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Playing It Fast And Loose In Manhattan

February 22, 2016

Manhattan. It’s just one part of New York City. There are four other boroughs dammit. Still, I’m always tempted to call it The City whenever I visit.

For someone who cares about food and lives an easy drive away, it’s a place where I haven’t spent much time eating. Most of my eating life has been centered around the West Coast, so the entire New York City food scene is still a bit of a mystery to me. And usually, when I make it down there, it’s to see family.

While they are happy to humor my indulgences a little bit, the trips are never as food-centric as they might be if I were left to my own devices.

The sad reality is that any dedicated eating trips down to NYC are going to be few and far between, since I’ve dedicated myself to the Capital Region, for better or for worse. Anyhow, those excursions would barely scratch the surface of all the things I want to eat. Once again I’m reminded of the tragedy of my life, “I want to eat all the things, but I can’t eat all the things.”

This past weekend I at least got to eat some of the things. And got a reminder that Manhattan’s reputation as a great food city needs a big fat caveat that it rarely ever receives.

How do I make this interesting, so it’s not just a list of things that I ate? I know. Let’s keep score. And we’ll count things as wins or losses. In the end, we’ll see how I did overall.

There’s never a lot of time when family is waiting. So I got off the train and went to meet my mother at the hotel. In between those endpoints I found Cafe Zaiya, which is well known for its green tea and black sesame soft serve ice cream. But it was too early for ice cream. I got to see them whisking up the matcha into an ice cream base, and it looked incredible. So instead I got boba tea. It was pretty great boba. They actually brewed tea to order instead of using a powder, and the tapioca pearls were plump and firm. But I asked for it half sweet, since more often than not boba is overly sweet. However, in this case that wasn’t needed. While my boba tea was still delicious, it felt a little austere.

That’s one in the loss column. Not because the place was bad, but the timing stunk and I ordered wrong.

There’s a sit-down restaurant at the MoMA. After taking in some Jackson Pollock, it was time to grab a quick lunch before my sister’s film. An old family friend took us to the cafe, and I was tempted by the tuna panini and the roasted mushroom flatbread. I actually ordered the panini, and then recanted. That was a great decision. My stepfather ordered the tuna, and it was underwhelming. The flatbread, however, was delicious. Pizza it wasn’t. But a rich, crusty, buttery piece of dough was crisped and charred around the edges. Then it was spread with robiola cheese, topped with mushrooms, and dressed, fresh arugula. It was actually delicious.

That was a win.

After the film there was a small reception. The place is unimportant, because since my mom and stepdad arranged to have a lovely cheese plate out for snacking the only thing I chose was the beverage. And I went with the Victory Prima Pils. I remembered it from a list of beers that was published somewhere on the internet. It was sweeter than I expected. I’m glad I tried it.

But that has to go down as a loss.

However, that was balanced by a win at the Pig ’N’ Whistle. It’s a dive bar a few minutes away from where I was going to be having dinner with my sister. And the beer selection was limited. I had just come in from a brisk walk, and I wanted something refreshing. No PBR. No Sierra Nevada. But they did have a Brooklyn IPA.

Man, that hit the spot. A beer win to cancel out the earlier beer loss.

Amazingly, of all the people my sister could have invited to accompany her to the MoMA’s celebration dinner, she chose me. So together we went to Mozzarella & Vino. Where we had mozzarella and vino. And there I was hanging out with filmmakers from Norway, Paris, Belgium, Los Angeles, and New York. Not all of the food was amazing. The best parts were the cured meats, and the burrata. But that’s me and my fat tooth. The losers at this place were the braised meat entrees, including the meatballs. And I’d pass on the pasta if coming there again.

Without a doubt, this was a win. The parade of bresaola, prosciutto, and salami seemed endless. And the wine glasses were always kept full. Conversation was scintillating. It was a magnificent evening.

When dinner starts at 9:30, you’re in for a late night. Thankfully we were able to get a later start on Sunday for a brunch with my dad and his family. They chose a cute French bistro called Le Monde on the upper west side. My dad totally won brunch with his shakshuka. Man that was good. Since the place was French, I was tempted by the one option that came with a potato galette and fresh herbs. I was thinking something out of a Jacques Pepin cooking show. But for some reason the galette was gray, and the herbs just seemed to be a sprig of parsley. Still, it was a lovely setting to catch up with my dad. I don’t see him nearly enough.

While it may have been a win as a family visit, from a food perspective it was a loss.

Then I was on my own. So even though I had just eaten, I went to Saiguette to pick up one of their beloved banh mi. Some say it’s the best in the city, which I’m assuming to mean Manhattan. I figured it would hold for an hour or two while I did some walking. So let’s hold off on casting a verdict on this one.

I popped into a small cafe called Birch for an espresso. Great stuff. That was a quick win.

Before I headed out of town, I had to stop back into the MoMA and see the family and friends who came for day two of the screening. Especially my cousin Scott. He’s the other food lover in the family, so I figured he needed to eat some of that sandwich. Together we enjoyed the hell out of it. The flavors were fantastic. The bread wasn’t. They always get the bread wrong. And the sandwich wasn’t cheap either. But the $9 for this sandwich brought a ton of pleasure and rich aromatic flavors.

I’m counting the sandwich as a win, since I got to try one of those beloved Manhattan foods. But it didn’t live up to it’s reputation.

There wasn’t much time between leaving the MoMA for the last time and getting to the Megabus “station”. But I was able to stop into one last cafe for a pick-me-up. Frisson Espresso not only pulls a great shot, but they also have cannelés! Oh, man, I love those things. And when they asked if I wanted it warmed up, I asked them how they warmed it up, and we had a moment about our mutual hatred of microwaves. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. But it was crisp, on the outside, custardy in the middle, and full of buttery goodness.

It was good to end the trip with a win. And the wins have it.

Still I wasn’t able to make a stop at Maison Kayser for bread or a financier. There was no visit to Doughnut Plant to try more custard filled donuts. I ate no pizza. Not even a slice. The food of my people was entirely abandoned without a bite of corned beef at the newly reopened Carnegie Deli. I never got close enough to the LES to even fantasize about herring from Russ and Daughters. Forget about heading over to Brooklyn and getting a beer at Tørst, or doing anything for New York beer week.

Not to mention that I had no time at all for my many friends who live on the island or a stone’s throw away.

I always say, “next time”, but for some reason it never seems to happen. And on some level I think that has to be okay. It was a great trip, and I squeezed in a lot. Including a good night’s sleep which is something I hadn’t had for far too long.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2016 3:11 pm

    There’s now a Halal Guys stand right outside MoMa. No need to waste your money on that raised-pinky crap.

  2. February 23, 2016 11:54 am

    When I stay in NYC I always seem to end up in a neighborhood where the only food alternative is Deli, and the kind of Deli where one quarter of the sandwich will exceed your fat and salt content for the entire trip – and you absolutely can not tell them “Half the cheese and no sauerkraut” because that is an insult.

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