Sunday, November 21, 2010

Eating New York, Part 1

To me, New York represents the eventual destination for those of us seeking out America's culinary treasure trove. With so many restaurants, so much food history, and so many options for avant-garde cuisine, it was only a matter of time before I found myself eating away at the Big Apple. It’s where I wanted to go--where I needed to go--to fulfill my desire of sampling iconic New York style pizza, Shake Shack burgers, crusty bagels, and perhaps a Michelin 3-star sit-down. After spending some quality time on Yelp, Chow, and a few blogs, I crafted a restaurant plan tailored to cover some of New York’s finest and most unique culinary offerings during a five-day visit. Five days isn’t exactly a long time to tackle any city, especially one as diverse and dense as New York, but I was very happy with the amount grub we were able to taste.

With my ambitious restaurant plan in hand, we depart LAX on our red-eye flight, leaving at midnight from LAX and landing at 8am in JFK. (A red eye flight maximizes the eating time. Smart, huh? Actually we did that to save on vacation time.)

Our first order of business is of course to feed ourselves after the long cross country flight. We jaunt over to Shake Shack in the theater district and met up with a friend who happened to also be visiting Manhattan.

I’ve read so many write-ups about Shake Shack and its deliciously juicy cheeseburgers and “concrete” shakes thickened with mix-ins that might otherwise be meals at other eateries. Some say this place even rivals our beloved In and Out, while others preach not to waste any time standing in the potentially hour-long lines. Well I’m happy to report there was no wait whatsoever when we arrived at exactly 11am--opening time; in fact I think we were the first ones to order.

Shackburger, double cheeseburger, fries, pumpkin pie Concrete. My double cheeseburger was everything I could have hoped for: a soft and flavorful bun and crisp lettuce and tomatoes which were portioned perfectly to match the savory Angus patties. The Concrete--a frozen custard with chunks of real pumpkin pie swirled in--was equally satisfying though I wish there was more pumpkin pie involved. I enjoyed the crinkle-cut style fries and Shake Shack claims these have 25% less fat than average fries, so of course I just needed to eat 25% more than normal :)

With lunch aside, we walk around the theater district area and take in some of the sights. As you can see from the pictures, we brought some of LA’s sunny weather with us. Now I could only find a way to bring back some of these NY chefs.

After a quick nap, we strap on our Sunday’s finest and walk over to Le Bernardin to kick off our evening with an early pre-theater dinner. Executive chef Eric Ripert heads up Le Bernardin and you’ve surely come across the white-haired gentleman on Top Chef as a frequent guest judge. His theater-district establishment is one of only nine restaurants in the US to have the coveted Michelin 3-star rating, the highest possible, and it’s also a NY Times 4-star recipient. With those credentials you just know my expectations for Le Bernardin were set to stun, and our 2.5 dinner was indeed an unforgettable experience.

We both ordered the 4-course prixe fixe with each of us choosing different options for all courses. Every dish was a gastronomic experience, save for one dish, my crispy black bass-- a signature of Ripert--as it was sorely lacking that crispiness I saw when Ted Allen ordered the same dish on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. I found myself tearing away at the skin and noticed another diner enduring the same struggle. Despite this misstep and some overbearing service at times (they removed my wife’s 2nd course before she was done--hey I’m the only one allowed to do that!), our dinner was otherwise superb. (No pictures here--I just wanted to fully immerse myself in the dining experience for tonight, sans camera)

We wave goodbye to Le Bernardin and trek along Times Square and over to the Shubert theater to see Memphis (a must see!)

Theater makes me hungry so of course after the show we seek out dinner #2: the famed Halal cart on 53rd and 6th. Yelp warned me about the block-long lines for this place so I was surprised to see only about 20 late-night grubbers waiting to get their Halal fix.

Combination halal with chicken, beef, lamb, served over rice. What you see is the before "pre-sauce" picture; I drenched the whole pie with a creamy white sauce and then mashed it all together. This was damn good, and damn spicy when I added a vial of mouth-tingling hot sauce. The rice was a bit dry and overcooked, but the meats were tender, flavorful and not at all greasy. Eating scoopfuls of rice, meats, white sauce, and hot sauce was quite satisfying, even as I was perched on a stone bench overlooking 53rd street, doing my best not to spill sauce on my suit. I could have used more flat bread to make little flat bread wraps, but for $6 I won't complain. Heart burn later ensued.

The next morning greets us with breakfast at Sarabeth’s West, located to the west of Central Park. There’s also a Sarabeth’s East; you can guess where that’s located. Thanks to some ignorant transportation planning on my part, we arrived about 20-minutes past our OpenTable reservation slot, but the hostess was able to wedge us in--and I mean that in the literal sense--at a small table within minutes of arriving. My wife dives into the Goldie Lox--a dish of scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and cream cheese. It was respectable. I opt for this:

Crisp potato waffle with chicken apple breakfast sausage, chunky Apple sauce and sour cream. There was only one truly bad dish during our 5-day journey, and you’re looking at it. The waffle wasn’t crisp and in fact was undercooked and gummy in the center, and the sausage had such little flavor and sawdust-like texture that I actually didn’t bother to finish it. My family and friends know that I NEVER leave food behind unless I deem it practically inedible. Disaster! Let’s move on.

The crowd outside Sarabeth's West on our way out of the restaurant. I hope they're not here for the sausage.

We walk through Central Park and over to the Metropolitan Museum for some cultural fulfillment.

My wife: “hey look this is YOU when you’re crouching!”

For lunch, we walk south to the Plaza hotel and attempt to dine at Todd English’s new Food Hall restaurant, but the 90-minute wait prompted a quick u-turn out the hotel’s beefy doors. Our backup plan--Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien as recommended by fellow foodie friend Daniel K.--served us no better with its entrance line pushing into the hotel’s lobby. Thus, we retreat across from Burger Joint and find hope at Norma’s, a bustling cafe serving upscale brunch fare. We’re seated immediately and promptly requested to order immediately as the kitchen was closing shop for the day. Two breakfasts in one day? Sure, why not? The first one really didn’t even count.

Yes that's a $1000 caviar frittata! I wonder how many of these are served each day? Oh wait, this is Le Parker Merdien in Manhattan--they had probably sold out for the day.

Eggs Florentine with sautéed Spinach, fingerling potato home fries and apple-wood smoked bacon. The fresh and lightly cooked spinach was the main star of this plate. I never knew spinach could taste THIS good. Thick, chewy bacon added a wonderful salty-savoriness between bites of the creamy egg and Hollandaise sauce mixture. Fingerling potatoes were hiding behind the pile of bacon, and I made sure to seek and eat every single one.

Super moist French toast with an orange infused honey drizzle. I’ll keep this short: it was the best French toast I’ve ever had and I've had me many a good French toast in LA. The honey drizzle was so aromatic and flavorful, and the French toast was just as the menu boasted. It's doughy and moist on the inside with crispy edges holding it together. Side note: it’s 4pm and we’re scheduled to meet up with friends for dinner at 5:30pm.

Those two hours seemed like ten minutes, and at 6pm we find ourselves at Spotted Pig in the West Village area. Our friends had arrived a little earlier and secure a wait list spot. There are no reservations at this Michelin-starred gastro-pub, and no reservations means you either need to get here early or attempt to shoe-horn yourself into the bar area. After an hour wait, we escape from the bar area and trot upstairs to the main dining room. It’s loud, packed, dimly lit, and chock-full of swine memorabilia.

Here's looking at me.

Deviled eggs. Spicy, tangy, and rich. These were so good we ordered two more servings. I like how the yolk mixture is piped to resemble a pig, or at least that's I wanted to think.

Chicken liver toast. Delicious and not too salty. The texture was creamy but held up well when eaten with the toasted bread.

Char-grilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese and shoestrings. A first-timer’s trip here wouldn’t be complete without an order of the burger. Mine was cooked to a textbook medium rare. The bun was supple, buttery, and moist. I read some reviews claiming the cheese was overpowering, and it was indeed full of pungent aroma and taste, but it worked well to counteract the savoriness of the thick patty. The fries, however, were messy to eat and had little substance or flavor to them. I kept mashing mounds of stringy fries together to get more of a bite with each chew.

I forget the name of this dish, but it was basically described as “deep-fried face cheese.” This was very good, albeit very heavy. Note to self: Tomorrow would not be a good day for a physical.

Walnut, chocolate and amaretto cake. A nutty cake with a chocolate frosting. My wife didn’t care for this, so guess who cleaned house?

We left Spotted Pig very full, very happy, and perhaps a few pounds heavier. I picked up a Spotted Pig t-shirt on the way out, perfect for the 75-degree weather back in LA. Our friends had to get back home, but my wife and I decided that being 110% full is unacceptable, so we walk a block over to Magnolia Bakery for a night cap.

We picked up a chocolate cupcake, a vanilla cupcake, and a Magic Cookie bar--a slab of packed walnuts, chocolate chips, shredded coconut and sweetened condensed milk. This was so amazingly good that I practically finished it before leaving the bakery, crumbing over myself, the wrapper, and probably the people waiting in line. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the cupcakes as we both thought there were dry and lifeless in flavor.

That concludes our second night of gluttony in New York City. At this point I was already planning my next visit as I was so impressed with what we had eaten. Coming soon: part 2 where I partake in more stars, pizza, "crack", and shiny bagels.

Shake Shack
691 8th Ave
New York, NY 10036

Le Bernardin
155 W 51st St
New York, NY 10019

Halal cart on 53rd and 6th
53rd St & 6th Ave
New York, NY 10079

Sarabeth's West
423 Amsterdam Ave
New York, NY 10024

119 W 56th St
New York, NY 10019

Spotted Pig
314 W 11th St
New York, NY 10014

Magnolia Bakery
401 Bleecker St
New York, NY 10014