Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - New York City 2008

Almost exactly a year since my last visit, I found myself once again in the Big Apple for a four-day whistle-stop tour of the best ways I could find to spend my ludicrously inflated British pound. A couple of general points before I get down to the nitty-gritty; firstly, service (with one notable exception) is as accomplished and sparkling as anywhere I've been in the world, and while it didn't mask major problems with food it certainly smoothed over minor quibbles. Secondly, I know it's a cliché, but eating out really is a normal part of daily life for New Yorkers and the standard of average high-street eateries is far above anything available in the UK. The "tourist test" of just wandering in off-spec to anywhere that looked interesting from the outside and having a good dinner was passed time and time again - just imagine trying that in London! Of course the best places in London can match the best places in New York, or anywhere, but it's the other end of the scale that really is the measure of a city. And so without further ado:

Barely a few hours off the plane, I indulged in a heavily-jetlagged lunch at Momofuku Noodle Bar (corner of E 10th and 1st) consisting of nice but fairly standard crab claws in a tangy mayo dip followed by pretty little pork belly sandwich thingies. Even through the bleary haze of a long-haul hangover I could appreciate the balance of slightly sweetened bread and tender salty meat. As there were only two of us and we weren't massively hungry I can't give a definitive verdict on the place, but I have it on good authority that the evening menu is extensive and even more impressive.

The following evening, I warmed up with probably the best Old Fashioned of my life in the Flat Iron Lounge (W 19th St). The picture, by the way, is of their "flight of fancy" cocktail taster set, consisting of a French 75, Negroni and a house concoction of which the contents escape me, but seriously if you're ever in the area you have to try the Old Fashioned - perfectly balanced flavours and a sign of a true craftsman (or woman) behind the bar.

A short stroll around the corner later we were settling into the deep red upholstery of the Strip House steakhouse (E 12th St). An exercise in timeless, decadent New York dining, the Strip House served me the best steak I've ever had the pleasure to eat - a huge bone-in ribeye ($44) whose crusty, salty char broke to reveal juicy, perfectly cooked beef. A question as to the sourcing of the meat turned into a short sermon on fine cow breeding from our waiter; these people really know their stuff. Then as if that wasn't enough we were served a simply stunning side of creamed, truffled spinach that remains one of the highlights of the trip.

The next evening I managed, with a little help from a friendly New York foodie, to snag a table at Mario Batali's famous Babbo. For British readers who almost certainly won't have heard of him (I hadn't until I saw a hagiography on the Food Network in the hotel), Mario Batali is a huge ginger celebrity chef who made his name on the American version of Iron Chef and specialises in regional Italian cooking. His restaurant can apparently be quite tricky to get into, but the gods must have been smiling upon us as we were seated immediately. For this meal I opted not to take any photos as I wanted a night where I could at least pretend to be a normal diner for once - this means of course that I've almost completely forgotten what I ate that evening. My starter of asparagus with quail's egg was tasty and fresh, but pasta is what it's about here. "Lamb’s Brain “Francobolli” with Lemon and Sage" was silkily homemade, fresh and delicious, almost up there with the pasta I had at Zafferano in London, and less than a third of the price. The house bread was also good, and aside from the obvious irony of coming all the way to New York City to eat regional Italian food, it was well worth the money - I believe the bill (sorry, "check") came to little more than $45 each.

On my last day in the city, I finally got around to visiting somewhere that had been on my to do list from the last trip - Katz Delicatessen (E Houston St). A restaurant that practically defines the phrase "New York Institution", it has been serving kosher food to New Yorkers for well over 100 years, and as far as I know has been fantastically popular for most of that time. But due to the same set of issues that plagued my visit to Peter Luger's last year, I can't say I enjoyed my lunch at Katz's. New Yorkers will no doubt blame me for being a wimpy pallid-faced Brit, but when I decide to grace a restaurant with my custom, I expect to be treated like I'm doing them a favour, not the other way round. Of course, the root of the problem is that we weren't doing them a favour - Katz is going to be rammed all the time no matter how bad the service is, and they know it. And so if they order us around like cattle, throw food down on the table and avoid eye-contact, the worst that will happen is that someone else will take our place in the queue. Much like Luger's.

Unlike Luger's, however, the food at Katz was really not worth the effort. My pastrami sandwich was nice enough but too uniform in texture and taste to justify the huge portion, and the filling itself was actually no better than the salt beef from the Brick Lane Beigelry back home. Pickels were pleasant (and free, so can't complain), but at $15 this was too expensive to be a snack, and too uncomfortable to be a meal. Still, at least now I've done it.

This will not be news to anyone who has been to New York, but it really is the most fantastically easy place to eat well. Perhaps there are styles of cuisine that are rather under-represented in the city (Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi restaurants seem particularly thin on the ground, and from what I hear the ones that do exist aren't particularly good), but what it does do it does with style, generosity and with a smile on its face. And so after four happily gluttonous days, I checked out of our hotel and caught the limoliner bus to Boston, MA. More soon.

Momofuku Noodle Bar 7/10
Flatiron Lounge 8/10
Strip House Steakhouse 9/10
Babbo 8/10
Katz Delicatessen 5/10

Momofuku Noodle Bar on UrbanspoonFlatiron Lounge on UrbanspoonStrip House on UrbanspoonBabbo on UrbanspoonKatz's Deli on Urbanspoon


Caroline said...

I think you'll find Mario Batoli (sp?) made his name first on the programme Molto Mario befre being made an iron chef. Now he seems to try and open as many restaurants as he can in order to make big bucks, who can blame him. Also there's a great article on Chef Chang (the guy behind Momofuku) in the New Yorker, puts you off ever wanting to get into the food industry.

matt said...

I've been to Katz (you perhaps walked past the hotel I stayed in on your way there), and I found their cheese steak to be really good, but their chips were rubbish.
I did get to sit where 'she' sat, though (although I don't think I had the same thing).

Chris said...

Caroline - sorry, I stand corrected.

Matt - yes, the chips were rubbish too. Maybe Katz is like a theme park for New Yorkers, somewhere they can go to get crappy service occasionally if the relentless chirpiness and professionalism of everywhere else in town gets on their nerves?

Assaf said...

Sounds like you’re having fun

Katz is also famous for Sally's fake orgasm scene in “When Harry met Sally”.
The woman that’s asking for “whatever she’s having…" is Rob Reiner’s (the director) mom.

According to what you wrote, it probably wasn’t the Pastrami Sandwich...