Food Memoirs – A Bite of the Big Apple – Summer 2012
When you look at a single country’s cuisine you are often completely captivated by how well they do one thing right; France can do almost anything with garlic, Japan are the masters of sushi, the Cubans and their pork dishes, and let us not forget just how good South Africa is when it comes to preparing meat. In fact, no matter how big or small the country: one can always be certain that they do one thing very well.
And then you eat in America.
I don’t want to dwell for too long on the vast smorgasbord that is American food; but I’ll say this, without New York City it would be a much less impressive table.
While every country may do one thing just right, and while the United States of America is no exception to this rule, when we start talking about the food in the Big Apple it no longer looks like a fair fight.
New York City does food right. And they don’t just do their food right; they do everybody’s food goddamn perfectly right.
After traveling through literally half the USA I can attest that when one is looking for that complete all rounder of great service, delicious food, buzzing atmosphere and a dining experience that makes you want to go back for more; the City that Never Sleeps is your winner; and we ate almost everywhere in it; from Manhattan to the Bronx, from Queens to Brooklyn; and I was almost always delighted.
So choosing a top three wasn’t easy, it really wasn’t. I mean, if you asked me to pick just my top three hamburger experiences in NY during our 33-day button-bursting gluttony I would have to demand a recount. (Mainly so I could taste them all again)
So before I give you my top three, let me start with those places that deserve a special mention:
- Taverna Kyclades
We were fortunate enough to have the Greek (an old friend of mine from back home but now a NY resident of nearly 10 years), as out host during our time in NYC, and his recommendations were never bad.
This restaurant was the best of his choices. “The best seafood in the State” he said, and he was not wrong.
When you go there; order the fresh fish and then order one of everything else and share it with friends.
3307 Ditmars Blvd, Astoria
- Momofuku Noodle Bar
This was another great suggestion from my cousin Shelley in Miami who really knows her food – check out her blog www.shelley-belly.com
Momofuku is a fantastic Ramen Noodle bar on the East side of Manhattan; the venue is a small and cramped, but the food was outstanding and the flavors made Wagamama’s signature Miso Ramen seem bland in comparison.
Order the Momofuku Ramen and try eating it all without breaking the egg.
171 1st Ave, East Village
- Bare Burger
One burger joint did stand ever so slightly above the rest. Bare Burger was simply orgasmic. Organic burgers where you first choose your patty from a wide selection of meats - beef, turkey, mushroom, chicken, wild boar, bison, ostrich or elk (?) - then you choose your bun. Add your toppings, and then your side.
Everything was sooooo good. The onion rings were worth every minute you need to spend in the gym afterwards and the French Fries were just gorgeous.
Order the Jalapeno Express for some tasty fireworks on your tongue.
23-01 31st St, Astoria
Who doesn’t love a risotto? And who is so tired of going into a restaurant and seeing that the one risotto they do is a mushroom one? Really guys? Mushroom? The food of the Devil? The food that grows in the dark?
Risotteria does any kind of risotto you like. They have dozens of different ones to choose from and honestly don’t mind what ingredients you swap in or take out. They do it all, and make it quickly. Our risotto arrived in minutes, which was great as we were starved.
Awesome service, great location and a lesson that one can easily make a risotto without fetid mushrooms.
270 Bleecker St, West Village
3. The Lobster Place
“When life gives you lemons, order the Lobster!”
One of the many things I have always had on my bucket list is to order the lobster, or better put: to always order the lobster.
The Lobster Place seems just the place to do that, but you’ll be hard pushed to do that as there are so many utterly fantabulous seafood offerings on display one gets neck ache from so much rubber necking.
“Lobster Rolls, Fresh Lobster, Seafood Bisque, Seafood salad’s, SUSHI!!”
You walk in and choose what you like; there is ready-made stuff or counters where you can get made-to-order items. You place your order, take the receipt to the counter to pay and then return to where you ordered and they hand you your meal. Their ready-made sushi dishes are not only pretty to look at, they taste awesome, or if you want to take your fish home, they have four huge counters of fresh fish for you to choose from.
And the best bit – it doesn’t smell like old fish. It smells like fresh fish, and so very clean!
Of course, my first visit there I had the lobster (okay and the second visit too). You choose your size – and there are big ones on offer – and it is all yours. Served steaming hot with a side of hot melted butter and wedges of lemon. There were also bottles of hot sauce on the counter for those with a need for spice. Delish!
75 9th Avenue New York, NY 10011
The Greek took me to this place during my second visit to New York in 2005 and I remember standing outside the restaurant after leaving and a gruff New Yorker stepped out after me with a toothpick in his mouth. Not knowing that I had just eaten there, he looked me straight in the eye and said in that quintessentially New York accent, “You gotta eat at this restaurant; Carmine’s! Family-sized portions” he repeated, “Family-sized portions”, again as if that was the thing about it.
Yes that is one of the things about it, but there is so much more. Carmine’s is a culinary metaphor of what New York represents to me; it is big, bold, unapologetic, proud, first class and as near to the best as you can get. They only serve dishes that are family-sized - meaning that they come big enough to feed a family.
How many is a family, you ask? I don’t know, but the dishes are huge. Admittedly Wife, the Greek, and I licked our dish clean, but we so could have shared it with another two people.
They have a standard menu, but every day they offer a specialty dish. On a Tuesday they do a lamb dish that is from another world. The succulent lamb rib chops, the vegetables and the sauce it comes in cause one to eat in a digestive trance that I am fortunate enough to now have tried twice. This dish is one of those meals I would ask to be my last if on death row. Ten out of ten.
To be honest I can remember little else about the meal – I saw huge dishes being placed on other tables – sometimes being shared by a couple (how on earth two people eat all that?) – the service was good. It was near Times Square so it was pricey - $75 for the dish alone – but worth every cent.
200 W 44th St, Theater District
1. Red Rooster Harlem
Without a doubt though there could only be one winner.
Wife and I had been on one of those bus tours of NYC when it started raining. Abandoning the bus we soon found ourselves lost in East Harlem, wet and bedraggled, tourist-tired and hungry. We decided to call it a day and climbed on the subway to head home. But I was not to be defeated: I had read about a place called the Red Rooster not far away from our next stop and convinced the wife that we should head there instead.
Walking into it was like walking into all those movies I used to watch of the Bronx of old. While waiting at the bar we were blown away by the immaculately dressed barmen – waistcoats tightly fitted, hair neatly clipped and a swagger that was unmistakably Harlem. The clientele was also fascinating; an elderly lady in a dress that seemed from the 50’s, a large African American man with a twisted moustache and a three-piece olive green suit.
Of course, we ordered martinis – which went straight to our heads.
We wanted everything on the menu, and smiled happily at the number of South African choices on the menu from a wide selection of good SA wines to a recreation of a classic South African dish - Bunny Chow. Wife couldn’t resist trying the flavours of home and I chose the fried chicken. Both were taste sensations, the Bunny Chow was not like the one we would get at home, but contained all the right ingredients – tasty, fresh and moreish. The fried chicken was magical. It was cooked just past pink – so it was soft, and moist, but cooked through. The batter was more than your usual seven secret herbs and spices – it was full of flavor, crisp, healthy and not a trace of slimy fat. The mash potato and accompanying sauces were gorgeous. Yum yum.
It was so so good, that when the Greek suggested we go there for brunch the following Sunday we jumped at the chance - because on Sunday they have a big African American woman serenading you all morning with gospel music. She stood right next to me, hands on my shoulder, looking me in the eyes while belting out a note that Whitney Houston would have been proud of.
I just stared back, in a trance… Yes, I was eating another helping of ‘dem fried chicken!
310 Lenox Ave, Harlem
I gotta admit it was hard to find any experience we had in NYC to call the loser, but ‘there always is one’ isn’t there? Or in this case two…
- Da Nico Ristorante
Wife had taken the Greek and me to the well-known ‘Feast of San Gennaro’ held in Little Italy on Manhattan Island. This event is a festival dedicated to keeping alive the spirit and the faith of the early Italian immigrants. The festival was amazing with all sorts of mouth-watering treats on offer. The Wife plans on writing more about it because it was an unforgettable night with so much to see, taste and do.
However, and I don’t mean to be nasty when I say this, I am convinced that some of the food we ate at Da Nico’s Ristorante that night tasted much like pasta that was left over from the first Feast of San Gennaro that was held 86 festivals ago.
After spending an hour and more walking through the kiosk-crammed streets – the Greek and Wife tasting everything before them – I chose to hold off from idle snacks and the like – knowing that a fantastic genuine Italian pasta was just waiting to captivate my taste buds.
Finding a table anywhere was not easy, but we were in Little Italy, so surely any place we found would be good? We chose Da Nico because it had a nice outside seating area packed with guests – always a good sign – although alarm bells rang when I noticed that most of the seats inside were readily available. It was too late to change our minds and after a few minutes we managed to get a seat outside.
There followed a litany of terrible food, bad wine and awful service. Our waiter was abrupt and clearly rushed; had no time to explain anything despite it all being in Italian; who when filling the wine, topped up your glass to the brim (one of the worst crimes a waiter can commit IMhO); and once the food was served he was never to return until you needed the bill.
My pasta was no so much al dente, but seemed more like it was partly boiled by a first year drama student who was late for a drink at the pub and needed something solid to absorb all the beer he was about to drink. The sauce was therefore non-existent as any liquid placed near the pasta was absorbed like water to a sponge. And when I reached for the wine to relieve the car crash in my mouth with some drink, spilling it all over the table and my lap along the way, I was greeted with a warm, sugary substance calling itself Italian Pinot Grigio.
I am sad to report that the food in front of my friends was similarly toxic. Wife’s calamari had the texture and, amazingly, the same taste as an elastic band.
I have never had to ask for the service on my bill to be removed. Never. This time I did, much to the Greek’s amazement, “You always leave a tip in New York!” he said. Bollocks to that. I left the table had a quiet word with the manager who removed the service without hesitation. The waiter was furious and demanded of me an explanation. I calmly and politely said much of what I have said here to him. Good food for thought in a place where there is not much they call good food.
We left and bought some deep-fried Oreo’s to take the pain away.
164 Mulberry St, Little Italy
A Surprise Last Place
- Balthazar Restaurant
Our dining experience at Balthazar Restaurant was one that had all the promise of making it right to the top and I only mention it because of what happened while we were there.
My aunt and two of my cousins were visiting New York and took Wife and I to dinner. She promised a steak as good as home and an unforgettable meal experience. And to be fair the steak was pretty darn good, as was the company and the atmosphere. We were having a really good time.
That was up till the point when my cousin got up to go to the ladies room; she found herself having to squeeze through a very narrow gap between our table and the one next to us. (They do cram the guests in to maximize profit, don’t they?) Without even realizing, she slid past a nearly empty carafe of red wine on our neighbor’s table. SMASH!
My cousin was mortified, our neighbor bemused and we all laughed at the innocent mistake. That was until a rather uptight waitress informed us that that particular carafe had a $400 bottle of wine in it and she then very heavily started to imply that it was my cousin’s responsibility to pay for its replacement.
To cut a long story short, despite our protests the waitress was not going to flinch, there was no way the restaurant would cover that; despite the carafe being nearly empty, despite the ridiculously small gap between the tables and despite the fact that Balthazar probably only paid a third for the bottle itself.
Luck would have it that our neighbour turned out to be a gentleman, a New Yorker on a very intimate date with a lady. Seeing my cousin’s devastation he commented that wine was never as good as any wine from Stellenbosch and that we need not fuss about paying. WHEW!
Balthazar Restaurant would do well to learn from this. As any good host will tell you: you do not force your customers to solve these types of issues among themselves, you take care of them without fuss.
After all one bottle of wine is not worth the alienation of any customer.
A great meal, made mediocre by an average waitress.
80 Spring St, SoHo
And that was New York City – trust me there were many other great spots we ate at, with some amazing dishes – but these were the stand out ones.
Wife has asked me to now think about the best and worst of the rest of our trip through America, so look out for the next rather unforgiving review of the losers and the winners of the United States… well… 24 of them anyhow.