Thursday, November 5, 2009

Manhattan Dining

A couple weeks ago Liv and I spent a long weekend in Manhattan by traveling around to various New York landmark restaurants filling our stomachs and draining our wallets. It was a great way to celebrate anniversary #1. Aside from the draining our wallets part.


After arriving on Thursday mid-morning we walked around Times Square to see the lights and the sights. It was our first time in the city so there was lots of standing and looking up for the first few minutes. I was surprised at how big Diddy is in real life. Before long it was time for lunch. I had picked out a very casual lunch spot because I knew we were going to be out and about. Kwik Meal #1 it was. The cart is known for it's marinated lamb served in a pita. The lamb was incredible. It had everything you want in a good lamb gyro plus more. This wasn't pressed and pre-formed mystery lamb meat, this was well seasoned and topped with tangy yogurt sauce. Excellent.

After lunch we walked some more, checked out Central Park and the subway system and before long it was time to check in to our hotel, relax and get ready for dinner at Momofuku Ssam Bar. When we walked into Ssam Bar, it was evident we were in for a loud dinner. Not to worry though, if Heston Blumenthal and Ruth Reichl were able to handle it, so was I. That's right, a couple of professional super-foodies were in attendance that night.

We walked straight in at about 7:30 and got a couple seats at the bar. The menu is changed daily but there are some standards that have gained enough popularity to earn at least a semi-permanent spot on the menu like the steamed pork buns. David Chang, the brainchild behind the Momofuku family of restaurants is of Korean descent so while the menu has many Korean-Asian influences it is by no means a Korean restaurant. Our dinner was (from the menu descriptions: steamed pork buns (pork belly, hoisin, cucumbers, scallions), fried brussels sprouts (fish sauce vinaigrette, mint, delfino), montauk skate (old bay fingerling potatoes, spicy aioli, preserved lemon), and crispy pig's head (sauerkraut, pear mostarda). The pork buns were fatty and soft with an explosion of deep porky flavor. If you have any reservations about pork or fat, stay away -for all others, this is piggy heaven. The brussels sprouts were great too if a little bit greasy. The vinaigrette and the mint played nicely with this little snack and helped cut the fryer grease that inevitably was caught in the folds of the sprouts. The crispy pig's head was shredded pig's head meat formed into crab cake size cakes, breaded and fried. Again, if you're hesitant... if not, piggy heaven. The skate was also quite good. The spicy aioli really worked well with the potatoes and the few fork-fuls I snagged of the skate were fresh and light.

Dessert? Well how about we walk to the adjoining Milk Bar? We did. This is where the indulgence in pork turns to indulgence in cookies. We opted for a chocolate chocolate something or other, a cornflake chocolate chip marshmallow, and the famous compost cookie (the name is now trademarked). The compost cookie has pretzels, potato chips, coffee, oats, butterscotch, and chocolate chips. Amazingly good and it was clearly the best of the 3. The salty and sweet cookie was a smack-your-face-and-hope-you-have-a-glass-of-milk revelation. As visions of pork buns & cookies danced in our heads, off to bed we went. Great first day.


Friday morning started with a visit to the Statue of Liberty. We reserved crown view access and despite the overcast day it was well worth the extra $3 to be able to climb to the top. The stairs were not hard to climb but they were very steep and very narrow. I'm not a huge guy but my shoulders were nearly touching both sides of the stairwell as we climbed up. The view from the crown was great even though there were a few clouds off in the distance.

For lunch we were off to the famous Katz's Deli. You know, the orgasms and movie place. Based on the movie clip, the place hasn't changed much. Of course I ordered a pastrami on rye with mustard. While it was certainly good, the place seems more like a tourist destination than a food lover's hot spot. Liv was unhappy with her egg salad sandwich. I'm glad we ate here but I probably won't seek it out in any potential future trips.

Friday night we saw a hilarious God of Carnage show with a few names you might recognize if you've ever seen The Sopranos or Dumb & Dumber. The play won the 2009 Tony Award for the best play and for good reason. The acting was superb and the laughs kept coming.

After the play we were off to Locanda Verde. Chef Andrew Carmellini heads up this Italian gem in the Greenwich Hotel. We started with the highly lauded blue crab crostino with jalapeno and the burrata with peppers and fried rosemary. The crab is piled high and was super-fresh. The jalapeno gave a slight kick but didn't sear any taste buds. Excellent starter. The burrata sprinkled with crunchy salt and fried rosemary was a milky-cheesy godsend. If you've never had burrata, seek it out. It is incredible. After the apps I had the braised veal cheeks served over risotto milanese. The veal was tender and had a glazy, rich, succulent coating that makes your lips stick together. Everything you want in a great braised dish. Liv had a broccoli rabe sausage served over fagioli beans. Hers was good but I certainly liked mine better. However the real surprise was dessert. We chose the "La Fantasia for Two" and it was a big bowl of pumpkin gelato, brown butter gelato, apple cider granita, caramelized apples, and cinnamon sugar croutons. Wow. Paired with a fantastic recommended amaro by our waiter, the desert took our meal to the next level. The crutons were crisp despite being soaked in melted gelato and the apple cider granita was the crisp and cold yin to the brown butter gelato's yang.


After getting a phone call on Saturday morning I was told that our childhood cat, Tinkerbell, had been put to sleep earlier in the morning (she was 20 1/2 years old). I was in need of some cheering up and NYC pizza was my medicine. We met my cousins Lindsay and Jennifer who live in the the city (albeit in different boroughs) at Luzzo's pizza. Nice place for a beer and some of the best pizza ever - great for cheering up! The restaurant has a "grandfathered" coal burning oven that has been around for 107 years. The pizza crust was crisp yet moist and held the topping of bufala mozarella wonderfully. Add in a couple Peroni's and I was good to go. We didn't gorge ourselves on pizza today because we were headed to Babbo for dinner.

Babbo, the powerhouse restaurant from Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, is one of the most popular restaurants in the city, and for good reason: our dinner was nothing short of fantastic. Reservations are taken 30 days in advance to the numerical date and if you don't start calling at 10 am you better not get your hopes up. It took me about 15 minutes of dialing on 2 phones simultaneously, non-stop to get through for our Saturday night dinner. I ended up with a 6:30 reservation which at first seemed a tiny bit early, but after we left the restaurant at about 9:45 it was clear that the 6:30 time was perfect. Back to the food, we chose the 8 course pasta tasting menu (see the menu below) along with the wine pairings. The pasta was amazing and the wine pairing put every course waaaay over the top in a good way. Kudos to Marla Priest, the sommelier. If you make it to Babbo and try this tasting menu, do not hesitate to order the wine pairings. I think our favorite was the garganelli with "funghi trifolati." The hand rolled pasta accented with porcini mushrooms, parsley and a light butter sauce was like nothing I've had before. One of the best meals I've ever had.


Sunday was bittersweet because we knew it was our last day. We woke up and went searching for a brunch/snack. Knowing that Hell's Kitchen wasn't far we walked to Sullivan Street Bakery and picked up a croissant, and a "cubano" a cuban sandwich with an awesome garlic aioli & cheese and a San Pellegrino Aranciata. You've never heard of Sullivan Street Bakery? I bet you have... no knead bread anyone? After more walking around on what was undeniably a beautiful fall afternoon in Central Park, it was about time to go home.

New York is certainly a fantastic culinary city, but looking back I know we only scratched the surface. There's so much to do and see that a long weekend is no where near long enough.