Get Way Outta Town
Susan and GraceAnn’s excellent Big Apple adventure
By Susan Dyer Reynolds and GraceAnn Walden
Meals on Wheels (MOW), an organization that helps bring meals to housebound seniors, is one of my favorite causes. Every year they hold a big fundraiser called the Star Chefs & Vintners Gala that culminates with an auction (this year’s took place Sunday, May 17). I attended last year’s MOW event with my Yummy letter partner and Northside San Francisco columnist, GraceAnn Walden, and found myself bidding on a fabulous trip to New York City, which I won. I turned to GraceAnn and asked, “Do you want to go to New York?” With our busy schedules, it was a full year later when we finally hopped on our business class flight and headed east for a five-day culinary excursion.
Despite the fact it rained during our entire visit, New York City is a mystical, magical place. The stunning nighttime view from our beautiful room on the 54th floor of the New York Palace Hotel towers gave new meaning to the moniker Gotham City, as steam lifted off the slanted top of the Citigroup Center and the American flag whipped around the Deco allegory at the top of the General Electric Building.
Five days is a New York minute when it comes to eating in the culinary capital of America. As GraceAnn mentioned in a recent Yummy letter (www.yummyletter.com), there are so many restaurants in just Manhattan alone that you could dine at a different one every night for nearly 50 years. While the Bay Area is certainly up there in the realm of all things edible, and while, in fact, it has made a unique imprint with its ubiquitous bounty of fresh, seasonal ingredients, there are just some things that New York does better. On the same token, some things I remembered as being uniquely New York, untouchable by any other city on a gastronomic level, were not as good as I recalled. This is, perhaps, a testament to how far San Francisco has come up in the culinary world – for example, hot dogs. When I was a kid, my grandparents lived for a time in Little Italy. Each summer, my parents, our two dogs and I would drive across the country to visit them, and I have fabled memories of crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on warm summer evenings, taking in that unmistakable hot, city smell and watching the clothes hung out to dry outside the tenement windows waving in the breeze like oddly shaped, colorful flags. Once we dropped our luggage, my dad and I would leave my mom to catch up with her folks, and we would head off to Gray’s Papaya King for a hot dog and one of their namesake mysterious “all natural” papaya drinks. I couldn’t wait to take GraceAnn there for the best hot dog in the world; however, it wasn’t even the best hot dog in the country. After researching and writing my recent “Fab Five” column for the Yummy letter about the five best all-beef hot dogs in the Bay Area, I found that Gray’s didn’t come close to the wonderfully snappy dogs that made my list (especially the winner, Happy Hound in Los Gatos).
The same is true of the upscale food we had – while it was topnotch, there was only one thing that blew away any version I’ve had in the Bay Area: Chef Eric Ripert’s salmon dish at his much-lauded seafood restaurant, La Bernardin (watch for my profile of Chef Ripert on the cover of Northside SF’s July issue).
Some things, of course, lived up to my expectations and then some, like the dribble-down-the-arm cheese slice I had on a rainy night at a midtown pizza shop, the belly lox and cream cheese on a freshly baked bagel at Ess-a-Bagel, and the steaming bowl of “Jewish penicillin” I slurped at the 2nd Avenue Deli near midnight on our last evening in New York.
Here is a look back at the excellent culinary adventure GraceAnn and I had in the Big Apple:
New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe
65 Bayard Street (near Mott), 212-566-4884, (no Web site)
Susan Dyer Reynolds: After dropping our bags at the Palace Hotel and taking a nap to clear our heads from the redeye flight, GraceAnn and I hopped on the subway and headed for Canal Street. We were craving dim sum, and our concierge recommended a place called Singapore Café (69 Mott Street). As soon as we sat down, we could see that the dim sum coming from the kitchen wasn’t fresh, so we ordered a couple of appetizers, paid our bill, and headed down the street to see what else we could find. Just around the corner we stumbled upon New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe, where we could see a man pinching dumplings behind a window covered in positive reviews. If you’re craving xiao long bao (also known as soup dumplings), it’s always best to go to a Shanghainese restaurant. Xiao long bao are a type of boazi (filled bun), invented in the Shanghai town of Nanxiang. The key to great xiao long bao is the skin, which should be nearly translucent, but not so thin that it breaks when you pick it up with your chopsticks, thus spilling the broth inside. The ones at New Yeah, though thicker skinned than I’m used to, were excellent – piping hot and juicy, with a tender ground pork filling flecked with green onions and redolent with ginger.
GraceAnn Walden: I’m originally from Newark and started hanging out in the Village at 14. From then on, I had only one goal – to live in New York City. My choices in Newark were to marry some schmo, go to Teachers College, or work in an insurance company. I graduated high school and was ensconced on Horatio Street in the West Village two weeks later. Like most bohemians, I only went uptown to work or hear jazz.
After our flight, we had a heart-stopping ride in a bus driven by a hopped-up guy who did two-wheel turns while racing to the city. It set the stage for me to get my New York attitude on. Walking to the van to take us to our hotel, a guy in a suit blocked my way and said, “You’ll have to wait for me.” I brushed past him, gave him the one-finger salute and knew I was home.
Later we walked the gauntlet on Canal Street to Chinatown, and were “assaulted” by a rainbow of people hustling purses, watches and designer stuff: Prada-Prada-Prada was the refrain.
I was happy when we found New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe and even happier to talk with our waiter, Andy. He told us, like many others, he didn’t live in Manhattan – too expensive – but lived in Flushing, Queens.
455 Madison Avenue (at E. 50th in the Palace Hotel), 212-891-8100, www.giltnewyork.com
SDR: Talented executive chef Justin Bogle has fashioned a delectable menu of New American cuisine at the Palace’s acclaimed restaurant, Gilt. Highlights included a rich miso consomme with unctuous pork belly, tofu, watermelon radish, and scallion; and crisp-skinned loup de mer (a white-fleshed, delicate sea bass also known as branzino) with briny cockles, serrano ham, coco beans, and baby zucchini. Loup de mer is farmed in the Mediterranean and considered sustainable, so it’s showing up on more and more trendy menus, mostly in Europe and the Big Apple (earning it the nickname “The fish that ate New York”).
GAW: Gilt, like many top-tier restaurants was three-quarters full at prime time. The dining room was once Le Cirque 2000, and you can see the original 19th-century Neo-Italian Renaissance style in this former Villard Mansion. (The New York Palace combines a 54-story tower and the original three-story mansion.) The appointments were breathtaking: tooled leather ceiling, historical paintings, marble, crystal, and spectacular bouquets of cherry blossoms. One downside to the dining room is that the doors are open to the kitchen, spoiling the impression that you are a guest of old man Villard.
Mary’s Fish Camp
64 Charles Street (at W. 14th), 646-486-2185, www.marysfishcamp.com
SDR: The next day in the West Village, we hit one of my favorite dining destinations of the trip, an upscale seafood shack called Mary’s. There I found my bliss – steamers, the soft-shelled clams I used to dig for with my grandfather in Rhode Island. He used to call them “caramella del mare,” or candy of the sea. Pull the black membrane off the siphon, swish the clam through the broth (to remove grit), dunk them in melted butter, and go to bivalve heaven. Steamers are nearly impossible to find on the West Coast (the Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City is the only place I’ve found them regularly). Going for the clam trifecta, I also slurped raw littlenecks, served on the half shell and full of briny goodness; and Ipswich full-belly clams (another East Coast delicacy). What we consider a fried clam in California is really a strip – the edges around the belly. To qualify as a clam on the East Coast, it must have the belly, which can be an acquired taste – it’s slightly bitter with high minerality, and they squish when you pop the clam in your mouth. I love the combination of the crunchy batter, soft innards and chewy strip (it should be only slightly chewy if properly cooked, not like a rubber band).
GAW: There were two people I wanted to hook up with in New York: my pal, Laurie Werner, a top travel and food writer, and Delfina Olivieri, a dear friend I first met 46 years ago when I was snot-nosed kid from Jersey. She was my mentor and a terrific painter; she later came out as a lesbian. I hadn’t seen her in 30 years. Older than I, she lives frugally in her rent-controlled tiny apartment in SoHo. It was thrilling to see her: the same dishy sense of humor, the same smarts. Susan treated both of us to Mary’s, and although I will never become a fan of soft-shelled clams, I’d go back to Mary’s for the freshly shucked oysters and lobster roll.
After lunch the three of us schlepped to the big green market at Union Square. True to the season, there were lots of ramps for sale, flowers and starter plants, and even free wine tastings.
34 E. 61st Street (near Madison), 212-755-7050, www.aureolerestaurant.com
SDR: I can’t say a lot about our visit to Aureole, chef Charlie Palmer’s flagship eatery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Since opening Aureole, Palmer has become a bicoastal empire, with restaurants, wine shops and boutique hotels. The staff at Aureole was just weeks away from moving from the original historic townhouse location to spacious new digs in Bryant Park, and they seemed distracted – their bodies were present, but their minds were already serving dinner to Heidi Klum and the Project Runway gang during Fashion Week.
GAW: There were so many wacky parts to our dining experience at Aureole that we got into a giggle fit and couldn’t stop. First, among the other patrons, there were at least two tables with older men and “escorts.” The couple next to us was quiet, but the ladies at the back table got wasted, and one started an argument with the party at the next table as to whether Henry VIII cared for his children.
Meanwhile, the kitchen wanted to send us an extra course. When we cut into our pork loin disks they were raw – not medium, but raw. Holy swine flu! And finally, the host began the dessert presentation. On these interminable tasting menus, there are usually predesserts, desserts, confections, and even a breakfast bread to take home. The host stood next to my chair with what looked like a tall tequila shot glass with some kind of parfait. The glass began wobbling and he dumped it on himself, narrowly missing me. That was it – we really lost it. He went down into the basement and never returned.
630 9th Avenue (near W. 45th), 212-956-1800, www.nizzanyc.com
SDR: Part of the MOW package was tickets to the musical Chicago on Broadway. Prior to the show, GraceAnn and I stopped by Nizza, a quaint little bistro from the Tour de France Restaurant Group (L’Express, French Roast, Marseilles) in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. GraceAnn loves socca (chickpea pancakes), a hard-to-find Nicoise specialty, and Nizza does a terrific version, cooked in their brick oven until crispy with sage, onions and pecorino. We split the Caprese salad with roasted peppers, olive oil, beloved burrata, and tomatoes, which were ripe and surprisingly tasty for the wrong time of year. I also loved the creamy polenta with roasted Portobello, grilled radicchio and cambozola cheese (French soft-ripened triple cream cheese and Italian Gorgonzola) topped with poached eggs.
GAW: I met a New York P.R. guy online, who invited us to this delightful neighborhood joint on 9th Avenue. What drew me to it was that they serve socca, a chickpea pancake sold everywhere in Nice. The idea of Sunday brunch at Nizza before the stage show, Chicago, appealed to me. I loved the socca, incorporating sage leaves and caramelized onion pieces topped with two perfect eggs. As brunch progressed the place filled up completely, something we noticed at the many neighborhood places we dined in and passed by.
Chicago was a lot of fun, although we were seated in the first row and the actors were spritzing on us a bit. Afterward, I dragged Susan to Sardi’s for a drink and to see all the actors’ caricatures.
72 W. 69th Street (near Columbus), 212-580-4300, www.telepan-nyc.com
SDR: One of our very best meals was on the Upper West Side at Bill Telepan’s eponymous restaurant. Telepan’s resume is a Who’s Who of top chefs and restaurants, including the three-Michelin starred Alain Chapel, Le Cirque (under Daniel Boulud) and La Bernardin (under Gilbert Le Coze). Telepan specializes in a cuisine quite familiar to Bay Area diners – fresh, seasonal ingredients simply and skillfully prepared, often with high-end riffs on American comfort food (think foie gras doughnuts). Highlights included a rustic vegetable-bread soup with Tuscan virgin olive oil and parmigiano; lobster Bolognese spaghetti in an herbaceous shallot-garlic-tomato broth; and a hearty burger with house-made pickles. Telepan packs the house not only because his food is terrific, but also because he knows what the current economy can bear: a three-course tasting menu (Monday–Friday before 6:30 p.m.) is just $39.
GAW: I met Bill Telepan at Momofuku on the Lower East Side a few years ago. When I was slated to redo 86 Recipes New York, following my successful job on 86 Recipes San Francisco, he was one of the few New York chefs who were easy to contact. Everyone else had a personal assistant and lots of gatekeepers.
You know right away that Telepan’s place is market-driven when you see a six-foot-square photo of asparagus decorating one wall, another painting that focuses on a farmer, and several paintings of farms. In the three dishes I had, the first English peas of the season made an appearance in each and I didn’t mind. I won’t forget his pea carbonara featuring house-made pancetta, a poached egg and silky, fresh fettuccine. At regular dining times, a four-course menu is $59; five courses, $69.
155 W. 51st Street (near 7th), 212-554-1515, www.le-bernardin.com
SDR: Star chef Eric Ripert heads the kitchen of this beautiful seafood restaurant, bestowed with the illustrious Relais & Chateaux designation, which is reserved for only the world’s most elite restaurants and hotels. I met my friend Ceci De La Montanya, a Bay Area transplant now working for Charlie Palmer’s restaurant group, for lunch. The menu is divided into three sections: Simply Raw, Lightly Cooked and Main Course. Ripert deftly allows the pristine seafood to shine, complemented by an array of seasonal produce and herbs. The three-course tasting menu ($64) includes a choice of a raw or lightly cooked dish, a main and dessert. I selected a raw course – thinly pounded yellowfin tuna layered with foie gras on a toasted baguette, topped with chives and olive oil – and salmon as my entree. I rarely order salmon in restaurants, but I knew if I were going to find it done spectacularly, Le Bernardin was the place – and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, it was the best I’ve ever had – organic Scottish salmon with rosy medium rare flesh delicately dressed with sweet pea-wasabi puree, spring vegetables and yuzu emulsion.
GAW: I went to Philly, where my godchild, Gudren, took me to Parc, one of Stephen Starr’s restaurants. It was a terrific brasserie, and as good as any I have been to in Paris.
150 W. 49th Street (near 7th), 212-719-2819
SDR: With GraceAnn visiting her goddaughter in Philly, I ventured out early one evening to find a perfect cheese slice. Widely regarded as the best budget slice in Midtown West, the pizza at Bella Napoli hits the spot for anyone craving the classic New York pie experience: fold it in half, squeeze the excess grease onto the paper plate, and stuff your face. The crust is thin but crisp, charred and blistered; the cheese stretches the length from your arm to your mouth, and the bright red sauce is the perfect combination of sweet and savory. (The ratio of cheese to sauce is right on, too.) At $2.50 for a slice double the size of most joints, it’s a steal. Sitting by myself on a rainy New York night gobbling a cheese slice at Bella Napoli is one of my favorite memories from the trip.
831 3rd Avenue (at E. 51st), 212-980-1010, www.ess-a-bagel.com
SDR: What many people think of as lox – smoked or Nova Scotia salmon – isn’t lox at all. Sometimes called “regular,” “salty” or “belly” lox (because it comes from the fattiest part of the fish), lox is salmon fillet that has been brined in a solution of oil, water, salt, sugar, and spices. At Ess-a-Bagel, they lay thin slices of lox over rich cream cheese on hand-rolled bagels that are baked fresh on the premises all day – you can’t get a truer New York nosh than that.
GAW: Wherever we went in New York, people talked to us and we talked to them. One of the old guys at Ess-a-Bagel came by our table and did two minutes of shtick. I wangled my way behind the counter where they make real bagels by boiling them first, then baking them on a board.
Gray’s Papaya King
402 6th Avenue (at W. 8th), 212-260-3532, www.papayaking.com
SDR: On yet another dreary day, with me fighting a nasty cold, GraceAnn and I headed to Greenwich Village in search of hot dogs and more pizza. Even though Gray’s didn’t rock my world the way it used to, this is still a fine example of a griddled, quality, natural-casing, all-beef wiener in a soft, toasty bun – petite enough to gobble down two with the famous “Recession Special” – $4.45 for two hot dogs and a drink. In the interest of research, I also tried a dog at Gray’s competitor, Papaya King – it was good, too, but not quite as good as the grilled $1.25 frank at Gray’s (though GraceAnn liked their papaya concoction better).
GAW: I hated their papaya drink. I thought it tasted of chemicals.
Keste Pizza & Vino
271 Bleecker Street (near Jones), 212-243-1500, www.kestepizzeria.com
SDR: Kesté is Neapolitan for “this is it,” and Roberto Caporuscio, chef-owner of this month-old hot spot, certainly knows a thing or two about the real deal: He presides over the American chapter of Associazone Pizzaiouli Napoletana, which certifies pizza makers who follow the traditional techniques and use the authentic ingredients of Neapolitan pizzaiolos. Artisans flown in from Naples crafted the gorgeous wood-burning oven at Keste to meet their rigorous standards (right down to the dome-shaped top and precise mouth size), and it produces pies that blow away even the Bay Area’s best Neapolitan practitioners, including A16, Pizzeria Delfina and Pizzeria Picco. The Margherita is a standout – a thin, crisp crust surrounded by a charred, puffy cornicione (the edge or lip of the pizza), topped with generous pools of fresh, molten water buffalo mozzarella, shreds of basil, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
GAW: My pal Laurie turned us onto Keste. One of the owners told me that Nate Appleman of A16 and SPQR ate there twice recently. He won the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, so he was thus in New York.
As we were looking for Keste, I saw a sign that read, “New York Hotdog and Coffee” on Bleecker Street. I looked at the pictures outside and had to go in. Their specialty, as weird as it sounds, is a grilled Sabrett hot dog topped with marinated, grilled Korean-style beef and kimchi. It was fabulous. Their next store will be in the Los Angeles airport.
2nd Avenue Deli
162 E. 33rd Street (near 3rd), 212-677-0606, www.2ndavedeli.com
SDR: The original location of the legendary 2nd Avenue Deli was on the southeast corner of 2nd Avenue (hence the name) and 10th Street in the East Village. After its longtime owner was murdered, his nephew tried to reopen the deli but he couldn’t come to an agreement with the landlord, so he moved the location to a quiet side street in Murray Hill. The 2nd Avenue Deli may be shiny and new but the food, thankfully, is strictly old school. On our last night in New York City, after a week of rain left me with a bad case of the sniffles, we hopped a bus at 10:30 p.m. and made it before their midnight closing. I ordered a steaming bowl of Jewish penicillin – rich chicken broth with little square noodles, carrots, celery, and a “floater” – a giant, fluffy matzo ball the size of my pit bull’s noggin. I couldn’t leave without a pastrami sandwich, so I was thrilled to find the soup and half a sandwich combo – a tower of juicy, well-marbled meat piled on a slice of pillowy rye. I couldn’t finish half of the half, so I can’t imagine trying to polish off a whole sandwich (though I’m sure it would be fun trying).
GAW: If we didn’t get to the 2nd Avenue Deli before our trip was up, I would have killed somebody.
One proviso: I did not eat all the food I ordered, but brought some back to California. I had a
sandwich that on one side was tongue; the other pastrami – fabulous! I ate half of my chopped liver appetizer – it was made with only chicken livers and some schmaltz (chicken fat). I ordered their coleslaw to pile on my sandwiches, and ate my weight in half-sour pickles and green tomatoes. I brought a quart of pickles home and am wearing my Second Avenue Deli T-shirt as I write this. Homesick again.