Hashtag Know Hope

How radically has the restaurant world changed since the pandemic began? We actually just had a better meal in Jersey City than we did at a NYT three-star joint in Nomad. One was early dinner, and one was brunch, but still. At the former, the very atmospheric Madame, where my stomach sank when I saw the menu read like Bucks County, the kitchen split a surprisingly good kale Caesar for us, so we each got exactly half the ample portion of basil-dressed greens, avocado slices, halved green grapes, slivered fennel and generous sunflower seeds. The kale-cutting coulda been more refined, but the parts really made the whole. Then the super-tender, very flavorful hanger steak in au poivre sauce was also perfectly divided, with a little cup of truffle fries for each of us.

Two days later we had a dainty plate of “linzer” beets with Little Gem lettuce and toasted hazelnuts set down between us at Koloman, and we had to ask for share plates. At least they were provided for the flavor-free pork schnitzel, which was fried to shoe leather and barely revived by the lingonberry sauce and redeemed by the (intricate) cucumber and (sloppy) potato salads. 

Wine presentation was much more fine-dining at Koloman, and my glass of Austrian sauvignon blanc was worth the $19 Bob paid. With two rounds of drinks, the tab was exactly $9 more at Madame. But to be fair, the cocktails in both establishments were too sweet.

BTW: Jersey City was also vaut le PATH voyage for a huge loaf of amazingly crusty-soft sourdough bread from Razza and a little shopping at CoolVines on Grove, where we scored some Duke’s mayonnaise plus a couple of bags of Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta, the latter for all of $7 each.

2023 wasn’t all bad…

Once I started thinking about the best meals my no-longer-consort and I ate in 2023 I couldn’t stop, not least cuz my phone retains everything far better than my cranial sieve does. And it contains thousands of images.* I did an international roundup for Buffalo Eats, since we get around, but these are my top visually amplified memories from what really is the greatest city in the world. 

The most lavish dinner we had here all year was at Essential by Christophe in our neighborhood (the wide-open UWS), where we indulged in the full sit-down experience in the swankola dining room, with Michelin star-meriting service. But we’ve since been back twice to the bar for dinner, since they make it so welcoming. The one centered on the A+ cheeseburger we split ($24, a Manhattan deal), was the most spectacular, since it started with the dining room amuse and ended with the dining room petits fours. (Well, we also indulged in hamachi tartare with avocado, and intricately dressed deviled eggs, and scallops with sunchokes.) The bartender is exceptional, the ideal mix of total pro and total pal. 

Another meal that felt like #beattherich at their own game was on the sidewalk at One White Street in Tribeca, which offers a $316 prix fixe with wine upstairs but also lets you do far more affordable a la carte at street level, with deceptively simple dishes like grilled bass with clams and wild ones like shaved fennel salad with yuzu, anchovies, blue cheese and pistachios. We just wandered by around the time reviewers were raving and lucked into a sidewalk table. 

Dame in the West Village was also awesome on all levels, not least for the upbeat servers delivering the likes of grilled oysters with green chartreuse hollandaise and grilled caraflex cabbage with mussels and horseradish. (The best takeaways from eating out this year were what to buy to eat in, like that cabbage, and like maitake mushrooms.) Lord’s, the newer restaurant from the same team, was a letdown, from the distracted service to the heavy food, however. Maybe it’s a guy thing.  

Untable in Brooklyn (no website) impressed us and friends with its inventive Thai, like larb tofu, crab croquettes and “What the Hell Fried Rice” (served with spicy ingredients you can mix in to taste). Llama San and Llama Inn were also transporting, with their exquisite mix of Peruvian and Japanese; the latter, in Brooklyn, felt like eating at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. We also had sensational classic Lebanese food — and wine — twice in the streetery at the very upscale Illili in NoMad. (As always with Middle Eastern, the mezze make a feast.)

We loved Caleta in the East Village for the cerebral dishes served at a tiny counter in the tiny shop, especially the cassava chips topped with anchovies and the ceviche tostadas and the pickled mussels on toast. We had a nice-enough Indonesian meal at Wayan in Nolita but a dazzling dinner at the couple/owners’ new Ma-Dé. The softshell crab was perfection, as were the fava bean dumplings and ramp hummus with toasts and crudites, but what stood out was the Huatulco cocktail made with smoked rhubarb amaro. Which is now often an essential ingredient in Bob’s nightly cocktail at home. 

The closest thing to eating in Atlanta was at Peaches Prime in downtown Brooklyn: spinach and artichoke dip with chips; quintessential shrimp and grits, and, as billed on the menu, the ultimate egg, bacon and cheese sandwich. The very stylish, friendly crowd was half the experience. We also had excellent service and food at the new incarnation of Gage & Tollner, especially the she-crab soup, Parkerhouse rolls and crabcake with frisee and lemon aioli.

King in Soho was also all it was sold as, during one of those lulls when it felt safe to eat in a small, crowded dining room, especially for the grilled scallops with blood orange and bottarga and the roasted monkfish with tomato, fregola, rainbow chard and aioli.

We didn’t eat all fancy food over this last year of this ceaseless pandemic, though. Wu’s Wonton King, the last place we met up with our eating Asian/Asian eating friends to show support for Chinese restaurants back in early 2020, again came through big time with pan-fried dumplings, soup dumplings, ribs, stir-fried greens, roast duck and Peking duck buns. Adda, in Long Island City, was the best Indian, in the coolest environment, we had away from home all year. And we ate Mexican out at least once a week (and more often at home). 

So if I can pull it together, my next post will be on all the NYC destinations we hit return on at least once. And after that where we ate outside the country and outside the greatest city in the world. I already did Atlanta.

*Pro tip, tho? A notebook is a more reliable memory-jogger — I can pick one up from a trip to France or Italy 20 or 35 years ago and recall every detail of a day just by a few scribbles on what we ate, and where. (The where is especially problematic with the phone. I assume I will always flash on the name and food. But not in CDMX, or Toronto, and other places where Google is not your friend…) 

New York minute at cusp of 2024

Sez everything about how great the food scene is everywhere that I just got finished spending a couple of weeks sorting through all my photos and receipts from restaurants for Buffalo Eats to compile my top meals of 2023 that I “filed” and immediately had one more to add. 

The shining-new Parla (from The Smith whizzes) on Columbus Avenue near us was actually astonishing: The service was superb (I got there first and had to wait at the sidebar and the server complimented me on my phone photo of #Feliz); the room was buzzing even though we were seated next to a fat-faced baby, and the food was beyond impressive. Cacio e pepe arancini made with pasta instead of rice were perfectly fried, so the outsides were crisp and the insides oozed mozzarella. Broccolini with tomato vinaigrette shoulda been a placeholder but commanded attention (as in: we scarfed it all down). Our S.O.P. pizza topped with fennel sausage and onion confit and shishito peppers blew Motorino’s out of the oven. With three glasses of wine and one cocktail, the bill was all of $105 before tip. WIGB? Absolutely, if we can get in.  

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.