For various reasons, including Canadian Thanksgiving, I had to return to Toronto halfway through the recent New York City Wine & Food Festival. I figure I’ll catch up with the likes of Bobby Flay, Martha Stewart and Alton Brown when they do their stuff in Miami during the South Beach version of this Food Network event in late February, 2011.
Meanwhile, here – in no particular order – are the results of my sleuthing as I spent much of four fabulously sunny and surprisingly balmy fall days walking the streets of Manhattan, nibbling and noshing as I went.
The Meatball Shop, 84 Stanton St., in the Lower East Village is must-visit haven for fans of the versatile, ubiquitous in almost every culture, often delectable food: the meatball. Choose from the lists of meatballs, sauces and side dishes. There are also sliders, subs and pastas incorporating the house specialty. A cozy room with a comfortable bar and friendly, helpful servers. And the prices are right.
Eataly, 200 5th Ave., is the latest venture of unstoppable chef Mario Batali and currently the talk of the town. It is a glitzy emporium comprising two dozen food “stations” that reminds of the Harrod’s Food Hall in London, U.K., in its ambition and no-holds-barred lavishness. Pasta is made on site by young chefs, rows of prosciutto hang from the ceiling at a charcuterie bar, the fish counter is overwhelming, there is a pizza eatery, bookstore and housewares section. The theme – no surprise – is things Italian. So is the language on signs, food and menus. (I speak French, know a lot of Latin and a little Italian and found this pretty confusing.) The word “pretentious” comes to mind; so does “overpriced’ especially after cruising the dried pasta section. This place is a phenom and represents, for me, the “Emperor’s New Clothes” aspect of New York – one of the few things that bugs me about that wondrous city. Check it out and see what you think.
Shake Shack, Madison Square Park, is owned and operated by New York restaurateur Danny Meyer of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Tabla fame, among others. I happened upon this glorified burger stand after leaving Eataly in need of a food fix. Oh happy day, the Shake Shack specializes in frozen custard along with burgers, hot dogs etc. The chocolate rendition of this twist on soft ice cream is nothing short of sublime. ‘Nuff said.
Momofuku Ssam Bar, 207 2nd Ave. Everyone told me it would be impossible to dine at this hugely trendy restaurant owned and operated by chef David Chang popularized, among others, by former bad boy chef and now reformed, re-married father and non-smoker Anthony Bourdain. The reservations system involves booking online and must be done weeks ahead.
Undeterred, I walked into this compact, bustling, noisy room on a Thursday night at 7 pm. Lo and behold, my request for a single seat at the bar was quickly granted by a charming young hostess. It was close to the door and lacked elbow room but never mind. I sampled the following from the ever-changing menu. Their famous Chinese-style steamed bun filled with pork belly was only so-so. Santa Barbara Uni with Oyster Crema, Lily Bulb and Wild Sea Beans was delish. The bright orange uni had a sensationally strong and delicious flavour hit as it slithered down my throat bathed in the luscious crema, a yummy contrast to the crunchy lily bulb and sea beans. Roast Duck with Cashews, Plum and Endive took ages to arrive and was a disappointing piece of rare, chewy breast meat that compared unfavourably to roast duck at my local Chinatown noodle house in Toronto. This place hums with people having fun in what is considered one of Manhattan’s hottest spots. Maybe if I ate there with Anthony Bourdain and tried other menu items …..
Momufuku Milk Bar, is around the corner and technically at the same address as the Ssam Bar. Known for dessert and shakes, its most famous confection is Crack Pie. I bought a slice, hoping I would not fall prey to its reputedly addictive qualities. Happily, there is no danger as I have tasted more habit-forming butter tarts and sugar pie, both of which Canadian specialties it resembles.
Ippudo, 65 Fourth Ave., is billed on its web site as a Japanese Ramen Noodle Bar and was recommended by Hillary Sterling of A Voce restaurant at the aforementioned Meatball Madness event. She informed me that many aficionados consider Ippudo’s steamed pork bun to be better than Momofuku’s. Knowing that food tips from chefs are invaluable and smelling a food fight, I headed to the East Village, notebook in hand, to check this out.
This place is at least as popular and crowded as Momofuku. Mid-afternoon was a good time to arrive and being a lone diner helped get a seat. The crowd here is young; so are the cooks and servers. The room is cozily elegant and the food simply amazing.
Here’s what you should order: Akamaru Modern – one of the house specialties. Swimming in a gorgeously creamy, rich, chile-spiked broth were tender yet slightly chewy noodles topped with delectable slices of pork belly, chopped scallions and crunchy cabbage. The soup was fragrant with garlic and miso. At $13, it’s a sumptuous meal at a bargain price.
As for the steamed pork bun, it is better than Momofuku’s. You heard it here first.
Risotteria, 207 Bleecker St., in Greenwich Village. I happened upon this lively spot one early evening while cruising this eclectic, bohemian neighbourhood packed with eateries and interesting shops. Billed as a “gluten-free” restaurant, Risotteria specializes in – what else? – risotto. I opted for the version with sausage, shrimp, mozzarella and saffron for $19.50. I watched from my usual perch, a tall stool at the bar, as young cooks wielded pots and pans to create the final dish from par-cooked rice. The result was excellent: only slightly al dente grains inundated with juicy shrimp and spicy sausage in a wonderfully creamy coating of saffron-laced sauce.