I just turned down the chance to eat at Per Se on Saturday. I'm spending the weekend there with my mom and Little Sister, and it was either gorge on pristine food over a 4-hour lunch, or shop.
I think I made the right decision.
I just turned down the chance to eat at Per Se on Saturday. I'm spending the weekend there with my mom and Little Sister, and it was either gorge on pristine food over a 4-hour lunch, or shop.
I think I made the right decision.
An easy summery pasta recipe, this time from Little Sister. (Guess we're on the same wavelength these days...) The day after she made this, she informed me that although it was great hot, she liked it just as much, if not more, cold the next day. Hmmm...
Summer has FINALLY hit NYC, and in full force. As I was walking through Central Park this past weekend, I too was hit full force -- with a craving for pasta with sweet peas. The Boyfriend was off playing computer games with an old friend from college for the evening (gee, too bad I had to miss that!) so I knew that I had the night to myself. I went to one of my most trusted pasta books, bought long ago when I was a budding home cook, called While the Pasta Cooks. The premise of the book, as the title suggests, is that each of the sauces can be made in the time it takes to cook the pasta. This is true if you don't count any of the prep time (which for some of the tomato-based sauces is considerable). That aside, they are all pretty easy to make and there is one for nearly every mood and season.
I opted for the pasta with peas and prosciutto, and then modified it a bit by using fat-free evaporated milk instead of cream to make it a tad healthier (after all, I'm heading to Hawaii with Mr. and Ms. Food Musings and the family in July, and it's not that far away...).
Pasta with Peas and Prosciutto
Yield: 2-3 heaping servings.
This recipe is adapted from While The Pasta Cooks. A dash of crushed red pepper counters the sweetness of the fat-free evaporated milk. If you use full-fat cream, you can opt to leave out the red pepper. It refrigerates well, and can be served cold for lunch the next day -- a great way to celebrate the coming of Summer!
8 oz. farfalle or other shaped pasta
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 small white onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
7 slices of prosciutto, chopped (about 4 oz.)
2 c. fresh, shelled peas or frozen sweet peas
2 tbsp fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
6 oz. fat free evaporated milk
pepper and salt to tast
1. As you are cooking the pasta according to package directions....
2. In a large sauce pan, heat oil and butter over medium heat until butter starts to melt, then add onion and garlic. Saute about five minutes until onions are translucent. Add chopped prosciutto and saute two minutes more.
3. Add peas, fresh mint, and crushed red pepper, then stir in evaporated milk slowly. (For a thicker sauce, use less milk.) I used about a half a can, and that was plenty. Let simmer until milk is heated.
4. Remove sauce from heat. Add drained, cooked pasta and salt and pepper to taste. Toss and serve.
When Mr. Food Musings and I visited NYC in April, Little Sister recommended that we do a food tour. She hadn't been on one herself, but thought we'd make good guinea pigs. I got online and quickly chose the Chelsea Market and Meatpacking district tour, and as I paid our $38 per person fee, I wondered if Mr. FM was going to kill me for sticking him with a 3-hour tour... ("...a three-hour tour...")
We arrived at Chelsea Market around 11 a.m and met at the designated place, in front of Chelsea Wine Vault. (Pardon me while I digress: Mr. FM loves nothing more than a wine store. Possibly including me. He also has the odd and not-yet-profitable talent of sniffing out a wine store anywhere. I mean anywhere - in a dusty one stoplight town, in the bustling Parisian metropolis, whatever. He also slyly plans errands around being near wine stores and I'm always the last to catch on. It's a sickness, really. He almost never leaves without buying a few bottles of this or that - "But it's on sale!" or "But it's the 2001 vintage!" are oft-repeated cries - and I found, on a recent Sunday afternoon, that leaving him alone in the grocery store while I headed to the ladies room - "I won't buy anything," he promised - was a very bad idea indeed. He is not to be trusted.)
Now, back to the Chelsea Market. The building, Nabisco's former home (that's National Biscuit Company, folks) is enormous and houses offices for Oprah's Oxygen network, the Food Network, Major League Baseball.com and many more. One of the Iron Chefs is rumored to be opening a restaurant there soon, and the city has plans to turn the nearby elevated train tracks that once brought sugar and butter directly into the Nabisco factory into an elevated park with benches and greenery. The neighborhood around the market is transforming (some would say gentrifying) from a dodgy bunch of meatpacking plants - many of which are still there, fully functional and full of stinky smells - to the hipster's fantasy (think Stella McCartney boutiques, lofts galore and trendy restaurants like Pastis and 5Ninth) and the area's mix of grime and chic is fast making it into "the" place to be. (For the truly avante garde scenesters, of course, it's already passé.)
On the ground floor of the Market are small retail food shops, food-related shops and a few restaurants. Our tour began at Frank's Butcher Shop. Though we didn't eat anything, we did enjoy watching the butchers hack away at carcasses in their refrigerated room (it's kept in the 30s or 40s). That's where they age their beef and if you look closely at the shelves you can tell which meat has been there the longest because it's developed a brown crust. I know it sounds icky, but really, it's cool.
Our first nibble was at Amy's Bread. The sourdough bread was soft, with just enough pull, and full of decadent, half-melted bittersweet chocolate chunks. I gobbled a second piece before quenching my thirst with coffee milk and chocolate milk from Ronnybrook Dairy. Our guide told us that the coffee milk is the same recipe they use for their coffee ice cream, with whole milk rather than cream, and unfrozen. Watch out, Starbucks... The folks at Ronnybrook were kind enough to offer tastes of their ice cream and Mr. FM, a bonafide ice cream addict, happily spooned up a bit of the coconut. He sighed heavily before walking away. Meanwhile, I was eyeing the fresh butter, a fetish of mine. Churned in small batches, the butter boasts a high fat content (84-86%) beating even European standards. I bet it's damn good, especially in the summer when the cows only eat grass (that's right, artisanal butter's flavors change depending on the time of year and what the cows were eating. Buy some if you can - Vermont Butter & Cheese Company makes some good stuff that's sold nationwide in Whole Foods, or try to find something local at your farmer's market - I go ga-ga for Spring Hill Jersey Cheese's cultured butter.)
Afraid that the ice cream hadn't been enough to keep Mr. FM happy, I stole a glance at him while the guide was talking (perhaps highlighting some of the sneaky, hard-to-find artwork or functional granite furniture). Luckily, I had not underestimated Mr. FM's pure, shining love of trivia: he was in heaven.
As we walked, the guide told stories about the food, about the building, about the neighborhood's history. He fed us so much that it was enough for lunch and then some. These are the other places inside the market where we stopped:
Sarabeth's is a bakery by pastry doyenne Sarabeth, who rose to fame thanks to her family's marmelade recipe. We sucked down blood orange marmelade and blueberry cherry spreadable fruit on fluffy buttermilk biscuits. ("Got milk?" I wanted to ask our guide, but didn't.) Those of us who eat fast breezed through the Moroccan bazaar at Marrakesh where clay tagine pots, woven rugs and beautiful glassware in vibrant shades of pink, turquoise and orange were spread out for purchase; yes, haggling is encouraged.
Manhattan Fruit Exchange Bundle up: the Exchange is a freezing cold haven for exotic fruits and veg, most at wholesale prices (they supply many of the city's restaurants). The mostly organic selections include 25 varieties of mushrooms, funky fruits like quince, kumquats, cherimoya and the cuke-osaurus (I am not kidding...). We sampled their strawberry lemonade, courtesy of the Juice Bar.
The Lobster Place There we saw a 12-pound crustacean monstrosity wiggling its claws and tail all around. They say that every lobster pound represents 5 years of age, so that baby must have been pushing 60. Besides a sushi bar and tray after tray of fresh fish, oysters, mussels, crab and the like, laid out in their translucent pink nudity, The Lobster Place also makes steaming fresh soups and chowders. I tried the New England clam with big hunks of potatoes and chewy clams in a sickeningly rich cream broth; Mr. FM loved his piquant scallop and corn chowder.
Buon Italia is an Italian-food lover's paradise, with bag after bag of dried pasta in shapes I've never seen, fresh cheeses, cans of imported tomatoes and olive oil, tins of anchovies and tuna, meats, and much more. Out front they sell prepared foods like lasagna, polenta and meatball sandwiches, but we supped at a makeshift table in the back. Yellowfin tuna salad with jalapeno came courtesy of The Lobster Place; the bread was black with seeds and a crunchy foil to soft sweet eggplant roasted with olive oil and chili flakes, as well as a variety of cheese and salami.
The French Oven's chocolate-almond croissants can only be described as genius. First they bake the croissant into its familiar flaky buttery self, then cool it and cut it in half. They spread it with almond paste and chopped up bittersweet chocolate, then bake it a second time to melt the filling into one yummy slop before dusting it with powdered sugar. One bite was almost enough to clog my vena cava.
Three hours later, Mr. FM and I left the tour fat, happy and well-informed. We stopped for a coffee in the rooftop bar at the swanky Hotel Gansevoort across the street, and gave our bellies a chance to rest before heading over to SoHo. A lovely day.
Foods of NY, 3-hour food tours of Chelsea Market & Meatpacking district or the Village, $38 per person.
Knowing that I am a huge cupcake fan, Little Sister's friend M. recently wrote to me about her cupcake adventures in New York City.
I won’t deny that I have a sweet tooth. Nevertheless, it’s usually someone else who suggests splitting dessert (with me eating more than my half!) To me, the typical choices on dessert menus seem uninspired – and uninspiring. Crème brulée, molten chocolate cake, flan, sorbets made of seasonal fruits, something clever involving Nutella…all are too easy to come by at fine restaurants and TGI Friday's alike. Yes, they’re delicious and sinful, but even the more inventive desserts seem to be treading old ground. I believe dessert should be fun!
This is why I’m mystified by the cupcake rage. The childhood dessert revival is the epitome of treading old ground – but without the fun. When I was a kid, I used to frost my own cupcakes, decorate them with multicolored sprinkles and make smiley faces with red hots. They tasted awful, but they had character. Now, urbanites in million dollar apartments are embracing their childhood by waiting in line for cupcakes that are impersonal and overly precious. I waited in line once to try a Magnolia cupcake, the hottest mini-treat in town; I was left unimpressed and slightly nauseous, and vowed never again.
But on a visit to Long Island City, my friend K. suggested lunch at Sage American Kitchen, a neighborhood catering company. She wanted me to try their homemade Hostess cupcake, the Fauxstess. For a second time, I gave in to the novelty cupcake hype, but this time, I was genuinely excited.
The Hostess was not a childhood staple for me. With the exception of the occasional Nilla Wafer or windmill cookie, my mom avoided packaged foods and Hostess cupcakes were strictly verboten, which made them even more appealing. Now that I’m all grown up, financially independent and live several states away, I can’t bring myself to buy them. Twenty-five year old girls living in New York are supposed to like trendy Magnolia cupcakes, not the Hostess variety.
I decide that there will be two tests for this Fauxstess cupcake:
1) Can the icing peel off in one continuous motion, completely separating from the rest of the cake?
2) Does the filling inside hover somewhere between whipped cream and frosting, neither overtaking nor being overtaken by the chocolate cake?
One look at the Fauxstess ($2) reveals a relatively small cupcake that’s curvier than the original. The other elements are all there: chocolate cake, dark frosting, mysterious filling and iconic white squiggle. I put it to the first test and try to peel off the icing. It fails. Drat! I always got a kick out of doing that; it’s a sick pleasure, like putting glue on my hand and peeling it off after it dries, then trying to convince my mom that I had a flesh-eating virus.
But on to the second, more important test: the filling. The inside is still weirdly wonderful and enhanced by the moist chocolate cake, far superior to the dry original. Sage American Kitchen knows what it’s doing; this version is fudgy and delicious, a definite taste improvement.
With the same lovable qualities of the packaged classic, the Fauxstess is a good compromise between going to the bodega for a trans-fatfull Hostess and waiting in line at Magnolia. And for someone who had a Hostess-free childhood, this cupcake actually seems exotic. I’ll take one of these over a crème brulée any day.
Tip: If you have more cash to spend and don’t have time to make it to Queens, you can visit St. Bart’s Café (catered by Sage). For $9, you can get the Hostess dessert, a platter of cupcakes and ice cream.
When Mr. Food Musings and I were in New York last month, we supped and brunched and nibbled our way around town with Little Sister and The Boyfriend. One of the places we went was Pastis. Who better to tell you about our meal than Little Sister herself?
On a recent Sunday morning, with Ms. Food Musings herself and the Mr. in town, The Boyfriend and I met them at one of our favorite spots, Pastis, which sits smack in the middle of the oh-so chic Meatpacking district. Although Pastis is sometimes dismissed as overstuffed and over-hyped (and a recent New York Times article declared brunch to be totally passé), The Boyfriend and I have been won over by meal after meal of delicious bistro standards. After eight years as a vegetarian, I had my first steak there, and I couldn’t stop eating the velvety meat even when I was nearly bursting. The French onion soup is so good, The Boyfriend promised to marry me if I learned to make it (and don’t think I’m not practicing! Remember the chicken carcass I smuggled through airport security after Thanksgiving?). What makes Pastis stand out is the energy, straight from the streets of Manhattan, by way of Paris.
But back to brunch....that morning the sun had peeked out for one of the first official days of spring and I debated asking for a table outside, but decided that Ms. Food Musings should enjoy the authentic Pastis – inside at a small bistro table, the hum of the bustling wait staff and snippets of conversation mingling with the aroma of good food.
I don’t see the point of standing around when there is food to be had; our reservation guaranteed that we’d sail past the crowd, smiling, within five minutes of arriving. Once seated in the mirror-bedecked dining room (rumor has it that the interior was dismantled brick by brick from a French bistro and resurrected in its current home), I ordered the panier basket. The moment those freshly baked delectables from Pastis’ sister restaurant, Balthazar, arrived, we peeked in to find bread with hunks of dark chocolate in every bite, a golden-tipped brioche, several slices of hearty bread bearing dried fruits and nuts, and, The Boyfriend’s favorite, the cinnamon roll with wrinkly raisins sitting askew a glistening mess of sugary spices.
If you are a hollandaise fan, you wiould be delighted with the classic eggs Benedict (The Boyfriend’s pick this particular time) or the eggs Hussarde, my choice because one sauce simply isn’t enough: hollandaise plus bordelaise drench a medley of tomatoes and mushrooms and a slice of ham, crackly at the edges from the frying pan, over sturdy sourdough. Mr. and Ms. Food Musings wondered aloud what they should choose. Ms. FM opted for the eggs Sardou, two poached eggs drizzled with hollandaise atop a mound of buttery artichokes, thick creamed spinach and deep-fried bread; Mr. FM had the fruit-topped pancakes. The server whisked our orders to the table just as we were finishing off the last of our panier treats. The service at Pastis is just how I like it: efficient, pleasant, and straight-forward. They somehow manage to always have my coffee and water refilled without my ever noticing.
The aromas of artichokes, spinach and hollandaise flirted with me from my sister’s plate, and I had a momentary pang of food envy, something I am prone to, especially since Ms. FM has an uncanny knack for ordering the best thing** on any menu, anywhere. But the moment I tasted a bite of my perfectly poached egg (a little runny, but starting to congeal), the tasty combination of the two sauces banished any fleeting jealousy. The four of us chomped away busily, enjoying the food, the company, and the sun spilling through the windows. Though Pastis is steeped in New York style,full of people-watching and the hubbub of the streets, it’s fun to pretend that there is a little bit of Paris tucked away inside its walls and marble-topped tables.
To those who want to experience Pastis without the crowd, I say – Don’t! The fun is not only in the food, but in the frenzy!
**P.S. I only wish I always ordered the best thing on the menu!
P.P.P.S. Well, maybe she's right.
Pastis, New York, 9 9th Avenue, 212-929-4844
Our last night in New York, Mr. Food Musings and I went to Wallsé with our friends K. and C. who immigrated to The Big City from The Smaller, Better City nearly two years ago. "For work," they said. We ignored them as long as we could - a deserved punishment for abandonment, I think - but finally agreed to go east.
We met them on a warm Sunday evening at Turks and Frogs in the West Village. I'd already had a few glasses of wine with Little Sister, so my normally keen powers of observation were limited to what was sitting in the ice bucket (a bottle of the Grande Dame herself) and what K. was wearing for the occasion (culottes, a vintage-y beaded cardigan and sexy high heels in deep cerulean blue. Oh, Envy, I cry your name!)
When we'd finished the bottle, we headed down the street to our dinner destination. Wallsé is a sort of K. and C. fave - "It's become our Zuni," she wrote in an email when we were negotiating restaurants - with good reason. Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner turns out food based on his native Austrian cuisine that manages to be both hearty and delicate.
The night we ate there it was relatively quiet. We shared the dining room with only a handful of other people, and I felt like our table was bound in a sort of cocoon, insulated from everyone else, our waiter - a German-speaking Czech whose accent intrigued the former linguist in me - our only link to the outside world. Wallsé is a semi-stark space, mostly black and white punctuated by vivid swashes of color: bold angry paintings and candy-hued cocktails like the purpley-pink raspberry martini or melon-colored pomegranate champagne fizz offset the drama. Single-serving pitchers of water and mini Cala lilies added a softening touch that I found endearing.
I admit that I was enjoying catching up with K. and C. so much that I nearly (though not completely) abandoned my foodie duties. Dishes that stood out include the two lobster appetizers, one a moist, sumptuous ravioli accented with dill, the other served in fresh hunks with a crisp potato rosti and bright citrus salad. The squash soup with mushroom ravioli was intense, earthy, and so rich that when the waiter told us it contained no cream, I gave him a conspiratorial wink. Thin slices of sweet pineapple lay underneath the foie gras terrine; this dish delighted me in a way no other food combination has in recent memory. The flavors were distinct, the pineapple a surprise with every bite, and still they walked hand in hand all the way through my mouth, a perfect couple.
Entrees like cod strudel, kavalierspitz (beef shoulder) and roasted duck were soft, savory and satisfying. My gluttony got the better of me when a dish of kaisespätzle was brought to the table; I recall shoving my fork underneath the cheesy egg noodles over and over and over again, oblivious to anyone else in the room. Perhaps the others tried some - I have no idea. Apparently an apfelstrudel was ordered, but by that time I was using my slide rule and protractor to figure out how to navigate the narrow, treacherous steps leading down to the bathrooms with my swollen belly.
Th wines were outstanding - Mr. FM made the waiter write them down: the white, a Pichler Von Den Terassen Gruner Veltliner 1999, and the red, a Zweigelt Leo Hillinger 2003.
We finished the night off with drinks at our hotel bar and promises to meet for New Year's Eve in a snowy locale. One, I might add, near the West Coast.
Turks and Frogs, New York, 323 West 11th Street, 212-691-8875
Wallsé, New York, 344 West 11th Street, 212-352-2300
Next time you're in Soho (she writes, oh-so casually) and in need of a late afternoon cuppa or early evening glass of wine, stop by Antique Garage. On an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon in April, Little Sister and I found ourselves longing for a quiet place to sit and watch people float by on the afternoon breeze, resting our feet, mine blistered from the new shoes I'd bought. (Fabulous shoes, I might add, all silver sequins and sultry beads, très harem girl.) We went in search of a wine bar Little Sister had found a while back with M., wandering from street to street aimlessly, but didn't chance upon it. Just when that blissful glass of white seemed out of reach, Antique Garage appeared from the shimmering black pavement like a mirage in the urban desert.
Literally built into a garage, the storefront has a door and a garage door, both open to the city that pleasant day. Tables and sofas spilled out onto the sidewalk. We nabbed a two-top inside next to a long sprawling table that surely once was set with silver pitchers, crystal cut-glass goblets and creamy tablecloths to serve mustachioed dignitaries, robber barons and coquettish debutantes. The place is decked out entirely like your grandmother's living room, from the elaborate chandeliers that drop sparkles from the ceiling, to the velvet claw-footed sofas, to the mismatched china plates and faux silverware. Walls are crammed with old oil paintings, portraits of children and matriarchs and horses. A whiff of faded fortunes permeates the air. We settled down to a half carafe of Pinot Grigio, served in an old medicine bottle. After a few glasses, our lips loosened and hair tumbling down, we ordered a small snack. The menu, billed as Mediterranean tapas, has strong Middle Eastern and Turkish influences. We scooped up hummus, thick and intensely sesame-d, on unctuous fried pita sticks, then dipped soft foccacia into a light bright cucumber tatziki. Definitely not your grandmother's comfort food, but perfect for a pre-dinner, post-shopping nibble.
Antique Garage, New York, 41 Mercer Street, 212-219-1019
Oh, Babbo...(sigh). More a temple than a restaurant, where the faithful go to kneel in reverent worship of that delicate combination of flour, eggs and salt that we call pasta. When it's truly good, it is nothing less than a celebration of the divine. At Babbo, it is, in a word, perfect.
On our second night in New York, Mr. Food Musings, Little Sister and The Boyfriend made our pilgrimmage to Mecca. It was the one place I most wanted to eat in the city, even rousing myself at 7 am one morning a month prior to get on the phone and secure a table. I coerced my dining companions into choosing the pasta tasting menu with me - either the table orders it, or no one does - and then sat back to count the days.
The taxi dropped us off at the restaurant owned by larger-than-life chef Mario Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich, and I paused outside the door. I wanted to savor the "before." Deep breaths taken, we crossed the threshold and were promptly seated downstairs after handing off coats. Our waiter greeted us with a plate of ceci bruschetta, a salad of warmed chickpeas, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, crushed black olives, garlic, and a mysterious green herb that kept me and Little Sister guessing all night long. We gobbled it up on toasts, looking up at one another only to moan and marvel at its genius. Little Sister and I tried to identify the ingredients; stumped by the herb, we tossed ideas back and forth in a volley that would have made Venus and Serena proud. At first we thought mint, for its cool hint of sweetness, then basil when the peppery flavor grew stronger, and finally wondered if the subtle anise taste could be tarragon. "You have to figure out how to make this," Little Sister begged. A week later, research produced the recipe and solved the mystery: rosemary and basil, no mint or tarragon in sight. As for the soupçon of licorice, it could have been a phantom of my imagination, but I stand by my palate and wonder if the Chef added a little something extra the night of our visit.
Ordering was a snap - "We're having the pasta menu," I said, swallowing my grin - but the wine was up for discussion. Our sommelier (Colim, I think he said) tended to us all night long, selecting a white to start that would take The Boyfriend, who suffers migraines at the mere whiff of a red, all the way through the meal. The 2000 Vespa Bianco Bastianich ($49) is a mix of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and picolit grapes. We got melon and fig from the bouquet and my hesitation about drinking a wine produced by one of the owners - it smacks of self-promotion - was dispelled in a sip. The bottle lasted us through the first and second pastas, a tagliatelle black with squid ink and tossed with peas and Parmigiano cheese followed by asparagus and ricotta "Mezzalune" with scallion butter. The tagliatelle was sweet on the tongue with each new soft explosion of freshly shelled peas; the half-moon ravioli were redolent with lemon and scallion (I later wrote "paradise!" in my notes about this dish).
Colim returned to suggest a wine from the bonarda grape, similar to barbera. The Vercesi del Castellazzo Oltrepo Pavese Bonarda "Fatila" 1999 ($55) stands up well to Batali's spicier meat dishes, but first we had a sort of palate cleansing pasta, a garganelli with "funghi trifolati," simple tubes with a few slices of earthy mushroom and a dousing of cheese. (I noticed the waiter grated less cheese on the ladies' plates then he did on the mens', out of care either for our tender palates or for our even more tender thighs that threaten to plump up at the slightest hint of cheese. He needn't have worried about mine, rock hard with muscle as they are. Ahem.) As he cheerfully poured the wine, Colim professed the garganelli to be his favorite dish.
Next came what was probably my favorite of the night, a pasta Batali is famous for: Marco's pyramids with passato di pomodoro. Squat pyramids, boxier than the name implies, were moistened with tomato and hid rich hunks of beef shoulder. We each had four, but thankfully Little Sister's unpractised stomach was beginning to tire and I snagged an extra off her plate with little resistance. We moved on to our third and final bottle of wine, a 2000 Ioppa Ghemme ($44) to take us through the final course, a pappardelle with lamb bolognese.
Each pasta was, literally, perfect. It was like supping on pasta's Platonic ideal, a fantasy of humble ingredients from forest (mushroom), farm (beef shoulder) and sea (squid ink) transformed by the touch of a master no less talented than da Vinci. And yet - and yet - it was not like dining at the French Laundry, where most of your dinner conversation is taken up beholding the exquisite meal in front of you and searching for adjectives to describe each swallow. Batali's cooking produces food that, through its flawless simplicity, takes a step back and permits the dinner table's natural joie de vivre to shine.
Dessert was gorgeous: plump mozzarella with Cara Cara oranges, mild and spare of juice, with a fruity olive oil and dash of salt, a harmonized presentation of four simple flavors. The menu indicated the last dessert would be saffron panna cotta with mango sorbetto, and we were delighted when the kitchen sent out a different dish for each of us. In addition to the trembling panna cotta, we devoured a chocolate pistachio semi-freddo, warm pineapple crostata and a sultry yogurt cheesecake.
You may have noticed that our sommelier, Colim, is mentioned nearly as much as the pasta. He truly made the night, not only because of the wines he suggested, but because he was so engaged in his craft. We never once discussed price, and noticed at the end of the meal that none of the wines had cost more than $55. His mission was to stretch our palates, not our wallets, and he lingered with every pour to tell us as much about the wine as we wanted to hear. I peppered him with questions about the grapes, many unfamiliar (picolit, bonarda) and the regions. Each new glass came to the table with the smallest dribble of wine having washed down the sides of the glass. When I asked him why he did this, he explained that it dispels any hint of detergent that might linger in the glass and influence the wine's bouqet or taste. Little Sister and The Boyfriend confessed to being intimidated by sommeliers; like many people, they think when you have a nice meal you are supposed to know what wine to order, that it marks you as a pathetic amateur to ask for help. They are dead wrong. The sommelier's job is to taste wines and select them specifically with the menu in mind. They know their wine list far better than you do, unless you are Robert Parker, and will happily work with warring palates to find the one bottle on the list that suits. Think of it as having access to the chef, the person whose tastebuds and vision have put together the flavors in front of you. Wouldn't you jump at the chance to consult with him before ordering from his menu, asking about each dish, how he prepares it, how he selects ingredients, reading his face to uncover which dish is his special baby, which might make your eyes light up at first bite? That is the joy of consulting a great sommelier.
That night, ours was the joy of eating and drinking well, from the first bite to the last sip.
Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, New York, 110 Waverly Place, 212-777-0303
You haven't had pastrami till you've had it at Katz's. In fact, you haven't even seen it till you've watched the cutters (that's what they call those fellows behind the counter in their flimsy paper caps) carve it off for your sandwich.
(The observant reader will note that I did not use the more elegant verb "shave" when describing how they shear the meat. Trust me, shave is the wrong word. So is slice. Those wimpy verbs imply thin wisps of meat falling off the knife. Katz's pastrami - well, thin it ain't.)
A few days earlier, Mr. Food Musings and I had botched our first lunch in the City - jet lag and some work emails got in the way of an early start - so we bagged visiting John's , a pizzeria in Greenwich Village coveted for its charred, thin crust pies, in favor of anything still serving food at 3 pm in mid-town.
We were determined that our second lunch would be a quintessential old New York experience and settled on Katz's. We took the subway to the Lower East Side and marched down Houston till we saw the sign. As soon as we walked in, we were each handed a ticket similar to the kind you get when you enter a raffle in the fruitless hopes of winning a brand new color TV. Signs warned us not to lose it, or risk paying $50. I looked at Mr. FM with alarm, and confusion. "What is the ticket for?" I wondered. He shrugged. We made our way to the counter which runs along the far wall. More signs instructed us to get in a cutter's line. Menus were posted on the wall behind the counter. The customers milled about in no kind of discernable line, like puppies fighting for a teat, bumping into each other and changing direction. Feeling confusion come between me and my pastrami sandwich, I started to panic. "Where do we order?" I wailed. Sensing a storm, Mr. FM spied tables that indicated waiter service and quickly steered me to safety. I sat down and immediately the smile returned to my face. This I knew how to do!
The menu was basic: a list of sandwiches, cold or hot, of Katz's famous meats: pastrami, corned beef, roast beef, and tongue. Traditional cold cuts like turkey and ham were offered in sub sandwiches, and potato and cheese knishes or french fries could be had on the side. I saw a bowl of chicken matzo ball walk by; the day was too hot to try some ourselves, but it would have been my choice if there was snow on the ground. We started with a hot dog to share. Mr. Food Musings doused his in spicy mustard while mine was dressed with both mustard and God's gift to the condiment world, ketchup. The dog was hot, just pulled out of boiling water, and had a strong beefy taste, nothing like the dogs you get at the ball park. Our teeth pulled at the casing to release the meat within.
Then the waiter brought a plate of pickles, big dill slices and chunks of bright green cuke, barely pickled, and some dull grayish-green pickled tomatoes (which we declined to try. Who knows what we're missing, you say? Who wants to know, I say!)
Then the sandwiches arrived.
Mine was rye and pastrami. Nothing more, spicy mustard optional. I eyeballed the fat hunks of pastrami, piled 10 or more to a sandwich; I'd say they each measured nearly 1/3 of an inch thick. They glistened with fatty juices that soaked ever so slightly into the sturdy rye bread, which had but a few caraway seeds, very mild next to the smoky meat and peppery black crust. I had to remove half of the pastrami to even fit my mouth around the sandwich, and though I did my best, I couldn't manage even half of it.
Mr. FM did a more admirable job, eating a full half and a touch more of his combo - half pastrami, half tongue. (Blech! I didn't try that either.) "This is the best pastrami I've ever had," he confessed in reverent tones.
Following a Katz's tradition, we both ordered Dr. Brown's sodas (cream soda for me and root beer for him). We looked around while we finished them up; the place is nothing fancy, cheap tables and floors, the walls crammed with photos of the owner and all the celebrities who've visited. We picked out Michael Imperioli and James Gandolfini from The Sopranos and Madeline Albright. The owner made the rounds during lunch, stopping at each table to ask how we were enjoying the food.
And then, when we had cried "Mercy!" the waiter came by and took our tickets to write the total on. Aha! After careful observation, Mr. FM confirmed that if you order at the counter, the cutters take your ticket and do the same, and then you turn those into the cashier on the way out. An efficient system - the cutters don't have to handle the cash register and there's no bottleneck of people trying to pay for their food, balancing a tray piled high while their tummies rumble with hunger. Satisfied with the food and the ticket mystery solved, we paid and went off for a walk in Greenwich Village. A perfect New York afternoon.
Katz's Delicatessen, New York, 205 East Houston, 212-254-2246
In the end it came down to the frites.
Faced with hundreds – thousands? – of New York restaurants, Mr. Food Musings and I had to make some tough choices for our first meal together in the Big Apple. We settled on Anthony Bourdain’s Brasserie Les Halles. Oh, you could argue that carnivorous lust or curiosity about the place Bourdain immortalized in Kitchen Confidential drove us there; Mr. Food Musings and I both get a kick out of Bourdain-the-writer’s irreverence, bawdy sense of humor and brusque determination to tell it like it is. But the proverbial straw was the frites, considered by many to be New York’s finest.
Our left-coast stomachs surprised us by rumbling an hour ahead of our 11 pm reservation, so we set off for dinner early, fingers crossed. Outside on the streets of the Flatiron district, a handful of people, their backs hunched against the wind, trudged home after a long day at the office. We ducked inside, thankful to be out of the blustery night. Globe lights that could have been stolen from a Parisian sidewalk cast a dim glow, and we grabbed stools at the battered bar while the hostess readied our table, graceful about the last minute change in plans. The décor was so French I was surprised not to see a cloud of cigarette smoke hovering above our heads, and the noise was a steady, unapologetic roar.
As we sat down, glasses of the house Sancerre in hand, snatches of conversation in German, French and Spanish bubbled up from the din; keeping us company was an international crowd out for a comfortably late dinner. I knew what I wanted without even glancing at the menu: frisée aux lardons and steak frites. The bed of crunchy frisée, pale at the roots and green at the lacy tips, hid fatty nuggets of bacon, enough that I could scoop them up three to the forkful rather than mete them out parsimoniously bite-by-bite. I missed the softly poached egg that traditionally sits ready to spill its golden guts over the lettuces, but made do with the “Roquefort crouton” that leaned precariously to one side, no doubt overburdened by its tower of crumbly blue cheese as well as its fussy name. My empty salad plate dispatched to the kitchen by an insouciant waiter, I swayed to the faux-filet Bercy’s siren song of sirloin and red wine butter that slowly leaked over the hot steak as I cut into it, juices pooling next to the frites. And oh, the frites! Glorious frites! They looked as though they’d spent the afternoon in a tanning booth, so bronzed and crisp were they on the outside, still soft and fluffy inside. Tart mountains of ketchup helped me lap them up. I seem to recall a small salad on the side of the plate, but shrugged it off as garnish. Why bother?
Mr. Food Musings was in the throes of a nearly epileptic duck craving that night, but a stern glance from me was enough to steer him back to steak. (You see, I, er, we had romanticized that our first night in New York would take place over platters piled high with nearly rare beef and hot fries; one silly little duck was not about to get in the way of that memory-to-be.) He slaked his duck thirst by ordering a salade landaise instead. A leg of duck confit and toast smeared with duck pâté accompanied the lettuce. He allowed me a nibble of the pâté, and it was everything a pâté should be: creamy, slightly smoky, the deep, throaty bass note in the culinary symphony. Then he tucked into the ribeye, appropriately cross-hatched on the grill, all thoughts of duck banished for good. We washed it all back with a 2000 Chateau Redortier Gigondas from the Rhone Valley.
Groaning, we pledged to skip dessert, but Mr. FM’s natural gluttony got the best of us. (What? I’m just a dainty little girl. Blame him.) He was about to vote for crème brulée when our waiter told us about the special, a strawberry rhubarb tart. I’ve been eyeing the fresh rhubarb at the market for weeks, and with the assurance that a scoop of vanilla ice cream could be added, Mr. FM gave his blessing. The tart, cutely miniature, was circled by a moat of crème anglaise that, even without the ice cream, was much too sweet and we left it on the plate.
Next time we go, if I’m feeling truly decadent, I’ll order the hamburger. Ground to order in the butchery next door, it’s grilled and topped with slices of foie gras and truffles, then shoved onto a plate next to a pile of frites. Oh, Anthony, how could you?
Like its chef, Les Halles does not apologize for its ways – you either love it or you get the hell out, and tant pis for you. But what is not to love?
Brasserie Les Halles, New York, 411 Park Avenue South, 212-679-4111