Chocolate & Spice

chocolate, spice and the other pleasures in life

Thursday, November 16, 2006

New York # 6 - Eating our way around the city

The charming courtyard at La Lanterna di Vittorio,
one of my fondest memories of eating out in New York

I realise I am really behind in finishing all my posts on New York, having promised a while ago to post my Top 10 New York memories.... its just that while I was working on all the posts, life goes on and so many other great topics to post about came up. I guess I should finish this soon as I have a couple of entries on our trip to the Great Ocean Road and with our forthcoming trips to the Mornington Peninsula and the Daylesford & Mt Macedon area and their spectacular restaurants and seasonal produce, there'll be heaps more material to post about!

Anyway, eating our way around New York is a gargantuan task as the city boasts countless great restaurants, venerable institutions and other humbler eateries. After all, this is the city that boasts 40,000 plus restaurants and growing! This is when the 2007 Zagat Guide on New York City Restaurants comes in handy. Find yourself wandering on the East side somewhere along the 60s after museum-hopping? Flip to the relevant section of the Zagat Guide and there'll definitely be more than just a couple of recommendations for you to choose from.

We've eaten our way through several excellent steakhouses to small cheap and cheerful outlets in Hell's Kitchen, the posh and nobby Balthazar's as well as quaint little coffeehouses and bistros with delightful open-air courtyards in Greenwich Village and SOHO. You've be spoilt for choice dining out in New York; this city is definitely a smorgasbord of choices and different cuisines. Just bring fat-day (but glamourous) outfits for those last few days of your trip and you should be alright!

Some regrets I had about our eating out in New York? Not having enough time to make reservations at Thomas Keller's new institution, Per Se, missing a chance to try the legendary porterhouse at Peter Luger's and generally missing all the other little nuggets of good food simply because we didn't have enough days (or bigger stomachs) to eat and eat and eat. Just as well that I leave some places to look forward to on my next visit to New York!

Here are some of the highlights:

Pam Real Thai Food

An unpretentious eatery in Hell's Kitchen, we decided to pay this place a visit one night when we were craving something Asian and that would likely not come in Flintstone-sized portions. This was a short walk away from our digs in Times Square and had an adequate but enthusiastic rating from the Zagat's so I thought we would take a chance and head here.

Pam's shopfront is nondescript so I almost walked right past it. Settling in, we note it's a place for a quick and easy meal, although it's not a place to linger in since the noise level is incredible. The bonus is that prices were also on the cheaper end of the scale (New York being a really expensive place to eat out after you add on the 15-20% tip!) and the food was simple but tasty. Best of all, when I requested for "Thai Spicy", they came through with the spice levels kicked up a notch and also brought me the little green and red bird's eye chillis for added kick.

Some dumplings looking suspiciously like "siew mai" but tasting slightly different. Simply lovely!

Dessert that evening comprised roasted sticky rice
and Thai-style "creme brulee" made from mungbeans

It was good enough to return another night with our friend Greg and A's cousin, Sara, and as the main restaurant was full that night, we were directed to its newly opened sister restaurant in the next street called Pam Real Thai Encore. Same food, same price but in very much more glammed and funked-up surroundings (and infinitely quieter) so we got the better deal that night for sure.

Pam Real Thai Encore
402 West 47th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenue)
Tel: 212 315 4441

Momofuko Noodle Bar

An innovative take on the traditional Japanese ramen and other Asian/Japanese-inspired dishes, Momofuko (meaning "lucky peach") was opened by a Korean-American chef, David Chang, who's classical training at Cafe Boulud certainly stood him in good stead for his own venture! This came recommended by my NY-based friend, Cal so one Sunday afternoon, having time to kill before the matinee performance of the Spelling Bee, A and I took a cab down to the East Village to try the ramen.

Bright, cool setting with comfortable bar chairs and funky music (I think the Wu-Tang clan was playing that day), Momofuko Noodle Bar is definitely not your quintessential noodle joint. Although it's all hip and happening and located in the East Village, it's not a nobby joint and no one will think twice if you turn up in your sweats after a workout at the gym.

We both ordered the Momofuko Ramen, which features the Berkshire pork combo and poached egg. I wasn't sure about the inclusion of peas in this dish (seemed to be a very American thing to do) but I couldn't quibble about the quality of the pork in that dish! Using only Iowa Berkshire pork (known to be flavoursome and rich), served two ways, lean meat and the fatty bits (yum), this was definitely a treat as I like rich fatty pork. But unfortunately, the size of the dish and the richness of the pork made for slight nausea on my part that day, probably because I had overindulged in steak 2 nights in a row and was still recovering from the flu bug that struck me a couple of days ago.
A of course, didn't have any problems polishing off his bowl and the remaining pork from mine.

We also tried their version of "kong ba pao" (stewed pork in fluffy white buns, a very popular Hokkien Chinese dish in Singapore) except that we ordered the pao with sauteed shitake mushrooms instead. I wasn't very thrilled about this dish since I just saw it as a poor imitation of "kong ba pao", gimmicky and not at all so tasty as to rave about it but other patrons didn't seem to mind, one guy wolfing down 2 orders for his lunch!
I guess next time ordering the paos with the Berkshire pork may be a better choice instead.

That was about all we had room for in this visit; examining the sample menu on their website, I see that there were heaps more dishes (not on the menu that day) which would be featured from time to time, so that's always a reason to go back!

Momofuko Noodle Bar
163 First Avenue
Tel: 212 475 7899
From checking out their website, it seems that a new joint called Momofuko Ssam (serving Korean finger food which David Chang dubs an "Asian burrito" in this Time Out article) opened at 207 Second Avenue (at 13th Street) a couple of weeks before we landed in NYC. Something else to check out the next time we're in town!

Balthazar Restaurant

One of NYC's institutions serving up French bistrot food, we ended up at Balthazar's for dinner one night with some of A's colleagues after quite a few attempts at securing a reservation. All mirrored glass, white linen, banquett seating and dim lighting, and well-attended by the chic, well-attired crowd, Balthazar looked like any French brasserie transported from a Parisian street. Everyone seemed much pleased with their choice of dishes; I chose 3 quintessential French bistrot dishes to try, Chicken Liver & Foie Gras Mousse with Red Onion Confit & Country Bread, Steak Frites (with maitre d' butter) and Creme Brulee.

You can hardly see the huge pot of mousse but it was really good!

I have to apologise first that the photos are so horribly unclear as the dim lighting in Balthazar made it difficult to get a proper photo. Of the 3 dishes, only the mousse impressed, being smooth and creamy, and boasting a robust and clean liver taste throughout. I thought the Steak Frites was quite ordinary as the butter didn't seem quite intensely flavoured as some others I'd tried before, although the saving grace was the Frites, which came appropriately crisp and thin. Someone who ordered the Moules Frites said it was quite tasty but I can't verify that as I'm not in the habit of sharing food with acquaintances and declined to try their portion.

The disappointing Steak Frites

I had a pleasant ending with the Creme Brulee, which was yummy, but nothing spectacular.

Some comments about the service at Balthazar - I thought the waitress who waited at our table could have been more attentive and definitely the manager, who scolded the Indian busboy (who was incidentally the only nice waitstaff that night) clearing our table loudly within ear shot of diners could do with an attitude change. This would be an adequate dinner venue I guess.... just not for me.

Balthazar Restaurant
80 Spring Street (on the corner of Crosby Street)
Tel: 212 965 1785

Other restaurants worthy of mention:
100 West Houston Street
Tel: 212 254 7000

My friend Cal took us to this restaurant when we first met up. I gather he's taken all of our friends passing through New York to this place as well as we all shared pretty fond memories of the food served here. Cuisine here is "New American" which emphasizes lighter cooking styles and smaller portions. Definitely good grub, average restaurant prices and I hear that they do a killer Sunday brunch (complete with cocktail of choice). I will remember this place for its friendly bartender who on learning I was still nursing the flu, promptly recommended an Irish remedy and offered to make it up (I declined when I heard it involved rum!).
129 MacDougal Street
Tel: 212 529 5945

This lovely joint which has an open-air courtyard and an airy charm about the place seemed like just the cosy joint Felicity would have taken Noel for a dinner date, being a short walk from the NYU dorms (alright, remnants of my Felicity addiction)! Try and score a seat in its candle-lit courtyard for a dinner date - it's quite a lovely surprise walking into the courtyard after seeing how hugely built-up NYC is. Serving up a good selection of thin crust pizzas and paninis and having a pretty lengthy wine list, we came here with Cal for dessert and coffee after dinner at Jane. This is where I had the yummy chocolate hazelnut "sweet pizza" and which probably triggered my Nutella/Nutino cravings....

lovers of USDA prime grade, dry aged beef would definitely enjoy the following:
72 West 36th Street
Tel: 212 947 3636

Proudly declaring itself to be the home of the legendary mutton chop since 1885, Keens is one of those old clubby restaurants with weather leather armchairs, dark polished wood panels and distinguished waiters impeccably turned out in their whites.

One of the unique features about this restaurant is the numerous church pipes lining the ceiling. Another must be their mutton chop, which to say the least, was HUGE and comes with a lovely 1cm thick slab of mutton fat. A, who loves his meat, struggled valiantly to the very end to polish off his dish, and I will definitely concur that the mutton is very nicely done and immensely tasty here. Just share the dish between 2 people, or else pay the consequences as A did when he awoke at 5am and felt his body temperature rising!

Our visit stands out in my memory for the sheer amount of food consumed. We were taken there by one of the "chiefs" in A's NY office, who clearly loves his food. Amongst the dishes ordered that night, together with plenty of beer and Calvados, were a Large Chilled Seafood Tray (boasting a dozen oysters, mussels, crab claws, clams and prawns), a non-stop flow of poached white asparagus (YUMMY!!), the legendary Mutton Chop, my delicious Aged Prime T-bone steak (which I managed to eat just half) and a 3 pound lobster complete with an endless flow of melted butter. Dessert concluded with more sin on our plate in the form of Chocolate Mousse and Hot Fudge Sundae.

Walking the 10 blocks back to our hotel that night wasn't easy after that gargantuan meal but we managed it somehow!
1221 Avenue of the Americas (at the McGraw-Hill Building)
Tel: 212 575 5129

From its location in the McGraw-Hill Building (incidentally where A's head office is located) to the polished mahogany bar, its chandeliered ceiling, smooth wooden balustrades and plush carpetting, I can see why Cal described Del Frisco's as a mecca for movers and shakers in the professional fields. Indeed, the night we were there, the bar was chock-a-block with expensively suited WASP figures although there were some folks in white jeans who were clearly from out-of-town. Another strange experience was that we were virtually the only Asians in that joint, quite a surreal feeling in cosmopolitan New York. Cal said the waitstaff would be quite easy on the eye and definitely as our server, Brad, walked up, I silently amen-ed his colleague's comment that this place boasted a "Masters of the Universe" selection of waitstaff!

This was a special treat for A, being his birthday dinner so we didn't spare any expense in ordering ourselves a bottle of Bordeaux "Greysac" and heaps of really lovely food to load the table - Crab cakes with Cajun lobster sauce, their famous Macaroni & Cheese, and the Prime Porterhouse for A and the Porterhouse Chop Lamb for me and finishing off with the dessert of the day (I can't remember what it is thought).

Appropriately tipsy and full to the belly, we stumbled over to the W Hotel (quite hip and happening and also the location from where the Fab 5 from Queer Eye for a Straight Guy view their combined makeover of the straight guy for the day in one of their plush suites) to meet up with some friends for a nightcap. A birthday A won't forget for a while!

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