Sunday, March 26, 2017

New York 2017 - Eating in Manhattan - Part 1

Eating featured heavily in this trip to New York.  We chose varied and unique dining experiences, picking a mix of trendy or popular spots, as well as local gems that turned out to be lucky finds.  We got off to a good start when we first arrived in the city and were starving.  We were wandering around exploring our "home" neighbourhood in the Lower East Side and stumbled across the Cheese Grille at 188 Allen St.  The four of us shared and sampled three different types of tasty gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches including the "Crispy Goat" (chevre, goat gouda, bacon, avocado on multigrain), the "Garden Melt" (asiago, roasted red peppers, arugula, olive tapenade), and the "Little Italy" (asiago, mozzarella, pepperoni, tomato and pesto sauces) both on slices of Levain Pullman loaf (crusty white bread).

Now sated with our savoury lunch, we set off to Soho in search for sweets.  No trip to Soho is complete without a stop at Rice to Riches which I call the "Baskin Robbins of rice pudding" because of its numerous flavours.  This was a new experience for our friends Yim and Murray and they were a bit skeptical at the thought of sweetened rice.  But in the end, the chocolate hazelnut and espresso combo won them over.  Rich made a stop at Balthazar Bakery to pick up some chocolate chip walnut cookies that he loved so much the last time we visited New York.  We also intended to try the the treats at Dominque Ansel Bakery but the line up was so long on a Saturday afternoon that we did not want to wait.  We were told to try again during a week day when it would be less busy.  Instead we bought a few slices of Petee's Pie, located just down the street from our apartment, which we ate for dessert at home after dinner.  We picked the New York Sour Cherry Pie and a Lemon "Chess" Pie which is a dish from the American South with the consistency of thick custard.  The pies were good but both could have had a bit more tartness to them.

For our first dinner, not wanting to stray too far from home, we had researched restaurants near our rental and made reservations to the local seafood restaurant Grey Lady at 77 Delancey St. prior to arriving to the city.  We spotted the restaurant from afar because of the giant mural painted above it and the bright red neon sign that touted "Oyster Bar".  We actually considered returning on a Monday night for buck-a-shuck oysters, but too many other eating opportunities beckoned.  The inside of Grey Lady was as funky as the outside, with a mural of an octopus lady bringing to mind an elegant version of Ursula from The Little Mermaid.  We started off our meals by sharing toast with generous chunks of Peekytoe crab mixed with lemon, chili and herbs as well as breaded calamari with a spicy tomato marinara sauce.  You could taste the freshness of the crab meat and the calamari was perfectly cooked and nicely breaded.

For our main courses, Yim and I both opted for the daily special which was a grilled seabass with pesto and marinara sauces sitting on a bed of mashed potato and greens.  Murray picked a lobster bucatini pasta with breadcrumbs and basil while Rich chose the lobster roll with fries served hot with melted butter.  Our fish was also perfectly cooked and went well with the sauces, but we were especially impressed by the amount of lobster found in both the pasta and the lobster roll.  The food was so good that Rich and I made a point of coming back for lunch on our last day in New York so that we could have the crab toast and lobster roll again, although this time with salad instead of fries.  At that lunch, I also ordered a delicious clam chowder soup with large chunks of clams and a drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of herbs.  Considering the high quality seafood being served, the prices seemed relatively reasonable ($25 for the seabass, $22 for lobster pasta and $30 for lobster roll). 

The next day we planned a self-guided "eating tour" of the Lower East Side as mapped out by the tour group Free Tours By Foot.  One of the last stops on the tour was Yonah Schimell Knisch Bakery at 137 Houston St. which has been serving Jewish comfort food since 1910.  Since we happened to walk by the deli the day before, we decided to start our eating tour at home by buying some knishes to eat for breakfast before setting out.  We chose four different types of knishes to share with fillings consisting of broccoli, mushroom, potato and apple.  They were all good but the unanimous favourite was the apple.

When we started walking our eating tour route, our first stop was at The Pickle Guys (49 Essex St) where we viewed all the different types of pickles and tasted freshly shaved horseradish.  Next we visited Doughnut Plant (379 Grand St) and Kossar's Bialys and Bagels (367 Grand St).  Doughnut Plant sells yeast donuts which are light, airy, and fluffy with a slight chew, cake donuts which have a texture between a birthday cake and a pound cake, and filled donuts which are stuffed with jams, creams and custards.  Available flavours included red velvet, chocolate chip with pecans, strawberry, peanut butter/banana cream, carrot cake, coffee cake, coconut cream, cinnamon sugar, manhattan cream and more.  We bought one creme brulee donut per couple to try on the eating tour (saving our stomachs for future tasting stops).  They were so good that we resolved to go out early the next morning to get more for breakfast.

Right next to the donut place was Kossar's Bialys, specializing in the bialy, which is more like a flattened breakfast roll than a bagel and has toppings such as garlic, onion, sesame or sundried tomato pesto.  This deli also sold different types of bagels, lox and cream cheese and combined theses items into made-to-order sandwiches with tomato and cucumber as optional toppings.  A plan formulated where the four of us would head out first thing in the morning to pick up bagel/bialy sandwiches and donuts for breakfast.  But when it became clear that the morning would be cold and damp, Yim and I decided it would be a much better idea to send the men out for breakfast while we stayed warm at home tending the coffee. Rich and I shared a filled pistachio, filled chocolate hazelnut, and cake wild blueberry donut while Yim and Murray shared a filled pistachio and a peanut butter/jam filled donut.  For the savoury part of our breakfast, Rich and I each had a sesame bialy with cream cheese.  One of them was made with lox from Nova Scotia (Nova lox) and the other with smoked salmon pastrami that was brined with salt and spices.  I liked the lox better since I found the pastrami a bit too salty.

A really fun stop on our tour was at Economy Candy (108 Rivington St) which is stocked floor to ceiling with all sorts of candies, chocolates, gum, cookies, nuts and dried fruit.  Open since 1937, the store's products include imported, kosher, sugar free novelty, and old-time favourites.  We literally were kids in a candy store as we bounced around looking at all the options.  We finally settled for some milk and dark chocolate covered Oreo cookies that we planned to bring home and have with afternoon tea.

Some fun or unusual sweets that we spotted included a tin of Bacon Candy, a box named "Choc-aid" containing milk chocolate pieces shaped like bandaids, a gigantic Hershey's chocolate bar, candies packaged like vintage cigarettes including "Lucky Lights" (a play on "Lucky Strikes"), Victory and Stallion, and little boxes of chocolate each with a toy surprise were available with images of Hello Kitty, Minions and Kung Fu Panda on the front.  It was not clear whether the chocolates were shaped like the cartoon characters or the box was just an advertising ploy to get kids to want them.

The next stop on our eating tour was supposed to be Streit's Matzo Factory at 148-150 Rivington St but when we got there, we found the entire site demolished and under staffolding.  We found out later that the land was sold for 30.5 million dollars in order to build luxury condos.  Instead we headed to Russ and Daughters at 179 East Houston, a family-owned shop open since 1914, offering smoked fish, herring, caviar, bagels and bialys, and other Jewish specialities like a babka which is a mix between a cake and a roll made from a doubled and twisted length of yeast dough mixed with chocolate or cinnamon, baked in a high loaf pan and topped with streusel.  Unfortunately again we could not get into the store since the line up was out the door on this Sunday morning.  We did get the chance to watch through the window as salmon pastrami was sliced to make sandwiches.  We also made note that Russ and Daughters had recently opened a cafe around the corner at 127 Orchard St. and were able to dine there later on in our trip.

The last stop on our eating tour of the Lower East Side was lunch at Katz's Deli which has been open since 1888 and is best known as the place where Meg Ryan performed her famous scene from the movie "When Harry Met Sally".  We took note of the part of the neon sign that read "Katz's That's All".  Apparently the story is that when the sign-maker asked what to put on the sign, he was told "Katz's .. that's all" and took the words literally.  We had arrived at the restaurant just after 11am, which we thought was quite early but it was already full with a lineup and a 20+ minute wait for a table.  While waiting in line, we were each given a ticket and were warned multiple times not to lose it or risk being penalized $50 as the ticket is our  exit pass.  While waiting for our table, we watched the takeout aisles where rows of "cutters" sliced the smoked meat for sandwiches.

The walls of Katz's Deli are covered with vintage neon signs advertising food items like frankfurters, beers and Dr Brown Soda, as well as photos of celebrities.  We sat at a table looking at pictures of Katie Couric and Daniel Craig.  Rich ordered a full hot pastrami sandwich, I ordered a half hot corned beef sandwich with salad and Yim and Murray had the half pastrami sandwich with matzo ball soup.  A sign pointed down at the table where "Harry Met Sally" and the lucky(?) people assigned that table must be featured in many vacation photos.

That evening for dinner, we had reservations for La Birreria, the rooftop Italian gastropub located above Eataly Flatiron located at 200 5th Ave.  Eataly marketplaces feature high quality Italian and groceries including fruit, produce, meats, seafood, cheese, pasta and packaged goods.  The food halls which can be found in cities in Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific usually include food and beverage counters, bakeries, restaurants, retail and a cooking school.  Excited that we will be getting our own Eataly in Toronto soon, we wanted to try one of the restaurants while we were in New York.

La Birreria is a rooftop restaurant and microbrewery with a retractable glass roof and heaters that allows it to stay open through all seasons and weather.  Each season, La Birreria hosts a different pop-up restaurant with a different cultural phenomenon imported from Italy.  For our visit, the popup was called Baita, channeling a ski resort in the Italian Alps.  The posts are covered with fur, red/white/green Christmas balls (representing the Italian flag) are strung across the roof and small evergreens hang upside down from the ceiling.  On the walls are Italian ski posters including one featuring Cortina, the site of the 1956 Olympics.  A larger group could have been seated in a private little wooden "ski warming hut" at the back of the restaurant.  This was a really fun environment to have dinner and provided a nice view of the New York skyline.

After wandering around looking at all the products in the Eataly store and then admiring the decor of the rooftop restaurant, we settled down to the joy of eating.  We started off by sharing two appetizers—battered shiitake mushrooms with garlic aioli and beer-battered deep-fried piave cheese, which is a  hard, cooked Italian cow’s milk curd cheese.  For mains, Rich, Yim and I all ordered the tortiglioni pasta with roasted sausage, cream, black truffle, butter, burgundy truffles.  This dish did not skimp on the truffle but could have been much more generous with the amount of sausage.  Murray bucked the trend and instead ordered the house-made Arcadian Pastures pork and veal sausages accompanied by a creamy, flavourful polenta with a crunchy cheese topping, and real pickles sauerkraut. Polenta is apparently one of the specialties of this popup restaurant since there is a separate “polenta bar” that creates four different polenta based mains as well as the polenta side dishes.  I was tempted by the “Hungry Killer” which was polenta served with sweet Italian sausage, onions, roasted mushrooms and fontina cheese but decided this was too much starch to go with my pasta main course.  It was fun watching the chefs at the polenta bar prepare the Wild Hive cornmeal polenta in little pots prior to mixing in the other ingredients.  For dessert, Rich ordered the tiramisu with four spoons so that the rest of us could have a little (or not so little) taste.

If you can believe it, all the eating described in this blog took place during our first two days in New York!  Good thing we walked long distances each day to work off some of the food.  We had many more interesting eating adventures in the subsequent days which will be described in a future blog.

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