Monday, August 06, 2007

New York: Quickie Food Tour 2007

In a historic turn of events both T and J will be writing this entry. T is in italics.

A few weekends ago J and I went to see Wicked in New York (he gives great Christmas presents!). We stayed at the luxurious Benjamin Hotel, one of the best hotel experiences we’ve ever had. They have a pillow menu where you can choose hypoallergenic, magnetic(?), Japanese, full-body, memory foam, etc.. Not only that, we left several items in the fridge and they were kind enough to ship them to us. It’s expensive but well worth it and we had a major price break through

Given our limited time in New York, we ended up having to make the choice between doing food stuff or seeing another show in addition to Wicked. Well this IS a food blog. We have to thank the denizens of chowhound for their excellent advice. Every eatery we went to that was recommended by Chowhounders was a home run.

Late Night Dining, Friday Night

Sarge’s Deli

548 3rd Avenue
between 36th & 37th Sts.
New York, N. Y. 10016
(212) 679-0442
(877) SARGES1

By the time we arrived at Sarge’s Deli in Midtown, we had been traveling far too long by train, cab, and foot. Our Amtrak snack was wearing off and we were hungry.

The Scene: a cooler of pies, the expected celebrity photos (Soupy Sales, Jerry Springer, Jackie Mason), rows of knishes, and shrink-wrapped black and white cookies ready for us to enjoy. And enjoy we did.

Starting with the Chopped Liver Appetizer was a good choice. In a word, it was “fresh” tasting. Served just slightly cool with healthy tastes of onion, pepper, garlic, and of course chicken liver. To me, it tasted like New York. All in all, It was quite competently made, but we have been spoiled by the amazing chopped liver that Syprogyra’s Mom makes for Rootbeer’s Seder. The flavor was great but the texture was a bit too crumbly for me. Ms Gyra simply nails this.

Our waitress was hard, but attentive. She was alternately curious about how we were doing and somewhat dispassionate in general. It’s amazing how quickly we moved from being the residents of a popular tourist destination to being the somewhat gawking visitors. I felt like Bobby Hill, both because I loved the taste of the plate of organ meat before me, but also because I wanted to yell, “That's so New York!” It’s amazing that New York can make the residents of the nation’s capitol feel a bit like clueless rubes.

I don’t mean to imply that we were idiotic about the situation or that we are not in some sense comfortable and unobtrusive travelers, but I am certain that a few key observations would have given us away. That said, T has spent much more time in New York than I have and between his experience and my research, we charted a pretty good course for the weekend.

Sarge’s offers a platter with a couple of items that are new for us. Stuffed Derma and Kreplach sounded a bit to me like the spinoff of Dharma and Greg that never got off the ground. T asked Sharon ( I call her Sharon, but don’t know her name) just what Derma and Kreplach are.

Sharon explains that derma is some kind of a stuffed savory item and kreplach is a Jewish dumpling with shredded beef. The derma was like a thick mashed sweet potato (though made of carrots?) while the kreplach was kind of like a Jewish version of a potsticker. Crispy outside like a thick potsticker skin with a center of flavorful, finely shredded beef. These were served with a potato pancake that had an amazing texture that was crunchy, fluffy, and starchy all at the same time.

Pastrami Sandwich The Pastrami sandwich was positively architectural. In general, there wasn’t much to it. Whereas some of the other dishes brought a better flavor or texture than most we have had before, the pastrami was really just pastrami. 350 pounds of it and tasty, but just pastrami. If this was a pizza place, it might have been called the Triple meat deluxe.

Really though, I’m not sure that’s a criticism. It was what it was. The spicy mustard on the table certainly helped it along.

Saturday Morning

I really wanted to take J to the Lower East Side where the Hasidic Jewish community, the Asian Community and the Italian community come together. It’s in the process of gentrifying but still has crazy good food for nothing prices. The Lower East Side is a foodie dream.

Doughnut Plant
379 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002

Doughnut Plant was our first morning stop. Just off Grand Ave ,it’s a place T had been before. I have not had a better doughnut. Ever. We were pacing ourselves so we shared just three. After a few bites, it was clear why so many in line were purchasing dozens.

The pastry was not too sweet, fresh, bready and had a great tooth-feel. Cold treats are often described as having a good “mouth feel,” so I figure “tooth feel” is fair game. Not too chewy, not too thick or thin, it just felt right.

Let’s break down the doughnut goodness for you.

The Valrhona Chocolate Doughnut was iced with a thin but opaque dark coating that sat on top of the pastry like a rich brown crown. It was friends with the pastry and neither forced the other one to take a leading role. This was doughnut and chocolate harmony.

The Peanut Butter and Jelly Doughnut was such a reasonable approach to such a concoction that I was grateful for whatever restraint the baker had shown. The reason I even comment is that it seems like making a peanut butter and jelly doughnut offers such an opportunity to go towards the sickeningly sticky and overly gloopy. I’ve made many a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that was oozier and rarely one that tasted as good. It should be noted that Doughnut Plant's yeast doughnuts that are filled are square with a hole in the center. Every bite has some filling and the apricot jelly in this one was fabulous.

The Coconut Doughnut was what put Doughnut Plant over the top. I would describe it in elaborate and gushing detail, but I am not sure our readers could handle the extremity of my lusty praise. If you run an internet search of “’Doughnut Plant’ Coconut” you can read more about this wonderful concoction. We had the yeast-raised doughnut with coconut cream, glaze and coconut on top. Insane. I was giddy and walked out of Doughnut Plant a changed person.

I don't know if I was changed for the better, but I was changed for good.

And to wash it all down, a Blueberry Lemonade that was the best lemonade we had on the whole trip. New York was sticky and humid so there were several cups and the sugar overload in most was pretty ridiculous. I also am quite grossed out by powdered lemonade and its barrel o' chemicals taste.

The blueberries in Doughnut Plant's zingy cup of goodness gave this a robust antioxidant-filled kick and, though it was a bit pulpy, it was unique and refreshing. And no, Doughnut Plant does not ship as of yet, but I have to hope one day they will.

Dumpling House
118 Eldridge St
New York, NY 10002-4418
(212) 625-8008

“How do they do it?” We kept asking ourselves that question for the rest of the weekend. Dumpling House was a Chowhound recommendation and, again, a place T had been before. A very small alcove tucked right off of Broome Street, in the lower East side, this is a find.

I swear you could feed a small army there with twenty dollars. Not only are the dishes very affordable, they taste wonderful! We shared Sesame Noodles and a serving of Pork and Chive Dumplings.

And how much did this set us back? $3.50. That’s right. Less than five bucks for easily the best dumplings I have had and noodles that were hot, thick, and yummy. Of all the places we went, I am certain I would want to return here. There’s something about having affordable food done right and just hanging out slurping it up outside the walk-up window. How do they do it?

The sesame noodles were extraordinary. They had a lovely doughy texture that is indicative of fresh noodles. While the sesame sauce was nothing to write home about the noodles themselves were just spectacular. One thing about the Dumpling House, if you don’t speak some Chinese dialect, you will wait.

Economy Candy
108 Rivington Street
New York, NY 10002
(800) 352-4544

A few people had recommended Economy Candy. Now neither of us are big candy people. (Not as in made of candy!) But places like this are pretty fun to visit. An assault of colors and memories and camp. There were gargantunoid Pez dispensers, foot-tall Chuppa pops, about twenty shapes and flavors of licorice bits, gummy everythings, and more.

I was most happy to see an old friend, Zotz. Zotz are a fizzy candy I used to pick up at the dime store after school or on a weekend bike ride when I was a kid. Intense flavor with a real zip and sizzle. The handful of apple Zotz I picked up have been fun!

We were also glad to find Sunkist Fruit Gems. We usually pick these up at Franklin’s General Store in Hyattsville, but have been without our fix since they have been renovating.

Banh Mi Saigon Bakery
138 Mott St
(between Grand St & Hester St)
New York, NY 10013
(212) 941-1541

This was good banh mi. I’d probably even go back, but the banh mi at Song Que in the Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia is a bit tastier. Same goes for $1.50 banh mi in Toronto's Chinatown. We opted for the pork and the vegetarian and took them home for dinner. Perhaps there was a quality loss in the carting around but there was hardly enough pork on the pork sandwich to get a real taste for it, and the vegetarian version ended up rather sloppy. This did provide us with the banh mi fix we wanted, but I’d enjoy less bread next time. I wasn’t crazy about this place. It was a competently made sandwich but I measure all sandwiches by the Lee’s Sandwich chain and this wasn’t even close.

Saturday Afternoon

Saturday afternoon was one of those wander around traveling experiences you dream of. We walked north looking for a cab and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of Little Italy. I know it’s all touristified but damn if they didn’t have Italian Ice that hit the spot. J had the lemon and I had the pineapple. I do love that it’s such a pedestrian area.

408 Broome Street
(between Centre St & Cleveland Pl)
New York City, NY 10013
(212) 219-5050

In the ultimate food traveler story, we wandered north of Little Italy desperate for a cab to Chelsea Market and I happened to see the red sign for Despana Spanish market. This gleaming, Williams Sonoma style market called out to me to come in. How could I resist the big hunk o’ prosciutto being sliced thinly by hand in the window? Despite our exhaustion, this excursion was well worth it. They had samples everywhere of cheese, olive oil, vinegar, and cured meats. It was all delicious and the friendly people behind the counter beckoned me to try (and buy) everything. My biggest regret is not buying the paprika-flavored goat cheese, but I was afraid it wouldn’t keep. We did end up getting a delicious and reasonably-priced sherry vinegar (I’ve been looking for that for ages), some prosciutto, and the best chorizo I’ve have ever put into my mouth. Rather than being bright red, this chorizo was a dark brown and had a sweeter, muskier flavor.

Chelsea Market
75 9th Avenue
(Between 15th and 16th Streets)
New York, NY

Chelsea Market is one of those famed New York culinary food destinations that we were excited to visit. After a long day of walking around, it may have been slightly less amazing tan we were expecting. Shops for kitchen wares, cookies and cupcakes, seafood, bread and baked goods, gourmet gift basket items, Italian specialty foods, and more.

The one shop we found totally absurd was Eleni's Cookies. Don't get me wrong, the place was terribly cute. Colored icings and fancy frilly things abound, but for goodness sakes, the cookie prices were hilarious. Over $50 for a dozen assorted decorated cookies. Come on. Are they adorable, labor-intensive, and beautifully made? Yes. But even on a food adventure, we have our limits.

I was also sad the the perfectly decorated chocolate cupcake I had was sub par. The buttercream frosting was good and the portion was generous, but the cake itself was dry. I would suggest they try using Ina Garten's chocolate ganache cake recipe, or something?

The Lobster Place, was a feast for the eyes. According to their site, they are "New York City’s largest purveyor of live lobster, selling over 1,000,000 pounds . . . year." We're talking stunning and gorgeous fish. Tuna was a deep jewel-toned purplish red, healthy looking cuts of salmon, and lobster everywhere. We were simply too full to eat anything here, but I know we will go back. And yes, it was pricey as well, but truly stunning.

Bread choices at Amy’s Bread were tasty. I can't say this is the best bakery I have ever been to, but the olive loaf, wheat bread, and pound cake we bought for home have been quite enjoyable. The Amy's staff were bright and friendly and helpful. I always think it's funny when people talk about folks in New York being rude or sharp. Sure, that happens, but the people we dealt with had great customer service skills.

Buon Italia
is a fabulous Italian market that was a lot of fun to explore. I must admit that we were truly running out of steam by this time so we were becoming less and less curious about discovering new and delicious treats. But then . . .

I found it. Pocket Coffee. Are you kidding me!? I've been looking for Pocket Coffee for at least a year. The manufacturer will not ship it during the summer because they say it will melt in the heat. Pocket Coffee, for me, is the Holy Grail of Italian novelty candy. And I found some. And I loved it. And it loved me. And we were happy.

And I left it at the hotel. All of it except the three pieces I had enjoyed. My sweet espresso filled thin pralines covered in chocolate. I am still heartbroken.

A quick interlude here to say that we truly enjoyed Wicked. The acting was first rate and the singers did a fabulous job. I have only seen the show once, but the leads, Lisa Brescia and Kendra Kassebaum were incredibly compelling and I was moved by their performances. The characters were incredibly real and the choices the actors made helped build a very natural and realistic story in spite of flying monkeys and absurdist dance numbers.

Late Saturday Night

Morningstar Café
949 2nd Ave
(between 50th St & 51st St)
New York, NY 10022
(212) 588-1050

We really did not focus much on the food because the conversation at the next table kept creeping our way. Morningstar Café was right by the hotel and two gentlemen in hats were having an intense conversation about a documentary about ping-pong. Table tennis. If we were in the South I might have poked my head over the booth and offered that I would really enjoy a documentary about ping pong and they should go for it. I would even offer to be on their street team!

I had pancakes and eggs. Tasted great, filled me up. Service was courteous and attentive. That was all I needed. T had the liver and liked it too.

Sunday Morning

831 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10022
Phone: 212-980-1010

What a fitting way to end a trip to New York. It seems there are a million opinions about where the best bagels are, but I can tell you that I have yet to have one anywhere close to Ess-A-Bagel. We arrived to a medium-sized line and separated. T went to the sandwich ordering line and I went over to the bagels by the dozen line. When I ordered my bagels to take home on the train, the man behind the counter said it would be a minute because the bagels were on their way out of the oven. A few minutes later he popped a baker's dozen of piping hot goodness into my bag.

I enjoyed an everything bagel with lox and red onion while T had a chopped liver sandwich. We read the New York Times, drank orange juice and felt like we were home.

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