New York definitely has its fair share of high-end dining, but we found that some of the best meals we had were actually at the most no-frills, understated places - establishments that do things simply, but do them right.
Baked by Melissa
Both of us are generally not cupcake fans, so the huge cupcakes with mounds of frosting at places like Magnolia Bakery held absolutely no appeal for us at all. But W told us that she'd disown us if we didn't give Baked by Melissa a try. They do the most adorable little cupcakes - bite-sized and filled.
Each one is about the diameter of a 50-cent coin, and about 3 cm in height. And each one is a single bite of pure joy. The proportion of cake to filling to frosting is just perfect, the cake itself is light and moist, and the flavour combinations are, for the most part, delightful. PB&J, Reeses, French Toast, Chocolate Chip Pancake, and the best one - Double Chocolate Fudge.
Russ & Daughters
This old-school deli in the East Village, complete with grumpy old salesmen, is a shrine to all kinds of smoked and cured fish. A thought he'd died and gone to heaven when he saw the array of smoked salmon available.
On our first visit here, we each had a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. It was good, but not inordinately so. We then decided to get takeout of just slices of different types of smoked salmon, and some caviar cream cheese to go with it.
That meal we had was one of the best of the trip. Savouring the fish on its own, interspersed with mouthfuls of plain dinner rolls with cream cheese, really allowed the distinct flavours and textures of the different types of salmon to come through. The caviar cream cheese was insanely good too.
Russ & Daughters is an institution, and is a heartwarming example of how people have been doing the same thing, and doing it with pride, for almost a hundred years (they celebrate their centenary in 2014).
Momofuku Noodle Bar
Having read the Momofuku cookbook and all the issues of Lucky Peach to-date, I'm a 'fan-from-afar' of David Chang, so a pilgrimmage to at least one of his joints was a definite must. We actually planned to go to both Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar on the same day, but our eyes were definitely larger than our stomachs. We couldn't even finish what we ordered at Noodle Bar...
The smoked chicken wings were good, but once the ramen arrived, I knew we had to doggy bag the rest of the wings. We only had one bowl between us but it was still a LOT. The broth was a bacon dashi, unlike any ramen broth that we're used to. The noodles were ok, but the accompaniments - the egg, the pork shoulder and especially the pork belly, were outstanding. Made me wish we'd ordered the pork buns instead of the wings. Next time.
No holiday is complete without doing some form of an Anthony Bourdain trail. On his Layover: New York episode, he met up with David Chang at Crif Dogs for some funky flavoured hot dogs.
Their hot dogs are wrapped in bacon then deep fried. A had one with cream cheese and bagel spices, and mine had melted cheese and a fried egg. They were good, but I think I prefer the one I had at Chelsea Market (see below).
A nondescript phonebooth door in Crif Dogs also opens the way to a "secret" speakeasy called PDT (Please Don't Tell), where they do hot dog flavours created by famous chefs like David Chang and Wylie Dufresne. Maybe those would have been better.
M Wells Dinette
Prior to its current home at MOMA PS1 on Long Island, M Wells Dinette was known as M Wells Diner, a popular eatery featured in many food shows (such as, No Reservations...). The M Wells chef used to be from Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, hence the unapologetically in-your-face, offal-laden nature of the dishes that are synonymous with Au Pied de Cochon.
The original M Wells Diner closed down after a rent dispute that couldn't be resolved, and the story goes that MOMA invited them to re-establish themselves at PS1. As evidenced by the name, at the Dinette the menu is slightly more pared down and seasonal, but no less over-the-top.
The veal brain escalopes with lemon and capers were phenomenal. The brains were lightly floured and fried, with a creamy centre and a slightly crisp exterior. They were rich, creamy and reminescent of oysters, funnily enough. The lemon and capers cut through the richness perfectly. Even non-offal eater A was blown away. The beef tartare was superb as well, with the beef seasoned with just enough tartness, and still retaining some bite and texture.
A may beg to differ, but even if there are currently no exhibits at the PS1, I think it's well worth a trip just for the food.
In terms of fresh produce, Chelsea Market may not be as impressive as, say, Borough Market or the Boqueria, but I still love the vibe of Chelsea Market. They have an event hall with constantly changing independent purveyors, a really cool bookstore, and Ronnybrook Ice Cream, where you can get ice cream, milk shakes and yogurt.
My favourite stall by far is Dickson's Farmstead Meats. They're primarily a purveyor of artisanal meats, and they take pride in only selling meats sourced from local farms that practice humane farming techniques, without the use of feed-lots, hormones or antibiotics. Another prerequisite is that the entire supply chain (farm to slaughterhouse to point-of-sale) must be no more than 400 miles long. Respect.
I had a beef hot dog with kimchi and Kewpie mayonnaise that was truly divine. The sausage had a great 'snap', it was intensely but not overly seasoned, and it went perfectly with the creamy mayo and the cool, tart hit of kimchi.
Luke's Lobster at the Plaza Hotel Food Hall was an unexpected delight. The Maine Sampler came with half rolls each of lobster, crab and shrimp - soft fluffy rolls lightly toasted and filled with perfectly cooked lobster, crab meat and shrimp, then drizzled with clarified butter.
The lobster one had the cleanest taste, but A found the crab one more to his liking. We also ordered the clam chowder, which was amazing - intense flavours of clam in every mouthful, this really was my idea of comfort food.
I'd heard so much about Babbo, Mario Batali's famous joint, that I had to try it for myself. Unfortunately, we left feeling rather underwhelmed. I'm not sure whether we simply ordered the wrong things, or just that our expectations were too high, but we really didn't feel that anything was particularly outstanding.
We ordered from most sections of the menu - a few starters, two pastas and a main course. Everything was executed well, but without much finesse. Perhaps we just ordered the wrong things?
Service wasn't great either. We had a reservation but were made to wait at the bar and when we were finally ushered to our seat, it was a tiny table right at the back of the restaurant, leading to the kitchen and washrooms. The waiter was civil but not exactly warm, till we paid and left the tip, but it's a bit too late for effusiveness by then.
Getting a half decent dinner reservation at Minetta Tavern (i.e. a timing other than 5 pm or 10 pm) is apparently almost impossible if you're not a regular/celebrity, so we decided to do Sunday brunch instead.
So much has been said about Minetta Tavern's legendary Black Label Burger that we inevitably had high hopes. So did it change my life? Unfortunately I think expectations were just way too high. Yes, the patty (made from a proprietary blend of dry aged beef) was pretty flavourful, but not orgasmically so.
While we were there, we felt that the burger at Morton's Bar back home was on par, but we've since been back to Morton's after our trip just to make a comparison, and even that seemed to fall a bit flat. The beef patty itself was lacklustre. Maybe it's just harder and harder these days to get really flavourful beef.
I think expectations unfortunately play quite a big role in food experiences, because quite contrary to Minetta Tavern, I had almost no preconceived notions of the Shake Shack burger. So when I bit into my first ShackBurger, I did in fact have an OMG moment. The proportion of bun, patty, lettuce and tomato was simply perfect, and the patty itself was grilled on a flat top so it had a wonderfully seared exterior.
On our second trip to Shake Shack, we were greedy and decided to have the Double ShackBurger, assuming that two patties would make for an even beefier experience. That it was, but oddly enough we found that that was too much meat, and it threw the otherwise perfect combination of ingredients out of balance.
Stick to the original ShackBurger. It's a classic for a reason.
We’ve saved the best for last, at least sort of. Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is an unconventional 3-Michelin Star restaurant located in a pseudo-makeshift kitchen adjacent to the grocery store with the same name. Actually, the very fact that it isn't a super-fussy fine-dining establishment is what drew us to it. Chef Cesar Ramirez is a wizard with seafood – his ability to cook (or not cook, as the case may be) seafood, especially fish, and pair it perfectly with complementary flavours, is nothing short of amazing.
Rewind a couple of months though. Brooklyn Fare is as well-known for its cuisine as it is for its notoriously hard-to-get reservations. Reservations for its 18 seats can only be made by phone, and are taken on Mondays, six weeks in advance. Having heard/read that reservations are well nigh impossible, I had a huge sense of achievement when, after redialing the number over 200 hundred times over the period of about an hour, I finally got through to someone and snagged a reservation.
They’re a bit Nazi, in the sense that they don’t allow photos of the food, nor even the dining room or kitchen. You can’t even use your mobile phone or take notes of the dishes. I think they want you to treat the meal as an experience, rather than reduce it to a blog post or a cold/clinical list of dishes. All we can rely on is a vague memory of what we had, but I can’t deny that the actual experience was unforgettable.
The kitchen and front-of-house run like a well-oiled machine. At least 3 chefs meticulously plate each ingredient in every dish. There are over 20 small courses in the tasting menu, and each course has probably an average of 10 components. Remarkably, all of those ingredients seem to play a part in the dish, and in perfect proportions. Even seeing them lay out the plates, clear them away and re-stack them for the next seating, was mesmerizing in how seamless and choreographed it was.
The food itself was amazing. The Hokkaido uni on a disc of brioche with a slice of black truffle was sublime. Other notable dishes included an intensely flavourful bite of salmon with ikura, various slices of perfect sashimi or just barely cooked fish, a seafood broth with perfectly cooked scallops and abalone, and the sole meat course of the evening – a wonderfully seared rare duck breast.
Being our first and only 3-Michelin star experience, it was definitely memorable but was it the best meal we’ve ever had? I don’t think so. The palaver of getting the reservation, and the prohibitively steep prices, unfortunately do play a part in coming to that conclusion.
So much good food it's crazy. The big surprise was that the most expensive places aren't necessarily the best. So in a nutshell:
Best meal under $10: Shake Shack
Best place for foodies: Chelsea Market
Best place for me: Russ & Daughters (smoked salmon!!!)
Best bite: Crab roll at Luke's Lobster
Biggest surprise: Baked by Melissa
Most offal-ly interesting menu: M Wells Dinette
Most overrated: Tie between Babbo and Minetta Tavern