travel: raging case of gowanus…
My friend Adam wanted cake. Specifically, he wanted Frank Stitt’s seven-layer coconut cake, which he knows that I make upon request from time to time. So, he suggested that we spend two nights at his family’s home on Long Island to relax, to cook, to bake, to eat.
We had bagels at a place called Greenvale Bagels in Greenvale (the signage outside deceptively suggests that the place is simply called “Hot Bagels”). Their bagels are outstanding: not too small, not too big, and the texture is just right. They have an everything egg bagel, which I like toasted, so that the cream cheese and Nova lox, or smoked whitefish, or smoked sablefish on top goes wilty.
We had terrific falafels – dark, crunchy hull with a steamy middle – with creamy hummus and pickled vegetables on the side at a small, eatery aptly named Hummus World. The chicken shawarma there has an untraditional spicing, but it’s slightly addictive, especially with one of the many sauces that the restaurant’s grizzly Israeli owner insisted we try. Hummus World is in Roslyn.
And Adam invited some of our friends over for an end-of-summer cookout. We had salmon roasted on cedar planks, Mexican elotes – cobs of grilled corn slathered with chile-mayonnaise and coated in grated cotija cheese – and lots of cake.*
That is how I eased into a two-week trip to New York City recently, with a side trip to New Jersey to catch up with my friends the Wizard of Roz and Mr. RBI, with whom I grazed for three days from township to township - Princeton to Keyport, Manalapan to Long Branch.
I love the New York restaurant scene.
I love how familiar I have become with it, and how comfortably I settle into it every time I arrive, as if I never left.
I love the density of options New York offers. You can have cemitas and onigiri from food stalls down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass (literally) for lunch, go to post-apocalyptic Bushwick for a multi-course dinner at blanca (with Roberta Flack spinning on vinyl), and then meet up with friends for oysters and Champagne at Blue Ribbon in SoHo at three in the morning, topping it all off with a banana split. I did all of that, and more, on my recent trip there.
I love the energy. New York restaurants are always full and its diners full of life, a potentially loyal stream for chefs to earn and keep. And the waitstaff, even in their weakest moments (and there seemed to be plenty of that going on this past Labor Day weekend), are always “on.”
And I love how level-headed the New York dining culture is. For the most part, New Yorkers are reasonable and practical, and so are its chefs and restaurateurs. The culture is mature and confident, and therefore conservative without being xenophobic, sophisticated without being pedantic. I like that. With a high percentage of foreign nationals and visitors, New Yorkers willingly give newcomers a chance, but have little patience for the melodramatic, weeding them out fairly quickly. I like that too.
But New York diners are spoiled diners. They live in the eye of the culinary world and can afford to be fickle. Today’s new toy is easily forgotten amidst tomorrow’s, because there is so much from which New Yorkers can choose. There are always new kids on the block to spotlight, different neighborhoods and cuisines to explore.
Splendor in the sun, shivers in the shadows; New York’s restaurant industry is not for the weak.
Maybe its the cautious Midwesterner in me. Or, maybe it’s because I’m a skeptic. But I’m rarely excited by new restaurants, and I rarely visit them. I like to watch them for awhile, let the frenzy pass, and wait for the opening menu to turn over, maybe twice.
But, avoiding new restaurants in New York is particularly difficult. There are so many of them. And it’s hard to convince local friends to go eat with me at Gramercy Tavern for the fifth time. So, when I do find myself at a new restaurant – as I inevitably do – I hem my expectations and look forward to a second visit.
My time in New York, therefore, is usually spent in a mix of dining rooms, some familiar, some new. This last trip to New York made no exception.
I invested some time in Brooklyn on this trip.
One day, I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge with my friend Adam and grazed through the neighborhoods on the other side. We had pastries at Bien Cuit on Smith Street, and steampunk coffee at Roogla (the name, a cute, slang reference to the rugelach they sell there) a few blocks down.
On our way back, we found a cluster of food stalls in the archway beneath the Manhattan Bridge overpass. The cemitas at Cemita’s Mexican Sandwiches & Mas are well-made. They include all the traditional ingredient’s you’d expect to find on a Mexican cemita: fresh avocado, a good amount of quesillo, and even fresh papalo (papalo is a very strong-tasting herb, used in the cemitas of the Puebla region of Mexico, that hasn’t yet gained wide notoriety here in the U.S.). But I wasn’t excited about the beef barbacoa filling here. I prefer the more common beef Milanese versions I’ve had in Mexico (and yes, I understand that it’d be somewhat unreasonable to expect these people to be deep-frying beef cutlets at a street stall). Admittedly, I have a very narrow view of what a cemita should be.
However, I loved the onigiri from Rice & Miso Everyday on the other side of the archway. The rice was nicely cooked and seasoned (one was filled with tuna, another with umeboshi and sesame), and the nori wrapper was dry and crisp.
One night, I went to the King & Grove Hotel in Williamsburg for dinner at Paul Liebrandt’s new restaurant, The Elm.
The food that I had at The Elm was more approachable than the food Liebrandt was cooking at Corton (where, incidentally, I had one of the more-impressive meals of the past decade), which sometimes ventured into esoteria. But, as at Corton, Liebrandt’s precision remains his calling card at The Elm. Everything that we had, from steak tartare to a puck of foie gras blushing with a layer of spiced strawberry gelée, was flawlessly executed, and beautifully presented.
We also had a colorful salad of beets dressed in XO sauce, and a nicely seared scallop nesting with creamy gnudi in a frothy “tom yum” broth, bright with lime. And, there was a show-stopping “Chicken Kiev” set for two, presented in a high-sided, copper skillet, with broccolini on the side. In addition to the two roulades of chicken breast wrapped in chicken skin, which gushed a stream of garlicky butter upon entry, there were also croquettes made from thigh meat. All of it was terrific.
We polished off a pretty little Eton mess and an elegant black forest cake, lacquered with glaçage, for dessert.
Afterwards, Liebrandt took my friend and me on a quick tour of the hotel. Outside, there’s a pool (where the cover is $35, and the cost to rent a lounge chair for the afternoon is $500). And on the rooftop, there’s a bar, with a breathtaking panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline.
Inadvertently, I contracted a raging case of Gowanus.**
I was first in this Brooklyn neighborhood on that walk-through with my friend Adam. We had lunch at Runner & Stone, a smart-looking bakery with a small, but nice selection of house-baked breads (the “bolzano” miche is a gorgeous, round loaf with a dark crust that’s scented with cumin). We ate light, but very well.
I returned a few days later to have dinner at The Pines, a small, hipsterish restaurant across 3rd Avenue from Runner & Stone. I can’t say I loved the experience of eating in that hot, steamy restaurant, which, for all of its character, was a bit too grungy even for me. But chef Angelo Romano’s food was, for the most part, tasty and well-made, especially a bowl of tripe that tingled with the numbing effect of Szechuan pepper, and a wonderful bowl of borsa vuota pasta in a mussel-miso broth that, together, vaguely reminded me of tuna casserole (in a good way). Later that same week, Romano announced that he was leaving the restaurant.
And I would have returned to Gowanus for a third meal – at Littleneck, a “New England-style beach side seafood restaurant” on that same block of 3rd Avenue – had they answered their phone. Unsure if they were open for the holiday weekend, we decided to save ourselves the trip in case they weren’t. It’s a pity, because I really wanted a lobster roll. I’ll try again next time I’m in the city.
In Manhattan, I mostly revisited my favorite restaurants.
I went to Jean-Georges for lunch, which is always a treat. I love the room. I love the people-watching. I love the measured use of spice. But I did not love the sea trout dish, the one with sashimi and roe climbing up the steep sides of a bowl, along with a tumble of fried fish skin, presumably trying to escape from the overly acidic and greasy-tasting olive oil froth below. I am rarely disappointed by the food at Jean-Georges (which is why I have returned so often). But this dish (and this dish alone) was disappointing, and perhaps even more confusing.
I noticed that one of my favorite dishes was back on the menu at Café Boulud – the spaghetti nero with Bouchot mussels – so, I dropped in for a quick lunch. Since I last ate at Café Boulud in February of this year, the pastry chef, Noah Carroll has left (he’s now at Brooklyn Fare). Karys Washburn, the pastry sous chef, has stepped up. The mousse au chevre – with lavender-scented peaches – that came off her pass that day was as delicious as it was gorgeous.
Why doesn’t Lincoln Ristorante have a Michelin star yet? I’ve been there three times now, and, although I can’t say it’s the most thrilling restaurant I know, the level of cooking there is consistently high. My recent lunch there was very good. The pastas were excellent – the spaghettoni were firm, and the agnolotti were creamy, filled with sweet corn and blanketed with black truffles. And a summer salad of beans in a lemony vinaigrette was lovely, crowned with a buttery ball of burratina.
Del Posto, too, has quickly become a dependable favorite. I wasn’t always enamored with this restaurant, which, in the beginning, I found fussy and formal, the food a bit too studied to be truly satisfying. But the food at the last two meals I’ve had there have been painted with increasingly broader, and more fluid strokes. And I’ve fallen in love. The ingredient quality and the caliber of cooking at Del Posto have always been unquestionably high. But now, the menu at Del Posto not only comprises a well-researched and expertly cooked anthology of regional Italian cuisine, it’s also full of character and flavor.
The “luna piena” was as perfect in form as it was delicious, a tender disk of freshly made pasta – a “full moon” – waxing with butter and truffles.
Swordfish – one of the last fishes I’d ever order off a menu (not so much because of concerns of parasites or quality, but more because it’s so often overcooked) – arrived a seared block of meat, barely warm on the inside, so satiny that I hardly knew it as swordfish. It was exquisite.
And, of course, Brooks Headley’s desserts at Del Posto are always a joy. His pre-desserts – usually two different sorbets or ice creams hanging out on the rim of a cup – are among my favorites. One time, it was celery sorbet with balsamic vinegar. This time, it was cantaloupe sorbet with olive oil. I loved it.
Headley also knocked my socks off this time with a brown butter panna cotta, the deep toastiness of which was magnified by large crumbs of pasta frolla, and the richness of which was cut with the cheery acidity of late-harvest plums. It was perfect.
Gabriel Kreuther has announced that he’s leaving The Modern. And, since it’s unlikely I’ll be back in New York before the end of the year, I wanted to eat his food, which I have loved so much, and which I think complements its setting so well, one last time.
I had the privilege of getting to know Kreuther while I was photographing the last Bocuse d’Or cycle, during which he served as an assistant coach. If I haven’t said enough good things about his talent and his cooking, I also want to add that he’s one of the most principled and disciplined people I’ve ever met (that goes for his pastry chef Marc Aumont as well; the two are quite a pair). His character comes across in his cooking, which I have described here before as a “quietude of excellence.” I will miss seeing him and eating his food at The Modern.
Since I was a refused a bill at this dinner, and my opinion of the restaurant has not changed, I will not write about that meal here. Instead, I refer you to my prior post about The Modern and simply urge you to go soon.
There were a few restaurants in New York – and, more specifically, a few dishes – that I hadn’t seen in a while. So, I decided to return for a reminder.
At Minetta Tavern, I had the Pat La Frieda black label burger. It remains my benchmark: a thick patty that has the texture of chenille and the flavor of fine, aged meat. I like that it comes paved with caramelized onions and nothing else (I chose to treat the lettuce and tomato on the plate as decoration). I like that the brioche bun isn’t too sweet, and that it, too, has been slightly “aged,” so it stands up to all the juice. And I like the stack of skinny fries on the side. It’s my ideal.***
I hadn’t been to Perry Street since 2007. So, on a quiet, lazy Sunday afternoon, I convinced my friends to go back with me.
The food was alright. The service was unusually slow. Maybe that’s just how New York is on a holiday weekend.
My first and only visit to casa mono was in 2007. Given how much I liked that meal, I don’t know why it has taken me so long to go back for another. The food here is exactly how I remember it: hearty, flavorful, and lusty, the product of confident cooking. Quite a few dishes have survived the past six years, a testament to how good they are: the razor clams, the duck egg with mojama shavings, that tower of frisée walled in with wedges of Manchego cheese, and others have remained on the menu. I remember them from my first visit.
I was so pleased that I returned, so charmed by the atmosphere (I love sitting at kitchen counters) that I went back twice more in the same week.
The fideos with clams are unspeakably good. So were the lamb ribs, glazed in plum gastrique.
I also loved the skirt steak, shingled on a generous dollop of romesco sauce. The slices of meat sported a nicely charred coat and a tender, juicy center.
The current chef, Anthony Sasso, also makes the desserts here. And they’re pretty great, especially the corn ice cream with cherries and pistachio brittle, and a refreshing salad of stone fruits topped with super-tart lime-basil sorbet and olive oil ice cream.
I peeked into abc cocina the night it opened in early May of this year. This time, I returned for lunch. Chefs Dan Kluger and Ian Coogan have done a nice job of marrying Latin flavors with the vegetable-focused sensibilities of abc kitchen next door.
I went to the Michelin-starred Danji, a Korean restaurant in Midtown on the west side. The lunch menu is short, but the food is good. If you go, order the K.F.C. (that’s “Korean Fire Chicken“) wings.
I went to Sushi Azabu, tucked away underneath the Greenwich Grill in TriBeCa. My friends and I ordered the five-course omakase. The $100 price tag seemed high at first, but the quality of the seafood was fairly impressive. I’d go back again.
And, I went to Louro, chef Dave Santos’s restaurant in the West Village. There, my friends and I found a hearty mix of seafood and pork, evidence of Santos’s Portuguese heritage, and a delicious plate of squab too.
I have known The Wizard of Roz for quite a few years now. She has not only become a great friend – family, even – but also a very valuable resource. Her knowledge of New York (and New Jersey) restaurants is immense. She and her husband, Mr. RBI, and I have had a standing date at Eleven Madison Park every year since we first met there (incidentally, they have eaten at Eleven Madison Park more times than anyone I know; if they aren’t the restaurant’s most regular regulars, they’re pretty close).
So, I let her write my itinerary for the three days I ate with her and Mr. RBI in New Jersey.
They took me to Café Shirin in Manalapan Township for Uzbek food. There, we had wonderful vareniki – pierogis filled with potato purée, sprinkled with dill and bits of caramelized onions (which, I think had been fried, to dry them out a bit), and served with a side of sour cream. There, they also serve a colorful “Rendezvous” salad (named after the restaurant’s name at its former location) that’s not Uzbek, but is pretty delicious. It’s an assortment of shredded vegetables (beets, carrots, and ultra-crispy shoe string potato fries) and beef that the server tossed together, table-side, with a creamy dressing.
They took me to the Jersey shore. Twice.
First, we went to Long Branch and had lunch at Ada’s Latin Flavor. Ada is Ethiopian. But she bought a Dominican restaurant. Unsure of whether the locals would take to Ethiopian food, she kept the Dominican menu. But, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, she started offering a menu of Ethiopian dishes on the side.
We ordered from both menus. The mofongo had good flavor, but was a bit dry. It came with some really nice pieces of pulled and sliced pork, some bell peppers, and onions. But I preferred her Ethiopian cooking. We ordered some doro wot, and some beef stew, both of which came with an assortment of vegetables on a giant platter lined with spongey injera.
Second, we went to Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport. Chef Andrew Araneo, a native of Keyport, loves Cajun and Creole food. And he cooks his version of it masterfully. We had “voodoo” shrimp heaped on cornbread and coated with a spicy Worcestershire sauce. There was gumbo on fluffy, white rice, and jambalaya mounded with seafood and andouille sausage.
I was warned that the list of daily specials at Drew’s Bayshore Bistro is always long. And it was. From it, we ordered the chicken-fried steak, served with mashed potatoes and smothered with a “jalapeño popper cream gravy.” Like everything else at Drew’s Bayshore Bistro, it was well-made, delicious, and, like Chef Araneo’s big-hearted personality, enough to feed two or three.
Drew’s Bayshore Bistro is BYOBooze and BYOAppetite.
We went to Princeton thrice:
We went once to have dinner at Elements, where Scott Anderson and his chef de cuisine, Mike Ryan, cooked us a truly epic twenty-some-course dinner at the kitchen table. Both Anderson and Ryan are avid foragers. And in that spirit, they presented us with nearly a dozen different mushrooms.
We had cinnabar chanterelles. As the name suggests, they have the uncanny scent of cinnamon. At elements, they were chopped and rolled up into mini “cinnamon buns.” We had shiitake mushrooms that had been baked inside of the faux tree stump (molded out of red oak wood composite) on which they were grown. And we had self-aborted entoloma mushrooms, which looked like white truffles and, when cooked, had the very texture and taste of veal sweetbreads.
There was a beautiful cut of aged tuna that Anderson wrapped in sassafras leaves and grilled over an open fire. This he served with some melted leeks and eggplant. It was wonderful.
There was considerable exploration of texture in the courses we were served that night (the aforementioned aborted entoloma dish being one of them). Anderson and Ryan did a wonderful job of showcasing the fleshy, often meaty quality of mushrooms (both in flavor and in texture) by coupling them with animal protein. We had suillus americana mushroom (also known as chicken fat mushroom) with lamb tartare, squid with gyroporus castaneous (also known as chestnut bolete), and xanthaconium sepperens mushrooms with squab. All of them were great.
Perhaps the most memorable textural experience from that meal was the wagyu “pâté de fruits” that we were served at the very end. I was shocked to learn that the soft cubes, which tasted like sweet jerky and had the texture of Turkish delight, was made from nothing more than wagyu beef that had been aged for thirty days, and then thirty days more in kasu. It was mind-bending.
Get in your car, get on a train (Princeton Junction is about an hour on the New Jersey Transit from Penn Station), or get on your bike and go to Elements.
We went a second time to Princeton to have lunch at Scott Anderson’s new restaurant, Mistral.
The chef de cuisine at Mistral is Ben Nerenhausen, whom I first met last year in the kitchen at the Restaurant at Meadowood during the Twelve Days of Christmas.
It was a beautiful day, so we sat outside on the patio (which Anderson tells us will be reconstructed soon). Mistral is a more casual restaurant than Elements. The food here is meant to be shared among diners.
My favorite dishes included one with wonderfully musky fists of lamb shank with eggplant, yogurt and sumac; another with a beautiful slice of 48-hour short rib with smoked oysters and charred romaine; and a dessert of fluffy brown butter cake served warm in a skillet with raspberries and a dollop of whipped buttermilk.
We finished our tour of Princeton at the storied Peacock Inn.
The menu here isn’t terribly adventurous, but Chef Manny Perez’s cooking is technically sound. There was a silky slice of foie gras at the beginning that stole the show, and a crunchy coconut “pain perdu” wonder that ended it all on a very good note.
During the renovation of The Peacock Inn a few years ago, wall drawings by the famous Prohibition-era cartoonist John Held, Jr. were found in the basement, which had been used as a speakeasy. You’ll see those sections of the wall, framed now, in the restaurant’s dining room.
I ended my trip at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Adam had an extra ticket to the U.S. Open men’s final. So I changed my flight and headed back to New York City for one more night. And what a night it was. The weather was perfect. Our seats straddled center court (but really, there’s not a bad seat in the stadium). The celebrity spotting was fun – especially since the camera men did all the work for us. And, of course, watching the top and second-ranked tennis players in the world serve and return, and return, and return, was pretty memorable.
I send a hearty thanks to all of my friends in New York and New Jersey who made my recent trip a great one. I’m bummed I won’t be back for a while. But I’m comforted by the fact that, when I do return, it’ll be as if I never left.
Here is a list of restaurants that I visited on this trip to New York and New Jersey. I’ve hyperlinked the names of the restaurants to their photo sets:
abc cocina (New York, New York)
Ada’s Latin Flavor (Long Branch, New Jersey)
Bien Cuit (Brooklyn, New York)
blanca (Brooklyn, New York)
Blue Ribbon (New York, New York)
Café Boulud (New York, New York)
Café Shirin (Manalapan Township, New Jersey)
casa mono (once, twice, thrice) (New York, New York)
Cemita’s Mexican Sandwiches & Mas (Brooklyn, New York)
danji (New York, New York)
Del Posto (New York, New York)
Diane’s Bakery (Roslyn, New York)
Dominque Ansel (New York, New York)
Drew’s Bayshore Bistro (Keyport, New Jersey)
elements (Princeton, New Jersey)
elm, the (Brooklyn, New York)
Epicerie Boulud (New York, New York)
Greenvale Bagels (Greenvale, New York)
Hummus World (Roslyn, New York)
Jean-Georges (New York, New York)
Lincoln Ristorante (New York, New York)
louro (New York, New York)
Minetta Tavern (New York, New York)
Mistral (Princeton, New Jersey)
Modern, The (New York, New York)
Peacock Inn, The (Princeton, New Jersey)
Perry Street (New York, New York)
Pines, The (Brooklyn, New York)
Rice & Miso Everyday (Brooklyn, New York)
Runner & Stone (Brooklyn, New York)
Sushi Abazu (New York, New York)
** I must give credit to my friend Carla Siegel for coining the phrase “a raging case of Gowanus,” after I mentioned that the neighborhood sounded like a disease.
*** Serious Eats wrote an exhaustive piece about the Pat La Frieda black label burger at Minetta Tavern.
PHOTOS: Dusk over Brooklyn, as seen from New York by Gehry, New York, New York; saucing Thomas Farms lamb at The Modern, New York, New York; onigiri from Rice & Miso Everyday in DUMBO, Brooklyn, New York; Cemita’s Mexican Sandwiches & Mas in DUMBO, Brooklyn, New York; The Elm at the King & Grove Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York; the bolzano loaf at Runner & Stone in Brooklyn, New York; the toasted egg with caviar at Jean-Georges, New York, New York; garganelli verde al ragú bolognese at Del Posto in New York, New York; pastry chef Marc Aumont’s “pocky” sticks at The Modern in New York, New York; Bouchot mussels and fries at Perry Street in New York, New York; the fideos and clams at casa mono in New York, New York; tacos at abc cocina in New York, New York; Long Branch Beach in Long Branch, New Jersey; fermenting and pickling jars at Elements in Princeton, New Jersey; framed wall drawings by John Held, Jr. at The Peacock Inn in Princeton, New Jersey; Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open Men’s Finals at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York; and a giant oyster at Sushi Azabu in New York, New York.