Saturday, February 10, 2007

New York Stories 1

It's true. We snuck away to New York late last week when no one was looking. After a rollercoaster ride of a month, which included the unfortunate collapse of Les Chèvres, Michelle's former employer, at the beginning of January, troubles with the Employment Insurance office (culminating in accusations that Michelle had been letting her evil "twin sister" [she doesn't have one] file for EI under her name), and then a sudden deus ex machina job offer (!--more on this sometime soon), it's safe to say Michelle was ready for a quick getaway. Plus, we had a couple of train tickets to New York kicking around, so we decided to put 'em to use. So we made a couple of phone calls and by Thursday morning, bright and early, we were on our way, slowly but surely (if you've never taken Amtrak's Adirondack "Express" from Montreal to New York, or vice versa, it's a real milk run).

We were only there for three days, and we had a fairly limited budget, but despite these restrictions, we managed to pack in a fair bit. And as you'll see, the visit had an "old school" vs. "new school"* tension running through it.

1. Central Park

The forecast had called for sleet and ice pellets and general dreariness all day, so when we woke up to find some partial sunlight we made our way out the door quick so we could hit the pavement before the tide turned. We cut across Central Park,

owl, Central Park

braved that spooky and labyrinthine corner of the park know simply as The Rambles,

The Rambles, Central Park

and emerged on the Upper West Side where we went to visit an old family friend:

2. Zabar's

Michelle had never been to Zabar's, but I, on the other hand, have been going since about 1983, so I felt it was imperative that we pay a visit since we were going to be in the neighborhood anyway. I was thinking we'd take a good look around, grab a coffee (I'd never forgotten the time they happened to have Jamaican Blue Mountain on special sometime in the late 1980s), and then be on our way. I couldn't help but remark on how much the culinary landscape has changed over the last 20-25 years. As unique as Zabar's still is, there was a time when you were hard-pressed to find a fine food emporium as extensive anywhere else--certainly outside of New York. Having never been to Europe at that point (and therefore having never been to the food courts at Harrod's or KaDeWe), I remember thinking I'd glimpsed heaven the first time I went. Of course, I was young and impressionable at the time. Apparently I'm still pretty impressionable.

Anyway, we were starting to get pretty peckish, and there were a lot of temptations on display at Zabar's (surprise, surprise), and we already had a destination in mind, so we made a couple of quick purchases and moved on to...

3. Barney Greengrass, "The Sturgeon King"

Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King

Now, neither of us had been to Barney Greengrass, and one of the great mysteries of Montreal has to do with the fact that there's no one with the guts to call themselves "The Sturgeon King," or "The Sable King," or "The Salmon King, or, better yet, "The King of Chubs," so we were pretty excited. We kept things simple and got a sable (quite possibly my favorite type of smoked fish, and that's saying something) and smoked salmon platter, a few "everything" bagels, and some eggs. Mostly, though, we just took in the scene, which to our untrained eyes looked a lot more Upper East Side on that particular morning than Upper West Side, and we admired Barney's fabulous wallpaper with its strange banana republic motif. I mean, get a load of this Lothario:

detail, wallpaper, Barney Greengrass

4. The Museum of the City of New York

Afterwards, we crossed the park once more in order to hit The Museum of the City of New York. They had an exhibit on Robert Moses--"Robert Moses and the Modern City"--and another on Saul Steinberg--"A City on Paper: Saul Steinberg's New York"--that we wanted to catch. And when we were done with those exhibits, we visited their toy collection, including the truly extraordinary Stettheimer dollhouse, and their "New York City through the ages" home furnishings display, where we decided we liked the colonial tea set (and the accompanying fireplace) the best:

tea set, Museum of the City of New York

5. Kitchen Arts and Letters

From the MCNY it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to Kitchen Arts and Letters, which, along with Bonnie Slotnick, is definitely one of New York's great treasures for those of us who enjoy our cookbooks and food writing. This was another "first time" for us, so we didn't rush things in the least. After all, they've got 11,000 titles or so to choose from. Two factors, and two factors alone, kept our purchases in check: our relatively meager budget and the fact that since we'd committed to being on the town all day we wanted to try to keep the amount of excess weight we were lugging around to a minimum. What did we find? John Thorne's virtually out-of-print Simple Cooking, Elizabeth David's British-edition-only Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, and Jane Grigson's Good Things, her "celebration of fresh daily fare lovingly prepared."

By the time we were finished at Kitchen Arts and Letters, the walk from Barney Greengrass (we'd gone due west, then followed Riverside Park up to 103rd, before charting an easterly course back across town to the MCNY), the museum, and then a good 1/2 hour of food-related perusing had left us with an appetite again. We weren't sure what kind of food we wanted to have, but we knew we wanted to sit and rest, and if we had the space to read our books for a while, well, all the better. So we hopped on a 6 train heading south and started brainstorming, when, suddenly, at around 51st Michelle came up with a brilliant idea:

6. The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant

Minutes later, there we were, perched on a couple of stools at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, trying to figure out what to select off their impressive menu, which, judging from the date marked at the top right corner, changes daily. We didn't really need to eat all that much because it was already 2:30 and we'd planned a 7:00 dinner, more than anything we were just happy to soak in the atmosphere. You could pick out the regulars--they all looked like if they hadn't actually participated in the America's Cup, they were the kind of people who might have falsified their CV to say that they had. At the same time, we certainly weren't going to leave without having some oysters, so we ordered a couple of Long Island varieties (naturally)--some Shinnecocks and some Pipes Coves--and a couple of soups--a Manhattan clam chowder and an oyster stew--and we settled in. Let's not mince words: the clam chowder was a disappointment--the first of two unfortunate run-ins with excessive corn starch that we had over the course of the weekend. The oyster stew, on the other hand, was surprisingly delicate--more of a bisque than a stew, really. It was also made-to-order in some huge contraption behind the oyster bar, and really, really tasty, especially when you happened to land one of those plump, jumbo oysters. But the real pièce de résistance was that plate of oysters:

Grand Central Oyster Bar

Both those Shinnecocks and those Pipes Coves were phenomenally fresh and juicy, but the brininess of those Shinnecocks took the prize. Sitting there enjoying oysters was the first time either of us had noticed the take-out window that opens up onto the hallway outside the restaurant. Now, that's class. Stopping by to pick up some oysters and a bouillabaisse, say, then hopping on that 6:15 to, well... Who cares? It'd be worth buying a ticket almost anywhere just so you'd have an excuse to stop by and make use of that take-out window and say hello to the oyster man behind the bar.

7. The Strand

Hours later, after walking from Grand Central down to Washington Square, we made our mandatory stop at The Strand to see what we might find before that inevitable moment when its "18 miles of books" (hadn't we walked enough already?) so totally overwhelms you that you have to run out (being careful to be polite enough to stop at the cash registers first) or go berserk. This time we did quite well. Among other finds, we escaped from The Strand with a couple of miscellanies, Schott's Food & Drink Miscellany by Ben Schott and Choice Cuts: A Miscellany of Food Writing edited by Mark Kurlansky, Marcella Hazan's Marcella Says..., and yet another reference book, Food by Waverley Root--just in time, too, because Food came in handy just a few hours later, as you'll see.

We needed to take The Strand's edge off by the time we got back out on Broadway, so we waltzed on over to the East Village and found a place to have a couple of happy hour pints.

By 7:00, miracle of miracles, we were ready to eat again, and eat we did.

8. Dial 'M' For Momofuku

I had a good feeling about Momofuku Ssäm Bar from the moment we entered:

Johnny Mac

Like the original Momofuku, which we described in some detail last year, the Momofuku Ssäm Bar is a sleek but understated affair, with little more than St. John in his prime gracing the walls of its vaguely Scandinavian, almost sauna-like interior. And like its older sibling, the Ssäm Bar makes up for its architectural minimalism with loud music, a brash kitchen, and buzz galore. It would all be a bit much if the cuisine wasn't so damn appealing. On two trips now--one to each restaurant--we've yet to hit anything even remotely resembling a dud. And, if anything, our visit to Momofuku Ssäm Bar outshone our visit to the earlier restaurant, the new, less-fixed format allowing David Chang and his team even more room to try out new things, especially nights.

That said, we started things off with a dish we'd already had at Momofuku #1 and had been dreaming about ever since: the BBQ pork buns. The bottom line is that we're not going stop dreaming about them anytime soon, because that Berkshire pork was just as succulent and flavorful this time around as it had been the first time. We then moved into the novelties: sautéed Brussels sprouts with chili, grilled sweetbreads with lime, a chicken hot pot, and one of their deluxe dinner menu ssäms, the hanger steak ssäm. The Brussels sprouts were pan-fried until they'd caramelized, and they came laced with a tangy, spicy fish sauce and chili concoction. First-rate. Hot pots are one of those dishes that I tend to like better in theory than in practice--it's rare that I get a hot pot that lives up to the anticipation. Ssäm Bar's chicken hot pot was stunning, though, loaded with shiitake and enoki mushrooms, parsnips, and the tenderest, fall-off-the-bone chicken I've seen in a restaurant in quite some time (probably since Paris), and dressed with a lovely, surprisingly subtle miso-based broth. The hanger steak arrived perfectly rare on a bed of grilled onions, with some Bibb lettuce, kimchi, a scallion sauce on the side--the idea being that you grab a hunk of the steak in a lettuce leaf and adorn it as you wish. I didn't have a single solitary quibble with the steak ssäm, but for some reason I still found myself wishing that we'd ordered one of the standard, burrito-like ssäms, preferably one with more of that Berkshire pork inside. Next time. The scene-stealer, however, may very well have been the grilled sweetbreads. None of us had ever heard of grilled sweetbreads before, but after tasting them we wished we'd heard about them sooner. Soaked in buttermilk for a day, then grilled and seasoned with lime juice and Maldon salt, you got the feeling you were tasting them for the first time, like you'd never tasted them before. The only thing we were puzzled by was what sweetbreads actually are. One camp at our table was claiming, "something having to do with the neck," while another was claiming, "the pancreas." Good thing we'd bought that copy of Food because Mr. Root was happy to step in and officiate:

SWEETBREADS. Some time ago I received a telephone call from two friends on the staff of the International Herald Tribune who were locked in an argument which was apparently becoming acerbic. One of them was maintaining heatedly that sweetbreads come from the pancreas, the other, with equal fervor, that they come from the thymus. I was able to stave off the rupture of a beautiful friendship by telling them that they were both right.

This was perhaps less true in France than it would have been in America, for while it would be rash to say of any edible that it is not eaten in France, I have never personally encountered pancreatic sweetbreads ("stomach sweetbreads" for butchers) in that country, but only thymus sweetbreads ("neck sweetbreads")...

Our conversation never deteriorated into an argument, let alone an acerbic one, but we were happy to find an answer to this mystery nonetheless.

In any case, between the four of us, we all had plenty to eat, but the food was so lip-smackingly delicious we had a hard time resisting ordering a pork ssäm or another order of BBQ buns "for dessert."


Zabar's, 2245 Broadway (@ 80th), (212) 496-1234

Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King, 541 Amsterdam Ave. (@ 86th), (212) 724-4707

Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave. (@ 103rd), (212) 534-1672

Kitchen Arts and Letters, 1435 Lexington Ave. (between 93rd and 94th), (212) 876-5550

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, Grand Central Station, (212) 490-6650

The Strand, 828 Broadway (@ 12th), (212) 473-1452

Momofuku Ssäm Bar, 207 Second Ave. (@ 13th), (212) 254-3500


*Lines such as these always make me think of this entry from the Rock Snob's Dictionary : "Old-school. Sometimes spelled old-skool. Originally a discursively valid term that functioned as the hip-hop equivalent of the word 'classic' in rock, denoting a performer or phenomenon from an earlier era still held in high regard today: Eric B and Rakim are my old-school faves. But more recently the term has transmogrified into a despicable phraseological device employed by honkies angling for hipster credibility: I’m much more into old-school Banana Republic, back when it was all safari-wear."


Billy Jack said...

So sorry to hear about your job Michelle! Not to mention the subsequent troubles with EI (oh what the heck, UI).


Anonymous said...

Truth be told, I still say UI. People give me looks as if they don't know what I am talking about.

leedav said...

Posts like this make me miss NYC so much! I love getting on the subway and figuring out where you are going in route. I can't wait for day 2.

Leigh said...

Great post guys - i saw barney greengrass on Bourdain once and the place looked heavenly, good to see it visited! keep it coming.

Anonymous said...

I love Zabar's!!
Coincidentally, I am wearing my Zabar's Tee today.

Nosher of the North

Ge said...

I went to Momofuku in December and was as impressed as you were. We had (among others things) the three-terrine banh mi, the apple kimchi with crispy pork jowl the unavoidable pork buns and the grilled lemongrass sausage which I thought was the best thing I ate all week while visiting NYC. Now if only there was a place like that in Montreal...

Joanna said...

Just discovered your blog, it's great, and I'm so glad that I found the NYC posts. I love Barney Greengrass - I just reviewed it a couple of months ago. I'm moving to London soon and you've made me want to revisit the Ssam bar before I go - this time at night. Thanks!