Wednesday, 2 February 2011
Cheese and Biscuits On Tour - New York City 2011
This trip almost didn't happen at all. 24 hours after the biggest snow storm to hit the Eastern Seaboard since, well, ages, I was nervously refreshing the Heathrow Live Departures page, my heart sinking with every flight to JFK or Newark or Washington that changed status from 'Scheduled' to the dreaded 'Contact Airline'. Once the BA flights to New York before and after mine bit the dust, I had pretty much resigned myself to spending the weekend in London, even going so far as to organise Saturday afternoon at a friend's house watching the football. But I went through the motions anyway, packing and preparing and printing my boarding pass, and taking a glimmer of hope from the fact that my flight did, at least until the time came to leave, still say 'Scheduled'. I thought if nothing else, being at the airport may make rebooking easier.
Even as the flight was taxiing, in fact even after I'd taken off, I still couldn't quite believe it was happening. How Virgin Atlantic managed to get a flight out to Newark airport not only on time but with a spare seat next to mine to stretch into, while every single other airline had cancelled all of theirs for the best part of two days, remains a complete mystery. But off I was anyway, and seven or so hours later I touched down in a very cold indeed New York City, finding my way to the hotel through streets carved out of ten foot high snowdrifts and liberally soaked in perilously slushy, salty puddles. Wasting no time on the first evening, and banking on the prospect of an interesting meal to stave off the jet lag, I skated down 48th Street to the Delta Grill for a pulled pork Po' Boy, which was huge and served with a lovely cold glass of a Louisiana Pale Ale but was rather disappointing in terms of everything else. I did try and take a photo of this sandwich, but in common with most other dining spots in the city the Delta Grill liked to keep the light levels at just a notch above Dans Le Noir and so with this and most other meals I'm afraid you're going to have to use your imagination a bit more than usual. In this case, imagine an entire wide French baguette filled with sweet roast pork, sliced in half and served on a 20" serving plate surrounded with skin-on fries. For $10. Massive amounts of food for not much money would turn out to be a theme of this trip.
Breakfast the next morning at an unremarkable deli on 8th Avenue called the Bread Factory Cafe nevertheless consisted of 6(!) thick fresh pancakes topped with crispy bacon and maple syrup and cost a little over $6. I don't think it's too much of a generalisation to state that, while in most major world cities the mid- and high-end meals are largely comparable in terms of value for money, it's the lower end of the market that New York really stands head and shoulders over London. Try comparing what £4 will buy you at the average high street sandwich shop (a cold and greasy BLT perhaps, or a stodgy cheese and tuna panini if you're lucky) versus the array of hot pastrami bagels or fresh omelettes that any budget deli in midtown can knock out. Maybe you can still do badly in New York, but it seems to be much, much more difficult.
For lunch, Shake Shack. I've heard some reports that the newish Upper West Side branch of this world-famous burger joint is a somewhat less impressive facsimile of the Madison Square original, but it still sat very well with me. A nice soft bun, very juicy meat (although not at all pink sadly despite being advertised as coming "medium") and that all-important slick of American "cheese", it was, essentially, a very authentic tasting West Coast burger, and has rightly made waves in New York largely thanks to the dearth of alternatives in a town more concerned with thick Pat LaFrieda black label patties and gourmet toppings. Even more impressive though was their "Shack-cago Dog" hot dog, which had some fantastic sharp pickles and crunchy hot pepper. Before you ask, no I don't suppose either were better than those from the #meateasy, but they were about a third of the price, so it seems a bit mean to compare them.
Dinner at the Breslin was hugely enjoyable, best described as a kind of New York take on an English gastropub. Highlights were a plate of tiny Nantucket scallops, which were the sweetest and most succulent scallops I've ever had in my life - a flavour so extraordinary and powerful that eating them was nothing short of revelatory; and the famous Breslin lamb burger was excellent too - moist and rich with a deep lamb flavour. Much as we enjoyed our food, we couldn't help casting envious glances towards a group tucking into a roast suckling pig on a table on the ground floor, another practice which seems to have been borrowed from English stalwarts like St John. In fact this feast was so popular the same table was reset with a new suckling pig (and a new group of people) in the time it took us to finish our own meal. Afterwards, we poked our heads next door into the brand new John Dory oyster bar, and knocked back pink prosecco in a room decorated with huge ceiling-mounted aquariums and stunning displays of fresh seafood. It was a good day.
Slightly less than impressive was Dylan Prime the next day, a steakhouse in Tribeca which despite serving perfectly cooked and richly flavoured steaks (as you'd expect in the steakhouse capital of the world), everything else, such as a tasteless vegetable pot pie and a dull seafood salad, was rather forgettable. My favourite steakhouse in NY remains the Strip House in the West Village, where I loved everything, including the starters and sides.
Our best meal in New York city had to wait until a couple of days later. Torrisi, in Nolita, was a tip from a friend back in London who insisted that it would become my "new favourite New York restaurant". In the end, it has very nearly become my favourite restaurant anywhere in the world, its cosy atmosphere (barely 25 covers) and no-bookings policy very much bringing to mind the artfully shabby feel of Polpetto but with a level of invention and master of technique in the kitchen that you very rarely find. We ate four shared antipasti including stunning freshly-made (somehow) mozzarella and a top notch seafood salad. Then a pasta course of the most unbelievably light gnocchi you can imagine, followed by a main of just-cooked pork chop or a perfect fillet of sea bream. The only choice to be made was between the two main courses, the rest was fixed, and if $50 (plus service, plus "tax" which seems to be just a random few dollars tacked onto every purchase, making calculating the exact change before you get to the till quite a challenge) seems like a lot then I can only tell you I've had very few better Italian meals anywhere in the world - including Italy - and the memory of some of those dishes will last with me for as long as I live. Simply brilliant. Of course, thanks to the "mood" lighting you'll have to take my word that the food looked as good as it tasted, especially the selection of fresh and exciting bite-size pastries:
At the risk of repeating myself, it should come as no surprise that New York, being a major world city and home to one of the most culinarily dynamic and diverse populations on the planet, has some fantastic restaurants. But so do lots of places, and these days all you need is access to the internet and/or a clued up food blogger (ahem) to find somewhere good to eat in even the most unlikely of locations. The real measure of a town is what happens if you just turn up at the nearest deli and order a hot sandwich - if most of the time you end up being given something fresh, delicious and worth the money you're paying for it, then that is a good place to eat. I've lived in London for nearly 8 years now, and I have learned through painful experience not to eat anywhere I haven't thoroughly researched beforehand, otherwise I'll just be disappointed. I left Newark on Monday with the distinct impression that it just isn't possible to eat badly in New York.
Delta Grill 6/10
Bread Factory Cafe 6/10
Shake Shack 8/10
The Breslin 8/10
Dylan Prime 6/10
Torrisi Italian Specialties 9/10