Apr 22, 2007

the trip that launched a thousand crumbs

Central Park

So, Jen and I have been putting off detailing the New York Trip we took with Meera over Spring Break for months now, intimidated by the post's epic nature. But now that it is summer, and I am without a job, car, or anything better to do, I figure it's as good a time as ever to just get it over with. There's some good stuff to post after I get this sucker out of the way, so hopefully it will be what the blog needs to get moving again.

I'm not exactly sure how to go about doing this, so bear with me as I fumble through it. This is a food blog, of course, so I realize that most of the text will probably go unread. So! I'll try and keep it light on the stories and high on the pictures.

For at least the first 2 days or so of our vacation, our adventures were separate. Meera was in Philadelphia, venturing on somewhat sketchy Chinatown bus systems and approaching New York, Jen was in New Jersey with her aunt, uncle, and cousins, and I was stranded in Las Vegas, cursing my decision to fly US Airways and vowing to never repeat that mistake EVER AGAIN. So while the beginnings of our trip weren't lacking in oddity or interest, in terms of fooding we began on quite a weak foot. Like a fractured or a broken one, even. But in a short while we were reunited in New York City, and confronted with this:

Yes, that's right. Food Network's Mario Batali's restaurant, Babbo. We got excited, we ran to the menu, we observed prices, we photographed, we left. Um, not a whole lot to say here except for possibly, wow, that guy always wears really terrible shoes.

We did a lot of walking. Feet were sore. At least there were pretty things to look at. Otherwise everyone might be so taken up with the thought of their aching feet that they might have to resort to such footwear as exhibited above.

Out of nowhere Jen started squealing about Dean and Deluca, which we entered and was indeed pretty great. Apple crumbles were contemplated here, but we didn't end up buying anything.

One of the reasons for our NY trip was Tiff, a close friend of Jen who studies at NYU and is very cool and very talented, and who showed us a couple of places where she goes to eat and play around the city. First of these was a popular student restaurant, Dojo.

It's the kind of casual, student-filled place you're likely to find near any college campus. The students seem to like it, and the food is really, really inexpensive (some dishes are under five dollars). The four of us ordered variations on essentially the same dish - I ordered a chicken sandwich that came with a salad side and their well-loved carrot-tahini dressing, Jen and Meera might have gotten the same, and Tiff got a slab of tofu over said salad and dressing.

Overall it was a pretty normal chicken sandwich, if a little bland. The dressing, however, was really yummy - tangy with an interesting texture and color, and we asked for an extra dish of it to liven up our sandwiches. Spooning it over the fried chicken breast on my sandwich really did the trick and made it a good bet for a tasty, student-budget meal.

After dinner, Tiff took us to one of her favorite places to grab dessert, Bruno Bakery, also in Greenwich Village. We were faced with display cases of far too many delicious options - everything from cookies to mousses to full cakes. I would have loved to grab a coffee and something sweet and enjoy it outside, but the place was packed and it was cold out, so Meera and I decided to share a plain vanilla creme brulee, which was very satisfying once back in the warmth of Tiff's dorm room.

Tiff took us here, too - the Village Vanguard, which I understand is somewhat of a major jazz landmark since its opening in 1935. We went to see Roy Haynes, a jazz drummer, and it was a lot of fun - a chill little place and an amazing show. It felt very quintessential New York, which is a nice feeling. So if you get a chance to experience the Vanguard or Mr. Haynes, by all means do!

The next day, Tiff (on the right) took us to eat lunch at La Lanterna di Vittorio (The Fireside Caffe), a very cute and cozy Italian restaurant. The atmosphere is nice- there are live jazz shows here, though we didn't happen to catch one, and there is an indoor and outdoor eating area. We ate outside, in a patio area covered by a glass roof, allowing customers to enjoy alfresco eating in any weather. Tiff reminisced about the short while ago when the outdoor eating area was uncovered and the roof was in various stages of construction. Now it's kind of like eating in a greenhouse. A charming, comfortable greenhouse.

They had a nice variety of paninis and pizzas (but pizza is only available after noon). I ordered a chicken, mozzarella, tomato, and basil panini on focaccia, which came with salad greens in a balsamic vinagrette.

The bread was warm and toasty and the salad was fresh and tasty. I'm a big fan of simple salads as a sandwich side. A warning - there are many, many more sandwiches and their bready brethren to follow, people. You can get cheap, yummy sandwiches all over New York City, and we made full use of that fact. I can't honestly say I ever got sick of yummy things smooshed between bread, but I did take a little break from my usual high level of Berkeley sandwiching when I got back home.

This is a food court kind of place we stopped at, I think it was called Bocca. It think it turned out to be one of the tastiest sandwich places we stopped at, though you might not expect it. There's a lot of food here, with quite a few different stations - some kinds of Asian food, pizza, paninis, salads, etc. Lots of business people on their lunch hour, and a crowded seating area, but we grabbed a spot and cracked open our plastic to-go containers to devour the steaming sandwiches within. I got a chicken cesar panini, something out of the usual for me, but which turned out to be pretty delicious. The sandwiches came with a variety of sauces for dipping, too, depending on the type you got - marinara, chipotle sauce, various flavored mayonaisses. I decided to make my selection even wierder and go for the chipotle. Basically, it = suprisingly YUM.

See? There's a trend. It wasn't supposed to be that way. We were supposed to have theoretically taken the time to plan out every day's worth of eating and plan everything else around the food. That's how it should be - food first, tourism second, often both at the same time! But unfortunately our lack of time to prepare before the trip left us eating panini after panini in random places we stopped at cause we were starving. Let that be a lesson to you - never come on a trip without preparing your belly first! Good thing all of us actually like paninis and aren't very picky. And good thing we had the option, when we did have to have another panini, of getting a reasonably yummy pesto-and-chicken one like this one. Jen wasn't so lucky that day, however - she helped herself to a veggie sandwich that was supposed to come with hummus and was rewarded with this:

Suspicious, reasonless. It gives me the creeps a little bit just looking at the overexposed, bland picture. Are those mashed-up carrots? Please. If we'd wanted baby food, we could get it ourselves. I don't remember the name of this place at all, but after seeing this sandwich I think I'll stick to Berkeley's veggie options.

This night will remain etched into my memory forever. We were wandering around Broadway, waiting for our show to start and looking for a place to eat. After walking around forever trying to find someplace cheap to eat, we finally settled with Chelsea Grill of Hell's Kitchen. Not too memorable, but it was my first time ever trying corn chowder. I am suprised I waited so long - a thick creamy corn soup that predestines you to heart disease? Where have you been all my life? Anyway, this one was some kind of a chicken tortilla corn chowder concoction that was pretty tasty indeed.

I got a salad with sundried tomatoes, greens, and grated parmesan that was meh. Jen's salad was much more interesting - walnuts, pear slices, and some kind of cheese, maybe gorgonzola or bleu.

Oh, and the reason why the night was so memorable was that Spamalot SUCKED. Please, save yourself the money and the brain damage and just say NO. Still, Broadway is pretty. So here are some pictures:

To console ourselves after the show we decided to run to Amy's Bread, a little place we spotted on our way to the theatre.

There were many delectables to be had, but I don't think any of us bought anything (no tummy room). It seemed like the kind of place anyone who loves eating sweet things with their coffee would love - lots of pastries and buns and things covered with cinnamon and glaze and raisins, etc.

The next day - BOUCHON BAKERY!

I am addicted to macarons. Not macaroons, those little coconut towers, but French macarons - light, almost merengue-like cookies with some kind of intensely flavored paste inbetween. That's probably the worst description I've ever heard, but I promise you they are magical. According to Robyn (The Girl Who Ate Everything), Bouchon's macarons don't rank very highly in the hierarchy of NYC macarons. But the hazelnut macaron I bought at Bouchon (for almost three dollars! yikes) was enough of amazing to last a girl for a long time, and I've eaten under 5 of these delicious rarities in my whole life, so who am I to judge? The cookie was light and slightly chewy, and the cookies surrounding the hazelnut paste weren't crumbly and dry but were ONE with the paste in every bite. DekjwfsdjgnalkjsdAKGGDskjfd. Though I hope I never pay that much for a macaron ever again, it was definately one of the highlights tastewise of the trip.

I took bad, bad pictures of that cookie, but you can get a slight glimpse of the hazelnut paste action peeking through the crumbs.

We went to the Metropolitan Opera, too - a huge improvement on the previous night's Broadway adventure. The opera was La Traviata, and it was an amazing performance. We had to get the cheapest seats possible, so we were in the back standing rows for the first two acts. Then the wealthy older couples started to get bored, I guess, and decided to be totally awesome and give us their tickets! So we enjoyed the last act from incredible seats that cost someone else a lot of money. Rad!

The Met's gorgeous ceiling.

These pictures were all taken before the last act, after we changed seats and were being stared down and snobbed at by rich old people.

At one point during the trip, we somehow ended up in Whole Foods and got lunch there at the little food stations there. Nothing too interesting, I got some Indian food that was decent enough but way overpriced. The star of the show was Meera's whoopie pie, which she bought and I ended up finishing because I'm disgusting like that.

This thing is, like, every little kid's dream. Two huge pillowy cakelike chocolate cookies, sandwiching a layer of mysterious white fluff that tasted exactly like butter creamed with sugar. It was awesome.

The next day involved a trip to The City Bakery, which is basically a fast-paced, crowded, high-end cafeteria for even more working people on their breaks. You grab a container and serve yourself various gourmetish lunch items, then they charge you based on weight.

The granola bar, which had fresh mango and pineapple and looked amazing and fresh, but which I did not partake in. I did, however, steal a taste of the lime ricotta, which was disappointing.

Gourmet mini-pizzas. Meera got one of these. It was yummy. Why do I know what everyone's food tasted like.

My plate consisted of some kind of white fish (mahi-mahi, maybe) with parsley pesto, some ginger rice with red beans, jicama and mango salad, roasted brussel sprouts, sauteed green beans with lemon and almond slices, and some kind of sweet potato mixture. It sounds like a lot, but I only took a tiny bit of everything, and I was honestly glad I did. The fish was dry and pretty bland, the ginger rice wasn't anything special, and the sweet potato stuff was just kind of sweet and mushy. The brussel sprouts, green beans, and jicama and mango salad I enjoyed, though. I also liked the cookies I bought there - one of which was a big, chewy chocolate cookie and the other a powdery peanut knot cookie. I preferred the chocolate, and it lasted me for days - I put it inside of one of the soup containers available at the City Bakery's soup bar, and kept the little paper bucket of cookie inside my purse for the remainder of the trip, to be opened and snacked upon in various museums and airplane terminals. Gross resourcefulness YEAH!

By the recommendation of my sister, we also stopped at a place in Little Italy called Cafe Habana, a Cuban-Mexican fusion restaurant and bar.

It is apparently always this crowded. Lines out the door, every night of the week!

We sat right here, next to the window looking out on Prince Street.

The lighting was terrible and I was forced to use flash, so the pictures are crap and I apologize. Having said that, in my opinion, this was the best food we tried in New York. The grilled corn that Cafe Habana is known for and that my sister still tastes in her dreams was incredible - blackened on the grill, then smothered with what I think was mayo, sprinkled with chili powder and lime juice, then rolled in parmesan cheese. It was smoky, creamy, gooey, and possibly changed the way I'll think about corn forever. I also ordered some kind of masa pocket of cheese, etc, which was pretty yummy too, and I tried platanos for the first time here - sweeter than I'd expected, but yummy just the same! The best thing about my entree, however, was the simplest part - the beans and rice. OH MY GOD. I could eat bowls of this stuff! I'm too used to dry, tasteless rice and flavorless beans I've been scorned with in the past, and this stuff was just amazingly flavorful. I understood why I spotted several people ordering nothing but plates of beans and rice, and maybe a side of platanos, for their dinner. In short, AMAZING, amazing food, the best meal I had in New York and in a long time prior to that. If I lived in the city, I'd be a hopeless regular of this place.

Next is a fooding experience that I think still slightly infuriates Jen and Meera. After our first encounter with NYC macarons at Bouchon, we were on an insatiable hunt for more, ideally at a less painful price. According to the Internet, Payard Patisserie and Bistro had macarons, and at a decent price, too. So Payard it was.

Can you sense the snobbery of this place already? At least it had interesting lighting fixtures.

So basically, we walked into Payard and instantly set our sights upon the display cases of various sweets. When we found the macarons it caused quite the stir of excitement to see the many varieties and colors, and especially to see that they were only a fraction of the price of Bouchon's version. We started making our selections to bring back home for family and friends, but decided we'd come back to buy the cookies after we'd eaten some lunch. We spotted a display case selling pre-made sandwiches and browsed over them. Just as we were contemplating whether to spend 9 dollars on the tiny and unfulfilling-looking sandwiches, we were asked if we'd like to eat lunch in the restaurant (the bistro aspect of Payard). All of us hesitated, since we were nearing the end of our trip, some of us over our budget, and we knew the menu would be no less forgiving in price range. I believe it was me, however, who was probably letting her stomach trump her judgment yet again, who suggested that we eat at Payard, "since we're already here."

The food was expensive, of course, and the portion sizes were small - not at all what our stomachs or we had in mind for that afternoon. We considered leaving the restaurant after viewing the menu, but were too intimidated by our waiter and the overall atmosphere of the place, as well as the fact that busboys were already bringing us water and bread. That was probably the biggest lesson of that day - to not let a restaurant pressure you so much that you end up sharing a couple small items, eat them uncomfortably, and leave unsatisfied. In all fairness, however, though it's not a place I don't think I'd ever revisit, the food was very good. We ordered a sardine tartine - a bruschetta-like piece of toasted bread spread with pesto and salty, crispy sardines placed on top, and a croque monsieur - an broiled ham and cheese sandwich, topped with creamy bechamel sauce.

Both cheesy and delicious!

Maybe not as happy as she appears. But little tasty things are better than no tasty things at all, right? RIGHT?!

And finally, a couple of pictures of New Jersey, where we spent most of our nights during the trip. We didn't do a whole lot of eating out there except when we ate at a little diner kind of place with Jen's aunt and cousins. I can't remember the name of the place at all, but it was yummy. I got a goat cheese sandwich with veggies and balsamic vinaigrette, and the entrees all came with curried noodles.

Meera's chicken salad sandwich and clam chowder

Jen's Italianish chicken hot sandwich.

That's pretty much everything. Mad props to anyone who actually got through all of this, and who read anything I wrote. To end this concisely: that was New York. I'd go back in a second.


Dojo West

14 E. 4th Street

(between Broadway and Greene St.)

Bruno Bakery

506 Laguardia Pl Frnt

Village Vanguard

178 7th Ave S

(between 11th St. and S 7 Ave)

La Lanterna di Vittorio / The Fireside Caffe

129 MacDougal St

Bocca Restaurant

135 W 50th St

Chelsea Grill of Hell's Kitchen

675 9th Avenue

Amy's Bread

672 9th Ave

(between 46th St and 47th St)

Bouchon Bakery

10 Colombus Circle at 59th St - Third Floor

(between Broadway and W Central Park)

The City Bakery

3 W. 18th Street

(between 5th Ave and Avenue of The Americas)

Cafe Habana

229 Elizabeth Street

(between Houston and Prince)

Payard Patisserie and Bistro

1032 Lexington Ave

(between 73rd and 74th St)