travel: the well-preserved patina of yesterday…
You know those restaurants you’ve been meaning to visit for ten years? I have long lists of them. And none is longer or harder to maintain than my New York list.
New York City is a high-volume situation. The sheer number of restaurants that open (and close) there each year, makes it one of the hardest markets with which to keep pace. Despite the fact that I have begun complaining about the culinary stagnation there – has anything truly groundbreaking appeared on New York’s restaurant scene in the last half-decade? – to its credit, I never hurt for options in that city.
Every trip to New York requires me to balance the comfort I take in returning to the reliable against the hope I keep for discovering something new, something better, something different. But, in the past couple of years, that hope has been dashed repeatedly on the glossy pages of overhype. Disenchanted and disappointed, I recently decided to reprioritize my roster. I shelved the new draftees and started working down the bench. And you know what? I ate very well.
I had never been to Fatty Crab. So I finally went. I ordered the restaurant’s namesake “chili crab,” of the dungeness variety. It arrived hacked in half and dunked in a bowl of creamy sauce with scallions and thick slices of Pullman toast for sopping (next time, I’ll opt for rice instead). It was a messy project, and not an inexpensive one either (the market price for that crab was somewhere near $45 that day). But it was good. Work quickly, those legs grow cold faster than you think.
I had never been to Wallsé either. So I went there too. The goulash was warm and thick, sweet with paprika. The sweetbreads were fat and creamy, served with dark greens, gently wilted. The weiner schnitzel was tender and thin, its breading light and happy under a slice of lemon. And true to the menu’s description, the apple strudel was crisp, banded in flakey layers of pastry. It was served with cinnamon ice cream.
All of this, and more, my friends (Wizard of Roz and Mr. RBI) and I ate with a smile under the gaze of the Austrian-born chef Kurt Gutenbrunner. His portrait loomed large in the room, an impressive posture rendered by an impressive artist.* He appeared in person, towards the end of our dinner, to shake some hands and to chat with regulars in the candlelight glow. It was a lovely evening.
Frank DeCarlo’s Bacaro on the Lower East Side has been a fixture on my New York list ever since I read an article about the chef and restaurant by Mark Bittman in the New York Times years ago. I had been intrigued by Bittman’s description of DeCarlo’s cooking, which is inspired by the spice route that prospered Venice half a millennium ago.
So, when I stumbled across Bacaro while rummaging for restaurants that offered their regular menu (and not some overpriced prix fixe with silly aphrodisiacal claims) on Valentine’s night, I decided it was time to go.
The majority of the restaurant is located underground in a rambling cellar with many nooks and corners. If you listen carefully, you can hear the winged lion of St. Mark roar: it looks as medieval as you want Venice to be. Lit almost solely by the flicker of votive candles, it might have been a romantic setting if the couples around us hadn’t been practically eating with us. It was a cozy fit.
The food was simple and well-made. My friend Mango and I had a bundle of tender green beans draped with white anchovies; some razor clams, which arrived sizzling in a shallow tub of butter; and a bowl of spaghetti con vongole, which was more vongole than spaghetti, and more tomatoey than not.
Bittman’s article had featured a recipe that DeCarlo (who also owns Peasant) claimed to originate from the era of the Visigoths, nearly ten centuries old. A victorious battle for the Visigoths against an invading tribe of barbarians had left a field of dead horses. As legend has it, the horses were butchered and the meat was preserved in red wine. The practice was passed down until the spice trade added to the marinade a mix of sweet spices (cloves, orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.). You will find the recipe here, and a version of it at Bacaro. Of course, DeCarlo uses beef, not horse. The slices of meat, noticeably infused with the sweet marinade, were served with a simply dressed tuft of greens.
We skipped dessert and headed uptown to Park Avenue Café Winter. Richard Leach has been on my bucket list for years. And he remains safely undisturbed in his place. My attempt to drop in for Leach’s desserts on Valentine’s night was a lost cause. Arriving to S.R.O. in the bar, we turned around and left. But, I’ll be back
Luckily, we found a table at nearby Bar Pleiades in the Surrey Hotel, where Noah Carroll, pastry chef of the adjoining Café Boulud, sent out a tall, Grand Marnier soufflé for two, and a couple of other desserts. It was less of a consolation, and more of a prize.
Domenico DeMarco opened Di Fara Pizza on the corner of 15th Street and Avenue J in Brooklyn in 1964. For nearly fifty years, he has been the only person making pizzas there (so be prepared to wait for your pie). If he’s not already an octogenarian, he’s pretty close to that achievement.
Despite the tremendous weight of evidence in favor of visiting this legendary pizzaiolo, I hadn’t. I was foolish.
To the uninitiated, Di Fara may seem like a hot mess at first. There is no room for a line to form. There is only a crowd. If your observation skills fail you, rely on the many regulars in line for instructions. Here they are, briefly: There are two, basic options at Di Fara: round or square. (You can order by the slice, but you have to wait until DeMarco makes an extra pizza to be divided among smaller orders.) You write your order down on the yellow legal pad that you’ll find on the far-side of the counter top. DeMarco’s son crosses off the orders as they’re sliced and served. If you want something to drink, you either bring it, or choose from one of the two refrigerated cases by the door. If you can find a place to sit at one of the three folding tables that line the walls, you’re lucky. If you don’t, then you settle up at the counter and take your food elsewhere.
While I prefer the square pie, I’d be irresponsible not to endorse both. They are phenomenal.
The round pizza has a flat, slightly knobby rim, less blistered and more elastic. The toppings are sparse, yet perfectly measured – a stain of tart tomato sauce, some patches of bubbly, milky mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves that DeMarco snips over the top of the pizza just before he slices them. It’s easily my favorite pizza Margherita.
The square pie starts off more like focaccia. DeMarco pats the thick, oily dough into a well-greased pan and bakes it naked. As the dough bakes, he pulls it out of the oven several times (standing on boxes – were they full of beer or canned tomatoes? – to reach the upper oven). Each time, he lifts the corners of the crust and bathes it with a generous pour of olive oil. As the crust crisps, he adds the toppings – the same ones you’ll find on the round pie. The result is a molten, meteor-like bottom that’s crunchy and oily, with a fluffy, cooked center. It’s thick, but not heavy. It’s perfect, really. Unlike Chicago deep-dish pizza, which is rarely cooked evenly or adequately – there’s that fat middle section where you can’t tell when the uncooked dough ends and the cheese begins – this is a thing of beauty.
If you haven’t been to Di Fara Pizza, grab some friends (so you can share a pizza or two), a good amount of patience (because you will wait), and some cash (they don’t take credit cards), and hop on the Q train to Avenue J (the restaurant is one block from the station). Go sooner rather than later.**
Our pizza crawl was cut short when we arrived at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint. It was 3:00 p.m., and the sign on the door let us know that the pizzeria wouldn’t open until 6:00. We kicked ourselves for our shoddy due diligence, and regretted not having indulged in one or two more slices at Di Fara, where we had just left, gifting the majority of our uneaten square pie to those around us.
Walking towards Williamsburg, we swung by Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop, located in a particularly Polish part of Brooklyn, for an afternoon donut. A regular at the counter told us the best one is the whole-wheat donut – “it’s a sleeper hit,” he insisted. There were none left. But the two we had – one chocolate cake donut and one toasted coconut cake donut - were pretty great.
Arriving at Persons of Interest, a hipster barbershop in Williamsburg, Adam walked past the stylists and led me straight into a back room, where Dillon Edwards pulled some exceptionally good espresso for us. Edwards’s one-man, one-room operation is called, simply, Parlor Coffee.
I had never been to the Essex Street Market. So, Adam and I finished our day over tubes of cookies from Dorie Greenspan’s cubby-hole shop there, Beurre & Sel. Some of the cookies I tried were unusually dry, or doughy. But, I loved the ”Classic Jammers,” a modified thumbprint cookie with berry jam and a streusel topping. That one was terrific.
Many have urged me to eat at the two Michelin-starred Soto. So, finally, I went.
The quality of Sotohiro Kosugi’s seafood, including the sea urchin (for which he has become known), is solid. But, I thought that some of his composed dishes, as pretty and imaginative as they were – including his famous “Uni Ika Sugomori Zukuri,” in which a small mound of sea urchin was wrapped, like a turban, with long, thick strips of squid, topped with a quail egg yolk, and decorated with strips of nori to mimic a spiny sea urchin shell - were a bit impractical to eat, especially with chopsticks alone.
But, for the couple of hot dishes we had at the beginning of our “omakase” dinner, including a beautiful shiso agedashi, and the plaque of creamy chu-toro that came paved with avocado and caviar, I’d definitely go again.
I couldn’t escape (or, more accurately: resist) returning to a few restaurants that I’ve visited before.
I had lunch at Café Boulud with my friend Adam. We were served a terrific salad of shaved Brussels sprouts dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette and tossed with toasted pine nuts. There was also a beautiful filet of cod painted with tamarind and doused with a warm, creamy mishmish curry broth. And Alex Martinez, then-chef de cuisine (as of yesterday, he is the new chef of DBGB on the Bowery), sent us a row of fluffy, buttery rosemary biscuits to accompany a pretty, pink terrine of venison pocketed with creamy foie gras throughout.
At half-time, my friend Adam and I were invited into the kitchen for a surprise. I was expecting ice cream, or a cocktail. We arrived to something much better: two blond munchkins with juicy cheeks running around. When we returned to our table, it was flooded with desserts. We finished what we could and were rewarded with a round of petits fours – including some respectable mini-canelés – for our efforts.
My college roommate happened to be in New York and saw one of my tweets from the city. So he texted me just in time to join me for lunch at Jonathan Benno‘s Lincoln Ristorante. We hadn’t seen each other in two years, so we downloaded each others’ lives over strozzapreti, painted green with a bitter pesto made of rabe and punterelle, and velvety ribbons of buckwheat pappardelle in a lusty, veal ragu. For unobtrusively good cooking, I recommend Lincoln.
This time, I was not disappointed. Our twelve courses, collectively, felt much more like a cohesive whole. We started with a lovely salad of Fuji apples spiced with curry; which was followed by fluffy ricotta gnocchi in a stunning, red beet sauce; and then moved on to a rich fondue with crispy pommes gaufrettes and black truffles. Our meal was anchored by a beautiful, dry-aged sirloin, which was presented whole, and then sliced and served with corned tongue on the side. Pastry chef Michal Shelkowitz ended our meal with three desserts. My favorite one was a semifreddo of kaffir lime with candied kumquats and a chilled, citrus broth.
Each chef presented two courses. Among my favorites were Shields’s dried and grated beets, which he topped with a run of egg yolk, super-spicy wild onions, and horseradish oil. I also loved Mendes’s block of suckling pig with a crackling crust, served with clams.
A week before, an old college friend, Weissman, whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade (it’s sad that I can say that now), contacted me out of the blue. As a part of our reacquaintance, he joined me at this dinner. Before he left the city the next morning, Weissman and I met up for breakfast at Sarabeth’s East on the Upper East Side. I had pumpkin pancakes. And you know what? They were pretty good.
The primary purpose of this latest trip to New York was actually to photograph All-Clad Metalcrafter’s newly announced class of “Chef Ambassadors,” a group of chefs that will “play an integral role in product development and testing, creating recipes and promotional materials” for the cookware company.
Following the photoshoot, I was invited to a dinner hosted by All-Clad at Per Se. The dinner was attended by representatives from the company, as well as the chef ambassadors and Thomas Keller. Eli Kaimeh, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, cooked for this private party.
During our dinner, Keller told us that, at one point in his career, he had made a tarte tatin every day for three years. And every day, it came out differently. He never figured out how to get a consistent result. But, the tarte tatin that he recently had at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant in Lyon inspired him to revisit this classic French pastry. (I have written about Bocuse’s version of the tarte tatin on this blog before.) Upon returning to the U.S., he tasked his pastry chef, Elwyn Boyles, with perfecting the tarte.
And so, our dinner concluded with tarte tatin. It arrived whole – a glossy, caramel wonder – on a silver platter. It was paraded around our table and then returned to the kitchen. The tarte reappeared, divided among us, with vanilla ice cream. It needed nothing more.
On my last day in New York, I gathered up all of the candies and pastries that I had collected over the week and made a breakfast out of them with Adam at his new apartment.
Afterwards, I met up with some friends at Aamanns of Copenhagen in TriBeCa for brunch. The original restaurant is in Copenhagen. This is its U.S. outpost.
We ordered the four-course brunch tasting menu ($42): four half-portion smørrebrød, two different types of cured herring, grilled pork paté, beef tartare, and a generous amount of cheese. It was a lot of food. The beet-cured hake smørrebrød was particularly good – the fish had taken on a waxy denseness, and a pretty, magenta color too. I also loved the juniper berry-cured herring that was served with capers, onions, and a wedge of boiled egg. And the bread – Danish bread might be my ruin if I ever move to Denmark. Buttered and toasted, the dense, dark bread was so good that I all but forgot about the cheese that came with it.
To complete our Scandinavian-inspired meal (and shamelessly using Gavin Kaysen‘s son Emile as our excuse), we piled into a cab and headed for the corner of 7th Avenue and Christopher Street on the west side. At 89 Christopher Street is Sockerbit, a Swedish candy store. The bins that line the walls there throw a shock of color against the otherwise white box of an interior. They brim with candies of all shapes and sizes – some hard, some gummy, some wrapped, and some on sticks. I bought some salted licorice, hugged my friends good-bye, and hailed a cab for the airport.
Part of what makes New York so exciting to me is its constantly stir of new and shiny opportunities. I embrace it, and love the city for it.
But, consider peeling back the city’s glossy coat for once, as I have begun to do. Past all the pomp and press of today, you will find the well-preserved patina of yesterday awaiting you. The New York of five, ten, fifteen – even twenty years ago – is still as good as it ever was. It’s mature, it’s dependable, and it’s delicious. There’s no way it could have survived if it wasn’t.
Here are links to the photos of the food that I ate in New York:
Aamanns of Copenhagen (Manhattan)
aldea (Collaboration dinner with Shields and Anderson) (Manhattan)
Beurre & Sel (Manhattan)
Café Boulud (once, twice) (Manhattan)
Di Fara’s (Brooklyn)
Fatty Crab (Manhattan)
Lincoln Ristorante (Manhattan)
per se (Manhattan)
Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop (Brooklyn)
Sarabeth’s East (Manhattan)
* The famous portrait of Kurt Gutenbrunner that hangs in its bar dining room is by the artist Julian Schnabel.
** While you’re waiting at Di Fara, find the picture and story of Mariam Amash hanging on the wall. Read how she had 11 children, who begat her 120 grandchildren in the course of her 120-year life. She attributes her longevity to drinking a cup of olive oil every day and eating DeMarco’s pizza four times a week.
Photos: “Buckyball,” an art installation by Leo Villareal in Madison Square Park, New York City; the chili crab at Fatty Crab in New York City; a 16 oz. Grand Marnier soufflé at Bar Pleiades in New York City; Domenico DeMarco at Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn; tubes of cookies from Beurre & Sel; “Uni Ika Sugomori Zukuri” at Soto in New York City; strozzapreti al pesto at Lincoln Ristorante in New York City; dry-aged sirloin at Dovetail in New York City; suckling pig with clams at aldea in New York City; tarte tatin at Per Se in New York City; candies, cookies, and coffee collected from my week of eating in New York City; Emile Kaysen at sockerbit in New York City.