Wednesday, October 27, 2010

ROAD TRIP 2010 #3: New York City - “The Lights are Much Brighter There...”

Coffee Mastery at Eleven Madison
 Early in September, the BH and I journeyed to the East Coast to visit our eldest daughter. Though we had definitely called ahead to secure reservations at two of Manhattan’s top eateries, we decided against planning our meals every single night, leaving a few slots open to just feel our way through the City. Our daughter had arranged to take several days off work in order to visit with us and to prepare for Fashion Week, where she would be working such shows as Catharine Malandrino, Vena Cava, Cushnie et Ochs and Monique Lhullier. She suggested we do “touristy things” like museums and Central Park. She also hoped we could spend some time hitting her favorite dining spots. Now that she’s a local, we figured “Why not?”

Sticky Toffee Pudding @ Schiller's
 The night we arrived she and her roommate met us at a spot she’d selected just for her parents, — New Orleans-themed diner Mara’s Homemade. Knowing her mother and father have been carrying on a love affair with New Orleans since we visited post-Katrina, she figured that Mara’s would be the perfect decompressor on our first night in the City. The Artiste is a recent convert to all things NoLa herself, having fallen hard when we dragged her along on one of our trips down for Jazz Fest. She thought this place would bring it home. We were essentially dropped right into the sights, sounds and smells of the heart of the Quarter without ever leaving Manhattan. Excellent instincts, that kid.

Buttery Crab Fingers at Mara's Homemade
 The menu at Mara’s was a wild combination of Kentucky Bar-b-Que and traditional New Orleans Seafood, but there was an item on the bill that I’d never seen, something called Crab Fingers. The claws of the crab are beautifully cleaned to reveal nothing but “fingers” of succulent sweet crab meat, and that meat is soaked lavishly in a well-seasoned, peppery butter. Black butter is a standard in the South. Gotta love it. The claws are prepared in such a way as to make it easy to suck the meat right off the tips of the shell, a little like tearing the meat off the tip of a drumstick. Sort of. Definitely finger-lickin’ good.

The front of house gal is truly delightful. Eating at Mara’s is like you just dropped by her home and are having a quick drink before she makes you dinner. Though the place is beyond small and waiting for a table can be uncomfortable (they don’t take reservations, there are only three to four seats at the bar and no room to stand) she makes every effort to mitigate the discomfort of the patrons stuck standing in the narrow doorway during the wait. During our meal, I ordered a shot of tequila, and since we’d had to wait a bit for our table she brought me a killer shot, pretty much a half glass of the good stuff. Between the stiff pours and the dead-on rendition of Louisiana BBQ shrimp, I thought this place was NoLa-riffic!

Mara’s Homemade
342 East 6th Street
New York, NY 10003-8727
(212) 598-1110

Next morning we met for a Saturday brunch at Schiller’s Liquor Bar. Schiller’s has an unusual-sounding name for a chic little pit-stop featuring amazing brunch food served in delightfully retro surroundings resembling nothing so much as a soda bar straight out of the 1910's, but it was just that. I half expected Judy Garland to come bouncing into the room singing Clang Clang Clang went the Trolley! The food was solid. BH had an omelette and the Artiste and I had the Eggs Benedict. Both meals were a classic hearty take on the familiar, mine came with lovely hash browned house potatoes slathered with caramelized onions. For dessert we shared a Sticky Toffee Pudding, a dish that my Makeup Artist daughter had raved about all through breakfast and was anxious for us to try. We did, and it was OUT of this world. The pudding was essentially a toffee-caramel explosion. Caramel pudding, soaked in a healthy ladle of caramel sauce accompanied by vanilla ice cream. All in all, Schiller’s was a perfect brunch experience. The decor early Americana, and the food really strong. Good prices for Manhattan, and excellent ambiance.

Schiller’s Liquor Bar
131 Rivington Street

Antique Garage - Humus Treats
 New York, NY 10002-2402
(212) 260-4555

While shopping in Soho Saturday afternoon, we wanted to take a break for a snack before dinner. I had heard that the Antique Garage offered lovely sidewalk views and comfy sofas, in addition to tasty bar treats. So although the Makeup Artist had never been, we opted to rest our weary dogs at the Antique Garage, taking seats facing Mercer Street late on a Saturday afternoon. The snacks we chose were Humus, a nice simple offering of chickpeas and pita; and Borek, a tasty roll of phyllo dough stuffed with feta and a hint of parseley. We were on vacation, so of course we ordered cocktails. The drinks were all mixed with fresh ingredients, they were refreshing and well-balanced. Apparently Antique Garage lives by word of mouth alone, keeping the foot-traffic to those who walk by or seek to find, and a find it is.

Antique Garage Restaurant (Soho)
41 Mercer Street
New York, New York
(212) 219-1019

Bagel of Ice Cream @ WD-50
 WD-50 was one of the places we had reserved as a treat for ourselves and the Artiste. She’s living on a salary that simply doesn’t allow her to treat herself to meals of this sort, particularly in New York. So the opportunity to head out for a meal at the premier molecular gastronomy establishment on her fair Island, Wiley Dufresne’s ground-breaking WD-50 was really appreciated. When we arrived at WD-50, I found the interior to be chic and inviting. Very spare, a long dining hall at the end of which is a stainless steel glow of a large open kitchen. As we are being seated, we notice that the Master himself is in the house. Wiley Dufresne is cooking in full view of all the patrons. Nice touch.

More Magic from Chef Dufresne
The colors alone are a show in this soup.
The meal was just delightful. We all immediately decided on the tasting menu, and allowed the Chef to take us on his little journey of flavors. We enjoyed such things as (lox & bacon title). This dish was memorable in that the bagels themselves were ice cream, and the lox was a freeze dried meat. The dish was cold, but the flavors were vivid, intense and appealing, which would seem impossible in such a presentation. While every dish was a journey in twisted sensation, the BH found the (bearnaise & beef title) among the most clever. It was a complete reversal of the expected, with the beef arriving in the form of a broth and the bearnaise sauce the form of a solid. The fact that it was delicious an added bonus in the amusement. From the first amuse bouche to the last dessert, which was something called a chocolate packet (you gotta taste one, I won’t spoil the surprise here), every dish was beautifully prepared, creatively plated and an achievement in artistry unlike any other I had tasted. If you enjoy food and it’s preparation, you simply haven’t lived until you’ve visited WD-50.
50 Clinton St
New York, NY 10002-2401
(212) 477-2900

Chef D's Magical Dessert, part 1
 We’ve established that my daughter is a struggling artist in the Big Apple, so she capitalized on every opportunity to eat well on her parent’s dime. Her choice for Sunday brunch was Sarabeth’s West. Sarabeth’s is a bakery that began in 1981, and soon spawned two restaurants, Sarabeth’s West (Upper West Side) and East. It’s no surprise, given the incredibly quality of preparation and ingredients served here. The French Toast was fluffy and fat as summer clouds, powder clinging to its sweet, chubby surfaces reminding me of loose powder on the cheeks of a cherub. We all ordered a variety of their Four Flowers Juice. One of us in a mimosa, and the other two straight. The Artiste also ordered up one of their spicy-good spins on a Bloody Mary. The juice was astounding in color, its special blend of orange, fresh pineapple, banana and pomegranate juices all blending to make a drink the color of a Tahitian sunrise! The Bloody Mary was crisp, tangy and hot, everything it should have been.

Sarabeth'sWest - Fluffy French Toast
 This place was exactly what one would want in a bakery turned breakfast joint. Flaky fresh-out-of-the-oven basket of rolls and sweet breads. My Eggs Benedict was perfection, its poached eggs just runny enough, the hollandaise light and tangy, draping the dish with flavor rather than drowning it in sauce. Everything followed along those lines. The baked goods and juices being perhaps the most memorable.

Sarabeth’s (West)
423 Amsterdam Avenue (@80th Street)
New York, N.Y. 10024
Phone: 212-496-6280

The day we went to the Met, we decided to snack “low rent” at a happening little Manhattan burger franchise the Shake Shack. This place might best be described as NYC’s In-and-Out. The burgers are juicy, they have locally-brewed beers of the week and the cheesy fries are artery-hardening perfection.

Cheesy Fries!
Shake Shack
Upper West Side
366 Columbus Avenue (at 77th)
New York, NY
(646) 747-8770

We managed time for the Bourgeois Pig, one of the Makeup Artist’s favorite joints, which was a lovely wine bar featuring endless forms of fondues. Loved it.

Bourgeois Pig
111 E. 7th Street
New York, NY
(212) 475-2246

Salmon Rillette @ Bouchon (Chef Keller)
Among our other food-related experiences was a nice “quick” lunch at Bouchon in the Time Warner Building. We were supposedly going to just have a snack, but after visiting the building tired and two of us actually hungry, we stopped at the bakery thinking it would be quick. After a quick peek at the menu the BH spotted a salmon rillette we had sampled at Bouchon in Yountville. Realizing that this was likely to be the same preparation, we went for it. It arrived exactly as we remembered, a creamy serving of smoky salmon sealed in butter. Magic in a jar! (Just sayin’)

Bouchon Bakery (in Time Warner Building)
10 Columbus Circle
(West 59th Street)
New York, N.Y. 10019 USA
(212) 823-9366

The last big outing we had planned was the grand re-opening night at the newly refurbished Eleven Madison Park. I had been unable to secure reservations at this immensely popular Flatiron District restaurant last Christmas when we’d gone to New York to visit the MA. It was definitely worth the ten-and-a-half month wait. From the subtle menu consisting only of sketches and single word suggestions, to the elaborate steam and fire show wielded by the charming young coffee steward, the staff was perfection and the food was absolutely delightful.

Lobster @ Eleven Mad
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave
New York, NY 10010-3643
(212) 889-0905

Another evening found us at dinner with Mike squared, Two Guys names Mike who are married friends of the Artiste. Mikey L suggested we try Maria Pia for some affordable and delicious Italian cuisine. I hadn’t had Italian in New York since I was there 25 years ago pregnant with my second child and the smell of garlic was so overwhelming I almost lost it at dinner. This place was superb. The house-made pasta perfectly al dente, and the sauces rich and well developed. Molto Bene!

Maria Pia
319 W 51st St
New York, NY 10019-6441
(212) 765-6463

Chef Humm's Beet Marshmallow
(tangy, mouthwatering puffs!)
Eleven Madison
 We ended our trip with a final brunch, this time at Pastis, which I didn’t know at the time was a sister restaurant of Schiller’s. The food is comparable, although the ambiance here is country French European, rather than the turn of the century Americana at Schiller’s. Both provide solidly good food at reasonable prices in a really nice atmosphere.

9- 9th Avenue
New York, 10014
(212) 929-4844

Any of these places can provide a good time, on a wide variety of budgets.  There are just too many wonderful places to eat in NYC to manage them all on a single trip.  Luckily for me I have a kid living there and an excuse to return!