Big City Food

Alison and I had a nice time in NYC last week, overlapping for Thursday night through Saturday morning. In between we had a lot of good food — expensive and cheap. As an East Coast Guy I am always aware of NYC’s boast about serving the nations best food. But having lived in SF and now returning there periodically, it’s hard for me to not counter that the Bay Area is truly America’s melting pot of culinary excellence. And recently London has begun to challenge both of these cities on it’s culinary merits in my and Alison’s world…I was very mindful of these ideas on this trip because we planned to visit Babbo which has achieved a great deal attention lately. But we had other experiences that were just as thought provoking. Ultimately we ate well, which is always the goal, but following are my notes on the specifics.

BOQUERIA on 19th St. between 6th and 5th

This is a Spanish tapas restaurant next door to one of Eric and Jesús’s favorite bars where we had cocktails while we waited for Alison to arrive from Newark airport after work. E&J been to the bar at Boqueria, but had not eaten from the full menu and were curious. Alison and I had planned to go to a Korean barbecue restaurant (Kang Suh, where you can cook some meat dishes at your table), but as we walked by the packed restaurant after cocktails, Eric ducked in to find out if we could be squeezed in. In an astounding turn of timing, we could get the last free table from the second seating, but we would have to order the special Valentine’s Day 2008 sharing menu at $60 per person. What the hey!

They immediately served us a glass of Cava (nice!), and I ordered a reasonably priced rose to follow that. The first three courses were served together —

* Atun Crudo
* Pimientos de Padron (deep fried peppers)
* Datiles y Beicon

These dishes were delivered on serving dishes (one per couple) from which we were supposed to grab our share. In this case the dates and the raw tuna serving dishes were very small, so six serving plates were not too hard to accommodate.

The article in the NYTimes about tuna having loads of mercury in it had just been published and I suspect that Boqueria got a great deal on this very fine grade tuna belly because it was as good as I’ve ever had in a sushi restaurant. The date and bacon brought me back to 48 Harrison Street cocktail parties where lots of things were wrapped in bacon (due to Silver Palate?) and broiled for finger food. They were very good as expected.

They served a riot of whole long green peppers that had been quickly fried just to blister the skin. When sprinkled with salt, they were a terrific foil to the rich companion dishes. I think everybody actually enjoyed the peppers the most.

*Espinaca a la Catalana (spinach, garbanzos, pine nuts, garlic, raisins)
*Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp cooked in a pool of garlic and oil)

The spinach dish was nice; Jesus really liked it. I thought it was too small and brief to get a sense of the vegetableness. It came piled on a piece of bread, one per person. The shrimp, which were served with their heads on, was also bread challenged, especially in light of the luscious olive oil and garlic pool in which they bathed. We had to ask for more bread several times, each time resulting in a small bit of baguette sliced into four sections — I wondered if they were running out of bread. The shrimp were small and lightly cooked — perfectly fresh and sweet. I suspect that these were Maine shrimp which pleased me, given that it is the height of shrimp season in Maine. I made a mental note that we should try making this dish at home, and not to under estimate the need for bread.

*Turbot y Setas (planked turbot with mushrooms and squash puree)
*Carne Asada (Wagyu flatiron steak, root veg, black olive jus)

The fish dish was goo (everything was “good”) but it doesn’t stand out in my memory. I’ve never knowingly eaten Wagyu beef before, and this example of a grilled tenderloin-like strip cut into thick rare coins was tender and flavorful. But I would put my Dexter beef against it and feel confident that it matched up.

*Churros con Chocolate

At this point in the dinner, post-cocktails, post-cava, post-Rose, and post glass of red wine that Jesus ordered because he doesn’t like rose, we were a very merry table. The churros con chocolate arrived to great expressions of glee. We were all getting full. You probably remember that I searched Barcelona for churros on our Friday full day there and came up empty. I was happy to hear that this example was quite authentic because I ate it all up.

I didn’t taste the flan, but Eric Lee and Alison said it was good but nothing special.

We collected our coats and bags and tumbled onto the cold 19th Street sidewalk. This area of Manhattan has become quite well-known for its restaurants recently but still retains an empty feeling of a blank city-space between Greenwich Village / Union Square and mid-town; perhaps that is its actually identity. Whenever we visit E&J, it’s always nice when we can walk back to their apartment from dinner — that’s a New York experience in itself.

Friday February 15,2008, 10:15pm dinner reservation

Boqueria last night was an unexpected pleasure, which turned out to be fortuitous experience because Eric Lee fell ill before Babbo and couldn’t join us.

Jesús and Alison arrived at Babbo together from an evening visit to the buddist art Museum, housed in the former downtown location of Barneys. I left Eric Lee at his apartment and walked all the way down Waverly Place from Bank Street to get to Babbo, which was about six blocks. On the corner of Bank and Waverly tI passed The Waverly Inn which is a current IT spot for the Vanity Fair crowd (it’s owned by editor Graydon Carter). Perhaps you’ve read about it in the New Yorker — it’s become famous for going out of it’s way to “avoid” publicity… As I passed I noticed two sad and frigid looking men with cameras around their necks standing on the sidewalk in front of the door, next to a waiter having a smoke. I heard the waiter ask the men: “Who are you waiting for?” One of them replied: “Anyone — Who’s inside?” The waiter said: “No one really, just Salman Rushdie”.

There were no paparazzi in front of Babbo. It is in a pretty but non-descript town house on a short block next to Washington Square. Inside there is a small bar to the right of the doorway and a few bar tables squeezed into the entry in front of the maitre d’ stand. It’s decorated in cozy italian reds, browns, and golds but nothing too precious. There are some pieces of modern art on the wall as well as the obligatory fancy large flower arrangement in the center of the dining rooms, of which there are are two: a small dining room of about ten tables beyond the bar, then two sets of stairs leading up to an upper dining room of about 15 tables. I was pleased that the host led us to the back of the second floor. I feared that they had spotted me as a rube from Maine and would promptly sit me at one of the bar tables next to the door, thinking that that I wouldn’t complain even though we had made a reservation a month in advance…

I thought the service was gracious and prompt but I really enjoyed the sommelier. After we ordered, a slight young woman cheerfully greeted us and asked if we would like to discuss our wine choices. Jesus had ceded the wine selection to me with the understanding that I would order red wine which I was happy to do. The wine menu was extensive, about twenty pages, focusing on italian wines of course. As I reviewed the choices which were organized by region, a small grouping of Sardinian reds caught my eye. So as a kind-of test for the sommelier I asked “What can you tell me about Sardinian reds?”. Her face lit up, as she replied “They have some wonderful sun-baked reds, mostly grenache, and they pair well with a variety of foods.” I reviewed the prices of the group, the lowest of which was $70 (though this was about the average price of the other wines on the wine list). So I asked about the $70 bottle and her face lit up again. “That’s one of my favorite wines in our whole collection. It is lighter than some of the others from Sardinia, but it tastes of green apples and fresh meat.”

How could I not order that given her enthusiasm and refreshing description?

We had been given recommendations of dishes by other people who had already eaten at Babbo. Among them was an emphatic command to order the beef cheek ravioli if it was on the menu. Happily, it was on the menu, which narrowed down what we would order but not who would order it, though we all agreed that we would be sharing when possible. Given the press coverage of Mario’s father’s new charcuterie, we also felt a need to try that. And of course I was going to order offal.

When the pleasant waiter arrived to take our orders, Alison had decided to order two appetizers: a red onion and blood orange salad and the charcuterie plate. Jesus chose the pasta al amatriccia, prompted by the recent NYTIMES article written about this traditional Roman dish made with guangiole, and a braised beef dish. I claimed the beef cheek ravioli, bracketted by a lamb’s tongue viniagrette salad and a braised pork cheek entree. After taking my order the waiter returned to Alison and suggested that she order another dish, indicating that the appetizer portions were small. Somewhat reluctantly Alison added a plate of orrichietta with rapini for her main dish.

We also ordered glasses of proseco to start which arrived with a chick pea on toast “amuse bouche” from the chef, drizzled with a nice strong olive oil.

The Babbo kitchen made good use of a deli slicer for our appetizers. My lamb’s tongue was delicately shaved and mixed with crunchy shavings of fennel root, celery and other crispy vegetables. Alison’s orange slices were paper thin and art-fully arranged on the plate, over which delicate magenta strips of red onion were clumped in a vinaigrette. We passed plates around, especially since Jesus didn’t order an appetizer.

The Sardinian granache arrived with the pasta courses. On tasting the sampler that our cheerful sommelier poured for me, I was hit by the tell-tale stone fruit and licorice of a warm region grananche, followed by, YES green apple peels with a hint of bitterness, then a breathy finish of sweet blood and the aroma of fresh meat. This might have been the highlight moment of my meal. As she predicted, it paired very well with all our dishes. Alison’s charcuterie, also in paper thin slices (which DID include sliced prociutto), had an unmistakable whiff of farm slaughtered pork — sweet hay and dark loamy dirt — that I recognized from my pork processing classes. This added an extra dimension to the fatty briny spice flavors of the fermented salume. Jesus very much enjoyed his pasta which had a thin but sticky sauce of pork and garlic and pepper; the red pepper flavor dominant but without too much heat.

My beef cheek ravioli were arranged in a single layer on the plate, about eight handmade squares with a very light stock sauce coating. The menu promised a mix of goose liver with the cheek, but the liver provided more of a flavor than a richness, which the beef cheek had plenty of on its own. It was very very good and the others seemed to enjoy their taste of it, but I wouldn’t say it was mind altering. Perhaps too much hype had preceded it.

Our last course — two braised meats and one pasta — was well timed following the pasta course, especially since we still had half a bottle of wine left. Babbo certainly knows how to cook its meats, especially the odd ones that are now becoming chic (thanks to Mario, Fergus, etc.). I had expected my pork cheek to be prepared like pork belly, in cubes or a single fatty strip. But it had been braised to falling apart, beyond maintaining its original shape, and then had been mixed with its vegetable accompaniment. It was not over seasoned or over salted, allowing the meat flavor to be featured. I would compare it favorably to the fantastic pork combo we got at La Folie in SF. Upon reflection I think the La Folie dish — which was accented in clove and allspice — might have been more creative, more tightly composed. The real star of this course was Alison’s orrichietta, thin disks of pasta tossed with sauteed broccoli rabe and a tomato sauce. We were struck by the shape and have since made this pasta shape by hand at home a couple of times.

Jesus wanted to share a dessert so we got the panna cotta. I was happy to try a chardonnay grappa from Mario’s extensive lists. It was served in a very small glass, but still had the distinct fruity smell of an overripe chardonnay wine.
Jesus and I had coffees.

Due to our 10:15pm booking, we were among the last two or three tables remaining in the dining room by the time we finished our coffee. Mario’s famous loud rock’n’roll music did accompany us throughout the meal, but instead of the expected iPod mix, it seemed to be full sequential albums of David Bowie on our visit. It was not as intrusive as some reviewers would lead you to believe.

As I walked down the stairs into the first dining room toward the exit door, I noticed one banquette group remaining. Several striking young woman surrounding a shortish balding fellow who was giggling. I thought to myself: “How does that work?” New York City is such a kalidascope of scenes that you’re prepared to see anything, but this one didn’t fit. Once we got to the sidewalk Jesus asked if we’d sighted the celebrity? Apparently Michael Stipe of REM was in that last banquette group — he was not the short balding fellow, but had been hunched over his cell phone on the other side of the table, bringing my universe a little bit closer to order.

Speaking of universal order, we have now checked off aonther one of the Food churches of the first decade (the “aughties?”)…I had feared a let-down at Babbo because I had heard so much about it, including the extensive portrait in “Heat.” At the same time it was simply a very fine meal that featured interesting dishes made from high quality ingredients, and had we arrived there with no fore knowledge I would have been wildly astounded at it’s quality and creativity. Nothing rocked my world the way my first meal at St. John had, or my first meal at Chez Panisse, or my only meal at Lutece. But it’s a tall order to ask one’s world to be rocked, especially when one maintains a close tie to haute cuisine in the US…we had a great time at Boqueria, which had little to do specifically with the food except that it was well prepared and served in a timely manner that facilitated our group’s social experience. However, Boqueria doesn’t pretend to be something like Babbo. We had a great time Boqueria because we wanted to have a great time (E&J&E&A together, Alison having just arrived and bubbling over with simpatico) and the food and service at Boqueria just didn’t get in the way.

However, my subsequent visits to Chez Panisse might be a better comparison for Babbo. I was already plugged into CP’s theory and hype when I ate in the dining room repeated times, but each time I have found something to latch onto and study closer and learn from. At Babbo I hoped only not to be disappointed. It met and exceeded that challenge, with the added bit of teaching me a bit about the charactaristics of Sardinian wine. The room was cozy, the service was more than adequate, and the menu offered many items of interest. Perhaps I’m too jaded to be able to accept that as a triumph because there are so many ways it could have disappointed me.

Ultimately I think I did learn some things: I learned that it’s possible to maintain quality if an effort is made, despite the hype; I also learned that many of the culinary ideas I’ve been working on for the past few years are being echoed on the alters of modern cuisine. And that’s a nice feeling, to be plugged into the big vein of food ideas, and to occasionally enjoy, without any apologies, a good meal that speaks directly to me.

FOOD SING — 2 East Broadway:

Alison and I like soup; we especially like asian noodle soups, having been early adopters of the Pho-nomena of vietnamese noodle soup shops spreading through the big cities beginning in the eighties. Now we make our own Pho-like soups at home that rival or exceed the versions we are finding at restaurants, especially since the dish has become so popular the broths that are used have literally become diluted of their rich flavor, the bowl of steaming soup — no matter how many squirts of sauce added, or strips of meat mixed in — becoming a shadow of what I remember.

It was with great curiousity that I read about Chinese hand-pulled noodle soups in the NYTimes, and I took advantage of our visit to learn more.

Food Sing 88 Corp. is at the bottom of Bowery where the streets of lower Manhatten start colliding every which way as if the Manhatten Bridge had pushed its way onto the island, nudging the grid into a haphazard jumble. The restaurant is small, with about 15 formica tables and new-ish chairs with a counter between the dining area and the kitchen. Behind the counter you can watch the noodle pulling process as young men grab hunks of dough with both hands, stretch, then fold, then stretch, then fold then stretch, eventually stretching that dough into thin noodles that are cooked and then covered in broth and topped with your choice of meats (yes, you can get a “Vegetable” noodle soup — with beef broth I’m sure — but of the 18 choices of hand pulled noodles soup on the menu, 17 were different kinds of meat, with a few seafood options included).

Alison ordered the #1 (“Beef Han-Pulled Noodles” as printed on the menu), and I ordered the same, except with Beef Tendon instead of straight beef, each for $5. The steaming bowls arrived within minutes, and we quickly started sucking steamy noodles. The broth was deep brown beefy, and the noodles were lighter than Pho noodles (which I think are rice noodles) but with a pleasant tooth to them. My tendon pieces were big and chewy, as opposed to the shavings I often get in Pho, but that seemed in line with the big chuncks of stew beef that Alison got in the #1. You do have a choice of five different noodles on the menu, including rice noodle and rice stick (those are the big wide sheets of noodles), but if they’re yanking those noodles in sight, you can’t go any other way. There is no plate of bean sprouts and basil and lime wedges as you get with a bowl of Pho, but the broth and noodles were rich enough to stand on their own, and this meal is clearly about the meat.

This was a very satisfying meal — especially on a windy cold February afternoon, and the total cost, including tip, was $14. Afterwards we walked up Bowery to the New Museum building (worth another post to describe, but a ‘must-visit’ when in NYC) after which Alison jumped on the train for a gallery meeting while I went in the building.


2 thoughts on “Big City Food

  1. Ah, memories of Spain.
    I had Padron peppers at the Barcelona Market… way too many to eat and Carol doesn’t eat them in fear of getting a hot one. I’ve also made them at home, searing them in a cast iron skillet and sprinkling with lots of salt. Yum.

    I’ve also been planking fish lately – see PLANKED on eats for one. Did the planked turbot reveal any taste of the plank?

    Overall, it sounds as if you ate well, and I enjoyed your comparison of where you ate with places I’ve been.


  2. Sounds tasty, although for what you undoubtedly shelled out, it’s a shame yer mind wasn’t altered, especially since you apparently would have been content to slurp noodles all weekend. Also, having criss-crossed Sardinia extensively in the past few years, I can’t recall coming across any grenache there. Of course, I tend to steer well clear of $70 bottles of anything (or even 30€, which is probably what it would cost there) and only ate once or twice in fancy places. Most wine I’ve seen there is from a local grape called primitivo, which is reputed to be the source of the American variety zinfandel (unfortunately no one in Sardinia has ever heard of zinfandel — I’ve asked). However, I’m sure I’ve drunk as much white as red while there (and at least one rosato that I remember well), since they serve so much fish.


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