Masa at the Time Warner building. 

I have to say that with the hype about Masa and how Bar Masa was a casual and competent accessory, I found Bar Masa incredibly underwhelming. It was like a typical, if high-end Japanese restaurant but when you looked through the menu, there was nothing really high-end or customized about it. In fact, it had dishes like fried bee hoon, which were distinctly Asian, rather than Japanese and the clientele was like most of the Upper East Side, conservative, sterile and boring. It rather felt like what it was- eating Japanese food in a mall. 

There were only a few places, and very targeted, that we tried, outside of this small geographical circle. One such place, was the Dominique Ansel Bakery in Soho and if I had to pick one thing that you need to try the next time you are in New York, it would be a hard fight between the DKA, Le Bernardin's fish lunch menu and Kyo-Ya for dinner. The DKA is the Kouign Amman from Dominique Ansel's bakery, a Breton pastry so famous, it has its own acronym. Ansel is the ex- pastry chef from Daniel and each of his pastry's is hand-crafted, for example, his madelaines take 8 minutes each and are baked to order, to make sure every piece is piping hot. His might be the best pastry shop in all of New York- quite honestly, outside of Paris, I have not tasted anything like his work and Certainly not the very poor cousin, in Tiong Bahru Bakery (oh, you have not lived). 

The DKA is the most popular item on his menu and it is his take on the flaky, twisted, croissant-like, caramelized croissant muffin. It is baked every hour and costs a whopping $5 USD each but if you watch the famous video of the-making-of, it is easy to see why. Crispy yet light and so very fragrant, this pastry, particularly with coffee, is incredibly indulgent and each bite is the stuff of dreams. 

Mid-week, I brought my cousins to famed steakhouse Peter Luger, in Williamsburg, which was, as usual, excellent. Had I more time, I would have tried this steak restaurant called St Anselm, which is also in Brooklyn, which came very highly recommended for their meats and succulent giant shrimp.The other place which my friends really enjoyed but which I didn't try was Quality Meats, it is meant to be an offshoot started by a disgruntled employee of Peter Lugur and they felt it was actually better, but Del Frisco's was unanimously panned. 

While in Brooklyn, you should definitely check out some of the dining scene there, but be warned that the area to cover is very large. We visited Franny's in Flatbush Avenue, which was fairly near the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, but quite deep into the heart of Brooklyn. For this reason, I had never made it on any of my earlier trips and it is fair to say that Franny's is actually many years into it's organic-produce-movement fame. It is still packed and the cuisine is best described as small world plates, with excellent thin, wood-fired pizzas. 

I have to say that if I wasn't in Flatbush Avenue, I don't know that I would have made the trek all the way there just for food. The small plates were excellent and they really inspired my palette but they were also quite pricey and the selection was small. The first plate was roasted leek with pinenuts and herbs- I had never realized that if you roasted leek, it became so very sweet and caramelized. It was excellent but it was $16 for a single, split leek. The second plate was freekah (which is a fat, rice-like grain) salad with cranberries, herbs and almonds. Again, the combination was refreshing, stimulative and unusual. The pizzas were indeed excellent and I guess in total, the bill, bring under $50, wasn't that expensive, but neither was the meal substantial. I have nothing against Franny's except that time has moved on and it just seems cute, rather than important, how they brand themselves as an environmentally- responsible enterprise. More importantly, the coffee was bad and there were lean, salt-and-peppered corporate executives with their adorable kids there after their weekend exercise, still dressed in their dry-fit bicycling tops and expensive leather mechanical-movement watches. 

When I visited my friends in Brooklyn Heights (the gentrified, green part of Brooklyn that has the most high-street stores and is the closest to the tip of Manhatten and Wall Street), it felt a little like Boston, with red brick-fronts and cute little streets called Orange and Pineapple. There was also a Smorgasburg, a cute take on a collection of food trucks that gathered in an open warehouse space over the weekends and served up local craft foods for lunch, things like Red Hook Lobster Pound's lobster rolls, artisinal breads, cupcakes and a BBQ and paella stores. My astute friend told me that the more successful of these home-grown enterprises had stopped coming to the market, to concentrate on their commercial enterprises. Brooklyn is doing roaring business these days, at the docks, we saw the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory (which looked a bit more like a poky, nostalgic 1960s store). The owner told us this was the first spring weekend that he was open and he had sold out in 5 hours on the Saturday and 6 hours on the Sunday. 

The last couple days were the best eating days of the trip. My most memorable day was the last night in New York, I spent the evening with friends in the Lower East Village at an amazing izakaya called Kyo-Ya. Now, I don't really care what you think you know about Japanese food, personally I find there are so many levels at which you can enjoy the variety of Japanese food and even Japanese fusion, relative to the price you pay. In this way, I sometimes feel it can be the most versatile of food cuisines. 

This place was authentic and brilliant, in a fairly high-end way, although the restaurant itself, is a bit of a hidden gem, tucked away in a quiet wooden basement space that makes you feel transported into a different space. The food was beautifully executed, the pressed sushi was so beautiful and the tamago wobbled it's way to the table. The Japanese server was specific and knowledgeable and the variety of tastes was exciting. We each ate our way through $100 of dishes, which given how much we polished off, was really not expensive. This would definitely be my top recommendation if you were to be in New York for something insightful, quality and special. I remember thinking to myself that this kind of food, and restaurant, is the way I remember New York. 

After dinner, I went to an interactive play of Macbeth called Sleep No More, which was conducted over 5 stories in an abandoned old hotel, deep in Chelsea. This play was featured in Gossip Girl and the audience all wear white masks, seperating you from the actors who play out their scenes in a blood-filled bathtub, a taxidermist showroom, a christmas tree farm, 1930s jazz dance hall (the dancing and costumes were amazing), a barnyard, a cemetary complete with actual tombstones and earth, and simply rooms upon rooms of the most dynamic, intricate and true-to-form props. You were free to chase different actors around, to interact with the play and to ride the elevator or criss-cross the stairs to different floors and back alley paths. It was one of those quintessential New York experiences, spooky, transcendent and slightly pretentious. All in all, a really memorable and awesome night, if you are fortunate enough to be in New York while it is running, you should definitely catch a performance. 

We had saved the best for last with a 2pm lunch reservation at Le Bernadin. I had heard it was a 3 star Michelin rating, stuffy and very good for fish, but it really is Amazing for fish. It was perhaps one of the best, if not the best Western fish restaurant I've been to. The service was courteous, the bread was lovely and the fish, wow. I can't say enough good things about it, except that you have to try it when you are in town, for a classy and enjoyable lunch (dinner is very expensive) meal. As with all top restaurants, order the weirdest-sounding combination on the menu, it's probably excellent. 

We had the $75USD prix fixe for lunch, which was three plates across a selection of almost-raws and barely-touched appetizers, a main and a dessert. The appetizers were mostly oysters, beautifully presented, rich soups and carpaccios made of the oddest fish, some were the expected (and delicious) marinated tuna, but there was also fluke, geoduck, taragai (clam), albacore, bacalao and cobia. The menu, just for the appetizers, was long and extensive and I wished that I could come back again and again to try them all. One of the seats at our table ordered the bacalao, which is salted fish and was rewarded with an outstanding dish, it tasted faintly of bacalao as I remembered it from Portugal but it was meaty, juicy and delicious. 

The mains, or barely-cooked, were also similarly exhaustive, from lobster to Dover sole, striped bass, black bass, wild-fished salmon and so on. They were cooked to perfect, the fish flaky and falling off the bone. If there was a weaker spot, if it can be considered that, it would probably be dessert, which was all deconstructed (boo), petite and rich. It was good, just nothing outstanding, with nothing but a residual memory of a bit of this and a bob of chocolate ganache. All in all, this was probably the most comprehensive yet beautiful lunch and I would highly recommend it. You need to make a reservation way in advance, we booked a week and a half earlier and had only a single slot for a late lunch. 

240 Central Park South

The Lincoln
142 West 65th Street 

Park Avenue- Summer
100 East 63rd Street

348 Flatbush Avenue, between Sterling Place and 8th Ave

Dominque Ansel Bakery 
189 Spring Street, near Sullivan Street

94 East 7th Street, at 1st Ave

Le Bernadin
155 West 51st Street