Melanie Hansche takes a bite of the new, the classic, the fun and the fancy…
According to the register of The New York Health Department, there are currently 24 000 restaurants in New York City, It hurts just thinking about where a touring glutton might take their bites of this vast metropolis, which is home to many and varied ethnic groups, food traditions and influences ranging from Mexican and Jamaican to Russian and Jewish. This is the city that has given the world the Waldorf salad, Steak Diane, the ice-cream cone, the Reuben sandwich and the deep-dish pizza, among other delights. (Though there are many who might think the latter offering is culinary sacrilege.)
In the face of such insurmountable choice, how does one decide where to eat in the Big Apple? In my case, as a professional masticator and food magazine editor, I try my damned hardest to compile a list that informs a dining experience that is vastly different to my own. It’s about choosing those things that my home town of Sydney does not offer or execute particularly well. Invariably, I choose the chow that has come to be indentified as quintessentially New York. Like diner food. And Latin American cuisine. Hot dogs. Jewish delicatessens. Soul food. Pie. Oyster bars. Lobster rolls. Late-night dining (a 2am dinner is unheard of in Australia’s capital). With a smattering of hot-to-trot new restaurants and a three-Michelin-star experience thrown in for good measure. Here is a selection of new, classic, fun and fancy New York eats. Start spreading the news.
NEW NEW YORK
This slick Mexican cantina has an interesting heritage in that its chef patron, Alex Stupak, made a name for himself as the highly acclaimed and innovative pastry chef at such conceptual gastro temples as Montreal’s Alinea and New York’s WD-50. In his latest venture, he’s decided to cook the food he loves to eat – Mexican. And he pulls it off, with wonderfully balanced and flavourpacked food full of spicy, smoky and citrusy riffs. Here’s a man who’s able to take something as standard and bastardised as guacamole and make it taste exciting. Stupak’s chunky version comes with smoked cashew salsa, spicy smoked arbol (a powerful Mexican chilli) salsa, lime and homemade corn chips.
The tacos are damned good,too. Try the lamb barbacoa version (a Caribbean method of slow cooking meats over an open fire) topped with fall-apart 12-hour barbecued lamb, jalapenos, coriander, crumbly cotija cheese and a salsa borracha (pasilla chillies, orange juice and mezcal). Finish with one of 35 tequilas on the list and some of the homely Mex desserts with a classy twist (like the use of tangy goat’s milk in dulce de leche.) 230 West 4th St, West Village, www.empellon.com
Young, heavily tattooed head chef Jesse Schenker was recently picked by New York magazine as one of the top 10 chefs to watch in the city. It’s because he’s delivering carefully considered, sophisticated and technically brilliant shut-up food (nobody talks once the food arrives) in a tiny and unassuming neighbourhood bistro in the West Village. Think a rich and giving tranche of barely grilled foie gras with a chicken-skin beignet, peppercorn biscuit and spiced honey. It’s overwhelming in its unadulterated goodness. Then there’s crisp sweetbread, escarole, brown butter, lemon, capers and parsley. The sweetbreads are decent-sized schnitzels, crumbed, creamy and cut through by nice caper acidity. It’s a ripper dish. Desserts are no less fantastic, the standouts being a salty, creamy, peanuty “Snickers” parfait with salted caramel ice cream, as well as caramel apple ice cream with almond cake and bourbon caramel. It’s like an apple pie in an ice cream. 328 West 12th Street, West Village, www.recettenyc.com
A short stumble from the Lennox Lounge, the iconic Harlem jazz club that has hosted the likes of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Red Rooster has quickly made its mark on the New York dining scene. Even US President Barack Obama held a fundraiser here. Owned by Ethiopianborn, Swedish-raised celebrity chef, Marcus Samuelsson, it’s a place that straddles the gentrification of Harlem while at its core staying true to the neighbourhood’s food roots. It’s a fun room in splashes of buttercup yellow and poppy red, with a relaxed front bar giving way to a more elegant dining room and a large open kitchen.
The atmosphere is convivial and boisterous, the crowd enjoying what’s essentially home cooking with a refined edge. Try the starter of spinach and crab soup, a lovely deep green pool of nuanced flavours, from sweet coconut, flecks of apple and crab meat to more robust spices. Mains include a charry, spicy piece of blackened catfish that’s delightfully flaky, paired with earthy black-eyed peas and salty, bitter collard greens. A must is the fried yard bird: a juicy yet crisp take on fried chicken, with white and dark meat, white mace gravy and hot sauce. 310 Lenox Avenue, Harlem, www.redroosterharlem.com
CLASSIC NEW YORK
THE GRAND CENTRAL OYSTER BAR
In his book The Big Oyster, a history of New York told through its bivalves, food writer Mark Kurlansky notes that before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters. That’s because the city, located in an estuary rich with nutrients, possessed some of the best oyster beds in the word. And that’s why you have to visit an oyster bar in New York. The bar at Grand Central station is a great place to start, not least because of its location in one of the most impressive buildings in the city.
The cavernous room is filled with individual stations where you can sit and slurp on oysters. There could be 30 different types on offer on any given day, with names like Beaver Tail, French Kiss, Kumamoto and Rainier, from all over the US. Your best bet is to have the shucker pick his favourites and prepare an oyster degustation for you. The molluscs are served with the obligatoryred wine and shallot vinaigrette and rather perplexingly, a side of ketchup in a paper cup. But that’s America for you.89 East 2nd St, Mid-Town, www.oysterbarny.com
Never mind that it gained notoriety through a Meg Ryan movie that shall remain nameless, Katz’s is a true New York City institution that’s been around since 1888 and is widely regarded as having the best pastrami on rye sandwich in the city. Katz’s is part of that great tradition born out of necessity of preserving meats through pickling, smoking and curing. The method has changed little since its inception.
The deli is located in a large corner building in the Lower East Side, its walls covered from top to bottom with testimonials and photos of its former famous diners. When you arrive, the doorman gives you a numbered ticket and once you’ve made your purchases at various counters, you payfor them on the way out. Interacting with the masters and cutters of meats is all part of the fun (these boys largely work on tips), and aside from the aforementioned pastrami, a door-stopper of a sandwich with juicy, smoky peppery meat, other hits include the Reuben, with corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, and the beef brisket number. 205 E. Houston St, Lower East Side, www.katzsdelicatessen.com.
PEARL OYSTER BAR
The lobster roll is a New England native, but sometime in the 90s made its away to New York and now enjoys immense popularity on the menus of oysters bars, clam shacks and seafood restaurants dotted around town. Pearl Oyster Bar owner, Rebecca Charles, is credited with being one of the first to bring Maine-style lobster rolls to the city. This is no ordinary roll. A soft, hot-dog-style bun, lightly grilled and split along the top (what’s called a “top-loading” bun), is filled with huge chunks of fresh, sweet, cooked lobster meat tossed in mayonnaise, finely diced celery and green onion. It’s fresh and satisfying and comes with a tangled nest of super-skinny crisp French fries. Pearl is more than the sum of its lobster rolls though. Clams, saltcrusted shrimp and fried oysters are just as tasty and a big tick has to go to their New England clam chowder with smoked bacon. It’s creamy, homely and comforting, like a hug from your mum. 18 Cornelia Street, West Village, www.pearloysterbar.com
FUN NEW YORK
Part of the Fatty family that takes in Fatty ’Cue in Brooklyn (often touted as one of the best barbecue joints in the country) and three Fatty Crab outlets across Manhattan, this is a grungy Asian diner with a cool laid-back groove, serving food inspired by the complex flavours of Malaysia. The cosy, low-lit room is decorated in dark wood and flashes of red and hums to a rock ’n roll soundtrack. It’s noisy, bustling and fun, much like the food itself. Quail-egg shooters are soft-cooked little gems you suck straight from their shells, variously topped with little flavour bombs, like preserved vegetables, say, or numbing sriracha (hot sauce), or pungent belachan (shrimp paste). Equally exciting is a dish of watermelon pickle with crispy pork belly. It’s an inspired combination, the fatty pork contrasting nicely with cooling watermelon. The dark horse is a dish of Tokyo turnips, anchovy curry, kale and Thai basil. It might be one of the sexiest vegetable dishes ever. Baby turnips are lightly braised in a salty, spicy curry that’s utterly addictive. 643 Hudson St, Meatpacking District, www.fattycrab.com
FOUR & TWENTY BLACKBIRDS
Americans have a great pie-making tradition. If you doubt that, consider their American Pie Council, established to “preserve America’s pie heritage and promote American’s love affair with pies”. You don’t need to be American to enjoy the pies at this cute Brooklyn pie café. Run by a pair of lovely sisters, Melissa and Emily Elsen, this place kicks serious pie ass. Just consider flavours like salted caramel apple pie, lavender honey custard pie, strawberry and balsamic pie, southern-style buttermilk chess pie and bourbon, mint and dark chocolate pie. The pies are made with lots of love – all the ingredients are sourced locally and are organic where possible, the pie fillings change seasonally and you can enjoy them by the slice with a seriously good coffee (by NYC standards) or take away a whole pie. 439 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn, www.birdsblack.com
MILE END DELICATESSEN
Selling itself as a “Jewish-Montreal delicatessen in Brooklyn”, this hole-inwall is run by a cool Jewish-Canadian dude (who’d of thunk it!), Noah Bernamoff, a one-time law student with a penchant for curing meat in his home fridge and smoking it on his rooftop barbecue. The results were so good his friends convinced him to open a small deli specialising in said meat. Bernamoff cures brisket for nine days, then smokes it over oak for eight to 10 hours before steaming it for four more.The meat is hand-sliced and slapped between two bits of rye bread before being slathered with mustard. It’s juicy, smoky and meltingly soft with hints of pepper and spice. You can choose between a seven-ounce sandwich and a 14-ounce behemoth. There are housemade pickles, too, as well as bagels and schmears, matzo-ball soup, chopped liver and other traditional bits. And it wouldn’t be a Quebecois joint without that classic dish of poutine – hand-cut chips with mushroom gravy and molten Cheddar curds. There’s even a small wine list and hand-crafted cream soda to wash it all down. 97A Hoyt Street, Brooklyn, www.mileendbrooklyn.com
FANCY NEW YORK
Thomas Keller’s New York City outpost is the grand-daddy of them all. Number 10 on San Pellegrino’s World’s Top 50 Restaurant list, it not only gives you a sense of New York’s very best restaurant but it’s also an indication of what one of the country’s very best chefs can do. Everything on the plate seems to be pure concentrated flavour and you get a real idea of the amount of work that’s gone into a dish. A sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and sterling white sturgeon caviar dances on your palate with the freshness of the sea. A terrine of Hudson Valley moulard duck foie gras is silky soft; its accompanying glace de consommé de canard (that’s a duck glaze to you and me) has been reduced to the intensity of Vegemite. Wow.
You don’t realise the pork belly with compressed apples, walnuts and celery has actually been cooked sous vide for two days until you taste it. It’s so soft and giving yet has a cured, briny quality about it. Magic. The winner is a lamb cutlet with pea croquette, charred eggplant purée, young fennel, rocket and Meyer lemon. Not only do the flavours sing in absolute harmony, the knockout punch is delivered by way of a surprise piece of “blacon” – lamb bacon. It’s smoky, salty and rich. The room is hushed and enchanting, the service glides across the floor like cats, attending to your every whim without you even knowing, and the wine list is suitably killer. 10 Columbus Circle, New York, www.perseny.com
BLUE HILL AT STONE BARNS
Before there was Rene Redzepi of Noma fame, there was Dan Barber, the original locavore and a man of excellent cooking skill. This, his working farm, educational centre and restaurant, housed in a beautiful old stone barn, is located a pretty 45-minute train ride up the Hudson River. Barber started the original and award-winning Blue Hill in the city’s Greenwich area and, given his philosophy to prepare the best offerings from the field and market from the Hudson Valley, the farm was purchased to help supply the restaurant. This is slick, elegant food in a smart dining room with service and wines to match. And you won’t find a better place to settle in for Sunday lunch.
There’s no menu and what is served depends entirely on what’s seasonal, growing and on offer on the farm and from surrounding producers. It’s a wonderful way to eat. You might start with vegetable chips of parsnip, beet and sweet potato, artfully presented in the branches of a “tree”. A goat’s curd, pickled beet and lamb’s lettuce salad comes with a smear of crunchy peanut butter on the plate – it’s an inspired mix of creamy, nutty, sweet flavours that really works. A five-grain, housebaked brioche with still-warm ricotta is wonderful in its earthy simplicity. In the mains, venison cooked three ways, with sliced heart, baby vegetables and roasted pear, is giving and nicely balanced. 630 Bedford Road, Tarrytown, www.bluehillfarm.com/food/ blue-hill-stone-barns
Melanie Hansche is the managing editor of donna hay magazine in Australia.