Getting under the skin of an international city through classic meals, classic tastes and classic views.
by Liam Hetherington on January 11, 2011
How’d you like you eggs in the morning? I like mine with some quirk. It was hence not surprising that I enjoyed my charmingly quirky breakfast at Kitchenette in Tribeca. While cuisine has become internationalised over the last century, breakfasts still say much about the prevailing culture, whether it’s a healthy Swedish bowl of muesli or the artery-clogging ‘full English’, a French croissant and bowl of chocolate or an Italian espresso drunk straight up at the counter. The USA has turned the humble breakfast from a mere stop-gap into a meal in its own right, of an equal with lunch or dinner. I was certainly of the opinion that a hearty breakfast would often be able to see me through until dinner time so I was delighted to sample a range of different offerings. Kitchenette was my very first experience.The interior of the café / cupcakery was simple, homely and whimsical with 1970s fittings and tables made out of door panels. There was an abundance of girly-girl pastel shades. Gingerbread men hung from the lampshades. It was very child-friendly. Even though we had no children it seemed determined to bring out the big kid in us, though it stopped just the right side of cloying oversentimentality. We had full breakfasts here. I had classic American blueberry pancakes – really thick pancakes with the blueberries baked into their centre ($9.25). I teamed this up with a large orange juice; this, entertainingly, came served in a Mason jar with a straw. Rebecca ordered a mish-mash of scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes (almost like patatas bravas) and an additional cream-cheese-filled bagel ($3.00). Marie had fluffy French toast ($9.25) with strawberries, crispy fried bacon and lashings of maple syrup. I ask you: could we have had a more American breakfast spread?Kitchenette does not serve just breakfasts. Apparently they also serve plenty of home-style dishes at other times of the day (they open from 7.30 on weekdays or 9AM at the weekends up until 11 o’clock at night. Not to mention that they have whole cabinets of tempting treats in the forms of cakes, pies and biscuits. It would certainly be worth another visit I reckon!
The Odeon in Tribeca was just the ticket for a lazy Sunday brunch. This restaurant on West Broadway serves brunch from 10am to 4pm every Saturday and Sunday. With its comfy leather banquettes, relaxed ambience and clientele of friends and couples relaxing over the paper it was immediately welcoming.Rebecca and I met up with our friend Marie for a farewell meal prior to her flight back to the UK and our train to Philadelphia. Although the place does not open until 11.30 on weekdays it also caters on Saturday and Sunday for the hungry and hung-over and those determined to wring every last ounce of relaxation out of the weekend. I have to say that this does not come cheap. Frankly $18 for a salmon bagel or $14 for French toast is taking the mick a little bit in my books. I was impressed with their idea of doughnuts as a breakfast side however! Even these were expensive however - $10 got us 5 diddy sugared balls of dough with raspberry and maple dipping sauce. That’s $2 per doughnut, each about golf-ball-sized. Still, even if the tab is quite swingeing the ambience is rather lovely. It’s certainly worth a visit if you want to experience a lazy New York weekend – though I would recommend Kitchenette over The Odeon.
by Liam Hetherington on November 12, 2010
New York is a city of immigrants. Each culture gave a little of itself to the make-up of this great city, particularly in terms of cuisine. This is a city whose bagels, frankfurters and old-school Italian restaurants are part of its image. In 2009 I foolishly attempted to win a bet by trying to eat myself ‘Around the World in 80 Meals’ – I maintained that it was possible to find food served from 80 different nations without leaving my hometown of Manchester. And I managed it – just about ! But how much easier, I found myself wondering, would it have been in New York ? The fact I found myself chewing through four cuisines in the space of one morning owes everything to our friend Marie. A frequent visitor to NYC she suggested that we book ourselves on to a walking tour – a tour of the city lead by a resident guide able to give us a bit of local flavour. And local flavour was what we got. Big Onion provide a range of tours looking at different aspects of the city (the revolutionary period, the ‘gangs of New York’, gay and lesbian history) or different neighbourhoods (the Financial District, Central Park, Harlem). My two passions of history and food came together in one particular tour - The Original Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour. We booked online and met up on the corner of Essex and Delancey (which actually wasn’t ‘very fancy’) at 11AM (the tour runs Fridays and Sundays throughout summer). Here we were in the historic Lower East Side. It was in the slums and tenements here that each successive wave of immigration in the second half of the 19th century deposited its human cargo. The bewildered newcomers would take stock of their surroundings, struggle to make a buck, and then get the hell out as soon as they could. When the Irish moved on their places were taken by Central European Lutherans. These, in turn were replaced by East European Jews. The Italians followed, and then the Chinese.The biggest immigrant group today is Dominican. Our student-age guide handed out some hot and sticky-sweet Dominican roasted plantains for us to eat as she explained the changing demographics of New York. Then we progressed south to the area between Houston and Grand known in the 1830s and ‘40s as Kleindeutschland due to the number of Germans that lived there. We were shown an old 19th century church with pointed gothic windows. Yet above the door could be made out a sign in Hebrew – once the German Lutherans moved on the church was re-established as a synagogue by Jewish immigrants. These immigrants found the Lower East Side filthy and crowded. As with all the emerging industrial cities families were crammed three to a room in unsanitary and dangerous tenements. A few such businesses evoking the days of the Jewish Lower East Side still survive on Essex Street. One is The Pickle Guys (49 Essex Street). A little open-fronted store, its floorspace was mostly taken up by big red barrels and the smell of brine. Keeping to traditional recipes they sell pickles of all descriptions – gherkins, olives, garlic, tomatoes, celery. This provided our next snack on the tour : large knobbly pickles with a sharp bite. Continuing on our route we saw where the Jewish presence has now been replaced by Chinese communities. The Kletzker Brotherly Aid Association on Ludlow was founded in 1892 to support people specifically from the shtetl of Kletzk (in modern-day Belarus). Although the plaster has peeled from their original sign a modern one lower down proclaims it now to be the home of a Chinese funeral home. On Canal Street Sender Jarmulowsky’s Bank operated as a very successful business 1873-1914. Unfortunately the fear of war caused its European customers to withdraw their money to such an extent that the bank crashed and Sender’s son Meyer had to flee a 500-strong mob across the rooftops. It is now a Japanese Cafe. Finally the Jewish Daily Forward Building on East Broadway, which was home to a socialist newspaper a century ago, has now been turned into upwardly-mobile apartments, a sign of the creeping gentrification of the area. In between, however, it was the headquarters of a Chinese Christian congregation. Having fled atheist China they didn’t much like finding bas reliefs of Marx and Engels on the facade of their new home.By this time we had reached Canal Street and the official start of Chinatown. In 1870 roughly 200 Chinese immigrants called this area home. By the turn of the century there were 7000. Much as in the Jewish Lower East Side Chinatown too had their own aid associations. These were the tongs, and frequent clashes between the allied street gangs of, for example, the Hip Sing and On Leong tongs were frequent, bloody and under the radar of the white police. To me, modern Chinatown seemed a fully-functioning self-sufficient community almost independent of the city around it. Chinese businesses catering primarily to Chinese residents. Rebecca and I marvelled at the food merchants : fresh fish and seafood heaped on ice in store fronts, displays of dried mushrooms, ginger, seaweed and other herbs and spices, a bin full of fat gulping bullfrogs. It seemed as though anything that could possibly ever be eaten was for sale here. We also stopped for some food, courtesy of the tour. Firstly we had tofu, never a favourite of mine. Then we had what looked like small red polpetti but which were actually candied rosehips and blossoms. These latter were surprisingly nice. I found myself going back for more.Turning a corner we suddenly found ourselves in Little Italy. One second we were among the Chinese minimarts on Grand Street, the next we had crossed a road and every building held an Italian restaurant. This area too was once a self-supporting community, but with the Mafia taking over the roles played by the tongs in Chinatown. Today, sadly, it is a tourist trap. Little Italy has gradually shrunk as Chinatown expanded, and all that is left are a few streets of cheek-by-jowl restaurants, delis and gift shops beneath red, white and green bunting. It is, however, all quite jolly as the business owners play up to their red-and-white checked tablecloth / Frankie and Dino / ‘this thing of ours’ stereotypes. It took less than five minutes for us to come across two friends shouting at each other across the street : « Hey – whatsamaddawidCHU ? » There were plenty of touts working their patter to try to entice tourists into their eateries. We nibbled on some salami, mozarella and parmesan from Di Palo’s Fine Foods on Grand Street. Its windows have apparently been stacked with cheeses and hung with cured hams since 1925. Our tour ended outside the Church of the Most Precious Blood with fresh cannoli (a pastry and sweet ricotta dessert). These came from Ferrara Cafe (195 Grand Street) across the way, the only place (we were told) that still makes its cannoli right there in Little Italy – as it has done since 1892. All that walking and eating had made me hungry. With the tour over Rebecca and I had time to wander around Chinatown and Little Italy at our leisure. In the end we shrugged and went for the smooth sales patter of a restaurant tout and shared an antipasta platter at Caffe Napoli (191 Hester Street).Big Onion tours are usually $15 ($12 concessions) though the Multi Ethnic Eating Tour costs an extra $5 on top of that for your food. It is a great introduction to the ever-changing demographic make-up of this great city of immigrants and a real eye-opener into a corner of Manhattan that a century ago most people would have quietly tried to ignore.
On our first night in New York we broke one of my cardinal rules. We had a meal at a venue not just on a square but on Times Square. I have always been of the opinion that when you eat right next door to a famous landmark your bill will be artificially inflated to pay for the experience. And when we checked the menu in the window my feared resurfaced - $26.50 for a main course? Strewth! I almost insisted that we keep walking for another couple of blocks.But I’m glad that I didn’t. For the restaurant in question was Carmine’s, and it proved to be a whole lot better, a whole lot more economical, and a whole lot more fun than I would have guessed. I would actually go so far as to suggest other visitors to NYC could do a lot worse than have a meal here. If that is the case, one might want to consider phoning up to reserve a table in advance. Certainly when we arrived on a mid-week eveningwe were informed by the maitre d’ that there was a 45 minute wait for a table. However, he said, we were perfectly welcome to sit at the bar and order from exactly the same menu. This proved to be a really fun suggestion.Carmine’s at heart is a fun place. It’s a place for friends and family and social occassions. It is almost a pastiche of what I expected of a New York Italian restaurant – a long wood-pannelled room with portraits on the walls, absolutely stuffed full of diners, the convivial chatter of conversations almost drowning out the muted Rat Pack-style soundtrack (Come Fly With Me, Mack The Knife, Boy From Ipanema etc). The long wooden bar was backed by racks of spirits and TVs showing a Yankees baseball game but it was deep enough to use as a table. We pulled up stools and jammed ourselves in elbow to elbow with the other barflies. Our barman / waiter was great. Professionally great – it must be said that he really worked for his tip. He saved us from making possible the cardinal error at Carmine’s: ordering too much food. We almost ordered two main courses to share between the three of us. Flat out he told us that he thought that would be too much food and that instead we should think about ordering just the one main and maybe a side. And it was a good thing that he stepped in to our rescue. Our Pasta Bosciaola came out heaped high on a big platter to be dished out to us. There was certainly enough there for two full platefuls for each of the three of us. No wonder the mains cost between 20 and 30 dollars if that was the size of a portion. This was the daily special. It was penne in a tomato sauce with dry spicy sausage and mushrooms. We had also ordered a side sish of meatballs ($14.50) and meatballs was what we got. Six of ‘em. Each the size of an apple. The barman dished out the grub to us, ensured that when our glasses were running low he was there to top up from our bottle of water or give Marie free refills of cola, pulling me a pint of Brooklyn Pennant Ale (lovely and cold and really rather nice – much nicer than the weak excuse for beer America exports to the UK), and taking our photo. In fact I would go so far as to recommend eating at the bar as an experience in itself! The total price for the three of us was roughly $62 and we had food left over, meaning that actually our meal was pretty good value. It just goes to show that rules are sometimes made to be broken. Even though Carmine’s is a – let’s say – tourist-friendly restaurant located right on Times Square I felt that the overall cost of a meal here was lower than expected and well worthwhile for the entertainment factor. I do hope that Carmine’s does not make me reconsider anymore of my cardinal rules of travelling!
One of my fondest memories of my first trip to New York would have to be dining at the restaurant at the Loeb Boathouse in the heart of Central Park. It was not a perfect dining experience I’ll admit. The tables on the deck looking out over the Lake were a little too busy and the July evening was a little too light to make it into a completely intimate and romantic meal. I was also shocked that, for all its reknown and hefty price tag, the restaurant was unable to provide me with something so simple as freshly-squeezed orange juice (I had to make do with OJ from a carton). However, in dining at the Boathouse Restaurant, what I did get was the feeling of really being at the centre of everything. Even if the restaurant was not the greatest in the world I was located slap-bang in the middle of the greatest park in the middle of the greatest city in the world. (Even if one personally prefers other cities or other parks one still has to acknowledge that the popular culture of the 20th century has immortalised Central Park and New York to such an extent that they have both become the iconic exemplars of their kind to which all others must be measured). It did give me a little thrill. Sinatra of course said of New York "If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere". Sitting down for dinner at the Boathouse Restaurant gave me that same frisson – actually, all things considered, my life is pretty darn good right now.Dining alfresco on a warm summer night I was treated to one of the world’s picture-postcard perfect views. We were within touching distance of Central Park Lake; couples still languidly rowed its waters; their ripples disturbed the reflected vision of Manhattan’s skyscrapers towering above the park’s trees, burnished bronze in the dusk. Other than the small issue of the orange juice service was efficient, friendly and courteous – they have a good crew of staff here. And the menu, while pricey, had enough to tempt even the most hardened dieter. I certainly have no complaints with the quality of the food here. I started with pan-fried scallops, each thick enough to be more than a mouthful. I followed this up with the Dover sole. They live up to their watery location with what I discovered to be a well-deserved reputation for their seafood. I have to say, what impressed me about the service here was the offer to de-bone it for me. I was about to say no and work my way through it myself, as I would usually, when I thought that I might as well say yes. Our waiter then very dextrously, with the aid of a spoon separated out the white flesh from the skeleton, transferring whole fillets of the fish intact to my plate, even going so far as to prettify it a little afterwards. Very impressive!As I say, the meal was not cheap (though then again, it was not the most expensive I had in New York City). However for that price I got a very well-prepared and served meal in wonderful surroundings. All in all, my meal here was a memory to savour.
$95 per person, excluding drinks. That is how much a three-course dinner costs at River Café. Thought I’d best state that up front to avoid complications. If you think that is a ridiculous price for a meal – as I to a certain extent did beforehand – you really do not need to read any further. On the other hand, if your budget does stretch that far and you fancy a memorable and very good meal then please read on… River Café is located in Brooklyn. It is right below the massive piers of the Brooklyn Bridge looking across the East River to the lights of Manhattan and their reflections twinkling on the ink black night-time water. In fact it took me a while to realise that the restaurant was actually on a boat moored to shore. We had reserved in advance. This is always necessary, especially if you wish to dine on Saturday night as we did. It also has a dress code – men have to wear jackets. To be honest, the fact that we had paid so much in advance served to free me of some of my inhibitions. I ended up ordering dishes that I had never ordered in restaurants before, precisely because they were generally so expensive. I therefore ordered oysters for my appetizer and lobster for my main. I know that oysters are not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea but I really enjoyed them. The dish comprised three oysters in the shell topped with a lemon and pepper hollandaise. The presentation was a tad over elaborate; the oysters rested atop a basin filled with whole black peppercorns. Rather wasteful in my opinion. And it was also necessary to watch out for stray peppercorns clinging to the bottom of the shell lest I end up with a gob full of black pepper. The dressed Maine lobster was a much subtler beast after that, though with plenty of mess to be made. Possibly the highlight though was the choice of dessert. Obviously they have a dessert menu; however, all three of us went for their signature dish, the chocolate marquise Brooklyn Bridge. This was a miniature representation of the bridge in chocolate form, accompanied by a toasted hazelnut terrine and a splash of Tahitian vanilla ice cream. The atmosphere was pretty exclusive, with low light levels and a rather good pianist in the corner providing background music. The other diners were a mixture of dressed-up couples and family groups in navy blazers and college ties; the sort of people you see in the background in episodes of Gossip Girl. Drinks, as I mentioned, were not included in the price, so we paid extra for cocktails – a sloe gin fizz for me and a Cosmo for Rebecca. All-in-all it was an evening to cause the bank manager concern, but the exclusive atmosphere and the chance to try expensive dishes expertly prepared made it worth while.
My first thoughts on the Grand Union Hotel were that we had got stung. Our room was not very prepossessing. It was a small grey box with a small grey window (mostly taken up by an air-con unit) looking out into a small grey internal light well. Most of the room was taken up by the bed. Rather than a wardrobe there was a bare rail in one corner with three (count ‘em!) coat hangers. And at $122.50 a night (excluding tax) this did not compare favourably with the suites we had booked in Philadelphia or Washington. By the end of my stay however the Grand Union had worked its discreet charm upon me. Okay, the room was not great and was very over-priced. But then I imagine that most places in New York are over-priced. There were positives however. It had an en suite bathroom. The air conditioning was vital during July’s heat-wave. It was cleaned daily. The staff on reception were helpful. And the location was convenient if uninspiring, situated on East 32nd Street between Madison and Park (though sadly this stretch of Mad Ave seemed more devoted to carpet importers than Don Draper and his ilk and Park Ave was certainly not Upper East Side-y). It was a couple of blocks from the Empire State Building and a walkable distance from both Grand Central Terminal and Times Square (assuming one had thirty minutes to spare). Most conveniently there was an entrance to the 33rd Street - Lexington Subway station on the same block. I would not necessarily recommend the Grand Union. What I would say however is that it is not just a small grey box.
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