Category Archives: Eating

Sidewalk Affair

Weekends in New York become more European during the spring time. By that I mean restaurants and cafes offer outdoor seating so that New Yorkers may bask in the sun and people watch. In Europe, however, the outdoor cafes may face a beautifully lined architecturally notable street, or are perched on a hillside cliff, or dot the shores of a sandy beach. The effect is the subtle waft of a chalky ocean breeze, the aroma of lavender misting the hills, or a piece of industrial art posing as a building. In the big apple, these streets are few, since we have no beach or foothill, and the peril of dining between skyscrapers lies in noise pollution and the schmutz the taxi cabs brush in as they speed. Not to mention the preponderance of pooches sniffing your leg, or the rock pigeons swooping down for a morsel of your bialy.

Some neighborhoods are more civilized than others though, and often are home to proper outdoor spots for musing without having to wait on some ridiculous brunch queue. In Tribeca, I spent the afternoon at Bouley Bakery. This was not my plan, for I had a laundry list of things to do, as do most New Yorkers on a Saturday off. The plan included Chinatown for shopping, and on the weekends, if I time it right, I usually head there for dim sum. Alarm clock notwithstanding, I missed dim sum at 70 Mott Street (less variety the later you go), and settled for a pastry at Bouley Bakery. Although settled is the wrong word. I started with a harmless Neopolitan, stuffed with custard and raisins, but soon fell victim to my eyes. The apricot croissant was next, followed by a crisp, thin pizza, a pear & chocolate croissant, a croquet monsieur, and a coconut, banana & chocolate croissant to be washed (hosed) down by a large latte. Now, I was not alone, but my friends Dr. L. and Dr. Y. did nothing to discourage our “quick” snack before lunch. We sat outside passing the duchie on the left hand side and devoured. Gorged. We even went back for more.

Tribeca had taken over, and not by force. How calm Tribeca seemed. How tranquil everyone looked. Sun mixed with bright breezes. That’s what New York is about. Skip shopping. Skip studying. Just skip anything. Bite into another lovely pastry and sip a spot of tea. Before that we had tried to brunch at Blau Gans, closed for a private party. A restaurant that doesn’t take reservations and selectively closes without warning? Not cool.

A quick perusal into Vino Vino for a glass, closed for a private party. A sharp turn into Double Knot for the Turkish delight (rugs) and the mesmerization continued. An artful prance into the DFN Gallery, and we were beginning to get the picture. Life is different down there, and any tresspass into another hood could spoil the mood. But Chinatown has its charms, mostly in foot rubs and cheap eats.

The New Wing Wong Restaurant serves a bowl of soup with won tons, roast duck or pork, and noodles that will cure you of your allergies. The soup costs $4.50, but buyer beware. Sometimes you’ll get charged five. That’s what happened to Dr. L., who claims it’s happened before. A strange snafu, but nothing that can’t be handled. Just politely point it out, and they will change the bill for you. Besides, at that price the soup is almost free.

In Nolita we stumbled upon a bar with a large open window and comfortable seating. The rose was terrible (Australian Grenache), but the smooth Bossa Nova beats kept us humming in our window seats. Some time passed and we noshed at Xicali, a tapas spot with strawberry sangria and chorizo. The wind was whirling, and that cool spring breeze turned into a nasty wintry whiplash. Safe by the closed window, we were still able to keep momentum while planning for our next place. But by then night had crept into our lives, and the scene had changed. There would be no more lounging around like a Parisian. But for one fine Saturday, outdoor New York held court just fine.

A Platonic Ideal

The other day after dojo practice I was looking for a quick bite before heading home, and I paused to ponder my options. The Upper West Side is home to its fair share of cheap eats, although high rents and upscale eateries are doing well to change the culinary landscape. Cesca, Aix, Ouest, Neo, Café du Soleil, just to name a few, and the list continues to sprout.

Thankfully there are still joints like Gray’s Papaya, ubiquitous Chinese spots, and buffalo wings on sale (Check out Lion’s Den Monday nights). Longtime neighborhood establishments like La Tacita de Oro (for Roast Chicken) and La Casita (for Cuban sandwiches) have reluctantly passed the torch to fast food aberrations. Boy do I miss them.

The best bet is still pizza, in my mind the number one street food, especially if you’re on the go. There is pizza and there is pizza, and everyone who has teeth has an opinion about where is the best pizza shop. I have other favorites all over the city, Di Fara being on the top of my list, but when I gotta have a slice, only one place takes the cake every time.

For thirty years I have been eating away at the life pie that is crafted by two Sicilian gentlemen, Sal and Carmine. At first, they operated out of 95th street, near the Symphony Space. Fires and real estate wars pushed them out. They found a home on 102nd and Broadway, and have endured high rents by strategically raising the price of their slice and maintaining an undying, faithful following.

The reason for that following is simple: a pizza that is consistently great and satisfying.

In this carbo-phobic society, bread is a taboo, but not here. An ample crust serves as the platform for a proper tomato sauce, topped by tangy mozzarella. The slice holds together in harmony. Of the toppings, I enjoy onion, but the plain slice reigns supreme. To say anything more about the pizza will do no justice. You can read a review (the walls are posted with them) or just come on down and have a slice. The slices get sold so often you are basically guaranteed a fresh slice on every visit.

One time my friend Jason called Carmine up and asked him at what temperature should he bake a homemade pizza. Carmine replied, “One thousand degrees.” Jason retorted, “My oven doesn’t go that high. What am I supposed to do with this dough?” Without pulling any mozzarella cheese Carmine added, “That’s right. Just throw out that dough. Come down here in fifteen minutes. I’ll give you a fresh pizza.” Point well taken.

My friend Dr. L. and I have a theory that one brother is jealous of the other’s pizza, and that keeps them going day after day. The family recipe is well-guarded, and sometimes their nephew helps them out, but he recently became a state trooper, and Sal and Carmine are hard-pressed to keep the shop open every day. Soon they will retire to Italy or New Jersey, and the pizza legacy will accompany them. One review on the wall talks about how Sal & Carmine create the “platonic ideal of a slice.” Having created that perfection, they deserve the rest. Joining Casita and Tacita, that’s one less joy for a boy looking for a slice of pizza heaven.

Viva Mexico!

The holiday of Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May, commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over Napoleon and the French at The Battle of Puebla in 1862. Puebla is renowned for their artisanal furniture-making, and this holiday is celebrated throughout the state as well as the city.

Celebrating this holiday has become very popular, especially near the U.S.-Mexico border, in states where there is a naturally high population of Mexican immigrants. As a result, several cities have caught on to the spirit of Cinco de Mayo by holding parades and throwing big fiestas. New York is home to a quite a few Mexicans, and many restaurants will take full advantage of the chance at festivities.

Like New Year’s Eve, I prefer a balanced mix of house party and going out. You save some money that way, control your environment, and above all, can go all out on the food and wine, in this case spirits.

One memorable Cinco de Mayo party I’ve attended in the past was at my friends’ flat, Peter and Hope. Hope, who is part Mexican, crafted some delicious Mexican fare, from moist duck enchiladas to rich moles, to perfect guacamole, just to name some highlights. Partnered with Peter’s lascivious margaritas with fruit purees, and forget about it. I’ve spent one or two of these holidays comatose on their couch. With their recent addition of Isabella, the adorable one, parties have simmered down just a tad.

For going out, I like to bar hop. Some of my old haunts include Zarela, Rosa Mexicana, Rancho’s, Mama Mexico, and Rio Grande. If I’m feeling lucky, I’ll head over to 116th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues for the real deal, complete with mariachis. This little enclave is like Little Mexico, smack dab in the middle of El Barrio, with a few Italian businesses still hanging on for good measure.

Then of course there’s the good house party, which is made up of good country Mexican music (for lamenting and screaming), good guacamole and chips (to keep from being smashed too quickly), and proper tequila (margaritas too).

Have each guest bring a bottle so you never run out, and have some for next year. There are some fancy tequilas on the market now, and they can be as expensive as a single malt scotch. Reserve those only for sipping. Some of my favorites are Centenario, Tres Generaciones, and Don Julio. But for mixing, try a reposado like Cazadores, although run of the mill stuff like Sauza Comemorativo and Cuervo Especial will do the job.

While in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, a good friend of mine (who happens to be a general in the army) opened up the back of his SUV and declared, “En mi pais (In my country), hay dos necessarios (there are two essentials), mis tequilas (my tequilas) y mis armas.(my guns).” Neither ever left his side.

Engage in wild dancing and screaming contests, and rejoice in the independence of the Mexican people, and people all over the world who have had to struggle against oppression for their right to party.

For my recipes go to www.chefmateo.com

Haru Next Door

Lately I have been obsessed with underground traditional Japanese bars, but that’s no reason to forget the many good ones above ground. In this case, Haru, not the restaurant, the offshoot bar at 76th street on the east side, fits the bill quite nicely. A sort of Haru next door, if you will.

From 10 pm to close (11 pm on Fri & Sat), all their specialty drinks are six dollars a pop, the drafts are three, and add to that a small selection of rolls for three or four bucks. Shochikubai sake can be ordered hot or cold. This is no junmai or ginjyo, but then again sake for four bucks isn’t supposed to knock you off your feet any more than the Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR – $1.50) I regularly order at my favorite wings place.

The bar flanks a pseudo restaurant, for patrons who want to sit on bright orange and white chairs, further sinking into the somber dining area. Take a seat at the bar instead, made plush by bright red techno décor straight out of a Hong Kong karaoke spot.

There’s a cocktail for just about every mood, and not all are sake based. Try the Haru lychee mojito or a green tea margarita, for a twist on classics. The vodka lycheetini delivers a wallop, while others such as the rum punch or komodo dragon run a tad sweet.

The alternative is a sake cocktail, and the saketini is well balanced and pleasureable. The sake mojito may even edge the lychee version. Order it again and again. The cherry blossom tastes like candy. Forget it. That leaves you with champagne mixes, but prosecco is used instead. If you must, try the enter the dragon with pomegranate juice.

After you’ve knocked a couple back, it’s time for a few rolls. The shiitake cucumber roll is savory, and the crunchy spicy salmon has good texture. The other rolls end up tasting very similar, so you might order nigiri sushi a la carte to augment the snacking. I always go for ikura with a quail egg on top, which at Haru was just fair, if not forgettable.

But value-wise, Haru next door should not be looked over, the value is there in a comfortable setting. It’s a good place for a hit and run, then off to an underground bar downtown, where everybody knows your name.

Shake It Up Baby

Sometimes it snows in April. Or it rains real hard. I got the marvelous notion in my head the other day to see what all the hype was about the Shake Shack. This wasn’t my first attempt. No, last year I went determined to try the infamous vanilla custard which Grand Crew member Jay says I gotta have. I rushed down there, only to discover that the shack was closed for the season. Strike one.

Fast forward to April 2006, and after a long workout, I convinced myself to give her a whirl. Thursday night, beautiful skies, body count in line – 250 strong. Genius. Strike two.

Saturday, thirty degrees and April showers – Eureka. No line, no wait, no hassle, just me and the shack. Where would I sit? Deal with that later. What to order? Order the works.

The FAQ board that is posted by the menu explains various policies and recipes the Shake Shack is known for, such as the inability to serve the masses in a fast food nation sort of way, especially because everything is made to order, and even offers advice as to the best time to come – rain. Duh!

I ordered a Shack burger with fries, a Chicago dog, a black & white shake, and a vanilla custard. A good cross-section, I felt. Besides I wasn’t famished or anything.

The service was friendly and prompt, and under storm-like conditions, I needed all the warmth I could get. The burger reminded me of something from my youth, good flavors on a potato bun. The fries were crispy and delicious. The hot dog seemed like a vegetarian’s dream. The shake was adequate but the balance between chocolate and vanilla was off. So far, not a bad experience, but nothing to write home to Kansas about. I imagine on a cool summer’s eve, eating under the clouds and stars, feeling very suburban, in a New York County Fair sort of way.

There’s a very short, but proper wine list if you’re the type who likes champagne with his burger or a riesling with a hot dog – I am certainly a fan.

Then I slipped a spoon of vanilla custard into my mouth. And fan or not, it was the best I ever had. A cup of ethereal firm whipped vanilla flavor, unceremoniously served in a plastic cup that says “sweetheart”. This is no gelato from Roma, or even an helado from Manresa, but stack it up there with the best of American classic desserts.

Applaud chefs like Danny Meyer who try to offer better, fresher food to the masses. It’s about time we upgrade our choices and transition to better “fast food”. I was well satisfied, and could even see myself trying the Shake Shack again. Maybe when it snows.