New York minutes

IRL friend at the Sunday Greenmarket asked if I would be writing about all the amazing meals I keep raving about from all our travels this year (Phila, twice; Atlanta; CDMX; Berkshires/Catskills; Toronto/Buffalo), and I swore I would. One way to procrastinate, though, is to focus only on where we’ve eaten in one week back home. 

As is usually the case, our first dinner after dropping off our bags was Motorino, for a kale Caesar and a soppressante super picante pizza — both even better than usual, especially with a nice, affordable bottle of rosé, poured by our usual server in a particularly mellow mood. (Nina’s Great Burrito, BTW, after our earlier trip to a tick wedding was a total reentry bust: half-assed margaritas, lame nachos and I can’t even remember what else.) WIGB? Closer than Song e Napule

After the awesomeness that was “Barbie” (30 percent off for tickets to a 3 o’clock Thursday matinee), we made our way to a reserved 5:30 table at Cafe Luxembourg, where we had not eaten in literally years and where the room and the food held up astonishingly well. (When I said so over to the Twitter, many people said the streetery was a sad way to eat. Design matters — as the restaurateur we met years ago in Estonia, in a joint called Grandma’s, said: “Restaurants sell air.”) Salmon tartare was a perfect blend of richness and acidity; my croque monsieur was Paris-worthy, as were the frites, and Bob’s special of skate with asparagus and porcini sauce was so much better than our old failsafe order of fish&chips woulda been. Rosé here was even better than Motorino’s, and for only $20 or so more. WIGB? Now back in the rotation. Truly comforting to see so many staffers, especially so many multi-culti staffers. #Bidenomics 

And then there was Fonda, which I think was the first restaurant we braved during “lockdown,” when even sitting outside far apart from other tables was quite an experience. I can’t count how often we’ve been back over the last three years, both to the Chelsea location and the new one in Tribeca (both Chelsea Market & Hudson Street Greenmarket). As always, we got our own A+ classic margaritas and split the awesome queso fundido with chorizo (with an extra order of freshly made corn tortillas), but rather than our usual crabcakes or duck serape braved the beef tostadas. WIGB? Absolutely, but not for the tostadas, which were good but not QF level. 

New Jersey minute

The camera roll on my phone is where meals go to die anymore, but I’m motivating myself to note the better (and some of the worst) ones here as Twitter itself dies a slow death. So what was on the table on the Fourth of July, as we searched out a restaurant in Jersey City (via The Infatuation) before a fireworks party? Four of us shared everything at Kitchen Step, and the best dish arrived first: A whole smoked maitake drenched in spicy coconut curry sauce over triangular miso-scallion rice cakes. Mushrooms really should be the new meat. Airy gnocchi were better than the tomatoes, peas and mushrooms paired with them in a pallid sauce, and the St. Louis smoked ribs were not great simply because they had no chance: the pork was not great. But the little kale Caesar salad was, like the maitake assemblage, well-conceived and -executed, with bite-size greens teamed with farro, smoked Gouda, candied walnuts and mint. WIGB? Absolutely. The place was pretty and lively, the service was casually great and the Ceretto Arneis* that goes for $25 minimum in wine shops was all of $44. 

*A varietal that’s the water of Piemonte, which is one reason Torino is my second favorite city. 

2022 seems so recent & so distant


Wrote this for my pals at Buffalo Eats, who always generously include this outsider in their insider roundup. Holds up almost halfway into 2023, I think:

This procrastinator and her consort actually ate better in 2022 than we ever did in the Before Time, mostly because we were much more discriminating as restaurant prices had to go up but also because I did research and made reservations. Winging it really doesn’t work when you have to scope out which places have tables outside in this tridemic, and which are worth braving indoors when COVID case counts are down. 

 Interestingly, our real standout meals were not mostly in the alleged food capital of America but farther afield (at least in Amtrak distance). Our favorites in Manhattan included Llama San in the West Village, a Peruvian/Japanese spot where every dish is exquisite, and which might be the only place anywhere where brunch is better than dinner. Steelhead trout ceviche with togarashi, avocado and crispy squid was sensational, as was duck confit with egg, rice and the Peruvian chile sauce huancaina.

 At Wildair on the Lower East Side, we had four-star food (and killer wines) in the street, like jerk prawn skewers and pissaladiéclairs, the traditional pastries turned savory with a filling of anchovies, caramelized onion, tapenade and cheese. We went out for Mexican maybe 50 times this year, and while Fonda in Chelsea and in Tribeca always turned out classic queso fundido perfection, two meals from more innovative kitchens were most memorable: Arctic char aguachile with caviar, and a tlayuda layered with the unlikely but sensational combo of celeriac purée, beans, figs and endives on a crisp tortilla, at Atla in Noho, and roasted kabocha squash served over charred cabbage with sour orange mayo and pepitas at Empellon Waterline on the Upper West Side. Laser Wolf in Brooklyn was vaut le voyage for the salads and pickles alone, although the whole trout was one of the best fish we ate all year. (All meals comprise the platter of 10 salatin, a grilled main and a dessert of soft-serve “ice cream” with pomegranate and date molasses for one price.) 

Our saddest favorite meal was at Rebecca Charles’s Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village on one of the last nights before it closed for good, after an impressive 25-year run. The crab cake and the smoked salmon on johnnycake were, as always, stellar, the whole grilled pompano impeccable and the shoestring fries — the only shoestring fries worth eating — good to the soft/crunchy last bites. 

 For one of our rare eating expeditions outside the city, I picked the Washington Post’s restaurant critic’s brain before heading to Baltimore, which guaranteed we ate phenomenally well.  Tom Sietsema was right about Alma, Charleston (“fine dining,” for sure), Cindy Lou’s Fish House on the waterfront overlooking the Domino’s Sugar sign and especially about the tennis ball-size jumbo lump crab cake at Faidley’s in the total-trip Lexington Market. But our blowaway meal was at Clavel, which did Mexican even better than New York, with masa made in-house that was so great we bought a bag to schlep home. Tostadas, tacos, tamales and mixtas (a twist on quesadillas) were all fabulous.

Because Philadelphia is only 80 minutes away by train, and because we have good friends there who loan us their houses, we made five treks south and had dazzling meals almost everywhere every time. It’s a seriously underrated food city. Fiorella, aKitchen, Parc, Kensington Quarters (now with a seafood-centric menu), Cantina La Martina, Barbuzzo, Pera, Pizzeria Vetri, KPOD (new-wave Korean), Down North Pizza, Via Locusta and Le Virtu were just a few of the greats. Even the Mike’s BBQ cheesesteak we had to eat on a park bench in the cold was a revelation. 

Our favorite meal, though, was outside at River Twice, one stunning dish after another, with the most personable service. The charcoal-grilled soft-shell crab covered in golden Osetra caviar was just one bit of brilliance. Close seconds would be our two dinners at Gabriella’s Vietnam, starting with the water fern dumplings and ending with the justly celebrated shaking beef. 

Finally, even I have to concede our trip to Maine was worth braving maskholes on crowded planes and airports. Eventide in Portland again produced many sublime dishes, like a crab roll with yuzu mayo, squash tempura with pickled mushrooms and wondrous bluefin tuna pastrami. In Biddeford, the “new Portland” just outside the bigger city, everything was fried right at Fish & Whistle, dinner at Magnus on Water was a revelation (not least for the Japanese turnips two ways with caviar and creme fraiche) and even the hipster Palace Diner was worth the crazy-long wait for the over-the-top bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich with jalapeños.

Maybe the most memorable meal of 2022, though, was with friends in Boothbay Harbor. We had planned our Maine trip to stay with them, but a heart attack got in the way. We booked hotels and used the plane tickets anyway, then a medical miracle happened: Our host was sent home early and felt well enough to have us over for super-fresh raw oysters, corn chowder, perfectly broiled oysters, one of his wife’s gutsy salads and her signature dessert, sliced oranges dusted with cardamom powder. As with every meal in a streetery, it was reassuring to realize it’s the food and company that matter more than the setting in this weird age of uncertainty. 

Before & after civil rights amazement

The bad news when we got back from five days of walking six to ten miles every car-free day in Atlanta? I weighed exactly what I did the morning we flew off. 

The good news? I weighed exactly the same even after the most indulgent lunches and dinners every damn day. 

So which tastes were most memorable? Not in any order, but:

—The house biscuits at South City Kitchen, rivaled only by the perfectly rich and meaty she-crab soup and the perfectly fried, goat-cheese-stuffed green tomato slices + the Nashville hot fried chicken sandwich with pickles and white barbecue sauce.

—Roasted oysters at Miller Union, and the blood orange mousse. (Also the white from the Canary Islands, despite the sommelier’s warning it tasted “musty.” TF?) 

—The signature crab fritter and the amuses (especially the oozy gougeres) and the cheese course of ribboned Parmigiano with black garlic-date oat cake at Bacchanalia + the Banner Butter, which they sent home along with our other unfinished food.

—Fake shrimp at Slutty Vegan with A+ crinkle fries tossed with more than enough salt and spices. (The faux burger was also vaut le voyage from the MLK Park.)

—Parmesan polenta bites at Lucian, where the omelet was also all it was cracked up to be (although pretty much what  Bob had on the last night of our trip to Paris for 50th-birthday decadence when he couldn’t face more foie gras). The place is more restaurant than bookstore, but we did score an amazing apple book. Which we gave to an applephiliac friend, so I can’t recall the name.

—Coleslaw and roasted oysters at the W.H. Stiles fish joint in the Ponce City Market, which outshone our shared fried oyster po’ boy (good but not up to best thing I ever put in my mouth in Lafayette, LA). 

—Green papaya salad plus hamachi collar and sweet potato salad with crab at Talat Market, in the awesome neighborhood of Grant Park, every bite of which made us marvel at and despair over how much mediocre Thai there is back home.

—Marsh Hen Mill grits with bacon, Tuscan kale and tomatoes from Bob’s shrimp order at White Oak Tavern, our first lunch, where it was just a mystery how the server pegged us as not-from-around-heres when we had the tourism promo mag spread out on the table. 

—The charcuterie board (deviled ham, smashed Spotted Trotter salami and Benton’s smoked hog jowl) at the just-opened Holeman & Finch + the bok choy with sherried shrimp butter and the roasted shiitakes. 

—Olive bread from the Saturday Peachtree farmers’ market. Which went especially well with that kittybagged Banner Butter.

We didn’t have one meal that was bad. The one weak one was my fault, because I was so fried from all the walking that I insisted we go to a place close to our Sonder. A place near all the downtown hotels, and on a Saturday night. And despite the stressed servers and the cleanliness issues with wineglasses, it was far better than it had any right to be. The grouper ($36, but good luck finding that in NYC!) was grilled right, as was the accompanying (woody) asparagus, and the wedge salad was as good as any back home. Mints at the host stand shoulda been a warning, tho… 

Oh, and the hed? This must-experience in the most American city right now. I couldn’t do it, but it includes a simulation of a lunch counter where you can get a sense of how brutal the assaults on students trained to protest nonviolently really were. Not for nothing is there a box of tissues at the exit of just that exhibit.

Worth the weight

My favorite reaction to the Modigliani show at the Barnes was from a young with half their head shaved who muttered to their companion: “Lots of artists had to be working around this time. Why this guy?” (We laughed, cuz we knew: Connections — we once saw an amazing show at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo on his network of artists — and . . . the right dealer.)

After this last Amtrak ride south to Philadelphia we did not have one less-than-A-rated meal, either. aKitchen was superb as always (sweet potato-apple soup with pickled mustard greens + roasted trout with smoked celeriac remoulade). We had better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be dim sum (chard dumplings, eggplant mapo tofu, caterpillar bread etc.) at Bing Bing in South Phila after a stop at Ash and Embers (or was it Embers and Ash? or neither) where Bob had a killer Penicillin2 cocktail. We had a dazzling lunch of mushroom pozole and choriqueso cemita (aka sandwich overloaded with chorizo, cheese and guacamole) at the brand-new, very stylish El Chingon in South Phila. With our friends H&J we had an over-the-top dinner at Laser Wolf in Fishtown, where you get 11 or 12 salads/pickles with your grilled mains (we went to the Brooklyn branch for Bob’s b-day last year, for a shared grilled trout & it was more satisfying than the three mains this time). And our last dinner* was also with H&J, at River Twice, which is our favorite place in the second-best food city in America: seven sensational small courses (like bay scallops in cocktail sauce consommé, and crab on rice “porridge” with seaweed, and razor clams with celeriac and smoked bacon, and chestnut ice cream with foie gras butterscotch) + the chef threw in an extra of Jersey grits with uni butter and shaved truffles. Then we almost missed the train home because we took our time near “home” in South Phila with breakfast: boring but perfect for me (scrambled, home fries, toast, bacon) and brilliant for Bob (bacon-scallion-Cheddar waffle with sunnyside egg).

Circling back to the Barnes: The Garden restaurant was surprisingly good, too. And good value. We had a cake’s worth of crab on the avocado toast.

*Before dinner we looped back to check out Solar Myth, the bar we had noticed had opened under the Boot & Saddle neon sign on South Broad, and it was totally worth it. The by-the-glass wine list was quite sophisticated, and the staffers could not have been friendlier. If we weren’t on a food death march, we might even have stayed for the live show. If it had had seats. (Our other how-Phila-has-changed excursion was up to Mount Airy with H&J to check out the new Black-owned grocery outlet. We all found stuff to buy.)

WIGB, overall? Hope we make it back as often as last year, when we went five times. 

Also, too: Our first stop on detraining was at the SEPTA office to update our “metrocards,” and of course we never even used ‘em. It’s always walkable in Philadelphia.

Ride south

I had high hopes of listing five reasons to Amtrak to Philadelphia right now, but the weeks Twittered by and now the phenomenal Bill Viola at the Barnes Foundation has closed and the great “Souls Grown Deep” at the art museum is gone, too. So here are three: The Constitution’s Center’s new permanent exhibition on Reconstruction is vaut le voyage, not least for the potholder reading “any holder but slave holder.” As James Baldwin said, not every problem that’s confronted can be solved, but no problem can be solved unless it’s confronted, and this is a huge step forward toward understanding how American slid back into its bad old ways after the Civil War. It actually equates “Gone With the Wind” with “Birth of a Nation” in messing up people’s heads.) Then there’s High Street on Market, right nearby, where we had another excellent lunch (gazpacho and a good and gooey grilled cheese). And I’m looking forward to our inevitable next trip so we can eat again at Alimentari, the sleek, airy cafe Di Bruno Bros. just opened upstairs from the outstanding food shop that’s one of our regular stops on every trip, just to gawk and maybe buy a bottle of Italian wine you won’t find even in the best state store. We ducked in for a quick lunch on the way to 30th Street Station for avocado and smoked salmon tartines with Calabrian chilies on Lost Bread Co.’s finest; asparagus and zucchini pizza, and the one underwhelming dish, “The House of (Grilled) Cheese),” a skillet of raclette and taleggio teamed with San Marzano tomato dip. Call it Italian queso fundido and wish it hadn’t been roasted to rubber. Cucumber-watermelon hard seltzer from Two Robbers was the talk of the table, though.

This trip we also indulged in dinner at Big Fish, at our hosts’ recommendation, and it put the din in dinner. (The server was not amused when one friend asked if she went home with a headache.) The place is cute and tiny, and the food was good if overwrought to the point where the main ingredient on every plate felt peripheral to all the frou-frous. Because it’s BYOB, entree prices were in the high $30s. And I was glad the H&J innkeepers admitted they were also underwhelmed by SpiceFinch, where they had had a spectacular meal. The server was overwhelmed, for starters (this being a hotel resto). And the food was just adequate. Suraya was a dinner disappointment on our previous trip, so maybe the message is we should get ourselves to Zahav?

New York minutes

My desk is stacked high enough with restaurant receipts that The Cat Who Came to Live With a Food Writer can actually make a nest out of them to keep me company as I dick around on the internets. And all those are an accumulation of guilt for not writing about so many destinations as this joint has been gathering dust. So rather than just trying to catch up on all the good, the bad and, worse, the mediocre, here are a couple:

Saint Julivert Fisherie in Brooklyn had the most transporting food in donkey’s years: mackerel whipped into a creamy spread accented with piri piri oil; raw scallop in tacos formed of shiso leaves, with salsa macha; squid carbonara, with the tentacles cut into “noodles” and tossed with Parmigiano and spicy squid ink, with strips of Belgian endive to trick your eye and palate, and hamachi collar cooked jerk-style that almost had us sucking the bones. Service was unnervingly friendly, and the wines were all over the map, given that the theme of the place is oceanic. WIGB? I have recommended it to like 50 people, but next time we might head to the same owners’ La Vara just a couple of doors away.

And Momofuku in the dread TWC will leave you marveling “did we just eat in a mall?” It’s worth at least half an hour’s wait in line for just the Bang Bar options of extraordinary spicy pork wrapped in what Trinidad would be considered a roti and the “rip & dip” with the same flaky bread to dunk in either eggplant or chickpea dip, both phenomenal. But it’s better to snare a table inside at the Noodle Bar for both the service and the specials board behind the bar, which flips over the way the Amtrak announcements used to at Penn Station. I’ve been twice so far for the steamed buns enfolding shiitakes cooked so artfully they could pass for pork belly, the fried Japanese potato with “white sauce” (Alabamaesque BBQ), the lively cucumber salad with halved and smashed radishes in a sesame-chili dressing, the carrots roasted to intensity with scallions and pumpkinseeds and the ginger-scallion noodles, which are nothing like the homage to NY Noodletown you would expect but are amped up with pickled shiitakes. The one dish we shared that would have been better hogged was the mixed spicy noodles with herbs and fried egg. Chopsticking down to the incendiary sauce would have been more satisfying in one bowl. WIGB? Any chance I get. Not least for the soft-serve dessert made with Chang’s trademarked Hozon, based on chickpea water. It’s light but butterscotchy.

Hatin’ on gypsum, too

I typed this months ago but keep thinking about it, so I swung by the Union Square Greenmarket (motto this time of year: “All this useful beauty”) on a Wednesday to see if it was still boiling up. And, yes, it is, with even more events:

So we’re finishing up our rigatoni with ragu, dainty eggplant parm and awesome garlic dots on a Saturday at Pasta Flyer and I’m bloviating about why the concept is genius for a chef — he can create the menu, develop the recipes and technology, staff up and take weekends off. Then Mr. Curious, the guy I sleep with, goes back to the counter to ask how long it takes to cook the pasta (15 seconds) and how (water’s constantly boiling). One of the five staffers says, “You can ask Chef. He’s right there.” And Mark Ladler was indeed in the kitchen, dumping a big pot of ragu out and looking quite pleased with himself.

I’d been wanting to try the fast-pasta place ever since we wound up with friends (after the amazing “Faces Places” at the Quad) at a seriously mediocre Syrian place nearby. That night I didn’t argue for it because I thought it would have no atmosphere. But maybe it has too much. The design is subtly dazzling, with upholstered benches and rustic-looking tables and chairs and tulips in vases and a huge black-and-white photo of Rome with a flying saucer dominating the room (the bathroom is just as wild). Planters are filled with wheat sheaves, the main lighting fixture is Del Posto-evocative. In any other neighborhood the joint would be jammed. (I wish I could argue for the UWS, but I’m not that dumb.)

When we walked in we were given samples of fried mozzarella sticks in a fabulously spicy tomato sauce, a special of two for $1? Our whole meal came to about $13, and it was enough for both of us. Servers delivered the dishes and cleared the table, and one came around afterward with a little pill cup with three chocolate-covered espresso beans (“to help the digestion”). Both the denteness of the rigatoni and the restraint of the ragu were Italy-worthy. I read about the garlic knots while waiting in the deliberately slow line at Di Palo so had new appreciation for what were essentially Italian gougere.

So it was fascinating to come home and read up on “real” critics’ reactions. The same people who slaver over McD’s/Dunkin’/Taco Bell are so harsh when top chefs try to reinvent the genre.

The $7-a-glass wine looked good & there was a loyalty card on offer. WIGB? Absolutely. Even after a movie. 

No hot coffee in the courthouse, either

The upside to de Blasio’s New York is that crime is down so far you can get sprung from jury duty in less than a day — there are no trials. The downside is that you’ll get only one lunch in Chinatown. I spent my penned-up morning planning where to head during what turned out to be an hour-and-a-half break and was not really surprised most online recommendations were for anything but Chinese. Which is how I wound up in the whitest place for blocks. I’d been to Dim Sum Go Go many times, but either I have been spending too much time in Flushing with savvy eaters or it was always “safe.” My duck dumplings and snowpea-leaf dumplings, both steamed, took a while to arrive and tasted bland in the case of the latter and borderline geriatric in the case of the former. Each order of three was about $4.50, too, which made me wonder why people bitch about RedFarm’s prices. I also left thinking you can eat Chinese alone but you really shouldn’t. Although the one time the waiter smiled was when he saw the 20 percent tip from an old white lady with no sharing companions.

The revolution will be experiential

I wrote this for our coop newsletter this spring but am re-upping here as so many wiser heads are wising up to the grim reality that the American Nazis claiming to be trying to take their country back have absolutely no idea of its history. To be fair, even I had never absorbed the notion that the Revolutionary War was not “Americans” against Brits. It was Brits against Brits. If there had been Thanksgiving dinners back then, they would have ended with pewter mugs of rum being flung at drunk uncles. So: 

Our last Amtrak trek from 12 West to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia took just under two hours, about the same amount of time we’d devote one way to a weekend outing for Chinese in Flushing. Which is just one reason I’d recommend an expedition to the new Museum of the American Revolution. Every exhibit in this lively museum makes clear how the country began with #Resistance and needs more of the same to survive.

Whatever you learned in grade school is not what you will come away understanding from this museum, with its inclusion of the roles of native Americans, African-Americans and women in the struggle to establish a republic. The rooms devoted to battles in and around Manhattan are particularly vivid, and the closing multimedia presentation showcasing the tent George Washington operated out of more than 200 years ago is surprisingly moving.

You could Amtrak down and back in a day, but Philadelphia is too great a city not to warrant a sleepover. For away-beds, we like the Hotel Palomar off Rittenhouse Square (pets welcome although we’ve never taken our cat). For diversion, we love the Reading Terminal Market, with its dozens of constantly changing food stalls. For culture, we really love the Museum of Art. For restaurants, we can’t count the choices.  Closest to the museum are High Street on Market, Good King Tavern and the Hungry Pigeon, but there are so many other options to Google: Vernick or 24 or aKitchen or Barbuzzo or Blue Corn or Bing Bing Dim Sum or V Kitchen. There’s also a cafe in the museum, but our first president surely did not work so hard to make eating easy. Walk west or south.