20 June, 2011

New York - American classics

The great thing about travelling to New York is that you're not really in America. It's historically one of the most liberal regions in the country, and New Yorkers will tend to introduce themselves as such, not as Americans. The various boroughs and neighbourhoods of the city are so delineated they're like individual states within a small country. Small in size only, though - if New York were its own country, in terms of population it would be in the top 60 countries in the world, just behind Sri Lanka and only a few spots below Australia.

So, in travelling to New York, we weren't expecting to experience the worst of American cuisine too frequently: overlarge meals with melon-sized baked potatoes oozing over half a cow, while cheese the consistency of clingfilm tries, and fails, to melt, all washed down with a soda the size of a petrol tank. By and large, we experienced excellent modern food in New York, but we did hit up against the occasional American classic.

If you've read any American kids' books you know that they love a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One of the great secrets of childhood is that they don't mean jelly, but jam! Who'd have thunk? And who'd have thunk it'd be so darn good? No wonder they're all eating it:At Bagel Express, you pick from a dozen or so types of bagel, and, alongside all manner of fillings, are about 20 'spreads and smears' (the latter of which is never comforting to ask for!). I ordered this spread on a whim as soon as I saw it on the list, and it works better than you might think - but check out how much there is! I couldn't get my tongue off the roof of my mouth for hours :)

When it comes to bagels, my favourite bagel shop name was in Boston - Finagle-A-Bagel. I love it because a) it rhymes, b) 'finagle' is such an awesome word to say and c) to finagle is to get something by deception, which seems an unlikely, but kind of charming, choice of name for a shop!

One thing we didn't get in America at all was enormous serving sizes. Part of the confusion around that may be that America inexplicably uses the word 'entree' in place of main, as on this menu from Russell House Tavern in Boston.An 18oz ribeye steak is not a 'beginning' to a meal in anyone's book (except maybe Elvis'. And, to digress momentarily, has anyone else noticed the Elvis sandwich, with some variation on peanut butter, bacon and bread cropping up around town? Auction Rooms, Red Door, Bluebird Espresso...). We did sample said steak, however:along with the seared arctic char, a fish whose texture falls in between trout and salmon:
Actually, I tell a lie. There was one meal that involved an unbelievably large serving size. Carnegie Deli is one of those places I knew about, and put on my to-do list, without having any idea how or where I'd heard about it. Finding ourselves peckish for lunch on the way to Central Park, it seemed serendipitous to divert a couple of blocks to grab a pastrami on rye.

If you know what you're in for, I'm sure Carnegie is easy. I didn't, and felt as out of my depth as if I were ordering in a Hebrew-only restaurant. What I came out with was $17.37 less cash, and this behemoth:I made so many attempts at making a dent in this thing, but given it was impossible to pick up and eat like a sandwich from your lap, I essentially just picked at pastrami all afternoon. And I've gotta say, it was fucking good pastrami.

Easily the worst meal we had in the States was at Bill's Bar and Burger, at the Rockefeller Plaza. Other than said lunch, it was undoubtedly one of the best days of the trip, with a trip to MoMa in the morning, extended views from Top of the Rock, and dinner at Babbo that night. The burger was in fact so bad that it was almost cool to have experienced it.

It is many years since I've eaten anything prepared under the golden arches, but it turns out the taste of a McDonalds burger stays with you even longer than the trans fat, and this sandwich took me right back. Sweet bun, grotty patty, and just look at the cheese, which looks more like yellow cling film than a dairy product. Thanks for the extra pickle, by the way - something about a balanced meal?

If that hasn't turned your stomach enough, check this out:On the Amtrak train from New York to Montreal, the dining car offered 'fresh' sandwiches. Pictured above is the ham and cheese version, and this is the ingredient list:
Luckily the views and seating made up for the shortfalls in food on offer.

New York - food shopping

Travelling in America for the first time is like experiencing a walk-through guidebook that explains references from TV shows and movies. Not that I saw a Twinkie while I was there...I still don't know what that is. Or the joy of Pottery Barn. But I did have graham crackers sprinkled over a frozen yoghurt.

Seeing Whole Foods supermarkets put me in mind of Reality Bites: (Lelaina to Troy): 'Oh Troy, that'll never happen. They would never hire you at Whole Foods!'.

In general, I love visiting supermarkets overseas, and at least in this case everything was in English so I could actually read what all the products were. That didn't make the shopping experience any less surprising, however. The Whole Foods is an interesting beast - it promises sustainability and commitment to quality, local produce. Which is great, except that the place is enormous, with every department on a scale that seems entirely at odds with their professed philosophy.

America is full of contradictions like that. For a country battling massive obesity problems, they're incredibly open about what is in their foods, and quite calorie obsessed. Of course, there are two problems there: knowing what's in your food means nothing if you don't know what you should be avoiding, and calories are far from the most important thing to consider in ensuring you're eating healthily.

To give an inkling of the Whole Foods, here is merely their mushroom selection:Over a dozen types and, in the bottom left of the picture is their egg range - not just chicken, but quail and duck too.

Alongside a riotously colourful fresh produce section, complete with a map of local ingredients, they had pre-chopped vegies - both individual and mixed - available to buy by weight. Similarly, at the Granola Bar you could weigh out all your preferred muesli options to combine at home. The serve-and-weigh bars kept coming: salad, hot desserts, hot breakfast, They even had jars of egg white and pre-boiled eggs.

For the vegans, how about some Cluckphrey Chic-a-Roo chicken nuggets, that, of course, aren't chicken, although they manage to look and sound as scary as a McNugget!

The more-is-better theme so amply demonstrated by the mushrooms at Whole Foods continued in our food shopping. A place very high up on my to-go list was Eataly, Mario Batali's Italian food emporium. I knew it was big - Batali is a chef with an empire of 16 restaurants, bars and shops in at least three states - but I didn't know it was going to be massive. Think of the Mediterrenean Wholesalers, but bigger, flashier and full of tourists and Upper West Siders. Eataly has a coffee bar, confectionery section, meat counter, deli, pizza bar, fresh produce, a birreria, fresh pasta...even a manifesto.

Coming from a suburb where often the smallest and least showy cafes have the best reputation, it took some time to adjust to the city that came up with the Bigger is Better idea.
We also ate at Batali's flagship restaurant, Babbo. That was an experience filled with its own flamboyance. More on that to come...

We also sourced a meal from Chelsea Market. It's right next to the Highline, and a great way to spend a warm New York evening is to devour food from the former while people-watching on the latter. Our dinner came from Buon Italia, who served up Italian meals and cooked vegetables by weight. Note to travellers: remember that pounds and kilograms are not equivalent amounts! $14.99 a kilo is fine for slices of parmigiana, cooked mushrooms etc, but when it's actually $14.99 a pound that makes it $40 a kilo, which is getting into current banana-price territory :)

And one quick food-shopping find: Burdick Chocolate on East 20th St, just off 5th Avenue a few blocks down from Eataly, does these adorable individual chocolate penguins and mice. They come boxed singly, or in groups, and let's face it, are way too cute to eat!

19 June, 2011

New York - brunch

They love to brunch in New York. And when I say brunch, I mean something more than just a snazzy word combination to describe a mid-morning meal, something more than ordering off the breakfast menu late in the day.

Most cafes have a completely separate brunch menu, available only at set times on the weekend, normally something like 11-4. In most cases, the menu also covers cocktails - often one (or more) is included along with your meal. It's a dining tradition I'm quite keen on and its absence on these shores is leaving my Sundays feeling a little bland and disappointing in comparison.

The only frustrating thing about New York's winning brunch arrangements is that they're only available on weekends - even as happy-go-lucky tourists you can't take advantage of a quiet Thursday to knock back a few complimentary bloody marys with your poached eggs. So, when it came to the weekend, brunch was our priority tourist destination.

Within 36 hours of landing in New York, we'd been to Brooklyn twice. Our initial, jetlag-avoiding meander south from Houston Street led us to City Square, site of the striking Municipal Building and start of the Brooklyn Bridge. Never one to let debilitating tiredness and crazed melatonin levels get in the way of a travel opportunity, we duly crossed said bridge, and found ourselves incapable of much more than an atrophied rest in the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Even the attractions of a Calexico cart couldn't lure us to our first sample of street food.

The next day we crossed the river again, via subway this time, to hit the Brooklyn Flea Market, featuring the Smorgasburg food market. I held myself to a doughnut at the markets, however. As Brooklyn is gentrified by up-and-comers escaping the $800K median apartment price tag in Manhattan, it's embracing the cafe culture big time, and I had a whole list of possible places to brunch at.

One was Milk Bar, famous in these parts for having an Australian, indeed Melbournian, barista, who can make a 'proper' latte. Seems the Americans are loving it Aussie style too - the place was pumping full when we went past.

Instead we trudged (jetlag and heat don't really put a spring in your step) an extra couple of blocks to The Spot, home of the unlimited mimosa brunch. That's right - you promise to pay them $12.95 and in return you can pick anything off the menu and they will refill your glass with bubbles and orange juice as much as you like. Rather than the hiss of the coffee machine, this cafe resonated with popping corks.

The thing was, we were both ragged with jetlag, and unlimited drinks coupled with fatty food on a hot day was probably a recipe for....well, indulging in the crazy, nonsensical kind of things you do on holidays, really.

So, SG went a safe option with the pancakes, for which the customer could choose their own filling, his taste running to strawberry and blueberry. The great North American condiment, real maple syrup, came jugged on the side.

Without elaborating, the waiter advised that the 'French toast Spot style' was pretty special. I figured, when in Rome, and all that, and ordered according to his recommendation.Thank you, I will have my French toast deep-fried. The special addition was the cream cheese on the inside. It really wasn't that bad, and let's face it, we were drinking all the sparkling wine we wanted for the price of a sandwich at Earl, so there wasn't much to complain about.

To celebrate this, our first New York brunch, and to recover from imbibing alcohol and ingesting plenty of fat, sugar and dairy midday, we promptly went home and went to sleep :)

The next day we went back for more, this time keeping it much closer to home, needing only to trudge four doors down from our apartment to Jane. This was a fancier place than The Spot, overrun with good-looking Villagers. We perched at the bar, and spent as long picking a complimentary cocktail (raspberry champagne) as the food.
Here we have corn 'pancakes' (the discs sitting under the eggs), topped with perfectly poached eggs, maple chicken sausage and tomato hollandaise. Alongside are the home fries (it took us a while to hit upon genuine fries, rather than wedges). The maple sausage in particular was delicious. I love maple syrup in baked beans, and discovered in America what wonders it can do for meat as well.

Prune came to our attention via a friend's recommendation. It's in an unassuming street in the East Village, and I think exemplifies New York's weekend dining scene. Rammed inside, anxious groups hovered outside, awaiting and cursing missing friends who prevented them from being seated. The hostess ran the show with authority, in some cases seeming to fit people in at whim. The cafe's popularity was proven by diners who arrived unfazed by the prospect of a 40-minute wait.

We were seated within a couple of minutes (must have been of those hostess whim things). I'd been after something straightforward - a toast and scramble kind of thing, with cocktails, of course. The menu didn't present as straightforward, and it soon became clear that this was a cafe that took brunch very seriously. They've nailed the idea of a mix of sweet and savoury dishes - often both elements on the one plate - to fill the late-morning to early-afternoon eating requirements of cashed-up kids on the weekend.

Our choices were thus:Dutch-style pancake, with blueberries and coulis, served with sour cream and Canadian maple bacon. This was so delicious. The pancake was risen in the oven, rather than a pan, and it was like sitting down to a sponge cake for breakfast. The blueberries soaked right in, and offset by the salty, smoky bacon, it was just divine.

This was on the menu simply as 'spicy chickpea stew', but it was so much more. The (not very spicy) chickpea and tomato stew does form the basis, but sitting atop are two wonderful things: crumbed poached eggs, which held their runniness throughout the meal. Astride the plate are two pieces of flatbread, spread with the most decadently salty olive butter. I'd have paid the price of admission just for that.

So much for scramble on toast!

New York - pizza

I'm sometimes surprised at how habitually SG and I eat pizza when we're away. We make it and/or order it at least once a week when we're at home but even so, whenever we're travelling, it comes up on the food menu pretty quickly.

We tried three pizzas in New York. We started on our first night, languishing under the burden of jetlag and envying the rest of the city their enthusiasm for Friday night. We ate at Benito II, in Little Italy. It was hardly a little out-of-the-way find, but walking was tough enough, let alone hunting down and discerning between restaurants.

We got their primavera pizza, offering seasonal vegetables, which turned out to be broccoli, mushrooms, and beans. Green beans. Not a toppping I'd seen on a pizza before. The topping choices were weird, but the base and the overall dish were fine. The base was thicker and crispier than we're used to, and quite biscuity.

Two Boots pizza was a food option I'd noted from a random article in the New York Times I'd read months before eating. We came across an outlet in the food court beneath Grand Central Terminal, and a slice each provided the perfect snack/dinner before heading for a late-night visit to the Empire State Building.
This is their pepperoni and mushroom pizza, and for ready-sliced pizza in a public transport food court it was pretty darn good. Much more in the thinner, floppy-base style than the other pizzas we tried while away. Two Boots are all over the city - worth checking on the basis of this sample.

Across Thompson St from our apartment was Arturo's, clearly something of a Greenwich Village institution. Customers spilled out to the sidewalk tables every night, and the sounds of live music and carousing from the inside bar and restaurant slipped through the door with the constant coming and goings. A New York ingenue, who could have been anything from 16 to 30, perched on a railing outside the door and guided customers to their preferred type of table with precision - heavens forfend another staffer seat anyone or bring them menus.

Their pizzas, despite our hostess' assertions that they were the 'best in Manhattan', really weren't that good, to my taste. They weren't bad, they were just in that older, thicker-based style that doesn't get served up in many pizzerias or trattorias round these parts. The meat didn't seem to be anything special, the cheese was just cheese (though not as oily as you get out here, at least). They're big on the coal-fired oven over there, and I don't know if that's imparting less distinction to the dough and toppings.

What was most notable about our meal at Arturo's was the arrival of this fire engine. It clanged past, then braked and deadset reverse parked right in front of the restaurant. It made enough noise that the boutique-dressed and coiffed lady next to us, who hadn't disengaged from her iPhone to talk to her partner or partake in ordering food, had to head round the corner to continue her conversation. Six firies jumped down from the truck and headed in for a slice of pie.