Eating my way through New York: November 2011

A few weeks ago I visited New York City. I love New York. I think that I feel completely comfortable there rather than overwhelmed or uneasy because it reminds me of Toronto. Of course, Toronto is like New York, but without all the stuff and Toronto planners sometimes appear to want to emulate New York. It was my second time there in my adult life. As before, I correctly gave someone directions, this time directing a man from E14th and 2nd (a couple blocks east of Union Square) back to Brooklyn. I had the answer because I was headed there myself.

As before I visited the Union Square Green Market (farmers’ market) and Chelsea Market/West Village (the previous time the High Line was just being built), Central Park, Washington Square, East Village, Lower East Side and SoHo. This time I spent most of the time in the East Village and Lower East Side. It felt so right to me.

As the time before, I intended to eat my way around the city. The previous time I mostly failed in my mission because I arrived during a Memorial Day weekend heat wave and heat makes me want to not eat. This time, a warm fall weekend, I was there for two days of four before stepping up my eating pace. My four-day weekend away was book-ended by some of my favorite meals with a third favorite being exactly in the middle. I had two dinners one evening, with a nap in between. That’s the way to do it.

Oh, and the cocktail bars. Have I mentioned I’m into cocktails these days? (Yes, I have.)

After taking the shuttle bus from Newark airport to Port Authority in Manhattan I walked a few blocks to retrieve the keys to the apartment I’d be staying at. When that hit a SNAFU (really was “all f’d up” – the apartment building employee who allegedly searched for the keys failed to see the big envelope with my name on it in the drawer he was looking in, or he saw and ignored it) I went around the corner to gather myself and find some lunch. I found myself at a Mexican restaurant called El Centro, which I later learned was in Hell’s Kitchen, known for good restaurants. I did see some intriguing ones on my way to get the keys.

El Centro has a fun, bright decor. Along with water, they bring corn chips and salsa when I sit down. I really liked those chips. They had a slight oil taste without being greasy. The salsa was smokey and sweet with a medium heat. It could have been a bit thicker to better adhere to the chips but those chips were addictive.

For $15 I got the taco trio. I chose the grilled mahi mahi, the pomegranate glazed skirt steak, and the braised short ribs. The grilled mahi mahi is made with caramelized onion, guacamole and chipotle aioli. The fish was firm and flaky. I wished that the tortilla didn’t disintegrate, but I liked this a lot. The pomegranate glazed skirt steak with caramelized onion, guacamole and and pickled cabbage was my favorite of the three.  The meat was tender and juicy. The braised short ribs with black beans, pico de gallo, crema & tamarind-pasilla sauce was so tasty. It was pink, juicy and meaty. It would have been perfect if not for the texture being a bit too tough for me. The flavour was amazing.

The tacos made me think of those served by La Carnita at their pop up taco stands in Toronto.  Had I not had issues getting keys to my friend’s apartment I would not have stopped here. It was worth returning to. This first meal in New York was also the only meal that I took detailed notes of.

My final meal at New York was at Clinton Street Bakery in the Lower East Side. My friend Jen advised me to order the pancakes with the disclaimer that she’s not usually into pancakes. I think she suggested the wild blueberry but I forgot and ordered the chocolate chunk. The pancakes came with a maple butter sauce. I informed the waiter that it better be real maple syrup because I’m Canadian and we take our maple syrup seriously. It runs through our veins. He assured me it was and understandably referred to the sauce “maple crack”. When I told him that I thought it would be good on vanilla ice cream with bourbon, he told me that I was giving him ideas. I like giving people ideas.

I also made a friend at breakfast, someone that I’ve stayed in touch with. When you’re traveling solo you tend to sit at bars with other people eating alone.

In between, and in no order:

Had amazing coffee at Roasting Plant, which my friend Tema had recently discovered when she was down there. She asked me to bring her a pound of their house blend. They roast their own beans. The aroma of the bag was strong and oh, so good with its toasted caramel notes. I kept taking deep inhales of the bag. When Tema came to retrieve her coffee I was sad to part with it. If you’re at the Lower East Side location and like cigars, check out Maraya a few doors east at 87 Orchard Street. I don’t smoke cigars but as I walked past the owner waved me over and we had a long conversation. It seems like a great little store and it has a smoking room to sample the merchandise. The owner, Joy, also recommended Roasting Plant as I was on a quest for a cup of coffee.

A block east I had the Babycakes experience and got a gluten-free cranberry apple loaf (cupcakes are too sweet for me).  I love that there was a hechsher in the window indicating that Babycakes is kosher. This amuses me about New York. Hechshers are common.

I discovered a great theme restaurant that delivers on the food, the aforementioned other favourite meal in the middle of my vacation. I say this without shame: One of the best meals I had was at Alice’s Tea Cup: Chapter III, which is Alice in Wonderland themed and where children are offered fairy wings to wear and everyone is offered a sprinkling of fairy dust. I was still finding fairy dust in my hair a week later, and that was after multiple brushings and washings. I wrote a (positive) review of it on Yelp, and I never do that. I wouldn’t have known about this place if I hadn’t met up with Cordelia and her daughter for a stroll through Central Park. As Cordelia said, the restaurant would be painfully kitchy if the food wasn’t so yummy. Cordelia is a friend who lives in a suburb of New York, who I met when she was visiting mutual friends in Toronto. We shared high tea. The chicken curry salad sandwich, the only chicken curry she likes, was magic.

Alice’s Tea Cup was my first dinner on Saturday before I went “home” for a nap, back out for a second dinner at Noodle Bar, where at 11:30 there was still a line up (I made a poor ordering choice but would return), down to Chinatown to check out a cocktail bar that I didn’t go into (too much of the Saturday night crowd and I wanted to enjoy a cocktail), walked back to SoHo and into a sake bar.

A sake aficionado friend recommended Decibel Sake Bar. It’s not the kind of place you stumble on unless you know it’s there. Waiting in line for a seat at the bar, a 30-ish guy walked in behind me and invited me to join his group of friends. We had a few glasses of sake, some snacks, some laughs, and called it a night. Who says that New Yorkers aren’t friendly? He said he’d check out my blog. I doubt he’s looked at it again after that night but that’s okay. Some relationships are meant to be the situational, platonic version of a one night stand. Friends for a couple of hours or less with no subsequent contact.

I found a favourite wine bar, again in the East Village, that I went to twice with a friend who’s a regular, a Toronto friend who lives in both two cities. When the same bartender was working the second time, I remembered her name. If I ever move to New York I could be a regular there. Mini Bar is on East 7th just west of Avenue A across from Thompkin’s Square Park. It lives up to its name in size and with limited food, but I hear that the cheese plate is worth ordering. I like a good cheese plate.

I checked out some cool cocktail bars: On my last evening in the city I visited Death and Company and PDT/Please Don’t Tell. At Death & Co my friend and I shared truffled mac ‘n’ cheese and I had a bourbon-based drink that I enjoyed despite it being more fruity and sweet than I usually like. PDT, physically connected to Crif Dogs, was a ton of fun because it too is sort of hidden away. I’m not a hot dog fan at all but enjoyed Crif. Crif was also where I drank my first Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I’d been purposely avoiding PBR for years but there is a context for everything and it seemed like a good counterpoint to a nice, civilized cocktail. Earlier in the evening my friend and I tried to go to Apotheke, the aforementioned Chinatown cocktail bar that I sussed out on Saturday, but found it closed. Insert sad face. I totally dig their philosophy. It’s the first bar I’ve ever heard of who espouses a “farm to bar” (like “farm to table”) ideology. It’s back on my list for the next visit.

Yep, I’ve got an ongoing list. It’s been in progress for a couple of years.

This blog post doesn’t even cover everything I did, ate and drank, just the ones that weeks later, still stick with me.

Recently I saw the symbol for the L Train on TV (Sesame Street spinoff Elmo’s World, okay?) and felt pangs of longing and a feeling of belonging. I kind of want to go back this month to see the big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and to eat more (naturally), but I know the tree will be there every year. Maybe I’ll go in the winter around the time of my birthday. I think that a trip to New York every three months is doable, right? Once per season. It’s probably cheaper than living there. This reality helps keep my longing in perspective. The apartment I stayed in, a 6th floor walk up in the East Village, was approximately the size of my living room and cost more money in rent than my large one bedroom apartment. My kitchen could be an eat-in. My friend sleeps on a loft bed so that he can have a couch, table with 2 chairs and desk. But, New York pulls me. I’ll just have to keep visiting and eating my way around.

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