New York City, October 15 – Breakfast

I don’t know which was the crazier idea: deciding to walk through 32 blocks of traffic and pedestrian-laden New York City streets, or ending that journey by casually strolling into the Hotel Plaza Athenee, sans reservation, for breakfast.

To my surprise, the hostess did not bat an eye at my denim-clad, slightly-sweaty form as I requested a table for one.  She ushered me into the dining room and tucked me away into a far corner, which gave me a full view of the space.  The chandelier lit a high-ceilinged area, yellow with cream accents.  Harp music played softly on an overhead sound system.  As I was presented with the coffee service, I lifted the urn and found it to be silver and heavy in the way that the carafes at IHOP aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  Usually, when I find myself solo in New York City, I’d be spending breakfast on the run, with a Krispy Kreme doughnut in one hand and a grande Starbucks in the other.  But today I was lured to the Plaza Athenee by their new Chinese Breakfast, which offered a broad variety of authentic Asian delicacies curated to appeal to the Eastern palate.  Intensely curious, and with no appointment until the afternoon, I decided that a thorough investigation was in order.

The first offering was a bowl of congee, which I had always referred to as jook when I was growing up.  Served with a side of chopped scallion, the presentation could not have been more elegant.  Yet, as is the case with most comfort food from childhood, I found the congee to have missed the mark.  As a preparation, it was textbook – grains of white rice, cooked until they’ve collapsed into a soft, smooth porridge.  The texture was spot-on.  Unfortunately, there was little flavor to be found, even after garnishing with scallion.  In my household, there would always be bits of salted pork or chicken mixed throughout, adding both flavor as well as a certain level of luxurious fat to the dish.  It occurred to me later that maybe it was my responsibility to season the dish, much like when you order grits in the South, but there was little indication that this was the case.

Thankfully, the meal improved from there.  The second course consisted of a two-tiered bamboo steamer, with three steamed buns (bao) on the upper level and a variety of dim sum underneath.  Each bun held a different filling, and I was pleasantly surprised to bite into the first to discover a sweet egg custard inside.  I’ve never had it before, and it was one of the best things that I’ve ever tasted.  From there, I proceeded to finish off the shredded pork bun (a classic filling that was well-executed) and the bean paste bun (never my first preference, but still fairly good).

The dim sum were the standard “safe” options, with three har kow (shrimp) and three shui mai (pork), with nary a chicken foot in sight.  Both varieties were excellent, bearing the expected thin dumpling skin surrounding very fresh, perfectly seasoned contents.  Along the way, the dining captain delivered a tea-boiled egg alongside a small bowl of soy.  The egg looked like an orb of alabaster, with streaks of gray where the tea had soaked through the cracks of the shell.  And yet, for all of that presentation, I still found it to be too similar, in both taste and texture, to a standard boiled egg.

I took my time finishing the meal, watching the servers and the dining captain cater to the small handful of occupied tables in the room.  Each dish may not have looked like a lot of food, but the cumulative effect was quite filling.  I asked for the check, expressed some sadness at the lack of a room number to sign it to, and took to the streets of Manhattan to walk off breakfast.

*the above photo layout is courtesy of Diptic.  Check them out on the App Store!

October 25, 2012   Comments

New York Stories: Shelter from the Storm, and a Huge Pastrami Sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen

On a temperate summer day in New York City, the wind turned blustery, the blue sky transformed into a menacing shade of gray, and within moments, the heavens opened up.  The rain was intense, and the streets and sidewalks were mottled for only an instant before they became completely saturated, the gutters failing to keep pace with the rushing waters.  Pedestrians caught unprepared huddled together under the nearest available awning or bus stop shelter, forced to invade each others’ respective personal spaces by an Act of God.

All of this meteorological chaos was perfectly fine by me, because while it was happening, I was sitting in Katz’s Delicatessen, shoving an enormous pastrami sandwich into my gaping maw and tipping back a bottle of Brooklyn Lager.  We did not take an umbrella with us, but if there’s a place to hole up as you wait for a summer rainstorm to pass, you couldn’t ask for better.

In the weeks leading up to our trip to New York City for the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show, we had firmly decided that we wanted to make a return to this classic deli on the Lower East Side.  With our memories of our first experience quite fuzzy (in our defense, it was 2:30am and we had just emerged from a nearby nightclub), we knew that we wanted to experience Katz’s Delicatessen during the daylight hours.

The scene could not have been more different. At 2:30am, we were one of only a handful of occupied tables in the vast wood-paneled dining hall, which is decorated with framed pictures of famous people who’ve eaten there.  I remember reviewing the selection of items that is displayed on the wall above and behind the cutters’ stations, walking up to the lone cutter on duty, ordering our sandwiches, and making small talk as he assembled our meal.  This time, I stood at the end of a substantial line of people that snaked through to the front of the restaurant.  Here’s a helpful hint: each cutter has his own line, but most folks go to the line that is nearest to the entrance – move further into the hall to shorten your wait at a shorter line.  Almost every table was occupied, and when we managed to squeeze ourselves into an empty space, the back of my chair butted up against a neighboring table.  When I reached the counter, I had to raise my voice to call out my order.  I honestly think that it was the same cutter as from our first trip.

I made it through ordering the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches without incident.  I knew that I had a fifty percent chance of getting the next thing right.  “I’ll take one corned beef, one pastrami, and…a…knish.”  I had pronounced it “nish”, in the sincere hope that the ‘k’ served just as useful a function as it does in the word ‘knight’.

“You mean a “KA-nish?” the cutter replied, deadly serious. I was glad to have the counter serve as a barrier between us.

“Um, yeah.  That.”  He motioned me to the other counter to place the knish order.  That’s the quirky thing about Katz’s Delicatessen – if you want a sandwich, you go to one of the many cutters in the center of the counter, if you want a hot dog or knish, you go to the station at the end.  Want a soda?  Go down to the other end.  Want a beer?  Go back to where you ordered the hot dog.  You could skip all of this exercise by asking for table service, but where’s the fun in that?  Plus, if you go to the counter to get your sandwiches, the cutter will always provide you with a sample of the meat for your approval before he begins carving your order.

The sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen are immense, heavy with the weight of 121 years of tradition.  They are true deli sandwiches, served with a combination of sweet and tart pickles on the side and a swipe of sharp yellow deli mustard that serves to cut the richness of the fatty meat.  The pastrami sandwich is a full two inches of meat, precariously balanced on a comparatively small and thin platform of rye bread, its beefy edges crusted with spice rub.  The corned beef is similarly endowed, but with a juicier, fattier aspect that is characteristic of a superlative brisket.  As good as the corned beef can be, you can reach for epicurean nirvana by ordering a classic corned beef Reuben, which pairs the meat with a mountain of tangy sauerkraut and a layer of Swiss cheese so thick, you could ski down it.

The knish is a rectangular pillow of dough wrapped around a densely packed filling of potato and onion, fried until golden.  I highly recommend it if you’ve never had one.  You should be aware, though, that there are two varieties of knish.  The Coney Island knish is as I have described; there is also a traditional Jewish knish that is round and baked.  I tried one once and didn’t like it as much as the Coney Island, but you should taste one of each since it’s a matter of personal preference.

The last thing you need to know about Katz’s Delicatessen is this – they work off of a ticket system.  When you come into the deli, you’re handed an orange ticket, and as you order different items from the counter, the countermen take your ticket, mark it with what you’ve ordered, and pass it back to you.  At the end of the meal, you hand your ticket to the cashier, who totals it and takes your money.

Don’t even ask what happens if you lose your ticket.  You, and your wallet, really don’t want to know.

July 20, 2009   Comments

New York Stories: On the Floor at the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show

Imagine a place where you could sample the best, most perfectly ripened cheese you’ve ever had, followed by a bite of decadently rich chocolate, which is then even further enhanced by a shot of red wine, all finished off with a spoonful of the finest extra virgin olive oil to ever cross your lips.  Now imagine doing that every hundred feet or so, over and over, until even the notion of a single sea-salt encrusted artisanal paper thin wafer seems grossly unappealing to you.  That, in a nutshell, was our weekend at the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City.

To say that it’s possible to tour the entire Fancy Food Show in a single day is much like saying that one could see all of the artwork in the Louvre in an afternoon.  Sure, you could do it, but it would involve a lot of running through crowds, you would only catch a superficial glance of each piece, and you wouldn’t enjoy yourself in the least.  And, in perhaps the greatest of parallels, your feet and legs would hurt for days.

Consider the numbers – 140,000 food products from lands both near and far, large and small.  Two floors of exhibit space, ranging from narrow booths hosted by small producers to immense, towering pavilions representing entire countries.  Over 2,300 exhibitors from 75 countries, all vying for the attention of over 24,000 visitors, each booth with its own selection of samples.  Given those numbers, and the vastness of the Javits Center itself, The Fancy Food Show is at all times exhilarating, exhausting, and overwhelming, yet I find myself already counting the days until its return to the East Coast next year.  The scope of the Fancy Food Show is so gloriously outlandish, I may never want or need to go to any other food convention.  Only next time, I’ll be much better at pacing myself.

This was my first trade show since launching The Best Food Blog Ever, and the difference between industry events such as the Fancy Food Show and public conventions can be summed up in a single word: Power.  At conventions that are open to the public, the audience attends for a leisurely experience, and the vendors pull in customers by selling products, giving away coupons, and increasing recognition of their brand.

At a trade show such as this, though, and especially in New York City, the stakes are exponentially higher.  I glimpsed badges for retail buyers, trade affiliates, manufacturers, and distributors, some of whom had the potential to make purchasing decisions worth millions of dollars.  In some booths, men dressed in somber gray and black business suits sat in plastic folding chairs, hunched over paperwork, hashing out details of deals in progress, the intimacy of their discussions in stark contrast to the cacophony of the crowded exhibit floor.  Whenever we walked up to a vendor, you could catch the subtle downward glance at our badges – are we buyers for a major supermarket chain?  Restaurateurs looking for the next brilliant ingredient?  A guy with one of those whatchamacallits…a “blog”?  Compared to these movers and shakers, I barely registered a quiver.

We arrived at the Javits Center about a half hour after the show opened on Sunday morning.  After receiving our badges, we entered the exhibit hall armed with the same strategy that has consistently worked for us in many other conventions – start at one end of the hall and work our way up and down the aisles.  Only this time, as we neared the end of the third aisle, having tackled Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Germany, Morocco, Turkey, and half of France, we checked the time to discover that nearly two hours had passed, and we still had thirty aisles left to explore on the upper level, representing the remainder of the international vendors.  Seventeen more aisles of domestic products from states such as Texas, Virginia, and New York awaited us on the lower level.  In the hours to come, we would only be able to cover about half of the show floor before the exhibit halls closed for the day.

But, oh, how those hours were filled with decadence.  The best vendors were eager to chat and share the stories behind their products.  Some booths were staffed with representatives who demonstrated a full command of every nuance of their wares, fully capable of explaining the differences between their cheeses, for example, and those of other producers.  Others tempered their enthusiasm when they saw that I was not representing a major buyer.  In any case, we were able to sample chocolates, baked goods, jams, cheeses, and all other manner of edible nirvana.  Whenever we came across a particularly outstanding product, we’d take some literature, or ask for a press kit.  As the afternoon wore on, our plastic handbag grew portly and strained against our fingers.

In all, we spent about nine hours over the course of two days at the Fancy Food Show, and boy, do we have stories to tell.  For now, those stories have yet to be written, and you’ll just have to be a patient for a little while longer – I expect to spend at least two weeks, if not more, on the New York Stories, recounting both the Fancy Food Show as well as other food adventures.  Just as the Fancy Food Show can’t be experienced in a single day, I can’t possibly do justice to the weekend in a single entry.

I can tell you this – I ate the world’s hottest chile pepper at the Fancy Food Show, and we caught the whole thing on video.  Maybe I’ll tell you that story first.

In site news, The Best Food Blog Ever has been selected as the Blog of the Day for July 6 on the official website for the Julia & Julia movie.  I’ll be interrupting the New York Stories series for an entry about Julia Child on that day.

July 1, 2009   Comments

Goodbye to You – Balducci’s Turns Out The Lights in Manhattan

As I am sure is true for a lot of folks, I have a special place in my heart for Balducci’s, the gourmet food store that recently closed up shop in New York City, leaving Manhattan with one less destination on food tour itineraries.

Going to college, and then law school, in downtown Newark, New Jersey, it was easy enough for me to skip classes and hop on the PATH train from Penn Station, zooming under the Hudson, to 9th Street in Greenwich Village.  There, not fifteen paces from the PATH exit stairwell, was the bustle of 6th Avenue and the entrance to Balducci’s.  To me, that cramped, bustling shop was a treasure trove of undiscovered, almost forbidden, delights.  I was literally a kid in a candy store – a candy store that also offered cheese, and bread, and seafood, and all manner of top quality produce from faraway places that I had never heard of.

Many of the “exotic” finds that I would pile into my basket back then can be found virtually everywhere today, some even played out by 2009 standards.  The Balducci’s in Greenwich Village didn’t have a lot of space, but that didn’t stop them from stuffing every square foot with product.  I would squeeze my way up and down the aisles, pushing past the shopping carts of other patrons, gawking at the massive selection of fresh seafood on ice, marveling at the fact that there could be so many varieties of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, lusting after the biggest grapes I’ve ever seen.

Blue cornmeal, saffron, truffle-laced olive oil, prosciutto – these were things that were well outside of my realm of experience, and I would greedily snap them up and toss them into my basket.  The only problem was, I coveted these things too much – I remember buying a $3.99 package of red lentil dal and never opening it, for fear of screwing up a dish and wasting my valuable purchase.  It felt so good to find these things, I wanted to hold onto them and never let go.

As years went by and the rest of the world caught up with Balducci’s, I moved on, getting married and leaving North Jersey for Central Jersey, and then eventually into Pennsylvania and still even deeper into Pennsylvania when we bought our first house.  I had heard that the Greenwich Village location of Balducci’s had been sold and turned into something else – the company opened up a massive store in Chelsea, but when we went to visit last year, it didn’t have the same homey feel as the old location.  As time marched on, I discovered Dean and Deluca, Whole Foods, and FreshMarket.  Internet commerce rose to prominence, and today I can order red lentil dal from Amazon and have it on my doorstep tomorrow.

In a sense, my sense of fascination in finding new food items has been dulled by the advance of time.  Today, we’re trained to walk into a gourmet shop, or even a local supermarket, and expect to find a well-stocked selection of imported cheese, or ten different varieties of sea salt.  For me, the end of Balducci’s in Manhattan represents the conclusion of a bygone era, when a small food store unveiled such broad horizons and vast opportunity for a college kid who never knew what he was missing.

I was holding onto that memory.  Today, I’m letting it go.

May 1, 2009   Comments