Trip report: New York City September 2010

December 10, 2010 at 1:35 pm (Trip report)


I spent almost three weeks in New York this past September.  Normally when I visit New York I just stay in the Village with Derek’s parents, but this time I moved around quite a bit.  My trip started out in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I caught up with my friend Spoons.   Then when Derek arrived I moved to his parents place in the Village.  After he left for his conference in Baltimore I went to Ithaca for the weekend to visit my friend Katrina.  Finally, I spent a night in Columbia grad housing with my friend Jenny.  I was also at Columbia for quite a few lunches, as I was observing two courses at the University.  The three weeks passed by in a whirlwind.  I was kept busy digesting all sorts of new ideas from the courses I was observing, as well as lots of food, as always.

Park Slope and Midwood, Brooklyn:

  • Bonnie’s Grill (Park Slope).  The veggie burger at Bonnie’s Grill was enormous.  I think it might have actually been two veggie burgers.  It was also surprisingly meaty/greasy tasting.  I think maybe they cooked it on the same grill with the meat.  I wasn’t that excited by it.  The bread in particular left me cold.  Supposedly the veggie burger is served on a whole wheat bun, but I found the bun to be without substance–essentially wonder bread.
  • Ghenet Ethiopian (Park Slope).  I shared  a veggie sampler plate with a bunch of Spoons’s friends, and the food was good, although no one dish stands out in my memory.  What I did love was the side salad I ordered.   I guess I was just starved for a good salad after spending so long in Germany, but I really enjoyed the fresh mixed greens and non-gloppy salad dressing.
  • Super nuts (Midwood, 701 King’s Highway):  This place is full of freshly roasted nuts and varieties of dried fruit that I’ve never tried before.  I fell in love with the strips of dried guava.  Wow were they good.  Expensive, but tasty.  The nuts are quite fresh, but also expensive.  I had a nice conversation with the Israeli guy who owns the place.
  • Pita Sababa (Midwood).  I’m actually not 100% sure this is the place I stopped in.  It was a bakery quite close to the King’s Highway subway stop, just down the street from Super Nuts.  I was attracted by their middle eastern pastries, similar to the ones I had eaten in Israel.  I tried two small (maybe 2-bite) savory pastries with different fillings (one was filled with spinach and the other with fresh cheese) and sesame seeds on top.  They were excellent!  Often those kinds of pastries can be greasy, but these weren’t greasy at all.  And the sesame seeds were wonderfully flavor.  Highly recommended.

Greenwich Village and vicinity:

  • Motorino Pizza (East Village):  The night after Derek arrived we tried to go to Momofuku noodle bar, but the line was out the door.  Instead, we went to dinner at Motorino, a new pizza place that has gotten some excellent reviews.   Although the pizzas are great to look at, they didn’t taste as great as they looked.  I was particularly disapopinted with the  crust, which was too soft and kind of bland.  Derek said his clam pizza wasn’t nearly as good as the one he got the year before at Franny’s, in Park Slope.
  • Babbo (Greenwich village):  The food at my 2009 visit to Babbo was quite good (the beet casunzei and beet farrotto in partciular), so I had high hopes for this visit.  Unfortunately, my hopes were cruelly dashed.  I wasn’t that excited by my appetizer salad last time, so instead I decided to get a pasta as a starter and a different pasta as my main dish.  The Goat Cheese Tortelloni with Dried Orange and Wild Fennel Pollen were not great.  I was expecting some intense orange and fennel flavors, but the orange was quite subtle and I couldn’t taste fennel at all.  The other dish I got was garganelli with “Funghi Trifolati”.  It tasted fine but didn’t excite me.  I no longer remember the details, but I do remember that I left the meal feeling quite disappointed.  The only thing that was better that I liked better than last time was the desserts.  I vaguely recall enjoying the saffron panna cotta quite a bit, although I can’t recall if it actually tasted like saffron.  The apple cake and pumpkin pudding were also quite good.  I still didn’t like the grape stracciatella. Derek said that his meat dishes were generally very good, but not as sensational as the first two times he went there. 
  • Murray’s Cheese (West Village):  One night we had just cheese and bread and olives and salad for dinner.   Derek, his parents, and I all traipsed down to Murray’s to pick out the cheeses.  I don’t really like tasting plain cheese, so mostly I just hung around waiting for them while they did all the tasting and choosing.  Derek tried to choose non-French cheeses, since those are the ones we can get most easily in Saarbruecken.  All the cheeses were interesting, but the hit was definitely Meadow Creek Grayson, a washed rind American cheese similar to tallegio.  I was quite impressed with how fresh all the cheeses were.  The storage conditions are magnificent compared to our local cheesemonger shop in Saarbruecken.  I also loved Murray’s Castelvetrano olives–they’re so big and buttery with a little crispness and a lovely mild green taste.
  • Le Pain Quotidien (Greenwich Village): This bakery on Bleeker Street had these tiny little chocolate cupcakes in their window.  They were about two bites of intense chocolatey goodness.  Yum.  Not cheap but the perfect, moderate sized treat to satisfy a chocolate craving.
  • Momofuku Milk bar (East Village):  Derek took me to the Momofuku Milk bar again.  I avoided all the weird stuff and just got a peanut butter cookie.  Derek ordered something weird and ended up not liking it, throwing it away, and sharing my cookie with me instead.  It was tasty.
  • Public (Nolita): Derek’s parents took us to Public for a gourmet goodbye dinner.  It’s an upscale place with a public library theme.  There are card catalogs on the wall and the menu is printed on paper that looks like the cards in the card catalog.  The regular menu is not too veggie friendly but the chef  made a special, vegetarian tasting menu for me and Derek’s parents.  Derek’s tasting menu was non-vegetarian.  My biggest criticism of the tasting menu was that the portions were too big.  No, really. When you’re getting a seven course menu you need the first few courses (at the very least) to be quite small, so you have room for the later courses.  I was full after the second course and stuffed after the third, even though I only ate part of each one. (Derek quite happily finished them off for me.)  Given the huge amount of food we received, the prices were dirt cheap.  I was amazed when I saw the bill.  Although this particular menu didn’t suit my tastes so much (with the exception of the kuri squash, the beet dish, and the excellent bread), I would definitely go back and try Public again.  The courses:
    1. The first course was a green grape and cucumber soup with hibiscus sorbet, Marcona almonds, and smoked paprika oil.  I didn’t care for it particularly, but both Derek and his parents loved it.
    2. The second course was my favorite by far:  roasted spiced kuri squash with port glazed figs, feta, pomegranate and walnut dressing.  Derek thought it was a bit boring but I thought the squash was cooked perfectly.  It was crisp on the outside and succulent on the inside.  I would love to be able to prepare my squash that well.  Derek’s parents also loved it.
    3. The third course was a salad of braised fennel, kalamata olives, orange, and cotija cheese with smoked almonds and sun dried tomatoes.   I’m never a big fan of sun dried tomatoes and I didn’t like this dish at all.  The flavors were way too intense for me, and I didn’t care for the texture of the fennel.  Derek liked it well enough to finish my dish, but Derek’s father put it near the bottom when we ranked our favorites.
    4. The fourth course was beet gnudi with whipped lemon ricotta and a smoked almond and celery leaf pesto.  It was very rich and quite tasty–my second favorite course.
    5. The fifth course was sweet and sour eggplant with tofu and pickled bean sprouts.  Eggplant.  Blech.  Derek had to eat mine for me.  He loved it, ranking it second only to the grape/cucumber soup.
    6. The final savory course was the dud of the evening:  cherry tomatoes on a coriander falafel with lemon tahini sauce and green pepper relish.  Everyone agreed that the dish was bad.  The falafel was really dry and tasteless, and the accompaniments didn’t help.
    7. They finished us off with a dish of six very small scoops of different sorbets (for the table).  It was quite fun trying to figure out what all the flavors were.

Near Columbia University:

  • Awash:  I think this is the Ethiopian restaurant near Columbai that my friend Jenny took me to.  The lunch special was a mix of respectable  Ethiopian vegetable and lentil dishes.  I enjoyed it, and the price was pretty good.
  • Roti roll:  My friend Kathy told me that this is the favorite lunch spot of all the physics grad students and post docs.  She said that the physicists at CERN in Switzerland have missed roti rolls so much that they beg friends to bring them on the overseas flight from New York.  I think I ordered the basic aloo masala frankie.  They have a huge pile of seasoned potato and pea mash that they use to feel the Indian style burritos, and a cilantro? chutney  that they slather on top of the potatoes.  The roti was surprisingly oily.  I was expecting something a little lighter, I don’t know why.  And the seasoning wasn’t quite right.  It tasted a little like something I might make when trying to make something with “authentic Indian” flavors.  It just tasted a little overspiced to me.  I’m sure Derek would love it, and it certainly was cheap and filling and pretty fast, but I wouldn’t make a special trip back.
  • Community food and juice:  Jenny and I ate lunch here again on this trip.  We both ordered the rice bowl–a big bowl of warm brown rice served with bean sprouts, carrot, cucumber, radicchio, peanuts, cilantro & mint, and sesame lime dressing.  It was homey, salty, and comforting.  I thought Derek would like it a lot.  It’s something I should try to make at home.  Jenny got hers with a big slab of marinated, grilled tofu.  I didn’t think the tofu added much to the dish though.  Another night, desperate for dinner, I decided to go back.  I’m a sucker for pizza, so I decided to get the grilled pizza.  The menu says: housemade dough, Hawthorne Valley Farms duck bacon, goat ricotta, gruyere and thyme (vegetarian preparation available).  It was an appetizer but given the price I figured it would be plenty for dinner.  When it came out it didn’t look like much like a pizza.  It was a long, log shaped of thick dough covered in a huge amount of cheese.  I couldn’t taste the gruyere or thyme, and the crust was thick and doughy–it didn’t taste grilled at all.  The pizza had basically no flavor.  I asked the waiter if he could bring me something with some flavor to put on top of the pizza, and he gave me a dirty look and said “like what”?  I suggested maybe olives, and he said no, he couldn’t.  I said I didn’t want it then, and he asked if I wanted something else instead.  I decided to be safe and ordered a salad.  It wasn’t great but was better than the pizza.  And luckily they didn’t charge me for the pizza.

Other areas in NYC:

  • Tabla:  I went to the Tabla bread bar with Derek a few years ago.  Overall the experience was mixed but I really, really liked the mung bean kichidi.  This time Derek and I went with his parents and the four of us shared a large number of vegetarian small plates.  I no longer remember exactly what we ordered, but I do recall that I liked almost every dish, disliked none of them, and absolutely loved a handful.  I was impressed.  It’s been a long time since I’ve tried so many dishes at a restaurant and liked almost everything.  This time the kichidi was served with kale and summer squash, peanuts, and spiced yogurt.  It was excellent.  Unfortunately, a few days after we went to the restaurant we found out that the restaurant isn’t making enough money, and is closing at the end of the year.  Typical.  What I like no one else likes….  No, actually, I think their problem is probably that the space is just too huge.  In any case, if the chef opens up a new restaurant Derek and I will try it next time we’re in New York.  For now, I’ll just have to try making Floyd Cardoz’s recipes at home.  There are tons of his recipes online, although unfortunately not the mung bean khichdi.  I’ll try a couple of the online recipes and if I like them I’ll buy his cookbook.
  • Penang:  A friend suggested trying this Malaysian restaurant that was near her hotel (at 127 W 72nd St).  Apparently it’s part of a mini chain.  I was impressed by their website advertisement: “New healthier preparation – Less oil! No trans-fats!”  The advertisement did seem accurate.  Penang seemed to be trying to use less oil than typical American restaurants.  My friend and I shared a bunch of vegetarian items.  I don’t remember many of the details, but I do recall that I loved the papaya salad (made without shrimp).  It was the best version that I’ve had in a long time.  We also ordered the satay tofu, pad thai, and steamed vegetable dumplings.  None of them were stand outs, and the pad thai in particular was below average.  Still, I’d go back again just for the papaya salad.

Ithaca:

  • I didn’t eat out in Ithaca, but Katrina cooked me plenty of tasty, healthy food.  We also walked down to the Saturday Ithaca farmer’s market.  The prices weren’t cheap but the freshness, variety, and beauty of all the produce was extremely impressive.  I was quite jealous. The open but covered wood “building” was also lovely. Katrina showed me the stand of the farmer that runs her CSA.  Her CSA has a format that’s a little different than the standard CSA format.  Instead of dropping off a box once a week, the farmer goes to the farmer’s market twice a week and the members of the CSA can go there and choose any items they want from his stand.  Sometimes there are a few items that are only available in small quantities, and which they therefore limit.  But in general you can take whatever items you want, in whatever quantities you can use.  They rely on their members to be honest and only take what they can actually use.  That’s so cool.  I would love to be a member of that CSA.  Of course, I would take a huge amount of produce each week, and use it all!

Places to try next time: Momofuku noodle bar.  Spoons and I tried to make the ginger scallion noodles from the Momofuku noodle bar cookbook, and they were interesting, but I don’t think our noodles came out quite right. So I’m curious to try the version at the restaurant.  I’d also like to try Floyd Cardoz’s new restaurant, assuming it has some vegetarian options.

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