Friday, July 17, 2009

Weekend in New York: The Food

I've had a busy, stressful week, so I've been putting off writing about my escapades in New York City last weekend. The trip lasted little more than 48 hours, and was more expensive than I had hoped but still cheaper than it could have been! My money-saving tips mostly involved eating small portions, walking (which didn't really lose me any weight, surprisingly) and forgoing the otherwise-good deals for New York City Restaurant Week, where every prix fixe dinner menu is $35 and every prix fixe lunch menu is $24 (before drinks, tax and tip). If you are going up this weekend, check it out because it's two weekends long.

As I have said before, this is really the first time I have ever enjoyed (pretty much) everything I ate in New York, since I have the uncanny ability to find the average crap. Here are those places that gave me food I liked this time around:

ChikaLicious (East Village) - I found this place accidentally while searching online for cheap dinner options. This place is notable for having very limited seating and a constant line outside where waits go up to an hour (ever gracious, the maitre'd will let the odd person in line enter just to use the bathroom). Chef Chika Tillman makes innovative, ittybitty dessert plates for her dessert tasting menu, for the fixed price of $14; wine pairing is an extra seven bucks. I went for the wine pairing and got three courses. The first was a tiny but tasty melon soup with a big ball of white chocolate mousse floating in it. Next, I had my choice of main dessert courses. I chose a warm chocolate tart with a pink peppercorn ice cream. The tart was alright, while the ice cream was really my favorite part of that part of the meal (in retrospect, I should've gone for the billiard ball-sized mound of cheesecake that the diner next to me raved about). The port that came with it was tasty, but I could have done with or without it. The last part was a small selection of petits fours, flavorful but fleeting. All the while the chef, sous chef and maitre'd doted on all of us with water and charming service. Of course, not having had dinner I was still hungry, so I almost went across the street to the Rai Rai Ken ramen restaurant (one diner in line mentioned to a friend that it was her favorite noodle house in "the Village"). A big-ass bowl o' ramen goes for about $9 or $10. I'll go back next time.

After a stop in a nearby Irish bar, I took a taxi to the Stonewall Inn (Greenwich Village), not really knowing how to get there by subway or foot at that late hour. This was the historic site of the Stonewall Riots, which happened 40 years and two weeks prior, and they make sure you know it! The two floors of the Stonewall were pretty busy, and I didn't really talk to many people, but folks were nice enough when I took a vacant seat that someone had just stepped away from. The bartenders were flirty enough (not as much as the Flex in Raleigh), and pleasant to talk to. My bartender, along with half of us, got very wrapped up in the LA Galaxy-Chivas USA soccer game on both TV's in the upper bar. I think LA won. My bank account did not, as I rang up a $21 tab - two beers and two waters. Not exactly happy hour. I'd certainly go back though.

The next morning I headed to the American Museum of Natural History, where I spent all day. Before it opened I had a cheap, semi-memorable pain de chocolate at Le Pain Quotidien on the Upper West Side. No caffeine, which precipitated the need for a fountain drink in the museum cafeteria. The problem: it cost $2.75 for 12 ounces - and no refills. Hands down, it was the most expensive soda I have ever had.

Lunch was much more memorable. I was determined to see everything in the museum and got halfway through when I left for lunch. I didn't have to go far: I saw a farmers' market set up next to the museum. On the other side of it was a line even longer than the one at ChikaLicious. This line poured out of the Shake Shack (Upper West Side), which one woman behind me swore had the best burgers in New York. I was to find out that this Northeastern answer to In N Out Burger grinds the beef for its burgers on site, and makes the ice cream for its own shakes.

I ordered the Shack Burger (juicy cheeseburger with tomato, lettuce and Shack Sauce - some special type of mayo) with fries (crinkle cut, presumably cut on site) and a vanilla chocolate shake. Total price: $12, but half of that was the shake. Everything was delicious. The burger had a richer beef flavor than most fast food burgers with none of the gristle, and that shake managed to simultaneously be thick and easy to drink through a straw. The fries were not the best part of the meal, but were still much better than most I have had.

Later that evening I headed out to Chelsea to soak up some more of gay New York. A few people mentioned places to eat that I wound up either passing on due to price, or not finding at all. I finally broke down and asked an attractive local standing outside of a bar what he could recommend. He gave a good recommendation: La Carbonara (Chelsea), where the maitre'd and the waiter seemed to almost get into a bitch fight about serving me (and the other guests) as quickly as possible. I was quite doted on while I was there (maybe I'm just adorable*). This is a place where you can easily spend $30 or $40. I kept it to $13 by ordering just an iced tea and one pasta dish - the linguine with thinly-sliced zucchini, chopped mint and sliced garlic. The zucchini was cooked enough to be almost caramelized, and the mint and garlic were a pleasantly unusual combination. The bread with a mound of ricotta and cream cheese in olive oil was complimentary.

The next morning I grabbed a bagel with lox cream cheese at the Benvenuto Caffe (Flatiron District), and checked out of the kitschy and fun Gershwin Hotel. I hiked on over to Chelsea again in search of the Chelsea Market, which (I had read in a cheapskate's guide to NYC) had some stores with free samples just lying around. I had no idea that the Food Network has its HQ there. Apparently they do, which would explain the "Iron Chef America VIP Guests, This Way" posters all over the place. But this was not the highlight of the Chelsea Market. Instead, it was a bevy of fishmongers, organic food sellers, kitchen supply stores and no less than four bakers, most of which specialized in cupcakes. Among other things, I got to try two different mini-brownies from two different places, some salmon nigiri from the Lobster Place (the salmon taste was very subtle - enough so that it left me wanting) and the most remarkable palmiers cookies from Sarabeth's Kitchen - a dollar a piece. Unlike palmiers I have eaten that are tough and cardboard-like in their flavor and texture, these somewhat tinier ones were extremely rich, buttery and melt-in-your-mouth-ish.

I liked mine so much that I came back after lunch and bought five more to take home.

Lunch was all the way over in Queens, at the famed Jackson Diner (Jackson Heights) - yes, Roopa, you were right! Just a block from the Roosevelt St.-72nd Street subway stop in the heart of the vibrant South Asian-American neighborhood of Jackson Heights, the Jackson Diner serves an all-you-can-eat buffet for $10. That's a little pricier than I'm used to during the week, but way cheaper than most lunches you will find in much of New York.

They have many of the standard dishes, and a few I had not expected. No pork or beef at this Indian restaurant - all dishes that I saw were veggie, chicken or goat (maybe lamb, but there was none offered that day). The goat curry was the least bony goat dish I have ever had. The chicken makhani was not the best, but ranked up among them. As for the tandoori chicken, a dish which has gotten more and more boring as of late, I was pleased with what I had. The basmati rice was fluffy and the various chutneys were tangy, especially the tamarind chutney, which was my favorite. They also had a daily special of masala dosa made while you wait. I would have ordered one had I not already been so full. Altogether the cost was just $12, including my soda. The large, pink pitcher of water that was left for me was on the house.

Altogether, I'm impressed at all the money I saved while eating - money that could have been wasted (and has been wasted in previous trips) on more expensive, less interesting or edible food. The best parts are that I found places that I will try next time - the Rai Rai Ken in the East Village and a few Thai places and burger places in Chelsea. And I must make a visit to the Chelsea Market whenever I head back.

Other photos -

My floor in the Gershwin Hotel. The entire floor featured artistic photos that each featured the same woman with the same insipid grin. I didn't know New York allowed 13th floors in its buildings.

Just a few lonely ancestors wandering around Laetoli

I don't have a gym. I might consider going if he's there.

I wonder how many Next Food Network Stars have passed by this logo? Eh, who cares?

* So kidding it isn't even funny. Okay, it is.


Vaillant Poznan said...

When you don't know the place you'll almost always stumble upon crappy food. I mean it's aimed at tourists - it's supposed to be overpriced and simply average.

Nanc Twop said...

Ooo, nummy trip!

I haven't tried their pastries, but I love stopping in at a 'Pan Q' for lunch - they serve a great vegetarian tartine with a perfectly ripe avocado fanned out across it.

Oops. Now I'm hungry again.

John said...

Of course the funny thing is that I always go out of my to avoid the tourist trap restaurants. I guess in NYC they've figured out clever ways to disguise themselves as real restaurants.

LPQ is alright. I wasn't disappointed with what I had. I wish the service had been a WEE bit better though.

theminx said...

I wanted to stop by Shake Shack when I was in NY a few weeks ago, but didn't get the chance. It's on my agenda for next time though.

BFR said...

I'm always astounded by NYC's variety in cuisine. Interesting post.