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.


  1. Hehe, I'm so with you on the discomfort in ordering a 'smear' (and pronouncing it 'schmear' doesn't make it any better!), but it does result in them putting about a quarter of the amount of PB&J/cream cheese/etc on your bagel...worth the blushing.

  2. Aha! I totally hadn't twigged that it was a distinction between amount, rather than type. Good one to remember! Oh, I do miss those bagels...