You can’t go to New York for less than a week. Not really, anyway. You need at least three or four days to get over the sheer size of the place. In the city itself, there are over eight million people, with one point six million in the 59 square kilometres of Manhattan alone. As you walk down the street, the buildings tower over you, causing us tourists to walk with head permanently angled to the sky.
It’s an overwhelming place, often. But then, a few days in, you realise the opportunities this enormity encompasses.
Because in New York City, you can find everything.
I was only in this sprawling metropolis for four weeks, but I gathered enough experiences to fill many blog posts, more than I can be bothered writing. So instead, here is a wrap up of the rest of New York. Enjoy this run of mini-articles about the interesting things I ate that weren’t sandwiches, or from Daniel or Le Bernardin.
By the slice – New York pizza
Pizza is everywhere in New York. On some streets, every second shop seems to be a pizza store of varying quality. The ubiquity made it the perfect breakfast, or lunch, or snack, or occasionally dinner, and I had quite a lot of it.
The thing with pizza is that, even when it’s bad, it’s never really that bad. Sure, at times it can be way too oily, the bases can be dull, and the cheese questionable in origin, but they’re still a decent snack. But some do stand out above the rest.
Of the New York style pizza, with a very thin, slightly chewy, charred base topped with tomato and a uniform spread of cheese, it is hard to go past John’s of Bleecker Street. Cooked in a well seasoned coal fired brick oven, there is a remarkable amount of flavour in what is a very basic pizza. It can only be bought as a whole pizza, but they taste so good you can easily eat it all.
The same can be said across the river, next to the Brooklyn Bridge at Grimaldi’s, where you also can only buy whole pizzas. The line outside Grimaldi’s can be daunting, with a wait of at least half and hour almost guaranteed, but it’s well worth it. While from the same type of oven, this is a very different pizza to John’s, nodding more to Naples than New York. This is a classic margarita, with lumps of creamy white mozzarella, Italian tomatoes and fresh basil. While the New York style pizza really only feels right in New York, Grimaldi would make you happy anywhere in the world.
Also in Brooklyn, further down the L-line, hidden behind a dingy door in the semi-industrial neighbourhood of Bushwick is the hipster paradise of Roberta’s. Either over drinks in their courtyard, or taken home with a six pack, these are pizzas with doughier bases that have the flavour expected from a top class baker, and beautifully singed on the crust. The toppings are pretty basic, if less traditional, and pizzas are given great puns as names. I mean, who could not like the Axl Rosenberg, with sopressatta, mushrooms, garlic and jalepenos?
But as good as their pizzas are, you can’t ignore the rest of the menu at Roberta’s. Which brings me to:
Brooklyn: The other borough (well, one of them)
Being around the corner from my hostel, I visited Roberta’s more than once. To have food like this on my doorstep was wonderful. Creamy nuggets of sweetbread, crumbed, fried and served with a sharp lime curd are my sort of entree. Simple in concept and flavour, but balanced right. Some fresh made garganelli served with braised lamb and green garlic achieved the same level of success.
But what really hit me for a six was one of their desserts, which I found to be the best I had in the US. I love the use of ingredients traditionally thought of as being savoury in desserts, so a dish of parsley cake, caramelised fennel ice cream and lemon granita really stood out. The mellow parsley is made into a soft sponge, offering textural and flavour contrasts with the sharp, cold crunch of lemon ice. Then, underneath, the sweetened anise of the ice cream fills everything out. It was a dish that did everything right.
This was a modern dessert. But that’s not to say I don’t like old-school desserts either, which Brooklyn provides at the Farmacy & Soda Fountain. Like a scene straight out of Our Town, this is a place of ice cream, joy, and occasional indulgence. Take, for example, the Sundae of Broken Dreams. Vanilla ice cream piled high, covered in hot caramel sauce, broken pretzels and whipped cream. It’s completely over-the-top, with the packs of sweetness cut by the salt from the pretzels, but isn’t that what these desserts are meant to be? Washed down with the great Brooklyn invention, an egg cream (milk, chocolate syrup, and soda) and it makes for some good time travel.
And while we’re on the subject:
Milk, sugar, and maybe some cereal
When you were a kid, the milk bar was a great place when you had a few spare dollars. It was the type of shopping you could do by yourself, and pretty much none of it was healthy. But though it may have seemed like it at the time, nothing sold there was really all that exciting. Chocolate bars, chips, lollies, and various ice creams on sticks are all nice enough, but there’s a limit to how good they can be.
The wonderful Christina Tosi has taken the humble milk bar and lifted it to something that is getting people seriously excited about cookies and soft-serve. I am sure most people reading this have heard something about Christina’s story, going from impressing David Chang by bringing home cooked snacks in to serve the team at Momofuku, through to multiple Milk Bar outlets and a successful cookbook. Most of you have probably also heard about cereal milk soft serve, but that doesn’t mean I won’t tell you more.
I never ate a whole lot of sugary cereals as a kid, but the idea of the remnant milk that has absorbed all the flavour of the Fruit Loops or similar is simply a lot of fun. And, surprisingly, actually tastes of something more distinct than just sugar and milk. Because of the incredible quality of milk that Tosi sources, this is wonderfully rich ice cream, with crushed cornflakes on top to give it some texture. I wish my milk bar had these. (Sadly, I didn’t get around to trying the Crack Pie).
From a shopfront in the East Village and out of a van during summer, Big Gay Ice Cream delivers a slightly (but just barely) more traditional style soft serve. Take their signature cone, the Salty Pimp – vanilla soft serve with strips of dulce de leche, significant amounts of salt, and dipped in chocolate. We all know by now that salt brings out the flavour of chocolate and caramel better, and here the generous salting really makes this more interesting. I also tried the Mermaid sundae, with vanilla ice cream, key lime curd, crushed graham crackers and whipped cream. Big Gay Ice Cream is like Mr Whippy with more flair, and the endless lines that miraculously appear the second it opens attest to the quality.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
To be honest, I didn’t spend all that much time in Chinatown, but I couldn’t resist using the line. The bustle of the place is fascinating, with cheap seafood out on ice blocks all down the street being incredibly tempting. But really, my main visit to this famous neighbourhood was about one thing.
One place had been recommended to me for the best Xiao Long Bao in New York. So, despite the unlikely sounding name, I headed down to Joe’s Shanghai. Two types of Xiao Long Bao, one with just pork, the other pork and crab, came in steamers to the table. As I lifted each bun onto the spoon, the dough spilling a little over the sides like a fat man in a chair with arms too narrow. You bite the top off, and one of the most inelegant acts you can perform in a restaurant, noisily slurp up the piping hot soup. Then you can eat the rest of the dumpling.
In both types, the soup was exceptional. Clear, clean, but full of flavour. The pork and crab was good, but was pipped by the straight pork which dominated with its meatiness. The rest of the menu was good if unexceptional Chinese, but you really can’t miss these dumplings.
If there is one thing the world needs more of it is high quality food mega-stores where you can shop while drinking wine. So thank you Mario Batali.
Eataly is what I would love all supermarkets to be. The produce is generally great, with proper grocers, butchers, bakers and fishmongers, among others, working their, knowing what they’re talking about and able to give advice. It’s like an old-school local main street, packed into a single building in the Flatiron district. Particularly exciting was the meat, with some truly beautiful slabs of beef and pork. On top of all that, amongst the produce are bars and restaurants, all with excellent Italian food at different price points.
If I have one niggle about Eataly it’s that so much of the produce comes from Italy. In these days of food miles, I wonder if that’s really necessary? Even still, no-one would complain about having this choice down the road. But boy, it would cost me.
Playing with your food
Some chefs try to screw with your head. They give you things that you don’t expect, present it in ways to surprise you. In the US, few chefs do this more than Wylie Dufresne at WD~50. Known as a practicer of that meaningless and, by him, hated term “molecular gastronomy”, Wylie’s food really does challenge you with its flavours or, more often, textures.
Take one of their more famous dishes, even seen on Masterchef last year – the everything bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese. These are about as classic a combination of flavours as you can get in New York, and the flavours don’t change. But everything else does. With a bagel made of ice cream bringing a shock of coldness, and the crack of a shard of cheese and the powder of salmon threads, the textural and temperature are completely unexpected. And it makes for a wonderfully memorable dish.
A lot of the food had this impact, and this fun, such as a boiled egg with an edible shell. My favourite, however, was a little less silly, but still unexpected. Cold shrimp came in a bowl with yuzu, stringy clear noodles of miso, and pieces of chicory cake. A fairly simple, cold dish, but with flavours that just melded better than I would have guessed, and it was wonderful. Wylie has just changed his entire menu, scrapping all his classic dishes, but reports say the quality is just as good. If you like a little fun in your food, WD~50 is well worth a stop in.
I do like to eat, clearly. But I can’t deny the fact that I also very much like to drink, and it would be remiss of me to not talk about the bars of New York. This is arguable the centre of the world when it comes to cocktails, the place where the next big trends begin (speaking of which, keep an eye out for lots of Tiki drinks). And my, this city knows how to mix a drink.
The term “speakeasy” is thrown around a lot when it comes to New York bars, and usually with no good reason. In general people take it to mean that a bar is a little difficult to find, and they do classic style cocktails. While it’s not really what “speakeasy” means, there are some great bars that fit the description.
At the top of the tree for this style are Milk & Honey. A sister bar to the London joint of the same name and an inspiration to bars all over the world (they directly helped to open The Everleigh in Melbourne), this is an archetype of a great bar stripped back. Small space, mostly table service, cash only, no standing room, and no menus. Just a couple of world class bartenders (Sam from Melbourne and Mickey from Ireland) able to take the flavours you like and come up with something spectacular. The best drink I had in the US was here, called a Jungle Bird: Jamaican black rum, fresh pineapple, lime and Campari. Fresh and sharp with a touch of bitterness, and then the molasses flavour of the rum, it was a masterclass in balance. It’s not the easiest place to get to, but Milk & Honey is a must visit.
This was the standout, but the next level still stands up. Death + Company is a little more lush, but the cocktail list is world class, particularly if you like a serious hit of rum or tequila. Booker & Dax, the new bar in the Momofuku franchise, takes a more modernist approach to drinks, but doesn’t skimp on the flavour. Even more specialist places, such as the American whiskey focused Post Office in Brooklyn, or the temple to bitters that is Amore y Amargo, deliver great drinks (especially try the latter’s Americano, which is on tap and carbonated as a whole, so as to not dilute it). There is a cocktail in this city for every taste.
That said, there’s many a good beer to be drunk, too, in one of the hundreds of wonderful dive bars that litter the city. These are dark and comfortable, places to drink alone or with others, and are the real feel of America.
But the one unmissable beer in New York is from the slice of history that is McSorley’s, the oldest bar in the city. Sawdust on the floor, two beers for $5, and a choice only between light and dark beer, this is as relaxed as a bar can be.
This has been quite a post, but it’s still only a tiny part of what this amazing metropolis has on offer. New York has everything, so go there, and find your own favourites.